Introducing Social Media
In the Internet economy, your customers and partners can talk with you, and about you; this is coming to be known as “social media.” Do you think that their opinions affect your business? Stupid question, right? Word-of-mouth has been part of commerce since forever — the Greek term agora means both “market” and “place that people gather.” The traffic of opinions can make or break success — ask any restaurant owner. Now, though, the broad availability of public, permanent, searchable digital records is moving word-of-mouth from the street to the screen; and in the process, giving businesses new and better opportunities to participate in these conversations.
To put that more concretely, people are getting more information from the Internet, but they are also creating more information on the Internet. Most of it is public, and much of it becomes permanent. The agora conversations are recorded, replayed, commented on and are instantly accessible with a Web search.
There’s a natural reaction to dismiss this as “a technology thing,” and to delegate it to the nearest geek. True, this new word-of-mouth is enabled by technologies — a buzzword-packed, branded-and-trademarked list of them. (Blogs, forums, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, presence, IM, etc.) But the content, not the carriers, is what affects your business. You don’t tell the print shop, “Just print whatever you like” when you pay for an ad, do you? So don’t put your IT guy in charge of social media, please.
Learn what’s being said about your business
The digital discussions about your business and (more broadly) your markets and customers can happen anywhere. How recently have you run a Web search for your business name? Try searching your business or product names. Don’t stop at the first page of results (although if your own Web site doesn’t show up on Page 1 you have some work to do) — drill down and see if you are, in fact, the topic of heated discussion somewhere else. Search market terms, competitors or even key customers. (Try some of the more targeted search engines, such as icerocket.com or technorati.com.) You may be surprised. Bargain-hunters forums, enthusiast communities, and even competitor’s support boards aren’t unusual places to find the market talking about you.
What can you do to participate? First, let go of expectations left over from the print (and early Web) era. I’ve counseled clients, frustrated by their inability to control and direct what people say about their business, to reset their thinking — dramatically. You can’t control the conversations about your business. Trying to argue in public, in fact, tends to backfire. Though, you can and should participate, openly.
Participate in the conversation
Case in point: I spent months planning the big jump to high-def video. A discussion forum on plasma screens was critical in my final choice of monitor. The “ah-ha!” along the way, though, was the steady participation of a vendor in the forum. He sells a product for ambient backlighting. Every time the topic of ambient backlighting came up, even if it was a post criticizing his product, he responded substantively and calmly, with no attempt to mask his identity. His position was, “I understand this topic. I’m here to help other people understand it, whether they choose my product or a competitive product.” He earned huge credibility and (I suspect) a great deal of business with this approach.
By contrast, and more famously, the CEO of a large Austin-based grocery store got beat like a pinata when his pseudonymous posts extolling his chain and slamming the competition were uncovered. (Note: reversing wife’s name not a good disguise …) That one bad judgment call about the gullibility of the social-media public knocked off the company’s halo and some points off its stock.
The fact is, this new agora is almost all good news for businesses. If you are doing a great job, you’ll get word of mouse. If you need to improve something, you can find specific, substantive feedback instead of an empty store and a sense that something’s off. You can track, monitor and even measure the conversations at low to no cost.
Conference shows where to begin
Where can you learn more? Fortunately, the Western Washington University’s Small Business Development Center, the Technology Alliance Group, and the Whatcom Community College are mounting a fantastic, information-packed conference called Social Media — The New Word of Mouth Marketing — right here in Whatcom County, on Sept. 10 and 11 at Whatcom Community College. See www.socialmediaconferencenw.com for details.
Oh, and full disclosure: I’ll be providing the dinner keynote address, “The Day the Music Died.” You would have found that out anyway if you searched.