The Internet offers the promise of radically reinventing or at least extending most every facet of our daily lives. But to really get the advantages the Internet enables requires us to do something different with the Internet. It’s too easy to think we are using the Internet when in fact we have only a slightly better version of whatever we do off the net presented on the net.
Do you really use the Internet for communication, or are you simply using email as a slightly lower friction version of snail mail? Are you getting your message out, or is your web site just an electronic version of the conventional storefront or paper brochures that your business had before the Internet ever became popular?
Let’s look at what the Internet does differently. Consider each one and ask yourself how you should be taking advantage of it. If you’re not taking advantage of at least a few of these, you have just a token Internet presence that is probably irrelevant. Is that what you want?
You can reach a “Far Outer Circle“
David Armano has a great concept he calls the “Far Outer Circle”. David presented the Far Outer Circle with respect to Twitter:
Here’s what you need to know about Twitter. If you have an inner circle of friends, and outer circle of contacts, but you don’t have a “far outer circle”, then the Web application may not be for you.
I think the concept applies to the web in general. Everyone has an inner circle of friends and an outer circle of contacts that exist whether or not there is an Internet. What the Internet uniquely enables is the Far Outer Circle. Who are these people and why are they important?
In some sense they are strangers. They are strangers you strike up a conversation with in the line at the theater, or in a restaurant, or beside you on the plane. We all know you can learn valuable things are just have an enjoyable time with such conversations. But where they stop being strangers and become a unique asset only available on the web is in three ways. First, you can see them again and again. The web keeps that place in the line at the theater available for you to go back to. Second, these strangers have self-selected their way into your life based on what you’re saying or who you’re hanging out with. That means they’re more relevant. They’re a richer feedstock for you to know and converse with. They may very well find their way into the circle of contacts or even into your friends circle if you give them a chance, and the Internet will give a whole lot of them the chance, if you let it. Third, you have agreed to let them into your circle. You’ve vetted them based on the initial introduction. You’re in control, whether you feel that way or not, and you can take advantage of that.
Businesses should be thinking about their Far Outer Circle too. These are folks that aren’t even really prospects. If you pursue them as such, they will likely go away, be irritated, or otherwise think less of you. They just want to know a little more about what you’re doing or your products. If you make it easy for them to do that, they may let you keep track of them and occasionally have a brief conversation if you don’t come on too strong. Over time, you may convince them to come close enough to be prospects, but meanwhile, they’re much more valuable than the next random lead if they’ve asked to be a part of your Far Outer Circle. Yet many business don’t even have a way to ask.
You can change the web by creating content
Yes, this aspect is not so different I suppose, but the creation of content is much more egalitarian than it used to be. Anyone can create a blog, and there are so many millions of them that many have. You can even create a physical book, paperback or hardbound, courtesy of Lulu and other services like it, using the web. The point is that creation of content is no longer the highly specialized field it once was. You don’t have to be a web designer or professional writer to create content. In many ways, content is still King. All the rest of these things matter little if you aren’t giving back any content. Content is the currency of the web, and if you don’t have any currency, you have little to trade.
Given how much easier it is to produce content, ask yourself whether you’re taking advantage effective advantage of it. As a business, are you enabling more people than ever to create content around your business, or are you tightly reserving that function to a small cadre of professionals whose every word is scrutinized? The latter is the old style. It may feel a lot safer, but you’re missing out on a big opportunity. What about giving your customers a way to create content? Many people want to participate. If you own a great brand, you have the ability to let others be a part of it if you let them contribute content. Think about that. Wouldn’t you want your wildest supporters empowered to give content on your behalf? Don’t you care what they have to say?
You can be found
Before the web, before Google and other search engines, the hardest part used to be getting noticed. Books on writing are filled with accounts of how many rejection letters the famous authors had to get through before they were published. Eventually, they got a hit, and everyone would beg to publish their writings.
The web is different. It’s much more egalitarian. The pen is once again mightier than the press, and that’s a powerful thing. But a lot of that power is in the ability to be found. You can just take that for granted, or you can learn the ways in which the web leads traffic around and take advantage of it. By now, everyone thinks at least a little bit about Search Engine Optimization. However, I’ve met way too many people that think buying a few keywords on Google is all that amounts to. These are professional marketers, and it’s silly that they don’t have a deeper understanding of the web.
What is your unique strategy to take advantage of the web to be found? Do you just put content out there and hope it will be found? Hope is not a strategy. Figure out how to maximize your chanced. Develop a real strategy. Or you will be irrelevant.
You can change connections by linking
Scott Karp says influentials on the web are people with the power to link:
In the networked web era, influentials may not be people with a particularly connected temperament or Rolodex, or people who control and influence monopoly distribution channels (e.g. newspapers), but rather people who influence the network by leveraging the most powerful force on the web — the link. People like bloggers, top Diggers, del.icio.us power users, Facebook users who share lots of links, MySpace users who embed videos, Twitter users who post lots of URLs, or any social network user with links to lots of friends.
Linking starts from content and being found. If your content isn’t being found, linking to others matters little. Nobody will find your links. But once you have content that is being found, linking is very powerful. It is your next currency to trade. Think of the content as cash. Linking is your credit cards and checking accounts. It is virtual currency. It is lending your authority to others by endorsing their content with a link. As Scott shows, there are many forms of linking, ranging from simple links in your content to specialized web services like del.icio.us that are strictly about managing and publishing links.
Links are a place that most businesses are completely clueless about. Why would I link? Doesn’t it just move traffic away from my site? Isn’t that a loss to me? By thinking this way, businesses lose the ability to influence and partneron the web. If content creation and SEO are marketing, then linking is business development. It isn’t surprising most companies are lousy linkers when you consider that most companies are lousy at Business Development too. We’ve all heard of the bus dev guy who is a sales guy that couldn’t quite carry a quota but that was well liked.
Influence is a bankable commodity. Establishing your business as the foremost group of experts on a particular domain is going to require that you link out to a lot of other information in that domain. If you do that well, pretty soon people will trust that you are the foremost experts.
You can harness the long tail of hyperspecialization and micro-niches
The world has always been full of strange little cul de sacs of experience and interests. But in the past, it was impossible to reach them in any meaningful way, so they languished as back waters. In today’s world, the Internet lets you very efficiently connect to such groups. The upshot? There are more opportunities to be the best in the world at something because you don’t have to stick to large horizontal markets or even large vertical niches. Frankly, it may be easier to move out of the direct spotlight of competition and into worlds that are flattered by the attention.
What micro-niches are relevant to your business that ought to be tapped?
You can match media to audiences
We all have preferences in terms of how we like to receive information. One size does not fit all. Some people love Twitter or video, while others loathe them. With the Internet, you have the opportunity to match media to audiences. You don’t have to serve everything up in a one-size-fits-all format. I’ve written before about personality types and the web, and came up with this grid to help charactertize the different styles:
Think about media coverage for your web presence. Do you have something for everyone? Do you collect information about what formats each customer prefers to receive their information in? Do you use that information when you follow up with the customer, or does everyone get the same email or other contact style?
You can focus on getting to zero friction for your business
One of my old associates used to refer to wanting our software to be “credit card self-service.” He meant that there should be so little friction to adopting the software that all you would need is a credit card and an email address and you could be using it. His goal was to eliminate friction from the process of adopting our product. The Internet makes it possible to eliminate a lot of friction. Whether that’s friction that’s involved with reach your customers, selling your proposition, or delivering your product, it’s important to eliminate friction everywhere you find it. In some cases, those efforts are so successful that instead of friction, you get the opposite: viral attraction.
Have you looked at everything you’re doing with an eye towards identifying and eliminating friction? Is your product “click to buy” or “credit card self service”?
You can get others to paint your fence via Wikinomics
The Internet is a social phenomenon. It is a means to enhance interaction between people. Companies have gradually discovered that the interaction goes well beyond the social. It reaches a point where people on the web will actually do useful work for you, for free. That was the point of the fascinating book Wikinomics, by Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams.
Are you engaging your customers in this way. Do you give them a way to help you out, or do you just assume they wouldn’t be interested? There are so many ways your customers can come to your assistance, but you have to enable that to happen:
– Do your customers have a convenient way to refer others to your product?
– Can your customers give you raw unfiltered feedback about what you’re doing right and what you’re doing poorly? Do you ask for that, or is it one of the 3 “impossible” conversations Jeremiah Owyang talks about?
– Can your customers tell you how to change for the better?
– Can your customers contribute to making your product better for others? Perhaps by helping out in tech support forums, or even assisting with language translation.
There are many ways to enable others to paint you fence. Be sure to take advantage of them.
Brian Carroll of B2B Lead Generation Blog has some great thoughts that are applicable to your Far Outer Circle communications as well as content creation.