The promise of the internet was to bring brands closer to their customers, deepening relationships and allowing both to understand each other better through dialogue. The first markets, Doc Searls and David Weinberger remind us in the book The Cluetrain Manifesto, were places where “supply met demand with a firm handshake.” Producer and consumer relationships blossomed through regular interaction, mutual understanding and trust.
The internet is the networked market of the digital age, yet few brands truly succeed in building customer relationships there, principally because many see the internet as an opportunity to market at their customers, rather than as a market place where they can get to know them better. There are three key areas brands should pay attention to in developing this firm handshake online.
Markets breed understanding.
In traditional markets, the value of goods was negotiated by buyer and seller. This conversation was a journey of discovery, both of the product and of the parties; sellers developed ‘customer insight’ directly, and buyers, a sense and understanding about the brand and product story.
Despite the tools at their disposal, most brands struggle to develop a similar understanding of their customers. Collecting, connecting and leveraging data to build deep user profiles that inform the conversations brands have with customers is the foundation of understanding them. But the act of collecting data should feel like the brand is taking a genuine interest – not looking for an opportunity to sharpen its sell. It is critical to leverage data to ensure customers feel understood, not just build rich profiles. Smart brands will use eCRM to collect and connect data, and then engage in real life, human-to-human interactions. In-person follow-up is crucial (phone, chat, email, whatever).
Markets thrive with bustle.
The ebb and flow of a market place is crucial to its life. A casual observer can easily pick out the busy stalls from the empty ones and seeing crowds form and disband plays an important role in attracting customers. Unfortunately, most brand sites show little evidence anybody has visited them. Ever.
Bustle is important because the purchase process is cyclical and social, not linear or solitary. Brands need to find ways to leverage the power of their customers (the lovers and the haters) to create additional value throughout the pre- and post-purchase process. Brands should identify where customers can create the most value. For some, that means connecting with fans to encourage advocacy amongst potential customers. For others it’s leveraging expert users or customers to help inform or educate frustrated users. Others will benefit from collecting and harnessing the tacit knowledge of a user base to help enhance the collective understanding and improve the overall experience. Regardless, brand sites need to look more alive and less plastic to succeed.
Markets are rich with authenticity.
Searls and Weinberger write that “market leaders were men and women whose hands were worn by the work they did.” Sellers were product experts, and spoke with passion, pride and unparalleled knowledge. They were, in short, authentic.
Today, layers of protocol and public relations bureaucracy strip the authenticity from a visit to a brand site. Efforts at efficiency and cost-reduction obscure and hide contact information, leaving brands’ sites looking stiff and inherently one-way. But there is an opportunity for brands to behave more like a market stall owner, to respond with immediacy and react and adapt to changing conditions in the world around them. The digital tools exist, the right assets are in place (employees, internal expertise, fans or highly knowledgeable customers); what’s missing is the right approach (policies, protocol, and attitude). Those seeking digital advantage invest in these.
Reinventing the ‘firm handshake.’
It has been twelve years since Cluetrain declared the ‘end of business as usual’ and that the internet would revive the long lost conversation between producer and consumer. The truth is, it hasn’t. Not yet.
But brands that collect and connect data to build customer understanding will spark genuine and fruitful conversations. Those that show the hustle and bustle of the market and leverage user knowledge and activity can create added value for their customers. Brands that connect with the audience in a meaningful and authentic way will create trust. Those sparking conversations – not chitter chatter, but a real, open dialogue with their customers – will find themselves locked in a firm handshake with the people that matter most.