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Part Four: Connecting and Communicating

The web makes connecting with customers easier—particularly for small companies. We’ll look at how, and consider what all of this means for your organization. You’ll learn why the line between people and their companies is eroding and how you can cultivate the most important commodity: trust. I’ll even provide ten examples of how different types of companies can use these new tools to make things happen. Oh, right… you’ll also find out why you need to forget the word “viral.”


Chapter 17: New Tools

In this next part of the book I’ll concentrate on how companies can use the web—and particularly social media—to better connect and share their stories with customers. I’m doing so, as I believe that we’re undergoing a huge shift in how organizations and individuals communicate with one another. Most will likely agree that this is an exciting time filled with possibility. I’m particularly excited by how game-changing these tools are for small companies.

Being such a new space, it’s difficult to offer a clear “one size fits all” solution for how to use these tools in your company’s marketing. There are lots of options and equally many thoughts on what might be the best way to go. This becomes more bewildering, given many of the tools seem to mutate and become superseded so quickly. As such, I’ll instead look for patterns and try to remain technology “agnostic.” My hope is that the principles I suggest will prove more adaptable and long-standing in your efforts.

We all have the keys

When communication channels were limited in number, access was the primary concern for those with something to market. If you had money and a reasonable product, personal relationships with customers weren’t quite so critical. Until quite recently, there were few reasons for those in a company to open up to the public. Similarly, there was a clear delineation between most organizations and the outside world. As the methods of communication democratize, everything is flipped upside down. Today, consumers demand interaction, responsiveness, and to know that the companies they choose to frequent operate ethically. Your customers have power and a disgruntled one can damage your brand with the very same tools you use to promote it. The fact of the matter is that the public is taking an interest in how companies act and run.

Although social media is referenced like a tangible and clearly defined kind of thing, it’s really just another stage in the organic development of the web. Aspects of it have existed for some time. In the past few years we’ve just seen it click together in a way that better facilitates—and speeds—interaction. I like to think that the “plumbing” has improved, and this results in a more connected populace. Social networks and voting platforms (like Digg and Reddit) in particular allow messages to be spread ever-more quickly and with a different kind of credibility. For example, a television ad doesn’t hold much credibility as it doesn’t come from a trusted source, whereas a suggestion shared by a friend carries a great deal more relevance.

In a way this makes all of us mini-broadcasters of sorts—each holding the potential to spread a message as well as any major brand. Sure, they have greater resources, but these aren’t nearly as important as a powerful idea or personal relationship. That’s why we see major advertisers awkwardly stumbling in this space, even though they command traditional media so deftly. Whether they like it or not, ideas and connections can’t be bought as easily in this setting. This marks an unprecedented opportunity for small companies. It still might not be easy or cheap to share your message, but if it’s a really good one and you play your cards right, you can establish connections that are elusive to most large brands.91

The pipe

The joy of marketing in a broadcast world was that the viewer didn’t really matter that much. If you had enough money to buy the airtime, you could get in the “pipe.” There were a few “pipes,” including radio, television, publications, direct mail, and billboards, alongside a batch of little “threads.” Those threads, like word of mouth and personal contact with customers, may have seemed almost quaint to some and this made the pipe a dream-come-true for big brands.

While personal interaction with customers can be time-consuming, there was little worry of this in the pipe. All that was required was for funds to be inserted then they were free to yell at people until their time was up. It hardly mattered if anyone even cared about the message. So long as the interruptions occurred a sufficient number of times, buyers would become familiar with the company or product. This sort of awareness is, without any question, a very big deal as it helps people feel comfortable about buying stuff. For several decades, advertisers worked hard to find smart and effective ways to interrupt people and repeat a message.

You’d sit on the couch watching Cheers, Wings, or something equally captivating, and every few minutes another group would bug you to, “buy this” or “vote for that.” The pipe made doing so easy. As advertising matured, brands found progressively better ways to get us to take notice: “Be all that you can be.” “I want my MTV.” “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.” These phrases became a part of our cultural landscape. If you needed to connect with an audience, you’d go to some clever ad people who’d help you establish such a concept and push it through the pipe.

With so few of these pipes, companies had limited options aside from advertising to a large number of people who didn’t care much. Niche-oriented companies found it very difficult to play in this arena. If, for example, you were into performance climbing gear, weird sex toys, or rare recordings of blues legends you probably wouldn’t find them in the pipe. This changed a little with the advent of the multi-channel television “universe” and the proliferation of targeted magazines, trade journals, and independent zines. Even a few thousand pipes weren’t enough to reach all of the unique folks out there with such varied interests. This left many of us stuck, watching Murder, She Wrote and Pepsi ads no matter how little we liked it.

A tangle of wires

With the web, we find ourselves with a whole lot of “digital threads” or perhaps “wires.” Most of these are too narrow to be looked upon the same way we did pipes. This results in family websites, ones dedicated to LOL cats, and some resources documenting interesting “after hours” activities. For the big brands and ad agencies this all became rather frustrating. Alongside having to deal with those pipes, they now had to also add a bunch of unpredictable wires to add to the mix.

This proved difficult. First of all, no one knew whether to take them seriously or not. Some even thought it would all be a “flash in the pan.” (Hold on for a second… ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha… OK… I’m done.) The tougher part was in finding a good place to put the ads. You couldn’t jam them in front of people or they’d just leave. Plus, some thought the web should be free of ads altogether. This has sorted out a little since, and most of us accept—or at least “deal with”—selectively placed ads on the web. To the chagrin of advertisers, most of us have learned to ignore these spots.

There are tons of these little wires and they leave big brands trying to decipher how exactly to sell some product. Meanwhile even that good old pipe gets worked over as people figure out ways to skip ads entirely by using their Tivo or PVR, while avoiding print ads by getting their news via RSS (Really Simple Syndication—a web feed format). This gets very frustrating for people who liked the pipe. All kinds of weird things we hadn’t imagined start to pop up. Grassroots sites like bring together women who like to share artful photos of their sometimes extensive body modifications. gives us quick access to warehouses of books that were previously only available through excruciatingly slow mail-orders. There’s also a rush of almost every tribe, club, and fringe group claiming their own space on the web. This makes advertisers’ and agencies’ jobs even harder. (It’s pretty neat for everyone else, though.)

A few smart advertisers use this to their advantage, seeing that these channels allow them to connect very personally with the right people. We can safely assume that the market for Goth inspired clothing made by a company like Lip Service wouldn’t have had many options in a broadcast world. Putting such ads on, though, allows them to connect directly with people who might actually be interested in patterned cross-bone dresses and vinyl garments with prominently featured straps and buckles.

When you think about it, connecting with a few “right” people starts to make an awful lot of sense. Especially as we see some pipes start to burst—most notably those newspapers that once seemed like indelible institutions. We find ourselves facing a very different landscape these days. Some of the people who own those old pipes are freaking out while the rest of us are fascinated and sometimes overwhelmed by all of the newly available options.

Just good stuff

When we step back from the action, it becomes a little less frantic and chaotic seeming. Here, we find that it was actually the era of broadcast media that was the exception. It might one day be considered a short “blip” in the history of media, and that we’ve ultimately returned to what we had before: simple word of mouth. Sure, this is a little like word of mouth “on speed,” but it really isn’t altogether so different. People find things they like, tell their friends, and they in turn might do the same. Sometimes companies do things to encourage this but most learn that it only works with people who want to hear what they have to say. Those who interrupt us are labeled “spammers” and quickly find themselves ignored.

Looked at from this perspective, “traditional” media starts to look downright nutty. In what world did it make sense to bug people until they finally bought our stuff? Sure, it still sometimes works, but doesn’t it seem like an awfully clumsy way to connect with people?

Many describe the difference between these two ways of communicating as “push versus pull.” In a “push” world we shoved things in peoples’ faces until they did what we wanted or we ran out of money. In a “pull” world, we try to give those who are interested things they’ll actually want, hoping it will lead them to choose our stuff willingly. Some of us think enticing people to ask for our stuff is smarter than just trying to force-feed them gray, over-cooked broccoli.

Word of mouth is generally about people sharing what they like. When we talk about social media and the changes at hand, many can’t see where it might work for their company. The subject is hardly worthy of such confusion: Just start by putting aside the technology and first ask who’s interested in your stuff and what you might offer them.

The myth of “raising awareness with the general public”

In meeting rooms all around our the world, we find excited people bursting at the seams to say something… really, anything… to anyone. They have nice offices, grand desks, and thick binders full of important graphs, and they’re working hard (doing what they do) to “raise general awareness.” They don’t know with whom, or about what, but galdarnit they’ll find a way!

My brother works in corporate communications and the two of us often share a laugh over this: the team leader who enthusiastically decides it’s the perfect time to write a press release about something undefined, to “raise awareness” with the “general public.” I can’t tell you how much I love the “general public”! They’re the every-person: ready to listen to our stories, even if these stories hold no actual relevance; yet, we’re in communications so someone’s got to say something, right? Truth is, there’s no such thing as a “general public” awaiting your “awareness raising.” The general populace just isn’t that interested in you! Even if they’re bored, they probably aren’t that bored.

I say we grasp our own necks and wrench them back and forth until we manage to regain the ability to focus ourselves once again. In doing so I’d hope we’d come to realize that the only people we should share messages with are those who have something to get out of it. We have to viciously suppress the urge to blather on without purpose, and instead concentrate on saying something meaningful, to people who actually give a shit. That’s right, we’re going to fixate on talking with interested people and will only utter the term “general public” in reference to the almost forgotten ‘80s rock band of the same name.

Reduce the distance

When you know who to connect with and what to say, you’ve already found your way past most companies out there. I remember a money booth on some ‘70s game show. In it, cash would fall from the ceiling and the person enclosed could keep what they managed to collect. The people in it often became so excited and bewildered by the money floating around that they tried to grab it all, in turn pocketing very little. Companies are sometimes in a similar situation when it comes to marketing. With so many opportunities and prospects, some forsake communicating with those who really matter.

Social media doesn’t have to (and probably shouldn’t) be concentrated on reaching masses of people. This is why I complain so loudly about all of the weight some place on getting something to go “viral” (messages that spread quickly to a large number of people—hence the name). Instead of trying to reach everyone, we might look at this method of communication as a way to reduce the distance between our companies and those interested in what we have to offer. Seems reasonable enough, doesn’t it?

A friend recently recounted to me an experience he’d had with Hayes disc brakes. After making a note on Twitter about buying a set for his bike, Joel Richardson (a product manager at Hayes) reached out to him. Problems later arose with the product so he let Joel know. Within hours a new set had been mailed to him. This isn’t “viral,” and it’s not the kind of thing that will instantly turn your company into a household name, but it’s still important. By being so responsive to a customer’s needs, they strengthened a relationship. This is how we have to look at building our companies: not an effort to create a quick burst of attention, but rather a perpetual interaction and dialogue. Social media just makes this easier.

Personal connections take more time to establish than putting an ad in the pipe. This can seem frustrating, but as a result of this, they tend to be an awful lot stronger. You can hit me with a thousand ads and they may only make me aware of your company. On the other hand, if you do one small thing to help me out, you can transcend awareness and start to form an actual relationship.

The network effect

Imagine that a frustrated customer called your company with a complaint. You might spend minutes (or even hours) helping them. At the end of that talk you might have remedied the situation, but few would ever know. This interaction might just as well have taken place in an enclosed vault at the bottom of the ocean. No one else heard and even if you went far beyond the call of duty, you’d reap limited rewards. If, on the other hand, you responded the same way on a review site, online help area, or forum, your efforts would be publicly evidenced for all to see and learn from, and remain in perpetuity.

Others fighting similar issues might find your replies and be impressed by your responsiveness. Those comments might even serve to answer their problem, and thus save you from spending added time on the phone. Although you might like talking to clients, I doubt that you enjoy answering the same question repeatedly. I should note that this permanence cuts both ways. Responding in a snarky fashion can damage your company for years to come.

This massive pooling of information brings many potential uses. I’ve made note of how others can rely on the responses you’ve provided, but this is just one opportunity. You can also readily tap the collective efforts of others on the web.

Lots of people are “sharing” content online. For some, this might come in the form of a blog containing personal insights; others upload their photos or videos to publicly accessible sites. There are also those who add comments and write reviews, sharing their opinions about places, products, services, experiences, and almost anything else. A lot of these people are happy to have others reference, and perhaps even use, their content. You should check with them before you do so with any of their stuff, but in my experience, many are willing to share. Actually, Creative Commons licensing facilitates just this, establishing more flexible IP standards, better suited to the web.

Let’s say you’re a travel destination that wants to build a great resource for those who might visit. In the past you would have invested heavily to craft good written content and evocative photographs—perhaps also pleading with past visitors to write reviews. Depending on your skills and budget some of it might not be of the highest quality and photos might look phony or cheap. With all of the sharing that’s going on, you might be wise to take a different approach. You could still craft the parts you wanted, but you certainly aren’t limited to just that. Perhaps you’d integrate crowdsourced images from photo sharing sites. Then you might work with local bloggers and see if they might allow you to republish their stories on your site. You could even see if a review site had an API (application programming interface) allowing you to pull existing reviews from theirs, directly into your site.

Little of this is hard to do; actually, most of it is quite easy. One suggestion is to credit contributors appropriately. Make sure not to step on anyone’s toes. Instead, champion those who lent a hand. Send them a gift and rave about the help they lent—do whatever it takes to keep that relationship strong. Good content is hard to get and typically costly; reward these people accordingly. It doesn’t take much to show someone that you admire their talent and appreciate their help.

Beware the scorned customer!

The past was “top-down.” People in nice offices crafted marketing messages about new cola flavors or improved toothpaste formulas and dispatched them to the rest of us, regardless of whether we wanted to receive these messages. We’re told that because of social media, these brands walk among us. They call this a “flat” world, but I think they’ve made a mistake. In fact, we, the people have superseded the brands and they now have to play servant to our demands.

Madness you say? Heresy? Nonsense—it’s simple fact. I argue that while many rave about the marketing landscape being flat, the whole thing has actually flipped upside down. The brands that lead today are in a way elected by the populace and that same populace has the power to dethrone them at a moment’s notice. Brands that do ill, lie to us, or are proven inferior have not a sliver of influence over us. We can remove and replace them whenever we choose.

For a long time companies have acted carefully, knowing that their reputation was linked to success. In the new landscape, cautious behavior is hardly enough. Today’s brands need to be decent, moral, and transparent. Not being so can lead to a rather brutal exile.

Ear to the ground

There are a number of companies out there that sell special reports on “consumer insights,” which seek to underpin trends and themes amongst certain populations. I pay little attention to such documents, as they’re generally not that closely related to what we’re working on. I’m also suspicious of the validity of their data, and even offended by their sometimes prohibitive cost. Still, I’m interested—actually, obsessed—with what people are saying about our company and the work we do. I spend time every day trying to determine what the “word on the street” is.

I run searches on our company name and have “bots” working for us. These are (mostly free) services that scour the web and bring back mentions made about us. This allows me to address situations as they arise and remain aware of the feelings regarding what we’re doing. In my mind, this stuff is “mission critical.” The last thing we need is for a situation to fester unbeknownst to us. The sooner we know of a problem, the faster we can try to fix it. Similarly, if someone loves what we’re doing, I like to reach out and say “hello.” It’s always nice to connect with supporters and like-minded people.

Those consumer insights pieces that I made note of seemed to get old fast. Even if someone could prepare those documents daily, it would still be too slow compared to the feedback we can tap now. With the tools I mention, you can know what people are saying and thinking from one moment to the next.

What do you need?

Focus groups are strange. A bunch of people are brought into a closed space and asked what they think about a few pre-determined things. We then reflect on these findings and potentially use them to shape our course. It’s no secret that focus groups have mixed accuracy, perhaps most notably evidenced in the launch of New Coke. Its early testing showed an overwhelmingly positive response in closed settings but in the wild it proved a bust. Past Coca-Cola CEO Roberto C. Goizueta called the experience, “...a blunder and a disaster, and it will forever be.”92

I’m no expert when it comes to focus groups but the idea behind them seems flawed to me. People react differently when they’re being watched. Allowing an unnatural sort of engagement to inform direction seems dicey, as most censor their thoughts when they feel like they’re under a microscope. Should we instead conduct research in a setting that reduces such inhibitions? This might assuage the worry some might have of being ridiculed by peers. Additionally, we can harness the speed and ease with which people communicate on the web. I see this as an amazing opportunity to tap real-world customer insight. Here, people tell us what they think—not because they’re supposed to, but rather because they want to. This makes a huge difference to the kind of data we can access and learn from.

You might work to diffuse the situations that customers seem most angry about, but I encourage you to take it a step further. I ask you to use these armies of people as your own real-time, real-world focus group. Listen carefully and you could get some feedback that will improve your offering. Should you get really lucky, you might find yourself graced with an angry mob. Most are scared by mobs like this, but they shouldn’t be. By actively engaging in their criticisms, you’re given access to some of the most valuable data available about your company. These folks aren’t getting compensated for their insights; instead, they are people so committed to your product that their entire reward is in influencing an improved version of what you have to offer.

I’m not proposing you do everything these people ask. Actually, I’d caution you against that sort of thing, as it can quickly lead to chasing one’s tail—making a change for one person, only to have the next ask you to change it right back. You’re not looking for others to lead and their input can’t always be definitive. That doesn’t make it any less important. You’re the leader. It’s your job to listen to what’s said, measure options, and make the best choice. Still, isn’t it nice to gain access to those who care enough to offer their opinions?

What others start with

Ask a few people what they think social media is, and they’ll give you some variation of basically the same story. Most will mention things like blogs, forums, content communities, virtual worlds, wikis, social networks, and probably a bunch of other things that I’ve skipped here. To me, that seems like saying that a car is an alternator, transmission, fuel pump, casing, and so on. This isn’t untrue, but perhaps the parts alone aren’t the most pivotal part of the story.

Some will likely find flaw with my perspectives, but I still think it’s wise to concentrate on the big picture. For the record, I’ll share what I think social media represents: a bunch of new and mutating online tools that work together to connect all of us. In a marketing context this is important, as it makes it much easier to connect with the people who are interested in what we’re doing.


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Next chapter:
Our Computers, Ourselves



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