By Stephen O’Donnell
As a child I noticed how small businesses relied on personal relationships and trust to thrive. The local butcher, banker, and physician knew instinctively that what they needed to do to be successful: win the respect of their local community.
Today, as business has globalized, the need for close connections between merchant and customer is even more important.
The new main street is rapidly transforming. Businesses hoping to not just survive the change, but thrive, will aggressively turn to a strategy that exploits mobile and social technologies – solutions that enable them to interact with customers both directly and indirectly via smart phones and tablets. In this space of social and mobile, small and medium businesses (SMBs) can create new ways to succeed.
And the time is now. Consumers are looking to online influencers – trusted digital friends, bloggers, so-called experts, and simply other consumers – for guidance on what to buy and where to go. How we communicate with them and what we learn from them is critical. In many respects, word of mouth has become the new currency in the highly-connected world of social media.
On the main street of my youth, we had the trusted advisor who knew the best cut of meat for a special occasion. Now, we have the questioner who asks and the observer who stands in the background listening and watching the interactions online. This digital world is amplified in space and time. Interactions between advisors and questioners are captured forever, time-travelling advice into the future and establishing a long trail of influence. Interactions are independent of geography and reach across our connected world. Interactions are repeated, modified and amplified so that they become the new truth, the perceived wisdom – the new word of mouth.
There are a precious few truly trusted digital friends and a relatively low number of questioners that help to create these online interactions. But they influence. So, we listen, we judge, we consume the word of mouth and we amplify it and repeat it constantly.
For SMBs, the key to success is leveraging this word of mouth, becoming a trusted advisor, creating and establishing relationships with those who ask questions and attracting listeners. We must behave like the business folk of my youth; we must have the interests those who ask questions of our businesses and those who offer answers.
SMBs can and should do more to work with consumers who have a deep interest in their product areas and who have built digital networks and reputations based on those interests.
They come in all shapes and sizes, from a busy mom who’s active on Facebook, to a well-known industry blogger. They have hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of friends and followers, all of whom contribute to the digital mouthpiece. By being higher-quality, differentiated, even just different, SMBs can amplify their message by reach out to and embracing these consumers.
This type of word of mouth is the best advertising SMBs can get. Some firms go a step further and have tried to actually leverage influencers to increase sales. The key is making sense of all the information being generated by the social conversation by applying analytics to identify influencers and what motivates them. Once these insights are transformed into connections via analytics, small businesses must engage the influencer directly.
The future of brand strategy will include an ability to demonstrate authenticity to those who actually help define your markets, and then turn customers into influencers.