The Web is getting more social, and the internet allows conversations between consumers and those who sell goods and services online on a scale that can be global in reach. The nature of that conversation has changed from the days of mass media to now, and success in business on the Web may rely more than ever on having a voice that people can rely upon, can relate to, and can trust.
People want to connect with other people when they conduct business online, whether the business is a large one, or a small one. One of the advantages that a small business may have is that it can be easier for them to build positive relationships, engage in one-on-one conversations, and avoid the inertia of bureaucracy and endless meetings.
Some large businesses attempt to reach out on a personal level to their customers. We saw that recently in a blog post, Introduction to Google Search Quality, from Google’s Vice President of Engineering in charge of Search Quality, Udi Manber, in which he introduced himself and described some of how the search engine ranks pages. But there’s no contact information for Udi on the page, no way to write and ask questions, no place to leave comments, and no way to engage him in conversation.
The Web provides ways for owners of small businesses to hold conversations, through blogs and forums and social networks, by contact form and phone and email. Are you taking advantage of the chance to build relationships with people who want to do business with you?
Getting a Clue
In 1999, the ClueTrain Manifesto was published online, and provided a set of 95 theses about marketing as conversations. The Manifesto starts off with a point that’s impossible to ignore:
Networked markets are beginning to self-organize faster than the companies that have traditionally served them. Thanks to the web, markets are becoming better informed, smarter, and more demanding of qualities missing from most business organizations.
The Manifesto tells us that people will talk about our businesses regardless of whether we enter the conversation or not.
What the ClueTrain Manifesto didn’t tell us was what to say once we’ve started engaging within those conversations. If we add a blog to our business site, what do we talk about? If someone leaves a comment to one of our blog posts, how do we respond? If we join a social network like Stumbleupon or Twitter or a forum, as a representative of our business, how do we conduct ourselves? Can being social in that manner help our businesses?
What is a Merchant Anyway?
When you go to a blog connected to a business, and the posts are self-centered, and self-promotional, chances are that you won’t return. The StumbleUpon stumbler who only adds or shares his or her own pages with others can be quickly viewed by others as a spammer. The forum members who only write about their own problems, their own pages, without taking an interest in other members of the community end up talking to themselves in the midst of a crowd.
In John Ruskin’s The Roots Of Honour, he describes what the functions of a merchant are with respect to other people. He points to a number of professions and their roles in society:
Five great intellectual professions, relating to daily necessities of life, have hitherto existed — three exist necessarily, in every civilised nation:
The Soldier’s profession is to defend it. The Pastor’s to teach it. The Physician’s to keep it in health. The lawyer’s to enforce justice in it. The Merchant’s to provide for it.
And the duty of all these men is, on due occasion, to die for it.
“On due occasion,” namely: - The Soldier, rather than leave his post in battle. The Physician, rather than leave his post in plague. The Pastor, rather than teach Falsehood. The lawyer, rather than countenance Injustice. The Merchant-what is his “due occasion” of death?
It is the main question for the merchant, as for all of us. For, truly, the man who does not know when to die, does not know how to live.
I read this question for the first time in a college class on Victorian Prose, and it made me think of the many business calls that I had listened to while growing up, between my father and people interested in buying the machinery that his company produced. The first of those calls that I remember was one where he told the caller that his company didn’t manufacture what they were looking for, but a competitor’s business did. He gave them a contact number, so that they could meet their needs.
On rereading the passage, I’m reminded of an event that an organization in his industry held where my father was given a lifetime achievement award in front of a very large crowd. A few people spoke about him before he was given the award, and one of them started off by saying that my father was one of his toughest competitors, but in spite of that he played a strong role in helping the industry grow into a respectable and economically viable field that many people relied upon for their livelihoods.
When I visit StumbleUpon, one of the groups that stands out to me are the green marketers who represent their organizations by calling attention to news and positive developments in the world’s environment. News that doesn’t necessarily involve their own organizations, but fulfills their mission of trying to make the world a better place to live within.
Ruskin tells us that the role of the merchant is to “provide for the nation.” He goes on to tell us about the duty of a merchant in these words:
That is to say, he has to understand to their very root the qualities of the thing he deals in, and the means of obtaining or producing it; and he has to apply all his sagacity and energy to the producing or obtaining it in perfect state, and distributing it at the cheapest possible price where it is most needed.
Ruskin saw merchants as holding a special level of responsibility and trust within society, responsible for the economic health and welfare of society, and industry, for the employment and livelihoods of people, and for the mentoring of those interested in following within their footsteps.
How well do we fit within that role in these days of blog writing and linkbaiting, participating within forums and pages on places like MySpace and Facebook and StumbleUpon and Sphinn?
Engaging in Conversation with Others Online
What kinds of steps can you take to enter into conversations with the people who are interested in the markets that you inhabit?
If you own a web site, make it easy for people to learn more about you and your business, and make it even easier for people to contact you. Build credibility and trust into your words on your pages, and in your interactions with others. Focus upon providing a service to your customers instead of upon inflating your ego.
Enter into conversations and build relationships with people interested in what you have to offer within forums and social networks in a respectful and responsible manner, as a peer and as someone interested in what they have to say, as a person, as a representative of your business, and as a representative of your industry.
Reach out with an open hand to those who are interested in learning more about what you do, instead of a closed fist in fear that they might compete with you.
Listen to the conversations that are happening on the Web in your market, and in related markets, and anticipate the conversations that will happen that may include your goods or services, your business, your industry, and commerce on the Web in general.
Provide services and goods in a manner that shows, as Ruskin states, that you know the qualities of the things that you deal in, and the means of obtaining or producing those things, and do so in a wise manner that delivers quality reasonably priced where needed most. Put a human face on that delivery, and build positive relationships with those people with whom you interact.
Bill Slawski is Director of Search Marketing at KeyRelevance, Inc., blogs at SEO by the Sea, and has been one of the Business and Marketing Forum moderators at Cre8asite Forums for the last six years. The Small Is Beautiful column appears on Thursdays at Search Engine Land.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.