Is Your Network Looking Out the Window?

Looking Out the WindowYou may have heard this idea before. It is widely-accepted. Business classes teach it. Networking groups preach it. Businesses owners believe it almost without question.

“You have to educate your network about what you do.”

But there’s a problem with this idea. The problem is this: you can’t educate your network. In fact, you can’t educate anyone but yourself.

Just talk to a few school teachers and ask them about their jobs. Teachers do not simply present information and assume that students will effectively absorb it. Students have to invest significant effort in their own education. Teachers are specially trained to persuade students to make this effort. Any teacher will tell you that it never gets easy.

If it’s not easy for someone who teaches for a living, why should it be easy for anyone else?

In a business networking environment, we as business owners essentially face the same challenge as a schoolteacher. We cannot simply present information about our businesses and assume that everyone will listen and apply the information. We first have to persuade the people in our networks to pay attention to us.

Otherwise, they’ll just look out the window. Or look down at their phones.

Educating adults is no easier than educating children. After 12 to 20 years of school, most adults have mastered the skill of pretending to pay attention in class.

When we give our elevator pitch at a networking group, we have less than five seconds to persuade the other person to listen to the rest of what we have to say. If we fail to immediately grab someone’s interest, they tune out. They might continue to nod their head and make eye contact, but they’ve stopped listening. While you ramble on about your products and services, they’re thinking about their to-do list or last night’s argument with their spouse.

If you want to get attention, you have to give attention. Social media plays a key role in this.

Instead of thinking of social media as a soapbox to broadcast information about your business, try thinking of it as an information-gathering tool to learn about other businesses in your network. In other words, instead of using social media to educate your network, try using it to educate yourself.

You might be pleasantly surprised!

From Information to Connection

An "information" sign on a white background. 3D render with HDRI lighting and raytraced textures.

There has been a slow and steady trend in the marketing world over the past few years that is likely to continue. Demand for information products has become more selective.

An information product is exactly what its name suggests. Books, DVD’s, training courses, whitepapers, webinars and podcasts are all examples of information products. Some are free and some are not. Some are interactive and some are static. But the basic idea behind an information product is simple: you create something that provides valuable information based on your unique expertise.

Businesses often use information products as a way to attract clients. For example, you’ll often find web sites inviting you to download a free e-book. You’ll be asked for your first name and email address, after which you’ll start receiving weekly emails. Done well, this strategy can build credibility over time. (It’s often done very poorly.)

The classic information product model is breaking.

In case you haven’t noticed, we’re all inundated with information. People have less time to consume generic information products. We don’t have time to read your email newsletter or your free e-book — unless.

Unless it has exactly the information we’ve been looking for and haven’t been able to find anywhere else.

Unless it quickly grabs our attention by saying something new and interesting.

Unless it answers a burning question that’s been on our minds for weeks.

Or, unless we have a personal relationship with the information product’s author and we are seeking to build our connection with that person.

A Surplus of Information

Blogger Mark Schaefer wrote about a phenomenon in 2014 that he dubbed “Content Shock.” He pointed out that while the amount of content available for consumption on the internet is growing without bounds, our ability to consume that content is not. There is no limit to the number of new blogs, YouTube channels or email newsletters that any number of people might create. However, there are still only 24 hours in the day. We have become more selective about what we watch or read. We have no choice in the matter. We can’t read it all. So, how do we choose?

When one market dies, another emerges.

Our minds are over-saturated with information, but on the other hand, we’re starving for human connection. And that is the key to mastering content marketing.

A Shortage of Connection

Schaefer illustrates how the oversupply of content has created an equally severe shortage of another resource: attention. While fewer people are seeking information, greater numbers of people are facing the challenge of getting others to pay attention. In today’s hyper-productive, tech-focused world, people are craving real and meaningful human-to-human connection.

Have you ever sat across from someone at a coffee shop who was only halfway listening to what you were saying? Have you ever tried to deliver a speech to a tuned-out audience? Have you ever tried to start a conversation about something that mattered deeply to you, only to have them change the subject? Have you ever written a blog post and felt frustrated that no one read it? Ever put together an event and had no one show up?

If you can identify with any of the above, then you’ve felt the frustration that most of the world is feeling right now. We don’t need another email newsletter. We want someone to listen to us with their full attention.

If you can solve that problem for someone, you’re in business. Easy? No. Doable? Yes.

Create a Connection Product

What exactly is a “connection product”?

Like its name suggests, it’s anything that makes it faster and easier for people to connect. Unless you live in a cave, you have been buying connection products for your whole life. Here are a few examples of connection products:

  • Civic and social clubs like Rotary or Kiwanis
  • Toastmasters
  • College fraternities and sororities
  • Churches and other houses of worship
  • Political parties
  • Social media sites like Facebook and Instagram
  • Meetup groups
  • Concerts or other live music events

I could list hundreds of examples of connection products, and most likely, so could you. The demand for this type of product is likely to grow even more aggressive over the next ten years. Everyone has something to say, and we’re all having to work a lot harder just to get someone to listen and understand our message.

Seth Godin articulates the nature of the solution perfectly: “When you tell us about your business or non-profit or public works project, tell us first how it’s going to help us connect.”

If you look around you, you won’t have a hard time finding someone who is already doing this successfully. Here are a couple of examples from the nonprofit space.

For example, in 2006, I attended a leadership conference for The Hunger Project in New York City. At the time, I had sent small donations to a few nonprofits. The Hunger Project reached out to me by phone and invited me to lunch (which none of the others had). They invited me to the conference, where I had the opportunity to meet people from all over the world who had gathered to participate in a conversation about how to bring a sustainable end to world hunger. The energy in the room was powerful and life-transforming. I was a different person at the end of that conference. I had seen new possibilities that I could never forget.

Fast-forward to this year, I went to the Nashville Vegfest. (A Vegfest is a marketplace for plant-based vegan products and services). I gave a few hours of my time volunteering at their event, and in return, I got to meet a handful of great people that I would likely have never met otherwise. I also got to spend quality time with my friend Helene, who organizes the Triangle Vegfest in Raleigh. The trip gave me a chance to be a small part of a rapidly-growing movement. Read the post on my personal blog for more details about the event.

If you’re looking for ways to market your business, the key is to create more ways for people to connect. People want to connect with people who understand them. They want to connect with communities that will accept them. They want to be part of something greater than themselves.

If you create a product that gives people this opportunity, they will buy it.

How Does Social Media Attract New Business?

Man at laptopThere is a common question that comes up in meetings with business owners, especially those who are unfamiliar with social media or who have not used it much.

“How is social media going to help my business make more money?”

New Customer Acquisition

Generating new sales from social media is a complex process, but sales can be broken down into some simple components: lead generation (prospecting) and lead conversion (closing the sale). Social media can be utilized in both of these areas, depending on where the gap lies in your business.

Many businesses operate under the false assumption that they do not have enough sales prospects. In reality, the vast majority of businesses have plenty of opportunity in their existing pipeline and within their professional networks. Social media is a useful tool for capitalizing on that opportunity.

The most common sales application for social media is maintaining top-of-mind awareness with the people who may become your customers now or in the future. This is easier said than done. Unfortunately, many businesses waste this opportunity by utilizing social media to broadcast advertisements about the products and services they are trying to sell. This causes their prospects to lose interest and tune out. By contrast, effective social media selling strategy requires engaging a customer in a way that they want to be engaged.

For an example of an effective social media sales strategy in action, take a look at the BlendTec YouTube channel. The makers of this high-speed blender regularly produce entertaining videos showing different items being pulverized inside one of their blenders. The videos are not only amusing, but effective. They show the power of the BlendTec in action.

Should every business start a YouTube channel in this fashion? No. The challenging part about strategy: you can’t duplicate it. Few strategies transfer from one business to the next. You have to be willing to ask the tough questions about your business and devise an approach that fits your talent, time and budget. This is hard work, and many businesses are not willing to do it. Those are the businesses that fail at social media (and blame social media for not delivering the results they wanted).

Some customers (like Groupon users) love getting a deal. Others want to be first to find out about the hottest fashions. Still others might value the opportunity to win a competition. Some like being in on a secret. To increase your sales revenue from social media, you need to figure out what your customers find interesting or valuable, then continue to offer more of that.

Word of MouthConverting Customers into Advocates

Once you’ve won the first sale from a customer, you’ve done the hard part. Keeping a customer’s business (and winning their referrals) is much easier than winning their business in the first place. Ironically, it is a common phenomenon for businesses to do the hard work of getting a new customer in the door, then failing to invest the effort to keep that customer’s loyalty. The result is a constant struggle to keep the business afloat.

Social media gives you a powerful tool that you can use to convert one-time customers (or prospects) into loyal fans. However, in order for this to happen, your business needs to instill the discipline of consistently over-delivering. For example, Southwest Airlines is well-known for going above and beyond to take care of their employees and their customers.

Social media is one tool in your toolbox. It is not a silver bullet or a quick fix for a broken business. It will amplify the conversation about your business — and that may be a good thing or a bad thing. At the end of the day, building a successful business requires sticking to the fundamental disciplines that lead to success over time. Without a foundation of discipline in place, social media is unlikely to do much for your business — and in fact may make matters worse.

If you’re uncertain of how social media can help your business, you may not be ready to implement a social media plan yet. It may be that you need to ask the tough questions and address more basic fundamental challenges in your business. Have you clearly defined a specific market? Do you know who your major competitors are? Have you outlined a specific strategy for differentiating your company from them?

When to Evaluate Social Media as a Solution

Social media is a powerful tool when utilized as part of a well-thought-out business plan. When evaluating social media (or any other tool or platform), it’s necessary to first analyze the gaps in your business model and identify what is needed to fill the most critical gaps.

Here are the most common critical gaps that social media can potentially address:

  1. Low customer retention rate
  2. Not enough repeat business
  3. Qualified prospects are not converting at a high enough rate (and you aren’t sure why).
  4. Happy clients are not giving you referrals (and you think they could).
  5. Happy clients are not spending as much money with you as they could be.

If you feel that you have done everything in your power to address all of the above areas and still do not have enough qualified leads, chances are there are more fundamental issues in your business that need to be addressed.

Social media could potentially be the perfect tool to address the critical gaps in your business, but it requires an effective strategy and a careful implementation.