Thursday, March 8, 2012

Entrepreneurs: Connect to Today’s Customer Network

Every startup needs to understand that the customer paradigm has dramatically shifted over the past two years with pervasive social networks and smartphones. The customer base is no longer a mass audience that can be driven by mass media, but a dynamic network of individual customers who interact with each other, and expect to interact with you as a business.

If your business doesn’t connect with your customers, individually and as a community, demanding customers will not only ignore you, but will actively keep other customers away. For example, while the customer paradigm is shifting rapidly to smartphones, a survey last year indicated that just 12 percent of small businesses had that reach.

A recent book by David L. Rogers, titled The Network is Your Customer, elaborates on this paradigm shift, and outlines the following five key strategies to thrive in this digital age, prioritized from the most basic to the most complex in value to the customer:

  1. Access to your business from the relevant network of customers. Every organization today faces the expectations of an always-on world. To compete, startups must find ways to provide customers an easier, faster, more pervasive connection to digital networks, via mobile as well as the Internet.

  2. Engage customers with relevant and valuable content. In an environment of media overload and rampant ad-skipping, startups that want to engage customer networks need to create content that customers actually want to consume. Funny videos and worthless give-aways won’t make your website go “viral” these days.

  3. Customize your interactions to meet unique customer needs. You need to give customers the tools to customize products, services, and content to suit their needs and interests, to engage them more deeply, add value, and differentiate your offering from competitors.

  4. Connect to the customer in your communication. Join in conversations with customers who are already shaping brand perception and sharing their ideas and opinions on the Web. Conversations may be on existing social media, or on your own brand forum established specifically for this purpose.

  5. Collaborate with customers on shared goals. One of the most powerful ways to engage customer networks is to invite them to collaborate with your startup on shared goals and projects. This requires the right balance of motivators (love, glory, and money), and the right balance of bottoms-up versus top-down control.

Many businesses that seem to understand the new paradigm still fall for some common mistakes, like the following, that can blunt the effectiveness of their efforts:

  • Infatuation with technology. Founders too often see a list of the latest hot tools, and go after them, without first making the proper analysis and connect to relevant customers. The best tools, if not relevant or used incorrectly, can’t save you.

  • Lack of customer insight. Startups launch plans without taking the time to understand the networked behavior of their customers, or the drivers for that behavior.

  • Lack of clear objectives. Without a clear scope and vision, efforts become unfocused, lack impact, and are impossible to measure. Everyone on the team has to be involved and on board, or the efforts will be fragmented.

This book outlines a good process for planning and implementing a customer network strategy to match your customers, your business, and your objectives – whether you need to drive sales, reduce costs, gain customer insight, or build breakthrough products and services.

The bottom line is that today, whatever your goals and whatever your business, the network is your customer. Connect to it and win customers.

Marty Zwilling


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