Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Like it used to be

I got the chance to engage a stranger in my vision for online customer communities this evening. As a self-proclaimed geterati, my thoughts unfolded in exquisite spirals as my mouth expressed the new power of the Internet to bring companies and customers into relationship like never before. One particularly haughty thought expressed itself. "Imagine being able to visit a company online and instantly understand what they are about," it pontificated. Then another thought leapt into my mouth, clearly not wanting to be out done. "Marketing should be an invitation to engage, not a unilateral conversation about benefits." It was very pleased with itself. In my head, these thoughts looked smugly at each other certain of their mutual brilliance and clarity. Then another came. "Too often when a company 'speaks' through marketing it's all me, me, me." The other thoughts looked demeaningly at this one. "We've really covered that already haven't we," they said and proceeded to re-establish their thought leadership. "People want to know who they're dealing with and they want to know it immediately," they proclaimed. "Like it used to be," said the person I was addressing. Upon entering my brain, this idea was greeted with contempt. "Backward looking," was the unison response of my grander visions. "Off you go. Please take a seat next to the sugar plums. Perhaps you can dance with them on Christmas eve." But this new idea had no such plan. It bounced around my brain looking for a nice place to settle in. In doing so, it succeeded in mussing the hair of one thought and spilling another's half-finished mocha latte all over my cerebellum. Somewhere amid my synapses, the new idea managed to find an unused la-z-boy to settle into. It casually reached down under the seat cushion, picked up the TV remote and changed the channel. The General Store So, how did businesses tell us who they were before there was an Internet? Before direct mail, tradeshows and telemarketers for that matter? Answering this might give us some hints about how we can do it better today... or give us some really bad ideas that won't work. Let's look at the general store as an example. I'll argue that this can be a drug store of the 50's or a modern Wal Mart. 1. The owner decorated the place. The way it looks reflects the owner's tastes. Is it cluttered? Is it tasteful? Does it have velvet Elvis paintings all over the walls? Regardless, you get an instant feeling of whom you're dealing with. Does your Web site look corporate and professional... or does it look like you? 2. The owner's in the back or somewhere close. There's someone knowledgeable nearby to call on when you can't find what you're looking for. There's someone to ask for advice. How far are your visitors from a really helpful, live person? When I have a question, why am I always given the email of someone named "sales?" 3. The owner arranged the merchandise. The items that the owner feels are his best deals are up front. Large signs communicate the value of these items: low price, high quality, one day only. Complimentary items are located near each other. What's on your home page? 4. The help knows what the owner expects. Whether they are rude or helpful, they reflect the values of the person in charge--for better or worse. Is the copy on your website marketing speak? Alternatively, does it sound like the CEO during a company "rah-rah" meeting? Does it talk with the frankness of the founders at an intimate party? 5. You don't have to work too hard to find the store. The big sign out front is clear: "General Store." You see it every time you drive through downtown. Unless you've spent millions of dollars in advertising or already have an established history, your logo probably doesn't really say anything about you to the market. Is your logo the first thing people see on your website? In ads? In direct mail? If so, why? Do you even know where your customers and prospects go when they go "downtown?" Hey, everyone's waiting for YOU.

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