I’m often asked about online behavior and how businesses can tap into certain market segments to find new customers, whether for their services or products. It’s interesting to me that so often the online world seems so foreign to those that haven’t used it for much more than paying an electric bill on a website, and the questions I am asked usually end up being some variant of “what exactly does the online person look like…who are they?” These questions come to me from seasoned business professionals that have sold tangible goods or services to people in real life; people they could see, talk to, shake hands with and ultimately sell to. Why then, would they presume that the online community is so different?
The “real world” primarily consists of three groups of people in the goods and services lifecycle: creators, reports and consumers.
The Three Real World Groups
Creators represent the smallest segment, and most people that come to me for business and marketing consultation are in this group. They are the makers, the business leaders, the companies that are producing something that they want to get into others’ hands. In the virtual world there are a few standouts like Amazon and Zappos (or is that now Zamazon?), but there are also millions of smaller players, and they aren’t necessarily distributing products; many service companies now what to sell you ideas to make your life better or service professionals to do work for you. It doesn’t stop there; non-profits have hit the scene with causes and social ideas that they are creating and distributing through social networks and other online venues. The creators make the things that we need…or think we do.
Reporters represent the pundits, the talking heads, the reviewers and the public square criers. These are newspaper sites, blogs and other groups that tell us about what the creators are doing, because frankly most creators are pretty lousy at getting that information out themselves. These groups usually have massive audiences (distribution channels) and produce content rapidly, in short and easy-to-digest segments (most readers lose interest before they hit the 600 word mark). What is interesting to me about this group is that they are often hailed as collective industry leaders, change agents and cultural guides…yet very rarely do they produce any original content beyond a pithy opinion at the end of a press release usually written by the a creator.
Consumers by far represent the largest of the three groups, yet are the hardest to talk to. As creators and reporters argue back and forth about how the one needs the other more, the reality is that neither group can survive without the consumers and they know it. The consumers read the blogs, try the goods and ultimately spend the money that keeps the other two going. If you were to look at the online world as a cocktail party, the creators and the reporters are making all the noise and seem to be the life of the party, but they are surrounded and outnumbered by the consumers on a staggering scale, though usually the consumers will only sit quietly by, observing and occasionally writing something in the comments section.
That was the world before social media.
The New Class of Hyrbrid
Now things are different, and in a dramatic fashion. You see, no longer do these three groups need to be so separated…there are a couple of new groups that have entered the scene: hybrids of the existing classes.
Creator/Reporters: whereas the old mom and pop manufactures (those that didn’t have massive PR and marketing budgets) were really confined to smaller, local markets and relied heavily on personal word of mouth advertising, now they are able to reach a global audience with the same ease as their seaminlgy-overwhelming big box competitors. In the real world, a small company that makes mismatched socks in sets of 3 could probably only survive on a boutique street in a trendy neighborhood. Thanks to the web, companies like Little Miss Matched can not only survive, but thrive! They can use outlets like Twitter and Facebook to spread the word about their products, then let the users from around the web continue to comment, report, review and react to their brand.
Reporter/Consumers: up until recently, consumers didn’t really have a voice. I grew up in a small town, and the only way one could praise or condemn a company was either a letter to the editor in the newspaper or a chat with the neighbors at the park. Seriously. Now what do we have? Consumers can (and will) set up blogs, Twitter feeds and Facebook pages with just a few clicks of a mouse to share these same thoughts, but usually on a much larger scale. Sometimes the “reports” of the consumers are circulated around a small group of friends on Twitter, and sometimes they make big waves around the world, such as the case of “United Breaks Guitars”. Big or small, it doesn’t matter…the ability for the consumer to report is incredible and powerful, and should never be taken for granted.
People that are stuck in the first model, where the groups are in three distinct buckets, are missing the point of social media. No longer is there merit in a company complaining that they just don’t have the ability to reach out like the big companies. While there are some obvious truths to a complaint like that (have you seen the prices of Super Bowl ads?), for the most part a little bit of time and money can produce incredible, far reaching results and allow you to skip right over the previous middle man that was the reporting and communicate directly with your customers…or future customers!
Likewise for the consumer, bad customer service and shoddy craftsmanship in overpriced products really should not be tolerated any longer. This is not to say that you should constantly complain on Twitter about every little corporate pet peeve or bad experience you have…because I do not personally advocate that. It does mean that you are closer than ever to the companies, and you likely have the ability to reach out to them. I try to stay positive online and praise companies far more than I condemn them, hopefully this is no different than life outside of the keyboard and monitor. Before I rant about bad service online, I do what I can to reach out to that company. Sometimes this takes place on the phone, but hopefully now I can reach most folks on Twitter.
With the new connectivity that we are experiencing globally, leverage the opportunities that are before you, whether you are a creator or a consumer. Jump into the conversation and tell your sphere of influence what you think…what you like, dislike and hope for. That, my friends, is the joy and responsibility of social media.