The value of networking with customers
By Curt on November 17, 2008
The Fulton Street Farmer’s Market across town from our office in Grand Rapids has been providing a harvest of locally grown food more than 80 years. If those stalls could talk they’d share stories about a time when the local open-air market was the center of commerce in our community. That’s no longer the case, of course. The exercise of connecting products – fresh produce, office furniture, design services, you name it – with customers has evolved a lot since those days. Advances in production, distribution, and communication have globalized commerce, which means – among other things – that we can now get fresh strawberries even when they’re out of season. That’s good, especially if you love fresh strawberries. Unfortunately, it also means we don’t usually get to meet the person who grows the strawberries we buy. That’s not so good. If you can talk with your favorite strawberry growers, you can share your observation that this year’s berries are much sweeter than last year’s crop, and encourage the growers to do what it takes to ensure even sweeter berries next year. You can let them know that you’re also looking for fresh blueberries, and ask if they can recommend a good supplier. You can take a simple commercial transaction, and make it more meaningful by building a personal connection with your favorite strawberry grower while he or she is developing a loyal customer. Social media – blogs, podcasts, video sharing, etc. – are giving companies the tools they need to bring relationships back to commerce. This new business environment encourages producers and consumers to engage one another in mutually beneficial ways. As columnist Ray Poynter points out in the International Journal of Market Research, social media has rapidly become a credible way for businesses to gather and learn from consumer insights. The broadcast model for communicating with customers has been replaced, reports Ecademy founder Penny Power. BusinessWeek predicted this change back in 2005, when the magazine ran the cover story, “Blogs Will Change Your Business.” The magazine posted an updated version of the piece earlier this year, and the observable changes that have sprung up in the three years since Business Week first published the report are as telling as the original research. What’s the appropriate response to all of this? Seize the opportunity. For a particularly powerful example, consider our friends at Spout.com. The company could not have existed in the days before social media. The technology to connect with a new audience – and for like-minded audience members to connect meaningfully with one another – developed right alongside the frustration four avid film buffs felt with the Hollywood model for motion picture marketing and distribution. They knew the best recommendations for movies came from friends. They knew that social networks could allow users to share recommendations just as easily as status updates. And they realized that film fans and moviemakers wanted to connect. They put it all together. We helped them name it, brand it, and launch it. It’s been fascinating to watch this new kind of commercial community take shape. Big and small companies alike have been dabbling with social media as a means to network with customers, with varying degrees of success… - Don’t fault GM’s Fastlane for the troubles of the U.S. auto industry. The General Motors blog is widely held up as an example of a successful corporate blog. - Starbucks capitalizes on its enviable customer loyalty with My Starbucks Idea, an online tool for customers to share ideas for improving product and service, and weigh in on ideas from other customers. - Dell Ideastorm provides a similar outlet. - Glaxo Smith Kline’s consumer healthcare innovation site places a “Submit an Idea” button front and center. - In Japan, Adidas encourages fans of the classic sneakers to upload a photo to endorse its “celebrate originality” campaign. - Whole Foods Market’s blog offers shopping tips, product provenance stories, etc., but they’re not just talking to customers. They’re listening, too. - Midwest coffeehouse chain Biggby Coffee CEO and co-founder Bob Fish actively blogs, Twitters, and updates Facebook and Flickr. Customers can follow him across the chain’s territory, and if you find him, he’ll buy your coffee. We’re on board, too. When People Design overhauled our website last year in conjunction with our 10th anniversary and name change, we put a blog right up front. This blog is our very own open-air market where we share the things we’re thinking about and invite your feedback. Plus, Google likes the fresh content, which certainly doesn’t hurt our chances whenever potential clients go searching for a design firm. We’re currently both a group and a page on Facebook (there is a difference). You can link up with us on LinkedIn. And we’re tweeting away on Twitter. All of these communications – this post included – give us the chance to share with our best customers all the things we’re learning about and exploring. Quite often, the very act of sharing all of this sparks conversations that generate ideas to make our products and services better. Collaboration is buzz-worthy for a reason: It works.