What most business owners and marketers think of the internet is now largely obsolete. Websites, search advertising, and even social media marketing are all dying breeds. (I say this with a full understanding that this assertion seems a bit odd coming from the former CEO of Web.com.) While it is still true that a company’s online presence is important, the fundamentals have changed.
Ten years ago, all you needed to be on the cutting edge was a website. Now, in an effort to keep up with the digerati, many companies feel overwhelmed with their online responsibilities: content creation; banner, text, and display ads; search engine optimization; search engine marketing; mobile optimization; Facebook pages; LinkedIn profiles; Yelp reviews; FourSquare check-ins; Twitter trends; viral YouTube videos; Amazon, Google, PayPal checkout; a Square reader; blogs; Instagram pics, and Flickr posts. Not to mention whatever it is a business is supposed to do on Pinterest, Tumblr, Vine, and Snapchat.
And on top of all that, business owners have actual business to attend to.
The reason the web and the internet are so powerful is because both are networks. Networks, when used appropriately, provide untold opportunities for businesses to grow. However, when abused, they can force a company into a breakpoint that collapses even the strongest business.
Many companies treat the internet like a giant billboard. While this strategy may have been effective in the early days of the internet with its ubiquitous banner ads, it no longer works. Nor should it. Historically, marketing was never about copious messaging – pre-internet era marketing required restraint as the modus operandi. There were few outlets for businesses to reach customers, and many were quite expensive. The high cost forced companies to focus on marketing fundamentals, such as positioning, targeting, and customer retention. But online marketing is cheap, and many companies have taken advantage of that, plastering their messages in every corner of the web.
Now, the web is simply too cluttered. Users have become proficient in ignoring anything that remotely resembles an ad or smells like self-promotion. A growing number of customers are eschewing the web altogether, switching to apps or at least more streamlined mobile sites. Some marketers think the answer is to ever-more-cleverly camouflage their brand messages, but there is an alternate solution: stop marketing.
In the new world of the messy web and the frustrated customer, you have two primary responsibilities. First, provide the basic information your customers and potential customers are looking for. Make it simple, transparent, clear, and ubiquitous. If you have a storefront, for example, customers must be able to see your location on a Google map, your business information on D&B Credibility Review, and your business hours on Yelp. A company website is of some use, as aggregator sites can pull information from there, but you can no longer expect customers to visit your site.
Your second responsibility is to provide a forum for your customer network; that is, to give them the tools they need to contact you and connect with others in the network. Focus on facilitating instead of marketing, using the media your customers already use. Allow your customers to find you where they shop, socialize, and interact. That might be Facebook, Foursquare or Twitter. Track the conversations and add to them when there are questions, but never abuse the network by pushing out your messaging.
It’s time to put away the megaphone and let your network speak for you. Your customer network is your most important asset, and the good news is that your business already has one. Your job is to allow the internet to help strengthen your network’s connections, without letting it become a distraction.