Original publication in Forbes on August 15th 2019
These days, successful marketing is about getting to the human story. And to get to the human story, we must think beyond the office walls.
Steve Blank, author of The Four Steps to the Epiphany: Successful Strategies for Products That Win, has said, “In a startup, no facts exist inside the building, only opinions.”
It’s true. Inside the confines of your four walls, views are myopic. They breed opinions about what business owners want consumers to believe or buy into. But, those opinions won’t always correlate with facts.
The balance of power has shifted tremendously in consumers’ favor. Brands today cannot exist within their own bubble.
The solution? Spend time with your customers. Ask them questions. From there, the path forward gets clearer: Focus on building a viable product. Continue to solicit feedback and keep iterating upon it.
Ask for customer input, the right way.
Crowdsourcing platforms became a rebellious way for startups to elicit both interest and funding. Although this method won’t ensure that a company ultimately survives, it can help make certain that people will buy what a company takes the time to build. And while inviting the public to help build your company is a truly modern and worthwhile approach, it can backfire when you lose trust.
One of Kickstarter’s largest campaigns proved this to be true. With more than $13 million in funding for the Coolest Cooler, years went by without original backers receiving their coolers. Furthermore, the actual prototype started to sell on Amazon before investors had received their orders. Although the company ultimately survived, those early years soured some relationships.
By participating in or initiating community-building opportunities like these, marketers can help create a sense of belonging while also gathering the input they seek. But it has to feel genuine. Small businesses can host monthly events for consumers who share the same passions and interests. They can play a role in fostering friendships and encouraging fellowship outside of digital spaces while soliciting valuable customer feedback.
Take your cues from where you can.
The good news is small businesses often have a big advantage over large corporations in the quest to solicit and implement customer feedback. The ability to be nimble in communications allows a smaller business to make changes in close to real time — without having to cut through layers of bureaucracy. And while it’s easier for companies to start out with a viable product based on plenty of customer input, it’s not impossible to change courses later.
If a reporter does not want to cover a press release about a product launch, ask yourself why. Does your marketing messaging pass an internal sniff test? Will anyone outside the company care? Less-formal data like feedback from conversations is still data nonetheless. Even relaying feedback from a meeting with potential investors can help companies pivot.
Tell people what you want them to do.
The character of Barney Stinson from the long-running sitcom How I Met Your Mother prided himself on “having a guy.” That is, he had a recommendation for everything from suits to shoes to tickets. He knew where to find the best of the best; it was part of his identity.
I find that people love giving referrals, even if they’re not as pompous and showboaty as Stinson. Often, they also like to be told how they can help, even if they don’t outright ask. Don’t be embarrassed to ask someone to hang a sign on their lawn or refer your services to family and friends. Perhaps they could leave a review on your platform of choice or vote for you in a local competition.
Although small businesses may not have the luxury of conducting formal focus groups, they can participate in an even better feedback loop by engaging daily with the people who love their brand, and then incorporate that feedback into product improvements.
Choose trustworthy channels.
For companies that rely on third-party communications channels, shouting a marketing message won’t work if no one is listening or if they are skeptical about how they are receiving the information. It’s no secret that we are in the age of fake news. And while it’s important we all become fact-checkers before sharing headlines, that means your brand’s content may not be as readily accepted as it was previously.
A recent poll found that 60% of Americans “don’t trust [Facebook] at all to protect personal information.” More succinctly, pollster Micah Roberts reportedly said, “If America was giving social media a Yelp review, a majority would give it zero stars.”
This should come as a warning shot: Consumers are protective of their information. You’ll have to not only earn their trust, but also work hard to keep it.
As you grow, learn to let go.
Maintaining the same level of communication and trust can be a challenge as your company scales. Small businesses are generally closer to their customers, while large companies tend to get bogged down with customer service protocols.
Understand that as a company grows, it must learn to let go in order to build long-term sustainability. If daily human interaction now proves too difficult, substitute equally strong benefits in its place (alternate communications channels, company blogs, rewards programs, etc.).
Growth is always a goal for small businesses and the financial institutions and consumers who invest in them. Scaling your communications strategy can be hard to manage, but should be a risk worth taking. Getting to the human story can help your company break away from the crowd, and it’s an essential part of creating lifelong customers.
Solicit feedback to ensure people will buy what you’re building (and then be sure to deliver). Take cues from every interaction, and remember that feedback loops and referral programs are essential today, no matter how small (or big) your business may be. Choose your communications channels wisely, and as your company grows, learn to let go of channels that no longer support your long-term vision.