Do You Really Know the Value of Relationships?

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It’s finally happened! The democratization of communication has allowed everyone more opportunities to create content, build a stronger voice and platforms to strengthen the presence online.

Content is free. Communication is rampant.

Advertising has been disrupted in a big way. No longer do the ‘haves’ have exclusive access to platforms and media that grants them premium visibility to audience and customers.

Everyone has this now. Even the entrepreneur. Today, you should have no excuses. You can build your business if you’re willing to try some new things.

Visibility does not equate to mega dollars

I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum. I was that marketer who was blessed with, what it seemed, endless budget to drive traffic and awareness. I had access to the most notable ad agencies to create the best campaigns that would stand out among the rest.

When I started working for start-ups those fat marketing budgets also dwindled. Dare I say, I only had less than $300K to accomplish the aggressive goals the start-up had planned for that year. At first blush, I knew this wasn’t possible. Everything I had learned, everything I had practiced in my career was creating this dependence on paid media as the only channel to get the word out. There was no way in hell I could build enough visibility for the company without exhausting the entire budget within a few months time.

I had to be creative. I had to think differently.
When Twitter launched in 2007, I hopped on the bandwagon. There weren’t a lot of us there but those that had decided to try out this new thing quickly understood the value of connecting with like minds across the ether, talking about anything and everything and helping each other in the process.

This is the definition of community. To this day, any mainstream company negates its value mainly because it doesn’t scale automatically. More importantly, it doesn’t translate into clear ROI. That’s BS and everyone is starting to realize it.

But I digress.

As early as 2008, that one start-up which gave me the $300K budget to build traffic and visibility also gave me the power to try new things. Listening technology was nascent at the time so my team turned to Google to understand the current rumblings of the industry. Through my search I came upon blogs, video forums and boards — all were discussing the future of video and advertising at some level. That’s when we dove in. We rolled up our sleeves and we started listening and connecting and being part of these discussions.

We leveraged Twitter and our followers to help us connect with other people in this space. We were part of the earliest forms of Twitter chats just because…

It was time intensive. It was exhausting work. But it was fun. In the process, we were able to seed our ideas into some of these discussions, gain feedback and attract some pretty influential types. We leveraged early adopters to give us honest feedback on our platform, and help us spread the word in the process.

How much did we spend through these efforts? Less than $20k in 6 months time.

When budgets are cut we are left to our own resources

When the Financial Crisis of 2008 hit, EVERYONE was cutting budgets. I was working for an ad agency at the time. Despite this setback, companies were still spending the bulk of their dollars on media. I shook my head. Seriously!?! When push came to shove companies would put their money on what they knew worked.

During this time, I was able to convince one company, a video entertainment distribution company to try social media. It wasn’t easy. This company had put the bulk of their marketing dollars in email, affiliate marketing and search engine marketing.

The only way I was able to convince them was to do a simple Google search putting “I hate…” before their company name. Much to their surprise they saw years of negative reviews on forums like Ripoff Report and The prescription: Listen to what these customers had to say. Lead with empathy was my suggestion.

For the client, hearing all the negative stuff was difficult but he persevered and even introduced himself as the “company” guy who was there to help. People took him at his word and overwhelmed him with order issues, claims from collection agencies, unresolved issues. He did his best to rectify any of these things. Within a few months, he realized he was spending 50% of his time helping these customers.

And then…finally Nirvana!

Suddenly, Rob reached “guru” status on one of the forums. That’s not a bad feat for someone who joined only two short months earlier. More importantly, that status conveyed something very important: he was now a trusted member of the community.

After giving his time and effort into helping resolve some of the community requests, I told Rob he could now ask the community for something.

It was simple. He wanted to drive more DVD sales and he needed the community’s help. Through these interactions, Rob understood what drove purchases: the titles, the free shipping. He tested this for only 24 hours and seeded a promotion in a few forums to ONLY his trusted community. The results: not only did his server crash because of the overwhelming orders, we also realized that the URL was being promoted across other forums, Facebook accounts, Twitter etc. In that one day, the revenue from those orders equated to almost 30% of one month’s sales.

The cost to do this? $0. The effort and commitment to the community? 100%

Community was established and it drove tremendous value for Rob: the reputation of the company as well as a strong driver of revenue. More importantly, it was sustainable.

The Start-Up Game

I had been fortunate to ask speak at the Accelerator Launch where #TechMeetsMainSt. at Centennial College in Toronto. These guys are doing it right — in helping entrepreneurs establish themselves the right way in market. They are there with the entrepreneur to give them the business skills and the tools to work with potential investors or clients. And they are leading with the right advice.

Entrepreneurs develop amazing ideas but they don’t necessarily have the wherewithal to understand how to get their message out to others, nor how to truly build sustainable customers.

I’ve advised many start-up organizations. The common mistake I hear every time: I want lots of traffic [in short order]. I want my product to go viral.

Building audience is hard and it takes money if you want to scale audience in a short-period of time. However, you don’t necessarily need a large user base to turn a VC’s head. In my experience, strong engagement among the user base you currently have is much more important. You can’t possibly scale engagement successfully at 100,000 registrations if you were unable to activate and develop a frequent user base when you only had 1000 customers.

Customers are not about the numbers. It’s about the perceived value that you give each one that keeps them loyal.

But with all the free resources out there you can learn how to build audience, how to build your network, how to grow your business and how to attract investors in the process.

I am a start-up entrepreneur. I don’t have the benefit of big budgets. But I have learned to use the tools and to leverage my network to build a presence and gain some traction for the business. It’s been about 3 years and I’m still going.

Is it worth investing the time? Can you afford not to do this?

It’s time to roll up your sleeves and be open to new possibilities.

This post originally appeared on Medium

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