Tom Martin Q&A: Web business consultant offers advice for finding a foothold online

Contributing columnistMay 5, 2014 

Scott Clark

PICASA

Scott Clark owns Lexington-based BuzzMaven Labs. He is a web business consultant with a focus on helping his clients find ways to improve the performance of their websites and offering guidance on online marketing investments and social media activities.

Tom Martin: Businesses using social media — what are the latest trends?

Scott Clark: Mobile devices and social media have fed on each other and are changing where and how customers interact with businesses. The scale is immense. People are spending 65 percent of the time on social networks when they're using their mobile devices. This is a big behavioral change in a really short time. We're also seeing big changes in the amount of money being spent on social media. Companies are allocating budgets, they are hiring people, they're realizing this is as important as training sales staff or providing good customer support and that ignoring it is a very real risk.

Martin: Control is a major issue for a lot of businesses. The notion of allowing their website to be used for discussion they're not able to control must have been an impediment at first. Has that been overcome?

Clark: It has. There are still a lot of companies that will do what they can to censor conversations. However, many companies have learned to negotiate that space. I call it dance; they're learning how not to step on the toes of customers nor to let customers step on their toes. And the ones that have learned to navigate that space have the bonus of being perceived as very authentic, very transparent and empathetic to customer needs. And, when I see that kind of proficiency, I know that that company is well-positioned for what's coming next because they are doing business the way the customers want them to do business: being where the customers are instead of expecting customers to come over to their side.

Martin: So, it's very much like learning a new language.

Clark: It is. It is. It's a new social skill that is demonstrated not just one-on-one with customers, but in front of thousands of customers. So, there is a brand new skill that people are learning, but I believe businesses are better because of it.

Martin: You've written that many companies are quite ignorant about their audience's behaviors and informational needs, focusing entirely on the tiny fraction who make it to the sales process without considering the opportunity to add layers of trust to their brand in the time between sales. Can you elaborate on that?

Clark: I do see that disconnect between what companies imagine customers think about them and what the customer is actually demonstrating with their behavior. When beginning on social networks many are surprised at which messages resonate and which fall flat. Using analytics is one of the first things I do with a client to help them understand this behavior. Some are finding that 75 percent of the visitors to their website leave in a couple of seconds. They didn't know that before and they just counted them all as visitors for example. Others don't know why 15 percent of their Facebook fans only see the post they put on their Facebook page and all of this speaks to a disconnect that has to be closed. People aren't always in a buy mode. So brands have to regularly reward customers for their attention and when they do that, they're in a great position when the time is right for them to buy something. Numbers really support this. A customer that follows a brand on Facebook is around 50 percent more likely to buy from that brand and 60 percent more likely to recommend them to friends. On Twitter it's even more; it's like 67 percent and 80 percent. Those numbers are really difficult to duplicate with traditional advertising.

Martin: There are business owners who are still reluctant to engage in social media because they don't have much personal experience with how it works. What do you say to them?

Clark: Well, I say that the spotlight is on and you're not in control of the switch. We're talking about extending a social business skill into the online world, but there are human beings at the end of those wires. These are the same customers you run into at the gym or downtown, they're not from Mars and you have to learn how to navigate the spaces in which they occupy. We recommend listening a lot more than speaking for the beginner. Spend time learning the tribal rules of these networks and developing your own online voice. It takes time, but I believe it is a requirement. You can get on the right foot by just focusing on the customer like a laser.

One of my favorite methods for getting started is with blogging and one of my favorite kinds of blogs for the beginner is a Q&A blog. Each of the posts they put on their blog is a customer question that is answered. One question, one answer; and then you repeat the process through your list of questions. I've never met a business owner who couldn't fill a white board with the questions that customers asked them, so it makes great fuel for a new blog. It also satisfies customers' information appetite and demonstrates your understanding of their needs.

But you have to resist the urge to write about yourself all the time and be promotional all the time. That's pretty soundly rejected on social media. But after you've done this a little while, you've created a wonderful resource that is very social media-friendly that you can point customers to. Then you can let customers do the work and ask the questions that you answer. These are very successful even for the beginner who hasn't yet developed really mature social media skills.

Martin: Okay, I own a small business and my resources are very limited so I don't devote a lot of time to social media, yet I've sensed that the world is passing me by. What can I do?

Clark: Every business has to invest time in delighting customers or they'll go out of business. If the customers have an expectation that you extend that care onto social networks, you need to make time to do so. You can start slowly, but you have to begin the process somewhere. The people who are on social networks are the same people you run into in real life, they're the same ones that walk into your shop, that call your company for help or sell you products. Where and how you spend those limited resources varies a lot based on the kind of business you're in and where your customers spend their time. So, find the areas of most impact and focus on that. And don't be afraid to ask for help.

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