The New General Store

general2Think back to the days of the old general store. We knew our merchants in the neighborhood personally—around the corner and down the road. We knew exactly what they sold and where they stood. They were members of the community, and they earned trust through referral and association. Enter the industrial age—efficiency trumped personalization. People didn’t mind where they shopped—as long as goods were cheap and abundant. Soon, the suburbs emerged, and the impersonal, monolithic box stores were born. In many ways, we are now coming full circle. Perceived value of anonymous, depersonalized transactions is waning.

Consumers are once again seeking personalization, even intimacy, from business interactions—large and small. In terms of accountability and integrity, marketing spin is no longer enough. It can even ring hollow. The Internet has rendered a heightened expectation of veracity and transparency. Now, we are quick to question the authenticity of advertising and the sincerity of sales pitches. Once again, consumers want to know the store’s owner, the business dealings of the board’s president, and the organization’s endowment investment practices, etc. Focus has returned to key customers and core consciousness. The beauty of social media is that it allows us to accelerate cultivation of these open, honest relationships. Through social media, businesses can make themselves more accessible, more personable, more real, and almost instantly differentiate.

Integration. ROI. Relevance. These are all terms buzzing around the implementation of social media. My niche is nonprofits, but the same questions are swirling about for small businesses, as well. I hear many people say they need to be able to measure ROI and justify the expense. The concern is understandable in our strapped economic climate, but the truth is that we can’t afford to ignore social media! It is more than just the shiniest tool in the drawer or a trend relegated to eager interns. It’s becoming the new communication standard –- expected and demanded by an enlightened, savvy class of consumers and/or donors who require personal, real-time engagement, instant response, and interactive branding.

And it’s applicable to every type of business. Cafes, retail stores, professional services, and grassroots nonprofits can use social media to build online reputations, propel trust to new levels, and jettison concerns about the time required to manage the process. It’s a dance—not a speech. In fact, the magic is in the mambo! Here are 4 essential ways to get started today:

1. Think locally.
Consumers are using local social networks, such as Yelp and The Examiner to find businesses and make recreational decisons. And they also get the “social proof” they need when making choices. They use comments and reviews to determine the “best” listing and make the buying decision. Because these sites attract people ready to make a decision, small businesses can see a great return from local social networks. Many of these sites will let business owners “claim” their listings and add information, such as phone numbers, store hours, menus, etc.

2. Create on online destination and sales pipeline.
When you think about social media, you may focus on Facebook, Twitter, and other social sites. You may not immediately consider a dedicated presence on your own site. It makes enormous business sense to aggregate your social profiles in one place. And, remember to make your profile decisions carefully. Choose your “tent posts” strategically. Don’t pepper the world with a plethora of profiles. In fact, consider creating a blog or custom social community on your own site. Why push your consumers to connect with you on other sites, but not give them a reason to visit yours? Building and writing a blog may seem time-consuming, but it creates a way to connect with users through your own web address. Additionally, creating useful content such as how-tos or industry insights will attract and engage customers. For business owners or nonprofit execs who are daunted by the prospect of regular blog updates, build a “Connect” or “Community” page. This offers readers a way to find your business’ most active profiles and join you on those social sites. The page could also include a short bio or how you use each social site. Giving consumers a reason to visit your site is extremely important. A blog or “social hub” can pull consumers to your site and directly into the sales process.

3. Jump into Facebook and Twitter.
Everyone is talking about Twitter and Facebook, but you may be stumped about how to actually get started. With Twitter, you can cater to your customer or donor needs, requests, and complaints instantly. In a world where everything needs to be done yesterday, a quick response can create a lifelong customer and fervent brand advocate. On Facebook, a Fan Page allows a business to visualize and build a community, similar to Twitter. However, unlike Twitter, you can add and customize a great deal more.

At the very least, you should update your Fan Page “status” to keep consumers informed and engaged. A more advanced technique would be to add things like coupons or Google maps directions to the storefront.

4. Discover crowdsourcing.
Finally, consider creating a custom wiki, which harnesses the phenomenon called crowdsourcing. In other words, use your customers to give information to other consumers. Wikipedia is often cited as a successful example of crowdsourcing, despite objections by co-founder Jimmy Wales to the term.

The easiest way to do this is by creating a wiki for your FAQ or Customer Service knowledge base. Let your consumers enter the problems they’ve had via a public forum (the wiki), and provide your responses publicly as well. Although showing problems may seem backwards, it’s a very effective way to retain customers and generate new sales in the new context of social media.

Consumers know that mistakes happen, and they now expect their questions will be answered quickly. Also, with a public wiki, customers can reference response to the concern, saving time for both you and the customer. With minimal moderation, a wiki can build trust in your business and make your customer service more efficient.

The contextual shift is about engaging in dialogue, and opposed to delivering a message. How are you making the transition? Let me know.

4 thoughts on “The New General Store

  1. I have just recently discovered Facebook. Our NPO has just started using social networking to promote activities that can benefit our organization. Thus my interest in signing on to Facebook. It has allowed me to catch up with old and new friends. Still not sure that I see benefit of the this for business or to entice me to buy or shop; perhaps because I am directly connected with some businesses via their direct website. This seems to be sufficient for me without Facebook.

    I will admit that I am trying to understand this new social networking so your article appealed to me in my effort to educate myself and prepare for future marketing/networking.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s