It was before 6:00 a.m., but advice spilled out of my mouth. "Be nice. Focus on service. Over-deliver on expectations. Make sure your website is user friendly." Then I lost him. "Consider how technology impacts your business," I said. "Check out UBER, a company that provides high-end car service via a location-based App. Recognize that the way people make purchase decisions has changed." The man seemed stunned.
For the small independent business owner like that driver, to the marketer in the largest international corporation, the rapid evolution of technology has changed everything. Consumers can use their personal electronic devices to scan bar codes, check reviews, ask friends for advice or organize impromptu meet-ups. They can record their every interaction with your business and turn that device into a megaphone to share their thoughts, feelings and brand perceptions.
Important cultural shifts have resulted, and brand and business managers need to take them into account: a reduced degree of separation between people, 24/7 dialog between people and brands, and the rise of "techlebrities."
Reduced Degrees of Separation. In the past, there was the infamous "six degrees of Kevin Bacon" between connections. The team at Kred, a company that has analyzed Twitter data since 2007, says that on a global level, we're now four degrees apart, on a community level (i.e. fitness-lovers) three degrees apart and on a niche level (i.e. love kite surfing), two degrees apart.
Last year, a week prior to a speech I was to give in Budapest, I posted on my Facebook page, "Do any of you have connections in or recommendations for Budapest?" Instantly, an e-mail arrived: "I know the U.S. ambassador to Hungary. She's in Budapest. I'll see if she'll have lunch with you." Within 48 hours, I had a lunch secured with Ambassador Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis.
Social media certainly have accelerated our ability to make connections. Phone calls or letters have lag times that make instant recommendations and referrals next to impossible. But social tools such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn allow us to connect less formally with many individuals instantaneously. It's also possible to trace the dynamics or interests among communities of like-minded people, based on pictures, posts or group affiliations. If your social friends are posting and pinning about a restaurants or a new store, for example, these words and images may influence your decisions and options.
How can you unlock the social graph of your customers? One company that understands the changing dynamic of the online shopping is Airbnb. They offer a global service that integrates with social platforms, where guests and hosts can connect over an online platform to rent rooms, homes and more.
Joe Zadeh, who heads up product and innovation, told me, "If you want to go to Shanghai and both you and the potential host have uploaded your social connections, you can uncover who you know in common. Or, you could join an alumni group and look up all the listings of people who attended the same university you attended and plan your trip based on connections."
24/7 Dialogue. What does this reduced degree of separation mean for brands and businesses? Consumers have more people to turn to, 24-hours a day and seven days a week to ask about a brand, a business or more. Jeff Rosenblum, the filmmaker behind the documentary "The Naked Brand," says, "Now that we have constant access to the truth about the products we use and the ethics of the companies behind them, big brands are realizing that looking great isn't enough. It's time to actually be great."
An important step is to clearly define what your brand or business stands for. I've found that companies with lucid and succinctly described visions are more likely to succeed than those with unclear or highly complex versions.
Fred Reid, the founding Chief Executive Officer of Virgin America, shared with me how the airline's purpose -- to create an airline people love -- was born. "I had written it on a paper and had thrown it into the trash. I initially thought it was too simplistic, but that is what we wanted to do. Can you imagine? Have an airline people loved?"
If you've clearly defined your brand, when creating social media content I recommend you reframe your efforts as "advocating your brand passion." Be authentic, be honest and consider your dialog with social media fans a conversation not a sales pitch. Bring great content to the conversation. Don't push out non-stop offers. Be memorable and be real.
The Power of Techlebrities. It is also important to define the techlebrities, or digital influencers, who lead the conversations in your category. For example, Brit Morin of Brit + Co., has built a fan base of over 2.5 million subscribers, offering advice on lifestyle products for women, since April 2011. I asked Brit the secret to her success and she said, "We publish about 4-5 stories a day on Brit Co., which translates to about 20-25 social media posts."
If you want to build a relationship with brand fans and influencers, it's important to not only share content, but also to communicate and connect. Brit explained she uses different channels in different ways. She said, "Pinterest is where I get to hang out with my ladies all across America who are looking for great tips and tricks on recipes, fashion and crafts. My Twitter followers are much more tech-savvy and love hearing about apps, gadgets, and startup life." She uses Google + to reach a wide international audience that "cares about affordability and ideas that seem common for Americans." And on Facebook Brit said, "We tend to share a little something for everyone."
Building your audience and the reach of your brand or business message online takes effort, but the returns can be multifold. Before you cut your social-media or digital-strategy budget, remember technology has changed the marketing landscape and the way consumers make decisions. More and more, people are influenced by viral messages and the opinions of their peers. To succeed, brands and business must have simple and honest brand positions, and marketers must focus on creating authentic, engaged relationships. Use today's tools and techniques to empower your brand or business – a pin, post, or tweet may be more useful in creating a relationship or closing a sale than you think.