It’s Not About Getting A Bigger Audience, It’s About The Quality of Connection

You want a bigger audience, right? There is the assumption that exposure to more people is the path to success, to riches, to glory, to validation, to the career you always wanted.

Probably not.

Too many people skip past honing the basics, rushing to grab a bigger and bigger audience, despite the flaws in their product or service, their creative work, their marketing, customer service or so many other areas.

I was listening to a workshop from Tad Hargrave the other day, who brilliantly described the problem as this:

Clients come to him to make their business more successful. Their goal at the start is to ask him to help them get more clients. So if their business is represented as a bucket, that person wants more water in their bucket, where the water represents clients.

But when Tad looks at their businesses, he sees untapped opportunity. Ways that their business model is not serving existing customers as well as it could, and because of this, they are leaving money on the table. Using the metaphor: their buckets have holes in them. So Tad would rather fix the holes in the bucket so that it can better hold the water in there already, rather than pouring in more water to try to capture some value, even as it quickly slips away.

Tad gives examples of ways that the businesses he works with can generate more revenue from existing customers, by better understanding their needs and how their business can provide even more value to them. So instead of running around all the time trying to “grow their audience,” they will be focused on creating a more sustainable core business.

Smaller is oftentimes better. Even in business. Tad talks about this concept and others here as well.

I find similar themes when I work with authors. Oftentimes, they think they just need exposure to more people – millions more people. When really, they need to better serve the relationships and audience they already have, in the communities they are already a part of. There is so much potential still unlocked. It is there, if they would only stop and pause long enough to see it.

An example of this is a question I often ask writers I speak to: does your family, friends, and work colleagues know that you are a writer? You may be surprised how often they sheepishly tell me “not really.” They don’t share that side of themselves with those around them, it may be too personal, or invite too much judgement from those they care about most, or judge them most harshly.

But for these writers, the people around them represent their tightest connections, their most important network. If you are a writer trying to get a foothold as to developing an audience, understanding your readers, and living the life of an author, this could be your easy in to do author readings at local schools, libraries, or bookstores. That this helps give you the experience you need to grow the support for your work in your local community, and be the launchpad to extending beyond.

In other words, don’t rush past those who already respect you, on your way to pitching others.

This is similar to the 1,000 true fans concept, that it is the quality of connection to others that matters, not the quantity. For a writer developing their career, this can be the shortcut to growth, and to understanding the value that relationships play in finding success.

Why “Best Practices” Lead to Mediocre Results

Best practices are often used to try to reduce the risk of failure. But oftentimes, these strategies are things that worked well six months ago, and have since been embraced my many others. For something to be a “best practice,” it often means it has been tried so often, by so many people, that you are late to the game. That they value you will eek out of it will be meager and hard fought.

Best practices can also mean that you are focusing on the wrong end of things – seeing the results other people had, but not understanding the core mission and values that lead to those results.

An easy example is Zappos. They get accolades for their customer service, and teach other companies how to do it. They are sharing as much as they can about how their company operates. They give away their secrets!

They have whittled down what they are into a series of lessons, of courses, of practices. And yet, how many Zappos-like companies do you see out there? Few.

Why? Because managers go to Zappos based on the end-result, and are looking for “best practices” that fit into their current systems and culture. They want that one missing puzzle piece, not an entirely new puzzle to start with.

Zappos’ training is not challenging because it is a complicated system, but because it requires companies to rethink how they operate, how they view employees, how they view customers, how they view products, how they view communication, how they view the company’s mission & values, and how they view marketing.

And that is likely WAY too much for most people to handle. So instead, they look for simple, tactical “best practices.” And they get a TINY percentage of the value that the best practice delivers, and that value is always shrinking even further.

I see this again and again in social media. Instead of people thinking INTENTLY about their customers and how to serve them, they look for tactics on how to increase followers or ‘grow their conversion.’

So they move from flavor of the week to flavor of the week of jargon, tactics, and strategies. And they are often too slow and too late to create any meaningful value.

This methodology also SHUNS the idea of iteration, that you need to constantly evolve to improve your products and services and better serve your customers. Companies look for the one right solution, when really, it is best to constantly measure and iterate.

It is a corporate hallucination to think that one system will work perfectly, and continue to do so time and time again. And millions of dollars are wasted justifying such systems, changing again only as a measure of last resort.

If you are shooting for best practices, you will likely experience a faint shadow of the results of the people you are emulating.

Do you make toothpaste? Stop going to toothpaste manufacturer conferences, and start talking to your customers about their behaviors, experiences, joys and needs. Because the trends you jump on that other toothpaste manufacturers are jumping on will result in you being 2% different than the competition, meaning that in the end, it will all come down to price in the mind of your customer.

I’m sure Crest and Colgate each have convincing Powerpoint presentations expressing why THEIR brand is unique and powerful. But at the end of the day, we all just buy the one that’s on sale. Because, you know, its just toothpaste.

But for shoes – I buy from Zappos. Because they are somehow about something more than just shoes. They are about “delivering happiness” as their CEO’s book is titled.

For Zappos, best practices weren’t a starting point, best practices were the vapour trail left in their wake for others to pick up and wonder at.



Integrate Your Offline & Online Efforts to Supercharge the Value of Each

Last week, I was chatting with Andrew Davis about the connection between online and offline behavior. He & his team shared two blog posts about the topic over at Tipping Point Labs:

Today, I want to chat about the concept of reinforcement – how businesses and individuals need to combine their offline and online efforts to supercharge the value of each and strengthen connections.

Too many businesses look at their online efforts as separate from offline – but combining the two is incredibly powerful. You can think of this in terms of research, content, marketing, products, customer service and so many other areas.

Let me share a simple example of how combining online and offline efforts strengthens and expands our professional connections. And this has nothing to do with LinkedIn. Okay, this is from the past two months of my life:

  • I spoke at a small conference awhile back. While there, I met some new folks, and began following them on Twitter. (offline to online)
  • Every so often, I’ll ReTweet something they say, we’ll @reply back and forth, and I will watch what they say, and whose Tweets they share. (online)
  • Over the course of weeks, we get to understand each other better, and decide to meetup for lunch. (online to offline)
  • A few days later, they are meeting with someone else that they know, and recommend that I meet this other person. (offline)
  • We are introduced via email, begin following each other on Twitter, and reading each other’s blogs. (offline to online)
  • We make plans to meetup and have a great conversation in person. (online to offline)
  • During our conversation, they mention someone else I need to meet, and introduce us via email. Me and this new person begin following each other online, learning about each other and emailing. (offline to online)
  • We make plans to chat on the phone to find potential ways to work together. (online to offline)

So here you have an ecosystem of relationships forming, and constantly jumping between offline and online – each reinforcing the other.

Now, imagine what this means for your business. What this means for your products, research, customer relationships and the like. If you have a ‘social media strategy’ that doesn’t connect to your offline efforts, then you aren’t properly integrating social media into your business and career.



Copying All the Wrong Things

Many businesses are established because they find an idea that has taken hold in our culture, and want a piece of that pie. So if Starbucks can earn billions each quarter, what you often find is smaller upstarts vying to capture 1% of that market.

You saw this when Google became a juggernaut, with new search engines launching with the idea that if they could generate even 3% of Google’s traffic, then they would all be rich.

A few weeks back I wrote about what made one Starbucks shop exceptional, how it adapted to a situation to better serve customers.

This left me considering how many people look to emulate Starbucks, and whether or not they are finding value in doing so.

I frequent quite a few coffee shops, and by and large, I see many of them copying all the wrong things from Starbucks.

I am thinking of two easy examples, which I won’t name, but one is near where I live in New Jersey and the other is in Manhattan. Generally, this is my experience with these stores:

  • They look just like Starbucks. The layout of the stores, the items they sell along the wall, the lighting, the decorating and the overall ‘look and feel.’
  • The products strive to be familiar copies of what Starbucks sells. The goal seems to be to ride the coattails of Starbucks, to leverage Starbucks’ huge ad budgets. So the beverage selection is a near direct copy of what Starbucks offers. Nothing unique, unless they tweak their version of a Vivanno to include guava instead of strawberry.
  • The processes are exactly the same: from ordering to the beverage delivery process. Again – this is likely to leverage the money Starbucks spent on research & development, and to provide customers with a familiar experience. The issue here is that there are some things that work about this process, and others that don’t, from a customer perspective. From a process perspective, you will notice that Starbucks has a system of how their employees communicate to work quickly and efficiently, with a goal of reducing mistakes by repeating drink orders twice. I rarely see this process emulated at other coffee shops, even if the setup looks similar to Starbucks.
  • Employee training seems to be a top priority at Starbucks, and minimal at other coffee shops.  I have sat next to people being interviewed for a job at Starbucks, and its a very detailed interview – it is clear that the manager is looking for someone who has the right attitude and whose life is setup to commit themselves to making Starbucks a core part of their world.Employees are always friendly, and do their best to create a pleasant coffee shop experience – it is clear that they are trained to give you the feel of being a friendly local coffee shop.Many of the other coffee shops I go to have adequately trained their employees on the cash register and on making drinks, but beyond that, each employee brings his or her own work ethic and personality. And while I like to think this would be a positive thing, it often isn’t. Perhaps they great you with a huge hello as they were told to, but beyond that they barely look at you, are more engaged in conversation with co-workers, or spend more effort restocking cups than serving the customer right in front of them. When you couple this with the amount of time I get the wrong order at some of these places, it makes for a mediocre experience at best. Kind of like getting gas or checking out at the foodstore. It gets the job done, and that is all.

And this is where it all falls apart: I am left with an experience that looks and feels like Starbucks, but minus the soul – minus the little things that their employees and overall brand delivers that creates unique value and a pleasant experience.

The funny thing is, I am not really a huge fan of Starbucks.  But I do appreciate their employee’s attitudes and I do appreciate the free wi-fi and their support of the concept of ‘the third place,’ a place that you can relax at that is between work and home.

In your business, be it online or in person, when you look to a successful company as your model for growth, consider if you are copying the right elements. Are you wrapping a lump of coal to make it look like a successful product, or are you delivering core value: something unique, something valuable and something that will stand out to your customers, leaving them with smiles on their faces.

The Secret to Growing Your Business Online: Customer Service

David Taub
David Taub successfully transitioned his guitar instruction business to the online world, and now earns his living via the web. Today, I want to share the reasons that online made sense for him, and his tips to building a successful online business.

David’s brand is Next Level Guitar, which I profiled a few weeks back. He and his business partner Tim Gilberg create guitar lessons on video, promote them via YouTube and sell them via subscription & DVD on their own website.

Why online?

  • Scale
    David had a successful in-person guitar instruction business where he lived, but couldn’t expand further. He had about 30 students a week, which was his max. Likewise, there is only so much you can raise prices before he is priced out of the market. He hit the wall in terms of trading time for money.
  • Expand his Reach & Influence
    David has been playing guitar since the 6th grade and has been teaching others for years. As he honed his skills more and more, the brick & mortar nature of his business limited his influence. He may be the best guitar instructor in his area, but people in other states and other countries would never benefit from his teachings.
  • Differentiate His Product Offering
    People learn in different ways, and for his in-person lessons that meant constantly creating custom lessons for each individual student. With virtual instruction, David could productize these lessons to fit a wide variety of teaching styles and musical styles. Today David sells a variety of DVD packages in addition to his online courses and has several other instructors teaching for him, each with their own flavor and teaching style.
  • Build a Stable Business
    Before the web, 100% of David’s income came from him showing up to teach someone. Today, is clearly the linchpin of his business, but he has come a long way. He has a business partner who runs part of the operation, he has brought other instructors into the fold, and while he still works long days, it is certainly possible for him to hire others to help run the show if he needed time off or focus his efforts elsewhere. All along, he has been honing his skills as a businessman, understanding how to build a stable foundation and plan for growth.

I had a chance to speak with David recently, and these are the tips he shared for building a succcessful online business:

  • Focus on Things that Deliver Long Term Value
    Don’t wait to go ‘viral’ – that’s akin winning the lottery. Give your online business a solid backbone, focusing on core customer needs and building great products. It can be tempting for some to do a hard sell, trying to scale revenue quickly. This may work for some people in the short term, but it is difficult to build long term value this way.
  • Customer Service is Critical
    David feels that most companies miss the boat because their lack of focus on customer service. David works long days, and his top priority is ensuring that all emails are answered quickly, all products sent out immediately and that daily operations are running smoothly. There are always hiccups in business systems, and David focuses his energies to ensure these don’t affect customers.
  • Have a Plan
    I’ve seen many brands approach their online business by allowing their most junior employee to sketch it out and launch. Senior managers wait for it to pan out before they give it their attention. This only hurts your business, and makes it harder to re-align once you do approach it properly.David and Tim spent months prepping for the launch of their business, spending long days recording videos and setting up their online operations and marketing efforts. To this day, they still work long hours creating new material and taking measured steps forward.  They are conservative about spending money, and are risk averse.
  • Build on Your Strengths
    Don’t focus on some wild new idea that is outside of your core competencies. David spent decades honing his guitar playing and teaching style and Tim has a strong background in the web and marketing. They each stuck to their strengths and partnered to create more value together than either could by themselves. Find out what your existing customers value most, what you do best, and focus on bringing that experience online.
  • Keep Overhead Low
    David and Tim each work from home, research all expenses before making a decision and keep their operating expenses as light as possible. For their camera equipment, they buy budget cameras and lighting, ensuring they balance quality with price. Don’t assume that ‘the big boys’ are buying expensive systems, so you need to as well.

Every step of the way, David mentioned his focus on serving customers, and each of the tips above reflect that. So many companies worry too much about finding office space or complicated promotions instead of just creating a great product and ensuring their customers are happy.  Thanks to David for sharing his story!