Ten years ago I was educating people about what they might expect from their websites. For many medium and small businesses, it was their first website, and they wanted to know how it was going to make them money. Nowadays, a web presence has become a part of almost every business’ “price of admission”. Ten years ago, you weren’t credible without a business card and a Yellow Pages listing, and people were already seeing that before long a website would become a part of the minimum credibility standard.
Business owners at that time were looking for metrics for their new website so they could calculate their ROI. Bottom line: how would it make them money, and how much? They might have some means of estimating how effective an advertisement might be. But a website is not an ad, though some still confuse the two and end up with media-mismatched brochureware. So ten years ago, I told business owners that they needed to invest in the site before they would see direct monetary returns from it. Once the platform — the website — is in place, it’ll take some effort to get the best return.
Content, I told them. “Content is king” was the mantra at the time, and I told business owners to offer it up for free. Show themselves to be the experts they are in their field and offer what they know online. Give away related content — advice on different ways to use their new widget or maps to where they can have fun with it. And of course, change it up with fresh content so people have a reason to come back.
Community is the result of allowing people to make comments on your content, and even post their own. Community is nurtured by responding to their comments and connecting with people. This is where your “true fans” lie, and where you can glean the most about what matters to them. You want to look after these people, so consider taking advice from them on your product.
Commerce is where people want to start, but the reality is that it’s most often deferred until the third step. Most businesses don’t get to make a straight jump to massive online sales despite what you may have been told elsewhere. Sales that come randomly in the early days of the site launch may well be a fickle client base. On the other hand, sales that come from within your community are solid and lead to repeat sales.
To sell your product online, begin with content, and use it to build community. Commerce will flow from there naturally, and based on trust you’ve acquired while putting out content and building community. Follow the three C’s: Content, Community, Commerce.
Ten years on, I tell clients the same thing: the difference is that now they’re more prepared to believe it, now that they’ve seen others do it. Variations of these general principles surface in The Cluetrain Manifesto, and are discussed in more recent books like Tara Hunt’s The Whuffie Factor and Chris Brogan and Julien Smith’s Trust Agents. And now there are a number of fine examples of people who have done this, like Gary Vaynerchuk and many others.
But now I get to tell those clients from ten years ago: you heard it here first.