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Are you a missionary for your business?

Time was that marketers were carnival barkers. They had to shout louder and longer than everyone else so that they could interrupt you to interest you in their wares. But times have changed. Nowadays, marketers must be more missionary than huckster, especially in Internet communities. Do you know how to approach these communities with your message? Do you know how to be a missionary for your business?

Missionaries are an interesting model for Internet marketers because they are in a similar situation. Missionaries have a message to convey, one that requires action on the part of the hearer. Missionaries don’t have any money to spread this message, and the people hearing it are naturally suspicious of the missionary’s intentions. They also see the missionary as someone who is not like them, so a trust gap must be bridged.

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How do missionaries traditionally handle that situation?

Missionaries could take the huckster approach. They could show up unannounced in a community that has never seen someone like them before and break out a megaphone, yelling, “Listen up, everyone. You’re all ignorant of the most important truth that ever was. If you don’t listen to me, you’re all going to hell. If you don’t want that, show up at my service at 10 am on Sunday.”

That approach is vaguely like most traditional life insurance commercials, and perhaps it might work. But missionaries don’t do that, because they know that a different approach works far better. Successful missionaries enter a new community and first, they listen. They get to know the community–what’s important to the people there, what their problems are, and what they are worried about. Then they pick something they can help with, and start helping.

So, it’s not unusual for a missionary’s first task to be to help the community dig a well. Or build a school. Or set up an irrigation system. Or secure medicine for the sick.

After a short period of helping the community, the missionary is inevitably asked, “Why are you here? Why are you doing all these things for us?” and then the missionary can explain why. And maybe some people will start showing up at 10 am every Sunday to find out what this missionary knows that they don’t know. All the things that the missionary did to help others is what made the message attractive.

Internet marketing is often a missionary job. Rather than blanketing the Internet with ineffective banner ads, screeching at people to pay attention to what you’re selling, it’s far more effective to make your message attractive, so that people stumble upon it when they need it.

Search marketing is an obvious example of how this works. Sure, when people search for your product name, or the name of your product category, you pop right up with your message (if you’re doing it right). But what about when someone searches for the problem that you solve? Do you have helpful information out there that helps people solve their problem, regardless of whether it sells your product? Do you even know what problems your customers have?

Participating in social media is one way to find out what your customers struggle with. Read the blogs they write and comment with helpful advice. Join the message boards where your customers look for help and answer their questions. Be part of their social networking groups.

But don’t sell! Instead, help them.

Suppose you are a manufacturer of computer servers and you find that your customers are struggling with a problem of overheating computer rooms. Wouldn’t it be helpful to post an article on your site that explained the ways that you can fix that problem? You could explain how to measure the temperature of the room, at what temperature the heat becomes a problem, and how to go about correcting the problem. You can explain how you could move to a larger room, because that allows more air circulation. You could explain how to bring in a larger air conditioner and fan system, which can cool the room. And you could also talk about how the use of low-power computer servers throws off less heat. You could even compare the costs of each solution.

Yes, you are kind of selling here, because you will be linking that last solution to your pages on your site about how your computer servers throw off less heat and use less power. But mostly, you are helping. Your article should read the same way as if you saw it in an IT industry magazine–it should be fair to the alternatives, not skewing the answer toward what you sell.

What happens once you’ve written such an article? You can link to the article when you post an answer to people on the message board suffering from stuffy computer rooms. They’ll start to pass that information along to colleagues with the same problem, through e-mail and other means. They’ll use social media to bookmark the story as being helpful. Others will hear about the story and begin to link to it, causing still more people to see it. Those links will raise its visibility for search engines, causing even more people to see it and pass it along.

As your employees work the message boards and other communities where your customers hang out, helping with all sorts of problems, your company begins to develop a reputation for truly wanting to help customers. You also show your deep expertise in what your customers care about.

Developing such a reputation can help you to be the vendor of choice for the solutions you offer. You’ll be trusted and respected, which might help you win business where it’s not clear whether you are the best choice, or the lowest price, or the most well-known.

But it can help you in other ways, too. Imagine what happens when someone on one of these message boards posts a diatribe criticizing your company. That kind of attack can be very credible to others on the board, and can permanently damage your company’s reputation in that community. But if you have employees that are part of that community, they can respond to the attack by trying to help solve the problem, or set the record straight. The good will they’ve built up in the community will make the message coming from those individuals far more credible than that from a company spokesperson or an anonymous press release.

And what if the attack continues? Don’t be surprised if the rest of the community comes to your defense: “Hey, Jerry is from Acme, and he has been so helpful to so many people that if he says that this was an isolated incident and that the company is taking steps to prevent a recurrence, I for one believe him.”

Just like the missionary, Jerry has established a reputation of caring about what the community needs and meeting those needs. Yes, the community knows that Jerry has another motive too, just like the missionary. But they have to buy from someone. Wouldn’t they rather buy from someone who helps them and cares about them than someone else? If you are a missionary for your business, you can be that company for your customers.

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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