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I’ll admit it - I’m usually pretty good at predicting computer and internet trends over the past thirty years or so, although I didn’t really expect the Internet to fulfill its information distribution expectations and thought it would simply evolve into a computerized home shopping network.  My bad.

Once again, I didn’t quite foresee the right-turn in Internet advertising that has taken place over the past couple of years.  That is, the interconnection of social networking apps to drive viral advertising in the manner it has.

Let’s look at a little history to put this in perspective.  In the 1980s, when computers morphed from information storage devices into interconnected communications devices, first through telephone modems and later through much faster broadband connections, media companies such as AOL, Yahoo and Netscape (Microsoft was noticeably missing at that time) fought for dominance to become users’ “web portals” around which AOL’s “customers” would completely manage their web experience with a friendly user interface with no apparent code.  Each user would use, say AOL, and click on its links for sports, travel, investing, news and the like, driving traffic to those links.  In addition, specific paid advertising on the AOL web pages themselves would also drive traffic to those linked web sites.  Later, publishers created “hybrid” portals and information providers for specific segments of the population (e.g. Drudge Report or Huffington Post) while at the same time linking similarly thinking sites and focusing on web optimization to reach those types of users (e.g. conservatives or liberals) to sell product (e.g. books).

This worked pretty well for ten years or so, until Google came along.  Using search engines like Google, “users” could bypass the portals completely and instead search easily and directly for the information they were seeking.  This type of access not only saved keystrokes but also eliminated much of the clutter to be found on portal home pages (either unwanted types of information (e.g. horoscopes might not be everyone’s thing) or actual advertisements).

With the meteoric rise of social networking in the past few years, networks like FaceBook have created the next great leap forward.  Because sites like FaceBook create a centrality in digital users’ lives, they are a point of entry into the entire network, providing advertisers a source point at which they can “plug in” to thousands of users who are capable of virally increasing the visibility of a company’s products or services.  FaceBook’s creation of the “Like” button has been a major advance in viral marketing, because of its simplicity and the fact that in a very short time it can mutate exponentially into a real presence among prospective customers.

Pew Internet Research tells us that on line purchasing activity has grown steadily across all age brackets and that as of 2012 more than 85% of adults are now on line regularly.  In addition, Forrester Research finds that 75% of consumers do product research on line with 65% actually purchasing on line, and this trend is rising. This change in purchasing habits cannot be ignored.  Just as the emergence of discounters like WalMart and KMart in the ‘60s and big box stores like Best Buy and Circuit City in the ‘70s and ‘80s disrupted the traditional purchasing channels up to that time, on line purchasing over the Internet is rapidly changing the terrain again.

So how do we, as sellers, make legitimate use of this knowledge?  While much of social network marketing targets the lowest common denominator of FaceBook subscribers (a/k/a “clickbait” - e.g. “click HERE for cute photos of smiling cats”), there is much more to the science, psychology and development of “social advertising”.

This sea change requires sellers, whether they are consumer-based or B2B, to completely integrate their on line, brick-and-mortar stores, point-of-sale, catalog, training, sales booths, sales force, sound, video and printed media and other (e.g. QR code) advertising into what can be called “multi-channel” mode.

And it is not an excuse that your sales people believe that your product or service is “just too complicated” to sell over the Internet.  They may say you can’t just Google it or post a YouTube video for a complicated (e.g. CT scanner) or boring (e.g. cardboard box) item. This isn’t necessarily true, and your competitors may actually be beating you to it.  If you check on line you may find this already to be the case.  Even if you can’t put the complexity of your product on line, you may be able to put sufficient hard information, interesting facts, famous customers, plus animated video and references on line which will engage a prospective client.  The multi-channel mode of on line marketing actually crosses the traditional lines between sales, support, manufacturing, operations, marketing and the like in ways not done before, and it links the people, data and processes across a company’s organization into a single cohesive unit directed toward obtaining sales.  It may be unsettling, but it is imperative.

This all sounds great in a consultant’s article, but how do you actually do this?  Of course, you have to hire us.  But seriously, we can tell you this:  The first thing is to listen to your people, the sales people first.  Notice that I didn’t say “talk” to them, I said “listen” to them.  These folks are the front lines of your business that actually interact with the customers.  If you ask nicely, they will tell you what they like and don’t like about existing procedures and technologies and what they wish they had.  Layer on top of that the CRM technologies that management, production or service already has or might desire, and you’ll have a customer “dashboard” which will coordinate data across the entire organization.

The data could be any type of document - dated pre- and post-sale e-mails, letters or other communications from sales, information from trade show contacts, training and service manuals from production, Q&As, catalog cuts, website visits, sales meetings, sales call reports, discrepancy or problem reports and communications from service.

The effective management of this data will result in nimble, informed decisions. For example, spikes in requests for information from certain sources (such as the Internet) or about certain products or questions will prepare the sales force to deal with issues that may come up in live discussions and drive future promotion decisions. Sales may be able to provide prospective customers with training or service information specific to their needs prior to closing the sale.  Service personnel could see the information and correlate it to problem reports and service information before a quote is made or a service issue is identified.  Internet hits will show the likes and dislikes of customers and prospective customers.

CRM should be linked with data analytics of web and other traffic to determine trends that will predict what customers say the like or don’t like about specific products or the company in general.  [See discussions in the “Quants” and “Big Data” definitions of this site.] These comments may or may not be on the company’s website.  They may be elsewhere on the Internet, even on a competitor’s site.  The key is to be able to locate this data and respond to it in a fast, positive manner.

And, once data analytics demonstrate these positive trends, this popularity should then be manipulated through web optimization so that it appears often and is optimized through social networking and other sharing vehicles.

Finally, add GPS to your arsenal (if it applies).  The maxim “You Are Where You Go” applies both to the analytics phase as well as the “push” phase of internet marketing.

Whether you are an individual or a corporate organization, the principles of customer relationship management, multi-channel marketing, data analytics and web optimization apply equally in establishing a healthy web presence and marketing yourself or your product.

Also, for more information, see the discussion on the following pages:  So You Think You Want a Website, Marketing and Advertising on the Internet, Twitter, Tags (QR Codes), Social Networking, How To Sell To Millennials.


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