Connecting authentically on the Web

It can be overwhelming to make choices about how to market your business online. Information abounds regarding possible tactics and strategies for success. If you are like most small business owners, you often hear from Web developers, Search Engine Marketers, and SEO experts who claim to have the magic formula for online marketing success. This barrage of sales propaganda leaves many confused about where to concentrate their online marketing efforts. Yet with 1/7th of the world’s population on Facebook and an average American spending 25 minutes/day on social networks, no business can afford to ignore the Web as an essential component of their marketing strategy.

Contrary to what many marketers claim, there are no magic money making formulas. There is no online marketing machine. In fact, focusing your primary efforts on making money does a disservice to your business and insults those with whom you interact – they cannot be reduced to monetary assets for your benefit. This may be disappointing news if you and your money are spread too thin in your attempt to meet each day’s obligations. However, online marketing works best when it is a long-term investment of your whole person in connecting authentically with potential customers.

Do not be tempted to cut corners by automating customer interaction beyond simple transactional messages. Resist the temptation to use automation to feign authentic customer contact. Nothing throws a wet blanket on a relationship like receiving an automated response immediately upon following a person or business you admire on Twitter, especially if that message pretends to be personal. Keep connection attempts human to human; always be personal. You can’t automate human interactions and expect to build trust. Some things are important enough to remain high-touch in our overly efficient world.

You may be wondering why personal connection is a pre-requisite for selling online. The Web tends to make people feel empty and insignificant even as it connects them more than ever before in history. It is possible to form loose connections via LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook, to have hundreds of followers on a blog, and yet to feel completely alone. We are substituting virtual relationships for the face-to-face interaction that sharpens us and forms our character. If you connect authentically by sharing honestly and representing yourself and your products accurately, you will stand out from the crowd and help to satisfy the human hunger for authenticity. Potential customers will take note and trust you enough to transact with you.

Obstacles to connection

Fear

In an attempt to understand the roots of fear, behavioral economist Colin Camerer induced a feeling of uncertainty in his test subjects and then monitored their brain activity on an fMRI machine. As he induced more uncertainty, he observed that the part of each subject’s brain responsible for the “fight or flight” stress response (the amygdala) was activated. Camerer’s study indicates that aversion to uncertainty is often behind our rush to premature judgment.

We desire certainty because it helps us cope with our fear. To succeed, we must be willing to abandon our illusion of security and certainty and be willing to make decisions or promote ideas that may fail. But when we rush to judgment in order to fill the uncertainty we risk accepting harmful falsehoods as truth. When we avoid uncomfortable attempts to connect that pose a risk of rejection we stop learning and growing in our understanding of our customers. If fear is such a pervasive deceiver and opponent of progress, how can it be our friend? The truth is perhaps counter-intuitive.

Fear serves a useful purpose by creating scarcity and thus increasing the reward for those who push past it. Marketing luminary Seth Godin says,

“If you’re afraid of something, of putting yourself out there, of creating a kind of connection or a promise, that’s a clue that you’re on the right track. Go, do that.”

When your mind tells you that your next step is a well-reasoned way to connect with customers but your body responds with a fight or flight reflex, take heart, you are probably living up to your potential – you are about to connect!

Noise

I recently moved to the Philadelphia metro area from the comparatively sedate city of Memphis. Driving the crowded city streets, I noticed frantic expressions on other drivers’ faces as they rushed past me. Stress was evident everywhere. This high stress, busy lifestyle is not confined to the daily commute. People everywhere are over-committed, preoccupied with daily concerns, and moving through their lives with no mental or emotional reserves. They have no time to connect. The result is often a feeling loneliness, even in a crowd, and a desire for real connection with others.

To make matters worse, during our daily scurrying we are bombarded with marketing messages. Research indicates that the average city dweller sees nearly 5,000 advertisements each day. Most of these messages are not relevant, and their abundance has forced us to learn how to filter them out. Online advertising has also proliferated, and we have also learned to ignore those messages. In fact, online marketers and Web usability experts speak with disappointment about banner blindness, or the fact that most people simply don’t notice online banner advertising. Your best response to this problem is to avoid thinking of your online marketing as advertising. Instead, reach out as an authentic human being, and go out of your way to show others you understand them by offering a product or service in a relevant way. If you do this, you will stand out from the rest.

First steps to connection

In his book Running Lean, Ash Maurya says, “Life is too short to build something nobody wants.” This applies equally to products, services, and marketing methods. If you are starting something new or if you have an existing offline business, your first step toward effectively connecting online is to connect offline with your customers and prospective clients. Find out what makes them tick. What persistent problems do they face that you or your products can solve effectively and memorably? While it can be useful to survey existing customers, don’t hide behind formalities. Ask them how you can best connect with them online. Engage!

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