Unless you’ve been under a rock for the last 24 hours you know that Tim Cook (with U2 by his side) announced yesterday that U2’s brand new album Songs Of Innocence has been given to every single iTunes user. Apple says that this means the album is available to 500 million people, more people than have ever had free access to a full album. While many people are focused on the music industry implications of this promotion I have thought about it in the context of the concept of free and how the internet enables free as a business strategy better than any other medium of distribution.
For those of you who haven’t delved too deeply into the free concept I highly recommend reading (or listening to) the book Free: The Future of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson. Interestingly enough, the audio version of the book is…free! Strangely enough I think that Free (the book) is worth paying for if you have to because it may change the context in which you view how free stuff can be used to facilitate growth of a business. More importantly, you may understand more about how the internet has created a great opportunity to capitalize on the free concept.
One of the very important things that I have come to realize about business websites is the fact that each one needs a mission statement. That mission statement should then guide the design and development of the website so that the chief goals of the website are both measurable and attainable. My sense is that most businesses would say that the mission of their website is to drive sales but how you go about that is critical and needs to be a part of the mission statement.
For the most part what I see when I browse many websites, particularly those of smaller companies whose focus is offline commerce, are digital brochures. The focus of these sites goes along the lines of who we are, what we do, news and contact information. All of this is helpful to a certain extent, particularly to people who have never interacted with a business before, but it also certainly represents a gap when compared to the types of features that a modern website is capable of offering.
Having had a couple of weeks to ponder my experience at South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive I have settled on the decision that viral marketing (and the content that enables it) represented the most ubiquitous theme that I recognized throughout the event.
I came to this conclusion after thinking back on the conversations I had with people I met at the event, many of whom told me they were in the business of media, marketing, media marketing or marketing technology. I also draw this conclusion based on the number of companies I saw whose goal was to help other companies harness the masses taking action (or not) on social media websites. Indeed, grabbing the attention of the masses online and moving them to act appears to be the holy grail of the internet business world these days.
When first time internet entrepreneurs (i-treps) begin to think about building their product it’s often an overwhelming thing to have to consider all the technical aspects of a web-based system. Even with pre-packaged systems such as WordPress and hosted platforms such as SquareSpace there are plenty of important considerations such as setup, design, workflow and more. Once those things are considered i-treps likely turn their thoughts to the time consuming process of acquiring the necessary talent (a programmer, a designer, etc.) to help them make their idea into a reality. Given this it’s not surprising that many new ideas end up shelved before they even get off the ground. While building out a world-class (or at least a really good) system from the start is one way for an i-trep to approach development, there are other approaches that are not only viable but also very advisable too.
Start simple. It seems like such a basic concept but too often i-trep ideas tend to take off into the stratosphere due to our expectation that great things can be built very quickly these days. It’s true that they can be built quickly if you have the right people and financial resources. New i-treps typically lack both of those things. And even if some good people and resources are available there is still a risk that the resources invested in a very new idea will end up squandered if said idea fails to get off the ground. So I say again, start simple. Starting simple allows you to prove the worthiness of the idea and gives you an opportunity to tweak the idea before too many resources have been expended on the initial concept.
Given the times we’re living in it’s not completely absurd to assume that the market for development and management of business websites is a very mature one without strong growth potential. After all, every major business that we deal with has a significant presence on the internet that likely includes points of presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google+ (to name the most popular spots) in addition to their own corporate website(s). If you look a little closer though you’ll find that there are many smaller businesses that have either a limited web presence or they eschew the web altogether.
Consider the image above, which represents a bulletin board in community near me about thirty minutes away from Austin, TX. Right before I took the picture someone had walked up to it to place their flyer amongst the hoards of printed media, no doubt with the hope of catching someone’s eye so that the person might some day become one of their customers. To those of us that live on the web such an approach to business marketing seems awfully antiquated but the fact is that it is an approach that is still being used by more small businesses than we can imagine.
Recently I’ve talked with a few people who have asked my opinion on starting various ventures that are based on the internet. Some want to promote things that they have already done . Others are just interested in expressing themselves so that they can build an audience. Finally, there are the people who have a product or service that needs a broader customer base and a digital component. My advice to these people has been exactly the same and focused on what I think should be three core tenets of any new internet based venture.
- Start now.
- Keep it simple.
- Grow it slow.
Whether or not a business should maintain their own blog has been a subject of debate for businesses ever since blogging became popularized in the early 2000s. My answer to that issue is, “Yes, of course a business should have its own blog.” After all, your blog is your voice as a business. And if you don’t cultivate your voice then people will listen to other voices (and there will be other voices) that may not represent the best interests of your business. A few years ago I wrote about this very topic in a post called The Importance of a True Voice on the Web and included the paragraph below.
Here are some questions for you to ask. Who are my stakeholders? If you sell a physical product at a minimum you’ll have employees, suppliers, maybe distributors, the local community (or communities) where your business is located. You might have investors who have a pure financial stake in the business. Too many companies focus on the investors and the government and then ignore almost everyone else. Who are your stakeholders? How will you use the web to communicate with all of these critical groups? Will you create a place for news and discussion now or wait til there’s a crisis or big news to share? Will you be able to ramp up fast enough to communicate effectively or will you stumble as you learn the language and find your true voice? Will you punt and throw up a Twitter account and a Facebook page or will you locate the most important information on your own domain? Will you use audio, video and photos to tell your story?