In a world where social media and technology have made the relationships between you and your customers more immediate and porous—and, by extension, companies more accessible—customers expect that the brands they do business with truly care. Or, at least, that they try to.
What does that mean for businesses like yours? It means that you need to demonstrate a certain empathy toward customers: understanding what they want, need, and how your product helps them accomplish their goals—how it fits into their lives.
Said in another, catchier way: Serving has become the new selling.
This past spring, Trendwatching.com—which identifies consumer trends that it thinks should matter to businesses—recognized a new trend it called "brand butlers," which is a great shorthand for a fundamental shift in how businesses are marketing themselves and making themselves relevant.
Today's wired, no-nonsense, impatient and empowered customers increasingly expect personal and immediate access to a growing number of supporting services and tools (both offline and online). Trendwatching says, "brands urgently need to hone their 'butlering skills,' focusing on assisting consumers to make the most of their daily lives, versus the old model of selling them a lifestyle.
Brand butlering is not about simply offering great customer service or awesome sales support. Instead, it's about creating "relevance, service and utility for your customers," Trendwatching says.
Consider these examples:
- Taxi2, a cab-sharing effort from Virgin Atlantic, which matches people traveling to nearby destinations from the same airport
- The Nike + running system, which offers an online dashboard for recording workout data, and includes the ability to set goals, join challenges and make contact with other runners
- Charmin's tool for helping New Yorkers gain access to free and clean restrooms in Times Square during the holiday season
The rise of smart phones and other mobile devices is a driver, of course. "For brands," Trendwatching says, "this means that there are now endless creative and cost-effective ways to deliver on this need for assistance, for 'butlers.'"
But what about smaller companies, which might not have the resources to develop expensive microsites, iPhone apps, or to plop toilets in the middle of Time Square or "help booths" in Zurich and Heathrow airports, like Zurich insurance did? Being a butler who offer relevance and utility is more about an approach than it is about the depth of your pockets.
Consider content as another way that you can meet the needs of your customers—by delivering information that's relevant and on-brand, and helps them other ways. One of the tenets in my upcoming book, Content Rules, to be published by Wiley this December, holds that if everyone with a website is a publisher, and everyone is the media, brands increasingly need to position themselves as reliable and valuable sources of information. You need to create value for your customers by sharing a resource, improving their lives, or making them smarter, wittier, better-looking, taller, better-networked, cooler, more enlightened, and with better backhands and cuter kids. In other words: Your brand must increasingly share or solve, not shill.
This publication—American Express OPEN Forum—is a prime example of what I mean, because it is a resource to small businesses like yours that transcends, even as it complements the American Express brand. So are these:
1. RitchieWiki, a collaborative wiki website created and maintained by Ritchie Brothers Auctioneers as the go-to source for industrial equipment specs (and everything else anyone could ever want to know about heavy machinery and the manufacturers, people, uses, projects, and history of it: Did you know that the Caterpillar 535B skidder—one of about 900 made in the US—produces 180 net horsepower?)
Consider: Curating information or content for your industry in a central, accessible source. How might you be a go-to resource for those in your industry?
2. Fencing distributor Louis E. Page's simple blog, The Fence Post, publishes advice on how to install and maintain fencing—which happens to be the stuff Louis E. Page sells. In this series, the company shares two videos on how to install field fence that both looks good and is enduring. The Fence Post doesn't shill its products; rather, it gives helpful, vendor-agnostic advice on how to keep those posts straight.
Consider: Create (or find, like Louis E. Page did) an ongoing how-to video series that helps your customers accomplish a task. Also: interview luminaries, customers or other experts at trade shows and conferences to get their reaction to commons questions or issues your customers face. Upload them to your blog, YouTube, and so on.
3. The Tractor Supply Company partnered with Andy Schneider, the so-called Chicken Whisperer, to build out its content that helps people start or maintain a backyard flock. (By the way: Andy, the owner of Atlanta Pet Chickens, built a following for himself by producing his own regular Internet radio show on Blog Talk Radio.)
Consider: Produce a regular podcast or audio series in which you chat up experts or customers who share ideas for managing their business problems. If you interview customers, it's important to remain vendor-agnostic to preserve your credibility. (I know I said that already, but it's a critical point.)
4. Blue Sky Factory created a free, fun, punchy, but incredibly useful ebook called The Ultimate Guide to Email to offer businesses proven strategies and tactics they can apply to improve their campaigns. Although the ebook carries Blue Sky branding, its logo is pretty much the only promotion in the document.
Consider: Producing an ebook, white paper or other meaty, information-rich document that similarly addresses a pressing issue in your industry. Later, you might also "atomize" the meatier project into smaller, bite-sized bits of content that you can share in other ways. Can you interview the author on a podcast? Capture him or her on video? Share some of the ideas in a regular blog post series or webinar?
5. And, finally, a small business idea that's offline: Renewable energy company Gotwind.org partners each year with UK mobile operator Orange to host various valuable solar-powered efforts at the Glastonbury music festival. Two examples are the Orange Power Pump, a device that charges a mobile phone battery using the foot power of those festival-goers who are inflating their air mattress, or rubber boots outfitted with small solar panels to similarly capture power.
Consider: Can you partner with another organization or brand to jointly offer complimentary services to your customers? Can you co-butler?
So what do you think? How are small businesses creating value for their cutsomers? Share your ideas below.
Ann Handley is the Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs and the co-author of the upcoming Content Rules (Wiley, 2010). Follow her on Twitter @marketingprofs.
Photo credit: Witt Instanbul Suites