Why social media . . .
even if you don’t want to

September 9, 2009 | Jason Cohen

If you read blogs about marketing small companies, you’re inundated with “social media” advice about why you need a blog and a Twitter account and everything else.

Even my 90-year-old grandmother who doesn’t own a computer and reads my wife’s healthy cooking blog on print-outs asks “What’s Twitter?” because she read about it in the New York Times.

Still, most people and most businesses don’t think they need a blog.

In the next five minutes, I’d like to convince you that you have to jump into the world of blogging and Twitter and Facebook.

Back in the late 1990s . . .

(Ew, don’t you cringe when you hear the phrase “back in the late 1990s?” Here comes a tale of hope and of disappointment, of “paradigm shifts” and of “eCommerce,” of lessons learned and history we shan’t repeat! Yuck. Sorry about this; it has to be done.)

Anyway, back in the late 1990s, there was a day (let’s call it Oct. 19, 1997) when suddenly every company in the western world decided they needed a Web site.

Not that anyone knew what a Web site was for. Was it a brochure? A storefront? A billboard? The geeks say “It’s a new way of doing business.” What the hell does that mean?

What pushed everyone over the edge was that on Oct. 19, if you didn’t have a Web site you were invisible. Not just hard to contact, invisible.

Sure you had advertisement and PR; you could get a message in front of people. But then what? Would they go to your store? Call your 800 number and request more information? Not on Oct. 19; they want a URL, and if they don’t get one they are finished with you.

Mind you, most companies still had no idea what Web sites were for, but they realized they had no choice. “This is the next big form of media, and whoever figures it out will win,” it was collectively decided.

How do you “win” the Internet? No one knew, and even those geeks who indirectly convinced the world to live on the Web didn’t foresee its massive effect. The Internet was not, in fact, “just another form of media” — it created opportunities where Amazon is 34x bigger than Barnes & Noble, where NetFlix destroyed Blockbuster, and where Skype is worth $2.6B while telecom companies drop like flies.

It’s not just a new media, it’s a completely different world. Business models are changed forever.

Flash forward to today, and the same pattern is emerging, just in a different guise.

Today, a new Web site is invisible on the Internet.

Take for example my little fun project, LinksFor.Us, a tool that shows bloggers who is linking to and talking about their posts. Thank God I have no interest in making money with it, but suppose I did.

LinksFor.Us is invisible. How would you find it? Googling “blogs?” Yeah, right! All the search engine and AdWords optimization in the world wouldn’t put a new Web site at the top of a Google search for “links to blogs.”

So what could I do? Take out ads in a magazine that bloggers read? Oops, bloggers don’t read print. Okay, I’ll advertise on actual blogs! Oops, bloggers read blogs in RSS readers that (generally) don’t show ads.

LinksFor.Us is invisible. I suppose with enough money anything can be noticed, but in practice it ain’t gonna happen. Certainly not if I wanted to bootstrap a little company from it.

The days of “have a Web site and advertise” are over. It’s too expensive to be noticed on an Internet that’s already full.

Social media is the only way LinksFor.Us could get traction. If Darren Rowse or Brian Clark talks about it, it’s visible. If it hits the front page of Digg, it’s visible. Once it’s visible, once you have things like incoming links and lots of regular traffic, then you have a shot at using traditional SEO techniques for staying visible. But social media is the only way to overcome static friction (short of spending crazy money).

Social media is already changing the rules of the marketplace, just like the Web did a decade ago. It’s still early, of course, and no one — not even the experts — knows where all this is going. But it’s clear that times are changing again, and those that don’t jump in will go the way of print media.

Want examples?

  • In a test run by BazaarVoice, Rubbermaid discovered that adding customer reviews to their Web site increased sales and decreased returns of their products. Skeptics said sales of low-rated products would crater. What actually happened is that sales of low-rated products increased. When shoppers were questioned, they explained that when they read why someone else maligned the product, often they disagreed or didn’t care about that particular problem. If the price was right, it was worth buying anyway.
  • Fog Creek software makes millions of dollars from FogBugz, a bug-tracking system. There’s hundreds of bug-tracking systems — free, cheap, expensive, open-source, commercial — yet Fog Creek is highly visible and successful with no advertising. How? Because the founder, Joel Spolsky, has built an incredibly popular blog about writing software. He was before his time; before RSS he wrote essays and notified you by email when a new one was posted. It’s widely agreed that without the blog-before-it-was-called-a-blog, Fog Creek would likely have remained an unknown consulting company with a few struggling products.
  • Nike allowed people to build and order custom shoes on their Web site. Skeptics said deep customization is too expensive, design-sharing is too complicated, and people need to try shoes on. Wrong! Once the site took off, Nike created physical stores where you could do the same thing.  Joaquin Hidalgo, Nike VP of Global Brand Marketing says those stores now “represent 25% of our revenue.”
  • Speaking of shoes, Zappos also sells shoes on the Internet. CEO Tony Hsieh is so convinced that their legendary Twitter presence results in sales, he even wrote a popular beginner’s guide to Twitter. He insists that Twitter and other forms of open communication are required for excellent customer service; employees are trained in Twitter. Zappos raked in $1B last year even with the recession; they’re doing something right.
  • Oddly-named marketing site Marketing.fm gets double the traffic of marketing.com. One has a blog with useful content and one doesn’t. Guess which is which.
  • Zeus Jones describes 16 more terrific examples. (Thanks to David S. Finch for digging it up.)

In the next ten years there will be more stories like this, not fewer.

Will all these social networks and Web sites survive? No.
Do we understand how to use them most efficiently? No.
Will there be another new thing someday? Sure.

But today and for the foreseeable future, this is the world. You have to jump in even if you don’t yet understand it.

Is social media required for everyone, or are there circumstances where it just doesn’t matter?
Leave a comment and join the conversation.

This post originally was published April 27, 2009, on Jason Cohen’s blog, “a smart bear.” Check there to see comments and more tips from his readers!

Jason Cohen founded Smart Bear Software, maker of Code Collaborator, a tool for peer code review and recent winner of the Jolt Award. He took Smart Bear from start to multiple millions in revenue and 50 percent profit margin without debt or VC, then sold it for cash. He also is a founding member of ITWatchdogs, another bootstrapped startup which became profitable and was sold. He’s also a mentor at Capital Factory (like TechStars or Y-Combinator in Austin). And, he’s the author of Best Kept Secrets of Peer Code Review, the most popular book (35,000 copies) on modern, lightweight methods for doing peer code review effectively without everyone hating life and he blogs at http://blog.asmartbear.com/ Email him: jason (at) asmartbear (dot) com
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Virtual Studio Pvt Ltd September 26, 2009 at 5:12 am

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