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Doing Business in the World's Largest Community

by Jay Linden


Jay Linden is a veteran web designer and consultant.
He is currently an information developer for networked
applications at IBM's Toronto Software Laboratory.

Author's prologue: I first wrote this article early in 1995, when the World Wide Web was still a new medium and largely unknown to the general public. While a few things have changed since then -- everybody has a URL, and more people have better software and hardware to give them better access -- the underlying concept of a communications-first medium driven by content is as legitimate today as it was at the web's inception. - JL


It always amuses me when I hear Internet marketers describe the challenges of doing business in "cyberspace," on the "Information SuperHighway" or on "the TV of the future."

Surfing around the World Wide Web, it's easy to find sites that are trying to outdo each other in terms of creating the most dazzling multimedia presentations they can achieve.

If you hang about the Usenet and the mailing lists, you can't go for more than a day or two without someone trying to tell you how you, too, can become rich in no time on the Internet.

If you want to do business successfully on the Internet, you're probably better off thinking of it as a very large small town.

Welcome to the Community

If you're new around here, I'd like to offer you greetings, and welcome you to the community in which I live and work.

It's just us and tens of millions of our closest acquaintances.

We're a full-service community here. We have galleries and museums, lots of wonderful schools and libraries, places of worship, millions of clubs and other places where you can meet your neighbors and talk about everything under -- and over -- the sun. Thousands of shops, too, with more springing up every day.

We're thrilled by your visit; delighted if you decide to move in. There's plenty of room. Although you'll find all types in any community this size, most of us will do backflips to help you find your way around and make your stay enjoyable.

There are a few differences between this community and your real-life hometown, though. We've never taken an accurate census, but we think there are over 30 million of us. We know that more of you are joining us, by the busload, every day.

Up here, we don't often meet face-to-face. It's easy to forget that the person on the other end of the modem is as flesh-and-blood-and-feelings as the person at the next table in the local diner.

Opening Up a Neighborhood Store

Doing business here is a completely new endeavor, and frankly, companies still try to advertise at us, as if we were watching commercials on TV, forgetting that they are the whole channel, and we have to want to see the program before we'll be willing to sit through the ads. Other companies recognize that what we really want is information. But even some of these still just upload their brochures and flyers to websites like the junk mail we receive every day in our real-life mailboxes, and mistakenly expect that we will go out of our way to pick them up and read them.

Our businesses operate best when they use a "gift economy." This has to do with the way people relate to one another on the net, the way that most of us -- companies and individuals alike -- try to help one another, and the joy with which we offer information and entertainment for free.

Our better shops offer free coffee and samples, with no strings attached. Our successful businesses go out of their way to be an important part of the community, to create shops that people will want to visit repeatedly and tell their friends about. Revenues will follow.

Some businesses are discovering that the best way to be successful on the net is by offering improved customer service, valuable information, and by being a part of the community. Traditional advertising and direct sales don't work very well here. It's easy to distinguish people who care from those who just want to make a killing.

Frankly, a lot of companies up here haven't yet learned this. Whenever I suggest this in a post to a marketing mailing list, I get a few surprised responses from people who suddenly realize that this sounds just like the success formula for the neighborhood store of an earlier, pre-television era -- a harkening back to when customer satisfaction and community spirit were paramount.

Those stores were a part of the community; the owners lived there, they contributed to the betterment of the community.

Developing Trust and Loyal Customers

The beauty of the Internet is the way it empowers everyone -- the small business, the student, the consumer, as well as the large corporation -- to communicate globally on a one-to-one level that is unsurpassed, in some cases, by face-to-face encounters. It also enables us to see through, and tune out, the hype that comprises most of today's advertising.

As a business, you have a better opportunity than ever before to create loyal customers. But you need to supply the real goods, and the realest of them all is respect for your customers.

Here, people don't know your name, your face, your history (at first, anyway). They relate to you as a neighborhood business might, though the shop may be 10,000 miles away.

Shops and customers start out with a clean slate, but also without any reason to trust one another. In most cases, nobody has recommended the shop to the customer, or given the customer the store's address. Remember, this is a very large little town.

But one of the real advantages of this computer-mediated environment is the opportunity to create levels of customer loyalty that are absolutely unsurpassed, plus word of mouth recommendations -- for better or worse -- which speak more loudly than a dozen multimillion dollar ad campaigns.

There is no "magic button." But if you stick to a general path of providing information of real interest, being helpful at every turn, showing genuine concern for customer satisfaction, taking obvious joy in making their stay at your site as pleasant and useful as possible, and demonstrating a real, not hyped, commitment to the quality of what you're selling, then you've got a good shot at making your customers as enthusiastic about your business as you are.

These principles are not unique to the Internet, of course, but their effects can be greatly magnified here. They are the most important rules to follow if you want your business to grow and flourish in the world's largest, most diverse small town.

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