The Speed of Now

››The Quick Launch

Eric Ries wrote a must-read book for business owners of all stripes called The Lean Startup. Even if you don’t run a startup, the information captured in Ries’ book is worth getting into; it points to some effective tools for managing rapid change. For instance, Ries talks about the rise of using “live” prototypes in business, which involves shipping the “minimum viable product” to customers and learning quickly from their feedback about this bare-bones prototype.

The days of “Let’s see what people say for a year” are over. Businesses are coming and going at an alarming churn rate, and those that turn over fast are quite often those that don’t use a rapid deployment and feedback structure to learn.

Michael Dubin most recently succeeded with this method of rapid deployment when he launched DollarShaveClub.com. His company ships razors to people as a monthly subscription service. Though there have been other people who attempted to get into this niche, Dollar Shave Club succeeded by creating a viral video. How did the website pull it off? Dubin had a background in improvisational acting plus creating YouTube video campaigns for marketing clients. With his experience in getting rapid feedback, he knew exactly what people would want to see in a video for his Dollar Shave Club product.

››A Hundred Phones Ringing

OK, so you don’t have experience working on YouTube campaigns. How do you get your message out? Social media, right? Ask small-business owners whether they have Facebook pages, and they’ll often nod with a mix of pride at being cutting-edge and a kind of eyebrow wrinkle at feeling they’re still not 100 percent sure why they’ve gone down that road. (Note: As the author of a book about Google+, which is a new social network that’s somewhat like Facebook but even newer and less tested, I rarely ask businesspeople if they’re on Google+ because their heads might explode.) And yet, it’s necessary.

By the time you read this article, Facebook will have pretty darn close to a billion customers. One in every seven people on the planet will have a Facebook account. Though that sounds great to a prospective marketer, there are issues with this. Most people don’t seek a business interaction on Facebook. And most businesses put out cruddy attempts at interaction.

Let’s take a minute to review what Facebook is to you, the small-business owner. It’s another phone to answer. Putting up a Facebook page is like saying, “Please contact me here, and I’ll get back to you just as soon as I notice you called.” What happens when you don’t answer a prospective customer’s phone call? Right. It’s rarely a good thing. And yet…

If you have a Facebook account and you’re willing to monitor it and interact with people there, you have some opportunities, including a free focus group to comment on your products and services, potential lead generation with every “like” of your Facebook page that spreads your information to your fan’s friend list and a chance for community-building that will keep you top-of-mind between sales.

These are just a few thoughts specific to the Facebook social network platform. But what about Twitter? What about Google+? What about Pinterest? Have you even heard of Pinterest? Are you thinking, There are too many social networks. Where should I spend my time?

Welcome to the speed-of-change problems, my friends. First, you can’t pick. If your buyers love Pinterest and you’re not there, you’re choosing not to set up and answer a hundred phones there. If your buyers are creeping onto Google+, it doesn’t matter that you spent your time setting up a Facebook page. You don’t get to pick the platform. You only get to acknowledge your buyers and prospects where they choose to be and decide whether you can manage up to their expectations.

I’ll give you a personal example. In 2010, I decided to buy a new Chevy Camaro. I went online to see what information existed on local dealership websites. It turned out their sites were terrible. Further, they all wanted me to come in and start a human, face-to-face experience instead of letting me do my work online and saving both of us time.

Because I’m a blogger and that’s often synonymous with “complainer,” I wrote a post titled, “Dear Car Dealerships: Your Websites Suck.” Fourteen minutes after that post was written, it was read on Facebook by one Aaron Manley Smith, proprietor of a virtual car dealership called Motorphilia and someone whom I’d met once at a party. Aaron did some quick looking around and sent me a private message on Facebook that said something to the tune of, “I’ve found the exact car you’re looking for, and if you send me $1,000, I can start the process of buying it for you.”

I did it. I bought a car off the Internet from a guy I didn’t know very well. And it was a great experience. Here’s why: I had done my homework. I knew exactly which car I wanted. Aaron was a professional car buyer, so he knew exactly how to get the car I wanted. He got me the best price without any haggling (none of that “I have to check with my manager” business) because he knew we both knew the value of the car. (In fact, Aaron got me the car for almost $6,000 less than I was willing to pay.)

But none of this would have happened three years ago. Aaron wouldn’t have been listening on Facebook for a post like mine. I wouldn’t have known exactly what car I wanted and what it would cost. I wouldn’t have been ready and willing to make this transaction happen. PayPal might not have seemed a trusted source for sending that initial $1,000.

So realize this: Your customers, right now, are getting faster than you. They are doing a lot of the research without you. They are coming into the buying situation with a lot more knowledge than they had before. And they have more options than ever before. Should this scare you? A little. If your business runs heavily on the deception and hidden-costs models, you’re probably a bit doomed. If you’re happier with a more informed customer, however, you’re about to enter a golden age—if you get faster along with them.

››Mobile Velocity

To stay ahead of the curve, you’ve got to keep up with the technology that people are using to buy your products or services. Tablet computers and smartphones outsold desktop and laptop PCs over the 2011 holiday season. And the first two quarters of growth for these new products in 2012 show there’s nowhere to go but up. But what trends do the devices point toward? And more important, what can you do with this information?

In the home, tablets are being used to find snackable information while people are watching TV. For instance, IMDB (the Internet Movie Database) is a popular tablet application because people will frequently ask, “Who’s that actor, and what was she in before this?”

Tablets are being handed out to sales staff and other light computer users because the majority of their activities involve responding to content: checking email, reviewing a calendar, watching a quick video, answering a quick back-and-forth on a social network.

One of the biggest buying demographics for tablets is people aged 35 to 75, and one reason cited is eyesight. It’s harder to look at a 3-inch smartphone display than a 9-inch tablet display, and thus more and more people are picking up Nooks, Kindles, Playbooks and iPads.

Across the board, website visits are happening more and more frequently from a mobile browser (either tablet or smartphone).

As a small-business owner, there are four things to be learned and adopted:

1. People want information now.

2. People want snack-sized information.

3. People want your site to be mobile-friendly.

4. People want simple interaction instead of longer-form interaction. (It’s harder to type on a tablet or smartphone than a laptop, and if that’s what they’re using, then you have to presume they don’t want to type as much.)

››Getting up to Speed

Business owners of any size and shape have more opportunity than ever before to create advantages in this age of immediacy. Here are some next steps:

Set up a listening station. This can be as simple as putting a bunch of keywords into Google Alerts that would indicate potential buyers. For instance, if you sell pet supplies, you might set up searches on Twitter and Facebook or elsewhere for “new puppy” or something similar. Listening online is the least-used tool that will help you set up the new digital sales channel. Most people are worrying about how they’re going to “speak” into these new places, but listening is the big game.

Create useful and engaging content for those tablets. If people are consuming more bite-sized information than ever before, what are you giving them to snack on? If more people are using YouTube as the No. 2 search engine in the world and if most small-business sales start with searches (over 68 percent of your web traffic starts as a search), can you create brief, useful videos for your audience?

Join the mobile world. Check your company’s website right now on your smartphone. Is it easy to use? Are people guided where you most want them to click? Simplify your site for mobile use. This is an inexpensive (around $500 for a professional’s services in most cases) piece of work that will pay you back fairly quickly, given that most traffic reaching your site is now coming from mobile or tablet browsers (over two-thirds, and you can check your server reports if you don’t believe that number).

Create helpful information in an email format. This is my personal favorite. Try this: Transform your email newsletter into something that’s not very HTML-formatted (meaning fewer graphics and other web elements) and less than 350 words long. Try sticking to one call to action per email, one next step people can take.

To me, the speed of change is something we can’t ignore. Unless you’re seeking to close your business in a few years and not hand it over to another generation, these are the stakes in the current game. This isn’t something to think about over the next few years. This is something to adapt to now and on an ongoing basis. But you don’t have to listen to me. Your bank account knows what I’m talking about. Embrace this, and you’ll see a great next few years for your business. Shun it, and someone will be talking about you nostalgically.

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