And it’s actually something you likely already have.
In fact, you probably even obsess about it every day.
Chances are though that you’re missing out on its true money-making potential because you’re using it in a totally outdated way.
This resource is your customers.
Now, before you roll your eyes and say, “duh Jake, I know I make money by selling stuff to my customers,” let me explain.
Sure, you may have customers – maybe even a lot of them.
But if you are treating them the way most marketers do - as some static audience that you simply channel information out toward – then you are leaving a huge amount of profit potential on the table.
It’s time instead to start treating them like the dynamic community they are.
The Old Way
“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” – John Wanamaker
For most of the past 100 years, marketing has mostly flowed in a single direction. Businesses have loudly flooded the airwaves with broad messages – wielding them as blunt instruments meant to capture as large an audience as possible.
Even as Big Data has given marketers greater powers of segmentation, the information has continued to be primarily directed outward. So called social media has been more often a vehicle for people to emotionally vomit on anyone in their newsfeed than it has been a means for building genuine connections.
The Age of the Customer
“In the future, great product developers, marketers, and sales-people will be judged not by how well they innovate, market, and sell per se, but instead by how successfully they bring customers into these processes in ways that spur robust growth.” – Bill Lee in his book The Hidden Wealth of Customers
But now as we emerge from the Internet’s infancy, there’s a chance for business to become truly social.
For consumers, this means an unprecedented ability to affect how decisions are made.
And for businesses, this new reality means that customers can now be partners in the value creation process, rather than challenges to overcome.
In other words, the future described by Bill Lee is happening right now.
Nobody knows your customers like your customers.
Bringing customers into your research process opens a treasure trove of knowledge about the problems they face, the language they use, and the priorities they hold.
Involving customers in the process also gives them benefits as well.
It allows them to have a say in which problems you take on.
After all, consumers are tired of not having their needs met.
And I don’t blame them.
The old model of marketing often sought to convince them, rather than listen to them – shouting at them to use so and so product to fill some manufactured need.
Even as Big Data has provided more input, companies still often use it only to confirm a bias for the processes existing firms already have in place.
This represents a great opportunity for businesses like yours to be refreshingly different.
To give your customers a real say.
To do so, it’s sometimes helpful to start off with a broad look.
Make sure you are reading blogs about the industry you work in. If you aren’t sure where to find them, go to Alltop.com. It’s a fantastic (and free) directory of blogs that even allows you to create custom feeds for the ones you like most.
Immerse yourself in the world of your customers.
Next, make sure you spend time talking to customers one-on-one, preferably in person. This often provides insight into emotional factors that you can’t get from online communications.
Attend conferences, meetups, or other such events.
If you can’t find one in your area, put together your own!
Just make sure that the focus at such an event is mapping and solving your customers’ problems.
Many customers have spent years coming up with crafty solutions for problems, mostly because there was no one out there doing it for them.
Smart companies like Google – who have empowered developers around the globe to create apps on their open source Android operating system – are reaping huge rewards by tapping into the collective knowledge of their customer community.
But no matter the sector or the size of the company, inviting customers into the innovation process can be lucrative for both business and consumer.
Because, at the end of the day, your customers don’t want to be sitting around plugging holes in your product or service. Anything they can do to help you make what you do better means more time to focus on their own customers or projects.
And like most humans, customers love to show you how smart they are.
So invite them into the process.
Hold special events where you present problems you’re working on.
Ask for their input.
Then shut up and listen.
Do it on a regular basis too. Make it so you can’t go through the problem solving phase of a project without getting deep meaningful feedback from the people your work affects the most.
The sales process nowadays is strongly determined by social influences.
Most people vet products through their social network before they even give your business’ traditional marketing a chance.
This is especially true for services.
That’s why one of the best things you can do for your business is to empower a group of evangelist customers to go out and tell the world about how great you are.
On the business side of a customer community, this is the ultimate goal.
But I can’t stress enough that engaging these evangelist will not come by treating them as a means to an end.
It will only come when you sincerely focus on bringing your customers into the process.
In my free 24 page guide 5 Simple Steps to Build a Customer Community, I lay out a process for building a customer community.
These five steps are:
I won’t go into detail on each step in this post since you can download the whole guide for free by scrolling back up to the top of the page and filling out the form on the right sidebar.
Instead, I’d like to highlight the three key principles that make it work.
1) Make it About the Customer
One of the best ways to keep your business centered on the customer is to focus in on a specific customer problem.
Make solving that problem the focus of your business. Doing so will provide you (and everyone else involved in your business success – including customers) with a compass to guide decision making.
When a customer sees you have their interests sincerely in mind, they will be more than willing to be a part of what you are doing.
2) Be Useful
There’s no better way to build influence and authority in a community than to solve problems for people.
So many smart business people out there have a tendency to talk at people, showering them with unsolicited advice and backhanded attempts to show how smart they are.
People see through this.
What customers really want is a business that gives them something useful and doesn’t try to rip them in the process.
Ultimately, providing useful help – whether it’s in a complicated product or a simple Tweet – goes a long way in building trust, which is the key foundation in any successful relationship.
3) Empower Others
Somehow over the years a lot of business people have come to believe that the success of others hurts their own.
This zero-sum world view doesn’t work in today’s radically connected world.
In fact, helping others succeed is critical to success.
When a business not only solves problems for its customers, but can also increase the social standing, prestige, or wealth of those customers as well, that business becomes a critical part of the customer’s identity.
This is what Nilofer Merchant and others refer to as mutual value creation, and it’s the ultimate goal of a customer community.
You should seek to create value for your customer outside of a single purchasing transaction.
Use your marketing as a way of telling the story of how other people succeeded using your methods. And do it in a way that focuses on the person you are telling the story about, instead of yourself.
It will provide legitimacy for both parties.
For you it shows how someone used your product or service to success, and the person being highlighted looks great when someone as smart as yourself says they are important.
This is something that’s nearly impossible to recreate with traditional advertising.
Of course, not everyone will be willing to shout your praises from the rooftops.
But if your business is focused on involving customer and on solving the problems that matter, there will always be folks that are crazy about everything you do.
So take advantage of them by rethinking the relationship you have with your customers.
For the modern business, there’s no better way to make money than by tapping into the immense resources available through building a customer community.
Question for discussion: What are some of the best ways you’ve found for engaging and motivating customers to become a part of your business’ success? (Leave your answer in the comments below!)