I’m thinking of a conversation I had over Chinese food with a friend who is the manager of a camera shop in Seattle.
Let’s imagine you ran this shop. Obviously, you’ve experienced a lot of competitive pressure from e-commerce over the last decade. If someone knows they want the latest camera gadget there are all sorts of ways to find the best price online for the identical product. These types of businesses have been dropping like flies for some time now.
Lucky for my friend, they’re considered the leading retailer in town, primarily catering to professionals and enthusiasts who expect a high level of service and expertise. As a result, they’ve withstood the competition better than many because these qualities are hard to replicate online.
Of course, with social media these attributes are becoming easier to replicate. Online retailers can develop one-on-one relationships much better than they could have just a few years ago, and social media is still in it’s embryonic stages. Just wait another decade to see what it’s like.
This presents both threats and opportunities to my friend.
On the one hand, the tools of social media make it easier for online retailers to chip away at his competitive advantage by exposing service and expertise online.
Yet, on the other, the opportunity for him is to extend his reach—his customer base, his audience—beyond his local geographic area.
In my view, this opportunity is easier to achieve for him than the threat is for the other guy. In other words, it will be easier for him to put his expertise online through social media than it will for online retailers to develop the expertise.
To start, his store been in the business for 50 years or more…the competition has a lot of catching up to do. Social media is, at most, five years old. In addition, the same qualities that have made their store successful—knowledge, service and personal relationships–are those needed for successful customer development through social media.
All that being said, let’s forget social media for now and just think about a topic that has been on my mind quite a bit lately: audience. It was the notion of audience that came to mind over Chinese food.
My friend mentioned that he was going to the Consumer Electronice Show in Las Vegas like he does every year. I asked if he was having any sort of event for fans of his shop.
No, he said, and I pressed a bit further: I’m suggesting not a giant party like the big boys do. Just some sort of a meetup or gathering at a bar…something cheap and easy…for the people who are connected to your store to connect with each other and with you in person.
“No, Scott, you don’t get it. We’re the ones who get invited to the parties, we don’t throw them.”
Our conversation moved on, but I couldn’t help thinking: someone else is developing you as their asset because you’re part of their audience. Although, you’re overlooking an opportunity to further develop an audience of your own.
For your customers, especially your online customers, you would be strengthening their membership in your audience. Perhaps unnecessary, but you can always widen the moat around your island.
And for your vendors, the people who would normally be wining-and-dining you? Seems to me that the extent to which you can make that a mutually appreciative relationship…that you make them part of your audience…well, I don’t see how that can’t benefit you in the long run.
Even backing off from CES, what would happen if once a year my friend threw a party for his audience: his customers. Not a “buy stuff party”, but a genuine “thanks for being a friend of the store party”? To me, this seems like a no brainer.
In a world where audience is becoming everything (because so many products and services are becoming commodities) investments that strengthen the personal relationship you have with your customers seem to me like they would have an enormous ROI. It may be hard to measure directly, but to ensure that your customers don’t even think of looking for a camera elsewhere because they have a friend at the local shop seems priceless.
Ultimately, my point is that Internet and all of the changes it has brought is changing the dynamic of who and what is an audience. My view is that, these days, an audience is quite possibly the most valuable asset, and developing an audience is an important investments to make.