Soon, a video of Scott Jordan will pop up to greet every visitor to the website for SCOTTEVEST, his Ketchum, Idaho, maker of clothes for fans of digital gadgets. Visitors will be directed to Jordan's blog and his MySpace page. They'll have access to a forum where SCOTTEVEST users discuss issues such as sizing. "If you go to customer service and ask how to return something, I'll come up in a video and look you in the eye and tell you about our unconditional guarantee," says Jordan.
Jordan hopes his three-person company's website will be a showcase for dovetailing small business strategy with cutting-edge Web 2.0 technologies. It won't be alone, however. Social networking, rich media, user communities and the other elements of Web 2.0 fit many small firms' business models, says Sean Stefan of small business consulting firm LRS Consulting in Regina, Saskatchewan. "Web 2.0 is just some more contemporary methods of communicating with customers," Stefan says. "And it's more to the advantage of small businesses than for larger companies."
If you're interested in blogging, using video or social networking, think first about your customers, Stefan says. Obviously, only online customers can be affected by online communications. Companies whose customers buy from them only once or infrequently are less likely candidates than those with lots of repeat buyers. And companies whose products or services are unique or different fare better than those selling commodities largely differentiated by price.
Once you know your customers are likely to be listening, think about where they are. Rather than plopping your company page on MySpace just because it's the biggest, Stefan advises finding niches where your customers cluster. "For instance, in the restaurant industry there's a social networking site called Fohboh.com," he says. "It stands for front-of-the-house, back-of-the-house and it's a social networking site for restaurant owners, people who work in restaurants and people who serve them." Many similar specialty sites exist where you can find concentration of specific customers, he says.
Now it's time to pick a technology from the Web 2.0 grab bag. Stefan recommends doing just that: Picking a single tool to try first. "There's so much stuff out there that you can get caught in a trap doing a whole lot of stuff and not doing anything well," he says. "So start with one and do it well."
For your first choice, he recommends adding videos to your website. Any message from product demonstrations to personal tales of the owner's vacation carries more impact in video, he says. Inexpensive camcorders and free public domain video editing software create adequate videos, and you can post them on YouTube or other video hosting sites for free, then link to them from your website.
Whatever medium or message you choose for your initial Web 2.0 venture, try to figure out a way to get customers to subscribe to the content, Stefan advises. Opt-in syndication feeds such as RSS provide businesses a way to push blog posts onto the screens of customers rather than waiting for them to land on the page and visit the blog. "The bottom line is, if you're creating content, you want people to be able to see that content," Stefan says.
While monetary costs are low, the time commitment for regular and sustained interaction with customers can be significant. Stefan says you shouldn't start a blog, for instance, until you can firmly commit to posting daily or so.
And Web 2.0 can be a minefield if you tread unwarily. Any blog post becomes, in essence, public to the whole Internet forever. And while it's a good idea to solicit input from readers of blogs and forums, those replies are hard to control. Customers pick up on it when companies routinely edit out critical remarks, Stefan warns, and it can backfire.
Web 2.0 is a fluid, evolving entity rather than a static collection of technologies. Today's darling is tomorrow's dog, and the jury is still out on what will be the most lasting contributions of social networking, blogging and the rest to business success. But for progressive small business owners whose products and customers fit the Web 2.0 tools, they are rapidly becoming essential strategic considerations. "If you ignore them," says Jordan, "you're doing yourself a disservice."