Push or Pull

In discussions of on-line content you may frequently encounter the terms push and pull. These are more than catch-phrases. They reflect two totally different philosophies employed in sharing content with your audience, whether they are reading your posts on-line or employees at a company meeting.

Pushing content has become the traditional method for delivering a company’s message to customers. We tend to call our customers consumers because that’s how companies see their customer’s role in the business cycle; consumers are expected to swallow what’s fed to them, be it products or propaganda. In the words of industry analyst Jerry Michalski, a consumer was no more than “a gullet whose only purpose in life is to gulp products and crap cash.”¹ This business model creates a wall of separation between the business and it’s customers. We are telling them what we think they need to know about us and our product. It’s a one-way form of communication, one that discourages feedback from our customers. When we deny them the opportunity to provide us direct and instantaneous feedback we run the risk that they will find other outlets for their comments like blogs and community forums. These sites are not under our control and correcting misinformation or offering clarification is often impossible, even on those few occasions when we’re  aware that we’re being discussed outside of our own website.

Content that pulls customers in and along, on the other hand, provides a means for them to engage and converse with us. The conversation may not always be pleasant or productive; there are times a dissatisfied customer simply wants to vent and ignores any attempt of ours to become involved in a conversation. But if we’ve pulled them into our venue, our website or blog, we have the means to turn their comments into a conversation with other customers even if the original customer never responds. We can’t always control the conversation but we can always become engaged in it. When we pull our customers into engagements with us, we can be aware of what’s being said about our company and products and respond in a timely manner.

To pull customers we need to provide interesting and informative content and most important, a way for them to post their comments on our company and products. The best option for a company website is to provide for comments right on the site. Deflecting comments to a third-party site or only providing an opportunity for email contact detracts from the immediacy and transparency of our communications. As Doc Searls and David Weinberger remind us in The Cluetrain Manifesto:The Cluetrain Manifesto

The Internet is a place. We buy books and tickets on the Web. Not over, through, or beside it. To call it a “platform” belies its hospitality. What happens on the Net is more than commerce, more than content, more than push and pull and clicks and traffic and e-anything. The Net is a real place where people can go to learn, to talk to each other, and to do business together. It is a bazaar where customers look for wares, vendors spread goods for display, and people gather around topics that interest them. It is a conversation. At last and again.

In this new place, every product you can name, from fashion to office supplies, can be discussed, argued over, researched, and bought as part of a vast conversation among the people interested in it. “I’m in the market for a new computer,” someone says, and she’s off to the Dell site. But she probably won’t buy that cool new laptop right away. She’ll ask around first — on Web pages, on newsgroups, via e-mail: “What do you think? Is this a good one? Has anybody checked it out? What’s the real battery life? How’s their customer support? Recommendations? Horror stories?”

“I’m in the market for a good desk dictionary,” says someone else, and he’s off to Amazon.com where he’ll find a large number of opinions already expressed:

I love the look of this book, and the publisher did a great job; but I made the mistake of buying it without realizing that it was first published over 7 years ago….

I’ve had this book for two days and I keep going back to it. I may not be typical since I collect dictionaries and wanted this when I heard about it last year, but….

Ugh, they don’t have “aegritudo” but they have the “modern” definition of “peruse”….

These conversations are most often about value: the value of products and of the businesses that sell them. Not just prices, but the market currencies of reputation, location, position, and every other quality that is subject to rising or falling opinion.

It’s nothing new, in one sense. The only advertising that was ever truly effective was word of mouth, which is nothing more than conversation. Now word of mouth has gone global. The one-to-many scope that technology brought to mass production and then mass marketing, which producers have enjoyed for two hundred years, is now available to customers. And they’re eager to make up for lost time.

If we do not engage our customers in conversations, if we fail to talk with them, we can be sure they will be talking about us somewhere else.

These days the easiest way to begin a conversation with our customers is to take advantage of the many social netowrking platforms available to everyone on the internet. Create a Facebook account for your company, set up a Twitter account and start a blog. You don’t even have to spend a lot of money buying a domain and setting up a fancy website. Begin with a Blogger account and a Gmail address in your company’s name.

Once you’ve set up a place for the conversation to take place, initiate the dialogue. Start posting and Tweeting. You may not get much feedback at first, but don’t let that dissuade you. Mention your blog and Facebook page in your email signature and on company advertising. Make sure your customers know you are there and willing to respond to their comments and questions. Keep your content up-to-date and informative. Eventually your customers will respond.

When they do, treat them as if they were at the counter or front desk of your place of business. Don’t be dismissive or rude. Don’t treat them any differently than if you were both face-to-face. Use these opportunities to converse, to educate, to correct misconceptions, to build relationships with your customers. If you impress them as an open and honest business person willing to take suggestions and even criticism, it won’t be long before they are recommending you to their family, friends and co-workers. And as every small business owner knows, personal recommendations are the best advertising money cannot buy.

¹ The Cluetrain Manifesto Chapter 4 Copyright © 1999, 2001 Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger. All rights reserved.

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