The member directory of America Online serves several functions. As on CompuServe and Prodigy, people can find your online identification name or number by your name, city and state. If you go to the trouble of filling out a "member profile," anyone who runs across you online can press a button or two and read what you've chosen to say about yourself. You'll also turn up when clients and peers hunt for members by subject words. For example, typing in "consult*" yielded 250 members, most of whom, I had to conclude, must belong to the service for fun. Almost none of these consultants appeared to have thought of using the profile as an online marketing tool. Although everyone had plenty of space available, most described their specialty with a generic phrase and no elaboration, like "computer consultant." Several listed no personal name, only their so-called "screen name," and only one or two included a full business address or phone number. In numerous cases, the business information presented was overpowered by the personal data, like marital status, birthdate, favorite quotes and hobbies. One man went so far as to list his height, weight, chest and waist measurements and hair color! A born-yesterday woman listed her birthdate as "8/26/94" and a poor speller called himself a "Personnell/Marketing Consultant." Most astonishing to me were the cynical quotes chosen. Try to imagine any of these impressing a potential client:
"A consultant is someone who eats your lunch to tell you if you were hungry."
"Those of you who think that you know everything are annoying to those of us who do."
"Ask a consultant what time it is -- he'll charge you a large fee, borrow your watch and ask you what time you'd like it to be."
"There are more horses' asses than horses."
"The difference between consultants and prostitutes is: There are some things a prostitute won't do for money."
"If it ain't broke, don't call me."
Such confidence-killing slogans don't belong anywhere near your business identity -- even if you do belong to a service for fun. If you wouldn't include something in your professional Yellow Pages ad, don't put it in your member profile!
If you think of this tool as a cross between a business card and a mini-brochure, as providing a link between people learning about your services and taking the step of contacting you, you'll be on the right track. For instance, here's the sort of profile you might put together if you were a literary agent:
Screen Name: Yrlitagent Member Name: Jennifer Jenns Location: 555 East West Street, Suite 1101, Gotham, NY 11099 Occupation: Literary agent, 35 clients, 8 years experience, 100+ sales Hobbies: Trying to find the next John Grisham or Sue Grafton Quote: Especially interested in mysteries, thrillers and romantic suspense. Query first by mail with a synopsis, bio, market analysis and comparison of your work with the competition.An equivalent to such a profile exists on the Internet. Someone who gets intrigued by a comment you made in a newsgroup can "finger" your I.D. and discover your real name, when you last logged in to the system and any other information you chose to put on file. Since no one sees this file unless they look for it, it can safely be as promotional as you like. Ask your service provider how to upload your ".plan" file for such access.
Of course, you also make yourself accessible online to the extent that you publicize your E-mail address offline. I hear from readers of my books who spot my E-mail address somewhere who probably wouldn't trouble to write a formal fan letter. Remember that e-mail feels easier than a letter or phone call to many online regulars. Include your electronic address wherever you'd give out your phone number or postal address: on your letterhead, your business card, bio notes for your books and articles, magazine ads, press releases... Then send copies to your online service. GEnie gives you a usage credit for spreading your E-mail address around publicly.
And don't overlook the cachet of the ultimate guessable Internet address: your own domain name. That is, if you're "PKI Associates," Internauts might try you first at "pki.com" instead of looking you up. That's also infinitely easier to remember than "pki2578.com." If you suspect you might ever wish to use a certain domain name, register it now. Names are going fast, and like 800-numbers, each can only be assigned once. If you were "PKI Training Tools" and "PKI Associates" had already registered themselves as "pki.com," you'd be plain out of luck. Direct marketer Sheila Danzig of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, hurried to register "danzig.com" when she learned that 5,000 applications were backlogged at InterNIC, the Internet registration agency, and that one could reserve a name and use it with any Internet provider, anywhere. Why did she choose "danzig.com" and not her company acronym, "nsmi.com"? "'Danzig.com' makes our company look bigger and more prestigious," she said, "and this way the name is reserved for my children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, forever. Each of us can be 'email@example.com.'"
You don't have to be an author to try this, of course, just have solid, authoritative experience ready to dispense through your fingertips. And if you offer to answer questions on an ongoing basis rather than for a limited time, you have the opportunity to watch an amazing dynamic take shape. Assuming you're at least moderately personable, patient and credible, other fish in your pond begin to refer questions and point customers toward you along with priceless word-of-mouth praise. If you stick around and treat members of your "fan club" well, they will continue to do valuable marketing for you. Tarry Shebesta, president of Automobile Consumer Services, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio, a nationwide new vehicle buying service, joined CompuServe's Cars forum in 1992 and began answering questions from people looking for specific cars. He always made sure to offer facts about cars and car buying as well as, where appropriate, information about his company's quote sheets for bargaining and its full buying service. After six or seven months, he says, he no longer had to say anything about his company besides sign his posts, "Tarry Shebesta/ACS." "Someone would show up looking for a car, and a half dozen people would say, 'Call Tarry at ACS.' Just in the CompuServe Cars forum, there are now 50 to 100 people who have directly done business with us. The rapport we've built -- you can't buy it," Shebesta says. "Besides, it feels good to be helping people."
To build and sustain a loyal following, advises Shebesta, consistency and dependability count, not only in the online information you give out but also in the way you treat customers when they contact you to do business. "Your customer service has to be topnotch. We're honest and we do what we say we do." Every morning and evening Shebesta looks through the messages on the Cars forum and answers those for him or on automotive issues he knows a lot about, unless the tone of discussion seems too argumentative. "When someone shows up and attacks buying services in general I don't get involved. Others do it."
Jan Melnik's fan club on America Online took only one month to emerge. "I was the only highly experienced secretarial services business owner around who was also an author," she explains. Orders for her books on running a secretarial or resume business, or for her newsletter arrive every day not only from American Online members but from non-members who heard about her from her fans. "People are so hungry for information that this is less than soft-sell -- it's no-sell," she says. "And I imagine it would happen for anyone who has professional advice to offer that's not readily available elsewhere." With a typing speed of 130 words a minute, Melnik finds it a cinch to blast off lengthy replies to public questions. The E-mail poses a bit of a burden, though, with people sending two-to-three-page letters "pouring out their background. I answer every one and try to keep it personal, but I don't have time to write more than a paragraph or two back to them."
Like Melnik, Bob Coleman, who for a time wrote an official "Great American Ideas" column for Prodigy, tried to reply courteously and briefly to the average of six E-mails a day he received from fans seeking advice. Although it might have saved him time with certain questions that he got again and again, he avoided pre-packaged responses both privately and publicly on the Business Board because "when I first trolled around the service, the canned responses really stuck out." Coleman laughs that the two most common notes he got were variations on either "Dear Bob, No lawyer is going to sucker me into paying for him to draw up a contract" or "Dear Bob, I didn't use a contract and someone shafted me." He says it takes good interpersonal skills and flexibility to deal with questioners at all levels of sophistication, courtesy, self-discipline and initiative. For him the payback included a unique kind of market research -- "not structured or analytical, so that you get a good sense of what people really want to know." The second edition of Coleman's The Great American Idea Book included a new section on financing ideas because that proved one of the top three concerns of his online questioners.
Besides cultivating fans, who tend to be less experienced than you in your field, you can nourish relationships with peers online. Because I appreciate it so much when others do this for me, I make a point of putting in a good word where appropriate for other experts whom I feel I can vouch for. I can't prove this, but I'd guess that an aura of thoughtfulness associated with your name would help encourage valuable peer-to-peer referrals.
Another way to tone down the "salesiness" of an announcement is to preface it with "People have been asking me..." -- as in "People have been asking me when my PR seminar would be available on audiotape..." Naturally this helps only if you've already been hanging around that area and the regulars would believe that you have been asked! If you're loath to appear even that self-promotional, you can ask one of your online pals to send you public congratulations. Self-deprecatory or tentative preambles like, "I hope I'm not out of line to..." and "Is this the proper place to --?" also take the edge off your announcements.
Paradoxically, you come off as less offensively aggressive when you present something new of yours with an outright brag. In this quintessentially personal medium, it must be a distinctly human brag, though, not a hyped one. You want to come across as charming, disarming or merely understandably excited about something wonderful that has happened. If many people know you, for example, you could post:
Guess what, friends, we're spreading! Accountability, Inc. just opened our third branch office, in Colorado Springs, in addition to our Denver and Santa Fe offices. As many of you know, our niche is small businesses needing tax return preparation, financial planning and bookkeeping. We're thinking of starting to sell franchises next year. Watch out, H & R Block!
Or try a more modest brag:
A friend suggested the other day I tend to hide my light under a bushel. "When you achieve something wonderful you've got to tell people," he said. OK -- gulp -- I want to tell you guys that the 1.2 release of my human resources management software program, Workworks, is selling unbelievably. We've made sales to 240 of the Fortune 500 already, with more getting checked off our wall chart every day. We're having a one-year celebration tomorrow.
Instead of waiting till you have an actual achievement to brag about, you can also attract customers by floating an idea. This worked for me unintentionally when I said I was thinking of putting together a flat-fee package of services and wondered how that approach had worked for others. Questions prompted me to explain what was different about my idea, and I picked up a customer for a $395 consulting package that was still in the testing phase. Don't forget, though, that if you reveal a hot idea publicly you're revealing it to competitors who could snatch it right off their computer screen.
A variation of the float involves asking people for feedback, not on a business concept itself, but something related to it. For example, when you post a draft of a press release and invite helpful comments, people get exposed to what's new and newsworthy about your business. Once a guy working on the final edit of a video asked publicly for advice on whether or not it should be indexed on screen and for help on whether he had left anything crucial out. "I'm not trying to sell you anything," he emphasized, and I agreed to offer my two cents on his outline. I was slightly annoyed to receive a gargantuan sales letter from him two or three months later, when the editing was finished and he was definitely looking for buyers. Be true to your word if you want to keep the good will of those you schmooze with.
Cumulatively my efforts helped remind faculty of one of the more subtle ways in which women students were experiencing a hostile learning environment. My guerrilla communication tactic has an analogy for electronic bulletin boards and newsgroups where you're hoping to convert regular readers into customers. Issue periodic communiques that challenge or inform group members, and you'll solidify a corresponding reputation.
I call this tactic running a column, because as with pieces appearing regularly under a byline in a newspaper or magazine, you build an audience by expressing a consistent point of view in a specific topic area. Columns should be short to very short, be spaced in predictable intervals and include material you don't need to burden with a copyright notice. Compared with self-sufficient postings designed for permanent availability (see Chapter 9), columns are more ephemeral and provocative. If they generate dialogue and mostly positive discussion, over time they will probably generate business for you too. Just make sure they're not blatantly self-serving or explicitly promotional.
A CompuServe member from England who wished to remain nameless called his series of conversation starters in the "International Business" section of the Working from Home forum the "International Business Quiz." Under the heading of "Int Biz Quiz ? #111," for example, was this:
111 In a program I saw, John Naisbitt (the Megatrend guy) lives up in some place in the mountains in a 1300-soul town. Nice, expensive houses. Everyone is on an InfoZone network. The British TV commentator seemed worried about this view of paradise. Seeing it as a form of escapism. In fact the whole program was expressing concern at the American approach to teleworking and the destruction of former societal structures. Naisbitt described himself as a "globalist"; some might see him as a little-towner. Your opinion please?
On Prodigy, a video producer launched a series with a note on how to produce low-budget infomercials -- but then didn't keep it up. Perhaps he concluded that a lack of immediate response meant no one was reading and paying attention, which wasn't so.
Mike Holman of Queens, New York, sees his column, called "Info Highway Lessons" as more of an educational service than a provocation. A banker by day, Holman is working toward venturing out on his own by posting his weekly column on Prodigy's Black Experience Bulletin Board (under "Black Enterprise"), on CompuServe's Afro forum, on his own BBS and in the Usenet group "soc.culture.african.american." "I'd had to learn on my own," he says, "with a high frustration level, and this is my way to give back to the online community. Some people feel that they can't obtain technological skills, and this helps make technology accessible to them. But I also believe it will benefit my business. Your business progresses when people know what you're contributing."
Whether you assume the role of educator or provocateur, an online column offers a continuing opportunity to win name recognition and respect among prospects. Suppose, for example, you're a commercial real estate broker. Once you find a group that contains a lot of prospects for your services, you could provide a paragraph or two or commentary on how the week's economic news might affect the buying, selling and leasing of real estate. Or you could highlight a sale of the week (not necessarily yours) and what it shows about trends in the market. Or set up a series of myths about real estate to expose one by one.
Let's say, on the other hand, that you're an editor who helps small business owners improve their sales letters, brochures and ads. Once a week you could analyze (disguised, perhaps) a specimen that landed on your desk that badly needs your tinkering and polishing. You could reprint, as The New Yorker has for years, bloopers in newspapers or press releases. You could offer an educational series on punctuation -- one week a light disquisition on the semicolon, another week do's and dont's for hyphens. Short and informal notes win the day here.
You generally won't need anyone's permission to run the kind of column I'm talking about. Make it seem casual but consistent, and respond promptly to any objections, praise and inquiries sparked by your messages. Like Miss Manners or Dear Abby, use the same header every time, and then below the heading, write, "Second (or twelfth) in a series." You'll know you've piqued the right kind of interest when people ask you how they can get a hold of previous installments, or the whole series. If there's constant turnover in the group, you could even rerun the series after you run out of ideas, explaining in the first message of the reprise that you'd been asked to do so. For example, novelist Harry Arnston posts his 53-part "Novels 101" lessons all at once on Prodigy's Books & Writing Bulletin Board several times per year.
In most active groups, you'll get maximum effect if you space the installments at intervals of a week. You could run a column at your World Wide Web site (see Chapter 13) as well. There it offers a powerful answer to the question, "How do I get all those sightseers to come back?" If you resist the urge to make all of your past sallies accessible right there, those you hook won't have any other way to keep up besides adding you to their regular Net-surfing route.
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