Baring your corporate soul online

Web presence is taking on a whole new meaning. I’m having more and more conversations with companies that are in the middle of redefining who they are online. In that process, they’re just not sure what they expose and what they keep hidden behind the kimono. Their website started as a marketing channel, but the explosion of potential customer touch points online makes the whole idea of a website seem hopelessly antiquated. Yet, there’s a limit in scope and complexity that makes websites an easily grasped online concept.

Here are some selected snippets from those conversations:

1. “Is blogging really worthwhile? It’s a pretty high investment for the low traffic that blogs get”
2. “Yeah, we don’t really talk about that on our website. Would anyone be interested in that?”
3. We launched our Facebook page and we have 170,000 fans already. Other than a potential audience to advertise too, we’re just not sure what that means”

Here, then, is the business reality that lives on the other side of all these comments:

1. The company in question is literally creating a paradigm shift by introducing new workflow management platforms in a very traditional industry. They succeed by convincing companies that technology can dramatically improve performance and profitability. Yet, despite the urging of their digital marketing department, they’re reluctant to embrace digital content generation channels (such as blogs) to spread this message.

2. This company is a North American toy manufacturer that is evangelical in their mission to empower creative development in children. They employ one of the largest internal design teams in the industry outside of electronic gaming. And, the design team sits directly above the manufacturing floor (they’ve resisted the industry tide to move all their manufacturing offshore by dramatically improving efficiencies through technology) so they can follow their designs from inception right through to realization.

3. A clothing retailer based in Montreal is going head to head with much larger American competitors and stealing significant market share in key entry markets because of the coolness of being “French”. The strength of the Quebecois culture shines through in the retailer’s promotional materials despite the fact that there has been no overt intent on the part of the retailer to capitalize on it.

Three different stories, but they all have one thing in common. As they consider their next steps in creating an online presence, they’ll all drawing closer and closer to the very essence of their companies. In the past decade and a half, we all rushed to create a website because it seemed to be the price of entry to play in the online marketplace. But since then, that online ecosystem has exploded along multiple dimensions. It’s much richer than it used to be.

At one time, a website was the only conceivable way to play, and those websites were all considered sales or marketing channels. But today, our customers expect to engage with us in an authentic and compelling way online. There is a reason why they’re intrigued by our products or services. And often, the answer to why that is can be found in the core of who we are. It lives in our mission, our core values and our people. Yet we almost never expose that online. What makes us different is infused into our corporate culture and may be taken from granted by those of us who live and work on the inside. We never think about exposing that side of us online. Yet it’s exactly those inside stories that set us apart. And yes, people are interested in that stuff. People care about how fanatical Zappos is about customer service. People respond to the obsessive worship of design that typifies Apple. And not all the drinkers of the Google Koolaid live and work within the Google Empire.

A while ago in my company we made a decision. We are a service company – our product is our people. So we pushed them front and centre on our website. We wanted prospects to learn a little bit about the team they’d be working with. Also, within our company, music was a big part of our culture. We had a number of employees who were also musicians. As almost an afterthought, we asked all our employees to submit their Top 10 music list and published it on our site. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve met someone for the first time and they’ve told me that they also love the Eagle’s Hotel California, or that Bohemian Rhapsody still sets their head bobbing a la Wayne’s World. Our top ten lists are consistently one of the most popular sections of our site.

It may not be part of the marketing plan, but don’t be afraid to bare a bit of your soul through online channels. It makes us human, and being human is a great foundation to build a relationship on!

Originally published in Mediapost’s Search Insider December 2, 2010