I believe it was Seth Godin who, a few years ago, coined the term “connection economy.” The idea is that value is generated by making connections, rather than pumping widgets out of the tail end of an assembly line.
I might put a little sharper focus on this and say that for almost every small-business owner, the potential for value is created by making or strengthening connections. Mammoth social media platforms like Facebook do, in fact, derive much their value by the sheer number of creations they create. I’ll point out that these enterprises achieve billion dollar valuations before they do anything with their connections to actually make money.
But, in any case, the value of connections in this connection economy is indisputable. The question, then, is whether or not you are participating in and benefiting from the connection economy. Let’s look at tangible ways you can take advantage of the connection economy today.
1. Social media.
For many -- if not all -- small businesses, connecting with customers, prospects, suppliers, and others via social media can deliver tremendous value. Note that even via this short list of connections, I’m suggesting how you can “segment” your social media contacts.
To use social media in the connection economy, you need to understand who you are trying to reach and what your goal is when you reach them. In other words, it wouldn’t make any sense to consider established customers and brand new prospects in the same way. Further, you might establish social media relationships with suppliers as a way to improve your competiveness; suppliers may, for example, use their social media channels as pipelines for insider tips and other useful industry information.
Taking this a bit further, Alignable is one social media platform whose purpose it is to create and enhance relationships between businesses. Connecting with similar small businesses can be extremely helpful, for example, when you’re trying to determine which cloud services would best suit your business.
2. Review sites.
When you’re using your social media accounts, you’re broadcasting information about your small business and trying to spur people’s interest. When customers say something about you on a review site -- or their own social media accounts -- they are taking over the microphone. You need to recognize these instances as opportunities to create connections.
I often scan the hotel reviews on the travel sites. I always notice the hotel owners who respond to criticism and those who ignore it. These kinds of sites are a major component in the connection economy -- don’t let the connection “drop.”
An important attribute of the connection economy is to recognize that it’s not just about your direct connections, it’s also about the onlookers and others who will hear things via word of mouth. Take advantage of the review sites and even create strategies that will tend to point your customers toward posting reviews.
Forums are probably the most overlooked avenue for engaging prospects in the connection economy. Some successful small businesses have started because their owners first established themselves as experts on the forums. However, the point I want to stress here is that you should engage on as many good forums as there are that relate to your business, and your posts should be very helpful and knowledgeable.
Carve out a little time each week to browse relevant forums and look for posts that pose questions or discuss problems. The connections you make can be very valuable in the long run.
4. Local community.
Old-fashioned local networking should not be overlooked in this age of high-tech, web-based connections. For many small business owners, their local connections are by far their most important.
Have you noticed that all the highly successful local business leaders are heavily involved in community business groups along with other local events and organizations? Do you think this is merely coincidence? Do you think they had achieved their level of success before they got involved with the community?
I don’t think so. Many newcomers start out as unknowns, but by working with community groups they make names for themselves as both knowledgeable and trustworthy. Establishing yourself in your local community will pay big dividends over the years. These are investments you’ll make more with your time than with your money.
5. Employees, family and friends.
Connecting with all the individuals in your business and personal lives is extremely important. First of all, your family and close friends should be among the biggest boosters for your small business. This means that you should be certain they understand what you do and have even experienced it themselves.
They should be shopping at your store or using the service you provide whenever possible. Then, when they know people who need what you provide, you’ll get a recommendation.
This is extremely important with your employees. You need to develop these connections so well that they go beyond mere employees and become brand advocates who are ready to put in a good word for your small business even when they’re “off the clock.” This means you must treat your employees well, give them opportunities to advacnce and have input regarding the direction of your business: If you don’t listen to your employees, you can’t expect them to speak up for you.
I’ve touched on several dimensions of the connection economy. Please note that how you handle each of these can have either a positive or negative impact (increase or decrease value) on your small business. For example, ignoring bad reviews or posting “salesy” comments on forums can drive customers away from your business. Your job is to engage in all of these places and use all of these strategies in positive ways that add to your stature and the amount of business you generate.