There was a time when all commercial activity was centered around the market square of a town or city. If you wanted to buy or sell anything, that’s where you went, even if you had to travel a long distance to get there. It was the place where you met up with your friends and caught up on the latest news and gossip. It’s where you haggled with merchants and gave them a piece of your mind – straight to their faces and in earshot of other customers. If you had something to sell, it’s where you set up your stall so customers could easily find you. It’s where you could network with business partners. And it’s where you kept an eye on your competitors, a few stalls over, to see what they were up to.
Market squares were public spaces. People of all ages and all walks of life could gather, exchange the latest information, enjoy some entertainment, air grievances, form partnerships, and yes, do business. They were social places. As a merchant, you needed to be there and you needed to interact with people in a sociable way. If your presence was off-putting or if you didn’t bother to show up at all, you usually didn’t stay in business for very long.
Market squares still exist, of course – mostly in more traditional parts of the world – and they still serve many of the same functions – on a very local level. In North America, where the car is king, shopping malls have tried to replicate the traditional market square. We might think of them as Market Square 2.0. They certainly provide an agreeable space to linger in when it’s too hot, too cold or too wet outside. But the merchant-consumer dynamic in a mall is clearly different. As a consumer, you’re mostly surrounded by big chain stores, and there’s no direct interaction with the business owner. He or she is sitting in a corporate office somewhere, hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Your only face-to-face contact is with the store employee, who probably doesn’t have the ear of the CEO any more than you do. Compared to the traditional market square, the shopping mall is not very conducive to having a dialogue or building relationships with your customers.
Market Square 3.0
In the age of social media and mobile internet, the merchant-consumer relationship is shifting back to a more traditional dynamic. Let’s call it Market Square 3.0. Now your customers and potential customers are hanging out on social networks like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram and Google+. Not only that: your competitors are there as well – at least the forward-thinking ones, the ones who understand that social media is here to stay and that it’s simply part of the new business reality. It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when the telephone seemed unnecessary at best, suspicious at worst. (Downtown Abbey, anyone?) And many of us still remember the days before email. Yet today, we can’t imagine doing business without a phone number and an email address. They have become basic tools by which we communicate with our customers. The same thing is happening with social media.
Isn’t my website enough?
You might be thinking: “But I already have a website. So what’s the point of being on social media too?” Here’s the point: social media gets you on people’s radar. The internet is a very, very big place. On the World Wide Web, your website is the equivalent of a little shop tucked away on a side-street, far away from the market square. If you’re lucky, you might get some traffic outside your shop, but it won’t necessarily be from people who are looking for you or what you have to offer. Sure, you could just sit back and hope that people will walk by, happen to notice your beautiful shop window, get curious enough to wander in. Meanwhile, though, your competitors have ventured out of their shops and made their way to the market square, where all the action is. They’re now actively engaging with customers, having real one-on-one conversations, and finding out what their target audience’s interests, likes and needs are. They’re offering to solve problems, sharing helpful information, and providing entertainment value whenever possible. They’re demonstrating thought leadership in their field and forging relationships. In other words: they’re being social and – most importantly – building trust. They’re going out of their way to meet customers where they are, and, in good time, leading those customers back to their shops (i.e. their websites) to do some business.
Being social is the new SEO
In the Digital Age, more and more consumers are looking for information online before making a purchasing decision. We’ve all done it: it often starts with a Google search. But the algorithms that Google uses to generate search results have shifted beyond just website content. Increasingly, they’re also taking social media posts into account. This includes blog articles, Google+ posts, tweets, etc. In other words, how active you are on social media directly affects your search-engine ranking. No matter how much Search Engine Optimization (SEO) you’ve built into your website, if you’re not participating in social media as well, you’re at a growing disadvantage. Sure, you can leave it up to your customers to talk about you and just hope for the best. But if you’re not posting your own content too and participating in the conversation, you may be undermining all your other marketing efforts. These days, word-of-mouth travels through social media, and Google is paying attention.
Hold the Muzak!
Right now, a new generation of consumers is growing up: they’ve been exposed to social media from the time they were born. Combine that with our generally shorter attention spans and a need for instant gratification, and a shrinking number of us are willing to dial a 1-800 number only to be put on hold. In the age of mobile devices, we’re spending more time than ever connected to the internet, both for work and as an extension of our personal lives. So it’s no wonder that, increasingly, we’re looking to social media as a source of customer service. As people spend more time on social media, they expect businesses to be there too, and they expect those businesses to respond to feedback, both good and bad. People expect timely responses to any inquiries they might have. Sure, they could just send you an email. But they’re starting to see the advantages that social media provides: more transparency and public accountability. It’s a return to the traditional market-place dynamic: once again, your customers can give you a piece of their mind, straight to your virtual face, in earshot of other customers. You can choose to embrace it and use it to your advantage by showing them that you’re listening and happy to respond. Or you can choose to ignore it, allowing your competitors to jump in and fill the void.
Whether you’re a big, medium or small business, social media is the great equalizer. You have the same opportunity as your competitors to engage with your customers, grow your audience, develop relationships, and build a following of brand loyalists who will happily recommend you to others. All you have to do is set up your virtual market stall and join the conversation.
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