I own a small web design and e-commerce development company and I am reading your Growing Your Business With Google book and I am completely convinced that for our business to prosper all of our employees have to become better experts of the type of information you discuss in your book. The only issue, as you have stated in your book, this business is always changing.
My question is what can myself and my staff do to ensure we are constantly aware of changes in the marketplace and always on top of this ever changing industry? What I am looking for is sites that we could review on a monthly basis, groups that we could join, industry magazines we should subscribe to etc etc. Give me as much information as you can as I know this is the key to our business and I want to ensure we are doing everything we can to increase our knowledge and advise our customers how they can increase their findability and increase their sales from their website.
This is a great question because you’re demonstrating the key characteristic of a successful businessperson: the thirst for knowledge about your industry. Too many companies become complacent once they start to see some sort of success and then stop paying attention to members of their market segment and trends in their industry.
Think of the American car manufacturers, for example. For decades they’ve been “surprised” by trends in the industry and while companies such as Toyota are very precisely focused on market needs, the American firms have been typified by arrogantly assuming that they know the needs and desires of buyers better than the buyers do themselves. A look at the trends in car sales by manufacturer will clearly indicate which strategy is more effective…
I believe that there are four main areas where you can learn what’s going on in your industry: customers, news wire services, weblogs and traditional channels.
There are various sources for each type of information, but I have to say that I’m a big, big fan of companies that simply ask their customers for reaction to their latest products and services, for example. A printed 4-5 question survey with some sort of chance to win a prize is an easy way to incent those customers to spend some of their valuable time.
(A lot of restaurants do half of this, adding one-page surveys in with the bill, but they don’t have any incentive for customers to fill it out, so I’m sure their results are dramatically skewed to represent the least satisfied and most satisfied, with the bulk of customers in the middle remaining a mystery)
2. News Wire Services
When I had my first startup a decade ago, we paid a clipping service to pay attention to mentions of us in the media. For $1000/month, they’d send us physical clippings from news articles found in the top 25 newspapers. Expensive and highly inefficient.
Today we have many great alternatives, but my favorite is unquestionably Google News, which lets you easily set up as many news alerts as you’d like. What I do instead, however, is set up a customized news page that contains fairly complex search patterns. When I was working with Vbuzzer, a VOIP company, for example, I had a section on my news page with the search pattern "(VOIP|internet telephony|vonage|skype|vbuzzer)" and was able to stay right on top of the stories and developments in that market place.
Did I mention it’s free?
3. The Blogosphere
I’m probably a bit biased on this one, but for better or worse, many of the most important thought and opinion leaders in any given marketplace are now finding that they can have a voice and sway opinion more by using weblogs as a communication tool. Whether it’s the highly visible sites like TechCrunch or small offbeat sites like the Fresh Books Blog, blogs are a new and valuable information source.
To find useful and relevant blogs there are two effective strategies: first, use Technorati blog search, which can help you find blogs on a given subject (try lots of synonyms when you’re searching) and then pay attention to who those blogs link to with frequency. If you see another weblog that constantly receives links, you should consider reading that too, since those links are a clear indicator of the influence that blogger has in the community, whether or not you agree with what they say.
Once you have found a set of blogs, you really need to use some sort of RSS reader or aggregator to keep track of what’s going on. Having a series of sites bookmarked is a guarantee that you’ll eventually bail, but if you can have it all neatly organized in one place, well, now you’re talking! In the world of RSS readers there are many, many options, ranging from old-school personalized home pages like My Yahoo and custom toolbars to programs you download, extensions that enhance your email program or, my personal favorite, Web-based newsreaders. All of them basically function as if you’re a newspaper editor and are tapping into various news and information sources to compose your own custom newspaper.
4. Traditional Channels
In addition to the above sources of information which should keep you abreast of what’s happening in your industry, I also believe you should be subscribing to the most popular newspapers, magazines and newsletters in your space. You know what I’m talking about: they’re the publications “of record”, the publications that your PR firm considers a big win if they can get your name into them.
Dull “twentieth century” or not, lots of your customers read these information sources and you should too. I know that I read about twenty different print publications in both the business and technology space in addition to all the online sources I track.
I’m also a big fan of trade shows, particularly those with large exhibit areas. Not because I’m interested in spreading the word about my company necessarily, but because they’re an easy place to find hundreds or thousands of my customers in one place. Throw an annual “customer appreciation cocktail party”, let your customers know about it, and you can gain lots of great insight into your market and customer reaction to your products and services by just milling about and chatting.
I hope that helps you get going with your information mining. There’s a lot of data out there, but remember, you still need to have a clear strategic vision of what your company is about and where it’s going so you can stay on track as you’re buffeted by what will undoubtedly be inconsistent and oft-conflicting opinions, reactions and ideas.