Reference Point
a newsletter for customer reference professionals
May 2010

How do customers and prospects want to learn about you on the web? We know that even senior decision makers regard the web as their chief source for business information. So how do they want to access information? In particular, how do they want you to make it available to them?

David Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous provides a superb analysis that I highly recommend for those involved in developing content on your firm's social media sites. What is by now obvious is that customers don't  want information presented to them that, in any way, resembles traditional pre-Internet ways of doing so. That is, listed in some sort of hierarchical fashion according to categories that you choose, filtered by experts and organized like the proverbial information "tree" like you'd see in a traditional library.

Based on the way people are accessing information from sites that are emerging as the most successful ones for disseminating it--such as Wikipedia, Amazon.com, Flickr and Goggle of course--here are the emerging rules. These are particularly relevant for customer reference managers, because while the Internet is awash in content, it's starved for good and easily accessible content.

Think: how would the customer shop in our "store"?
Take a look at the way information is organized on your website. Is it like a library, where everything is organized according to author, title, subject? Or perhaps a clothing store that organizes everything according to size, style, article (shoes here, shirts there)? Now think: how would the customer organize this if completely left to her own devices? In the store, she'd come in, rip everything in her size and of any interest to her off the racks and into a big pile (or shopping cart!) so she could go through it in a way that makes organized sense to her. In a library, she'd love to find an attendant to whom she can list her particular preferences: management books by Drucker or Bennis, fiction set in the civil war (and maybe Victorian), gardening books for in city dwellers, and perhaps a children's book that isn't Harry Potter--and have multiple selections brought to her for her review.

She can't do that at Nordstom or the local library. But sites like Amazon and Flickr make it easy for her to do that on their sites. Can she do so on yours?

Filter your knowledge on the way out, not the way in.
The more information you can provide customers, the better. In the physical world, you have constraints on this. But not in the digital. Why not include on your website relevant blogs, articles, video, etc. from any source, if it contains relevant information to your customers. Bring in outside experts to blog or provide commentary, for example.

The digital world also allows you to take advantage of the "long tail"--including content that might be relevant just to a very few people in your customer community (who might include a future buyer)--in ways that you can't in the the physical world of libraries or museums, for example, where space is limited. 

Focus less on classifying, more on tagging.
Don't spend a lot of time or resources trying to anticipate the "best" way to organize your product or solution information for your customers--into categories like industry size, or solution category. That puts you in charge of filtering, and it will invariably be in ways the customer doesn't want.

Weinberger uses the example of a Casio digital camera: tags for that can include camera, pictures, perhaps sale item. But they can also include travel equipment, graduation gifts, new items, sports equipment, etc., etc. Expanding the number of categories--and letting your customers contribute to the process--doesn't make the information messy in the digital world. It expands the possibility customers will find it.

Test: what search terms do buyers use to find solutions like you offer? Do you know what they are? Are they included in your tagging system? How does your site rank on Google search for those terms?

Sites like Flickr and Amazon.com develop robust search capabilities and extensive "tagging" (tags are, in effect, information organizational "categories" supplied by customers or readers that can number in the hundreds for any particular item). Tags  allow them to access the content best tailored to their particular needs. This allows customers to locate your solutions based on searching according to what their problem or issue is, rather than having to stop and figure out which of your categories to look through.

All the best,

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