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Your Business in a Semantic Search World

I hope you can see how important relationships with its customer base have become to a business. It is not wrong to think that the traditional buying of a product has now been replaced with an unwritten contract of shared values between a business and its customers. The relational exchange that takes place the moment money is exchanged for goods or services also involves an understanding that the business and its customers both stand for something more, something unique, something special even, and it is that that makes the entire relationship work for both.

To stick with the bakery of my example, here’s how your successful baked bread business would look in a semantic world: On your fast-loading, mobile-device friendly website you would have fresh, daily content that would keep me coming back to learn about what’s new in the baked bread world. There would be baked bread industry news and a blog where your passion for your business would be palpable. There might be special recipes for making my own bread whenever I want to, and there might even be speciality breads that I specifically have to remember to come in for.

On YouTube there would be videos telling me just how your bread is made from flour that’s imported from a particular region of France, famous for its waters that help feed some of the ripest wheat on the planet. There would be a video of you getting up at 4:00 a.m. to make it to your bakery in time to put the first batch of bread in the oven. I would see you get that bread out of the oven and test it for perfection. All of this would add to the value of your work in my mind. I would not be buying just a loaf of bread from you. I would be buying a work of art. And because of that I would be willing to share that video and even your website content with my online circle of friends with whom I share my passions, including my love for baked bread.

On Facebook I would come across one of my Facebook friends talking about your baked bread because you recently ran a promotion there, and I would chime in, explaining that I am a big fan and have never considered going back to buying sliced bread since I switched to your product. Someone would tweet that on Twitter, and I would then re-tweet it because you have managed to make me an evangelist of your product through the passion and effort you put into baked bread.

On Google+ I would see a discussion going on that you started about the ethical sourcing of grain and the paying of a fair price to farmers. I would not join in, because it’s out of my expertise, but I would feel proud to actually help create a fairer world with my money, and I would share your post with my friends explaining that we need more businesses like yours.

It’s possible that all this attention would also get you some coverage from bloggers who cover the baked bread industry, and they would mention your business in their articles, perhaps even link to your website. Fairer pricing and the value we place on the creation of goods is a hot topic, and the blogosphere is always actively looking for “heroes.”

Meanwhile all this activity is noticed by Google’s semantic search bot. It sees that when it comes to baked bread you pump out more content than anybody else, and it is original. What’s more it is reshared and commented on by many of those who come across it. Your content is associated with a fair price for wheat farmers and even the notion of a fairer world. Your website comes up in connection with both topics in mentions and online discussions. It also appears on Google search whenever equitable farming practices are mentioned. Both these subjects are now associated in Google’s serendipitous information retrieval with your website so that whenever someone looks for baked bread and your company name they also find the gem that is fair sourcing of grain. Their world expands; they become better informed. They realize that the money they spend as consumers buying a daily necessity has a far greater impact than just paying a good price. Some of them will share this with their friends, expanding your reach and fame.

One or two of those who come across articles about you happen to be in the media. They remember where they saw fair pricing for grain and which bakery was associated with it. You may get a call or two from a local TV station; a staff reporter may want to interview you for a short newspaper piece.

Google sees that your company name is consistently associated with the notion “change the world for the better.” It begins to serve your website to those who are researching the subject looking to find out more, some of whom are intrigued. They talk online extensively about how a small bakery has become a symbol for changing the world for the better. Some become your customers; others not local to you extol your product to those who are to become your customers. You begin to get offers for partnerships, and an entrepreneur or two approach you with the idea of a franchise run under the same principles as your local business.

In the meantime traffic on your website goes through the roof. You begin to experiment with selling bread online with orders placed days in advance and bread delivered locally within a certain, same-day radius. You launch an Android app to keep those on the move satisfied with content about bread and a fairer world. It is successful. You follow it up with an iPad app, and the Apple bloggers pick up the notion that “baked bread has come to the iPad” and write about it. After the first three months you extend the functionality of your app to include special offers, and, as a trial, you launch the ability to send someone a fresh loaf of bread anywhere in the United States. You cut a deal with a number of independent bakeries to fulfil orders where you can’t, and you reciprocate.

You have to think about hiring more staff and extending your baking hours. You may well need bigger premises and more outlets. Your baked bread business has successfully leveraged the relationship economy through the connectivity of semantic search to

  • Find new customers.
  • Increase its reach.
  • Grow its impact.
  • Grow its market.
  • Increase its visibility.
  • Change the perception of the value of its product.
  • Evolve the scope of its business relationship.

In the meantime your competitor, a more traditional baked bread business situated in the next neighborhood, is complaining. Business is slow. With so many choices in sliced supermarket bread no one wants to fork over money in these tough times to buy freshly baked bread. He is thinking of selling and closing down.

Sound far-fetched? Zappos shoes started out selling shoes online, a task many considered impossible. The dollarshaveclub became a constant on search for terms such as “razor blades online” and “razor blades via mail,” and its YouTube video was watched millions of times. Both of these disrupted their industry, doing what was thought to be impossible because they approached the Web with what I call true semantic search values in mind.

To win in a semantic search world you need more people than you have on your payroll. You need your customers. You need fans. You need evangelists. A marketing plan and a budget, the staples of twentieth century promotion, no longer cut it. A top-down, controlled advertising approach won’t work either; you will not get the online interaction you need to amplify your presence.

Kevin Kelly, founder and former editor of Wired, made waves around the Web when in 2008 he wrote a blog post called “1,000 True Fans.” The proposition of it was that success on the Web does not necessarily entail having the “whole of America” following your efforts as long as you have 1,000 true fans.

Kelly’s definition of a “true fan” is one who is passionate about what you do and is willing to give you the worth of a day’s work (i.e., $100) in the year. Kelly was talking about the eCommerce side of things, which back then was the most contested and contentious issue in terms of development and success, but his concept is totally applicable in the social media age of the semantic web.

Change the word “fan” to “customer,” add in social media and its ability to create immediacy, accessibility, and personalization, and the formula Kelly was talking about works in terms of amplifying your marketing message, your brand signal, and your sales pitch. Significantly, it is all done through content. The catch is that your content must now explain your brand values, establish the common ground between yourself and your potential customers, and be convincing enough to turn those who do business with you into Kelly’s version of “true fans”—brand evangelists who will extol your products and services of their own accord.

In a digital world where search has meaning, content needs to as well, and that requires your business to also be able to deliver real meaning in what it does that goes well past the product and its sales pitch. Put simply just saying “buy my stuff” is not going to work regardless of how loudly or often you say it.

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