After 42 days of living in a pretty remote region of South Africa, my family and I finally rented a car.
Not having a car had been a blast. We learned how to hitchhike  (split up into mother/son and father/daughter pairs so we don't overwhelm potential ride-givers); we got calves of steel from all the walking up and down the mountain; we learned how to accept kindnesses from neighbors without having the means to immediately reciprocate; and we've spent a lot of time together scrounging for food in depleted cupboards.
But it got old.
So one day my wife Mia caught a ride into town to rent a tiny blue Hyundai Atos with an engine whose strength might more accurately be measured in chickenpower than horsepower. When she returned, honking, we cheered like she was the rescue hovercraft and we were sitting on our roof waiting for the flood to recede.
The next day, we went to town. Well, sort of. The nearest town is about 45 minutes away. But we did hit the minimart to top up Mia's cell phone, and we had lunch at the joint with the mediocre food and free wifi.
In the U.S., we have two cars and can go wherever we want whenever we want. And only now, in our little blue Hyundai, do I see how much we took that mobility for granted.
So today I want to preach "vehicle appreciation" to you.
What Vehicles Does Your Business Drive?
A vehicle is an engineered means to get from one place to another. In the 13 years I've been marketing online, the quality, speed, and reliability of business vehicles has increased amazingly, while the prices have plummeted, often to zero. But if you're like me, you don't always appreciate how good things are, and you probably don't deploy your business vehicles as thoughtfully or effectively as you might.
As we approach 2012, I thought I'd describe a few of the most remarkable marketing vehicles we have at our fingertips as if it were 1998, the year before I began my own online odyssey.
1. So you want to write to your customers and prospects?
Wouldn't it be amazing if there were some software program that could collect a database of people who wanted to hear from you, and allow you to send hundreds or even millions of emails each month to stay in touch with and nurture your customers and prospects?
Can you imagine not having to send emails one at a time; using merge fields to personalize each one; to collect data that would allow you to segment your lists so you send the right messages at the right frequency to the right people?
And--get this--imagine that you could actually pre-populate email sequences for different groups of customers and prospects, so that each person on your list would get sequential, targeted messages based on their actions and interests?
What if I told you that such a valuable system could be rented for $20 a month and up, depending on volume?
What if I told you that companies providing this service would be falling over themselves competing for your business?
Dear 2012 reader, meet Aweber/Mailchimp/Constant Contact/iContact and dozens more, including email systems integrated into robust shopping carts like 1shoppingcart and CRMs like InfusionSoft. Are you using one of these vehicles to nurture and guide your customers and prospects? Do you appreciate how amazing this is?
2. So you want to talk with your customers and prospects?
How awesome would it be to be able to get on the phone and give an audio presentation to 50, 100, or even several thousand people at the same time?
Maybe they could even ask questions during the call, although of course you'd be able to mute them out when appropriate. Maybe they could listen online, for free, through the speakers on their computers, so they wouldn't have to worry about toll charges. And while we're shooting for the moon, how about having a one-touch recording system so you can hold replays and make recordings available online? Pretty wild, huh?
Oh, and let's not forget adding screenshots and PowerPoint slides--just like a live seminar, but over the web. I wonder what we'll call it?
Modern reader, I give you FreeConferenceCall, FreeConference, FreeConferencing (guess how much they cost?), as well as the very cool MaestroConference for audio; and Gotowebinar, MeetingBurner, AdobeConnect, and dozens of competitors for webinars. While not the same as "being there," webinars and teleseminars can simulate a gathering of thousands of people from all over the world for a total opportunity cost to all participants of an hour of their time plus phone or bandwidth charges.
3. So you want to show your customers and prospects a video?
Wouldn't it be incredible if you could make videos as easily as writing a short article? If the equipment were so inexpensive and high quality that you didn't need a professional videographer for most videos? If you could upload those videos to the internet, where they could be stored for free on a huge video search engine, so that people all over the world could watch your videos instantly? And they could share them with friends and colleagues at the click of a button?
Think of the possibilities: You could make short "how to" videos that establish you as an expert. You could demonstrate the qualities of your products. You could connect in an emotionally vivid way with your prospects. You could tell your story directly, without relying on intermediates or the need to purchase expensive airtime on TV.
The big companies use video, via TV commercials, but that sort of exposure is way outside the budget of most businesses. If you have thirty grand to spend, you can hire a video company to produce a DVD for you, which you can mail to prospects who request them.
Each DVD costs about $3-$5, depending on artwork and packaging. And you have no idea of your prospect is going to watch it, or if their interest will have cooled in the couple of days it takes for the disk to reach them in the mail. Let's face it: The video barrier to entry is pretty darn high.
OK, back to the future--can you say "YouTube"? The world's second most popular search engine (and owned by the first, Google) will store your videos for free and make it simple for you and others to share them widely at an astounding pace. Videos can go viral within minutes. You can embed videos on your website without needing a master's in computer programming.
And as more and more prospects use smartphones for video and social networking, you can create your own media empire that reaches directly into your prospects' lives wherever they are, whenever they want the content that you provide.
And that same smartphone can be your high-def camera, unless you really want to splurge and create your own studio, complete with professional lighting and digital SLR video camera and professional editing software for about $1500.
4. So you want to advertise your business online?
Gosh, just imagine that you could target short text advertisements to people who raise their hands and tell you that they're interested in what you're selling, and they want to learn more right now. And that you only have to pay when someone clicks your ad and lands on a page of your choosing on your website.
You could scientifically test those ads to find the one that works the best. You could change ads and landing pages on the fly without the need for an intermediary or a gatekeeper. And you could track the results from every ad and every traffic stream so that you could always identify what was profitable and fix or delete what wasn't.
You would be rewarded by the advertising medium for writing ads that attracted the most visitors by being given a discount on each click.
Good luck with that!
Your best bet is banner ads, which you can buy on a CPM basis--meaning, you pay a set amount to the publisher for every thousand people who visit the page that houses your banner ad. You have to guess which pages attract your prospects, and hope that whoever controls the website on which you're advertising isn't inflating their numbers or sending junk traffic to that page.
And your use of the banner ad format itself puts you in bad company; makes you seem like the "punch the monkey" and "congratulations--you are the millionth visitor!" scammers who dominate the medium. Banner ads are a risky investment that is extremely hard to hold accountable for results.
So, 2012 reader, have you heard of Google AdWords? It's everything I described in the first paragraph of this section and much, much more. AdWords levels the playing field between giant companies and small businesses like nothing else. Tens of thousands of small businesses are generating leads and sales from all over the world--and in their own backyards--using this most efficient ad brokering system.
And there's so much more...I haven't even gotten into Facebook, blogging, Twitter, Google maps and places, Groupon, and the dozens of other vehicles that can enhance your marketing and your connection with prospects and customers.
In fact, it's partly the astounding pace of innovation that numbs us to the potential of the vehicles at our fingertips. Why should I bother optimizing a Facebook presence when Google Plus is the new, hot thing? Shouldn't I wait until 3D video is out before buying a camera? Will Groupon succeed, or be succeeded by something smarter and more powerful?
This sort of thinking is understandable, but not particularly helpful.
The good news is, the four vehicles I've shared here have a robust track record, are still at the cutting edge in terms of adoption, and represent fundamental strategies rather than fancy moves with no substance. They're all about connecting more deeply and efficiently with the people who need what you have. No matter what the next round of innovation will produce, the fundamentals of human to human interaction will remain. We will always need to:
- Nurture relationships over time
- Present our expertise and solutions in a live, interactive format
- Forge an emotional bond with customers by showing them who we are and what we care about
- Find predictable and repeatable and cost-effective means of reaching those prospects
So I invite you to wake up from 1998 wishful thinking, and celebrate--and use!--the wonderful vehicles available to us in 2012.
Now if you'll excuse me, the road beckons. Hi yo Hyundai, away!
[Image: Flickr user Pesis ]