“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place,” George Bernard Shaw.

What the disruption of communication means for you and your business

The world is changing at a pace that has been unprecedented till now. We have had trends one after other, slapping businesses with reality checks. These shifts have been technological, cultural and in our country (India) even political. The pace far outstrips anything we have ever seen before. By the time you play catch up, chances are that there’d have been a quantum shift in the way your business gets conducted in real-time. I will be the first to admit that this grim reality is at times overwhelming.

Yet, there has never be then a better time for Small and Medium Sized Businesses to capture markets, and accelerate growth at the speed of thought. All of this sounds truistic, even hyperbole, but stick with me for the next five minutes.

This is how the game has changed. Till now Small and Medium-Sized Businesses were often at the mercy of their customers. You were limited by geography, your reach, your capabilities. You needed to shell hard cash to get a ‘voice.’ Today that game has turned on its head. You can choose your customer. In fact, you must choose your customer to survive. You can’t service everybody the same way, you must build archetypes and cohorts. This helps you put across an idea that is most palatable to your immediate audience. If you are a business owner, you need to learn how to prioritise your customer segments. You need to understand how you can try to do that in a systematic manner, even online for cheaper props. I’d go as far as to say that with the right insights, SMEs can use new tools such as social media to justify a business audit. With social media, you own your voice for nada.

Own your voice in 2015, the cost of owning it has never been zero!

We live in exciting times. Internet has come off age. It’s no longer the domain of computer geeks and the young. What’s more, we have a whole generation of people that DO NOT KNOW the world Pre-Internet. The “social media” phenomena has changed the way this game will be played going forward. As one of the most vocal Social Media evangelists Gary Vaynerchuk puts it, “Internet is in its teens. It’s not had sex yet, and it’s dominating!”

Today you can begin by dominating a niche for which you have a passion. Your domain might be esoteric, you might even assume that you might be the whole audience size. Still, I believe that this is exactly the time to start conversing about things that matter to you. Produce content, put your most exciting ideas in front of the Universe. Talk, write, sing, click, capture — anything that makes your world go round.

Begin by collecting and curating. If you are a solopreneur, this is the tiny snowball you roll from the top of the mountain. It is precisely what has the potential to soon become an avalanche of success. Yet this is not the complete picture. Once you get producing, you will soon recognise that this is just half the battle won. The hitch?

There are way too many content producers.

It’s a noisy world out here.

It’s important to place yourself in the play by being authentic. Everyone else is taken anyway.

For a piece of content to be successful, it needs to be engaging. You need to put your two cents up front with your content. You have to give a voice to the narration. This means bringing out the “You”. Your authentic voice. Don’t worry about the listeners just yet. Even if you think you know, it’s probably true that you are underestimating the number of people going through the same grind as you. The number of people with the same insecurities, the same outlooks… but different beings, each with an individual take.

Once you have a bank of ideas, you need to engage to build an audience. This is the most significant change that will be hardest for businesses to grapple with. Instead of catering to every person, look to cater to one person. Your ideal customer, your ideal audience that is quick on the uptake. Define him. Search him. Serve him. This is what I meant by defining the cohort. Nobody wants an “everybody” solution. Respect the individual voice to appease the collective. Do all of this to build an audience… a set of individuals who are most receptive to what you say. It is possible; the how-to will be topic for another day.

Once you have the content, you need to double up the time for engaging your audience. The rules of engagement in the online world are the same as offline. You need to battle for attention. And any communicator, negotiator and psychologist will attest that the most influential way to ‘get’ attention is to first ‘give’ attention. Listen first, to speak. Recognise that in 2015, you first need the permission to put your ideas across, and only then air them. What this means find out where your users hang out — online and offline. Jive with them, learn and communicate. Don’t start selling, start conversing. Build a context for your eventual sale. Warm up.

So what changed?

Till now the guy with the biggest microphone got his message out the loudest. Your audience never had a microphone to shout back and drown you out. That time has long since passed. You live in the world of review sites, social media, and free-floating opinions. For the first time your audience’s collective voice will drown you out.

Remember that time when you spoke and thought your audience was tuning into you intently? You were wrong! All that time they were tuning you out… and you didn’t even know.

Get the permission to speak. In other words, listen first. Your communication ends with eliciting the most favourable response.

Here’s the ground rule for 2015 then. You must begin with the listening. This is the most potent weapon today in your PR/marketing arsenal, i.e. if you learn how to swing it your way. If you have worked hard to build a reputation, you know just how hard you would fight to protect that. You don’t cut corners. The fear of losing face compels you to stick to what you know and be consistent. Still, this is the big opportunity to create your own serendipity. Go one-to-one marketing. Strike conversations, put yourself in the play.

Make no mistake, you will be called out for your mistakes. One day or the other. The only thing you can do is to provide so much value that it forces people to give you just one more chance. It’s the battle for goodwill that’s being played out. Best part: You can’t solve the problem by throwing money at it. You need to put in the time and the effort.

And for all the hungry Small/Medium sized businesses, this is the great opportunity. Narrate your story, engage and connect to build an audience. And let your audience provide you ways to serve it. It’s just that simple. Don’t make your audience, your customer. Make it your partner. Partners beat customers any day.

All the incumbents are down for the taking, as will you if you ever become big. This means your business has to be constantly on the offence. And this is how you succeed in the business world of 2015.

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