I want to share the story of the little company that could. It started out as a small, regional plumbing supplies manufacturer in north central New England with no online presence. The company was well-known as a quality company with quality people with quality products and services. That was just over 10 years ago.
Joe, what do you know about this "internet" thing?
At a time when no one else in their business in their area was thinking about the internet, this little company decided to create an online presence. The online presence was, like the company itself, simple: a little more than brochure-ware and a little less than ecommerce.
But the purpose of their nascent website wasn't exactly ecommerce. "Ecommerce" wasn't part of the online lexicon then. They wanted people either to walk in the door or call them for information, possibly a construction supply proposal. What they didn't want was for people to buy online. "How will they know who they're doing business with unless they talk to us face-to-face?"
So a website was created. Company brochures now included email and website addresses. Business cards had instructions on using browsers on the back. Business started coming in over the internet. People smiled. The company prospered.
And then a funny thing happened...
This company served a radius covering most of northern New England and, because they manufactured a few items no one else did, got orders from central New England as well. Two trucks and Hank's pickup (Hank is the owner) were all they had, with delivery guaranteed in two days. Need it in one? Too bad, you had to wait. But these were quality people with quality goods, so if Hank thought you had to wait too long he'd bring along a box of donuts, especially if he was delivering to a crew working on site. Nice touch. Hank, you understand, knew what his customers liked beyond push-button-closing-umbrella-overflow-drains.
Then came the day that they got a call from central New York state. The caller found them on AltaVista (anybody remember them?). The website listed a certain product, could Hank's company deliver?
Business grew. Another store was opened. Their territory expanded geometrically in a few months time. The website evolved. A third store was opened. Hank's territory grew and, as before, two day delivery was guaranteed.
Business continued to grow, especially their online business. Their marketing reach became far greater than the geographic territory they covered, and Hank didn't want to build any more brick and mortar stores.
Competition had moved into his region-- both on the internet and locally. Hank called in some business consultants to help him figure out what to do. He didn't take their advice. Instead he kept his site the way he liked it; a good feel that his customers -- old and new -- understood and were comfortable with. Even with increased competition, they prospered.
And in 2002, they hit their wall
Hank had an interesting problem. He wanted his business to grow but not beyond what he could handle. He wanted to expand his ecommerce capabilities but not lose the "quality" aspects of his business.
It was about this time that we noticed something odd about his online business. Visitors were coming from all over, but sales were only coming from New England. Same quality products, same quality people, same quality business, but not much business beyond the New York border. It was as if there was a wall that business couldn't get through.
Geofocusing versus Localization
Most people now are familiar with the concept of Localization: making a product or service more acceptable to a specific market. Wikipedia offers a much richer explanation, but we'll go with the simple one for now.
The wall Hank and his company were hitting was localization, but in reverse. Their site, like Hank's company itself, was very well designed for its territory. It was, in essence, a case where the site was localized for its region and not beyond.
Brick and mortar stores can sustain a territory and move into the ecommerce age by becoming the pick-up and return centers for their websites. This is a successful strategy for many companies and brings ecommerce customers into their brick and mortars on a regular basis.
Hank's site was doing well regionally, but not beyond, due to what NextStage calls geofocusing, which deals with subtleties in communication and is something everyone does, although most people do it non-consciously.
Anyone who listens to popular music can appreciate that the lyrics of Lynyrd Skynyrd could only come from the U.S. Deep South, Pearl Jam from the Seattle area, John Mellencamp from Indiana, AeroSmith from Boston, Billy Joel from Long Island, Bruce Hornsby from Virginia. Lyrics are linked not only to a place but to a time. Lyrics and the emotions behind them are examples of geofocusing in the extreme. They are, in essence, a look into the psyches of each geographic region; this is true of regional music anywhere on earth.
This difference in psyches is also strikingly obvious in how people navigate websites. New England is dominated by two main navigation pattern/decision styles, the Southeast US by one. Some of the patterns used in New England don't show up in the Southeast and vice versa.
Important note: the Southeast U.S. pattern is far closer to the pattern of the U.S. as a whole than is New England. If you want to know how you'll fair in the nation, first determine how you'll fair in the Southeast U.S.
And this is how Hank got over the wall
Hank, as always, was ahead of the game. He wanted his internet territory to be the continental U.S. There were six different navigation patterns/decision styles used in the continental US.
Could the website learn where visitors were coming from? Yes.
Could it then deliver pages which were targeted to the navigation styles and decision patterns of a specific geographically defined population? Yes, it could, and the end result is that Hank's business has grown so much that he has partnered with two of the largest hardware supply chains in the nation.
The moral is simple: any business can grow by understanding its customers (having Hank leading the business helps, too), but don't think understanding is just collecting numbers of pages visited and shopping carts abandoned.
The only way over the wall is to appreciate that true localization is more than knowing what shop is on what corner and involves geofocusing, creating pages that lead visitors the way they want to be lead (and why Aerosmith will never do a Bruce Hornsby cover).
More on this in my next column.
You can learn more about Geofocusing in a NextStage for-pay research paper: "What We're Learning About Visitors from Websites."
Joseph Carrabis will be presenting Increasing Knowledge Transfer by Adapting Information Presentation Styles on the Fly at the Boston KM Forum on 17 Aug 06 at 4:30pm..