[Editor’s Note: This month we are excited to have our friend Jason Costa talk about the power of digital presence. Over the last 15 years Jason has been building products and teams at Silicon Valley’s leading internet companies. Jason is currently working on Content & Communities as the Director of Product at Reddit. With a moniker of “the front page of the internet”, Reddit is one of the most frequently visited websites in the world with over 50m people visiting the site every day!
Previously, Jason was one of the first members of the monetization team at Pinterest (and one of the first 100 employees). Jason also worked on the platform team at Twitter, managing an ecosystem of more than a million apps, and at Google where he helped launch the Google Checkout API and the OpenSocial schema.]
What's something you misunderstood or underestimated in the evolution of the web?
Just how important search still is. We’ve talked so much about social over the years - everything from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram. While these are no doubt important customer awareness & support channels, I personally think Google is still the king when it comes to driving traffic and acquiring an audience.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is an art and a science that’s more than fifteen years old now, but no doubt is still the most important element of a business to understand. If a business can generate strong SEO for their website, there’s just so much upside to be had. Some days I think many people simply don’t realize how critical this continues to be for a company’s web presence to be successful.
How should SMBs think about prioritizing their web presence?
I’d honestly just get started making a website today, if a business hasn’t already. And this explicitly applies to *both* consumer & enterprise oriented businesses - b2c or b2b. If you’re looking for high ROI marketing, it’s so easy to get a site spun up these days. Start there, and spend some time learning about SEO - particularly if you’re a local or regional business. Publish content that helps your business broaden opportunity for search indexing, so that Google can drive high intent traffic to your site. That’s the first thing I’d get started with - including buying a branded domain. This is a powerful “lead gen” vector for your company.
If you’re in commerce, and you’re looking to start selling then get started on Shopify - go start your account there today, and get your shop set up online. Again, the ease of use and cost effectiveness of these tools are special - and the technology keeps getting better each year. Start accepting payments with Shop Pay (from Shopify) and from Affirm (more on this in a question below, and why it’s important).
Lastly, build a digital rewards program and get the user’s email. Have a sustained connection or channel that you can own that allows you to land a narrative with your customer base. Email is still the most critical tool to do that. Once you’ve acquired the user’s email address, leverage email tools like MailChimp to fire off emails to your customer base on a reasonable cadence (i.e. don’t go spamming people, that will only hurt). If you do this with a reasonable cadence, and offer the customer a value proposition (a sale or discount), you can increase purchase frequency and potentially even drive referrals from your existing customer base. Don’t miss an opportunity to build a loyal customer base, a referral channel, and a communication platform with your buyers.
Online communities have become incredibly powerful. Look no further than the impact Reddit’s WallStreetBets forum had on Gamestop’s stock trading. How have you seen these communities benefit companies in unexpected ways?
The power of online community is really something special. I first saw this when I was at Twitter with the “Arab Spring.” To see a social movement unfold across a region like that was so powerful. Today, a group of people are able to virtually band together and have massive real world impact - that is worth a moment of reflection, and speaks to the power of online communities. We’re again seeing this now in the financial markets with Gamestop and AMC. As more people globally come online, and with greater frequency of usage, we’re going to see this pattern accelerate.
From a business perspective, the way that these online communities can in some sense become “fandoms” of businesses is wild. These communities can literally become advocates for the brand. If, through the right level of genuine engagement, a business is able to build & or contribute to the growth of an online community - the impact can be phenomenal. If nothing else, the level of awareness & potential affinity that can be generated amongst your customer base will lead to broader discovery of your business in a very cost effective manner. The customers are online - it’s foolhardy not to go where the customer is.
Business owners have limited time and resources — where should they be investing most in terms of their web presence?
The tooling that has arrived in just the last five years is fantastic. So many business owners are in the business of new customer acquisition because they are exposed to high churn & slower purchase frequency - so they constantly have to grow the top of the funnel to drive sales.
The tools that the web offers can help here on both fronts: it more easily enables customer acquisition, typically at a lower cost than the analog methodology (think tv, radio, print), but it also can establish longer lived relationships with customers that would otherwise churn out. You can stay in touch through email, through social channels like Twitter - in some sense ensuring a level of sustained awareness and potentially loyalty from your customer base. When done right, that sustained connection can lead to increased purchase frequency.
Any products or tools that you recommend for any business owners?
I’d certainly build a website. The tools to do this are cheap and intuitive to use. No longer do you need be a web developer. You simply create an account on Wix or Squarespace, and you’re literally off to the races. A non tech savvy person can get one of these sites set up and running in less than a day. It’s literally that easy now. One you start publishing pages, just follow the instructions to ensure that your site is indexed by Google and you’ll reap the benefits of discovery. But you have to have that web presence in order for this to happen.
I’d also maintain an Instagram and Twitter account. If the business owner has time for only one, I’d pick Instagram. Instagram simply doesn’t get enough credit for its role in local business discovery and engagement with customers. It’s an incredible tool for SMBs to showcase their inventory, drive awareness of deals, and offer support to ensure a strong customer experience. Lastly, take the time to set up a business account on Google, to have a Google Maps presence. This can only help you to grow your top of funnel customer acquisition.
Help our readers cut through all the noise and B.S. What are the best resources you can point them to for considering their web presence?
For getting started on the web, I’d recommend these resources:
What new developments are on the horizon for web presence?
In the long term, I think machine learning will be a major boon for the web, but it’s going to take time to materialize. The level of personalization will reach a whole new level as services learn behavioral patterns at a per user level, and the recommendations that come from that will be incredible. Google is great once a user knows what they need - but imagine a world where the user doesn’t know they need something. Instead, they discover it via a personalized recommendation and then make a purchase. If machine learning enables that loop to happen, it’s going to be something special. Though that’s further off on the horizon than most folks think.
In the short term, I think there’s a real opportunity for other services like Snapchat and Reddit to have a go at what I refer to as “curated commerce”. Going to Amazon or eBay today, and searching for something to purchase is a brutal experience: the search results look like a bomb went off in the browser. And the product reviews are even worse! It’s extremely difficult for users to make their way through the results and find the right item for their need. The buyer needs some kind of recommendation from the community to understand & find that “right” item. If Snapchat or Reddit are able to drive genuine commerce reviews & recommendations through influencers or communities - the possibilities are endless. There’s a real opportunity for one or more of these platforms to become a tastemaker in the purchase cycle to guide the user’s buying decision, in a way that facilitates “curated commerce”. I hope we see that soon.
What's the future hold for consumer web platforms?
I’m particularly excited about the digitization of money. If act one of the web was about digitizing information, act two about digitizing social behaviors, then act three feels to me that it’s going to be the digitization of cash & commerce.
What companies like Robinhood and Carta are doing to democratize access to the financial markets (public & private, respectively). The ease of which you can own assets in the form of company equity is mind boggling compared to just five or ten years ago. When I invest in companies now, it almost always happens entirely through Carta. The level of progress that’s unfolding in finance is stellar, and it feels like we’re still very much in the early innings there.
I also think that Shopify is only going to get bigger: business owners want a brand, and they want it to exist on a platform where the incentives are aligned (i.e. won’t be selling on Amazon while they potentially compete with Amazon in some manner). Shopify is offering all of the tools to more easily take friction out of the purchasing process. Then you have companies like Affirm, who are doing payment programs, further enlarging the commerce pie by bringing in a new customer base with greater price sensitivity, but giving them a path forward with payment installments. So the web as an enabler for commerce & digital asset ownership is only going to get bigger. And we didn’t even talk about crypto & NFTs yet!
What are you reading or watching these days?
I have been reading a book called “Lean Analytics” lately - if you want to understand the importance of picking the right metrics to measure success, this is the read for you. Highly recommended. On the television front, I recently re-watched Wild Wild Country on Netflix, because I can’t believe that actually happened. Well worth the time if folks are in need of a good binge watch weekend.