Brownbook helps small business market themselves online

Recently I’ve found myself answering the question “why should a small business get listed in The Brownbook?”. Well, there are several answers but they mostly boil down to the goal of getting more business. Let me elaborate a little:

The big established yellow pages sites are great for big advertisers, you pay for a years advert in a paper book and online and people go to these sites and find you. That’s the idea of the traditional directory. But what if people aren’t visiting THAT PARTICULAR yellow pages website and searching? Well, your business doesn’t get found. The Brownbook is a little different, allow me to elaborate…

Now, remember that one of the biggest assets that these big directory companies own is their database (the others are their brands, and you might also consider their large sales-forces to be an asset). Their database is precious to them and they guard it closely. But the fact is that data is becoming commoditized, business data is everywhere on thousands of websites, CDs, printed lists, directory books, … you get the idea.

What The Brownbook does is augment that business listing data with user reviews, but more than that it allows even the smallest business (think the ‘long tail’ of businesses) to add themselves and be listed, and it allows anyone to add reviews. Business owners can claim their listings and add photos, videos, and additional business information. So far so good, but now comes some of the smartness:

The Brownbook is an OPEN business directory, that means its free to us all to contribute. Any business can have a link to their website FOR FREE, and that adds to their search engine ranking . Now, this means they can not only be found in The Brownbook, but they are also increasing the chance that they can get found on any of the web search engines, like Google for example.

The next thing to realize is that The Brownbook uses a neat technology called Microformats, these allow smart developers of new services to integrate, re-use, re-purpose data (i.e. business listings) in The Brownbook into other neat websites and desktop and mobile applications, dramatically opening up the possible reach and utility (read: value) of a business’s listing in The Brownbook. You can see Microformats at work right now if you use Firefox web browser and the Operator toolbar. With a single click you can instantly save business listings out to your desktop, or even your Outlook contact manager. Now, if like me you use a smartphone (I happen to use a Palm, but you might be using a Nokia, Sony Ericsson, or a Windows Mobile device) you have the ability to easily grab a businesses contact details directly into your phone. If all that seems a little techy, you should know that support for Microformats will be native in the next versions of all the popular web browsers, and will soon start to find their ways into websites, phone browsers, and all sorts of other software.

Then you need to understand that we’re OpenSearch compliant, another bit of smart technology that lets smart developers actually fire a search query at our database and get a set of nicely formatted XML results back. Again that sounds very techy to most people, so let me spell out what that means. It means that any moderately smart developer can add a yellow pages or local search feature to any website, and they don’t even need a database, they can use ours. And what of we don’t yet cover their region, well, that’s the beauty of peer production, any businesses can easily be added by anyone and we don’t exercise any external control over that. The result could be anything from hyper-local directories (with reviews and everything else we offer) on small community websites, all the way up to wider services that cover whole regions or even countries.

I had the benefit today of sitting down with perhaps the leading strategic analyst/consultant to the yellow pages industry and one of the things I tried to convey to him was this: The Brownbook is MUCH MORE than just another yellow pages service (even if it IS a particularly smart one), it has the potential to be the PLATFORM for a totally new type of OPEN business directory offering.

OK, so I realize I’ve gone a little off-track from my title at this point, so let me get right back to that. How does The Brownbook help the average small business:

1. Any business (if its not already in there) can add themselves. This means they get found when someone searches on The Brownbook.

2. They can add a link to their website. This helps the search ranking of their existing website, as well as giving them representation in more places on the web, helping them get higher up the organic search results in search engines like Google.

3. They can add a whole lot of additional contact info to their listing, and they can do it instantly without jumping through hoops. This gives potential customers more ways to contact them and can help capture the new breed of online consumers.

4. If their details are wrong, they can change them, instantly. Just try that in your traditional phone book or yellow pages, it takes months (and while your waiting for them to get their act together your prospects are seeing incorrect info)

5. Use the reviews. We all know that word of mouth and real people’s opinions are far more powerful than advertising. Businesses should ensure they’re in The Brownbook and ACTIVELY ask their best customers to give them positive testimonials – its the most powerful way of gaining new customers.

6. Respond to bad reviews! Solve their problems, after all, their your customers. Since the dawn of commerce, people have said bad things about other people’s businesses, that’s a fact. Its just that in the past our voices were very small, our audience was limited. Well, today that’s changed, we have Facebook, YouTube, MySpace and countless online forums dedicated to customer opinions. Suddenly that one person’s small voice has been amplified a million times. A business owner has two choices, he can either ignore it and pretend its not happening (but let me tell you it really IS happening), or he can embrace the chance and get active in the conversations. Don’t try to stifle unhappy users opinions, because with todays communications tools you never can, embrace them, listen, and fix things that are broken. Solve problems – you’ll not only win back unhappy customers, but you’ll win a whole load of new customers when they see you actually care.

Hey, I could go on, but if you’ve stayed with me this far (in such a long post) you deserve a reprieve. I’ll let you go now, but I can’t promise not to rant again sometime soon. 🙂