You’ve got 20,000 followers for your small business on Facebook. You sell hundreds of products a month on Amazon. Your restaurant increased its sales by linking up with an online food delivery service.
This all seems good, right? Not so fast. Who owns your customers? That’s a critical question for you to answer if you want your business to survive.
Here’s the bottom line: if an intermediary controls the contact information of, and interaction with, customers and prospects, they control the future of your business. How well are you going to sleep at night knowing Mark Zuckerberg controls the future of your business?
If someone else—a social media site, a sales platform, a delivery service—controls the relationship with your customer, then you can’t market to these customers again, you can’t set prices, you can’t grow your company.
What do I mean that these services “own” your customer? A few examples:
1. You sell camping equipment in your brick-and-mortar store and have a website, but it’s tough to drive traffic to your site. Instead, you sell on Amazon. Amazon handles orders, shipping, customer service. Easy, peasy. But Amazon also keeps all the contact information of those who buy your products. You can’t communicate with them through email, snail mail, or phone. You can’t reach customers to sell to them directly, you can’t sell them additional products, or just keep your name in front of them.
2. You used to manage your Thai restaurant’s home delivery yourself. Your phone would ring, you’d take an order, and you had a few drivers making deliveries. But that was annoying and expensive. So you signed up to sell on the online delivery service, GrubHub. That’s made your life easier, and you’ve found some new “customers” this way. But in addition to all the fees you pay Grubhub, you never see the name or contact information of those who place orders. Even if someone loves your food, they’ll see your competitors’ offerings when they look for you.
3. You’ve spent a lot of time and resources building up your small company’s social media presence. In fact, you have a staff member whose part-time job is to create social media posts and respond to followers. Your numbers and engagement have grown. You’d like to use those channels to announce new products and discounts. But the only way to make sure you reach all those followers is to pay to boost your posts: you don’t have email addresses or other ways to reach even your most ardent fans.
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Yes, in every case, someone else “owns” the customer relationship. You can’t reach your own customers directly. If that doesn’t make you nervous, consider this: These platforms can change their terms at any time. They can increase fees, lower your profit margins, place ads from your competitors in front of your customers. Worse, these platforms could—theoretically—disappear.
That’s why you MUST find ways to build your own marketing list and find ways to reach customers, prospects, and fans without an intermediary.
Here are some ways to start:
1. Build your contact list. Ask for contact information as quickly as you can from any customer, fan, follower, prospect.
2. Give people a reason to give you their contact information. Provide a gift or bonus free for giving you their name and email address. Ideally, this would be something you can deliver electronically, so your costs are minimal.
3. Create an email marketing mailing list and send an email “newsletter” at least once a month. An email “newsletter” (which can be as little as a notice of a sale or a tip related to your business) keeps your business name in front of customers and prospects.
4. Remember customers’ birthdays, anniversaries, etc. if you can get this information, use it.
5. Put your company name and contact information on everything you can, including products and meals sold or delivered by other parties.
6. Keep your best stuff yourself. Sell only your least important items on sales platforms (like Amazon) or make your restaurant available on food delivery systems only on lowest-demand times.
7. Pay for it. Yes, it’s going to cost you something to have your own newsletter, your own contact management system, your own freebie to give away. Marketing is a cost of doing business.
Whatever you do, make sure you own the customer in your small business. Otherwise, Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg owns them instead.
Rhonda Abrams is the author of “Six-Week Start-Up” just released in its fourth edition and other books for small business owners. Connect with Rhonda on Facebook and Twitter: @RhondaAbrams. Register for Rhonda’s free business tips newsletter at www.PlanningShop.com
The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.