The Internet is business’ superpower. Are you using it wisely?

December 9, 2022

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably heard of the Malala Fund. It was founded shortly after teenager Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban for seeking an education. It became known worldwide because of Yousafzai’s story, her personality, and her genuine passion for helping young Pakistani girls receive an education.

We take it for granted that teenagers like Yousafzai can become global brands, but this is a very new phenomenon. Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Bill Gates are among the most world-changing and significant entrepreneurs in world history, and it took them decades to begin making their marks.

That’s because Yousafzai has the same drive, passion, and creativity that drove the giants of history…and one powerful weapon that they did not: The marketing, branding, and star power of the Internet. Her shooting would have been a local incident without it – and her courage and innovation would likely not be known outside of her native region in Pakistan.

The Internet is a powerful – but misunderstood – marketing and branding accelerator

The Internet’s power to take brands global came to mind when I profiled a number of entrepreneurs for CEO Magazine, including Malala Fund co-founder Shiza Shahid. Many of the entrepreneurs haven’t been in business long or are themselves young. But their names are well-known beyond their nations and industries thanks to the Internet.

This power is new, which is perhaps why it is so often misunderstood. Anyone has access to the world for a small monthly bill. But this low barrier to entry also gives false hope to those who don’t understand marketing and branding. Millions of people expect to go viral by putting up a few videos, building a website, or boosting some Facebook posts. They don’t realize that the competition is doing the same thing, and probably doing it better.

A different problem exists for companies that have mastered the Internet’s marketing capabilities but don’t have the infrastructure to turn short-term virality into long-term scaling. Lipstick can’t hide a really ugly pig, and “going viral” with bad products, services, and/or customer experiences is a great way to get famous fast and forgotten even more quickly.

The best digital branding relies on the same tried-and-true practices of the past:

  • Having a product or service people want.
  • Finding the people who want the product or service.
  • Providing the product or service at the agreed-upon price, quality, and time.
  • Developing messaging, content, and other important parts of marketing and branding based upon what your customers and prospects want to hear.
  • Investing the right amount in the right strategy for the long-term.

“Impact is the combination of access and relevance,” said Mark Haas, who has helped businesses and non-profits around the world improve operations and performance. “Relevance without access is a tree falling in the forest – no one sees your value. Access without relevance gets you ignored, then blocked. The Internet alone is not enough for access – you must find the right audience and cultivate a following.”

An important distinction: the Internet’s power as infrastructure vs branding

Not all business success requires the Internet. The classic “one man and a pickup truck” business can rely on word-of-mouth referrals for everything from roofs to legal services to financial services. But the Internet is essential for any company that wants to scale, even those which don’t rely on it for marketing and branding.

“My business couldn’t run without the Internet” my father recently told me. He’s built a multi-million-dollar company around radio advertising, gutter cleaning, and franchising gutter cleaning. His award-winning marketing and branding program has virtually nothing to do with the Internet. But the company’s success has everything to do with it because:

  • Its estimate process is built around Google Earth. This impresses prospects in an industry known for poor customer service, eliminated the money and time spent on on-site estimates, and maximized the number of gutters cleaned.
  • Keeping track of franchisees’ finances and other numbers would be difficult without the cloud.
  • The franchise parent company needs a quality website to build trust with its sophisticated target audience.

The Malala Fund accidentally relied on the Internet for stardom, and Dad uses it for his company’s infrastructure. But Khan Academy founder Sal Kahn uses it for both. His role as an education leader began with posting a few YouTube videos when virtually tutoring his cousin. Eighteen years later, his virtual Khan Academy has almost two billion YouTube views, serves over 137 million people in 190 countries, and is leading the conversation about how to improve education around the world.

Turning success into stardom

Shahid, Yousafzai, and Khan would probably be dynamic, successful entrepreneurs without the Internet. They possess all of the same traits as the giants of the past – discipline, courage, creativity, and passion. But they probably wouldn’t be seen as world-changing entrepreneurs and philanthropists because they wouldn’t be as well-known.

“The number of world-changing entrepreneurs is staggering, and so is how quickly we get to know them,” said my friend Lee Rashkin. He was just a kid in my small town who is now a millionaire entrepreneur who uses the Internet to start businesses, observe and invest in global markets, and travel to Singapore and other centers of international commerce. “One hundred years ago, there were a few leaders of industry. Fifty years ago, that number had crept up. Today, that number is on fire – not just thanks to modern tech, which everyone has access to, but also thanks to how great entrepreneurs can use the Internet to transform success into stardom.”

A version of this piece was originally published by Dustin Siggins at Real Clear Markets.

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