Surveying Your Company’s Surface Area

At the risk of stating the obvious, a boulder is a lot bigger than a sponge. And, yet, a sponge has a far greater surface area because of all its little “pockets” and crevices. This large surface area is what makes the sponge so spongelike: open to contact and able to absorb water.

So how large is your company’s surface area? A lot larger than you might imagine.

For example, with every outgoing email, there is room for a final sign-off that could deliver a branding message or promotional offer. With every incoming phone call, there is the opportunity for a receptionist to create a favorable impression and for an on-hold message to deliver company news. (In fact, I think someone should begin exploring the concept of a “real-time” on-hold service that, in essence, reported the facts on the ground during any given day. At our own firm, we are toying with the idea of our receptionist acting as a disc jockey, offering various music genres for those being placed on hold.)

Your company’s surface area includes every “touchpoint” where a customer or prospect (anyone, really) is able to learn, see, hear, interact with, or even be affected by something (even the most negligible something) about your company. When a passerby looks up and notices, even momentarily, your company’s logo on the side of a building, he or she comes in contact with your company’s surface area. When a prospect notices comments about a clever selling line — knocked out of a bright color on the back of your business card — he or she is interacting with your company’s surface area. When a potential venture-capital investor has browser incompatibility issues with your web site, that’s the definition of a “bad surface area day.”

The total surface area — and the implicit and explicit “messages” delivered across this surface area — amounts to the “experience” that is your company. When evaluating this experience, you have to be brutally honest with yourself and your colleagues. The goal is to create a consistent, positive experience. And nothing less will do. A cheaply printed brochure says things about you that you wouldn’t want to hear. Vendors who long go begging for payment do talk about you.

In trying to create a taxonomy of surface areas, it’s helpful to think of an extreme surface-area fest: an event where prospects and customers meet and share a common set of experiences or challenges with representatives of your company. In bandwidth terms, this is as wide as the surface-area pipes can get. All the senses are engaged. (Throw in a tornado or a hostage situation, a few minor “bonding” losses on each side, i.e., the emotional equivalent of those expendable ensigns on Star Trek, and you’ve achieved surface area overload. I’m not recommending, just observing.)

In many ways, the goal of all marketing, advertising, public relations, investor relations, and business development is to increase your company’s surface area. For example, business development focuses on identifying your ecosystem — the universe of key customers, financial and industry analysts, strategic suppliers, current and potential partners, resellers, integrators, prospects, and even competitors — and on trying to establish alliances and links within this ecosystem. In the Network Economy, these alliances (should) equate to more people familiar with your message and, perhaps, even motivated to incorporate it into their own. In short, a larger surface area.

Although this will seem a stretch, I believe that what we call “surface area marketing” also applies to something as basic as a business-to-business email message. A real person’s name in the “From” box, a salutation that uses the recipient’s first name, customer success stories, prominent alliance partners, third-party information from independent research organizations or financial analysts, and an intriguing offer are all examples of ways to increase a business-to-business email’s surface area.

Will these guarantee a successful response? Nope. If wedded, though, to an intuitive understanding of what the customer is afraid or desirous of, I guarantee a winner. And that intuitive (or analytical) understanding of a customer’s fears and desires requires stepping outside of one’s own borders and provincial interests.

It’s time you began auditing your own company’s surface area. It can start with a deceptively simple question: “Where — and on what — can we find our logo?” Then you can add the next deceptively simple question: “Where — and in what — can you find references to our company?” Then you can add the harder question: “Are there surfaces — virtual and physical — that we are overlooking?”

For example, our own company happens to be located in Austin’s entertainment district. Translation: lots of food, live music, tattoo parlors, body-piercing salons, and lingerie boutiques. It never occurred to us, until recently, that we — by all reports, a professional-services firm — could add to these divertissements. But now we’re planning a series of outdoor concerts, taking advantage of the abundant and cheap local talent and our much-coveted parking lot.

As part of your own surface-area audit, I recommend using Google’s “link popularity” tool. Just visit www.google.com, type in “link://www.yourcompanynamehere.com,” and you’ll find out which sites are linked to your own. This exercise never fails to kick up some interesting discussion and surprises. Hint: If not many folks are linked to your site, the interesting discussion should include, “Why the hell are so few sites linked to us? Are we invisible or irrelevant?”

When thinking about a company’s surface area, for reasons all my own, I’m drawn back to nature. I think of the way trees — pines, for example — spread their seeds. There is no choice. No possibility of withholding. Perpetuation depends upon the distribution of many seeded selves, knowing that most will not be received. Perpetuation depends, then, on repetition.

What seeds is your company casting? And how goes your company’s “thought seedership”?

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