Working on the annual EContent 100 list gives me an added appreciation for the innovation in our industry. As I spent many hours over the course of a month sifting through hundreds of companies, services, and products to find those deserving to be included in the list, I kept thinking: Wow, so many are worthy of a place. The wide variety of organizations that focus on solving customer problems amazes me. So the challenge of weighing the merits of brash upstarts vs. long time EC100 companies to narrow down to just 100 turned into a daunting task. I wasn't trying to find 100 companies; rather it was a process of elimination from the many more that could have made it.
I've been on the other side of the EC100 too. In a prior life, I served as VP of marketing for a company that made the list multiple times. I remember back to the sense of anticipation in November just prior to when the list was made public. The process of choosing seemed so mysterious to me and my colleagues, as it must for many readers of this issue of the magazine. Now that I'm part of the dedicated group who makes the decisions, I can certainly vouch for the integrity and rigor of the process.
Back then I had always wondered if a company could do anything to increase the chances of making the list. Is it possible to influence the process? Now with two years' voting under my belt I've finally figured it out. Yes, you can increase your chances of making the EContent 100. How? Simply provide an unrelenting focus throughout the year on your customers (and keep the media informed about it). Companies that appear in this issue create products and services with the customer's problems and issues in mind.
Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Laurel Touby, founder & cyberhostess of mediabistro.com. In a wide ranging discussion about how's she's built her successful company, Touby described this approach in such a succinct way that I repeat her words here: "We focus on what's important for our customers, not what's important for the company," Touby says. "We're an egoless company rather than an egocentric company. The egocentric one puts out what the company thinks is best rather than what the customer wants."
So what makes an egoless company? It starts with the product development people working extensively with customers to design product or service offerings. Too often, companies design products in a vacuum, simply cobbling together a set of content or a technology with features and functionality just because they can or because it would be cool. Without input from the target market, an offering is doomed to mediocrity at best.
A critically important aspect of an egoless company is the design of user interfaces around the way people think. A UI should be intuitive and easy to use. As part of the EC100 process, I tried out several applications for the first time. Two in particular stood out because of egoless UI design: Groove and Onfolio. In each case, I downloaded the application and just started to use the product. The UI was organized around me and my problems. When I wanted to use a particular functionality, the buttons were where I'd expect them and did what I wanted. Product development people at Groove and Onfolio managed to organize their offerings in the way that I think.
The egoless company also pays close attention to its marketing and sales approach. A quick look at a company's marketing materials, its Web site, and press releases, can be very telling. Is the focus on the problems customers face? Or does the firm present materials simply describing product offerings from the company's narrow perspective? Here's a simple test offered by MarketingSherpa.com to find out: Count the number of times you see the words We, Us, Our, or a company's brand name on marketing materials such as the Web site or a direct mail piece. Then count the number of times you see You, Your, or the job title of prospects. Which count wins the contest? If it's the former, MarketingSherpa says you've got a copywriting problem. But I'd go further to say that's a symptom of the egocentric company.
A similar comparison can be applied to press releases. Are they written about the customer problems solved? Or simply about what the product purports to do? Extend the test to the company's sales professionals and their approach: Are they so busy selling the merits of their offerings that they forget to find out the customer's needs first? The old saying, "you've got two ears and one mouth and they should be used in that proportion," doubles as a sales ego test.
Can you influence getting your company into the EContent 100 list? Sure: just become an egoless company, create a 100% focus on your customers throughout 2005, communicate it effectively throughout the year, and see what happens next December.