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Book Review: A community banker's take on new marketing book, Six Pixels of Separation

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  • Written by  Joe Frederick
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  • Comments:   DISQUS_COMMENTS
Six Pixels of Separation: Everyone is Connected—Connect Your Business to Everyone. By Mitch Joel, 273 pp., Business Plus. Six Pixels of Separation: Everyone is Connected—Connect Your Business to Everyone. By Mitch Joel, 273 pp., Business Plus.

Mitch Joel’s new book, Six Pixels of Separation: Everyone is Connected—Connect Your Business to Everyone, will provoke thoughtful assessment by organizational leaders in your bank. Further, it will influence  their strategies for dealing with the ever-changing and evolving landscape of the Internet, social networking, and new media channels.

The book is not specifically targeted to the banking industry, but offers many valuable lessons to business leaders that bankers can readily adopt.  As you’ll see, I found many, many applications for our business.

“What’s a pixel?” And why it matters

A “pixel” is the single tiny element—a point or a dot—in the millions of elements that create an image or character on the screen of a computer, television, or handheld device, or printed on paper. “Pixel” is actually the contraction of the words “picture” and “element.”

Joel uses the metaphor of six pixels of separation to illustrate how close and connected the world has become, paraphrasing the theory of Six Degrees of Separation. The latter theory states that if every person you know is one step away from each person they know, then everyone is at most six steps away from the entire population of the earth. This theory, which dates back to the 1920s, has been used to prove how close and interconnected we are to each other. It was one of the very first theories dealing with social networking, which has taken on a whole new life with the Internet and technology.

The book Six Pixels of Separation is a resource to plan strategies for connecting with customers, potential customers, suppliers, vendors, and everyone who touches your bank. The goal is to create an online community.

Many of your bank’s customers and suppliers, and, likely many of your co-workers, are already connecting to each other in new ways. Using the many methods and channels of communication and connection can enhance many of the business disciplines and processes that affect your relationship with your online community. A bank that doesn’t evaluate these opportunities and implement appropriate responses may find itself at the bottom of the electronic e-commerce food chain in the survival of the fittest. Joel calls this phenomenon “Digital Darwinism”  (Chapter 9).

You could look it up. (You should … your customers and prospects will)

In the very first chapter, “I Google You … Just Like You Google Me,” Joel points out that “googling,” or doing online research, has become a first step for many interactions and relationships. A little online research, before walking into a store; attending a business meeting of people you don’t know; or considering a new product or service, has almost standard procedure.

Online research is becoming the first step in gathering additional information. In the past, you might have asked friends and colleagues for information, making a few phone calls or inquiries, but now most people include the use of the Web, often using it as the very first step. Using search engines and websites, which includes social media sites like LinkedIn and Facebook, we connect with each other and get an impression.

As a result, what your online presence says about you and your business is often more important than anything you can say yourself, according to Joel.

You and your bank are already a brand, and “a brand that isn’t what you say it is but what Google says it is,” states the author.

The website is now the front door and a first impression to most of your new and future business and your brand. Joel encourages businesses to communicate who they really are and participate and connect in the community the organization has already created or, for new organizations, seeks to create.

Joel believes that when a company adopts a strategy of connectivity, to be effective, it must be what it is now and that must be authentic. The Web and social networks expose you and your company more than ever, and you must be true, authentic, and accurate, while having valuable, meaningful and worthwhile content worthy of connecting to.

What does your website say about your bank? (And do you like it?)

For example, before opening an account at the bank, few have not been to the bank website first. Have they decided to do business with you in spite of this search, or did the search help? 

In Chapter 3, “Entrepreneurship 2.0”, Joel urges business to reconsider their website, which was probably started as an afterthought instead of an integrated six pixel strategy. A website without a strategy is no more than a presence, and as Woody Allen is credited as saying, “80% of life is just showing up” — Joel argues that you can do more.

Many banks do not update their website regularly to provide the online community with valuable information. In fact, even in this day, many bank websites remain little more than online versions of printed brochures.

Some smaller banks have sites that look like school projects, not attractive, not professional, and not very valuable.

If a website isn’t amazing or at least useful, it’s probably irrelevant, according to Joel. Bankers will find that brick-and-mortar branches are still essential distribution mechanisms, but leveraging the digital channels by creating valuable content and commerce though Internet banking strategies, customer acquisition procedures, and disciplined e-commerce practices can be a lower-cost alternative for creating more business and better serve your public.

An illustration applying a six pixel strategy

Having read this section, I applied it to our business, banking.

Let’s say a de novo bank with ambitious growth aspirations adopts the strategy of having a great website with an aggressive e-commerce strategy to differentiate itself from the competition.

The internal growth projections include a number of new clients, like shareholders, who are anxious to open new accounts with the bank. Online new account opening might substitute for the traditional methods, versus having the limited number of bank new-account personnel trying to help as many clients who would physically (and serendipitously) come in during the limited hours the bank is open and whenever the customer has time.

With the traditional method, the bank hopes it has sufficient resources to wait on these clients as they sit at a desk to watch new accounts personnel type, spelling their name (incorrectly, more times than not) and calling it “good service” because it was “personal.”

Gas stations without self-service tried this strategy without much success. Costs drove the buyers away for the “not good service” of the self-service gas station to the faster and cheaper self-service.

The value to the customer can be delivered faster, cheaper, and more conveniently by logging in. A bank’s “good service” to the random serendipitous appearance of clients appearing in the lobby with the appropriate product expert ever on duty to meet the unpredictable need of the client is effective for an ever-smaller market. A “six pixel strategy” can help the connection of new customer to the bank by having many of the non-value-added steps on the Web, such as spelling your own name.

In an age of mobile banking and such, technology allows banks to have unlimited branch locations with customers online—and only “six pixels” apart from bank. Yet very few banks have devoted the time to make their web presence a meaningful substitute for customers. Six Pixels makes a strong case for getting moving.

Applying “six pixels” thinking to repetitive tasks

Six Pixels gets you thinking that we have to start thinking more like customers. Many bank clients really don’t want to talk to bank personnel; they want information that could easily be found on the banks’ website. Many customers are time constrained, if not time bankrupt.

The number of people calling to ask simple questions such as “What are your hours and locations?”, “What is your fax number?”, “May I have a loan application and what additional documentation is required?” A Six Pixel strategy here, to create valuable content, might include putting the most popular inquires and functions on the Web and encouraging customers to use these methods. Some bank websites are designed with search functions to allow the clients faster service by going online with such inquiries. Adopting six pixel thinking will help build Web traffic and lower costs.

Going beyond a mere Web presence to a six pixel connectiveness strategy will create great benefits. Watching your Web statistics and the methods by which your customers access the service will give an indication of the acceptance of your strategy.

The critical “connectiveness”

One of the most important paradigm-shifting concepts that Joel puts forth is the idea that “connectiveness” is a business value.

There are several ways and means to connect to your community. Joel points out there are several advantages to “six pixel” approach. For example, it is easier to drive 100 people to your website than 100 people to your bank.

E-mail has replaced much of the time-wasting snail mail for many organizations wishing to save on escalating postal costs; decrease their carbon footprint; and connect to customers, vendors, and the community. Facebook, blogging, LinkedIn, and other social networking tools are rapidly becoming essentials— and replacements for old strategies like memberships in the PTA, Rotary Clubs, Chambers of Commerce, and county clubs of a previous generation.

If your organization relies on these older methods of connectiveness, your days as a survivor may be limited, in the days of Digital Darwinism.

Your marketing will change if six-pixel-style connectiveness is one of your business values. If your bank defines good service as having a customer service worker, often assigned to other duties, answer customer inquiries—perhaps juggling the phone while taking care of live customers too—your strategy is more “ten touch tones” than “six pixels.”

Indeed, this book will make you look harder at what you are doing. Mobility is part of six pixel thinking. Throughout the book, and particularly in Chapter 13, “Digital Nomad,” and Chapter 5, “Know Control,” this is stressed.

Case in point: Not having e-mail on your mobile phone is no longer a badge of honor. It is now a reflection of the value—or lack thereof—placed on connectiveness in your organization.

Joel describes a growing, increasingly mobile and untethered community. A six pixel strategy without a mobile option is increasingly a contradiction.

Many banks claim to be responsive with great service, but without connections for workers and customers with mobile options, reality is increasingly in conflict with this claim—and conflicts with claims are part of the lack of authenticity of which Joel warns.

Google is in the handset business with Google Phone aka Nexus and android software. The Apple iPhone now makes electronic bank deposits with the right app using the mobile phone function. If all the value of your six pixel strategy must be on a resolution of 600 x 480 screen, you are compromising connectivity and leaving out an increasingly nomadic and mobile market that may find more value with a competitor.

Many organizations discourage the use of employer computers to conduct personal business, for many valuable and reasonable security reasons. But when the bank’s connectivity strategy includes mobile options, they are never more than six pixels away.

Your bank, social media, and six pixels

Six Pixels also dwells a great deal on social networking sites and techniques. There is much meat here for bankers.

Senior Clubs, once very popular in banks, could gain new life by becoming Facebook Fans, for example. Photos and video enhance the experience on a Facebook Fan page. The member photos are “tagged,” and everyone they are connected to is made aware of what they are doing.

This can be an invaluable, subtle endorsement for bank participation.  Many community banks have newsletters, detailing events and opportunities that have already happened. The “Santa visits the community bank story” arrives in January at best. Using social media outlets can bring more value, immediacy, and clients. The more people who join these bank-sponsored activities, the lower the costs can be per participant or the more exotic and creative the program that can develop.

It becomes a virtuous circle, a win-win strategy, where the more members create more benefits for each other and the bank, and this is only one small example.

Doing business without trust

Creating these connections, which Joel calls “C to C” (consumer to consumer), is extremely effective in building business.

In the chapter titled “The Trust Economy,” Joel describes how counterintuitive eBay is–sending money to buy things from people you don’t know or have never met, based in part on a rating given by other people you do not know or never met. It shouldn’t work. But we all know it does, and very well.

The power of the reference, even by people you don’t know personally, can exceed easily most of the efforts that businesses attempt to use to create business themselves. Joel urges businesses to engage their community, such as customers, clients, shareholders and suppliers, to their benefit. An endorsement by part of your community is more valuable than anything you can tell them.

I believe that community banks can work this channel methodically, with a large potential upside benefit. It surely has more potential than old media newspaper ads, throwaway newsletters, or advertisements placed in a variety of unrelated programs operating in the community.

Can your bank go “six pixels”?

Old habits are hard to break. New techniques with great promise may upset the apple cart, so many banks may have a hard time initially integrating the cultural shift of Six Pixels thinking.

Joel offers some sound recommendations, on page 58, to start to embrace technology.  A key step is to discover how strong connectiveness is as a business value in your company. If it isn’t highly valued, the “afterthought website” may be sufficient for now. After ranking connectiveness in the business values, develop a strategy that integrates this into your disciplines.

A few strategies that come to mind after reading the book include:

• Subsidizing office cell phones only with e-mail

• Establishing accounting procedures that force suppliers to deliver invoices electronically, and put routine repeat vendors on automatic payment (like rent expense).

• Requesting that the IT department create a shared e-mail structure with shared inboxes for functions, rather than individuals (Customer Service, New Accounts, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., etc.)

• Encouraging (requiring?) electronic delivery of statements

• Using the Facebook and social media channel at your bank to attract fans, clients, and business.

One caution, and acknowledgement: No strategy should exclude the security and privacy issues unique to banking. A six pixel approach, for a bank, must be compliant, secure, and, frankly, bulletproof.

Further, interacting in social media channels means the bank must pay attention to its online community and be prepared to act quickly with a disgruntled member. Ironically, Joel points out that studies have shown even getting some negative publicity has a positive benefits. It builds authenticity and trust.

There are thousands of other six pixel strategies designed to connect your business with everyone. After the strategies are implemented, continuous improvement is necessary as the world evolves. Joel cautions readers to not count on volume but community. It is far better to do one great thing, he suggests, than many things without excellence in a race to achieve mediocrity. If your community finds your bank relevant and essential, you will have a stronger bond, which is good for business.

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