The Year of the Blog

Are you one of those people who wakes up every morning and “reads” your smart phone as though it were the newspaper? I am! I check each email inbox, then move on to my news feeds. If it’s a good day, I can spend at least half an hour browsing the day’s top stories over a cup of coffee. Something I read today caught my eye…

Somewhere in my Twitter feed this morning was a business article stating how 2012 was the year of Twitter. According to the author, last year Twitter ruled the social media scene.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say 2013 is going to be the year of the blog. Just in the past couple of weeks, I’ve read at least a dozen articles and blogs about content marketing. This morning my Sunday newsletter from business genius Chris Brogan was all about how to create content that interests your customers and makes them feel like they are a part of something–like they belong.

In my experience, creating content is the hardest part of blogging. Setting up a blog is fun and exciting, linking the blog to social media accounts is satisfying, but there’s something about sitting down and staring at a blank screen that sucks the inspiration right out of me.

If I’m right and content will be king in 2013, then small business owners who want to stay on the path to sustainable growth must understand the importance of blogging. My advice? Take a cue from Twitter’s success and make your blog more like a conversation. Keep it light rather than formal. Ask questions. And at least some of the time, share content about topics you truly love. If you’re passionate about what you’re writing, chances are you’ll strike a nerve with someone else who shares the same interest.

Are you one of those people who shares online content when you find it truly engaging or entertaining? I am, and if my social media feeds are any indication, most of us are. I believe this year, the most successful small business owners will be the ones who create content that compels their audience to join the conversation. So what are you waiting for?

Small Business Tip of the Day: Understand Your Target Market

In business school, the subject of defining target markets comes up repeatedly. Define the market with demographics and psychographics, don’t be too general, don’t narrow it down too much, do your research and slice that pie!!

Although identifying your target market is undoubtedly an important step in creating your overall marketing plan, I think a lot of small business owners get lost in the technical lingo and either try to market to everyone or fail to formulate a plan at all. As someone who’s not a fan of the “Ready, Aim, Fire” approach, I want to share my take on how small business owners can better understand their target customers.

Target

1.  Define the original purpose of your business. Yes, again. Many small business owners who are fighting for enough business to turn a profit lose sight of their original goals. Stop for a second and write down why you are in business. What product or service are you offering? Be specific and try to remember why you started your company in the first place. Did you want to help others? Was your goal to get rich? Did you desire to make a name for yourself? Whatever the reason, get back in touch with that logic. Make sure it still applies, and reaffirm your commitment to doing business the way you always intended. If you don’t take this first step to defining your overall business goal, then you can’t very well understand your target market.

2.  Look at the the customer base you currently have. Who is using your service? What is the average person who buys your product like? Instead of trying to come up with an age, sex, income level, etc. for your target customer based on what you think your target customer looks like, take a hard look at what they actually look like. You may be surprised at what you find, but effective marketing is aimed at the people who want to buy your products, not at the ones you think should be buying them.

3.  Connect the dots. Once you are 100% committed to your business goals and you have a good idea of who your most frequent customers are, all you have to do is put the pieces together. Find a creative way to show those target customers your business meets a need they currently have or will have in the near future. When I reach out to potential clients, I like to consider the lifestyle of my target customers and show them how my business fits in with and improves that lifestyle. You have to find the approach that works best for your business, and if you have a hard time with this step it may be a good idea to seek the advice of a business consultant.

I know the demographic/geographic/whatevergraphic approach to market definition serves its purpose, especially when applied by professionals and academic experts. But if you are the average small business owner, then you may not have the knowledge or the patience to wade through the jargon.

My advice: Understand that marketing to the appropriate customers is a worthy investment, and apply whatever method allows you to focus on and reach those customers.

Stay focused and do work!
Stay focused and do work!

Simple Marketing Rules for Small Businesses

I recently had a marketing inquiry from a small business owner in Cabo who needs help with her web pages. Her concern was that I would not be able to work with her budget, since she recently spent too much on advertising already and is still not seeing the traffic she hoped for.

Her budget I can work with. I really try to work with any budget so the business owner can see results as soon as possible. But her mistake in spending on the wrong type of marketing really got me thinking. I want to share some simple Dos and Donts for small businesses so overspending in the wrong marketing areas can be minimized.

Do

1. Do make setting up a website and social media pages a priority. In today’s world, a business without a website is easily forgettable. Many customers investigate a company’s reputation online before paying for their products/services, so if you don’t have a website you automatically lose a bit of credibility. The same goes for social media–these days businesses are expected to be connected, so take advantage of the free networking opportunities and create some basic social media pages.

2.  Do use your connections in the community to publicize your business. Attend networking parties and events to pass out business cards and meet new contacts. Write your own press releases and send them to local newspapers, magazines and online journals. A press release does not have to be perfect, just look up the format and write about your new business or your new product launch. If you already have a blog or social network page, publicize the businesses you know and trust in the area–many will pay you back with free advertising on their own pages or via word-of-mouth referrals.

3.  Do follow up on every customer inquiry or comment. This is especially important at the beginning. Think of building your network as an investment. It truly is.

Don’t

1.  Don’t spend money on print ads, no matter how tempting the deal or how convincing the salesperson is. Take it from a Journalism major, print is a dying business. The chances are high that your ad will be tossed out before it’s even seen by a majority of readers. You’ll have far more reach with online networking–the world is literally your audience online.

2.  Don’t pay a web developer to do your website until you investigate all your options. Sites such as WordPress or Weebly allow you to build your own basic website for free. I encourage you to take a look at these sites and explore their features. Most small businesses could get by with a site built on one of these platforms while you start generating income, and they really are easy to use even if you know nothing about web programming. You may be able to save thousands by doing your own website or by paying a friend to set it up for you using one of these sites.

3. Don’t use your personal social media pages as your business pages. No matter how much you feel your business reflects your personal life, it just takes one photo of you after hours or on vacation to give a new client the wrong idea. Don’t risk tarnishing your business reputation with a personal comment that can be taken out of context on your personal social media pages. If you keep the business pages separate, you will also likely give more thought to the content you post.

I hope these rules help you navigate the tricky waters of marketing your small business on a budget. It can be difficult, but the results of effective, affordable marketing can be so rewarding when you start earning greater profits.

Motivation: Three Easy Ways to Get Out of the Slump

Fear. Worry. Anxiety.

These emotions almost always accompany one of my “slumps,” as I choose to call those periods when I lack any and all motivation to get anything done. Prior to starting my marketing business, a motivational slump might have had such relatively harmless results as an overflowing laundry basket, a brief lapse in personal hygiene (eek!) or even gaining an extra pound or two due to not lacing up my running shoes.

http://myinnershakti.com/2012/01/page/2/

These days a slump seems far more dangerous. What if I miss the chance to connect with a potential client just because I’m not feeling up to logging in? Shouldn’t I be posting more blog entries? How negatively does it affect my reputation if I don’t tweet enough?

Well, fresh off the high of launching my business, taking a trip to Baja and getting some very promising leads, this past week I found myself smack in the middle of a slump. I should have seen it coming. I was recently moved to a new location in my day job, which means I’m learning and adjusting (read: getting a mental workout) for 45 hours a week right now. I’m feeling less and less satisfied with my day job in general and that leads to frustration that inevitably spills over into my work at home. Though I know I must be patient, I find myself getting worked up over wanting to work on helping others full-time through my business.

http://www.wolfescape.com/Humour/WorkStress.htm

All this stress and dissatisfaction created my most recent slump, and as I contemplated how to get out of it I received a timely email newsletter from Chris Brogan. His newsletters usually make me feel good in general, and he has a unique ability to write to thousands of people as though he is writing to a dear friend. This newsletter was just what I needed, as the topic was Facing Failure. And when I’m in a slump, I feel like a total failure. After reading his advice, I decided to offer a few tips of my own:

1.  Give yourself a break.

If I did this more, then I am certain I’d experience fewer slumps. If you spend day and night working on one thing or another like I do, then take the time once in awhile to rest and do nothing. Or do something fun. But don’t allow yourself to work. Sometimes when I relax a little bit, I actually get inspired so much that when I go back to my laptop I perform far better than if I force myself to sit down and write something when I’m not motivated.

2.  Take baby steps.

This is a strategy I apply throughout my life, both at work and at home. Whenever I get overwhelmed to the point of feeling useless, I set a tiny goal that I know I can reach. I definitely have lofty aspirations of bringing together entire communities and driving tourism all up and down the Baja peninsula through good marketing practices. But I can’t get there overnight. Hell, sometimes I can’t even think of anything interesting to put on in the morning! So when I’m in a slump, I write down something I know I can achieve that very day. It may be to organize one of my online accounts, respond to a simple email or even just clean my office. Once you get going, you’ll find it hard to stop.

3.  Don’t give up.

Even if you try your best to get inspired and it doesn’t work, don’t get so down on yourself that you throw in the towel. There is a natural flow to life that includes ups and downs. Keep trying! There are many quotes on the topic of not giving up, but an old favorite comes via a quick story from my own life. When my mom was losing her fight with the unexpected return of her brain cancer, I was five hours away at college. Not sure of anything and scared to death, a teary-eyed co-worker made sure I got safely into my car. As I set out to face the unknown, she whispered in my ear, “Sometimes you just have to fake it ’til you make it.” Meaning things might not be okay today, or tomorrow, or for a long time. But one day they will be, and we have to keep moving forward until that day comes.

http://www.seussville.com

So get up. Do something. Do anything and do it well. Though, as Dr. Seuss points out in Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, “un-slumping yourself is not easily done.” In another one of my favorite sources of inspiration, he later declares, “Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So, get on your way!” Yes!!!

Your Business: Four Things Smart Marketers Do

“Lady Gaga is a marketing genius.”  I’ve heard this phrase uttered more times than I care to count.  And while I’d love to debate the merits of who (or what) is really behind what Gaga does and whether it’s genius or insanity, I can’t deny she keeps her fans engaged about her next move.

Image: style.popcrunch.com

Ask three different business professionals for a simple definition of marketing, and you will probably get three different answers.  Some say it’s simply advertising.  Others call it meeting the needs of your target customers.  Marketing blogger Heidi Cohen put together a list of 72 marketing definitions here.  My personal favorite from her list is #14:

“Marketing is creating irresistible experiences that connect with people personally and create the desire to share with others.”  –Saul Colt of Fresh Books

Call me a jaded consumer, but it takes something out of the ordinary to catch my eye and make me want to share an experience with others.  Since launching my own business, I have definitely taken note of some recent experiences that made an impact on me as a consumer and definitely made me think about how we can make and maintain great relationships with our clients.

Here are four ways businesses with which I frequently interact have gotten it right:

1.  Be a brand champion.  I have always been a fan of this concept ever since I first heard about it in business school.  A brand champion is someone who backs the brand 110% and always defends the reputation of the brand at all times.  If, as a small business owner, you are not passionate about your product or service, then you are not your own brand champion and will enjoy mediocre success at best.  I am continually impressed by one particular local restaurant chain, which has many brand champions in its waitstaff.  Every face smiles at me when I walk through the store, the staff talks about their other locations to guests and the management team is involved in promoting the brand via social media.  When you have numerous individuals who believe in the brand and are willing to try to convince others it’s worth a try, the resulting satisfaction with the company’s product or service is infectious and customer loyalty is guaranteed.

2.  Do something different.  I have been a customer of the clothing company Express for many years.  Each year, like many companies, they send me a coupon just before my birthday for a nominal amount.  Sometimes the coupon brings me into the store, other times it sits in my purse until I toss it out months later.  This year, however, I opened my birthday card from Express to find a whopping $40 coupon inside!  I couldn’t get to the store fast enough.  I thought it was genius.  No other company has ever rewarded my loyalty in such an attention-getting manner.  And, as I’m sure they planned, I spent well more than the gifted amount of $40 on my visit.  If you can’t offer major discounts at every turn, then think of a way to make a significant impact and reward your customers in a way they will not be able to forget.  A round of drinks on the house, a free little something when they least expect it or an exception to the rule whenever possible will go a long way with most people.

3.  Deliver what you advertise.  This one seems like a no-brainer, but you might be surprised by how many firms are doing it wrong.  On a recent weeknight after work, I decided to order takeout from a family-owned hole-in-the-wall near my house.  I Yelped the place and found rave reviews plus a link to conveniently place my order online.  I was sold.  They offered one of my favorite dishes, shrimp fettuccine alfredo, which I excitedly ordered, for $15 plus tax.  I didn’t care about the price; I was hungry and eager to try something new.  When I got home with my order, I pried back the foil container, thrust my plastic fork into the steaming pasta and…was extremely disappointed to find it was bland and chewy.  Determined to set the record straight, I logged in to Yelp and left my opinion of the meal, describing my displeasure.  I ate some popcorn for dinner and didn’t give the place another thought.  UNTIL…a couple of months later, the owners of the restaurant commented on my review.  Thanking me for my honest feedback, I was thoroughly impressed to see that the little mom-and-pop place had upgraded to jumbo shrimp in their fettuccine pasta due to my review.  They changed the recipe!  And in making every attempt to deliver on their promise of a fresh, delicious meal, they will see me in their restaurant again.  These business owners not only listened to their customer, they followed up and let everyone know they were back on track with the problem solved.

4.  Admit when you’re wrong.  In my day job, I repeatedly tell my staff not to be afraid of a guest complaint.  My hope is to help them realize each time a guest is dissatisfied, we as a company have an opportunity to win them over by going above and beyond to solve their issue.  Of course, the last thing I want is for my employees to drop the ball, but, if they do (because we are only human), then perhaps our handling of the situation can create a customer for life.  I had an extremely negative experience last year with a large furniture chain here in San Diego, specifically with the scam insurance they convinced me to buy.  I Yelped about it, expressing my satisfaction with the products I purchased but clearly spelling out how selling a con insurance policy was negatively affecting their reputation.  I was contacted by a customer service representative, who at this point could have turned me into a loyal return customer.  Instead, she made me feel as though I were stupid and had violated the terms of the insurance.  She repeatedly defended the policy despite my making it blatantly clear (with examples) that I did not believe it to be legitimate insurance.  We emailed back and forth a few times before settling on a resolution–a prorated refund of the insurance fee I had paid.  I still might have returned to her store if she had simply apologized and processed the refund.  I am sorry to say she never contacted me again and the refund was never credited to my account.  While I can understand her desire to back her company, I do not believe it is ever okay to make the customer feel as though he or she has done something wrong, and at some point you just have to admit your company failed and find a resolution that works for both parties.

While I know some of these examples don’t have the most obvious ties to marketing, if you consider them in the context of what you can do to better promote your small business, I believe they can help.  Marketing has many definitions, and I think one of the most important aspects of this concept is making that personal connection with your customers in an endless sea of choices.

Twitter: The Good, The Bad and The #$%?!

Tweeting. Twitterverse. Tweeps. If the mere mention of these terms makes you nervous, you’re not alone. Despite boasting more than 500 million registered Twitter users worldwide, only about one-third of all Americans use the service. And according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, even CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are reluctant to jump on the Twitter bandwagon. So if the rich and successful business man doesn’t use Twitter to promote his company, why should you?

The answer is simple.  And in this case, it comes in the form of a question from someone far more qualified than I am to speak on the subject. In the above-referenced WSJ article, management professor and former CEO Bill George asks,

“Can you think of a more cost-effective way of getting to your customers and employees?”

Considering all the social media channels at our disposal and the relative cost of each, I think George’s question should have more businesses asking, “Where do we sign up?”

Twitter is only one platform for growing your business network, but I recommend it to all of my clients because it is free, offers an enormous audience, and, in most cases, puts your business ahead of the curve in terms of social media presence. Businesses in my consulting demographic truly need to use as many social media sites as possible because they are targeting American tourists with smart phones who are connected to social media 24/7.

And now, my personal rant (a.k.a. The Bad Side).

I recently experienced a moment of panic when my shiny new Twitter account was suspended just a few days after I opened it. I could not believe my ability to connect with the world could be taken away without notice and seemingly without reason. After several minutes of frantic Googling to find a solution, I contacted Twitter via their appeals process.  Surprisingly, someone replied to me very quickly with a verdict. My crime?  An “aggressive following pattern.” Sheesh. More on that a little later. The moderator who replied to me promised after I pledged to stop violating their policies my account would be restored within the hour. It was about 24 hours before I could use my account again, but upon logging in I was relieved to find  everything just as I had left it.

Which brings me to the negative. Twitter is a third-party service that can decide on a whim to shut down or suspend your account. My violation of their terms consisted of sitting down on my couch one Sunday morning and following a number of businesses in the region I will be visiting shortly. I thought I was doing myself a favor and building a legitimate Twitter feed.  They called it “annoying other users.” Then, as I mentioned, they called me aggressive–a term I take offense to when used to describe me anywhere outside of my coed softball league.

This story has two morals: If we want to win at marketing with Twitter, then we have to play by their rules. Even if sometimes those rules are vague and subjective.

The other moral of the story? Sometimes Twitter sucks. And that’s just part of life in the 21st century.