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61 posts categorized "Small Business Friday"

Friday, November 11, 2011

How To Benefit From A Corporate Master Brand

The romantic way to think about an entrepreneur and a small business owner is as someone who has no real rules they need to follow. As opposed to the worker chained to a corporate job, many small business owners have indeed chosen their path specifically because they wanted to control their own destiny and escape the world of having a boss.

The truth is, there are many way to have your own small business and control your own destiny without necessarily having a complete autonomy over everything you do.  Franchising, for example, is a well known mixture of having your own business while still maintaining some connection to a larger brand. Real estate agent, gas station owners, insurance agents, automotive dealers, accountants – these are all professions where small business owners might still report into some sort of a corporate structure and benefit from their association with a national brand for marketing and credibility.

In these worlds, small business owners recognize that they walk a line between complete independence and adhering to some sort of corporate structure. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing – as long as you maintain your ability to stay independent while using the benefit of the corporate structure while avoiding the potential down sides.  Here are a few ideas on how to do it:

  1. Take the credit. You and your fellow business owners understand the difference between the business you are running and your corporate team, but the average customer probably doesn’t think about it much. As far as they know, the print ad they saw in Vogue was your ad. The TV spot was done with your business in mind.  Most won’t think you paid for it, of course, but don’t shy away from that investment – be open to taking some credit for it.
  2. Know when to zag.  There is no reason when you are running a small business that you should feel accountable to answer for the sins of your father or your brother. When there is a master brand crisis, or a situation with another small business owner in another region – there will always be a way to deal with it that relates specifically to your market and your business. You don’t need to solve the issue for the overall brand … there is hopefully a team already working on that.  You need to manage the risk to your business in whatever way you can.
  3. Look to the superstars outside your brand.  Outside of your brand, there are other small business owners who are making masterful use of their corporate brands while standing out in their regions. Those can be great examples of what you may want to try in your industry and in your brand.

Friday, November 04, 2011

5 Tips For Getting More Press Coverage

One question that many small business owners often wonder is how to get more media attention for their small business. Just because you are a modest sized business, though, doesn’t mean that you should only aim for small localized coverage.  There is nothing wrong with branching out beyond your immediate market and aiming bigger as well.

The truth is that while there is no real substitute for getting a smart and dedicated PR professional to focus on helping you to promote your small business – you can still do a remarkable amount on your own by starting with a few simple techniques that the pros use:

  1. Watch the editorial calendars.  Larger publications and those with a longer lead time (like magazines) are typically put together weeks or even months in advance. Most of them will publish what is called an editorial calendar, that shares what they will be writing about in upcoming issues. Think of it as a sneak peek into what stories will get published … and also a way for you to position your business as a potential part of one or more of those upcoming stories.
  2. Create an influencer/reporter watch list. Reporters are assigned “beats” to cover, which generally refers to which topics they will write about.  Try to create a short list of 5-10 journalists who often write about topics that are relevant to your business or your region if the majority of your customers are local to a particular area.  A good place to start is a website called www.muckrack.com which lists all the journalists who are using social media tools actively – offering an easy way to watch what they write about an eventually reach out to them as well.
  3. Build personal connections.  In the world of media, the old cliché of “it’s not who you know, it’s who knows you” really applies. The more personal connections you can have with journalists, either through meeting in person if you happen to be at the same events, or virtually if you are able to connect over email or social media … the more likely you are to be considered as a source for an upcoming story.
  4. Pitch with headlines and impact.  When it comes to “the pitch,” as an email or phone call to a journalist trying to convince them to talk about your small business is often called, think in terms of headlines.  What is the macro trend or story that you are trying to be a part of?  Ideally, it is bigger than just your business and something new and relevant.  This is the one step where you can get the most benefit from professional help (along with hiring someone with the right media connections, of course).
  5. Make your own coverage.  Getting mentioned in a piece that a journalist writes can be great media exposure, but we also live in a world where you can make your own coverage. This means starting to use tools like blogs and Twitter to share a strong point of view and expertise. If social media isn’t your cup of tea, consider penning a guest article or opinion piece to be published in a relevant media source.  All of these can be excellent ways of getting the message about your business out without relying on a journalist to include you in a story.

Friday, October 28, 2011

A Business Lesson From The Australian Outback

There are several kinds of trees in the Australian outback that need fire in order to survive. The seeds of these trees won’t germinate unless the outer shell of the seeds are burned off by a bush fire.  For thousands of years, this process happened naturally. The aboriginal populations who lived in those areas recognized this and never tried to prevent natural bush fires from happening.

As settlers from Europe populated Australia, however, they started to burn off underbrush to control those same fires to protect nearby homes and people.  As they tragically learned in 2009 when unprecedented heat waves led to huge fires in Australia that sent plumes of smoke over major cities – depriving the land of fire was simply not possible. Eventually the fire still came.

Creating a business that is able to consistently innovate requires a type of thinking more akin to the aboriginals and how they embraced the fire. Fire in small business is the creative spark that helps you to stay fresh, ahead of competitors and continually innovating. Here are a few ways to make sure you are still encouraging the right unstoppable fires in your business to prepare for the future:

  1. Hire people who disagree with you. A fire can come from a debate, and if you only have people in your small business who agree with you – focus on finding some dissenters in the mix. The resulting disagreement that ensues may lead your small business to better ideas that you may not have otherwise come to, as long as you are on the same page about the bigger things.
  2. Look outside your industry. It is tempting to just focus on directly relevant examples of businesses doing something innovative in your space, but sometimes the best idea sparks can come out of reading something completely unrelated to your business. Here’s one easy way to get new ideas – go to a bookstore and pick up a magazine written for an industry that you aren’t in. The ideas you find there might inspire you to try something new for your business.  
  3. Encourage more experimentation. When employees are encouraged to follow the status quo, innovation typically comes to a standstill. What can you do to get people to experiment with new ways of doing things? Can you have employees “swap” jobs for a day? What about encouraging a moment in time where employees come together to think of new untried ways to promote your business or serve your customers better/differently?       

The most successful businesses find a way to stay relevant and avoid stagnating. Your business needs the fire of innovation in order to survive. What are you doing to make sure that fire still happens?

Friday, October 21, 2011

How To Create A CSR Program For Your Small Business

  IMB_TOMS

There is a relatively fancy term and acronym given to all the work that many large organizations do to combat many types of social causes. CSR – or Corporate Social Responsibility – is an umbrella term for everything from water conservation to fighting all kinds of addiction. Increasingly for many large businesses, it is becoming a critical way that they grow brand reputation as well as give back to the communities and societies that they sell to.  But CSR programs are not just for large companies.

Some businesses are famous for how they have built CSR programs into the fabric of their business. Tom’s Shoes calls itself a “socially responsible business” and lives up to it by giving one pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair of shoes you buy. There is growing evidence that it matters more than ever to consumer behavior as well. 

People are reading labels more than ever. They are rebelling against overly processed materials and making choices based on cleaner, healthier, more natural ingredients and processes.  More importantly, they are looking for companies that have a heart. In a groundbreaking book about consumer behavior called “Spend Shift” – the authors termed this the age of “mindful consumption” where the way that people are buying and interacting with businesses is based on more than just a product or service.

Every purchase is a vote, and consumers are taking more ownership over the votes they cast. How can you help your small business to adapt to this trend? Giving back, quite simply, is a smart business strategy.  Here are a few steps:

Step 1: Choose a relevant issue. 

Ideally this will be something that relates to the core nature of your business. Coke uses lots of water, so obviously they should care about it. What’s your similarly relevant issue? They key point here is that you need to focus. Resist the temptation to choose multiple issues – start with one main one, and you can always grow your efforts at a later stage.

Step 2: Find the right partners. 

No matter what issue you choose, chances are there will already be non profit organizations who are working on that issue. Do your research and try to identify the best ones to partner with.  They may not necessarily be the largest either. Think regionally and try to find groups who you can establish a personal connection with and therefore inspire more passion from your customers and employees in supporting them.

Step 3: Build your credibility. 

Simply announcing an issue to focus on isn’t enough, you need to back it up with actions. What foundation are you joining? Which volunteer community are your employees participating in? How much will you set aside to donate? These are the proof points that make your commitment real, and you need them.

Step 4: Evangelize your efforts

This stage is the most potentially beneficial from a marketing point of view for your business, but also needs to be handled carefully. You cannot be seen as exploiting your efforts for business gain … but that doesn’t mean you can’t talk about what you are doing and encourage more of your customers and potential customers to support your efforts either directly, or indirectly by patronizing your business.

Step 5: Maximize your impact.

A great CSR program involves continually reassessing your performance to make sure you are ACTUALLY impacting the issue that you care about. Are your donations getting to the population that needs them? Are you using all the resources that you could be using? Do you have the right partnerships? These questions will help you to optimize your efforts. 

 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

5 Surprising Reasons Haters Are Good For Your Business

There are generally two kinds of businesses, the ones who are afraid of haters and the ones who aren't. A hater is pretty easy to spot - someone who is disgruntled enough to actively turn to every avenue they can find to talk about how much they hate you and your business. They often find their way onto social media, thanks to the low barrier of entry and promise that any invisible comment can find its way onto the highly visible first page of Google results.

Though it may not seem like it, these haters are a good thing. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. Haters expose vulnerability. No business is perfect and haters sometimes have valid points. It requires an open mind to be able to focus on the heart of a complaint and ignore the emotionally charged aspects, but if you do then this can make your business stronger because it helps you hone in on the things that you really need to fix.
  2. Haters can be converted. There are many types of haters that may come to your business. The most frequent type isn’t the one who will passionately hate your business forever, but rather someone who has had a negative experience of some kind. If you can find a way to fix that experience and make it right, that same person can be transformed into your biggest advocate.
  3. Haters bring attention. Though I am not a believer in the “any publicity is good publicity” motto of some … the fact is that when you have people actively talking about how bad or pathetic your business is – it can add visibility and help to keep you from being invisible. If you can find the right ways to counter the negativity, that attention can actually become a good thing.
  4. Haters publicize frequently asked questions. If you have a FAQ page on your website, you will realize the power that answering often asked questions can have for giving potential customers an idea not just of what you do … but also what you DON’T do.
  5. Haters validate social media efforts. If you have been actively using social media, the goodwill that you may have built up with your fans and friends comes in very handy when haters appear. The people you have invested time in building relationships with will often stick up for your brand and fight on your side.

Friday, September 02, 2011

How To Reward Customers Unfairly (And Get Away with It)

IMB_carrothangingIt is natural to worry about being fair.  When you have current customers and are trying to create promotions to lure in new customers, the last thing you want is for those people or organizations that you already work with or other groups of potential new customers to feel unappreciated or marginalized.  At the same time, you want to be able to offer the best incentives at any particular time that work for your business and not have to limit yourself.  So how can you get around this problem and choose to be a bit unfair … but still get away with it?

There are three basic models for unfairly rewarding customers that are being increasingly used by small business owners to face this challenge.  Here is a description of all three and how you might use each one to promote your small business.   

Tactic #1: The First Mover Reward

With this tactic you are setting up a promotion that will reward those who act quickly to get a specific type of service.  While existing customers might be able to take advantage of this, you can increase your chances of reaching primarily newer customers by choosing specifically where you will offer this type of promotion. If your business is focused on helping people to organize their garages and outdoor living, for example, you might consider offering a promotion specifically at an event like a Home & Garden show that mostly newer consumers who you have not worked with before would be likely to attend.  Then you can reward those who do sign up from that event and maintain your regular prices for the rest of your customers.

Tactic #2: The Random Reward

This tactic is self explanatory, but has the added power of engaging customers and potential customers with an uncertain outcome. Everyone loves to win something, but regardless of who wins the reward, you still have a chance to engage each participant with the opportunity to win. This could be something as simple as discounts for products, or more complex like a competition online to be randomly rewarded with some type of prize.

Tactic #3 – The Merit-Based Reward

More and more co-creation style competitions are being launched online where people need to share their best ideas in order to win some type of support or recognition. Doritos let consumers create Super Bowl ads to run on air, but unless you’ve got a few million dollars lying around you probably won’t be recreating that effort.  You might, though, be able to engage your customers and potential customers in an effort to share their best ideas on a specific topic that has some relation to your small business.  That could mean creating a question on Quora.com and asking consumers to answer it. Or creating a series of polls that customers need to answer in order to “earn” some type of discount or special offer. Once you have set some rules in place for getting this special offer through actions, you can follow through and only reward those who are the most engaged.

This post is republished from the original article I wrote for the American Express Open Forum website. It is part of "Small Business Friday" on this blog (though sometimes I'm a day late!) - a featured series on ideas and marketing techniques for small businesses.

To read more articles like this, visit the "Small Business Friday" category on this blog.

Friday, August 26, 2011

What You Can Learn From The Failure of DVORAK

IMB_DVORAK

In 1932 the Carnegie Foundation gave a grant to a Professor at Washington State University to develop the design for the ultimate keyboard. They had good reason to try – as study after study showed that the “QWERTY keyboard” (as it was commonly known) had a terribly inefficient design ever since it was patented back in 1878. 

The QWERTY keyboard was originally meant to offer a solution to the problem of keys sticking together on a typewriter by slowing typing down. The most commonly used letter combinations were placed further apart. The layout of the letters followed no intuitive logic. As a result, it worked for a short period – and solved the problem of sticking keys with an intentionally illogical and inefficient design.

Over time, however, the typewriter technology just got better and it caused Professor August Dvorak to think that in 1932 that the world needed a better design. So with his grant, he invented the DVORAK keyboard. It had a much more efficient design that placed the most commonly used letters in the middle row within easy access. You could now type the 400 most common words in the English language just with the middle row (you could only do 100 on the old QWERTY). The fastest typist in the world, Barbara Blackburn even set a world record of 212 words per minute on a DVORAK keyboard.

Yet we all know how this story ended – Dvorak lost the fight against QWERTY. The DVORAK keyboard design was never adopted on a mainstream, because nearly anyone who had to type had already learned how to use the inefficient system of the QWERTY keyboard at fast speeds and was unwilling to learn a new system. It was faster, easier and better to use the inefficient old solution than the newer, more efficient and clearly superior alternative.

Years later, I still use this example as a powerful reminder to any entrepreneur that sometimes having the best or most efficient solution isn’t the most important thing. There are old habits to break and biases to unlearn. Getting someone to change a learned behavior on anything from choosing one particular vendor or buying a certain type of product requires understanding what you are really up against.

Professor August Dvorak underestimated how much affinity people had for their inefficiently designed QWERTY keyboard. What kind of existing affinity that your customers have are you underestimating? Answering this question can be the first step in avoiding failure and making sure you are not fighting a hopeless cause.

Friday, August 19, 2011

7 Ways to Revamp Your Online Registration Form

IMB_OnlineRegForm A bad online registration form online has sadly become as American as apple pie. The vast majority of them collect useless information, present an annoying barrier to engagement and generally are reviled by anyone who is unlikely enough to have to fill one out online. For the amount of pain involved, you would think the benefits would be life altering.  When you fill out the long registration form before a first doctor’s visit, the up side is that you should get better and more informed treatment that won’t unintentionally kill you. Online registration forms rarely have a comparable benefit.

Of course, we all want to build our lists of people who might buy our stuff. Online registration forms, in general, are meant to capture those types of leads and build the almighty customer database that we all want to have, whether we know what to do with it or not. The basic question you need to ask at the end of it is how much of the information you are currently collecting are you really using for anything that helps your business?  The unfortunate reality is that you are probably collecting lots of information you don’t need, and missing out on some of the most valuable information that you should be asking for.

Here are 5 tips on how you might be able to revamp your online registration form to give you more valuable information, get more people to actually fill it out and use it not just as a way to build your database, but also to get more insights about your potential customers.

  1. Understand your abandonment rate. The first question you should ask before you even start to revamp your form is what is your “abandonment rate?” Put simply, this is the difference between the number of people who visit your form page and view it, and those who actually fill it out and submit it. Understanding, for example, that only 1 out of 50 people who visit your contact us form actually fill it out gives you a starting point to improve on.
  2. Separate form functions. The problem with having one form for everyone is that the information you might ask a current customer for is different from what you might as a potential customer, or a local journalist who wants to profile your business, or a partner/vendor who might want to work with you. Consider having different forms where you can tailor your questions to those audiences.
  3. Include optional questions. Does every question on your form really require an answer? Doing this, you end up with a list of questions that may make your form too much work. Instead, consider the questions that you really need answered and make the rest optional.
  4. Kill your irrelevant questions. Are you asking for a phone number that you don’t need or a mailing address when you never mail anything to your customers? Forget the “standard” fields of a online form and think about what you really want to know.
  5. Always ask for a blog or Twitter URL. The one fundamental truth about anyone who has built up any kind of audience online through a blog or on a tool like Twitter is that they are usually more than happy to share their social media prowess with you. Give them a field on a form where they can tell you just how important their social network is and you will almost always get a response.
  6. Give them multiple options to be contacted. Most of us prefer a certain form of contact, and even though we might volunteer our email address and phone number – what we really want is for you to only email us and NEVER to call. Try to capture that information and you will be one step ahead of your competitors.
  7. Ask how they found you. How will you know if your online marketing is working unless you get a sense from your potential leads of how they found you? Make sure to always ask if someone came to your site from online search, or seeing a billboard, or a referral, or any other way that you might be promoting your business. Knowing the answer to this question will help you to make better marketing decisions in the future.

This post is republished from the original article I wrote for the American Express Open Forum website. It is part of "Small Business Friday" on this blog (though sometimes I'm a day late!) - a featured series on ideas and marketing techniques for small businesses.

To read more articles like this, visit the "Small Business Friday" category on this blog.

Friday, August 05, 2011

3 Ways To Fight The Small Business Inferiority Complex

IStock_000005086698Small Let’s not pretend you don’t know what this post is going to be about. Anyone who has worked in or run a small business has felt the ugly sting of an inferiority complex to their larger rivals at some point. Sure, having your own business is liberating and rewarding and life changing. But sometimes it would be nice to get the corporate card back and walk into a new business opportunity knowing without a doubt that everyone in the room had already heard of your company.

Of course, that’s an overly rosy picture of what it is like to work for a large company – but you get the picture. The thing is, when it comes to this inferiority complex that many small business owners and employees might feel, it typically only comes down to three things: perceived lack of size, perceived lack of experience, and perceived lack of resources. The irony of each of these is that what is holding you back from confidence in your own business in each area is probably the same thing that is making that issue a barrier for your business in the first place.

The good news about that is that if you can address this question for your potential customers, you can likely solve it for yourself and your staff as well. Let’s tackle each of them one by one:

How To Fight Perceived Lack Of Size

When it comes to fighting this perceived lack of size, there are only really two strategies you can employ:

  1. Pretend to be bigger than you are. This is not about lying. The default assumption for most customers, however, is that you business is composed of more than just yourself … so a big part of this is to avoid doing anything to change that assumption. Of course, you can also bring on shorter term partners or advisors who are not really “on staff” but do enough to be part of your business.
  2. Make size the enemy. The second and often better strategy is to make size the very reason why a customer might choose to work with you instead. You can offer more personalized attention, you are not faceless, you are locally located, and your flatter structure means they get more high quality service.

How To Fight Perceived Lack Of Experience

When a customer perceives that your small business may lack experience, they are typically focused on the expertise of your staff.

If you have only been in business for a short time, the perception of your experience will often come from the date of your founding … as if no one in your business was doing anything relevant before that date. The reality, of course, is that you and your staff were likely already working in whatever field your business happens to be in for many years before you started your business … so if you can demonstrate that you can get past this perception.

How To Fight Perceived Lack Of Resources

When it comes to experience in doing the type of work a customer requires, sometimes a customer’s objection will come down to one of scale of resources. “Sure you have delivered 100 widgets for your smaller customers, but we need 1000 widgets – can you really handle that volume?” This is a harder objection to address, but you need to show either through increased staff or production that even though you haven’t done a larger volume order yet … you are prepared to handle it.

This post is republished from the original article I wrote for the American Express Open Forum website. It is part of "Small Business Friday" on this blog - a featured series on ideas and marketing techniques for small businesses.

To read more articles like this, visit the "Small Business Friday" category on this blog.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Could You Sell A Pumpkin In August?

IMB_pumpkins There is a moment when everyone does the same thing. Right around the 4th of July, most people will buy fireworks. And April 15th is one of the universally dreaded days of the year in the US, where millions of Americans seek help to file their taxes. And in the days before Halloween, everyone buys a pumpkin. The point is, many purchase behaviours are ruled by the principle of peak moments which define our activities.

As small business owners, chances are you have figured out the peak behaviours for your customers and are doing the same things that many of your competitors are doing. Whether that means staying open late around the winter holiday season or creating seasonal promotions, marketing to customers at a peak moment is a necessity of business – and most of us have a plan for it.

How much are you doing, however, to actively focus on marketing to your customers during off-peak moments? Today you can purchase washing machines with timers so they will wash your clothes during the night when water costs are lower – but few other aspects of our lives allow us to appreciate the potential of off-peak activities. In general, we live in a world where the power of off-peak activities are under-appreciated.

What if you owned the nightclub that only opened at midnight and stayed open until 6AM? Or the only movie theater to have breakfast film showings – at 7am?  Or you had the only dentistry with evening office hours? This is not only about timing either.

Thinking off peak means more than selling a Turkey during Thanksgiving. How about focusing on selling tickets for holiday packages the day after a long weekend so you can target all those customers who saw their friends go away for the weekend and wished they had as well? Or promoting a house to sell during a relatively unpopular buying time during the school year?

As more and more small businesses feel the pinch to conserve their marketing dollars, your competitors are more likely than ever to only have a marketing strategy focused on the peak moments for your industry. As a result, thinking off peak can not only help you reach customers and potential customers in unexpected ways, it can also help you to focus more marketing effort on a moment that your competitors are ignoring completely.