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2011

Before launching a public relations campaign, or even sending out a single press release, there is a step small businesses need to take. You should determine your company’s story and the tone and language that you are going to use to communicate it. In other words, you need to develop strategic messages.

 

Messaging.pngStrategic messages are a set of statements about your company that address the needs and problems of your customer base, highlight your company’s strengths and differentiate your company from the competition. Once you have developed and tested your strategic messages for effectiveness and simplicity, you will not have to reinvent the wheel every time you communicate with the public. Whether you’re writing an article for a trade publication, sending out a press release, delivering a speech or posting on Facebook, the same strategic messages should be used.

 

As you develop messages, it is important to use clear, specific, language that resonates with your target audience. So, if you’re a messenger service and know that your customers value speed of delivery, you may want to use terms like “lightning fast” or “in the blink of an eye.” By contrast, if you’re a financial advisory firm and your customers value trustworthiness above all else, you will want to use language with more gravitas and dignity, i.e. “long history of success in the financial markets” and “the partner you can depend on.”

 

Finally, the venue and tone you choose to deliver your messages must be tailored to address the demographic and psychographic attributes of your customers. For example, if you own a knitting supply store, you probably won’t use a lot of pop cultural references, or Twitter to reach potential customers. If you own a wine store for young professionals, creating an online YouTube video about wine tasting would be strategic. And if you own a bookstore that seeks to attract families, it would be best to come across as friendly and energetic instead of edgy and aggressive.

 

How do you come up with the key messages you want to convey?  Here are some tips:

 

  1. Perform a “SWOT” analysis to define your market position, i.e. articulate your Strengths (S), Weaknesses (W), market Opportunities (O) and market Threats (T).
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  3. Undertake a competitive analysis of what your competitors are saying about themselves in marketing collateral, websites and media coverage.
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  5. Use your analysis to develop messages that speak to customers’ problems and needs. Messaging Pull Quote.png
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  7. Know when to appeal to customer emotions with a “voice” that will speak to them. Or, when to appeal to their intellect via detailed information.
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  9. Do not highlight generic company attributes that would be expected of almost any company large or small, i.e. “quality products” or “great service.”
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  11. Avoid making claims that your company cannot deliver.
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  13. Always keep messages simple and clear. Be even more concise and snappy when delivering messages via online and social media.
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  15. Update your messages as market conditions and trends evolve.
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  17. Refine messages based on customer feedback.
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  19. Keep in mind that you are speaking to customers – not reporters; the media is simply the conduit to your customers, partners and investors. A different tone will need to be used for each.

 

Remember that a handful of informative articles that reflect your company’s strategic messages are more valuable than a stack of press clippings that mention your company but do not address your customers’ needs. Take the time to develop messages and then you can launch a media campaign that has true business value.

PR.pngDuring the last few years, social media has stolen some of the thunder of traditional public relations in the eyes of businesses of all sizes. Even prior to the explosive use of the Internet, small businesses in particular often put advertising and marketing ahead of public relations, perhaps because of insufficient budgets, and in some cases, because of a lack of understanding of how public relations is different from the other two communications practices. However, small businesses would be wise not to forget this tried-and-true form of communication.

 

Unlike social networking, public relations can allow a small business to carefully safeguard its business reputation in a controlled manner. Unlike one-size-fits-all advertising, public relations techniques facilitate the delivery of strategically crafted messages, customized for each of your audience segments. And unlike marketing, which is one-directional, public relations can foster a reciprocal relationship and dialogue with all of your stakeholders: customers, partners, employees, the community and the media.

 

What is “Public Relations”?

While the term “public relations” may be defined differently depending on the perspective, it is useful for you to hear the definition given by Entrepreneur magazine: public relations is “using the news or business press to carry positive stories about your company or your products.” Ideally, these stories should comprise strategically crafted messages that your company controls and that differentiate your business from the competition.  While these messages should be reflected in every communication your company disseminates, the story you tell should be customized according to your business objective. For example, you may be focused on:

 

  • Increasing awareness of your products and services;
  • Attempting to shift buying behavior;
  • Fostering loyalty among current customers;
  • Calling attention to community issues that affect your business;
  • Encouraging an informed discussion in the community and surrounding areas;
  • Reinforcing your marketing efforts; orPR Pull Quote.png
  • Restoring credibility or responding to a crisis.

 

PR on a Small Business Budget

Although only eight percent of small businesses have the budget to hire an outside public relations firm[i], there are many activities that a savvy small business owner and designated staff can handle on their own:

 

  1. Write an article for a trade magazine. Byline articles that reflect unique industry expertise are of great interest to trade publications that have to fill their pages with interesting content month after month. Articles on a new trend you see on the horizon; insider’s knowledge of happenings in your industry; or little-known uses for your products will give you twice the bang for your buck if you create color-printed copies to mail to your customer list after the article appears in print.

 

  1. Offer free lectures and seminars. Volunteering at community organizations to give a free lecture or interactive seminar is a great way to increase awareness of your business. Be sure to bring marketing brochures and discount coupons so that increased visibility can lead to real-world traffic and actual sales.

 

  1. Interact with your community. There are many ways you can raise your profile as an active, positive force in your community, which is ultimately made up of potential customers. Donate your product or service to not-for-profit organizations, churches and cultural organizations. Send samples of your product to local media along with a press release. Sponsor a charitable event that has some synergy with your business.

 

  1. Don’t forget the press release. As long as you don’t send out a press release every time there’s a minor development in your company, the media (particularly local media) is still responsive to this formal way of communicating. Journalists depend on press releases – as opposed to blog posts and Twitter feeds – because they include the quantifiable and official details about a company. One way that the press release has changed, however, is that it is now acceptable to include video, photos and links to your business’s social media presence.[ii] If you have a small, focused media list, press releases can be disseminated via e-mail. However, if you need advice on publications to target or want to reach a national or international audience, consider using a wire service (e.g. Businesswire and PR Newswire).

 

Of course, there are many other activities that fall under the auspices of public relations, although some do overlap with marketing and advertising such as corporate Web sites; sales brochures; external newsletters; corporate identity design, and many more. However, unlike advertising and marketing, public relations can be pursued with a limited budget; provides business value before, during and after a sales transaction; and can be the key to your small business’s future.


  

 


 

[i] Moss, D., Ashford, R., & Shani, N. (2003), The forgotten sector: Uncovering the role of public relations in SMEs.  Journal of Communication Management, Vol. 8, Iss. 2, p. 197-210.

[ii] Mirabile, J. (Nov. 2010), Is social media now a better media relations tool than the press release? PRWeek, Vol. 13, Iss. 11, p. 27.

White-in-article.jpgWhat makes your small business valuable to your customers?

 

by Max Berry.

 

These may not be economic boom times, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still attract new customers to your small business. The trick is in knowing which customers to go after. Here are some tips for identifying—and attracting—the right customers for your small business.

 

Socialize For Success

If you want to attract the right customers, you must first be explicit about who you are. “Our personality is reflected in everything we do,” says Whitney Martin, founder of the Richmond, Virginia-based women’s fitness boutique Styles Group Fitness.

 

One cost-free way Martin broadcasts her personality is by maintaining a social media presence. “I’ve never paid for advertising,” she says. “I’ve done [my marketing] through social media.” The way you express yourself through social media—from the tone of your Twitter blasts to the photos and videos you share on Facebook—will speak volumes about your business, and act as a direct link to like-minded customers.

 

“Specificity is an advantage small business has over large business,” says Jimmy Vee, who is a co-founder of consulting firm Gravitational Marketing and an advisor to Martin. “People need to feel like they have a relationship with you before they’ll do business with you.”

 

Pull-Quote.jpgEstablishing that kind of relationship with your existing customers will help attract new ones. In a slow economy, people wary of spending money are more apt to listen to their friends and associates than to advertising. “When you’re clear about who your customer is, people love to refer,” says Vee’s Gravitational Marketing partner Travis Miller.

 

Martin notes that her customer base is “almost one hundred percent referrals.” But she is also honest with all prospective clients. “I’ll have a woman say, ‘This is what I’m looking for,’ and if I don’t feel I can give that to her, I’ll refer her to another gym. I don’t want to be all things to all people.” And clearly she doesn’t need to be; after just 18 months in business, Styles Group Fitness is expanding to new locations in Virginia and North Carolina.

 

Shake Things Up

A bad economy is no excuse to get complacent. “If you’re not experimenting, you’re not living,” says Miller. He and his partner Vee note that companies that market in new and creative ways throughout a recession come out on the other side with a greater market share.

 

One way to get creative with your own marketing is to partner up with a complementary, non-competing business in your area. Martin, for her part, linked up with a woman who runs a nearby wedding invitation store. After Martin interviewed her for an online radio show she used to produce, the owner of the store wrote about Martin’s company in a blog post read by 400 brides-to-be. “It’s all about connecting,” Martin says of the relationship, “all about [saying]

‘I want to create value in your business, can you make value in mine?’”

 

Slow economic times are also ideal for experimenting with and rolling out new products and services. By making it known that you’re still striving to be the best, most innovative company you can be, you’ll set yourself apart from those businesses that appear fearful of change.

 

“Sell something different, sell to someone completely different,” advises Vee. “I recommend picking a strategy and going all in. If it works, great. If not, go back and start again.” Martin concurs: “Some business owners create a box and say ‘I have to fit within that box.’ I think a good business is a business that evolves. The best business owners are people that not only keep their eyes out for new opportunities, but are willing to pursue them.”

 

The Pursuit of Affluence

Of course, the right customer for any business is the one willing to spend money. This may lead many entrepreneurs to believe the best way to attract new customers is to slash prices. Not so, says Vee: “People think of price as the motivating factor, so many would think it best to lower prices. But that leaves you with low profitability and no money for customer service.”

 

Rather than slashing prices in an effort to cast the widest net possible, Vee and Miller recommend targeting more affluent customers. They also cite Styles Group Fitness, which is geared toward women with household incomes of $100,000 or more per year, as a prime example of this strategy.

 

Martin herself is quick to acknowledge the affluence angle in her own business model, but she also stresses the importance of being inclusive. “Some clubs can make you feel excluded, but our overall attitude is one of open arms,” she says. “I have a college student and a girl who works at a mall kiosk [as clients] and they don’t make that kind of money—fitness is just really important to them.”

 

So, naturally, is finding the fitness program that best suits their needs. “There’s been lots of talk over the last decade of value, of extra stuff,” says Miller. “But we’ve found greater importance in actually being valuable.”

 

And by making all of her customers feel like they’re part of a community, Martin’s commitment to being valuable is able to attract customers that might not ordinarily fit her customer base, like that girl working at the mall kiosk. “Like attracts like,” says Martin. “It’s about getting into a group of people and finding common ground. That’s what I want to do. All of my time and energy goes back to my customers.”

Blogs. Tweets. Posts. It is undeniable that social media is an increasingly important and influential part of our daily personal and professional reality and will only continue to grow with the proliferation of tablet devices and mobile applications. It is estimated that by 2013, 164.2 million Americans (or 67 percent of internet users in the U.S.) will participate in social networks.

 

Social Networking White-in article.pngWith nearly 150 million Americans regularly accessing social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook, social networking has been embraced by performers, politicians and the population at large. Even the White House has an official presence on the platforms mentioned above, plus its own blog-powered website.

 

For businesses of all sizes, some form of social media presence has become a requirement as well as a measure of “cool cred” and legitimacy. Consumers are turning to Facebook fan pages and Twitter feeds before company websites to receive news on their favorite brands and to engage with company leadership and peers. According to Sale Spider research, 75 percent of small and mid-size business owners plan to make social networking a larger part of their marketing mix in 2011, while two-thirds said social networking has already served to boost sales and revenue.

 

Creating Your Social Media Strategy

For small business owners, social media is an effective and inexpensive vehicle to quickly and easily deliver targeted messages to key audiences and generate widespread visibility for new products and business milestones. Moreover, social media can also function as a free focus group, providing a forum to engage directly with customers and keep your finger on the pulse of evolving preferences, perceptions and opinions.

 

However, harnessing the power of social media for business purposes is somewhat of a science. While a good number of you likely have personal accounts on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. navigating and leveraging these platforms to build visibility and loyalty for your business is a whole different ball game with its own set of rules and complexities.

 

So Where Do You Start?

As with any other business planning process, the first step is to determine what you want your social media strategy to achieve. For example, is your goal to promote a specific product or service, build a mailing list or enhance brand recognition in the real and/or virtual worlds? Or maybe you are seeking to recruit employees or debunk misinformation about your company?Social Networking Pull Quote.png

 

Once you’ve identified your priorities, the next step is to define the target audience for your campaign, as well as the forums that are most likely to reach them. In addition to broad entities like Facebook and Twitter, there are multitudes of online communities and portals organized around geographies, demographics, pastimes, industries and life stages (e.g. CafeMom, BlackPlanet.com, MiGente.com, BabyCenter, etc.). As you become familiar with the full spectrum of options, you will be able to determine which sites are most likely to yield the best return on your investment of energy, time and potentially capital. Once you implement a strategy, services such as Viralheat, Buzzstream, Twitalyzer and Klout can help you measure effectiveness.

 

Rules of Engagement

Arguably, perhaps the most important part of crafting a successful social media strategy is building an online voice that is true to your brand identity while resonating with your key audiences. Though each social network has its own culture and mores of behavior, there are a number of best practices for operating in a paradigm where the premium is on personalization and the currency is conversation.

 

 

  • Be Engaged – Contrary to traditional advertising, which tends to be a one-directional message push to a passive audience, social networking is premised on the notion of a dynamic and interactive relationship. Just like in real life, effective social networking requires cultivating and nurturing friendships. This means regularly sparking dialogue with your Twitter followers, blog readers, Facebook fans, LinkedIn discussion group members, etc, and responding to their questions in a timely manner. Similarly, it means understanding that you can’t just walk away from a difficult conversation or lash out when someone expresses an opinion you do not agree with. If a client criticizes your product, or service, on a review site like Yelp, Citysearch or TripAdvisor, you need to follow-up with a constructive response that demonstrates that you value the input and are concerned with their satisfaction.

 

  • Be Interesting Remaining relevant in an environment rife with competitive noise and an endless supply of audio and visual stimuli requires delivering interesting, useful and/or entertaining content on a continuous basis. Clearly, what’s appropriate will vary depending on the nature of your business but videos, webinars, podcasts and discussion posts on issues germane to your audience are a few examples of possible tools and platforms you can use to drive traffic and keep your audience engaged.

 

  • Be Authentic and Transparent The essence of social networking is by definition social. In some ways, it is no different than entertaining, with the business playing both the host and the guest. As the host of a forum, blog, etc., you are responsible for creating an environment where your guests can feel safe and comfortable. Simultaneously, you are being invited into your audience’s personal space which naturally involves a certain level of credibility and trust. Therefore, like in any other social setting, an aggressive, hardball approach is not likely to fly. Realistically, would you ever in real life, just walk up to someone at a function or on the street and launch into a product hard sell without any introduction or small talk?

 

With social networking, the best way to position your brand and generate positive word of mouth is to build confidence and affinity by being personable and honest about product claims and other disclosures. Several years ago, Wal-Mart learned the hard way that, in cyberspace, conversation cannot be manufactured or controlled. Wal-Marting Across America, a folksy blog purportedly penned by a couple who crossed the nation in an RV and parked in Wal-mart parking lots was revealed to be funded and run by Wal-mart’s PR agency. The Flog, or fake blog, was lambasted by the blogosphere as well as traditional media and harmed Wal-mart’s reputation.

 

  • Be Committed – For all its benefits, social networking can also be time consuming. Determining who in the organization is responsible for the social media effort, and how much time should be allotted to these activities, is a key component of a strong social media strategy. According to Tom Austin, a VP at Gartner, social networking cannot “just be individuals” operating independently. To be successful, social networking must be focused, systemic and consistent.

 

Social Networking Platforms

Whether social networking is becoming the lifeblood of your business or if you’re just getting your feet wet, the following is an overview of the most popular platforms:

 

 

  • Blogs done right allow you to share stories and messages in an authentic and informal manner and enable you to make a meaningful connection with your audience. They are relatively fast and simple to create, easily findable via RSS, and can promote ongoing conversations with readers. On the flip side, blogs are ineffective and even damaging if they are not rigorously curated, (i.e., published on an erratic schedule) not timely or topical for the target audience, poorly written or inadvertently controversial.

 

  • Facebook and LinkedIn both enable you to join, or form, groups where you can directly interact with current and prospective partners, customers, influencers, etc. If starting your own group, it may be advisable to scope the landscape to identify how many similar groups exist and determine how to differentiate yours. Keep your groups and fan pages updated regularly with information on events you will be hosting or attending that may interest your community.

 

With Facebook, it is important to understand the differences between business and personal account functionality. For example, business accounts have limited access to information on the site. An individual with a business account can view all the pages and social ads that they have created, but will not be able to view the profiles of users on the site or other content that does not live on the pages they administer. In addition, business accounts cannot be found in search and cannot send or receive friend requests. One useful tool that Facebook offers is a vanity URL. This is a unique identifier for your page that is easy to share, remember and find on search engines.

 

  • Microblogs, like Twitter or Yammer which generally limit comments to 140 characters, are useful for quick company announcements, pithy commentary on a breaking issue, marketing and link sharing and customer support. A number of companies have had success utilizing Twitter for promotions and giveaways as well monitoring conversations to target and communicate with potential customers.

 

Additional sites that you may consider exploring include:

  • PartnerUp online networking community for entrepreneurs and small business owners
  • Talkbiznow comprehensive interactive business networking site for business professionals
  • Sales Spider – free social network for small and mid-sized businesses where more than 700,00 members expand personal networks, host and view live webinars and videos, place free classified ads, and gain instant and free access to over 30,000 sales leads and business opportunities
  • StartupNation real-world business advice to people who want to start a business and who want to grow their small businesses
  • RaiseCapital online forum for entrepreneurs to showcase their business ideas and capital needs directly to investors
  • Ryze social networking site designed to link business professionals, particularly new entrepreneurs
  • Upspring features business networking, local internet marketing/advertising and online marketing services
  • Fast Pitch a social network for business networking professionals to market their business, press, blogs, events and networks

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