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2012

Body_QAedgazarian.jpgby Sherron Lumley.


Ed Gazarian is a native of Boston, a graduate of Northeastern University and Harvard, who works for Pandemic Labs in Boston, one of the oldest social media marketing and analytics agencies in the U.S.  He took some time to talk with writer Sherron Lumley about what’s new in social media and the first steps a small business can take when creating a social media strategy.


SL: Tell me about the business of Pandemic Labs. 

EG: Pandemic is a 100-percent social media agency; we are not in print media at all. We’re all about customizing for actual customer needs. Rather than be tied to a specific set of platforms or technologies, we're an agency committed to the notion that marketing is a dialogue, not a monologue. Our client roster runs the gamut from top-tier luxury brands (The Ritz-Carlton), to global retail chains (Au Bon Pain), and to regional groups (Fairmont Parks Art Association and The Roaming Boomers). We've also run campaigns with Dunkin' Donuts, Puma, Canon, and DIRECTV.


SL: What are the basic social media steps that you advise your clients to take today?

EG: First, identify whom you want to communicate with. Based on who a brand wants to engage, the platforms, technologies and strategies we deploy will vary drastically from client to client. Knowing your audience is the absolute first step.


Next, figure out where those people are. If it's Facebook, you know that's a crucial part of your overall strategy. If your consumers are more active on something like LinkedIn, or social media's latest darling—Pinterest—then focus your efforts there. There's enough demographic info about the major channels out there, to make an informed decision about which channels to operate on. Depending upon what platforms you choose, your methods of engagement will differ. Understand that you will have to commit some time—and money—to these endeavors.


The last of these basic steps is identifying metrics of success. Yours will not be the same as those of other brands operating on the same platforms. Don't get bogged down in things like "The Top 3 Metrics In Social Media"—lists like that are a dime a dozen. Don't be dazzled by 'The Next Big Thing'—does anyone still think Google+ is at all relevant? You know your brand, and you know who you want to go after. Be thoughtful in how you define what success means for you.


PQ_QAedgazarian.jpgSL: How has this changed in the last few years?

EG: Mobile and touch-based technology are easily the biggest game changers over the past few years. The ubiquity of devices like the iPhone, iPad, and their ilk have made social media campaigns based on these things extremely easy—and extremely cost-effective—to deploy on a large scale. Foursquare is a great example of this.


SL: Why is online marketing important today and looking forward?

EG: People are increasingly connected through social channels like Facebook and Twitter. We know, both anecdotally and through vigorous research, that people's purchase decisions are more significantly influenced by recommendations/reviews/suggestions from their personal connections, than by any brand messaging. This is never going to change. Brands that capitalize on that fact through active engagement on social channels will reap the rewards.


SL: What are some examples of niche areas or groups in social media marketing?

EG: The B2B crowd is definitely one. In the small businesses world—from mom & pop storefronts, to local restaurants, and even 15 to 20-person niche service firms—opportunities abound. Just about every eatery near our office participates in some form of social campaign, such as group buying (through services like Groupon or LivingSocial), and they've enjoyed success using those channels.


SL: What are the benefits of targeting small audiences in social media?

EG: The more detailed you get, the more effectively you can tailor things, from the images and copy used in a Facebook ad, to strategically timing your tweets, to the text used in your Tumblr posts. The next evolution of this would be identifying your most engaged audience members. Solutions like Offerpop and Foursquare give small brands a way to compete with the Coca-Colas of the world, without being priced out of the market.

If you're a local clothing designer with a single storefront, and you want to spread the word about your label to women around 35 years old, that live near your city, and that are interested in fashion—then there are channels (like Pinterest and Instagram) that are uniquely suited to that demographic. The people are already there, and the conversation already exists. Your job—and what will set you apart from the novices—is to find the relevant conversation, and take part in it. Anytime you can mix the value of in-person communication with the reach of social media, that's a win.

Body_DirectMarketing.jpgBy Robert Lerose.

 

Hiring an outside direct marketing agency requires an investment of money, time, commitment and trust. There's also the risk of putting your company's reputation and profitability in the hands of people who may not share your zeal and dedication.

 

On the other hand, when both sides click, an agency can open doors to new customers, new markets, and new growth.

 

There are different tip-offs to indicate it's time to switch from doing things in-house to seeking an outside agency.

 

One trigger is seeing how well your current marketing programs are performing. Lackluster results could indicate a need for a fresh approach. Comparing your advertising to that of your competitors could be another indicator that it's time to change. For example: Does their name come up higher in search rankings? Do their mailings have more impact? Do they have a more robust social media platform? Still another trigger could simply be that you're not attracting enough new business on your own.

 

After you've determined you need an agency, what then? Asking the following questions can boost your chances for a mutually beneficial relationship.

 

1. How do you begin the search?

According to Lois Geller, president of Lois Geller Marketing Group, a Hollywood, Florida-based direct marketing agency, referrals are a good place to start.

 

"Ask for referrals from other small business owners," Geller says. "If they belong to a Chamber of Commerce or a Rotary Club or any local organization, ask around and see what agency other businesses in their area have been really satisfied with."

 

PQ_DirectMarketing.jpg2. What do you want, specifically, from an agency?

Narrowing your focus to select items saves both time and money and clarifies the agenda for the agency. "I think the organized people who walk into agencies get the best work and the best value for their dollar," says Geller. "Write down what your objectives are and make them realistic."

 

"Small business owners should have an idea of what they're looking for from an agency before they even start the discussion," says Phil Kening, principal at New Jersey-based Beacon Marketing Group. "What do they need help with? What are their objectives? Once they have that clearly in their head, they need to see if the agency matches up with those needs."

 

3. What's your budget?

This may be the single biggest source of confusion in the selection process. Obviously every business wants to get the most for their money, but it will only lead to frustration without a realistic plan.

 

Kening emphasizes that the size of the budget should come up in the first meeting. "It doesn't have to be the exact budget," he says, "but the agency needs to know what the pain threshold for the client is."

 

Equally distracting is when a business has a long laundry list, a short budget, and expects the agency to work miracles.

 

"Some businesses think that if they tell me they have $25,000, I'll spend the $25,000," Geller says. Not necessarily so.

 

A more reasonable approach is for a business to highlight a few areas that need improving, be candid about the money they have to spend, and ask the agency what it can do under those circumstances.

 

"When a client tells us what the budget is, we're working off the same hymn book. That's a real partnership," Geller says. "If they have a smaller number, I can use the same advertising principles and just simplify them down."

 

4. Should you ask for samples beforehand?

It's a good idea. Beyond demonstrating the agency's caliber of work, Geller points out that clients can sometimes get ideas for what they want by looking at work the agency has done for others, giving the agency a clearer idea of the client's tastes.

 

5. Should you meet the people who will be working on your account?

Absolutely, according to both Geller and Kening. Familiarizing yourself with the team not only gives you an idea of what it's like to work with them on a personal level, but also gives you a sense of their capabilities.

 

"You want to know the people on your account, whether it's the whole team or at least just the lead person," Kening says. "You get a feel for what their knowledge base is and to make sure that you're going to have a competent team."

 

6. Should you choose a local agency?

While one-on-one relationships are an integral part of any relationship, technology like Skype and the growing use of videoconferencing has opened up a wider pool of candidates for small businesses.

 

"If you want to make local connections, I guess it's good to have a local agency that might give you entry to groups or associations that you think might help your business," Geller says. "Other than that, I would go for the talent."

 

7. Should you sign a contract? If so, for how long?

While lengthy contracts might still exist at some agencies, nowadays most agencies offer much shorter terms, as short as one year or even less.

 

"I don't think there is a minimum anymore," Geller says. "Obviously you have to give the agency a chance to perform the duties you want done and get the results."

 

Put another way:  If you hire an agency to come up with a new direct mail campaign, stay with the agency at least until the campaign has run its course and the results are in, usually several months.  

 

Sometimes, when the match is right, those months can turn into years. Debra Kravet, owner of Apthorp Cleaners in New York, has been with Geller about five years, letting her develop a website and creating a brand for her business. The efforts have evidently payed off, as the business’s overall five-star rating on the customer review site Yelp can attest.

 

Since good advertising always offers a little something extra as a surprise gift, two bonus pieces of advice:

 

"Sometimes all the business needs is a consultant that will help train them," Kening says. "They can do the work themselves and manage it themselves because literally they don't have the resources to pay an agency."

 

Also, first impressions are really important. "It's the way you feel, that gut feeling," Geller says. "If you like them and you feel like they're going to do a good job, usually it happens that way."

Body_Charity.jpgby Iris Dorbian.

 

As the owner of a small but highly successful New York City-based custom tailoring company, Mohan “Michael” Ramchandani appreciates the fact he was able to achieve the proverbial “American dream.” Having come to the U.S. in 1972 from India with very little means save for drive and determination, Ramchandani launched Mohan’s Custom Tailors over 30 years ago in a modest rented space. Since then, the family business, which began with just him and now boasts a staff of 12 including sons and nephews, has grown in a way that belies its humble roots. Currently housed in a showroom in a high-rise building across from Grand Central Station and catering to celebrity clients such as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Mohan’s Custom Tailors brings in  annual revenues of over $400,000. But Ramchandani has never forgotten his early struggles.


 

Because of this, Mohan's Custom Tailors started this past January a donation program with the Brooklyn-based group, The HOPE Program, an organization that empowers New Yorkers living in poverty and battling obstacles such as lack of self-esteem, semi-literacy and addiction, to enter the workforce. Mohan's donates custom clothing—interview suits and shirts, valued at over $1,000 a piece—plus many hours of his staffs’ tailoring time to graduates who complete their job training program and are ready to begin their interview process. For most of these men, the suits Mohan’s donates will be the first suit they own.


 

“I have always felt deeply connected to those, like me, who are searching to start out their lives and make a living in order to provide for their families,” says Ramchandani. “The HOPE students and graduates are hard-working and dedicated to succeeding, which is a value we share.”


 

For Ramchandani, the pairing of his business with The HOPE program is a natural fit. Not only is it an extension of what he does professionally, it also fulfills a deep visceral need within him to help others less fortunate succeed. It is a textbook example of a business-charity partnership that makes sense, feels organic, and gives back to the community.


 

PQ_Charity.jpgFor any small business, teaming up with a charity can be an excellent way of doing good, while expanding your reach to a new audience. However, you want your affiliation with a cause to feel sincere and natural. Aligning your business with a charity or sponsorship just because it’s what everyone else is doing will never work unless you show genuine conviction.

 

Small business entrepreneurs seeking to find a charity or community sponsorship that is the right fit should the following dos and don’ts:


Do your due diligence and research the charity

Don’t just sign up with a charity or sponsorship because an acquaintance told you about it. Do your homework and find out as much as you can about the organization. Who is on their board? Ask to look at their financials.

 

“Too many charities are only charitable to their employees,” cautions Pablo Solomon, co-owner of musee-solomon, a small art and design firm outside of Austin. Solomon, who has been in business for more than 20 years, knows whereof he speaks. Over the years, he has aligned his firm with several local charities and, along the way, has learned several lessons about what a small business should watch out for. “[Some charities] only use a small percentage of what they take in for the actual cause,” he warns. “A good charity will spend 80 to 95 percent.”


Find a cause or charity you are genuinely passion about

In Mohan’s Custom Tailors’ case, it was a program that resonated with the owner because it reminded him of his humble beginnings and how much success he’d achieved in his adoptive country. However, even if you don’t have such a personal connection with a charity you’re interested in supporting, make sure you have a passion for it. That enthusiasm will be contagious and spill over into your employees, business partners, and customers. By feeling your keen devotion to the charity, they may be more inclined to give a donation.


 

For Michael Macias, co-founder of the Fresno, California-based urban clothing startup, Inner City Threads, that passion translates into helping local homeless shelters. Macias, who headed his own PR and marketing firm for three years before selling it, first got interested in this cause when he volunteered at the San Diego Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter and recovery center.


 

“I was talking to the fundraising director there and learned that they did a lot of fundraising events but not a lot of grants came in to fund their program or services,” recalls Macias. “I’m a big believer for helping people who are less fortunate than myself. So when my partners and I got together and said we wanted to start a business [which became Inner City Threads], it really came down to where my heart was—for all of us. And that’s how we decided we would work with homeless shelters.”


 

Proving that he’s not all talk, Inner City Threads donates 30 percent of its net profits to several homeless shelters across the state of California.

 

Look to the market that purchases your product or services

For instance, if you sell pet products, then it might make good sense to support your local animal shelter. However, don’t approach them because you think they’re going to market your product or services for you.

 

“That’s really not the reason why you’re out to partner up with an organization,” says Macias. “You’re doing it because you care about the community or the service they provide,” not for the marketing muscle they could bring.


Pick a charity that has a good industry and community reputation

Supporting a charity with a checkered history may make others question your integrity. Be careful and use some forethought when selecting which causes you want to support.

 

Avoid politics

Whatever cause or charity you choose, consider the appeal of those that are nonpartisan. By aligning yourself with a political or religious organization, you may risk alienating customers and potential ones.

 

Drop any charity that does not acknowledge your efforts/donations

“We once donated art worth real money and did not get so much as a thank you note—not to mention getting zero recognition,” remembers Solomon. “When the people running a charity are this clueless and ungrateful, dump them.”

 

Be sure the charity respects your privacy

Many nonprofits are so eager for donations, says Craig Rollins, CEO of LJCooper Wealth Advisors, that very often they will sell a donor’s info to another.


 

“A business must be careful to not get caught taking care of ‘stray cats,’ cautions Rollins. “Once a business determines which non-profit or charity they wish to serve, ask the charity to keep their information private. This isn't to say you can't take advantage of marketing opportunities for public events. Just ask [the charity] not to sell your contact info to anyone else. Taking care of a pet project is fun; listening to the bawling of dozens of stray cats is not.”

Body_Pinterest.jpgBy Erin McDermott.

 

Lynn Carlson may have America’s most famous new bathroom.

 

Last April, she redid the bath in the Fitzgerald Suite of the 1900 Inn on Montford, the Asheville, N.C., bed and breakfast she’s owned with her husband Ron since 1997. They added dazzling glass tile, a two-person jetted airbath tub filled from the ceiling, fiber-optic lighting from above and on the floor, and a thermostatically-controlled shower that rains water and light.

 

Guests raved about it. Then BedandBreakfast.com posted a photo of it on its Pinterest.com boards.

 

Since January, that picture has been “re-pinned” some 60,000 times on the Pinterest’s virtual pinboard that lets users “share all the beautiful things.” The website has seemingly come out of nowhere in recent months to now claim more than 11 million users, 80 percent of which are female. Among the pinners’ comments on the Carlsons’ bathroom: “want want want.”

 

While the thought of a bathroom “going viral” may have sounded unpleasant a few years ago, these days it means business. Though winter is normally their quiet season, the Carlsons have had about a dozen bookings from guests who said they saw them on Pinterest.

 

Dismissed by some as a “ladies’ Facebook” for crafters and recipe collectors, Pinterest has caught the attention of the business community as a place to connect with customers. (And check out this fascinating graphic from TechCrunch about Pinterest’s explosive growth, too.) It’s been a godsend for aesthetically oriented companies, such as restaurants, architects, landscapers, real-estate brokers, and fashion and interior designers. The site is highly visual, highly addictive for users, and proving to be an effective way to communicate in a world with ever-shorter attention spans.

 

“You need to stop asking your customers to get engaged with you—you need to be engaging,” says Lynn Carlson.  “Stop emailing them. Everyone’s life is really cluttered, and the frightening thing is that it’s empowering for them to just delete you.”

 

So how can you best utilize Pinterest? Here is some advice from small-business owners on what’s worked for them:

PQ_Pinterest.jpgMore social media—seriously?

Here’s why it’s smart to get on the Pinterest bandwagon now: Facebook is overrun with status updates and links; Twitter trims that to 140 characters; Pinterest is almost entirely visual. Even if the site is a flash in the pan, what it represents may have staying power. “It’s an evolution,” says Erica Orange, vice president of Weiner, Edrich, Brown Inc., a New York futurist consultancy that looks at long-term global trends. “Whether it’s advertisers, marketers, brands, or small-business owners, more people all around the world are speaking in images. In many ways, we are witnessing a profound shift in communication styles. Instead of getting bogged down in language, images may depict a clearer vision as to what the company stands for.”

Build your brand

Hilary Rushford says Pinterest is a big driver of traffic to her style blog and her personal-styling company, Dean Street Society, in Brooklyn. She says the site gives her a unique ability to give her clients (and potential clients) a 360-degree view of her work and her personality. “Even less-obvious businesses—bakeries, yoga instructors, pet shops—can engage their audience by demonstrating more of themselves, through boards that build out their essence,” Rushford says. “Sharing spots you want to travel to, inspiring quotes or favorite places in your neighborhood can deepen that ‘know, like and trust factor’ that’s so important to standing out in the online world today.”

Share your creativity, but be careful on copyrights

The site’s posting rules are in flux, as Pinterest shifts liability to the user to be sure they’re not in violation. Help visitors to your site by including the “Pin It” widget on the images that you want to circulate and link back to your site. Always include your full URL for your images, which makes it easier for others to properly link to you. (Confused? Many people are. Here’s how one blogger is doing it now.) 

Build trust

Pinterest’s social aspect means your customers can get an intimate glance at your design sensibility and where you get your ideas. “People want to know that you’re secretly a Star Wars fan—it helps them connect and relate to you,” Rushford says. But play it cool: Pinning too many shots of your own, say 40 in 15 minutes, can come off as overly commercial and turn off followers.

Think SEO, and timing

Google’s search-engine algorithm shows results based on traffic numbers. Clicks to an interesting image on your site can quickly add up and lift you above your competitors. And be sure to watch the clock: The most-recent pins show up at the top of Pinterest, so aim to post at lunchtime or early evenings—both peak times on the site.

Think local

Patrick Kennedy’s board reflects what drives his work at Superior Woodcraft, in Doylestown, Pa. The custom woodworking company has worked to help other local small businesses, and Kennedy displays not only his personal influences and projects, but other events the company has held to benefit local farmers and green businesses. Vendors and even the county government have repinned images from his board, so users who do a search on their town come across the local businesses organically.

Be a David vs. the Goliaths

For small businesses, Pinterest is a huge resource for viral content sharing, says Clay Goetz, a digital-media strategist in San Francisco. Large brands may appear to have the upper hand, with the funds and staff to explore the platform. “However, social media levels the communications playing field,” Goetz says. “A small business publishing the right kind of content can quickly trump the thousands of dollars in resources and campaigning that a larger business might pour in.”

That’s something the Carlsons quickly learned with their B&B’s popular new bathroom. “There’s something about it that captured people’s imaginations,” Lynn says. “The rules of the people participating online have really changed.”

Body_SalesRep.jpgby Iris Dorbian.


When David Greenberg launched Parliament Tutors (an academic coaching service targeting students from kindergarten to college), in 2009, he did everything—from sales and marketing to training and recruiting. The multi-tasking paid off because a year later, the twenty-something wunderkind found himself in an enviable position: His startup, whose staff consisted of just himself and an academic advisor, was thriving, having reached $30,000 a month in sales. Upon hitting that figure, the NYU graduate decided it was time to hire his first sales rep.


It was an auspicious move. In January, Parliament Tutors, which now employs more than 500 tutors (most of whom are independent contractors), has four full-time employees and serves customers in 25 states, had its best month ever with sales of $52,000. A large part of that success, according to Greenberg, is attributable to his decision to hire a sales rep.

Still, it wasn’t easy. “Making that step was definitely intimidating because things obviously slowed a bit while [the sales rep] adjusted into his new role,” Greenberg admits. “However, it proved to make sense, while I focused on improving our business model and growth strategy.”


For entrepreneurs like Greenberg, hiring a sales rep can be a pivotal point in a company’s growth. The critical question is: When is the right time to make such a hire? Is it the obvious—when your company starts generating profits and you are unable to meet your business objectives without assistance? Or are there other circumstances that warrant it? Furthermore, how do you train and retain these new sales reps so they will fit in with your corporate culture and not flee for greener financial pastures once another opportunity arises?

Hire when it’s affordable

“New businesses should hire their first sales rep as quickly as they can afford it,” says Michelle Furyaka, executive vice president of NPD Global Inc., a five-year-old executive recruitment firm based in New York City.


However, she acknowledges there’s a catch. “It takes time to find the right personality to work for a small firm,” she cautions. “Don't be fooled by a sales rep that promises you a lot of business. Small companies struggle to pay a top-notch person and they wind up leaving quickly because they are not used to rolling up their sleeves.”

PQ_SalesRep.jpgFind like-minded souls

For Greenberg, it helps that his first sales rep shared his vision about education and had done plenty of homework about the company well before the job interview. 

“When we spoke, he was less focused on the deficiencies in the system, and was incredibly knowledgeable on what was working,” Greenberg recalls. “I was really impressed, considering most of my interviewees focused on the problems when asked to discuss the education environment today.”


NPD Global hired its first sales rep a year after its launch. “We stabilized our expenses and became self sufficient,” relates Furyaka. “Once all operational expenses were covered, we were ready to grow. In the beginning, one of the principals was doing all the sales, but once we reached a certain number and she was needed for another role, we were ready to hire.”


Although NPD Global’s first sales rep did play a key role in growing overall sales, profits were still flat. Management underestimated the total cost of hiring a sales professional. “We found the right person who helped us open a few new accounts, but there were expenses affiliated with him, such as salary, support, and client [costs].”

Analyze your sales cycle

The equation changes if the sales position is a straight commission role, says Tom Armour, co-founder of High Return Selection, which helps small- to medium-sized businesses attract and retain top talent. In this case, the cost can be relatively low.


The length of the sales cycle is a factor as well. “Sales roles vary dramatically across businesses,” continues Armour, an HR executive who once worked at Hewlett-Packard. “Basically there are sales roles that sell products, while others sell services. The length of the sales cycle can vary from one hour to 18 months.” Armour cites retail sales as an industry with a sales cycle that can be completed quickly, typically within an hour, while B2B product or service sales can take months to complete. Longer sales cycle jobs can cost a business 10 percent to 15 percent of new sales, he says.

Time it right

Other than when your company starts growing revenue, when is it time for your small business to hire a sales rep? Here are a few more hints from the experts:


  • You don’t have the time anymore to generate leads and follow-up with potential or existing customers in a timely fashion.
  • You are not a skilled sales person.
  • Your time is better served in working on other areas of your business.


Like a casting director seeking out the right actors for roles, small business owners should be deliberate when bringing on a sales rep that best matches their company’s culture.

 

Other best practices to employ:


  • Make sure your first sales hire has values that match your own. “Your first sales rep is going to be the new face and the front line of your business,” advises Greenberg. “Don't just consider their ability to ‘sell’ a customer.”
  • Look for people with a solid work ethic. They don’t need to be from the same industry, says Furyaka. “If the foundation is there and they are willing to learn, you will retain them and everyone will be happy.”
  • Offer competitive compensation and enticing incentives. “A top sales professional can make good money in many businesses,” maintains Armour, “but it is the leadership and recognition that retains them.”

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