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TestingMessage_Body.jpgby Robert Lerose.



John Wanamaker, who founded one of the first department store empires in the United States, famously complained that half his advertising was wasted; he just didn't know which half. Today, businesses can better track the return on their marketing dollars by vigorously testing their message. Indeed, the improvements and breakthroughs in testing tools make it possible to experiment with virtually every element of a business's public marketing efforts and see results quickly.


Perhaps the most well known testing concept is the A/B split test: two nearly identical ads are shown to customers, with one variable changed, to determine which version performs better. Typical variables include headlines and price points. The history of advertising is replete with stories of how altering a headline—or even a single word of copy— resulted in a dramatic spike in response. Case in point: When a book on auto repair was marketed to mechanics with the headline, "Fix any part of any car," the ad failed. But when it was tested with a new headline that said, "Fix almost any part of almost any car," sales of the book skyrocketed.


TestingMessage_PQ.jpgTest high traffic webpages

"A/B testing is a low-cost tool that small businesses in particular can use to test incremental changes and see what the net benefit is going to be for their user base," says Lara Swanson, the user experience manager at Dyn, a New Hampshire-based company that specializes in infrastructure services such as email delivery and managed networks.  


The first step is deciding what should be tested. This will vary depending on the nature of your business and what you want a visitor to your website to do. For example, an online retailer or an ecommerce site could test its product page or checkout page, whereas a lead generating site looking to collect email addresses might test its homepage.


Testing a webpage that gets a lot of traffic is a smart rule of thumb. So is testing one thing at a time. "Small businesses typically don't have the budget to test multiple variables all at the same time," Swanson explains. "So A/B testing is the simplest way to go about establishing what site works best for your user base."


A/B testing is also a numbers game. More visitors mean more accurate results, something known as statistical significance. "You want to get enough traffic in a test [to show] that the results you're getting are actually viable and you can be confident that's a real number," says Kim Ann King, chief marketing officer at SiteSpect, a Boston-based web and mobile optimization firm.


"If you have a low traffic website and you're testing a lot of different things, it's going to take you a long time to get to statistical significance," she says. Sites with marginal traffic should expect to run a test for at least two weeks or have a minimum of 2,000 visitors to be confident of the results.

Be clear about your metrics

Another question to consider as you're designing a test is: What do you want to measure? The answer will stem from the action that you want your visitors to take. At Dyn, they keep a close eye on the number of users who finish the checkout process and actually buy something. "Other sites that aren't revenue-driven [such as those that provide information without selling something] may look at the amount of time that users spend on their sites, bounce rates, the number of times users return to their site or how long they spend on the page," Swanson says. "It really depends on what they want their users to do."


For WePay, a Palo Alto, California-based company that provides tools to let small businesses accept online payments easily, testing their homepage started with a friendly internal competition which had a surprising outcome.


They held a contest for their engineers to build different homepages, rotated them on their website, and then measured the conversion rate from visit to sign-up. One of the test pages outperformed their then-current homepage by around two percent.


"That's a pretty significant lift in conversion for us," says Bill Clerico, WePay's CEO. "We have tens of thousands of visitors a day visiting our homepage. To be able to convert two percent more of them into sign-ups was a really big win for us."


In addition to enlarging their customer base, testing also uncovered a key insight about what WePay's users wanted from the site. "When we initially built the homepage, we were graphics intensive. It was all about pictures," Clerico says. "We found out that people actually wanted to read [more], so we ended up with more text on our homepage based on one of those designs."


A variety of free testing tools for small businesses abound, such as Google Analytics, but Clerico is particularly fond of KISSmetrics and especially Optimizely.


Small changes make a big difference

Optimizely, founded in 2009 by two former Google product managers, lets businesses make and test changes to their website in an easy-to-use platform. It also tracks responses for a statistically significant sample. 


"One of the things we like to preach to people is, make sure your test is going to run for a long enough time," says Jodie Ellis, director of marketing at the San Francisco-based company. "The Optimizely system will actually tell you that you need to wait a little longer. That's something we've done to correct for that common mistake that a first-time tester might make."


In the past, setting up a test has been the domain of engineers, where their technical and coding expertise were critical. Today, almost any department at a small business can test variations on their own. "It's really empowered marketers," Ellis explains. "It's also freed up a lot more engineering resources. You're seeing a lot more people who are empowered to use their skill set without hindering other parts of the business."


Optimizely asks for a user's URL on their homepage, with a call to action in the form of a button. Recently, they tested variations against their "Get Started" button. Every variation beat it, most notably one that said, "Test It Out." That particular button increased their conversions by 25 percent.


"It was an experiment that ran across about 14,000 visitors," Ellis adds. "With this small language change, we were able to achieve a remarkable jump in the number of people who completed an action that's very important to our business."


SiteSpect's King recalls a similar revelatory moment when her company did a simple A/B test for an auction house in Boston. By enlarging a product image on one of their webpages from 250 pixels to 350 pixels, they generated a 329 percent boost in bids. Which Test Won, which runs examples of actual split tests, is a favorite of Dyn's Swanson.


Today's testing tools can accelerate the success of small businesses, but that doesn't mean they should be the final word on everything. As WePay's Clerico notes, "I don't think Apple could have invented the iPhone through doing a series of A/B tests. Sometimes with a really big breakthrough, it requires some sort of thought and creative vision."

BigBoys_Body.jpgBy Iris Dorbian. 



Charles Caleb Colton, an English cleric, writer, and collector, may not be well known to most people, but one of his aphorisms, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” certainly is. Although Colton was most likely not referring to management procedures in 21st-century corporate America, his famous quote seems to resonate with how some small business entrepreneurs are finding an extra jolt of inspiration by emulating the best practices of top brands. With apologies to Google, Starbucks, Virgin, and other major corporations, the following are a few pithy lessons that have helped shape a slew of small business ventures.  


To streamline operations, be willing to invest in technology 

Although small business owners might balk at spending additional money on software that’s not revenue-generating, that would be a mistake says Ashley Kalus, who uses her experiences as a former consultant at  Accenture, the global management consulting firm, as a blueprint for her current role as manager of the small Chicago-based JW MedSpa.  


Kalus, whose husband Jeffrey Weinzweig is both owner and plastic surgeon at the couple’s two- and a half-year-old clinic, says that she learned from her stint at Accenture how important it is for small businesses to invest in software technology that will facilitate the operations. “We have found by investing early in an integrated platform for scheduling, marketing, and reporting, we are able to use the system to answer business questions that shed light onto our growth, [like] who our patients are, and how much we are growing,” she explains. “As a result, we can be more responsive and make decisions based on data.”  


And according to Kalus, applying the practices of top corporations to her business has been an inestimable boon. Not only has the business roughly doubled each year during a difficult economic period, but, she adds, “we are quickly becoming one of the biggest plastic surgery practices in the Midwest.” 


BigBoys_PQ.jpgDisrupt the status quo and take risks 

Shaun Walker, creative director and co-founder of the small New Orleans ad agency HERO/farm says he and his colleagues greatly admire how  Virgin, Richard Branson’s multi-national venture capital conglomerate, makes forays into industries in which they don’t have a previous footprint. Walker, who started his firm in 2009, cites the launch of Virgin Airlines or Virgin Mobile as prominent examples.  


“While every one of their ventures may not be successful, Virgin utilizes Branson's mantra of trying something new, going in with guns blazing and not looking back,” says Walker, whose company has been the recipient of several honors, among them the 2011 Business of The Year from IABC New Orleans. “We truly believe in testing new things as much as possible and failing fast. It's one of the first ideas we seed in all of our clients. Just like a fighter pilot, with proper preparation, it’s better to make an incorrect decision and be moving than to make no decision at all. The fact that a company is small is not a fault; it means they're more nimble, quicker to market and able to execute tactics at a rapid pace.” 


Virgin’s zeal for experimentation in uncharted areas seems nearly analogous to coffee franchise giant Starbucks’ yen for thinking outside the box. The latter brand’s “industry cross-training” is a particular source of inspiration for Mimi West. In May, West My Dream Teacher, a nationwide directory that helps students find music teachers in their area. The site also features blogs and forums that offer advice to music teachers, students, and parents.  


“Rather than merely copy what other coffeehouses do, Starbucks is always looking for unconventional ways of increasing sales,” West says. “In the 90’s, they started selling CD’s. They also expanded sales fronts into mail-order catalogs, airports and the Internet.” These efforts work, she says, because the company’s awareness of other industries allows them to capitalize on areas that their competitors have given no heed. 


West, a longtime performer and voice coach, has applied these same practices to her startup by working primarily with classical musicians, many of whom she says, “have a hard time seeing themselves as anything but musicians. In fact, they don’t even consider themselves to be entrepreneurs or even business people at all.” By helping her clients rebrand themselves and diversify their offerings, West gives them the ol’ Starbucks treatment that would make company CEO Howard Schultz proud.  


Make personalized customer service a priority 

Tara Vaziri heads communications at  Blank Label, a three-year-old custom dress-shirt business in Boston. She says a key takeaway that she borrows from department store giant Nordstrom is that clients must be completely satisfied with every purchase.  

“We’ve followed suit with a committed customer service team that actively pursues customer satisfaction with quick replies to any questions or concerns e-mailed in,” says Vaziri. “Even though every single shirt we make is custom made, if there’s anything about it that a customer doesn’t like—fabric, fit, style—we’ll remake it from scratch. And domestic and international return shipping is free.” 


Have a recognizable brand and logo 

Some logos, like Apple’s silhouette of an apple with a bite taken out of it, have become so instantly recognizable, that the public very often forges a deep and visceral bond with the brand as a result. So, having an readily identifiable brand can help small businesses achieve consumer engagement on a level mastered by the Fortune 500 companies. 


“Accenture and other top companies ensure that all their employees and all marketing materials are mindful of communicating their brand,” says Kalus. “We have created a brand for our company and all of our employees understand what the brand stands for. We visually communicate our brand—by using the logo and one name—in all of our materials. People have started to recognize our logo even when it is shown without the name as a result of our dedication to creating and developing our brand and communicating it in the same way through multiple mediums.” 


Be simple but strategic 

When West’s My Dream Teacher website was in the incubation stage, she looked to the  Google homepage, with its stark and unabashed simplicity, as a model. “You can’t get more basic than [that],” she explains. “When designing my website, I deliberately stripped it down to the bare essentials.  I didn’t want too much clutter to confuse visitors.” 


West also notes that even though Google boasts a plethora of products and services, many of these offerings were introduced slowly, over a period of time. She, too, has a multitude of services in the pipeline but says she will be releasing them one at a time in a way that “makes sense to my customers. Google is strategic, not sloppy and I’m building my business around that maxim."

Timing_Body.jpgby Heather Chaet.


Social media. It comes in many forms—Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, blogging—and can be among the easiest, cheapest, and best way to reach new customers, engage old ones, and keep your business current and a part of the conversation.


But have you ever noticed how certain tweets get a lot of response and re-tweets, while others don’t seem to grab hold of anyone’s attention? The same goes from some Facebook updates. Some cause a huge surge in likes and click-throughs, yet others just attract virtual crickets. It’s enough to make you turn to the Magic 8 ball method of social media—shaking that small, black orb and asking what your update will really accomplish right now (“Reply hazy” is the worst one to get).


Timing_PQ.jpgMany studies have been done analyzing Twitter and Facebook usage, and small business owners can incorporate the results into a more successful social media plan. But there is more to it than that. The adage “Timing is everything” is true…but it comes with an asterisk. Read on to find out how you can figure out the best time to tweet, post, and update. (Note: All times that are mentioned are EST.)


Know the daily social media rhythms

Do a quick search for social media stats, and an enormous amount of information is revealed: 53 percent of people on Twitter recommend companies or product in their tweets, and estimates say Facebook will reach more than one billion users this August. It’s no wonder there has been a plethora of studies to find out how best to utilize these powerful marketing platforms.

“Recent data shows that the best time for businesses to tweet is mid-to-late afternoon early in the week,” says Becky Carroll, author of The Hidden Power of Your Customers and founder of Petra Consulting Group, an award-winning management consultancy focused on social media, customer engagement, and marketing. ”The peak time to tweet to get the most click-throughs would be between noon and 6 pm Monday through Thursday, while the peak time to get re-tweets is around 4 pm on Fridays, when people are getting ready to head home.”


John Wie, a social media analyst at /excelamktg, a social media marketing agency in Los Angeles, offers somewhat different guidance. “ [one of the top providers of infographic design, visual marketing, and video infographics] conducted a study and found that 9 to 11 am and 1 to 3 pm are the best times to tweet during weekdays,” he says.


For Facebook, the sweet spot is a bit reversed. “[A Hubspot study] found that Facebook content posted later in the day gets more likes and shares. Likes peak around 8 pm, while shares peak around 6 pm,” Wie says, “Additionally, Facebook content posted on Saturday and Sunday tends to get more likes than those posted during the regular week.”


How to make it personal

Though social media experts cite research and statistics, most advise clients to avoid a “one size fits all” model when incorporating that data into a marketing strategy. Before making a huge shift, it’s a good idea to employ some of the new online tools to analyze your specific business’s needs.


“The best time to publish a social post depends on a number of different factors—type of business, time of year, target customers, and so on,” says leading social marketer Ken Herron. He recommends using tools like Tweriod, Crowdbooster, SocialFlow and others to give a detailed analysis of the best time to tweet or update for your business’s audience.


Often, it takes a trial-and-error approach to find the optimum time,” says Lanae Paaverud, owner and founder of Social Networking Nanny, a social media concierge company that helps businesses get social on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and more.


To begin, think about the audience you are trying to reach and ask some key questions. Paaverud suggests: “Do they work during the day and more likely to cruise social media in the evenings? Or do they hang out with social media during the day while at work? Are they too busy during the week, and only get to social media on the weekends?” Savvy business owners need to know the answers to those questions—or find out.


The time invested to monitor your existing social media strategy and analyze results from these online tools is well worth itsince it helps you reach your desired customers and learn how best to engage them. “What we do is set up a few powerful updates at various times during the day, and track our user behavior,” says Jen Cohen, President of Something Creative, an integrated marketing company that focuses on planning, executing, and measuring strategic social media campaigns, “After analyzing the data, we have a better understanding of how our users are engaging with our page and what they want from us.”


Remember the number one rule of social media

So, you use the tools, monitor the results, and discover your business’s optimal tweet and post times. That’s great, give yourself a high-five, but that, in and of itself does not mean you have mastered the social media game. It is essential that what you are tweeting and posting and linking to is relevant…and that you actually do it.


“Remember, there are no shortcuts. Just because you post at optimal times does not guarantee your success,” says Anthony Johnson, President of SpiralOut Consulting LLC. a social media management company. “The most important things about social media are consistency, content, and engagement.”


Social Networking Nanny’s Paaverud agrees, “In the end, businesses need to remember one thing: it is better to be active and post or tweet—no matter what the day or time—than to not do anything at all.”

Body_SellCustServ.jpgby Robert Lerose.


Public figures who mess up and then deny their wrongdoing never seem to learn the age-old lesson—the cover-up is usually far worse than the crime. Had they taken responsibility for their missteps at the outset and made a genuine effort to repair them, they could have bought themselves priceless goodwill and probably even come out stronger than before.


Similarly, businesses that handle complaints directly and promptly often find that customers reward them with new sales and fierce loyalty.   


That has certainly been the experience of Richard Wilbert. Before founding SiteSource Business Coaching, a Colorado-based consulting company for small businesses, he ran a firm that designed and built landscapes for high-end residential clients. On one job where his team had to install a new patio and irrigation system, a large evergreen blocked their access in the back corner of the yard. They warned the homeowners that the tree could get damaged during the new construction, but they were given the go-ahead to proceed nevertheless. Eight months later, the homeowners called to complain that the tree was failing. Perhaps not surprisingly, they also claimed that they didn't remember the warning.


PQ_SellCustServ.jpgWilbert went to the job site, assessed that the tree could not be saved, and determined that the only solution was to remove the tree and replace it—eating the cost himself. "In their minds, we were the reason the tree died," Wilbert says, even though he had expressly warned them about the danger at the beginning.


The homeowners were so overwhelmed by the way the situation was handled, though, Wilbert says they referred his landscaping company whenever they had the opportunity."They told others they should call us, that we stand behind what we do," he adds. "It became a great positive for us. Replacing the tree was an insignificant cost considering all the work we got out of it."


Own the problem

Most business experts stress the importance of having procedures in place for dealing with customer complaints. At the top of the list is replying to the customer immediately. Even if the problem can't be solved right away, customers should be contacted within the same day so they can be reassured that the issue is being investigated.


Another way to think of this is to take responsibility of the problem as soon as it surfaces.


"If [businesses] don't take ownership right away, that's a huge mistake," says Kyla O'Connell, vice president of business development for Asher Strategies, a sales training company for business-to-business salespeople in Washington, D.C. In the past 15 years, the firm has trained over 35,000 sales people in more than 1,000 companies in establishing customer service policies for increased sales and profits.  


From this experience, Asher has developed a ten-step process that teaches other businesses how to handle customer complaints, summarized here:


1. The first person to hear the problem owns it until it's resolved. "It doesn't mean they have to fix it behind the scenes, but they should be the one to get back to the customer so the customer doesn't feel that they're being bounced around," O'Connell explains.


2. Let the customer know that you appreciate hearing about the problem. This tactic alleviates the situation of any toxic emotions and can disarm angry customers.


3. Put the customer's complaints in your own words and say it back to them to show that you understand the problem. The person handling the complaint should match or mirror the customer's personality type, too. For example: A customer with an analytical personality should be handled in a similarly detail-oriented way, whereas a more openly emotional customer would respond better to an overtly compassionate manner.


4. "Ask for details and listen carefully with empathy," O'Connell says. "We want [customer service reps] to be on the same side with the client, not against them."


5. Allow the customer to fully articulate the problem without interruption.


6. Sympathize with the client by saying, for example: "I'm sorry you had to go through this. Based on what you've told me, I can see that you're very upset."


7. Get the customer actively involved in the process by asking how they would like to see the problem resolved. "They may simply want their money back, when we were prepared to give them twice that in services," O'Connell adds.


8. Give the customer a specific timeframe for when the problem will be resolved.


9. Send some kind of follow-up, either a phone call or thank you note.


10. Take positive action within your company—such as additional training or circulating an instructional memo—to minimize the chances of this type of problem occurring again.


Businesses should also hire employees with an aptitude for customer service—people with a natural inclination to empathize, make a good impression, and want to solve problems. Even small businesses with limited staff can hire one person with the phone skills, assertiveness, and temperament to excel at dealing with complaints.


"They're going to pay for themselves almost immediately," O'Connell says. "And they will free up your sales or management people from not having to worry about customer complaints."


Eavesdropping on what people say about you

Contemporary technology platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Yelp! have given everyone the ability to post their opinions, thoughts, comments, and—most importantly for business owners—complaints to a worldwide audience with lightning speed. Customers can shame companies publicly, too. Case in point: When a passenger on United Airlines failed to get compensation after baggage handlers broker his guitar, he set the incident to music in a protest video that was seen by over 12 million people.


Before going public, that passenger had tried to resolve the situation through United's customer service department first, to little effect, However, some customers will never complain to a company directly, preferring to air their grievances to the world.


To stay on top what’s being said online, business owners can subscribe to services like Google Alerts and RSS feeds, which monitor the Web and provide regular updates whenever their product or company name pops up—giving their resolution reps the chance to reach out to disaffected customers, address their complaints, and garner big points in customer service and public relations.


Having well-established policies and procedures in place can also make the reporting and handling of complaints manageable and efficient.


Claiming more than one million members since its founding in 1995, Angie's List, the well-known service-based consumer review site, has a strict accountability process to ensure that the reviews are based in fact. They use both technology and a team of human investigators to uncover if someone is trying to game the system or give outrageously biased reviews, positive or negative.


Critically, Angie's List also allows the company being reviewed to respond to the report made about them.


"Companies need to be aware of what is being said about them," says Cheryl Reed, director of communications for Angie's List. "The beauty of online reviews is that it takes the conversations that have been going on forever and puts them in an area where you get to listen in…and if there's a problem, the ability to correct it."


Avoid customer service problems before they start

Prompt, open communication is essential for maintaining good customer relations. So is managing expectations, even if that means turning down work because you know you lack the resources, expertise, or time to execute it satisfactorily. Recommending the services of another firm whenever possible can generate more business for you, too. Customers are apt to see you as a long-term ally, not a one-shot provider.


"There's the old adage that when you have a good experience, you'll tell one person. But if you have a bad one, you'll tell ten," Reed says. "[When a complaint comes in], take a deep breath, investigate the situation, talk to your staff and follow up."

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