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QAhopekategibbs_body1.jpgby Robert Lerose.


The elevator speecha statement that sums up what your business does in 60 seconds or lessseems to be a staple of marketing today. It's also a reminder for business owners to use every opportunity to make a clear, memorable impression on their clients and prospects. As president and founder of Virginia-based The Inkandescent Group, Hope Katz Gibbs reels off her elevator speech without hesitation: "A PR publishing company that gets entrepreneurs more visibility." Recently, business writer Robert Lerose spoke to Gibbs about how she leverages an array of marketing tools to get her clients attention in a very crowded media landscape. (Gibbs's marketing guide12 Inkandescent Tips for PR Successis available as a free PDF download. Her new book, PR Rules: The Playbook, will be published this fall.)


RL: In your upcoming book, you write that small businesses need to understand the five parts of the public relations playing field before they put together a strategy. What are they?

HG: We identify them as public relations, marketing, advertising, social media, and sales—with sales at the end, because all those things build up toward the big sale. If you don't have a business that's making money, you don't really have a business.


RL: How do these parts work together?

HG: PR means getting out in the news because you're setting yourself up as the expert that you are. You have to be sure that as many people see it as possible and therefore you leverage it. In marketing, it's more than just a great business card. It is a newsletter. It's having a stunning website and telling great stories about what you do or say. When it comes to advertising, if you only put one ad in a little community newspaper, that's not going to do anything. I really encourage people to have a budget, understand the return on their investment, and link it to their PR, marketing, and social media outreach. And always try to get editorial when you buy an ad.


RL: Could you elaborate on that?

HG: When I worked in the advertorial department at the Miami Herald, we put out special sections that got a lot of play because they used a combination of editorial and advertising in an ad. [Today,] I make my clients think about what they are teaching the public. Why is their company important and valuable? What do they know as an expert? Then we help set them up that way. 


RL: Do you have an example?

HG: One of our big clients is Egan, Berger & Weiner, a financial planning firm here in northern Virginia. We buy them TV ads on NewsChannel 8, which is a direct hit in their demographic market. Then once a month they appear on Let's Talk Live, a TV news show from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. every day, in a five-minute educational spot. We post those videos on their website, put the clip into their monthly newsletters and their columns, and blast them out. So they're leveraging a lot of things they're doing all at the same time, and getting as much bang for their buck as possible.


QAhopekategibbs_PQ.jpgRL: What is a small business up against when it comes to pitching their story to reporters?

HG: Journalists and publicists are sort of arch-enemies. I'm always trying to get my clients to think like a reporter. When my son was two, he looked at one of my husband's illustrations and asked, "Daddy, what's interesting about that?" It was such a great question! He wasn't baiting him. He was honestly asking what's interesting about that. That's what we always ask our clients to think about: what's interesting about what you do?


RL: You also recommend having fun with PR and marketing campaigns. Can you give an example from one of your clients?

HG: We worked on a visitors' bureau promotion for the city of Annapolis called "Get Your Joy On Annapolis". We looked at Annapolis through a visitor's eyes. We walked around. We were at the sideline at the military football game. We went to the bars. We interviewed people who owned boats in the slip. We followed a couple that had married that day. It was just a pleasure. You can do that with anything. You look at something from a child's point of view and ask: what's fun about that?


RL: OK, I'm a small business owner who would like to do more PR, but I don't know where to begin. What's the first step I should take?

HG: I cover the eight steps to PR success in my book, PR Rules: The Playbook, but the first step is to have a stunning website. This is really hard for a lot of entrepreneurs to grasp. There's a template for what they need—a 10- or 12-webpage site. I recommend that they get somebody in there that's really going to reflect their business back to them and think about what they want to teach.


RL: You also write about the three mistakes that every small business makes. What are they?

HG: First, they're control freaks, so we discourage that. You need to play well with others. Second, they're small-picture people. They're not really seeing the forest for the trees. Third, they're winmeisters in the old school way: I only won if you lost. That's from the '50s. Now it's more like: I win, you win, the world wins. You really shouldn't make a decision unless that's happening.


RL: Final thoughts?

HG: Think about what you do and why you're doing it. I think of business as soul work. We all come here with a purpose, and your own business just allows you to reflect that back and play it out in a dramatic way quickly. If you want to have fun, if you want to have purpose, if you're here for a mission, then your business gets to be that vehicle for you.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lead-Generation_Body.jpgby Robert Lerose.


Lead generation, or the process of finding and nurturing prospects until they become paying customers, is the core mission of nearly every business. For a long time, salespeople relied on methods such as snail mail, cold calling, and face-to-face meetings to get in front of their target audience. While these traditional techniques can still work today, an array of new tools—email, social media, webinars, mobile marketing—have emerged and, with them, new protocols for building business relationships.


Relationships first, then sales

The first unspoken rule of lead generation is to make time in your schedule on a regular basis for actively pursuing leads and then following up persistently, without becoming a pest. "When you talk about becoming a pest, you're really talking about over-messaging," says Al Davidson, founder of Strategic Sales and Marketing, a Connecticut-based business-to-business lead generation company. "Over-messaging happens when you use only one channel of communication with a prospect and you use it over and over again."


Once you're aware of over-messaging, it's relatively easy to combat. According to Davidson, a salesperson who leaves phone messages for a decision maker that never get returned should experiment with diverse ways of reaching them—such as sending a white paper, mailing a postcard directing the prospect to a website, or meeting them in person at a trade show or business luncheon. Then, after a two-way relationship is established, a diverse mix of communications should be used to nurture it.


Diversifying the content of your message is equally critical. "If we're always in a sales mode, then we're not building relationships," Davidson says. "I think one of the biggest mistakes salespeople make is to launch into their sales pitches instantaneously. You really need to create comfort zones." Salespeople should research the decision maker they want to reach to see if they have a common interest or activity—anything that will warm the prospect up.


Leads should be ranked and not viewed as equal. "We recommend that salespeople try to develop a scoring system or nurturing system where they can rank their opportunities and then develop the necessary follow-up strategies to better address where those people are in the cycle," Davidson says. 


Lead-Generation_PQ.jpgDesign for different devices

In setting up a website that will attract the kind of leads you want, it’s important to define your audience and know what they're looking for—a crucial step that is often neglected.


"Many small businesses feel that they understand who their customers are, and then their eyes are opened when they get a report back that says the demographics are far different than they expected," says Ken Dawson, president and founder of Ohio-based eleventy marketing group. "We start by profiling the customers we want to go after, so that we're spending our marketing dollars for our clients the best way, to give a highly targeted approach."


The most effective websites will have a "newsy" look—providing useful information that can become a resource for prospects, not just a site that collects contact information exclusively. "You don't need to pound prospects over the head with an offer if you give them the right content and allow them to feel comfortable with your brand," Dawson explains. "Then they will come back and buy." An example of a content-rich site from eleventy's portfolio is Vivint, a home automation and security company.


Asking for a prospect's email address on your website is enough to get the conversation started. Since prospects consume information on a variety of devices, websites should be designed for different environments. Dawson finds that many small businesses are not making the leap fast enough from a format fit for a desktop-anchored website to one for mobile devices or smartphones.


"We find most of the transactions are happening on mobile, more so than desktop. So when we build pages, we make sure they are rendering in a responsive way and the message is coming through," Dawson explains. "You can have the best products and services in the world. But if someone is looking for you on their iPhone and you don't have a responsive design site, they will bounce and you will never ever capture their eyes."


Target prospects with social media

Social media platforms give small businesses the ability to customize their message to a specific set of prospects. As with other marketing channels, salespeople need to be aware of the etiquette for reaching out.


"With social media, you can get your message in front of the one specific person you want to reach," says Mandy Edwards, founder of Georgia-based ME Marketing Services. "You can target it in a way that you can't do with traditional broadcast media—radio, TV, newspaper ads."


For example, let's say an insurance agent wants to find out what prospects are thinking about. The agent can go to, click on the Advanced Options button, type in "my rates are too high," and Twitter will search for tweets with that phrase. The agent can then reach out to those people in a friendly, low-key way, perhaps informing them about his services. Searches can also be narrowed down geographically. 


Another little-known technique that Edwards likes has to do with LinkedIn's connection message. Instead of using the standard generic message—"I'd like to add you to my group"—Edwards recommends deleting that text and replacing it with your own personal message to boost your chances of acceptance.


"Personalizing that connection, especially for a small business, shows that you're putting forth the effort," Edwards explains. "It shows you're more of a one-to-one type of person that the prospect may be willing to work with, rather than someone who just sends the generic request without rhyme or reason." The trick is to make sure it doesn't come off as too sales pitchy or too spammy, he says.


Edwards says the ads that appear on the right side of a Facebook page offer the most detailed targeting of prospects of any social media platform. "You can target any age from 13 on up," Edwards explains. "You can target based on gender, education level, marital status, even whether they work at a particular business. Facebook has all this data they can sift through."


Generating leads may be a perennial problem, but the explosion of web-enabled channels combined with traditional offline strategies have generated solutions as well.

Crowdsourcing_Body.jpgby Jennifer Shaheen.

Eric von Hippel, a MIT professor who specializes in innovation management, calls crowdsourcing the biggest paradigm shift in innovation since the Industrial Revolution. The shift toward completing business tasks—both creative and monotonous—on an external rather than in-house basis has been happening for nearly a decade.

Large brands have led the way. Doritos, Chevrolet, Coca-Cola, and even political campaigns have allowed outsiders to share knowledge and contribute to their advertising efforts, sometimes with remarkable results. But does crowdsourcing have a small business application?

What is crowdsourcing?

“Crowdsourcing is the idea of pushing work, such as graphic design, content writing, or software testing, to an online community,” says Matt Johnston, chief marketing & strategy officer of uTest, a provider of crowdsourced software and app testing. To be successful, Johnston says crowdsourcing must solve real business problems more effectively and more efficiently than can be accomplished with employees or traditional outsourcing.

“Any time a small business owner has a repetitive task that can be accomplished online,” says Lukas Biewald, CEO of Crowdflower, a provider of crowdsourced labor, “crowdsourcing should be an option.” Let’s say you’re a retailer, and you’ve got thousands of products in your inventory. Every one of those products needs a description for your website. Or you want to find out every time someone’s mentioned your business on social media or in a blog post. These tasks are time consuming, Biewald points out, but don’t require a high level of skill.

Crowdsourcing involves having numerous people working on the task, with each individual doing some small portion of what would otherwise be an overwhelming job. The result: the task is accomplished faster, for a fraction of the cost it would take to have your own employees do it.

Crowdsourcing_PQ.jpgHow it works

“I view crowdsourcing as human automation,” says Chris Campbell, CEO of Review Trackers, which tracks online reviews of multi-location businesses. “Over the years, I’ve used [Amazon’s] Mechanical Turk for many different tasks. When I was working with a digital marketing firm, we had thousands of images we needed sorted into categories – a ‘is this a cat, is this a dog?’ type of thing. We’ve used Mechanical Turk for research, when we needed to find specific e-mail addresses. Another time, we had them write three different variations for sentences we’d use for marketing purposes. You pay a nickel or a dime for each task. It’s a great way to handle menial jobs.”

Using Mechanical Turk, it’s possible for business owners to tap into the power of crowdsourcing on their own, Campbell says. “It takes a little bit of time to set the task up properly, but not nearly as long as it would take you to actually do the task yourself,” he says. To control for quality, Campbell runs a given task multiple times to ensure he’s getting consistent results.

“That’s where places like Crowdflower come in,” Campbell says. “There’s a bit of an art to setting up the tasks so you get the best results.” Crowdsourcing companies such as uTest and Crowdflower provide what is essentially a coordination of services, connecting business owners with legions of workers from all around the world.

“It’s very important to us that we give people an opportunity to work from home,” Biewald says. Crowdflower relies on a global network of workers, which is advantageous since it allows them to offer their services in a number of languages. “If you want to have some or all of your website translated into Spanish, or another language that’s important to your customers, crowdsourcing will provide you with better, more reliable results than a tool like Google Translate.”

The global nature of crowdsourcing also makes for an ideal testing environment, according to Johnston. “In the case of uTest, our community of 100,000 software testers from 200 countries and territories enables our customers to test their web and mobile apps under real-world conditions, across any combination of devices, operating systems, browsers, locations and languages,” he says.

Can you trust crowdsourcing?

Still, Biewald acknowledges that he doesn’t fully trust the wisdom of crowds. “We measure everything, constantly,” he says. He believes this assessment is critical to maintaining the quality of crowdsourced information. “We incentivize our contributors, increasing amounts of compensation we pay contributors who consistently deliver high-quality work, because we know business owners have to be able to rely on this information.”

Crowdsourcing for your small business

“If you’re new to crowdsourcing, start small,” Biewald advises. “Define the task, set a budget, and see if you’re satisfied with the results.” Crowdsourcing campaigns with limited scope can cost less than $100. The best use of the crowd takes advantage of those areas where humans can outthink and outperform computers. “I always say, if you can get a computer to do it, you should,” Biewald notes. “But there are things computers can’t do well. A computer can’t find the home page of every company in your client database. A computer can’t write copy well, and it can’t tag photos efficiently. Computers don’t search the way people do. There are areas where humans consistently deliver higher quality results than computers do. Choose crowdsourcing for those jobs.”

Crowdsourcing does have its limitations. “Don’t use crowdsourcing to ask questions like “How can I improve my business?” or “Which marketing message is better?” Campbell says. “Crowdsourcing is not ideal for anything requiring deeper thought or strategic thinking.  Stick to the simple tasks, and you’ll have a better experience.”

HabitDisruption_Body.jpgby Robert Lerose.


Customers are creatures of habit, choosing some products or services without really thinking. On the one hand, this predictability can help a business plan their campaigns. For example, if the owner of a grocery store knows that placing displays to the left of the entrance always results in a sale, the practice is likely to continue.


But a business can also become a victim of that success, reluctant to experiment with new ways of altering the shopping experience to expose customers to new products or services. While some consumers might be frustrated by the disruption of their routine, changing customer habits often leads to unexpected—even increased—sales and loyalty.


Observe your customers first

Because a business lives with its key marketing pieces all the time—such as their message, packaging, and website—they tend to get bored with them faster than their customers, who interact with them much less frequently. Before making any changes, it's important to look at your marketing the way your customer sees it.


"Rather than making changes simply for the sake of feeling like you've done something fresh, make sure that you are creating changes that will allow those customers who are in the habit of using you to continue that habit," says Art Markman, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas, and author of Smart Thinking.


Surveys and focus groups are not accurate indicators of customer habits, Markman says. Instead, seeing first-hand how customers react with your products and services can help you figure out how to introduce new routines.


"If people have to come in and sit in your lobby for awhile, what are they doing there? What are some things you could do to make the experience more pleasant, but also make it one that binds people more closely to your company?" Markman says. "If you can watch people in your environment, you can learn a lot about your own business."


Customers are also affected by what they see. Getting your company in front of them—for example, sending a notepad or calendar embossed with your messaging to their home or office—can subtly change habits by keeping you top of mind. Small businesses that sponsor local community events have a huge advantage over large companies that typically avoid this kind of grass roots marketing. "If you can get your product or service in people's environments, you can create a consistency between the environment and the behavior, and that's the recipe for building habit," Markman says.


"Your overriding goal is to find ways to get your customers to do something," Markman adds. "The more that people act, the more you're giving them an opportunity to learn about your company and learn new habits."


HabitDisruption_PQ.jpgAmaze and educate

Knowing how your customers find you can help you make informed decisions about ways to nurture new habits.


Let's say you run a dry cleaning business, and you discover that most people use their smart phones to search for your type of service. Instead of advertising solely in your local community paper, it would be wise to make sure that your presence on the web is optimized for mobile devices so that your company name will appear in the search results.


"By understanding the process by which people find new service providers, you would put more emphasis on [that process]," says Joel Rubinson, president of New York-based Rubinson Partners, Inc., a marketing and research consultancy. "Or just ask your customers how they found you in a personal, friendly way."


Giving your customers an amazing experience that makes a deep impression can lead to a dramatic shift in their habits. "Do something that is so surprisingly great that the customer really takes note," Rubinson explains. "Some gift that brightens their day—perhaps some special kind of service—or some personalization that gives unexpected delight."


Even the most loyal customers may not be aware of the full range range of products or services that a business offers. Content marketing, where genuinely valuable information is supplied to the customer, is one way to lay the groundwork for future purchasing choices, as Rubinson himself learned firsthand.


"I have heating oil and my oil provider also provides services regarding central air conditioning," Rubinson says. "Instead of sending me a coupon with a bill, they can teach me something about how to maintain my central air so that it works better or is more efficient. By teaching me these things, I will start to think of them as an expert and perhaps call them first when the need arises."


Look at your own habits

Sometimes changes in the lives of your customers—such as a new job, a birth, or a child going away to school—can be prime opportunities to work at changing their habits. "Encouraging customers to form new habits is easiest when their existing purchase habits are disrupted by a recent move or shift in their life circumstances," says Wendy Wood, provost professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California.


The habits of customers are not the only things worth studying and influencing. Businesses, too, have habits that should be looked at for possible improvement.


Wood explains that every organization needs best practices and routines that maximize efficiency and contribute constructively to the bottom line. But careless or wasteful habits should be rooted out and changed. "This is the trick with habit change," she says. "How to routinize the parts of the organization that need to work efficiently, but still keep innovations going."


On the Toyota assembly line, for example, Wood says that "even the folks carrying out work efficiently are disrupted so that Toyota can identify points of weakness and understand how to change procedures to make them work better."


As anyone who has ever made a resolution at New Year's knows, changing habits is never easy. But when accepted as a challenge, it can open up new revenue streams and reinforce customer loyalty.

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