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Quick – what comes to mind when you think of Mercedes Benz? What about McDonald’s? While these two businesses are very different, they do have one thing in common: they have distinct, memorable brands.


Your brand is your business personality, reputation, and your promise to your customers, all rolled into one. Think about it: what does McDonald’s promise its customers? I suggest that it is an affordable meal that tastes the same no matter what McDonald’s you walk into, anywhere in the world. McDonald’s spends a lot of money on marketing every year to make sure that that is what we think when we think about their business.


While people might form an opinion of your brand in a split-second, for some companies, building an effective and powerful brand is a lengthy and strategic process that can take up to a generation. A lot of big businesses understand the art of branding and take it seriously, but I believe it is even more important for the small business. Why? Because of the 30 million businesses in the U.S., 99% are small businesses. That is a lot of competition. And the only way to stand out is by having a specific brand.Steve-Strauss--in-article-Medium.png


While a lot of small businesses think they have a brand, most are by default, not design. Yet the purpose of all of your marketing efforts – your social media, your networking, your signs and logos, your slogans and ad campaigns, etc – should be for one main purpose, namely, to increase brand awareness, and that should be a strategic process.


The importance of using your marketing to create that strong brand is almost impossible to understate:


  • Credibility. If you need a tax pro one day because you are going to be audited, who are you more apt to hire, someone you never heard of before or the woman whose ad you have seen several times and who you saw being interviewed on TV at tax time? Exactly.
  • An aura of success: Again, consider our tax pro. Which one seems more successful to you?
  • More income potential: People like brands and are willing to pay more for one. At the market, will you buy a name brand cereal that costs a little more or a generic brand that is less expensive? Most people are willing to pay a little more for a brand they like.
  • Different and better: Because people do like doing business with businesses that they have heard of, those businesses have a leg up on the competition. They are seen as better.
  • Top of mind: All of this leads to one place: being remembered when the time is right. You come home from work one day. You get the mail. And there is the audit notice from the IRS. Who can help you? And then you remember that sharp woman. All of her marketing efforts paid off in that instant.

Click here to read more articles from small business expert Steve Strauss

However, as I said above, most small businesses have not put a lot of thought into their brand and therefore do not have strong brand awareness. The good news is that is fairly easily rectified.


The first thing to do is simply to consider who you are as a business and what you stand for. Great brands offer something that is unique, different, and in some way better. Maybe your business has lower prices, or is more convenient, or has better quality. Maybe it is hipper, or is a family business that has been around forever. You should have a really clear grasp on your business differentiator, objective, and customer benefit – and should be able to describe it in one sentence. If you can’t, you should figure out how to, or chances are your customer won’t understand it either.


The next step is to make it easy for people to remember your desired brand. Signs, social media, networking – it all helps. Another easy way is to have a tagline that says who you are: The low price leader or The king of big screens or whatever. If you use that line consistently, in all of your marketing, it will start to sink in.


Finally, remember that repetition is the key, repetition is the key, repetition is the key. What is the key? See?


If you create a consistent message with all of your marketing tactics, one that reinforces your unique brand again and again, when the time is right, your desired customer will think of you and not someone else.


Marketing gold.

About Steve Strauss

Steven D. Strauss is one of the world's leading experts on small business and is a lawyer, writer, and speaker. The senior small business columnist for USA Today, his Ask an Expert column is one of the most highly-syndicated business columns in the country. He is the best-selling author of 17 books, including his latest,The Small Business Bible, now out in a completely updated third edition. You can listen to his weekly podcast, Small Business Success, visit his new website TheSelfEmployed, and follow him on Twitter. © Steven D. Strauss.

You can read more articles from Steve Strauss by clicking here

Big-Data-Thumb.jpgSmall business owners have unprecedented access to industry, market, and customer data. But a greater volume of information doesn’t automatically translate to a greater opportunity to compete. By learning to read and use “big data,” your small business can acquire the insights it needs to strengthen customer relationships, anticipate trends, and advance to new levels of growth.


Click here to download our guide "Big Data− Getting Granular"

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is a video worth? It must be quite a bit, given that more than 1 billion unique users visit YouTube each month and watch over 6 billion hours of video – that’s almost an hour for every person on Earth.With these staggering figures, video is increasingly becoming a favorite tool for small business marketers.



And it’s no surprise why. Consider all of the benefits of adding video to your marketing mix. Firstly, it allows you to engage with your audience in a dynamic way.  How often do you get someone’s undiluted attention for three minutes online? Not often, except when they are engaged in a video. Video also personalizes you and your brand. Search engines like it, and by using apps such as Vine or Instagram (for short videos 6-15 seconds in length) you can boost your social media presence on sites like Twitter and Facebook. Steve-Strauss--in-article-Medium.png


So what sorts of videos could you create? There are many:


Promotional videos: Create videos that introduce you, your business, your staff, and your products. Maybe give people a virtual tour of your business, or of your website.


How-to videos: Videos that demonstrate how to do something related to your business prove to be very popular. By educating your customers you not only create extra value, but you can forge a better bond with them by helping them to understand something new. For example:


  • Show how to best use one of your products
  • Explain how to install a product
  • Demonstrate how to do other tasks that relate to the product
  • Display how a product can save customers time or money


This statistic probably won’t surprise you: website visitors who view product videos are 85% more likely to buy than visitors who do not. This is because people are visual, and they like to see what they are getting before buying it.


Click here to read more articles from small business expert Steve Strauss


Videos that establish your expertise: Professionals especially may want to create and post videos on their website that share their expertise. A divorce lawyer, for example, can explain the ins and outs of the process. Videos that educate your site visitors on some valuable topic will always be popular.


The good news is that you do not need to make a full-length commercial to get the kind of results that will draw people in. Short, informal, informative videos do the trick perfectly well.


Here are a few tips to help you get started:


1. Remember, you are not Spielberg. You are not making a movie. Keep your video short, and say everything you need to say in five minutes or less. That said, rules are made to be broken and maybe longer form interviews or product demonstrations will work for your business. In that case, still try to keep it to 15 minutes or less.


2. Do your research. You can make your own video or you can hire someone to make it for you. Either way, look for examples online of videos you like so you have a clear vision before starting the process. Check out businesses similar to your own and see if they have videos on their site that you like.


3. Don’t blow your dough. You can easily make a great video on a low budget. You can even use your phone or camera. Just remember that sound quality, lighting, staging, and makeup do matter. Pay attention to these details, as they will really add to the quality of your video.


4. Use analytics: Get some real insight into the consumers that are watching your videos.   YouTube and other video hosting sites can provide you with very useful analytics data. You can find out the demographics of viewers, how they found your video, the length of time they watched it, whether or not they engaged with it (i.e. by liking, commenting, or sharing), and so much more. This insight is incredibly valuable for creating more effective videos in the future.

About Steve Strauss

Steven D. Strauss is one of the world's leading experts on small business and is a lawyer, writer, and speaker. The senior small business columnist for USA Today, his Ask an Expert column is one of the most highly-syndicated business columns in the country. He is the best-selling author of 17 books, including his latest,The Small Business Bible, now out in a completely updated third edition. You can listen to his weekly podcast, Small Business Success, visit his new website TheSelfEmployed, and follow him on Twitter. © Steven D. Strauss.

You can read more articles from Steve Strauss by clicking here

According to, public relations is “Using the news or business press to carry positive stories about your company or your products; cultivating a good relationship with local press representatives.”


It is not difficult to understand why PR is so valuable. When a website sings your praises, when a news story quotes you as an expert, or when a TV program touts your new product, you are getting the sort of attention that you couldn’t buy. Advertising is fine, but is limited, gets tuned out, and is really just you telling the world that your business should be noticed. But publicity? When you get positive publicity, it is an independent third-party telling the world that your business is different and better.


But this begs the question: how do you catch the attention of the press and get them to do a story about your business? Because I have been writing a small business column for since the day it went online, I hope that I can offer a unique perspective as to what the press looks for and how you can utilize PR for your own business.Steve-Strauss--in-article-Medium.png


Here are my five steps to getting publicity for your business:


Step 1: Come up with a unique story/angle. The press is not in the business of simply writing stories about what a nice business you have. They are in the business of reporting on what is unique, new (hence “news”), and interesting.


So that is what you have to give them.


Example: I know of a scuba diving shop in the Florida Keys that wanted to get some press. So they organized a dive to explore a sunken ship that had long been suspected of being an old pirate ship. The shop let the local press know about the dive and their intent to search for sunken treasure. That unique angle got them a ton of publicity.


What is it about your business that is different? What can you do that would be of interest to others? Maybe you can create a contest, or sponsor a community event.


Step 2: Locate the right reporter/editor/blogger/producer. Once you know what you want to pitch to the press, then it is your job to figure out to whom to pitch it to. You have to find the specific person or people that cover the “beat”, or topic, you are pitching.


When someone writes to me with a unique small business story, I listen. But when I am pitched a story about, say, healthcare (because someone found my name on a generic list of writers), I delete it and move on with my day.



Click here to read more articles from small business expert Steve Strauss


Step 3: Pitch the story. Back in the day, people were taught to create a formal press release that covered the 5 W’s of journalism:  the who, what, where, when, and why of an event.


Don’t do that. They often do not get read.


Instead, write a short, snappy email to the person you identified. Make it personal. Maybe compliment them on a recent story they did. Then say that you have something you think is right up their alley, pitch your unique story, and say thank you. A few paragraphs total should do it.


Step 4: Follow up. Everyone is super busy these days and your contact may not get back to you quickly. A gentle follow up reminder is perfectly OK, smart even.


Step 5: Prepare. Surprisingly, this is where many folks miss the boat. If you are fortunate enough to get the press interested in your story, it is then up to you to be ready when he or she comes calling. This means knowing what it is you want to communicate, winnowing it down to some simple talking points, practicing what you want to say, and then remembering to mention those talking points when you are interviewed.


It also means being ready for any after effects of the story. I know of a pizza restaurant that worked hard to get the local restaurant reviewer in the doors. She finally showed up and loved the place.


And the restaurant lived happily ever after, right? Unfortunately, no. It was completely unprepared the day the positive review came out, was swamped with people that weekend, did not have enough wait staff on hand, ran out of dough, and in the end, lost a lot of dough.


So yes, PR can be a double-edged sword. But if you do it right, you too will definitely find some hidden treasure. 


About Steve Strauss

Steven D. Strauss is one of the world's leading experts on small business and is a lawyer, writer, and speaker. The senior small business columnist for USA Today, his Ask an Expert column is one of the most highly-syndicated business columns in the country. He is the best-selling author of 17 books, including his latest,The Small Business Bible, now out in a completely updated third edition. You can listen to his weekly podcast, Small Business Success, visit his new website TheSelfEmployed, and follow him on Twitter. © Steven D. Strauss.

You can read more articles from Steve Strauss by clicking here

QA_Tom_Armour_body.jpgby Iris Dorbian.


An employee handbook is a mainstay in most workplaces. The document is given to every new hire and outlines a company’s policies and procedures regarding benefits, vacation time, and employee conduct. But does a small business, which might have fewer than 20 employees, really need an employee handbook? HR expert Tom Armour thinks so. A former HR executive for a number of Fortune 500 companies, Armour is a co-founder of Higher Return Selection, a five-year-old consulting firm that helps small to medium-sized businesses attract and retain talent. In his view, not only do employee manuals make clear a company’s expectations for a new employee, but they also help provide the blueprint for the culture the business wishes to create and foster. Recently, Armour spoke with business writer Iris Dorbian to discuss what should be in a small company’s employee handbook.


ID: Does a small business really need an employee handbook?

TA: Yes, for several reasons. One, it's the appropriate thing to do if a policy or requirement is important. It's very useful for clarifying expectations, such as confidentiality. Who says a 21-year-old coming out of college understands that? They don't teach that at school. So it's important to have a policy for those really critical things.


A second thing that small businesses should really understand is that the policies help support the culture of the organization. And the third reason is to have uniformity. If you don't have a policy then you're subject to having every department doing their own thing. That’s where you can end up with subcultures within the company.


ID: Can't a company simply have employees sign confidentiality agreements?

TA: For sure. However, for more junior positions and positions that are not at the college grad level, they are not the norm because you typically don't get people to sign legally developed documents. It's a very good practice for leaders or sales people, but not just so much for a bookkeeper.


ID: In addition to company policies on confidentiality, what are some other details that should be incorporated in an employee handbook for a small business?

TA: I think small businesses need to keep handbooks brief. I recall years ago working for Silicon Valley companies that had policy manuals that were three inches thick. That would destroy a small business. I find for most of the small businesses I work with, six or 10 policies are what they typically need. If I were talking to a client, I would tell them to start with some form of standards of business conduct. It protects the company from improper commercial practices. It should also talk about proper expense reporting and having a workplace free from harassment and violence.


ID: What are some of the challenges or issues that small businesses face when drafting employee handbooks?

TA: Here’s the wrong approach: I came to a client a few years back and this fellow had a technology company. He felt like he needed an employee handbook because that's what the books and journals say at the business schools. He went out and hired an HR consultant to write a handbook and paid about a $1,000 for it. The handbook was 100-pages long. When I read it, it was obvious that it was simply copied from another manual and wasn’t really applicable to this business.


I'll give you another example. Technology firms typically write different policies than construction firms. A small software company is going to have a different policy than a small construction company. One would be very focused on hourly paid employees while the other company, the tech company, is structured around the idea of working to develop code and software and leaving the exact hours up to the employee.


ID: You like to break down policies into two categories. Can you clarify?

TA: I like to separate the word policies from guidelines. Policies are those things that are just absolutely required—no debate. An example of a policy would be freedom from harassment in the workplace. That's a policy driven by law. But dress code is something that's not driven by any law. It's really up to the style of a company. In my view, that should never be a policy. That should be a guideline. It's important not to call everything a policy because then you diminish what's important.



ID: So guidelines shouldn't be in a handbook but policies should be?

TA: Yes. And policies are usually those things absolutely required by law.


ID: You mentioned before that small business handbooks should be kept brief? How many pages usually?

TA: It depends on the business but I would say that they don’t need to be more than 20 pages


ID: What would be some other tips for small businesses when it comes to creating an employee handbook?

TA: Try to develop a policy that's suitable for your industry. Also, don't write them as legal documents. There are lots of lawyers out there that advise businesses to write these things, which read like legal documents. If the employee needs to go to a lawyer to understand the terms and conditions, you've probably missed the mark. I think they have to be written in a very upbeat spirit that assumes the employee intends to do well and you're just showing them how.

Online_Marketing_body.jpgby Iris Dorbian.


If there’s one thing that Gene Sower, president of Samson Media, finds frustrating it’s meeting with small business clients who are short-sighted when it comes to online marketing.


“I’ve had clients who’ve approached me and the first thing they want to talk about is the color of their web pages,” says Sower, whose Montclair, N.J.-based firm provides online marketing and website services. “I ask them, ‘Okay, but what do you want the website to do?' I try to get them to think of their website as more than a brochure.”


Sower says he has made it his mission to help clients with their online marketing by actively blogging about issues he feels are relevant to the subject. For example, he recently posted about the cost-effectiveness of using a template design for a client site versus an original design. Because the latter is often more expensive, Sower maintains that money earmarked for a customized web design would be better spent on a SEO or pay-per-click advertising campaign.


Read on to find out the most common online marketing missteps and how you can avoid them.


Mistake #1: Not allocating enough money

Just because it’s online, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t spend any money. Sure, you might derive some leads or pique the attention of a few prospects from a clever (and free) Twitter or Facebook initiative. However, these results could be short-term and middling when compared to the reach of a well-executed and strategic long-range online marketing campaign.


Says Sower: “Clients think that social media can drive all of their leads and new business when it’s just unrealistic. A lot of what I tell people is that you have to allot some money to marketing—whether it’s PR, advertising, or search engine optimization.”


Julie Davis, director of marketing and development for TotalHousehold, a two-year old Danbury, Conn.-based online marketplace that connects homeowners with qualified contractors, echoes Sower’s sentiment.


“When you’re looking to save money, you still need to go with reputable companies and the best plans rather than the cheapest plans,” explains Davis.


To prove her point, Davis cites how TotalHousehold recently selected PR Underground, which posts press releases online, for their weekly PR needs as opposed to the far more expensive PR Web.


“We do a weekly giveaway on our site and for $29 a week, we can generate a press release [via PR Underground],” says Davis. “If we used PR Web, which we do for bigger releases, it would be hundreds of dollars.”


Mistake #2: Doing it yourself

Some small business owners might think that if they take an hour-long seminar on online marketing or read a book on the subject they might be prepared to go the DIT route. Although it is possible that some business owners might excel in blogging or sending out e-newsletters, for example, most will not be skilled enough to launch a comprehensive online marketing campaign that will bring results. To get the ROI you desire, you must make an investment.


Janet O. Penn, managing director of Janet Penn Consulting, a seven-year-old internet marketing consulting firm in Fairfield, NJ, urges small business owners to steer clear of the DIY approach.


“A lot of times when someone starts their own business, they do it because they have a particular talent, such as making jewelry,” she says. “Their area of expertise is providing that service and they should concentrate on doing that. It’s not prudent or even a good business model to have people thinking they can do it themselves.”


Penn brushes aside the notion that it’s in her best interest to take this approach. “The lay person might be aware of Google’s changing algorithms but they don’t really understand what that means,” she explains. “There are so many critical strategies and business practices that are changing. If you aren’t spending a minimum of one to two hours every day just observing and understanding all of those changes, such as how to optimize a Pinterest post, you’re going to be left behind.”


Penn often counsels small business owners to allocate some funding to hire a marketing professional, even if it’s on a part-time or contractor basis. This allows busy entrepreneurs to tap into the expertise of marketing professional who can evaluate what needs to be done to have a solid and effective online strategy.


Mistake #3: Staying static with your website

Not too long ago, having a website, which listed the services of your small business and included a gallery of portfolio photos and contact information, might have sufficed. But in this social media era where information is constantly streamed to the masses, that is no longer practical. If you want to reach a target demographic or get more leads, you will need to be more proactive with your online marketing.



“Everybody these days is a content creator,” says Sower. “The new marketing is about sharing your knowledge and expertise with the people you’re trying to attract. You can no longer have a static brochure website. You have to have some kind of blogging component where you’re able to put up timely content that will be able to attract people to your business. This will not only give you something to disseminate through social media, but it will also help your search engine optimization because the search engines are always looking for sites that are being updated on a constant basis.”


Mistake #4: Not properly evaluating your online marketing needs

Believe it or not, not every small business needs online marketing. “It is fashionable, yes,” says Helena Zakmane, a marketing professional whose broad range of experience includes running her own small consulting firm as well as working for international companies. “But by no means is it necessary for everyone.”


For instance, Zakmane recalls advising a client—an apartment cleaning business—to forgo social media outreach in favor of direct mail in their city. “Not having a sufficient advertising budget made it practically impossible for them to reach their audience via social media channels,” explains Zakmane. “It's also hard to imagine someone following a cleaning company’s Facebook page.” 

The lesson learned: take a good look at the business you’re in before committing funds to an online marketing campaign. Just because many businesses are doing it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right for you.

Whether it’s to increase sales or elevate your company’s profile in a saturated marketplace, including online marketing in an advertising campaign can be an effective and efficient strategy to reach new and existing customers.

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