Skip navigation
1 2 3 Previous Next

Sales & Marketing

42 Posts authored by: SBC Team

White-in-article-portrait.jpgby Reed Richardson.

 

It’s an age-old predicament for entrepreneurs: Sure, you may have built a fabulous new product or developed the next killer app, but if you don’t also do a good job of marketing it to customers, your business can still end up failing. So, how can small, local businesses, a majority of which spend less than $2,500 a year on marketing according to a recent Merchant Circle survey, overcome this problem? The first step, say many marketing experts, begins with a change of mindset.

 

Put Marketing First in Your Mind

“For most small business owners, marketing is viewed at best as a nice add-on or at worst as some kind of foreign science whose secrets are locked away in an ivory tower somewhere, writes John Jantsch in his popular book Duct Tape Marketing. “Small business marketers need a totally different definition of marketing—one that’s honest, relevant, and more like real life.”

 

To get a sense of how this new definition plays out, Jantsch has developed a handy graphic about the purchasing process, something he calls the Marketing Hourglass. In a recent blog post about his Marketing Hourglass’s seven steps, Jantsch notes that “the most fundamental shift of all in marketing is the need to logically and systematically move prospects along the path of know, like, trust, try, buy, repeat, and refer—this is the entire game these days.” He adds that “any business that fills each of these seven touchpoints will be well on its way to finding and keeping customers.”

 

Pull-Quote.jpgProfile Your Target Customer

One common mistake among inexperienced marketers involves rushing ahead without a clear idea of which customers your small business is trying to reach in the first place. “Often, my small business students try to begin with tactical decisions, like whether they should put an ad in a newspaper,” explains Glynns Thomas, a small business marketing instructor who teaches an online course entitled “Small Business Marketing on a Shoestring.” “Instead, I try to pull them back a bit and get them to define their target market. By thinking about their strategic foundation first, that will then feed what kind of tactics to use later.”

 

Skipping this crucial step, Thomas adds, means a small business is likely to end up with a scattershot marketing plan—a Yellow Pages ad here, an email campaign there—that doesn’t tie together and nets little in the way of return on investment. “Small businesses really have to paint the picture of who their ideal customer is, where they can be found, and how they behave, and get really specific about it,” she explains. “If you try to market too broadly to, say, 1,000 people, you may only get 10 sales, whereas if you focus on 100 really well-matched potential customers, you may actually net 50 sales. It’s kind of counterintuitive, but by going smaller, you can actually get more in the long run.”

 

One low-cost tactic that Thomas favors involves marketing partnerships. As an example, she cites the experience of one of her students, the owner of a Greek restaurant located in a shopping mall’s food court. To expand beyond the primary customer base of mall foot traffic, Thomas suggested that the restaurant—whose menu focuses heavily on freshly prepared ingredients—partner with a nearby gym that has a similar, health-conscious clientele. In return for offering an initial discount to the gym’s members, the restaurant gained the ability to run a free ad in the gym’s monthly member newsletter, giving it hundreds of exposures to a like-minded audience. “It’s all about finding other businesses that are complementary to your mission without being competitive.”

 

Match Message to Market and Don’t Forget to “Sell the Hole”

Once you’ve identified your business’s key customer constituencies, then it’s time to craft a marketing message that fits your market and also speaks to its needs. This doesn’t have to be a complicated or expensive process, says small business marketing consultant Bob Wiltse, but if you don’t address both the former and the latter in your pitch, you’ll likely get little bang for your buck.

 

“A big mistake I see from a lot of small businesses is that they need to stop selling their product and start selling what their product can do for their customers,” explains Wiltse, who also writes a small business marketing blog called 390 Main Street. “For example, if your business is manufacturing power drills, don’t sell customers on the drill, sell them on the hole it makes. After all, that’s what the customers really want to use the drill for anyway. Likewise, if your company website just offers me a list of products without telling me why they’re better than your competitors, you’ve just commoditized yourself and left me little choice but to compare your products to others based on the only other piece of data I have, which is price.”

 

To boost your marketing profile and draw in more potential customers to your company website, you should consider a number of best practices, like adding embedded videos—for things like product demonstrations—and search engine optimizing (SEO) your website’s text content. If done right, these steps can be a very effective way of drawing people in through online search sites like Google, Yahoo, and Bing and then keeping them there once they arrive. What’s more, these steps are not so complicated that, given some time and dedication, a small business owner can’t handle it by him or herself. (For a more detailed look at SEO, check out our article on the topic.) Even better, free tools like Google Analytics can track this search traffic and see who is visiting your website, where they’re coming from, and what they’re looking at once they get there. This data can then be used to refine your target market even more and further hone your sales message.

 

New marketing tools like these are increasingly popular, but not universally known, Wiltse says, and so he says he often sees frustrated small business customers come into his office saying the same thing: “Everything I used to do isn’t working anymore.” For example, he points out that buying a costly, static ad in a Yellow Pages directory may have a diminishing return in an increasingly digital world and that many small companies would be better off establishing an online presence on local business search sites like Yelp, Yahoo Local, and Google Places. (In a perhaps telling move, the Yellow Pages Association recently changed its name to the Local Search Association.)

 

These local search sites typically charge nothing for their basic listing service. What’s more, they offer a much more dynamic and interactive platform, allowing businesses to provide more detail about their products and services while letting customers share reviews about their purchasing experience. And as smartphones and mobile tablets become increasingly popular conduits for finding businesses, having a robust local search presence online will become even more important. (For a good first step in checking your business’s current local search status, Wiltse recommends using the listing consolidator getlisted.org.)

 

Use Social Media to Keep ’Em Coming Back (and Bring Their Friends)

Once you’ve sold a customer, enticing them to repeat their business and refer your business to others becomes the final step in the marketing process. And when it comes to maintaining and strengthening your existing customer relationships, social media has proven to be a revolutionary platform. “Social media makes it so much easier to stay in contact with customers and keep your business top of mind,” Thomas notes, adding that its interconnected nature and “share” features makes asking for customer referrals much easier (and less uncomfortable). But, she cautions, building out your business’s social media presence should still be done with due diligence.

 

“I always recommend to small business owners that they start off small, with one or maybe two social media platforms, like starting a Facebook fan page and maybe a Twitter account for their business. And even before you formally set them up, I suggest they use the sites for a few months to get a sense of how they work and what people’s expectations are,” Thomas explains. During this trial period, she suggests that entrepreneurs create a list of several dozen sample Facebook posts or tweets that would be both appropriate and interesting. These will be the templates for future posts once their business social media is up and running.

 

“Often, I get small business owners who’ve already started with social media coming to me saying ‘I have no idea what to post,’” Thomas says. “That can lead to trouble because the whole idea of small businesses using social media is to engage with your customers, not just to tell them, ‘Buy my stuff!’” This kind of hard selling can be a turnoff, no matter what the media platform or message and it runs counter to the whole point of effective, shoestring marketing, Thomas notes. “When your target market and message are defined well, they meet the right person at the right time, and when that happens, marketing is no longer intrusive or annoying, it’s helpful, and that’s exactly what you want.”

White-in-article.pngBy Reed Richardson.

 

The following is Part Two of our two-part series on entrepreneurial elevator pitches. In Part One, we examined the reasons why every small business owner should master an elevator pitch and offered tips on how to structure one for maximum impact. In this follow-up section, we focus more specifically on targeting an elevator pitch to an investor or venture capital audience.

 

Although elevator pitches can be presented to a variety of audiences in the service of several different business goals (as we saw in Part I of this series), their most common purpose among startups and early stage small businesses no doubt still involves the attraction of capital. But whether it’s an angel investor from around the corner or a large VC firm in Silicon Valley, this cohort often proves to be the most difficult for an entrepreneur to impress, inundated as they are with similar pleas for financing day after day. So, to stand out from the rest of the pitching crowd, it pays to fine-tune one’s presentation to improve one’s chances of scoring that potentially life-changing investment.

 

Using the elevator pitch to get your foot in the VC door

“From my experience, a lot of introductions to venture capitalists happen in written format,” notes Andrea Rice, president and co-founder of CareerCore, a New York-based executive consultancy. “The entrepreneur may know someone who knows a potential investor and that becomes a way to get an email in front of the right person.” But while it may be tempting for an entrepreneur to attach their entire business plan and send it along in hopes of wowing a potential investor, Rice says this initial opportunity is better thought of as the proverbial short elevator ride via correspondence rather than a formal meeting.

 

Tips-sidebar.png“You’ll be lucky if the VC spends more than a few seconds on your email,” explains Rice, who has spent time on both sides of the pitching table, first as a Wall Street equity analyst listening to pitches and then, more recently, as an entrepreneur making pitches to raise funds for her current venture. “The purpose of the email,” she notes, “is to get the VC to look at your Executive Summary. The Executive Summary is the written equivalent of an elevator pitch for an entrepreneur.” (For a detailed breakdown of what this email should contain and to see a sample written executive summary, check out Rice’s “Elevator Pitch to a VC” blog post.)

 

Avoid the “form letter” elevator pitch

Dr. John Cooley, co-founder of the energy storage startup firm FastCap Systems, says that during the several months his company spent prospecting for seed stage venture capital, he and his partner routinely tweaked their core elevator pitch to best fit who was going to hear their presentation. “Sometimes our first slide was a description of our team, sometimes it was a description of our technology, and other times it began with the more classic description of the problem we were trying to solve,” he recalls.

 

This is a wise strategy, according to Rice, since each investment group and VC firm has its own favorite industry sectors and within these firms each principal often has expertise in an even more narrowly defined sub-sector. So, recalibrating your pitch to more closely target the individual audience’s “sweet spot” makes good sense, she explains. “Ideally, you’re talking to the right partner, the one who cares the most about your [market] space,” she says. “But you still want to paint the opportunity in the best light no matter who is listening to your pitch.”

 

 

Why rehearsing your elevator pitch matters; remember the “10th C”

Subtly changing your elevator pitch for each presentation naturally suggests the need for some extra rehearsal time to ensure a smooth delivery, one that avoids glaring omissions or embarrassing redundancies. In his book Elevator Pitch Essentials, author Chris O’Leary similarly emphasizes the importance of having a clear, concise, and consistent pitch—these three characteristics being part of what he calls the Nine C’s that comprise the best elevator pitches. But entrepreneurs shouldn’t overlook the fact that, in small presentation settings, studies have found there is a tenth “C” that has a surprisingly powerful ability to sway minds: confidence.

 

Alex “Sandy” Pentland, professor at the M.I.T. Media Lab, studies nonverbal communication and one of his recent experiments focused on exactly these kinds of situations. In a Q & A with the Wall Street Journal, Pentland explains that even though his study’s subjects were mid-career executives presenting real business plans, the peer ratings of those plans had little to do with the plans’ actual content. In fact, Pentland was surprised to discover that the ratings could be accurately predicted simply by assessing the confidence of the pitcher’s voice and body language. “It was how they delivered the plan that determined how it was rated. That’s pretty amazing,” explains Pentland. “They were listening to how excited the presenter was about the plan; they were not listening to the facts.”

 

Obviously, there are significant hazards to venture capitalists making significant investment decisions based solely on such immediate, emotional feedback, which is why they include lots of other steps in their pre-investment due diligence. Nevertheless, there’s still a lesson here for entrepreneurs about the intangible value of displaying confidence and enthusiasm in one’s elevator pitch. “In venture capital, one of the things investors pay attention to is the buzz in the start-up group and the way it feels,” Pentland notes. “And what the venture capitalists are actually doing, I think, is reading the honest signaling.”

 

Avoid these common elevator pitch pitfalls

Showing enthusiasm for one’s own business idea may be a no-brainer, yet many entrepreneurs balk at signaling that their pitch also excites competing investors. This effectively sells your idea short, says Rice. “You want to leverage any momentum that you have when pitching a VC, particularly if you’re an early or seed stage startup,” she notes. “So, if you can communicate that there are others legitimately interested in investing in your business, you shouldn’t shy away from mentioning that.”

 

However, using one’s elevator pitch to try to unleash a VC bidding war is an obviously poor decision, so conveying outside interest does require some subtlety, Rice acknowledges. “If I’ve just pitched a VC firm out in Silicon Valley via conference call, for example, I might end my pitch with something like: ‘I’m going to be out on Sand Hill Road all next week and would love to schedule a face-to-face meeting with you one day while I’m in the neighborhood.’”

 

Such an understated tactic has another positive side effect—it demonstrates the ability to navigate a relatively cutthroat investment environment, which is often seen by VCs as a precursor to executive performance in the future. “To VCs, bringing in a great idea is no big deal,” notes Kourosh Kaghazian, managing director of M.I.T.’s annual Elevator Pitch Competition. “They also want to see them demonstrate why they are the proper person to successfully execute the idea.”

 

All this pressure to stand out, be confident, and prove one’s capabilities can result in what is perhaps the most common mistake made when pitching investors—information overload. Packing too much story and data into an elevator pitch almost always leads to one of two different end results, both of them bad. Either the presenter rushes through the pitch—burying their core message under a blur of words and data—or talks for far too long—wearing on the audience’s patience and causing them to lose interest.

 

“You simply can’t expect to answer every possible question with your pitch and you have to accept that,” explains Kaghazian. “It says to the investor that you have trouble prioritizing information.” And if an entrepreneur can’t handle pulling off a 60-second elevator pitch, most investors will naturally begin to doubt his or her ability to handle running an actual company.

White-in-article.pngBy Reed Richardson.

 

The following is Part I of our two-part series on entrepreneurial elevator pitches. Here, we examine the reasons why every small business owner should master an elevator pitch as well as offer tips on how to build one for maximum impact. Part II of this series focuses more specifically on tailoring your elevator pitch to an investor or venture capital audience.

 

If you only had one minute, could you effectively explain what your small business does to a complete stranger in a compelling manner, one that makes them want to hear more? That, in essence, is the art of the elevator pitch, so named because the duration of the typical elevator ride approximates the 60 seconds an entrepreneur would have to share their story with a potential customer, partner, or investor.

 

Pull-Quote.pngThe ability to break through the clutter of the marketplace and differentiate one’s venture from competitors isn’t as easy as it sounds, however. Small business owners, who themselves are routinely pressed for time, can certainly sympathize with this dilemma. But that’s where a good elevator pitch comes in, explains author Chris O’Leary in his book Elevator Pitch Essentials.

 

“It never fails that the more potentially helpful someone is [to your business], the busier they are likely to be. If you want to be successful, you need to take this problem seriously,” writes O’Leary. “An elevator pitch is designed to quickly catch the attention of the audience, persuade them to pay attention to what you have to say, and convince them they want to hear more.”

 

Why every small business should prepare a basic elevator pitch

For many entrepreneurs, perfecting an elevator pitch might seem like an unnecessary extravagance, one more appropriate for a Silicon Valley boardroom than a Main Street storefront. “Most companies never get venture capital funding, especially outside of the technology world,” notes tech startup consultant Anil Dash in a recent blog post on alternative methods for funding startups, So why bother with an elevator pitch, if, as Dash spells out, there are lots of other ways to wrangle financing?

 

The answer lies in the broader benefits of developing an elevator pitch. First, just the process of distilling one’s business venture into a concise and sharply-crafted 60-second marketing message can be a helpful way to examine (or reexamine) a business’s core message and value proposition. Then there’s the wide range of alternative audiences a business’s elevator pitch can be tailored to, whether they be potential suppliers, promising customers, or future employees. And yes, other common sources of startup funding—local bankers, interested equity partners, even friends and family—would probably be more inclined to hand over a check after hearing a well thought-out and enthusiastic sketch of a business idea.

 

For Dr. John Cooley, perfecting his company’s elevator pitch was just such a stepping-stone to taking an idea and turning it into a full-fledged business. Back in 2008, when his company, FastCap Systems, amounted to little more than some experimental tests in a lab, Cooley and his co-founder decided to enter the M.I.T. Sloan School of Business’s annual Elevator Pitch Competition (EPC). Their innovative plan, which uses a new kind of electrical capacitor to solve the problem of renewable energy storage, ultimately won the competition and earned them the $5,000 grand prize. But while the money was a nice bonus, Cooley says the real payoff came from the experience and the legitimacy his company gained from the going through the process.

 

“It gave us some work under our belt and helped us a lot with networking and connections,” Cooley explains. What’s more, because he and his co-founder Riccardo Signorelli (who presented the pitch at the EPC) have advanced degrees in electrical engineering but no formal business training, Cooley says crafting their successful elevator pitch also built up their sense of entrepreneurial confidence. “We learned that you don’t have to have a business degree to start a business,” he says, chuckling. “You just throw yourself in and it kind of snowballs.”

 

Start with the problem

When developing an elevator pitch, the first thing to keep in mind is that it’s not about trying to close a deal but rather start a conversation, writes O’Leary. In his book, he identifies the somewhat daunting Nine C’s that he says comprise a good elevator pitch, but many of these key elements are fairly intuitive. The goals for your pitch should be more modest and realistic, he adds, like enticing an audience into wanting to hear more, rather than trying to immediately convince them that they should buy into your enterprise.

 

Likewise, you don’t want to lead off with a long recitation of your company’s vital statistics—information that can readily be found on your website—unless you want your audience’s eyes to quickly glaze over in boredom. Instead, you want to engage your audience with a compelling story about your business, and since every good story involves a hero confronting an obstacle that must be overcome, your elevator pitch should be structured in the same manner.

 

“You need to start with an explanation of the problem your business will solve,” explains Kourosh Kaghazian, a second-year Sloan student who is the managing director of M.I.T.’s 2011 $100k Entrepreneurial Competition. (To see more elevator pitches, check out the M.I.T. 100k Entrepreneurship channel on YouTube.) However, just calling something a “problem” isn’t enough, he points out. “You need to give data and stats to more fully describe the scope of the problem.” Once your pitch is armed with such context, it then becomes easier to move on to the next part, explaining your solution. And because brevity is key to covering as much ground as possible in a pitch, Kaghazian points out that this opening section should amount to no more than two or three lines when written out, or the equivalent of about 10 to 15 seconds long when spoken.

 

As a good example, Kaghazian points to the winning presentation from last year’s Elevator Pitch Competition. That pitch, from an M.I.T. student-led social venture project called Sanergy (check out one of their minute-long elevator pitches on YouTube), opened with a clear, scene-setting description of a widespread problem: “2.6 billion people from around the world lack access to adequate sanitation. The resulting disease causes nearly two million deaths each year.”

 

Solve the problem, sell your expertise, and close with a call to action

After having spent the first quarter of the pitch firmly establishing the problem, it’s then time to move on to the meat of the pitch—delivering a solution. In the case of Sanergy, the M.I.T. presenter spent the next 30 seconds or so explaining how their socially responsible business model will mate free hygiene facilities in developing countries with local, renewable energy production. Again, it’s important to add specific numerical context in this section too, as Sanergy did by noting the potential “$2-billion market worldwide.”

 

Merely offering a dazzling theoretical plan still won’t make for the very best elevator pitch, though. To push a pitch over the top, it should also spend five to ten seconds detailing the real-world expertise of the company’s leadership and why they have developed not just a solution, but the solution. For established small business owners, this is a good time to briefly discuss their years of industry experience and professional credentials. In the case of a nascent startup like Sanergy, demonstrating one’s bona fides is admittedly more difficult, but it can be done through advisory boards, feasibility studies, and prototype/pilot projects.

 

To wrap up an effective elevator pitch, it’s a good idea to re-summarize the solution in a few seconds and then finish up with a short, one or two-line call to action. “It’s important to make clear what you want out of your audience,” Kaghazian says. And while this conclusion typically involves asking for a commitment of some kind, what pitchers should be prepared for next is a series of probing questions about their enterprise. And that’s as it should be. After all, the symbolic elevator ride is now over and you still have your audience’s attention, so it’s now time to step out and get down to real business.

Direct-Mail-in-article.pngby Robert Lerose.

 

Though many entrepreneurs are now engaging in a mad dash to find and connect with customers through online marketing and social media, this rush to embrace all things digital may cause a small business owner to overlook a tried-and-still-true way to prospect for customers and convert sales: direct mail. “It’s guaranteed to get into a person’s mailbox. You have 100-percent deliverability, whereas with email you don’t,” notes Heather Snead, Mailing Solutions Specialist with the U.S. Postal Service.

 

Business owners report a distinct advantage in putting something real in customers’ hands, too. Add that to the variety of formats and emotional “in your face” visuals that direct mail provides and you get a marketing channel that offers enhanced creativity and hard revenue generation that e-based applications can’t often match.

 

Because the analytics for measuring the ROI of social media are still evolving, it’s hard to get an apples-to-apples comparison between direct mail and the new digital communication tools. So while some evidence seems to suggest that the ROI for email is higher, such analysis often fails to adequately address the paucity of reliable email lists and ongoing issues with spam. Nonetheless, one conclusion almost all the experts support is this: Companies that have an integrated direct mail/email strategy get better results than those using only one method.

 

Giving customers something tangible

Randy O’Neill, senior vice president of Lancer Insurance Company, uses direct mail to reinforce his company’s brand. “We’re the largest specialty insurer of passenger transportation companies in the country. The commercial transportation business is primarily a small business/family environment that we’re operating in. We like to have people actually see, feel, and touch our materials. We can do that much better through direct mail.”

 

To reach owners of small limousine services, O’Neill says his company launched a three-pronged campaign that included email and two types of mailers: a postcard and a more interactive piece with a tear-off. “They can return the piece in a fold-over secure envelope that we provide,” O’Neill says, explaining that some of the information his mailer asks for is somewhat sensitive.

 

In addition, O’Neill says his goal has been to simplify the look and size of the mailers, while offering the recipients multiple ways to connect. “We’re actually using the mailing pieces as both a billboard and an information vehicle. It provides the various response options we’re looking for, whether it’s [calling] a traditional 800 number, sending the piece back, or driving them to our website.”

 

Cut through the clutter with humor

“Direct mail provides you the opportunity to forge relationships with your target audience,” says Mike Palm, vice president of sales and marketing for CRP Industries, a family-managed company that sells industrial and automotive products to distributors. “Direct mail fuels and feeds the pipeline for us and helps us qualify leads.”

 

The tangibility of direct mail also allows for different formats and creative approaches. All it takes is a little imagination, as Palm discovered with a recent campaign to sell a high-pressure thermoplastic hose that his company had been marketing for over 25 years. Most of their sales volume for this specialty item came from the airless paint spray industry, but despite a concerted effort to sell to other markets, the company couldn’t break through. “A lot of these people are owner/operators of their businesses. We wanted to communicate our [unique selling proposition], the attributes that CRP delivers, that we ship in 24 hours—but we couldn’t cut through the clutter.”

 

CRP’s advertising agency recommended sending dimensional mailers that used humor to 250 distributors of specific industrial products, a new segment for customer development that CRP had been trying to crack. 

 

“We did three mailings of these boxes. In the first mailing, we sent an empty box with just a product catalog inside. The outside of the box said: ‘If you’d ordered a hose from us yesterday, it would have been inside this box today.’”

 

Mobile_Barcode_Promotion.pngTwo different boxes with humorous contents and a postcard campaign followed. “We saw a

31-percent increase in sales,” Palm says. “We dramatically shortened our typical sales cycle and closed on three new customers in less than three months. And we had over 50-percent aided recall of this campaign. It was a huge success.”

 

Whereas the average customer in CRP’s traditional market segment will spend $2,000 per year, the customers in this new market will spend more than $6,000 per year; in many cases, as much as $10,000 to $20,000 per year.

 

Not only did CRP generate hundreds of thousands of dollars of sales from this new market, but their ROI was also at least 3 times greater than what they had achieved with their traditional airless paint spray market segment.

 

Lead generation with postcards that pop

Measurable Solutions, a consulting and training company that also delivers seminars to business owners, put together a postcard campaign to generate interest in a marketing course for health professionals. “We put a success story on the postcard from a physician who had done the course as well as his upswing in patient visits,” says Jeff Lee, CEO and co-founder of Measurable Solutions. “Prospects listen more closely when someone else says it. We had approximately 75 calls in one week from a 5,000-piece mailing,” for a 1.5-percent response rate. (A response rate between one and three percent is considered an acceptable return in direct mail.) 

 

Lee says that weekly postcards combined with a monthly newsletter were the right marketing mix in his case. Before his company mounts a campaign, it does live surveys with the target market to come up with gripping sales pieces. “You need a message that grabs them by the eyeballs, and you’ve got to tell them to call you or they won’t do it.”

 

In one campaign, Lee found that health professionals wanted new patients. The postcard headline read “Get New Patients Out The Wazoo!” accompanied by a success story/testimonial by a client. Another headline that worked:  “Is your business controlling you or are you in control of your business?” A commanding but simple “Call Now!” or “Schedule Now!” was a sufficient call to action.

 

The bottom line

Besides offering the potential of forging a genuine emotional connection through the use of creative formatting and attention-getting messages, direct mail also gives business owners something that no other marketing channel does: a real item that prospects can touch and see. “[Direct mail] gives you the opportunity to have a relationship with a very targeted audience,” CRP’s Palm says. As a result, it allows an entrepreneur to take more creative and conceptual risks, which, in turn, can reap higher rewards.

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

 

by Max Berry.

 

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

 

Socialize For Success

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Shake Things Up

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Pursuit of Affluence

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

CRM-Software-Article.pngby Christopher Freeburn.

 

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) remains a topic that is heavily analyzed and debated among business consultants and academics. In the 1990s CRM became a buzzword in business management, spawning a legion of CRM experts and software applications meant to automate the CRM process for companies. CRM specialists have defined the entire sales process as critical to maintaining customer loyalty and satisfaction.

 

There is a wide variety of CRM software applications available to help companies collect, analyze, and manage data about their customers. Choosing the right one for your business is critical. Unfortunately, the variety of CRM software applications, designed to work with virtually any sized business, can bewilder even the most savvy small business owner. As a result, working with a CRM consultant to select the software that best fits your business’s structure and needs is often a good idea, particularly since most CRM software is meant to supplement a CRM strategy that has already been properly designed to fit your business.

 

The following is a selection of some of the more popular CRM software applications:

 

ACT! (Pro: $229.99; Premium: $459.99) Produced by Sage Software, ACT! platforms have been a constant companion for many salespeople for two decades. The software provides comprehensive scheduling of telephone calls, meetings, and correspondence, as well as archiving of all details of the sales transaction. The 2011 edition of the program integrates easily with Microsoft Office, synchronizes with Outlook for easy exchange of data and use, and now includes a remotely accessible Mobile Live function that lets your sales staff tap into it while they’re out on the road. The more affordable Pro version is probably sufficient for small businesses with 10 or fewer users, but if your company has a need greater than that, you’re better off with the more scalable Premium platform. There are also additional ACT! CRM versions tailored specifically for real estate and financial professionals ($299.99 each). Click here for more on ACT! products and to test-drive a complimentary, 30-day trial.

 

Goldmine (Enterprise, Premium, and Corporate prices only available by quote). FrontRange’s Goldmine is a reliable CRM and activity tracking application that permits team-based forecasting, mass mailing, and project collaboration. Similar in some ways to Sage Software’s ACT! platform, Goldmine products allow for integration through various mobile devices and provide a variety of forecasting, lead management, marketing, synchronization, and contact management options. Its entry-level offering, formerly known as Standard and priced at $275 per user, is now called Enterprise and is quoted individually, depending upon each client’s unique needs. For larger or rapidly growing companies looking to do more than just passively monitor customers and track data, Goldmine’s Premium edition offers more features to satisfy those needs. The most extensive Goldmine platform, called Corporate, which in the past was priced at roughly double the Standard tier, combines both Enterprise and Premium functionalities and adds several other features as well, among them web service support. Click here to see a Goldmine product comparison chart and find contact information for a price quote.

 

Infusionsoft CRM (Basic: $199/month; Deluxe: $299/month; Pro: $499/month) Infusionsoft’s web-based software offers a robust, integrated approach to all areas of sales and marketing beyond simple contact management. The software, part downloaded and part run from Infusionsoft’s servers, permits management of individual sales, the creation of sales times, and the distribution of leads and sales opportunities to team members. The software combines and meshes sales and marketing efforts and allows tracking of online and off line orders and sales. The software pricing scales upward based on the number of users and contacts, with the Pro version accommodating 10 separate users and 100,000 contacts. Beyond those limits, Infusion offers an individually quoted Enterprise system. To learn more about the different versions, including a 15-day trial edition, and compare pricing, click here.

Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2011 (Pricing and versions TBD) Though a Dynamics 4.0 version is currently available, a newer version of Microsoft’s CRM software will be arriving in late January. And take note, to entice current CRM users to switch over to Microsoft’s new 2011 platform, the company is offering up to $200 in incentives to some qualified customers. All the specifics about the new platform were not yet known at the time of writing, but a beta version that has been circulating since September offers several clues. For example, the next generation CRM platform will include cloud-based as well as on-premises versions and Microsoft promises its new software will integrate into more of its products than ever before while allowing for increased user personalization. Pricing is still to be determined as well. As a general guide, however, you could look at the costs of the Dynamics 4.0 versions, which have one-time costs of roughly $1,000 for a full-use license and run from $2,100 to $2,600 to $5,200 for the Professional, Workgroup, and Enterprise server editions, respectively. For more on the launch of Microsoft’s new CRM software, click here.

 

NetSuite CRM+ ($129 per user, per month). Another more comprehensive, web-based CRM system, NetSuite CRM+ offers a broader view of all sales and customer management related activities to authorized employees, including complete purchase histories for all customers, territory tracking and assignment, commission tracking for salespeople, deal expiration notification, lead generation and follow-up, and enhanced sales forecasting. NetSuite’s CRM+ platform also includes remote smartphone access as well as robust back-office functionality, letting a small business owner track inventory, order fulfillment, and accounts receivable. To read more about CRM+ details or schedule an online product demo, click here.

 

Prophet 5.0 (Personal: $199.95; Advance: $349.95; Premium: $499.95). Designed to work seamlessly with Microsoft’s popular Outlook mail program, Avidian Technologies’ Prophet line of CRM products eliminates the need to switch between separate contact databases and other applications since all CRM functions are nested within Outlook. According to Avidian, its 5.0 versions of the Personal, Advance and Premium releases are more designed for individuals, but because they offer a wide variety of features, including sales and quote management dashboards, an instant, customizable quote generator, and an array of new project-tracking reports, many smaller business owners will find this product tier capable of handling their CRM needs. For businesses with larger sales teams and more complicated reporting needs, however, Avidian also offers Professional and Enterprise versions (price quoted per user) of its Prophet CRM software. To compare editions and try a complimentary 15-day trial, go to the Avidian website.

 

Salesforce Sales Cloud 2 (Five different editions with pricing that ranges from $5 to $250 per user, per month). Salesforce’s CRM products are tiered to fit the customer relationship needs of everything from a one-person startup to a multinational corporation. Beyond Sales Cloud 2’s many contact management tools and customer relationship tracking features is another functionality of particular note: a new “Chatter” feature, which functions as a kind of internal social networking tool for businesses, letting employees quickly and easily collaborate on projects in real time. Its popularity has already skyrocketed among Salesforce’s larger customers, like Dell, Sony, Amazon.com, and Yahoo, and has the company planning many add-ons to enhance its ability in helping companies to coordinate better and sell more. To understand the differences in Sales Cloud 2 tier capability, pricing, and scope, check out this comparison of Salesforce CRM versions.

Part 2: Three reasons in against.White-in-article.jpg

 

By Reed Richardson.

 

In Part I of our social coupons series, we offered three benefits to be derived from social coupons, including the exposure they offer to local customers, their ability to boost business activity to cover slow periods, and their guaranteed measurable results. (For the full story, click here.) But, not surprisingly, all of these benefits must be carefully weighed against the potential pitfalls any social coupon program entails. Here are the three most critical dangers to keep in mind:

 

1. When “many” suddenly becomes “too many”

For small businesses, the old adage “be careful what you wish for” especially applies when it comes to social coupons. While a struggling entrepreneur may consider thousands of new customers walking through the door as a dream come true, the reality can be quite another experience if your business isn’t prepared for the logistical aspects of a sudden or sustained spike in activity. Or as Eversave president Jere Doyle told The New York Times recently, “It is really important to cap offers…we don’t want to bomb, say, a restaurant who may not have adequate staff.”

 

A Rice University study published in October, which surveyed a small sample of 150 small businesses that had used the social coupon site Groupon, reinforces this notion. It found that the size of the discount or the service offered had little to do with the deal’s ultimate success. “Surprisingly, employee satisfaction is found to be the primary driver of the promotion’s profitability,” noted study author Uptal Dholakia. “The business owner could do this by preparing his or her employees for the barrage of customers that ensue from the promotion, and compensating them adequately.”

 

Moreover, retail business consultant Bob Phibbs warns that if you don’t plan well for the expected social coupon deluge, you could find some of your loyal customers getting washed away as well. “Say you’re a small business—Jane’s Spa—that just sold 1,000 coupons to be redeemed in the next three months,” explains Phibbs, who also writes The Retail Doctor blog. “You have to consider how all your regular, loyal customers are still going to fit into your spa schedule. Can you really do it all without alienating them?” Phibbs strongly believes the answer to that question is no.

 

“What happens is that you end up punishing your regular customers with longer wait times and so on, while you’re giving the much better deal to people who have no relationship with your business.” That upside-down reward-to-relationship ratio, Phibbs says, is one of several reasons he counsels small businesses not to engage in social coupon offers. (For more on his thoughts about social coupons, click here.)

 

What do you think?  Do you think social coupons (like Groupon) would work for your small business?  Click here to view our poll.


2. Beware of customers for whom it’s always about “the deal”

Discounting, in any form, can often be a double-edged sword for businesses: it brings in new customers, yes, but these price-conscious clients can also act as an overall drag on your company if they stick to a one-and-done purchasing philosophy. So, as much as a full, bustling restaurant can warm the heart of a fledgling restaurateur, if most of the patrons are strictly staying within the limits of set-price social coupons and showing no interest in being converted to regular customers, the restaurant’s bottom line will have generated mostly light and little heat.

 

On its website, social coupon provider Groupon says its customers “spend an average of 60 percent above the value of the [coupon]” and touts a recent survey of businesses that claims, “89 percent said [social coupon] customers were likely to be repeat customers.” Based on its anecdotal evidence, however, the Rice University study still concluded, “There is widespread recognition among many business owners that social promotion users are not the relational customers that they had hoped for or the ones that are necessary for their business’ long-term success.”

 

Retail business consultant Phibbs agrees with this assertion and cautions that social coupons have a tendency to commoditize a business’s offerings. “I think this idea that a trial [customer] is worth anything [to get] doesn’t make sense in the long run because it just erodes a business’s value proposition and makes it all about the deal,” he explains. “And the danger of bringing in all those deal-focused customers is that while Jane’s Spa, from my earlier example, may fill their needs this week, next week they’ll just move on to the next great deal, over at Mary’s Spa, never to return.”

 

Still, businesses like spas that, by their nature, necessitate a longer customer experience have a better chance of overcoming this bargain-hunting behavior. After all, it’s easier to establish your value proposition if, say, a client must spend an hour getting pampered by one of your company’s masseuses instead of just a few seconds giving one of your baristas a coffee order. Nevertheless, it’s still hard to predict how this deal-focused phenomenon will impact an individual business’s social coupon experience.

 

For instance, the Rice study found that, among small businesses, spas had some of the most profitable social coupon experiences, with an impressive 82% of them reportedly making money on their deals. Restaurants, which have a similarly heavy reliance upon customer service for survival, had mostly profitable social coupon experiences as well but at notably lower rates, as 20 out of 48 restaurants in the survey, or 42%, reported that they lost money.  

 

3. Bigger potential rewards also mean bigger potential risks

Without doing your due diligence about social coupons, a small business can quickly find itself in the losing category, as coffee and pastry shop owner Jessie Burke discovered this year. The owner of Posie’s Café, in North Portland, Oregon, Burke ran a $6-for-$13 worth of product offer through Groupon this past March that generated nearly 1,000 social coupons in sales. She split the roughly $6,000 in coupon sales with Groupon, but after three months of redemptions, Burke says her business was bleeding red ink and, at one point, she had to take $8,000 out of her personal savings to cover her business’ payroll. “It was sickening, especially after our sales had been rising,” she recalls of the experience on her company’s blog.  Since then, she has vowed to never again offer a social coupon, a decision that puts her in a distinct minority, according to Groupon, as it says 95% of its business customers would use their services again. (The Rice University study of former Groupon business clients found this figure to be 58%.)

 

But as she openly acknowledges on her website, Burke’s financial troubles resulted from a series of self-inflicted wounds. First, she erroneously believed that she couldn’t cap the number of social coupons sold to limit her financial exposure. Then, during negotiations about the size of the discount, she only included food costs in calculating her breakeven point and failed to account for overhead and other soft costs, which meant her deal was structured from the outset to potentially lose much more money than she expected. Finally, she didn’t grasp the difficulty of retaining profitable social coupon customers in a retail setting, where a consumer’s time spent interacting with the business is fairly brief. As a warning to other small business owners who leap before they look when it comes to social coupons, Burke absolves Groupon and all her customers of any blame and writes, “I take full responsibility for my decision... Lesson learned.”

 

In the end, this dichotomy between a big upside in terms of local exposure versus a big downside in terms of potential risk is what small business owners must realize about social coupons. So which is it? Fabulous growth-producing marketing technique? Or dangerous money-draining waste of time and energy? The answer may lie in the kind of business you own. (Spas and restaurants and businesses in which the customer spends some real time in your establishment seem particularly well suited to the approach. Quick, hit-and-run low-price retail environments, not so much.) It also may lie in how careful you are in your analysis before embarking on a social coupon program. “It all depends on a few little numbers,” explains entrepreneur Jay Goltz on The New York Times’ You’re the Boss blog. “Traditional advertising requires spending some money and knowing that it can be lost if the ad doesn’t work.” But with social coupons, he points out, “you spend no money up front but you mess with your formula for making money. You can win big and you can lose big.”

Part I: Three reasons in favor.

 


Social Coupons Story Image.jpgBy Reed Richardson.

 

During the past year, the business world has been significantly reshaped by a new discounting phenomenon, one that combines the ubiquity of traditional coupon clipping with the power of social networking. These new “social coupons,” offered through websites like Groupon, Eversave, Adility, LivingSocial, eWinWin and several others, promise participating businesses access to a plethora of new, local customers, while offering consumers steep discounts—anywhere from 50% to 90% off. With some variations, the basic social coupon mechanism works like this: The consumer purchases the coupon from the website, but the transaction is not completed until a certain minimum number of coupons have been sold; once that threshold is met, the revenue from the sale is split between the website and the business offering the coupon. On its face, this arrangement seems to be a win-win for both the consumer and the business owner. But as the popularity of social coupons has taken off, so too has the debate about their efficacy at the small business level. (For a basic primer on how social coupons work, try Eversave’s FAQ page here.)

 

So, is your company missing out on a golden opportunity if it hasn’t yet tried social coupons or is it dodging a red-ink-bleeding bullet? Perhaps not surprisingly, the answer depends upon a lot of factors, so we’ve decided to dig deeper into the devilish details to help you figure out if social coupons would be a good fit for your business. Let’s begin with the three key benefits:

 

1. Incredible exposure to lots of nearby customers

By their very group-focused nature, social coupons have the potential to radically re-orient a small business’s daily rhythm in terms of customers encountered. A quick look at testimonials by previous users of social coupons finds that hundreds, if not thousands, of copies of a company’s coupon can be typically sold in one day, funneling an enormous amount of new customers to a business looking to break out of a rut. (To read a few Groupon case studies of small business clients, each of which sold thousands of coupons in just 24 hours or less, you can visit this link.)

 

For an entrepreneur strapped for cash, social coupons have proven to be an incredibly powerful way to quickly generate extensive word-of-mouth buzz and new customer traffic. What’s more, because the breakage rate of social coupons is extremely low (breakage being defined as the number of coupons sold or issued that are never redeemed) business owners can feel confident that for every social coupon sold, there’s a very good chance that an actual customer will come through their door and try their products or services. And because sites like Groupon, Eversave, Adility, and others, sort and send out their coupon offers based on location, a business that utilizes their service is mostly gaining exposure to large numbers of consumers who live nearby and, therefore, the thinking goes, are more likely to return and become repeat customers.

 

2. Boosts business activity to cover slow periods and fill excess capacity

If you run a small business, particularly one with a fixed capacity, the traffic generated by a social coupon deal can be a great way to fill otherwise empty seats and avoid having to lay off staff or shut down production. This strategy can quickly turn an off day into a moneymaker. A Rice University study published in October, which surveyed a small sample of 150 small businesses that had used the social coupon site Groupon, found two-thirds of the Groupon business users it surveyed reported making a profit on their social coupon experience. But another key proviso to employing the power of social coupons wisely and profitably involves understanding just when and where those slow periods are and structuring your deal to fill those holes, all while building positive customer experiences and fostering repetitive consumer behavior.

 

“For example, instead of offering $60 worth of food for $30, a sushi restaurant could offer $20 worth of food for $10 on each of the consumer’s next three visits,” Rice study author Uptal Dholakia notes. Or, rather than offering one overall discount on a total bill, he notes that a business would be better off promoting a variety of specific items, to better cross sell all of its products or services. Finally, to insulate a business from cannibalizing full-price sales from existing customers, he adds, “A yoga studio might offer classes on a weekday afternoon, for example, but not on weekends, or an apparel store might promote middle- or end-of-season lines but not the newest arrivals.”

 

Adding these types of constraints will make a social coupon somewhat less attractive, Dholakia acknowledges. But it presents a better upside in the long run because of the types of customers it will weed out.

 

3. Guaranteed, measurable results – in advertising your business

As with any business expenditure, it pays to do your research ahead of time to figure out the true risks and rewards before execution. With social coupons, the first of these steps is to accept that they are, essentially, advertising. Very effective advertising, but advertising nonetheless. (One respondent in the Rice study enthused: “It’s the best advertising for small business!”) Because even though social coupons bring in dozens, hundreds, even thousands of paying customers, no sustainable business could survive selling its goods at such discounted prices, so social coupons can’t be honestly considered a long-term sales strategy.

 

Often, money that an entrepreneur spends on advertising or marketing can seem like it has disappeared into the ether, with its impact all but invisible to small companies that lack the resources to carefully track sales and marketing metrics. Social coupons, on the other hand, simplify the process and ensure a minimum payback on the money invested. Since a business owner knows exactly how many coupons exist based on the number purchased or by setting a numerical cap, it’s easy to track redemptions and then calculate coupon-to-customer conversion rates. (Some social coupon sites even offer complimentary tracking of sales for you in real time.) And because a business owner sees a share of the coupon sales upfront, he or she is guaranteed some return on investment.

 

Still, a business owner must factor in all their soft costs, a few other sales metrics, plus a healthy dose of skepticism in terms of repeat customer conversion before he or she can get a good handle on the potential long-term positives and negatives of a social coupon offer. “There are eight key calculations you need to consider to determine whether this is a better advertising vehicle than something else you may already be doing,” writes entrepreneur Jay Goltz on The New York Times’ You’re the Boss blog. Goltz’s post, which includes a very handy breakdown of a social coupon deal’s financial implications, can be found here.

 

The three benefits discussed above offer very tangible reasons you might want to consider utilizing social coupons as a means to grow your business. But does it all seem just a bit too rosy to be true? You may be right. Be sure to check out Part II of our social coupon series, which offers three reasons you might not want to use social coupons.

by Reed RichardsonStory-Image.jpg.

 

For many small businesses, the relationship with their customers relies heavily upon the long-distance tether of a shipping company. And as great as an entrepreneur’s products may be, if it costs too much to get them in the hands of consumers, or if the product arrives late or damaged, all that good faith and customer loyalty will quickly disappear. As a result, choosing a shipping provider necessitates using the same diligent approach that a small business owner would use when bringing in a business partner or hiring a new employee. After all, the last step in any sale is the delivery of product and, because of this, your shipping company is essentially a proxy for your business.

 

The first step in picking a shipping provider involves looking inward at your company’s needs and figuring out your customers’ expectations when it comes to receiving your product. For example, are they buying items from you that, typically, they will want the very next business day or even by some specific time the next day? If so, you’ll need to concentrate your search on the best overnight shipping providers and those with the best guaranteed on-time delivery rates. If you sell delicate, fragile products, you and your customers may be more willing to forego speed for the guarantee of a safe, secure delivery. Oblong, or oddly sized products may require special packaging and handling and therefore the shipper’s ability to provide those services should be your primary criterion when searching for a provider. But if your products fall into the overwhelming majority of items that are relatively unbreakable and able to fit in either the standard flat envelopes or small boxes used by the three major shipping providers—UPS, FedEx, and the U.S. Postal Service—you might be best served by doing a price comparison first.

 

Price Shopping

Fortunately, the latter has been made much easier thanks to the Internet. Just as there are now entire websites dedicated to examining and comparing prices of airfares, cars, and electronic gadgets, there are now several resources online for doing the same with shipping rates. For example, Shipping Sidekick, asks for only a few pieces of vital parcel information before giving you a handy, straightforward grid comparing times and prices for next day, two-day, three-day, and parcel post deliveries. The website ShipGooder, despite its somewhat awkward name, does much the same thing, although it doesn’t include inputs for estimated values of your product or whether or not you want a parcel pick-up service included in the price. Postal Annex is another, similar comparison site, but it only looks at shipping rates from UPS and FedEx and excludes the Post Office.

 

For those small companies perfectly satisfied with the USPS’s shipping options, it would still behoove you to investigate one of the many business-based postage and label-printing options out there. These can save both time and money by letting you avoid standing in line at the local Post Office to buy stamps and/or drop off packages. Because there are a few different choices in this niche market, it’s worth digging into the details of all of them before making a selection. One of the most popular is Stamps.com, which, for an affordable monthly subscription fee, provides a five-pound parcel scale and software that lets a business create labels using its existing printers. Other USPS-based alternatives include the similarly software-based Endicia.com or renting a postage meter from a company like Pitney Bowes. These mail meters offer the advantage of being all-in-one machines that let you weigh parcels, print out labels, and automatically refill postage remotely. However, to do a thorough savings calculation, a small business owner should factor in the additional costs of ink, paper, and other supplies associated with each choice before deciding.

 

Special handling issues

If your small business’s bottom line could be threatened by lots of returns due to fragile products damaged in transit, the different level of TLC exhibited by the major shipping companies might be the most critical aspect in your decision making process. Coincidentally, the editors at Popular Mechanics recently wondered about this very same question and, as a result, commissioned a survey, albeit a small one, of the three shipping companies’ handling. The results, published online in late November were somewhat surprising. Among the big three, the U.S. Postal Service averaged the fewest hard knocks, but was also the most likely to flip or turn a package’s orientation and expose it to the greatest temperature extremes. Still, for small businesses with very specialized, climate-controlled shipping needs, FedEx has recently partnered with the company SenseAware to provide a number of unique package tracking options—like whether the package has been opened or exposed to light, is within a certain temperature range, as well as its exact location—that aren’t yet available to the general public.

 

Convenience, both customer and company

Few small companies or their customers are going to need such highly specialized shipping specifications, however. Most likely, both business and buyer will be focused on making pickup and dropoff as convenient as possible.

 

For the customer, this usually involves having a range of timed delivery options—from more expensive next day air to parcel post ground—that fits their schedule and pricing needs. Beyond that, the only other shipping nicety for the customer involves getting a tracking number shortly after purchase so they can follow their purchase’s progress. Here, UPS and FedEx have a slight advantage as every one of their deliveries gets assigned a tracking number, whereas only the USPS Priority and Express Mail services are available with tracking numbers.

 

As for making parcel pickup as easy as possible on the company, all three major shipping services are now jostling to win over small businesses. After years of losing business to UPS and FedEx’s small business outreach programs, the U.S. Postal Service has recently begun such a campaign—called Shipping Assistant—aimed at companies with smaller, more rudimentary shipping platforms to remind them that its postal carriers can do free pickup in the course of their regular rounds and, to be even more flexible, can do pickup on demand as well at $15.30 for each pickup. In addition, to further compete with UPS and FedEx, the USPS recently rolled out a series of flat-rate, “If it fits, it ships” Priority Mail boxes and envelopes to make cost estimates easier for businesses with infrequent shipping needs.

 

In conclusion, a business’s shipping needs will vary greatly depending upon its product, volume, and customer expectations. Often, choosing just one shipping solution won’t make sense if you have a wide range of shipping needs, but knowing what you need will make it easier and more cost effective in the long run when making those choices.

How blogging can help your small business.

By Reed RichardsonWhite-in-article.jpg.

 

For small business owners, time is a precious resource that is often in short supply. So, the notion that they should devote an hour or two a week to blogging about their company could seem like an extravagance born of either fat corporate budgets or shiftless hobbyists with nothing better to do. But that’s a shortsighted viewpoint that only looks at what a small business owner has to put into blogging and doesn’t look at all the things he or she can get out of the effort.

 

“The best marketing tool you will ever have as a small business owner” is a blog, explains social media adviser Danny Brown on—what else?—his own blog. Brown, a partner at southern Ontario, Canada-based Bonsai Interactive Marketing, adds that the only limitations to what a blog can do for a small business derive from the constraints the small business owner puts upon it. And what is the common thread that keeps most small business owners from taking the blogger plunge? Fear, says Brown.

 

“Fear of what to blog about; fear of how to target an audience; fear of how to promote a new (or existing) blog; fear of setting yourself apart when there are so many other voices around,” he explains. But once a small business owner overcomes this fear and sees the many things they stand to gain by blogging, they’re likely to never turn back.

 

In fact, according to a 2010 State of the Blogosphere Report, published earlier this month by the tech website Technorati, 21% of all bloggers now identify themselves as self-employed. And among this self-employed cohort, 57% own their own company and write a blog related to their business, a figure that roughly translates into one out of every eight bloggers overall. So, what have these business owners learned? Well, below are seven reasons savvy entrepreneurs should invest a little time and effort each week into talking about themselves and their business online.

 

  1. Increase visibility – For many small business owners, the term “marketing budget” might be akin to other pie-in-the-sky things like easy credit, free lunches, and days off. But blogging about one’s business can be a very effective way to market your business with little or no additional cost beyond what you’re already paying to host and maintain a company website. What’s more, the 2010 Blogosphere Report found that “among respondents who own their own company, 64% say they have greater visibility in their industry because of their blog.” For entrepreneurs that are looking to gin up greater brand awareness and product visibility for their relatively young business endeavors, this statistic alone should be reason enough to consider hanging out a blog shingle.

  2. Improve search engine ranking – Since search engines are increasingly designed to reward websites that offer richer and fresher content, adding a blog to your company website has the added benefit of helping to raise your search results rankings. Writing two to four genuine and straightforward blog posts each week on topics of legitimate interest to fellow professionals and/or customers can do wonders to liven up an otherwise static, unengaging company website. Get your blog noticed by others, to the point that it generates some inbound links from other websites and blogs, and its impact on search rankings will grow exponentially. (For more details on how blogs affect a websites’ search rankings, click here.)

    Also realize, however, that blogging can be even more important when search engine rankings aren’t key to a startup or small business’s success. If, for example, your business is launching a groundbreaking product or survives mostly on impulse purchases, customers won’t be searching you out online in the first place, so building buzz through blogging (and social media) will have to come long before any search engine optimization campaign pays dividends. “If this is the type of product you sell,” explains Search Engine Guide expert Jennifer Laycock in an online column, “chances are high you'll be better served by a word of mouth driven social media campaign than by making it easier for people to find your product.”

  3. Establish industry expertise This might sound like a daunting challenge for new entrepreneurs, but more often than not, their startup experience has already made them into budding experts. After all, many entrepreneurs launch their startups precisely because they’ve found themselves frustrated by an industry or profession that wasn’t meeting their own needs and then spent a lot of time thinking about how to fix those problems.

    “You might be thinking that you aren’t an expert in anything, but that simply isn’t true,” explains Kyle James in his article, “Becoming an Industry Expert: Watching Out for #1”. “What is important to remember is that others don’t know that you are the expert in something unless you make it a point to say so.”

    Starting out, you might limit your blog posts to the one subject where no one else can match your expertise—your own company—and then establish your larger expert voice by broadening your blog discussions to general trends within your industry. Eventually this will require consistently engaging others within your industry on their websites and posting comments on external blogs (with a link back to your own blog, of course). Once you’ve built a backlog of insightful industry comments and a robust network of resources and links on your blog, you will have little problem proving your bona fides to any prospective customer that happens upon your website. But understand that a little, tactful self-promotion of your expertise doesn’t hurt.

  4. Prime the online lead generation pump When it asked how bloggers measure the success of their blogs, Technorati’s 2010 Blogosphere roundup found that self-employed bloggers used many of the same metrics as part-time, hobbyist, and corporate bloggers: personal satisfaction, unique visitors, linkbacks, volume of comments, and number of RSS subscribers. However, there was one other response that self-employed bloggers were nearly twice as likely to choose than any of their blogging cohorts: “number and quality of new business leads”. This brings up another important point to remember about blogging—when done well, it’s more about having a two-way conversation with your readers than it is about offering up a series of from-on-high monologues. Good comments are a vital part of making a blog worth reading and their insights are a great source of future posts. And the regular, repeat commenters that make them are a natural vein of online leads to be mined for referrals and direct sales.

  5. Perform customer service While microblogging site Twitter has garnered more attention lately for a being a low-cost, high-response way to handle customer service issues, a blog can serve that purpose as well. This shouldn’t be done for every little customer complaint, however. But if your small business suddenly faces a broader consumer-related problem, like a product recall or a coupon misprint, a blog can offer a much better platform for heading off a potential public relations nightmare than Twitter.

    After all, it’s hard to carefully acknowledge a problem, clarify facts and dispel myths, offer up a pre-emptive solution, apologize if necessary, and give upset consumers a way to (constructively) seek redress all in just 140 characters. Plus, by handling a major customer service issue on your blog rather than on Twitter, you stand a better chance of keeping the online complaining contained to just your website and limiting the potential spread of damage to your company’s reputation.

    “A lovely new company/customer etiquette has emerged, and small startups are especially suited for exploiting it,” explains angel investor Jason Cohen on his startup-focused blog A Smart Bear. Rather than never accepting mistakes, Sobel says consumers increasingly understand things will go wrong, but now just want a company to make a sincere effort in fixing them. “This doesn’t mean you get a free pass,” he clarifies, just that “you’re doing your honest, level best to do right by your customers,” evidenced continuously through all your communication—blog, tech support, website—not just after a crisis.

  6. Suggest new products or services Nearly half—45.6%—of consumers surveyed now trust the content they find on blogs, according to the Technorati Blogosphere survey. While that figure still notably lags traditional media sources like magazines (60.4%), TV or radio news (61.2%), and newspapers (62.4%), the gap is closing. Likewise, trust in blogs stands far above other branded content on social media sites like Twitter (19%) and Facebook (26.7%) and even surpasses content found on online news aggregators (38.0%).

    What’s more, the survey also found “blogs outpace other social media and many traditional media in terms of generating consumer recommendations and purchases.” As a result, among survey respondents who blog about their own company, nearly six in ten—58%—reported that prospective clients had read their blog and then subsequently purchased products or services.

  7. Build brand loyalty Once you’ve hooked those initial customers, a company blog is also a great way to keep them coming back for more. Through things like video posts about the latest improvements to your product line or updates on new services your business has added, as well as notices about special online-only deals and discounts (linked to your company Twitter feed and/or Facebook page), your blog can be a great conduit for building a stronger sense of loyalty among your customers. So armed, these loyal blog readers can become an army of positive word-of-mouth advertisers for your business, constantly spreading the gospel about your awesomeness both online and off.

 

Keeping all of these reasons in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that Technorati’s Blogosphere Report found that nearly half of all small business bloggers planned to increase their posting in the near future or that more than one quarter said blogging has had the greatest impact on their businesses. For entrepreneurs who haven’t yet made the leap, the potential return on a few hours of time spent blogging deserves a strong second look. It might just be the best investment you make all year.


How to use social media to advance your business

By Reed Richardson

For many small business owners and budding entrepreneurs, budgets are especially tight these days and finding the capital to generate new sales leads, kick off a marketing campaign, or hire a customer service representative is likely a difficult, if not impossible, task. But by taking advantage of the new social media tools now available, a small business owner can accomplish many of these same tasks for little to no cost and just a small investment of time.

The term social media is actually a catchall phrase that refers to a lot more than just popular social networking sites like LinkedIn and Facebook. It also encompasses social search sites like Yelp and Craigslist, RSS publication and distribution tools, social bookmarking sites like Del.icio.us and Digg, and micro-blogging platforms like Twitter. All of these can be used in various combinations to enhance your business's image online, drive traffic to your company website, and find new customers.

But before dipping a proverbial toe into the social media waters, a skeptical entrepreneur might still ask the question: Does using social media really help build a business and put money in the cash register or is it just another digital diversion to waste my time?

Why social media is worth the effort
John Dillinger famously replied to a question about why he robbed banks by simply saying, "That's where the money is." The same response might now be appropriate when answering a small business owner's doubts about the value of social media, since in the past few years social media and networking sites have experienced astronomical growth. In fact, this past August something of a symbolic turning point took place, when the amount of time Internet users spent on Facebook surpassed that of time spent on all Google sites (which includes Gmail and YouTube).

Nevertheless, a recent survey of small and mid-sized businesses by the London-based media research firm Daryl Willcox Publishing uncovered a stubborn reluctance to embrace social media. While the adoption rate among these companies was found to be accelerating quickly, having doubled between December 2009 and May of this year, the survey also discovered that the segment had a long way to go to catch up with society in general, as a bare majority-54%-of small and mid-sized companies surveyed had any kind of social media presence, as compared to 66% of American adults. Of those businesses still balking at social media, roughly one-quarter don't participate because they say they lack the technical know-how; more than one-third blamed a lack of time; and a final 31% said they don't bother with social media because their customers don't use it either. (To see the results of the whole Willcox study, go here: http://sourcewire.com/releases/rel_display.php?relid=59009.)

However, this latter notion-that social media's popularity is relegated to a fairly narrow demographic segment of society-is increasingly untrue. Indeed, two recent studies by comScore and Pew Research have found broad societal gains in social media use. According to those respective surveys, more than three out of four women and nearly half of all Americans over 50 years of age (and more than a quarter of those ages 65 and up) now visit a social networking site regularly. What's more, the rapid adoption rates in these segments means they are fast approaching parity with younger adults. (For more on these surveys, check out http://comscore.com/WomenOnTheWeb and http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Older-Adults-and-Social-Media.aspx.)

As for the idea that there just isn't enough time in the day to devote to social media? Well, few businesses would consider it wise to ignore tasks like networking, increasing brand awareness, and attracting new customers, but those are precisely the things that the Willcox study found a large majority of small businesses were getting out of their social media strategies. In fact, that same study found more than one-third of smaller businesses were taking the time to post daily updates to the three most well known social networking sites: Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

This broad level of dedication wouldn't exist if businesses weren't seeing positive results in return, explained survey author and company president Daryl Willcox. "The number of companies participating in social media on a daily basis shows the growing importance of this marketing channel," he says. "The fact that 60% have reported a positive impact on their businesses shows small and mid-sized businesses are becoming increasingly receptive to the benefits."

Foundation to a strong social media strategy: a solid company website
If you're an entrepreneur convinced that your business needs a social media presence, but you don't know how to go about it, simplicity is the best approach. Think about building your social media profile bit by bit, spending small, discrete amounts of time on it each day rather than trying to roll out an extensive campaign that encompasses every social networking site in existence. Often, the key first step is to build a firm foundation with your company website or, if you have one, your business blog, and use it as your social media launching pad, working outward from there.

"Your primary website or blog is the tool that ties all of your social media activity together," explains Duct Tape Marketing founder John Jantsch, in his helpful online social media primer "Let's Talk Social Media for Your Small Business." "Your activity on social media sites or spokes functions primarily as a way to lead prospects back to the much more fully developed content that resides on your website." (To read Jantsch's online guide to social media, go here: http://ducttapemarketing.com/socialmediaforbusiness.pdf.)

"Your hub is the place where you can engage your prospects in a total education-based campaign that helps them understand that you have the solutions they are seeking," Jantsch adds. "In fact, you can think of a great deal of your social media activity as a way to create awareness and an initial level of trust substantial enough for someone to want to know more."

Three easy first steps to starting a social media strategy
That so many small businesses still have no social media presence is perplexing precisely because so many of these same businesses' owners already have personal social networking profiles on sites like Facebook. "For these folks," Jantsch notes, "the addition of a Facebook Fan Page is the most obvious solution."

 

Once you have established this Facebook presence for your company, you can then begin to leverage it for greater customer engagement and sales by offering expert advice, posting reader polls, running consumer contests, and dishing out promotions or discounts only for fans of your company Facebook page. "The fan page allows you to create a business-only page with a great deal of functionality and settings that allow you to open your page up to the world far beyond your current Facebook friends," Jantsch explains in his online social media tutorial. "In addition, your updates and posts on your fan page spread to the wall of all those who become a fan on your page, making your business presence even greater."

Entrepreneurs that are perhaps uncomfortable with the free form nature of Facebook can start with a profile on the business-based social media site LinkedIn instead. LinkedIn has a more traditional vibe than the sometimes zany customer contests found on Facebook and is mainly thought of as a tool for serious networking. But LinkedIn can also be a great way to find new job candidates and promote special events connected to your business. Likewise, it has other features, like group discussions and its Q & A function, that allow business owners to demonstrate their expertise on a subject, which fosters greater networking and enhances their company's reputation. (For more on LinkedIn groups and Q & A's, go to http://learn.linkedin.com/groups and http://learn.linkedin.com/answers/.)

Finally, setting up a free Twitter account can be a cheap and simple way to build both a public relations and customer service channel for your business. Twitter's short, 140-character limit on messages, called "tweets" in Twitter parlance, can, at first blush, appear to be too small to be of much good. But for many businesses, Twitter has now become the favorite online place to quickly offer status updates, announce new product launches, or respond to customer complaints.

 

In fact, the latter has now become one of the most important ways that businesses use Twitter to their advantage. Case in point: Comcast, which faced a public relations nightmare two years ago when a customer, who had been inexplicably left without Internet service for 36 hours, turned to Twitter to vent his frustration and his complaints quickly gained national media attention. (Click here: http://techcrunch.com/2008/04/06/comcast-twitter-and-the-chicken-trust-me-i-have-a-point/ to read a blog post recounting the incident.) But because the company had an active Twitter presence itself, online Comcast reps jumped in to rectify what the business's antiquated phone-based customer service system could not. In the end, what could have been a brand disaster turned into a more positive story about the company's online response capabilities. It's a lesson that small businesses would be wise to heed as well. (To see a handy guide on using Twitter as a customer service tool, check out this article: http://mashable.com/2009/05/09/twitter-customer-service/.)

Taking the next step
Pulling these separate social media threads together to create a cohesive online marketing campaign can be tricky, but there are plenty of samples available out there to use as general guidelines. (Click here to see one: http://samhowat.com/small-business-social-media-marketing/.) Eventually, your business might want to tie in some of the more advanced features mentioned earlier, like RSS distribution tools or social bookmarking, but one very good way to find out where your next emphasis in social media should be is to steal ideas from somewhere else.

For instance, it's always a good idea to check out what your direct competitors are doing and it can be eye-opening to benchmark your approach to some of the more successful social media campaigns in corporate America. (To gauge your business's level of online social engagement versus business titans like McDonalds and Starbucks, take this quick, five-step test here: http://engagementdb.com/Rank-Yourself.)

But even if you're an entrepreneur whose next step is really a first step, ignoring social media, hoping it will go away, is not a recipe for long-term success, especially in a cutthroat economy. "Tough market conditions mandate small businesses to think and act creatively to sustain themselves," notes Connie Steele, a Director at Network Solutions who tracks the small business segment in partnership with the University of Maryland's business school. "Social media can be the best friend for small business owners who constantly seek new ways to maximize productivity while keeping costs low," she explains, adding, "It is not a question of why small businesses use social media but rather when the adoption rate will accelerate this year."

This article is the second in a series to focus on website best practices for small businesses. Be sure to check in soon for Part III, which covers working with a website designer.

by ZekeLL

Podcasting is blogging with audio instead of text. Essentially, you post an MP3 file instead of an article.

5 Reasons Why Podcasts Are Great

  1. An increasing number of people are downloading new podcasts every day.
  2. Unlike TV, podcast can be played whenever the listener wants.
  3. People can listen to them in their cars on their way to work or when they go for a run. You will get their full attention.
  4. There is a lot less competition in the podcast market than there is in the article market.
  5. Podcasting is a lot easier and less time-consuming than blogging and getting your articles published.


zeke.jpg

5 Steps to Producing a Podcast

  1. Download Audacity at#### http://audacity.sourceforge.net/download/#### or any other audio editing tool.
  2. Get a good microphone.
  3. Write the script (so the podcast doesn't sound improvised and amateurish).
  4. Record it in a noise-free environment.
  5. Apply the noise-reduction filter in your audio editing software and save the podcast file.


Where You Can Submit Your Podcast
PodOMatic - http://www.podomatic.com/
Podcast Alley - http://www.podcastalley.com/index.php
iTunes - http://www.itunes.com/
Yahoo Podcasts - http://podcasts.yahoo.com/
Digg Podcasts - http://digg.com/podcasts
Podcast Directory - http://www.podcastdirectory.com/
Podcast Pickle - http://www.podcastpickle.com/
PodFeed - http://www.podfeed.net/
Odeo - http://www.odeo.com/
Digital Podcast - http://www.digitalpodcast.com/
Podcast.net - http://www.podcast.net/
Singing Fish - http://search.singingfish.com/sfw/home.jsp
Blog Universe - http://www.bloguniverse.com/
All Podcasts - http://www.allpodcasts.com/
Big Contact - http://www.bigcontact.com/
Collectik - http://collectik.net/collectik/
PodNova - http://www.podnova.com/
PodTech - http://www.podtech.net/home/

 

How to Save a Lot of Time When You Submit Your Podcast

 

I absolutely love these two tools because they submit your podcasts to the major podcast directories for free and they save you a lot of time.

 


PodPusher - http://www.podpusher.com/
Pod Submitter - http://www.podsubmitter.com/submit

 

Get more tips about podcasting, marketing, and learn about other small business success stories by listening to the Bank of America Small Business Podcasts.

 

 

Zeke Camusio is a serial entrepreneur. The Outsourcing Company, his 6th endeavor, is a creative web design and Internet marketing agency with offices in Aspen, CO and New York.

 

Zeke writes Let's Do It!, one of the most prestigious and popular entrepreneurship and Internet marketing blog. Check it out: www.TheOutsourcingCompany.com/blog.

Filter Article

By tag: