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2012

Body_Geofencing.jpgby Erin McDermott.

 

Have you ever been out running errands and received a text message about a special offer from one of your favorite nearby shops?

 

Then you’ve likely stepped inside what’s known as a geo-fence. And if you’re running a small business, it also may be an alert to start connecting with your own digitally savvy customers.

 

What’s a geo-fence? It’s a virtual perimeter in a real geographic area. For marketers, it’s a technological line your customers can cross, triggering messages—such as an offer of a coupon, a daily special, or information about upcoming events or new services—that they receive on their smartphone when they’re in a position to act on it, provided they’ve opted to listen to what you’re offering.

 

It’s just one aspect of the field of location-based mobile marketing. Sometimes called “proximity marketing,” this is the business behind cereal boxes chirping to your cellphone in the grocery aisle or flat-screen TVs asking you to take them home today via a big-box electronics store’s app. And while the industry still in the early adopter phase—a recent study found that only five percent of mobile users regularly use location-based services like Foursquare—getting in early may give you a competitive edge.

 

PQ_Geofencing.jpgFortunately, these location-based marketing efforts are also easily scaled down for small business budgets. The equipment needed is often as small as a mobile phone, and industry experts say basic monthly service packages often start at $100 to $200. For additional fees, agencies can help create digital ad campaigns and guide newbies as they get started in crafting messages of their own to get the attention of their phone-wielding customer base at just the right moment. 

 

“You know who walks by your shop and when,” says Lawrence I. Lerner, a Chicago-based business consultant and a veteran brand marketer. “If it’s the morning, there’s maybe time for coffee, but they’re not going to have time for a big purchase. So you can send out dozens of these messages at different times. You know the audience is there, so if you’ve got a window display that might catch their eye, the message is ‘Hey, turn around and look at our spring fashion that we just put out.’ ”  

 

Michael Zeto became interested in the field through his own small-business experience, at The Boston Beer Garden, a 45-employee sports bar and restaurant in Naples, Fla., in which he’s an investor. An enterprise-software industry veteran, he experimented with so-called hyper-local proximity marketing on his own, and says he saw a huge response to his promotional offers of off-the-menu specials and shout-outs about special events, such as Super Bowl or St. Patrick’s Day parties. “While customers were in the restaurant, we used it not only as a sales opportunity, but also as a marketing opportunity,” Zeto says.

 

He’s now chief executive of Atlanta-based Proximus Mobility, which specializes in location-based proximity marketing software. The company enlists a patented technology that enables the delivery of relevant ad content, and also includes analytics, geo-fencing, and an SMS text-marketing platform. In the field, Proximus uses an access-point device—just slightly larger than a smartphone—that sends out hyper-local messages, and focuses on cost-effectiveness with a host of response metrics available via the company’s web-based campaign-manager interface.

 

 

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“It’s not just about serving the content and the ads—it’s about being able to measure it and knowing how many people actually accepted the offers. And then taking it a step further to see how many people redeemed the offers. It’s all measurable, and that’s the key, Zeto says. “Most small-business owners don’t think to measure.”

 

It’s also about knowing where your customers are.

 

Here’s how the geo-fencing technology works: It’s a combination of GPS and mobile Internet. GPS connects with satellites to crunch out a calculation that shows a user’s precise location. Mobile Internet connects with a Web server and sends information about a smartphone’s GPS location. If you’re operating a properly equipped geo-fence, you can tell when a smartphone enters or leaves a certain location. The perimeters can be set anywhere from a few feet to several miles.

 

Concerned about privacy? On the users’ side, proximity marketing isn’t an uninvited torrent of unsolicited messages. Customers need to opt in by a variety methods—signing up inside a store or on a website, or text-messaging a code to a phone number, for instance. (And be sure that you’re ready to get the message: iPhone users with the latest software will know their geo-fence antenna is up if they see a little purple arrow at the top right of their phones’ screens.) 

 

Ultimately, it’s about getting the right enticement at the right time to your customers.

 

“That fence that’s created is very specific to you. The technology becomes the easy part—that’s just the enabler,” says Lerner. “For a small business owner, it’s about creating something that’s eye-catching, meaningful, and relevant to that person at that moment in time. And that’s where a smart small business owner can have an impact.”

Body_BrickstoClicks.jpgby Jen Hickey.

 

Most retail brick & mortar (B&M) stores, no matter how small, have some kind of online presence. The web has not only made it easier to stay connected with, and extend rewards to, loyal customers, but it has also allowed many smaller retailers to extend their reach beyond their local community. But for those entrepreneurs who are contemplating closing their physical storefronts and taking their business completely online, you must be able to differentiate your products from the crowd if you want to compete with established players like Amazon.

 

According to U.S. Census data, growth of e-commerce sales is surpassing traditional retail offline sales at a faster rate, so it makes sense for B&M retailers to have a 24/7 e-commerce site. However, attracting that virtual traffic requires just as much, if not more, planning and research as setting up a B&M. “Most companies new to online business have unrealistic expectations of their marketing costs,” notes Andreas Huttenrauch, managing director of Globi Web Solutions, a Calgary, Alberta-based web design and marketing company. “Because the barriers to having an e-commerce store are low, competition is high, and advertising becomes very expensive.”

 

PQ_BrickstoClicks.jpgWhile closing the doors of your B&M can eliminate fixed overhead like rent, utilities, equipment and insurance, and significantly lower payroll costs, keep in mind that other expense, like search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM), do not come cheap. “Positioning your brand and products for optimal traffic can equal or exceed print advertising,” says Huttenrauch. And you must target the right customers to begin with to help turn that virtual browser into a paying customer. “You need to have a unique selling proposition that differentiates you from the crowd,” Huttenrauch points out. “The moment you can stop people from comparison shopping, you have a leg up over your competitor.”

 

Smaller retailers usually find it difficult to completely shut down their B&M stores. “Those that can tie to their customers geographically, with a physical location have a much better success rate,” says Huttenrauch. “Unless your brand is well known and has more trust in the marketplace, consumers will go elsewhere.” So, it’s important for retailers to highlight their physical locations, even if market conditions have forced them to close. “Showing pictures of your stores, staff, and its history on your web site gives people comfort that you’re not just a guy selling stuff out of his basement,” notes Steven Antisdel, founder and managing partner at Precept Partners, LLC, an Internet technology, strategy, and consulting company in Benton Harbor, Michigan. “Online, trust is queen of the realm.”

 

Before he got into the consulting business, Antisdel was vice president  and general manager of Bookout Furniture, the largest furniture store in southwestern Michigan. In 1996, he launched an e-commerce site called FurnitureFind.com, one of the first furniture retailers on the web. “Opening an online channel helped us grow significantly, over 1,000 percent between 1997 and 2000, as it allowed us to expand from a regional to a national market,” recalls Antisdel. “We did a lot of systems building and modified processes at every level to manage that growth.” In 2002, after going through private equity funding, a merger, a spinoff, and surviving the dotcom boom and bust, FurnitureFind.com emerged as one of the few and largest furniture retailers remaining on the web. By 2003, a venture capital firm bought both the B&M and online businesses, and subsequently sold them to another group that closed the B&M locations but maintained the online site.

 

Because his business was among the first e-businesses of its kind, Antisdel was asked to speak at various trade and online conferences about how his company made the transition to e-commerce. This eventually led him to  consulting with other companies on how to optimize their online channels. “We don’t hear very often of businesses trying to close their B&Ms,” notes Antisdel. “It’s usually a good competitive advantage to have had the challenges of working with real customers. It enhances your credibility online.” 

 

Richard Sutton had the advantage of nearly two decades as an established retail purveyor of Southwestern and Plains Native American art and jewelry in downtown Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. when he began experimenting with an e-commerce channel for Kiva Trading Company in 2005. Sutton had actually set up Kiva’s web site in 1995 as a way to drive traffic to his store. “When Google became a player, their search engine was strongly driven by informational material related to key words,” Sutton points out. “For many years, our site would come up in the top five.” 

 

Kiva’s history on the web initially helped drive traffic to the site. Sales online exceeded in-store sales by 20 percent within a year of activating e-commerce on the site. During that time, lower sales due to pre-crash jitters and a new landlord were making it difficult to keep his Long Island retail gallery open. In September 2007, Sutton closed its doors. He was able to save nearly $60,000 in operating costs by eliminating commercial rent and utilities, print advertising, and insurance, as well as the cost of paying a part-time employee. “When the financial bubble burst, we were already set up to continue as an online-only venture with a national customer base,” he says. Sutton was able to pass on the savings to online customers by offering his products for 30 percent  less than in his store.

 

Sutton’s business is unique in that he sells one-of-a-kind pieces, so there are no repeat sales. After testing an Amazon virtual storefront, he set up an eBay store through his site and then added an online catalog for customers adverse to the bidding process. Sutton was able to monetize online traffic using tools like Google AdSense and set up a graphic dictionary of American Indian symbols, which is still unique online and helps drive a lot of traffic to his site. “The cost of paying a marketing service to tweak your SEO is too high for most small businesses,” notes Sutton. “It’s critical to know how to do these things on your own to keep costs down.” 

 

Sutton attributes his successful transition to e-commerce by narrowing, not broadening, his offerings in a unique market niche and his ability to adjust to changes in the market and technology. “Wearing a lot of hats has kept our business alive, even during the really bad years,” he explains. 

 

As Antisdel points out, whether you have a physical or virtual storefront, success depend on your business’ ability to ‘pivot’. “Lots of e-businesses start out as one thing, but the market moves in another direction,” says Antisdel. “The biggest reason for failure is when a business is too rigid in its thinking to serve the market differently or serve a different market.” For a B&M, shifting your business online can open up whole new markets. But it’s best to test your products to see that they can compete in the virtual marketplace before closing those doors.

Body_OnlineCourses.jpgby Erin McDermott.

 

Many of America’s elite universities are rushing to stake out territory in the fledgling field of free online college courses.

 

For small business owners—a unique breed of independent learner—these new, free courses may mean opportunity. A glance across the Web shows remarkable offerings in business, economics, finance, and entrepreneurship programs at several $50,000-per-year colleges—all a quick, free download away. It means some of the top names in business education are becoming increasingly accessible to anyone anywhere, making these college sites a potentially smart resource for small business owners.

 

To be sure, some of these classes demand a substantial time commitment that may conflict with running a small business. However, many courses also give even the most time-strapped entrepreneurs the ability to tune in when they can, thereby allowing them to be lifelong learners. 

 

Here’s a look at what several major universities are offering:

 

AcademicEarth.org

 

This site, launched in 2008, claims to give “everyone on earth access to a world-class education.” Its curated lineup of free classes comes in the form of thousands of high-quality videos from top-notch professors from MIT, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, and dozens more. (Or, a Hulu “for nerds,” says Slate.com) On the business side, there’s the Entrepreneurship topic with practical lectures on everything from creativity and innovation, to financing and negotiation skills and dealing with a challenging employee.

 

PQ_OnlineCourses.jpgGot a long commute? Listen to Yale economist Benjamin Polak’s 24-lecture introduction to game theory for ideas on how to outthink your fiercest competitors. Or listen to Guy Kawasaki, an early Apple evangelist and founder of Garage Technology Ventures, talk at Stanford on doing what you love and listening to your customers. Lengths of the audios and videos vary from a few minutes to an hour, and everything can be downloaded.

 

OpenCourseWare

MIT was an early advocate of free online classes, launching OpenCourseWare (OCW) in 2002. And it continues to break new ground. In May, the university and Harvard announced plans for another new site, edX, which will include certificate courses, for which users will be charged a fee. In the meantime, there’s OCW’s 2,100-plus courses, including virtually all class material—syllabi, videos, lecture notes, and even exams—which the school says draws one-million visitors a month. Classes are all downloadable, with the audio and video portions posted on iTunes U’s MIT page. Reading lists include links to online resources and Amazon’s vast market for used textbooks.

 

Business owners might be interested in Law for Entrepreneur and Manager or the graduate-level Listening to the Customer from the Sloan School of Management. Or maybe there’s a solution to your thorniest business issue in Entrepreneurial Marketing. But the bigger development is MIT’s new cross-disciplinary entrepreneurship program, with 66 courses that span offerings from Sloan as well as the media arts, electrical engineering, and computer science departments—all geared toward business owners at every level of the game.


Coursera.org

Launched in April, Coursera brings together free classes from Princeton, Stanford, the University of Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania. The courses consist of videos, interactive quizzes, grading, and feedback, as well as a social-media element that allows remote students to work together on class projects. It’s backed by two big Silicon Valley venture-capital firms and was established by two Stanford professors whose online platform with two computer-science classes attracted more than 200,000 users last fall.

 

The site has only a few dozen courses so far, but promises to ramp up quickly. Starting in September, Coursera will offer the 10-week course Networks: Friends, Money, Bytes with Princeton professor Mung Chiang, which explores how to best use many key business tech tools, like Skype, Wi-Fi, Google rankings, and social media like Facebook and Twitter. But plan ahead, too: Virtual students need to accommodate two 75-minute lectures a week, a weekly assignment, a midterm and final, and some blogging and wiki (social collaboration) work. Model Thinking, from Michigan Professor of Economics Scott E. Page, is another offering by Coursera.org designed to improve the way you strategize. All Coursera classes offer a system to show a certificate of completion, even if you’re not getting credit for it.

iTunes U

Apple makes it possible to tune into a class from a smartphone. Go to the App Store and download the free iTunes U for iPhones, iPads, and the iTouch to subscribe to more than 500,000 free lectures, books, and all kinds of media on a seemingly infinite number of subjects.

 

What’s worth your while? There’s a series of downloadable hour-long interviews at Knowledge@Wharton from Penn’s famous business school. Also excellent: Stanford’s weekly Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders series. Interested in learning how to develop your own App? The TED Management series, Leading Wisely, features talks by bestselling author Daniel Pink, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and serial tech startup founder Jason Fried, who offers up a popular speech about why managers and meetings are the biggest obstacles to productivity.

One more free resource—your local library

The Great Courses may sound familiar—likely, you may have seen the catalog in your mailbox. The company has been making elite instruction accessible to the home user since 1990, and for as much as a few hundred dollars, ships either DVDs or CDs or issues downloadable media. A secret for budget-conscious learners: Many local libraries also carry their discs. One to seek out: Business Law & Contracts, taught by Professor Frank B. Cross of the University of Texas.

Body_ShoptheComp.jpgby Robert Lerose.

 

Industrial espionage, where one gains inside knowledge of a competitor through covert, unethical, or patently criminal means, has long fueled both fictional thrillers and real-life corporate scandals. Such unauthorized spying must be roundly criticized and earnestly avoided for obvious reasons, including one that's perhaps not so obvious—it's often unnecessary. That's because studying your competition's public marketing and advertising provides plenty of valuable insight into how a business can differentiate its message. And in a crowded marketplace where many companies offer similar types of products and services, this due diligence could make the difference between success and failure.

 

"It's really important [to see] the way [your competitors] position themselves, either based on culture or certain specialties," says Jennifer Seidel, executive vice president, agency relations and education, of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. A simple thing like understanding the way a business rival compares its advantages and unique selling proposition to yours can help you adjust your message to greater advantage.

 

PQ_ShoptheComp.jpgSeidel admits that it can be challenging to get your hands on the pitch material that an advertising agency gives to a perspective client. However, she notes that checking out your competition's website, following them in the news, and looking at their marketing campaigns are excellent first steps. Another way is to sign up for their marketing channels to get a steady stream of their promotional material, whether it's direct-mail pieces, catalogs, or digital correspondence.

Putting the information to good use

So what can this information gathering tell you?

 

"I'd want to know what [my competition] is offering in comparison to what I'm offering to my present customers," says Ned Clausen, president/executive director at Business Marketing Association of New York. "See if they're trying to undercut the price relationship you have with your customers."

 

Checking out your competition's marketing and advertising phraseology can reveal strengths or weaknesses in your own messaging. "Maybe yours is not as exciting," Clausen explains. "You have to evaluate how you make your pitches, too, to keep a high level of interest in existing customers and prospects."

 

Where your competition markets is just as important as how they market, Clausen adds. For example, if they have a robust social media presence, while you've been reluctant to dip your toe in those waters, then you may need to promote in the channels that are now in greater use.

 

Surveying your own customers can also tell you what their feelings are, not only about your product or service, but about your competitors as well. "Asking your customers what their friends and acquaintances are doing [to gain] information about products can be very revealing," he says. "It doesn't even have to be your products, but in general."

Looking beyond the obvious

Beyond these markers, there are other subtle things that make a competitor stand out from the pack. Seidel of the AAAA points out that some companies have achieved success by positioning themselves as women-owned or having a multi-cultural staff.

 

"By looking at all aspects of a competitor's business—the make-up of their executive team or the number of people who work for them—you can get a sense of what you might be doing [to] stand out from everyone else that's a little bit different," she says.

 

Networking at industry events, asking questions, and sharing experiences is a fertile ground for collecting market intelligence. "A lot of what really goes on [at these events] is not going to be ever officially posted or presented. It's going to be more in the details," Seidel says. "So if you talk to a lot of people…you can get much more of a sense for what goes on behind the scenes."

 

After you've identified the successful parts of your competition's marketing, the temptation is to take it as is and duplicate it for your own efforts.

 

More often than not, however, this approach backfires.

 

Both Clausen and Seidel say it's imperative that your marketing stays true and consistent to your company's mission or vision. The smarter course of action is to understand exactly what makes your company unique and to build on that, making strategic adjustments along the way.

 

Indeed, knowing what not to do is as important as what to pursue.

 

Doing this research is fine and good, but these experts warn of another hidden danger: spending all your time watching the competition and not tending to your own goals. "If you're swayed by every piece of information or any noise that comes from outside your own company, then you're going to get really distracted and unfocused very quickly," Seidel cautions.

 

One of the best ways to thrive, the experts say, is to find areas that are not being served by the competition and embrace it as your own. "A small business should differentiate its customers and not take them as a blanket group," Clausen says. "That will help them fight the competition."

Brownie points for paying attention

When Shawna Lidsky co-founded Vermont Brownie Company almost four years ago, she had about ten names in her database, made up mostly of family and friends. Today, she says that number has grown to 12,000. In addition, the South Hero, Vermont, business has an impressive social media presence, with Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube pages as well as a blog.

 

As she was growing her business, Lidsky intuitively followed some of the advice offered by Clausen and Seidel without realizing it.

 

"I will definitely check out a competitor's website to make sure that our prices are in an appropriate range and to make sure that we're offering more in terms of options for people for corporate gifting," she says, echoing Clausen.

 

She also knew enough to spot something that worked for another business and see whether she could apply it to her own business, as the two industry insiders recommend. For example, when she found an intriguing gift certificate offer, she adapted—not copied—it for her own product.

 

"It's not about seeing a discount and then offering the same thing," she says. "Just because their product was successful doing it a certain way doesn't mean it's going to be successful for your company. You have to be sure that it works for you."

 

While Lidsky knows when to imitate, she also knows when to block out the competition, follow her gut instincts, and stay focused on making her product as good as it can be, as Seidel suggests. Stealing a page from the experts' playbook, she has taken important steps to differentiate her product and draw on the unique culture around her. Her whimsical sheep logo, for instance, helps convey the self-described fun, down-to-earth goodness of her gourmet product and where it comes from. (At one time, Vermont had more sheep than people.) 

 

"What makes our product unique is the focus on local ingredients and our packaging," she says. "People love our little sheep. A huge part of our marketing is also just being Vermont Brownie Company. People inherently feel good when they buy something from Vermont because it represents quality. We use wholesome, all-natural ingredients, [especially] any that we can source locally from Vermont. That's an integral part of what we do and what sets us apart."

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