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2012

Body_CustomerLoyalty.jpgby Erin McDermott.

 

Keeping people coming through the door has been a worry for as long as merchants have been hanging out shingles.

 

Just as durable have been loyalty-program enticements: the buy-100-get-one-free world of punchcards, still stuck unused in wallets everywhere; keychain fobs, lost to millions of junk drawers; and social media, home of so-called friends who come just for a discounted deal and then never return.

 

Now a host of companies are betting improved technology can help business owners shed new light on their elusive clientele and, more importantly, get them in the door more often and get them to stay. These digital loyalty systems are usually two-sided. On the customers’ end, an app on a smartphone can relay offers for rewards or an accumulating point system based on dollars spent, all registered with a quick swipe at the checkout. On the proprietors’ side, there’s a real-time history of who’s been spending money at your shop, how often, and what they’re buying—even at what time of the day. Together, it can make the experience highly personal and customized for both small businesses and their customers.

 

Numerous tech giants are digging in, creating something of a land grab for the loyalties of small businesses. Players from Facebook to Groupon to The Square and even Google are circling, as are plenty of companies with a focus on small businesses.

 

That includes Cardagin, a digital loyalty platform based in Charlottesville, Va., with nearly 2,000 businesses in its network. Rob Masri, the company’s founder and CEO, grew up watching his father’s version of rewarding customer loyalty—a free slice of pie, or a cup of coffee on the house—at their family-style restaurant in a tiny Pearisburg, Virginia. The family came to the U.S. from Lebanon in 1977, which made the success of Charlie’s Restaurant two years later an imperative.

 

New technology, old-fashioned service

To thrive in a small town, it meant “the same people needed to come day after day, week after week, month after month. And if they took a break—your business was done for,” Masri says. “That sort of knowledge, and insight into the customer base, of making a customer feel welcome, greeting them by name, thanking them for their business and giving something special—that’s what [my dad] preached to us.”

 

On the Cardagin system, a proprietor can input messages about promotions via a Web-based platform. On the app, users see a list of local businesses and their offers, and accrue points toward a goal with every purchase. At the register, a smallbusiness owner can instantly put a name to a face as they scan a QR code or enter the customer’s phone number (Cardagin can be used by everyone, not just those with smartphones), as well as see data points—such as customer name, order specific, and average amount spent over a day, month, and year—the Cardagin platform collects to give them an opportunity to better tailor service. The technology gives businesses a direct link to learn about their customers and reward them not only for their loyalty, but to try to entice them to come back, by sending them deals on their “usual” purchases or giving exclusive discounts.

 

“Everyone talks about the 20-80 rule: The 20 percent of customers that provide 80 percent of your revenue. Marriott calls them Platinum Elite. Hertz calls them the No. 1 Club,” Masri says. “But what does your local bagel shop call them? Who are they and how do you get in touch with them? That’s what this system is designed to do.”

 

PQ_CustomerLoyalty.jpgWhy loyalty programs work

Why are consumers so drawn to loyalty rewards? There is biology at play. Roger Dooley, author of Brainfluence and the blog Neuromarketing, says loyalty programs are most effective when they give people the ability to move closer to a goal of some kind. It’s known as the goal-gradient hypothesis. “Research shows that people behave like rats in one respect: The closer rats get to a food reward, the faster they run in a maze,” he says. “People do the same thing—as they get closer to filling up a coffee-shop loyalty card and earning a free coffee, they drink coffee more frequently.”

 

Businesses may not have much of a choice but to jump through hoops to keep patrons on board. “Companies are coming to the conclusion that it’s typically a lot more cost-effective to retain a customer and get more business from that customer than it is to try and find new customers and break them in,” says Dooley. “Prospecting for new customers is very expensive. There’s a lot of businesses that don’t realize that, and they’re out there simply trying to acquire new customers and hoping for the best.”

 

Atlanta-based Welcomemat Services aims its mobile loyalty system at a location’s freshest customers: new residents. Using the Punchpoints smartphone app, users scan a QR code at each merchant they visit as they explore the shops in their new neighborhood, accumulating points toward a choice of a reward. Customers can share news of their loyalty via social media at each visit. Merchants can customize information on the app instantly—changing daily specials or even to offer double points on slow days. On the website, merchants can view analytics and usage trends to better understand their customers, guide service, and boost retention.

 

Brian Mattingly, Welcomemat’s founder and CEO, says his type of system is a step forward for small businesses in that it’s not dependent on coupons or group deal buying, which have gotten a bad rap for generating the exact opposite of “loyalty.”

 

“The whole daily-deal world has created a bit of a problem for some local businesses in that people have become loyal to the deals,” says Mattingly “They never become loyal to a business—they just follow the deal. Businesses are so hungry and so interested to find new regular customers because that’s how local businesses grow.”

 

However, not everyone sees technology as the solution to finding customer ties that bind.

 

Don’t forget customers have to like you first

“Loyalty is not transactional. It comes from an emotional place, a connection where people care about you, you trust them and you like them and you build a relationship,” says Carol Roth, author of “The Entrepreneur Equation.” “It needs to go deeper than that. It helps you identify your spenders, but it doesn’t help you identify your ‘senders’—the influencers, mavens, connectors, and the people who are helping you spread the word about your product or your service or business.”

 

“If you’re just rewarding people based on that transaction, and not necessarily based on their value to your brand indirectly, you could be missing an important segment of your customer base,” Roth says. “For a small-business owner especially, it becomes very easy to do the small things to build relationships with your customers to stand apart from the competition. While everyone is gravitating toward technology to try to automate loyalty, the people who are going to win, in my opinion, are the ones who go in the opposite direction. They’ll use technology to inform them, but then they’ll use some good old-fashioned elbow grease and offline strategies to leverage that technology to provide an outstanding experience to the customer.”

Kind of like the extras that Rob Masri’s father sometimes treated his customers to for 29 years in Pearisburg.

 

“It’s a question of how do we help businesses build one-on-one marketing relationships with those customers who care,” Masri says. “Businesses can spend a lot of money advertising. At the end of the day, there’s only a handful of fanatically loyal customers that every business owner will say ‘I’m happy to thank this person with something.’ The real question is: Who are those people?”

 

Body_QAannhadley.jpgA compelling About Us page on your website gives you a great opportunity to really connect with customers and explain why you’re different—and better—than your competition. So says Ann Handley, the chief content officer for MarketingProfs, a company that provides business marketing know-how for than 420,000 subscribers. She recently spoke with business writer Susan Caminiti about ways to make this page stand out—and what language small businesses should avoid.

 

by Susan Caminiti.

SC: Why is the About page so important for a small business?

AH: The way I look at it is that it’s an opportunity to tell your story. It’s the one place on your website where you can really talk about who you are, what you’re all about, why the company was founded, and why you’re different.

 

PQ_QAannhadley.jpgSC: Where in a small business’s story should an About page start? Is it a timeline?

AH: I wouldn’t approach it as a timeline at all. But there are ways to approach your story and the time that you’ve been in business that may not even be text. If your business has been around awhile, or if it’s a long-standing family business, there may be archived photos that you can use on the About Us page so that you’re not giving a blow by blow of every year and event. One thing that all businesses owners should remember is that the page is not a CV. It’s not intended to be your resume.

 

SC: What should the tone of the About Us page be—conversational or a little more formal?

AH: That all depends on the type of business you’re in. There is no one-size-fits-all type of strategy. At the very least, you want your website to be accessible. Write in human terms. I know it sounds odd to say it that way, but I can’t emphasize it enough, especially for a tech company. I find they tend to fall into what I call ‘Franken-speak’—jargon that no one understands. It’s an easy trap for companies to fall into since they’re used to their own language and terms, but for a customer coming to their site for the first time it can be strange. Avoid the jargon and communicate in very human terms.

SC: What are some other interesting ways to create a compelling About Us page?

AH: Focus on the people who work at the company, whether that’s the founders or partners. Rather than text, make a video to tell your story. I think that’s a great way to show the human side. One company that does it well is Levenfeld Pearlstein, a law firm in Chicago. They basically put a video camera in front of their partners and asked them to tell a story. By looking at their Google Analytics, they found overwhelming evidence that people were going to their About Us page first, so it made sense to focus on the partners. When you’re hiring an attorney you want the essence of who these people are. If you can hear and see them speak on video that goes along way in letting the audience know who you are. [Ed. Note: Also, check out this article to see how some small businesses are using Pinterest to tell their company story.]

SC: Do you notice a common mistake that small businesses make on their About Us page?

AH: I think the biggest mistake is that companies don’t pay enough attention to it. They view it as boilerplate information—who, what, where—and don’t really take any time to think outside the box. There are lots of ways to make this page much more compelling and to tell a story that will set them apart from their competitors. Small businesses spend a lot of time on the look and feel, the design of their website, but not as much on the content. Are you just sounding the same as any other company? And if you’re not comfortable doing this yourself, hire someone to do it for you. 

 

SC: What other advice can you give small business owners to make the page stand out?

AH: By all means, avoid words like “revolutionary,” “mission-critical,” or “impactful.” Avoid the words that make you sound like everyone else. A lot of companies use that kind of language as a matter of default, or because it sounds impressive. But that’s not the language of your customers. Again, avoid the Franken-speak. “Customer-focused” and “customer-centric” are other phrases to avoid. Isn’t everything you do supposed to be customer-focused? I read mission statements of companies all the time and with some of them I have no idea what they do because the language is so murky. Make it clear and use human language so that anyone coming to your site understands quickly what it is you do and why you’re different.

 

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Body_QAkimmateus.jpgby Robert Lerose.

 

A few well-chosen and strategically placed keywords can mean the difference between achieving a page-one ranking on Google and bobbing helplessly in an ocean of rival webpages, unseen by your target audience. Since 2003, Mequoda Group, based in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, has helped publishers and other content providers thrive online. Recently, business writer Robert Lerose spoke with Kim Mateus, chief content officer, about best practices for search engine optimization. (The SEO Copywriting Handbook, Mequoda's 48-page resource, is available as a free download.) Some edited excerpts from the interview:

 

RL: What are keywords and why are they important?

KM: Keywords are basically what your audience needs information on. Just think very naturally about what your business can help searchers with. What kind of expertise do you have? What do you think the people who need your expertise are searching for? Keyword optimization and SEO are about tapping into those needs. 

 

PQ_QAkimmateus.jpgRL: What's the difference between appearing on page one of a Google search and page two?

KM: A study from one of the big research firms found that if you're able to get your website to rank on page one, you can assume that 100 percent of the people who did that search at least saw your results. Only 32 percent of people made it to page two and 7 percent made it to page three. I do believe that search behavior probably has changed a lot since the study was done in the mid-2000s. It has to be a much smaller percentage of people who make it to page two. So being on page one is absolutely critical for exposure.

 

RL: What are the first steps a small business should take to optimize their website for SEO?

KM: Think about the purpose of the site. What are you trying to accomplish? Are you trying to make it a content destination where people use the site on a regular basis to stay informed on the topic that you cover? Or is the goal of the website to generate leads [by] maybe giving away a white paper [to] get an email address? Or is it a straight e-commerce play, where your goal is to sell a product? [It's about] defining the goals of the site and then thinking about the kind of content strategy you need to support those goals.

 

RL: What's next?

KM: A brainstorming exercise with your domain experts—the people in your business that know the most about your content and what you offer—[to figure out] what they think people are searching for. Luckily, Google makes free tools available that can verify these assumptions. We focus on the Google Keyword Tool, in particular, to confirm that yes, people are in fact searching for this [item], but—oh, wait—there's so many more people searching for it when it's said this [other] way.

 

RL: After the goal of the website has been defined, you said a content strategy that supported it was necessary. What did you mean?

KM: The harsh reality is that Google likes a lot of content. It likes to give rank to websites that have lots of depth in one particular area. For small business owners, going as niche as you can is always best. Think about three-word phrases, maybe even four-word phrases, that are very specific, that might have a better chance of getting ranked [high].

 

RL: As an example, suppose a plumbing supply business wants to find out how popular certain keyword phrases are. Would they use the Google Keyword Tool?

KM: Yes. They can select a broad match, an exact match, or a phrase match. I recommend selecting an exact match. If they put the word "plumbing" on an exact match, the Tool tells them exactly how many people search for the word "plumbing" on a global monthly basis. In this case, they would learn that 74,000 people enter the word "plumbing" into the Google Keyword Tool on a monthly basis.

 

RL: That seems like an overwhelming number for a small business to handle.

KM: So what the Tool then does is give you a list of related keyword phrases. It allows you to see what people are typing next to the word "plumbing." If this business is about "plumbing supply" in particular, I'd go back to the top, enter in "plumbing supply" and then I'll learn what all the variations are around "plumbing supply." You can see how many people are searching for that every month. Again, this tool allows you to get inside the minds of the searchers and get a really solid sense of how popular these keyword phrases are.

 

RL: Should you put your keywords in quotes?
KM: You can't just target a hugely competitive phrase and think you're going to rank on it. So the next step is to understand how organically competitive the keyword phrases are, which means how many other webpages are using this phrase in that exact order? The way to discover that is by going to the Google search engine and searching for the phrase in quotes because that represents your true competition. 

 

RL: Just because a business has a page-one Google ranking doesn't mean anyone will click on it. Any tips for increasing the click-through rate?

KM: The title of the page, or the blue headline, is actually what's being displayed on the Google search results. It's key to keep the keyword phrase in the title as close to the front as possible so Google can sort of see it right away. The second element is what's called the meta description—those couple of lines that show up below the headline on the results page. [Even though] Google doesn't value keyword phrases in the meta description, they're extremely valuable for the click-through rate. That’s where good, solid, traditional, old-fashioned direct response copywriting has to come into play because that's what people are reading to understand whether they should click through. Taking the time to write effective meta descriptions is definitely a way to try to increase those click-through rates.

 

RL: Should you write copy around keywords or write the copy naturally and then insert them?

KM: We think it's easier to do the latter. Have your topic in mind. Look at the keyword list in advance. Know what or where you're sort of heading, but write the copy without worrying too much about the keywords. You'll produce the best read that way. Then go back and try to insert the keywords. Lists are a very seamless way to repeat a keyword phrase without being annoying.

RL: Can you overstuff copy with too many keywords?

KM: Yes, definitely. It's a huge no-no. There may not be a magic number, but we aim for around the 2.5-percent to 3-percent range. [So,] the phrase appears two to three times out of every hundred words.

RL: If a small business owner could do only one thing tomorrow to optimize their site, what should it be?

KM: Think about exactly what the goal of your website is and what you want to be found on. If there was one phrase that you could be optimized for, what would it be? Pick that one uber-phrase and then let everything kind of ground you back to that goal.

Body_Overseas.jpgby Erin McDermott.

 

Ever heard that old saying about the language of business being universal?

 

Anyone who’s been stumped while trying to de-code a company’s website in another language knows the folly of that exercise. Unfamiliar phrases, confusing Web navigation, and an entirely different currency—many sites aren’t exactly intuitive in their native tongue, let alone for a buyer on the other side of the world. 

 

But wait: What does your company’s website look like to overseas customers?

 

There’s a huge world of ecommerce out there—global online sales are reported to have reached $961 billion in 2011, an increase of 20 percent from a year earlier. A historically weak U.S. dollar has Washington pushing to double exports in the next few years, and the percentage of growth has surged in several developing markets, such as Turkey, Brazil, Panama, and Russia.

 

So how can a small business best welcome online customers from another country? Rolling out the Web technology may be the easiest part of the international red carpet.

 

Here are a few tips from pros that have transcended borders with their sites.

 

PQ_Overseas.jpgStart with one new country

Adrian Salamunovic has two e-commerce websites that deal in four languages and dozens of fluctuating currencies in around 50 countries. In 2005, he and his partner, Nazim Ahmed, co-founded DNA11, a now-50-employee company that turns images of customers’ genetic sequences, fingerprints, and other individual biomarkers into framed, artistic portraits. (You may have seen their work on CSI: NY; they also own CanvasPop.) His advice for other small businesses: Pick the lowest hanging fruit.

 

“First, the good news: Never in the history of mankind has it been easier for a small business to become global. And two, it’s never been more inexpensive to do it,” Salamunovic says. He suggests finding that new audience by first looking at where your foreign customers are coming from: Google Analytics’ figures on your site should show the second-biggest national source of Internet users checking out your website—and that’s where to begin. He says small business owners should consider those missed customers a lost opportunity for growth. “If you look and see 2,000 hits from people in France, going by even a standard two-percent conversion rate—that’s several thousand dollars in business you’re missing every month,” Salamunovic says. “When you are able to show that country’s flag at the top of your site, it’s like a big, warm hug to those customers.”

 

Translate your site—carefully

It’s crucial to have a native speaker read your new site and edit it, but it’s equally important to have someone who knows the current culture for marketing purposes, says Ora Solomon, vice president for sales and operations at Acclaro, a localization and translation agency based in Irvington, N.Y., with capabilities in more than 60 languages. “When it comes to the Web, there’s really no concept of borders right now, but there are still certainly big differences,” she says. Translators come in many forms—with specialties in marketing, medical services, software, and cultural trends—so it’s also critical to use someone familiar with the audience you are targeting.  (For a great resource on localization, look at Solomon’s 10 tips for e-commerce sites.) 

 

Alternatively, a small business can keep things very, very simple—depending on their product. Solomon says to look at the non-English-language sites for small domestic hotels or resorts as an example. Potential guests look at the most important factors—photos of the rooms, the rates, and locations—to make their decision, and many small businesses can hire freelance translators to get the job done. “In those cases, they may not need a perfectly translated website, if it’s a one-time deal and they don’t need to update it often,” she says. And for the super-low-budget, there’s always the free services of Google Translate, but be aware, you get what you pay for.

 

Think local everywhere

Research the specific country you are looking to target, says Sunny Mui, marketing manager for Globial, a B2B network and marketplace for global businesses based in Sunnyvale, Calif. He says small businesses need to understand potential cultural conflicts between the way you do things and the way your target market does things. Make sure your site is able to accommodate changes in naming formats, from foreign character sets to cultural conventions. (For instance, in many Asian societies, a person’s family name comes first, and some Thais use just one name.) Among the common mistakes Mui says he’s seen: phone numbers that include letters (many countries don’t have letters on their keypads); measurements that aren’t in metric, Celsius, or don’t state a product’s electricity standard; or numerical date systems that lead to confusion about which number signifies the month. One more: Avoid icons that use body parts, Mui says. It might be considered offensive in some cultures.

 

Mind Customs and export rules

The U.S. Department of Commerce has been attempting to simplify the international trade process. Their website, Export.gov, offers numerous free tools, including a new, 76-page online e-commerce guide that several insiders recommend; a country-by-country commercial factbook (thinking about Brazil? Look here.); data about numerous global markets; and listings of official trade leads and events. That’s the good news. Anyone selling and shipping goods overseas also must navigate a maze of Customs paperwork, including the classification coding system for any commodity you’re exporting. Thanks to the Internet, this becomes somewhat less onerous with a search tool that gives the required 10-digit code for the 8,000-some entries of almost anything that can be sent abroad.

 

Keep taxes and exchange rates in mind

Anyone handling e-commerce here in the U.S. is likely familiar with the vastly different state-tax rules on online sales. If you’re shipping something to a customer overseas, expect more of the same, says Robert Swartz, an international tax specialist and president of Illinois-based Business Ways. “There might be an issue with the state you’re in for their cut of that sale, then you have the IRS looking for a cut of that sale, then the foreign country, where the customer is, will possibly try to get involved, too,” he says. Swartz says small companies should begin by checking out Export.gov, exim.gov, and the IRS website. (On the plus side, there is a 20-percent tax break on income for U.S.-manufactured goods that are exported.)   

 

Focus on the basics

Never assume you know everything or that everything you learn about a culture will be true of every person—people are unique individuals after all, says Mui. “Test your site on a few people who are representative of the target country,” he says. “They have perspective that you don’t and can easily catch the big problems that you miss.”

 

And be prepared: Once your new site goes live, who will be able to deal with these new customers in their language?

 

“Rule No. 1 is have a plan,” says Salamunovic. “People forget about customer support. You have to be prepared to try to offer help within your new customers’ expected hours of operations and have policies in place to handle their emails. If there’s no one in the entire company who speaks Spanish or French, then you can try translation software, but you’ll be paying a price.”

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