Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Know Your Audience: The Lesson of Jimi Hendrix and The Monkees

Yesterday I came across an account of a most unusual concert tour held July 8-17, 1967.  Some ostensibly bright minds came up with the idea of opening The Monkees with Jimi Hendrix!  The Monkees audience hated Hendrix' pyschedelic style and he had enough of their abuse after eight shows.

Were the proponents of this idea insane?  To them (Hendrix' manager and Monkee Micky Dolenz) the project made perfect sense!  Unfortunately they had a perspective that wasn't focused on the audience's needs or wants.  Michael Jeffrey desperately wanted to break Hendrix into a wider market in the U.S. and Dolenz was utterly fascinated with Hendrix' showmanship, knowing The Monkees were more show than music.  In both cases, the principals were focused on their own needs.

A wiser head might have suggested that Hendrix open for a band that had a similar style or accent.  The Monkees might have been better paired with someone equally pleasing to their followers.  The first consideration should have been "what do our customers want and need?"

Bottom Line:  Do we as small business owners make decisions about products and services that are focused on ourselves before customers?  Are we sending mixed messages about our brand by combining features, offerings, services, etc. that don't serve one target market?

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Force is Not With You

With the release of the latest "Star Wars" franchise film, it seems every advertiser is falling over themselves to ride the "Star Wars" brand.  I do not think I have ever seen so much crossover advertising in my life, and in recent years I have seen much.  Everyone seems wild to "use the Force".

One supposes that the advertisers imagine that they score a great coup by obtaining licensing rites from a major film or some other "partner", but in reality the expense is a tragic setback.  Why?  Beyond the obvious costs of obtaining licensing rights our advertiser (a) spends valuable advertising time and space talking about the "partner" and (b) telegraphs the message that the advertiser's brand isn't strong enough without some help.

I look at these crossovers as a kind of drug.  The advertiser may feel good for awhile, but after the contract runs out, it's back to normal.  If the brand is suffering, the problem has not been solved.  Only a large expenditure was made.

As I have noted in earlier blogs, I am not averse to well-conceived and real partnerships between small businesses with a natural affinity (e.g. yoga studios and health food stores).  Is there a true affinity between a hamburger restaurant and a major movie?  between a pizza franchise and the NFL?
Bottom line:  Think hard if you, as a small business owner, are bewitched by a crossover appeal.  Remember that you're always going to be the weaker partner and that you may be doing more for the ostensible partner than yourself.  If the brand needs a lift, consider speaking with a peer or an adviser who can suggest strategies that are centered on what you do.

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Upset Customer Opportunity

A discussion last week about engagement with upset customers and prospects via their negative reviews and posts prompts a follow up.  These sorts of reviews and posts can be a net positive and an opportunity for a business.  Here's how:

There are two types of disaffected customers.  One type doesn't complain, at least not in any way upon which can be followed.  They may complain in a person to person conversation.  The end result: no chance whatever to recover the customer and bad press beyond that.

The other type does complain.  They can be engaged by the means used to complain.  And the customer can not only be recovered, in most cases, but they may be impressed enough to share the positive recovery experience with others.  It's often the case that the most loyal customers are those for whom something went wrong.

And in the social media space, businesses that promptly and politely rectify situations are those that can gain a strong brand boost in a wider audience.

Bottom line: adversity can be a route to strength!  But one must first positively and promptly engage that unhappy customer!

Monday, November 30, 2015

New Advertising Techniques are Really the Original Ones

Time was when a business could advertise itself in a very limited number of channels and cover its target remarkably well.  I think of my great uncle who owned a pharmacy in my little home town in the '50s and '60s.  He could call up the local newspaper, and maybe even one of the few radio stations easily reachable in the area and do as well as anyone could.  He would only worry that he reached, say, 75% of his target, instead of 85% or more.

Today, advertising is an absolute nightmare.  Channels are astonishingly fragmented, especially once Internet advertising became a reality.  There are hundreds of radio and television channels.  It is very difficult to count every possible advertising vehicle available in any given area.  I'd dare say one has more advertising options at the South Pole now than were available in New York City even fifty years ago.  And it goes almost without saying that no single channel can deliver more than a few percentage points of a target market.

So what to do?  It definitely does not make sense to buy ad space to the desired cumulative target.  That would be ridiculously ineffective.  For many of us it is also too expensive to use targeting technology like geodemographic coding.  And it's incredibly difficult to understand the reach of each and every advertising channel.

My thinking is that for small business, at least, the new normal does not include traditional advertising.  No newspapers.  No magazines.  No radio.  No television.  The return on investment simply isn't there.  What I do see is that we need to exploit the potential of what used to be called network marketing.  Each of our network contacts in turn knows others who know others, and so on.  By creating strong, trusting referral relationships we in essence create an advertising-and-marketing channel of considerable power.  In various ways this is a return to principles established before there was widespread print and classical "advertising": long ago your products and services were promoted by the people who knew and trusted you.

It's more work, to be sure, than just buying an ad.  But the bond is stronger.

Bottom Line:  There is really nothing new, even in advertising.  Using very fundamental principles can work well for you.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Lunch and Learns Can Help Build Appetite for a Business

In this area there is a growing interest in holding free (or very low cost) seminars, workshops, lunch-and-learns, or whatever else you might call them.  Small business owners are using these as clever promotional tools, sharing information closely related to their products and services and selling "soft": inspiring attendees to take a greater interest in those products and services.

My own experience is that these can work very well in both B2B and B2C settings, although my sense of things is that consumers need to be incentivized by a free meal or some other tangible come-on for attending.  In the case of a B2B business owners seem to be sufficiently motivated to better understand the offerings provided they have a low cost of trial, or access.

What can the presenter do to make these "lunch and learns" effective?

First, be prepared to promote the event.  A single posting on Eventbrite or equivalents may not be enough to fill a room.  The event should be talked up in networking, on social media, via flyers and anything else that occurs.

Second, keep the hard sell to a minimum.  Don't hesitate to lay out brochures, price sheets, and other materials, and even to state at the end (succinctly) what sorts of things you can do to help.  But I have have been at workshops where the sales pressure at the end of the event was quite off putting and destroyed the value of the event.

Third, do offer food.  Even water and snack items is a nice gesture to those prepared to sit and listen for 60 to 90 minutes.  Another nice "goodie" could be a drawing for a prize of some kind at the end, perhaps even a coupon for one of your services or products.

Bottom line: use a "soft" vehicle like a free seminar to introduce yourself to new customers.  Such an event can be a wonderful way to share valuable information and your expertise.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Gimmicks Can Hurt Brand

A few days ago I passed a brick-and-mortar location of a business.  The drive-by was remarkable because the business owner had planted a huge yellow banner and a big bunch of multicolored balloons.  The message was obvious: "Please Stop In."  Was this a good idea?

I'm not fond of these gimmicks.  I think they have two liabilities.  One is that they don't work well.  If they did, automobile dealers (who seem to require use of these horrid gimmicky balloons, flags and banners) would never need to advertise and cars would fly off the lots.  Worse is, I think they hurt brand.

The business I passed looked respectable.  It had a good, highly visible street location and a good product concept.  But I formed an immediate opinion that they were probably not very good at what they did.  With those advantages, who in their right mind would think a bunch of balloons in the street would lure someone inside?  And why were they worried about foot traffic?

I assume the business had some problems.  In such a case it would be worth addressing those problems rather than resorting to cheap gimmicks.  If something had to be placed in the street, why not a professional-looking sign that advertised a special?  or a "today-only" offering?  That alternative would have at least protected the brand a little.

Bottom Line:  Beware of cheap, cute gimmicks.  Attention-getting strategies must be complementary to the business brand and image.  It's too easy to create an unfortunate image in a prospective customer's mind.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

You Might Surprise Yourself

As I network in my market area, I am frequently struck by new insights gleaned from watching others.  And sometimes those insights strike very close to home.  A very important one for me I have come to call the "Conjecture on Comparison."  And it is this: We usually and wrongly believe others are superior in skills, experience, and success.

When I first made networking rounds I held a view that the other entrepreneurs in the room were doing uniformly well, often very well, and were tops in their line of work.  I figured I was a true novice and was concerned that potential customers would view my own offerings with extreme skepticism.  Only after I developed relationships did I recognize that I was a good deal stronger than I first believed, and, more importantly, that others were a lot more anxious and self-critical than they seemed.  There weren't that many demigods in the room.

This means that when we market ourselves we should recognize that, at least for most of us, we have wonderful service or products that will truly help someone else, and that we shouldn't be the least bit hesitant to offer ourselves as helpers.  The only real worry should be making sure that our appropriate target customers get to hear our message.  And through networking, we make the connections that get us to the target customers.

Bottom Line: Are you carrying doubts about your skill set? are you comparing yourself too much to others?  If you believe in them you can believe in yourself.  Feel like someone who can help and make a difference!  Your marketing efforts will shine with that sunny confidence!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Collaboration Packages Can Strengthen A Brand

For many small businesses, getting noticed and appreciated might just take a little extra.  Not effort, per se, but power.  One way to get that extra boost is to collaborate with an allied business and market the joint offering together.

We have learned in the consumer world that bundles can be extremely attractive.  One form is bundling two or more services into one convenient package and bargain price.  The other is to bundle across business lines.  For example, a yoga studio might collaborate with a health food store to coupon a "wellness" package that includes a class and a special price on organic produce items.  A marketing consultant might team up with an executive coach for a market plan review-and- leadership training combination.  The possibilities are limitless.

The benefits are many.  One business can attract the attention of customer of the ally, and can leverage off the brand strengths of that ally.  Attractive joint pricing may be a perfect entry point for a client or consumer willing to try at a discount rate.  And combined marketing resources can go farther when promoting and advertising.  And, one's own brand is amplified by association with a logical partner, emphasizing the product or service strengths.

Bottom Line: can you team up with a trusted or respected ally to join forces for a special marketing offer?  What can you offer an ally to help them grow their business---and gain a friend who will helo your own?

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Not All Personal Commercials Help The Giver

I have been fascinated by the giving of "elevator" speeches, or 30-second commercials, or whatever else they might be called, since I first joined a professional and business leads group.  There are so many variations!  Only some are effective.

Let's look past the ones that are awkward first tries.  Those people will learn and improve over time, especially if they work with a coach or mentor.  We'll also overlook the ramblings of those who are not prepared or who don't work well on the fly.

I don't find the classic, unchanging, "one size fits all" version very effective.  Over time, if I meet the person repeatedly, and hear the same thing, I tend to tune out.  I have heard the message before and can only really appreciate the person's ability to memorize a small bloc of text.  And what is sadder, these speeches don't recognize that the audience changes.  Something that appeals to network partner #1 may not connect with partner #2.

I have several regulars in my primary leads group who do wonderfully well in making commercials.  Their work has several important elements:

(1) They mention themselves and their business at the outset and in the close.
(2) They include a value proposition of some kind, either discussing a problem they solved or how they can help someone else.
(3) They give cues to what constitutes a good lead or referral for them.
(4) They add a refreshing touch of humor.

Bottom line: consider how you make elevator speeches or short personal commercials.  Can you add new elements that improve effectiveness?  what are you learning from the best practices of others?  You can be the speaker every one listens for!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Lessons From an Action Team

I have a connection with some folks at a local nonprofit who assembled a small team to boost the nonprofit's brand, message and visibility.  All the members of the team are giving of their time and expertise on a pro bono basis.  On paper, it sounds like the U.S. Olympics basketball team: a group of stars.  In practice, I have learned, it's not working out at all.

There are good lessons to be learned for any small enterprise that consults with multiple experts to solve its business challenges.  Here are those I picked up from that nonprofit's "dream team."

1) An action team needs to understand its mission and vision.  Or in military terminology, what is the mission and what defines victory.  This team was assembled with no clear understanding of what it was expected to accomplish and what the endpoint might be.  Worse, stakeholders internal to the nonprofit had a radically different understanding of what the team members were to do (be "gophers") than the panelists (offer ideas).

2) An action team needs a defined leader who is empowered to constructively channel discussions into actions.  There is a theoretical chair to the nonprofit's panel, but is someone who is passive and is not empowered to lead.  Hence it is "free for all" and not effective.

3) An action team needs to match complementary skills.  This poor panel boasts no less than five members in seven who are marketing consultants, all with differing perspectives and strong wills.  The real danger is that the nonprofit's leaders are pulled in differing directions.  Imagine you are in hospital and five doctors loom over you, all with different prognoses.  You can't act on all five's advice and someone, if not all five, stand to have the least effective "cure."  My own sense would be to either assign each party one very specific task based on their key strengths, or eliminate all but one to be the definitive diagnostician.

The nonprofit's panel is well stocked with people who love the nonprofit and believe they know the right course of action.  They are, however, likely set up for failure.  There won't likely be consensus action and the nonprofit will keep doing what it has been doing.  Not a good outcome.

Bottom line:  When creating a support action team to solve a problem, set it up for success.  Select people whose skills complement one another, select a clear leader, and make clear the team's mission and vision.  Don't settle for chaos.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Taking New Steps Also Involves Fundamentals

It is always very interesting to obtain a client's perspective on the market research needs of the business and what are the pluses and minuses of that client's approach.  While I exist to help fill the gaps or provide guidance on doing so it is essential for those like me to assess trends in gaps.  One long standing one is taking leaps of faith on new business development.

This week I worked with a client who operates a physical location in an extremely competitive line of business.  They are doing well enough that they've survived the first challenging year and are even considering opening a second location.  That's where the story gets interesting.

The business owners do well enough with competitive intelligence to be aware of alternative choices, their pricing, service quality and so on.  They have done secret shopping and stay top of social media in their field.  However, their consideration of a second location has apparently not involved significant site evaluation (I'd say they are picking based on proximity to others in the same line of work) and, worrisomely, hunches.  They told me they are looking at not only a second location but one that involves an entirely different type of product.  The supporting justifications were (a) we like this product ourselves and (b) there's one sort of like it in the nearby city.

No! no! no!  For something like this we must return to a business plan and do a sober, objective assessment of the market for the new location and new product.  Can this be supported by the market? what impact might it have on the existing store?  Where are existing customers coming from? and more.

Bottom line: every new step in business development must be taken with the same thought, care and analysis as the original opening.  Thorough market research is needed to assess location, product line, competition, and customers.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Local Elections Make a Statement About Marketing

In my city we held elections for local officeholders.  And this election taught, as they all do, important lessons about marketing small businesses.

Consider that local politicians are definitely local businesses: they have customers (voters), are selling a product (themselves), they have a brand, often employees (campaign team) and are concerned about their ROI (campaigning to maximize votes).  And like so many small businesses, the local politician wears many hats when doing business. Often too many!

Good promotion that emphasizes the brand, meaningful differences with competitors, and is focused on the advantages of the product are critical in making a successful sale.  Those that unduly focus on the alleged weaknesses of competitors risk going out of business (losing the election.)

In my City Council district the incumbent did very well protecting his brand, making direct sales, and focusing relentlessly on his own product strengths and advantages.  His competitor started on such a path but impatient to optimize his ROI chose to focus mainly on the incumbent.  And misstated facts.  And alienated potential customers.  The challenger lost in a landslide.

Even worse, I engaged campaign operatives in conversation at a polling station who did not understand their own product.  Their party endorsed the challenger on a party identification basis.  The "employees" had no idea what the candidate stood for, opposed, and in one case, what the candidate's name was.  They projected a very poor image of the product.

Bottom line: observe other kinds of small businesses, even if they seem remotely far from "business".  Be mindful of brand equity, targeted marketing, and employees who are the front face of your business.  Don't try to "lose" an "election."!

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Can Expansion Hurt the Brand?

Not long ago I had a conversation with a business owner who is actively expanding the business into entirely new areas.  Not only that, but quite rapidly as well.  What is interesting is that the business owner is seeking to move aggressively into service areas that are almost completely outside the business' original brand footprint.

I won't get into the tactical questions that arise in this case study.  But I am very interested in the brand issues.  We have a business that has built its existing image on a certain menu of services.  Assuming they are done well, does it confuse the customer to substantially shift or augment those services?  Is there too high a risk that any disappointing outcomes in the new areas will damage the brand?  What happens if the business is spread so thin that all services fall off in quality?

Obviously, some businesses do quite well moving into other areas.  There may be excellent perception that a market is changing and the business must adapt to the changes, or there may be synergies that make the brand stronger with a greater collection of allied services.  But I think these are the exceptions.  Too many businesses take the risks and roll snake eyes.

The takeaway: think very hard about expansion into new products or services and be mindful that brand can suffer if things move too quickly or carelessly.  Don't take the old mix too lightly and absolutely ensure that service quality remains high for the older lines.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

We Can't Search Everywhere

It is wonderful how some one-on-one conversations spark discussions of marketing tactics.  My latest involved a small business owner who runs a specialized shop.  He is optimized, I think, in terms of social media, but had a very ambitious plan to list his venture on search engines.  He wasn't satisfied to come up strong on the usual suspects (Google and Bing and DuckDuckGo) but keep going, as time permits, on a good many more.

I don't think this a productive strategy.  There are many, many search engines and not all of them rank very highly in terms of users.  Spending valuable time becoming listed (and high-SEO ranked) on a search engine that draws under 1% of search consumers is by definition a poor return on investment.  I prefer identifying the top five portals and stopping there.  That should mop up the vast bulk of all search traffic.  Spend other time working on higher-gain marketing, like building indexible content and SEO.

Bottom line: time is precious.  As it has been said (by Voltaire, I believe) "perfect is the enemy of good".  Do what is necessary to cover the largest part of a marketing channel and then move on.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Have a Difference, Make a Difference

I visited yesterday with a professional opening a new practice, and left greatly impressed by the care he had taken to set his practice apart from the many (and in this case, very many) competitors.  He invested heavily in special diagnostic equipment and special furnishings and did so on the basis that these would help him define himself in ways the competitors could not or did not.

This is a step too few business owners take at any time, and it is really the most important aspect of positioning a business.  Think of how many highly competitive markets you know (e.g pizza bakeries, dry cleaners, sandwich shops, chiropractors, etc., etc.) and how hard it is for the typical consumer to tell one from another.  How devastating is it for a small business owner to hear that "they're all the same."?  Taking time to set a difference will make a big difference.

I'm not a big fan of the pizza box model and saying "you've tried the rest, now try the best".  That's lazy brand positioning.  Look at specific services and products you have.  Are there specialties that you can emphasize?  special source materials?  years of experience?  state of the art equipment?  look hard at the business and list all the things that could potentially make yours stand out and then pick those that would most attract the attention of a discriminating consumer.

Also, look at how the competition is positioning themselves.  Perhaps you will be lucky and find that they are not trying to differentiate!  but knowing what they say may help you direct your own positioning statements.

Bottom Line:  Take the trouble to stand out.  Help the customer pick you!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Chambers of Commerce: Not All The Same

I haven't talked very much about networking as a marketing tactic, but after this week I may need to reconsider!  For this week I was engaged in a networking conversation with a new business owner and a more experienced one and the subject of Chambers of Commerce arose.  Both the longer term business person and I had some experience with these entities, and our thoughts were amazingly parallel:

First, Chambers of Commerce have very different personalities.  One, in a given municipality may be relatively friendly to small business.  Another may be relatively unfriendly.

Second, Not every Chamber offers equally effective programs for small business networking.  One we have in these parts offers monthly get-togethers but I found them to be all about food and drink and entirely absent "shop talk".  Contrariwise, not all offer expos or B2B exposure events.

Third, Chambers price themselves in very different ways, and as a result many are incredibly expensive for very small businesses.  Be wary!  an entire ROI evaluation is needed to establish whether even "inexpensive" ones offer a good return.

Bottom line: use Chambers of Commerce with care, and take advantage of visitor or guest opportunities to size up friendliness, program strength and quality, and return on investment.  Talk about them with peers who may be able to share all of the pros and cons.  CofC is not for every small business, but there may be the right one for the right small business.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Is Social Media Necessary?

A conversation I had Thursday has even more deeply intrigued me.  The other person asked me, in essence, whether he needs social media in his marketing plan.  He's flush with business, has excellent word of mouth and repeat business, and is a successful networker.  He was being pressured by "advisers" to get with the 21st Century and create social media properties.  He does want some presence on the internet that talks to his philosophy and ideas.

After listening to his story and needs, I recommended no social media but that he consider a blog.

The bigger question is: does everyone need a social media page of some kind?  After thinking about the matter, I say no.  But I think most should.

First, think about the target customer.  If they wouldn't naturally seek out a business in social media, the need is minimal.  Think about local businesses you'd be surprised to see on LinkedIn or Facebook:  For me, entities like convenience stores, banks, and self-store complexes just don't resonate as "likes".

Second, if the business owner cannot or will not engage with followers frequently or enthusiastically, social media might even backfire.  Social media depends mightily on constant engagement.

Third, if the business' existing market plan is performing well, there may be little or no need to make an adjustment to add social media.

Bottom line: not every channel is necessary for every business.  The decision must be made on the basis of the marketing fundamentals, not the herd instinct.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Two-Target Dilemma

A local professional association is struggling with its marketing.  Recruiting new members has not been easy: prospects tell recruiters that they don't see enough value in the membership.  Ordinarily, that should be easy to solve.

There's a major twist in the story.  The association has two kinds of members, and they are very different.

One type of member is business owners, preferably located in a specific area of the city.  They most often seek an opportunity to network.  Another type are residents who live in the specific area.  They most often seek information about plans for development in that area.  Trying to create a meeting format that satisfactorily addresses both sets of needs has proven nearly impossible.  Hence, prospects of both types say they don't see enough value.

I have seen this effect over and over.  It is very prevalent in non profit associations.  They try to grow as large as possible by diluting their target and accepting "marginal" possibilities. The trouble is, it is harder to market to and satisfy the needs of divergent customers.

In the case of this association, the current solution is to tweak the agenda and recruit with brute force---door to door contacts in the specific area of the city, all in hopes of getting just enough new people to advance the association's metrics.  I think the solution is to be realistic: pick the primary target and build agendas and offerings that suit that target.  Otherwise, admit members of other types at a lower rate and no expectation they will be "served."  An organization must focus to efficiently find and serve customers, and there is no room for mixed messages.

Bottom line: does your business (or organization) have a two-target problem?  can you really afford to serve two very different customers?

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Another Form of Charity Marketing

It seems to be a week of lessons in marketing from interesting places.  Here's another:  the local public television station was doing its summer fundraising this past month.  Often times the PBS affiliate recruits volunteers from organizations, promising a certain number of mentions of their organization in exchange for a certain number of volunteers.  The organizations respond with the view that they are getting good marketing.  But are they?

Let's say an organization contributes ten helpers for a six hour period.  Just placing a rough value of their time as, say, $50 per hour, we can calculate a total contributed value of 10 x 6 x $50 = $3,000.  Now let's say the public television affiliate makes two "mentions" (just the name, mind you, no web site or other contact information).  That's a lot of brute force for two passing references, lost among others.

What is more, we have a target market challenge.  The volunteer organization hopes that good leads are in fact watching at the point those mentions are made.  That's a reach: the hours may be bad (say, Saturdays or Sundays at 3pm) or the programming isn't a fit for the target customer.  In the end, the return on investment may be extremely negligible, perhaps even zero.

I have branded these efforts as "charity marketing".  It's just fine if the volunteers really care about the public television affiliate (or similar entity), but realistically they're not doing the organization all that much.  

Bottom line: if resources are limited and marketing must be effective, beware of "feel good" or charitable marketing deals.  But if you have the time and resources and want to be a nice person, have fun.  It does help someone.  

Monday, August 17, 2015

Lessons from a Door to Door Evangelist

Last week I was visited here at the home office by some representatives of a well known religious organization.  These souls were evangelizing through the thinly concealed device of peddling a "free magazine" (the one that is the voice for that particular sect).  Strip away the religion and we really had a door-to-door marketing campaign.  And the representatives made about as many marketing mistakes as one could make.

1.  Target marketing.  The campaign was a simple brute force door-to-door, heedless of analysis of demographics.  The mother organization presumably feels "everyone" is a target customer, and its representatives (and there were at least five (!) in my little cul-de-sac) waste massive amounts of time knocking on doors.  And by the way, they visited on a weekday morning when hardly anyone is at home.

2. Brand messaging.  Almost nil.  The representatives were bizarrely attired, and didn't telegraph a positive image.

3. Establishing a connection with the prospect.  The representative who addressed me started with (and I am not making this up) "would you like to receive a magazine?".  The person could have engaged me with light philosophical questions such as "Do you feel like you aren't getting all the right answers" or some such to spark a conversation about how they can help solve my problems.  Of course I don't want a magazine!

4. Tactics.  Door to door is not, in my opinion, an old school tactic that works well any more.  With concerns about crime alone people don't respond well to the knocked door appeal.  I can't remember when a door-to-door contact engendered a really positive experience (except maybe the Girl Scout Cookie kids.)

5. Sampling.  Do not ask me if I want a magazine subscription.  Do leave behind something I can read.  Or leave something as a gift that might invite me to warm up.  A coupon? a tract?  Sure, 95% of the stuff will be tossed but I might be more willing to respond if I get something, rather than be asked to give or do something.

Bottom line: even the church must pay attention to marketing lessons.  This little contact was a fine reminder that the fundamentals matter.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Going Old School Can Make All the Difference

A little earlier today I heard a mentor and small business superstar discuss marketing philosophy on an Internet radio program.  One of her themes was that too many small business owners are swept up in new trends (social media, most definitely) and overlook the power of old school marketing techniques.

These techniques are powerful in two ways.  First, old school methods may be the best way to reach the business' target market.  It may be that a target segment can best be reached by door-to-door, or flyers at a street festival, or windshield flyers, or any of hundreds of techniques.  What the small business person should do is visualize the target market, narrow it to the low hanging fruit, and then ask what methods are most likely to create a point of contact.  It may be a fancy new trend is a terrible way of doing that!

Also, old school methods may be the best way to stand out in the crowd!  My mentor cited an example of direct mail.  Who does that any more?  Well, exactly.  The email box is full, but hardly any mail is out there in the US Post box.  It may be that an old school technique can be used to give your message extra heft in the midst of heavy competition.

Bottom line: don't rule out any of the old ways of doing things.  They may be ideal for your own circumstances, and you may be the only one to capitalize on their use!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

More Videos...Just Mind the Rules!

I'm hearing more and more from the marketing world, and especially from social marketing, that videos are becoming even more important as a marketing tool.

I'm inclined to agree, provided that several key rules are observed.

First, the video ought to be native: that is, by you, of you.  Linked video from some other source is occasionally acceptable but that material does not contribute to your brand.  And your customers want to know what you can do for them.

Second, brevity is the soul of success.  I don't see anything longer than 30 seconds being a success story.  Almost anyone can justify 30 seconds for a succinct, meaningful message.  Longer ones dilute the value you can provide.

Third, video should be fresh.  Weekly or at worst bi weekly at worst.  Give customers something new and they'll keep returning to your page or site.

and Fourth, share value.  Do you have a tip or advice you can share (for free?)  Do you have a success story you can share of helping someone else?  Don't hesitate to share your passion for your service or product, your location, etc.  Do avoid a hard sell.  The video is a come on to attract someone further.

Making video is easier than ever!  Practically any camera, even on a smart phone, can record very acceptable video and there are free or low cost tools that can help editing.

Bottom line: Video is a low cost, high value friend.  It's well worth doing!

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Surveys? Not Me!

I took in a small business workshop earlier this week in which the presenter talked about ways to understand what customers want.  Top on her list were...surveys.

It is high time to put surveys in a box.  This is a market research tool from a prior century.  It was a marvelous innovation in 1920.  It was amazingly credible in 1970.  And it has failed in 2015.  I spent many years implementing and interpreting surveys, and couldn't help but notice that response rates and data quality have plunged to the point where results are meaningless.  Part of the reason for this is that respondents had been so bombarded from surveys in every direction that they tuned out.  Want proof?  Think about these waiter/waitress/clerk "surveys" at the bottom of sales receipts that-when-completed-make-you-eligible-for-prizes.  Does anyone fill these out?

It is bad enough now that consumers dislike most any survey.

How to learn what customers want?  Ask them, in person, about their needs.  Look at comments in social media.  Read reviews of yours and competitors.  Scan blogs and chat rooms.  YES, these are not scientific samples.  But they are opinion leaders, or highly energized consumers, or both.  Always invite people to engage with you in emails, phone calls, written comments, and face-to-face.  You'll learn alot from these unstructured conversations.

Don't fall back on outdated methods to engage with customers.  Don't damage your own brand by following the lemmings off the cliff.  There is a better way!

Monday, August 3, 2015

Is Press Presence Worth It?

Every week I see a business "profiled" in the various local newspapers.  And in fact, one of my current clients recently picked up one of these spots, arguing that it was essential for their re-branding effort to have some visibility in the market.

A good question is: "Are these profiles worth the trouble?".

On balance I think the answer is No.  I have a number of reasons for skepticism.  Here are a few:

(1) I spent ten years in newspapers and even as far back as 1996 knew that newspaper circulation has been in free fall for years.  Even free supplements and regional newspapers are losing traction, and online subscriptions aren't moving that well.  Worse, relatively low percentages of readers are likely to see anything past the front page.  Fewer eyeballs will see the business profiles every year.

(2) Advertisers know that the benefits of a spot don't kick in until there are several impressions.  One "news" story is not going to cut it.  It's seen once, and pretty much forgotten.

(3) I think people have a natural suspicion of profiles that are thinly disguised advertisements.  They are all written from a perspective that can't honestly assess the business.

If taken as a feel-good measure, say, in framing the article and hanging it on the wall, that's nice and fine.  It is merely important to understand that these profiles are not and will never be meaningful ways to truly promote a business.  Minimal energy should be invested in seeking them out.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A Good Plan Comes Together For a Small Business

This morning a small business owner completed some work on our home.  I watched the process with keen interest---his marketing and branding process, especially.  What he did demonstrated the potential of couponing and brand support through reviews.

We hadn't heard of the business before an offer came care of Amazon Local.  We liked the look of the company after referencing reviews and their web site, and I liked the personal response on phone when I called.  So for him, the coupon delivered another actual customer.

After the inspection, he did suggest an up-sell which was persuasive and proved very satisfactory.  So for him, the risk of a straight redemption of the coupon yielded a doubling of its income potential.

He delivered the work as promised, explained every item on the invoice, and placed a business card and safety sticker next to the equipment control panel.  This provides daily Top of Mind Awareness of his business in the event we require future servicing, or in case something goes wrong.

And finally, the business owner asked me if I was pleased with his work and if we would write a review on Yelp and Google, and handed me a card with simple instructions on how to do that.  I thought this an appropriate and clever way to help support his brand.

All in all, this business owner did an excellent job finding a new customer, demonstrating and supporting is brand, and building his business with simple techniques and attention to small details.  This was a wonderful lesson for other small service businesses!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Are Your Search Terms Optimized?

How do potential customers search for you?

This certainly sounds easy.  These days, as easy as someone typing some words into a search engine like Google, Bing or DuckDuckGo and pressing "Search".   But the devil is in the details.  What words do they use compared to terms you use for yourself?  It can make an enormous difference!

Tools like Google Trends can show a small business owner how terms are trending, and there are tools like Socialmention.com that provide insights on the positive or negative associations with various search terms.  With these tools your own self-image and branding terms can be compared with alternatives.  Perhaps alternatives are more likely to be on prospects' top-of-mind or have a more positive image.  Making a correction soon can boost the likelihood you'll be found near the top of the search list!

Take a moment and test your search word strength.  You may be surprised what you'll find!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Lessons from a Closed Business

Last week a business closed in our city.  That's not unusual, unfortunately.  But this was a business I knew better than most.  I had even spoken with them about their business ten months ago.  I had been asked to visit them because they had some problems needing a remedy.  While that consultation did not lead to a contract, I kept watching them.  You see, they didn't -- as far as I could tell -- change their marketing tactics.  That in the end did them in after 18 months of operation.

I'm not about to write that if they picked up my contract that I would have saved their business.  However, I do think I understood some of their challenges and that advice would have helped.  Now they are a learning experience.  What did I learn?

(a) The business had an unrealistic expectation for a target customer.  In fact, they had three types of consumers in mind which were truly incompatible with one another.  Lesson: focus on one target.  Doing so will not confuse the brand message.

(b) The business spent too much money on unproductive promotions, such as sponsorship of softball teams.  With a single target customer they should have been able to direct marketing dollars to channels where that customer "lives."

(c) The business blurred its brand with conflicting signals.  Even their business name was at cross purposes with their line of products and services!

(d) The business never truly addressed the challenge of an inferior location.  They waited for the landlord to deal with better signage and location marketing.  But at the end of the day such a business must fend for itself and work their location.  Special invitational events might have helped enormously, along with marketing following from (a) above.

(e) The business made tactical mistakes, first dropping a "normal" line of service, then reinstating it (in desperation?) near the end.  They also maintained unusual service hours.  To some extent they telegraphed their problems and may have alienated customers.  Worse: the principals had no important experience in that type of business when they purchased the store.

This was a business that existed in a vastly competitive space and is common enough that mistakes shouldn't have been made: their solutions are known.  It's so sad to see a business die for not adhering to marketing fundamentals.  This story is a reminder to stick to fundamentals, especially being very precise about target customer, brand messaging, and thoughtful marketing tactics.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Keys to Good Engagement

At my last workshop I talked a little bit about tools that gave small business owners insights on how to compare customer engagement in the social media realm.  Since then I have been thinking about the customer engagement process as I talk with another client.  What are the "keys" to social media engagement?

Whether it be in Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest or others, the people willing to "follow" you want a good exchange for their time.  I think these suggestions can lock in that willingness.

1) Post often, rather than rarely.  Frequency signals that you are interested in establishing a vibrant community.  Rarity practically screams "only when I have the time."
2) Regularly post something of value:  a fact, a coupon deal, a funny story, you name it.  Be willing to share with others.  They might in turn share with their others and help promote your business.
3) Ask questions.  Invite followers to react to an idea, a challenge, or a thought point.  You don't need to have them solve one of your problems, but setting up a discussion helps connect people to you.
4) Use pictures.  Show off your business, products, employees, customers, whatever.  There is something about photographs that deeply attracts our attention.
5) Don't always talk shop.  But don't range too far off the reservation.  Post things that would make sense to people engaged with your work.  Have fun!
6) Check your facts, especially before sharing someone else's post.  Social media is thick with untruths, nonsense, and misinterpreted statements.  You don't want to have customers think you are a fool.
7) Be tasteful.  Avoid blue language, negativity, and above all post only what you'd be happy to share with your own grandmother.

If your page becomes a lively community of people connected to your business and your world, you will take a big step forward in becoming a customer engagement leader!  Start today!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

How Do We Think About Market Research?

I was asked today a very pertinent question about market research.  Specifically, how do we think about it?

There are a number of facets to market research.  Here's a list of the more important ones, in the form of questions to answer, for the consideration of any small business, and in no critical order.

1) Who is my target customer?
2) What is the size of my target market? (i.e. how many target customers are there?)  and what share of that can I compete within?  How is that market changing over time?
3) Who are the competitors in my target market? who are the market leaders? Is there turnover?
4) What are my competitors' strengths and weaknesses?
5) What are my competitors doing and planning to do?  what are their products and services?
6) How do target customers view my products and services? how about potential products and services? are there gaps in my offerings?
7) What are my strengths and weaknesses?
8) How do my customers engage with my business?  how many are repeat customers?
9) How much value does each customer represent to me?
10) What is my brand?
11) How does each advertising and promotional channel available to me align with my brand, with my target customer, and with my market?
12) How does each channel perform? (i.e. what is the return on investment?)
13) What search terms, or phrases, best define my business? or my brand?
14) What search terms, or phrases will best appeal to target customers?
15) How are my competitors using advertising and promotional channels?
16) How good is my customer service?
17) How good is my competitors' customer service?
18) How is my industry (or type of business) changing over time? what are the trends?
19) What new products and services should I be thinking about?
20) Is my business optimally sized?  is it too small? too large? what is my capacity for growth?

And there are more, but this should give some sense to the varied questions that any business owner should be asking and what market research needs to be performed.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

How Are You Fishing?

This past week I came across a comment that likened marketing to fishing.  And the more I think about it, the more I like the analogy.  Even more, I like the interesting contrast between the behavior of businesses (in the real world) and those of people in the analogy.

Simply put, marketing is a lot like fishing.

Businesses are always (or should be!) fishing for customers.  But they often fall short, not catching as many fish as they'd like.  Now, when real fishers don't catch fish, they can implement four poor strategies and one good one.  First, they can fish elsewhere.  Second, they can cast the line more often.  Third, they can put out more lines.  And fourth, they can throw the line farther out.

In a business setting these are likened to (1) trying for a different target customer, (2) more intensive advertising schedules, (3) using more advertising channels, and (4) modifying the target customer to include more types of consumers.  Every one of these is a desperation move.  And (2) and (3) are the equivalent of saying that we can do better if we "yell more loudly".

Or, our hypothetical fisher can change the bait.  And that is the marketing equivalent of re-evaluating the advertising content.  If we don't catch the "fish" in our target market, perhaps we are using the wrong message.  This is a vastly wiser strategy than pouring more brute force into a campaign that has clear problems.

What fascinates me is that real fishers leap to the one good strategy but businesses seem to gravitate to one of the four poor strategies.  Life should imitate art.

Let me ask you, if you are not catching enough fish, are you using the right bait?

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Streetside Advertising Created Doubts

Not long ago I had the opportunity to volunteer at a location which was across the street from a small shopping strip.  None of the businesses in that building actually faced the street and therefore store signs were not readily visible.  Two of the business owners remedied this situation by setting up sandwich board ads on the sidewalk.  Good idea?

I swill skip past the problem that both were inherently unreadable by passing motorists (well, one had a readable logo at least).  I'll also gloss over the fact that these signboards in concert created a somewhat "littery" vista for that section of the street.  One sign came in the form of a professionally printed "poster" and the other was badly handwritten.  The later was for a restaurant.  And I am afraid that for me, the signboard did not inspire confidence in that restaurant.  My visceral reaction was that if they were that careless in a street ad, they were likely not attentive to quality in the kitchen, either.

The lesson is that even the little things can impact brand perception.  What seemed like a perfectly harmless sandwich board for a restaurant created doubts for at least one consumer.  And I am surely not alone.  How are we impacting our brand perception with our signage, advertising, and even personal appearance?  Don't let the little things damage your good work!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Really Challenging Competitive Intelligence

Obtaining competitive intelligence on a large, publicly held corporation is extremely easy, especially if you have a good market research budget.  It gets harder and harder as we move to privately held enterprises, reduce the budget, and get into the realm of solo proprietorships and essentially no budget.  And then imagine a competitor who is a sole proprietor who makes it known that they do quite well from referrals and word of mouth.  What, if anything, can we learn about such a competitor?

I adhere to the belief that any serious small business cannot be in business and evade some kind of detection.  There are ways to learn what is going on.  Here are some ideas.

1. In the Internet Age, consumers post reviews.  It seems that there are even people whose hobby is reviewing businesses.  Scour Yelp, Citysearch, Google, Angie's List and other sites where consumer reviews occur.  There's a good bet someone said something you can work with.

2. And in the Social Media Age, it's a better than even bet the competitor maintains some property on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Living Social, Pinterest, Instagram, and so forth.  They may post self-promotional items and quite probably someone else said something as well.  Use hashtags to probe for references to the business entity.

3. While we are at it, are they entirely safe from Online Search?  Our friends Google, Bing, Yahoo and other search engines can detect references, mentions, news and other clues to the competitor.  Keep an eye out for "industry" or "interest" bulletin boards and chat rooms where the competitor may be contributing.  Comments may shed insights on their current work, thinking and services.

4. Exploit the word of mouth.  While networking, ask people if they know the competitor and are willing to share thoughts.  Always do this from a position of being keenly interested in your own line of work and the various players in that space.  You may encounter current and former customers who may be perfectly willing to share their experience.

5. It's not unreasonable to call the competitor and have a chat.  A great technique is to ask for their opinion and experience on certain matters (whatever you choose).  Most people are friendly and may be happy to trade notes.  After all, the competitor is supposed to be busy enough with current customers that they are not in need of advertising for more!

It will be a challenge but not impossible to collect some useful intelligence on a tough-to-scan small business.  Be persistent, keep good notes, and be ever-alert to even small scraps of information.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Strategy in the Good Times

I had a conversation with a fellow small businessperson today who had one of those "good" problems to solve.  As he put it, he has never done better with his business.  However, he anticipates some critical changes in his industry and is giving a great deal of thought as to his next move marketing his business.  He asked me for my thoughts.

Indeed, what a wonderful problem!  Most businesses are anxious to fill their pipeline.  This one wants added insurance to keep it full.

There are two courses that suggest themselves.  First would be to set in motion a strategy to derive more revenue from existing sources.  Second, new revenue from a new segment of the market.  I think the second, in his case, is the true "low hanging fruit."

Is there a challenge? absolutely.  In my friend's industry there has not been a great deal of creativity marketing to the proverbial next generation.  The bigger players have not been especially good at departing from the older forms of advertising and promotion.  Having the gift of time and money (in the sense that his current revenue goals are already met) gives him the space to experiment.  I am fairly certain the answer is going to be found in mobile form.  I am further of the belief that he will want to get there with some kind of affiliations.  That is, a consumer's desire to learn more about a topic X will (if we do it right) connect to more information from related topic Y.

Can my friend get to the finish line early enough?  I think so.  And for all of us, the time to develop our "next generation" marketing strategy is now.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Long and Winding Road to Better SEO

Every so often I run across a company that claims it can achieve higher Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for its customers.  If only. (sigh) I am afraid the road to better SEO is a long and winding one, one that is neither easy nor quick.

I think that the strategy that gets the most attention is the most deceptive.  A broker buys a large number of "backlinks" to other web sites, many of which are built expressly for that purpose.  The result is what looks on paper like a rich network of connections to the client business.  But it is a network barely worth the paper it can be printed on.  The major search engines are aware of these techniques and crush them when they can.  And when they do, a network goes away in a puff of dust.  As did the money spent to get that "network."

Like all things worth having, better SEO is built honestly and slowly through true connections, a body of indexable text, and social media response.  A blog can help.  A true social media community of followers can help.  Listings on other (legitimate) web sites can help.  Alliances with other web site owners can help.  Starting today and every day a little more ground adds up to a solid SEO that does not disappear when a search engine changes their algorithms to nail the corner cutters.

You can do it!  Start mapping out your SEO strategy today!

Monday, June 15, 2015

Taking Care of the Fundamentals

One of my current challenges is to help a client focus their brand and build awareness of a new location.  In reviewing their social media and web traffic it is clear that the entity has what I call a community of interest but not quite what we would call an organizational clientele.  Put simply, they have friends, followers, allies, and what have you, but not nearly as many real paying customers.

Our mission will be to move the friends into the store and become customers.  Why is there a disconnect?  In this particular case, the entity hasn't done one of the fundamentals of business planning.  They haven't defined their target customer and as a result have not developed a strategy for reaching out to that customer.  Not all of their followers and allies are likely to be target customers, although they may work out well as investors, say.

So many marketing conundrums are the result of a fundamental that hasn't been addressed.  In turn, so much can be accomplished when we know who our customer is, where they can be found, and what are their needs.  Have you reviewed your own business plan?  it is never too late to take care of this before larger challenges result!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

An Appeal to Stop Stirring Pots

Amidst the news today I read about a little controversy involving a public figure who has pledged to remove his organization's deposits and other business from a certain large bank.  This bank is running advertising that the public figure finds offensive.  They also profoundly disagree with the public figure.

This got me thinking about the role of controversy in advertising.  There is always some risk that something in our advertising will offend someone.  Lord knows how easy that is to do these days.  It seems like there is a veritable industry of people urgently seeking something that offends them.  All we can do, provided we are seeking not to offend, is choose words and images carefully and obtain opinions from other people before publishing.

But in this instance the certain large bank intentionally selected images and words that generated the controversy.  I suppose that in their case there was enough pressure for the bank to look "socially responsible" because of other behaviors (for which they risk legal action) that the ad in question was in a strange way an easy way out.  In any case, controversy was sought and embraced.

Is this always a good idea?  For a small business, I think there is too much to risk in stirring a pot.  It is all well and good that we are true to ourselves.  But we already have a limited supply of customers and intentionally annoying some of them for any reason is loco.  I have seen too many businesses get into trouble by being vocal and feisty when had they merely been quiet and done their usual good customer service most everyone would have been satisfied and lived in peace.  Please notice that I mean that we serve our public: not part of it.  I also think that refusing to serve someone who wants to pay us is loco.

Yes, there was one additional detail in that bank story.  The bank wanted to sew up a certain segment of the market and used an image they thought would be a welcoming come-on to that segment.  Some would say that this was a good idea.  Frankly, I think the bank was too heavy handed.  There are sufficiently creative ways to demonstrate that they wanted to serve every consumer without trotting out the rainbow of images that come from undo emphasis on identity politics--something that is shredding our society.

In short, let's have a happy, agreeable, noncontroversial marketplace where we cheerfully and respectfully take the money.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Easy Ways to Build Your Database

Small business owners ought to be building a database of customers and prospects.  This is the single best source of people who will respond to special offers, events and other "come ons".  Building such a database takes time and opportunities can be lost to add names.  Here are nine easy ways to add to that list every day.

1. Record contacts from business cards you collect.  There are even services that can take a stack of cards and put them into database form for you.
2. Add an "add me to your list" on your web site.
3. Ask customers to sign up for a newsletter or special offers list at time of purchase.
4. Create a buyers club, offering deals in exchange for their contact information.
5. Hold lunch-and-learn type events where visitor/enrollee names can be collected.
6. Use a trade show booth as way to gather business cards in exchange for good "swag" items.
7. Collect business cards or index cards with contact info in a special drawing.
8. Invite people to "follow" or "like" your social media page.
9. Copy customer contacts from ecommerce and contract transactions to a master list.

How soon can you get to a list of 1,000 customers and prospects?

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Great Free Tools at the Local Library

Things have come a long way at the local library since I was a youngster.  I remember a time when what was in the building was "it"; that (hopefully) some dusty cover enclosed some information one wanted and if that didn't do, just maybe a librarian could call someone.  And there were more exalted libraries still: at the school, at the nearest university, or at the state capitol.

Nowadays, armed with a borrowers card and a laptop, I can surf resources available throughout the county library system.  And market research information through those resources is excellent.  I am still in awe!  While sitting on the deck, barefoot and with a lemonade at the side, I can have incredible amounts of research delivered to me!

Our own system here in Wake County, North Carolina has access to such organizations as ABI/Inform (industry trends), Hoovers (public company profiles), Morningstar (financials), ReferenceUSA (data on 24 million businesses), and Snapshots (industry overviews).  And there are others as well in the database.  A good deal of this is high end research that is typically unaffordable to a small business.

Take a look at your own local library system.  You may be surprised what you can learn about your industry, your market and your competitors, usually for no charge (beyond the taxes you pay).

Friday, May 29, 2015

Marketing Strategy with Facebook

Keeping up with the competition isn't easy if you are a small business owner.  There are only so many hours in the day and so many dollars available for market research.  Happily, in the Internet Era there are resources that can help get the job done.  Consider our friend Facebook, home of millions of people, organizations and interests.  This seemingly lightweight platform has features that can help a business keep one eyeball on competitors for no additional cost.

For starters, simply "liking" a competitor provides clues about market strategy, new products and services, and customer response (either by reading comments or counting "likes").  One can easily rank businesses by their total like counts and establish who are the "big dogs".  More directly there is a "Pages to Watch" feature accessed through the Overview section of "Insights" that shows the business' postings, top posts, and customer engagement.

Use "Interests" to generate an interest list that includes businesses you want to watch.  This is a way to keep eyes on things without letting the other side know you're doing it because you do not need to like the page to list it.

Log results of any metrics you track (such as number of page likes) to see how customer engagement may be changing over time.  And don't forget to compare to your own to ensure your work is driving a better response over time.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Zip Code or Circle?

Attentive business owners, especially those who operate a physical location, understand their market in terms of a well defined local area.  That is, they see the lions' share of customers coming from within a few miles/kilometers of that location.  And they look at portrait of households and consumers within that radius.  There are various ways to define that local area of which the two best are the local zip code(s) and a circle of a given radius around the business address.

Each has its strengths.  It all depends on how the data are used.

Zip Code based data are best when paid advertising is being purchased.  Print media usually think in terms of zip codes and can sell to selected ones, although direct mail would be most likely to cherry pick one or a few codes.  In evaluating the print media's effectiveness a zip code report can be compared to reported demographics and your own typical customer.

Radius based data are best when applying some kind of door-to-door strategy, or its equivalent.   And the radius will give a clear and comprehensive sense of who lives immediately around your location---something you want to do when deciding if you are effectively reaching your target customer.  In every case the radius report will cover.

No matter what, it makes great sense to keep both of these data reports on file.  The wise business owner continues to explore the local market and understand it.  Let me know if I can help you find these critical data!

Friday, May 22, 2015

More Thoughts on Thirty Seconds

As I network, I listen intently to others' "30 second commercials" and "30 second elevator speeches".  As I have noted before these vary in quality.  Another matter I notice is repetition.  There is sometimes a place for it, but it does pay to freshen the text regularly.

In my thinking, a standard 30-second spot is perfect for known first contact situations, almost certainly in 1:1 environments like "speed dating".  Those are absolutely cases where a first impression makes a huge difference.  And in such cases the most polished delivery works for you.

Then there are networking groups, leads groups, BNI clubs, and more.  Here, repetition of the same thing is deadly.  I have reached the point in mine where I can almost reproduce some others' "30 second commercial" word-for-word.  These poor folks have become wind-up monkeys and I see others tune out.  I really enjoy speakers who always have something new to say, perhaps another way they helped someone, or a new fact that makes their service compelling, or a new way of understanding what they do.  For the fresh-deliveries, in no cases is the core message changing.  It is reinforced by supporting detail.  

A great question for all of us.  How fresh is our "30 second commercial"?  Are people tuning in or tuned out?

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mobile Exposure

Google's recent announcement that the search giant would no longer index content on web sites that are not mobile device-friendly is a jarring but welcome jolt to our web site consciousness.  Let's face it: the world is oriented ever more to the dictates of mobile devices.  If our customers and prospects can't quickly and easily navigate our web pages on their smartphones and tablets we deserve to be bypassed.

This announcement should be seen as an opportunity, not a threat.  By ensuring we are mobile-friendly we can take advantage of the enormous marketing power of a mobile device.  A prospect can see our QRC, click immediately to a web site, click immediately for directions, contact information, and products and services---and all wherever they may be.  The consumer can act immediately, not just when they remember, later, to look us up.

Take the trouble to verify that your web site is mobile device-friendly, if not already done so.  A web designer can help.  There are tools that can test web sites for mobility that will diagnose problems.  Don't wait until it's too late!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Personal Presentation Pays Off!

As a regular at professional networking groups I am still amazed at the wide range of "personal appearance codes" that show up.  I confess to being of the old school.  And that means I am regularly shocked at what fellow entrepreneurs look like when making their presentations.

You can pay consultants a great deal of money to learn that one's appearance is a highly integral part of one's brand, and that someone sizes you up in seconds.  Nevertheless, too many people do not get the message.  This week at one group alone I beheld the following specimens, all arguing for me (and others) to connect them with customers:

(1) An older gentleman professing to have a background in banking, now in the food service, wearing soiled shirt (untucked), baggy shorts, and sneakers.
(2) A young lady in the real estate business, dressing like a bad parody of one of the Kardashians in her middle school years.
(3) A youngish man in torn jeans, a questionable tee shirt, and equally questionable piercings who runs a school of some kind.

Sorry, folks.  I was unimpressed,  and even alarmed.  I had much higher respect for those who looked like they had respect for the process, wanted to be seen as professionals, and who were trying for heaven's sake.

Lesson for the day: we can all do better at sizing ourselves up and ensuring that our own appearance is aligned with the image we wish to convey to our prospects.  A little effort can make a difference in projecting the best possible brand.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Aligning To Trends: What's The Way To Go?

No matter the era, it is a given that many if not most marketers will align their presentations, products and services to trends.  I vividly remember a late 80s trend when manufacturers scrambled to make their products "clear", when ads first touted low-fat and low-calory, and so many more.  Nowadays there is a strong "sustainability" trend with subplots involving "organic" and "local" accents.  A question arises: is it worth getting on the bandwagon?

It's a tough one.  On the one hand, we want our products and services to adapt to the market lest we find ourselves out of business.  But on the other hand, consumers, I think, can spot the phony adaptations and claims.

I'm firmly in the camp of those who see value in aligning to trends only where it's plausible and necessary.  To market, say, fried chicken and biscuits under a "gluten free" banner is just plain silly.  But if I am in a zone where my product is highly competitive and can be adapted, say, if I sell soup and salad, I might want to adjust the menu accordingly to arguably healthy alternatives.

Furthermore, if I made changes that make sense, I'd caution toning down the advertising.  I confess to be automatically suspicious when a marketing campaign trumpets from the heavens some alignment to a hot trend, as if it was a major triumph.  Something softer, perhaps a second-level notice that says "...and check out our latest X which has less Y and tastes amazing" gets the job done without so much patronizing bloviation.

Last of all, think hard about any change in product or advertising that aligns to a trend.  Remember that the trends come and go, and a mistake will cost your brand dearly.  Keep up but don't move with a mindless herd.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Color Your Customers' Emotions

This week I came across a discussion of the emotional power of color.  This is terrifically interesting stuff for business owners especially as it relates to brand position.  We have known for many decades that color can influence our emotional state: one need only visit a hospital ward to understand this.  The theory here is that we have a subconscious reaction to branding color in the same way.

My own colors of choice fit right where I want them, conveying (according to the theory) confidence, cheerfulness and friendliness.  Of course, these do not work in isolation and my own efforts in personal presentation must be complementary.

How do your color choices work within your brand?  Are you well-aligned, radiating the most appropriate emotional connection?  or are you clashing, say, being an ad agency that has a blue scheme?  If they don't fit consider speaking with a design professional and taking steps to generate a cohesive whole!

Friday, May 8, 2015

Beating a Tough Location

While networking yesterday I heard from a fellow businessperson that her location was turning out to be a major challenge.  Her business (sales of donated recycled office and art supplies) has relocated for the second time in two years and inhabits a virtually deserted wing of a shopping mall that has suffered reverses in recent years.

I have seen this a lot: businesses are stymied by their locations.  Sometimes it is poor road traffic, sometimes poor marketing assistance by a landlord (e.g. no signage, no co-op advertising), and sometimes it is simply disconnection between the business and former customers who did not adjust to the new location.

This is a challenge that can be overcome, but it is not easy.  What won't work is replacing the business address in web sites, flyers, etc. and going on with the day.  Strategies that offer more promise can include:

(1) Special events.  If the landlord permits, consider "sidewalk sales" or "fun days" in the space within and in front of the business, or in the adjacent car park.  Add allies in adjacent businesses to leverage assets.  Bring in food and entertainers.  And promote the heck out of the event with social media and community calendars.  Radio stations may also tie in and boost marketing if they see sufficient opportunity to help themselves.

(2) Run a frequent reminder of your new digs in your social media properties, blogs, and web site.  You are in a position needing to boost the Top of Mind Awareness (TOMA) of your location, so multiple impressions are necessary.  Talk openly about how excited you are with the site and its advantages.  In the example I started with, my contact could discuss all of the other things a visitor can do (e.g. put kids on the carrousel, eat at food court, etc.)

(3) Offer specials, coupons or discounts to visitors for a limited time to "celebrate your new home".  Make every visitor feel the fun of coming in.

(4) Step up advertising and call attention to the new location.  Give landmarks to help the customer.  And be precise.  My contact repeatedly said she was now at "the mall" in a metro market stuffed full of shopping centers.

It can be done, and in doing you'll certainly boost your overall TOMA and marketing position.  Don't let a letdown location let you down!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Millennials: A Variation on a Theme

It seems that every few days I encounter some discussion or conversation about "Millennials" (the cohort of consumers who are now roughly age 14 to 33.  And everyone has an opinion about their attitudes and aptitudes.  As with all these things there is media-driven hype and even some crazy thinking.

For my part, I will acknowledge that Millennials have some differences with their elder cohorts (the Gen Xers and the Baby Boomers).  Enough to make radical changes in marketing?  No.  I think the basics are still there.  People of any age have consumer needs, they want to spend the least possible for the most return, and they want to be persuaded to part with dollars for good reasons.

We are a little blinded by the age equation.  Millennials are young, right now, and there are behaviors among them that are always true of the young.  I think as they age into driving households and second-phase consumer spending they will look uncannily like rising adults of any year.  So far as I can perceive in studies they may be more responsive to "communitarian" ideas  but these will only be accents in evolving marketing messages.

As you appeal to Millennials, focus on how their needs intersect your ability to help and write messages accordingly.  But don't get caught up in a swirl that these consumers require some all-new, never-before-done approaches.  Trust me, they will not be that much of a surprise!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Don't Follow the Herd!

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who follow the herd, and those who don't.  The older I have gotten, the more convinced I am that the latter group are the bigger winners.  I learned long ago in terms of investment that the ones who bought securities in bear markets picked up their investments at the lowest price and, if unloaded in bull markets, yielded the richest returns.  I think a similar situation works in advertising.

In my newspaper days, the big accounts all seemed to follow a pattern as a whole.  They bought radio and unloaded newsprint together.  They added TV and dropped radio together.  And so on.  The odd balls who stayed out of the rat pack had a real chance to get noticed when a media was deserted.

And those who cut ads that looked alike...were lost.  Who could spot the best one in a sea of lookalikes?  The one that was truly different stood out.

Let's apply these lessons to our own advertising and promotion.  Rule 1: Ignore the herd.  Either stick to a consistent media buy pattern or go opposite.  You'll have the best chance of standing out over the long run.  Rule 2: Don't be a Look-Alike.  Position yourself within your own consistent branding strategy.  Ignore fads and trends.  What is "must-do" today may be old news tomorrow.  In the meantime, your consistent look and feel will have the greatest likelihood to be remembered.  And Rule 3: Be yourself.  Your business was established on your good reputation.  Let your advertising reflect that and nothing else.

March proudly to your own drum!

Friday, May 1, 2015

Getting the Prospect's Attention

I heard an interesting aside at a small business summit this week concerning "getting attention".  A gentleman related that he was attracted to use a service advertised in a coupon because the price point was (in his words) "a great deal".  He used the service, turned in the coupon, and mentioned to the service provider that he was inspired by the deal price.  The business owner said "that is our regular price".  The coupon was not necessarily anything special although the customer got a deal relative to market prices---but the coupon idea caught someone's attention.

There is a bit of risk.  If the business owner uses this technique too often, he risks becoming a "JCPenney" with their "everyday sales".  The discount strategy, even if not a discount, can become stale too easily.  Presumably the "coupon" is not pulled out very often.

This opens up a whole realm of thinking.  How can we as business owner catch someone's attention but by doing that which we already do?  I am thinking hard for myself.  What can we call do?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A Tale of Two Tubes

Yesterday I was privileged to participate in a panel evaluating marketing proposals at a local community college.  One of the students presented a proposal that, in part, utilized video to promote her nonprofit.  To my surprise, she suggested a six month television campaign to deliver her video.

Television is a tricky medium.  It has great strengths and greater weaknesses, especially for advertisers who are not, say, "loaded".  A modest number of spots can cost thousands of dollars, spots that are easily ignored, missed, or forgotten.  And with the proliferation of networks individual television channels are ever diluting the viewing audience.   It's a game that can only be played by an advertiser who is prepared to run a lengthy campaign to build up top of mind awareness.  

In contrast, a video can be delivered to Youtube very cheaply and distributed via social media.  A catchy campaign can attract attention and be shared by many people who care about the message.  For a nonprofit, and a small one at that, this is a vastly superior choice as a channel.

This is not (necessarily) a knock against television.  It is a suggestion that when employing video the business owner should look hard at their return and target audience.  For most of us, the "tube" that's traditional may not help us and at a steep cost at that.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Not Everyone is Your Target Customer

Every so often I hear a pitch by a small business owner that overtly or indirectly suggests that they target customer is "everyone" who (fill in the blank).  Maybe the product or service is pizza or insurance or landscaping or printing.  The cruel reality is that this is never the case, regardless of geography, product, service, or time.

We want to be as realistic as possible with our expectations as expressed in our business and marketing plans.  Our target customer is a good deal more limited than we may think.  For example:

1) Even with the advent of e-commerce, geography is a consideration.  Consumers will likely not travel beyond a certain radius for what we sell.  Depending on the product or service that could be as little as a mile or two.
2) Not every consumer has the budget or same price sensitivity.  Incomes vary.  Circumstances vary.  Many people are amazingly frugal and will find ways not to buy something they use, either making their own or finding used or substitute products.
3) Consumers may be strongly bonded to an existing provider, and no price point or other incentive will tear them loose.
4) The consumer may not like or be able to use what you sell.  There is always, as they say, someone who hates ice cream (for example).
5) And, it is possible your own advertising, promotion, or reputation worked against you among some consumers, no matter how excellent your work.

Are you overestimating your target market potential?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

More Thinking About SMM

I am seeing a lot of requests for help with SMM, the dreaded "Social Media Marketing".  As we have seen before, SMM is one of those trends that everyone believes they must do but is extremely confusing for a beginner.

SMM is not magic.  It's simply marketing by other channels.  And that means that all the usual rules apply when selecting a platform: which one best connects you to your target customer?  can you afford to update your page(s) regularly and compellingly?  do you understand how the platform works: what are its "rules of the road"?   One must not over-commit.  One well done page is better than three poorly built and populated.

I think the game is limited to a handful of real players.  Those are Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and (maybe) Google+.  They all have different personalities and have evolved to represent different collections of consumers.  Here's an excellent breakdown of the major platforms, as published by Leverage New Age Media in 2014.

Don't panic.  Think about your marketing and only then think about where social media fits in.  Evaluate each platform and stick to the one or two that best serve you, and keep them fresh.  SMM is manageable!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Slogans! Slogans!

It caught my notice early in the entrepreneurial game that some (but hardly most) of my fellow small business owners adopted slogans for their business.  These usually take the form of "not your mother's X" or "no apologies for old fashioned service" or such.  And we see the big boys regularly queuing up some new slogan of the year (e.g. McDonald's "I'm Lovin' It") as they change ad agencies.

Is sloganeering worth it?  Absolutely, if done well.  The slogan must co-ordinate with the brand, be memorable enough to stick in someone's mind as a memory aid for recognizing your business, and not eclipse your other messages (or even your own business name!).  They are the marketing equivalent of a good sound bite: most don't cut it.

That list of requirements generally strikes down a lot of efforts.  I'll admit that even my own subtle slogan, posted to web site and business card, doesn't quite satisfy me.  I don't use it a lot, and wish some of the others I hear for other businesses would drop from sight!

By all means adopt one if you have it, but test market the slogan on friends.  See if it strikes a chord, describes you and your services, and doesn't sound silly.  If you can't come up with one, don't panic, don't struggle.  It won't be a problem.  If you do...fun advertising is in your future!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Taking Out an Ad

I came across an advertising offer this week in which the food-oriented business solicited inexpensive ads (<$50) on a run of take-out menus.  The proprietor is a good guy and the offer is legitimate, but it did raise some questions.  Is this a good channel for promotion?

There's only one real challenge with advertising of this type.  And that is return on investment.  My first question would be target market.  Are the menus reaching the right people for your business?  In my case, it is not probable.  As a B2B consultant a take-out menu would only weakly reach my target.  And that's a concern because this run of menus ends up pricing one impression at 3 cents.  Compare that with big media print and you actually have a similar KPI (cost per thousand).

There may be vendors for whom this makes some sense.  It all comes down to understanding who sees the menus.  A closely correlated food venture might fit nicely.

Otherwise, for this and similar formats (playbills, school annuals, placemats) the expense may be more charity or collegial support than actual advertising.  And doing so may be just fine and a feel-good gesture.

As with all advertising and promotion, sort on the basis of adherence to your marketing/business plan.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

To web or not to web, that is the question

I had a conversation yesterday with a digital publisher and along the way we debated the merits of having a web site versus doing a social media-only approach.  She was pretty much oriented to the philosophy that every business should have a web site.  I am open to alternate approaches with the caveat that those are specialized situations.

Most of us will want to consider having some web presence, I think.  Web sites establish a base line credibility, provide a chance to allow free perusal of text, image and video content, reinforce the brand, provide contact information, and much more.  I don't think it necessary to have a huge web site or one that uses the most advanced razzle dazzle or professional construction.  Some regular updating is essential to suggest that one's business has a pulse and to keep content fresh.  And, the site should be of the best work one can afford.

Are there exceptions that could run off social media alone?  I think it is possible.  I'd suggest that can be done only by businesses that have a great deal of personal referral, or which thrive on frequent contact where a live stream contributes to making a connection, such as a coffee shop, a restaurant, or pub.  But even there, why not set up a web page and add to visibility?  Let's face it, the web is today's yellow page directory, today's mall and today's community guidebook.  There's more cost to not participating.

Bottom line.  You can make a go of avoiding a web page.  But it's not an ideal option.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Advice to a Flyer Poster

Dear Person who posted a flyer on my mailbox yesterday,
I do appreciate your driving by and alerting me to your business.  And I am all for people who are starting or growing their own business.  That said, I feel badly for your business if the flyer is representative of your advertising work.
You are in a vastly competitive business.  Trust me, I get flyers advertising the same services every few days at this time of year.  If you are going to get my attention I will need more than your phone number and business name.  I would like to know why your business is better for me, why you can do a better job than the alternative, or what makes you different or interesting.  Do you have a web site or a social media page? Perhaps you can show yourself off on Youtube?  All of these are inexpensive ways to stand out.
You did not look professional.  The flyer was clearly cut from a larger sheet, but you made a crooked cut on mine.  I get the impression that you cut corners.
Can you demonstrate your successes?  Give me some metrics, such as "I currently serve x households in your city".
Lastly, let's talk about your services.  You did list services you do, but you listed every conceivable service someone like you could do, in theory.  I don't believe you're outstanding in all of them.  Tell me in what you specialize.  And for heaven's sake, please don't put phrases like "Serving all of your x needs" in quotes.  Trust me, putting anything that is not a citation in quotes looks like you're kidding. Speak the claim and make quote marks with your fingers.  You'll see what I mean.
Sadly, I am unlikely to inquire further.  I needed some first impression must-dos which were not present in this flyer.  But do make some changes.  Your next effort, before a new prospect, will likely get much better results.
Best regards
David the homeowner with the mailbox.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Thinking About Brand

Establishing a "brand" is a surprisingly difficult assignment for any business.  When I talk with business owners about their brand, I get a fair amount of "well-I-think-get-it" nods but it is all too clear many don't have a handle on it.  And that's okay.  It's hard.

We understand good brands at a visceral level.  Either the business name and/or logo instantly convey certain images, values, or product.  It's more than top-of-mind-awareness: we expect that business to deliver a certain product or service at a certain quality level, within a certain ambience, within a certain customer service level.  For example, our friends at Apple have a high end brand.  We expect them to deliver a sleek, innovative product (one that works well), at a pretty high price point.

How do we, as small business people, think about our brand?  how can we build a good brand?  I don't think we can simply invent any brand we imagine.  So much of our brand is going to be bound up in the kind of people we are: how we treat our clients and customers, how attentive we are to the little things, how quickly we can supply a product and service.  When I counsel others I advise that what they are and do is going to be the framework of their brand.  If there is weakness, it needs to be proactively and assiduously addressed!  As hard as it is to hear, every word one says can influence a brand!

A lot of your brand is going to be conveyed passively by your advertising and promotion.  The look and feel will give prospects a strong sense of whether you are a professional or a schlub.  Is the logo classy? is the body text attractive?  are images clean and exciting? is your web site informative or dull?  All of these questions must be asked before you commit to placing something before the public.  Asking others can rescue disasters-in-the-making.

If we boil it all down to a nutshell, brand is going to be about who we are and what we do.  And our success hinges on leaving the impression that will reassure a prospect.  And no amount of razzle dazzle can or will make up for that.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Marketing Swag:

Anyone who has attended a few trade shows, or leads groups, or other B2B events has inevitably come into contact with "marketing swag".  That is to say, giveaway items that bear a business' logo and other identifying information.

Marketing swag is a game.  Attendees expect the stuff.  Presenters feel they have to offer the stuff.  Virtually no one does business as a result of exposure to the stuff.  And, of course, the presenter wrestles with the issue of how much--or more pointedly, how little--should be spent to generate the stuff.  As a result we are awash in branded pens, notepads, local team schedule magnets, and the like.  (Or, from the deep pocketed sponsors, piles of swag bags no one really ever uses again).

I'm now pretty much immune from the seductive charms of swag.  I don't look for the latest ballpoint pens.  But I am also now in the position of debating creating my own swag.  What am I thinking as I try to find the right stuff to give away?

Well, for leads group uses, I think the strategy is simply to attach a business card to something that can be used.  Like, say, a bottle of wine or a small sack of cookies.  I would rather someone detach the card and add to their rolodex than risk my name being unceremoniously being dumped in a drawer never to be seen again.   But for shows: hmm.  The swag needs to reflect my brand and be useful.  I'm looking at inexpensive repair kits, or small tools,...things that say "tune up" and hopefully get use enough to up my TOMA.

Hence I recommend to others that if "stuff" is needed, be judicious and think about your own brand and message and link it somehow.  We already have enough pens, thank you!