Tuesday, December 27, 2016

What's With All of the Strange Ads?

Dear friends, I must confess to feeling old, or at least out of place.  What's been ailing me is an increasing trend towards simple strangeness in broadcast advertising.  What was once the preserve of sophomoric beer advertisers has spread to almost every corner.  You name it: drug ads that are either mildly disgustic or barmy; telecomm ads that seem cut for deranged lunatic consumption; burger chains featuring grown men dressed as children; twisted house ads -- there is a heavy undercurrent of weirdness.

I find it off putting.  I don't think that I'm alone.

Once upon a time advertisers touted the advantages of their offering, or at worst rapped the competition.  The target audience was firmly kept in mind and view and they seemed like pretty normal target populations at that.

Nowadays the perceived target demographic is "people with whom I can't possibly identify" and I say that gently.

It is time to get back on track.  Focus on the product or service.  Tell its story.  Demonstrate why we, the audience, should want or need it.  Leave out the weirdos.  Drop the creepy talking puppets and CGI confections.  Avoid the nonsense.

Bottom Line:  Are your ads losing their edge and displaying qualities that might disturb an audience?  Are cute and clever being morphed into strange and stupid?  The turn of the new year is a great time to reset and follow the time honored advertising maxims.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Danger of Excessive Claims

Lately I have been hearing an advertisement from a "preowned" automobile dealer that specifically names a leading large competitor and the claim that the business in question will beat the price of that competitor and buy cars at a higher price.  Well, gosh, it sounds wonderful.  But the business model sounds impossible to me given that the competitor is pretty well known for low margins because it is a very high volume dealer.

Which brings me to my concern.  I immediately disbelieve this advertiser.  I am entirely skeptical of their claim.

It certainly also calls into question lots of other ads and their claims.  Not all of them are as blatant or easy to spot.  But they can be detected and potential business can be lost.

Our only real action is to slow down the madness by acting as responsibly as we can.  We can look at our own claims and our own messaging to see if we are also making statements that defy credulity.  Is what we say honest? true? defensible? explainable?  Anything short of that is a disservice to people who might be inclined to do business with us.

Bottom Line:  Take some time to look at what you're saying in your own advertising.  Be certain you can credibly stand on every word.  Don't play games in a bid to outdo competitors with cleverness and unbelievable promises.  Better to be super ethical and earn every bit of trust!

Friday, November 11, 2016

Using a Book As a Marketing Tool

Over the past two years I have seen an increasing number of people in my professional network writing and publishing books.  Truth be told, I am contemplating the same for myself.  A book is a terrific idea for many small business owners, as a marketing tool.  While the cost equation makes it unlikely that a book can be a revenue stream for most business people, it makes sense as a loss leader.  Here's why:

1) There's that word "author", the root word of "authority".  A book can enhance credibility.  There's something about being a published writer that attracts attention.

2) A book can deliver your ideas 24/7, when you're not there.

3) Books can also be an entre to customer development.  It is easy to set up seminars, workshops, and "author talks" at any number of places.  This is a great chance to introduce yourself, pick up a little extra income, and expose yourself to people who can become customers and clients.

4) Books are also a way that friends, colleagues and happy clients can share the word about you with their own networks.  I find many people love to tell others about their friends' books.

Caveats:  A book should be produced with care.  I strongly recommend using the services of a professional editor and guide.  Photographs and illustrations are also best produced by pros.  And if it's possible seek a publishing house unless you're really confident you can do a self-publish.  Every improvement in quality will buttress your image as a professional and credible authority.

Bottom Line: If a book makes sense, especially if you are a service expert or sell products that depend on your establishing a knowledge credibility, look into the world of publishing!  This is a tool that is ever easier and cheaper to execute.  Do you have that book in you?

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Amazing Boost From Testimonials

More than a few of the business web sites I see in this area prominently display testimonials, and they are far from foolish.  There's no better salesperson for a business than a happy customer.  Testimonials and endorsements can accomplish several important things for the business.

1. Touting advantages and differentiation with another voice.  A testimonial can share thoughts about products or services, and how they differ from competitors', in words that speak to other customers.  Sometimes even in ways that the business owner didn't think up.  Moreover, the customer is better able to connect with the needs of other, potential customers.

2. Testimonials can give a great sense of engagement with the business.  Customers can give broad clues about their emotional connection with the business.  Someone who enjoys a relationship with the business owner will unquestionably expose that enthusiasm.

3. A prospect can gain valuable insights into the "fit" with the business through testimonials.  That is, if I am like a testifying customer in some important way I may be more likely to try that business' services myself.  As they say, "birds of a feather...".

Bottom Line: Don't just wait for testimonials: ask for them.  Happy customers will be delighted to help you with testimonials that can boost the business.  And display them prominently on your web site and social media properties!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Helpful Mindset

There are two kinds of advertising.  Ones that show a clear desire to help a customer or client, and those that don't.

Those latter ads aren't necessarily against help, but they emphasize the services offered, or how long a company has been in business, or price points and deals, and so on.  They really do not say as clearly as can be that the business helps solves someone else's problems or serves their needs.  I think that is an important distinction and I also think the potential customer notices.

By way of example, I have viewed with mounting frustration an ad campaign by a large company that is entirely self-congratulatory, pushes products that in my opinion serve imaginary needs, and talks starting prices.  All the poor customer wants is a service that works and which can be fixed quickly and professionally.  That latter bit never seems to show up in the campaign.

I notice this at well among small business owners.  Many mention the "what they do" but not quite "how I help you".

Bottom Line: Approach marketing with a "helpful" mindset.  How is the message directed to what can help the customer, or how?  What can be added to intensify that understanding?  When we show that we are listening and can solve problems, we become a great deal more attractive to the buyer!

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Humor Can Make a Commercial Presentation Sizzle

As a multi-year member of various professional and business networking groups it has been my privilege and entertainment to study the craft of the personal presentation.  I have seen hundreds of "commercials" that span the spectrum from ultra-professional to bumbling.

In choosing a style, the business owner/ presenter should bear some things in mind.  One is that there are usually a lot of commercials to hear and in time many of them blur together in the mind of the listener.  Two is that it's hard to hide lack of confidence.  Three is that there are usually competitors in the room.  And four is that the typical listener is easily distracted and sometimes isn't even interested in other presentations.

Getting past these considerations means one thing only:  Standing Out.  A presentation that is memorable in some way is more likely to put the speaker ahead of competitors and foremost in listeners' minds.

I've noticed that humor is a common technique in the more successful presentations.  That brings a certain vividness that is easy to remember.  And humor doesn't need to displace indications of competence or expertise.  Think about the strong broadcast commercials that engage funny moments, or a little self-deprecation, or silly characters and yet answer questions about consumer needs and wants and how the advertiser can help.

Bottom Line:  Do you present?  review your own "commercials" and how they can be boosted and achieve added memorability through the use of good humor.  Watch others and take notes, and then step forward for success!

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Pokemon Go Model of Marketing

One of the craziest new fads these days is Pokemon Go, in which smartphone-wielding "hunters" pursue animated quarry in public places.  Great stock is placed on the number of different "pokemons" "captured".  For those of us who have escaped the trend, there is great amusement watching the hunters at work.  I marvel at how close to the Zombie Apocalypse this can get in heavily trafficked places.

Pokemon Go has also reminded me powerfully of modern marketing.  How?  I've been watching with great interest as small businesses "collect" marketing channels, especially in the form of online and social media, to promote themselves.  It almost becomes a game to see how many places a business can appear.  But they're not all equal, and definitely not all collectible, because target customers differ so much.

What is more, there seems (in many cases) to be more value placed on the relationship with an online tool than in what it delivers.  By this I mean that the "collector" expresses the breezy optimism that the one additional property will be seen by "someone" and therefore worth the trouble.

Bottom Line:  Marketing can be fun, but it isn't a game like Pokemon Go.  The small business owner ought to look at potential channels on the basis of their return and acquire them for use only if that return is significant and fits the profile of the target market.  Leave the pocket monsters for someone else!

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Paths to Success in 2016 and 2017

Occasionally I am invited to share thoughts on the future of small business marketing (and in this case, very small business). 

The world of the early 21st century is very different from the one even a decade ago.  There is ever more marketing power available to use, especially in terms of technology, and there is more complication and confusion.  Every week I see peers struggle with the current "normal." 

There are paths out of the thicket that will become more important to us small businesses.

I think alliances will become critical to the success of small business.  The current model (BNI, leads networking) is based on mutualism: one business striving to help another, but otherwise fully independent and unconnected.  This has all of the limitations one person can have, especially in how effective a person is, what time and resources are available, and so on.  I am seeing signs that these "solopreneurs" especially are entertaining more active partnering to leverage resources and opportunities.  It will most often take the form of related businesses or whatever yields natural synergies.  And the businesses will market in a united framework giving equal weight to each participant.

The other path will take the form of increased use of video.  Small businesses are not finding success in print nor even in flat digital publishing (i.e. standard text-based websites or social media posts.  It is incredibly hard to personalize and stand out in traditional ways.  Video lets a prospect see us, hear about what we do in our words and with our own emotions.  It has become very inexpensive to produce video and video can easily be disseminated online.  And it lends itself beautiful to mobile devices.  Even those who are bashful about being "seen" can speak into a microphone while text and graphics amplify the message.

Bottom Line:  The marketplace is complicated and frustrating but we are seeing clearly how some new ways of organizing and displaying can change our game.  Think about how you can pair up with a logical ally and use video to stand out.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

A Plea to End "Memorable" Advertising

Today I must vent.  Be patient, gentle reader, but in so doing please consider your advertising messages.

I don't know how many times a day I am exposed to advertising that pushes the envelope in terms of bad taste, hyperbole, creepiness, silliness, and much more.  A recent example is a misbegotten TV campaign promoting an "extra crispy" personality who would seem to belong on any number of neighborhood watch lists.  In my early days in this business I learned that these gimmicks were intended to make ads "memorable."

Well, maybe.

The real danger of memorability advertising is that it risks offending and alienating customers.  Your message may be entirely memorable but the customer will associate you with poor taste, poor judgment, and other vices.  Or just as bad, switch off your ad and move along.

You work so hard on your business and the quality of your offerings.  Why throw that away with nonsense in hopes of getting noticed more quickly?  The tried and true is to message consistently, emphasizing strengths, and being honest.  A little humor never hurts, either.

Bottom Line:  Are your ads sending a message that actually demeans you?  Take a good hard look at the awful stuff out there and learn from it what not to do!

Thursday, September 29, 2016

A Marvelous Application of Video Marketing

A recent conversation with a business owner yielded a perfect application of video to enhance marketing efforts.

The business owner in question performs very specific home renovation services.  This is a field in which word of mouth and referrals are critical.  But these are time consuming and can only go so far.  However, there is a way for him to demonstrate the quality of his work and his business ethics, and that is photography and videography.  A set of brief videos can showcase work the business owner is doing, how he approaches and solves problems, and best of all, his warm personality.  Combined with a list of referrals and endorsements, a curious prospect can visit the business owner's web site and see exactly what they can contract for.

Video has wider application as well.  It is a fantastic way to provide value-added by sharing pieces of information, answering frequently asked questions, or explaining particular products and services.  And for even the most bashful business owner video can warm up their presentation.

One concern:  While videos are extremely easy to create today, consider contracting with a professional rather than upload shaky or otherwise inferior videos.

Bottom Line: look at videos to amplify marketing that can do so much on a 24/7 basis and which greatly benefits the customer and prospect.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Gimmicks May Hurt More Than Help

Yesterday I drove past a business that had put up a large inflatable duck in front of the business, along the road.  The utter incongruousness of the duck and the business struck me, but I remembered all of the other inflatables, and other gimmicks (e.g. people waving signs while in costume, walking sandwich boards, etc.) I have seen over the years and that's what brought on a frown for the rest of the day.

As with so much in life, there is a point where you can go right over the wall.  Let's take these inflatables, as they are relatively popular.  On the one hand, I can almost see some value in a person hired to, say, wear a Statue of Liberty costume and wave at people to promote a business called "Liberty Tax Preparation".  It's a silly come-on but I did remember the business later and there was some (albeit limited) connection with the brand equity of the business.  But let's say you are a realty office and you decide to put out an inflatable dancing person.  Is this "look at me!!!!" impact overwhelmed by the brand misfit? or the chance it made the realty company look cheesy and "low rent"?  I am a person very sensitive to brand equity and anything that could enhance or damage the same.

Let's put this another way.  The business I passed may have spent a great deal of time and money cultivating a brand that conveyed an image of professionalism, knowledge, and class.  And then one day they put out an inflatable duck.  This guy now suspects the managers of that company of being fools: they certainly thought so little of their target customer that they supposed an inflatable duck would attract new business.

Bottom Line: I urge any small business owner to use gimmicks like this with extreme care.  Be wary of what subconscious message is broadcast that could impair your precious brand.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

When Traffic is Light

Some of the business owners I know and work with have classic "brick and mortar" situations: i.e. doing business from a single physical location.  And some of them have had difficulties creating foot traffic to their location.  As is so often the case, affordability and availability dictate unusually difficult circumstances where the business may as well be invisible.  That, tied with limited advertising budget, begs the question: how to generate traffic in such cases?

In such cases, I like "guerrilla marketing" strategies.  Some of these might include:

(1) Build word of mouth by giving something away.  A strategy I like and use is the free seminar.  These can often be held for nothing at libraries and allow you to talk about something you do, with ideas for the interested, in the space of an hour or 90 minutes.  Leave plenty of take away literature with some special in-store offer for attendees.

(2) Let's face it: social media is a marketing reality.  Use boosted ad features to send a message to the communities where you operate.  And build engagement with continuing customers and prospects.  Use the social media properties to share information and ideas, never to "hard sell", and to announce regular special events at your location.

(3) Groupon (and similar programs) are designed to build awareness.  Used judiciously they can bring in more people for just the cost of a discount.

(4) Give existing customers incentive to bring in new guests!  Can you devise a special discount or offer for referrals?

There are many ways to overcome a location with a possible handicap that don't cost a fortune to implement.  Use some creative strategies or see what some others in the same situation are doing.  You can make a change in your traffic!

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The All-Important Marketing Plan

Many small businesses conduct their marketing without having a marketing plan.  This is a lot like trying to drive to a distant location without a map, GPS, or directions.  Odds are that you won't get where you want to go!

A marketing plan does not have to be a major headache.  Everything starts with the simple question "what is it that I want to accomplish?" It may be to increase sales by some percentage, or to expand the customer base, or to introduce a new product or service.  We now know the destination.

The plan then moves to "how" and that can take two parts.  One, like choosing a route to a distant city, involves the vehicle.  We know that our ultimate route will vary if we choose, like in our example, car, bus, railroad, or plane.  Here will be a question of doing it yourself, or hiring an appropriate professional.  The second part is the channel or channels.  Do you advertise?  try face to face marketing? and so on.  Those channels should be chosen for their efficiency in doing the job.  Just as you wouldn't drive your car on a river, we wouldn't, say, reach out to, say, health care decision makers by advertising on Nick at Night.

Lastly the plan should include consideration of success.  What does "success" mean?  what measurements (or metrics) will be used to define whether the plan leads to success or not?

Bottom Line:  When you take a journey, you must plan.  Define the destination, the means of getting there, and what will determine the journey's success.  Good luck!  You are one step closer to your objectives!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

30 Second Commercial Needs To Be Fresh

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?

Monday, August 8, 2016

LinkedIn is a Can't Miss Opportunity if Used Well

I periodically hear talk in "solopreneur" circles about LinkedIn as a marketing tool.   This particular tool seems to have equal shares of advocates and detractors.  The latter crowd often seem to be populated with those who have had exposure to LinkedIn and didn't get the results they wanted.

LinkedIn is a great tool.  But it is a specialized tool.  Many detractors think it is a venue for sales, and that is exactly what it is not!  Nor is it an especially good way to generate B2C activity (i.e. Business-to-Consumers).

What LinkedIn does pretty well is idea-sharing.  And that comes from the theory that a good way to feed a network is to share ideas, concerns, and solutions.  I have regulars who post multiple items every day.  That may be a bit on the high side, but it is not off the mark by much.  By posting these easily digestible nuggets a solopreneur, or any other businessperson, can establish expertise, authority and most importantly that reminder that you are there, helping people with their challenges.

My principal concern for those posters I see most often is that they over-do "sharing": If articles or other writings are shared, at least do so with a context.  And for heaven's sake, limit those shared Internet memes!

Bottom line: Are you ready to put LinkedIn to work for your business?  Build that network, make appropriate connections, and regularly share valuable content.  You can plant seeds that grow in wonderful ways!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Does Email Marketing Have Enough Pep?

I have found there to be considerable disagreement in my circles about the use of email marketing for small business.  Is email marketing still a good bet?

On the plus side, email remains highly affordable (even free in most circumstances), easy to use, easy to customize, and easy to respond to.   On the minus side, email can be very impersonal and many consumers have abandoned email in favor of texting and other formats.

Email lists are also not hard to build.  Adroit use of web site, requests to customers at time of purchase, and social media offers can quickly build substantial lists.  These solid, opt in lists make for especially promising ROI.

I am not especially concerned about reports of email's demise.  This has been the claim for some years now and email remains a widespread channel, albeit one that is inconsistently read by quite a few consumers.  Moreover, in replacing email we would want something with greater or equal reach, and that has not yet happened.

However, email boxes are quite full for the average consumer, so getting inside with the right subject line and offer is critical.

Bottom Line:  Email marketing will continue to be a strong choice for small business.  This channel has a meaningful return on investment and enormous reach, and can be customized quite well.  But it is important to use appropriate and appealing messaging.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Stories Go With Everything!

I enjoy watching some of the "food entertainment" shows and am increasingly fascinated with how bacon can be used to supplement or enhance any dish or meal.  At a networking group meeting today, while I enjoyed some bacon, the thought occurred to me that there is a bacon, of sorts, for marketing.  That would be stories.  

Human beings are drawn to stories and use them to amplify or illustrate ideas.  The earliest stories we know helped our ancestors understand weather, astronomical events and physical phenomena.  Stories can improve any message from sermons to political ads to pitches for products and services.  We connect with stories in an intuitive way.

Small businesses can greatly enhance their own marketing presentations with the use of stories.  For example, how a customer was helped with your product or service, or how you developed the inspiration for your business, or how you feel when you help customers.

Bottom Line: How can you tell stories that will touch or inspire customers, and to connect them with you?  Are you missing the chance to enhance your messages with "bacon"?

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Whither Radio?

In a long career I have heard my share of advertisements on radio.  This is a marketing channel that's made inroads for several decades and is vastly more cost effective than television, although a good radio schedule can be daunting for the smallest businesses.  Radio reach and demographics can be appealing.  But is a particularly challenging medium.

The key to a good radio spot is the voice over.  A well chosen vocal artist can enhance the content in the spot.  A poor one can be disastrous.  I have heard far too many spots in which the business owner, or a surrogate from their company, does the voice work and the result is often appalling.

Content is also critical.  A poorly chosen word can doom the ad.  It's necessary to steer a careful course between overly stentorian and overly juvenile. Yes, I have heard both extremes.  And please (!) avoid too graphic one's text.

Bottom Line:  Radio can be a good choice, but it needs to be done very carefully to avoid annoying the listener.  If professional assistance can't be obtained in making the best possible spot, I recommend choosing a safer medium.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Got Tough Location?

We all know that there is a tough choice for small businesses choosing a physical location for their store or office:  optimize visibility? or optimize cost?  Like it or not, most owners end up with affordable but often invisible locations. And aggressive advertising promoting the location is usually beyond reach. So what to do?

Sometimes "second level" advertising works.  I know business owners who deploy sidewalk signs visible from roads, or well labeled vehicles in adjacent parking lots.  Much depends on circumstances, but again visibility is limited to observant, nearby persons.   But it's a start.

Handouts, flyers and other physical notices are good.  I have also seen some use "mailbox" notices (usually taped to the side of mailboxes) to great effect.  Consider how easily you can get these in the hands of your target market and what you can afford to print.  Remember that the paper must go to someone who is a target customer!  This might be a great summer job for a diligent teenager.

Social media can be a great helper.  Post news about specials, or special events at your location and politely ask your social media friends and followers to let others know, especially if there are incentives to visit (anything from sales to free food).  Customers who already love you will be happy to let others know about you.

Finally, look at a partnership with an adjacent but compatible business, or two.  By combining advertising resources it is easier to get the word out.  Again, focus on a special event of some kind to incentivize customers to visit both of you.

Bottom Line: a tough location is not an insurmountable obstacle.  There are low-cost tools and techniques that can help you overcome and build a loyal following.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Overcoming the Personal Equation

It's a given: for a small business, the image projected by the entrepreneur is a risk for the business.  Unlike a big enterprise where bad players can be hidden by bureaucracy, gatekeepers or sales people, the small business owner is part and parcel of the image of the business as a whole.  This is a bonus for the congenial, likable entrepreneur.  What if he or she can be unlikable and disagreeable, or potentially even worse, mousy and invisible?

Obviously, one outcome is that the business fails.  Is there an outcome where the business can succeed in spite of the outward flaws of its creator or owner?

Like it or not, this is a job for a strong accountability partner.  The entrepreneur needs to be secure enough to ask someone to weigh in with constructive criticism of his or her "personal" marketing.  Only by recognizing problems can they be truly solved.  Perhaps the A.P. can also serve as a coach, helping boost positives and suppress negatives.

Solutions are many:  personal speech coaching classes, role playing with the accountability partner, designating a partner who can be the P.R. or sales person, and more.

It also helps to watch others and take notes.  Ask yourself how you react to different personalities and strive to adopt good habits shown by others.

Bottom Line: Don't let your own quirks and put-offs affect your business image.  Friends and allies can help to boost your strengths and positives.  Don't hesitate to ask for impressions and constructive advice---they want you to succeed!

Friday, July 1, 2016

One Size Does Not Fit All

I have learned to expect, as if by clockwork, conversations with advertisers in which I am faulted for expressing skeptism that particular channels don't always work.  I am slowly(!) getting better at the necessary caveat "...in all cases".

Advertisers have an understandable passion for selling as much advertising space as possible but like their clients usually don't think about targeting.  That is, just as a seller does best by optimizing their marketing to a well defined target customer, the advertiser should also define a target client and work from that starting point.  It has to be in their best interests: consider that a seller who is talked into a poor-fit channel will almost certainly have a bad experience and then spread their discontent to their peer networks.  A happy client will likely do the opposite.

Still doubt me?  Should a pizza shop invest in a high end, glossy magazine?  Will a luxury jeweler do well on a hard rock radio station?  Such extreme instances expose the folly of a one-size fits all mindset.  NO, some sellers will not do well with a given advertising channel.

Advertisers ought to study their own demographics and the ROI for their various clients.  Sellers can do well looking at various channels and noticing who advertises where, and then asking the hard questions of advertisers about their reach within certain target segments.  A little homework up front can make an enormous difference.

Bottom Line: Reject the idea that every advertising channel works for your business.  There will be advertisers who are a good fit and deserve your business.  But do the research to find that perfect match!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Watch Out for Scams!

This past week I received a very curious response to an ad I placed in CraigsList.  I avoided the scam it presaged and can share this as a warning to any venture that uses CraigsList or similar sites as a marketing tool.

The response I received carried several warning signs.  One, despite my effort to narrow the respondent's focus to better understand their need, the final email concentrated only on my specifying the total cost of the service.  Two, the individual only identified himself by a first name.  Third, the person wanted to pay in advance, sight unseen (!).  Fourth, and most importantly, this person was out of our area and did not ask to meet face to face.

Now, there are many honest buyers and sellers on CraigsList.  I myself have sold items there to people who played by the rules.  But anything that looks suspicious probably is.  I discontinued my conversation when I spotted the pattern noted above.  (And for those questioning the scheme, it would next involve my cashing their check, remitting some money to them on a pretext, and then discovering later it was a bogus check and owing the bank all of the money.)

Bottom Line: use Internet tools with care.  Be nervous when payment is offered up front and in the form of a regular check, and when the prospective purchaser won't meet you face to face, and if the person seems to be hiding something.  Move on politely, but move on.  You will save yourself from heartbreak!

Monday, June 6, 2016

Labels Seal the Deal

Over the weekend I came across an interesting phenomenon, twice, and both involving the power of labelling and disclosure.  While both involved baked good food sales, the mechanism is, I think, applicable to any business.

In one case, an item on a bake sale table quickly sold out, not because it looked great (less successful items were as tasty looking) but because the baker affixed a clear label stating what the product was, giving the buyer a good idea about what the thing tasted like and what was baked inside.  In another case, I overheard a parent declining to buy a baked good because she couldn't tell what might have peanuts inside.

This led me to think about other products and services and how well they are "labeled".  For example, does a service describe all included items, process and other details?  Does a product label fully itemize whether something of concern is included (be it toxic ingredients, or batteries, etc.)  I know that I scrutinize packages for details and data.  I try to fully understand what is involved in enrolling in a service.  I assume others do as well!

Bottom Line: are we respecting our customers enough with the best labeling we can provide?  Are our services and products explained to reassure a client or customer?  The result may be a sale we might have otherwise lost!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Multiplicative Power of Testimonials

Some of the business owners I know get a huge boost from absolutely free advertising---in the form of customer and client testimonials.  These come in the form of spoken messages (usually at networking events but sometimes in videos) and written treatments, usually on web sites but sometimes on printed material.  I'm convinced these are one of the most powerful tools we can use.

For me, a testimonial usually makes me more interested in the person being testified about.  Someone has taken the trouble to sample a product or service, visit a business, or interact with the provider and then takes the effort to speak about that experience.  People don't readily do so (well, unless they are upset!) so there is added information I have about the product or service.

How to get some "good press"?

Observing those in my networking groups, it is clear to me that those who ring in the most testimonials usually ask for someone to sit down with them or to sample what they do.  They also reciprocate and show appreciation for the favor.  I also notice that those known to be "hard sellers" and "not-team-players" don't tend to get testimonials.  All this is to say that no one really feels obliged to talk up a person who is unworthy of the favor.

With the rise of social media, testimonials take on a very critical role.  Those who give testimonials talk about a producer outside that producer's circle, and other people are quickly impacted, some of whom will try something out because of the second-level trust relationship.  I have found myself talking up producers I hardly know because someone I trust vouches for them.

Bottom Line:  You can boost your advertising potential by paving the way for testimonials.  Ask people to try something, for free.  Ask people to listen to your story (but remember to ask what you can do to help them!) and always return the favor!  Ask anyone who does business with you to say something about their experience you can quote and paste to a web site or social media post.  And above all, thank them for taking time to help.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

More on Target Market Refinement

Earlier in the week I joined a workshop on client acquisition and picked up some fascinating insights that further shaped my own thinking on defining the elusive "target customer".

Our host used as his theme putting away firewood for the winter as an analogy for databasing potential customers.  The farmer cut enough wood to cover his needs and stockpiled those outside the house for later use.

The exercise he engaged in was bound up in the tactics of taking "trees" and converting them to "stacked wood".  I'm just as fascinated with the process of finding the trees.  For many, the assumption would be that "all trees are my customers" and cull what is needed.  But even our farmer had to narrow the focus, viz:

1.  Trees reachable from the farm, either close enough in distance, accessible by road, and/or not owned by someone else.
2.  Trees that are the right ones from which to make firewood.  (e.g. No pines, shrubs, etc.)
3.  Trees that are sufficiently old enough to cut.
4.  Trees free of diseases, rot, etc.
5.  Trees that can in fact be cut with the tools at hand.
6.  Trees whose wood is more valuable for other uses (e.g. fine furniture, syrup production, etc.)

As we search for good customer prospects, we must always be mindful that not all of the "trees" are even going to be prospects, and of the prospects not all will be qualified.  We can improve our ROI on prospecting, and finding customers through appropriate media channels, by thinking about exactly what kind of "tree" we want and spending our valuable time on those.

Bottom Line: Look at your concept of a "target customer" and ask, is this truly focused enough?  Is this a person I can reach, that would ever be a customer, would present more difficulties than gains, and can ever use my help?  Size up your trees!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Meeting the Challenge of Differentiation

One of my largest professional networking groups is chock full of practitioners in certain industries, most notably real estate brokerage, financial planning, and insurance brokerage.  It has been intensely fascinating to me that most of these good people don't differentiate themselves from competitors, and in some cases apparently don't try.   The unfortunate result of this is a series of nearly identical "commercials".  I deeply sympathize.  It isn't easy to truly stand out.

What to do?

The secret to effective differentiation is to narrow focus to a laser thin beam.  I advise people to write down a (short) list of experiences, skills, products or services they offer that no one else does.  And then talk to that.

Let's take our real estate broker, for example.  We will know immediately that the person has training and (presumably) experience with real estate.  We will expect them to be licensed, certified, and knowledgeable.  What won't we know?  Does she represent certain communities or neighborhoods?  have a background in education, knowing schools very well?  Does she have expertise with certain types of properties?  have demonstrably high sales metrics?  have special success moving difficult properties?  and so on.

Another way to approach this is to explain success solving client problems or needs.  For our broker, can she talk about a recent sale where her skill set made the difference and a happy ending?  Or how she makes connections with her clients and serves them?

And one more thing.  Please don't tell someone you are different and then leave us guessing how!

Bottom line:  Sometimes less is more.  By focusing narrowly on a critical difference with a competitor, a business can stand out more noticeably.  As you seek to differentiate yourself, think about the seemingly small ways you help other people.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Does Personal Presentation Make a Difference?

It is, I think, widely accepted that a confident presentation counts for a great deal towards impressing potential customers and clients.  Of course, we all "know" we should avoid bad habits, eat healthy foods, and be nice to one another.  And we know how well that works!

For those of us who regularly frequent networking groups and meetups, the difference between a strong, confident personal presentation and one that is not is noticeable.  And I know I deduct points for the latter.  I don't think that's entirely unfair.  I want to know that the person I am potentially going to work with has energy, confidence, and belief in what they do.  Presentations by business owners who mumble, ramble, and make no sense don't inspire confidence.  And that is an expensive reality for these people who may represent very good products and services.

There are resources for improvement.  One is to solicit the individual assistance of a professional coach.  I know several who have made a huge difference in their clients.  Another is the Toastmasters program that builds skills through group interaction and evaluation.  I chose that route some years ago and found it invaluable in supercharging my skills.  In fact, I often spot Toastmasters members and alumni before they identify themselves as such.

Bottom Line:  Is your good work overshadowed by personal presentation skills that don't work for you?  Don't let that be a commercial for a competitor!  Take advantage of presentation building resources in your community.  We can all improve!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The End of Newspapers is Nigh

Watching our local metro newspaper shrink relentlessly, I am regularly drawn into thoughts about the future of this institution, one that has served advertisers back nearly 300 years.  It doesn't look good.

I worked for newspapers for ten years (1995-2004) and saw, from the inside, what was taking place in this industry.  The big blow was, of course, the departure of classified advertising to the digital marketplace (Craigslist being a notable destination.)  But the increase in alternative advertising channels, decline in readership among younger age cohorts, highly partisan editorial positions, and rise of the Internet as a news source also eroded readership figures.  Declining ad revenue reduces "news holes" which leads to further ad revenue decline, and on and on.

Our local paper has been pushing its digital service, but it isn't catching fire, particularly because it is not device-friendly and has certain inconveniences: and it possesses all of the liabilities of the printed form in terms of lack of timeliness and poor ad response.

I'm actually quite surprised that a printed newspaper still arrives in my driveway each morning.  I fully expect a wave of newspaper closures and consolidations to take place, with the ultimate result that the classic urban "local" newspaper will cease to exist.  My sense is that in the intermediate run notable national formats will consolidate from the local markets (e.g. Wall Street Journal and USA Today) and expand their bases, but even these organs are impacted.  It's hard to see how that business model can serve advertisers especially in local markets.

Newspapers are not the be-all and end-all.  They only arose about fourteen generations ago.  When they first became commonplace people traveled slowly by boat or horse, we kept warm by a fireplace, and lived on farms.  Times have changed in so many ways and this is an institution that had an unusually long run.

Bottom Line:  We cannot depend on newspapers to effectively advertise our businesses if for no other reason than that the format is shifting to something better.  If you are heavily invested in newspapers, start giving thought to new ways to promote what you do.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Coupon Mailers May Not Be the Best Bet

As a resident of an upscale metropolitan area I am a very regular recipient of various coupon "mailers".  These mailers either take the form of a booklet or an envelope containing any number of coupons or special offer cards.  The mailers here are almost all printed with very high quality paper and typically look professional.  Are they a good deal for small business?

On the plus side, people love deals, the coupons usually look attractive, and price points for the mailers are not typically prohibitive.

But there are concerns.  Mailers cater to an upscale audience but it is not subdivided any farther, and the distribution is over a wide area.  Hence it is difficult to align to a carefully defined target customer base.  I am very skeptical of "broad brush" advertising: a lot of money is expended to reach what is a small part of the mailer base, if one is that lucky.

Mailers are also necessarily of use only to business-to-consumer providers.  This is simply not an option for a business selling services to other businesses.

And, it is impossible to truly stand out in the pack.  One's message is lost among all of the other deals, all of which have the same format or card size.

Finally, there's ample data that mailers are one of the least-used advertising channels by the consumer.  Very few consumers distinguish mailers from "junk mail" and discard them.  In my zip code it seems that the mailers all arrive in the same day's mail, and that "junk mail" effect is likely amplified for the unengaged consumer.

Bottom Line: As with any advertising channel, mailers must be considered with care.  Ask the salesperson questions about entry cost, actual readership data,  and return on investment.  Be sure to determine how closely the mailer's base corresponds to your own target customers.  And compare to alternatives.  In the right cases, mailers work very well.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Is SEO Positioning Over-hyped?

There is no question in my mind that the great mantra of the 2010s among marketers is "SEO".  SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is the achievement of a high position in a search engine of a particular business.  And it is greatly overhyped.

The logic of the marketeers is that success depends on getting as close to #1 search result as possible for a given search term or business name.  Great sums are spent to "optimize" this position.  It sounds wonderful, but there are considerations.  I think for most small businesses, achieving very high SEO should not be the overriding goal.  Here's why:

1) Every competitor is also doing the same thing, and there are only so many top-ten positions to go around.  If you are a Realtor and hoping "Top Realtor in Gotham" will show you, you will likely be disappointed.   Every business spending money with a marketing firm to buy more "horses in the race" is locked in an arms race of sorts with others doing the same thing.

2) Not every small business builds their marketing plan around search.  Quite a few I know rely on relationship building, word of mouth, advertising, and good old fashioned promotion.  And, similarly, not that many consumers (or clients) see the be-all-and-end-all in search.  A search may inform but it does not automatically lead to to a sale.  Oftentimes the search is conducted to find a detail that is not remembered, such as a telephone number or address.

3) The question of "High SEO" is highly dependent on the "what" of the search.  That is, what search term matters most?  Do you want to score high with your business name? your line of business? a particular product or service? something else?  One's search position can change enormously based on the word choices a prospect makes.  Trying to buy high SEO for every combination can be enormously expensive.

What's the solution?  I recommend adapting to the realities of search.  A business can improve its search position by keeping a web property with strong content, fresh material, and plenty of both.  Use videos and a blog to add searchable material.  Consult your web master for ways to enhance searchability of the web site.  But most of all, ensure your messaging reflects ways in which you are unique and different.  Continue to work the non-search methods most businesses use.

Bottom line: Search is part of the equation, but it is not the most critical to a small business.  Be careful buying into programs that focus on building the maximum SEO.  Very often, that program may not result in the strongest return on investment.  Depend on established marketing techniques.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Exhibition Signage Always Demands Thought

Over the weekend I was part of a nonprofit and small business exposition in our metropolitan area.  This event, as they usually do, offered insights on some promotional trends and techniques.  This time, I was especially interested in signage.

Stand-up (vertical) banners have become very popular with exhibitors.  They are colorful, sturdy and don't depend on walls and cords.  They do occupy some floor space which is often allocated sparingly by expo planning committees.  What was striking to me was how many of these there were and how they no longer allow someone to stand out...the bulk of the herd uses them, too!

A few exhibitors used older-style banners designed to be suspended in some way.  As always, there is almost never a way to suspend them!  Some tried using them to front tables (where they disappeared behind legs) or on walls.  Of the rest there was a mix of signs on table stands, signs-in-the-form-of computer screens, or nothing at all.

I was drawn most to the table stand signs and those others that were colorful but clear (abstract shapes, hard-to-read logos and text, and random colors all failed with me).

It is clear that the mission to stand out in the crowd is both eternal and challenging.  At any given point in time the successes can change from the time before.  That means only that we need to be vigilant and observant--watching how it is done successfully now and think ahead to what may be more successful next time.

The Bottom Line: Exhibition signage can't be dusted off each time with the same expectation of success.  Can something be rethought that will help you stand out?  And remember to stay faithful to your brand--always use signage that reinforces the brand in all of its forms.  Good luck at your next expo outing!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Millennial Trap

Earlier this week I attended a presentation on the impact of so-called "Millennials" on the workplace.   (These are people born in the 1980s and 1990s.)  The speaker urged the listeners to look past what he himself thought were the cohort's narcissism, difficulty with interpersonal communication, impatience with authority, and resistance to "team play" and embrace the cohort's purported high degree of creativity.

I have seen similar thinking on this cohort and the take is always the same: the world must obey Millennial desires or pay the price in failed business.  I'm sorry, but I am not buying it.

I wasn't old enough to remember the buzz about the Baby Boomers when they arrived on the scene in the 1960s, but I was very much in the thick of it when "Generation X" came of age in the 1980s and 1990s.  And I recall quite a lot said that the market needed to accomodate the new arrivals.  In the end, Generation X seems to have disappeared into the blurry backdrop of "older consumers."  This cohort has been a bit more entrepreneurial perhaps, but it has behaved like all the others.  Businesses did not radically transform in the late years of the 20th century in terms of marketing.  And the Millennials won't make any bigger an impact.

The ground rules of the marketplace are ever the same: bring forward a product or service that solves a problem for a target customer, find a way to alert the target customer to this solution, and keep the customer engaged with you.  I'm pretty sure this was the case as far back as we wish to go in history.  The details about market research and advertising may have changed, but not the fundamentals.

Bottom Line:  Millennials are interesting and youth always brings with it some new perspectives and ideas.  That said, they are not reinventing the fundamentals of finding, attracting and retaining customers.  Establishing the value proposition, focusing on the right target, and communicating with the customer will always be core to what we do.  Don't fall into the trap that new consumers mean the rulebook needs to be rewritten!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Don't Be a Master of the Obvious

We all know that many, perhaps even most advertising messages fall flat in some way.  The scrapbook of campaigns is replete with botches that seemed like good ideas at the time.

To be sure everyone has their tastes and a poor message for one may be a hit for another.  And in that spirit may I share one of my pet peeves?

High on my list of messages that leave me cold are those I label "masters of the obvious".  These are messages that cite as product or service advantages qualities that ought to be obvious, or at least expected.

For example (and I paraphrase): "We use only the best ingredients", "We are the best", "We are all about quality", "Trust is most important", and so on.

Gosh, I certainly hope these sentiments are true!  However, I would expect the message to focus on a true product or service strength, difference compared to competitors, or advantage.  Telling me that a given service is "the best" says nothing if it comes from the service provider.  But I will get suspicious if that's all that can be said.  Similarly, making such claims is flabby reasoning.  Are we to assume all competitors are inferior?  really?

Bottom Line: leave it to the customer to establish the quality and superiority of a product or service.  Use that precious messaging time to inform with strong attention to specific advantages.  Tell the prospective customer exactly how you differ from other choices in ways that are meaningful.  Identify specific needs that you address or solve.  You may find this improves your position with the marketplace!

Friday, March 25, 2016

Directories May No Longer be at the Top of the List

In recent weeks I have had several encounters, in various forms, with directories as a media/advertising channel.  Do they make sense for small business?

I think we can agree directories have long lost their luster from the days when the massive phone books landed on the front door step.  Even overlooking the reality that hardly any one has one in their home (or business) the directory publishers themselves have made strategic moves to offer services beyond the traditional directory listing.

I'm bearish on directories.  A few years ago I was willing to concede a meaningful role to directories for some types of businesses (e.g. home services, food delivery, etc.) and especially not business-to-business I am retreating from even that qualified position.  Search has become everything.  Published directories take up space.  Online directories are one step removed from search.

The directory publishers I have seen recognize this and are trying to accommodate search in a way that they hope adds value, for example, adding review capability.  The problem is that they're merely duplicating what's already there with established market share.  Examples include Yelp, Google, Angie's List and so forth.

For the small advertiser, there are some serious concerns about directory listings.  Can the publisher return impressions that match or surpass others?  Do consumers actually use the tool(s)?  Is it too easy to be lost in a matching field of competitor listings?

Bottom line: Look very hard at directories'  offerings.  Compare to alternatives and think about how the directory is used, if so, by your target market.  The old days are gone and directories aren't the go-to resource they once were.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Two Ways Small Business Will Succeed in the (Near) Future

Occasionally I am invited to share thoughts on the future of small business marketing (and in this case, very small business).

The world of the early 21st century is very different from the one even a decade ago.  There is ever more marketing power available to use, especially in terms of technology, and there is more complication and confusion.  Every week I see peers struggle with the current "normal."

There are paths out of the thicket that will become more important to us small businesses.

I think alliances will become critical to the success of small business.  The current model (BNI, leads networking) is based on mutualism: one business striving to help another, but otherwise fully independent and unconnected.  This has all of the limitations one person can have, especially in how effective a person is, what time and resources are available, and so on.  I am seeing signs that these "solopreneurs" especially are entertaining more active partnering to leverage resources and opportunities.  It will most often take the form of related businesses or whatever yields natural synergies.  And the businesses will market in a united framework giving equal weight to each participant.

The other path will take the form of increased use of video.  Small businesses are not finding success in print nor even in flat digital publishing (i.e. standard text-based websites or social media posts.  It is incredibly hard to personalize and stand out in traditional ways.  Video lets a prospect see us, hear about what we do in our words and with our own emotions.  It has become very inexpensive to produce video and video can easily be disseminated online.  And it lends itself beautiful to mobile devices.  Even those who are bashful about being "seen" can speak into a microphone while text and graphics amplify the message.

The Bottom Line:  The marketplace is complicated and frustrating but we are seeing clearly how some new ways of organizing and displaying can change our game.  Think about how you can pair up with a logical ally and use video to stand out.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Five Steps Small Businesses Can Take to Better Market Themselves

Yesterday I was asked if I could share five ideas of things businesses do wrong when marketing themselves.  That sounds so demotivating, so let's cast this as five steps a small business can take to step it up!  Same thing, perhaps, but a better tone.

#1.  Refocus on your target customer.  Too many businesses adopt a philosophy that they serve "everyone" or several different segments at the same time.  It's vital to decide what one, laser-focused segment is your true target and aim marketing messages to them.  If others buy, that's great, but they cannot be the place you spend time and money.  Let's face it: advertising of any kind is expensive and the highest return on every dollar spent will be the customers who are most likely to buy.

#2.  Take a good look at your messaging.   Do the messages you send when promoting, advertising and selling work together?  Can a customer make sense of what you offer?  Can someone clearly describe you, your products and services, and how you can help them?  Can they easily confuse you with a competitor?

#3.  Find that point of differentiation.  Most businesses operate in a highly competitive space where consumers find it difficult to understand how one provider differs from another.  Your messages are much sharper when you can find a way to stand out, positively, from other choices,  Don't make it about price.  Do you have a unique skill? use special raw materials? provide extra value?

#4. Engage with your customers.  Use tools like an email newsletter, blog, social media platform, and video to make your products and services so much more personal.  Create value added by sharing ideas and information, asking questions, and stirring up excitement with contests or special events.  People like to do business with people and every chance you have to engage boosts the chance someone else will refer business to you.

#5.  Be picky with social media.  There are (too) many social media platforms out there and I can absolutely guarantee that not all of them are appropriate for a given small business.  Too many small businesses spend huge amounts of time posting and interacting at too many sites.  How many do you currently use?  Weed out the non-performers and focus on the top three or four.

Bottom Line:  Every business can take its game up a notch.  Can you sharpen your focus, tighten your message, find ways to engage more actively, and stand out a little better?

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

A Newsletter Can Serve You Well

I have recently seen several fantastic examples of "newsletters" as a marketing tool by business owners in my network.  The word is in quotes because in not all cases does the communication look like the traditional printed product so popular in the last century.  Online, "newsletters" can take various forms and they can be more easily produced and deployed.

I like the modern newsletter for several reasons.  Properly done, it is a communication that provides a wonderful value added.  The business can share information about their area of expertise as well as new products and services.  Sent at a predictable interval, the newsletter is a nice reminder that the business is "out there", boosting TOMA.  And it can be customized, often by sending variations to different lists.

My favorite local example is a short (3-4 paragraph) weekly email sent by a home services company.  It's friendly, slightly chatty, and both reminds customers about what they may want to know (e.g. steps to take in cold weather, checklists for being away from home, etc.) and tells them who to contact (by name!) that week if services are needed.

There is a caution.  I always encourage businesses to build their newsletter lists on an "opt-in" basis to ensure that anger at being spammed is minimized.  Also, a link for opting-out should always be included at the bottom of the newsletter.

Bottom Line: can your business use a short newsletter, once a week or perhaps monthly to provide value added and Top of Mind Awareness to your clients and customers?  Now is the time to get one started!

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

LinkedIn Can Help, If Used Well

I periodically hear talk in "solopreneur" circles about LinkedIn as a marketing tool.   This particular tool seems to have equal shares of advocates and detractors.  The latter crowd often seem to be populated with those who have had exposure to LinkedIn and didn't get the results they wanted.

LinkedIn is a great tool.  But it is a specialized tool.  Many detractors think it is a venue for sales, and that is exactly what it is not!  Nor is it an especially good way to generate B2C activity (i.e. Business-to-Consumers).

What LinkedIn does pretty well is idea-sharing.  And that comes from the theory that a good way to feed a network is to share ideas, concerns, and solutions.  I have regulars who post multiple items every day.  That may be a bit on the high side, but it is not off the mark by much.  By posting these easily digestible nuggets a solopreneur, or any other businessperson, can establish expertise, authority and most importantly that reminder that you are there, helping people with their challenges.

My principal concern for those posters I see most often is that they over-do "sharing": If articles or other writings are shared, at least do so with a context.  And for heaven's sake, limit those shared Internet memes!

Bottom line: Are you ready to put LinkedIn to work for your business?  Build that network, make appropriate connections, and regularly share valuable content.  You can plant seeds that grow in wonderful ways!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Signs May Point in the Wrong Direction

It isn't hard to find a great deal of advertising signage in a good sized metropolitan area.  From the lowly yard sale sign to clever "mobile" ads, there are many applications.  My city is very strict and restricts signs from most locations.  I tend to see them only on electric service poles, at interstate intersections, and (in sandwich board form) in front of the relevant business.

Some of my clients tell me signs get results for them,  a claim I do find astonishing.  I'm wired to be annoyed at these ragamuffin signs -- perhaps too many "We Buy Homes" have soured me.

But more to the point, signs tend to be weak servants for a business.  They can only disclose a very small amount of information beyond a phone number and a call to action.  They are usually relegated to sketchy locations (along with the scammers).  And they rarely boost brand equity.  A few get away with success by dint of unusual circumstances, like the mobile billboards towed through city streets, or the "For Sale" signs of a real estate company.

Can roadside signs work for your business?  It's certainly possible, but in the broader perspective is this a superior technique to an alternative?  If you are lofting the proverbial "Hail Mary" pass with a streetside sign it may be time to reassess the target market or some other fundamental.

Bottom Line:  Look at streetside signage with a critical eye.  If this is a method others in your field have used with success, be sure to produce ones with the best production value, a solid call to action and a reinforcement of your brand values.  Be careful of local zoning laws.  And think hard about alternative forms of advertising.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Differentiation Can Work Against You!

In the course of business networking I have the benefit of hearing comparison positioning from many business owners in very competitive areas.  That is, positioning their products and services in large part by referencing the defects in alternative choices.

These are variations of the old "Brand X" model where a product was seen as vastly superior to "Brand X" (a thinly concealed and well-known competitor) on some carefully selected basis.  Always in these product (and service) comparisons the basis is carefully selected!

Let's start this discussion by applauding any business from doing something to stand out.  In my view, that's absolutely essential in competing.  One can't be content to trust that the consumer will identify the business' strengths.

But the very real danger is what I see too often.  There is differentiation on shaky grounds.  Either the comparisons are disingenuous ("My product is 100% safe, cheaper, and has no downsides") or begs proof ("I pick stocks better than others"), or is simply banal (the infamous pizza box claim "You've tried the rest now try the best!")   I can't tell you how many times my skeptic radar kicks on and causes me to shy away from learning more about the business.

I do have willingness to trust claims that can be provable.  For example "I was trained in France", "I buy my ingredients from local farmers", or "My product is in more locations in this city" are all easily tested.  Or, if the business has test reports, independent market research, etc. to support their claims.

Bottom Line: Especially in a competitive market, differentiation from competitors is essential.  However, choose comparisons with care.  If making extraordinary claims provide proof or a means by which the consumer can ascertain the truth for him- or herself.  Always avoid superlatives that are over-the-top, unprovable, or patently incredible.  Your brand will thank you!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Finding Print Ad Potential

Old habits die hard.  For most of the past 270 years or so businesses have relied upon print advertising to serve their foremost marketing needs.  If you were a merchant or service provider in a city or large town, you could place an advertisement in one or more local newspapers and almost guarantee being noticed by anyone with money to spend.  As the nation grew, even some magazines could serve well as advertising channels.

The 20th Century, in wave upon wave, saw the end of this easy solution.  Media were fragmented with the advent of radio, television, and then the Internet.  Now there are hundreds if not thousands of "publications" for advertisement.  Even more if you count neighborhood shoppers, Yellow Pages, coupon mailers, and performing arts playbills among others.

Yet, many businesses continue to place print advertising.  Unfortunately, this channel hardly ever works any more.  Especially for small businesses.

Last week I spoke with a small business owner who placed an inexpensive ad in a print publication that, "on paper", had attractive reach and demographics for that business.  The ad hasn't generated any calls.  And that ad followed the rules:  colorful, with a good "hook" message, and even on a page that should have attracted eyeballs.

What happened?  I did a little market research and determined that none of the readers I contacted either knew of or read the publication.  That's a bad start.  I think there are so many fragmented channels that any ad is simply swallowed up in the noise.  There is no longer critical mass sufficient to generate meaningful response rates.

On top of that, the wider the circulation the more likely it is that the target customer becomes a smaller proportion of the population reached.  ROI is farther reduced.

So can print help, even a little?  It is certainly possible but the odds are low.  Can a publication reach enough of the right people today?  And can we afford to gamble on an experimental base with those that do given reader habits?

BOTTOM LINE:  If a print publication seems plausible, do some research.  Review ads already appearing in the publication.  Spot check a few with the business owner(s) and ask what they think about the success of their investment.  Consider partnering with an allied business in order to buy a larger ad that has a little more chance of being noticed.  And ask hard questions about how well your target customer is covered by that publication.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Fun, Fun, Fun World of Contests

One of the staples of the broadcast industry (particularly on radio) is the contest.  Whether it takes the form of a telephone call, in-person enrollment, online enrollment, or text, contests have been used for many years with the goal of ginning up listener engagement.  Other businesses employ contests.  I see the "business card jar" at some restaurants, for example.

I must confess to be conflicted about contests.  On the positive side, some kind of contest or drawing is a low-cost technique to engage with customers, one that usually permits the business to obtain very valuable contact information for use in later promotions.

On the flip side, contests can be the ultimate in phony engagement.  In fact, today, I saw a presentation by a gentleman who has made a veritable science of participating in contests.  He was quite proud of the assumed value of the goods and services he won.  I was astonished at the detachment from the broadcasters.

Are contests worth doing?  Of course.  But one needs to be careful about the structuring of the contest.  Be sure to collect information from the entrant in the form of an entry blank or business card.  And ensure that entry is done at a physical location where the contestant can at least either engage with you or see your products or services, say, at a display booth or a storefront.  Don't have a storefront?  perhaps partner with an allied business that does.

Bottom Line:  Use "guerrilla" marketing techniques with care.  Always combine the fun and benefit to a contestant with hard benefits to your business.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Lessons From "Frozen"

It's a cold and dreary January day, and I enjoy finding marketing lessons even on such, and one that occurs to me is the phenomena ("film" seems so limiting) called "Frozen".  What can we learn?

One thing that stands out is the total focus on the target customer.  Disney knows that "princess" movies sell very well.  "Brave" comes to mind.  That pint-sized princess customer demands doe-eyed heroines, cute talking animals, hunky prince-types, and memorable music that parents are sure to learn to the last word (as innocent bystanders, e.g. "Let It Go").

Furthermore, the studio certainly grasps the boundless possibilities of crossover marketing and does well by sticking to the time-honored "princess" formula.  They know there is a huge market seeking to use the film's characters on everything from cereal boxes to sleepwear.  I don't approve of these licensing arrangements with respect to those seeking to exploit the film characters, but I can't blame Disney for priming the pump.

Bottom Line:  a business is always wise to focus like a laser on the target customer and respect their wants and needs.  It also makes a world of sense to avoid changes to successful product and service lines, especially if they lead to productive and lucrative partnerships.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Watch Your Social Media (Re-)Posts!

Social media is all the rage, especially for professionals such platforms as LinkedIn and Facebook.  Many small businesses I know have a page for their business on at least one of these two sites.  Some are even doing a very good job using that page to amplify their brand equity.

And some are doing less well.

A practice with which I am increasingly concerned is the "re-post" of content generated by someone else.  In LinkedIn I am seeing increases in both reposts of expert comment, and, what is more troublesome, "memes".  It seems like the walls I view are ever thicker with these dreadful memes that are intended to be motivational in some way but which merely pollute the page.  I don't imagine I am alone is saying I have "unfollowed" some pages simply because the memes and reposts have become unbearable.  Imagine what customers may think!

Customers want to see your original content much more often than anything else.  Your brand, your products and services, and your business are defined by what you say and think.  Muddying water with anything else can do harm to your brand at the end of the day.

Bottom Line:  is what you are posting truly yours?  are you strengthening your brand through your own ideas or hanging on to those of others?