Archives for May 2011

Dues Free Networking

The goal of the Chamber of Commerce is to act as a business network to promote local businesses. The Chambers of Commerce in my area all do a very effective job of carrying out that mission. They frequently hold ribbon cutting ceremonies and similar events to promote new or expanded businesses. These events often appear on the front page of local newspapers. They also conduct formal and informal networking events. However, since my book is subtitled 115 Low-cost Ways to Avoid Market Obscurity, I would be remiss if I did not mention that the annual cost for an individual membership would likely be between $150 and $250. Corporate memberships generally start around $250 and can escalate quickly as you grow depending on annual sales, number of employees or other variable factors determined by individual chapters. Furthermore, not all of the cost is tax deductible.

Here are two networking strategies you can implement without incurring dues.

Why not form your own personal networking group? You will eventually deal with many vendors, bankers, insurance agents, accountants, lawyers, suppliers and so on. Evaluate potential vendor’s customer base, and try to select those most similar to your market. Then trade referrals. Make sure they fully understand your business and its marketing objectives. They will also need a generous supply of your business cards and
other appropriate marketing materials.

  • Vendors who serve other customers and clients in your markets can be a great source of general market intelligence. However, do not ask them to compromise their business ethics by revealing confidential competitor information, and be leery of those who do so voluntarily.

A variation of the personal networking group idea is the “Buddy Marketing” strategy. Look for partners with products or services that are complementary to yours, or whose customers use your product or service. An example would be a sporting goods store joining forces with a health club. The store can offer club members special discounts and promotions on sporting goods products. They can also share mailing lists and even include club promotions in their mailings, electronic distributions and on their website. Perhaps the health club would allow the retailer to demonstrate their products in the club’s lobby on occasion.

Have a great Memorial Day weekend, as we remember all those who gave their lives so that we can enjoy the rights and privileges of living in a free society. May God bless all of those who voluntarily wear a uniform, including my son, Eric.

Make It Easy to Buy!

Since the Dallas Mavericks are just one win away from the NBA finals, I’ll take this opportunity to introduce today’s message with a quote from their billionaire owner, Mark Cuban. He clearly explained a simple but universal marketing principle. “Make your product easier to buy than your competition, or you will find your customer buying from them, not you.” On Monday, I offered an easy way to increase customer retention and lessen the chance they will choose to say no. It was to use an auto-pay system in your customer billing process.

That idea can be taken a step further if you sell products on a recurring basis. Assume for example that you sell vitamins and other health supplements. Customers probably purchase in some logical quantity or interval, such as a monthly supply. Offer incentives to authorize you to auto-ship product paid for with a monthly credit card charge or bank draft. Again, customer retention will improve since sales are no longer dependent on them finding time to visit your store. Customers are more likely to continue buying if not effectively forced to reconsider their purchase every 30 days. Finally, you have again simplified and improved your customers’ lives by saving them time and mileage.

I began today with a statement by Mark Cuban on the importance of making it easy for your customers to buy from you. American retailing pioneer F. W. Woolworth put it in even simpler terms. I end with his comment. He said, “I am the world’s worst salesman. Therefore, I must make it easy for people to buy.”

So must you!

Let Me Think About It and Get Back To You…

Have you ever had a customer or prospect utter that dreaded phrase? If so, then you understand they were probably just trying to be polite. They wanted to avoid saying the single most hated word in all of business directly to your face. NO! And yet I see countless vendors and businesses practically inviting customers to say exactly that every month. Let me give you an example.

I have a monitored home security system. It costs $19.95 per month. The security company mails a bill every month. Several aspects of this practice amaze me. First, the vendor incurs the unnecessary expense of postage and paper. I waste a stamp, check and envelope every month. Do not get me started on the whole “go green” thing! Furthermore, I suspect being dependent on when customers remember to mail checks makes for less predictable cash flows.

However, there is a far more important and obvious marketing implication involved here. This billing procedure provides every customer with a monthly opportunity to reconsider whether he or she really wants to spend the money, to “get back to you” as it were! I am going to assume you have implemented the payment options discussed in previous blog posts. If so, and if your value proposition includes providing recurring services, this situation cries out for an auto-payment system.

Offer clients a discount to authorize an automatic credit card charge or bank draft on the first business day of every month. Your customer retention rate will likely improve as billing costs decrease and cash flow becomes far more predictable. Perhaps most important of all, you will make it easier for your clients to do business with you! It is a shining example of what Robert Allen might consider a “never-ending improvement” customer educational opportunity. Also keep the following in mind.

  • If customers need a monthly invoice, email it to save costs and a trip to the post office.
  • Maintaining sensitive financial information like credit card and bank account numbers imposes certain legal obligations and requires an increased level of internal controls to ensure customer security and privacy. Having to announce that your data systems have been compromised or that a laptop containing customer financial records has been stolen are public relations nightmares. I have had my credit card numbers stolen by someone at two different companies, neither of which I will ever use again.

Finally, as regular readers of this blog have figured out, I am both a history fan and a proud Northern transplant to Texas. Be sure and read CFO America’s Facebook page today for a historical anniversary that had a strong connection right here in my own back yard. You’ll find it at http://www.facebook.com/CFOAmerica.

I’ll talk with you again on Wednesday.

Creating Rolling Billboards

Andrew Szabo, the “Marketing Chef” and motivational speaker once told me that the average person is bombarded with over 5,000 marketing messages every day. You market to customers and prospects every time they are reminded of your company or products. Some messages are obvious, others more subtle. The question therefore is not how many marketing messages you receive per day, but rather how many you remember the following day and the following week.

Several local school districts in my area started selling advertising space on their bus fleets a few years ago. My only thought is why buy space on someone else’s fleet before first taking advantage of your own. Vehicle graphics on company cars and trucks are inexpensive rolling billboards seen by hundreds of potential customers every day in the neighborhoods and areas where your products or services are purchased and used. Custom magnetic signs can be purchased online, at FedEx Office or franchise operations like Sign-A-Rama for under $100 per pair. Unlike some alternatives, magnetic signs will not depreciate the resale value of your vehicle. Simply remove the signs and reuse them on the replacement vehicle.

Other low-cost removable vehicle graphic options to consider are rear window decals and bumper stickers. Depending on the nature of your business and your creative skills, bumper stickers can be given to employees and customers for additional advertising exposure. Order them from the same vendors that sell magnetic signs.

Finally, a 2007 survey by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators estimated 9.3 million Americans (3.8% of all registered vehicles) had “vanity” or personalized license plates. The popularity of vanity plates varies widely by state. Virginia leads the nation with over 16% of all vehicle owners ordering personalized plates. Sadly, I must report my own state of Texas comes in dead last, with only a 0.5% penetration. Could that mean we are less vain than the nation as a whole? If you have ever known a Texan, you already know the answer to that question!

The study did not report how many of these personalized license plates were used on commercial vehicles. However, if you can subtly communicate your name or message in seven characters or less, try it.

Have a great weekend.

AVOIDING MARKET OBSCURITY

The title and subject of my book is Highly Visible Marketing – 115 Low-cost Ways to Avoid Market Obscurity. Obscurity means existing in a state of darkness, anonymity or insignificance.

I refuse to believe that any business venture is predestined to obscurity. Rather, obscurity is an insidious enemy, often ensnaring us in its inescapable stranglehold before we realize we were in danger of falling victim to it. It may be the ultimate result of a series of bad business decisions, or too often merely the failure to act decisively at key junctures.

Whatever the cause, market obscurity in a competitive business environment is usually a precursor to failure, or at best mediocrity. It is certainly incompatible with success. By definition, a business that achieves “highly visible marketing” cannot be obscure.

Let me relate the story of one entrepreneur who had to overcome many obstacles to avoid obscurity in his personal and business life.

Will Keith (W.K.) Kellogg was born shortly before the Civil War, the nearsighted and painfully shy son of pioneer parents. Labeled “dimwitted” by his teachers, he quit school at 14 to become a broom salesman. He held that job for 6 years. W.K. then worked as a bookkeeper and business manager at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a church-affiliated health resort where his older brother John was superintendent. He labored there for 26 years, often working 120-hour weeks. Many of those hours were spent searching for a digestible substitute for bread. His experimentation was often conducted in plain view of Sanitarium guests, including C.W. Post.

Finally, at the age of 46, his efforts resulted in the invention of corn flakes. He was eventually forced to part ways with John, who saw no market potential for breakfast cereals. W.K. founded the Kellogg Company in 1906, eleven years after Post Cereals was founded. In July of the following year, the Kellogg plant burned to the ground. Always known as a man who believed in hard work instead of fate, W.K. rebuilt a fireproof plant from its ashes.

Although he had every excuse to live a quiet life in complete obscurity, W.K. Kellogg founded what is today the world’s largest producer of breakfast cereals. Over 30,000 employees can testify that his legacy is not one of obscurity, by any definition of the word.

Corporate history is replete with people like W.K. Kellogg. Countless small businesses started in garages, basements, railroad stations and similar humble origins went on to become extraordinarily successful. The list includes Ford, Kodak and Sears just to name few. All had at least one thing in common. They all had to avoid the trap of market obscurity and pull ahead of their competition. To accomplish that, they had to deliver a superior product or service. They also had to differentiate their brand and communicate its benefits to potential customers.

I often ask myself several questions. Where will the next Ford, Kodak or Sears come from? For that matter, is that level of success even achievable in today’s challenging economic environment? After all, Henry Ford, George Eastman and Richard Warren Sears did not have to worry about global competition or the latest Internet marketing platform. They simply marketed their brands’ unique advantages on pieces of paper in the form of catalogs, magazines, and newspapers.

While we cannot predict the future, there is one thing we can say with complete certainty. The pool of potential Fortune 500 companies is huge. U.S. Census Bureau statistics (as compiled by the 2007 County Business Patterns and 2007 Economic Census) show that non-farm employers with fewer than 100 workers employed 42.7 million people, over 35% of the entire civilian labor force. Those employers represented over 80% of all businesses.  They had total estimated annual revenues of $7.8 trillion. The Census Bureau also reported that the 5.7 million businesses with revenue under $5 million encompassed 94% of all American firms.

There is no question that small businesses comprise a huge and vital part of our national economy, no matter how you define the term.

Networking 101

American “Rags-to-riches” motivational speaker Jim Rohn once said, “If someone is going down the wrong road, he doesn’t need motivation to speed him up. What he needs is education to turn him around.”

The following short points will help you network with those unfortunate, misguided people in your market who are going down the wrong road, namely the one leading to your competitors. Your goal is educate them on your value proposition and thereby direct them to the road that leads to your front door.

  • Search the Internet for local business networks. Start with www.meetup.com, a free service that provides information on 250,000 monthly meetings in 45,000 cities. Meetup has several other features you will find useful including meeting agendas and guest speakers, reminders and member pictures and profiles.
  • It has been said that a person’s name is their favorite word. Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang stated an obvious corollary to this point, “It helps a ton when you learn people’s names and don’t butcher them when trying to pronounce them.” With a name like Schmeltzle, I know where he is coming from! If necessary, spell their name phonetically on the back of their business card to help remember its proper pronunciation. It is very true that you only get one chance to make a good first impression. Mess up a name and the opportunity may be lost!
  • Public speaking, essential to successful networking, is a skill that is difficult to teach. However, it can be learned over time. As the old saying goes, “practice makes perfect.” Start with a small, friendly audience and work your way up to more challenging venues.
  • Focus on the quality of your network contacts, not the quantity. For that reason, I suggest you consider the size of groups and avoid those that are simply too large to establish meaningful relationships with substantially all members.
  • Meeting all of the regular attendees and familiarizing yourself with their businesses may be best accomplished in one-on-one or individual meetings outside of a group setting. I often meet with members over a cup of coffee.
  • You may find new vendor connections that are as valuable as new marketing opportunities, especially when first launching your business.
  • If you are considering offering compensation for successful referrals, remember that compensation does not have to mean an actual commission, or even a lot of cash out of your pocket. It can include a gift certificate from your business or a local restaurant, tickets to a cultural event or a charitable donation in the name of the person who provided the referral. However, be aware that the practice of compensating referrals may be setting a precedent for those in your networks who would otherwise provide free referrals. Find out what the common practice is for the group, and do not stray too far from the norm.
  • Finally, you might occasionally offer tickets to a sporting event or a charity function as a door prize. However, give a minimum of two adjoining seats and try not to hand them out on short notice. That will depreciate the value of your gift in the eyes of the recipient.

Have a great weekend. I look forward to reconnecting with you on Monday!

GREAT CAESAR’S GHOST, CLARK!

OK, today’s title dates me to the 1950s and 60s. With that said, you might remember some advice I offered on Monday. It was that when writing a book, decide when “enough is enough” and save subsequent content for the second edition or your next book. Today I offer an example of me practicing what I preach. This content did not “make the cut” of Highly Visible Marketing. It will instead appear in print later this year. Here it is.

Did you ever dream about running your own newspaper? Here is a free opportunity to become an online Editor-in-Chief. Paper.li takes your Twitter stream and extracts links to news stories, photographs and videos. It then determines which stories are relevant based on criteria you establish. The service creates themed pages based on specific topics using hashtags. A Twitter user is therefore a potential editor, with the people they follow serving as their unpaid journalists. Paper.li users then distribute their daily or weekly publication as a unique newspaper, written from a perspective of what is considered of interest on the Web on any given day. You can create up to ten versions of Paper.li newspapers, each of which can be set up in minutes.

A downside of this communications vehicle is that since it is automatically generated, you have no say in what appears as the lead story, and cannot hide or rearrange the topical sections. The good news is that once created, it is completely self-sustaining. In addition, since Paper.li tweets every time a new edition of your newspaper is issued, this idea increases your Twitter followers as it helps establish your profile as a recognized expert in your field.

To view a sample of Paper.li in action, visit http://paper.li/CFOAmerica/1300800014 and read The CFO America Daily.

P.S. Today’s topic provided an excuse to include a picture of the great Jackie Cooper. Mr. Cooper played Perry White, editor of the Daily Planet in the 1970s Superman series. His TV and movie career spanned seven decades, and included serving in the Navy in World War II. Jackie passed away last week at the age of 88.

Web-based Sales Platforms – Part 5

Today, I complete this series on web-based sales platforms. Several large online business directory listings are available free of charge and can be set up within minutes. These directories provide a valuable tool to enable business owners to manage and enhance their Internet presence. For that reason, they are especially important for companies who do not have their own website. These sites promote connection through online searches by potential customers. Companies can post extensive information. Listings typically include business categories, web addresses, locations, hours, payment options and detailed product and service descriptions. They may allow you to upload photos, and some offer coupon and promotional capabilities. Many allow customers to post reviews. Some of the larger directories are:

·       Google Places

·       Bing Local

·       Yahoo Local

·       Hotfrog

All are free, often with upgraded services available for a fee. Google Places offers the ability to post real-time updates. It also provides a dashboard to track how many times people found your business and what keywords they used to find it.

Here is a closing thought from Highly Visible Marketing’s chapter on Internet Marketing Basics. Michael Dylan is an entrepreneur and business enthusiast. He summarized the ultimate challenge of Internet marketing this way: “In real-world shopping, you can look your customers right in the eye, chat with them and thus understand what they want, or guide them to a certain item. But with so much online business, we need to establish good customer relations in cyber-space, including ways to find out what the customer needs and what they really value in your business.”

I encourage you to remember Mr. Dylan’s comment as you develop and implement your Internet marketing strategies.

I expect to have an exciting announcement next week. I look forward to connecting with you on Monday.

Web-based Sales Platforms – Part 4

For the past week, I have been discussing online “deal of the day” companies. These venues are primarily for selling products. However, numerous local, state, and nationally targeted websites allow you to promote your services or locate potential clients at little or no cost. Some will subject you to international competition, and several have experienced their share of criticism and controversy. Terms and conditions vary; shop around and investigate to find websites appropriate for your business.

New websites pop up regularly. Here are a few to get you started.

·      Elance.com provides an online marketplace for consultants and others to search for assignments, submit bids and negotiate contracts. The largest categories are information technology and marketing, including web development, programming and search engine optimization. Elance assesses their fee on payments by businesses to consultants.

·      Craigslist is a centralized network of online communities featuring free classified advertisements with sections devoted to sale items and services. According to the Factsheet on their website, Craigslist operates through 700 local websites in 70 countries. It claims 50 million users in the U.S. alone. Craigslist experiences over 20 billion page views per month, making it the seventh largest site worldwide for English language page views.

·      Fiverr.com offers products and services for $5, of which the website keeps $1. Its challenges and limitations are immediately apparent, starting with whether you want to offer anything for five bucks! You will be surprised at the offerings. Two actual examples are, “I will teach you how to make your hands a flute for $5” and “I will take a photo of myself holding a logo of any website, company, etc. for $5.” Therefore, you should carefully consider whether being in the same crowd would cheapen your brand. For that reason alone, it may not be appropriate. However, if you are willing to offer virtually free products or services to gain new customers, it merits consideration.

·      OLX hosts free user-generated classified ads for urban communities around the world and provides discussion forums for various topics. It gained prominence upon announcing a partnership with Friendster, a social networking website.

·      Guru.com is also a freelance marketplace that allows companies to find consultants for contract work in 220 different fields. Guru’s website reports over 1 million registered members and over 8,000 projects posted per month. Be aware that if the service you are marketing can be delivered remotely, competition from English-speaking competitors in developing countries in Asia and elsewhere will likely exert strong downward pressure on your price expectations. That is why I no longer advertise on Guru.com.

I will complete this series on web-based sales platforms on Monday with a discussion of several online business directory listings that are available free of charge and can be set up within minutes.

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