Eight Secrets from a Serial Blogger

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Have you been thinking about blogging, but are concerned whether your writing skills will translate into effective online communications?

Increase your chances of success in getting your message to the right audience by avoiding the mistakes of others. This article offers eight simple suggestions its authors learned in the preverbal “school of hard knocks”.

Here they are:

1. Stick to a schedule. The correct blogging frequency is whatever connects with your audience. For some blogs that might be daily. For others, once a month is sufficient. The optimal blogging frequency is not critical. What is critical is to decide on a schedule, communicate it to your readers and stick to it! Avoid the temptation to over-commit. While most bloggers enjoy writing, it can be grueling.

2. Expand and enhance. Supplement your usual content by periodically sharing relevant quotes, articles and tips from others. You can also try using guest writers, treating your readers to different areas of expertise and points of view. A generous introduction to your guest author may result in them reciprocating on their blog, further expanding your following.

3. Keep posts short. Readers are looking for tidbits of actionable information, not detailed research. Keep posts short, preferably under 600 words. The average American reads less than 300 words per minute. Studies suggest 65% of visitors spend less than 2 minutes on a website. Therefore, an entry longer than 600 words will not be read in its entirety, if at all.

  • A better alternative to lengthy articles is to split them into multiple parts, posting them in consecutive entries. Begin each post with a review of what was discussed in the previous entry, and end with what to expect in your next post and when it will be shared.

4. Promote your blog. Add your blog’s web address to business cards, print media ads, letterheads, email signatures and so on. Adding a Quick Response Code to business cards and other medium is gaining popularity. A QR code allows Smartphone users to find your blog easily.

5. Use social media. Post summaries of blog posts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. Exercise care to comply with each platform’s unique character limitations.

  • Since you will always end with a hyperlink to your blog, use a free URL shortener like https://bitly.com/ if pressed for space.
  • Post blog entries on SlideShare or other article marketing sites by uploading a pdf file. The last paragraph should be a brief “About the author” with a hyperlink to your blog.
  • Blog posts can be featured in your monthly newsletter to customers and friends.

6. Support online sharing. Add plug-ins or widgets on your blog to promote article sharing through Facebook, Twitter and other social media vehicles you believe are likely to help capture your target market. Allow readers to bookmark your URL to their list of favorite sites with the click of a button.

7. Encourage feedback. Always thank readers who post comments. Be respectful of opinions and suggestions, even if you disagree with them. While it is perfectly appropriate to delete spam (an inevitable byproduct of successful blogging) or comments with inappropriate language, deleting reader comments simply because you disagree discourages feedback. Periodically end posts by asking readers for comments, suggestions and ideas for future articles.

8. Don’t give up too quickly. Some experts believe it takes about 100 posts before you begin to build a following. Most bloggers become discouraged and give up before reaching that milestone.

© 2013 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

You Can Count on a Guy in a White Hat

whitehatAs an entire generation who grew up watching Gun Smoke, The Lone Ranger and a long list of other television westerns knows, good guys always wore white hats!

One of the greatest Hollywood clichés of all times, it is deeply ingrained within each of us that you could count on a stranger in a white hat! They were sure to be honest, kind, generous, courageous, moral and chivalrous.

That leaves the other guys, the ones in the black hats. Just as good defines evil, they were the anti-hero of every storyline, the exact opposite of guys in white hats. A man in a black hat was surely dishonest, cruel, self-centered, cowardly, immoral and boorish. Good guys and bad guys were always on opposite sides of an issue. Fortunately, good always triumphed in the end.

So it is not surprising that when it came time to pick names for two broad categories of search engine optimization (SEO) practices, a baby boomer somewhere choose white hat and black hat to describe the opposite ends of a long spectrum of internet marketing techniques and philosophies.

The stakes are high in this modern day gunfight. Fair or not, a potential customer who has never heard of your company has no choice but to equate your search engine results and the quality of your content with the prominence of your company among your peers and the value of your products or services!

A study of December 2010 Google searches for B2B and B2C businesses found the top 3 search engine rankings got 60% of all click throughs, with the first position enjoying a click through rate (CTR) of 36.4%. Page one listings got 8 times more clicks than page 2. CTR differences by ranking were even more dramatic for key words with more than 1,000 searches per month.

What then are the distinguishing characteristics of these opposing marketing camps? They hinge on the answer to a single question. Does the marketer play by the largely unwritten and frequently changing rules of the major search engines (Google, Yahoo and Bing control over 95% of the market) or not?

Just like the old Code of the West, white hats follow the rules. They focus on engaging and informing readers rather than manipulating search engine algorisms. Their procedures include writing key word rich text (without meaningless repetition), link building and paid advertising using pay per click ad words.

Black hats still refuse to play by any rules. Their techniques include email spam, keyword stuffing, article spinning (posting substantially similar content in multiple locations) and using hidden text to trick search engines.

What are the rewards for playing by the rules of this 21st century Code of the Internet? White hat marketing can be expected to produce slower but longer lasting organic search rankings. Black hat techniques will likely eventually be penalized by search engines, reducing rankings or eliminating the listing from their database.

What color is your hat?

© 2013 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

“LIKE” IF YOU REMEMBER MYSPACE

MySpaceIs it just me, or has there been an explosion of people posting nostalgic photos on Facebook and asking you to click “Like” if you can remember a black and white picture of some fifties TV icon or a once popular consumer product from your youth? Time has a way of reducing our past to warm, fuzzy memories. Heck, show me a photo of a macho guy enjoying a cigarette on the back of a horse and I might even forget that three of the Marlboro Man actors died of lung cancer!

Digital media has done more than merely provide a medium to share the recollections of our youth. It has greatly diminished the time span during which products and services move from broad acceptance and popularity to distant memories. Allow me to offer two well-known examples.

Gutenberg’s 1440 invention of the printing press revolutionized communication. It made possible the sharing of ideas and information through the mass production of books. It took another 555 years, until 1995, for an upstart company named Amazon to start selling those same books using something that had been introduced just three years earlier. That something was the Internet.

It took another 12 years to popularize eReaders like their famous Kindle. Within four years, Amazon was selling three times as many eBooks as hard covers. Their success obviously does not include a plethora of competitors including the hugely successful Apple iPad. It seems almost certain the paper book will soon be a candidate for Facebook friends to ask you to “Like” if you can remember owning one.

Still, 600 years from invention to impending obsolescence is not a bad run! Now consider a more recent service life span.

MySpace was introduced in August 2003, six months before Facebook. Just two years later, it was the most visited social networking site on the planet. Rupert Murdock was so excited about its prospects that he paid $580 million for it in 2005. In 2006, it reached 100 million accounts, a level that required 1,600 employees to support.

Facebook over took it in April 2008.

In June 2011, Murdoch’s News Corporation sold MySpace for $35 million, a 94% loss on their six-year investment. With uncharacteristic understatement, Murdoch pronounced the purchase a “huge mistake”.

These examples illustrate three critically important points for all 21st century marketers.

  1. Communication trends change faster than businesses can anticipate. Most lack the resources to manage that change.
  2. Faced with a constantly expanding stream of free choices, your target audience no longer uses communications channels popular just a few years ago.
  3. Neither do your successful competitors.

The cost of failure is high. Even the most carefully designed marketing communiqué, be it a press release, an ad campaign, a newsletter, etc., will fail if it is not transmitted in the optimal channel.

The only way to avoid that mistake is to communicate a consistent message and single brand to over-lapping audiences across multiple channels. That is what successful digital media marketing is all about.

© 2013 by CFO America, LLC

Lessons from Cool Hand Luke: Failures in Business Communications (Part 2)

Last week, I discussed the potentially dire consequences of using the wrong channels when communicating with customers. Paul Newman’s famous line from Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate” served as my theme.

I outlined nine milestones in communications, from the printing press to the Internet. Today, I conclude with a follow-up on how each of those communications channels has fared over the years.

More recent developments in the nine communication mediums include the following:

1. The days of printed books and newspapers may be numbered. Consider the following:

  • Although Amazon keeps its sales figures close to its corporate vest, reports by Bloomberg and other sources suggest it likely sold over eight million Kindles in 2010. Amazon’s January 27, 2011 press release reported, “Amazon.com is now selling more Kindle books than paperback books. Since the beginning of the year, for every 100 paperback books Amazon has sold, the Company has sold 115 Kindle books. Additionally, during this same time period the Company has sold three times as many Kindle books as hardcover books.” Those sales were achieved in spite of stiff competition from the Apple iPad and other eReaders.
  • In an industry financed by advertisers, newspapers now cost more to reach a similar audience than radio, magazines, or websites. The Newspaper Association of America expected ad revenue to drop 9.7% in 2009 after falling 16.5% in 2008.

2. In a press release issued November 12, 2010, the U.S. Postal Service reported a loss of $8.5 billion in fiscal year 2010. They delivered 6.1 billion fewer pieces of mail than the previous year. Labeled advertising mail, 273 million pieces of daily junk mail make up 47% of Postal Service volume, but only 25% of its revenue.

3. Struggling from its failure to win a federal contract to deliver mail, the Pony Express announced its closure on October 26, 1861, two days after the transcontinental telegraph connected Omaha to Sacramento. During an 18-month existence, it succeeded in reducing the cost of a 1/2 ounce letter by 80%.

4. Home phones are being replaced by cell phones and other mobile devices. Smartphone users can now perform virtually any function available on a computer. They can also scan product bar codes for instant price comparisons and download directions to local competitors. In October 2010, CTIA-The Wireless Association reported in their 50 Wireless Quick Facts that over 89% of handsets operating on wireless networks are capable of browsing the web.

5. With its market steadily evaporating since the 1975 invention of digital cameras, Kodak ended a 74-year run when it discontinued production of Kodachrome film in 2009. SEC filings reported a $210 million loss that year. Kodak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January 2012. They will no longer manufacture cameras, and will sell its film division. The digital camera was invented by a Kodak engineer.

6. A July 2008 report by Borrell Associates titled Say Goodbye to Yellow Pages estimated the industry would lose 39% of its revenue over the next five years as small businesses focus more on online advertising. It was forecast that 2008 print revenue of $12.7 billion would decrease to $7.8 billion by 2013. In an age of instant information, an increasing number of businesses are obviously questioning the wisdom of spending scarce marketing resources on a medium that will not be distributed until months after incurring the expense. Some estimates suggest that up to 20% of small businesses do not survive to see their Yellow Pages ad in print. Meanwhile, concerns over the environmental impact of discarded books are causing cities to explore advanced recovery fee ordinances that will add millions of dollars to industry costs.

7. The marketing impact of satellite radio remains to be seen. Sirius FM Radio reports almost 22 million subscribers in some highly desirable demographics. Yet, the public company has not traded above $3 a share in over four years.

8. A four-decade oligopoly by ABC, CBS and NBC began to crack by the 1980s. Having once controlled 99% of all broadcasts, their market share dropped to 32% by 2005 according to the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. The Fox Network now produces the highest rated show on TV (American Idol) and the longest running primetime show (The Simpsons). The increased popularity of cable TV, Internet access to programming and digital recording devices threaten to redefine television’s role as the “high end” communications media. Fortunately, the ability to embrace technological changes has allowed television to hold the average American’s attention for 4.7 hours a day (according to a 2008 Nielsen report) over 60 years after its introduction. Finally, NBC’s owner Comcast announced in January 2011 they were dropping the iconic peacock from their corporate logo. This announcement ended a 56-year television tradition that first trumpeted the arrival of color programming to an entire generation of mesmerized children. Curse you, Comcast!

9. Lastly, the traditional model of text dominated static communications on a free World Wide Web navigated via a handful of search engines is being challenged. New paradigms including pay per click advertising, video and yes, social media are quickly redefining it.

As I reflect on this timeline, it occurs to me that few people can anticipate, let alone shape communications in this accelerating stream of consumer driven changes. Names like Gates, Bezos, Zuckerberg and a handful of other young billionaires come to mind.

The rest of us do well just to keep up with it.

The goal of today’s successful small businesses should be to meet customers in whatever communication channels they choose at that moment and to educate and influence (never dictate) consumer behavior as best they can.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” magic formula for success, no one thing that will permanently solve marketing challenges or slow the pace of change. What worked yesterday may not work tomorrow because as Tony Robbins and others have said, “The past does not equal the future!” That much is clear from the timeline. There is simply no substitute for hard work, vision and continuous planning and experimentation.

However, there is also much cause for hope.

Don Bradley and Chris Cowdery’s exhaustive study Small Business: Causes of Bankruptcy had this conclusion: “Evidence suggests that failure rates of small businesses in the United States are related to the nature of a capitalistic market in relying on competition where only the strongest survive. The causes for small business failure and ultimately bankruptcy are many. A successful entrepreneur is, no doubt, the consummate businessperson who must be a jack-of-all-trades. It is evident that nearly all entrepreneurs have the opportunity to control their own destiny. Success is obviously not a guarantee, but nor is failure. A well-rounded businessperson who has carefully planned and prepared with a clear vision of who and what the company is will have an excellent opportunity for success.”

I also point out that many of the marketing ideas discussed in this blog would not have been possible just a few short years ago. Many more have been made easier and more cost efficient by recent technological developments and increased Internet-based competition.

I therefore challenge and encourage you to seize the opportunity to control your own destiny, to embrace change, to experiment with new ideas, and to learn from your triumphs and your disappointments in these exciting times. Your business will grow in the process.

I wish you great success in your efforts and I hope you have fun in your journey.

© 2012 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

WHAT A CPA KNOWS ABOUT MARKETING: MORE SALES AREN’T ALWAYS THE ANSWER

There is an old joke about a marketing executive who bought a truckload of melons from a farmer for $1 each. He advertised them for sale at $0.85. When his CFO asked how he planned make a profit, he proudly replied, “Volume!”

Does that sound absurd to you? Surely, the story must be a throwback to the days before we had MBAs and complex modeling systems to direct our every move.

May I be honest? I have a degree in accounting, and have done graduate work in finance, not marketing. I have never worked in a purely marketing or sales function. Any marketing professional worth his salt has probably forgotten more on the subject then I will ever know. That explains the often-asked question of why a CPA wrote a book called Highly Visible Marketing, and blogs about marketing related topics.

I do not see myself as writing about marketing; at least not as the average person understands the word. I write about a business approach that is foreign to many marketing professionals. It is largely unheard of among small businesses.

I call it marketing accountability.

I focus clients on improving cash flow by growing the bottom line, not the top line. It is that focus that adds value.

Too many business people think like our melon-selling friend. They assume they can make money on any product or service, if they can just sell enough.

As obvious as it may sound, there must be a reasonable and measurable relationship between marketing costs and the expected cash flow and other benefits.

Without that mindset, there is no perceived need to compare costs and benefits. Little or no effort is spent matching expenses and revenues until someone asks why the cash balance is circling the drain or vendors start calling asking where their payment is.

Do you think I might be exaggerating the importance of accountability?

A 2005 study titled Small Business: Causes of Bankruptcy by Don B. Bradley III and Chris Cowdery of the University of Central Arkansas reported that of businesses in their study that filed for bankruptcy, 58% admitted to doing “little to no record keeping.” I assume a business that keeps no records has no ability to compare costs and benefits, let alone manage them.

I encounter this “I’ll make up the difference on volume” mentality with alarming frequency. One of those encounters was the cathartic event that led me to develop my marketing accountability approach.

I had a growing client who had reached $5 million in sales. Unfortunately, losses were growing even faster. They were in desperate straits, virtually out of cash. They thought the answer was to slash expenses and eliminate staff, while continuing to grow sales. In other words, they followed conventional business thinking.

I discovered they were losing money on their largest customer class, where all marketing efforts were directed. Much to their surprise, I did not suggest eliminating a single position. On the contrary, I recommended hiring a marketing person for the profitable customer base. I then directed  procedural improvements to make it easier for those customers to do business with my client. Finally, I suggested an immediate reduction in unprofitable customers.

Even more alarming is how often clients I assume are financially astute fall into the same trap. I worked with a very large company that started a bonus program on their entire product line. The problem was they lost money on some products, primarily because they were underpriced. The bonus structure did not differentiate between products. When sales of already unprofitable products increased, the added cost of bonuses produced a “double whammy” on the bottom line.

An appropriate tactic would have been to reward the sales force for increasing total sales, while also decreasing sales of unprofitable products.

As both examples illustrate, growing sales and increasing profits are not always synonymous. Admittedly, decreasing sales to improve cash flow and profits sounds counter-intuitive to someone lacking a firm grasp of their cost structure.

That is no excuse.

Knowing how to sell something without understanding the economic impact of those sales is a recipe for disaster. Those responsible for a promotion should also be held accountable for its results, good or bad. The ultimate result companies must focus on is how much cash a promotion puts in the bank. It really is that simple!

Does my marketing accountability approach work?

Here is what the client in the first example said, “While many companies are looking to cut back on employees as their first resort to handle cash shortages, CFO America was quick to point out that the right mix of customers was the crucial area of concern. They also were quite helpful in directing us in some marketing improvements that we could make. We are now in the process of implementing changes that are destined to enhance our financial picture.”

I leave you with that quote.

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

CFO America: Your Cash Flow Optimization experts

You Can Have Any Color You Want, As Long As You Want Black (Part 2)

Today I conclude the article on product driven versus market driven companies. I began by discussing the cultural differences between the two. Product driven companies concentrate on achieving and maintaining technical superiority. Market driven companies devote resources to brand development and customer communications.

Companies and industries sometimes attempt to adapt their marketing strategy in response to changing competition and other market forces. For example, conditions slowly but dramatically changed for the entire American automotive industry over the next 50 years. Detroit’s response to the 1973 oil embargo was a textbook case of a failed attempt to adapt. Faced with the first ever non-wartime limit on the availability of cheap gasoline, the American consumer suddenly became very conscious of gas mileage.

At the time, Japanese and European companies dominated the market for fuel-efficient sub-compacts. American manufacturers’ knee-jerk response was to jump headfirst into a market they had ignored until recently. They stepped up production of the notoriously undependable Ford Pinto (voted the worst car of all time), the Chevrolet Vega and the AMC Gremlin.

Detroit’s failure took a personal toll on an entire generation of consumers. My first car was a red, white and blue Pinto. It was a cornucopia of expensive mechanical problems, unrelenting frustration on a 94-inch wheelbase. I sold it just before a massive recall for an exploding gas tank problem that would eventually cost Ford millions of dollars in legal settlements.

My next car, a Toyota, sparked a love affair with foreign cars that continues today. It was 30 years before I bought another Ford, a pickup truck for my son. It took almost as long for American manufacturers to overcome the image of producing inferior cars. It remains to be seen whether they will ever regain the world market share they once enjoyed.

How have things changed since I bought that damn Pinto?

A national chain of men’s discount stores advertised, “An educated consumer is our best customer.” For a product driven company in 2011, an educated consumer might be more aptly described as their worst nightmare. Service industry executive and strategic planning expert Michael O’Loughlin recently summarized the reason. He said, “Thanks to the Internet, the consumer has come to believe that no concessions are ever necessary. They expect unlimited choices in meeting their needs.”

Potential customers are only a few clicks away from a myriad of rival goods and services. A consumer with a smartphone can compare competitors’ prices on the spot. Any business, even the smallest local operation, ignores those powerful market realities at their own peril. Broadening your product line or services can help fend off competition by better addressing market needs, and improve customer retention in the process.

The men’s store chain recently filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. One analyst said they had failed to keep up with the increasingly competitive off-priced clothing market.

My final point is that few successful companies employ an entirely one-sided strategy. They operate along a moving spectrum on which there are few absolutes, and no strategy guaranteed to bring success or failure.

Consider Ford one last time. Product limitations notwithstanding, they still managed to sell over 15 million units between 1908 and 1927. At one point, half of all the cars in the world were Model T’s. That production record stood until the Volkswagen Beetle finally surpassed it in 1972.

The correct strategy for your business is the one that is executable within the constraints of your cost structure and marketing budget, and that produces the highest net cash flow given all the relevant factors at work in your market and your competition.

I began this article with an old quote. I end with another. A marketing adage says, “You have to sell from your own wagon.” It refers to a bygone era when merchants plied their trade by pushing handcarts up and down urban streets. The adage may be true. However, today you get to decide how big your wagon is, and what products or services it carries.

Go forth and sell!

 © 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

You Can Have Any Color You Want, As Long As You Want Black (Part 1)

This week, I get to incorporate two of my favorite topics, history and old cars, into a two-part article. My title is one of Henry Ford’s most quoted statements. He actually said, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black”.

He said it in 1909, ironically at a time when black was not available. The Model T originally came in grey, green, blue and red. He did not implement his all black policy until 1914. However, He could have accurately said customers can have any model they want so long as it is a 2-door. But his quote sounds better, so I’m throwing journalistic accuracy to the wind and going with it!

I use it to introduce my real subject, product driven versus market driven companies. Henry obviously believed in a product driven strategy.

My first goal is simply to understand the difference between the two strategies and the corporate cultures that define them at the most basic level.

If you were involved in Ford’s marketing efforts back then, your job was to convince potential buyers they needed a black Model T, period! Your marketing approach was something like, “Here is what I have to sell, and this is why you need it.”

Contrast that to a market driven strategy that asks, “What do you need, and how can I best meet that need?”

The cultural differences between product and market driven companies run deep. Product driven companies will spend relatively more resources on product development. Their primary goal is to achieve and maintain technical superiority. In extreme examples, they believe their products are so good they simply sell themselves. Engineers will always outrank marketing in the corporate pecking order.

Market driven companies will devote more resources to brand their company and products, and on customer communications. Technical superiority is secondary to understanding customer needs and anticipating market changes. Product development is less mission critical than advertising, since the marketing department rules the roost.

My second point is that if you are going to sell a limited product or service line, you need to be very good at it. Ford was fanatical about producing cheap, dependable cars. He managed to reduce the original $850 sticker price to $290 by the 1920s. At that price, he owned the working family automotive market. He was so confident that the cars’ features and low cost could generate sufficient sales that he did no corporate advertising from 1917 to 1923.

Unfortunately, being first to market with a technically superior product offered at an affordable price is no guarantee of long-term success. As Ford Motor Company subsequently learned, competitors (increasingly on a global basis) have a long history of unseating early market leaders who grow complacent about ever-changing customer needs and wants.

Being a product driven company is certainly easier if you exercise some degree of control in your relevant market, and if consumer tastes are stable and predictable. Perhaps Ford was lulled into a false sense of security by assuming past market conditions, under which they flourished for decades, would continue indefinitely.

Car buyers in the 1920s were unsophisticated by today’s standards. They could not have imaged, let alone demanded the range of choices, options and features currently available. Ford was not the first company to replace dangerous hand cranks with electric starters. Cadillac beat them to market by seven years. However, when the world’s largest car manufacturer finally made the change in 1919, consumers and the rest of the industry fell in line. Ford defined the new standard, not Cadillac.

I will conclude this article on Friday, when I write about how companies sometimes attempt to adapt their strategies to changing market conditions.

Until then, best wishes for a joyous Thanksgiving holiday.

 

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

Customer Service #101: Buddy, Can You Spare a Sandwich?

I had an experience last week I feel compelled to share. It was Friday night, the end of a long week. After fighting construction traffic for 45 minutes, I stopped at a national fast-food chain. I ordered three sandwiches. Mind you, I didn’t order drinks, chips or dessert, just three sandwiches. The bill came to $27.14. Since I didn’t have much cash on me, I handed the salesclerk a credit card. I was informed their “system” only allowed credit card charges up to $20.

Since I have previously  bought takeout from this chain many times without encountering this problem, I’m not certain whether it is a new corporate policy, a misguided rule imposed only by this franchise, or if the employee was simply mistaken.

Regardless of the reason, it points out a common business failure. The problem is creating unnecessary obstacles for people who might otherwise become loyal customers.

I have written many times that competition is based on price, product or service. Those are your only three choices.

Perhaps spurred by the current slow economy, price competition is clearly the most promoted basis of competition. It is especially prevalent in the food service industry. Witness Applebee’s “Two eat for $20” or Pizza Hut’s “$10 any pizza, any size, any toppings” campaigns, just to cite two.

Low prices are completely objective, easily communicated and quickly adjusted as necessary. Unfortunately, while coupons, discounts and sales may bring more customers through your door, they always cut into your gross profit. You simply cannot consistently sell a product or provide a service for less than your cost and survive!

Price competition also presents a more immediate challenge. In a high-tech world where any customer with a Smartphone can quickly determine if your competition is offering a better price, the strategy is certainly no guarantee of marketing success. The risk is escalated if low-price guarantees are common in your business. Furthermore, if someone purchases only because you are the cheapest available option, he or she is unlikely to develop any customer loyalty unless you are always the low-price provider. Few businesses are large enough or profitable enough to be in that enviable market position.

Competing mainly on product also carries risks. Even if you think your product or service is unique, the reality is there are probably countless options that are close enough to serve as a substitute for customer needs. A classic example is the difference between a Lexus and a comparably equipped Toyota that sells for thousands of dollars less. Product competition is also complicated by the widespread availability of on-line shopping and free shipping.

That leaves service as the only basis of competition on which your business can truly distinguish itself. It is also the only one that doesn’t have to increase your operating costs, or cut gross profits. A friendly smile and prompt, courteous service cost nothing! More importantly, superior service cannot be instantly matched by the competitor up the street.

Superior service encompasses the entire customer experience, starting with the moment they enter your facility or contact you. It continues until the product or service produces the level of satisfaction the consumer expected. It includes point-of-sales services such as allowing credit cards, answering questions, gift-wrapping and perhaps even walking packages to their car. It also includes after-sale services like satisfaction guarantees, generous refund policies and warranty service.

What’s the lesson here? Ask yourself two questions. First, are your policies and procedures primarily designed to make your life easier, or to increase customer satisfaction? Secondly, are your employees adequately trained in those policies and procedures, and are they consistently delivering a customer experience that will keep shoppers returning year after year?

I’ll end with a quote from Mark Cuban, billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks. He summarizing the essence of Customer Service # 101 with this, “Make your product easier to buy than your competition, or you will find your customer buying from them, not you.”

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

Keep It Simple, Sweetie!

One of the pitfalls of marketing is to “over-think” your strategy. With over-thinking comes the risk of over-spending, a quandary sure to draw my attention.

One of today’s suggestions is so simple and inexpensive you may have overlooked it, even though you have seen it used hundreds of times.

Put a bowl or attractive container next to your cash registers and invite departing customers and guests to drop their business card in for a chance to win a free meal, store gift card or something else of value. This suggestion can be very effective in adding names to your mailing list. It obviously works only in situations where customers visit your physical location.

A modern-day variation of this time-tested marketing tool is to allow participants to post their contest entry on your Facebook Fan page. This addresses the situation of not having a business where customers visit your facilities. The catch is that to post on your wall, they must first “Like” your page.

Contests can also be used to encourage customers to return to claim prizes. Create a sense of excitement. Promote them in your email campaigns, blogs, social media, etc. by announcing winners, next month’s prizes, and so on. A slight variation of this simple marketing strategy is to select winners from customers who complete evaluation or survey forms.

Above all, conduct your contest with flair and elegance, or do not do it at all.

What Can Online PR Do for Your Small Business?

Today, I am pleased to have my very knowledgeable friend, Jim Bowman as a gust author. Regular readers to my blog will immediately recognize that his topic for today is near and dear to my heart.

Jim is a public relations expert. His 25-year career leading corporate communications departments included building one of the world’s top 10 global brands, and consultant to a national agency that launched the forerunner of the Blackberry. Jim was also a public affairs officer in the Secretary of the Air Force Office of Public Affairs, Eastern Region.

For the past decade, Jim has immersed himself in the ever-evolving world of online PR to serve clients ranging from startups to well-known publicly held corporations. Through that experience, he developed an approach that integrates the best of traditional and online public relations. Jim strongly believes that no PR professional can afford to ignore online PR or outsource it to specialists. It is an essential part of the skill set all PR professionals must have, as fundamental as writing, pitching and building relationships.

For more information on this subject, or to contact Jim Bowman, please visit http://www.theprdoc.com/.

Jim writes:

I subscribe to a number of online PR and marketing news alerts to track developments and trends. The quality is not uniformly good, and unfortunately, the feeds that consistently come up short are about small business marketing and public relations.

PR people spend considerable time debating how to charge and how to get others to appreciate them more, but few weigh in on how best to serve the needs of small businesses.

Considering the difficulty I have locating meaningful insights, I imagine small business owners find it at least equally difficult. It’s time to change that.

Make Your Image Big Online

Online PR offers small businesses a chance to look much bigger than they are, so they can compete more effectively with companies many times their own size.

If you own a small business and you’re not using any form of public relations in your marketing mix – especially online PR – you’re missing out on a great way promote your business.

I say that as a former small business owner who has done “traditional” public relations for global giants and pre-IPO start-ups. Now I help small businesses use public relations to do more business and make more money.

Public Relations Attributes

PR often is used interchangeably with publicity, but that’s a mistake. In some cases, good PR involves getting no publicity at all. Among other things, PR is:

  • Interacting with your constituencies – prospects, clients, vendors, employees, your community and the public at large – to build your brand, image and reputation;
  • Getting the benefit third-party credibility when others say good things about your products and services;
  • A long-term proposition – you must work at it consistently for months and years to get best results;

Online PR Is…

All of the above and more, using digital tools that include:

  • Keyword research;
  • Search engine optimized content – press releases, articles, videos, blog posts and informational web pages;
  • A variety of specialized websites;
  • Simultaneous outreach to prospects and customers, as well as journalists.

Public relations always has been a great way for small businesses to get known, usually at substantially less cost than advertising. The Internet magnifies and increases the effectiveness of online PR and makes it an essential tool for small businesses.

Today, small brick and mortar businesses that have flown under the radar of local newspapers are finding audiences online. PR pros who know how to serve them are doing well, as are business owners with the inclination and time to do their own public relations.

 

Thank you, Jim. I’m sure my readers have enjoyed this topic, and look forward to hearing from you again soon.

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