Bull Horns in Cyberspace, Part 1

Last Friday CFO America’s blog began with the question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a noise?” It concluded by assuring readers that falling tress always make noise. That got me thinking about things we can do to make noise, or rather what we can do to attract attention to our blogs. It also caused me to reflect on some of the mistakes I have made over the past six months (listen to me, the battle-hardened veteran) as a blogger.

Today I will present Part 1 of a two-part article on this topic. Here are my thoughts for today:

1. Pick a schedule and stick to it! The correct blogging frequency is whatever best helps you connect with your target audience. For some blogs that may be daily, for others once a month. Unfortunately, this is not a variable that invites experimentation. Fortunately, it is not so much a question of having the optimal blogging frequency. Simply commit to a schedule and tell your readers when to expect new posts. While most bloggers enjoy writing, too great a frequency can be grueling. I blog every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, something I have done faithfully except for a handful of holidays. As you gain followers, do not confuse or disappoint them by not keeping your commitment. Here are a few thoughts to help ease the burden of your commitment.

  • Consider using guest writers periodically. That way your readers are treated to different areas of expertise and points of view. It is also a great way to support your friends and network contacts. Hopefully, they will reciprocate and share some of your articles on their website, further extending your reach through cyberspace.
  • Instead of your usual topics or content, occasionally supplement your original writing by sharing (with appropriate attribution) relevant quotes, historical notes, articles and tips written by others. You might also ask readers to suggest topics.
  • Do not give up too quickly. As I said on Friday, Fred Campos of FunCitySocialMedia believes it takes about 100 posts before you begin to build a following. Many bloggers become discouraged and give up before reaching that milestone.

2. Keep posts short, preferably under 600 words. I say this for three reasons.

  • First, readers are looking for “McNuggets” of actionable information, not the English translation of War and Peace.
  • Secondly, the average American adult reads 250 to 300 words per minute. Numerous studies suggest that over 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. I should add that the average time spent on CFO America’s blog is three minutes and nine seconds, an unusually long time, but one for which I am grateful!
  • I began blogging by posting excerpts from my book, Highly Visible Marketing, 115 Low-cost Ways to Avoid Market Obscurity. By making blog entries too long, I undoubtedly lost readers before the end of long articles. More importantly, I also ran through my previously written material too quickly. Save some your creative material for another day! A better alternative to lengthy articles is to split them into multiple parts, posting them in consecutive entries. I begin with a brief review of what was discussed in the previous blog, and end by telling readers what to expect in the next entry.

Let me now practice what I preach by ending for today. On Friday, I will present Part 2 of On Bull Horns in Cyberspace. It will discuss suggestions for defining your style and promoting your blog through other social media tools.

Until Friday, please continue to provide valuable feedback and share this information with your friends, coworkers and other associates. Why not add a comment below before leaving today?



Improving Those Email Statistics

I am in the process of completing and preparing for a series of free seminars called “What’s Your Story”? It deals with ways of communicating a consistent marketing message and brand to multiple audiences at little or no out-of-pocket cost. In the presentation, I use email marketing to illustrate why you need to use multiple communication channels to reach your entire target market.

Email has at least one major advantage over many other channels. It is very easy to study statistics and trends in things like open rates and click through rates. One of the major vendors tracks open rates by about 30 industry categories. The highest is only 27%. That means that an average email campaign can expect that fewer than three out of every 10 people who receive the email are going to open it. More importantly, recognize that the largest part of your target market will never make it on to your distribution list.

Your email needs to be above average! It is critically important to squeeze the best possible results out of your email marketing efforts. Experiment with things like how the timing and subject line of your email effects the statistics. I read an interesting post called The 4 Words That Will Get Your Email Opened by Sean Platt of the copyblogger.com. It said that in his experience, the most effective subject line for virtually any type of email marketing distribution was simply “You Are Not Alone.” Platt’s theory is this headline appeals to a universal human need to know there is someone who shares our common experiences and is willing to help solve our problems. Interesting theory Sean. I may experiment with that one myself!

There is another theory (unproven in my mind) that people will work harder to maintain what they already have than to gain something they need. You can test this hypothesis by tailoring your subject lines accordingly. For example, a marketing newsletter might be promoted from the perspective of how to maintain existing customers. A human resources discussion could be presented in terms of how to motivate and retain valuable employees. The same thought applies to event marketing.

As email has matured as a communications media, people have become more discerning not only in what they open but also in giving out email addresses. Do not abuse or waste an engraved invitation to their inbox. Allow me a simple analogy to illustrate the point. Whatever subject line you choose, remember that it is only an invitation to your electronic party. Like a real party, you still need to deliver “the goods” that your guests are expecting when they arrive. The expected goods are either valuable information or a chance to save money on your products and services. If you fail to deliver, they are unlikely to attend another party.

As you are writing copy for an email newsletter, article marketing, blogging, and so on, also keep in mind that the average reader is very busy and perhaps somewhat impatient. They are not searching for an online English translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. They are looking for interesting, concise articles and information that provide relevant content in a reader-friendly format. Tailor your writing style to match that profile for maximum opens. Again, this also applies to event marketing.

Finally, you might be tempted to save the cost of an email service and simply send a mass distribution to all your contacts in Microsoft Outlook. A reason not to do that is that email services offer spam-checking software that will identify potential problems in your wording and structure. Make corrections accordingly and avoid being trapped in recipients’ spam filters. Instead of sending emails with Outlook, visit MailChimp.com. They allow you to send emails to 2,000 recipients free.

Have a safe weekend. I want you back here bright and early Monday morning.

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.

Web-based Sales Platforms – Part 3

First, let me say that this picture of the Prince William and his new bride has absolutely nothing to do with today’s blog post on web-based sales platforms. Although having been awoken at 3 AM to watch the ceremony live, I probably look and feel like the little girl on the left; cranky, tired and a little out of sorts!

On Wednesday, I discussed Groupon, the largest and most popular “deal of the day” company. Like eBay, Groupon also has its detractors. If the economics or mechanics of Groupon simply do not work for your business, you are not alone. However, you may have cost effective alternatives readily available. Groupon is quickly gaining new competition. An article in the April 25, 2011 edition of Forbes Focus by Brendan Coffey estimated Groupon has 425 “me-too” competitors, and suggested that future competition may include Facebook and Google. Groupon rejected a $6 billion buy-out offer from Google in December of 2010.

While I have not evaluated specific vendors, here are several options you may wish to explore on your own.

  • Some cities and regions are creating websites to distribute coupons and advertise specials to promote local businesses, and typically at a lower net cost than the big-name national sites. I was pleased to see several such sites advertise on television during a visit to the Central Coast region of California. As an example, look at www.slocoupons.com. It promotes commerce in San Luis Obispo County. Search the Internet and ask your network contacts for comparable programs in your area.
  • Socialdish.com is scheduled to launch in March 2011, so its ultimate success has yet to be determined as of this writing. However, what makes it worth watching is that it is structured as a multilevel marketing program. It will distribute 30% of its fees through 10 levels of “downlines” as people recruit their friends and family. The limited information available at this time indicates Socialdish’s charges to advertisers will be less than Groupon.
  • LivingSocial.com is another “deal-of-the-day” type competitor to Groupon. This company was partially financed by the online retail juggernaut Amazon.

On Monday, I will discuss several more Internet websites that allow you to promote your services or locate potential clients at little or no cost.

In the meantime, best wishes to the Royal couple. If you are ever in North Texas, stop over. We’ll throw some red meat on the grill and I’ll tell you all about the War of 1812. And if you have any questions on marketing, I can tackle those too. Kate, I understand you family runs a small business. Who handles your finances?

Web-based Sales Platforms – Groupon

Today I continue the discussion of web-based sales platforms as low-cost marketing opportunities. I introduced this topic on Monday with a short post about eBay. While eBay has become phenomenally successful, it does have its detractors. Fortunately for today’s small business owner, it now has a wide variety of competition to accommodate your marketing efforts.

National websites that distribute coupons and advertise specials are interesting and growing promotional vehicles. Perhaps the best know of these so-called “deal of the day” enterprises is Groupon. It was the subject of an August 30, 2010 Forbes Magazine article called Meet the Fastest Growing Company Ever by Christopher Steiner. Its name is a play on the words “group” and “coupon,” a misnomer since customers purchase discounted vouchers, not coupons. If your specified minimum number of customers is achieved, you are paid immediately. It costs nothing unless the offer is completed.

Groupon’s compensation is a healthy portion of the offering proceeds, plus credit card fees. Customer discounts of at least 50% seem to be the norm. Groupon is therefore a viable platform to distribute gift cards and to introduce customers to high margin products or services, especially where additional full-price sales are anticipated during the initial or repeat sales.

  • The most obvious risk of incorporating Groupon into your marketing plan is attracting customers who will only buy at a substantial discount. If your Groupon pricing strategy is contingent on support from full-price repeat sales, this venue could become a textbook example of a strategy that increases sales while decreasing net income. Monitor results closely and be prepared to run away if necessary.
  • Another possible concern is that your promotion will be announced as part of a daily email distribution scheduled by Groupon; you have no control over its timing.
  • Finally, it is possible to become a victim of your own success with Groupon if you do not place an upper limit on how many discount vouchers you are willing to sell. This can happen in at least two ways. First, if your offer is attractive enough, placing limits on it (experiment as you would with any new promotion) will avoid the risk of having more customers than you can accommodate. A line of unhappy customer wannbes standing outside your store with Groupon vouchers in hand is not good public relations. Secondly, you are likely to lose money on every Groupon sale. For example, a $100 gift card offered for $50 will only generate about $23 in your pocket. Further assume the cost of providing that $100 of goods or service is $80. You will therefore lose about $57 on every Groupon voucher. Know your numbers and factor the expected gross loss into your marketing budget.

On Friday, I will discuss several “deal of the day” alternatives to Groupon.

Web-based Sales Platforms

This week I will continue with the general topic of Internet-based marketing opportunities for small businesses. Specifically, I will discuss web-based sales platforms as a low-cost marketing tool. I begin that discussion today with a short post about eBay.

There is nothing new or cutting edge about suggesting eBay as a sales platform. The world’s most popular online auction website has been around since late 1995 when founder Pierre Omidyar sold a broken laser pointer for $14.83. In all fairness, he later sold a Gulfstream jet for $4.9 million. According to eBay’s website, gross merchandise volume for 2009 approached $60 billion thanks to 90 million users and numerous specialty websites. Retailers can use individual listings or eBay stores. They can offer products using traditional auctions, fixed prices or fixed prices with best-offer options.

To be sure, eBay has its detractors. However, depending on the nature of your products and operations, there may be a place for eBay in your marketing strategy.

  • Analyze and define your eBay marketing strategy through a little homework and some low-cost experimentation. Why not list a few items and see what happens?
  • If eBay becomes a significant part of your marketing efforts, consider the impact of your Internet pricing strategy on existing “brick and mortar” sales. You will have to balance the added cost of shipping against the marketing risk of under-pricing online products relative to what customers are charged in your physical location.

On Wednesday, I will discuss a growing phenomenon known as Groupon, including several potential pitfalls associated with it.

Internet Marketing for Small Business-Part 5

On Monday, I introduced the topic of email as a low-cost marketing tool. Here are a few final points that apply to your evaluation and implementation of both email marketing and survey campaigns:

You will be surprised how few people open your email. ConstantContact tracks “open rates” by about 30 industry categories. Marketing and PR firms (who should be able to achieve stellar results) are 13%. The highest category is only 27%. It is a numbers game, so do not get discouraged. Above all, do not confuse activity with results in your accountability evaluation. A 100% open rate is worthless unless it generates sales, develops new leads or gathers useful marketing data.

Two other valuable statistics are your bounce rate (percentage of undeliverable emails) and your clickthrough rate (percentage of recipients who visit your website from the email link). The first shows how current and accurate your email lists are. The second provides a measure of the effectiveness of your online campaign. Compare both rates to industry averages as published by ConstantContact or one of the other vendors.

Consider the typical schedule and workload of your intended audience. Emails and surveys sent to accountants on April 14 or to retailers the week before Christmas are not going to achieve acceptable response rates.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” Apply his philosophy by scheduling mailings on different days of the week and different times of the day. Never schedule a mailing immediately before or after a holiday. It will be deleted in the rush to leave early or buried in an avalanche of emails that piled up over the long weekend.

Also, experiment with the frequency of distributions. Depending on how you use email, you may decide to do weekly or monthly mailings. Get into a regular routine. Victoria’s Secret sends daily emails. My wife finds this excessive, presumptuous and annoying. I might be forced to unsubscribe if they do not slow down. Then again, maybe not. It is all about content.

Many recipients make snap decisions whether to open or delete an email based solely on its subject line. Choose something inviting that suggests a reason to read it. Titles in the form of questions, “how to” advice or lists (for example, Five Ways to Increase Your Sales) are usually effective.

Finally, always have someone proofread every communication before issuing it.

Have a great Easter weekend, I will be right here on Monday with a new topic to help you achieve Highly Visible Marketing. Best wishes until then.

Internet Marketing for Small Business-Part 4

On Monday, I introduced email-based survey programs as a low-cost marketing tool. Surveys can offer feedback from current and former customers, or an entire market. They can also provide market intelligence on your competition and industry.

While a complete outline of a survey program is well beyond the intended scope of this book, here are a few quick points you should keep in mind:

  • Begin your survey with a clearly defined plan. What do you hope to learn, what questions will help you gather the information necessary to achieve your goals, and what actions will you take because of the information gathered?
  • Make questions clear, precise and short. Each should address only one area or piece of information. For example, responses may be ambiguous if participants are asked about price and service in the same question.
  • Close-ended questions (where the respondent selects from a limited number of specified answers) are easier to analyze. Open-ended questions provide more qualitative information. Consider a combination of both types of questions.
  • Being constantly patted on the back accomplishes little, other than eventually wearing out the fabric on your shoulder. In business, it is far more valuable to receive an honest assessment of what you are doing wrong. Therefore, be willing to accept and act on the results of your survey, warts and all. Nevertheless, a press release may be in order if a favorable outcome justifies it.
  • Ask how likely the respondent is to do business with you again and how likely they are to recommend you to someone else. If either answer is no, determine why.
  • Construct surveys so they take no more than 10 minutes to complete.
  • Offer an incentive (like a 20% coupon) for those who give you the 10 minutes.
  • If you decide to incorporate the U.S. Postal Service to survey customers without Internet access, include a postage-paid return envelope. Your response percentage will be abysmal without one.

On Friday, I will discuss a few final points that apply to your evaluation and implementation of both email marketing and survey campaigns. Best wishes until then.

Internet Marketing for Small Business-Part 3

Last week, I began a discussion of email marketing and surveys as marketing tools for your business. I continue with that same topic today with some simple suggestions to command more attention with your advertising campaigns. Consider the following ideas when developing your marketing plan.

Email marketing commands far more attention if it includes special offers, coupons or discounts. For example, there is a colorful gourmet restaurant near my home. It has been featured on the Food Network’s television show Diners, Drive-ins and Dives with Guy Fieri. Friends and customers are treated to a coupon for a free serving of the restaurant’s signature dessert when they opt-in to the mailing list. They then receive a monthly newsletter that promotes new menu items, shares recipes, and so on. It always includes a coupon for a free dessert, 10% off an entree or a similar enticement. Their website and newsletters promote their Facebook page, Twitter account, blog and numerous YouTube videos. Visit www.chefpointcafe.org to see this outstanding example of an integrated Internet and social media marketing campaign. While I cannot comment on its financial success, I will tell you if you happen to be near Watauga, Texas around mealtime, stop in. However, plan on waiting in a long line.

  • Study emails you receive and think about what makes them appealing or ineffective. It is always cheaper to learn from someone else’s mistakes than to make them yourself!

Online or email surveys are such a flexible and valuable marketing tool that it is difficult to structure an argument not to conduct them on a regular basis. Most of the vendors listed on Friday offer survey capabilities, as do a myriad of other Internet vendors (see www.SurveyMonkey.com as an example). Several of the social media platforms discussed in Chapter 7 also offer free tools for simple surveys. Begin to explore these options by Goggling “Twitter survey tools.” Given the wide variety of competing vendors, there is probably no reason to spend more than $300 a year for even the largest of survey programs.

Surveys can offer feedback from current and former customers, or an entire market. They can also provide market intelligence on your competition and industry. Surveys monitor customer perceptions of your entire value proposition, namely your products, services and prices. They can also help uncover aspects of your value proposition that customers are unaware of, or perhaps undervalue relative to your costs.

While a complete outline of a survey program is well beyond the intended scope of this book, on Wednesday I will discuss a few quick points you should keep in mind.

Internet Marketing for Small Business-Part 2

On Wednesday, I began a discussion of email marketing and surveys as marketing tools for your business. Through this book, I have stressed low-cost experimentation as a means to fine-tune your marketing strategies without sabotaging your bottom line. Email marketing and survey programs are the perfect opportunity to apply that principle.

A prerequisite for email campaigns is a sufficiently large mailing list. Offer an incentive to prospects willing to opt-in or join your mailing list. We have all jotted down invalid information to escape the clutches of a pushy sales person. Therefore, do not hand out coupons or gifts on the spot; mail or email them. That way invalid data costs nothing.

Once you have established a customer and prospect database, it is time to consider an email marketing campaign through a vendor like:

  • BenchmarkEmail
  • Campaigner
  • ConstantContact
  • iContact
  • MailChimp
  • Pinpointe
  • VerticalResponse

Several of these already low-cost vendors are actually free, depending on the size of your mailing list and the number of monthly emails. Many also offer a free trial period. All the services allow you to download and manage email lists, and to create professional looking newsletters and other documents. They give recipients the ability to click through to your website for more information, and to forward emails to others. If they like what they see, their network then has the opportunity to opt-in to your mailing list. Email marketing services also offer the ability to promote, manage and even collect registration fees for event-based marketing ideas as previously discussed in this series. Keep the following points in mind in your analysis and planning process:

  • Structure email campaigns so you can track actual sales and new leads. There are several ways to accomplish this. One is to offer unique promotions or promotional codes in each communication channel. Another is to require customers to print the email promotion and present it in person to redeem it.
  • Prices for email marketing services vary. They can be based on fixed monthly fees, sliding scales depending on the size of your mailing list, or a fixed charge per email. Several vendors offer limited free trials. Shop around and speak with your network contacts to find the one that best fits your needs and budget.
  • Perhaps most importantly, email marketing vendors help ensure compliance with the Federal Trade Commission’s Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act (CAN-SPAM) of 2003. This is the federal standard for commercial email.

I will continue this discussion next week, starting with some simple suggestions to command more attention with your email advertising campaigns. Enjoy the weekend and I hope to have you back here early Monday morning.

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