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

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

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

Resolve To Make a Decision

Abraham Lincoln once described a general who was unwilling to make decisions under pressure as “acting like a duck that had been hit on the head.” I have never actually observed the behavior of waterfowl suffering from cranial trauma, although I once accidentally hit a duck with a stone skimmed across a frozen pond. But that was long ago and involved an entirely different part of the duck’s anatomy.

I have observed the behavior of managers making (or not making) decisions enough to conclude that the majority of problems in business are not because someone made the wrong decision, but because no one made any decision. Will Rogers summarized the risk of indecision with this, “Even if you are on the right track, you will get run over if you just sit there.”

To be sure, there are “mission critical” decisions that have the long-term potential to make or break any organization. Nevertheless, unless you are a heart surgeon or an airline pilot, most mistakes are to some extent correctable, at least within limited timeframes.

Decision making is a cognitive process involving logic, reasoning and problem solving skills. Unfortunately, each of us enters the process with preconceived biases and exhibits some degree of “decision inertia” or a reluctance to move off those biases when faced with new facts or circumstances. Business decisions can be reduced to a four-step process as illustrated in the following diagram.

The first step is to analyze the problem and identify solutions. This is largely a fact gathering exercise involving input from multiple sources and considering alternative courses of action.

It is important to differentiate between problem analysis and decision making. Although it may sound redundant, success requires the decision maker to do just that, make a decision. Theodore Roosevelt said, “In any moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

While the dreaded “paralysis of analysis” may be seen as the cause, the reality is many people, perhaps including Mr. Lincoln’s general, simply find it safer not to make decisions, even in obvious situations.

As an example, I was once responsible for opening three new offices and hiring several hundred employees, including managers with company cars. The fleet manager came to me in a panic one day. Company policy allowed employees to select their own cars. This meant they would be without cars for several weeks. I calmly asked what the choices were, and immediately ordered 15 identical cars. She asked how I knew they would like the cars. The truth was I neither knew nor cared! Since a decision was needed, I made it. The managers arrived on their first day to find a fleet of new cars waiting on the front row. As expected, no one died.

Investment professionals report there is a tendency to “sell winners too quickly and hold on to losers too long.” The reason we hold on to losers is primarily a subconscious reluctance to admit mistakes. Your focus should be on early detection of challenges and the identification and implementation of appropriate corrective action. American author Arnold H. Glasow put it this way, “One of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes an emergency.” Be willing to make changes if indicated by the monitoring process, even at the risk of exposing your mistakes. Tony Robbins put it this way, “Stay committed to your decisions; but stay flexible in your approach.”

Accountability is paramount to a successful decision making process. If you want credit for your accomplishments, be willing to take responsibility for mistakes. Have enough confidence to say, “I was wrong, now let’s fix it.” Remember, your goal is not to avoid all mistakes. Simply doing nothing would accomplish that. Your goal is to minimize the impact of missteps and learn from them.

I end with this comment by Peter Drucker, management consultant and author of 39 books. He said, “Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.”

P.S. My apologies to PETA for the whole duck by the frozen pond rock skimming long time ago hit in the anatomy thing.

© 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.

What do Football and Chicken Wings Have in Common?

Today’s title sounds suspiciously like the opening line of a bad joke. Maybe a little later. Actually, it was inspired by last night’s start of the 2011 – 2012 NFL season. Green Bay defeated the Saints in a 42 to 34 nail biter. Therefore, I thought it was appropriate to start today’s blog with a football reference. Here it is!

Did you ever wonder why GMC is the “official truck” of the National Football League? It is not as if they haul injured players off the field on Sierra Hybrids. If they did, can we assume the trucks would be using Castrol, the “official motor oil” of the NFL?

An even bigger question might be why Wingstop is the “official chicken wing” of the Dallas Cowboys. For that matter, do the Cowboys really need an official chicken wing and if so, do they taste better than unofficial wings? I am guessing the nutritional value is about the same. Wingstop is not wondering about those questions. Executive Vice President Andy Howard reported Sunday sales for the 2010 season were up 15 percent in spite of the Cowboys’ disappointing 6 and 10 record.

Endorsement marketing is common in the insurance industry. For example, Hartford Insurance Company teamed up with the AARP to become the endorsed auto and home insurer to the AARP’s reported 40 million members. The AARP also offers life insurance products through New York Life, and long-term care products through Genworth Financial Group.

I am not suggesting you attempt to negotiate a deal with the NFL or a million-member national organization. Start small, on a state or local level. Identify organizations whose members use your products or services. Associations are usually eager to earn income from sources other than their membership. For the cost of an associate membership, an advertisement in their quarterly newsletter or a booth at their annual convention, you can probably find trade associations and similar groups willing to designate your company as the official supplier for your product or service. That in turn provides access to their membership directory, and perhaps speaking engagements.

  • A rule of thumb in the insurance industry is these marketing costs should not exceed two percent of anticipated revenue.
  • The best place to find organizations is your state capital where many will be headquartered.
  • If you are not prepared to market on a statewide basis, find out if there are local or regional chapters.

Do not overlook educational institutions and fraternal organizations as a source of endorsement sales. I knew a small business that was the preferred supplier of screen-printed and embroidered shirts for 50,000 students at Texas A&M University. How much is that endorsement worth? For the 2010 “Maroon Out” football game against Nebraska, one of many annual events the tradition-loving Aggies commemorate with shirts (I have paid for a closet full of them in recent years), the University’s student body, alumni and supporters reportedly bought over 55,000 shirts. My unofficial source tells me the supplier was paid $3.50 apiece.

Again, start small. You are more likely to land a profitable endorsement from a local high school sports team or a Parent-Teacher Association than from a major university. I also knew a one-shop sporting goods store that sold letter jackets for several large high schools. If you have raised a teenager in recent years, you know how expensive these customized items can be.

Let me end with one last football story.

The Seven Dwarfs were marching through the forest one day when they fell in a deep, dark ravine. Snow White, who was following along, peered over the edge and called out to the dwarfs. From the depths of the dark hole a voice returned, “The Cleveland Browns are Super Bowl contenders.” 

Snow White said to herself, “Thank God! At least Dopey survived!”

Would You Like a Beer With That Latté?

Alan Zell, author and retail marketing expert said, “Every business needs more business. That is an accepted fact. The unaccepted fact is that most businesses don’t use all the opportunities available that will bring them additional business. When one looks for additional business, the primary goal should center around getting second sales. What are second sales and why are they important? Second sales are add-on sales, repeat sales and sale by referral. They are important because they are much less expensive to get than first sales.”

I wrote about second sales, or up selling as it is more commonly referred to, last week. Today I will present two more ways to squeeze additional revenue out of your existing customer base. Allow me to begin with an actual example.

If you are a pet owner, you are aware of a powerful strategy veterinary clinics employ to drive sales and increase profits. That strategy is boarding facilities. Think about your experiences boarding pets. Chances are you also have them washed and groomed, and probably address checkups, shots and other recurring medical needs. Of the $65 average daily bill when boarding our Rottweiler, over half is for services other than boarding. I willing pay the $65 because it meets another important need. It buys the added assurance that if anything happens to my 12-year-old dog, she will be well taken care of until I return.

The point is that in addition to being profit centers in their own right, boarding facilities attract customers and generate revenue for other areas of veterinary services.

Ask yourself, “What is an equivalent up selling strategy for my business?” To be successful, it should be either complementary or counter-cyclical to your primary business. Here is an example of each strategy.

Complementary strategy: Starbucks announced a textbook example of a complementary marketing strategy in 2010. They began test marketing beer and wine sales at several Seattle locations. Designed to supplement a product line that holds diminishing customer appeal after the morning rush hour, alcohol goes on sale at 4:00 PM. Starbucks also announced their Starbucks VIA® Ready Brew coffee in 2010. It comes in four flavors, and is available online and through grocery stores and other retail channels. Not surprisingly, it was widely reported in 2011 that Starbucks has replaced Burger King as the nation’s third largest restaurant chain, a major accomplishment for a “non-burger and fries” chain.

Counter-cyclical strategy: Installing holiday lighting is big business in my town. Contractors spend most of November and early December installing lights. They spend January removing, repairing and storing lights for the summer. What do the installers do the rest of the year? I frequently see their trucks around town. I have also met several installers over the years. Everyone had a lawn maintenance or landscaping business that not coincidentally keeps them busy from March through October.

Finally, consider the capital investment (inventory, new equipment, sales training etc.) required for your new products or services, and the payback period expected before the strategy generates a positive cash flow.

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

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