Odds and Ends

It’s Friday, and sometimes on Friday it’s just good to catch up on a few things that have come up during the week.  Besides, we don’t want to hit you with anything heavy this close to the weekend.

IBM challenges Microsoft in the office productivity market.  Computer giant IBM has announced Lotus Symphony, a challenger to Microsoft Office.  Symphony is an office suite including a word processor, a spreadsheet program and presentation program.  The good news is that IBM is offering Symphony for free.  We’ll be testing it here at MYOB and let you know how it works.  If you’re interested, you can check it out at IBM’s web site.  [Disclaimer:  We aren’t endorsing Lotus Symphony since we haven’t tried it yet.  This post is for you information only.]

There’s an interesting post at Communications Overtones called What I Learned About PR at McDonald’s.  You’d think that it would be a high-level marketing piece from someone who’s worked in the corporate office. No, Kami Huyse is actually talking about her experience working part time at Mickey D’s when she was a teenager.  The piece is fairly short and very interesting.

Congratulations to Sue Pratt and Kendra Wilson of our Baby Lock division.  Ken Tacony forwarded an email today that he received from a customer commending Sue and Kendra for going the extra mile to satisfy a local customer.  In his introduction to the customer’s email, Ken pointed out

"We aren’t the only company to supply many of the same products, so we have to
differentiate ourselves with our service and willingness to go the “extra” step,
every day." 

That’s good advice for anyone in the business of  serving customers.  Ken also mentioned his Dad’s philosophy of everyone pitching in to get things done, especially when it came to satisfying the customer.  I can remember many times, back when we were just barely a $10 million company, when all of us would take off our ties, roll up our sleeves and head out to the warehouse to help fill an order.  When I say "all of us", I mean all of us; from Nick Tacony on down.

Nowadays, insurance regulations and common sense keep me from operating a fork lift, but we still put the customer first and will do whatever it takes to live up to our mission statement.

Have a great weekend!

The Freestyle Entrepreneur

This authors of this blog say they offer "Survival skills for those of us crazy enough to work for ourselves."  They describe their mission as providing useful information for small businesses, very similar to our platform at Mine Your Own Business.  This week TFE is hosting the "Carnival of Small Businesses Issues" and our post from last week, "Social Media" was one of the ones chosen to be included.

Check out The Freestyle Entrepreneur, especially the Carnival.  You’ll find some good stuff there.

Why You Should Have a Blog

Neville Hobson is a British communications expert who has more than twenty-five years experience in public and media relations.  His blog is located at NevilleHobson.com.  On Friday, Neville posted some interesting statistics on blog usage by businesses in the UK.  Granted, most of our readers reside in the United States, but Great Britain’s use of the social media seems to be very similar to the usage in the US.  At any rate, here are some highlights of the survey for your consideration.

The survey was conducted by a company called Loudhouse and included 300 companies.

  • 50% of companies are involved in blogging.
  • 64% of company blogs were started in the past six months.  To look at it another way, only 36% of companies have been blogging for more than six months proving once again that at Tacony Corporation, we’re on the cutting edge.  (That’s called "Shameless Self-Promotion, but it’s also another good reason to have a blog.)
  • 86% of companies report that their blog has generated either "moderate" or "significant" business opportunities.
  • One in three blog visitors will access a blog daily. 29% will visit weekly.
  • Two thirds of businesses believe that blogs are becoming more influential as an information source.
  • Nearly one half (46%) believe that blogs can drive future business opportunities.

Some of the top uses for blogs?

  • To get feedback from customers (66%)
  • To develop new business/drive sales (55%)
  • To get information to customers quickly (42%).

Our recent survey told us that many of you have a hard time getting everything done every day.  A blog can be time-consuming, especially at first.  On the other hand, there are tools available that make blogging very simple to do and there are ways to get around the time issue.

First, as the Loudhouse survey shows, about 1/3 of blog visitors only visit once a week.  A weekly blog may be all you need, especially to start.

Second, you don’t have to be the company blogger.  A trusted, creative employee could be your best choice.  A blog post can be saved for your approval prior to posting.  You may also have a family member who would be happy to contribute by writing a weekly blog.

Finally, if you can get your readers to start commenting on a regular basis (hint, hint), then you job becomes that much easier.  There are a number of good books available on blogging and a ton of resources on the Internet to help you get started.

Jott

Here’s something new that you may find very useful.  How many times have you had a great idea and couldn’t write it down?  Maybe you were driving down the interstate, or you couldn’t find a pencil and paper.  You were sure you’d remember it, but you didn’t and it was gone forever. As long as you have cell phone service, Jott solves the problem.

Here’s how it works.  You set up a free Jott account and program Jott’s toll-free number into your cell phone.  Then when you have that terrific idea, you call Jott.  If you have voice-actuated dialing, then all you have to do is say "Jott".  The automated operator asks who you want to "Jott" and you answer "me" or "myself".  Then you dictate your idea into the phone.  Jott then converts the message to text and emails it to you.  Simple.  It’s all done by voice commands. 

You can also program your family, friends, business associates or anyone else into Jott and send them email messages just by speaking into your cell phone.  The service allows you to set up groups so you could put all of your employees into a  group called "staff" and send an email message to all of them with just one call.

That group function definitely puts Jott into the social media category, but the memo function makes it a great personal utility.  Jott is currently in the "public beta" stage, which means there may still be some bugs in the software, but so far it’s worked perfectly for me.  Check it out at their web site.

Oh, did I mention that it’s free?

 

You Tube

"We have for the first time an economy based on a key resource [information] that is not only renewable, but self-generating. Running out of it is not a problem, but drowning in it is." John Naisbitt, author of Megatrends.

Naisbitt’s words were never more true.  You could easily drown in information.  But information is really our stock and trade.  Face it, just about anything you sell can be bought somewhere else at a lower price.  The difference, the thing that makes you stand out from your competition is information. 

You sell better, higher-margin products by informing the customer of the additional benefits to be gained in exchange for the extra price.  Unless we’re talking about a very basic commodity item, your customers are coming to you because you have the information they need.

As Naisbitt says, we’re not going to run out of information.  But how do we separate the good stuff from the junk?  You have to be very selective.  So do your customers.  If you gain a reputation as a source for valuable information, delivered in a timely efficient way, you’ll become the "go-to" person.  That’s what these "social media" or "social networking" tools we’ve been looking at can do for you;  give you a way to share information.

In the past "broadcasting" was the thing.  Information flowed one way; top to bottom.  Consumers of products were also consumers of information.  Today it’s all about two-way communication.  Your customers want relationships.  They want to be partners in the process.  They want to be informed, but they want it on their terms, not yours.  That’s "social media".

Whether you’ve ever used it or not, you’ve probably heard of You Tube.  It’s the place where anyone can share video clips with fellow Internet users.  The original intention of You Tube was to provide a place for individuals to share their home-made videos   For example, You like cats?  Search You Tube for the word kitten and you’ll find 33,000 clips.  That’s a lot of cute kitties.

Do a lot of people use You Tube?  Well, In October 2006, Google, Inc. acquired the company for $1.65 billion.  The people who run Google know what they’re doing.  The site still features a lot of home-made videos, but it’s grown into a place to find clips of television shows and movies, and most important to us, a place for companies to post videos about themselves and their products.

Do you have a television commercial that features a video of your store?  Post it on You Tube.  But the videos don’t have to be professionally made.  A lot of the material on the site was made with a simple fixed-focus web cam or even with a cell phone.  It’s the content, not the production quality that makes You Tube popular.

Does anyone actually look at the videos on You Tube?  Here’s a really awful video showing a guy installing a ceiling fan. It was posted on January 27, 2007 and it’s been viewed almost 2,000 times!  (Click on the arrow to view it.)

 

Did we mention that people like videos of cats?  Here’s one of a cat being groomed with a vacuum cleaner.  Posted just five months ago, 14,000 plus people have looked at it.

You get the idea.  If you’re the least bit creative, you can come up with a video that promotes your business and people will watch it.  You Tube is loaded with excerpts from Home Shopping Network and QVC, so people WILL watch commercials.

This spot for Mr. Appliance has been seen 2,640 times.

Decide what your customers are interested in and create a video.  It’s that simple.  If you do, be sure to promote the video on your web site and in other communications with your customers.  You may be surprised at the reaction.  And You Tube is FREE.

Wikipedia

Wiki who?  Wikipedia.  If you’re not familiar with the name, here’s how the Wikipedia web site describes itself:   

"a multilingual, web-based, free content encyclopedia project, operated by the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit organization.  It is the largest, most extensive and fastest growing encyclopedia currently available on the Internet."

The important thing about Wikipedia is that with very few limits, anyone can post a definition and anyone can edit a definition on the site.  It’s sort of an encyclopedia by the people and for the people.  But, what does this have to do with business?  How can I use the site to help me generate traffic?

Frankly, Wikipedia can’t do much to build up your business.  It’s an encyclopedia. But the business model, if that’s what you want to call it, can tell us a lot about user-generated content, and in the future that may be very important to your business.  Every one of your customers is a potential web author and so are you.

But isn’t a user-generated encyclopedia chaotic?  If anyone can post and edit, how can we trust the content?  Those are good questions and understanding the answer will help us understand other types of social media.  Yes, the openness of Wikipedia makes it possible for me to post anything I want to, whether it’s true or not, just like the rest of the Internet.  But the huge number of Wikipedia users, along with safeguards built into the system, make it highly unlikely that false information will remain on the site for very long.  Thousands of potential editors keep the authors in line.  Again, according to the Wikipedia web site,

"As of September, 2007
Wikipedia had approximately 8.2 million articles in 253 languages,
comprising a combined total of over 1.41 billion words for all
wikipedias. The English Wikipedia edition passed the 2,000,000 article mark on September 9, 2007 with a total of over 609 million words, roughly fifteen times as many as the largest edition of Encyclopedia Britannica." 

That’s a tremendous amount of information and it’s all created by Internet users, not by big media companies, or PR firms, or by other vested interests. 

Which brings us back to why Wikipedia is important.  It’s a model for many of the other social media that are available today.  As politicians are learning, often the hard way, ordinary people have a lot of power on the web.  Bloggers had a serious impact on the last election and will have even more of an impact in the next one.  Once the major candidates only had to make the rounds of the Sunday morning news shows to get their message out to a captive audience.  You and I got our news, and the commentary that went with it, from CBS, NBC and ABC.  Today, not so much.

Literally thousands of bloggers are commenting on politics and the most famous ones are getting a lot of attention.  How does a blogger get attention?  By word-of-mouth (or keyboard).  Quality posts are passed along the web and a good blogger will gain a big following.  But it doesn’t stop with politics.

Your customers are blogging, and using other social media that we’ll be looking at in future posts.  Make a customer angry and you may be unpleasantly surprised to find out how many people hear about it.  On the other hand, do something outstanding and the word spreads just as fast.

You may not have the time or the desire to author Wikipedia articles, or to blog, or to get involved in other types of social media, but you’d better be aware of what’s going on and how it could affect you.  For example, you can use a tool like Google Alerts to let you know when something is being said about you online.  Each day Alerts will search thousands of web sites and blogs looking for the key words that you’ve selected, and send you an email when it finds something.  Your name may never come up, but it might and it could be negative or positive.  Either way, you don’t want to be the last to know.

Social media, social networks, and user-created content all mean one thing.  The balance of information power is shifting in the direction of the user and away from the mass media outlets.  And that means the way we do business is also changing.  As more people get their information on-line and not from the traditional sources, marketing (especially advertising) is going to change dramatically.  The good news is that this new media is more focused, more niche oriented.  That means you can target your efforts to the people you want to reach, making your marketing more efficient, more effective, and less expensive.

Next time:  YouTube

 

A City That Gets It Right

Huntsville, AL

Huntsville_wifi
I’m posting this from the Big Spring Park in Huntsville, AL, where they actually offer free wireless internet service.  Wi-Fi at our hotel costs $10 per day, but you can sit in the park, enjoy the beautiful weather, AND check your email for free.

As we’ve been discussing, the Internet is everywhere, but wi-fi in the park is a great idea.  Instead of being tethered to an ethernet cable or a phone line, in a hotel room with too little work space and not enough light, in Huntsville you can enjoy the fresh air and the scenery while you check your email.

Jogging in the park isn’t my cup of tea (or glass of sweet tea here in the South) but blogging in the park is something I could get use to.

I imagine the presence of NASA in Huntsville, and the high tech industry that supports the space program might have something to do with having the Internet in the park, but I predict that the day isn’t far off when every city will have it.

Meanwhile, your intrepid blogger will continue working hard for you, even on vacation.

Blogging_in_the_park

Blogging (about blogging)

Continuing our discussion on social networking, today we look at blogs.  Literally…You’re looking at a blog.  What’s a blog?  A simple definition is "a website that’s updated on a regular basis.  The content is usually arranged from newest to oldest."  Many, but not all blogs allow readers to make comments.

According to our recent computer survey, 14%, or about one in seven of you have a blog.  Obviously, 100% of you read at least one blog.  (Thank you.)  A recent consumer survey showed that 80% of Americans know what a blog is and almost one half visit blogs on a regular basis

According to Technorati, a blog search engine, there are 99.9 million blogs in the "blogosphere" (the place where blogs and bloggers are) on any topic you can possibly imagine and some you probably can’t imagine.  For example, a search of Technorati for the phrase "sewing machine" returns 40,531 blog posts.  "Vacuum cleaner" returns 26,008.  "Ceiling fan" produces 19,825 hits and"Floor care" 1,036.  The phrase "small business" finds 148,721 posts.  (You may have noticed that at the end of each of our posts is a list of things called "Technorati Tags".  They’re there to help Technorati find us when someone uses their search engine.)

Blogging, or web logging as it was originally called, is incredibly easy!  You don’t have to know anything about computers.

A blog reader (like bloglines, or even Google or Yahoo) lets you subscribe to blogs that you’re interested in.  Instead of you searching for new content, the blog reader automatically goes out and gets any new feeds for the blogs you’re subscribed to.  It’s like Tivo for the Internet.

Sites like Blogger, which is free and Typepad, which is free for the basic utility but which charges for the good stuff, will host your blog.  They’ll automatically send your new posts out to the readers who are subscribed to your blog. (We use Typepad’s premium service for MYOB.  It has nice features and is fairly easy to use.)

Once you’re set up with a service, if you can type, you can blog.  Once you’re happily blogging away, who’s going to read it?  That’s up to you.  If your content is good and your subject is popular, people may find you.  Notice I said "may find you".  They also may not find you.  Remember there are 99.9 million other blogs out there. 

Word of mouth is important. People who like your blog will tell others.  That’s the "social" part of "social networking".  If you can get other popular bloggers to talk about you, or even better to link to your blog, your traffic will grow.  How do you do that?  We’ll get back to that in a minute.

If you’ve been following Mine Your Business for any length of time, you’ve read about blog carnivals.  These are blogs that republish blog posts that fit into a particular category.  They chose the best posts that they receive each week for inclusion.  Get your words of wisdom into some blog carnivals and you’ll see your visitor count go up.  Again, it’s the social part of "social networking".

Of course, as a business, a good way to grow your blog traffic is to invite your customers to your blog.  That’s how we do it here.  You may have noticed that about once each month or so we send out an email reminding you that we’re still here.  It’s amazing really.  We get a huge bump in visitors when we send out an email.  Then, the count slowly begins to drop.  After a few weeks, usually when the count gets below the normal average for a few days, we send out another email and Bam!! we’re right back up there again.  (You’d save us a lot of trouble if you’d just keep reading MYOB every day.)

Hopefully you’re beginning to see a pattern here.  Social networking is all about being sociable.  It’s person to person communication using a medium that can reach millions.  And, because the cost is ridiculously low, a niche blog aimed at computerized embroidery machine owners in southwestern Illinois is just as practical as a blog aimed at Chevrolet owners all over the world.

Getting back to the question of how do you persuade the proprietors of popular blogs to talk about you, the one-word answer is "comments".  If you don’t have one already, get yourself a blog reader, or use your Google or Yahoo home page to subscribe to some blogs that share your interests.  Read them every day.  When the spirit moves you, or even when it doesn’t, make some comments.  Warning:  Make good comments!  Don’t waste people’s time with repetitive statements, or things like "I agree with you 100%.  Blogs are about communicating.  You want to become known as a good communicator.  And of course, your comments always contain a link back to your blog.  That’s how you get yourself known as an expert.

You may notice at the end of our posts there’s something called a "permalink".  If you click it, it takes you to a page that contains just that one post.  On that "permalink" page, there’s something called a "trackback address".  When you quote someone else’s blog on your blog, blog etiquette requires that you leave a trackback which is good for both of you.  The benefit for you is that when you put the trackback address into your post, your blog will be listed on the other person’s blog as a "post commenting on this post."  You quote them.  They link to you.  Neat!  And very social.

Admit it, you’re an expert in your field.  People pay money for your expertise when they shop in your store.  The more people who recognize the value of your knowledge, the more people are going to come into your store.  You get that recognition through social media.

One final warning, and this is tricky.  Never, never, never try to sell anything on your blog.  This is post number 340 of Mine Your Own Business.  Not once in those 340 posts have we ever tried to sell you anything.  That’s not what blogging is about.  But, if you decide to blog about a project, or a way to use your particular products to solve a problem, then it’s ok to mention that you do sell the necessary items.  Let’s say you’re in the lawn and garden business.  It’s September and time to be thinking about getting your lawn ready for winter.  A how-to post on fall yard care would be a great idea.  If you happen to suggest that a particular type of chemical is a good thing to spread in the yard, you can mention that you carry it.  But the commercial has to be a small part of the overall information piece.

Put up a post that just says "Fall is coming and it’s time to dump some XYZ Fertilizer on your grass.  We have it on sale for $19.99 a bag." and people will hit "delete" and "unsubscribe" so fast it will make your head spin.  Remember, social networking can also work in reverse.
 

Remember, you’re building credibility.  It’s SOCIAL networking, not sales.  When you blog, you’re talking to a friend.  And they’re talking to their friends, and so on and so on.  It’s a beautiful thing.

Monday:  Wikipedia

Good Email Advice

Most of us get entirely too many emails every day and most of them are spam that we automatically delete.  In the midst of all the clutter we may accidentally delete something important once in a while.  One way to avoid having the messages you send going into the trash folder is to make sure you use a good subject line.  While you’re limited to the number of characters you can use, you can usually create a pretty good summary of what the message is about without running out of space.

Besides cutting down on the possibility of your message going into the trash unread, a good subject line makes it easier for the recipient to locate the message in the future.  Generic subject lines force the search program to dig into the body of the message and the search can take a very long time.

Thanks to Steve Jeffery, Senior Vice President of our Household Sewing Division for the following tips on email subject lines. 

Don’t be too general.  The overall subject may be an upcoming event, but the detail might be about advertising.  A good subject line would include the name of the event and the word advertising.  If you’re expecting a reply by a certain date, you might include the abbreviation "PRB" (please reply by) 8/1/07. 

An example might be "Subject:  Sidewalk Sale-Staffing PRB 7/20/07" 

We’re all in a hurry and it’s tempting to spend as little time as possible, especially when sending short messages.  But if the message is important, and we assume you wouldn’t be sending it if it wasn’t, it’s worth our time to make sure that the message isn’t deleted as "junk" and that the recipient can retrieve it later if necessary.

One other tip, most email programs allow you to change the subject line on messages that you receive.  There’s nothing wrong with giving an incoming message a new title before you file it away.  You may want to give the message a new subject followed by the original subject either in parentheses, or using the word "was".  That way, if the sender refers to the original email, you can still find it using the original subject. 

For example, if the original subject was "St. Louis" and you want to change it to "Travel Arrangements for July Trip", you could make the new title "Travel Arrangements for July Trip, was St. Louis."

Again, a little time spent today may save you a lot of time and aggravation later, when you try to retrieve the information from your email folders. 

It’s Not Just for Video Games, Dad

According to Inc.com, a recent Microsoft survey of family-owned business owners found that six in ten of them have had disagreements with younger family members over technology.  The results show that older business owners are less interested than their children in the latest and greatest technology, unless it has a direct effect on the bottom line.   As my kids would say, "Well, duh!"

The younger generation was also found to be more satisfied with technology purchases and are more interested in spending on wireless and mobile technology.  However, more than 75% of business owners in the survey agreed that technology is important, and almost half said it is important for growth.  One in three said their business relies on access to the Internet.Iphone

The big items?  PCs, laptops, and industry-specific software, like point-of-sale systems.  The odds seem to  indicate that  you probably won’t be in line Friday at 6:00 to buy the new , $600  iPhone.

The best news from this survey is that it was paid for by Bill Gates and not by your tax dollars.

Seriously, we live in a high-tech age, whether we like it or not.  It only makes sense to take advantage of the newest technology to help level the playing field with larger competition.  I had a dental appointment this morning and was amazed at the way the Doctor has automated his business since my last visit.  We’ve changed dental insurance carriers since my last visit, but the receptionist already had my new insurance information.  I asked her how it got updated and she explained that when one patient of a particular employer updates their information, the system updates every patient who works for that same company. 

Even the X-rays are digitized. They go directly from the X-ray machine to the computer screen,  just like your digital vacation pictures.  Then the screen displays a map of the inside of the patient’s mouth and the dental assistant clicks on a single tooth and enters the treatment needed from a drop-down list.  Then the computer prints out a treatment schedule, how many visits are needed, and even how much it will cost.  Imagine how much time a system like that must save the dentist, giving him time to see more patients and make more money.  Plus, who can argue with the charges when they come right from the computer?

There are a number of retail systems available today that can be just as effective for your business.  They save time, give you more accurate records, and let you do things your grandfather, or even your father, never dreamed of. 

Besides, without a computer, you couldn’t read Mine Your Own Business.