Step Away From the Computer

This blog focuses on small business, quality, and social media.  We try to provide an equal balance of all three.  But as I look at the various blogs, podcasts, twitter streams, and other social media that I follow I’m noticing that there’s way too much coverage of social media.  I mean, how many posts about using Twitter in your small business can you read anyway.  My apologies for contributing to this glut of redundant information.

Today I’d like to offer a short, simple piece of advise for your business.  Close this page, get up from your chair, and go find a customer.  If you’re in retail it should be easy.  There’s probably a customer under your roof as you read this.  If you don’t operate out of a storefront, you may have to do a little more.  You may have to make a phone call.  You may have to actually leave the building.

As I write this many of you are past the half-way point of your work day.  Set the paperwork aside and actually communicate face-to-face, or at least by phone with another human being who might  buy your product or service or refer you to someone who will.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m still a big believer in using the internet, especially the web 2.0 tools, to market your business.  But you can fall into a viscious trap if you spend your whole day staring at a computer monitor.  Life is all about balance.

That’s it for today.  I’m outta here.

Small Biz Advertising–One Size Doesn’t Fit All

I’ve been following a thread on a non-public forum.  Like most forum discussions, it began with one topic and  morphed into something else altogether.  As I write this, the discussion is about advertising.  The topic is retail store advertising, but it could just as well apply to any small business.

It’s actually a three-sided dialog (trialog?).  On the one hand you have the manufacturer who must put together an advertising program that satisfies the most retailers and generates the most sales to support the overall program.  Then you have the big-city retailers who have one set of issues and small-market retailers who face an entirely different challenge.

Here’s the thing.  At any level the goal of advertising is to drive consumers into the store (or other business) at the lowest possible cost.  Period.  That’s it.  Targeted advertising, that is advertising that reaches only those people who are your potential customers, is the best. At the most basic level, handing someone your business card (or better yet, a gift certificate) is very likely to create a future sale at very low cost.

If you sell lawn mowers, you’re wasting your money advertising to apartment dwellers.  But it’s very difficult to find traditional advertising media that are so specifically targeted.  If you operate in a major market, your job is even harder.  Because local radio, TV, and newspapers are delivered across demographic lines, you’re going to pay for a lot of impressions that are basically worthless to you unless your product or service is something everyone buys.

In a smaller market, the job is a little easier because you’re just not paying for that many impressions.  You can buy several spots on the local radio station and still get change back from your hundred dollar bill.  The same campaign in a major market can run into the thousands yet the number of potential customers for your store (based on geography and demographics) that you reach may be virtually the same.

Newspapers and other mass media are struggling.  Why?  Well, the economy isn’t helping them much.  But their decline has been going on for quite a while.  In fact, the fall of traditional media can be charted against the rise of the Internet.

If you’re reading this, you’re not reading the newspaper.  If you’re reading this, there’s almost a 100% chance that you either own or run a small business or non-profit.  MTS is very short on gardening tips, recipes, or fashion advice.  You can find those elsewhere.  For that matter, I can’t imagine a topic that isn’t covered somewhere on the web.

Web advertising can be done for little or even no money.  Sites like Facebook let you customize your advertising to reach exactly the right market and it’s very inexpensive.  If even that’s outside your budget, start a blog.  Sites like Blogger offer a free platform so your only expense is your time to write something that interests your customers and prospects.

If you’re not ready to commit to regular posting then comment on other people’s blogs.  Let people who might be interested in your business  see that you’re an expert in your field.  And make sure to include a link to your web site.  (You do have a web site, don’t you?)

I’m not going to get into any more specifics here because there are so many sources for information on on-line advertising and promotions, including the archives of this blog.  The point is this.  One size does not fit all.  You have to analyze your particular situation and create your own plan.  Suppliers may provide you with ad slicks, radio scripts, and other tools, but only you know who your customers are and how to reach them.

April Fool? No Apparent Ill Effects from Conficker

According to CNET there is no visible sign that Conficker has done any damage so far today.  AP reports that the worm may have gotten more aggressive in trying to contact it’s maker but that so far there have been no visible problems.

The April 1 date written in the code may have been a red herring to get everybody all excited.  When we’ve seen that nothing happened we may let our guard down for an attack at a later date.

It’s also possible that the worm might not show itself while it’s silently stealing all your valuable information or using your machine as a “bot” to send thousands of emails without your knowledge.

Several sources are reporting that infected machines have been trying to contact their “masters” for further instructions, but that they don’t seem to be getting an answer.  However, they will keep trying until they do.  That could happen yet today, tomorrow, or at some other future date.

The worm is still out there.  Millions of machines may be infected.  And the worm is still capable of spreading.  Whatever you do, don’t let your guard down.  Quoting the CNET article:

“The funny thing is that every one has these expectations that come to them from science fiction viruses. In the movies they blow up the terminal, tip over an oil tanker and bring aliens out of the sky,” said Perry [David Perry, global director of security education at Trend Micro]. “In reality, the kind of thing a botnet does is much less visible. It’s a lot more insidious of them to steal your bank password than to blow up your computer.”

Here’s the bottom line:  Keep your software up-to-date.  Use Windows Update to keep your operating system current.  Install and use a good anti-virus software.  And whatevere you do, backup your critical files.

You wouldn’t leave your paper files lying around where anyone could see them.  You’d keep them in a locked cabinet.  Most likely you’d keep a duplicate set at another location for protection against a fire or other disaster.  You should do no less with your digital files.

The CNET piece is short but informative.  Take a few minutes to read it and listen to the related podcast.

A Special Note for Real Estate Agents

Mining the Store is a podcast for all small business owners so we usually don’t get industry-specific.  But it would seem that our last post might have particular relevance to those in the real estate business.

We all know that this is a difficult and confusing time for potential home buyers and sellers. It seems like every day we’re either being told it’s a good time to buy/sell, or a bad time.   Wouldn’t it be great to have a reliable source of information on this volitile market that affects so many of us?  Wouldn’t it be even better if that source were you?  Imagine the listings and the referrals you might get if you were considered the expert in your market.

It’s not hard to do.  Build that database of customers and prospects and use it to inform them of what’s really going on in the market, not just nationally, but right in their own back yard.  When they do decide to buy or sell, or when their friends mention that they’re considering buying or selling, who do you think they’re going to call?

Think about it.

Small Business Email Marketing

I’ve written on this topic in the past, but it’s so important I think it’s worth revisiting.  As I write this, I’m printing a coupon I received via email this morning.  It’s from a company that emails me often and I look fortward to their messages.

Here’s the thing.  It costs virtually nothing to send email.  You’re already paying for the bandwidth whether you use it or not and you don’t need expensive software.  In fact, you probably have what you need on your computer already.

There are two ways you can use email to build your business.  The first, and probably most effective method is the newsletter.  It’s also the one that requires the most work and discipline on your part.  If you decide to send out a monthly, or even weekly newsletter, you have to be prepared to meet the schedule.  As the “king of the procrastinators” I can promise you that your newsletter will fail very quickly if you don’t keep on schedule.  Unless you (or someone on your staff) is willing to commit to a regular schedule, you might not want to go the newsletter route, at least not yet.

The other option is irregular email updates, done on an as-needed basis.  What’s “as needed”?  It’s something that goes out when, and only when, you have something to say.  For example, to promote a sale, an exciting new item, or an event.  While it may be tempting to use email as a jump start during a slow period, if your communications don’t offer a value to the reader, either in the form of a special sale or valuable information, he or she will soon start hitting the “delete” button every time your name shows up in the “From” field of their email client.

I’m shocked and amazed at how many otherwise excellent business people don’t maintain a customer database with email addresses.  Your customers are your most valuable asset.  Why would you let them decide when you’re going to have a conversation?  That’s what you’re doing when you don’t have their contact information.  To reach them, you’re either going to have to run an expensive ad, or you’re going to have to wait until they come to you.

I think the reason why email is so poorly used, especially by small businesses, lies in the idea that a marketing messaged is somehow “junk” or “spam”.  If that’s what you think, get over it!  That’s step 1 in a successful email campaign.  Spam is an unsolicited email promoting something you aren’t interested in.  It’s sent to a purchased list of email addresses with no regard to the person’s interest in the product.  A solicitation from a total stranger to buy a product that “enhances” some body part or other is spam.  Gardening tips from the neighborhood hardware store who got my email address from me is something of true value.  (True value-hardware store.  Get it?)  It’s something I would open and read.  If the mailing included information on a sale on grass seed, or reminding me to get my lawn mower sharpened before grass-cutting season starts, so much the better.

If it’s ok for your dentist to contact you twice a year to remind you it’s time for a checkup and cleaning, it should be ok for your auto repair shop to remind you that it’s time to get your car ready for winter and summer.

So stop thinking that you’re bothering me by sending helpful, informative messages.  And make sure everyone on your staff understands this or the next step just won’t work.

Step 2 is to build your customer database.  Every single person you deal with, whether they buy anything or not, should be asked for their email address.  This is where step 1 becomes important.  If you or anyone who works for you has a negative attitude about the messages you’re sending out they won’t ask for the contact information.  On the other hand, if they’re really excited about your email campaign, they’ll be enthusiastic about making sure no one is left out. Asking for contact information must be part of everyone’s job description.

To recap, your email campaign will be successful if:

  • Your mailings offer something of value to the customer.
  • You and your staff understand that you’re sending out valuable information, not “spam” or “junk”.
  • You get contact information from every single customer and prospect for your database.

That’s it.  It’s not rocket science.  It’s not brain surgery.  You don’t even have to stay at a Holiday Inn Express.

They’re Talking About You

Friday I wrote a post, Word of Mouth, where I praised Holiday World Amusement Park, Santa Claus, IN, for great customer service.  Rather than use high-margin soft drinks as a profit center, they use them as a perk for their customers.  Soft drinks and other beverages are free, both at the amusement park, and at the adjacent water park.

Just a couple of hours after I posted the article, I received a comment from Paula Werne from Holiday World’s PR department thanking me for the “love” and pointing out the parks also offer free sunscreen, free parking, free innertubes at the water park, and free ponchos when it rains.

Obviously Holiday World isn’t leaving their on-line reputation to chance and you shouldn’t either.  Using free tools like “Google Alerts” you can become instantly aware when someone mentions you, your business, or any other topic of interest on the web.

By following her business’ name Paula was able to build on my positive comments by adding facts that I didn’t know.  Even more important, if my comments had been unfavorable, she could have joined the conversation, turning a negative into a potential positive.

People are talking about you on the Internet whether you know it or not.  Shouldn’t you be part of the conversation?

Unlocking the Door without Turning on the Lights

According to a recent survey from Webvisible and Neilsen,  more than six out of ten consumers and small business owners go to the Internet first to find information on local goods and services.  Yet, only 44% of small businesses have a web site and they spend less than 10% of their marketing budget on the web.

Here’s the link to all the numbers, but it’s worth noting that 78% of small business owners spend less than 10% of their sales on marketing.  Of that 10%, they spend 10% of that (or 1% of total sales) on the Internet, the place where 63% of their potential customers are trying to find them.

Not surprisingly, only 9% of small businesses are satisfied with their web presence.

While our Senators and Congresspeople are arguing about which of their buddies are going to get a trillion dollars of our money  supposedly to stimulate the economy, there is a way for us to spend our own money to stimulate our personal economies.  If you’re not on the web, get there!  If you are on the web, get active in improving your search engine ranking!  The web is the tool of the future for promoting your business and the future is now!

Football, 3-D Glasses, and Pets.com

Like most Americans I went to a Super Bowl party Sunday.  Part of the hype leading up to the telecast of the game was a promotion, sponsored by a soft drink company, for a preview of Disney movie, filmed in “3-D”, that won’t be out until this summer.    To see this commercial, and that’s what it was, a commercial, you had to visit your nearest retailer and pick up a pair of “3-D” glasses.

Like Ralphie, in the movie “A Christmas Story“, who waited weeks for the arrival of his “Little Orphan Annie Secret Decoder Ring”  we were told to gather around the TV at the end of the second quarter of the game appropriately clad in our fashionable cardboard glasses.

At the appointed time, as I looked around the room at a group of usually sane people wearing cardboard “glasses”, it made me think of how the actual football game has become secondary to marketing at the Super Bowl.

These folks had gone to the trouble of going to the store to get their 3-D specs to watch a commercial!  If the game itself were in “3-D” the whole thing might have made sense, but to do it for the pleasure of seeing a commercial was just a bit much.  Where Ralphie had sent away for his decoder ring expecting to get a secret message from Annie, only to be disappointed to find out that the “message” was actually a commercial for Ovaltine, we knew exactly what we were going to see.

pets_dot_comWhich made me think how things have changed in just a few years.  Remember Pets.com?  They created quite a stir when they spent $1.2 million to advertise their on-line business during the 2000 Super Bowl.  The ad, featuring a sock puppet,  was rated #1 [The company would close it’s doors before the end of the year, but that’s another story.]

The idea of  an internet-only business spending that kind of money on TV advertising was unheard of.  But here we are, just nine years later, with dot com’s advertising like crazy.  E-Trade [my wife loves the baby] and GoDaddy.com both purchased multiple ads for this years event for something north of $2 million each.  Both companies ran well-produced, obviously expensive ads.

By the way, can you name the teams that played in the 2000 Super Bowl?  Probably not.

Which begs some  questions:

Is the Super Bowl a broadcast of a football game interrupted by commercials, or a broadcast of commercials interupted by a football game?

Better yet, is it really a Springsteen concert surrounded by a football game?

Does the pregame show really have to start more than eight hours before the game?

Does any football game really need ten announcers?

And finally, aren’t the Budweiser Clydesdales the cutest giant animals ever, especially when they’re in love?

[The St. Louis Rams defeated the Tennessee Titans in Super Bows XXXIV on January 30, 2000 by a score of 23-16, Kurt Warner’s only Super Bowl win.  If you didn’t know that, you weren’t really watching the game.]

Credit Where Credit is Due

Regular followers of Mining the Store should be aware that for two and a half years I blogged at Mine Your Own Business, the Tacony Corporation blog.

My last post at MYOB was on December 24, 2008 which was also my last day (after twenty-nine years) at Tacony. That blog continues with new authors and is well worth a look.

Unfortunately, due to a glitch in the Typepad software, when my name was taken off the Tacony blog, the byline for all 680+ posts that I wrote was changed to someone else’s name. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a simple fix although I’ve been assured that it’s being worked on.

In the mean time, until the situation at Mine Your Own Business has been corrected, I have copied all the posts that I wrote there to this blog. For the most part, anything posted on this blog written up to and including December 24, 2008  originally appeared at MYOB although there are some that originally appeared here.   To put it another way, anything that appears on the other blog up to and including December 24, 2008 was written by yours truly, regardless what the byline says.  Hopefully this is only a temporary solution.

I’ll keep you informed.

Small Business Television

sbtvHere’s a resource you might find useful.  It’s called Small Business Television, or sbtv.  The site features a daily set of news highlights related to small biz along with a library of short video programs covering everything from Wellness in the Workplace to the best businesss to start if you’re an outsized baby boomer.

I haven’t looked at everything yet, but I’ve bookmarked the site as a good reference tool.

A free membership to SmallBiz Central hooks you up to other members-only areas of the site.  I’ve joined myself and I’ll let you know how that works.