crayons & marketers

Several studies suggest that well over 40% of marketing budgets next year will be spent on online (digital) efforts.  And at the core of those campaigns will be an emphasis on content marketing.

Content marketing.  

Sure, to marketers like me, that term is as recognized and revered as search is with Google. But for some businesses and non-profits, to have a conversation about “content marketing” is too heavy and may get you a few blank stares or even a “here we go” eye roll.

But, could there be some value in it?  Is content marketing more than just another buzzword that marketers use to sell you more services?

The truth.

In the perfect world, content marketing would be this fresh new idea that would turn every business into an overnight success and fill the donation baskets of every non-profit in the world for the foreseeable future.

old cave drawings content marketing But the reality is, the idea of content isn’t new. As long as there have been words, there have been stories.  More specifically, as long as there’s been a way to tell stories, be it prehistoric cave drawings by Neanderthals on a rock in Spain, or ornate hieroglyphics on the side of an ancient pyramid in Egypt, there’s been content. And those stories are passed down and still impact us today.

In a contemporary sense, content for organizations, either for profit or not, is generated by taking your stories – the inspiration behind your founding, the subtleties that make you unique, the quirkiness of your organizational culture, and testimonials from those whose life you’ve touched – and delivering that value to a group of people, in a way that’s meaningful to them, and encourages them to take a specific action.

That is content marketing.

More than words.

Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions about content is that it’s just words on a page.  Ebooks, blog posts, white papers, and case studies are clearly forms of content, right?  But what about videos, social media posts, infographics, podcasts, emails, customer reviews, and even memes?

Yes, that’s all content and it gives you an opportunity to provide a glimpse into who you are as an organization, a chance to tell a good story, and leave a primitive hand print upon the hearts of those you want to fall in love with your organization.

Point taken.

Many organizations fail in their pursuit of content marketing for two reasons:

  1. They confuse providing valuable, useful information with pushing obvious sales pitches – so people tune them out, delete them, or mark them as SPAM.
  2. They create content, but have no strategy to deliver that content to the right people at the right time and place, so it becomes orphaned content.

Remember, content marketing gives organizations an opportunity to inform, educate, inspire, and challenge without the pressure of buying.  And when it’s delivered in a meaningful, consistent manner, over time – yes, it will take time – you will establish trust and be rewarded with a loyal customer or supporter.

Finally, because of the length of time it can take to produce your desired result, it is vital that your content marketing not stand alone, but be a part of a comprehensive marketing plan that generates opportunities for both short and long-term success. 

small business case studies customer storiesWhen you’re ready to make a big purchase, do you…?

A) go on a gut feeling

B) see what people are saying about it online

C) trust the salesperson

The Answer

Chances are, most of you picked “B.”  Studies have shown that 90% of consumers say online reviews impact their buying decisions.  And this doesn’t just relate to appliance purchases.

Prospects are online, right now, reading up on your business. The bigger the sale, the more information they need to make a decision. What they find or do not find, in their mind, speak volumes about your credibility.

Consider Case Studies

Like online reviews, case studies are a great way to establish trust.  They give potential customers or prospects an opportunity to see what you’re capable of.  They may sound intimidating, but case studies are simply stories about real people in real scenarios. And unlike promotional pieces, case studies are solution-oriented, illustrating, through your customer’s eyes, how you solved their problem.

Four Key Parts to the Story

Case studies vary in format, length, and style.  Some look like those long narratives we dreaded being assigned in college, and others are brief and straight to the point.

But, the bones of a case study are consistent, and usually have at least the following four parts:

  • Customer Identification
  • Description of the Problem
  • Proposed Solutions
  • End Results

How to Get the Story

Now that you know the key parts of a case study, let’s gather the information to start building it…

  1. Review your current customer list. Customers that you’ve established a great relationship with – those with whom you’ve experienced the biggest wins – will yield the best stories. Make a list of those you want to approach.
  2. Develop a list of questions. To adequately convey your customer’s journey, you’ll need a little more backstory than you may already know. You need to know how your customer knew they had a problem, how they first tried to fix it, and how that worked out. Just as important, if not more so, is how your solutions impacted the problem, the end result of your efforts, and your customer’s reaction to these results.
  3. Reach out to your customers. You know which communication style your customers respond to best. So meet them there. If it’s email, do email. If it’s a phone call, then go that route. In all scenarios, first ask their permission to tell their story. If they say no, thank them for listening, and move on to the next customer. If you get approval, start working through the questions on your list.

Tell the Story

Now that the interviews are done, it’s time to pull your case study together and tell the story.  Use the four key parts (customer, problem, solution, result) to walk readers through your customer’s journey.  When done right, prospects reading your case study will see themselves, and the problems they’re experiencing, within the story and be convinced that you can help them, too.

Happy Ending

Case studies are customer stories. And customers rely on each other for direction.  Make sure your case studies find a visible home on your website. They should be easy to find – posted on a separate page or used as blog posts – and be easy to share.

If you remember nothing else, remember this … Customers are looking for a happy ever after, and a good case study can give them just that.

Let’s face it.  We need repeat sales to make this thing called business work. Even our best efforts fall short if we fail to get customers to buy the right products, at the right price, at the right time, not just once, but over and over again.

But many of us settle for becoming a one hit wonder.  We do just enough to make the sale, but not enough to keep the sales coming.

While making that initial sale is an important first step, it only gets you halfway to your goal. Post-sale activity goes a long way to winning customers over, and convincing them to not only purchase again, but to influence others to follow their lead.

So, how do you make the connection?  The secret is in the service.

Ask for comments

Most people are naturally wired to spill the beans when they’ve had a tremendous experience.  When customers find value in not only the product or service they’ve received, but also in the manner in which they’ve received it, you capture lightning in a bottle.

So, don’t be afraid to ask customers to share those experiences.  And make it easy for them to do so.  Just as you’d add a call to action button to incite them to buy, do the same to get them to share.  By publicly asking for feedback, customers can see that their experiences are important to you.

What if they share a less than positive review? Consider posting it anyway, along with the way you resolved the issue. Surprised? Don’t be.  Think of the last magazine you flipped through.  In the reader comments section, not all reviews were positive, but editors have printed them anyway, along with a response.

Send surveys

customer satisfaction leads to increased salesCustomers can’t seem to make it out of the checkout lines these days without being asked for their email address.  And quite frankly, they’re not always pleased to have to give it.

But, if you can get it, don’t use this opportunity to SPAM them – that’s what they’re expecting.  Do the opposite. Impress them, instead, but asking them how you can improve.

In exchange for their honest feedback, offer them a coupon, an eBook, or whatever makes sense for your business and is of value to them.

Once you’ve gathered enough responses, consider sharing those satisfaction scores with your customers. If they’re positive, keep it up. If they show that improvements are needed, tell customers how you plan to do it.

Transparency is risky, but the payoff could be great.

Ask for referrals

If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.  And in the case of referrals, this couldn’t be more true.

Have you ever gotten a coupon in the mail that specifically stated that one coupon was for you and the other for a friend? What retailers are hoping for is a referral.  The act of you sharing that coupon with a friend is the equivalent of saying, “I shop here and think you should, too.”

But coupons aside, getting referrals can be hard because it’s been done the wrong way for so long.  Customers don’t want to put their friends in a position to be hassled by some over eager salesperson, even if it does reward them in some way.

Redefine what referrals mean in their mind. Do away with the “give me names” approach and focus on earning the referral first.  How do you earn it?  Good service.  And then when you ask, customers are happy to help.

The long and short of it

Good service – before, during, and after the sale – will always be the secret to powering up your sales and positioning your business for long-term success.

Customers expect to interact with and shape their experiences with the businesses they engage with, so don’t disappoint them. Give them something to talk about.

Ever have a customer basically close a deal for you?  Please share your experience in the comment section below…

Customers have high expectations. Gone are the days of transactional sales with faceless individuals who breeze in and out of your stores and on and off your websites. Today’s new normal is all about relationship.

And one of the best ways to establish that relationship is through routine follow-up.Excellence in managing the customer experience while in the sales funnel for small business

What is follow-up?

Follow-up is not the act of “bugging” people. That’s our excuse for not doing it. Follow-up is being intentional about staying in front of decision makers with a good message.

And it can produce results. For some, it leads to opportunities to upsell.  For others, it may help close a deal.

10 Ideas to get you started

  1. Send an email. Thank them for their time. Re-cap the conversation you had, highlighting key points and summarizing next steps. Note that you’ll reach out to them again on a specific date and be sure to do it.
  2. Send a handwritten note. Again, thank them for their time. Since space is limited, mention one takeaway from the conversation and when you’ll reach out to them again. Include your business card, even if you know they already have one.
  3. Make phone calls. Jot down 2-3 things you want to say when you get them on the line so you won’t stumble over your words. Be concise. Don’t ramble. Have solutions ready to combat objections.
  4. Reach out to them on social platforms. Send a personal invitation to connect on social networks like LinkedIn or whichever platform they’re on. Be involved in their world.
  5. Mix it up. Don’t limit yourself to just phone and email. Send free samples, articles and books that may seem of interest, invitations to upcoming events, and so on to stay relevant.
  6. Capture email addresses. If you aren’t doing consistent email marketing, you should be. Determine a frequency that’s manageable for you and stick to it. Include information that informs and educates, and is enjoyable to read. Offer exclusive deals and coupons. Track who’s clicking on what so that you can craft specific emails for them later.
  7. Continue phone calls, post-sale. Familiarize yourself with the customer’s buying history and call to ask how a specific item is working from them. While you want to mention new services, the intent of the call is to say “thanks.”
  8. Send mailers. A simple postcard on a birthday or an early invite to preview a new product or service is a pleasant surprise. Most people still get excited about receiving mail so take advantage of this low-cost option.
  9. Respond to problems right away. For most customers, the fact that there was an issue isn’t what drives them away; it’s how the issue was handled. Resolve issues correctly and swiftly. Check back a short while later to make sure the fire isn’t still smoldering.

And finally, number 10. Keep good records of each interaction. Knowing things like what was done and said at the last meeting or tracking how many calls have been made and on what days not only helps you stay on track, but helps you determine when it’s time to close the file on an individual – guilt free.

Remember this

Follow-up can make all the difference. It doesn’t guarantee the sale or that the customer won’t leave, but it does leave a lasting impression that could pay off down the road.

At first glance, the words cheap and affordable seem to have the same meaning – low cost.

And because of the competitive nature of today’s marketplace, customers have come to expect a good deal. They want to be courted and offered free or discounted items in exchange for their purchases.  It’s a buyer’s market and customers have more options now than ever.

So for small businesses, does that mean we should slash our prices and forget about profits?  Do we label ourselves as a cheap solution in hopes of standing out among a sea of many?

To answer that question, look at the words cheap and affordable again.  Now peel back the veil of price. You’re left with something far more insightful – positioning.  How you position your business – your brand – in the minds of customers can mean the difference between a one-time purchase and creating a customer for life.

What is brand positioning?

Think of it this way. Brand positioning is that mental real estate you own in a customer’s mind that they visit when they’re in search of something they need. How you position your business will determine what lot you get. positioning_small business_branding

Why is this important?  Consider the words cheap and affordable.

While your use of the term cheap may mean lower cost, some customers could perceive it to mean lower quality.

Because of the word’s negative connotation, customers may devalue your product or service or dismiss you totally.

Being cheap could also attract customers who aren’t brand loyal and will quickly switch to a competitor when their price drops below yours.

Being the cheapest solution is a tough position to defend and one that can put you out of business if you aren’t careful.

But, being affordable gives you some wiggle room because you can now move the conversation away from price to one of value.

While price is a strong consideration for most customers, getting the most ‘bang for their buck’ is, too. Being positioned as an affordable solution may yield more brand loyal customers overtime who are willing to pay a little extra for a brand that lives up to its promise and exceeds their expectations.

What steps can I take to position my business?

Placed side by side, the differences between cheap and affordable are miles apart. In your customer’s mind, it’s like living on the good or bad side of town. How customers perceive your brand will determine what side of town, on their mental map, you’ll reside and their willingness to pinpoint your location when they’re in search of solutions.

To get that prime mental real estate, consider these two positioning factors:

1. Take the time to honestly assess your businesses’ unique value proposition. If you’re the cheapest, ask yourself why. Did you develop a more efficient way of doing things and opt to pass the savings on to your customers? If you are affordable, but priced higher than some of your competitors, what additional value are you providing that enables you to command a higher price?

Understand what makes you different and stake your claim.  All other branding messages should support your position.

2. Focus on WIFM. “What’s in it for me?” Understand your customer’s needs and wants and communicate, in a clear and meaningful way, how your solutions solve their problems or help them reach their goals. People do business with those who identify with their core values so know what those are, connect with them, and stay true to them.

For example, if using products made with ‘fair trade’ ingredients is important to your target market, if should be important to you, and they should know it.

What should I remember about positioning?

Just this, as small business owners, we have the benefit of creating more personalized experiences for our customers then larger companies do.  The idea of cheap vs affordable only serves as one example of the various ways you can position your business in the mental landscape of your customers.

Be thoughtful about your brand’s positioning in the marketplace and be sure that it clearly communicates the reason customers should choose you over the competition.

Nearly 97% of consumers use online media to research products and services in their local area according to a study conducted by BIA/Kelsey.  That same study goes on to point out that of those surveyed, 90% use search engines like Google and 48% use Internet Yellow Pages.

With that said, it’s fair to assume that customers are looking for your business, or something similar to it, online.

So, in addition to building a well-optimized website, explore Google My Business. It may help your business get better found within Google.

What is Google My Business?

Google My Business, formerly known as Google Places for Business, is a free service offered by Google that makes it easier for your business to be found on Google Search, Google Maps, and Google+.

With a verified Google My Business listing, upon search, your business listing will display a map pin pointing your location, contact information, store hours, pictures, customer ratings and reviews.

You also get access to details – facts and figures – about how customers interact with your listing and the information you post.  You’ll have access to analytics like the number of times customers find your business on Google, the number of clicks on your listing, driving direction requests, and website visits.  All of this information works together to create a solid profile of who’s interested in your business.  Check it out below:

But is it right for my business?

How your business appears in search has a significant impact on its appearance in search engine results. And on Google, having an updated Google local listing helps clear the clutter and give you an opportunity to share real-time information, like special offers and discounts, with customers when they’re looking for it.

In turn, they can publicly declare how great their experience has been with your business through the Google reviews and ratings system.

Talk about free press!

What’s the catch?

Well, if you’ve got a Google account and a few minutes to set this up, you’re ready to get started.  However, your business and website do have to meet certain quality guidelines in order to appear.  Google uses a verification process to validate your business prior to posting your listing.  Take the time to familiarize yourself with the criteria and make corrections where necessary.

If your business passes all of Google’s checkpoints, the onus is now on you to keep your listing and Google+ page updated regularly.  The same social etiquette rules apply here.  Little activity, little result.

What if I work from home?

Good question.  That is tricky and will take a thorough reading of the guidelines to sort out.  During the set up phase, you’ll have an option to inform Google of that.  In lieu of a showing your address, your listing will reference that you serve the general area you select.

Is it really worth the trouble?

If your business sails through the checkpoints and is listed, it’s totally worth it. The visibility alone makes it worth it. And getting a Google+ page, yet another place to show your worth and start a dialogue with customers, is a plus, no pun intended!

And it’s free.  For a small business marketing budget, that’s good news.

But, Google My Business isn’t going to solve all your local search marketing issues.  Other platforms like Foursquare for Business, Yelp, and Yext are worth strong consideration as well.

Remember, regardless of which one or combination of the lot you choose, they should all be viewed as a portion of a larger plan, one that includes cross channel activity, that funnels into a well-thought out marketing strategy for your business.

If you’re a small business owner or run a non-profit organization, running short on time and resources isn’t an exception, but a hard and fast rule!

In between setting appointments, preparing bids, keeping up with emails, and returning phone calls, you’re expected to provide exceptional products and services, raise much-needed funds, and manage to maintain a fraction of sanity.

You could use a little help; someone to handle the tasks that need to be done, but keep getting pushed to the bottom of the pile.

Sure, you could bring on a college intern or you could consider hiring a Virtual Assistant.

What is a Virtual Assistant? Business Background Use of Virtual Assistant

A virtual assistant is a person who provides administrative, technical, or creative services for a business or organization. Instead of sitting in your office, however, he or she works from a remote location, typically a home office.

They do everything from monitoring and responding to email, transcribing notes from meetings, managing calendars and booking travel arrangements, and preparing presentations to the more heavy tasks like managing your social media presence and conducting market research.

And from a cost perspective, there’s no fixed schedule, so you only pay for the hours you use.

Too Good To Be True?

Well, it’s no secret that technology has and will continue to change the way we work and connect. And unless all of your suppliers or vendors are located in-house, you’re already outsourcing a portion of your business that you manage virtually through tools like Skype or Google Hangouts, or by good old-fashioned weekly conference calls.

But to source out such personal tasks as email correspondence to a third-party is a different story. How do you know that your virtual assistant won’t abuse the access you give them to proprietary information?

That’s a valid concern and there are steps you can take to lessen the risk of having a bad experience.

But first, let’s determine if you even need a virtual assistant.

Understand Your Needs

List the tasks that you’d feel comfortable delegating. Are there enough to share or could you invest a little time over the next couple weekends and get things caught up yourself?

Also, look at your budget.  Can you afford to spend the extra money right now?  While bringing on a virtual assistant may free you up to go out and generate more business, that logic only works when you actually use that time doing just that.

Needs Assessed – Virtual Assistant Neededhow to pick a virtual assistant for a small business

Without question, you must select a reputable firmSo, do your homework. In addition to searching online, ask your peers and colleagues who they use and what their experiences have been.  You’d be surprised to find that the use of virtual assistants isn’t as uncommon as you think.

Compile a list of your top 5-10 firms and start making phone calls.  This isn’t something you want to handle over email – at least not during the early stages of negotiations.

To get you started, Sara Angeles, with Business News Daily, compiled a list early this year of 10 virtual assistant services you could use for your business.  While oDesk and eLance didn’t make the list, they are well-known names in the industry.

In your research, keep in mind that some virtual assistants reside overseas. If you have a preference, make sure you work that into you conversations.

And lastly, when you pick your firm, remember that not all virtual assistants are created equal. Select a good fit. You don’t want to hire someone who will be difficult and combative, nor do you want an assistant with no critical thinking skills.

Make a list of what you need and want in an assistant, including personality traits, and have it at the ready during the interview process.

Important to Remember

If you decide that hiring a virtual assistant is the way to go, either for the long haul or on a per project basis, be sure to do a complete fact check. The firm should have a great reputation and be highly recommended.  Inquire about their screening process and make sure they have iron clad policies in place to protect your information.

Continue to monitor the relationship over time, making changes, when needed.

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