Marketing

Why Business Communication Matters

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I had the opportunity to speak to a business communications undergrad class recently and it was a bit of mixed bag experience. I loved being able to share real stories and examples of how the skills they were learning worked out in the business world. I was saddened with how little they seemed to care though. It’s a bit of a paradox even a week later. I’m still struggling with this because as self identified active social media users, future job seekers, and hopeful entrepreneurs how could they not care about building the skills that make you an effective communicator? Literally, every business interaction can be boiled down to your ability to communicate an idea well enough that it creates buy-in for the people (or the person) you’re interacting with.

Blew my mind.

So in today’s post I want to share a few of the points I shared with that class because they apply to anyone that’s trying to build a brand, business, applying for their next job, or really just trying to get anyone to care.

1. Knowing your audience is super important. When you’re trying to communicate an idea, you have to think about how your audience likes to be communicated with. Where is their attention going? This includes the words that you choose, the expectations you’re trying to manage, and even their geographic location. How can you expect to create impact, enough to inspire someone to take some kind of action, if you’re message never gets understood? Worse is if you’re trying to communicate a message that no one in your target audience even cares about. When you’re trying to get your content (or copy) seen and connect with your customers you have to keeps at least these things in mind: their experience, any technical ability, skills they have/need, seniority or tenure, their age, location (both online and IRL), and any other psychosocial demographics that might be important. You can’t expect or even attempt to build a relationship with your audience if you don’t take the time to get to know them.

2. Consistency matters. You can’t expect one blog post, one cold sales email, one mailer, or one Facebook post to create any real traction for you. It takes a special mix of factors for something to go viral and odds are the last thing you created didn’t have it. That’s ok though! It’s ok because you’ve committed to showing up everyday in your business to share what you believe in with the people who you believe need you. If your goal is to get your audience to know, like, and trust you then you should be taking advantage of every opportunity you have to share content that creates value for them. Consistency also allows for better engagement and creates opportunities for you to get to know what your audience really needs, how they like to be communicated with, and how to better serve them going forward.

3. In general, people are very egocentric. I’m going to generalize here but, we only care about the stuff that directly affects us most of the time. When someone is buying something from you they care less about you and more about how their lives are going to change after interacting with you. Sounds a little glass half empty but it’s pragmatic.Understanding this can help you really connect with people. That means all of your copy, all of your messaging, even your future "About Me" pages better be tuned to station WIIFM - What’s In It For Me. Consumers want to know that you are a trusted resource, that they got to know you, and like you, but after that it's all about how you're going to provide them value. Your audience is going to be looking to see what their life is going to look like after engaging with you. I've seen a lot of businesses go from being almost out of business to thousands of percent in margin just by spinning the point of view and burying their own egos a bit. This isn’t manipulative, it’s facing the reality that people are bombarded daily with all kinds of messaging and your job is to position yourself well enough to warrant someone to give you a second look. You don’t do that by talking about yourself all the time.

4. Telling a good story takes practice. Telling good stories is part of the essence of getting people to connect with each other. Unfortunately it’s not a skill that most people can just “wing”.  You may have big ideas for your brand or business but if you’re not taking the time to thoughtfully craft messages that connect authentically with people then you’ll just leave your audiences confused. Great stories connect us, help us make sense of the world, and communicate our values and beliefs. They tap into our emotions and makes us think and feel in ways that lists of product features and benefits can’t. Being able to frame your story in a way that’s clear and authentic creates a real competitive advantage for you. In a real life application it can be the difference between actually connecting with someone at a networking event and having them so disengaged that they excuse themselves from the conversation before you’re even done talking. (I’ve seen it happen and it’s brutal to watch.)

Those were the big points I shared that day. Well those and the fact that mastering social media is a necessity these days if you plan on building any kind of brand for yourself. I did leave them with this little summary. At the heart of business communications you’re really trying to do three things:

  • Deliver Value

  • Be Real

  • Create Community

If you do those three things, regardless of your professional situation, you’ll position yourself as a trusted asset with any audience. Oh and I also shared this link to a recent marketing study by an organization called re:create highlighting the real dollars changing hands because of the reach of social media and those that can master telling great stories and connecting with people.

Small Business Marketing Mini Series Part 3: Build Your Marketing Plan

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So far we’ve covered communicating clearly, adding value, and the importance of taking your brand seriously. Now it’s time to put all that together and organize it in a way that builds traction and awareness for your business. We’re going to build your marketing plan.

Set Measurable Objectives

“We’re going to kill it!” is a great rallying cry for your business but, as a business goal it’s useless. You are a business owner with limited funds, and you should not waste those funds on efforts that might feel good but aren’t targeting a clear, measurable outcome.

Some examples of worthless (generic) goals:

  • Grow my business

  • Get more likes on social posts

  • Make a Facebook page for my business

  • Run ads on the radio

Can you tell why those aren’t good goals? Growing your business is good, but what does that mean? Be specific. Building a Facebook page for your business is an operational requirement, but what’s the goal behind it, what should it be doing for you? Let’s look at some goals that are better constructed.

Examples:

  • Increase repeat sales by 15%

  • Increase new sales during the month of June

  • Improve customer service

  • Capture five hesitant customers

  • Position yourself as a leader in basket weaving

Do you see some differences between the two groups of goals? The outcomes are pretty specific. Increasing repeat sales by 15% speaks to improved customer retention. Increasing new sales during a key month as compared to the same month last year is something you can measure. If you have a customer dissatisfaction problem, improving customer service is an important goal that should yield very clear feedback. Know what you want to accomplish first, then start building strategies to get there.

Build Plans Around $ Goals

While branding is a very important concern, whenever possible, build your marketing plans around financial goals. Why else would you do it? Even if the direct outcome is not a sale, the indirect outcome should be. For example, increasing new customers could require doing some work with current customers, encouraging them to send business your way by making them super happy. You might not be getting them to spend more money immediately, but in five happy people can each send you three qualified leads, you’re looking at more income.

The same is true for all their goals: your brand should communicate feelings and ideas that support someone’s willingness to do business with you. Your positioning as an expert or leader or artisan should encourage a customer to choose you instead of the other guy. Ultimately none of it is immeasurable or nebulous or strictly feel-good stuff. It’s supposed to get you sales.

Know Your Resources

When you go it alone, your time is at a premium and should not be used as freely as wet naps at a wings bar. Know how much time you need to dedicate to production or client work to bring in revenue, then decide how much time you will need to spend on marketing in order to bring in business.

Some marketing methods, such as using social media, have a low initial cost, but require sustained and substantial investment of time over the long haul to maximize effectiveness. Running radio or TV ad campaign local stations can do a lot of the work for you, in terms of getting people to pick up the phone or visit your site, but to have any measurable effect it’s going to require quite a bit of money. Before you start writing your marketing plan, just make sure you know which of your resources will be easier to spare.

As you plan, create systems for tracking what you spend and how it affects sales, to determine the cost of recruiting a new customer. A pay per click campaign on Google may have cost you $700 and felt like a success because of how many clicks you got. However if it only resulted in 10 sales, averaging 20 bucks each, you spent $70 per customer, and made back only 20 bucks per sale.

Track where your sales come from is much as possible, and constantly test for effectiveness. If the new business is costing you money to bring in and not paying for itself, you’re using the wrong tools or attracting the wrong customers.

Develop Strategies

Once you’ve done the research to determine how best to reach her customers, figured out what you’d like to accomplish, and know how much time and money you can commit to your efforts, then you can start thinking about strategies to help you reach those goals.

To increase repeat sales for example, focus on strategies that reward loyalty and repeat business through discounts or other bonuses. To increase new sales, make existing customers happy (this should not cost you extra) and make sure you reward them for sending you referrals. To grow business that’s just a start up, build a tight community of customers who are engaged in your success and wants to see you grow. If you’re trying to capture customers were on the fence, hard-sell tactics won’t work, so your strategy should focus on creating a dialogue that will lead you to ways of overcoming their resistance. Positioning yourself as a leader in the industry? Be a problem solver and bring other people together for idea jams.

For most businesses, you might want to accomplish most or all of the above, and if that’s the case, your strategies and methods should overlap in ways that are mutually supportive for all the goals. If all you want is a one-time sale, all you get from the customer is their money. If you want to grow affinity and loyalty and an army of marketers working on your behalf, rely on strategies that offer something positive rather than manipulating your customers.

Select Your Tools

With all the factors that go into deciding where to spend your marketing money, what your goals should be, and how to motivate your customers, it should be clear by now that your method should be the last thing you choose. Unless, that is, you want to spend your capital tailoring your campaign to a specific channel, and learn about the cost of doing business backwards the hard way.

Final Thoughts

This was a big mini series and we didn’t even scratch the service of marketing as a function of your business. There are also tons of tools, resources, other sites, and podcasts that are devoted to sharing the latest and greatest with you and the best part is it’s always evolving. Whatever the cool marketing tools are the day you find this post the meat and potatoes of this mini series still stands. You need to figure out what your market cares about, where their attention is going, how they like to be communicated with, and engaged authentically.

Small Business Marketing Mini Series Part 2: Personal Branding Mindset

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You may never have had aspirations of becoming a poster guy or gal for anything, and yet, here you are, the face of a business. The great freedom in being a solopreneur is that you are never asked to represent someone else’s image or brand, regardless of how suited it is to your personality. However, you are in a position to have others judge the quality of your offerings and content by their interactions with you. You are now both a business and a media company.

If you conduct most of your business online, be conscious that you stand to be recognized anywhere in the world. You’re fighting for as much attention as you can possibly grab in a world where the average engagement per post is less than a few seconds across all the major platforms. If your business is limited to one geographic area, think twice about going to the grocery store in your pajamas. Your customers don’t want to see you this way, and to some extent, you will always have to be “on.” You never know who will bump into you next.

When your business is just you, even small decisions regarding behavior or appearance can affect your bottom line. This can be very frustrating because everyone needs to let their hair down once in a while. While no one expects you to be anything more or less than human, consider your public behavior carefully, and, depending on the business you’re in, consider the repercussions of different actions. If you are a wedding singer for hire, don’t expect much work if you get drunk at a reception even as a guest. If you are a freelance writer, no one will think twice about seeing you at a bar, but if you post inappropriate, inflammatory, or ignorant content on your blog, potential customers will have doubts about your ability to divorce your less than savory personality traits from the work they might hire you to do.

The good news is, if you are an adult going into business for yourself, you’re probably mature enough to know that what you consider private behavior can impact your public business, and that not being a jackass in public is generally good practice regardless of your employment status.

Authenticity vs. TMI

People are reassured when they know they are dealing with people. Think of the frustration of navigating an automated phone system when all you want to do is ask someone a simple question and get a straightforward answer. Whatever channels you use to communicate with prospective and existing customers, because of the nature of solopreneurship, you don’t want to be a cold, automated, quasi-robotic presence. If they’re looking to connect with you, they want to feel like humans dealing with humans. Depending on your brand, the depth of non-business information you share will vary, but humor, positivity, and helpfulness are always appropriate.

In the world that seems far bigger than ever before, people crave authenticity and relationships. An increase in community supported agriculture, for example, is about more than just sustainable eating. It speaks to a desire for community building, and for feeling as though we are part of something.

Solopreneurs have an advantage in this business environment because they can offer unscripted interactions, and the assurance that in a business so small and personal, the customers needs will really be handled with care. Nomatter your business, and especially if you are providing a service, your brand should communicate that reassurance in some way. You have the ability to transform the transaction into something that becomes an act of helping, of fulfilling a need, or even friendship.

Fake It ‘Til You Make It

No one has to know you’re not a billionaire (yet). Your image is always going to be a projection to some extent, and it’s OK to give reality some time to catch up. As a product creator or service provider, your job is partly to inspire confidence in your offering and what it will do for your customers. No one likes to feel like a guinea pig.

Make sure that whatever you do, you do well, and that you can deliver on what you promise. You don’t have to be dishonest and suggest your client list is already very long, but count everything relevant as your body of work. Be able to demonstrate why you’re confident in your offering, and don’t use desperation as a client recruitment tool. If your customers feel as though they’re doing you a favor by doing business with you, you won’t get much respect, much money, or the kind of work you want to be doing.

Project confidence even if you have only one client right now. Be honest when asked about your business, but focus on your skills and the work you believe is ahead of you. Don’t treat your clients as practice cases, and don’t let them believe that they are doing you service. By doing consistently good work and focusing only on the kinds of products or projects that will advance your business, you are more likely to achieve the position you’re going for.

This post was more about mindset than it was about any kind of personal brand strategy and it was deliberate. The platforms are always going to change. How we share and consume content is always going to change. What’s not going to change? The fact that you still need to be able to show up as you in your business every day. And, that’s what it means to build a real brand for yourself. Building a brand that doesn’t just try to force people through the know, like, and trust curve but encourages them to stay and hang out there for a while.

Small Business Marketing Mini Series: It's time to get serious about your marketing!

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If you’ve taken the time to develop a business you’re passionate about, truly good at, and well prepared to deliver, you may as well throw in the towel if you’re not planning on doing a little self promotion. This post kicks off a multi part mini series on all things marketing for your small business. I’ll be talking about personal branding, how to position your small business so it stands out, and offering a few things to think about as you start to audit how you’re vying for the attention of your target audience both online and in real life.

Whether you are a long-time or aspiring solopreneur, you already know there is no one else to do the things that need to be done. Even though some minor tasks can be outsourced, you are the primary representative of your brand and need to be wholeheartedly engaged in tooting your own horn. No one else is going to do it for you as well as you can.

Reasons to not make marketing yourself an afterthought:

  • Your competitors are fighting for the awareness, attention, and money of your potential customers

  • If prospects are seeking your business, if you’re not marketing it, they won’t find you

  • Marketing yourself forces you to get real clear about your message so that your core offering is well-defined and targeted at the right people

A lot of solopreneurs begin with a small idea that grows into a business plan before they know it. That’s part of the fun of entrepreneurship. Because so many of them become business people with no prior design, they’re unaware of what they don’t know. There are plenty of great in-depth titles on marketing, but good basic principles are always worth reviewing. Here are a few:

1. How many Ps are there?

If you read through a marketing textbook published within the last 15 years or so, you’ll likely find that marketing rests on at least four Ps: Product, Price, Place, and Promotion. These are the major factors to consider when promoting your product. The product itself is key, of course. If it sucks, no marketing can save it. How you price it, how you bring it to your customers, and how you promote it are all equally important and must work in concert to deliver the message you want.

Of course this list of four has been augmented many times, and most marketers are ready to give you their interpretations. Here is ours: People is often added as the fifth P, and it’s absolutely crucial to remember for solopreneurs. In this case, the People is you. Get the other four right and mess up the People part, well, it was nice that you showed up. You may not be the product, but you have become the vessel for your brand message and experience.

Our addition to the list is Presence. The marketing landscape has been irrevocably reshaped by an increasingly social web. Customers expect brands to be social and attentive. They expect you to show up, listen, and, more importantly, respond. You have to address complaints, offer solutions, and high five your adoring fans over victories big and small. Even if you’re good at broadcasting your message and selling your stuff, that’s no longer enough. This one P holds a lot of power, so ignore it at your own peril.

2. It’s Product, Not Slogan

A common mistake of eager novice marketers is to wow their audience with wit and pizazz. You hire someone to design a kickass logo and spend all night coming up with the perfect tagline to stick under your sign. It’s probably clever. Pithy. But does it say anything about your product? Does it communicate clearly what you do? More importantly, does it sell your product?

When learning how best to market your product or service, get real clear on what makes it awesome and why someone should care. Know what its features are, and what the benefits or outcomes are of its use. Your marketing is a chance to promise something great that only you know how to deliver. Know what that is and let that drive your messaging, the design of your logo, and how you talk about the product. Yes, it needs to sound good, but it also needs to be convincing and demonstrative. If you can’t find a way to come up with that message about your product, revise the product, and then come back to your marketing.

3. Don’t Guess the Answers, Do Your Homework

If your resources are limited, you don’t want to waste them with efforts that won’t bring you customers. It’s bad marketing, and it’s definitely bad finance.

It’s easy to assume that because something is working for another business, it will work just as well for you. Marketing, just like anything else, is subject to trends. You might think that you need to be on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, but are they really the best way to reach your audience? If your solo business involves sending readers to the elderly and retired, you might want to spend your marketing funds on channels that lead to that audience. However, if your strategy involves appealing to the children and caregivers of the elderly and retired, your approach would differ there.

Know who the decision-maker is in the process that will lead to a business transaction with you. Understand what motivates the decision-maker. Understand where and how that decision maker can be reached. Then, and only then, start thinking about how to spend time and money reaching that person.  You might think a billboard on a major highway will get you the most bang for your buck, but the greatest ROI is almost invariably reached when your message is well targeted, relevant, and placed in the right medium.

4. If You’re Not Enchanting, You’re Doing It Wrong

If you haven’t read Guy Kawasaki’s  excellent Enchantment, go out and buy or borrow it today. The old school thinking behind most marketing is that your goal should always be a sale. The school of thought that drives the world’s best marketers teaches that your goal is to create evangelists for your business. It’s the difference between a potentially satisfying one night stand and finding a lifelong partner in love.

Much of your work as a solopreneur  will be dedicated to finding prospects, vetting them as leads, and converting them into customers.That work becomes considerably easier over time if you take the extra step to make the customer fall in love with you. Go the extra mile, offer a kindness without expecting anything in return, and, most importantly, offer them a really amazing product.

Apple computers, which is, incidentally, Kawasaki’s former employer, struggled in its competition with Microsoft, Dell, and other companies, nearly going out of business. But even during its toughest times, Apple users were known for their near rabid devotion to the product. The company has rebounded nicely, becoming incredibly profitable, and despite having a comparably small market share, still capturing the most lucrative piece of the pie. Its users are still evangelists for the product, eagerly explaining its benefits and features to anyone who will listen. Why is that? What made it so enchanting?

Adding value.

Other companies made MP3 players before Apple. But only Apple rolled out an attractive, easy-to-use device alongside an online music store to support it. The iPhone might not be the most advanced smartphone on the market, but as an application platform, it continues to outpace others–thanks to understanding that it’s not just what the hardware can do that matters, it’s what the user can do with the software.

You may point out that the iTunes store and the application store are still making money for Apple, and that’s true. However, connecting the user to a supply chain of the very stuff that makes the devices fun to use, was not the standard operating procedure for electronics manufacturers. Now, every smart phone connects to its own application marketplace, because the average user expects what was once unusual and extremely valuable.

Applying this concept on a smaller scale is not difficult, and can be even more powerful for a solopreneur. Let’s say your business is a traveling lemonade stand. How could you add value in a way that enchants customers and keeps them coming back and gets them to tell others about you? Bring a free delivery to a construction crew doing road work in the middle of July to thank them for fixing a giant pothole, and give them reusable cups that are good for a free refill the next time they come to your stand. Offer a free workshop in the park on making the perfect pitcher of lemonade, and a free T-shirt to the 10-year-old whose concoction wins the blind taste test.

For every kind of business, there are lots of ways you can add value. Even a small gesture can feel like a lot to a customer who didn’t expect anything special. If what you do solves a problem, or helps build a community around your product or service, the enchantment is multiplied.

Remember, going from prospect to lead to customer is something all businesses shoot for. Doing the extra work to create an evangelist will have lifetime dividends and yield better marketing ROI than any advertising you can hire someone to do.

Ok, so this takes us to the end of Part 1 of this mini series. My goal was to give you a crash course on what marketing really is, how to frame what you’re doing right now for success, and where you might be able to leverage what you’re already doing for better positioning.

Tomorrow we are going to be talking about putting a little more elbow grease into your personal brand.

Stay Tuned!