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20 Digital Trends You Need to Know

I just completed an interactive local media conference where some of today’s smartest minds in digital were gathered, from the likes of Google, Facebook, IdeaLab, CitiGrid, Constant Contact and dozens more. Here’s my list of the Top 20 trends (and some implications) in digital, search, social media and online marketing that emerged from this semi-annual confab by the local media consulting firm BIA/Kelsey:

1. Shrinking Search Real Estate

As Google continues to claim more and more space for paid products on every search engine results page (SERP), there’s less and less available for “organic” results — your results.  Bottom line: Being found in search via “free” SEO tactics will continue to get harder. You can’t rely on SEO alone.

2. Social Search Soars

Search engines and yellow pages type directories aren’t the only place people look online for businesses. More and more customers are using social media to search for what they need. If you aren’t there, you can’t be found.

3. High Value Content Becomes Even More Critical

Content is where most small businesses stumble. Having a website, blog and social media pages isn’t enough without good content to go along. The simple act of offering a helpful PDF download can produce big results. Content becomes your new creative.

4. Mobile Devices Become “Remote Control” for Our Lives

As the power and sophistication of mobile devices (super computers in our pockets) continues to grow, more and more individuals will use them as the central processing unit that controls their lives. People already spend an average of 2-5 hours daily on a mobile device. This raises the ante for making sure your business is visible on mobile. About 55% of the U.S. population owns a smart phone, and 78% never leave home without it.

5. “Day Parting” Becomes more Prevalent

Day Parting is the term for dividing up the day into distinct marketing periods for making specific offers. For example, a restaurant that makes special offers just before lunch — but no other time of the day.

6. Programs for “Conquesting” Customers Grow More Popular

Conquesting is a term for attracting a customer already at one local business, over to another local business offering a synergistic product or service. For example, an ice cream shop suggesting to diners currently eating in nearby restaurants to stop by for dessert.

7. Everything & Everyone Online

As the number of people online daily (worldwide) jumps from 2.5 billion today to 3.5 billion by 2015, the lines between offline and online blur even more.  There’s no longer a conscious decision to “use the web.” It becomes an unconscious, reflex action.

8. Consumers are Hyper-Informed

Nearly 90% of U.S. Internet users go online to search for information about products and services, and about one in three will post a product review or comment online, and social media plays a critical and growing role. After spending time on social media, the 2nd-most popular activity is buying something!

9. Small Businesses Learn to Leverage Facebook to Acquire Customers

Far from fading, Facebook is finally figuring out small business (and vice versa), offering new ways for businesses to acquire customers. Twitter does the same. A term you’ll see more is “Native Placement,” which includes paid placements on Facebook and Twitter such as Facebook Sponsored Stories and Twitter Promoted Tweets.  These are considered “native” advertising. Businesses are also seeing that placing content on Facebook produces far greater results than putting on a website.

10. A Four-Screen World Rules

No single device or “screen” dominates. People move effortlessly between a PC, smart phone, tablet and TV.  According to Google research, 90% of consumers begin a task on one device and complete it on another device. Already, 77% of TV viewers watch on a non-TV device (49% smart phone; 34% PC or laptop).  Content (such as an ad) viewed on one device can trigger behavior on another device. This means business can no longer construct campaigns specific to a single device. Four years ago, small businesses bought ads in an average of 2.8 different channels. Now it’s six.

11. Expansion of Choice and Sharing Accelerates

Consumers will have more content, more choices and more places to share and consume information.  Even ads become opt-in (on video, for example), but consumers choose to watch at a high rate (currently 15-45%). This acceleration of choice provides businesses an opportunity to provide more content through which customers will “self select” based on their interests.

12. Google Product Listing Ads Gain Importance

Google Product Listings (free) and Product Listing Ads (PLAs; paid) have been around for years, but have been given a makeover and will gain momentum as more businesses find that PLAs can be vastly more effective than simple text ads.

13. Big Move Toward Video

Video will continue to explode. Already, 72 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute of the day. There are channels for every interest — over a million of them. Businesses of all sizes should be seeking out channels that interest their customers and advertise there.

14. Digital Ad Products Become Simpler

Solution providers heed the call of business owners who say digital products are too complex. Google, for example, just introduced AdWords Express, a simplified version of its flagship AdWords search engine marketing product — the first time Google has specifically made something for small business.

15. Online Avenues Get More Vertical

Major players in local search such as CitiGrid finally recognize that the needs of local businesses differ greatly by type (or vertical), and begin to offer more customized digital products geared to specific business types or verticals.

16. NAP Alignment Critical for Local Businesses

NAP — or name, address and phone number — is the vital info that every local business must make available online and on mobile. But it’s vital the info is perfectly aligned (consistent in all places), or you risk confusing Google and slipping in search results.

17. Importance of Interacting with Customers in “Social Storefronts” Grows

Imagine a customer walks into your store and you turn your back. That’s essentially what’s been happening online when a small business has a website or Facebook business page but doesn’t actively engage with customers in those settings. Importance of building online relationships grows even bigger.

18. DIWM Joins DIY and DIFM

Small businesses can expect to see more digital and social media marketing products and providers offering “Do It With Me” services (DIWM) along with Do It Yourself (DIY) and Do It For Me (DIFM).  These will come with price tags between the other two.

19. Extraordinary Becomes the New Ordinary

Consumer expectations continue to climb. Digital marvels that once seemed extraordinary (like finding things almost instantly on a smart phone) are taken for granted. Not long ago, WiFi on airplanes was unusual. Now it’s expected. The bar is high for businesses big and small to “wow” customers.

20. Newspaper Inserts or “Circulars” Go Digital

A consortium of 12 major newspaper companies is putting millions behind a new venture called Wanderful that aims to reinvent ad circulars for tablet computers and make shopping more entertaining, fun, social and discovery-based.

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.

How Small Businesses Use a Facebook Page

 For the first time, most small businesses are now using their Facebook page for customer acquisition!

 

 

Why Google AuthorRank is a Game Changer

The arrival of Google AuthorRank, and its cousin Google Authorship, reorders the digital universe in a way that can send digital importance and social influence soaring for business owners, journalists, writers, bloggers, entrepreneurs and executives active in social media.

Authorship and AuthorRank are part of a new and rapidly evolving Google initiative with immediate game-changing implications. Years in the making, and based on several Google patents, Authorship raises the ante for all business owners and executives by making social media participation even more important – and potentially effective – than ever.

Used properly, Authorship can greatly boost your digital profile and deliver higher returns on your social effort. Early studies show that having Authorship linked to content you create increases click-through rate 150%. From now on, adding Authorship to any blog or site that carries your bylined content should be standard practice.

Here’s the rub, however: This does not happen automatically. To benefit from Google Authorship you must set it up and use it. Getting it right to begin with is crucial. The Google Authorship signup site has basic implementation instructions, but there are several options, depending on your circumstances. It’s mostly a matter of giving Google the digital means (via a Google+ account and email associated with your bylined content) to verify the content is yours.

Authorship, as you might surmise, tracks individuals, not businesses. I applied for Authorship (here) in a matter of minutes for my articles on BizBest and was approved for the program via email a few days later.  As one cool side benefit, I now have my very own Google search results site showcasing 10+ pages of just my content, with photo and bio.

In techie terms, Authorship is able to work its magic via a micro data format Google calls “Rich Snippets.”  Pulling this off took Google years to figure out, but what’s important for you is this:  “Old-school” factors such as keywords and link-building that once held sway in search will now play second-fiddle to authorship, authority and social influence for business owners, entrepreneurs, journalists, bloggers and other content-creators who take advantage of it.

Be aware: These changes are already in place and gaining momentum.  And although Google Authorship has had a bumpy, confusing start and little publicity, it’s something every social biz owner must grasp.  It signals a sea change in how your unique social media contributions (read that as “content”) get scored and shown by the search giant.

Authorship already influences search results, and that has big implications when your name is associated with a brand. Not only will your content appear higher, it will be displayed higher still for anyone connected to you via Google+, which Google quickly determines on the back end.

Testing Authorship Power

I recently ran a test to see if this works, with amazing results. First I wrote 16 Sweet Social Marketing Tools You Gotta Try, published the post to my blog BizBest, and shared it on Google+ among other places. A top blog in the startup space called MyVenturePad picked it up off my RSS feed and published it on that site, as did Business Insider in its War Room section.

A few days later I searched Google for “social marketing tools” and found that I owned three of the top ten organic results on the page, including two in the top 5.  And this is for a highly competitive search term, evidenced by a dozen advertisers who paid to be on the same page that I was dominating for free, thanks to Authorship.

The Second Shoe

AuthorRank – an anticipated change to the Google search algorithm – is essentially the second shoe to Authorship, and second cousin to PageRank. Google has for years been on a quest to squelch crappy content and surface trustworthy, high-quality content created by influential and knowledge people – like you. Google seems to finally have all the pieces in place to take those efforts to the next level.

Web pundits speculate that AuthorRank will change the search game as we know it. It will definitely affect Google PageRank, and the impact will likely be huge. Social execs, professionals and business owners who understand these things now will be far better positioned to exploit the changes as they happen.

A 6-Point AuthorRank Assault List

  1. If you haven’t yet figured it out, this is also a giant reason to embrace Google+. Sure, it’s a drag to need yet another social media platform. But several factors in determining AuthorRank depend on what you do with G+, including the number of +1’s you get, your involvement in Circles, and so on. If you’ve avoided G+ (as most of us have) it’s time to step up.
  2. This further undermines traditional SEO. But that’s good, because now it’s less about a bunch of tags and keywords, and much more about content quality and digital authority.
  3. Set up Google Authorship for yourself and any other “thought leaders” you might have in your business. Remember: It must be individuals; can’t be a company.
  4. Focus on publishing high quality content and share it on social media (don’t forget Google+). Building connections with other high AuthorRank influencers will also work in your favor.
  5. Authorship has its own metrics (called Authorship Statistics) available on Google with lots of data on your content and search impact. You can even track stats on specific pieces of content.
  6. Creating high-quality, shareable (read “interesting”) content is key. You’ve heard this before, but AuthorRank makes it even more important. Don’t be afraid to specialize. In fact, since you can build separate AuthorRank in multiple topic areas, this is a good idea.

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.

16 Sweet Social Marketing Tools You Gotta Try

No doubt about it. People are piling into social media marketing like never before. But the most successful ones don’t go naked. They deploy a variety of digital tools to amplify and monitor their efforts.

BizBest® has researched over 100 social marketing tools – including some that are brand new – and came up with this list of 16 standouts (listed alphabetically):

AgoraPulse (www.agorapulse.com)

Great to use if your efforts are focused on Facebook. It offers tools to engage your fans, qualify them and track results. Using AgoraPulse could certainly quicken your marketing heartbeat.

Buffer (www.bufferapp.com)

Awesome way to schedule social media activity. It lets you add posts and tweets to your “buffer” from anywhere and have them automatically distributed throughout the day. By keeping your biz buffer topped off with content, you can schedule a fresh social media presence for a week or more.

Crowdbooster (www.crowdbooster.com)

Offers tools to measure and boost your social marketing. Lets you analyze performance of individual tweets and posts to quickly grasp what’s working; view engagement and reach metrics for Facebook.

Disqus (www.disqus.com)

Plugin for getting more marketing mileage out of blog comments. This takes the old, rather clunky “comments” function and turns it into a social media machine that lets users sign in and comment via Facebook and Twitter.

HubSpot (www.Hubspot.com)

An all-in-one marketing software provider that give you a complete package of tools to launch and manage your social media marketing. Super-savvy social marketers! These folks are smart.

LinkedIn “Skills & Expertise”

This tool (under the “More” tab on LinkedIn) is an effective (and free) way to find world-class professionals with whatever skills and fields of interest you want; an especially rich source of B2B contacts and leads.

Newsle (www.newsle.com)

Cool new way to find articles about you and your business, as well as colleagues, competitors and anyone else you care about, and receive notifications minutes or hours after they’re published. Sync your Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts, and it happens automatically.

Nimble (www.nimble.com)

Revolutionizing customer relationship management (CRM) for small business by taking it into the social realm in a really smart way. This “social CRM” service makes it easy to manage your contacts, communications activities and sales all in one place.

NutshellMail (www.nutshellmail.com)

This aptly named app from Constant Contact is a social media lifesaver for those who want their social activity results neatly summarized in a single email. NutshellMail tracks what’s being said about your business in social media, packages it up and sends a summary email on whatever schedule you choose.

Pagelever (www.pagelever.com)

Affordable analytics tool that’s all about measuring the impact of your social marketing efforts. Output charts and graphs showing traffic, fans, users, comments and more.

PeerIndex (www.peerindex.com)

Measures interactions across the web and helps you understand your influence (or lack of it) in social media. Better than Klout because it’s more adept at measuring real influence rather than just large numbers of followers.

Postling (www.postling.com)

Several tools in one, including alerts and insights that help you get the most out of social marketing. Publish to all of the major social media sites and schedule posts in advance. It also pulls comments from all of your social media sites into one place – a big time-saver for responding.

Shoutlet (www.shoutlet.com)

A do-it-yourself platform for managing social media marketing. But it’s a fairly sophisticated service, favored by many larger businesses as well. It offers a wide range of features, including data capture, customer relationship management (CRM) and unlimited accounts.

Slideshare (www.slideshare.com)

Great place to share content such as product or other presentations and generate traffic and leads for your business. The site is free to use and gets some 60 million visitors monthly. Presentations can appear on your LinkedIn profile.

Sprout Social (www.sproutsocial.com)

Popular tool among small businesses to monitor what’s being said about you online, schedule and publish updates to your social media pages with one click, and produce reports.

TweetDeck (www.tweetdeck.com)

Dashboard that gives you a good view of your Twitter activity. It allows you to monitor and manage unlimited accounts, schedule tweets to suit your audience and filter content to focus on what matters to you the most.

Bonus Tool: MarketMeSuite (www.marketmesuite.com)

This one came to our attention after the original Sweet 16 list was published, but definitely deserves a look. MarketMeSuite gives you the tools you need to be more proactive with your social media marketing. Some 30,000 small businesses are already using it to find targeted leads and influencers, engage with customers and get results on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.

6 Ways to Influence Your Influencers

Word of mouth has long been considered the best advertising a small business can get. And in today’s digital world, word of mouth is even more important and effective than ever.  But the social media explosion has transformed how word of mouth works.

Social media vastly amplifies word of mouth in a 24/7 system. But many business owners are puzzled about how this works, and what to do.

Basically, it’s about what the social media world calls “influencers.”  Other people listen to what influencers have to say. They come in all shapes and sizes, from a busy mom who’s active on Facebook, to a well-known blogger in a particular industry or profession. Influencers are active on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, industry forums and their own blogs or websites.

Influencers are always building their digital networks and social media reputations. They may have hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of friends (Facebook; Foursquare), followers (Twitter) and connections (LinkedIn) that constitute a immense digital word-of-mouth opportunity.

Every single connection is amplified in the digital world. For example, according to LinkedIn, my relatively modest 450 connections link me to an astounding 7.8 million professionals.

Your goal is to first identify your influencers, and then – well – influence them to spread positive word-of-mouth about your business.

How to Do It

Here are six tips on how to do that suggested by a leading social media analytics firm Sysomos:

1. First Check Your Own Network

Some influencers may already be in your fold. These might be past and present customers and prospects who already know your business and engage with you on social sites. Remember that customers are highly influenced by what their friends and family do and like. People already in your network can have this kind of influence on their own connections, so reach out to them.

2. Use Google and Twitter searches

This will help you find people who’ve already identified themselves (by the keywords them included in their personal or business profiles) as being interested in your industry or demographic. Don’t forget to search related or overlapping terms as well. You can also check their influencer scores or ratings with services such as Klout.com and Kred.com. But don’t rule out up-and-comers. Even people with small (highly targeted) networks can have big influence.

3. Recognize and Reward Your Best Influencers

Recognition is a powerful tool for influencing your influencers. Everyone likes to feel special in some way, and influencers in particular love to feel like they are “in the know” and have valuable tips or information they can pass along to their own networks. You can foster a special feeling by creating an influencer network (although you don’t have to call it that) and offering them first crack at special deals, news, offers, samples and demos. And social media experts at Sysomos also suggest tapping top influencers for feedback on new products or services. Loyalists will love this – especially if you make them feel they’ve had an impact.

4. Segment Your Audience and Tailor your Tactics

Avoid a one-size-fits-all approach. Influencer behavior and digital word-of-mouth looks much different depending on the social platform (i.e. Twitter vs. LinkedIn). Twitter updates, for example, should be made throughout the day (but no more than hourly). Facebook updates are generally less frequent – maybe once per day. On blogs and discussion forums, it’s best to try and join in a dialog on a topic of interest. You can gain leverage and be more efficient with your time by “cross-pollinating” some of your photos, tweets, posts and comments across multiple platforms. For example, don’t just post a great photo on Facebook. Also put it on Pinterest and tweet it.

5. Personalize your Approach

Don’t be shy about reaching out to key influences one-on-one. Use the social tools at your disposal to do this, including the direct messaging capability of Twitter, LinkedIn and others, as well as leaving thoughtful and constructive comments on influencer blogs. A social CRM service such as Nimble.com can also be a huge help.

6. Keep up with the Conversation

This requires continuous effort but is essential.  When you become an integral part of the digital media conversation in your industry or profession, influencers will be more likely to mention and recommend you on their own. Sharing thoughts and reactions to industry news will keep people thinking and talking about you.

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.  Follow @140Main

Biz Cheat Sheet on Owned, Earned and Paid Media

As digital marketing continues to soar, here’s a question I’m getting more often from business owners and start-up entrepreneurs:  What’s the difference between paid, owned and earned media for promoting or advertising my business, and how do I make them work for me?

The whole “owned-earned-paid” thing is familiar to advertising and PR pros, but totally mysterious for millions of small business owners who’ve never really thought in those terms. Yet understanding the digital-world differences — and more importantly, how to deploy owned, earned and paid media simultaneously to grow sales — is critical today.  Here’s my BizBest “cheat sheet” for business owners on owned, earned and paid media:

Owned Media Basics

Perhaps the simplest examples of “owned” pieces of online media real estate are your business website and Facebook page. You built ’em. You operate ’em. You own ’em. Done well, they’ll be nicely designed, easy to navigate and chock full of helpful information, articles, photos, videos and other compelling content that customers and prospects will find interesting. Other “owned” media would include any blogs, newsletters or additional social media accounts your business has.

The basic idea with owned media is to fill them with useful and engaging content that helps potential customers discover your business when they search for something online, or use their own social media channels.  This is the realm of what’s called “content marketing,” which uses helpful, high-value information to draw people into your products and services.

Paid Media Basics

No surprise here.  Paid media are the online ads and promotions you pay for with hard, out-of-pocket marketing dollars. This includes search and other pay-per-click type ads, banners and paid promotions on social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and others.

Using paid media is the more traditional approach that most businesses are familiar with.  You set a budget, pick your channels and spend as you see fit, while tracking results as best you can.

Earned Media Basics

Public relations fits here.  Issuing a press release that gets mentioned somewhere (either online or offline) “earns” you exposure that you didn’t have to pay for (at least not directly). But it gets trickier. The “earned media” piece is  huge, and difficult to execute — yet it’s a critical leg of the marketing/media triumvirate.

Earned media can produce really good stuff; the attention and engagement you “earn” from customers but that can’t be (legitimately) bought. For example, great comments, recommendations, reviews, mentions, likes and shares are all valuable types of customer-generated media coverage that you must earn, and can’t (directly) pay for.  This includes word-of-mouth, but amplified through the digital megaphone.

Making Owned, Earned and Paid Play Well Together

Owned, earned and paid media don’t exist in isolation. They overlap. In fact, your goal is to make them overlap and work together.  For example, paid ads might attract people to your website or Facebook page where they see some interesting content they want to “like” or share.  In turn, that engagement earns you more notice among the media.  Thanks to the nature of social sharing, the interaction possibilities are almost endless as information passes from one person’s network to others.  This is sometimes called “converged media” — the place where owned, earned and paid intersect.

To have an inkling of what’s going on here, business owners must first recognize that the way buyers research purchases and find businesses has changed radically, and rapidly. These things once occurred via isolated channels. But no more. It now happens through thousands of highly fragmented media channels on a 24/7 basis, often simultaneously as people occupy several digital platforms at once.

Big companies recognize this and now engage is what’s called “Brand Streaming” where they attempt to be absolutely everywhere, 24/7, monitoring what’s being done and said, and reacting quickly to any engagement by a customer or prospect (which is called “agile engagement”).

What to do now

First, don’t despair.  It should already be abundantly clear that since consumer behavior has changed, marketing a product or service will never be the same. You will need to embrace new digital tools and tactics (including some from all of the above categories), and deploy them in as many places as possible.

Start with a firm foundation. Look for small wins that you can reasonably achieve in each category (owned, earned, paid) and build from there.  Take it one step at a time. Don’t try to concoct some huge strategy that takes months to deploy.  Test small things to see what works and what doesn’t. It’s easier, less stressful and more effective.

Copyright 2000-2012, BizBest Media Corp. (@140Main) All Rights Reserved.

10 Tweet Ideas for Small Business

Growing numbers of small and local businesses are discovering that a tweet can be a powerful tool for making your presence known among customers, prospects, your area and your industry.  In particular, Twitter is great for helping amplify your marketing messages and grow your business.

More and more of your customers are joining and using Twitter, so if you aren’t there you’re missing an opportunity to be part of the online conversation. To use Twitter effectively, what you Tweet about – your “voice” – should reflect the online identity of your business.

For example, you can tweet about the value your business brings by sharing links and photos with your followers and letting them see what happens behind the scenes. The more people who talk about your business on Twitter, the more followers – and customers – you will get.

Here are 10 ideas for things to tweet about on a regular basis from Twitter for Small Business:

1)    Offer Special Promotions

Create special promotions available exclusively to your Twitter followers. Some businesses tweet a special offer code or secret word that customers can mention to get a discount when they visit either in person or online.

2)    Go Behind The Scenes

Tweet behind-the-scenes videos or photos that provide access to information your followers can’t get other ways. A bakery, for example, might tweet photos of how the breads and muffins are prepared.

3)    Media Mentions

Whenever there’s positive news about you or your business, or perhaps your industry in general, that’s something to tweet about. Be sure to mention the media outlet where the story appeared, and include a link if possible.

4)    Helpful Hints

Create an ongoing series of helpful tips related to your product or service that people would find interesting or surprising. A chef might tweet helpful kitchen tips or recipes. Or a clothing store might tweet ways to match current trends and vintage items. Establish a regular day for sending your tweet tips and people will start to look for them.

5)    Spotlight on People

Look for ways to focus on the people who help create a positive customer experience at your business. You might, for example, include photos of them at work.

6)    Tweet Offers and Incentives

One easy way to boost your audience is to offer a discount to anyone who re-tweets your offer – but only if you reach an established number of re-tweets (perhaps 5 or 10). Offer customers a reward of some kind if they mention your business – such as a free trial or extra service. (It’s also a good idea to include a link to the terms and conditions of your offer.) Some businesses ask customers to show them the tweet on their phones at checkout. Online sellers sometimes send the follower a discount code that can be tracked at checkout.

7)    Try Some Q&A

Pose a question in your tweet and then answer it yourself with a link to your website or another location. For example, a car dealer might ask “What are the top 10 reasons that people buy a new car?” and then link to a blog post that provides the answers. Or a golf shop might ask “Is there an easy way to correct a slice?” and link to the answer.

8)    Entertain and Inspire

People love to share positive tweets that entertain or inspire them in some way.  The tweets that are passed along or “re-tweeted” the most usually contain links, photos or videos. Remember that when you tweet something interesting it has the potential to be shared among many prospective customers.

9)    Tweet Photos

Experience shows that a descriptive tweet that includes a photo will not only get more clicks, it will inspire people to share it with others by re-tweeting it. Think of it as a caption and photo combination. The words in the tweet are the “setup” and the photo is the punch line.

10) Base Your Tweet on a Quote

Some businesses inspire customers by tweeting pertinent quotes from business, literature, history or pop culture. Try to choose quotes that your followers will find inspirational enough to pass along to their own followers.

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved. Follow us on Twitter @140Main

A 10-Step Facebook Cheat Sheet for Biz Owners

Despite its massive reach and wide adoption, Facebook remains baffling to many business owners. Facebook itself has never really understood small business, and hasn’t done a great job explaining how biz owners can use it to grow sales.

To Facebook’s credit, that’s starting to change as they provide more and better tools top help small firms, local businesses, professionals, start-ups and others leverage a platform that now claims over 1 billion users.  If you have a Facebook business page, you’ll be hearing more from Facebook as it roll’s out a variety of new ways for small companies to use paid advertising.

So far, however, the vast majority of local businesses are sticking with what they can get from Facebook for free – which is actually quite a lot.  Only about seven percent of small businesses surveyed recently by Merchant Circle are using paid promotional services on Facebook. That compares to 70 percent who are now using Facebook’s free features to promote their business.

The good news is that Facebook has upgraded the free tools and information it offers to help you succeed. The Facebook for Business section (www.Facebook.com/business) has helpful how-to tips and guidance on everything from building your page to best practices for engaging users. You’ll also find interesting stories on how other small businesses are using Facebook successfully, and a list of helpful resources.

Success always starts with building an engaging Business Page – the free foundation of your effort to grow with Facebook.  Here’s a quick 10-step cheat sheet on what to do:

1. Your Category

Choose a category and give your page a name that represents your business.

2. Your Photo

Pick a photo or logo to use as your “profile picture.” This is the smaller image associated with your page. In some cases, this might be your photo, a square version of your logo (beware: non-square logos can end up being chopped off), or some other graphic representation of your business.

3. Your Tag Line

Create a “tag line” or short sentence that captures briefly what your business is about – specifically what you do or sell, and the value you offer.

4. Your URL

Create a custom Facebook web address for your business that’s memorable and shareable.  The part you pick is what comes after Facebook.com. For example, Facebook.com/StateBicycle.

5. Your Cover Page

Select a “cover page” photo or other image – preferably something that people would associate with your business. Use a high quality image, as it will be featured prominently on your page. It’s the first thing people will see and should showcase your product, service or brand. Size restrictions are very specific. It’s best to use a horizontal image that’s 851 x 315 pixels. Avoid generic photos. It’s much better to use an image unique to your business, such as a popular menu item for a restaurant, or perhaps a customer using your product or service (with their permission). You might have to experiment with a few different images to see what looks best.  Avoid putting contact information or other business details in your image. Those should go in your “About” section.

6. Your News Feed

The “news feed” is the centerpiece of the Facebook experience. You can easily create different kinds of “news” or “posts” for your feed, including written text updates, photos, videos or questions. People who “like” your page will see your updates in their own news feeds (one reason you’ll want as many “likes” as possible). The news feed is where people spend 40 percent of their time on Facebook. This is where people engage and share ideas and information.

7. Your Posts

Short posts work best – no more than 250 characters (about 50 words). They’ll get 60 percent more likes, comments and shares than longer posts.

8. Your Sharing

The best things to share, however, are photos (including photo albums) and videos. People are twice as likely to engage with these as other types of posts.

9. Your Deails

To add details about your business, click on the Edit Page button in the admin panel. Then choose “Update Info” to change or add what you want.

10. Your Invitations

Invite people to like your page – including your community of friends, family, customers, employees and others who care about your business. The “Build Audience” button on your admin panel will show you some things to try.

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.

How Return-on-Relationship (ROR) Trumps ROI

Small business owners traditionally view customer relationships this way: You produce a product or service, and customers pay you money, some of which you re-invest in finding more customers.

But Bill Lee, author of a new book called The Hidden Wealth of Customers (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012) has a different notion.  Wouldn’t it be far more effective if you let the customers you already have help drive your sales and marketing efforts and fuel your growth? Makes sense, right?  No matter how much you spend on marketing and advertising through outside channels, they are still at least one layer removed from actual buyers. Existing customers have the best handle on understanding your potential customers, hands down.

Lee’s research has revealed this: Businesses that achieve rapid growth are the ones that don’t just think of customers as “people or businesses that buy stuff” but rather as advocates, influencers and contributors.

That’s a key mindset that can work magic for small and local businesses of all kinds, no matter where they are or what they sell. Instead of thinking only about a return of investment (ROI) on your marketing dollars spent, start thinking also about a “return on relationship” (ROR) with your customers.

The truth is, says Lee, your customers are incredibly well equipped to market, sell and even help develop your products and services.

Here are six ways that customers can help grow your business better than you can:

1) Attract high-value information from and about other customers and prospects.

Existing customers have inside knowledge of their peers that can be super valuable. For example, they know what movies they watch, which restaurants they visit, where they like to travel and so on. Consider a company called Westlaw, which provides research services for law firms. It realized that its clients were interested in how they and the markets they served stacked up to other firms and markets. So Westlaw created something called Peer Monitor, which collects and aggregates client information (anonymously, with their permission) and turned it into a lucrative new business.

2) Believably promote your product or service.

No matter how hard you try, you can never be as believable in promoting your own business as one of your customers can. It’s this simple: You’re trying to sell something. Your customer isn’t. That fact alone makes them far more credible to other potential customers than outside agencies or internal employees.

3) Close the sale.

Yes, customers also make better salespeople than you do. They can honestly say, “This product or service worked for me and it can work for you too.” Look for ways to connect existing customers with prospects.  Many business owners find that prospects are far more interested in talking to other customers than to you or others at your firm.

4) Connect with their peers (your prospects).

Prospects are much more open to opportunities of connecting with friends and peers than they are with getting close to companies. That’s human nature. But too often when companies try to form “communities” around their business or brand they put the focus on the business logos and a company spokesperson. Instead, look for ways to creatively foster dialog between customers and their peers that touches on issues related to your products or services.

5) Energize your online and social media marketing.

Try as they might, many small businesses get nowhere with their social media marketing efforts. Often that’s because they try to force traditional ways of communicating into the social sphere.  Try other creative ways, such as video and mobile to engage customers in social media.

6) Help you enter new markets.

Typically, a small business hoping to enter a new market will hire and agency or use employees to help with research. How about using local customers in those areas?  Find and engage local VIP players to play a central role in your effort. Use them for product testing and feedback and to communicate your message.

Too many small businesses say, “customers are our best assets” but never leverage those assets. By using social media and other methods to harvest those assets, you can spark a new source of growth for your business.

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.

How Rock Star Customers can Help You Grow

In an age of digital discovery and social media, here’s something that more and more local business are learning:  Existing customers can be one of the most powerful growth engines ever.  One way to put this engine to work is to identify and harness the hidden marketing potential in your “Rock Star” customers.

But watch out: they might not be the ones you think. For example, they aren’t necessarily the biggest spenders or most loyal. Loyal customers don’t always promote you (in fact, it’s likely they’re not), while big spending customers may not be profitable or have a good story to tell.

So who are your Rock Stars?

Bill Lee, CEO of an educational organization called the Customer Reference Forum, says your Rock Stars are simply the ones with the biggest potential to promote your business and influence others. “First, they’re loyal—that’s the price of admission,” says Lee. “They have a good story to tell about how your product or service helps them. Second, they’re eager to tell it. Third, they have access—and want to gain more access—to influential networks that contain more buyers like them. And fourth, they want to build their reputation and influence in such networks.”

But as much as they might love you, these Rock Star customers won’t help grow your business on their own. Even customers who identify themselves as “promoters” in customer surveys—saying they’d be highly likely to refer you to a colleague or friend—aren’t actually doing so. Studies have shown that only about 10 percent of self-described promoters actually refer profitable new customers. The key is this: You have to take the initiative and make it easy for them to do so.

Make it About Them

To make it work, it has to be all about them – not about you, says Lee, who is also author of a book called “The Hidden Wealth of Customers” (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012).

One tactic that works with Rock Stars is community marketing that recognizes how people buy things locally, from a refrigerator or flat screen TV, to a new roof or a doctor’s services. In that context, most people aren’t likely to seek out a salesperson or collect brochures. Instead, they’ll talk to friends, neighbors, colleagues or other peers to find out what or whom they’re using.

Some big companies have caught on to this. For example, Microsoft has brilliantly deployed “customer advocates” to leverage this natural approach to buying, particularly overseas. Microsoft will find local “MVP” customers who are well-connected in their local communities and want to increase their status, and help them do so by providing access to early releases and “insider knowledge.”

Getting known through established locals is faster—as well as more affordable—than trying to get locals to know a business through advertising, PR, big splash events, and other traditional marketing. Small businesses can use this same approach.

Make Yourself an Influencer

But instead of relying on your Rock Stars to carry the ball completely, the trick is to enlist their help in making you more of a “thought leader” in your own industry or community. Many business owners fall into the rut of seeking influencers—such as bloggers with large followings, or prominent personalities in their markets or communities.  But it’s usually better to be the influencer yourself – enlisting your Rock Stars to help you do it.

A good local business providing exceptional solutions to a community or market has two things that no outside influencer can match, says Lee. You have actual customers who are happy, plus you have your own “subject matter experts” (you and your employees) who work with these customers all the time. That alone gives you far more valuable knowledge than the usual outside influencer.

Perhaps the best thing about Rock Star customers is that they already exist, quietly thriving under the radar, waiting for you to discover them and put them to work. Failing to do so is a little like being a homeowner who knows a stash of gold is hidden in the wall but never uses a metal detector to find it.

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.