Should Videos be a part of your Marketing Strategy?

Video-Marketing-Plan

A cat runs across a room and slides easily into a box that had, up until a second ago, seemed impossibly small for the fat feline to squeeze into. The cat and the box hurdle across the floor and collide into a nearby wall with a thump. But, to your surprise, the cat is not hurt. In fact, it seems happy. It appears as if it really wants to be in the box. You laugh, hit “share”, and wait for your friends to watch the video, too, knowing they're going to love it just as much as you do. maru_the_cats_boxes

We've all seen these kinds of viral videos. And they go viral for a good reason: They're funny, cute, and just plain entertaining.

It makes sense, then, that a lot of companies want to follow suit and make their own videos, hoping to bring this viral attention to their brands. They want a taste of that fame, to bring in a bit of fun and excitement to liven things up a bit. It's not rocket science, right? And it shouldn't be too difficult to include videos as a part of your marketing strategy, right?

Well, that's true... and it's not true. Vague, we know. But we'll explain below, so read on to find out more!

The Pros of Video Marketing:

Videos keep attention longer than blog posts.short-attention-span

If your video is short (roughly under 5 minutes) you're much more likely to hold someone's attention. Many people don't want to read until the end of a lengthy blog post, so why would they want to slog through a long video? However, if a video is short and engaging, they're much more likely to stick around.

So do longer videos ever work at all? Is there any point in even making a long video anymore? Actually, there are some cases in which, yes, longer videos work better. They're the best option for tutorials, because many times you'll have to go quite into depth with the topic at hand. The videos can be edited for extraneous fluff, but even if they're still longer than five minutes after the editing, people won't really mind. They're going to pause and take notes anyway so that they can follow along.

Fun to watch, easy to share!

If you make an entertaining video, people are going to have fun watching it. Even if you're trying to make a traditional educational video, there are still ways to brighten things up a bit and make sure that everyone watching has a good time. Infusing a bit of humor, using colorful graphics and upbeat background music, and having good cuts and editing all go a long way!

When your audience really connects with a video, it's only natural that they're going to want to share, especially with friends who have similar interests. This means that as the video spreads across networks, you're more likely to get more regular viewers. The best part? You don't necessarily have to spend any money to do this. Like any other social network, sharing is built into most video marketing platforms. All you have to do is keep making great videos, and your audience will grow.

People enjoy seeing the inner workings of things.

Videos have a special way of allowing us to take everything in: We see what is going on, and we hear what is happening. We cannot touch, taste, or smell, but a video is still much more immersive than, say, a blog post. People feel like they get behind the scenes of your business, and that gives them a connection that possibly didn't exist before. It lets them get closer to you and to the brand, and that's a great way to make a lasting impression.

seo-videoThey can help with SEO and traffic.

Naturally, videos will show up in searches if they're relevant enough. This will help with your SEO and rankings. Having a YouTube channel rank alongside your Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and LinkedIn is immensely helpful. People are keen to click on videos in search results--it's easier than skimming through a wall of text. So really, it's one more great way for your customers to find you and interact with you!

Bonus: Because you can link to your site as well as social media profiles from your YouTube profile page, you can drive traffic from the YouTube page to your other sites without any effort at all. If you want to go an extra step, you can include interactive hyperlinks in your videos to allow viewers to click and go straight to your site from the video screen.

Note: There are many other sites aside from YouTube that you can use to host videos. Check out more information on creating a video marketing strategy and choosing a video hosting platform at Vidyard.com!

The Cons of Video Marketing:

They can take a lot of time to make.

Unfortunately, videos do take quite some time to make. If you're making an educational video, you're going to have to outline everything and spend a lot of time making sure everything you do is clear and concise. If you are making something funny, you'll have to write a script—it's much more difficult to make something creative and spontaneous than you probably think it is. And if you're making a straight-forward video about your company, you'll have to make sure everyone is dressed professionally and understands what you're doing. Making videos is a very involved process, so it's something you'll have to consider heavily before undertaking the project.

video-productionTo appear professional, you must have a budget.

This relates to the time spent on the video... because if you spend a lot of time filming and putting together something of high quality, you're going to need an editor. And to get the good equipment required, you'll need to have a budget. Furthermore, to promote your videos, you'll more than likely have to spend money on advertising. You can find some good information on that process at Content Marketing Institute.

If your company doesn't have a large budget available for videography, there's no need to worry. There are sites out there that can help you create a decent setup that looks professional enough for very little money.

You'll also need to come up with creative ideas for videos to be effective.

As mentioned above, you can't just take any old idea and put it into a video. In order for your videos to be effective, you're going to have to be a little bit more creative than you may have been in the past. Try collaborating with your employees and staff to come up with ideas. If you already have a creative team, sit down and brainstorm. All of this is time-consuming and it can be difficult to agree on things, but if you can pull it off, it's worth it in the end!

Moderating comments can be a pain!

YouTube is notorious for its terrible comments. Even if you choose to do short videos via Vine or Instagram, you're still going to get unpleasant or spammy replies. For some platforms, you can choose to leave comments off altogether to take care of this problem. Other platforms don't offer that option. Most people who make videos want to facilitate conversation around the content, though, so they invite people to participate. So if you choose to use a platform where you can moderate your comments, you'll quickly find that it can be a real pain. However, if you want to keep your company image clean, you're going to have to get rid of the duds. This can take some dedication to vigilance, so it's definitely something you'll want to consider beforehand.

Of course, let's not be all negative here. You're going to get some positive comments, too—we're just trying to make it clear that it's important to be aware of the potential difficulties that can arise with commenting systems.

So what do you think? Do the pros outweigh the cons, or are you pretty much set against including videos as a part of your marketing strategy?

At Internet Local Listings, we make videos for all clients who sign up for one of our marketing packages. These are basic videos designed to help you with ranking, and our turnaround time is fast. If you want to get started with videos now, visit us and we can help you get started!

Back to Basics #28: Getting the Most Out of Twitter

getting-the-most-out-of-twitter

How many followers do you have on Twitter? Do you talk with other people on a daily basis? Do you get people clicking through to your website or your blog?

If you're feeling a little lonely in the follower department and haven't really seen any new traffic to your site, you're probably feeling a little frustrated. But don't despair--this doesn't mean that you're doomed to remain this way forever!

That's because in this article, we're going to show you a few simple things you can do to get more out of Twitter. None of these tips require a ton of your time and energy. In fact, many of these are simple little tricks that you can easily implement into your regular social media strategy, and you don't have to spend a dime.

So let's take a look at how you can get the most out of your Twitter account!

Fill out your profile completely.

twitter-profile-example

Image courtesy of http://instructionaltechtalk.com/how-to-join-twitter/

This might seem obvious, but it's absolutely crucial that you fill out your profile and don't leave anyone guessing at anything. Twitter gives you plenty of space to make your page unique, so take advantage of that! Create unique graphics to place in your profile picture and header, and make sure you've listed all your important information: Website, location, and a description of what services you provide. Finally, make sure your handle is descriptive of your company. For example, if you're a plumber, choosing a name like plumber50432 probably isn't helpful to your followers. But you could choose ChicagoPlumber or ThePlumbingKing or something like that—you get the picture.

For your convenience, here's a checklist of your profile necessities:

  • Profile picture
  • Header image
  • Bio filled out
  • Website listed
  • Location, if possible
  • Descriptive handle

Find people in your industry to follow.

twitter-follow

A lot of new Twitter users don't want to follow people in their industry or field because they think it's pointless to follow their competition. But that's not true at all!

Twitter allows you to peer directly into the marketing plans of other companies that provide the same services you do. If you really think about it, you'll begin to see how wonderful this can be for your own marketing strategy. Back to our plumbing example: If you see other plumbers tweeting about a brand new kind of sump pump, retweet them or compose your own tweet about the topic. If you see a plumber who links to a creative contest on his or her website, you can use that as an opportunity to use that as a model for your own contest. Take a look at those with the most followers and see how they build their profiles and interact with others. Chances are, you'll be able to learn something and you won't even have to pay a cent!

Make lists of influential people.

This is a great way to make use of all those influential accounts mentioned above. An easy way to collate your most influential accounts is to add them to a list. To do this, go to the person's profile, select the gear icon, and then click “Add or remove from lists”. You can then name and describe the list, and select whether you want it to be public or private. If you're watching your competitors, you may want to change it to private. But sometimes adding people to a public list can be beneficial—they might add you back or other people might subscribe to your list so they can also follow your influential accounts! We've included some helpful (hopefully) screen captures to better illustrate this process:

example-list1

Select the gear icon, then click "add or remove from lists."

example-list2

If you don't have a list created, select the "create a list" option.

example-list3

Name your list, fill out a brief description, and choose whether you'd like it to be public or private. Save and you're done!

Follow back relevant accounts.

follow-back

It's not always going to be you who finds the best accounts to follow--sometimes people will find you, too. Keep track of your followers by using a tool such as Tweepi or ManageFlitter. If you find people who are relevant to your interests, go ahead and follow them back! If they're not, then there is obviously no obligation to do so. We suggest taking the time to block bots as well. After all, they don't add anything to the conversation, and they aren't real fans.

Oh—and while we're on that topic, never purchase fans. Even if you're desperate to look like you have more than five friends (which, let's be honest, we all would be!), don't pay for followers. Just keep finding relevant accounts and following them, and soon you'll get people following you back.

Use appropriate hashtags.

If you think hashtags are just words used as slang, you're in for a surprise! Truthfully, it's not very effective to use Twitter without them. Hashtags are a way for people to find important topics and conversations in real time. Whether you're looking for information on roofing expos or you simply want to chat about the hottest new shade of nail polish, you can probably find hashtags that will appeal to people looking to follow that topic. You can use tools like BuzzSumo to help you find popular topics and coordinate your posts with current and relevant conversations.

Here are some helpful tips to get the most out of hashtags:

  • Don't use too many in one tweet. Two, maybe three tops.
  • Hashtags tend to do better when included in a sentence or placed at the end of the tweet.
  • Don't use any punctuation or spaces. Hashtags only support letters.
  • If the hashtag is long, try making it easier on the eyes by capitalizing the beginnings of words. I.e., #SocialMediaStrategy.

Use photos every once in a while.

twitter_sand_re

People will read interesting text tweets, especially ones with links or hashtags. But think about it: Which would you find more appealing—a plain ol' string of text or something with a bright, beautiful photo by it? Of course your eyes will be drawn to the photo. So take the time to include a photo with your tweets on occasion. You could attach an inspirational quote, a picture of a project you just did, or a new product you're offering in your store. Be aware that photos do count against your character quota, so you'll have to plan for a shorter tweet if you want to use a picture!

Retweet others and ask for Retweets.retweeting

Finally, don't exist in a vacuum on Twitter. No one wants to see a stream of self-promotional spam from a single account. Take the time to retweet others, or tweet interesting articles that you find on blogs and websites you enjoy. A general rule of thumb to follow is that you should stick to 80% tweeting about topics relevant to your business but not necessarily self-promotional; and then the other 20% of the time send out tweets promoting your own business.

You can also ask for retweets! Many people respond to a simple request for retweets—just don't overuse this tactic with every tweet you send out. And be sure to retweet those that you follow who ask for shares as well!

Well, there you have it. With these tips, you'll soon see your Twitter follower count growing and your engagement soaring! You can easily start doing these things on your own, without hiring any special assistance.

If you have any other great tips, leave them in the comments below!

New Social Media Trends You'll See in 2015

Social Media Trends in 2015

As the year 2014 draws to a close, many of us are looking forward to a nice, relaxing holiday. And it's well deserved--2014 was a busy year for us! But for marketers? Marketers tend to struggle with letting their brains completely relax, and so are already looking ahead to 2015 and analyzing social media trends to figure out how to plan an even better marketing strategy. So let's talk about marketing with social media. What can we expect to see in 2015?

While we don't think we will be seeing tons of innovation (more on that below), we will see an increase in what's already becoming popular: More visual content and more mobile content. Let's take a look at some examples:

E-Commerce will take off

E-Commerce

 

Image courtesy of Mashable.com

Earlier in the year, Facebook and Twitter began playing around with “buy” buttons that appeared alongside content. This made it so that users could easily make purchases with just a few clicks, and they'd never even have to leave the network.

And guess what? It seems they're doing pretty well with it.

You can expect this to continue into 2015, with many advertisers pushing hard to integrate this strategy in the top social media sites. By sticking that button in there, it not only increases the likelihood that someone will purchase something from your website, it also gives hard sales numbers for analysts to keep exact track of data. Before, this wasn't possible. And considering that currently, over half of all mobile searches lead to a purchase, you can see why it makes marketers so giddy. So if you want to be on top of the e-commerce trend, you're definitely going to be ready to implement these changes in the coming year.

Social media marketing will be even more popular

Social_Media_Marketing

 

Content strategy was a central theme to marketing in 2014. And guess what? It's going to be sticking around for 2015. But this time around, marketers are going to press for a content strategy by leaning heavily on social media distribution.

What does that mean? Basically, there were a lot of companies that created content in 2014, but a good percentage of them didn't bother to amplify this content through social media channels. And to be honest, that's just silly. Promoting your content through popular social media platforms should be your primary goal in terms of content marketing. Your reach and visibility is greatly increased through social media. If you need more proof, you can read more here, here, or here. Take your pick :)

You're going to see even more new networks

elephants-being-social

 

Yes, we know, we said right away in the article that there wasn't going to be a whole lot of innovation. So you might be wondering: If this is the case, then how can there be so many new social networks popping up? Ello, Yik Yak, and many others have burst onto the scene, so what gives?

Well, there's always going to be someone new, someone trying to take a slice of the pie that is already being shared between social media giants like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. But will they last? Many of these new sites promise true privacy (and this is a draw to many with all the recent privacy breaches), but even if they deliver, it's still incredibly difficult to make a dent in the already over-saturated social media scene. A large number of new social media platforms end up feeling incredibly empty and lonely, which directly goes against the primary reason people use social media in the first place: to be social!

So while you're going to see lots of new, shiny sites to sign up for, don't worry too much about being on top of every new trend: Many aren't going to last. It's still worth it to be aware of the trends, though!

Have you noticed any other social media trends that you think are going to be big in the coming year? Let us know in the comments!

Back to Basics #27: Keeping Up with Seasonal Demands

keeping-up-with-seasonal-demands

Every year, when the holiday season rolls around, businesses large and small alike scramble to keep up with the increased demand for products. Whether they have to hire new seasonal workers or they simply have to carry extra products to ensure they meet demand, small businesses are often stretched thin and the owners are stressed. It's already December, so by some standards, this article is a little late (oops!), but there are still some good tips you can utilize over the next few weeks to make sure you're adequately keeping up with seasonal demands for your small business.

Labor Costs

christmas-shopping

Spending even more money on labor is something that most small business owners shrink away from. It's not a fun prospect—many small businesses already struggle to keep in the black. And while the holidays are a great time to spread the good word about your products and services, they're also demanding. Customers want nearly immediate responses when they have questions, and they want fast product/service delivery. If you can't greet and help all customers during the busiest shopping season of the year, you might find yourself at the receiving end of some pretty scathing reviews. Lots of companies choose to counter this by hiring more staff. For instance, in the retail industry, many businesses must hire greater numbers of workers during the Christmas season to handle the extra work that comes with holiday sales.

For last-minute tips, try:

  • Offering an incentive for workers to come in early or stay a bit late--but be sure to follow through! Coupons, bonuses, and prizes all work well as incentives.
  • Extending customer service hours--even if you take a few calls or answer a few emails on your personal time, your customers will appreciate it, and you don't have to hire the extra help.
  • Setting up a comfortable area for customers to wait in your store. Providing free coffee, water, and tea can help ease tensions. And don't forget to make sure customers understand where and how long to wait.

Putting All the Details in Place

christmas-tree

Many small business owners say that they prepare for the holiday rush months ahead of time. They double-check to make sure their websites are easily accessible, up-to-date, and properly linked to social media accounts; others go a step further and post coupons and holiday deals that can be redeemed online or in-store. Some focus mostly on PR campaigns and online contests to ensure their customers hear about holiday sales on the most popular social media channels; in turn, they hope that the customers will share information with friends to spread the word. Still others prepare written materials to hand out to customers for word-of-mouth marketing purposes.

While some companies choose to plan everything to a T, there are others who choose to do things more "organically". They might opt for casual online events to save on the costs of printing or advertising, or they might try to prepare the best they can without actually crunching numbers or hiring anyone new.

Which method would be best for you? Well, it really depends on your industry and the flow of your holiday traffic. Retail stores might lean more heavily toward hiring staff, while a small, one-person business might simply stock up and hope for the best. Read this thread at The Guardian for some more advice from other business owners.

Stock Up

christmas-business

If you think you can handle the busy shopping season by simply stocking up on inventory and planting your feet firmly on the ground, so be it! If you're more the kind who makes sure all holiday items are in stock well before the holidays and you've already hired all your seasonal workers, that’s great, too. Either way, you should always anticipate a higher demand for products and develop a plan to address that need:

  • Run through your numbers from the year. Which products sold best? Do you have enough in stock now? What if customers would like to have the items shipped?
  • Think about returns and refunds. Will you offer returns or refunds if customers decide they don't want to keep your product? What about gift receipts?
  • Are there any special items you only carry during the holidays? How about services that will need to be provided no matter what time of year it is (e.g., plumbing, emergency electrical work)? How will you handle any extra inventory if you should have leftover products? If you provide services, how can you make sure you are available during busy or inconvenient times (say, the day before Christmas)?

Another tip you shouldn't forget: Make sure your business is fully insured for special circumstances. If you have insurance but fail to update the cover for winter weather-related issues, you would essentially leave your business under-insured. For those who work from home, this can be even more dire: If you store your stock or products in a separate building, you might not be insured if the items are stolen or damaged. That means you'll have to be extra careful in this rainy, cold, and snowy season! So be sure to take the extra steps to ensure you have adequate stock, and that it's fully insured and protected as necessary. This is, after all, one of the worst times of the year to take a financial hit.

 

In the coming weeks, we hope you see a lot of success at your small business. The holidays are a great time of year—for family and friends, and for those of us who choose to serve the public through retail and skilled services. Let us know if you have any other tips that you think others should know about! It's the season for sharing, after all :)

The Importance of Visual Content

the-importance-of-visual-content

As a small business owner, marketer, and website owner, you have to wear a lot of hats. You have to produce your products, deliver great customer service on a daily basis, and ensure you keep up with marketing techniques so you can effectively promote your brand. But unfortunately, in today's intensely competitive online world, it's not enough to simply have a website and promote yourself on social media. You also need to create some kind of a content marketing plan—such as a blog—and you should be integrating visual content into that plan. Now, you might be asking why you should be doing this. Maybe you've been writing a blog and you feel that you get enough shares, traffic, engagement, etc. from it already. Maybe you're more the type who enjoys reading than forcing your way through an infographic. Or maybe you haven't even started a blog and don't really see the point in having one.

Unfortunately, the numbers prove that images and videos—visual content—help sell products better than text alone.

visual-marketing-meme

Image Source: Visually Social

Did you know that posts with videos attract 3 times more inbound links than plain text posts? Or how about that views of a published article go up 94 percent if they contain a relevant image or infographic when compared to articles without an image in the same category? Whether it's just a picture or a video, the studies show that visual content is important to the success of your content marketing strategy!

And it makes sense if you really think about it: Since the caveman days, people have been using pictures to communicate with one another! These pictures communicated needs, depicted family life, and told stories of hunts and conquests. When you think of it this way, it's easy to see that we have always loved to tell stories in creative, unique ways. Donna Moritz, an expert on modern-day visual content (not so much cave paintings). stresses that you can really hook your audience when you use images or video to tell a story or share a message. And she's right—you can use videos and images to create anything from how-to articles to images with bite-sized quotes, to informative infographics, to pictures offering tips and tricks. This makes your content more fun for your readers to share or pin to Pinterest boards. It also grabs attention in a stream of text on highly-utilized social media platforms, such as Facebook!

Images Vs Videos

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Is it better to use images or videos in your posts? Well, that depends on what you're trying to say with your message.

For example, according to a study cited on Hubspot, viewers are 85% more likely to purchase a product after watching a product video. You can use a product video to demonstrate how your product is used, how it is assembled, or how you can store it during a season when it's not likely to be used (a lawnmower during the winter, for example). But just because you use video, it doesn't mean that you should ignore static images. If you're writing an informative article, such as an “10 Ways to Keep Your Carpet Cleaner”, visuals would be immensely helpful to demonstrate your point. You can use a collection of images or put together a large infographic--whatever you think would work the best with your message. Need proof? The Hubspot article also notes that publishers who use infographics grow in traffic an average of 12% more than those who don't.

So, long story short: If your article could benefit from an infographic or video, you now know the stats. It's worth it!

Making Content Easier to Read

book

Aside from helping to inform your readers and make your posts more interesting, images and videos also break up large blocks of text, making it easier for readers to navigate your article. Most people are pressed for time now, and they often skim articles while on their morning commute or while checking emails before work. Making concise sub-headlines as well as including photos helps keep their attention and explain what's happening more clearly. Choose attractive or funny photos, depending on your content. What do we mean by "attractive"? We mean that you should keep those boring, generic stock photos to a minimum. We do utilize them ourselves sometimes, but take it from us: Over time, we've learned that people respond much better to pretty or goofy photos than they do the generic “people pointing at a chart in a business suit” images. If you can supply photos you've taken yourself, then that's even better!

Whether you're just getting started with a blog or you've been around for a while, it's important to keep up with trends so that you can get the most out of your efforts. By implementing videos, infographics, and images where appropriate, you can bet that your posts will get more engagement—and you'll see more traffic and conversions as a result.

Back to Basics #26: Improving Decision-Making Skills

improving-decision-making-skills-in-the-workplace

As part of our regular back to basics series, last week, we talked about problem-solving in the workplace. This week, we'd like to expand on that and talk a bit about decision-making skills that you'll need as a small business owner. Being able to make sound decisions for yourself and for your employees is a skill you can't afford to neglect. Your company depends on you to make informed, sound decisions without a long delay. It's a tough prospect to consider for some people, because while some thrive on confronting challenging issues regularly, there are many out there who don't enjoy this kind of stress. In fact, they would prefer to run away from it as quickly as possible!

Unfortunately, though, there's no way around tough decision making. You'll have to do it at some point or another, so you might as well get used to it. While that might sound like tough love, we do have some good news: We guarantee that you can learn how to be a better decision maker and feel confident in your decision-making skills.


 

Taking the “ache” out of decision making

decision-making

When trying to make sound decisions, there are a few things that you'll want to keep in mind: you'll want to be objective, think of multiple solutions, and figure out how you can delegate the decision making process.

Being objective

It's easy to run into a stressful situation head-on, feeling furious, frustrated, or confused. But that's no way to approach making major decisions. You'll need to clear your head and focus on the task at hand before you tackle it. In this situation, you'd be making decisions based on subjective reasons (emotional), rather than objective (logical).

Objective reasoning considers everyone in the office (or at least everyone involved with or affected by the decision) before the decision is made. It is a choice made rationally, without heavy or negative emotions influencing the outcome. It's easy to see why this would be important—it takes the team into consideration, rather than just the decision maker. If you try this method, but still find yourself unable to make an objective decision, you can always enlist the help of trusted colleagues, or you can try backing off for a while (time permitting) to see if your head clears up a bit. You might also try brainstorming or writing down scenarios that you would like to have come to fruition. Then you can choose the best option from these solutions.

To be objective, remember these tips:

  • Am I making this decision while feeling sad, angry, or frustrated?
  • Am I making this decision to benefit myself over others?
  • Am I making this decision to benefit some of my staff over others?
  • How would this reflect on me as a boss? Will my company employees respect me for this choice?

 

Thinking of Multiple Solutions

keep-calm-there-is-always-a-solution

Sometimes, it's difficult to come up with the correct solution because of budget constraints or conflicting interest. Other times it seems like there might actually be more than one correct solution because of the complexity of the situation. In these cases, it might help to brainstorm a bit and come up with a few ways you could move forward. For example, could the problem be solved by asking multiple people to complete a difficult task? Would it be helpful to move people between departments? Perhaps it's best if you hire an extra person to take care of loose ends. If it's a temporary issue, you could always consider an intern or assistant. There are a number or ways you can approach an issue, and if you take the time to consider all of them (or at least as many as you can think of), you'll be able to make the best decision possible.

Alternatively, if your problems are rooted in the motivation, attitude, or productivity department, you might want to try a survey. You can ask your employees what would make work better for them. Perhaps they're sitting in a dreary spot in the office and could do with a bit more natural light. Perhaps they're feeling unmotivated because the office never has any fun activities or a good break area. Simply by talking to them, you can come up with a few solutions and then ask your employees for feedback on your ideas. If you get a majority supporting one idea in particular, you'll know which decision to make!

Remember these tips to help you think of multiple solutions:

  • Brainstorming doesn't mean coming up with complete strategies. It means thinking of different ways of approaching a problem. You can do this, no matter how good or bad the ideas seem at the moment. Just get your brain thinking!
  • Are there ways to make your budget stretch further? For example, if you're considering hiring another person but don't know if you truly have the budget for it, are there other costs you could cut? By adding an extra sum of cash into the equation, you have more opportunity for more varied solutions.
  • Are there creative ways you can approach this problem?
  • Is this problem worth addressing quickly? Or is it something that can be implemented step-by-step?

 

Who can help you?

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Sometimes it's tough to make a decision all on your own. It's necessary at these times to find someone you trust—a creative partner, your assistant, another manager—who you can bounce ideas off of. Remember, when you make decisions, you can always ask for feedback before deciding on anything permanent. There is nothing wrong with asking for help. In fact, your decision might be improved upon when you take another point of view into consideration, and the results of your decision could be even be better than you would have anticipated otherwise.

To start, make a list of the people you can trust to advise you. After all, kings and queens of the past had advisers for a reason! The president has advisers for a reason! You, as a small business owner, can also improve your chances of success by having trusted advisers.

When you're considering asking someone else for help, consider:

  • Is this a problem that involves a specific complaint, such as discrimination, harassment, etc? Is there someone I can talk to about this before making a decision based on my judgments?
  • Is this a problem that could be solved creatively? Is there someone who I can work with to come up with a solution I might not have thought of?
  • Is this a problem I can easily solve by asking my employees what they need? Can I design a quick survey or arrange a meeting to hear their thoughts and suggestions?

In summary, the most important and helpful tips for improving your decision-making skills are: remembering to remain objective about your decision, thinking of multiple solutions to a problem, and asking for help where it's needed. If you practice these tips, you'll soon see that you're making better decisions faster and more easily. Good luck!

Can you think of any other ways to make better decisions? Let us know in the comments!

Oh, and here's a good resource to check out on Slideshare: Problem Solving and Decision Making at the Workplace

10 Reasons to Engage with Customers Online

10-reasons-to-engage-with-customers-online

1. You personalize your brand

Engaging with customers allows you to control the flow of the conversation. If they ask for clarification on an upcoming sale, you can give it to them. If you thank them for taking the time to promote your brand, you can choose how you want to engage. It's all a great way to show your brand's personality—and to demonstrate how unique your company is!

2. Customers give feedback for free

Many times, customers will respond to an image or a status that you share on your social media platforms: they'll chime in with their thoughts, answer a question, or let you know how they feel about your most recent promotions. And this is a great way to find out what your customers are thinking without forcing them to take a survey—basically, you get free feedback. And who doesn't love that?

3. You present a positive image

If you're a fan of a company like Coca-Cola, you probably don't expect a lot of interaction with the brand--they're simply too big to get back to every person who tries to engage with them. But if you're a fan of a local hair salon, you more than likely expect that they'll get back to you in a timely manner--they should care about their customers. You feel they should strive to interact with customers because they're local—which is precisely why you, as a local business owner, have to be aware of your customers' needs. They'll communicate their interests and thoughts to you online—whether by email, twitter, or Facebook. When you respond to their concerns, you present a positive image that lasts.

4. Customers will share content for free

A great thing about posting on your social media networks is that your customers will be eager to share your content. Whether you're asking them to share for a chance to win a coupon, or they're simply doing it on their own because you post such great content, you're getting free advertisement. When you engage with your customers, they'll be happy to share your content, and you all benefit from that.

5. Networking is good for everyone

When your customers interact with you, you may be surprised to learn that some among the group are actually quite high-status clients. You can use this to your advantage by making a real connection with them and agreeing to help one another out. Trade blog posts, promote each other's stores or websites, or simply share social media updates. You'll both benefit from this mutual transaction, and your fans get the benefit of seeing that you're willing to network and share with others!

6. You might get free recommendations

When you engage with customers, you'll find that they appreciate you taking the time out of your day to respond to them. This in turn can increase their opinion of your brand. And if they love your brand, they'll recommend you to friends. Think of the last time a restaurant owner responded to your comment or review personally—it felt nice, didn't it? You owe your customers this courtesy. Deliver it, and they'll react accordingly.

7. Positive word of mouth

The beauty of online marketing is that it doesn't have to stay online. By building your brand image and engaging with customers, you'll make a good impression that will follow you offline, too. Whether you're a plumber or the owner of a salon, if you're friendly and active online, your customers will spread great news about you by word of mouth. This in turn can bring more visitors to your store or more phone calls to your office!

8. Brand awareness spreads

A natural consequence of networking, sharing, and recommendations is that your brand awareness spreads. Every time a new person learns about your business, your brand has made a new impression! So remember that even if you're not where you'd like to be in terms of followers/fans or interactions, you are still building platform for yourself. There are some benefits that come from this, too!

9. Consistency will bring in more visitors

If you update every once in a while and never interact with your fans or followers, you'll find that people tend to view you as unreliable. You'll start to lose fans, and people won't care about your updates as much as they would if you were consistent. You can prevent this by regularly updating, engaging with your community, and by presenting a friendly, consistent image. Remember that even if you're not hitting your projected numbers, you're still growing. You can always change up your plan, as long as you don't quit altogether.

10. More traffic to your website and other social media accounts

Finally, your shining example of being a great business owner will help you gather more followers and fans, as well as drive more traffic to your website. Be sure to post your website's address as well as any other contact info across all of your social networks. That way, if someone finds you on Twitter, they can still visit your website or go to “like” your Facebook page. Conversely, if they find your website and want to follow you on social media, they can easily navigate to your profiles directly from your website. Easy and simple!

As you can see, it's important to engage with your customers for so many reasons. Your presence online can truly affect how you're perceived both online and off. By implementing a consistent routine and keeping a positive attitude, you'll find that the benefits of engaging with customers online are only going to better your business.

Can you think of any other benefits of engaging with customers online? Let us know!

Back to Basics #25: Improving Problem-Solving Skills in the Workplace

Back to Basics #25

Part of owning a successful business is being able to make sound decisions--for the good of your employees as well as for the future of your company. Your business thrives in a positive, supportive atmosphere, and if you aren't able to make the decisions necessary to get you to these goals, you're going to suffer financially as well as emotionally. But solving business-related problems is tough. We get it.

What if you're inexperienced with workplace issues? What if the idea of "creative problem solving" sends you running? What if you feel like you just don't understand your employees, your HR department--heck, anyone at all?

In this Back to Basics article, we'll talk about ways that you can improve your problem-solving skills so that you can make business-related decisions with confidence. Let's get started!

The Problem with Problem Solving

problem-solving

When asked about their problem solving skills, many people worry that they don't measure up. If you're the type of person who views their problem solving skills as sub-par, then you know just how much more difficult this can make owning--and running--a business.

But don't worry, there are easy ways to boost your confidence when making decisions. One of the most helpful things you can do is identify one of three types of commonly-encountered workplace issues: communication problems, attitude problems, and productivity problems. By addressing these issues individually, you'll find that the atmosphere overall will improve dramatically, letting you make more sound decisions with a clearer mind and more positive outlook.

communication

Communication problems:

Is there an issue with your messages being received in the wrong way? Have you sent out a memo, only to have people misinterpret what you've said? Do you feel like you can never get through to a certain department? These sorts of problems can be so severe that they can actually contribute to the downfall of fledgling small businesses and start-ups. Don't let communication problems get in the way of your company's overall happiness.

You might want to try:

Having someone edit your emails, documents, and presentations. If you've had that memo problem we mentioned above, this could be the solution. After having someone look over your written material, you can then make sure everyone has seen and understood the message during your next meeting. Listen to feedback and implement suggestions to make sure everyone continues to understand your messages.

Checking your emotions. If your messages are continually being received in the wrong way, you might want to check your emotions. Are you coming off too aggressively? Are you disregarding others' opinions? Are you simply reacting emotionally to a problem rather than coming up with real solutions? We all experience frustration, confusion, and even anger in the workplace. But as a boss, you must set an example for your employees. By keeping your emotions in check, you'll be able to communicate more clearly and effectively.

Listening to others. If you just can't get through to someone, call them in to your office and speak with them honestly and openly. Maybe they have a reading difficulty, such as dyslexia, and simply can't parse your memos. Maybe they struggle with verbal directions and need written or visual directions. Everyone's learning style is different, and by speaking and listening to your employees, you can gain a better understanding of their needs to do their job to the best of their ability.

For more suggestions, try this article: http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/common-communication-mistakes.htm

attitude

Attitude problems:

If you've been dealing with employees who just seem to have a bad attitude, then you have a completely different problem on your hands--and a tough one at that. While you could always terminate the employee if things are really bad, there are other ways to try to address the problem before you go overboard:

Take notes. Keep track of the problems the employee presents. When you have collected and notated a few instances, talk to them about their performance and address how their attitude has been affecting others. Many times, an employee will recognize that they have been acting in a negative way, and will try to correct it without you having to take further action.

Agree on a plan. Most of the time, the employee is acting out because they perceive there to be a significant problem (that may or may not exist). Whether it's being interrupted on their breaks, sitting next to a disruptive colleague, family troubles, or general laziness, distractions and frustrations in the workplace can manifest from many different sources. The good news is that many people will try to change when confronted. Agree on a plan of action and ensure the employee follows through with it.

Dispense discipline where needed. If you never follow through with discipline, the problem will not go away. Never wait for it to simply disappear. It won't. Instead, utilize written warnings in a progressive system—First warning, second warning, suspension, termination. Of course, you must make sure you operate within HR's policies.

For more ideas, try these resources:

monkey-productivity

Productivity Problems:

Everyone must deal with the unproductive employee at some point or another. There's just no way around it. Whether you're a small business owner or you deal with large corporations, there will always be employees who just don't want to meet your productivity standards. To solve this problem, you must address it head on. It will never go away by ignoring it. To start, try:

Remind the employee of their job and their importance to the company. Many employees get fed up, particularly in larger companies, where they feel their jobs don't matter. Reminding them that they are indeed important, and stressing the importance of their duties, should help put them back on track again. Many times, they just need to feel appreciated.

Take a look at the job itself. Jobs change over time. Sometimes people end up having to learn skills they never expected to learn and become unhappy that their jobs have changed so much. Other jobs actually become outdated or become obsolete, even while you're still employing the person who does them! Other times, the job itself is boring. Plain and simple. These employees will need a little bit of extra incentive or some creativity involved to keep them meeting productivity standards, and a little bit of motivation to keep them interested.

Managing your own small business can be tough. And of course, despite your best efforts, you're going to run into some problems with things like productivity, bad attitudes, and poor communication. But with a little bit of effort, you'll be able to improve on every one of these problems, and work your way toward a more positive, productive, and communicative work environment.

Can you think of any other problems that you've tackled in the workplace? What methods work for you? Let us know in the comments below!

Holiday Shopping with Social Media

holiday-shopping-with-social-media-2

As we draw closer to Thanksgiving, ads for the upcoming shopping season can be seen everywhere: From the mall to the grocery store, it seems there's always a reminder that the holidays are sneaking up on you, and your window of opportunity nabbing the best gifts is closing. But whether you're the type who wants to go out and get all the best products on Black Friday, or you're more the kind of person who procrastinates until mid-December, you're still always looking for a great deal! After all, you don't want to spend more money than you have to, and you definitely want the whole shopping process to be as painless as possible. And that means you're probably going to do your fair share of shopping online. But in 2014, online shopping can be a lot more than just logging on to your favorite store and filling up your cart. You can also utilize the power of social media to do your holiday shopping.

By using social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest, you can easily find what you're looking for in multiple places. You can quickly compare availability, prices, and more. Even better, you can read reviews and get feedback on any items before you add anything to your cart. Sure beats the old way of doing things, doesn't it?

Here are a few ways you can use social media for your holiday marketing strategy—and maybe even use some of these tips yourself when you go shopping!


 

Holiday Marketing with Twitter

twitter-for-small-businesses

In a survey conducted among 500 US adults, 36% said they wanted to use Twitter for holiday gift ideas. Another 35% admitted they used the social media platform to find links to the business's online store.

Now, in case you didn't know, 284 million people are on Twitter and active every month. That's a lot of potential business.

Furthermore, 4 in 10 consumers who are active on Twitter plan on beginning their holiday shopping before Thanksgiving. That leaves about a week and half from the publishing of this article to get your store holiday-ready! You can begin by tweeting about special deals, ask your followers to "please retweet" your updates, and direct people to your store for coupons or special checkout codes. Perhaps you could offer a "new followers" coupon for your new fans. Think outside the box on this one--people who use Twitter want to get information and get it fast. If you deliver it in an attention-grabbing way, you're sure to get a few new eyes on your merchandise.


 

Holiday Marketing with Facebook

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With Facebook, you are provided a more “permanent” platform to advertise to your fans. Permanent is in quotes because, of course, Facebook is actually moving at a rapid pace--updates seem to come and go quickly, and the feed refreshes constantly. But fans can easily find apps or albums that you've set up on your business page to promote your holiday specials. You can make your page visually appealing and full of content to entice your audience. Plus, sharing on Facebook works a bit differently than sharing on Twitter does—people get more personally invested. Family members are likely to share with one another over Facebook, whereas Twitter tends to foster more professional connections. When was the last time you tweeted your grandparents? (or grandchildren!)

A good place to start is with two of the biggest shopping days of the year: Black Friday and Cyber Monday. According to AllFacebook.com, Black Friday and Cyber Monday are growing into a quarter-long phenomenon. They urge businesses and advertisers to “capitalize on lower reach costs and high consumer engagement before and after peak days.”

Yeah, yeah, that's nice. But what does it mean for small businesses?

Basically, that you can promote your great deals before and after days like Black Friday and Cyber Monday to get the best returns. But that doesn't mean you should only focus on those days. You should also keep promoting your business's specials throughout the holiday season, because shoppers will be buying more heavily until Christmas.


 

Holiday Marketing with Pinterest

pinterest-logo

If you haven't gotten into the habit of posting to a Pinterest board, you might want to start: 47.7% of holiday shoppers say that Pinterest has influenced their buying decisions. That's a lot of people!

But just how can you make the most out of your pins and get people interested in your products? It'll take a bit of creative thinking, but if you try, we bet you can come up with a variety of effective marketing strategies. For example, you could try making a themed board. You can showcase great gift ideas. You can create a storyboard where a shopper uses your product to bring happiness to friends and family. You can show how other customers choose to use your products to make their lives better. It's all in how you choose to present yourself!

We hope that these tips have been helpful for you. The holidays are a great time for helping customers get the special gifts they want for friends and family. By putting your best foot forward, you can prove to your community that you are dedicated to their needs, and that you're ready to help them make this holiday season the best one yet!

Can you think of any other ways to use Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest for holiday marketing? It's always a learning experience, and everyone gets different results. But with a little bit of practice and creativity, you can learn how to get more sales, happier customers, and better engagement during the holiday season. If you have any tips or tricks, be sure to leave them in the comments below!

Good luck!

Back to Basics #24: How to Find Your Writing Voice

finding-your-writing-voice

If you've ever posted an update on a blog (or even thought of starting a blog!), then you've probably thought about how you would like to address your audience. Unless you're writing your own personal diary, it's absolutely necessary to figure out your writing voice—because how you appeal to your readers will have a direct effect on who chooses to come back to your blog, and who decides that it's not for them and navigates elsewhere. Whether you want to inform visitors about how to build and care for pools, or you'd like to provide tips on how to dress professionally for work, a blog can be a great place to start out. In this article, we'll go over some of the basic things you'll need to know to find your writing voice—and be well on your way to blogging success!

 

Define Your Audience

audience

This is probably another phrase you've heard before. But there's a good reason for it: It's the most important step to take before you begin publishing your posts. When you know who you're writing for, coming up with post ideas and defining your goals becomes much easier.

To define your audience, ask yourself:

  • Am I selling a product or service to someone?
  • If yes, what makes my product unique?
  • If not, what am I offering my visitors instead?

Once you know this, then you should think about:

  • What are my audience's interests?
  • What are their ages?
  • What is their education level?

And finally, you'll want to know some important personal data:

  • Where do most of my customers or visitors come from?
  • Are they male or female?

So, let's say you're selling handmade soaps to your visitors. They tend to be casual shoppers who are looking for an alternative to soaps made with chemicals. They are interested in health, beauty, and natural living. Most are female, from the United States, and tend to be from wealthy metropolitan areas. They are educated, and between the ages of 35-50. So with this audience, you wouldn't want to write in an ultra-casual manner like you would with, say, a vaping or e-cig store. That much should be obvious!

That's a lot of information you've gathered! But now, after all that hard work, you also have an incredibly well-defined audience. Knowing these statistics will help you come up with effective advertisements and well-informed posts that your audience will love to share. Plus, you'll easily be able to find topics popular with your audience and build your posts around those ideas. But first...

What is the Focus of Your Blog?

doing-online-research

Now that you know who you're writing for, you need to know what you want to write about. In our example, you'll be writing about health and beauty topics, particularly those linked to skin care—so you can really let your soaps be the star of the show. But even within this in mind, there are still a number of routes you could take. For example:

  • A how-to blog: How to make your own soaps, how to use natural soaps, etc.
  • A sales blog: Tips for better sales with natural products, or you can purchase a soap starter kit and be a part of the soap-selling team.
  • Better living blog: A guide on how to live frugally or lower your carbon footprint.
  • Beauty blog: A blog covering all kinds of new products, with the focus on your soaps and how they'll fit into a beauty routine.

As you can see, it can be a tough decision to make. But once you've chosen a theme for your blog, you'll want to stick with it. It can be confusing to readers to have a blog offering skincare advice in one post, and then how to make your own soaps in another. Chances are, these are two different audiences. (Although of course there could always be some overlap!)

What Purpose Does Your Blog Serve?

kitty-reading-a-book

Now, this might sound obvious, but you'll have to remember why you're writing a blog in the first place.

For many people, they want to start a blog to make an income. Others, however, want to add a blog feed to their existing website for a little extra information. Still others want to have a blog simply for search engine optimization purposes.

We're not here to tell you why you should have a blog—but you should know why before you begin this project! If you're aiming to make sales through your blog, you're going to have a different approach than you would if you were just using it to post occasional how-to articles and company updates.

So before you get posting, be sure to figure out exactly how your blog fits into your business and marketing plan.

How Much Time Do You Have?

scheduling-updates

If you don't have a lot of time to update your blog, you're going to want to keep your posts simple and short. On the other hand, if you have a lot of time to devote to crafting articles, then you may want to write in-depth pieces. You may even want to add beautiful photographs that your viewers will want to share! It all depends on your schedule.

The short, to-the-point articles work great for company updates, brief how-to's, or making a “listicle” that is helpful to your visitors (For example, 3 ways to get snow off your roof without falling and hurting yourself!)

The longer articles work well for those who want to get really in-depth—like photos of those handmade soaps accompanying an in-depth article about the different uses of natural cleaners.

You might choose to mix and match, and that's fine, too. But make sure to realistically look at your schedule before you begin posting. You'll want to stick to the schedule you make, so if you think you're pushing yourself too hard, err on the side of safety and cut back on your posts.

So Now What?

So now that we've talked your ear off about how you can get everything ready for your blog, you can finally take a look at everything you have figured out and decide how you want to write. Your writing voice will probably come naturally once you know who your audience is. Most of us already know what our customers like, and if we don't, we can always ask for feedback to make sure we're doing everything right. Your job now is to make sure that you deliver your own, original, fresh content to your readers when you say you will. Stick to your schedule. Don't mix personal rants with your business updates. If you want to focus on how-to videos, don't throw in an article about why one brand of snow-blower is better than another.

If you're writing for mothers, don't use abrasive language. If you're writing for potential college students, appeal to their hopeful attitudes while assuaging fears of failure. If you're writing for people who test the strength of rebar, don't focus on the difficulties of the job—provide solid statistics and ways to interpret test results.

Finding your writing voice doesn't have to be difficult. It just takes a bit of time and research. And you know what? Once you've been blogging for a while, you will find that you naturally fall into that mindset as you write. Plus, you'll hear from your readers through blog comments, social media updates, or even emails, and they'll give you helpful advice to follow.

The Long and Short of It

To summarize:

  • Learn who your audience is and what they like.
  • Decide which topics will be the most important to your readers.
  • Determine whether your blog will be used to drive sales, supplement your marketing strategy, or simply provide regular company updates to readers.
  • Create a realistic schedule for updates—and stick to it!Use language appropriate to your audience.

Do you have any other tips? Let us know in the comments below!

How to Use Social Media for Customer Service

using-social-media-for-customer-service

We've talked in the past about how a company can use social media to improve business: From keeping your existing customers happy through regular updates and promotional offers, to creating and promoting valuable content to draw in new customers, social media can be one of the most powerful tools in a small business owner's toolbox. But that's just one way to use social media. Drawing in customers isn't the only thing you can do efficiently with it—you can also appease existing customers by using your social media accounts to quickly provide excellent customer service.

In this article, we'll give you a few tips on how you can easily start making use of your social media accounts to provide customer service!

 

Social Media is More Efficient

happy-chat

When you visit a website for technical assistance or support, you expect to easily find the company's contact information. No one wants to click around and dig to find what they came for. Customers also don't want to fill out some contact form and wait hours (or sometimes even days) before someone finally gets back to them. Nor do they feel like waiting on hold! Nowadays, people want immediacy--in fact, they demand it.

Using social media for customer service allows you to achieve that immediacy.

Of course, the downside to this is that you'll have to have someone available to answer all customer support questions quickly. But if you're serious about providing these services for your customers, there is a simple way to do this—interns, social media managers, and/or smart phone apps. Depending on your budget, you may only be able to afford one of these things, but with a little effort, you can find a way that works for you.

 

Catch Negative Feedback Before it Blows Up

happy-corgi

Another way you can use social media for customer service is to monitor your brand name as well as specific keywords: specifically, for complaints about your brand. If you reach out and respond to these complaints quickly, you may be able to smooth over some of the problems that customers are having, and provide a satisfactory solution.

Ideally, you should be doing this on a daily basis. Your customers expect quick feedback to their complaints, and negative posts can spread faster than you expect them to! By making an effort to assuage these issues at the very beginning, you may even be able to get the person to delete their post. It's worth a shot.

However, you should take note that searching for customer complaints to respond to is really the most effective when the complaint has been made publicly.

What do we mean by that?

Well, if the complaint in question is part of a twitter conversation that seems casual, such as between two friends, it's probably not a great idea to butt in. Many times, people feel like brands monitoring them too closely is bordering on creepy!

So, long story short: Use your best judgement and try to intervene in sticky situations when you think it will do the most good.

 

Use Social Media to Respond to Questions and Requests

happy_customer

If you see your customers asking you the same questions over and over, you will probably have to make some changes around the office. Whether your customers are unclear about your pricing options or have questions about shipping and delivery, you can use their feedback as a way to bolster your business and make it even better. Ensure that your customers can find the answers to their commonly-asked questions efficiently: Then, you can offer a number for them to call or ask them to connect with you on social media if they have any further suggestions for you, or need any extra clarification.

Think of it like a free, non-invasive way of asking your customers to take a survey. You get all the good feedback at no cost to you!

 

Hopefully, with these tips, you can begin to make some improvements to your customer service strategy. But we're sure there are plenty of other ways you can go about it. Can you think of other ways that you can use social media for customer service? Let us know in the comments below!

Back to Basics #23: Managing Your Brand

managing-your-brand-image

You've probably heard the phrases “personal brand” or “brand identity” before. But what exactly do they mean? How does someone put forth a brand identity or a personal brand, and how does it affect your business? In this Back to Basics, we'll talk a bit about managing your personal brand. With a few easy-to-understand tips, you'll know exactly what these terms mean, and how you can leverage the concept of branding to increase your presence online.

Brand Identity

Brand identity is something that you probably already know about—you just aren't aware of it. As an example of brand identity, let's take a look at Coca-Cola.

cocacola

When you think of a company like Coca-Cola, what do you think of? You probably imagine the telltale red and white color scheme, the flowing font, and perhaps even their Christmas ads come to mind.

Well, all of these things are a strategic part of their brand identity. Coca-Cola has done a masterful job at creating an instantly recognizable brand image that people are quick to take notice of in any situation. The company wants to keep your attention, whether you're looking for a vending machine between classes or deciding which sodas to purchase from the supermarket. When you see that red and white, you know it's going to be Coca-Cola, and you're instantly drawn to purchase the product (that is, assuming you're not a Pepsi person!).

Now, all of this doesn't necessarily mean that brand identity consists solely of a color scheme and unique fonts. Logos also play a big part in it. Your perceived company image as a whole is a big part of it, too. Your presence on the internet and in your community play enormous roles. Simply put, when people think of your brand, the images and feelings that pop up are how they perceive your brand identity. You want to create something solid, recognizable, simple, and memorable. You also want to be consistent across all your platforms. We'll get to more of that in a minute. First, we'll talk about your “personal brand.”

What does your personal brand say about you?

Personal Brand

The personal brand is something generally associated with an entrepreneur, but it doesn't necessarily have to be so. Your personal brand can apply to how you manage your employees, as well as how you choose to interact with customers. Basically, your personal brand should prominently display your talents and downplay your weaknesses—customers and employees should feel that you're capable and understanding, rather than unsure or defensive.

Managing your personal brand can be tough, however, especially in online spaces. It's easy for people to slip up and say something they didn't mean to while caught in the turmoil so often found on social media. Your employees might do the same. Why? Because your personal brand often takes a backseat to emotion, especially when things get tough—whether you're responding to a poor review or you're getting just a little too personal with hot-button issues, it's important to remember to keep your cool. You don't want to sacrifice all the hard work you've done on your personal brand only to be embarrassed at comment you made in a time of emotional strain! It's important to keep an eye on how you're coming across online, and to monitor how people are perceiving you. Even the most careful business owners can probably find an area that they need to work on.

local-brand-management

Managing Your Brand in the Community

So now that you know about brand identity and your personal brand, what are some good ways to manage them? We've mentioned the many places you need to include your brand—from your local presence in your community to social media online.

A good way to start is to make a list of your personal values. For example, what do you think is important for you as a business owner? Some examples might include:

  • Providing excellent customer service
  • Responding to customer concerns
  • Providing new and exciting products regularly
  • Delivering news and updates in a timely manner
  • Rewarding valued customers
  • Promoting employees and building workplace morale

There are so many things you could list here. It all depends on what you, as a business owner, feel is the most important thing to you.

You can also talk to your employees about their workplace. Many companies focus too much on the customer and don't bother with assessing their internal company health. When the workplace is toxic or not well run, many people get angry about their jobs. Not only does this result in high turnover (and takes time to train and replace the employees), but the customers can easily end up with the short end of the stick: They might have to wait longer for service or get poor service from uninvested employees. You might think of asking:

  • Do you find your workplace to be comfortable?
  • Do you feel your duties are taken seriously?
  • Is the workplace friendly and accommodating?
  • Do you need help with further training?
  • How do you feel you are doing with your customer service skills?

Et cetera.

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Managing Your Brand Online

Managing your image online is a bit more complex than it is to manage in person. Many times, words that you type online can be misinterpreted—whereas in person, it's easier to clarify your intentions. You can also accidentally post to the wrong social media accounts. You might get too invested in a particularly heated conversation or debate and want to defend your views. You might get a poor review and feel inclined to respond to the reviewer angrily. The immediacy of the internet is what makes all of this so easy—but it's so hard to erase. In fact, it's nearly impossible.

Ask yourself:

  • Am I suited for social media management? If not, do I have the budget to hire someone for assistance?
  • Do I understand the implications of putting negative words and ideas into cyberspace?
  • Do I know how to defend myself without resorting to petty words?
  • Do I have a plan in place should there be a PR crisis?

If you think about these important things before you begin posting, you'll be much more likely to manage your brand in a way that will make your customers happy.

Another aspect of managing your brand online is how you choose to present your business's image. Just like the Coca-Cola example, you need to present an image of professionalism and attentiveness to detail. Here are a few questions you will want to consider if you want to have a healthy brand image:

  • Does my website look professional? If not, do I have it in my budget to redesign it?
  • Are customers easily navigating my website and finding the information they need?
  • Do my social media accounts match the name and color scheme my website?
  • Do I have the dedication to update my social media regularly, and to engage with my customers?
  • Am I using a consistent voice (i.e., serious, casual, technical, etc.) for all of my platforms?

Hopefully this clears up some of the mystery surrounding brand image and management. It's an important thing for business owners to understand, whether you're a Fortune 500 company or a local “mom-and-pop” store. We all need to present ourselves as professionally and openly as possible!

If you can think of any other tips for managing your brand, leave them in the comments below!

Back to Basics #22: Small Business Marketing for Local Storefronts

SMALL BUSINESSMARKETINGFOR LOCAL STORES Here at Internet Local Listings, we focus on helping our small business clients with all of their online marketing needs—social media, websites, and managing local listings for a variety of business directories. This is an important part of your small business marketing plan, because being seen online is integral to your success as a business in the modern marketplace. And, as you know, it can be a bit confusing and time-consuming to handle all this on your own. Having help is a great asset in this case.

However, what we aren't able to help with is the management of your storefront. That might sound obvious, but an important aspect of small business marketing that many people overlook is the effect that a storefront's appearance can have on a customer. You already know that first impressions matter when you're on a job interview or first date, and the same can be said of a customer's first visit to your business—a store's appearance can have tremendous influence over whether a person chooses to return or not. In this article, we'll talk a bit about how appearance can affect a customer's decision to purchase or leave, as well as how keeping your store beautiful can help create more online interactions and engagement.

A Storefront's Appearance Matters.

According to a study done at Retail Customer Experience, more than two-thirds of the surveyed group had avoided a store simply because the storefront was unattractive, outdated, or dirty. Although it might be a bit difficult to make a building look newer than it is (particularly if you share the building with other offices and have no control over renovations), it's always possible to keep the inside of your store looking neat and tidy.

pretty-store

Image from I Loved New York.com

Keep the Place Smelling Fresh.

Aside from keeping your store's appearance tidy and clean, you're going to want to make sure it smells okay. This might seem as obvious as keeping it clean, but if you're, say, a car mechanic and you're used to the smell of oil, you might not realize how off-putting it can be to some people. While you obviously can't control the smell of the vehicles you're working on in your shop, you can control the smells in the lobby. Brew some fresh coffee. Set up snacks. Keep everything wiped down and clean; keep the doors to the shop closed to prevent extra noise and smells sneaking in. Finally, you may want to use this as an opportunity to promote some great-smelling air fresheners!

This goes for any industry, however. Even if you run a bookstore (and many people love the smell of books), make sure that everything is clean without overdoing it on the “chemical” smell.

The “First Ten Feet” Rule.

According to Rick Segel, author of Retail Business Kit for Dummies, you must offer a price-sensitive incentive for customers to continue shopping within the first 10 feet of the door. For example, this could be a special offer you're running, a promotion for your store's top-selling product, or even a poster board offering information on local community events. Whether you're in the business of selling auto parts or you offer home cleaning services, you can always find some related community events or classes that would appeal to your clientele. Don't be afraid to get creative—have some of your customers asked questions about the availability of a specific product? Have they asked where you could learn more about your business? Maybe they just simply get lost on the way to the bathroom! Do whatever you can to help them feel welcome and at home in your store, and they'll be likely to remain long enough to explore. Plus, you may just earn yourself a repeat customer!

clean-store

Maintain Your Store's Fixtures.

Sometimes your store is clean, your employees are welcoming, and the place is set up to draw the customers in—but people just aren't staying. You're confused and you're wondering what could be going wrong.

  • Take a step back from your store. Walk into it again as if it were the first time you'd ever set foot in it. Now, you're probably so used to it that this will be difficult for you, but try really hard to place yourself in your customers' shoes. Here are some key things to look for:
  • Are your displays are neatly arranged? Do they look up-to-date? An old, faded poster or a messy stack of “clearance” products might make your store look disorganized.
  • Do the lights seem too dim or too bright? If they're too dim, it might make your store look unwelcoming or shady—which is, naturally, off-putting to customers. If your lights are too bright, it can make customers feel uncomfortable, too, because who wants to feel like they need to wear sunglasses inside of a store?

Finally, make sure your staff is friendly and welcoming.

Make sure there's always a manager or knowledgeable person available to answer your customer's questions. And of course, ensure everyone looks his or her best to keep with the professional appearance you've worked so hard to instill in your store.

The wonderful part of keeping your storefront clean and inviting is that it will cross over into the online realm. People will be happy to leave you positive reviews. They'll want to follow you on Facebook or Twitter to see what your new specials are. They'll refer friends and family. Remember that this is all part of the bigger picture--getting the word out about your fantastic business!

welcoming-customers

Small business marketing is complex. It's a mixture of online finesse as well as a little bit of good, old-fashioned business skills. While the marketing experts at Internet Local Listings can help you with the internet marketing part of the equation, we can only offer tips for the local aspect of it! We hope you've found these helpful!

If you have any tips or suggestions, leave them in the comments below! And be sure to subscribe for regular updates from our small business marketing blog.

Back to Basics #21: Thinking Outside the Social Media Box

thinking-outside-the-social-media-box While there are tried-and-true methods to growing your social media following and keeping your customers connected through social media, sometimes your efforts seem to stagnate. Maybe you hit a stride of nice growth, but then discovered that it plateaued. Or maybe you've been on a steady climb, and still see growth happening, but really want to push your social media presence to the next level. Whatever it is, you're ready to try something a bit bolder, a bit louder, and a bit more... well, scary. It's out of your comfort zone, but that doesn't mean that you have to avoid it. Let's talk a bit about what you can do to start thinking outside the social media box and really getting into your stride as a business owner and marketer!

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Find A Few Friends.

No, we don't mean find a few friends like the ones you're already following back, or the ones who are related to you. (Even if your mom is always going to be your #1 fan... sorry, mom.)

What we mean is, find the big names in your industry and connect with them.

Take the time to do a little research around your type of company—who is active on social media? Is there a particularly interesting website or blog that you could start following? Whose name frequently gets brought up in the news? Once you've found these people, start paying attention to what they're doing. They're obviously a credible resource for a reason, and that's more than likely because they interact with fans, provide valuable content, and frequently update their blog and/or social media sites. You're probably trying to do all this already, but when you have a role model to emulate, things get that much easier.

Here are some more helpful tips to try once you've found a few new friends:

Do:

  • Retweet/share/pin their articles.
  • Leave a friendly compliment or start a helpful discussion on their blog posts.
  • Ask them for their opinion on something in your niche.

Don't:

  • Engage with controversial topics with them.
  • Subtweet (that is, tweeting about someone else without actually tagging them) snarky comments or get upset if they don't respond to you.
  • Blast anyone publicly if they don't agree with you.

dummies-self-promotion

Advertise less.

We know what you're thinking: “Isn't the point of social media to help me with marketing and advertising? Why would I want to advertise less?”

Well, because without even being aware of it, you might actually be driving away people with constant self-promotion.

Basically, social media has its own set of etiquette and rules—in fact, each platform tends to have different etiquette standards and rules for connecting with fans. For instance, on Twitter, it's acceptable to post many times in a day—it's fast paced and the information is kept brief, as well as generally unobtrusive. Facebook, on the other hand, tends to show big posts with pictures and videos, and to see a stream of media from the same person or company is aggravating to many users. But if there's one thing all platforms have in common, it's this:

It's a big no-no to constantly advertise your own services.

To keep people from getting irked with your updates, you should always follow the 80/20 rule: Post 80% other content—like industry news, other followers' posts, etc.--and 20% your own content.

Here are some helpful ways you can implement this idea:

  • Don't make your advertising posts hard pitches; i.e., “Click here to buy dog food now!” Instead, keep it light and craft an interesting title to entice click-throughs: “The #1 best thing you can feed your dog: It's cheaper than you think.”
  • Link back to older blog articles. If you have a content marketing schedule, go ahead and tie that in with Twitter, Facebook, and whichever other sites you use. You worked hard on your old posts—so be sure to link them again! This doesn't make it seem like you're “selling” anything, but you're still directing traffic back to your site.

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Show off your reviews.

We've talked before about how important reviews are for ranking. But reviews aren't only important for this reason—they're also a leading influence on how customers perceive your business, as well as how customers choose which business to support. According to a 2013 survey from Bright Local, 73% of consumers say positive customer reviews make them trust a business more. [Edit: Here is the updated 2014 survey!] That's no small number—so it makes sense that you should promote the ones you have!

This should fall under the same guidelines of self-promotion, however. Constantly linking your reviews comes off as spammy and self-absorbed. When you're on social media, you want to present an honest picture of who you are and what your business is about. Occasionally linking a new review and thanking the customer for their time is a good practice to get into—and it's not going to make you look bad.

Try these helpful tips the next time you link your reviews:

  • Place a few testimonials on your site. If you can, take them directly from the source and link back. Testimonials without links seem fake to many visitors—so take that worry off their minds by citing your sources (just like you did in those pesky term papers!).
  • Publicly respond to any bad reviews you receive (unless they are abusive; then it's best to just report or ignore them). By doing this, you show that you care about your customers' experiences and are willing to listen to their complaints and concerns.

stay positive

And finally...

Whether you own a small home-based business or run a local chain of businesses, it's in your best interest to keep a positive attitude. It can get discouraging to to run your own social media sites, and we get that. In fact, we wrote an article about how to handle these feelings of discouragement! But when everything stacks against you and it seems like nothing you're doing is working, remind yourself that this all takes time. Brainstorm ways you can get your voice heard. Talk to friends, family, customers, and other business owners to see what they recommend. Be willing to learn from mistakes and go that extra mile. In the end, you will make progress if you keep trying, and keep an open mind while at it.

Got any other suggestions? Leave them in the comments!

Coming Up with Blog Post Ideas

Coming-up-with-blog-post-ideas If you've been keeping up with our blog posts, you know that we strongly advocate starting a blog of your own. The fact is, if you want to see your website ranking higher in search engines, then you need to be contributing regular, fresh, high-quality content to your site to stay in Google's good graces. But it doesn't just help with ranking, of course. Blogging can help you stay caught up in your industry's trends, as well as help you network with other professionals in your field.

But the inevitable problem with writing regular blog posts is that you'll eventually feel like you've talked about everything there is to talk about! After you've hit this roadblock, how do you overcome it? Do you take a break? Hire someone else to write for you?

No! Don't give up just yet!

Coming up with blog post ideas doesn't have to be difficult. With practice, you'll get better at finding topics from almost any resource. But if you need some ideas now, we're here to help. And the best part of all of these ideas is that they're completely free! What more could you ask for?

Think of a question you've had lately.

This might sound obvious, but it can be one of the simplest answers to your topic dilemma! Chances are that you've had a question about something in your industry—even if you're an expert—and you did some research to come up with an answer.

Well, the general rule of thumb is that if you have a question, someone else will too. And the best way to really learn something is to teach it to someone else. What better way to do that online than come up with an informative blog post?

Let's try an example. If you're a fencing contractor, maybe you're wondering about the best way to deal with an early frost. (I'm not a fence expert, so if this is really obvious, please forgive me—I'm just trying to illustrate a point!) After doing some research, you come up with an answer. Now why don't you write a blog post about your new-found knowledge and tell your customers how they can prepare for frost, deal with frost, or make sure their fences stay safe throughout the winter? There are a lot of topics you can come up with just by thinking about this one question.

customer-service

Have your customers asked you for help with anything?

This is somewhat related to the above point, but it's from a customer's point of view. There's something called the “curse of knowledge” when you're writing your own content. It works like this:

You are the expert on the subject you're writing about. This means that you have an advantage over your audience, especially if you're writing how-tos or informational posts about your area of expertise. This can blind you to your audience's level of understanding. You could be skipping over information you deem obvious, when it isn't obvious at all to your readers. Or you could be using terminology they're not familiar with because you don't even think twice about your verbiage, but they are not industry insiders, and therefore don't know the lingo.

So if your customers have come to you with questions that you think are too simple or dull to warrant a blog post, think again. You might have a great opportunity to really go the extra mile for some of your customers by simply writing a short blog post!

Seasonal events are an easy go-to.

Especially for contractors and retail stores. Are you running a seasonal promotion? Write about it. Do you have ideas why your products and services would make great gifts? Sell yourself in a blog post. Are there spcial weather-related or season-related events that could impact your business? Let your customers know.

Our fencing contractor could write about how to protect different kinds of fences from sleet and snowdrifts. A clothing boutique could talk about how their clothes make great holiday gifts. Even a pool contractor—someone who works primarily during the summer months—could post helpful articles about how to care for a pool in cold weather, or pitch spas and hot tubs instead!

Do a search in Google trends.

See what is going on around the web by doing a Google Trends search. Now, you may not have a particularly interesting or newsworthy profession—maybe you do demolition, for example. (Sorry, demolition experts!) Plug some terms into trends and see if people are searching for your topic. If they are, run a Google search yourself and see what recent news articles pop up. For example, let's run demolition through Google Trends:

demolition-google-trends

As you can see, it's a pretty steadily searched topic. Now let's run a Google search:

demolition2

That red arrow is pointing to a pretty interesting article. Maybe you can get some ideas from that topic and incorporate them into your own post! It's easy to do when you have inspiration that's already being provided by other content creators.

Check Quora.

Quora is a place where people go to ask questions, and then other Quora users will answer these questions. Just like with Google Trends, you can find things people are asking about. This doesn't mean you have to answer the questions (unless you'd like to!), but you can use these queries as a way to come up with blog posts. Oftentimes, users will be asking simple questions that you, as an expert, know the answers to. By reading through the existing questions, you'll know what people are wondering about without having to conduct a survey or tally up customer questions.

All of these ideas are completely free and easy to do. Even if you're not super blog-savvy, you can certainly improve your content creation by taking the time to learn a few of these tricks. After all, coming up with blog post ideas shouldn't be a terrible chore!

We hope these tips have been helpful for you and wish you luck with your blogging endeavors! If you have any other ways of coming up with topics, please let us know in the comments below!

Back to Basics #20: How to Build a PR Strategy as a Local Business

how-to-build-a-pr-strategy-as-a-small-business  

An important part of running your small business is to make sure that you have a strong PR strategy in place. PR stands for public relations, and it is an integral part of defining your target market and reaching them in a positive and effective manner. It's impossible nowadays to run a business and a marketing campaign without considering your approach to PR as well.

If you're new to the idea of public relations, no worries! In this post, we'll talk about some of the basics that you can do to help improve your presence and positive image in your community.

Define Your Audience.

There's no use in trying to market to anyone if you can't decide who to market to. Think about it: If you own a retirement community and you're looking to appeal to new residents, sending out advertisements to college students isn't going to help you very much. This is why you need to define your audience before you begin. Once you have that figured out, you can move on to planning your strategy.

To get started on this, you can take a look at who is already visiting your page using a Google Analytics account. You can find the basics of how to set up an account here. Once you have determined who is interested in your site, you can easily start sorting out your marketing methods to appeal to those demographics.

doing-online-research

Get Online.

With your new audience in mind, go to where they hang out. The easiest way will be to reach them online, although depending on your audience, you may still be able to reach people by cold calling or newspaper advertisements. But for many of us, our audience is online, just waiting to be found!

Consider your brand identity when going online, too. Your company will be associated with your positive image. How will you help your customers remember you? How will you stand out in the crowd? Work this into your campaign. When you’re updating social media, keep a clear and consistent voice. Don't talk about personal things or your opinions on the latest political argument. Keep your words professional—nothing can ever be scrubbed completely from the internet. Don't fall into the trap of getting confrontational or controversial!

Find Opportunities to be Seen in the Community.

For local businesses, an integral part of success is being seen in the community. Whether you're a new business or you've been around for 40 years, you need to be active, visible, and a positive force in your community. People love connecting with local business owners. And if you leave a positive impression on them, you can bet that they'll remember you the next time they're looking for someone who provides your products and services!

A great way to do this is to look for ways to volunteer. Whether you want to donate food to a shelter or donate some money to a cause you believe in, any step toward charitable giving is a positive one. You can take part in local festivals and events by offering coupons to guests, or you can even set up raffles so you can get people excited about interacting with you. Or you could simply help out the community around the holidays, whether you're involved with a parade or a school fundraiser. There are tons of ways to get involved, so get creative!

Find Speaking Opportunities.

Almost everyone hates public speaking. But if you get over your fears long enough to do get up in front of a crowd, you can generate some great exposure for your business. Is there a trade show or conference going on in your town? Look into becoming a speaker for the event—you could be on a panel or even nominate yourself to be the keynote speaker if you feel you have the chops!

Be forewarned, however, that these endeavors take a lot of preparation. Furthermore, you'll have to plan for these events because many are scheduled months ahead of time. But if you do your research and come prepared, you'll find that the results you get can be fantastic.

pressrelease

Pitch Your Story.

Did you know that journalists can be reached through social media? Before, you might have had to call them up, fax them, or email them. But today, journalists contribute to blogs, have social media accounts, and network with other journalists. This creates a number of free opportunities for you to reach out and contact them. Comment on their Facebook posts. Track them down on Twitter and engage them in conversation. Find blogs they contribute to so that you know and understand their work. If they're looking for stories that you think they could use in a story, reach out and give them your ideas. It helps to have a kind of “press release” prepared beforehand so that you can give them what they need with little turnaround--you need to remember that they're very busy and often get pitched to many times a day. Keep in contact with them and they'll be more likely to remember you the next time they're doing a story in a similar vein.

Decide On Your Best Approach.

Okay, maybe none of these things appealed to you. Maybe you're more about writing things on your own. Or maybe you prefer radio to seminars. There are a number of ways that you can get in contact with the public, and the great thing is that they're all still very effective ways of boosting your presence. You may want to try:

  • Writing your own press releases, articles, or even letters to your local newspaper editor.
  • Writing an ebook to appeal to your customers—“how to” tips tend to work well.
  • Volunteering at or sponsoring an event.
  • Signing up to speak at a seminar or convention—or you could even take part in an online webinar!
  • Do press conferences, offer to be on a radio program, or see if you can land a spot on your local evening news.
  • Put together testimonials, positive reviews, and success stories to keep on hand whenever you appear in public. People love inspiring stories and knowing that you're reputable, too!

With these tips, you can decide how you want to approach your PR campaign and which options work the best for your vision. All of these tips are free or low-cost—it all depends on how much work you want to put into it on your own vs. hiring a PR consultant.

Do you have any other tips on how to build a PR strategy as a local business? Let us know in the comments!

Should You Ask Your Customers to Take a Survey?

customer-survey It seems almost everywhere you go now, there's someone asking you to take a survey. Go to a store, and there's a request to take an online survey on the receipt. Visit a website, and there's a pop-up asking you to take a survey after you finish your shopping. Call about a bill, and sure enough, you'll be asked to take a survey at the end of the call.

If you can time it right, it might be worth it.

You're a business owner. You need to know how you're doing with your business. If your customers are unhappy, what can you do to remedy that? And if your customers are happy, could they be happier? The only way you're going to find this out is by asking them directly.

According to an article at Microsoft.com, it's definitely worth it to send out surveys. The issue is knowing when to do so. You don't want to send out a snail-mail survey two months after the customer has visited your store or purchased your products. Depending on your type of business, it might be effective to have them take a survey while on your site; others, it might make more sense to follow up a week after a visit. You'll have to do some research and use some common sense to determine when you'll get the most responses.

Don't be misleading about the time required to complete the survey.

If your company wants to ask a lot of questions, you might want to rethink your strategy. Rarely are people going to sit down and spend fifteen minutes of their time answering questions—unless there's an incentive. Be honest about how long your survey will take, and if it's especially demanding of customers' time, be sure to offer a little incentive to reward them. Something like a 10% off coupon or buy one get one free. Really pore over your questions and make sure that they're concise and relevant. Get rid of any extra fluff.

greeting-customers

Follow up with your customers.

Okay, so you've gotten your customers to take the survey. You have data (which you need to analyze—don't just let it sit there!) and you're feeling pretty good about the responses.

Now you have to follow up.

Following up is a rarity today. By going the extra mile to contact a customer and thank them for their honest review and time, you put yourself in front of other companies. Even if the customer wasn't happy, asking what you could do better or offering them an apology and a request for another chance at their business can really make all the difference in the world. They will feel like you've truly listened to their concerns. And as a great business owner, that's exactly what you should be doing!

The downside to surveys is that they tend to get abysmal response rates, and if they're formatted incorrectly, are too invasive, or take too long, they may actually decrease customer satisfaction. If you feel that you have the tools and wherewithal to invest the proper effort in preparing your surveys, the responses you get could really open your eyes to your business's strengths as well as weaknesses.

If you don't feel that you have these skills at this time, consider hiring someone (even temporarily) who can help coach you in the feedback department. He or she can assist you in preparing a survey and learning to analyze the results.

What do you think? Should you survey your customers? Do you have suggestions for great surveys? Let us know in the comments below!

Back to Basics #19: Digital Marketing for the Holidays

digital-marketing-for-the-holidays Ahh, you knew something like this was coming up soon. It's October, which means that autumn decorations have been on the shelves since the 4th of July clearance rack cleared out (for Americans, anyway). Soon, you'll see Thanksgiving decorations, and then come the December holidays—it's all going to be Christmas and Hanukkah themes until it's almost 2015. And let's not forget about Black Friday and Cyber Monday...

During these next few months, you're going to see a lot of expensive marketing campaigns from big name companies. You'll see sales events, promotional deals, and all sorts of bundles and shipping specials and limited-time releases that your head might feel like its spinning.

And, as a small business owner, you might feel pressured to come up with some campaigns of your own.

But you don't have millions in your budget. And you don't have a lot of time to put something together. So how can you go about digital marketing for the holidays if you own a small business?

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1. Make a charitable donation. This is probably our favorite suggestion because it really helps everyone! You get to help others and draw attention to a great cause, as well as draw positive attention to your business.

Whether you choose to donate a small sum of cash or you volunteer your time at a local charity, these types of gestures speak volumes. Make sure it's something that you can get everyone involved with—your team can come up with great ways to make sure it's an event that won't soon be forgotten. But you also can't forget to let your clients and customers know that you're taking part in this special occasion. Be sure to send out a card or email and let everyone know that you're participating in a special charity event, and that your clients are welcome to participate, too!

2. Decorate your social media sites. Another cheap way to get everyone into the holiday spirit! Change your banners, headers, and color themes to reflect the holiday of your choice. You can even change your logo by adding a little Jack-O-Lantern for Halloween or a cornucopia for Thanksgiving. The best part is that you can reuse these again next year—a great return on your very small investment. And when you're finished? Simply replace the logo with your usual fare and you're good to go.

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3. Send out special holiday offers via email. This is one that you'll have to be careful with—you don't want to appear as if you're spamming, after all—but sending out special coupons or offers to customers who subscribe to your newsletter can be particularly effective. Make an announcement on your site. Say something like “only subscribers will receive a special deal via email, and they can look forward to receiving it just in time for the holidays.” The incentive can be whatever you want it to be—whether it's a coupon, a special one-of-a-kind item, or a free service. Whatever you can come up with!

4. Start thinking of gift suggestions. People choose different times to do their holiday shopping. While some wait until the last minute (right now would be a good time to capitalize on the Halloween costumes or decorations!), others do so months ahead of time (these people are already keeping an eye out for Christmas deals). You will want to keep your social media sites and blog updated with all the latest deals that would appeal to these shoppers.

5. Make yourself stand out from the crowd. We mentioned at the beginning of the article that you don't have the budget or resources to compete with the big companies. But you can make up for what you lack in budget with quality services.

For example, you're probably a small, local store. You can offer personalized attention to each and every client. Can a big-name store do that? No, they can't. You can also remind people that when they support your business, they're supporting local businesses and real people who contribute to the community. There are so many people looking to switch to buying local now (and sometimes exclusively), so this is a great way to let them know that you truly appreciate their business. If you have years of experience, highlight that. If you have a positive track record for customer satisfaction, mention it. And if you have a great story about how you came to build your business in your town, people will love to hear it. It's all about aligning yourself with the “big guys” in ways that highlight your strengths—not your lack of financial resources.

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By thinking a bit on the creative side, you can come up with some great ideas for digital marketing for the holidays—even if you're a small business without much revenue.

Do you have any other suggestions? Leave them in the comments below.

Is It Unethical to Purchase Reviews and Endorsements?

company-reviews If you've ever wondered where to grab dinner, which doctor to choose, or which stores carry the best kind of artisan bookends, you've probably done a Google search. And, depending on which results show up, you'll see that there are at least a few local businesses with stars next to their names—the stars representing ratings and reviews.

In the past, we've talked about encouraging customers to leave reviews and why reviews are so important to your business. But lately, it seems there's been a lot of discussion surrounding this topic—is it wrong to offer an incentive for reviews? Should you ever pay for reviews? Should you be able to filter your reviews so that mostly positive ones show up?

Well, in this post we'd like to clarify a few things and hopefully answer some of these questions once and for all. Of course, this is simply our take on the subject—opinions on the ethicality of these subjects definitely wavers.

The Incentive

Some people think it's unethical to offer an incentive for a review. Just look at what happened to VIP Deals. An Amazon Marketplace seller, VIP Deals had been compensating customers when they submitted positive reviews. The incentive was a full refund for Kindle cases.

Now, a full refund may be a bit over the top. But we don't see anything wrong with offering your customers a little extra something for participating.

Yes, offering an incentive—whether a 10% off coupon for any old review or a full refund for a positive review—can sway reviewers. Even if you don't “have” to leave a positive review, you may feel inclined to do so to get the reward.

So we can see where the line gets a bit fuzzy. But if you want to encourage customers to leave you reviews and do so in an ethical way, simply post a sign in your store or send out emails to your subscribers and ask them politely to help you out with a review. If you really want to offer an incentive, something small like a coupon or your photo on a happy customer collage certainly can't be construed as manipulative or misleading.

The Purchased Review

This is a pretty black-and-white issue for most people: Purchasing reviews is seen as disingenuous. Companies that offer anywhere from $5-200 to leave a positive review seem desperate at best, and completely untrustworthy at worst.

Yelp has cracked down on this, and hard. This article is two years old now, and Yelp has worked hard to improve their algorithm to uncover more problem reviews. And it's worked—many of the reviews that were actually bogus have been hidden away in an inconspicuous spot on the page (behind a link at the very bottom of the page, where you have to click to get the rest of the reviews to even show up—and they're printed in gray, meaning they're not counted toward the overall rating).

But the unfortunate part of this is that sometimes these reviews are genuine, and still get flagged as “not recommended”. This means that, even if you avoid purchasing reviews, sometimes your happy customers will oblige you with a kind review, and their words won't even end up being seen. This isn't incredibly common, but because of the rocky history of review purchasing, it has become an unfortunate problem.

The bottom line? Don't purchase reviews. They will be removed, you will be punished or banned from the site, and it can only result in your own reputation being harmed.

The Retaliatory Review

Some companies go as far as to have their customers leave nasty reviews on competitors' sites, while rating their own products highly so that they appear to be the better choice.

Now, obviously we all think our products are the best. And we strive to provide the best customer experience possible. We don't want to think that someone else out there could be stealing our potential customers.

So for some reason, unscrupulous business owners have paid people to go out and leave these exceedingly negative reviews. And guess what? Places like Amazon and Yelp have figured out how to discover whether you've actually purchased the product you're reviewing or not. For example, on Amazon.com, reviews will say something like “verified purchase”. This way, a customer can easily see who has actually purchased the product and who hasn't.

If you've been thinking of sending out the minions to make your competitors look bad in comparison to your awesomeness, you'd better think again. This will backfire on you.

So what's a company to do?

According to the LA Times, very few customers write reviews. In fact, for one case study, fewer than 2% of customers wrote reviews.

It's all in your judgment—you can offer a small incentive for customers who review you, and you can make sure that your politely-worded request is visible on your website, social media sites, and any advertising that you do—as well as in your store, if you have a storefront. There's nothing wrong with encouraging reviews. It's when you start paying for them, lying about your competitors, or offering incentives worth far too much money (basically, you're paying for the reviews at this point), that you have a problem.

Don't risk your reputation. Keep your reviews honest, and it'll pay off.

Comments or thoughts you'd like to share? Put them in the comments below!