Friday, August 26, 2011

A Lesson from the Stands

Sports and business have long enjoyed a unique connection. Many of the traits shared by top athletes and coaches are as valuable in the boardroom as they are in the locker room. Authors, speakers, and business consultants often use sports-related anecdotes and stories to illustrate points they're trying to make to a business audience.

Today, I'd like to share a sports-related story with a slightly different twist. This tale doesn't involve a famous player, team, or coach, and it doesn't take place in the locker room or on the playing field. Instead, it involves two fans in the stands at AT&T Park in San Francisco.

Earlier this summer, the San Francisco Giants were hosting the Pittsburgh Pirates. In the top of the ninth inning, Pittsburgh's Ryan Doumit hit a foul ball into the stands, and the cameras caught the image of a young fan catching the ball and then handing it to a stranger in front of him. The move was greeted with cheers from the people surrounding the boy. After some speculation, the TV announcers explained that, apparently, the other fan had caught a foul ball earlier in the game and handed it to the boy as a souvenir. He was just returning the favor.

Sometimes, it's easy to get so caught up in the negativity around us that we start looking for ulterior motives in every seemingly kind act. But cynicism only breeds more cynicism, and every silver lining does not always involve a cloud. Occasionally, it takes a kind act (or two kind acts in this case) to remind us that fair play, generosity, and sportsmanship are still alive and well -- in all areas of life.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Staying on Course

The earth's magnetic fields are in constant fluctuation. Earlier this year, The Independent (a London newspaper) reported that the magnetic north pole is "currently relocating towards Russia at a rate of about 40 miles a year." According to the article, this speed "has increased by a third in the past decade" and represents a "faster [movement] than at any time in human history."

The article goes on to talk about some of the ramifications these changes are bringing about. For example, magnetic compass directions are changing by about one degree per year, causing some airports to have to relabel runways to correspond with the new readings.

I mention this because it illustrates an important point for business owners. Like magnetic north, the business world is in a constant state of flux. Communication channels that didn't exist five years ago (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) are now essential tools for marketing and customer interaction. Smartphones and handheld devices such as the iPad are changing the way people live, work, and shop. Competition for many of us has grown stiffer, and the rules are changing all the time.

Like airports that rely on magnetic compasses to identify their runways, we must keep a constant eye on the changes going on in our industries and in the business world at large. A one-degree change on a compass wheel may seem insignificant and small, but over time and across great distances, its impact can be severe.

Staying the course isn't always the best way to stay on course, especially when the course keeps shifting.

Friday, August 19, 2011

What's Your Story?

Want to breathe some life into your marketing? Try telling a story.

The art of storytelling is as old as civilization itself. Through the years, storytellers have used their skills to educate, entertain, enthrall, and explain the world around them. Heroes, villains, gods, and demons. Storytellers breathe life into their characters and keep their audiences spellbound until the end.

So what does any of this have to do with business? A lot, really.

At its heart, marketing is storytelling. Like a storyteller of old, you need to connect with your audience (your customers and prospects), engage them, educate them, enthrall them, and inspire them to act on that newfound knowledge by buying your wares or responding to your offer.

Does that mean you need to strive to become the next Steinbeck or Shakespeare, or that you should fill your website with flowery prose? Certainly not. But it does mean you should try to make your materials more engaging and less dry, dull, and routine.

One way to tell your story is through the eyes of a satisfied customer. Case studies and testimonials provide an ideal medium. Start with a look at the customer involved. Introduce them and offer some background information about who they are and what they do. Next, present the challenge facing them (a difficult deadline, a tight budget, a bad experience with the competition). This will serve as your antagonist and provide the conflict necessary in all good storytelling. Finally, talk about how you (or someone at your company) helped them overcome those challenges and live happily ever after.

The key is to make the customer the focus of your story, not your company. Your company merely helps that person overcome their challenges. Readers need to relate to a story's main character and to the struggles they face. Otherwise, they won't feel invested in the story enough to care how it ends. They'll also tune out if they sense a story is nothing more than chest-thumping and self-absorbed bravado.

Of course, storytelling isn't limited just to case studies or testimonials. Consider your company-focused content, like your history and executive bios. Are there any interesting stories from your company's past you'd like to share? For example, what led your company's founders to start your company? Did they as consumers have a need that no one else was meeting? What challenges did they face? Were there any obstacles that stood in their way? And how did they position themselves to overcome those the benefit of their customers (people like those who are reading your materials)?

Even product literature offers a chance to tell a story and captivate an audience. What led your company to introduce the product you're writing about? What challenges does it help customers (like those reading your materials) overcome? How has customer feedback helped you improve the product? And what role do you see customer interaction playing in future product offerings and upgrades?

Notice a common theme here? In all of these, the focus is on the customer. They are the heroes of the stories you tell. It's their challenges, struggles, and needs that shape your decisions and encourage you to do what you do.

And that makes for one very compelling storyline.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Location-Based Marketing: A Small-Business Primer

Location-based services such as Gowalla, Foursquare, and Facebook Places are becoming increasingly popular. These services allow users to "check in" at restaurants, bars, stores, and other places of interest, directly from their smartphone or portable device. Users can add notes about the business, see who else is checked in, and earn points, badges, and other benefits. For their part, businesses can provide special incentives for customers who check in, such as coupons, discounts, and "check-in-only" specials.

AT&T got into the location-based act earlier this year when it launched ShopAlerts. The service (free to AT&T customers) sends text alerts to a user's smartphone whenever the person is near a business that uses the ShopAlerts system. The messages contain product information, special promotions, event listings, or whatever the vendor wishes to say. Available in limited release in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, the company hopes to add more locations in the near future.

So should your business care about location-based marketing? Perhaps. At the very least, you'll probably want to check your company's listings on the most popular services (Facebook Places, Foursquare, and Gowalla) to a.) make sure there is a listing and b.) verify all the information is accurate. Typically, a service will require you to verify your claim of ownership before they allow you to edit any of the contact information. Foursquare recently changed its guidelines to make it easier to claim your business listing. Follow the links at the end of this post for more information.

You'll also want to keep an eye on what users are saying when they check in. Read reviews and follow up on feedback, just as you would if someone voiced a complaint in person. As location-based services become more popular, people are using them to decide where to go to spend their money. Lousy reviews will hurt your referral traffic.

If you decide to run a promotion or special through a location-based service, make sure it's tailored to your target audience. You can gauge the success of such efforts by tracking check-ins and people's use of the promotions involved, then adapt your efforts and tweak them on the fly.

For more information about the most common services, here are a few links to get you started:

Facebook Places
Foursquare for Business
Gowalla - Business Services
SCVNGR for Business
Yelp for Business Owners

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Door Hanger Marketing

If you're looking for a unique way to target a specific market, the solution may be hanging under your nose.

Because door hangers stand alone without competition, they are more likely to be read and remembered. While you can easily maximize marketing real estate and print messaging on both sides of the hanger, be careful not to bombard the reader with information. Door hangers are most effective when you provide a simple yet enticing message as creative as the hanger itself. Direct the reader to contact you or visit your website for more information.

While a single door hanger can create a lasting impression, a follow-up door hanger campaign will create even greater awareness and help readers think of you when their need for your product or service arises.

Want to track your campaign or ensure your recipients hang onto your door hanger after removing it from the knob? Consider including a tear-away discount card or coupon, affixing a magnet to the back, or offering a calendar of upcoming promotions and giveaways.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Six Steps to an Effective Email Signature Line

Despite the growing popularity of Facebook, Twitter, and other communications channels, email remains popular in the business world. Here are a few tips to help you make your email messages stand out, with an effective signature line.

Create a standard. Maintaining a unified brand is essential for effective marketing and communication. You would (probably) never dream of letting each employee design their own unique business card or letterhead. Even if you did, you'd likely offer guidelines, such as standard color palettes, font selections, and basic layout rules. The same is true with email. A standard email template and signature will ensure that all communications from your company reinforce your brand and create a positive impression for your company.

Keep it professional. Many email programs provide a wide assortment of templates and font choices. Use both sparingly. Make sure your message doesn't get lost in an overly busy layout or hard-to-read font.

Keep it concise. Make sure your signature isn't so long that it proves a distraction for what you're trying to say. Quotations, anecdotes, and unnecessary graphics can clutter up an otherwise effective signature line.

But not too brief. Of course, you do want to make sure people can reach you...and not just by hitting reply. Name, title, phone/extension, and company website are a good place to start. You might also want to include links to social media channels, such as your Twitter profile and company Facebook page.

Create multiple signatures, especially if you have more than one role at your company. Make sure each signature complies with the company standard and offers proper contact information based on the context of the message you're sending.

Standardize any legalese. If your company has a policy about email confidentiality or proper email usage, add this to your signature line, and make sure the same wording gets added to the company's email signature guidelines.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Sweet Treats = Sweet Deals

Are you looking for a unique way to create a memorable atmosphere for your customers and prospects? Consider offering refreshments at your business on an everyday basis. Something as simple as coffee, lemonade, and cookies will encourage visitors to stop and chat while they enjoy a tasty treat. (By the way, cookies are even more enticing when baked fresh onsite -- even if baked in a portable pizza oven.)

Celebrating a special event such as a corporate anniversary, coworker's birthday, or holiday? Consider offering mini cupcakes, muffins, caramel roll bites, popcorn, or seasonal snacks.

Don't attack visitors and push a sales pitch down their throat while they are enjoying a treat. Instead, create an inviting environment with a high-top table or small table and chairs, then use this perfect opportunity to visit and build relationships.

While your visitors will likely do a great job promoting your delicious goodies to others via word of mouth, don't forget to devote some space in your next marketing promotion to invite others to stop by for a sweet treat and a sweet deal on XYZ.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Positive Side of Negative Reviews

Does your business offer an outlet to post or share customer reviews, good and bad alike? Many businesses cringe at the thought of sharing negative customer reviews, thinking they may taint their image or scare away business. However, negative reviews can be good for business.

Negative feedback provides credibility and tells customers the business is confident enough to show a range of customer feedback. Nobody is perfect, and the same holds true for businesses. Honest feedback and suggestions for improvement can even improve your business (IF you are eager to fix the issue).

Negative reviews offer a great opportunity to show you care about your customers -- not only to the person who wrote the review, but also to everyone else reading it. Quickly resolve any complaints, and reestablish credibility by offering refunds, future discounts, gift cards, etc.

While negative reviews can be a great learning tool for your business and customers alike, be sure to maintain a constant online presence to neutralize negative conversations and quickly delete any inappropriate comments.