Thursday, June 7, 2012

Building a Successful Ad Agency

Surviving in the Advertising and Marketing world for 35 years hasn't been easy, especially if you want to live a normal life. Having a normal life means having other things in your life other that your work. I have had the good fortune to experience an incredibly successful ride that I am still on, and which I continue to work hard at every day. I continue to learn something new every day, and then share those new ideas with both my colleagues and my clients. What a blast! I've been asked many times to share the secrets to my success, and I do gladly because I believe that one my gifts is helping others; that's one of the reasons I make a good ad guy, I like helping people figure out how to succeed in their endeavors. But when it comes to having a successful small business, I believe that the guiding principles that my wife and I have established along the way were, and still are pivotal to our success.

So, here are the ten guiding principles that have shaped our successful business:

1. Our Business Culture is a Family Style Environment. If you come from a dysfunctional family and you know it, but don't want to change, then this principle is probably something you should pass on. But for us, this remains a critically important element of our success. We treat our staff like family. We celebrate all major holidays and we work hard at remembering everyone's birthday, their wives and husbands names along with their children's names. When there's a personal emergency we are there to help them. We have monthly staff lunches, not to discuss business, but rather to enjoy each other's company. We even celebrate back-to-school-day by having a special breakfast that my wife makes for everyone.

We also know that our family functions better when we are honest with each other; and when we have to speak about difficult topics, we speak the truth in love.

And, just like with our family, we must keep current. I do that daily with my staff by walking through the office and stopping to catch up with them. I know it sounds so insignificant but it pays off in big dividends, because our team will do whatever it takes to get the job done for our clients. They also know that our collective survival depends on them.

Early on in my career I have learned to attack problems not people, and, to act rather than react. It's probably part of how I am wired, I like solving problems and helping people, so why would I attack and hurt anyone.

We got this idea of creating a family culture in our work environments, believe it or not, from my mother. She had away of making anyone that came into our home feeling accepted and welcomed. Her motto was biblical, but she never preached it...SHE LIVED IT! "Love everyone that will let you." (Paraphrased by Mom) Matt. 18:6

So, I learned from an early age the first secret of success from a master that cared about everyone.

Lastly, we say grace at every meal we have together, just like we do at home.

2. Treat Everyone with Respect.

Maybe it's just me, but I get my feelings hurt when I stop at a convenience store to buy something and when I make my purchase the cashier hardly recognizes me and if he says anything he or she will say something like "have a nice day", me, the customer, in return say "thank you". It irritates me so much that I now say, "you too".

I purposely go out of my way to open the door for the UPS guy, and thank him for the delivery. Every vendor, every sales person, everyone that comes into our office looking for directions, I treat with respect, and I expect everyone that works with me to do the same. Why? Because my dad taught me early in life to say thank you, and yes sir, and yes ma'am. And, my dad would always open doors for people when passing. He never told me to hold the door for someone. He just did it! I hold doors open for people because it's the right thing to do, and because everyone is always, I MEAN ALWAYS, watching the boss. So don't drop you guard. Giving a little respect to people can go a long way.

3. Hire Team Members that are Smarter than Yourself.

This takes raw courage. Imagine how far you'll get in life if you surround yourself with dwarfs and robots that always agree with the you, even when they all know you are wrong. You will succeed much faster, much more successfully, if you have the guts and courage to higher giants. Trust me they will make you look smart, and then someday you will look back and realize you have learned so much from them that you'll be smart too!

4. Creativity Reigns without Fear of Rejection.

Many, many years ago I had a client that would demoralize his staff and me as we presented our creative ideas. No matter how hard we tried in his mind it was "Crap"! Oh, how I hate that word. Nothing destroys the creative process more than rejection, or the fear of rejection. Now that doesn't mean as the senior creative director that I can't tell someone that what he or she is doing isn't working yet. I find that we get better results by offering suggestions or ideas rather than bad mouthing the idea and the person. So around here Seagulls are not welcome.

5. Provide a Path for Staff to Grow.

This is very important because if your staff is not growing then something is wrong, and they should leave, sooner than later. I want each of our staff members to grow in four areas: I want them to grow intellectually because I know that the smarter each member becomes the more they contribute in many ways. Secondly, I want to see each team member grow financially. This makes a lot of sense when you think about it. If I continue to financially reward those that work hard and help the company succeed, then we are both very happy.

The next area that I want to be sure that I provide for the team is a work environment that allows some social interaction. This has to be done with great balance. You've heard the expression "All work and no play makes a dull boy". And we also know that "all play instead of making hay will make you poor". When you pick great team members they can figure it out.

The fourth and most important area, in my opinion, is their spiritual growth. If I provide a great work place that allows each person to grow professionally, financially and socially, and I fail at providing a spiritual foundation - that there is a God that made this beautiful creation from the smallest micro-organism to the largest planet, and everything in between, and that His name is Jesus, yes the Jesus of the Bible ¬- and, if I don't explain to each person that eternity is a gift to those that believe in His name, and what He has done for us on the cross at Calvary 2000 years ago, then I am a miserable failure.

6. Keep Things Simple. This is easier said than done, but so important. If you study design and the work of the fortune 100 companies you will notice that most of what they communicate is sophisticated and elegant yet simple. But it goes deeper than just the creative design work we do. I encourage staff to write simple, short, easy to understand sentences. I don't require staff to keep time sheets charging every 15 minutes of nothing to a client. I prefer that each person concentrate on their tasks and talents, and let the work we do sell itself instead of using time to justify what we charge.

7. Do the Right Thing.

Of course everyone one knows the importance of doing the right thing, like duh! Doing the right thing is more than just a principle, what I mean is this: Do the right thing, the right way, the first time for the right reason. Now, that's maturity, that's integrity, that's character; and that is what I strive to develop in all of the team.

8. Bigger is Not Always Better.

I've seen many agencies crash and burn because they got too big, too fast. They under estimate projects. They don't have the right players on the team. They burn out their best players, and, they over-promise and under-deliver. They see dollar signs, thinking that "big" brings profit. It does if you do it right, but most agencies fail trying to get there. Our approach is different. You should measure your success based on your clients' success.  Measure your success based on satisfied clients. We've learned that our clients want us to be profitable, not greedy. We think long term. Relationships are more important that lots of one night stands. In the book Customers for Life by Carl Sewell, it says "you can shear a sheep many times but you can skin it only once". I know that's a little graphic but hopefully you get the message.

Build your business on long term relationships. Deliver what you promised, be fair in your billings and think more about your customer and less about the next thing your dreaming of buying and you will be a lot more successful and happier too!

9. Employ Good Business Practices.

Any accountant or lawyer starting a new business has been taught this principle from day one, but not us artsy-fartsy types. The graveyard is filled with agencies that died a pre mature death because they failed at business 101. Don't go crazy on this topic, but think about it for more than just a minute.

Early on in my career I would work day and night designing ads, writing copy, creating marketing strategies for my clients. I'd fall into bed from exhaustion, then get up the next day and do the same thing over again. I quickly found that I was only doing half of my work. Remember, you have bills to pay, on time, so that means you have to be as faithful with your accounting practices as you are with your creative work.

One of the best things that happened to me was the accounting firm that did my annual taxes (btw don't be stupid, pay your taxes on time), they recommended a bookkeeper that worked for them until she became a mom, again and again and again and again, to do my basic bookkeeping. She's been with us for over 15 years and is truly a gift from God.

10. Deliver What You Promise On Time and On Budget.

Sounds pretty basic, doesn't it? What I learned in my early years was that as I worked with a new client on a project, I would hear over and over again that my competitors failed miserably at delivering what they promised on time, and, that the final bill seldom reflected the quote that they were given. With that information I determined that On Time/On Budget must be one of the fundamental building blocks of any business. You can be the best creative guy or gal in the world, but if you cannot deliver on time and on budget you should probably work for the government.

New Way For Professional Services to Get Customers

Today's technology has changed the landscape as to how commerce happens in all industries. People communicate differently and have access to more information. Employees telecommute, and it is easier to do business globally. Customers choose their products and services differently.

Amazingly, one industry segment that seems to offer the most advice and appears to be the slowest to make changes is professional services. While making suggestions to their clients about embracing technology, trying new things, working on their business and not in it, working smarter and not harder, and so on, most professional service firms are themselves doing business the way they always have. They violate most of the very advice they give their clients. Their typical excuse for maintaining the status quo is that the advice they give cannot possibly work for their business. Ironically, this is the same excuse their clients use for not implementing their recommended changes.

How does this new commercial landscape impact the methods you use to build your customer base? The traditional manner of joining a board, organizing meetings with other professional service firms from which you can share leads, and going to a lot of networking meetings is proving to be very inefficient in today's environment. While I am not suggesting you quit all boards, stop seeking centers of influence, or quit networking, I do suggest that you need to increase your use of some of the more modern ways to build business and reduce some of the more traditional activities because you are probably wasting a lot of time.

Every person in professional services needs to create a personal brand and must separate that brand from their firm. They must ask themselves what they want that brand to represent, the reason that someone should call you instead of someone else? What are you the expert at? How can you stand out? The key to building your personal brand is to make it clear, unique, and specific. It is all about "slight edge." If you build a slight edge over the competition, you will get more phone calls and more people will take yours.

Once you have identified your personal brand, you are ready to use modern-day tools to get it out there. There are many, and they are easy to use. Even better, most are cheap or free. Use a blog, LinkedIn, newsletter, article syndication, websites, Facebook, and Twitter to help you build your brand and create a loyal fan base. It sounds scary, but there are many books or resources ready to help you use these tools, and it is much easier than you think.

Failure to use these tools in a world that expects that you have these things will give your competition a slight edge over you. Just as people expect experts to have a college degree, they now expect them to be using social media, and these expectations will only grow with the new "connected" generation. This is their way of learning about you, deciding if they can work with you, and how they determine whether they will respect you. This is the new world. You are either going to get on the bus, or it will pass you by.

What To Do If Your Business Is Not Working Try Doing What Ebay Did

I imagine almost everyone here who owns or has owned an Internet business wonders if it is working. Of course it is common sense to look at it and if sales are slow or nonexistent then it is easy to say no it is not. But is this a proper barometer? It might be the farthest thing from one.

I remember the days when eBay first started and almost 100% of the transactions there were Pez dispensers; that is collectors selling to each other. Forget eBay Motors, eBay Express, jewelry, books, Half.com, Skype.com, etc. etc that now all belongs to Ebay. Pez was their specialty At first, it was like a ghost town there. I can remember when they had less than a thousand members. But was it "working"? Indeed it was. That is, the foundation was being built.

So eBay "hung out it's cyber-shingle" and was known as "THE place to buy Pez collectibles". Was that their "end game" or their "lack of vision as to what they could accomplish?" Obviously not. But they knew the importance of building a foundation. It really didn't matter (yet) if they were making a million dollars or (in their case billions now), it was their instinctive business knowledge to become "the experts" or "the place to buy" for a specific type item, niche item if you will and go from there.

Too many Internet entrepreneurs look at explosive websites such as Ebay, Google, Amazon, et al, and say "Gee, I can do that and tonight I'm going to sit down and do that and show the world". Oh if only that is how it worked. If it did, everyone would be doing it and making a fortune on the net. If you listen to "the Internet gurus" (I happen to believe there is no such thing), they will tell you they are making a fortune and you can too if you just a. download their e-book or b. buy their software, or c. affiliate with them, etc. Again, if only that were so.

So how does one go from kitchen table to monster corporation? Take your first step and don't try to conquer the world at one time. If you think because it is the Internet and you can now start-up businesses cheaply, don't buy into the "group think" that you can circumvent hard work simply by using the net. Yes, a lot of it, that in "the days of old" is already done for you, that is, if you learn Internet marketing and what works for you. You don't have to call or drive down to the nearest television station, make an ad, or wait for a newspaper ad salesperson to drop by your office that you had to drive to early that morning. Times have changed. The way we do business has changed.

Please do not fall into the trap of "top ten sellers". Many wholesale drop-ship firms list how "hot" a particular item or brand is. Yes, you might make it by becoming a reseller or rep, but you have to realize that the "hot" items are the ones that the travelers on the "road more taken" travel. If Gucci men's shirts are on the "hot list", look for something else; not a poor seller, but maybe one in the middle; one with which you feel comfortable.

Learn about pay per click advertising. Heard Google was "the most used"? It is. That is why I use MS Adcenter owned by Microsoft. I've used Google and Yahoo and got lost in the shuffle. I often found my ad way down at the bottom of the tenth to twentieth page. But that is not to say not to try Google or Yahoo, certainly they are effective for many; it is just that my businesses seem to do better on the lesser used pay per click engines; not the obscure ones that nobody uses or has low quality ROI hits.

Adcenter does just fine for my clientèle A good idea is to test each of them for a few months and keep track of which ones are bringing home the bacon.

Another key is to learn article marketing. Article marketing is not just writing an article, but writing one in which you provide some "extra-value". My views tend to be contrarian to a lot of traditional wisdom (though I like to think not radically so, my stores do very well, but we are not in the Fortune 500...yet. If I am even close to an "Internet guru" at least I'm an honest one.

Write about what you know. It need not be a "hype" article, in fact, the less hype it is, the more people appreciate it. Please refrain from repetitiveness, that is, lifting bits and pieces from other "gurus" articles to sound like a guru. It is an insult to the Internet community's intelligence. I do not say that judgmentally, I did it myself (when I was learning, to sound "smarter); but there is an old saying "The Internet always finds you out". And that is very true.

So now you are building a foundation, article marketing (making certain to add a link to your store or website at the base of every article), exploring pay per click. How about blogging and social networking? Podcasting? Do they work? You better believe it. But they don't (necessarily) work the same day or even year.

I started building my foundation in 1997. It was merely a hobby, cartooning. I didn't even know I could sell things on the Internet. I was just having some fun. Little did I know, I was building "that foundation" that you keep seeing.

Now I have stores that sell thousands of items with my cartoon images; they came to me, I didn't go looking for the manufacturers. I really didn't even know anyone was noticing. It slowly evolved into a business. Keep in mind this was pre-Google, pre ppc search engines, pre blogging, pre everything that we now take for granted on the net.

Have you tried search directories? You would be astonished the amount of quality traffic come from them. Be sure to place your blog in the more popular blog search directories. There are many. Some are free some cost a bit. Do a Google search for "blog directories" and find your product niche and list there.

Blog as often as you can. I try to every day. Many gurus says two or three times per week is fine. It really depends on if you have something "newsworthy" to say. Or want to show the public some special you are running. Always think from a journalists point of view when writing. Is this something that is useful to the public, or am I just stroking my ego? You will soon see the difference in the amount of sales and visitors it brings to your site. Always remember that the base of your blog should have your store's URL.

Learn to ping. Its very easy now with automatic pinging services such as Pingoat and Pingomatic and Kping, etc. Don't abuse it or they will not let you ping. Ping your blogs only. That is what they are for, to alert other blogs of a story they might want to see and include. It works well. You can do a "Google vanity search" of your blog every few days after pinging and see that others have picked it up.

Join groups at flickr, myspace and others. Make friends. Don't go in full-force and start selling. Make friends and build a community. Let them ask you about your business. Just keep feeding useful information that is helpful, or make friends, or share about other common interests and sooner or later someone is going to ask you about your website or business. It always happens; and when it happens that way you've created a loyal customer.

There are so many other methods to think about in the building of a business. I've seen so many web businesses with potential close their doors right before "they made it". I cannot be sure of the problems, but 9 out of 10 times it is giving up on continuity (the blogging, the article marketing) etc.

Every word your write can turn the tide and make business come your way if you write it with sincerity and goodwill; that is, not simply to make a sale, sure, that is very nice, but if it doesn't, and more times it does not than does, you have still given some valuable information that will help another person in their business and you never know, (and this has happened to me many times); the reader may not need my products but knows someone else who collects licensed art products, mousepads, tee shirts, or whatever it is they like in my store, and sends them my way. I can't begin to tell you how many times that has happened.

Keep in mind, I started simply putting up my cartoons on a free web host in 1997. I had no idea what would become of it. I did not open my first store until September of 2006. I realized just what a "foundation" was (remember we mentioned foundations?) when I discovered we'd had millions of visitors to my cartoon site; and now many were being converted into buyers at my cartoon store buying everything from coasters to wall clocks to sweatshirts It happens every day now because I simply "water the garden" a little. You will find the same thing. You will get back what you put into it.

Give it time, be patient, and watch. Good luck. Hope to see you along the way to the top!

11 Resolutions for Business Growth in 2011

If you're operating budget or your marketing plan looks like it did five years ago, two years ago or even last year, there's a problem.

With every advancement in technology, with every emerging social platform and with every shift from the desktop to the cloud, the ways people communicate, the ways your customers make decisions and the ways your employees work will continue to evolve. To stay ahead in today's marketplace, your business growth strategies and tactics must evolve right along with them.

Here are 11 resolutions that you must make for your business to achieve success in 2011 and beyond:

Shed your excess baggage.

You'll never get ahead as long as you're the one impeding your own progress.

In today's economic climate, efficiency is the number one rule of survival. The future of business is leaner, smarter and more responsive. It's time to take a look at your operating expenses and see what you can reduce or eliminate.

Now that technology has made it possible to do business anywhere and at any time, do you still need to maintain a spacious physical office and everything that goes into supporting and maintaining it: utilities, landline phone systems, servers, furnishings, cleaning services, etc.?

Or is it time to consider shedding that office and all of its outmoded systems in favor of transitioning to a virtual operating model and reaping the benefits of lower expenses, increased efficiency, higher employee satisfaction and - most importantly - greater profitability?

Even if you're not ready to fully commit to making the virtual leap just yet, there are still plenty of things you can do to lighten the burden of the reoccurring expenses you carry.

A great first step is to look to the cloud. Today there are excellent cloud-based solutions for everything from project management to accounting and even CRM. Google Apps alone added over 60 new business-focused web-based apps in 2010.

These tools are lighter, more flexible and more affordable than their traditional personal-computer-based counterparts, making the business of running your business more efficient and less costly.

From Basecamp for project management to Grasshopper's virtual phone systems to Skype for voice and video conferencing to Dropbox for online file sharing and synchronization, these systems are designed to promote productivity and facilitate collaboration among your employees, whether they are tethered to a cubicle or working from a home office.

So even if you can't yet throw away the keys to your office, you can at the very least reduce your dependence upon phone systems, printers, paper, filing cabinets, on-site data storage and back-ups...the list goes on and on.

Bow to the tribe.

Just ask Digg, Toyota, Apple or Gap: What the tribe says can make you or break you.

What is a tribe? At its core, it's a group of people that connect around common goals, interests or needs.

If you want to grow in today's marketplace, you must identify, become a member of and lead the tribes that are relevant to your business. Moreover, your products or services must be shaped around meeting the needs of its members and making their lives better or easier.

Fortunately, the evolution of social media has stripped away the communication barriers that once divided companies and their tribes. Take advantage of having direct access to your customers and their opinions and engage them in your business operation.

Keep them informed about what you are doing. Ask for their honest feedback, not just about what you're doing right but also about what you're doing wrong and how you can do better. By listening and responding, you'll solidify their trust and earn their continued loyalty.

For evidence of the power of tribes, look no further than Gap's disastrous attempt to launch a new logo in October 2010. According the company, the logo was intended to signify Gap's transition from "classic, American design to modern, sexy, cool." However, in actuality, it raised the ire of their tribe and sparked a wave of embarrassing publicity.

While a simple logo redesign might seem like just a superficial cosmetic change, when Gap's tribe saw their familiar brand icon fall by the wayside, they interpreted it as an indication that the company's traditional style and values would soon follow suit. In response to this vehement backlash, Gap swiftly scrapped the new logo and reinstated the classic blue box, and in doing so, they recovered the trust and loyalty of their tribe.

Get out of your corporate comfort zone.

In order to engage with your tribe and relate to them in an authentic way, your company must be human in every way.

What does this mean? Think about qualities that are uniquely human. These include passion, sincerity and humility, just to name a few.

Humans take the time to understand, so be accessible, responsive and generous with your expertise and assistance.

Humans make mistakes, and they apologize for those mistakes. Don't be afraid to show the world your flaws. Instead, be honest, accountable and trustworthy.

Taking ownership of a problem isn't the same as taking blame. Your end game shouldn't be saving face at all costs; it should be demonstrating that despite the inevitable misstep, you always have your customers' best interests at heart.

People want to do business with people who genuinely care about them and understand their needs, not faceless corporations whose only concern is the bottom line. When you engage in real, authentic relationships, you create fans who are not only loyal customers but also brand evangelists that do your marketing for you.

Don't just be likable, be indispensable.

The omnipresence of Facebook has turned the act of "liking" into its own unique form of currency. Brands engage in hot pursuit of being "liked" as if the acquisition of that status in and of itself is the culmination of the company-customer relationship.

However, competing in this rat race makes it easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. In today's economic climate, customers don't easily part with their hard-earned dollars - unless, that is, they simply can't live without you.

It's time to re-examine your value, not just in terms of price but in terms of what it is that your customers have come to depend on you for and how you can give them even more.

For instance, a Maytag washer might initially cost more than a comparable model from GE or Whirlpool, but their customers also know that they can expect reliable, worry-free service for years to come, which will ultimately save them the time, hassle and expense of repair or replacement.

What aspects of your competitive landscape can you own? Is it service? Is it convenience? It is reliability?

Make sure that you address the needs of your tribe and make their lives better or easier in meaningful ways that no one else can duplicate. In doing so, you'll transform your products or services from mere commodities to indispensable necessities.

Stop treating your website like a brochure.

What separates the superstar websites from the rest?

It's not pretty pictures or flowery copy.

It's not flashy graphics - or Flash, for that matter.

It's not videos or animation or any of the other bells and whistles in and of themselves.

It's achieving the right balance of form and function, of design and functionality.

Stop wasting opportunities to grow your business with a website that doesn't truly perform. It's no longer enough for your website to sit like a brochure on glass and provide just the basic ABCs about your company.

In fact, the term "website design" itself is a bit misleading. While your site can and should be beautiful, more importantly, it must be useful.

Perhaps there's no better case for this argument than Facebook. Facebook is hardly the most beautiful website ever built. However, it serves its purpose well, and it's simple enough to navigate that everyone from your 10-year-old cousin to your 80-year-old grandmother can use it with relative ease.

People love apps and for good reason: they're intuitive to use, they're focused and they serve a specific purpose.

You should keep this mentality in mind with regard to the way your website functions. People come to your site for a reason, and they have specific needs that need to be addressed.

When they land on your site, don't make them think too much. Instead, point them in the right direction. Your goal should be to provide a useful web-based extension of your company that's available 24/7 and provides the path of least resistance for your customers to reach the resources, information and products they seek.

Go organic.

Once upon a time, it was easy to ensure that whenever someone was searching for the types of products and services that you offer, you'd be in front of them. Every year you'd write a check (albeit a big one) to the Yellow Pages and then just sit back and wait for the phone to ring.

But in today's marketplace, when people have a question, want information or need to find a product or service, they don't flip open the phone book, and they don't scour online directories.

Instinctively, they turn to search engines like Google, Yahoo and Bing. As a result, these sites are the gatekeepers between you and prospects who are looking for a solution that you can provide. With over 16 billion searches performed in November 2010 alone, there's clearly much to be gained from appearing in the first few results when someone enters keywords that pertain to the products or services that you offer.

However, unlike in the days when the Yellow Pages ruled the world, you can't buy your way to prominence on an organic search results page. Instead, you must commit to an ongoing, dedicated investment of time and resources to work your way up through the rankings of a search using legitimate, proven search engine optimization tactics.

While there's no easy or instant way to jump from page 10 to page one, over time, your patience and persistence will be rewarded with better ranking, greater traffic coming to your site, more prospects seeing what you have to offer and increased opportunities to convert visitors into customers.

Be everywhere all the time.

To compete in today's on-demand culture, you need to ensure that you're available to your customers on their timetable and on the platform of their choosing.

No longer are people usually sitting in front of a computer when they're searching for answers to their questions and problems. With the proliferation of smartphones and tablets, mobile browsing is on the rise.According to data from comScore, in October 2010, approximately 36 percent of mobile subscribers used their devices to browse the web, while 34 percent downloaded apps and 24 percent accessed blogs or social networking sites.

It's critical to make sure that when your customers are out and about, you're in their pocket and along for the ride. The first step is optimizing your site for the mobile Web to ensure that it is small-screen-friendly and that browsing on the go is a pleasant and efficient process. There's nothing more frustrating for your customers than when they're in a hurry and waiting for your image-saturated website to load on their Android or struggling to navigate your drop-down menus on their iPhone.

Simply put, mobile web development is a trend that you simply can't afford to ignore any longer. Your customers won't understand or tolerate your failure to keep up and will keep browsing until they find someone else who can provide what they want when and where they want it.

Break out of your social bubble.

Social media is about communication and connection, with the ultimate goal of building and nurturing a community around your brand. However, to be successful, you must break out of your own brand bubble and let others direct the conversation.

Wherever you choose to establish a presence - whether that's on LinkedIn if you're B2B, Facebook if you're B2C or on Twitter - you must realize that these sites are not just another place to leave your brochure, nor are they your own personal podium for endless self-promotion.

Instead, think of your social media outpost as an ongoing party where your people can hang out and talk about the things that they care about. You want the atmosphere to feel like your living room, where everyone is free to pull up a chair and join in the conversation at their leisure. The people who congregate there will get to know each other and will form relationships that are founded upon a common interest in your brand and the values it stands for.

Just like any real-world social setting, the more comfortable you make it, the more people will call it home, and the more they'll look forward to coming back again and again.

For example, if you're in the business of selling your own custom-made handbags, your people are those who care about fashion and about standing out from the crowd. They're people who like to be on the cutting edge of trends and gossip.

So there's no need for the chatter on your Facebook page to constantly revolve around handbags. You could just as easily talk about what Natalie Portman wore to the Golden Globes or discuss the latest episode of America's Next Top Model. As long as the conversation is happening in your living room, it doesn't have to be about you.

By contrast, if you put up a Facebook page and do nothing but talk about yourself, you'll watch the party empty quickly.

Stop keeping up with the digital Joneses.

Because the Internet is public domain, suddenly it's easier than ever to keep close tabs on what your competitors are doing. And along with this comes the temptation to constantly make sure that you are present anywhere on the Web that they are.

However, just because you can see what you're competitors are up to doesn't necessarily mean they're doing it well or that their tactics are worth imitating.

Just because your competitors are on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Flickr and every other platform in existence, doesn't mean you should be, too. Just because they have 1,000 followers doesn't mean that you're a failure because you only have 200. Just because they have a message board on their website doesn't mean that you should necessarily have one as well.

While it's always good to keep your competitors in your crosshairs, don't let it take your focus away from doing what's best for your own business. It's far more important to stay laser-focused on your customers and to gain an understanding of where they live and how they prefer to be engaged.

Focus your efforts not on keeping up but on setting yourself apart. Carve out your own niche in the Web marketing universe, create your own identity, offer something unique to your customers and cultivate your own community of dedicated followers.

Get out more.

With all the buzz surrounding social networking, don't forget the importance of face-to-face networking.

As one responsible for growing a business, you belong to an expansive community of people who are in the same boat. Collectively, you represent an almost limitless pool of knowledge and experience in addressing the challenges of building and growing a business. Whether it's a colleague in a related industry or the owner of the shop next door, there's a wealth of wisdom and contacts just waiting to be shared.

All too often, however, people treat networking as a stop-gap measure when nothing else is working. Networking shouldn't be approached as an instant fix to a sales pipeline that's running dry but as a long-term investment.

To be successful, you must apply the principles of trustcasting: be willing to give generously of your own time and expertise, not focused solely on what everyone else can do for you.

Build your reputation as a knowledgeable resource, take a genuine interest in helping others succeed, and eventually you'll find that opportunities will start to flow your way.

Turn your resolutions into reality.

It's not enough to set the goals. You must develop an action plan for their execution. Otherwise the coal-shoveling tasks required to keep your business engine running smoothly will always dominate your time and attention.

Simply put, you must schedule time for growth, or all your good intentions will drown in a sea of wishful thinking.

In reality, you probably can't tackle all 11 of these resolutions at once, so decide what's most important for your business and set your priorities accordingly.

Break down each big-picture objective into specific, manageable tasks, and establish milestones and metrics by which you'll measure your progress.

Set aside some time each week to unplug and apply focused effort toward meeting your goals. Treat these tasks with the same level of importance as meeting with a client or filing your taxes, and don't let anything displace them from your schedule.

Don't fall into the trap of reactionary business growth planning and wait until there's a crisis of income and cash flow to get serious about shoring up your competitive position. In today's marketplace, there's no room for objectives du jour that only aim to put out whichever fire is burning hottest at the moment.

Establish your goals for the year now, and make a firm commitment - to yourself and your employees - that other projects won't be allowed to interfere with achieving them. If things don't unfold as planned, don't worry and don't give up. Just adapt and stay focused on the ultimate goal: owning your market.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Search Results

Fast forward a bit. Cell phones grew smaller and then smarter. Then cell phones weren't fast enough for our culture - it was email and text messaging. Now? I am told "Texting is so yesterday - people are communicating in 140 characters via Twitter." There is instant messaging and some are even saying that is too slow.

Think about it - we are communicating more and more via text. How many times do you dash off an email rather than making a call or leaving a voice mail?

What does this mean to private practitioners?

If you are building or marketing a counseling private practice now, you've probably already had requests for phone sessions.

But I believe that our "nanosecond" culture will sooner or later invite you to deliver services in a way that is appealing to this need for instant connection and connection online.

Your clients or prospects will ask if you can do therapy over the computer. This could be email, social networking, instant messaging chat sessions, online forums and other interesting ways that stretch my thinking such as avatar based "Second Life."

Will online therapy via text be a service you are interesting in offering?
I think there are many questions that first need to be pondered. The answers may be as unique as each individual practitioner.

Can the same level of therapeutic relationship be created using text-based communication methods?
Taking away the face-to-face interaction will not be appealing to many practitioners. Visual and non-verbal cues can be as important as anything actually said in session. Text might be misinterpreted or impact the client significantly - without the therapist or coach realizing it.

At the same time, the written word is so powerful that it might accelerate progress. It might be easy to ignore a statement from the clinician in a session - but harder to do so online. Clients who need anchoring could read and re-read emails or texts to help them remain grounded. And as more and more people use text as a way of relating, people may actually feel more comfortable with the therapeutic relationship in a cyber-space environment as compared to face-to-face.

Will the fact that it takes a few moments to interact via typing be a benefit or a hindrance to the process?
I could see that in some cases it invites the client to focus on what they want to say. It might take time to develop a rhythm and a process that is comfortable. Online therapy via text might not be a good choice for those who are slow typists or who are uncomfortable with short sentences or misspellings.

Are there legal and ethical considerations?
I do believe that technology is ahead of our laws. Our professional associations are trying to keep up with 'best practices' guidelines but with technology moving as fast as it is, that is probably an impossible task.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Your Financial Advisor - Facilitator Or Trusted Advisor?

In the modern age of financial practice, securities salespeople no longer call themselves brokers or registered representatives. They now go by names like financial consultant or investment specialist. Many advisors continue to charge commissions and work in a mainly transaction-based model, but many have also converted to a fee-based practice, charging management fees to oversee client assets. 

Most financial advisors work for one of the major brokerage firms, banks, or insurance companies. There is also a relatively small but growing contingent of independent advisors who are not affiliated with any outside financial entity. Most of these advisors are either solo practitioners or small partnerships of advisors working together. There are, of course, many medium- to large-sized independent money management firms, but these firms typically work with institutional investors such as pension and endowments funds rather than individuals. 

Despite the growth of advisors adopting a fee-based model, many are still acting like brokers or facilitators instead of client-focused, trusted advisors. Filling orders, following instructions, and saying what the clients want to hear-the main activities of a order-taker or facilitator-may seem like a good business model, but it is probably not serving the best interests of clients. 

Trusted advisors are client advocates. They are not afraid to follow the courage of their conviction, think rationally, and maintain their discipline, even in the worst of times. These advisors have a clearly stated and sound philosophy about investments and financial planning. They set expectations, educate their clients, and work in a collaborative fashion-always putting their clients' interests first. 

Here are some differences between facilitators and a trusted advisors: 

Courage of conviction-Trusted advisors carefully evaluate a client's situation and make recommendations that are in the best interests of the client, even if the client initially disagrees or wants to do something different. Trusted advisors understand that the most prudent course of action is not always the easiest one to take. This is especially true with money and markets, where emotions can run high, often causing poor decisions to be made. It is important to take the time to explain the pros and cons of various strategies, and help a client understand which approach would be best for them. 

In contrast, a facilitator may allow or even encourage a client to make decisions that might feel good in the short run but are counterproductive long-term. They might do this out of fear of losing business or a preference for expediency. Facilitators generally do not bring discipline and rationality to the investment process, which is a big part of the value of having an advisor. This is unfortunate because in emotional times clients can benefit from hearing a rational and independent voice of reason. 

Stated investment philosophy-Trusted advisors have a clear and unwavering approach to investments and financial planning. They take the time to educate their clients about their approach and are willing to turn away prospective clients that are not a good fit. Trusted advisors have the flexibility to use any product or vehicle they feel is appropriate, but they use them in a way that is consistent with their investment beliefs. Above all, they do not adopt a approach they believe is not in the client's interest simply because the client wants it. 

Facilitators, on the other hand, usually don't have a clearly stated investment philosophy. They want the flexibility of being able to offer a prospective client whatever investment approach the client is looking for. Facilitators might offer several different investment solutions, even if they are philosophically inconsistent with each other. As a result, they may have clients following conflicting strategies, which makes it impossible to send a consistent message to clients. 

Coaching and Educating-Trusted advisors act as financial coaches for their clients. Whether it is in sports or business, the role of a coach is the same. A coach is an educator and teacher who understands the objectives and defines and implements a process to achieve them. He or she also communicates collaboratively in a team-building fashion, and provides the discipline to ensure good, long-term results. 

Education is also critical to a successful advisor-client relationship. Clients benefit from learning about economics, finance, and how markets work. A trusted advisor is able to facilitate substantive discussions about these and other important topics. Clients make smarter decisions when they have useful and informative information. 

Facilitators often lack the skills needed to truly educate and advise their clients, and must fall back on other means, such as persuasive sales skills, to retain client relationships. They may not be willing to spend the time, or simply may not have the knowledge, to properly educate and inform their clients. A good advisor has a high level of expertise, as well as the skills necessary to impart that knowledge to others in an effective way.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Marketing on a Shoestring Budget - Empty Pockets, Full Marketing Plan

As business owners, we try to do more with less, but few of us really succeed. Despite our best efforts, it seems we're always running short...short on money, short on people, short on time. When those unlimited short-falls occur, marketing is often one of the first functions to be sacrificed on the altar of the bottom line. A potentially 'fatal error' - and one that may be the key to why more than 90% of new businesses wind up dead-on-arrival within a year of start-up.

For this reason, developing cost-effective, business-building marketing initiatives is the single largest challenge facing success-minded business owners today.

Defining Terms - What Is Marketing?
Why is Marketing so important to any business, no matter what size? To understand the answer, it's important to first understand just what marketing is...

The process of identifying the particular needs and wants of a particular target market and then taking action to satisfy those needs better than competition.

Frequently mis-understood and often thought of as mere 'window dressing,' Marketing is in reality the foundation of any business success. It's where 'the rubber hits the road' because - when all is said and done - Marketing is all about the customer. No marketing or bad marketing means no customers. And no customers means no business... fast.

So, true customer-led companies (that is to say successful ones!) shouldn't make any decisions on any aspect of their businesses - whether it be product design, or pricing, promotion, supply chain, or distribution channels - without factoring in the marketing fundamentals of understanding the customer and their needs.

Searching For The Holy Grail
Given the critical nature of Marketing but the often-sobering limitations of company resources, savvy business managers are always on the alert for smarter marketing initiatives - low on cost, high on results. It would be great if a quick-fix solution or magic wand existed that you could wave to achieve instantaneous and permament marketing success. Unfortunately, that just doesn't exist.

Instead of A Quick Fix, A Lasting Solution
However! For business owners who are prepared to roll up their sleeves and get to work to build and maintain a solid marketing foundation, a wide range of low-cost and no-cost strategies can help you achieve long-term marketing and, therefore, business success.

And the good news is that whoever you are and whatever your industry, there are Five Marketing Resources every company already has - yes, yours included - that you can leverage as great, business-building marketing resources, starting today. Use these five existing company resources effectively and you'll see consistent customer - and bottom line - growth.

Resource #1 - Positioning: Prime Real Estate in the Mind
Positioning is the way you want customers to perceive, think and feel about your brand or business vs. competition. It's the 'mental piece of property' that you and you alone lay claim to in the mind of a customer. Large companies may have time and the luxury of costly advertising on their side to help promote their brands... but, with less money to spend and no time to lose, those of us with fewer resources must 'work smarter' to identify and solidify that one particular "sweet spot" that we, and we alone can...and want...to own in the market place.

That is exactly what a well-crafted positioning can do.

Smart positioning helps level the playing field for businesses with less resources. After all, if you aren't exactly sure what your company stands for... how can your customer be sure? With that in mind, businesses without well-defined positioning statements are not in the driver's seat or the winners circle.

One reason is that consumers often think "parts is parts." Without positioning to differentiate you in a meaningful way, you often end up competing on price alone... a precarious position at best. Your product/service is thus reduced to 'commodity' status, virtually indistinguishable from the competition. That's definitely not good for business!

Assume the Position!
The question, then, is how to achieve a unique market position? Large companies may spend millions, but you can't... and you don't have to. To position your brand or business where you want it to be - head and shoulders above competition - you must carefully identify what your business has to offer by defining the six core positioning elements that make up the core of your specific brand.

Keep in mind that crafting and fine-tuning a brand position may take days, weeks, or even months, remember, too, that every journey starts with a first step, and that includes the journey to the type of smarter, more effective marketing that strong positioning and powerful branding can offer you. So let's take a moment to cover the very basics.

The Six Core Elements of Positioning

NEED - Positioning based on need addresses a problem in the market that needs a solution and/or a need that is not currently being met adequately that your brand can meet. A prime example is Starbucks, the single largest global coffee chain in the world. Starbucks identified a need in the market not only for a better-tasting cup of coffee (a functional need), but also for a coffee "experience" (an emotional need). Just go have a cup of java and experience it for yourself!

TARGET MARKET - Positioning based on your target group speaks to the most likely prospects for your brand that share a similar set of needs and concerns. In the world of computers, Apple has positioned itself as young, progressive, and hip to appeal to those computer users who think of themselves as young, progressive, and hip, too. While the company never quite says it, Apple definitely implies "We're not your grandfather's computer."

COMPETITIVE FRAMEWORK - This defines "what" your brand is. Often referred to as a 'Standard of Identity" or "Category," the best brands actually change their Competitive Framework (CF) to more of a "Perceptual Competitive Framework." This is why Asia-based Santa Fe Moving Company changed their name to Santa Fe Relocation. By broadening their competitive framework, Santa Fe can also broaden the services that fit in to that CF as well. They go from simply moving "things" to providing services around all activities related to relocating businesses, employees, or families: look-see visits, doing home and school searches, helping with visa-immigration documents, etc.

BENEFIT - What do YOU offer that the other guy doesn't? What is the most meaningful promise you can offer to consumers that is unique to you... and that you can absolutely, positively fulfill to the highest level of satisfaction? In the automotive industry, for example, Swedish maker Volvo 'owns' safety as its core benefit. This primary benefit of the Volvo brand packs a double-punch. It represents not only a functional benefit - a safely-designed car - but an emotional benefit, too: "I'm taking better care of my family by buying a safe car - I'm a good parent."

REASON WHY - Customers are suspicious of promises and will naturally doubt whether or not you can deliver. To overcome that suspicion, you need to present a powerful Reason Why (RW). Your Reasons Why can be fact-based such as "made with 100% Hershey's Cocoa" as the reason for a great taste. The RW could be design-based, such as having four blades like a Schick razor in order to provide a closer shave. Or, the RW can even be experience-based such as "4 out of 5 dentists recommend Crest toothpaste to their patients." Basically, a reason why is a reason to buy.

CHARACTER - Businesses and brands - just like people - are seen as individuals with specific character traits and personalities. Consumers seek out trustworthy brands and businesses the same way they'd seek out honest individuals. Consumer-magnetic attributes are people-friendly qualities such as thoughtful, friendly, helpful and creative. The Body Shop positions their health and beauty aids company as 'a white hat' in business: humanistic, environmentally-friendly, and socially conscious.

Resource #2 - CUSTOMERS: Love 'Em or Lose 'Em
No one wants to buy from a stranger. We want to invest our money with someone we trust to meet our needs, surpass our expectations, and give us more value for our purchasing dollars. So sales success... and marketing success before that... depends upon your ability to create a dialogue and build a relationship with customers and prospects.

Often, business owners assume they know their customers and their customer's needs. This is especially true for established companies who have been serving the same customer base for a long time. They forget that times change and people change. And needs change, too, because the marketplace and competition are constantly evolving. What your customer wants from you today may not be want they want from you tomorrow. This makes it essential that customer relationship-building is an ongoing part of your business operation and a veritable marketing resource fountain of ideas.

Information Gathering and Relationship Building
The first step in establishing a relationship is getting to know your customer... but how? Most owners don't have the resources for a full-blown market research initiative and don't have the time to sit down and have coffee with every potential customer who walks through the door or visits a company website. However most business people do have time for:

o DIY Focus Groups - Informal, in-house research sessions are ideal for testing new products, understanding attitudes, and getting immediate feedback.

o "Man on the Street" Interview - Intercept prospects, new customers, and returning buyers alike to interview them about their current needs.

o Treat Complaints Like Gold - A dissatisfied customer is your best resource for information on how to make your business better.
o Make it easy for customers to complain so that you can get honest opinions to help you fix what's 'broken.'
o Track complaints and watch for trends - otherwise you can fall into the trap of making changes based on the comments of just one or two people.

o Silver and Gold - There's a saying that when it comes to new and old friends, "One is silver and the other is gold." While it's important to continue to grow your business with new prospects, it's equally (if not more) important to nurture relationships with existing customers. Ensure that employees appreciate and understand the value of existing customers and the benefit of turning a one-time buyer into a customer for life.

Studies indicate that it costs 6-9 times more to attract a new client than to keep an existing client happy. So it pays to provide continuous two-way communications to build and maintain your client base.

Resource #3: PRODUCTS AND SERVICES - If you've got it, flaunt it!
(and if you don't, well, that's alright, too...)

I often wonder if people who work at battery companies or household appliance companies every really try to open up the packages they come in themselves... The number of times I've cut a finger trying to open up one of those tough plastic packages...

I'm always surprised at how many clients tell me they rarely use the products they market. This is an enormous mistake. There's nothing like personal experience to help you form an opinion. That's why it's an excellent idea to use your products and services regularly. They are a continuous source of marketing information! Of course, sometimes you can't really use the products. I was training in a pharmaceutical company once and was giving the folks a hard time about not using their products regularly when a very polite 25-year-old gently pointed out to me that he was marketing prescription arthritis medicine!

But, if you can, you should try to use your products or services regularly yourself. Give them a 'test drive' and look at them with the fresh eyes of a prospect. Your never-used-this-before perspective will help you scrutinize every aspect of what you sell so you can improve.

Don't Kid Yourself
This is no time to lie to yourself! Be honest about your product's or service's superiority over the competition. Are you really selling a better mousetrap? Do you sincerely - without a shadow of a doubt - have superiority that is visible and noticeable immediately? If you do have superiority that is noticeably different to your customer in a single use, then get it in the hands of potential customers - even if you have to give it away for free the first time. If it's that good, customers will be back for more.

Here's another question: can you quantify your claim of superiority?

Luxury hotel chains will often say their point of differentiation is superior service.... Maybe... maybe not. Either way, it's extremely difficult to quantify that claim. If you ask a client what the point of difference is among the big hotels, they may say service, but they may also respond with something that defines 'service' in a more quantifiable way, like "better food," or "softer beds," or "location to shopping malls."

If you find that you don't have superiority or your superiority is hard to prove, create a meaningful point of difference, and focus on it. For example, offer something that the customer can't get from anybody else in your geographic area. Find a niche in the market place and cater to those people who need that particular niche filled. Turn that into a competitive advantage and make it ownable/exclusive.

Resource #4 - YOUR TEAM: Marketing Miracles On and Off the Job
No matter how big or small your company, everyone has a "team" of people they can enlist to help market their businesses. Whether a staff of thousands or a handful of friends and relatives, getting everyone to understand your brand and what it stands for means those people become brand ambassadors. In short, everybody's job description should include the word "Marketing."

Do your employees know the full extent of your company's offerings and your desired positioning so that they can be your company's biggest cheerleaders? Each member of your team represents a walking/talking potential billboard for your company. They're literally 'free media' for you, providing on-demand marketing for your business every time they shake someone's hand and introduce themselves.

Think how many hundreds or thousands of people all of your employees get in touch throughout any given year - both personally and professionally. Then think about the first question usually asked of someone when they are just meeting: "Where do you work?" You can turn that seemingly inconsequential question into a potential business-building one by training your employees to speak effectively about your business to others.

Remember: employees can't represent the company well if they don't understand what you do. Ensure that they have the key message you want them to get across by giving it to them 'pre-digested.' You may have heard the term 'elevator speech.' It's marketing shorthand for a 20-second synopsis of your brand that could be delivered in the time it takes to go from floor to floor in an elevator. Everyone on your team should be trained and ready to deliver that message in a convincing way.

One for All and All For One
When it comes to bringing in new business, be an 'equal opportunity employer.' Offer incentives for all staff and team members to bring in new business, even if they are not in sales or marketing. The incentives can be modest (buy them lunch) or more substantial (a small percentage of new revenues as a
bonus when a new client signs up). You can have different rewards for employees who generate a good marketing idea, successful referrals, great customer service, etc.

It doesn't have to cost very much but it can be extremely motivating and helps drive home the marketing mindset you are trying to instill throughout your entire Team.

Resource #5 - COMPETITORS: Love 'Em and Learn From 'Em
It may seem counter-intuitive, but your competitors - "the enemy" - can actually play a helpful role in developing a marketing strategy for you that could ultimately put them out of business! In order to set a success strategy, you need to know the strengths and weaknesses of your competitor. There's why athletic teams watch and analyze the competition before they play against them...to assess their strategies, figure out how they operate it, and then turn that information into a winning game plan.

Successful sports franchises do it and so do successful multi-billion dollar corporations.

You can, too. You can use competitive knowledge to craft a better marketing strategy and win in the marketplace. And it doesn't have to cost a fortune to acquire that knowledge, either.

More Than Just A Name
You may know your competitors by name, but do you know the product benefits they emphasize, whether they are meeting the needs of your niche, or how they are perceived by their customers? It takes more than looking at a web page or checking out an ad in the Sunday newspaper to answer these questions.

To truly know your competition and to leverage that knowledge to your advantage, you should have a strong grasp of all aspects of their operation, including marketing plans and positioning. Companies that can afford to do so, hire other companies to conduct market research into how competitors are doing business. However, even the most financially strapped enterprise can troll for information inexpensively:

o Create an in-house "clipping" service - designate a member of your staff to gather website info, newspaper ads, and other materials on a daily or weekly basis
o Become a Subscriber - opt-in to your competitors' mailings. They're free and filled with exactly what you need to know.

If your budget allows, you can create a rewards system and offer incentives to staffers who bring in useful competitive information. You can also consider becoming a consumer yourself. Use competitive products and services often to get a sense of the level of quality and service 'the other guy' (or gal) is delivering. The goal is to uncover not only what's being done wrong and what's being done right.

Don't Throw Out The Baby With The Bath Water
Don't be too quick to assume your competition isn't any good. Their customers obviously think differently... so, take some time to find out why. Be objective. You will learn a lot more and possibly find winning ways that you can emulate or - better - that you can beat.

An Abundance of Marketing Assets!
So, there you have it - the five marketing assets your business already has that you can leverage to market your brand every single day. And the good news is: the few ideas shared above are just the tip of the iceberg - with a little ingenuity, there are dozens of additional low-cost or no-cost ideas out there just waiting for you to market your brand effectively. That's smart marketing!