Entries tagged with small business
Overcoming the Fear of Branding, Part 2September 27th, 2013
Helping clients overcome the fear that branding will somehow 'cheapen' their product.
(I have borrowed this image from Saatchi & Saatchi's mostly failed concept of 'lovemarks': brands that go beyond loyalty into passionate emotional attachment. Lovemarks never really got off the ground, but I still think this is an interesting way to look at branding in general.)
Last time we talked about how small business owners - especially ones who have already had some success and are looking to take their organization to the next level - can be reluctant to embrace the idea of branding their company (or their product/service) because they feel that brands are somehow fake.
I understand: No one wants to think they're turning their professional services firm into the Kim Kardashian of consulting.
But, reality tv stars aside, branding really isn't about fakery, because as a small business owner you can't 'trick' anyone into having an emotional attachment to you, your company or your products. Branding is all about identifying the reasons people already feel strongly about you, then amplifying them so that it's easier to spread the word.
In fact, your brand already exists - you just haven't identified its components, articulated the message, and made it consistent.
How to get to a comfort level with branding
Okay, so how do you start to build a brand that's a real reflection of what you're already doing? Start with these steps.
1. What 'story' are you already telling about your company?
If you've been in business for any length of time, you've already been telling some kind of 'story' about your company. This may involve the strengths of the founder, how you got started, your philosophy or approach. As I've said before, branding is really just about telling the right story about your company. It's hard to say your brand is fake when it's based on a story you're already telling.
2. Examine the brands you personally love
I do always think it's funny when people tell me they don't believe in branding - but then pull out their iPhone, make impassioned speeches about whatever haircare product they use, or say something like "No one ever got fired for buying IBM." But it's a good opportunity to think about the notion that branding is somehow fake: If you really believed that branding was trickery, you wouldn't be using these products.
3. Remember that branding is really just a way to help people navigate a sea of products and services
If you walked into a grocery store, and everything in it was in black-and-white packaging without any branding at all, it'd take you hours to do your shopping because you'd have to examine every single product in the store. Branding is really just a shortcut to decision-making, a way to help consumers/clients understand "Oh, this is what I was looking for!" When you look at it that way, branding is really more about helping the consumer than tricking them.
4. List your real functional benefits.
'Functional benefits' are the 'factual' ways in which you're better than your competitors. They may include being cheaper, faster, having more selection, more convenient hours, better customer service, longest in the business, etc. Make a list of them, and be honest - only include the ones which are really different from your competitors.
If you've done a good job of editing, you'll end up with a list of 2-3 key functional benefits which genuinely differentiate you from the competition.
5. What do your best clients say about you?
Most successful small businesses have a core of loyal clients who keep coming back to them again and again, and who refer them to other clients. If you don't already know, ask them why they love you so much. Chances are, you'll find their reasons have little to do with what you listed in #1. They may like that you have convenient hours, but love that you always give them good advice; they may think you have good customer service, but love that your staff doesn't have much turnover and they can count on seeing the same faces every time they visit your office.
What your best clients say about you to their friends and family is the best place to start when building your brand - and it's absolutely not 'fake'.
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Overcoming the Fear of Branding, Part 1September 20th, 2013
Emotional attachments to brands has become a lot more acceptable.
But many small business owners are still sceptical.
In my opinion, one of the most significant developments in communications in the past 15 years is the widespread acceptance of the notion that 'branding' is important for virtually every product, service, organization and even people - not just for packaged goods products.
It hasn't always been this way. I remember, in 2000, making a presentation to an educational products company who needed a new website. They were still wrestling with the fact that a transition to a web-based delivery system meant they needed a better visual identity; when I started to talk about ephemeral concepts like 'brand personality' and 'emotional engagement', they started to roll their eyes and I could see them dismissing me as another crackpot marketing person who was going to try to get them to spend all their money without regard for their bottom line.
"Look," they said, "All this talk about emotional attachments to brands may be fine when you're trying to trick people into buying your product, like if you're trying to convince people there's a difference between Coke and Pepsi. But people buy our product because we provide the best materials at the best price." In other words, when the functional benefits of a product or service are legitimate, branding is not only unneccessary but somehow distasteful.
The DotCom era changed all that
Say what you will about the dotcom boom and bust of 1999-2001, it changed the branding landscape forever. People watched as vaporware high-tech companies which had nothing but a couple of tech geniuses and a compelling brand story managed to attract an awful lot of money - and everyone had to admit that even in boardrooms, lots of purchasing decisions were being based on emotional responses.
Throughout the 2000s, more research was done on emotional attachments to a brands and how they affect buying habits across all kinds of market sectors. Today, most of us accept that the products we love - and buy - the most are not necessarily the ones with the optimal combination of functional benefits and low price. We're not only comfortable with the fact that emotional responses trigger buying decisions, but that buying certain products and services can trigger emotional responses in return.
Branding still makes some people very uneasy
- especially when it comes to their own business
These days, I don't get much eye-rolling when I talk to clients about brand-building and emotional engagement with brands - especially when half the people in the boardroom have an iPhone in their pocket.
But there's still one group that remains resistant: The small business owner.
The successful small business owner may be just as brand-aware as anyone else, with a passion for their iPhone or their Range Rover or their Sub-Zero refrigerator. But when it comes to their own business, they still feel, somehow, that to put too much effort into their brand identity - to try to attach meaning to their product or service that goes beyond purely functional benefits like being smarter, cheaper or faster than their competitors - somehow cheapens what they do for a living.
I get it: If you've grown your business from nothing to a $5-$10 million organization, you've usually spent years trying to deliver a great product, provide excellent customer service, building strong relationships with your stakeholders. In many ways, you are the brand - so when someone comes along and says that if you want to take your business to the next level, you need a 'brand identity' with a 'personality' and 'emotional resonance', it's natural to fear that you'll be pushed into a brand that seems 'fake' and not reflective of the very real values - and value - that you stand for.
But a good brand is anything but fake - and tomorrow we'll talk about how to build one.
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Story, Sales, Success: The Marketing ContinuumMay 26th, 2013
When you're just starting to spend marketing dollars,
it's all about the balance.
Quite a few of my clients are small-but-growing-quickly companies. When they call me, it's because they're just starting to expand beyond their original footprint. They're spending money on new salespeople, looking to build on early success, and they need to find a way to make a mark in a larger marketplace.
Typically, these companies have strong entrepreneurial leaders who've attracted some great talent, and they have a good idea of what's working well with their clients. But they're so busy wearing so many hats, and getting approached by so many vendors trying to sell them marketing 'opportunities' (how on earth do those obscure trade journals find small businesses so quickly? And manage to convince them that spending $4000 on a half-page ad is actually a good idea?), that it's easy for them to waste money on marketing efforts that don't work, and don't build anything for the future, either.
Successful marketing strategies are based on a continuum.
The best way to start building a brand and a marketing strategy is to start by defining 3 key areas, and then keep refining, revisiting and reiterating them.
Successful entrepreneurs are already telling a story about their business. Growing the business means codifying that story, and then making sure that everyone in the company is telling it consistently.
This becomes the basis of the brand identity, but for small and growing companies it will change and grow over time, as new products and services - and points of difference - are added.
In my experience, the best entrepreneurial companies are selling stuff all over the place, and not always doing it in a systematic manner. This is fine when there are only one or two core salespeople, but can become problematic when the company starts hiring a more junior salesforce.
So before you even start recommending a marketing spend, you have to take the time to figure out a sales strategy for the short, medium and longer term. This includes identifying target markets, termite strategies (i.e. quick and easy sales that will lead to long-term sales relationships), and products.
The sales strategy will also change over time, as the client moves into different markets or expands its offerings.
This is really about defining what success looks like in both the short and longer terms. Sometimes a smaller company can get so focused on short-term cashflow that they don't have time to look at long-term goals; other times the company dreams big but isn't balancing long sales cycles with quick hits. Some entrepreneurs dream of winning awards for R&D; others define success as being able to spend 6 months in Tahiti.
Balancing Story, Sales and Success
In the first year of a real marketing strategy, it's all about balancing these 3 elements: Making sure the story is the right one to achieve the sales and success goals; making sure the sales goals are reflective of the story; making sure that the story and the sales are the right ones to lead to the vision of success.
All three will change, especially at first. But if you keep them all firmly in mind, you'll find that it'll be much easier to assess, budget for, and measure marketing efforts.
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If you don't know how you're different, how will your customers know why you're better?March 1st, 2013
You need to be able to explain your advantage in 10 seconds or less
Here is a conversation I had with a potential new client a few weeks ago:
ME: "Okay, I understand what it is you do and sell, and you've told me a little about your sales goals and that you have an aggressive growth strategy for the next 18 months. But I can think of a few players in your space who seem to be doing similar things. Can you tell me how you're different or better?"
CLIENT: "What do you mean?"
ME: "I mean, if a potential customer is trying to decide between buying your product and buying that of a competitor, what factors will make them choose you? Are you cheaper, faster, more reliable...?"
CLIENT: "Well, we deliver a quality product."
ME: "Yes, but what does that mean to you? What will that mean to the customer?"
CLIENT: "Hhmmm...I'm not sure."
ME: "Well, how are you getting clients right now?"
CLIENT: "Most of our business comes from referrals from our existing clients, actually."
ME: "That's a good sign - it means you're doing something right. Why are people referring their friends and colleagues to you? Are they telling you why they're calling you?"
CLIENT: "They say that we're more trustworthy than other companies in our space, and that we have better customer service, and that we do a better job of solving their problems, and we become a better long-term partner. Oh, and we always save them a lot of money over the long-term, because we don't sell them stuff they don't need."
Marketing is really all about communicating key differentiators
I knew this business had something going for it, because I happened to know that it had done pretty well in the preceding 2 years, even without doing any marketing. So clearly it was delivering a decent product. But getting them to articulate their key differentiators - service, strategic partnership, cost-effectiveness - was like pulling teeth.
This is a common problem for small businesses, especially those in the 'professional services' category. They've had initial success as a result of personal relationships - typically those of the founder - but after a couple of years, those relationships are saturated. They know they need to broaden their target market, but when it comes time to explain why they're different, and better, than their competitors, they find themselves tongue-tied or reliant on 35-page PowerPoint decks. Either way they lose the 10 seconds they've got to make a big impression with a potential new client.
Here's the thing: If people could do what you do, they wouldn't be in the market for your services in the first place. In other words, they probably don't know a whole lot about your industry or field. So you have to make it easy for them to understand the benefits you're offering before you try to explain all the details to them.
That's where the key differentiators come in. It's all about boiling down the ways in which you're different - and better - to a few key points that you can use any time you're communicating to a potential client, whether that's in marketing materials or in person.
Don't try to squeeze everything in at once
As I wrote the other day, trying to explain every little detail to a customer can backfire - people only have a limited capacity for new information at a given time, and the goal of marketing is to capture their attention long enough to get them sufficiently interested to give you more of their attention. So rattling off a laundry list of features and benefits isn't the best strategy. Instead, pick 2 or 3 and work them into a compelling story.
- Make a list of all the features and benefits of your product or service, and how they're different from your competitors
- Choose the top 3 based on what your current customers are telling you mean the most to them
- Construct your messaging around these 3 differentiators
- Test the messaging in the marketplace, and take note of which ones seem to resonate with potential customers
- Refine as required
Over time, you'll probably find that different messages work with different target groups: Your public-sector clients may respond best to cost and security messages, while your private sector clients may respond best to the fact that you deal with other 'big names' in their industry. That's okay - at least the next time someone asks you how you're 'different and better' than your competitors, you won't have to say "What do you mean?"
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Why firing clients is sometimes a good ideaJanuary 22nd, 2013
Bad clients can ruin your business.
But only if you let them.
A few years ago we won some new business, and we were thrilled: A branding + website project with a major, internationally-known cosmetics firm. It was a smallish project, but we were certain it would lead to more work down the road, and did I mention it was a huge brand name?
(Because let's face it: When you're a small marketing consultancy, it doesn't matter how much revenue you've generated for B2B or smaller clients. Potential clients are really only interested in whether you've worked with brand names with which they're familiar.)
The project quickly went downhill: The overall goals, which seemed clear at the outset, suddenly got suspiciously murky; the client team seemed to change every 2 weeks, whereupon the whole project would change; we kept having to fly halfway across the country for meetings which never seemed to go anywhere; and their head office, which was located in another country, took 3 weeks, 10 emails, and 4 phone calls just to approve a URL.
The project was giving us indigestion. But it was a big-name client, our bills were getting paid, and we were a small company - we couldn't afford not to do it. Could we?
Sometimes, a client is costing you more than you think.
On the surface we weren't really losing a lot of money.
But between all the flying back and forth, the endless meetings, having to request information/feedback/approvals multiple times, and the fact that the goals had turned into unknowable quantum particles, we were losing more than we thought:
- Sure, we were getting reimbursed for the cost of flights and hotels, but our time was part of an overall project fee. So the 'downtime' associated with flying across the country was costing us more than we realized
- The revolving cast of characters on the client side meant we were never going to build the long-term relationships that would lead to additional or referral business
- The lack of strategic direction meant we weren't going to get to do good work, so our dreamed-of case study was going to look anaemic
- The whole thing was making us feel demoralized, which wasn't good for our other projects - in marketing you need to maintain a high level of enthusiasm at all times
- We weren't able to take on other clients, because this project was taking up too much of our time
So one day, after yet another pointless meeting, we called the client and - politely - said that we couldn't work with them any more. They seemed surprised - I think their big brand name meant that no one had ever broken up with them before.
You may agonize about it. But 99% of the time, you won't regret it.
Client relationships are like the other relationships in your life: Most of the time, if it's not working for you, it's not working for the other party, either. (In our case, we learned later that some of the new members of the client team thought they should have hired a local firm - even though we'd been hired because the original goals called for someone on the ground in Toronto - but didn't know how to tell us that.)
The whole thing limps along, no one is happy, and the results - if you can even get that far - are spotty at best.
In the 10 years of StayAwake, we've only fired a handful of clients - and every single time, we agonize over it, because it always seems as dumb as quitting one job before having another one to replace it. But every single time, we realize afterward that it was the best thing we could have done for our business: We're able to focus on more successful, profitable, and enjoyable projects; we have fewer headaches; and we're able to do better work in the long run.
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More Choice = Fewer PurchasesMay 21st, 2012
Lots of choice may seem like a good thing, but it won't make people buy more of your stuff.
Ten years ago, researchers at Columbia and Stanford Universities published the results of experiments in which they studied the effects of choice on action. They discovered that when people are given limited choices, they are more likely to take action (making purchases or writing essays, in the study) than they are if they are given an 'overwhelming' number of choices.
(The study has become a little famous as 'The Jam Study' - because the first experiment they did involved 24 different types of Wilkins & Sons jam - and you can read the full text here.)
I've read the study - so you don't have to! - and while I think it has some limitations (small sample size, relatively trivial situations, and simplistic decision-making models), there are some other interesting conclusions:
- People who were given no choice were less happy with what they were given than people who were permitted to make choices
- Consumers' stated preferences were for more choice. However, when they were given more choices, they became less satisfied with their selection
- People can find choosing among 'too many' alternatives to be both 'enjoyable and overwhelming' simultaneously
What this means for B2B marketing
I work with a lot of SMB (small/medium business) companies. I'm often called in when they want to do a new (or first) website, and this coincides with a redefinition of their value proposition and service offerings.
One of the biggest problems I encounter is that many SMBs - even the ones which have had some success - have a really hard time narrowing down the number of services they want to offer. Even when they know that 85% of their business comes from one or two specific service offerings, they're afraid that if they don't throw in all the other things they can do (or could do, if only they found a client to offer them to), they'll somehow miss out on a Big Opportunity and leave money on the table.
Except that when you try to put every possible service offering on your website, or try to make your value proposition too inclusive ("We help people"), you simply end up overwhelming your potential clients - and driving business away.
Things to keep in mind:
Limited choice is a positive influencer of action and satisfaction: It's a good idea to communicate that you can provide more than one service. In a B2B SMB environment, I'd suggest that it's probably very important to offer more than one service, or your potential customers might think that you're too limited to become a strategic partner in the long term.
Too much choice causes frustration: The Jam Study saw a high correlation between 'overwhelming choice' and 'frustration', even when the consumers liked the products/options they were given. When it comes to B2B services, which involve products and services much less inherently enjoyable than the jam and chocolate used in the study, the potential for business-killing frustration becomes greater. If you're selling something that already tends to cause frustration or anxiety - photocopier maintenence, computer repair, financial services - you want to make your choices as simplified as possible.
More choice = less opportunity for the 'Aha!' moment: When you're creating marketing for any channel, you want the target to see the message and immediately say "Aha! This is the right product/service/company for me!" When the consumer is instead faced with an interminable list of possible services, you reduce the chances that they'll immediately see that you deliver the one they're looking for.
Too much choice leads to a muddled message: I've written before about the importance of clarity when it comes to your message. The #1 barrier to a clear message is trying to accommodate 8 million service offerings in one value proposition or on a homepage. Concentrate on your core competency and you'll do better at getting your message across.
Remember: There's nothing to stop you from expanding the services you sell in the long run, but it's easier to gradually introduce existing clients to new products and services over time than to try to hit them with everything you've got all at once and risk driving them away.
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No clue how to get the website you need? Here's some help.May 10th, 2012
A step-by-step guide for SMEs who need a new website but aren't sure how to get there.
How clearly I remember the disaster that was my very first website project, back in 1997. I was the junior on a team of people who were convinced that putting up a website must be easy, but who had no actual knowledge of how one got a website from a Photoshop design to a computer screen with clickable buttons. They made many promises to the client, and because they figured it must be easy - "I mean, this html stuff can't be that hard, can it? The people who do it don't dress very well, you know" - the whole buck got passed right on down from C-suite to VP to Director until it eventually landed in my lap.
At which time I discovered that, in the entire 350-person company, there was one person who had any knowledge of how to build a website. Not only was he fully booked for the next 6 months, but the price given to the client was about 1/3 of what it was going to cost to deliver the site as conceived by people who were still getting to grips with email.
Website development has gotten a lot easier in the 15 years since then, but there is still a huge knowledge gap between people who know how to build (or project manage the build of) a website and those who don't. More importantly, knowing how to get a website built does not make you morally superior, smarter or cooler than people who don't - I know plenty of cardiovascular surgeons who can transplant a heart but have no idea how to get themselves a website.
You don't have to know how to do the coding.
You just need to know the steps involved.
Last week I was speaking to the management team of a small consulting firm. Their annual revenue is about $11 million, but they're growing fast and they know they need a new website in order to compete in their marketplace. However, without a dedicated marketing or IT department, they aren't sure how to proceed. To add to the confusion, they've received estimates for website development ranging from $15,000 to $80,000. How do they figure out what they need to do?
This is what I told them.
STEP 1: STRATEGY CONSENSUS
Before you start talking to website designers, it's important to get internal consensus among key stakeholders about the purpose and function of the website. Is the website mostly for credibility/branding purposes? What kind of information will it need to contain? Who is the target audience? Will you be selling products or services via the site? Does it need to have complex back-end functionality, like connecting to a payroll database?
You don't have to have every detail mapped out at this stage, but getting key team members in agreement about what the site is supposed to accomplish will save you a lot of headache later.
STEP 2: CORE MESSAGING
It's best to establish core messages for the site as early as possible, even if it's only in 'internal' language. This includes the 3 Ps: Proposition (what you offer to clients); Positioning (how you're unique within the marketplace); and Personality (how you do what you do differently or better).
STEP 3: LOOK AND FEEL (STYLE GUIDE)
For many companies, building a new website is also the time when they refresh the look and feel of their brand identity. Creating a style guide - a document which defines the logo, colour palette, fonts, imagery and other visual elements of the brand - will ensure that the website, and all the other marketing materials, are consistent. Creating a style guide before you embark on the website design helps prevent 'design drift' based on personal opinion ("I don't like that green colour - can we just add some purple dots in the corner?"), too.
STEP 4: SITE ARCHITECTURE
'Website architecture' sounds complex, but really isn't: It's just the term we use to describe the map of what information the site will contain, and how it will be organized. Architecture can be complex, but for most companies it will be quite simple. (I personally found this step to be the most difficult part of learning to put together websites, mostly because I like to think in sentences and paragraphs rather than boxes, but the best way to get started is simply to find a website you like and see how they've organized their information.)
STEP 4a: SCOPING DOCUMENT
A scoping document is an outline of the parameters/elements of the site, which can be used to solicit estimates from website developers. It includes things like the site architecture, functionality of the site (i.e. what you need the site to do), the number of design concepts and revisions you'd like, the timeline you want to work with, etc.
If you don't have an internal designer or marketing person, you may want to create a scoping document at the end of STEP 1 and include things like messaging and the style guide. But it's an important part of the process because it will allow you to compare apples to apples when you're assessing the estimates you get from suppliers.
STEP 5: PRIMARY CONTENT DEVELOPMENT
15 years ago, you needed to have all your content written before you started working on the site, because changing content later was often time-consuming and expensive. These days, you really just need headlines and homepage copy to start with - body copy can be written and uploaded later. (And for many people, it's easier to figure out copy once you've seen a basic idea of how the site will actually look.)
STEP 6: WEBSITE DESIGN
This is where the website developer/company you've engaged will put everything together, typically as follows:
- Website development team uses the style guide + architecture + primary content to develop 2-3 draft design concepts
- You (the client) provide feedback
- Development team provides revisions which incorporate feedback
- You provide second-round feedback
- Development team provides close-to-final design in a functional environment
- Final revisions are made to design
- You approve it
- Remainder of site is developed
If you've tried to jump to this stage without getting agreement on messaging, architecture and style guide, this step will be painful. But if you've done all the preceding steps, this stage will go surprisingly smoothly.
STEP 7: REMAINDER OF CONTENT DEVELOPMENT
Now that the site framework is up and has some basic functionality, it's easy to plug in the secondary and tertiary content - all those information pages explaining your services, your approach, etc. You can either provide copy to your website developer to upload for you, or you can get them to teach you how to use the content management system (these days, uploading website content is as easy as using Word) and you can play around with it yourself.
STEP 8: TESTING AND DOUBLE-CHECKING
At this stage, all links and social media feeds on the site are tested across a variety of browsers and operating systems, to ensure consistent, bug-free functionality.
STEP 9: GO-LIVE
The site is transferred to the host server and goes live. You can tell all your friends, colleagues and clients you have a new website!
STEP 10: KNOWLEDGE TRANSFER AND MANAGEMENT
It's always a good idea to get your website development team to hand over all your files and passwords at this stage, and to take you on a tour of your back-end systems. In an ideal world, you will continue a relationship with your website development partner for a long time to come, but on the off-chance that they suddenly move to another continent, it's best to know how to access the site if you ever need to.
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What's the Point of Twitter, Anyway?April 28th, 2012
An intro for newbies. Or sceptics.
(I have borrowed this image from a blog called 'Tony Hannan's Compendium of Games'. I'm not entirely certain what it's about, but that's probably because it has a lot of sports references in it.)
These days, I increasingly find myself being hired to manage other people's Twitter accounts, or to advise them on how to get started on Twitter (and other social media channels) to help promote their personal brands or their companies. You may find this odd, since at only 2300 Twitter followers I hardly qualify as a super-user, but I happen to be one of those people who think that it's not really about quantity. If I followed back every bot, hotsexyorgy.biz account, #teamfollowback person and people with bizarre profiles like "Yooo!! Follow Me && My Twin 100 Mfs Cant Tell Me NOTHING! S| KayMichelle.", I'd definitely look a lot more popular - but I'm not sure I'd be doing anything for my brand or my business.
Twitter has become a lot more socially acceptable than it was when I set up my first account back in 2008. Sure, your friends' statuses on Facebook could be amusing, but a whole site - a whole app! - based on 140-character status updates? Admitting you were on Twitter almost always got you a comment about how stupid it was to be telling everyone what you had for lunch or that you'd just cleaned your garage.
Today, with 140 million active users, a track record of breaking news, and credited with furthering the cause of democracy by providing a voice for the previously voiceless, most people (grudgingly) admit that maybe Twitter has a legitimate role to play.
However, I'm still often asked about the 'point' of Twitter for the average person. This is what I say.
What Twitter can do for you
There's a lot that Twitter can do for larger organizations - customer service, crisis communications, customer engagement - but this particular list is focused on what Twitter can do for individuals, whether they're working independently or within a large organization.
1. Teach you stuff about what you do for a living
By following the right people, you'll get fed a steady stream of links to articles about trends, opinion, research and insight in your industry. This is especially helpful for people who are in business for themselves, or are part of a small department or a small company, where there aren't a whole lot of other people 'in the office' to learn from.
2. Virtually real-time news updates
In the past 2 years, I've learned about almost all the big news stories - from the death of Michael Jackson to the Japan tsunami to the death of Osama Bin Laden - via Twitter, because it lights up with relevant tweets almost as soon as something big happens. This is easier, and more immediate, than watching tv news or keeping the radio on 24 hours a day.
3. Connect you with thought leaders in your field
One of my clients had been trying to get on the radar of a 'famous' person in their industry for a couple of years, without success. But a well-timed interaction on Twitter, with a clever response, finally got them the recognition they'd been looking for. Now my client is being included in high-level industry events, invited to participate in committees - and they're well on their way to becoming 'famous' in their field as well.
4. PR/media opportunities
Media types are all over Twitter - that's often where they're getting their hottest news tips. When they're looking for sources for a story, they turn to high-profile tweeters. And I've participated in quite a few online radio shows because of a connection made via Twitter. Online radio and podcasts aren't going to make you famous overnight, but they add up and you never know where they might lead. Tweeting smart commentary can also lead to invitations to write articles or posts for other publications.
5. Improve your Google ranking
Whether they admit it or not, potential clients almost always Google you before you walk into their boardroom to make a pitch. If you haven't got a lot of web-based content out there, an active Twitter account can help.
6. Build an audience for your blog/website
You want to increase traffic to your blog or website, but with only 150 Facebook friends and 250 LinkedIn connections, how do you spread the word? Twitter gives you access to a much larger potential audience, for much less money, than any other channel.
7. Build your brand
Much of what I've already said, above, are components in building a personal brand. Twitter is especially helpful in brand-building because it allows you to infuse your professional commentary with personality - which is crucial in creating a differentiated brand.
8. Promote your events
Many of my clients host networking events or webinars as part of their client relationship management programs. Twitter is an excellent way to get beyond your existing database of 'prospects' and reach a larger audience. You never know when a retweet by someone with 75k followers will suddenly make your online event the hot topic of the week.
9. Competitive intelligence
Twitter is an excellent way to find out what your competitors are up to - but of course they may be keeping an eye on what you're up to, as well!
10. Building credibility
Ultimately, credibility is really a function of multiple touchpoints + relevant content + time. Tweeting consistently relevant content (i.e. getting a reputation for tweeting about industry-related news and insight) will, over time, get you a reputation as someone who knows their business and can be counted upon for up-to-date information - especially when it's done in conjunction with a blog and other channels.
11. Advice and input
Looking for a new employee or supplier? Asking for recommendations on Twitter can get you good information. Looking for a case study or resources or participants in an opinion poll? Twitter can be a great way to get input.
12. Random, interesting stuff
Most of the time, I follow people who are in my field: Branding and marketing types, designers, writers, etc. But it's amazing what you can learn and discover when you follow people who are just plain interesting. Sometimes I get directed to a new invention, a new scientific study, or a hilariously written blog. Twitter is a great way to discover new things that you'd never otherwise know about.
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Rebranding: Engaging EmployeesMarch 31st, 2012
If you want a rebrand to work, you have to engage the whole team.
Here's how to get started.
I'm often brought in to help companies transition from their very first branding efforts to one that's more suitable for the ways in which they're growing: They may have set up a basic website when they first started, but now they have a few employees, a few big clients, and they need a brand that is a little more polished and sophisticated.
As I've said before, I think that great brands are built from the inside out. The best brands seem organic and almost inevitable, because they're an accurate reflection of the business and of the people who work there. Which means that when you undertake a 'rebranding' exercise, it's important to engage employees in the process.
In my experience, the best way to do this is to gather everyone (or key stakeholders, depending on the size of the organization) together for a workshop session (with pizza is best) in which we discuss the functional and emotional benefits of the company and the current brand identity. Employees become invested in the new brand; more importantly, the session can help identify key insights which form the basis of the new brand identity.
Ask for answers to these key questions
It's important that these workshops are productive and don't deteriorate into free-for-all 'brainstorming' sessions which can drone on for ages and don't really go anywhere.
So we stick to gathering answers to - and controlled discussion about - these questions:
- What made you choose to work at this company? What made you apply here in the first place?
- What's the best thing about working here?
- Was there a 'deciding factor' in your decision to work here?
- When you're talking to friends/family, what do you say about the company?
- When you're talking to colleagues/former co-workers, what do you say about the company?
- When you're talking to potential clients, how do you describe the company?
- In your opinion, why is this company better than others in the market?
- What do you think this company does really, really well?
- What do you think this company could do better?
- If you had to come up with 3 words to describe this company, what would they be?
- If this company was a retail store, what would it be?
- If it were a product brand, what would it be?
Depending on the size of the group, this exercise will take 2-3 hours - but will generate a huge amount of internal brand loyalty and investment as you move forward.
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Are you sure your employees know what you sell?March 24th, 2012
Your most influential target audience is your staff.
This is a painting called 'Confusion', and it's definitely how the inside of my head looks when I myself am not sure what's going on.
A couple of years ago I was working with a smallish-but-getting-bigger-fast B2B company, and our marketing efforts seemed to be fairly successful: We were getting buzz in the marketplace, having little trouble getting meetings because potential clients had always "heard good things" about us, winning new business over larger, more established competitors - by most indices, our marketing efforts were delivering results.
But revenue growth just wasn't following the same trajectory. Sure, it was growing - but not as steeply as our brand awareness and equity seemed to be. And we weren't sure why.
Then I sat in on an all-staff meeting, and I began to understand.
When the company was smaller, senior leadership (all of whom were highly entrepreneurial) was very involved with every client engagement. They were handling much of the day-to-day interaction, which meant they could build relationships, listen for opportunities, ask for referrals, sell additional services - all the revenue drivers that make an investment in marketing worthwhile in the long-term.
As the company had grown, however, a lot of the account management had been handed off to newer, more junior employees. When I sat in on the staff meeting, I could see that while the newbies were hard-working and anxious to do a good job, most of them weren't nearly as enthusiastic about the organization as the senior leadership, and in many cases didn't even really have a good grasp of everything the company sold, how it could help clients, and why it was so great.
In other words, they weren't familiar with the brand story, the positioning, or the value proposition.
Stop thinking about training your people. Start thinking about marketing to them.
Now, some people would say that this was a job for Sales Training. I tend to disagree - mostly because 'Sales Training' is something that seems to be reserved for 'Sales People', and I'm of the opinion that every single person in the organization, from admin assistants to account managers to the accounts payable people, can (and should) be sales influencers. They can spot opportunities, influence decision-makers, increase brand awareness, build relationships - all of the things that drive long-term revenue growth.
Try to give them 'sales training', and they'll tune out or privately decide that it's 'not their job', since they aren't in sales. Market to them, on the other hand, and they can become passionate evangelists who are invested in telling (and living) the brand story.
What does internal marketing look like?
Well, it looks a lot like your external marketing - just using different channels.
Some ways to start marketing to employees:
- Include a session with the Marketing Director as part of your onboarding efforts for new hires - I know you probably make fun of your marketing people for being so bloody enthusiastic all the time, but they can be infectious
- Make sure all employees have reviewed your marketing materials and know exactly what you sell, why it's different and better, and why it's so successful in the marketplace
- Deliver the same great experiences to employees that you deliver to your customers. Do you send flowers or gift baskets to new clients? Great - send them to new employees or on employee anniversaries, too.
- You know that e-newsletter you send to clients to tell them about all the neat stuff you're doing? Make sure you're sending the same info to your employees - before you send it out externally. It's amazing how well people respond to feeling like they're 'in the know' ahead of everyone else
- Have all staff - especially juniors and newbies - spend time with members of the senior leadership team, the same way you bring in the C-suites to help sell a new client. Employees will feel respected and valuable, which encourages engagement, and they'll absorb some of the entrepreneurial enthusiasm that your senior people are projecting
- You wouldn't hand a potential client a giant binder of single-spaced text and tell them to read it and call you if they want to buy something - don't do it to employees (via an Employee Handbook), either. Review information with them, point out the interesting bits, and encourage them to ask questions
- It takes 4-7+ touchpoints for a potential customer to really understand what you do and make a purchase, and it takes a long-term relationship to drive repeat business. It's the same with employees: Don't assume that a week's worth of 'onboarding' is all it takes for them to become experts in your business or passionate brand storytellers.
I know this has a lot of overlap with what HR would call 'training'. But when you think of it as informing, persuading and wooing your employees the same way you do your customers, you'll get the increased emotional investment that does a better job of driving long-term sales growth.
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How to gently nudge a client toward a better brand identityMarch 18th, 2012
Strategies for helping reluctant clients find better ways to express themselves.
Yes, this is a dung beetle pushing a large ball of dung. At least I didn't use an image of Sisyphus.
Yesterday I wrote about how to approach the problem of a client with a brand identity you don't like, and making sure you're not mistaking 'personal opinion' for 'professional advice'.
But what happens when you've asked yourself the right questions, remembered you're not the target, and still come to the conclusion that the client's brand identity is getting in the way of overall marketing success?
Negative know-it-alls never prosper
You know who I'm talking about: The people who waltz in and proceed to tell the client, with a boatload of condescension, that everything they've done up to this point is a giant heap of awful and they need to rebuild everything from the bottom up if they are to have a hope in hell of getting any more business from anyone, ever.
These blowhards do manage to get the odd client, but it's amazing how they never seem to keep them for very long. Because anyone who tells you they have the magic marketing answer to everything never does - sooner or later clients realize this for themselves, and go elsewhere.
When you first meet a client, you don't know how much money they've already spent on their brand identity; you don't know how emotionally invested they are in it; you don't know how the organization feels about it; and you definitely don't know if what they're doing is working for them or not. Walking up to someone at a bar and saying, "You know, you're really kind of ugly, but if you fix your hair, makeup and wardrobe, maybe we could go out sometime..." is the start of a totally dysfunctional relationship.
Ask questions, build trust
Client relationships are like any other relationships: Before they're going to take your advice, they're going to have to trust you. So before you make pronouncements about their brand and their organization, start by asking questions. These are the questions I ask when I think a client may need a brand identity overhaul:
1. Tell me the story behind your brand.
As I said yesterday, a logo or brand identity that looks unappealing to you may in fact have a great story behind it. You may even find that that story has value for their sales team, or quite a bit of equity in the marketplace. ('Kleenex', for example, is actually a terrible name, and the logo isn't much better. But it doesn't matter, since 'Kleenex' has been around so long, and is so ubiquitous, that it's become the generic name for any paper-based facial tissue.)
How this can help your case: If they struggle to tell you the story behind their brand, you can suggest that building a brand identity with a proper story behind it will make their sales and marketing efforts a lot easier.
2. Tell me the history of your brand identity. Have you worked with designers or marketing people before?
This is important to know, because if they say they just spent $50,000 on a new brand identity - especially if they worked with one of the blowhards mentioned above - they're going to be highly sensitive to criticism or suggestions for change. On the other hand, you may discover that the current logo was designed by the CEO's 18-year-old nephew.
How this can help your case: If you discover that they're new to 'marketing', educating them about how a properly-articulated brand identity can help them position and sell themselves can be all you need to propel them in the right direction.
3. Tell me about how you think marketing can help your business.
Good marketing starts with understanding the client's business, so by the time you're talking about branding you should already know what they do and why they think they're unique in the marketplace. Now it's time to drill down to identify gaps or opportunities that marketing can help to fill. Ideally this will become a discussion between you and the client - with you recommending opportunities, not just taking orders from the client - but it's good to start with what the client is thinking about how you can help them.
How this can help your case: If the client identifies a specific challenge ("Our salespeople aren't getting enough meetings" or "People aren't spending enough time on our website"), they open the door to a conversation about how the brand identity might be part of the problem.
4. Who is your target audience/market?
Over the years, I've worked with several property management-related companies, many of whom have had dreadful brand identities. At first I tried hard to get them to change, until I realized that 95% of their business happened as a result of long-standing relationships within a fairly tight-knit community of guys (yes, it's usually men) who have known each other forever, have owned commercial/industrial properties together, and tended to make business deals based on handshakes and beer. They didn't need expensive brand identities with charming brand stories - they just needed some basics to make them look professional.
However, when some of these businesses grew, and were looking to penetrate larger consumer markets, then it was time to push a better brand identity.
How this can help your case: Knowing your client's target market will allow you to demonstrate who else is excelling in their space - and show them how important it is that their brand identity is good enough to compete.
5. How do you see your business growing in the next 12-24 months?
As a business grows, so does their need for marketing materials. Today, all they think they need are business cards and a website; 6 months from now they may need anything from billboards to tradeshow displays to RFP templates; 2 years from now they may need branding and materials for line extensions.
How this can help your case: The more you know about your client's future plans, the more you can help them identify the marketing and communications materials they'll need down the line - and the easier it is to demonstrate how their current brand identity won't accommodate that kind of growth in the long run.
It's an organic process
It's a rare client who, after being asked a question or two, says, "Okay! I get it - let's revamp the whole brand identity! How soon can we do it?" That's okay - I'm a firm believer that the best brands are built over time, and as a result of a close relationship between the organization and their marketing team. Asking the right questions will help you build that relationship.
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Your client's brand identity sucks. What do you say?March 17th, 2012
You love your new client, but you hate their existing brand identity. Here's how to approach it.
In the past week alone, 4 different people - designers, web developers, content writers - have all called me and said the same thing: "I've got this great new client, who have this really interesting product, but their brand identity is terrible. It's so bad that I'm worried that whatever I do for them will end up being terrible too, and they'll either be mad at me or I'll be embarrassed to tell anyone I did it. What do I do?"
This is what I say:
1. Is it really as bad as you think?
If you're 'in the business', you probably have some very decided ideas about the way marketing materials should look and feel. I myself can't stand inconsistent fonts and colour palettes - they stick out like sore thumbs to me, they make me think that everyone involved with the company is unprofessional and highly un-detail-oriented, and I want to give the people responsible a stern talking-to.
But many times when I mention it to the client, it turns out that neither they, nor their stakeholders, have ever really noticed that there are 3 different fonts on their homepage. Their business is percolating along, with no noticeable gap in sales, and they've got bigger fish to fry at the moment. And so I have to step back and realize that I am not the target, I am more critical than the average person, and what I see as a 'disaster' isn't, really.
2. Is it actually having a negative impact on the client's business?
I think this website is terrible. The colours are totally 1990s, the site is loud and far too 'sales-ish', and I end up feeling that the guy behind it is far more interested in selling me stuff than in 'helping' me. But here's the thing: This guy makes a lot of money (he famously retired at 35); lots of people love him; and I understand that his website does a fantastic job of sales conversion for him. In other words, the site is working - so it doesn't really matter if I don't like it, or respond to the story he's telling.
The whole point of marketing is to drive the business goals. Unless you can demonstrate that your client's brand identity is actively getting in the way of doing this, you may just have to accept that your client may in fact know what they're doing.
3. Is there a good story underpinning a bad look and feel?
For years I worked with a company called Head2Head, and everyone hated their logo, which looked like this:
I inherited this logo - I didn't create it. In fact, it was created by the founder, who famously drew it on a napkin (and painted it) in the very early days of the company. Initially, I hated it, too - but then I realized that (a) it had a nice backstory; and (b) it became a sort of interesting talking point.
Plus, it's relatively easy to contain a difficult logo with good design:
See how nice and polished that looks? In fact, we often got compliments on our materials, and it didn't matter if those compliments were followed by "...but I still hate that logo."
(To celebrate their 10th anniversary, Head2Head renovated their brand identity, and it looks great - but now it has a different kind of backstory.)
4. What does the target audience think?
You may hate the look and feel of this website, for all kinds of reasons. But they "manufacture and supply researchers in the biomedical fields with specialized complex organic small molecules", and I'm pretty sure their target audience doesn't really give two hoots about how sexy their brand identity is - their brand equity and credibility is going to reside largely in word of mouth via scientists and whoever else cares about complex organic small molecules.
On the other hand, if you're about to spend a huge amount of money on a custom-designed house, are you going to trust a guy whose sense of aesthetics resulted in this site? Not so much.
Before you start worrying about the brand identity, it's important to remove yourself from the equation and insert the target market instead.
5. Is the current brand identity going to cause problems in the longer term?
One day last year, I got into a bit of a fracas with some woman on Twitter who took issue with my assertion that logos should never be black and white and brand identities should always include 4 colours in the official colour palette. She seemed to think that black-and-white logos and single-colour brand identities were just fine.
She was wrong, and here's why: Successful businesses will eventually need all kinds of materials, from websites to infosheets to business cards to product line extensions and patented processes. All of these things require graphics, imagery, and a brand identity that retains consistency even when fresh ideas are added. If you don't plan ahead, you'll run into trouble later on - it's almost impossible to shoehorn a new colour into a black-and-deep-red brand identity, for example. What's more, without a broader palette and a couple of fonts, you run the risk of a monochromatic site that doesn't give you anywhere to go, design-wise.
TOMORROW: How to guide a client to a better brand identity, even when they like the one they've got.
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Just say no to print advertisingMarch 14th, 2012
Print ads can express great ideas.
They're just hardly ever worth the money.
This is a pretty ad. Unfortunately I have no idea what it's trying to tell me. I'm pretty sure dentists won't know either, since mostly they practice in offices, not fields.
A few months ago I got a call from one of my clients, who was excited. "I got an email from a business magazine and they want to do a feature on us! I told them you'd get back to them with all the details."
Neither of us had ever heard of the magazine, but that didn't matter. As long as they're not asking my clients to pose naked or offer opinions on religion, I'm happy to take PR where I can get it. And we'd had a lot of media exposure in mainstream channels in the previous 12 months, so I wasn't surprised that we were getting the call.
So I called the 'editorial assistant' who'd contacted my client. We discussed the feature (4 pages! with photos! and case studies!), and the various angles we could pursue. I investigated the magazine (something to do with 'women in business'), which seemed legit, if a little obscure. Over the course of 2 or 3 weeks, I provided detailed responses to questions, information about the business, and even provided the names of a couple of clients they could contact for 'commentary'.
But then the sales pitch started: They wanted a list of my client's suppliers (with contact information), and I started getting emails from a sales manager type 'recommending' that we purchase a half-page ad to accompany our 'feature'.
Finally I got a bit annoyed, and called the editorial assistant. "Look," I said, "you pitched this to my client as a proper feature article. Now I'm getting the impression that this 'feature' is entirely dependent on us or our suppliers spending a lot of money."
She denied it, of course...but after a couple more emails from the sales manager guy, we didn't hear anything from them.
It's all about the opportunity cost.
These days, most of my clients are small businesses who don't have a single dollar to waste on marketing. So spending $5000 for a half-page ad in some obscure business publication whose distribution is basically a mailing list they bought in 2006 just doesn't make sense.
I always think about what else I could do for my client with that $5000: I could host a networking event with good snacks, create several webinars, do a direct mail campaign, create a mobile version of their website - or my client could take 50 clients for fancy lunches, during any of which I know she could generate more business than she will through an ad in some magazine that no one ever reads.
Sure, print ads sometimes have their place.
Don't get me wrong - I know that for some brands, print advertising works, especially as part of a larger campaign. Big luxury brands can get a lot of mileage out of spreads in Vanity Fair or GQ, and from what I see on YouTube (where bedroom walls can often be seen in the background), kids are still cutting out ads from magazines to use as posters. Heck, I even had this Hermes image as my computer wallpaper for a while. Ads like these, which look like print ads but mostly live online, can generate a fair amount of brand awareness.
And I also know that even in this digital age, there's something kind of cool about being able to pull out a printed publication and point to your very own advertisement. For small business owners, especially, it can confer a sense of credibility, like "Wow, I have a real company, and here's the proof."
But ultimately, the goal of advertising - as a part of a larger marketing strategy - is to sell more stuff, and at the end of the day, a single print ad just isn't going to do it for you. So the next time someone calls you about advertising in a magazine you've never heard of, just say "no, thank you". I promise you'll have made the right decision.
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Are your suppliers ruining your brand identity?March 9th, 2012
Using different suppliers might be saving you money, but costing you brand equity.
If you're a small business owner, chances are you haven't got a dedicated marketing department or the budget for a big marketing agency. So you've probably engaged a variety of different suppliers to give you a logo, stationery, printed materials, a website, etc. You're not a marketing expert yourself, so you've relied on these different suppliers to be experts in their fields and do their due diligence.
But are they?
Here's what can happen when you have different suppliers providing different pieces of your marketing materials:
LearningRX (with whom I have absolutely no connection, by the way) is a franchise-model business. That means that each of their franchise owners are out there doing marketing efforts on their own, using different designers and different channels (the ads above represent both online and offline advertising).
The result? Marketing with all kinds of different visuals, fonts, colours, messages - even the logos aren't consistent. You've got to be paying pretty close attention to even understand that these 3 ads are actually for different locations of the same brand.
Why does this matter?
Because branding is all about building relationships, and relationships are the first step to long-term loyalty and, of course, sales. Building a consistent brand identity is all about providing mental shortcuts for the audience: Giving them visual and textual cues which trigger feelings of recognition and familiarity which lead to relationships. When your branding is all over the place, you can't get to that sense of familiarity, and that makes relationship-building more difficult. Which in turn means that it takes longer to build up brand equity - you end up having to spend more money on marketing just to stay in the same place.
In the case of LearningRX, above, this creates two problems: LearningRX headquarters doesn't get the cumulative benefit of their various branches' advertising, because it all looks and feels so different, and individual franchise owners don't get the cumulative benefit of all this LearningRX advertising because the audience isn't connecting it all together. So the audience never thinks "Wow, I keep seeing this LearningRX company everywhere - maybe I should check them out."
How can you protect your brand, even if you're not a marketing expert?
As a marketing consultant, I of course tend to think that it's best to engage a marketing expert who can ensure that your printer, your web designer and anyone else who touches your brand is using it consistently.
As a pragmatic marketing consultant, however, I know that this isn't always possible. So in the meantime, here's what you can do:
- When you get your first logo done, make sure the designer provides you with source files, which should include AI or PSD files of your logo and fonts
- Get documentation of your official colours (PMS/Pantone/HEX)
- Get documentation of your official fonts (both the ones used in your logo and the ones in your body copy)
- Tell subsequent designers, print suppliers, web designers, etc. that you expect them to use your official logos, colour and fonts exclusively - if your colour palette is purple and green, they should not start injecting red headlines
- Keep track of your images - don't let different suppliers use different images in different contexts without checking with you first (you may need to add images over time, but if you use a particular photo on your website, that's what should be on your printed materials, too)
- Get source files for all your marketing materials, whether it's a print ad, online ad or website. (All reputable suppliers will give you these once you've paid them for the work.)
It's important to keep your source files and documentation in a safe place, so that a year - or three - from now, when you can't find your original supplier and need to get something done, you can provide the new supplier with the correct information. One of the biggest sources of inconsistency is when a client can't find the original material and a new supplier - who may or may not be an expert in their field - has to recreate something based on a low-res jpg or find a 'comparable' image.
And remember: If you've done your due diligence and provided the supplier with the source materials and documentation, and they come back with something that doesn't look consistent with previous materials, it's okay to say "Hey, this doesn't match what we've done in the past. Are you sure you've used the correct fonts/colours/images?" or even "Dude, what the heck? Why did you stick a huge orange headline in there when you know our colours are purple and green?"
BONUS PROTIP: It's true that even the same 'official' colour can look a little different in different media - a deep purple is probably going to look slightly different on a printed card than it does on a computer screen, for example. Sometimes this is unavoidable; other times your printer can advise you how to mitigate the visual difference. Make sure you ask for an official print proof before doing any big print jobs, and if you see a big difference, ask about it.
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Brand first. Product second.February 23rd, 2012
Knowing how you're going to fit into the marketplace should happen even before you've picked a name.
I came across this image today, over at Brands for the People, a new online brand development company which is designed to help small business owners create new brand identities for reasonable prices.
It's an interesting concept - and one for which I think there is probably a pretty good market - but what really caught my attention was the order in which they've arranged their 6 steps to creating a brand identity.
You'll see that 'Naming Your Business' is the last step in the process.
As someone who's been helping clients create brand identities for 10 years now, I could not agree more. Too many times, I've worked with organizations which have spent all their time and money on creating a product/service, getting an office, hiring staff - and only then start to think about how they're going to go about marketing their wares. And of course it's hard to create a marketing strategy when you don't know what 'story' you're going to tell to potential customers, or where you're going to fit in your competitive set.
I was going to write a long explanatory piece here, but the more I look at 6-step diagram, the more I think it speaks for itself. (The only one which might need explanation is Step 3, because what they mean isn't so much "how does your supply chain work" but "how will we approach the way we get things done".)
The bottom line is that before you choose your name - or lease an office, or start hiring office managers - you need to know why you're different, why you're better, how you'll stand out from the competition and why people will care about what you're doing. Knowing all that will determine whether you name your company "Clara's Cakes" or "Baked Nirvana", and whether your brand identity will be home-country-kitchen or super-modern-cult. And knowing those things will determine where your office is and what it looks like, the type of staff you hire, and even your product offerings.
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Why Facebook shouldn't be separate from your other social mediaFebruary 1st, 2012
This is the control panel for a Winnebago. But I thought it was a nice metaphor for having your social media channels managed from one central, delightfully wood-panelled, location.
These days I find myself doing a lot of social media consulting, usually helping small businesses start using social media. And the first question I'm always asked is: "What social media channels should I be using?"
99% of the time, my answer is the same: Start with the trifecta of Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.
"I get that I should be using Twitter and LinkedIn," they say. "But Facebook? Isn't that just for personal stuff, like friends and family? I don't want the world to see my family pictures. That's not appropriate for my business. And Facebook can't help build my business anyway."
When you're a small business, you are your personal network
The thing is, when you're a small business owner, much of your business is going to come from your personal network. Your sister-in-law, the guy you shared an office with 10 years ago and still keep in touch with, the neighbour you always hang out with on Friday nights when your spouses have other things to do - these are people who are often in a surprisingly good position to refer you, your business and your product to others. And they're likely to be surprisingly enthusiastic about you.
In fact, they'd probably recommend you to more people more often if they could remember what you do and that you're doing it - and that's where Facebook can help.
For example: The other day, a friend from grade school posted a note on Facebook about how she was having trouble with her nanny. I don't speak to her on a regular basis, and she lives in another country, so without Facebook I wouldn't have known that she was having an issue. As it happened, my cousin-in-law, who runs a babysitting business, had just posted a note about how her company can help find nannies in that area. So all of a sudden I was able to connect my friend with my cousin-in-law's business.
It wouldn't have happened on Twitter (since my Twitter feed is too busy and my grade-school friend isn't on there anyway), and it definitely wouldn't have happened on LinkedIn (since 'trouble with nannies' isn't the kind of content that tends to find a place on LinkedIn).
If you aren't linking Facebook to your professional profile, how will these kinds of connections happen?
Stop worrying about the invasion of your personal life
Guess what? The convergence of your personal and professional life has already happened. If you're a small business owner who's been out there doing small-business-owner things like meeting people, attending events, publishing articles and making contacts, your personal life isn't a mystical secret. Anyone with 30 minutes and some basic deduction skills can find out a lot about you, and can probably find a whole heap of photos, too.
This is a good thing. You want to be accessible; you want to turn up in Google searches. The more findable you are, the more credibility you have. And unless you've been a complete idiot, and posted a whole slew of photos of yourself doing jello shots off the naked torsos of strange men, attaching your Facebook profile to your personal brand - and associating it with the company you lead - isn't going to be a problem.
When you're too private, people wonder why
The other day I wrote about how authenticity and transparency in advertising isn't as popular as the gurus would have you believe. However, where they're right about transparency is when it comes to personal branding, and when you're a small businessperson, personal branding is everything.
Before you ever get into a meeting with a new client, someone in the decision-making chain is going to Google you. If they can't find much information about you, they're going to assume you're not as prolific, influential or important as you want them to think you are. They're simply going to wonder why someone who calls themselves an 'expert' only has 3 search returns. Facebook can increase your searchable content volume while you're building up your other channels - and that can be a big advantage.
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