Content Strategy & Your Goals

Sheriff BadgeI recently read a great article on Content Strategy over on the Smashing Magazine site (one of my favorites!). I found myself chuckling at some of the examples, in that all-too-familiar kind of way.

And, although this wasn’t exactly what they were writing about, the article got me thinking about how to reframe the way I work with clients. Because I deal with small businesses, I’m very conscious about maximizing the use of their resources, including their time. It’s tempting to assume I know what they want and just forge ahead, but experience has taught me that there are no shortcuts in the process of creating and executing a digital marketing strategy. Knowledge is key to the success of any project or campaign, and that should start right at the outset. No one knows your business better than you, and an agency or digital marketing consultant cannot effectively ‘create’ without truly understanding your business and its goals.

A Familiar Problem
I knew I had to keep reading the Smashing Magazine article when I got to How to Get Started: The First Step is the Longest. In that section, the author, Brad Shorr, gives an example of an imaginary conversation between a project manager, a designer and a writer at an agency. The project manager announces the need for a landing page for a client, the designer says he can’t start the design without content, and the writer says she can’t start writing without seeing a design. A conundrum already, and they’re barely out of the gate.

This is amusing to me because I run into the same issue frequently with the small business clients with whom I work. They want to ‘see’ something before they can take a step forward, and they’re optimistic that they’ll have more time to devote to the project sometime in the future. But it’s like shooting in the dark for me if I don’t have something to start with, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s foolish – and basically arrogant – for me to think that I know what they need without them telling me.

So I’m laying down the law. :)

When you work with me, you can expect 110% effort on my part. Making you successful is my goal. The best way for us to get you where you want to go is to be clear about where that is from the start.

Thus, I’m asking all future potential clients to agree to a strategy meeting upfront. This may take a while, and you may think it’s unnecessary, but I want to understand everything you’re doing and everything you’d like to achieve before launching a one-off project for you. (Don’t worry, I’ll bring the coffee.)

You should also expect the tough questions. What else are you doing to market or promote your product or service? Do you know where you’re getting customers currently? Do you know how many convert? The average profit per sale? The lifetime value of a customer? (It’s OK if you don’t; we’ll work on it.) What has worked in the past? What hasn’t? Who’s your ideal customer?

My Confession
Though this has always been the ideal scenario, I’ve been willing to be ‘flexible’ in the past. A prospective client who is super-busy and just needs some SEO work done, feels like they don’t really have time to do a complete overview of all their marketing efforts. The issue for me is that, even if my work for them leads to success, could it have been better if I’d known ‘the rest of the story?’

The Smashing Magazine article helped me see that maximizing my client’s success means being a little inflexible on this front. All in the name of greater success!

Integrate Your Marketing to Maximize Success

One of my excellent former students wrote me recently asking for advice. How should she handle a client who took her (very good) advice about managing an integrated digital marketing program and turned it into a separate ‘silo’ for each channel?

Particularly among small businesses that don’t have time to become digital marketing experts, it can be easy to see the various marketing channels as stand-alone operations. I need a print ad; I’ll call my graphic designer. I need more online traffic; I’ll call the AdWords specialist and the SEO provider. I should probably reach out to my email list; I’ll call the email provider.

This has often happened organically. Business owners get advice (or decide) to embark on something new that their existing provider(s) don’t offer, so they bring someone else in. And then someone else, and someone else. The problem is that no one is really coordinating it all.

Small Businesses NEED To Integrate All Their Marketing Efforts
But that has to stop. If you need Internet marketing (and you probably do), then you need to see the bigger picture. That doesn’t mean that you may not have different providers for different things, but you (or someone on your behalf) needs to see how all those efforts fit together into a cohesive whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. As long as someone is steering the ship, it can get to where it’s trying to go.

Part of the problem for smaller businesses is that they frequently don’t have an ‘agency’ to coordinate all their efforts. Much of the marketing success of many big organizations should be attributed to their outside advisers – advertising agencies, marketing consultants, etc. But small businesses can’t afford the services of big agencies.

However, there are providers who can help SMBs build a comprehensive strategy AND implement it, and you should take advantage of their services. (Oh, hey… have you met me?)

Shameless self-promotion aside, I think small businesses really are going to need to focus more on strategy instead of just tactics. If you have a solid strategy that will take you where you want to go, your tactics can easily be outsourced (if you want) while you still maintain control of the overall direction your marketing efforts take.

On the other hand, without an integrated marketing strategy, all your well-executed tactics may not be working together to maximize your success.


Does Your Business Really Need a Website? (Round 2)

Small business owners are often faced with making difficult financial choices about how to invest their money. One expense that they sometimes question is whether they really need a website.

Almost three years ago, I wrote an article for Insight Magazine, which I’ve republished on this blog, called Does Your Business Really Need a Website? In it, I answered the question at the time with “…no, depending on the industry you’re in, at least for now.”

Now, however, I’d have to disagree…

I think that virtually any business that wants to grow or that needs a steady stream of new clients really does need a website.

Your customers are going online searching for the products or services they need. If you’re not there, you’re not getting their business. If you consider that even a recent survey commissioned by a group formerly known as the Yellow Pages Association showed that more people used search engines than print yellow pages, it’s not hard to see the value in being able to be found online.

But Aren’t There Alternatives to Investing in a Site?
It’s possible to build an online presence using avenues other than a website, including:

Google Places
Yahoo! Local
Bing Local
Facebook Fan Pages
Wordpress (or other) free blogging platforms

In many ways, that’s not an unreasonable strategy. For small business owners with some time and patience, it’s possible to do all of that yourself – and none of it costs anything!

However, I think that may be a risky strategy. I’m quoted in a post on Search Engine Land answering their question, “Does every business need a website?” My response is essentially this: The limitations posed by social media and ‘local’ channels are hard to overcome. You have to abide by their ‘rules’ and it’s hard to really differentiate yourself. Even more problematic, though, in my opinion is the lack of control. I essentially have 100% control over what happens on my own website, but when Facebook decides to make a change to the platform I’m forced to accommodate it whether I like it or not.

There are plenty of affordable options for creating a website, so make the investment, SMBs. Hire a good designer/developer or learn how to do it yourself. It’s an investment that will almost certainly reap benefits for your business.


Can Your Business Thrive In a Recession?

Black Friday 2008 has just barely come and gone, and already the pessimistic news for retailers is flowing in. Anecdotal evidence here in Orlando suggests that consumers are scaling back this year, due in part to what many fear could be a long and protracted recession.

It’s so bad, it seems, that even kids are sharing their economy woes with Santa, asking for things like a new job for Dad or money for Mom to buy the house back. (Sounds like Santa’s list is going to be a little tougher to fill this year.)

But is it really all doom-and-gloom? As a small business owner, should the current economic situation make you pull back, or should you use this as an opportunity to forge ahead? Consider this:

  • According to the National Bureau of Economic Research (the official arbiter of economic expansions and contractions), the average post-World War II economic contraction – of which there have been ten – has lasted about ten months.
  • Since the NBER uses (by necessity) historical data, recessions are often officially ‘called’ months after they’ve begun – and sometimes not until they’re actually over.
  • It’s probable that an ‘official’ recession started earlier this year; if it keeps to the average of recent downturns, that would mean it’s perhaps as much as half over.
  • Of course, what matters to you is not whether we’re technically in a recession or not, but how your customers are behaving. If they’re scaling back you may feel you have no recourse but to do the same.

    But perhaps a better course of action – for some businesses, at least – would be to scale UP. Perhaps this is an opportunity to reexamine your business, figure out what works and what doesn’t, and implement a plan that will allow you to grow even if we are in a recession.

    Don’t think it’s wise to try to grow your business during a time of uncertainty? Here are a few reasons you might want to reconsider:

    Competitors will quit. If your business has low barriers to entry and is relatively profitable, your competition may have drastically increased during the recent flush times. (Yes, I’m talking about you, realtors. But also any business that doesn’t require considerable capital – financial or otherwise – to start.) A downturn will almost definitely push some of them out of the market.

    Your remaining competitors may scale back. Watch for signs that your competitors are cutting back on marketing. Don’t see them at the top of the Google results any more? Now may be your chance to supplant them and get the edge.

    Customers behave differently. Earlier this year, an article in the Wall Street Journal noted that the number of consumers who had finalized summer-vacation plans for the year was less than half what it was in the preceding year. For a travel company or tourist destination, that means you need to adjust your messaging and maybe even your target market. Your industry may adjust in other ways, so you need to understand what makes your customers buy NOW, not what made them buy last year.

    There are opportunities to try new things that don’t cost a lot. Not doing email marketing to keep existing customers? Maybe now’s the time to start; it’s inexpensive and effective, and you probably should’ve been doing it long ago. Social media offers another alternative for some businesses. Talk with a consultant or evaluate the options yourself to see if your customers are using social media and if there’s a way for you to engage with them there. (Don’t, however, jump in without a good analysis and a strategy.)

    Businesses who set themselves up to thrive – recession or not – will be in the best position to succeed going forward. Isn’t that what you want for your business?

    Google Local Search – May We Help You Find What You’re Looking For?

    David Mihm does a typically fantastic job of explaining the importance of local search in his ‘Ranking in the Local Search Algorithms‘ presentation from the SEMpdx Hot Seat on September 9. (Don’t be frightened by that ‘algorightms’ word; the presentation is really accessible and clear, not a bunch of techno-speak.)

    Particularly noteworthy right up front is the extrapolation that:

    Half a BILLION unique visitors per month search Google with ‘local intent’.

    (Still don’t think local search is important, dear reader?) [Read more...]

    Are You Ready for the Holidays?

    The holidays are coming. Soon. Much sooner than you think if you don’t already have a marketing plan in place.

    With a weak economy and high gas prices, the 2008 holiday shopping season may be a less-than-stellar one for businesses. Forecasts suggest that retailers should anticipate a heavily promotional season, as shoppers continue to seek the best deals. Many consumers – even those who haven’t done so before – are expected to turn to e-commerce sites to minimize the impact of higher gas prices.

    But The Holidays Aren’t Just About Retailers
    The impact of the holiday shopping season on retailers is clear to see. But from a business standpoint, it’s important to understand whether the holidays and the closing of another year offer an opportunity for your business. [Read more...]