Boost Sales by Sharing Your Expertise (pt 2)

(originally published in Costco Connection Magazine, September 2014)

Know Your Customer 

image_Costco cover-sept 2014There is no single content marketing approach that will work for all businesses. For example, a software company that sells exclusively to online customers might create a blog to boost inbound search engine leads. Conversely, a local moving company might offer a free moving tips e-book to boost the effectiveness of its radio and newspaper advertisements.

Although every business must determine its own strategy, content marketing should always flow from a clear understanding of how customers investigate your products and ser- they validate buying options).

Next, develop buyer personas—general snapshots of people who make purchasing decisions for your products and services. Buyer personas can be based on demographics, job responsibilities or how prospects prefer to receive and consume content. You can research buyer personas by studying your website analytics, analyzing search trends or polling your existing clients and customers.

“Brainstorm with your staff and salespeople about common questions your prospects ask before they ever arrive at your site,” says Scott Benson of Benson SEO, a Washington, D.C.–based inbound marketing consultancy. “Then, build your content marketing strategy around answering these questions. This ensures your content is useful and relevant, and can help smaller companies compete for competitive search terms.”

For example, Toronto-based Costco member inFlow Inventory, an inventory management software company, developed its content strategy around keyword research that showed prospects searched for an “inventory template” before purchasing inventory software. Taking advantage of this insight, the company created a blog post listing downloadable inventory templates. This strategy boosted inFlow’s search rankings and attracted thousands of website visitors who later became customers.

Promote Your Content

To ensure that your content spreads beyond your own website, develop relation- ships with industry websites and influencers, trade associations and journalists who cover your industry. Use your content to earn third- party credibility, grow your brand and expand your network by earning endorsements from sources your prospects trust.

Voices.com in Ontario, Canada, a company that connects businesses with professional voice talent, created an extensive online resource center with free educational webinars, video tutorials, articles and e-books. David Ciccarelli, the company’s co-founder and CEO, credits third-party credibility with landing major clients, such as PBS, Microsoft and the Discovery Channel. “Content marketing is our single most effective source of new business, especially when it’s been mentioned or published on high-profile media sites, including Wall Street Journal and Forbes,” he says.

“Social media can advance your content marketing efforts by connecting content with more people in your target market,” says LinkedIn group product marketing manager Lana Khavinson, who cites how AmeriFirst Home Mortgage uses social media to pro- mote its blog articles, e-books, infographics and videos that help people navigate the home-buying process.

“LinkedIn connects us with real estate agents and builders 
who refer their clients
to us for financing,” says
AmeriFirst inbound marketing
specialist Dan Moyle. “Combining con-
tent marketing with social media helped our website go from 3,000 views per month, with virtually no lead conversions, to over 5,000 views per month, with 2.5 percent converting to new customers.”

As consumers increasingly go online to research products and services, it’s imperative that businesses maintain websites with fresh, useful information. However, content marketing should not be viewed as a panacea. It is most effective when integrated into an appropriate marketing mix for your business, which can include search engine optimization, social media, advertising, lead nurturing, strategic partnerships and offline marketing.

“Content marketing is not a silver bullet that will drive your entire marketing program,” says expert Nick Stamoulis of Brick Marketing. “But when approached realistically and strategically, content marketing can boost your website traffic, generate more leads, establish your expertise and lower new-customer acquisition costs. Patience and consistency is key. Content marketing is like brushing your teeth: It should be done on a regular basis and never end.”

Experts agree that content marketing should be approached as a marathon, not a sprint. “Content marketing establishes trust that can lead to sales,” says Sheridan. “But you have to commit for the long haul and not expect instant results. But when you commit to being the most helpful teacher in your industry you can earn attention, loyalty and ultimately more business.”

7 Steps To Get “Slightly” Famous

freedigitalphotos_fame fortuneA few years ago, marketing was simpler. A professional service marketing strategy, for instance, could embrace public speaking, article publishing and book authorship as a marketing strategy likely to reach prospective clients. A small businesses marketing strategy could combine networking, community engagement and build a loyal customer base through word of mouth.

Today, an overabundance of social media noise and content marketing compete for your prospects’ attention. BtoB sellers struggle getting past voicemail as buyers conduct their own online research. Traditional advertising is less effective for professional services marketing and small businesses as consumers increasingly shun sales pitches, turn to online review sites for validation and expect companies to help them make informed decisions throughout the buying process.

Few would argue that the battle to win new clients and customers has intensified. But a key question remains: have the rules of small business and professional service marketing changed? Is social media now the most effective marketing strategy? Will content marketing, and seeking Facebook Likes, Twitter followers and LinkedIn contacts drive your small business or professional services marketing strategy as a primary channel for generating leads and closing sales?

The “Slightly” Famous You

Though the past few years have brought many changes, the underlying rules for building an effective small business or professional service marketing strategy remain the same. If you’re a professional service provider or small business owner, there really is a proven blueprint for rising above the noise and distinguishing your business from a sea of look alikes.

What’s the secret? Becoming just famous enough to make your name come to mind when prospects look for your product or service. When you become Slightly Famous in a strategically targeted market niche you won’t have to rely on advertising. You’ll be regularly featured in blogs, newspapers and magazines. You’ll get invited to speak at conferences. Your name will spread and you’ll grow your online presence.

Your Slightly Famous marketing strategy will help you get more business–not only more, but the right kind of business-and they don’t have to work so hard to get it. Although your efforts will take different forms, underlying them all are seven basic principles.

1. Targeting the best prospects

Building your business around your best prospects will help you avoid a poorly conceived marketing strategy. You must know who you want to reach and what their needs are. Instead of starting with tactics like content marketing and social media marketing, Slightly Famous marketers instead determine their most ideal target prospects first, which can be as simple as asking your best customers the right questions.

2. Developing a unique market niche

Slightly Famous entrepreneurs base their small businesses and professional service marketing strategy around carefully select market niches that they can realistically hope to dominate. Occupying a niche where your products or professional services fit the needs of a target market means you won’t  compete with similar businesses solely on price.

Dan Poynter started writing books about parachuting over forty years ago. Rather than try to fight for attention in general bookstores, he sold books to skydiving clubs, parachute dealers, and the U.S. Parachute Association. He developed a reputation in skydiving circles, and has enjoyed steady sales of his books for more than four decades. Best of all, he has the market all to himself!

3. Positioning your business as the best solution

If you’re a professional services provider or small firm surrounded by similar businesses, you must differentiate yourself with a strong positioning strategy. The process starts by evaluating your business features against competitors to ensure you deliver unique benefits to your target market and achieve the market position you want. Key questions may include:

  • Do you save people time or money?
  • Do you make money for people?
  • Do you apply proven processes or models?
  • Are you more expensive, less expensive?
  • Do you offer better or faster service?
  • Do you offer a stronger guarantee?
  • Do you use technology to respond faster to a customer’s needs?

You don’t need to be completely original as long as you offer something different from (and superior to) your competitors.

4. Maintaining your visibility

Your message must be out there, if not continuously, then often enough to keep your name alive in customers’ minds. This is especially important as prospects are inundated with marketing messages and can easily forget you.

Visibility is a cornerstone of every Slightly Famous business strategy. But instead of making the goal of growing unfocused lists of social media followers your top priority, Slightly Famous marketers are strategic. They place their core message in front of as many relevant target customers as often as possible.

5. Enhancing your credibility

Visibility, of course, is only a means. To produce results, visibility must be combined with credibility. This means that you need to embrace visibility strategies that display your distinction, competence, expertise, authority, and leadership.

Fred Tibbitts, Jr. founded Fred Tibbitts & Associates to help food and beverage companies reach global markets. He strategically cultivated his professional service marketing strategy around building a reputation in his industry as a well-connected and knowledgeable global beverage-marketing expert who is fluent in all the details of his business.

Tibbitts monitors global beverage trends on a daily basis while staying in contact with account managers at hotels and restaurants. He hosts a series of special events, “Fred Tibbitts Spring & Autumn Dinners with Special Friends,” in key markets, including Hong Kong, Singapore, and New York. Tibbitts also pursues content marketing by contributing a column to Hospitality International Magazine and numerous industry publications.

6. Becoming a thought leader

The Internet has created empowered consumers who lend their attention and loyalty to companies that demonstrate a top-down commitment to integrity and thought leadership.

Thought leadership marketing is a comprehensive strategy that combines public relations, developing an online presence, producing educational content marketing via blogs, white papers and articles, and demonstrating community involvement or by establishing your reputation as a generous contributor to your industry.

7. Establishing your brand and reputation

Slightly famous entrepreneurs use their smallness and specialty in ways that corporate giants can’t touch. They make sure their brands strike an emotional chord by bringing their business “soul” to the forefront of their marketing.

Brand recognition and reputation matter when it comes to generating sales leads. Your brand identity will become the touchstone of your entire business. It will ensure that all your marketing efforts pull in the same direction. You’ll waste less time, make fewer marketing mistakes, and stand out an increasing cluttered world.

Social Media: One Size Does not Fit All

freedigitalphotos_sign post-website-forumI was recently re-engaged by a past client. Our initial work concluded a few years ago and in that time he’d made strides building upon our initial thought leadership and content marketing program and establishing himself as a professional speaker.

Yet, he struggled getting attention from key decision makers. Despite his large social network (40,000 Twitter posts, daily Facebook updates and continual participation in social conversations) his social media marketing efforts were not leading to more speaking invitations and higher speaking fees.

I performed an initial intake assessment, reviewing his marketing activities since our work ended in 2008. Within minutes, I saw the problem: his marketing strategy has strayed from authoritative content marketing and tilted disproportionately toward social media (which he’d embraced with a vengeance).

He’s not alone. Over the past several years, my client – like many small and medium size businesses and service professionals out there today – fell into a common trap: embracing a one size fits all approach to social media marketing.

The Social Media Hype Cycle

Social media is now widely adopted among businesses large and small. And few would argue about that social media is here to stay and plays a role in most business marketing strategies. What’s less examined is the role the social media hype cycle has played in moving social media to the forefront of business.

Social media exploded at the outset of the Great Recession. A story quickly emerged that social media could, almost single handedly, drive sales and deliver passionate, “engaged” prospects who’d become lifelong brand evangelists.

This became accepted wisdom and was validated by countless social media gurus, books, seminars, blog posts and mainstream media stories.

As the recession wore on, many assumed that vigorous social media marketing would naturally boost sales. Yet, five years after the explosion of social media, many now question their initial (often blind) leap into social media marketing.

“Small business owners have jumped on the social-media bandwagon whole hog,” says Caroline Tice in Forbes, drawing from a recent study by Vertical Response. “But it appears many owners are buckling under the added social-media marketing workload. Worse yet, most are doing social-media marketing in a vacuum, since they’re not tracking results.”

Revisit Marketing Fundamentals

It’s no wonder that many businesses are confused after hearing breathless accounts from social media rock stars, such as “if you’ve already experimented with social media and it didn’t work, there are only two possible reasons: Your product or service isn’t any good, or you’re doing it wrong.”

Social media and content marketing have only one role to play: meeting business objectives.

If your social media marketing is not delivering as hoped, it’s time to question common wisdom and revisit business fundamentals, which means questioning the relevance and veracity of everything you’ve heard about social media as you reconsider where it really fits in your marketing mix.

Social media is not free. Social media may feel like a great deal, but it requires considerable time, effort,  planning and discipline. If you’re not valuing your own time, or what you pay others to maintain your social media efforts, you’re not treating social media as a business proposition.

You need a strategy. Most small and medium size businesses embraced social media sites like Twitter and Facebook without knowing why. According to a recent study by Digital Brand Expressions, 52% of companies surveyed have no social media communications strategy. Is this you?

Every business is unique. What works for social media gurus may not work for you. Your own social media strategy must apply to your particular industry, target market and company size. Are you BtoB? BtoC? Is your market local or national? Do you sell products or services? Each of these common sense considerations must inform how social media plays a role in your marketing strategy.

What works for Coke won’t work for you. Too many social media gurus offer case studies that showcase large companies like Zappos and Redbull, citing them as proof that social media will work for you. Don’t be deduced by false anecdotes! (unless your marketplace is “the world” and you have a six figure marketing budget).

Niches Rule. Large companies aspire to market domination, your small or medium size business survives and prospers by becoming the lord of a profitable, relevant target market composed of ideal customers and clients. Your market niche, positioning strategy and overall brand promise must serve as the bedrock upon which all social media marketing decisions are made and implemented.

The whole world does not exist in digital. Social media gurus and online marketers have an inherent bias: as early technology adopters who make their living online, they assume everyone is like them. The problem: tunnel vision that ignores the diversity of particular market segments.

Social Media: An Integrated Strategy

Your market niche is unique and must be considered on an individual basis as you evaluate social media. Smart marketers know there are no silver bullets. Effective, sustainable marketing strategies are developed around a goal (supported by market research) and combined with marketing tactics that are relevant to your target market.

“What’s your goal?” asks Anjail Mullany, Fast Company’s social media editor. “Some social media gurus think the big prize is community. That’s a fine start, but for a business, it’s also a means to an end–which is whatever your company’s larger goals are, whether they be sales, brand awareness, or traffic. Your social strategy should not end with the creation of an online conversation.”

It starts by getting close and listening to your target market.

I recently helped a past client (a Southeast Asian travel company) re-examine its social media strategy. Though the company diligently updated its Twitter and Facebook accounts with news and travel tips, it saw lackluster results in terms of inbound leads, SEO, or other metrics resulting from its social media marketing efforts.

We revisited key assumptions, which included surveying past clients on how they used social media to search for travel companies. Overwhelmingly we heard that Facebook and Twitter were less important than positive reviews on social media travel review sites like TripAdvisor.

Armed with knowledge, we asked satisfied clients to post reviews of their travel experiences. This informed social media marketing strategy quickly boosted my client’s first page Google results and provided information their prospects really wanted: peer validation further along the sales cycle.

Social media does not exist in a silo, but as part of an integrated marketing strategy which can include online strategies such as blogging, SEO and social media, as well as public relations, networking and content marketing. A solid social media strategy combines and leverage various elements that are appropriate for your business.

And what about the public speaker at the outset of this post?

Thankfully, he’s now ignoring social media gurus and following his target market, sharpening his value proposition, and implementing a PR and content marketing strategy aimed at reaching decision makers for keynotes and corporate seminars.

Will social media play a role? Of course. But this time, the cart is not leading the horse.