3 Business Success Trends for 2014

take the plungeWelcome to 2014. This year will be more competitive. This year, the marketing din is going to get a lot louder. This year is also going to be the year you get savvy about marketing your small or medium size business. To help you do so, here are three trends that will affect the business landscape, and your own bottom lines.

Social Media Is Not Optional. The days of just dipping your toe in the social media waters are long gone (circa 2011). You’re either engaged in social media marketing or you’re not, and – trust me on this one – you have to be engaged. No modern, effective marketing plan is complete without a social media component. Get expert advice on how to start. Pick your platforms with care. Develop a content strategy that is authentic to your brand and develop protocols and best practices for conversing with your followers. When all of that is done, then you can jump into the social media pool. (Remember, no toe dipping. This year calls for a full on, no hesitation cannon ball into the deep end – but you have to plan it out first.)

The Value of Public Relations Is Growing. While publishers may be consolidating media outlets, the ironic twist is the demand for quality content is disproportionately expanding. What this means for your brand is opportunity; opportunity to develop meaningful content and, more importantly, content people want to share. One caveat – that content must rarely be brand-centric. While the content should be relevant to your space, it cannot put your brand front-and-center if you want it to be seen as authoritative, authentic and of innate value to the public. PR is increasingly going to require a mix of earned and owned media, but that owned media – if executed well – can pay significant dividends. This content marketing (or brand journalism) trend is growing rapidly, and your public relations advisor or team needs to be leading the charge.

Smartphones Are Windows to the World. As mobile access continues to become part of everyone’s new normal, brands need to consider how to engage their consumer audiences via this medium. A responsive designed website is just the start of ensuring your brand and/or products are accessible on any mobile device. You’ll also want to track your website’s analytics to monitor your level of mobile web traffic and adjust your marketing efforts accordingly. Additionally, opt-in SMS text messaging campaigns and branded Apps are two mobile marketing tools we’ll be seeing more of in the year ahead.

These and other tactics are the new business as usual tools. More and more, companies will need to adapt to the latest technologies if they want to engage with their audiences. Meanwhile, the New Year offers new challenges and ample opportunity. On behalf of everyone at Kimball Communications, may your businesses find success in overcoming the former and excel at leveraging the latter.


Managing Your Small Business’ Online Reputation

Congratulations! You've taken your business online. So how do you leverage this into new customers or clients while also protecting your reputation?

Congratulations! You’ve taken your business online. So how do you leverage this into new customers or clients while also protecting your reputation?

Congratulations intrepid entrepreneur! If you’ve taken the plunge and launched your small business into the social media space, you’ve taken a bold step that offers many risks and rewards.

More than 72 percent of U.S. adults who go online use social networking sites, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. By choosing to put your brand out there, a bevy of potential rewards (i.e., Likes, followers, sharing blog posts, positive reviews and online recommendations) await your brand. With a little effort applied to communication your messages, attention to superior online customer service that reflects your brand and by trying to genuinely connect with your customers, you can turn your social media presence into a noteworthy repository of goodwill for your business that reward you handsomely over time.

The effort is also not without risk.

In the days before social media, one bad customer experience typically translated to the customer telling 10 friends of their displeasure. With the advent of social media, however, your brand runs the risk of being shamed before 100 or 1,000 social media followers. For some power networkers, those numbers are substantially higher.

It’s imperative small businesses understand, on average, about 46 percent of web users turn to social media before making a purchase to decide if the business or product is “trustworthy” or reputable. This means, to paraphrase a legendary phrase from actress Zsa Zsa Gabor, you are what the online community says you are.

On Oct. 18 at Parx Casino in Bensalem, Pa., small business owners that include restaurants, outdoor and adventure destinations, bed & breakfasts and others will gather for Visit Bucks County’s Annual Membership Meeting. Attendees will have an opportunity to attend a morning seminar on establishing and maintaining online presences to help their businesses grow.

As one of the featured speakers, I’ll be sharing insights and tips on how these businesses can protect and defend their online reputations. I’ll offer examples of good, and not so good, online customer service. In addition I’ll provide insider tips for managing these online presences under a variety of circumstances.

Check back on this blog next week for some top line thoughts on the subject as well as insights and anecdotes offered by some of the small businesses I meet with at the VBC Annual Meeting.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/infusionsoft/4820986909/”>Infusionsoft</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

Sometimes Bigger PR Agencies Are Just Bigger

At big agencies, you're paying for the overhead ... and all those chairs.  Image courtesy of adamr / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

At big agencies, you’re paying for the overhead … and all those chairs.
Image courtesy of adamr / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Mark Twain once said, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”

Sadly, this lesson is sometimes lost in the process of evaluating public relations agencies. Often the bigger agency is selected because they are seen as “the safe bet.”

However sometimes the safe bet with PR agencies isn’t always the best bet and the little guy is overlooked to the detriment of the company conducting the search. To those companies, I offer six reasons they would do well to consider small agencies like mine.

  1. It’s Personal, Not Just Business. Working with a smaller agency, clients typically have direct access to the agency president and senior staff. So do the agency’s employees. This means ideas aren’t just top-down, and everyone has a stake in the success of the account.
  2. What You See Is What You Get. The better-run small agencies have less staff turnover, especially at the senior level. So the folks you meet at the new business pitch meeting are the folks actually doing the work for your company. That almost never happens at big agencies.
  3. Small Agencies Are Built By Big People. Small PR agencies are populated with PR pros who left big agencies to focus on good work instead of billable hours, or by established journalists who bring a well-honed reporter’s eye to the story-craft of public relations. Big agencies are not the only bastions of talent.
  4. Budgets Don’t Drive Success. Small agencies have less overhead then larger competitors. This means smaller agencies work toward success, not billable hours. At larger agencies, clients with small budgets are often relegated to a few hours of work per month, led by the most junior, least experienced staff members.
  5. Flexibility and Responsiveness Are Watchwords. Small agencies usually don’t have “big” accounts to fall back on, so ensuring every client feels like the only client is the hallmark of a well-run small agency. This means responding promptly to clients, and being able to adapt well to changing priorities.
  6. It’s a Business of Personality and Ideas. Success – with big or small agencies – is predicated on the people on the account and the ideas they generate. In this area, size is not a factor. One smart, industrious solo PR pro with good ideas and a little elbow grease can be as valuable to a client as an army of well-polished and mildly talented PR practitioners. As Twain said, it’s about the fight in the dog.

This isn’t to say all big agencies are bad and all small agencies are good. It’s simply why smaller agencies should not be disregarded as a “best bet.”

I’ve heard too many stories from clients and co-workers alike about companies that chose big PR agencies based purely on the idea they were a perceived safe bet. (As the saying goes, “Nobody ever got fired for hiring IBM.”) These same folks, after prolonged discovery periods and big “start up” fees, came to find bigger isn’t always better.

Sometimes bigger is just bigger.

When to Hop Off the Facebook Bandwagon

Jump Off

via Flickr user psmithy

In my internal life as a secret pundit, I hold strong, unpopular opinions on a wide range of topics. I’ll spare you my monologue on the proper storage of tomatoes, but let’s discuss my wildly unfashionable opinions on Facebook, which are probably more relevant to your interests.

Here’s a radical thought: Facebook doesn’t work that well for some brands, particularly small B2B service providers. Yes, that Facebook—the stuff of marketing mavens’ dreams. For many, it turns into a marketing nightmare; after devoting time and energy to creating and curating a brand page, a chorus of crickets greets you instead of legions of grateful fans.

Many self-proclaimed social media experts will suggest that you are doing it wrong. That is true in some cases, but not all. If Facebook isn’t working for you, I think there are a few reasons it is more than okay to stop using your brand page.

It’s cost prohibitive

Contrary to popular belief, using Facebook as a PR and marketing tool is far from free. It is time-intensive, no matter what strategies and tools you use. It’s cliche but true: at work, time is money.

To get the most out of a Facebook brand page, you should spend time and money not only perusing and posting, but also creating videos and custom visual content like infographics, memes and quality photos. Last time I checked, graphic designers don’t work for free. Plus, paid ads, contests and promoted posts are often the only way to get any semblance of a noticeable boost in fans and engagement. This could be time and money well-spent, but not if you don’t see results.

Your content never meets its mark    

When I say engagement, I’m not speaking in abstract jargon. What I mean is people seeing, liking, commenting beneath and clicking thru to your content. On Twitter, engagement defined this way is possible any time someone logs on and scrolls through their feed. On Facebook, what someone sees on their News Feed depends on a number of factors analyzed by the company’s EdgeRank algorithm, which you can read more about here.

From a personal user’s perspective, there are advantages to EdgeRank and otherwise being in control of your News Feed. For example, with a few clicks, you can hide future posts from your Facebook-addicted auntie and never again be subjected to her semi-literate rants on the tyranny of everyday objects.

However, the same tool may prevent a user from being exposed to your brand’s content, even if s/he would like to see it—which s/he presumably does, since s/he “likes” you. Users rarely return to a brand’s Facebook page after they have liked it, so they won’t see your pithy posts there. And if you don’t share a photo, it is unlikely that they will see a post in their News Feed. As many have lamented, EdgeRank prefers gimics over content that is relevant to your audience. If you provide B2B services, or something that is equally ill-matched to meme-ing or Harlem Shaking, you just may never stand out.

There are other options    

Should you want to stand out on Facebook? This question nags me. For companies that provide consumer products or entertainment, the Facebook News Feed is a natural fit. You want to be (and often are) an integral part of your customers’ personal lives, so you fit in snugly between a cousin’s baby pictures and political rants from college friends.

For most other kind of brand, the Facebook News Feed is an awkward fit, like trying to wear the clothes you thought were cool at age 15. No one thinks you look cool in those JNCOs, and no one wants to hear about some esoteric corporate service while they are perusing their iPad on the couch.

In the wide world of digital marketing and PR, there exist many more agreeable options. If you are struggling with Facebook and don’t even enjoy the medium, maybe it’s time to redirect your efforts elsewhere. Perhaps your time and energy could be better spent on Twitter, LinkedIn or a blog. Read case studies, ask around and give a new network a try.

I’m far from the first person to suggest Facebook isn’t the social media marketing magic bullet, but I don’t think many take action in response. Has anyone out there abandoned their Facebook strategy? Tell us about it in the comments.

You’re the One that I Want

With the introduction of Vine in January, business owners and managers have all the more reason to ask, “What do I want out of my business’ online relationships?” Take Valentine’s Day as a reminder to think about what social media outlets and features are the best matches for your business.

Admiralspalast Berlin / Foter / CC BY-ND

Here are five points to follow to keep successful relationships with your customers or clients on social media:

1. Social is Seductive, so be Selective

Social media can be seductive with the amount of platforms out there, and all of the various tactics one can use to reach a customer – from hashtags to video. We only see this increasing in 2013 and beyond. But, this means businesses – both B2C and B2B – need to be more and more selective about what social networks and services they include in their social media strategy.

Businesses should also focus their social strategy because users will more often pick and choose which social networks they want to pay to join. As seen with YouTube, social media will continue to be monetized. Developing the verbal and visual content that make the relationship between a business and its followers work takes time – and money. So, choose your accounts carefully.

2. Find your Social Media Sweetheart

Just like magazines and newspapers have varied demographics for readership, so do social media channels. In the crowd of companies and organizations online, you have to choose the best ways to reach your audience.

Plus, businesses don’t want just any number of followers – they want the right ones. Social media is just another powerful tool to engage the important customers and decision makers that affect your business. Don’t waste your time on Facebook if all of your potential fans have moved their attention to Twitter. To find where you want to attract followers, and what to expect from some social media outlets throughout the year, here are a few insights. Forbes shares specific stats for B2B businesses.

3. Ask, What are you Willing to Share?

In 2013, consider sharing content that is visual. More than ever, online users don’t just appreciate visual content, they expect it. Social media speaker and author Mari Smith called 2013 the “year of the video.” Before the New Year even began, we also saw social media becoming increasingly visual.

Now you have a surplus of options for visual content strategies – from quarterly infographics to a monthly Google+ Hangout video series or weekly original photos. If Vine is any indication, developers will continue to expand the multimedia possibilities that businesses can take advantage of online.

4. Fine Dining is Better than Fast Food

Image aside, be sure that any content you produce is original with substance. Consistently allotting time to develop quality content on one or two social outlets can pay off more than publishing watered-down content over eight platforms.

As Social Media Strategist Jason Miller writes, “The cookie-cutter SEO driven, keyword stuffed, generic regurgitated content is becoming a sort of white noise that blocks all of the real quality stuff from surfacing.” Remember to also give time for accuracy, grammar and punctuation (“If Your Writing Sucks, So Will Your Content”).

5. Be a Matchmaker

When pursuing your social media outlets, always integrate them with one another to ensure you’ve hit all of your target audiences. And, keep in mind how your social media sites will appear on all forms of mobile devices, as this is where your readers will live, more and more. According to the Nielson State of the Media report, consumers’ time spent with social media on mobile devices increased 63 percent in 2012.

The Social Media Examiner predicts that a new social media platform that “no one saw coming” will surface in 2013 (#16 on this list). If this does transpire, just consider if the social media site will marry well with your business plan before you start yet another online relationship.

Photo credit: Admiralspalast Berlin / Foter / CC BY-ND

Small Business Saturday

Thanksgiving has always meant turkey, stuffing, gravy and family, but what about and credit cards, shopping bags and cash registers opening at midnight? Although Black Friday has been creeping into Thanksgiving, some consumers have been generating more interest in the shopping day that includes a full day’s break after the feast: Small Business Saturday.

Historic Third Ward Milwaukee / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

More than ever, this two-year-old shopping event calls for small businesses to undertake special public relations and social media efforts. The Shop Small organization has completed a lot of the leg-work as far as social media, with more than 3.1 million supporters on Facebook.  Plus, the American Express-sponsored event has advertised a $25 gift card offer to cardholders who purchase at small businesses on Saturday, November 24.

However, small businesses should develop a social media plan, tailored to their own shops. By participating in the event through social networking efforts, you can contribute to the community-based “buy local” efforts in your area—as well as help drive your sales. According to the “Shop Small” infographic, independent retailers that are in communities with a “buy local” initiative reported revenue growth of 5.6% on average in 2010, compared to 2.1% for those elsewhere.

The Shop Small website provides pre-made, editable email messages and posts for Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn for the convenience of small businesses. Whether your business follows these outlines or creates your own messages, we’re offering a few tips in spreading the word:

  1. Stick to your usual platforms Now is not the time to open a social media account to promote this weekend’s event. Continue posting where you have already built your fan base, whether this be through your Facebook page, an email account, or simply the window of your store (you can download free “Shop Small” signage.)
  2. Control your posts – Avoid posting too little so that the message does not go out, but do not post so much that you bother customers. Post enough so that you show your involvement and share how you are participating,
  3. Thank your customers – Do more than just announce the event; give your customers a reason to come out with any special offers or rewards. Then, thank the customers for their support through your original communications channels.

As a small business, we appreciate the efforts of this day in supporting small businesses, as it proved last year with these shops.

As PR professionals, we also applaud American Express for conceiving the idea for the event and setting an example for an increasingly successful – and smart – integrated public relations, marketing and social media campaign for their own business.

We’ll be shopping small and local at the Easton, PA Farmers Market. Who are you supporting this Small Business Saturday?

Photo credit: Historic Third Ward Milwaukee / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA