How to Stand Out in a Crowded Field

30 08 2011

If you had to choose one or the other, do you think it would be wiser to work on your company’s weak points or to push its strengths?

On the surface, it seems that shoring up the weaknesses makes more logical sense, but in reality doubling down to push your strengths and create a wider gap to stay ahead of your competitors is the smarter tactic.

Why?

To stand apart from your competitors, your firm needs a point of differentiation in the eyes of your target market. In the mind of your audience — your current customers and prospects == the strengths of your company are what draws them to you.

Working to widen the gap further accomplishes two things: It makes it harder for your competitors to catch up and entrenches your company as the leader in your marketplace.

Of course, this is not to say you should ignore the weaknesses, but they shouldn’t be your primary focus. Instead, you should devote the bulk of your resources to developing your strengths. By working primarily on your weaknesses, you may inadvertently make your company seem more similar to your competition, rather than having it stand apart.

So throw aside common wisdom and defy the herd mentality. Blaze a path by continually working on advancing your strengths in order to be the thought leader in your market.





A Lesson from the Stands

26 08 2011

Sports and business have long enjoyed a unique connection. Many of the traits shared by top athletes and coaches are as valuable in the boardroom as they are in the locker room. Authors, speakers, and business consultants often use sports-related anecdotes and stories to illustrate points they’re trying to make to a business audience.

Today, I’d like to share a sports-related story with a slightly different twist. This tale doesn’t involve a famous player, team, or coach, and it doesn’t take place in the locker room or on the playing field. Instead, it involves two fans in the stands at AT&T Park in San Francisco.

Earlier this summer, the San Francisco Giants were hosting the Pittsburgh Pirates. In the top of the ninth inning, Pittsburgh’s Ryan Doumit hit a foul ball into the stands, and the cameras caught the image of a young fan catching the ball and then handing it to a stranger in front of him. The move was greeted with cheers from the people surrounding the boy. After some speculation, the TV announcers explained that, apparently, the other fan had caught a foul ball earlier in the game and handed it to the boy as a souvenir. He was just returning the favor.

Sometimes, it’s easy to get so caught up in the negativity around us that we start looking for ulterior motives in every seemingly kind act. But cynicism only breeds more cynicism, and every silver lining does not always involve a cloud. Occasionally, it takes a kind act (or two kind acts in this case) to remind us that fair play, generosity, and sportsmanship are still alive and well — in all areas of life.





Staying on Course

23 08 2011

The earth’s magnetic fields are in constant fluctuation. Earlier this year, The Independent (a London newspaper) reported that the magnetic north pole is “currently relocating towards Russia at a rate of about 40 miles a year.” According to the article, this speed “has increased by a third in the past decade” and represents a “faster [movement] than at any time in human history.”

The article goes on to talk about some of the ramifications these changes are bringing about. For example, magnetic compass directions are changing by about one degree per year, causing some airports to have to relabel runways to correspond with the new readings.

I mention this because it illustrates an important point for business owners. Like magnetic north, the business world is in a constant state of flux. Communication channels that didn’t exist five years ago (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) are now essential tools for marketing and customer interaction. Smartphones and handheld devices such as the iPad are changing the way people live, work, and shop. Competition for many of us has grown stiffer, and the rules are changing all the time.

Like airports that rely on magnetic compasses to identify their runways, we must keep a constant eye on the changes going on in our industries and in the business world at large. A one-degree change on a compass wheel may seem insignificant and small, but over time and across great distances, its impact can be severe.

Staying the course isn’t always the best way to stay on course, especially when the course keeps shifting.





What’s Your Story?

19 08 2011

Want to breathe some life into your marketing? Try telling a story.

The art of storytelling is as old as civilization itself. Through the years, storytellers have used their skills to educate, entertain, enthrall, and explain the world around them. Heroes, villains, gods, and demons. Storytellers breathe life into their characters and keep their audiences spellbound until the end.

So what does any of this have to do with business? A lot, really.

At its heart, marketing is storytelling. Like a storyteller of old, you need to connect with your audience (your customers and prospects), engage them, educate them, enthrall them, and inspire them to act on that newfound knowledge by buying your wares or responding to your offer.

Does that mean you need to strive to become the next Steinbeck or Shakespeare, or that you should fill your website with flowery prose? Certainly not. But it does mean you should try to make your materials more engaging and less dry, dull, and routine.

One way to tell your story is through the eyes of a satisfied customer. Case studies and testimonials provide an ideal medium. Start with a look at the customer involved. Introduce them and offer some background information about who they are and what they do. Next, present the challenge facing them (a difficult deadline, a tight budget, a bad experience with the competition). This will serve as your antagonist and provide the conflict necessary in all good storytelling. Finally, talk about how you (or someone at your company) helped them overcome those challenges and live happily ever after.

The key is to make the customer the focus of your story, not your company. Your company merely helps that person overcome their challenges. Readers need to relate to a story’s main character and to the struggles they face. Otherwise, they won’t feel invested in the story enough to care how it ends. They’ll also tune out if they sense a story is nothing more than chest-thumping and self-absorbed bravado.

Of course, storytelling isn’t limited just to case studies or testimonials. Consider your company-focused content, like your history and executive bios. Are there any interesting stories from your company’s past you’d like to share? For example, what led your company’s founders to start your company? Did they as consumers have a need that no one else was meeting? What challenges did they face? Were there any obstacles that stood in their way? And how did they position themselves to overcome those challenges…to the benefit of their customers (people like those who are reading your materials)?

Even product literature offers a chance to tell a story and captivate an audience. What led your company to introduce the product you’re writing about? What challenges does it help customers (like those reading your materials) overcome? How has customer feedback helped you improve the product? And what role do you see customer interaction playing in future product offerings and upgrades?

Notice a common theme here? In all of these, the focus is on the customer. They are the heroes of the stories you tell. It’s their challenges, struggles, and needs that shape your decisions and encourage you to do what you do.

And that makes for one very compelling storyline.





Location-Based Marketing: A Small-Business Primer

16 08 2011

Location-based services such as Gowalla, Foursquare, and Facebook Places are becoming increasingly popular. These services allow users to “check in” at restaurants, bars, stores, and other places of interest, directly from their smartphone or portable device. Users can add notes about the business, see who else is checked in, and earn points, badges, and other benefits. For their part, businesses can provide special incentives for customers who check in, such as coupons, discounts, and “check-in-only” specials.

AT&T got into the location-based act earlier this year when it launched ShopAlerts. The service (free to AT&T customers) sends text alerts to a user’s smartphone whenever the person is near a business that uses the ShopAlerts system. The messages contain product information, special promotions, event listings, or whatever the vendor wishes to say. Available in limited release in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, the company hopes to add more locations in the near future.

So should your business care about location-based marketing? Perhaps. At the very least, you’ll probably want to check your company’s listings on the most popular services (Facebook Places, Foursquare, and Gowalla) to a.) make sure there is a listing and b.) verify all the information is accurate. Typically, a service will require you to verify your claim of ownership before they allow you to edit any of the contact information. Foursquare recently changed its guidelines to make it easier to claim your business listing. Follow the links at the end of this post for more information.

You’ll also want to keep an eye on what users are saying when they check in. Read reviews and follow up on feedback, just as you would if someone voiced a complaint in person. As location-based services become more popular, people are using them to decide where to go to spend their money. Lousy reviews will hurt your referral traffic.

If you decide to run a promotion or special through a location-based service, make sure it’s tailored to your target audience. You can gauge the success of such efforts by tracking check-ins and people’s use of the promotions involved, then adapt your efforts and tweak them on the fly.

For more information about the most common services, here are a few links to get you started:

Facebook Places
Foursquare for Business
Gowalla – Business Services SCVNGR for Business
Yelp for Business Owners





Cycles

12 08 2011

Aristotle once called the circle “the perfect, first, and most beautiful form.” It’s the basis for the wheel, pi (and pie, for that matter), the Venn diagram, the “circle of life,” and cycles in general.

It’s this last idea — cycles — that I’d like to get into today. In particular, a couple of cycles related to business and sales. The first is the sales cycle — the steps needed to move a person or organization from prospect to customer. The particular steps may vary, but generally speaking they involve identifying the prospect, establishing a relationship, recognizing needs, presenting a solution, overcoming objections, closing the sale, and getting referrals so the process can start again.

Sounds pretty reasonable and straightforward, right? In theory, yes. In practice, though, things don’t always go as planned. One reason for this comes when a salesperson becomes so enamored in the system and a “by the book” approach (i.e., “this is how we do things”) that he or she forgets the equally (or even more) important cycle that is taking place simultaneously — the buying cycle. Like the gears of an engine or riders on a tandem bike, those cycles must work together in sync if the salesperson can hope to close the sale.

As with sales cycles, buying cycles are defined by a series of steps that ultimately lead to a purchasing decision. The difference is, the buying cycle focuses on the customer, rather than the salesperson.

Buying cycles can vary widely from one person or organization to the next and even from one situation to another. These variances often depend on the buyer’s familiarity and level of comfort with the company, product, and salesperson involved. While one person may appreciate a salesperson who shepherds them along toward a purchasing decision, another may view that same salesperson as overbearing or obtrusive. These feelings may ultimately slow the process and hinder the salesperson’s chances for success.

Understanding a customer’s attitudes and buying cycle begins with getting to know that person and their individual needs. That means actively listening, asking questions, and investing time in making the prospect feel appreciated. Yes, I mentioned this as part of the sales cycle, too, but unfortunately, it’s a step that is sometimes glossed over or forgotten in an effort to speed things along to the sale.

A buying cycle focus forces the salesperson to conform to the customer’s expectations, rather than pushing that person through a preconceived model of how a sale should proceed. The salesperson still needs to guide the prospect through the process, but in a way that leaves the customer feeling like they’re in control and are making a wise decision.





Door Hanger Marketing

9 08 2011

If you’re looking for a unique way to target a specific market, the solution may be hanging under your nose.

Because door hangers stand alone without competition, they are more likely to be read and remembered. While you can easily maximize marketing real estate and print messaging on both sides of the hanger, be careful not to bombard the reader with information. Door hangers are most effective when you provide a simple yet enticing message as creative as the hanger itself. Direct the reader to contact you or visit your website for more information.

While a single door hanger can create a lasting impression, a follow-up door hanger campaign will create even greater awareness and help readers think of you when their need for your product or service arises.

Want to track your campaign or ensure your recipients hang onto your door hanger after removing it from the knob? Consider including a tear-away discount card or coupon, affixing a magnet to the back, or offering a calendar of upcoming promotions and giveaways.