I was looking back over previous blog entries and was startled to see the date of our first post, way back in 2000. Was it really that long ago? We launched our first web site in the mid-1990s and our blog followed soon after. How have communications changed in that time?
Changes in communication since 2000
Technology has driven many changes in communication, with the development of social media, greater access to video and many new ways of communicating that we didn’t have back then. We’ve also seen services come and go, like Google+ and Vine, while others have been all the rage for businesses for a year or two before falling out of favour.
At the moment, it seems that social media services are imposing more restrictions on users, meaning that businesses have to work harder to get their messages across. For some years, users were able to automate posts and bombard networks with sales messages. Twitter and Facebook especially are making it harder to do this in an effort to make their networks more social. Whether they’ll succeed in turning back the clock to the pre-automation days remains to be seen.
Currently, many businesses seem to be moving on to Instagram, much as they previously embraced Twitter and Facebook, and it will be interesting to see how individual users respond to this. LinkedIn, which has always been more business focused, seems to attracting more interaction too. Yet nothing stands still and it is impossible to say which will be the most important networks in five years’ time.
Which is your essential network?
Inevitably, you’re going to find that one or two social media networks or online channels work more effectively for your business than others – and they are where you’ll want to focus most of your efforts – but it’s vital not to depend on them.
I used to love Vine as an outlet for my personal videos and thrived on the creativity of creating looping six-second videos. After Vine closed, I haven’t really found a community which suits me so well, even though I am now more active on Instagram.
The same could happen to any service you come to depend on for your business. That network or channel could suddenly change its rules without warning to disadvantage you, perhaps even preventing you from posting, or even disappear along with all your content, as Google+ did. Developing your own web site, blog and offline materials is important so that, whatever happens to your preferred social media networks or other services, you control and maintain your own presence at all times and don’t lose access to your audience.
Your own network – whether on or offline – is essential to you and must be resilient enough to withstand the loss of any third party channel.
Attracting attention takes effort
Attracting attention always takes effort. That’s why shortcuts promising to save time and energy often appeal to us. The big digital players – social media networks and search engines – are also aware of this and have become more vigilant to stop users bending the rules for an easier life and faster results. Much of the convenience provided by automatic posting is disappearing as networks crack down on spam, fake followers and similar practices. Remember how some web sites used to display white text on a white background to fool search engines? Not any more. Neither can anyone cram web pages with keywords out of context. Quality of content has become more important again and that’s good, although it presents the challenge of creating original, interesting content all the time.
I’ve been creating digital communications since 1985 and consider online tools valuable, yet in 2019 I’ve just launched a print magazine. The reason is that the medium does not matter: it’s the content that’s important. Content that attracts attention is essential, whatever the medium.
It also means that quick results can be more difficult to achieve. You have to be in it for the long haul, publishing original blogs and social media posts, taking photos and video, and mixing these with offline communications, from newsletters, adverts and brochures to live communication including phone calls, face-to-face meetings and events. Depending on the nature of your business, some of these will be more effective than others.
Attracting future customers
Almost two decades since our first post, we now have the most remarkable selection of communications tools at our disposal. Applied with thought and creativity, there is no limit to what we can achieve through communication – when we commit appropriate time, effort and resources – to attract customers’ attention.
As Business Editor of a newspaper, I often received phone calls from people who had started businesses and realised that they hadn’t thought about how to tell everyone. Promotion is vital for start-ups and there are many ways of doing it when you don’t have a big budget. A business will never bloom if it’s kept in the dark.
Maybe you’ve opened a shop or an online store, launched a service or started manufacturing products. You’re good at what you do and you know it, but potential customers need to know too so they start buying fast.
Getting people to notice your business can be a big challenge with so many options available, but which ones should you use? At first, you won’t necessarily know what works best, so monitoring responses as you go along is important.
Start . . .
What’s available? Paid advertising, social media, PR, leaflets and brochures, direct mail, email marketing, blogging, radio and TV, events and exhibitions, networking and more, but it’s unlikely you’ll be able to manage or afford everything, even if they do all work.
First, it’s good to have contact points for anyone who hears about your business and is looking to find out more or wants to buy. If you’ve got a shop or premises, you can do a lot with signage or otherwise a web site is the most obvious start. While you may want a big, sophisticated site, even a holding page giving your contact details – premises address, email and phone number – will help people to contact you. It’s also easy and free to create a Facebook page or open a Twitter or Instagram account. You can decide whether you want to build your presence on these networks as you go along. You can also give out business cards or printed leaflets to people you meet.
You might not be able to start with all the materials you would like, but, don’t worry, you can always build a bigger, better web site and get better brochures and business cards designed and printed. Few people start businesses with everything they want and marketing usually evolves.
Word of mouth
The main thing is to start, whether it’s simply telling your family and friends. Word of mouth is always effective. The more people who know, the more they are likely to tell people they know and spread the news about you even further. It’s free too and you can do it quickly. You don’t have to sell to everyone, so don’t feel anxious about people thinking you’re putting pressure on them. Think of the excitement you feel at starting your own business and use this to tell people your good news. Many people will be genuinely interested. Of course, if you have a special offer, an event or other activity you think they’ll be interested in, do mention it.
Networking meetings, where you meet up with other business owners to learn about and support each other, is another form of word-of-mouth promotion. There are usually one or two groups meeting in most areas and costs will vary from the price of a breakfast at an early morning meeting to annual membership, which could require you to attend regularly. Do bear in mind the commitment to attend weekly or monthly. Networking works well for some types of business and some people love it, while others can’t stand it. Most groups allow you to go along as a guest for one or two meetings to try it out.
When it works well, you can build a far-reaching network so that when you talk to fellow networkers, they can recommend you to all their contacts with the potential to reach hundreds and even thousands of people.
PR and advertising
Unless you need just one or two customers, it’s likely that you’ll need a lot more people to know about your business. Also, your market might not be local and need you to reach customers across the country or abroad. That’s where you’ll need to distribute publicity or advertising messages through printed newspapers or magazines or on the internet via your web site, social media services and directories.
There is so much you can do here, from free activities, such as sending a press release and photo to your local newspaper, to complex internet advertising campaigns. If you have little budget, you can run social media campaigns yourself, writing your own posts and sharing photos or video. Many small businesses do this themselves very professionally, although it does take a lot of time and effort. You may also want to advertise in local magazines or newspapers or in industry publications.
Persistence and patience
Whatever you choose, be persistent and patient. If you are extremely lucky or establish your expertise quickly, you’ll get an instant response, but for most of us it takes time to establish awareness of a business.
Whatever you do, keep doing something. If one activity doesn’t work, give it a chance. It’s unlikely that people will respond to or even notice one advert, social media post or other form of contact. They’ll need to see your brand again and again before they remember you.
You can carry out most of these activities simply at first and develop them as your business grows, eventually reaching a stage where you need to employ specialists to build web sites, manage online advertising and handle the complexity of more advanced promotional activity.
But when you’re starting out, it’s important to get your business out there as soon as you can. Only then can it start to bloom.
• Robert Zarywacz writes for and about businesses as a partner in Zarywacz. His experience includes Technology Correspondent for a business magazine and Business Editor of a local newspaper. He co-developed the pressme service of fixed-price article, blog and press release writing for small businesses.
That’s what I did when I received an unsolicited email. The first part of the subject heading was the price, which was followed by the name of a seminar being promoted.
I deleted it.
Then I retrieved it because I wondered whether the company actually got any response as this approach made no need to persuade me, but rather turned me against the offering straight away. And it’s made me think: I don’t like being sold to like this, but perhaps this company has found it to work.
That’s one of the important things about any form of marketing and sales. We’re not selling to ourselves, but to other people who often have very different tastes and preferences.
I still don’t like this approach and binned the email again.
No, we don’t have a franking machine. No, I don’t want to win tickets to football matches. No, no, no.
It’s all right, I woke up feeling cheerful this morning, so why the rant?
It’s not really a rant, but annoyance at poor marketing.
When I go to a cashpoint, I don’t want to be offered the chance to win football tickets as I have no interest in football. The assumption that I am interested annoys me. Now, promotions through cash machines are a challenge to target as most people need cash, both those who like sport and those who don’t. If my bank wants to drive away non-sports lovers, it’s doing a good job. If it wants to keep us happy, it could either stop offering football tickets or offer a range of tickets for other activities, eg theatre, music, film. These wouldn’t just not annoy me but would actually attract me to participate in the promotion.
And I wouldn’t feel so annoyed if sales people phoned up and asked if we had a franking machine rather than asking to speak to the person in charge of the franking machine which we haven’t got. How sloppy is this? If they can’t be bothered to establish whether or not the franking machine they think we have exists, it’s unlikely they would provide good service had we got one.
Just a slight alteration and all annoyance can be avoided.
It’s worth remembering if you don’t want to annoy potential customers.
If a business doesn’t promote its products and services to potential customers, it won’t be a business for very long. Every business has to do it, from global brands to sole traders.
Some people don’t like talking about how good they are, while others are only too happy to hear the sound of their own voices again and again . . . and very often . . . again.
How you promote your business is up to you – subtly, vigorously or outrageously – although it’s best to choose a style that won’t alienate customers.
What’s important is that the claims you make should not be outrageous, even if the way you make them is. For example, claims to be a social media guru could be undermined where an individual has a very small number of visible online contacts or rarely communicates with anyone. People are likely to ask: “How can they be an expert when they don’t seem to be capable of doing it themselves?” Even if there is a good answer to this, few will hang around long enough to find out.
It’s rare to get a second chance so make sure you can substantiate every claim for eagle-eyed customers.
It’s good to be able to believe what we read and see, but experience teaches us not to trust everything. In the world of marketing, advertising and PR, colours can often appear brighter, flavours more tempting and experiences more exciting than in the real world or so it seems . . . until we make a reality check.
Do airline adverts match up to the experience of being squeezed into a Smarties tube? Do car adverts reflect those notorious intermittent faults that main dealers can’t track even with their hi-tech diagnostics programs? Does this year’s new toothpaste taste any different from the new toothpaste of last year and every year before that?
Have to make a quick cynicism adjustment here. Ah, that’s better.
But is it really possible to create promotional material that is genuine, truly representative of the product or service and still interesting enough to excite customers?
Yes, although sometimes advertisers can get too close to their products. After the market research, the product development and design, the brand creation, it can be difficult not to get excited. After all, if you don’t believe in your product, why should your customers? But it’s important to remember that your product could be just one of a dozen, hundreds or thousands of similar products on the market.
Just saying a product is exciting, innovative or better won’t make it any of these. If you want to say it’s better, faster, more efficient, then prove it. Give real examples backed by data. Get customers to test it and give their opinions. If they say it is better, that’s great.
Does it matter? Will anyone notice? They probably will and customers don’t like to be tricked, deceived or misled, even if you genuinely believe your product beats all the competition. Both you and your customers are likely to have greater confidence in your product when you back up your claims and it could even give you an edge over competitors whose claims are vague and unproven.
When everyone else already seems to be saying everything that could possibly be said about business, there are times when the choice of going outside and enjoying the sunshine can appear preferable to thinking about something original to say about your own business.
However, no business survives without customers and most of us have to promote or advertise our products and services to attract those customers.
So what can you say that hasn’t already been said a million times before?
Ideas rarely come out of thin air, so it’s good to start with your business plan and objectives, as all communications should be based on these. If you’ve got a communications plan, this should also give some ideas of what you want to achieve.
Start by listing topics based around products, services, launches, events, achievements, changes or industry developments. If your business is seasonal, do you change your products every quarter? If your business is linked to events triggered within your industry, list key changes about to occur or important dates. If you have product launches or events, list these too.
When you’ve made your list, start to fit these to dates when you need to blog about them, issue a press release, update your web site or produce a new brochure. If you don’t already have a communications plan, this could be the basis of one.
Announcements don’t need to be major, although the appointment of a junior employee is unlikely to hit the broadsheet newspapers and you should have realistic expectations of what each piece of news is capable of achieving. That doesn’t stop you aiming as high as possible, especially when you do have a really good story.
Also, you may have a great story without knowing it. Ask colleagues or contacts what they think about specific issues. If they’re excited about them, will your audience also be interested in them? What appears uninteresting to you could be exciting to your audience.
By creating a store of ideas, which you can add to regularly, you’ll never be short of an interesting topic to write or talk about.
After yesterday’s blog, have you thought about how well you check your written material?
z2zine tomorrow: Think before engaging typing finger!
So we’ve developed a communications plan and are putting it into practice by working towards long-term goals and taking short-term actions daily, but how do we know if anything’s working?
Like anything we do in business, it’s essential to measure success, especially where we’re putting a lot of time or money into an activity.
Our business plan will suggest appropriate targets to us, but we have to work out how to tell if we are meeting these.
There are many different ways of measuring the success of communications. One of the simplest is to ask people, such as asking customers how they found out about your company or product. You can do this in person or on the phone or develop a more comprehensive survey for people to fill in.
You can also develop specific response mechanisms so that customers respond with a unique code printed in an advert (letting you know they saw that advert) or access a special web page so you can count how many responses your activity generated. While simply measuring increases in responses or sales tells you that your communications are working, it won’t tell you why it’s working or which activities work better than others. If you advertise in three publications, it’s useful to know which one generates a bigger response as you might wish to increase your advertising in that one and stop advertising in the other two. You can use this in any form of communication, not just for advertising and marketing.
By discovering what works best, you can focus on successful methods and stop or improve less productive activities. Your planning and use of communications will become more sophisticated and you will get more value from your communications budget.
After our last blog, are you taking action every day?
z2zine next Monday: Realistic communication objectives