Build Trust, Build a Business

There are two ways to build a business.  The first method is the Market-Sell model.  In this model, you market your product, and then you sell it.  Repeat ad nauseum. That’s it. The second method is Market-Connect-Sell-Support-Sell Again.  Market your product, connect with your customers, and then sell your product.  But you’re not done yet, because then you need to support your customers post-sale, because ultimately, your goal is to have them buy from you again.

The difference between the two methods is that the second method leads to more repeat customers, which is a more efficient way of building a business.  It’s also a hell of a lot more fun as a small business to connect with your customers than it is to sell to faceless strangers.  The secret ingredient to method #2 is trust.

Building trust online is not easy.  It’s a lot easier to trust someone that you’ve looked him in the eye and shook hands.  The internet, almost by definition, is untrustworthy.  Our beloved world wide web still has a reputation for being a hangout for seedy characters (the Dave Chappelle skit about what the internet would look like if it were a real place is a pretty good depiction of how the web is viewed – unfortunately, I can’t link to it because I’m in Canada, and Comedy Central doesn’t like Canadians).

In order to overcome the additional barriers of gaining trust that are imposed by the internet, small business owners need to find ways to connect with their customers.  Luckily, doing this is not as difficult as it might seem.  Connecting with a customer is as simple as dropping him a personalized e-mail to see how he’s enjoying his products; or keeping your ears open on social media for anyone talking about your brand and responding quickly and politely; or providing excellent post sale customer service; or interacting with fans on a Facebook fan page; or getting them to come in to your physical location with a Foursquare offer, and then connecting in person; or any other number of possible methods. In short, trust is about connecting, and connecting is about being human.

The above mentioned methods are all direct methods of earning trust.  If you try to do that with each and every one of your customers, you will either be limiting yourself to a small number of customers, or you’ll be tapping yourself out at some point, and then you won’t be connecting well with anyone.  Thus, small business owners need to earn trust indirectly.

Everyone trusts someone, and that person doesn’t necessarily need to be you.  As long as the people who trust you, are spreading the word about you to people who trust them, you’re building trust indirectly.  This is what Seth Godin refers to as building your tribe. (affiliate link)

The doubters of trust and human business always claim that trying to build trust isn’t a scalable business model, and so processes and efficiencies are more important than connection.  Indirect trust building, and having people that trust you enough to use their own influence to spread word about you is how building trust scales.

There are a few trust building exercises most small business can implement quickly:

1) Maintain a blog. Show your expertise in your field, and show your personality.  People trust people, not faceless entities.

2) Video posts. On the internet, you may not be able to shake someone’s hand, but with video, you can at least look them in the eye.  Videos are a great way to build trust.

3) Write a book. This may be easier said than done, but have you ever noticed that a published author gains instant credibility?  People are far more likely to trust someone who has published a work that demonstrates his or her expertise, even if they’ve never read it.

4) Provide exceptional customer service. Think providing exceptional customer service is difficult?  Think again.  All you need to do is under-promise, and over-deliver.

You can have the most efficient processes in the world in place to run your company, it can run like a well-oiled machine, but if you don’t have the trust of your customers, you’re not going very far.

Don’t believe me?  Just ask Toyota.

Education and Creativity

I’ve been reading and talking about education a lot lately. The Next Great Generation, a site which I’m an editor for, is having a whole week about the topic, so for some in depth thoughts on it from some bright young minds, I think you should take a look. I also have a long-winded piece coming up on that site about the topic, but I wanted to give a quick look into how western education systems affect creativity.

I went through a very normal public school education. I feel like I have a good picture of what a decent public school education looks like, and all I can say is that as far as fostering creativity goes, it sucks. How do I know this? Because I was great at school. Seriously, I was really, really good at school. I was the kid you hate because he doesn’t even try and still gets A’s. Where’d it get me? Into an academic advisor’s office that kept pushing me to do pre-med even though I hated all physical sciences. Once I finally decided to ignore that advice, where did my good grades get me? Law school. Fat lot of good that did me.

Do you see the problem here? Our best students are getting pushed towards careers that are completely empirical, and leave no room for creativity. We don’t need more lawyers and accountants. Yes, we need more doctors, but maybe if there were people coming up with creative solutions to the underlying causes of illness, we wouldn’t.

I’m not suggesting that our society will improve dramatically if we have more dance instructors or sculptors. I’m suggesting that every single function in society could be well-served with an injection of creativity. Let’s stop teaching people how to do things, and let’s encourage them to figure out their own way of doing things.

And one last thing, a $40,000+ piece of paper doesn’t prove anything other than that you can memorize information and regurgitate it onto a page. So, I beg you, if you’re one of those people who tries to impress others with his degrees, stop. Just stop. Please.

The e-Book – Should I, or Shouldn’t I?

More and more, SMB’s are blogging, getting involved in social media, creating videos, and otherwise becoming publishers of content. The e-book is a popular format of publishing content on the web, but is it a format that SMB’s should embrace?

This is not a blog dedicated to home-based businesses, or get rich quick schemes.  Nor is it geared towards affiliate marketers, or people who sell exclusively information products. That being said, this is a blog geared towards small and medium sized businesses, and all of the above businesses fit that description, and in many cases, many SMB’s could learn a thing or two from them.

Chances are, if you’ve been looking for marketing advice online, someone has tried to sell, or give, you an e-book that will teach you how to market online.  An incredible percentage of these e-books serve the purpose of teaching you how to create the exact same kind of e-book to sell to make money online.  Others will actually go a little more in depth into broader online marketing techniques.

If you’ve downloaded or bought one or more of these e-books you know their quality varies dramatically.  I will admit to not being a huge purchaser of e-books. especially not those that promise to teach you how to make money online, but I will admit that several years ago, my first foray into online marketing was as a university student looking to make a few extra bucks, and so I bought an e-book for $50 that was supposed to teach me how to make a living as an affiliate marketer.

Most of the stuff in that e-book was not actionable, it was poorly written, and I’m pretty sure some of it may have been borderline black hat, but nonetheless, that was my first exposure to pay-per-click advertising, and the beginning of a path that would eventually lead to a career in marketing.  So, in some ways, that $50 e-book was worth more to me than my law degree (which was considerably more expensive).

The problem with e-books is that no one trusts them, because there are so many bad ones floating around the internet.  E-books can be written on any topic, and while “how to make money online” is often a popular topic, e-books exist on every topic from immigration to pet grooming.  And there is an equal number of really terrible ones on each of these topics, and those probably account for 99% of the e-books on the web.

I’m a big believer in the web as a publishing platform, but despite all the flaws of the traditional publishing model, it has one huge advantage: it acts as a filter. Publishers will only publish something they think is good enough to make them a profit.  Online, anyone can publish anything with nothing more than a prayer that it’ll be read, and if it doesn’t, oh well, no associated costs, so no real risk.  The result is a deluge of terrible works being self-published, and users/readers having to wade through all this garbage to find a few gems.

This is why users/readers are weary of the e-book. They’ve been burned too many times by really bad content, and don’t want to be bothered sifting through anymore.

The age where selling e-books was a profitable online business model is rapidly coming to a close, because there is not enough value in them in general.  While some e-books are worth their sticker price, users will not pay it because of poor previous experiences.

That does not mean, however, that the e-book as a tool is not useful to businesses looking to market online.  While the e-book should not be looked at as a direct source of revenue, an e-book can be used as a lead generation tool.  The idea is to create an e-book that has so much value, and offers so much to the reader, that the publisher actually breaks through the perception of bad content, and builds trust with the reader as an expert in a given industry.  This trust is then leveraged in such a way that the reader can potentially become a customer.

The e-book needs to have great value for a potential customer, while recognizing that it will likely not return significant revenues in and of itself.  However, its value to the business that publishes it as a reputation and awareness builder can be worth far more than a few hundred dollars of revenue from the sticker price.

If this sounds familiar to readers of this blog, it’s because the process is the same as it is for many other forms of marketing.  Instead of writing an e-book, to build that trust, a business can build a kick-ass blog; it can guest post on other people’s blogs like crazy; it can help users in forums; it can participate in social media discussions.

At the end of the day, whether the format is an e-book, a white paper or a blog, the end goal is the same: Provide exceptional value to a potential customer in order to build trust, and to hopefully generate a lead that will be likely to generate a sale.

Are You Losing Revenue Because You’re Not Cross-Selling?

Have you ever stumbled upon a niche website, and thought to yourself, “How do these guys stay in business? There can’t be more than a handful of people in the world who want their products!”  It’s a fantastic question, because niche markets are some of the most lucrative around, despite the fact that they are, by definition, very small.

When a niche business needs to increase revenues, it is not going to go looking for new customers, because frankly, there aren’t that many out there.  Instead, it will rely on selling more to its existing customers.  There are a couple of ways to do this.  One is by offering exceptional customer service.  Another is through cross-selling.

Cross-selling is defined as selling an additional product to an existing customer, and it is the ideal way for any small business, not just niche businesses, to make more money without increasing their marketing costs.

There are a number of reasons to cross-sell, and the foremost is that it’s cheap and easy.  Because cross-selling is happening to customers that you already have, you can do it on your own properties without paying for advertising.  You can do this on your website by promoting products other than the one the customer’s currently looking at.  You can do it on the receipt of the product that the customer has already purchased.  If you report on a service, you can cross-sell in a report (“With product A, you are currently getting X.  If you purchase product B, you will also get Y.”).  If you have a mailing list, you can cross-sell on your mailing list.  The ways are virtually unlimited, and their costs are all negligible.  The process is easy because you’re not going out looking for new customers.  You’re targeting the ones right in front of you.

Cross-selling is further facilitated by the fact that your existing customers already like you.  You know this because they have purchased your product.  If they did not like you (or your product as the case may be), they wouldn’t have bought it in the first place.  It is far easier to sell to a customer who is already familiar with you and likes your products enough to have purchased them in the first place than it is to market to someone cold.

Cross-selling also allows you to open your customer’s eyes to additional opportunities that they may have never considered before.  When cross-selling, the only rule should be that the products you are trying to push on your customers should be at least marginally related to what they originally purchased.  If the product is in no way related to the original purpose, you’re no better than a spammer.  If, however, the product is identical to what you’ve already offered the customer, he either won’t be interested because he already has one, or you’ll cannibalize an existing sale because he’ll simply switch from one product to another.  As such, when cross-selling, the key is to promote a product that is related without being identical.  Sold a car?  Promote maintenance packages.  Signed a landscaping contract?  Promote your snow removal services.  Design websites?  Promote your marketing offerings.  An easy way to accomplish this is if you have sold a product, promote a service, and vice versa.

Some businesses are hesitant to cross-sell to their customers because they fear it might come across as too pushy. Your customer’s already given you cash, should you really continue to bother him?  Maybe you’ll annoy him and he’ll never come back.  While that concern isn’t entirely unfounded (I ordered a shirt from Armani Exchange for a friend, the ensuing deluge of promotional offers I received in my inbox made me vow never to purchase anything from them ever again), in most instances, cross-selling is actually seen as a service by the customer, especially if done well.

Consider for example, Amazon’s “Frequently Bought Together” and “Customers Who Bought This Also Bought” sections.  These sections which are presented as friendly suggestions are fantastic cross-selling tools.  I have found many great books from these sections, and while I recognize that it’s Amazon trying to get more of my business, I genuinely appreciate the quality suggestions that are given in these areas.  Below are some of their suggestions given on the page for one of my favourite novels, On the Road by Jack Kerouac (affiliate link). If you’re a Kerouac fan, you’ll probably want to read those books.

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In short, if you’re not cross-selling to your advertisers, you’re missing out on an easy way to increase revenues with little effort, and little costs, which has the nice side effect of offering a valuable service to your customers.  Cross-selling is possibly the greatest sales technique ever created.

How Much is Customer Service Worth? About $900M

If you’ve ever used a call tracking service to measure a marketing campaign, you know that you get a ton of interesting information from those services that include how many calls a tracking number gets, the sources of all those calls, the duration of each call, and you can even get recordings of each call.  This level of call tracking is much more sophisticated than anything most small businesses have in place, and yet, I think getting something like this would help them out a great deal.  Not only because it’s a great way to measure their marketing campaigns, but also because it’s a great way to see how good their customer service is.

I’ve written before about how marketing is more than a funnel, it’s an hourglass, and marketing efforts don’t end at getting customers in the door, but rather continue on to post-sale support, because a return customer is infinitely more valuable than a one-and-done customer. And the way to get repeat customers is to deliver exceptional customer service.

In July 2009,, the world’s largest online retailer showed the world just how much exceptional customer service was worth by buying for about $900M.  For those that are unfamiliar with Zappos, they are an online retailer, much like Amazon, that started out selling shoes.  While many online advertisers compete on price, what made Zappos unique was that it built a reputation of providing exceptional service.  Service so exceptional that customers who bought from Zappos, would continue to buy from Zappos even if they could find their goods elsewhere for less money.

So, why did Amazon buy Zappos?  Let’s be clear, Amazon is a technology juggernaut.  When it comes to technology, there was nothing that Zappos had that Amazon did not, or could not have built for less than the $900M purchase price.  What Zappos had was a world class customer service reputation, and a philosophy that Amazon saw that it needed to emulate if it wanted to continue to succeed in the low margin world of online retail.

Zappos’ service is unique in a number of ways, but their difference starts with their corporate culture, and the kinds of people they recruit.  Zappos has a policy that after weeks of intense customer service training, they will pay employees to quit.  The goal of this seemingly bizarre practice is to weed out anyone who will not be compatible with Zappos’ values.  Zappos never says that the people that don’t work for them aren’t good enough, but they do say that those who do work for them all share the same values when it comes to customer service.

While I was not able to find anything more recent, there is a telling stat from 2005 that showed that in that year, 60% of Zappos’ business was from returning customers, the holy grail of any business.  That is telling of just how satisfied customers are with their service.

However, beyond any stats, to understand how truly exceptional the company is, you need only talk to a customer.  I’ve spoken with people who are as loyal to Zappos as Grateful Dead fans.  They love this company the way most companies can only dream of being loved.  You will hear stories of Zappos replying almost instantly to anything posted on the web about them, to customer service agents walking people through an order process on a competitor’s website, accept returns on items that clearly should not be returned, and even just talk to customers who need an ear.

I’m not suggesting that every business should go and become the next Zappos, but I am pointing to them as an example of two things.  First, customer service is an excellent marketing tool because it costs less than most other marketing, and returns more.  Second, delivering exceptional value in some form or another, is a fantastic way to build a business.

Don’t believe me?  Just ask Zappos, they have 900 million reasons why you should.

The Single Biggest Mistake Small Businesses Make on the Web

In working with small businesses, I’ve come to a conclusion: They like to burn their money.  Most SMBs are wasting their marketing budgets.  They invest in all the right kinds of marketing.  They invest in search marketing, and social media, and buy display advertising in all the right spots.  They target the right demographics. They hire good copywriters.  They’ve got all the elements for success.  The problem is, they don’t know if they’re actually succeeding, because most small business do not track their return on investment (ROI).

Simply put, if you want to measure the effectiveness of any marketing, the only thing you need to track is ROI.  If your ROI is positive, your marketing is working.  If it’s negative, you need to make a change.  Some might think that a negative ROI is the worst thing that could happen to a SMB.  I disagree.  The worst thing that could happen to a SMB is not tracking ROI at all, because if you don’t track ROI, how can you know what’s working and what’s not?  Then, whatever is not working, will continue to cost you money with no benefit and you won’t realize it until you’ve already spent too much money.

SMBs generally have very small marketing budgets compared to big business.  As such, if they’re to compete, then they need to make sure that every dollar of that budget is being spent as effectively as possible.  The small business doesn’t have the luxury of buying media space and running 30 second spots in primetime on the prayer that it’ll make the phone ring.  The primary concern of every SMB should be, “How do I spent my budget most efficiently?” The only way to answer that question is to track ROI.

There is a misconception that tracking ROI is difficult.  It simply means tracking what kind of revenue each of your marketing efforts is returning to you.  ROI is calculated simply enough as ((value generated)-(investment))/(investment)*100.  This means that you need to track three things:

1. investment: The amount of money being put into a given marketing campaign.  This should be the easiest part.
2. Value generated: The amount of money that was generated that can be tied specifically to that marketing campaign.  In order to accurately track this number, you need the third element of tracking.
3. The conversion funnel: The process by which visitors arrive at your site, and the path they follow until the eventual conversion.  This can be done relatively easily using free tools such as Google Analytics.  I could devote an entire post to ways of doing this, but for now, I suggest playing around with Google Analytics.

Instead of focusing on step-by-steps of how to set up conversion tracking, I want to instead focus on some fundamentals that are often overlooked.

First, you can’t measure ROI, if you haven’t determined what a conversion on the web is for you.  It’s unrealistic to think that for every business on the web, a conversion is a sale.  If your website is meant to make your presence known, and create awareness, and purchases happen in store, measuring your ROI for a web marketing campaign by sales is going to be frustrating.  Instead, define your conversions as the end goal that occurs on the web. Some common examples include newsletter registrations and other sign-ups, requests for estimates, downloads of a brochure or an e-book, or even arrival on a specific page of a website.

Second, remember that at the end of the day, we’re tracking return on investment, and the only way to do this is by using monetary values.  Therefore, whatever you have chosen to define as a conversion, you must assign a monetary value to it. This is often where businesses break down in their conversion tracking process.  How can one assign a monetary value to a free newsletter?  The answer is to rely on estimates and experience.  As the business owner, you and only you, should have some idea of what kind of value certain actions have for you.  If you know that for every 100 newsletter sign-ups, you sell 1 widget for $375, then the revenue associated to each sign-up is 1/100th of the revenue generated by the widget: $3.75.

The more precise your estimates as to the value of each action in your conversion funnel, the more accurate your calculation of ROI will be.  Therefore, the longer you track ROI, the more accurate it will be, because you will be refining your estimates as you go.

To continue our earlier example, we had determined that a newsletter sign-up, our defined conversion was worth $3.75.  However, we have yet to determine exactly what the ROI on this marketing campaign was.  So, let’s assume that you spent $1,000 on this marketing campaign, and it generated 2,000 visits to your site, and that you converted those visits at a rate of 10% for 200 newsletter sign-ups.  I threw a lot of numbers in there, but in reality, we’re only concerned with the beginning and ending numbers: $1,000 spent, and 200 newsletter sign-ups as a result.  Recalling that ROI is ((value generated)-(investment))/(investment)*100, we can calculate our ROI.

Value generated in this instance is 200 newsletter sign-ups at a value of $3.75 each, so 200 x $3.75 = $750 of value generated.  We also know that the investment was $1,000.  Plugging all this into the above formula we get: ((750)-(1000))/(1000)*100=-25

So, the return on investment was -25%.  This marketing campaign resulted in a 25% loss of its initial investment.  While that may not be great news for the business owner, the fact that he knows that this marketing campaign is returning a negative ROI means that he can now take appropriate measures to correct this, either by modifying the marketing campaign, or ditching it for a new strategy.

At the end of the day, what’s important is to know exactly how your marketing budget is being spent, and to determine whether it’s being spent effectively.  Business owners need to think of their marketing as an investment if they want to be successful, and as with any investment, what matters is the results.

Do you track ROI on your marketing campaigns?  If so, what techniques do you use to do so?  If not, what’s stopping you?  Let’s chat about it in the comments.

Marketers are Artists and Artists are Marketers

Please note that this is a cross-post with my other blog: 52 Short Stories

Last week, I wrote about the story behind launching my new side project, iL-Logic the webcomic.  However, I thought of myself as a writer long before I launched iL-Logic with Paul.  I’ve been writing outside of work and school for pleasure or for money since the age of about fourteen. While I’m much more satisfied with my career now than I was upon graduating law school, it’s still a far cry from the artist’s lifestyle that I fantasized about as a teen, and yet, I wonder if I didn’t end up exactly where I needed to be.

As much as any artist will tell you that the work itself is the reward, there’s still a big part of himself (that he’s probably buried) that longs to have his work in front of hundreds of eyeballs.  That’s why many aspiring artists end up giving up their craft. They never get there.

I’ll use the launch of iL-Logic as an example.  On March 1st, the day the webcomic was launched, it went quasi-viral.  Before I could announce it on Facebook or Twitter, or even tell friends about it, someone had come across it and submitted it to social bookmarking site Stumbleupon.  On that first day, Stumbleupon accounted for 80% of the site’s traffic, and that first day saw twice as much traffic than my best day on any of my other sites.  If you don’t think Paul and I were elated by that day because we were just doing it for the art, you have too high an opinion of us, and probably of all artists. The bottom line is that all artists get off on seeing their work in front of others.

And what’s the best way to get content in front of eyeballs?  That’s right, marketing.

With the highly competitive nature of just about every industry, the main differentiator between two options will always be the quality of the content, product, service, etc. The best people to create great content and products are the artists and craftsmen (and the best craftsmen are artists). But even a great product needs attention, and for that, artists must once again rely on marketers.

Marketing is becoming a numbers-based science, and that’s a great step for advertisers. Advertisers are sure to get their money’s worth when they’re paying for performance, rather than conjecture. However, it’s not very appealing to artists, who generally speaking don’t love numbers. Talk to a lot of old school ad men, and I bet that a fair bit of them are nostalgic for the times when clients like John Wanamaker knew that, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” That’s because old school ad men were artists at heart, trapped in the bodies of marketers.

Still, “true” artists have always had a certain disdain for marketing.  Whether this stems from a mistaken belief that commercial marketing cheapens the work, or that it equates to “selling out,” or simply because marketing was associated with business, and business was not art.  And so, artists have traditionally stuck to making art, and letting someone else sell it for them.

Agents, publishers, galleries, and other entities whose goal is to take the work of artists and sell it have left most artists poor and desolate. Unless an artist becomes a part of the top 1% in his field, he is unlikely to make a middle-class living off his art using the traditional models.  This is simply because the entities that have existed to sell artists’ works on their behalf have become so bloated that they absorb all of the revenues of the work.

As an example, a writer who spends a year of his life writing a novel can expect to get a paltry advance of perhaps $5,000 to $10,000 on the book, and then will receive royalties, that if he’s lucky may go as high as 10%.  This means the publisher, who is taking the expense of marketing the book keeps 90% of the revenues.  The writer’s agent will then keep 10-15% of whatever the writer makes.  Despite this model, publishers are going out of business, and writers can’t find anyone to publish their work. The model is broken.

The good news is there are alternatives.  There are so many examples of artists doing well for themselves by embracing online marketing techniques:  Hazel Dooney, Hugh Macleod, and John T. Unger, JC Hutchins. To name only a few whose stories I’m familiar with.  These artists have stepped away from the traditional model and market their own work.  They are both artist and marketer.  In so doing, they turn the traditional model on its head, and make it so that the person producing the work is actually receiving the majority of the revenues from its sale.

They are not doing anything magical.  They are simply taking advantage of the cheap publishing platform that the internet has given them and used marketing techniques, many of which are the same ones I write about on a weekly basis, and have enjoyed the fruits of their own labours.

Doesn’t it only make sense that artists should be the marketers?  Who knows the target audience better than the author of a work?  Who is best suited to sell it, if not the person creating it?  If artists want to thrive, they need to become marketers. Not only will it benefit their work, but their previous work as artists will make them better marketers than the rest – their imagination and craft will set them apart.

If you’re a writer, painter, sculptor, photographer, designer, or any other kind of artist, drop me a line.  I’d love to discuss what you’re doing to market your work.

10 Sites to Extend Your Online Presence – and How to Organize Them

The majority of small businesses don’t plan their online presences. They just happen. This kind of presence is inefficient and ineffective.  Advertisers duplicate efforts in some places, while others offer no benefit.  If we’re agreed that a small business must have an online presence, then the next step is to determine what that presence should look like, and how it should be organized to drive the greatest value. Every part of the advertiser’s presence on the web, should be leading a potential customer further into the conversion funnel.

In a previous post, I talked about the importance of having an online HQ.  From this piece, the rest of the presence will be built.

The small business online HQ needs to accomplish the following things:

1. It needs to have the essential information about the business
2. It needs to accurately reflect the business in both design and content
3. It needs to be optimized for conversion, ie. it needs to sell

In my previous post, I said it didn’t matter what your HQ was, whether it was a full-fledged website, or a social media profile.  I stand by this, as long as the HQ meets the three criteria above, we’re ready to move on to the next step.

Building a good headquarters is a task in and of itself, but even once that’s been accomplished, this is generally where most small businesses stop.  This is most evident when $5,000 are spent on creating a new website, which uses up the entire internet marketing budget for a SMB, and then there is nothing left to promote this site.

An Example of the Failure to Promote the HQ

A colleague of mine uses a classic example, wherein a friend asked him to take a look at the new website he had built for his business.  My colleague looked over the website, was suitably impressed, and then asked, “So, how do your customers find it?”

His friend gave him a blank look.  “Well, the address is on my business card,” he said.

This actually isn’t as bad as it could be, because at least the business owner in this case was promoting the site to existing customers.  Unfortunately, he had invested heavily in creating this site, and had no plan of driving new customers to it.  This is where creating the rest of an online presence comes in handy.

The rest of a person’s online presence will come in the form of outposts. These outposts will exist to provide some value to the user, but ultimately to drive traffic back to headquarters, where a potential sale can be closed.

Suggestions for possible outposts:

1. LinkedIn: If you have a decent sized professional network, your LinkedIn profile is a good place to plant seeds. People in your LinkedIn network may not necessarily be your potential customers, but they know your potential customers.

2. AmEx OpenForum: If you’re a small business, a great place to hang out is the American Express Open Forum.  The forum is dedicated to topics about small business.   Answer questions, and post relevant information, and always make sure to have a link back to headquarters, so that those you help you out can return the favour by sending some leads your way.

3. Forums for your topic: Aside from OpenForum, the internet is full of forums for niche topics. Hanging out in these forums, and offering relevant information and answering questions, all the while having a link back to HQ in your profile is an excellent way of finding exactly the people who are interested in what you’re selling.

4. Facebook: According to some sources, Facebook recently passed Google in terms of total visits.  A lot of people are on Facebook, and so creating a Facebook fan page for your business is quickly becoming a requirement. This is intrinsically sharable, and so your fans will find you new fans, and all of them, should be coming back to your website.

5. MySpace: MySpace is going through some re-inventing, and so its exact place in the internet’s stratosphere is murky, but it is safe to say that you can think of it as a good play if your industry caters to creatives and artists, and it can otherwise be used in a similar way to a Facebook fan page.

6. Flickr: Many businesses can benefit from posting photos in a public area like Flickr, and then pointing traffic back to HQ. For example, Mark Hayward runs a guesthouse on a Caribbean island, and he has had great success using Flickr to drive traffic.

7. YouTube: YouTube is ideal for creating How To videos. These videos create expertise/build reputation, and have the added benefit of being sharable. Just be sure they point back to headquarters.

8. Twitter:  Twitter is a great way to connect with new people in your industry by using search functions, and just being active in the community.  Don’t carpet bomb your Twitter followers with constant pleas to visit your website (or you won’t have followers for long), but occasionally steering them towards your site especially if something is particular interesting is a good idea.

9. Squidoo: Is a service founded by Marketing rockstar Seth Godin.  You can create a “lens” on Squidoo, that will aggregate content from a number of sources.  You can then take the audience you’ve found from your lens, and steer them towards your HQ.

10. Guest writing: Writing for someone else’s blog, or writing an article for a website, doesn’t pay well, but if you include links back to your HQ, guest writing, pound for pound, will produce the greatest number of leads. Provided of course you were guest writing for a publisher in your niche.

Dealing with the overwhelm

You could go out and create every single one of these outposts (and others), but the fact of the matter is that most of these outposts are useless unless you have the time to donate to them.  You should not be afraid to open & shut down outposts as necessary – you don’t need to maintain all outposts simultaneously.  The one piece of your online presence that must always stay active is the HQ. Everything else exists only to drive traffic to the HQ.

Once you’ve created your online presence, you can apportion your time where you see the best results, and in the end, everything should be trickling towards HQ, and you’re on your way to creating plenty of leads.

It’s also worth noting that I didn’t invent this notion of setting up a main place to call home on the web, and then to create satellite pieces of content.  Here are two takes on the concept of the HQ vs outposts from two very bright guys.

Darren Rowse on Home bases and outposts

Chris Brogan on a Simple presence framework

Should You Try to Go Viral?

Going viral is the new “thing to do.”  Everyone and their dog wants to go viral. I’ve had a hard time figuring out just how long this phrase has been around, but it must be a relatively recent thing, because I seem to recall that not too long ago, “going viral” meant that you needed a trip to the clinic.

Today going viral generally refers to viral marketing, wherein a brand creates something, usually a piece of content, which is then spread by consumers to other consumers, who in turn spread it to more consumers, by means of the internet. Viral marketing is the hip younger sibling of word of mouth marketing, and is usually associated specifically to the web and to content marketing.

The web of today, and even moreso the web of tomorrow, is all about sharing.  Facebook and its 400 million users exist to share the details of mundane lives.  Going viral is all about breaking free of the mundane and doing something remarkable that people will be happy to pass on to each other and say, “Look how cool/funny/crazy this is!”

While this just a guess, I wouldn’t be surprised if the term viral sprang up right around the same time as YouTube.  It used to be, if you had a video worth sharing, you had to get it produced and put on television at significant expense. YouTube allowed anyone to post anything to the web, and to instantly have a potential audience of a hundred million.  There are too many YouTube sensations to mention, but the original ones had nothing to do with business and marketing.  They were just regular people who did something that others thought was worthy of sharing.

It did not take long for the world of marketing to take note, and now every agency worth its salt is trying to put together a viral marketing campaign for its customers.  Producing content is cheap.  Sharing is now made easy.  Every time content is passed along, that’s essentially free promotion.  Why wouldn’t everyone, including SMBs, be doing viral marketing?

The answer to the question of whether you should go viral is easy: Of course.

The answer to the question of how you to go viral is not so easy. There is no magic formula for something to go viral.  Brilliant people have created incredible content and then stopped and wondered why it didn’t go viral. Meanwhile, Pants on the Ground has been viewed six million times.  There is no set way to make something go viral (except possibly for using kittens in your video).  Trying to go viral is kind of like trying to figure out a formula to win the lottery.

The best way to go viral online is to do something that no one has done before. The second person to do something never goes viral.  The first stands a chance.  The first time you see someone make a basket from the opposite side of the court while sitting down is impressive.  The second time is, “been there, done that.”

That rule, however, is nothing new.  Long before the web was a great marketing platform, if you did something that no one had done before, you were going to get attention.  This used to be called publicity stunts.  Now, it’s called viral marketing.  Richard Branson was parachuting into press conferences long before Twitter.  And someone was launching himself out of a cannon long before YouTube.

Therefore, the best advice I can give to any small business that is trying to go viral is this: Instead of trying to go viral, try to be remarkable. Try to do something no one’s done before.  Being remarkable and being the first to do something will have a way of paying off, even if it doesn’t get a million views on YouTube.

The Hidden Treasure of the 2nd-Tier

Old habits die hard.  In my experience, the hardest habit to break for SMB’s is considering their advertising as placement advertising instead of performance advertising.  Digital marketing is no longer about where you show up, or how often you show up, it’s about how well convert, and how high your return on investment (ROI) is.

Aside from branding exercises, I’m a strong believer that the only metric that counts when measuring the effectiveness of advertising is the ROI.  Oftentimes, this belief is in direct conflict with the mistaken belief of many advertisers that the only place they should be advertising is on Google.

If you were to advertise on Google, Yahoo and Bing, you could potentially reach 99% of the traffic on the web between them (and their associated networks).  While that sounds fantastic at first, let’s take a step back, and recall that advertising on search engines is a pay for performance (pay-per-click) model.  Therefore, that means, you’re not paying the search engines for the ability to appear, you’re paying them to deliver clicks.

Search engines are very good at delivering clicks, and they’re also very good about managing your budget.  Once you’ve used up your budget for clicks, the search engines stop delivering them, and you stop appearing in the sponsored links.  You get nothing for free.  Now, let’s revisit the idea that you have the potential to reach 99% of all web traffic by advertising with the Big 3.  Is that true?  Not really.  It’s only true if you’re willing to spend enough money on advertising, that no matter how many clicks you got on your ads, you’d still have enough budget left to keep your ads running continuously.

I can not even conceive of how large that number would have to be in order to actually capture every impression on the Big 3.

This fact does not make these search engines less valuable as media, but rather it teaches us a very important lesson:  It doesn’t matter how often you show up in the search results or where; what matters is getting those clicks from users who will convert into customers.

So, if we accept that small businesses generally don’t have a big enough budget to show up more than occasionally on major search engines, then we must acknowledge that the fact that Google captures 70% of search traffic is irrelevant when deciding where to advertise, because a SMB will never touch anywhere near all of that traffic.  The relevant factor is what the ROI on your advertising will be.  In limited unscientific tests I have done, I have found that the Big 3 yield very similar conversion rates, and that Yahoo! tends to deliver a slightly better ROI than Google (probably mainly due to the fact that clicks are generally cheaper on Yahoo!).  Therefore, this means that the logical thing for a SMB to do is to advertise across all three search engines, and see which yields the best results.

There is no logical reason to prefer Google as your main advertising channel.

This is where the second tier comes in.  If we’ve seen that Yahoo! and Bing can deliver results as good or better than Google, what about all those other lesser known search engines (most of which have PPC programs)?  The fact of the matter is that they can be just as good a source, if not better, than the Big 3.

Remember that what’s important is your conversion rate and your ROI, so as long as a search engine is delivering you relevant traffic, it should not matter which search engine that is.  Given that the second tier search engines often have ridiculously cheap clicks compared to Google, trying them is definitely worth it for small budget advertisers.  They may not have the traffic Google has, but most SMB’s will never touch a fraction of Google’s total traffic, so that’s irrelevant.

Search Engine Watch had posted some of the better second tier search engines, but my advice remains to test them out and see which ones deliver results.  Again, the clicks from these engines are cheaper, so testing should not put a huge hole in a SMB’s budget.

The bottom line is that most advertisers who say, “I just want to be on Google,” are ego-marketing.  The source of your clicks does not matter.  The content of your site matters. Instead of worrying so much about where visitors are coming from, SMBs should be worrying about optimizing their sites for conversion.  That way, regardless of source, once visitors arrive on the page, they will be more likely to purchase.

Have you used the second-tier for your advertising? What’s been your experience? Let us know in the comments.