Five Tips for Making Better Decisions

              Making a decision is one of the most powerful acts for inspiring confidence in leaders and managers. Yet many bosses are squeamish about it.

Some decide not to decide, while others simply procrastinate. Either way, it’s typically a cop-out -- and doesn’t exactly encourage inspiration in the ranks.

To avoid pining over what to do and what to skip, it can help to learn how to make better decisions. You’ll be viewed as a better leader and get better results overall. Here are five tips for making quicker, more calculated decisions:

Stop seeking perfection. Many great leaders would prefer a project or report be delivered only 80% complete a few hours early than 100% complete five minutes late. Moral of the story: Don’t wait for everything to be perfect. Instead of seeking the impossible, efficient decision makers tend to leap without all the answers and trust that they’ll be able to build their wings on the way down.
Be independent. Good decision makers are “collaboratively independent.” They tend to surround themselves with the best and brightest and ask pointed questions. For instance, in a discussion with subject-matter experts, they don’t ask: “What should I do?” Rather, their query is: “What’s your thinking on this?” Waiting for committees or an expansive chain of command to make decisions could take longer. Get your information from credible sources and then act, swiftly.
Turn your brain off. Insight comes when you least expect it. Similar to suddenly remembering the name of an actor that you think you'd just plumb forgotten. The same happens when you’re trying to make a decision. By simply turning your mind off for a while or even switching to a different dilemma, you’ll give your brain the opportunity to scan its data bank for information that is already stored and waiting to be retrieved.
Don’t problem solve, decide. A decision can solve a problem, but not every problem can be solved by making a decision. Instead, decision making often relies more on intuition than analysis. Deciding between vendors, for instance, requires examining historical data, references and prices. But the tipping point often rests with your gut. Which feels like the right choice?
Admit your mistakes. If your feelings steered you wrong, correct the error and fess up. Even making the wrong decision will garner more respect and loyalty when you admit you’ve made a mistake and resolve it than if you are habitually indecisive.

Peer Lending Grows as Business Owner Option

           When John Good, owner of the Bubbles Galore Car Wash in Davison, Mich., went to his local bank last year to get a $16,000 loan to expand into the self-serve dog washing business, he was denied.

First Place Bank, a subsidiary of First Place Financial (FPFC) in Warren, Ohio, already held the note for Good's original $500,000 Small Business Administration start-up loan, but the bank required massive documentation and fees -- requirements Good felt were too costly, time consuming and frankly, annoying, given the amount.

"The amount of money we were requesting didn't merit the amount of work and back-end costs," Good says.

That's when Good heard about peer-to-peer lending.

Peer lending is not necessarily new, but there are a growing number of business borrowers turning to them -- in part because, as interest rates remain near record lows, investors are looking for options that will make decent returns.

In the U.S., the two largest peer lending sites are Prosper.com, which has funded $214 million in loans since 2006, according to its website, and 3-year-old Lending Club.

Lending Club's chief executive, Renaud Laplanche, sees an increasing number of investors looking to invest in more small businesses, which frees up more cash for loans. Last year, the overall average initial investment through Lending Club rose to $8,700 by December from $1,800 in March, the company says. Funded loans recently passed the $200 million mark, doubling its volume versus nine months earlier.

Lending Club is targeting an average initial investment of $15,000 by year-end.

"The No. 1 reason why borrowers choose Lending Club as opposed to a bank is lower interest rates. We are a peer-to-peer lending network and therefore create a more efficient way of getting funding to borrowers, whether small businesses or individuals," Laplanche says.

How It Works
Lending Club offers a maximum of $25,000 in either three-year or five-year maturities. Borrowers are allowed up to two loans in active repayment.

Money to fund the loans comes directly from qualified investors (with at least $70,000 in annual income and $70,000 in net worth), not lending institutions.

Applicants must be at least 18 years old, with a valid bank account, a FICO score of at least 660 and debt-to-income ratio at most of 25 percent (excluding mortgage), among other requirements, according to the company.

Applicants fill out an online application and are told immediately whether they passed the initial screening. If they pass, they are given loan options and their confidential request is posted to the website for two weeks or until the loan is fully funded.

"The process is simpler because we do not underwrite the business itself, we just underwrite the business owner," Laplanche says. "The business owner can get a loan based on his own financial situation and his own credit history. It's fully automated and it's no different from getting a credit card or getting a personal loan from a bank."

Origination fees are between 2 percent and 5 percent of the loan amount.

Annual percentage rates, which includes the loan interest rate and fees, average about 11 percent for three-year loans and 14 percent on five-year loans. That compares with an average 15 percent to 24 percent at banks, Laplanche notes.

Websites such as Lending Club also become a sort of clearinghouse to borrowers by having someone in the middle saying "this investor is legit."

But borrowers need to understand that risks are involved, since peer lending investors are not subject to the same rigorous guidelines as banks, warns Marilyn Landis, founder of small-business consultancy Better Business Concepts and a board trustee to the National Small
Business Administration.

Borrowers need to be extra careful when agreeing to loan terms -- perhaps even bringing in an accountant or counsel to review the terms. Landis also suggests that applicants find out whether they can repay the loan early and, if so, if a cost is involved.

On the other hand, "because they are not regulated, [investors] could be friendly to your industry or friendly to you," Landis says. "You may have a more patient, flexible, more workable mentor that you would not otherwise have."

Good, the owner of the car wash/self-service doggie wash, got his $16,000 loan last year through Lending Club and says he would absolutely use peer lending again.

It took less than seven days from the time he submitted his application to Lending Club to get the funding, Good says. Several potential investors asked questions, with the most wary asking why Good's company didn't have cash on hand to fund the expansion. (Because that cash is also an emergency fund, Good says, and "Nobody wants to drain that emergency fund.")

The diversification has paid off, Good says. He's looking to fully repay the loan at month 20, nearly a year and a half earlier than expected.

Freemium: Is the Price Right for Your Company?

              In 2006, venture capitalist Fred Wilson asked readers of his AVC blog to come up with a name for his "favorite business model," which he described like this: "Give your service away for free, possibly ad supported but maybe not; acquire a lot of customers very efficiently through word-of-mouth, referral networks, organic search marketing, etc.; then offer premium priced, value added services or an enhanced version of your service to your customer base."

From an onslaught of responses, Wilson chose the suggestion of e-commerce executive Jarid Lukin: freemium. "I hope the name sticks," Wilson concluded in his announcement, "because I love it."

Obviously, Wilson chose well. The name definitely stuck ­-- as did the concept, which organizers of the Freemium Summit say is now "the fastest-growing online business model."

How the freemium model works

Do you use LinkedIn, Pandora, Skype, SurveyMonkey or other free online services? If so, even if you never spend a dollar with those businesses, you’re providing value they can ­-- and do -- monetize.

When you and 80 million others post free personal profiles on LinkedIn, you contribute to a membership that advertisers, recruiters and lead-seeking professionals want to pay to reach. LinkedIn obliges this demand with ad packages, premium subscriptions and ­hiring solutions that together have resulted in positive cash flow for the past two years.

Or consider the Internet radio service Pandora, whose users primarily listen for free. So how does it make money? For a long time, it didn’t. Then in 2008, Pandora launched a free app that allowed listeners to stream music. Within months, subscriptions soared to 40 million, and 2009 revenues ­-- from ad sales, premium-level subscriptions, iTunes and Amazon.com payments on user purchases, and deals to integrate Pandora into other sound systems -- climbed past $50 million.

Freemium on a small-business scale

Leo Babauta, author of the book 'Focus: A Simplicity Manifesto in the Age of Distraction," is proof that turning free into profit isn’t just for those who serve millions — nor is it all that "complicated. In fact, Babauta achieves success while following his own simplicity advice.

Instead of providing contact information, Babauta’s website points to his Twitter feed, stating, “I generally don’t do email.” He does, however, generously share his path to success, using his website and blog to explain that his self-published book “comes in two flavors: free and premium.” You can download the free version “without having to give an email address or do anything else,” he writes. “It’s uncopyrighted, and you can share it with as many people as you like.”


Where does the money come from? "I have a premium digital version," he explains in a blog post, "which has extra chapters … videos, audio interviews with experts and bonus PDF guides. Enough people have bought it after reading the free version that it’s already a great success."
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Freemium lessons to learn from

Addressing the 2010 Freemium Summit, Brent Chudoba, vice president of SurveyMonkey, shared a key piece of advice: He said his business "has never spent a dime on marketing or sales. We had to find a way for usage to drive conversion."

But if you decide to develop a freemium model, keep these best practices in mind:

- Offer a base-level product people want to rave about. Virality drives success.

- Prompt user-to-user recruitment with a product that’s more beneficial when shared with others. For example, Skype calls are free when placed to other Skype members.

- Be sure your offering is scalable so serving each new user gets incrementally less expensive.

- Offer a premium-level product that provides meaningful value otherwise difficult to obtain, realizing that many businesses succeed with only single-digit free-to-paid conversion rates.

- Commit to ongoing user interaction in order to adapt and improve offerings, promote usage, inspire evangelism and prompt premium-level purchases.

- Provide users with a reason and easy way to spread the word, recruit new users and grow your audience into one that advertisers and others are willing to pay to reach.

Do all that, and you too can turn free into revenue, and revenue into profit. No wonder Fred Wilson loved freemium at first sight.

Five Rules to Rebound from Failure

             Failure of any kind can be a setback for entrepreneurs, but it doesn't have to spell disaster. I'm the perfect example. I've been rejected by the Marines and I flunked out of law school. The real kicker came in 1998 when a former business partner at a debt-collection company of mine was convicted of fraud. Even though he admitted to committing the fraud without my knowledge, I was indicted on 57 felony counts and my assets were frozen. While I was cleared of all charges four years later, I wound up filing for bankruptcy protection and lost a personal fortune in business equity to the tune of about $3 billion. My only asset left was my house.

Sounds devastating, right? But despite my failures I have been able to pick up the pieces and come through it all with a strong self-image. I attribute that to having a healthy perspective on what failure should and should not mean to me.

When faced with any setback, here are five rules that have helped me over the years and can help you, too.

Don't pretend it never happened.
People are often so anxious to avoid the stigma of failure that they refuse to admit what happened. Denial usually results in a host of other problems, including internal stress and delaying any effective remedy.

The late Dale Carnegie, a well-regarded lecturer and author of the bestseller "How to Win Friends and Influence People," said that when you're quick to admit that you screwed up, your peers will stop holding your feet to the fire and actually begin to comfort you.



Avoid making excuses.
Some people wiggle past the truth by admitting to a problem they sugarcoat in excuses. I was one of them. At one point during my teenage years I was homeless and an alcoholic. At every turn, I told myself that all my shortcomings were not my fault.

My situation only improved when I stopped making excuses and focused on a productive goal. For me, it was getting my General Educational Development (GED) certificate.
Don't confuse a failed goal for a failed person.
Sometimes people take the opposite approach from what I just described. They blame themselves for any and every failure, creating a pattern of negative self-reinforcement. Assuming you'll invariably screw up is dangerous thinking -- and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead of setting up a mental pattern for failure, ask yourself how you can improve.
Remember, you are not alone.
People fail to reach goals all the time. Take baseball players, for example. They strike out multiple times over the course of a long, 162-game season. And when they fail, they do it in front of millions of TV viewers. The point is that we're not robots. Everyone's bound to stumble every once in a while.
Focus on the lessons learned.
While I ultimately cleared my name after a felony indictment more than a decade ago, a lot of damage had been done. The only way to survive such a world-class level of failure is to focus on the future. Not many people can say they've literally lost billions of dollars and chalk it up to "business lessons." I'm currently rebuilding my company, which now has a portfolio valued at $100 million.

Posted on Sept.16, 2011 by: Jai Krishna Ponnappan

New Rules of Business Marketing

              When David Meerman Scott first published The New Rules of Marketing & PR (Wiley) in 2007, Facebook was still mostly for college students. The book helped Scott, then 46 years old, make a name for himself as a marketing strategist. Even so, he had to add new chapters and rewrite a considerable portion of the book for its recently-released third edition.

So what are the new, new rules now?

Reaching people online is no longer a nice-to-have -- it's a must-have, Scott says. When people search for products or services to buy, they use the big search engines like Google and Bing, as well email and other social media sites like Twitter and LinkedIn to ask their friends and family for advice on purchases. "It's essential for entrepreneurs do a great job at marketing their business using the tools of the web," he says.

But many small businesses are being left behind. Nearly half of small-business owners surveyed recently say don't use social media at all for marketing or any other business purpose, according to Hiscox, a business insurance company. What's more, only 15 percent of small-business owners consider mobile marketing "very valuable" to their operation, another recent report shows.

Related: Six Tips for Mobile Marketing to Engage Customers

Here, Scott offers his top three tips for navigating the new world of business marketing.

1. Don’t hype your product or service. Instead, identify the people who have problems that your product or service can solve, Scott says. Then segment those prospects into buyer personas. Understand those people's problems so that you can create information online that helps to market your business to them by means of how it can solve those problems.

For example, if you own a hotel and only talk on your website about how nice looking it is or how great the location is, that only gets you a small part of the way, he says. The key is to create individualized content for each of your buyer personas, starting from the problems and the buyers. That will help get your business indexed higher in online search results.

2. Share useful content on social media. Once you create great content that addresses buyer problems, share that information on sites such as Facebook and Twitter. But don’t stop there, Scott says. You should also listen and respond to what people are saying on important topics and about your business.

Related: Is Your Business Ready for Video?

If you own a hotel, for instance, and a couple says on Twitter that they are considering a wedding at your hotel, offer a tour of your property, Scott says. You can also join conversations about your industry, even when it's not specifically about your business.

3. If traditional advertising channels are generating sales for you, don't pull back. "Marketing strategies haven't changed," he says. "Nothing is going away."

If you are still spending on offline campaigns, Scott recommends tying them to online efforts. One way is to include a URL or a scannable quick response code in a print ad that links to a page on your website. If you own a restaurant, you can send people to your menu page, for example.

For an example of a small business that's had success marketing online, consider this example that Scott cites in his book.

Related: How to Promote Your Business Blog with Social Media

A marketing automation software company called Eloqua sent a timely email last year after its biggest competitor, a company called Market2Lead, was acquired by Oracle. The owner of Eloqua heard about the deal as it was happening and wrote a blog post about why it was good for the industry. Eloqua then sent the post in an email to every company in its database that was a Market2Lead customer. They were so quick to send it, the email was the first many Market2Lead customers had heard about the acquisition.

As Scott notes in the book, Eloqua told him that emailing the blog post convinced a number of Market2Lead customers to become Eloqua clients, generating about $1 million in new business.

Five Tips for Mobile Marketing Beyond Text-Message Ads

                What meant simply text-message ads. No more. Now a range of free and low-cost technology can help you market products and services to mobile consumers in a variety of new ways.

Of course, mobile ads remain effective, but they're just a small part of a comprehensive mobile-marketing strategy. New to mobile marketing? Consider these five ways a small business on a budget can take its marketing on the go.

1. Develop a mobile-friendly website.
An essential first step is to make sure your small business website looks good and performs correctly on mobile devices. If you do nothing else for mobile marketing, do this. That's what I advise my clients as a marketing consultant. Anything else you do to market to mobile customers will be icing on the cake.

Take the time to test your site on an iPhone, iPad, Android smartphone, a BlackBerry, and other popular devices. There are many different tools and companies that can help small businesses create mobile-friendly websites. A few low-cost and easy-to-use options worth investigating include MoFuse ($7.95 to $199 per month), Mobify (free to $1,000 or more for complete ecommerce mobile sites), and Wirenode (free to $259 per month).

2. Use location-based apps.
Consider how you can geo-target your audience using the local features inherent in GPS-enabled mobile devices. For example, an increasing number of consumers are using free mobile apps such as Where, Google Places, Yelp, and MerchantCircle to find local businesses while they’re out and about. Visit these websites and claim your business on them. Ask customers to publish reviews on these sites, too. I’ve had clients who have experienced business increases of up to 10% within a couple of months of claiming their businesses and collecting reviews on localized websites with mobile apps.

Related: Five Ways to Win a Sale Using Your Customer's Mobile

An excellent free mobile-marketing app for small businesses with brick-and-mortar locations is Foursquare. You can easily create your own Foursquare company page and offer check-in specials, discounts, and frequent-visitor deals. If your customers enjoy mobile gaming, and mobile gaming is consistent with your brand, then the free Gowalla app can be a great mobile app for brand building.

3. Create your own mobile app.
If you have content or functions that mobile consumers could use at least once a week, then a custom mobile app could be a great option to help you connect with them. It doesn’t have to cost a fortune to develop a mobile app of your own. Prices could range from a few hundred dollars to $10,000 or more, depending on the type of app you create and the developer you work with.

Your mobile app can help drive sales through real-time promotions and bring in foot traffic through local marketing. It can provide quick and inexpensive customer service by offering answers to common questions. Make it a game and it can even add some fun to users’ lives. It’s up to you to create a mobile app that matches your customers’ needs, your brand promise, and your business goals.

4. Use quick-response codes.
QR codes are those black-and-white squares that look like a box of pixels and appear on websites, email messages, ads, posters, packages, window decals, and other marketing materials. When people scan QR codes with their mobile devices, they are typically taken to a website where a specific message or offer is provided. The QR code scanning and traffic is tracked, so it’s easy to calculate your return on your marketing effort.

Related: Six Tips for Mobile Marketing to Engage Customers

There are many free and affordable websites that help you create and track QR codes. ScanLife and iCandy both allow you to create QR codes and track scans for free. Custom price quotes are provided to businesses that need more comprehensive tracking and management. For simple QR code creation without tracking capability, Kaywa and Zxing offer free bare-bones QR code creation tools.

5. Publish mobile content.
Companies of all sizes are publishing content for their target audiences to build relationships that lead to sales, loyalty and word-of-mouth marketing. These efforts should be integrated into all areas of your marketing plan, including mobile.

For example, you might write an ebook and publish it online in PDF format for sharing. Further, you could offer it on Amazon’s Kindle ereader device for mobile reading (learn about Kindle royalty rates). If you publish a podcast or online radio show, make it available on BlogTalkRadio (free), Podbean (free to $39.95 per month), or another site that enables you to easily make your podcast content available on iTunes for mobile listening (or publish your podcast to iTunes directly).

If you send marketing email, make sure those messages are mobile-friendly. A growing number of people view their email on their mobile devices. If your email message doesn’t load correctly or displays poorly on a smartphone or tablet, you’ve lost your chance to connect with those customers.

More people purchase smartphones and tablet devices every day, and annual sales of mobile devices have surpassed sales of personal computers. Your customers are using these marketing-friendly gadgets, or will soon be, so don’t wait to create a mobile-marketing plan. While you hesitate, your competitors could already be connecting with the mobile audience.

Understanding Google's New Sitelinks

            When it comes to search engine results, your company's placement acreage atop a Google search result page is what matters. Thanks to some tinkering by the search engineers over at the Googleplex, your website's Google search results now have a much better chance of standing out from the crowd.

Just in case you missed it, Google has updated the way sitelinks are displayed in search results. Sitelinks are those hyperlinks to subpages on your website that appear under certain Google listings (see image below for an example):

When sitelinks began appearing on search engine results pages back in 2006, they were an abbreviated version of what you see below. The big mystery was how exactly Google determined which of a site's sub-pages were promoted, let alone why some listings included sitelinks while many others did not.

Fast-forward five years and these expanded links -- formerly displaying only the title of the page being linked -- now contain two dozen or so characters associated with a subpage's title.

Looking at the listing above, you may find yourself shaking your head at some of the links displayed, like "We Love Logistics." And that's because the Google selection process is pretty much a crapshoot. They're automated based on the link structure of your website. You don't get a say in what link appears below your search listing. You can't even select the links that you'd like to see at the top of a search result for your company or brand.

The selection, it turns out, is based on Google's proprietary algorithms, and those don't always jibe with what you as a business owner or marketer may want to express to online searchers. Google knows this, says it's working on it, and has gone so far as to offer webmasters a means for removing sitelink URLs that you'd prefer not to see associated with a search for your company or brand.

To demote a sitelink URL, follow these five steps:

Login to your Google Webmaster Tools account
On the Webmaster Tools Home page, click the site you want to edit.
Under Site configuration, click Sitelinks.
In the For this search result box, complete the URL for which you don't want a specific sitelink URL to appear.
In the Demote this sitelink URL box, complete the URL of the sitelink you want to demote.

If your business doesn’t have a Google Webmaster Tool account, you can sign up for free on the Webmaster Tools Home page.

Once you've “demoted” unwanted sitelink URLs on your brand search, take the time to eyeball your website page titles and descriptions. As you can see in the example above, the sitelink versions are much shorter than those found within your site's source code. That means you're going to have to edit carefully to get important words in a 25-character or less description.

These newly minted sitelinks, featuring a URL and a smidgeon of text, give your potential customers a much better overview of your website's content -- including areas of the site they might not even be aware of. The bonus to you is the capability to monitor your search and site analytics and discover what it is exactly that your visitors are seeking from your website.

Pay-Per-Click Tools for Small Businesses

            Managing online paid-search-term campaigns can be like water torture for a small-business owner: A slow drip of tedium, choosing keywords and deciding what to pay for each on services like Google AdWords and Microsoft adCenter.

For the uninitiated, paid-search campaigns involve advertisers paying a fee, usually based on clicks or views, to have their links placed high on search-engine results pages. They typically bid on keywords or keyword phrases. Users can find themselves guessing at the words those searching for your products or services might enter into Google, Bing, Yahoo or other search engine. All for the prospect of having your short bit of linked copy appear across the top and on the right side of a web-search results page.

Bigger companies often have help from pricey pay-per-click automation and management services and perhaps professional search marketers. But small and midsize businesses face a tougher task in finding affordable support for paid-search marketing. Programs exist, but none are easy in my view. Or even that affordable. So to get a feel for the best choices in a tight market, my assistant Alex and I tried out three lower-cost paid-search marketing tools.

Related: Pay-Per-Click Return on Investment Calculator

Our take? Yes, there are some paid-search marketing tools that can help, but pay-per-click marketing is still no trivial matter. Here's what we found.

ClickSweeperFree 14-day trial; paid service starts at $50 per month for up to 1,000 keywords
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ClickSweeper

What you get: A relatively deep, but affordable, pay-per-click bid-management tool. ClickSweeper, by Santa Clara, Calif.-based Varazo, supports Google, Yahoo and Microsoft accounts and offers a nice set of features to optimize your keywords. Four automated bidding strategies let users prioritize keyword bids based on cost, ad ranking, number of conversions or return on investment. There are analytics tools that can increase the cost, and ways to manage actual ad copy and create performance alerts. You can also generate reports and graphs to track which keywords work and which don’t.

Why you might like it: It’s flexible. Overall we found that ClickSweeper strikes a good balance between automatic bidding and user control. You can let the tool do the bidding for you, or if you need to micromanage a few keywords, you can enter bids manually. There is a nice sense of direct control over your spend.

Why you might not like it: It’s complex. That’s partly due to the nature of the pay-per-click beast, but there are numerous menus, tabs and options to set for every keyword. So gearing up the service can feel as onerous as trying to manage your AdWords campaign with no help. ClickSweeper does offer a set of tutorial videos. They’re dry and watching them takes time, but they can get the job done.

What to do: If you are outgrowing Google’s Adwords tools, ClickSweeper is logical step. Just be sure you give yourself plenty of time -- and patience -- to figure it out.

WordStream for PPCFree 7-day trial; paid service starts at $299 per month to manage up to a $10,000 monthly ad spend.

WordStream for PPC

What you get: A great suite of Google AdWords campaign-building tools. Boston-based WordStream offers a pay-per-click management platform that lets users easily build ad campaigns from scratch or fine-tune campaigns with some cool keyword analysis features.

Why you might like it: Ease of use. WordStream simply shines at managing keywords. A long list of powerful keyword research tools helps you decide how to build your campaigns and write ad copy. And WordStream does a nice job of suggesting new or related keywords, and recommending words to avoid. We especially liked the way the tool helps to effectively group keywords, one of the trickiest parts of search-engine marketing.

Why you might not like it: Simplistic keyword bid management. WordStream does a good job of tracking how keywords perform, but users might miss the opportunity to assign complex rules and goals for bidding that are available in some other services. So you can waste money, unless you have a firm grasp of your bid strategy.

What to do: For ongoing paid-search-marketing efforts, Wordstream makes a lot of sense. It offers a nice mix of cost and features for a more sophisticated pay-per-click marketing effort.

Related: AdWords Express Takes Pain Out of Local Online Advertising

ClickableFree 15-day trial; paid service starts at $499 per month.

Clickable

What you get: What amounts to an entry-level, top-end paid-search tool. If your business invests significant money in paid-search marketing, then Clickable is for you. You get a top-line PPC management tool that works with Google, Yahoo, Bing and even Facebook. It even -- for an additional $300 per month -- will assign an employee to help you design ad strategies -- that’s actually an affordable option, considering the cost of paid search.

Why you might like it: Clickable offers a powerful mix of features well suited to most small business needs. It generates daily bid recommendations based on revenue goals. Custom reports track and compare whatever data you’d like and turns it into a neatly branded presentation. The bulk keyword editing tool quickly manages your ad copy and campaigns simultaneously across different search engines, which can be handy for an advertising blitz. And social media gets its due: Facebook marketing tools also help your business break into what some are calling “F-Commerce.”

Why you might not like it: While Clickable may look affordable compared with sophisticated paid-search marketing, it isn't low cost. Expect to spend about $10,000 a year. And you still might feel constrained. Bottom line: Clickable may not be the best choice for smaller shops or those just wading into paid search marketing.

What to do: If you are looking for value over a full-service paid-search marketing agency, or if you feel comfortable running your own paid-search marketing internally, Clickable is an intriguing option. Just make sure you know the pay-per-click market, and have the money to invest. With up-front costs this steep, a return on investment might be tough to find.

Measuring Your Business's Success on the Web

           Once you invest in a website, you want to make sure it's creating real business value. You don't need expensive software or a degree in statistics to measure your site's success, but with all the data available, it's hard to know what to keep track of and what it all means.

Fortunately, all you need are simple (and free) tools that'll help you focus on a few key data points.

What are your goals?
Before you can know what to measure, you need to clarify your goals. Why do you have a website? If you sell products online, this part is easy. But often, it's a bit harder to pin down. You typically want to make a short list of revenue and engagement goals.

Examples of revenue goals:

People can buy something via the website.
Visitors can request more information or an appointment.
People can get information to visit your physical location.

Examples of engagement goals:

Visitors find the site through a search engine.
People view more than one page of the site.
Visitors sign up for your RSS feed.

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Tools you need

Web analytics program. This is critical for measuring the success of your site. There are many choices out there, ranging from free to costing thousands of dollars a month. The easiest to use and install is Google Analytics, which is free.
Google and Bing webmaster tools. With both Google and Bing, you simply verify that you own the domain in order to access data the search engines have about your site.

What to focus on

1. Is the number of qualified visitors increasing?
The best kind of traffic is qualified traffic. "Qualified" visitors are those who are potential customers. How can you find out if visitors are potential customers? In cases other than people coming to your site directly (because they already know about it), you can look at the traffic source.

Traffic from unpaid searches
This is traffic that results from someone doing a search and clicking on your site. Once the site has sizable search traffic, you can start monitoring and categorizing the search keywords people are using.

For example, are people searching for your company name? One keyword category should be "branded" to include all variations of your company name and website. Your other categories should relate to your industry. For instance, if you sell pool accessories, you might have keyword categories for chemicals, slides, inflatable toys and FAQs. You can set these categories up with your webmaster tools and view them in reports to find out what customers are searching for online.

Traffic from referring sites
An increase of traffic from referring sites usually means that people are linking to your content because it's valuable. The pages being linked to most often are probably also the most useful. For instance, if your blog post describing how to add a waterfall to your pool is getting traffic from 20 referral sites, while your post on how to choose a pool cover is only linked to by one site, then maybe more people are interested in waterfalls than pool covers (assuming you promoted both articles the same way).

2. Do visitors find the site useful?
Not everyone is looking to buy something. Some visitors might want to learn more about your company or products. If you track only sales, you may lose valuable insight about how well you are engaging potential customers.

Increased sales
Still, the most obvious and useful metric to track is revenue. You can track goals in Google Analytics (you may want to have an analytics expert set this up) to monitor events such as checkouts or clicks on buy buttons when you sell products online.

When you tie this to your keyword categories and referring site information, the data become even more useful. Do 10 percent of visitors who come from links on online parenting forums purchase from your site, but only 1 percent of visitors who come from gardening forums buy something? If so, parents might be more valuable to your business.

Increased engagement
Using the keyword categories you set up, you can see what kinds of visitors are finding your site valuable. The following data can be useful:

Time on site and pages viewed. These two metrics are often related. You might set a goal of at least 30 seconds on site if you want visitors to read through an entire article. Or you might set a goal of at least two page views per visit, which indicates that visitors are finding the site interesting enough to dig deeper.

You can also track the bounce rate -- that is, how many visitors are leaving the site as soon as they land on it because it didn't have the information they were looking for.

RSS subscriptions. This metric is particularly useful for a blog. If someone comes to your site from a search or referring site, reads a blog post, then subscribes to your blog, it's a good indication that your article was deemed useful. You can monitor subscriptions via goal tracking in Google Analytics.

3. What are your search performance metrics?
Using your keyword categories, you can also monitor how well your site is ranking in search engines for specific searches and if people are clicking through to your site.

Both Google's and Bing's tools track impressions (the number of times searchers saw your site in the results), clicks, click-through rates, and average positions for keywords that send traffic to your site. By looking at these metrics, you can see if your search rankings are improving, as well as if people are finding your search results compelling.

Getting started
The key to monitoring activity on your website is to not get overwhelmed by data. Make sure you have an analytics package installed on your site and are registered for the search engine tools. Be clear on the goals of the site -- and then start with basic questions: What's my overall traffic? What sites are linking to me most often?

Soon, you'll have great insight into how your website investments are paying off.

How Will Google+ Affect SEO?

            By now you've probably heard about Google+, the latest social networking craze and most recent effort by Google to take on Facebook and Twitter. But did you know that it could affect how your business's website gets found on Google's search engine?
In addition to building a social networking powerhouse, Google's aim with its "+1" button -- the equivalent of Facebook's "Like" button -- is to determine the social value of websites, or, in other words, they want consumers to add personalized recommendations to Web content and business sites. At present, it actually looks like Google may just pull it off. Since its June 28 release, more than 20 million people have already jumped onboard Google+. With such an unbelievable early adoption rate, many internet marketing professionals are beginning to wonder if those "+1"s will also start affecting how businesses use search-engine optimization, or SEO.

Google+ combines many popular features of Facebook and Twitter into a centralized social hub. There's a group video chat feature called "Hangouts," and a user-defined topical news feed (like Twitter's hashtag) called "Sparks." But maybe the most unique feature -- and SEO-relevant -- is "Google Circles," which gives users the ability to share content with specified groups, or "circles" of people. As users build these circles, they'll be able to see the sites that members of their circles have +1'd in Google's search engine results pages, or SERPs.

While "+1"s are currently appearing in the search pages for users that are logged in to their Google accounts, it's too early to say exactly how "+1"s will affect users who aren't logged in. Looking at how Facebook and Twitter "Likes" and "retweets" currently affect where a site appears within search pages, one has to assume these +1's will be as influential, if not more.

As search engines evolve to make searching more social, the main value added of "Likes" and "tweets" showing in SERPs is the concept of something I like to call, "trusted endorsements." If someone searches for a product or service, there's a good chance that customer reviews and recommendations will play some role in their decision making process. When looking at these reviews, users trust the opinions of strangers. They assume that these reviews are honest, but there's always a hint of lingering skepticism.

Now imagine the same user is searching for the same product or service, but instead of having to rely on the opinions of strangers, they see recommendations from friends, co-workers or family members. Just like in real life, the opinions of people in their "circles" influence the decisions they make. That's the potential Google+ holds.

So how do you optimize for recommendations?

Google has built upon some of the best features of existing social media sites in an attempt to make search less about computer algorithms and more about real people. Google+ and the +1 button are empowering users to influence other peoples' online activity.

This isn't SEO in the traditional sense, optimizing for these trusted endorsements is an entirely new strategy altogether. Now more than ever, marketers must focus on providing the best customer experience possible, and encourage +1 recommendations everywhere they can.

The Top Five Social Media Mistakes

           Here's a list of the biggest mistakes I've seen business owners make with social media and how to avoid them.

1. Talking One-Way: Many business owners start posting status updates because they think that is all they need to do to grow their company online. But the way they do it cuts off any chance of having a two-way conversation. In today's messaging marketplace, consumers want to be heard. If you are just talking to customers but not letting them to talk back and engage with you, then you are wasting considerable time and effort online.

When you go online and post in a status update area, do not just talk at people; speak with them. Tag people in a post and ask them a question. Tagging simply means that you write directly to a person on his or her Facebook wall or Twitter feed. On Facebook you put the "@" sign in front of their profile name. For Twitter, this sign would go in front of their username.

Related: 20 Ways to Make the Most of Your Social Media Marketing

Also, take a few minutes to stop by the "neighborhood" of each social site that you frequent and say hello, find out what your neighbors are up to and post a quick reply. By actively engaging in these spheres, you keep your business top of mind.

2. Not Knowing When to Ask for Business: Many online businesses have conducted conversations with their connections for quite some time now, without translating this dialogue into any sales. Some companies fail to ask for business online or they ask for it too soon. You need to build some rapport first. People will buy from you only as much as they trust you. Set up a rule to convert conversation into clients or customers.

I follow the 3/3 rule, whereby I speak with someone no more than three times, for not more than three minutes on each occasion, freely offering tips, exploring another company's branding or directly helping them, before I ask that person for some business. When I do the asking, I send the prospective customer a closing script or a post to indicate how I can help further.

3. Shiny Object Syndrome: With all the flashy new websites and with social networking capabilities changing by the minute, no wonder you are swept up in checking out a new site or a fresh feature when you go online. But instead of spending countless hours exploring new dazzlers, devote only a set amount of time each day or week to review the new happenings online. Otherwise you will be sucked into a vortex of shiny objects and before you know it your week is over and you have not converted any online relationships into profits. Flag interesting sites or novel capabilities in a folder or on your calendar to revisit later for research and development.

4. Poor Messaging: A consumer can become overwhelmed by dealing with all the wrong messages that are crowding the Internet lately. Company owners are projecting the wrong image through what they say online. In some cases, their posts have absolutely nothing to do with their company, brand or personality.

Too many entrepreneurs do what I call panic posting -- just posting for the sake of posting and sharing ideas that do not highlight their overall brand image. If you have a serious company, don't post jokes and funny videos. Instead, post statistics and updates about your company's team members. If your business has a relaxed image, inject humor into your posts. A funny YouTube video can go a long way.

Related: 10 Laws of Social Media Marketing

5. Sales Faux Pas: Writing how much your products or services cost in a status update or post is not only a time waste, it is plain wrong. Would you walk up to someone before you have even introduced yourself and say that your latest product is now available at a certain price for a limited time? If so, you would probably end up not only talking to yourself (the person would walk away), but also you likely would lose the entire room of people as customers.

Try sharing the pros and cons about your industry or product category and ask people to provide feedback and participate. This is one way to bridge the distance between you and your prospects and get them involved with your company's brand. Ultimately newfound fans will promote you without being asked because they feel included. The fact that you asked and listened goes a long way.

Whether yours is a one-person business or it has 150 employees, take time every month or quarter to examine your social media practices. You could save thousands of dollars and hours -- and have more to show for it.

Five Truths About Social Media Marketing

Size matters. It just does. Much like the size of a company's email list has obvious importance to a brand, so does the distribution a brand has on Facebook. Of course, quality of userbase is of utmost importance. Having a large, engaged group of self-identified "fans" or "followers" on Facebook represents a highly valuable distribution channel. Take, for example, American Express. They have over 2 million Facebook fans, or 2 million people to whom they can deliver customer service, notify about new offers and engage with on a recurring basis.

Ultimately, social media is about sharing, and sharing to a vacuum is useless. The more people signing up to view your message, the more likely you'll be able to effectively cultivate and monetize these relationships.

The medium is the message. The medium is completely tied to the message in social media -- the two are inextricably linked. This isn't an issue of substituting technology in place of relevant brand messaging. Rather, this amazing "new media" (we'll get to that point later) has given brands and marketers an opportunity to position their products and messaging in a unique way. The best brands are doing a phenomenal job of seamlessly integrating the two, and the best and largest platform, Facebook, is working tirelessly to empower brands in every way possible. (Check out facebook.com/marketing, facebook-studio.com, and Facebook communities like Clinique, Starbucks, Audi and American Express.)

Social media gurus really do exist. They certainly do. I'd qualify many of the talented social-media marketers and Facebook employees I've interacted with as social media gurus. And if you need names, consider Gary Vaynerchuck from Wine Library TV and Nick O'Neill from AllFacebook.com. If you're suggesting that too many people are trying to own the title of social media guru, then I can agree with that. However, there are incredibly bright people innovating within social media. Consider these folks; they're gurus and worth engaging with.

Social media is 'new' media. Yes, textbook-marketing principles (the 4 P's, Porter's 5 Forces, etc.) are still the backbone of brand marketing, and still hold significant weight today -- as they should. However, the past few years have proven that certain traditional forms of marketing and advertising are yielding way to this wild and crazy "new media" (see the magazine, newspaper and radio industries for more info.) The best social-media marketers are expertly displaying the basics of marketing and their corporate goals within this "new media" -- be it with likes, hashtags or check-ins.

Social media can be effectively outsourced to a PR firm. If you want to qualify that statement by saying that hiring a PR firm doesn't necessarily equal social-media success, then I would agree. However, there are many PR firms and social-media agencies that consistently make sure they understand a client's values and goals before publishing to the social-media ecosystem on their behalf. We really like what Rockfish Interactive is doing Bicycle Playing Cards, for instance. Rockfish, a digital-marketing agency that's based in Rogers, Ark., recently helped the 143 year-old playing-card maker relaunch its online social presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. These firms are doing amazing things to harness the power of social media for their clients.

How to Build a Winning Brand

       Of all the startup brands, Starbucks still represents the gold standard.

Starbucks made the mundane act of buying a cup of coffee into an experience. It did so by creating a memorable brand: a unique name and a memorable logo that made coffee not just coffee, but a welcoming, comfortable place to go and be seen.

The Starbucks brand created a culture. Here's a look at how yours can do the same.

Step 1: Craft your image
Creating a brand perception requires intrusion. You are trying to position yourself with people who don't want to change their purchasing decisions. Your brand must be powerful enough to force them out of their routines.

It all starts with a name. With enough frequency of the message, any name can become memorable. That could be a name that explains, like Jiffy Lube or Toys"R"Us. Maybe it's a made-up word or obscure reference,but one with the power to create a lasting emotional connection (think Starbucks again). Obscure brand names are unique from their competition and often become among the most memorable. It could also be a family name, which implies the person behind the brand name has a credibility to be in this business, a pride of workmanship and a moral standard.

Your logo is just as important as your name. The logo is the first visceral connection the consumer makes with the brand. It triggers the brand perception. The first measure of a logo is that it answers questions: Who are you? What do you do? What's in it for me?

There are other practical considerations in logo design:

It must reproduce well in various sizes and media.
It should reflect the sensibilities of the target audience.
Its intention and message should be perfectly clear.
It should be easily and uniquely recognizable.

At its best, a logo should convey an emotional connection as well as personality. The cleverness in a conceptual logo should get a reaction--an "aha!" --while conveying what you do and capturing the personality of your business.

Step 2: Get Known
Branding happens in the minds of consumers. The promises behind the brand create its appeal, but getting the word out is still what brings in the customers.

Traditional media exposure--advertising, promotion, trade shows, direct marketing, events, directories and even search-engine marketing--costs money, and most startups don't have much. Social media is a great equalizer for the cash-strapped entrepreneur. Here are some fundamental guidelines for building your brand online effectively using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs and other social media outlets:

Listen, don't just talk. The days of saying anything that comes to mind or reporting what you're having for dinner are over. Hear the conversation first, then participate.
Ask, don't tell. The goal is developing an exchange. Force your opinion and you'll end conversations before they begin.
Be real, and have a story. Behave in the character of the brand. Give the character depth and be genuine.
Be interesting, and give. Add to the conversation by offering up whatever knowledge you have.
Be interested, and respond. Hear a person's need, then share expertise in a personal way that has no motivation other than to help.
Have a payoff, and say thank you. Reward your followers with something special and exclusive. Appreciate them for following your brand and letting you into their world.

Step 3: Know What the Customer Wants
In launching a business with limited funding, the potential for successfully establishing a brand is far too often based on the zeal of the entrepreneur's belief in the disruptiveness of the unique business idea rather than market intelligence. That doesn't usually work.

To increase your brand's chances for success, you need to know five things:

How strong is the perception of your brand, and what would make it stronger?
What is the true level of consumer satisfaction for competitor brands?
Will your brand introduce emotional connections with consumers who do not currently exist in the market segment?
What percent of the market will consider change because of the disruptiveness of your product?
How much awareness can you gain for the brand?

Brands that Delight
One of the 2011 observations of market research firm Brand Keys, which compiles the annual Customer Loyalty Engagement Index, is that "delight is the new differentiator." Here are the index's top 10 brands for evoking customer delight:

1. Netflix
2. Apple
3. Walgreens
4. Discover
5. Hyundai
6. Mary Kay
7. McDonald's
8. J. Crew
9. Samsung
10. Nikon

The answers to those five questions will determine your chances for successfully branding your product. There are various methods for conducting consumer research, like focus groups and e-mail surveys, that determine what would make a consumer recommend your brand to a friend. If cost is a crippling concern, you must at least go out into the market, observe consumer behavior over a relevant period of time and keep tallies of each type of consumer behavior.

To succeed, you need to know what is the true perception of your brand, how many people hate it, how many it appeals to strongly enough that they would advocate for it and how that acceptance stacks up against the competition. The most successful companies pick a competitive position from which they know their brands can win.


Brand Win: Go Daddy
Branding experts groan every time they see a Go Daddy Girl in a tight white tank top appear on their TV screens, which happens between 500 and 900 times a week on cable. The company's edgy branding strategy has little to do with the very unsexy business of domain registration and website hosting, and Go Daddy acknowledges that its suggestive marketing alienates part of its potential customer base.

But it's hard to argue with the results. In 2005, the company had 16 percent of the new domain name market. After Go Daddy aired its first Super Bowl commercial that year spoofing Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction in the previous Super Bowl, its share jumped to 25 percent within weeks. Six years later, Go Daddy owns more than 50 percent of the market of new domain names, and the company is a household name--even if a big chunk of people still don't know exactly what it does.

"It sounds so simple, but if something works, I keep doing it, and when it doesn't work, I stop," says Bob Parsons, Go Daddy's founder and CEO, and the brains behind the brand strategy. "The edgier the brand is, the better it works. The point is to keep it fun."

In reality, though, Go Daddy's branding--including the unusual name and the child-like logo of a man with sunglasses and a star on his head--is classic advertising. It creates curiosity and promotes name recognition, something most tech services have never done well. But what really defines the company's success is what customers discover once they are enticed to learn more.

"None of this stuff with branding is going to work if you can't deliver," says Parsons, noting that of the 3,000 people on the payroll, 1,800 work in customer service. "We provide the best service of anyone in the world. We even call customers to thank them for $10 purchases."

Go Daddy has tried other advertising routes, including one appealing to busy moms and another touting its U.S.-based call centers. Neither pushed people to the site like the edgier Go Daddy Girl commercials, which this year feature NASCAR's Danica Patrick and fitness guru Jillian Michaels. Parsons says when the provocative advertising stops working, he'll try something different. Until then, his girls will keep teasing NFL fans and late-night cable watchers.

"We've taken domains and websites, which is about as exciting as a cup of sawdust," Parsons says, "and made people pay attention."

Brand Fail: Fit Fuel
In 2006, major magazines were featuring Sean Kelly and Luke Burgis as two of America's entrepreneurial wunderkinds. The duo's business, Fit Fuel, was on the fast track to becoming the next big online retailer. But by 2009, the next big brand in fitness was no longer even a brand. Somewhere between the accolades and fast growth, the company lost its way, and a big piece of the downfall was bad branding.

Fit Fuel was conceived as a service to help vending machine companies stock their slots with healthy choices instead of chips and soda. But soon after launch, Kelly and Burgis realized the majority of their customers were not other businesses, but regular Joes looking for good prices on PowerBars and trail mix. They ran with it, reshaping the company into a fitness product e-tailer. Growth was exponential, bringing in $5 million per year at its height, and in 2007 they moved to a giant warehouse in Las Vegas and jumped from five employees to 20.

That ramp-up proved to be the downfall. Fit Fuel was shifting from selling nutrition products to stocking all things fitness, including books, exercise equipment, apparel and sexual enhancement products. "We were like the Amazon.com of fitness," Burgis says. "But people were confused about who we were, and we didn't have capital. We couldn't survive a price war."

In 2008, Sean Kelly left Fit Fuel to focus on the healthy vending machine concept, and Burgis was left to figure out the company's direction. He started modeling his business on shoe e-tailer Zappos, thinking a hip, service-oriented company culture could define his brand. Burgis renegotiated his contracts so they could offer two-day shipping. Customer service was impeccable. But it didn't resonate with shoppers.

"It was what I wanted the company to be, not what customers wanted," he says. "We put our marketing energy into the wrong things, and we were carrying way too many products."

By mid-2009, after failed takeover negotiations with Zappos the year before, Burgis declared bankruptcy, and Fit Fuel was shuttered. But the experience didn't go to waste. Now at his new venture ActivPrayer, a company that trains coaches to run Christian-focused group fitness classes, Burgis is very keen on what his customers want, and the brand lines up with his strengths.

"Customers are very interested in who we are and in how we do business," Burgis says. "At Fit Fuel, they just wanted their product in a reasonable amount of time. They didn't care if I was a good guy or not."

Five Reasons Why Websites Still Matter

           You know you must leverage Facebook, Twitter and word-of-mouth marketing to increase awareness of your brand. But the fact is, websites remain infinitely more popular with consumers than all of the business pages on social media sites combined.

Only 22 percent of those of us online in the U.S. visit a branded social networking page such as those found on Facebook, while 62 percent of us regularly visit branded websites, according to the latest Global Web Index report. If you were starting to let your site become outdated or haggard, consider a refresh. After all, as these figures note, websites still matter.

Here are five reasons why you shouldn't ignore yours:

1. Branding: Since it's your site, you set the design, which affords you the flexibility to optimize the user experience in ways that directly support your business model and brand-related goals. There's no competition on your website, just a branded experience that you direct yourself.

2. IT and Engineering Jurisdiction: When you control your own site, you have complete jurisdiction over its code, hosting environment, page count, content, plug-ins and more. Just as I mentioned above with regard to branding -- here too you have the elasticity required to make small or sweeping adjustments at will, an advantage you don't get with third-party websites. With sites like Facebook, you can change minor graphics and some content but not code, navigation scheme, server speed or the graphic user interface.

3. Content: Speaking of content, more of it can be found on your own website than on a third-party utility or platform, and none of it competes side-by-side for your visitor's attention. Create compelling and useful content that speaks to why someone is visiting your site and you stand a higher chance of that visitor taking action with respect to your products or services. And since inventory (i.e., web pages) is virtually unlimited on a site under your control, you have ample opportunity to add additional content and calls-to-action in the format you deem most appropriate.

4. Search Engine Optimization (SEO): If garnering multiple, relevant and highly positioned placements in the SERPs (search engine result pages) is part of your sales and marketing strategy, a website is a must. When properly coded and managed, your site delivers natural and sustaining search results that drive qualified traffic to the exact pages on your site where you want visitors to be.

5. Analytics: While many social utilities, platforms and networks provide access to data related to demographics associated with who accesses your profile and how often they do so, website analytic tools go much deeper. They can provide you with the type of business intelligence you need to determine in real-time how your online marketing performs and stacks up against the competition.

Don't think for a moment that I'm suggesting you drop social in favor of your own website. What I'm advocating is that you lead first with your website, followed by leveraging social, email marketing, point of purchase, mobile, apps and other forms of marketing and outreach to drive traffic to your website where you can generate qualified leads who convert to paying customers.

From Grad Student to Social Media Millionaire

         Skeptics say social media hasn't existed long enough to produce experts. Clearly, those folks haven't met Shama Kabani. The 26-year-old wrote her master's thesis for the University of Texas at Austin about Twitter--when it had only 2,000 users, not the 175 million it has today. She hosts a web TV show about technology. Her 2010 book, The Zen of Social Media Marketing: An Easier Way to Build Credibility, Generate Buzz and Increase Revenue, is the No. 4 seller about web marketing on Amazon.com.

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And those are just the side projects. In 2009, at 24, Kabani founded The Marketing Zen Group, a social media marketing firm in Dallas. The company, which she launched with $1,500 of her own money, specializes in all aspects of web marketing for clients--from Facebook and Twitter to blogs and video.

"We are in an age where people are tired of the faceless corporate culture," the Texas native says. "Every day, I ask myself the same question: What can I do today to increase value for our trusted audience (blog readers, TV watchers, Twitter followers, etc.), for our team and for our clients?"

That value means different things for different clients. For k9cuisine.com, a Paris, Ill.-based online retailer of dog food, Marketing Zen established blog and Twitter presences and cultivated relationships with pet-related bloggers. For Arthur Murray Dance Studios in Boston, the company optimized a website to generate more targeted sales leads.

Marketing Zen wasn't always about social media. Kabani says her original plan was to start a general consulting agency. But she quickly realized her passions--and all the best gigs, for that matter--were in the social media space, so she tweaked her strategy.

This modified approach was about consulting with clients, telling them how to better market their businesses online and letting them run with it. Meanwhile, Kabani learned two things: Clients wanted not just a consultant, but also a firm that could implement ideas; and social media is only part of a larger marketing puzzle that includes building solid websites and developing smart search engine optimization.

"That is how we went from being a consulting company to a company that takes over web marketing for our clients," she says. "Our value proposition is simpler now: We drive inbound leads for our clients and increase their online brand visibility."

Related: How to Grow a Business Organically

That thinking appears to be working. Kabani declines to share specifics, but she notes revenues grew more than 400 percent last year alone, and she expects Marketing Zen to be a "multimillion-dollar company" by the end of 2014.

One of the secrets to Kabani's profit model is low overhead. She hired almost all her 30 employees virtually, and many key people work remotely. At least a dozen Marketing Zen employees are in the Philippines.

Another key differentiator: legitimate engagement. Kabani prides herself on having her clients engage with followers, rather than simply talking at them. For Dave Kerpen, CEO and co-founder of competitor Likeable Media, this is a distinguishing characteristic. "She understands the true meaning of community engagement," Kerpen says. "She gets that the conversation must go both ways in order to satisfy customers."

Kabani is also giving back: Earlier this year, she was part of a delegation of businesspeople from the U.S. and Denmark that traveled to Egypt to educate young entrepreneurs. It's all part of her far-reaching quest for enterprising youth to tackle the new global business market.

"The world we live in today is not the world of our grandparents, or even that of our parents," Kabani says. "A college degree does not guarantee success. Young entrepreneurs have to create their own opportunities. The economy needs fresh blood and bold new ideas."

Pivot or Persevere? The Key to Startup Success

          Every entrepreneur eventually faces an overriding challenge in developing a successful product: deciding when to pivot and when to persevere. A pivot is structured course correction designed to test a new fundamental hypothesis about the product, business model and engine of growth. Entrepreneurs periodically must ask themselves a seemingly simple question: Are we making sufficient progress to believe that our original strategic hypothesis is correct, or do we need to make a major change?

There is no bigger destroyer of creative potential than the misguided decision to persevere. Company that cannot bring itself to pivot in a new direction on the basis of feedback from the marketplace can get stuck in the land of the living dead, neither growing enough no dying, consuming resources and commitment from employees and other stakeholders but not moving ahead.

Startup productivity is not about cranking out more widgets or features. It is about aligning our efforts with a business and product that are working to create value and drive growth. In other words, successful pivots put us on a path toward growing a sustainable business.

Related: Lean LaunchPad -- A Crash Course in Startup Success

Failure is a prerequisite to learning. The problem with the notion of shipping a product and then seeing what happens is that you are guaranteed to succeed -- at seeing what happens. But then what? As soon as you have a handful of customers, you're likely to have five opinions about what to do next. Which should you listen to? A pivot requires that we keep one foot rooted in what we've learned so far, while making a fundamental change in strategy in order to seek even greater validated learning.

Ask most entrepreneurs who have decided to pivot and they will tell you that they wish they had made the decision sooner. There are three reasons why this happens.

Vanity metrics can allow entrepreneurs to form false conclusions and live in their own private reality.
When an entrepreneur has an unclear hypothesis, it's almost impossible to experience complete failure, and without failure there is usually no impetus to embark on the radical change a pivot requires.
Many entrepreneurs are afraid. Acknowledging failure can lead to dangerously low morale. Most entrepreneurs' biggest fear is not that their vision will prove to be wrong. More terrifying is the thought that the vision might be deemed wrong without having been given a real chance to prove itself.

Entrepreneurs need to face their fears and be willing to fail, often in a public way. In fact, entrepreneurs who have a high profile, either because of personal fame or because they are operating as part of a famous brand, face an extreme version of this problem.

Related: Business Planning for the 'Lean Startup'

The decision to pivot requires a clear-eyed and objective mindset. It typically is emotionally charged for any startup and has to be addressed in a structured way. One way to mitigate this challenge is to schedule the meeting in advance. I recommend that every startup have a regular “pivot or persevere” meeting. In my experience, less than a few weeks between meetings is too often and more than a few months is too infrequent. Each startup has to find its own pace.

Why You Don't Want to Be the Low-Cost Leader

           When you select a pricing strategy--that is, decide how you wish to price your products or services--what is your goal? The first answer that comes to mind may be to maximize profits, but that isn't a good enough answer.

Think about it this way: When your company develops new products or invests in a new marketing campaign, what's the goal? To maximize profits. But that doesn't tell you what types of products to develop or which customers to target or what message to deliver.

Both Ikea and Mercedes want to maximize profits--and they use very different pricing strategies to do so--but we don't think of Ikea and Mercedes in terms of their pricing strategies. We think of them in terms of their products and positioning. Ikea is a fun, designer, starter furniture store; Mercedes is a luxury automobile manufacturer.

Both companies set their pricing strategies to be consistent with their overall goals and the vision of who they are. Price follows their corporate strategy--not the other way around.

What is your overall strategy? It's the general description of how you compete in the market. It is your sustainable competitive advantage. Your strategy should be based on how your product or service differs from your competition, from product features or location to marketing or the breadth or focus of your offering. It can be many things, but it shouldn't be price.

Related: How Pricing Can Power a Turnaround

Why not? Because pricing is not a sustainable competitive advantage. Prices can change almost instantly. Your competitor can change prices just as quickly as you can. What if you find that optimal price, that psychologically perfect price that magically makes all customers want to buy from you? Your competitors will copy it--immediately. Any competitive advantage you may gain with pricing is not sustainable.

The one time that pricing can be a corporate strategy is when the company is positioned as the low-price leader. That's Walmart. If you adopt low price as your strategy, then your business must be continually focused on lowering and controlling costs--like Walmart. You are attracting the price buyers, customers who are not loyal, but are looking for the lowest price. Once a competitor figures out how to sell a similar product for less, they will charge lower prices and you will struggle. If another company figures out how to sell products for less than Walmart, Walmart will be in trouble. Knowing this, Walmart maintains a laser-sharp focus on keeping costs down. If you make low price your strategy, you have to be like Walmart, continuously lowering your costs so your competitors don't catch up.

You may be thinking about a different price-based strategy. "My product is as good as a Lexus, but less expensive. I'm going to make that my strategy." Don't do it. You may be able to have that product positioning for a short while, but it's not sustainable. The market will morph, and your position may or may not exist in a few years. You have competitors on both sides of you, above and below, either of which may be able to steal your position, because your position is just price.

Related: Five Signs It's Time to Change Your Prices

Consider Walmart's discount retail competition. Kmart is having a difficult time competing with Walmart. Same-store sales continue to decline even as they come out of the 2010 recession. On the other hand, Target's same-store sales figures are growing rapidly. What's the difference? Although there are many factors, one is that Target has a unique positioning. It is described as "trendy," "cool" and "a hip discounter." Kmart may have the Martha Stewart brand, but the company as a whole doesn't own a position. There doesn't seem to be any real differentiation between Kmart and Walmart--other than price, which Walmart wins.

Target's success isn't based on price. They could not beat Walmart in a low price battle. Target's success is because they own the unique positioning of "hip discounter." There is only room for one company with lowest prices, and that company is Walmart, at least for now.

The strategy of low-cost leader is a rough-and-tumble position. Everything is done without frills. Once you get too comfortable, someone else hungrier than you will do it with less and steal your position. This is not a fun position to defend.

Even for companies that aren't low-cost leaders, you must still focus some of your energy and resources on costs. Target, Kmart and every company in a competitive situation still win and lose customers based on their prices. And to have competitive prices, they must maintain relatively low costs. Price is a factor in every customer's decision, and if one company's costs are much higher than another's, then they run the risk of losing on price.

Richard Branson on Why Biggest Doesn't Mean Best

           Editor's Note: Entrepreneur Richard Branson regularly shares his business experience and advice with readers. What follows is the latest edited round of insightful responses. Ask him a question and your query might be the inspiration for a future column.

Q: Do you deliberately pitch the Virgin brand as good value? If your prices are competitive, is it still possible for the public to regard your products as "the best in the world"?
-- Bobby Hall, Australia
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Richard Branson on the Art of Delegation
Richard Branson on the Power of Your People
Richard Branson on Thinking Big

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A: Not only can a small company be the best, but it has to be the best to stand a good chance of thriving in today's competitive world. Then, once it reaches the top spot, it has to strive to do better every day, to ensure customers buy its products or services. Large scale can bring a company many advantages: a hefty marketing budget, established brand awareness in target markets and dependable distribution networks. But, luckily for the smaller players, a business's size does not guarantee better products or great service.

Twenty-seven years ago, when Virgin Atlantic had just one secondhand 747, we were able to compete with British Airways, which had a large fleet, a massive marketing budget and the dominant position at Heathrow, the U.K.'s leading airport.

Related: Richard Branson on Finding and Selecting Investors for Your Startup

We set out to be the cheapest on the block, but only in our specialized niche. I had learned from the collapse of Laker Airways, the British budget airline, that competing on price alone was not a good strategy in the aviation industry. Since its profit margin was meager, the company was vulnerable to larger competitors' price attacks. Instead, we provided "first-class service at a business-class price," which allowed us to generate the profit margin we needed to continue investing in the business while earning a reasonable return.This strategy made a virtue of our airline's small size and modest start, shaping a very strong culture based on great customer service and our not being afraid to try new things. Virgin Atlantic's size was an asset: We were nimble and could innovate quickly, whether we were introducing new entertainment systems, better food, chauffeur-driven cars or our quirky lounges. There was no bureaucracy to slow us down, so we could direct money and resources to the right areas quickly and effectively.

Our small size also meant that we built close relationships with our customers. A business's key asset in this area (size brings no benefit) is its people. Back then, many great people applied to work for us because we were a small group and had more fun. They were so important to our success that we quickly learned to focus on staff retention, and this paid off. Our employees knew from experience how to provide the best possible service.

Without a large frequent-flyer scheme or network on our side, we learned to rely on our two strengths: customer service and personality. We drew attention to our unique offering through our famously cheeky ads, which were topical, timely and often poked fun at our competitors. This attracted notoriety and generated brand recognition.

Overall, we made sure we provided great value for money, building a loyal base of customers who identified with the Virgin brand. Our company soon won market share from British Airways; in essence, we had used a small business's budget to create a big brand. And in the long run, Virgin Atlantic has become one of the strongest brands in aviation.

Related: Richard Branson on Managing Experienced Workers

We applied what we had learned when we started up Virgin Blue in Australia and Virgin America in San Francisco. Virgin's culture was now firmly focused on developing products and services from the customer's point of view and trying to do things better than anyone had done them before. We always try to shake up an industry by showing just how high standards ought to be.

Virgin America will never be the same size as American Airlines or United Airlines -- two of the biggest players in the industry -- but we can out-maneuver and out-think them. The onboard experience we provide to our customers is very different from that of the legacy carriers: we provide great entertainment, free wireless Internet service and great food.

Since its inaugural flight in August 2007, Virgin America has won a number of awards for service and quality. During Virgin Atlantic's first years, we would have been obliged to launch a massive newspaper, television and billboard campaign to draw attention to these achievements, but advertising has changed a great deal over the past decade. Now we can use the power of social media -- with the help of clever viral campaigns, e-mail communications and online advertising -- to generate support, coverage and sales.

This change means that a company's large size is no longer a guarantee of its continuing success. With the playing field more level, big brands can no longer rely merely on expensive marketing campaigns to generate sales. Smaller players can build their global presence by using social media and word-of-mouth to promote their services without spending a lot of money.
This has helped smaller players to punch above their weight. Biggest does not mean best, and it never has. Now, even if they don't have the biggest wallets, small companies can achieve recognition as the best in the world.

Ways to Build Online Traffic and Boost SEO

           "If you build it, they will come." It worked in the movies, but just putting up a website is no guarantee that it will draw traffic. You could buy ads, but if you're unable or unwilling to "pay to play," you're likely facing the increasingly daunting challenge of attracting customers to your website on your own.

Millions of sites are competing for users' shrinking time and attention. The hard truth is that the top three unpaid positions on the first page of Google search results receive about 58% of all clicks, according to online-marketing service Optify. Websites that appear on the second page? An average of 1.5%.

Your best bet for attracting potential customers without spending money on advertising is creating content of such value that audiences can't help but feel compelled to seek it out or pass it along -- on a site that makes sharing it easy.

But how? Here are ideas for getting started publishing content that can help you increase online traffic, improve search-engine optimization and possibly go viral in the process.

Original Articles -- Time investment aside, online articles cost little, can be easy to generate, and provide a way to brand company representatives as experts. Your articles could offer instructional learning, new methods for tackling problems or insight into best practices or industry leaders' views. Here are just a few article formats to consider:

Essays
How-to articles
Tip sheets
Checklists
Guidebooks
Interviews

Grab readers with arresting headlines, bold statements and an authoritative voice. Use humor and catchy hooks (for example, "5 Ways to Torture and Infuriate Your Employees" or "The Wrong Way to Do Downsizing").

For maximum impact, build content around popular search-engine keywords, dilemmas and industry memes. Avoid terms or references that might date your articles.

Keep in mind that less can be more. Be succinct and summarize wherever possible.

Videos and Podcasts -- Barriers to entering the online "broadcasting" business are lower than ever. Armed with a portable digital video camera ($100-$600), USB microphone ($20-$200) and a spare hour of time, nearly anyone can create compelling short or extended-length shows. Ideally, videos are best kept under three minutes and audio recordings to five to 15 minutes. You'd be amazed how quickly content can be built and distributed. Even a simple webcam can provide a ready vehicle for recording.

Here are a few ideas for videos or podcasts:

Behind-the-scenes footage from your office
Making-of style documentaries
Product demonstrations
Customer testimonials
Webinars
Q&As
Panel discussions
Uniquely-branded video programs ("Engineering 101")
Custom training segments ("Launch Your Leadership Career")
Exclusive sit-down interviews ("A Conversation with Seth Godin")

All should be stamped with your logo, prominently feature business contact information and be promoted on aggregators like YouTube, Vimeo and Metacafe. It's also vital that users be allowed to pass along links and embed them on their own websites, as well as access and download audio recordings through popular online distribution services such as iTunes and Podcast.com.

Blogs, Forums and Online Communities -- Your company wouldn't be in business if it didn't employ subject-matter experts in your field. A simple way to build trust, cement credibility and grow both reach and renown is to allow customers ready access to these individuals and their hard-won knowledge. Similarly, courtesy of their own education and experiences, customers may have additional insights, input and suggestions that they're happy to share with colleagues and peers. Tap into a wellspring of ideas, and prospective publishing material, by providing blogs, newsgroups, communities, message boards, polls and other forums where ideas are readily exchanged.

Such solutions can foster creativity and discussion, provide enhanced user support and allow prospective partners or buyers to communicate with and grow trust in you and your team. They also can offer a two-way channel for conversation that helps you get to better know your customers, understand their needs and stay on top of new trends or interests. The activity and continuously updated content can keep users regularly clicking on your website.

Charts, Diagrams and Infographics -- Computer generated or hand-drawn, these visually rich pieces can make data easy for anyone to understand and digest at a glance. And fun to share. Need ideas? Consider illustrating customer preferences, buying habits or population distributions.

Fun facts and especially interesting or one-of-a-kind information won't just draw audiences' attention. They may also provide a ready platform for publicity that can lead to newspaper, magazine, radio and TV coverage.

Books and Online Guides -- Everyone has a problem that needs solving: That's why businesses exist. Providing expert advice, hints, strategies and answers to perennial questions is an excellent way to establish yourself as a leading industry source and even gain media exposure. In addition to ebooks, you could consider publishing your work in PDFs or sharable online slideshow presentations.

While you may opt to charge for full or more detailed manuscripts, at least a small initial installment should always be given away free. Just be certain to include information of value. Customers won't want to pass along a glorified sales pitch.

PostSecret's social network of secrets

          As part of an art project, Frank Warren posted his home address online and asked people to anonymously mail him their secrets on handmade postcards. His idea: post those secrets online, giving people an outlet to say to the world what's on their minds.

"They can make you laugh, they can break your heart -- but you think when you read all 20 to 25 every Sunday," says Warren, who launched PostSecret six years ago. "It leaves you someplace a little different emotionally than where you were."

PostSecret's confessions range from everyday exasperations with humorous twists -- like a coffee barista threatening to serve demanding customers decaf -- to disclosures of life-threatening problems such as eating disorders or suicidal thoughts.

PostSecret isn't just an art project these days. It's now the cornerstone of a business franchise, encompassing a book series, speaking engagements, and a new mobile app that launched last week.

"I was a small business owner for 20 years," Warren says. "I feel as though not having a background in art but rather in business was helpful for me to, when this website became very popular, grow it and develop it in a way that it could self-sustain itself and find these other platforms of expression."

Warren, who says the site sees more than 4 million hits a month, attributes much of PostSecret's popularity and longetivity to his commitment to the project's core value: allowing people to share their secrets without exploiting them. That means no ads.

"If we did have ads, we could generate a pretty good revenue stream," he says. "But I feel one of the reasons so many people -- over half a million -- have trusted me with their secrets is because they know that their secrets won't be exploited or commercialized."

But Warren's newest venture -- an iPhone app that debuted last week -- carries a price tag. The $1.99 allows users to read and share secrets on the go. The app adds a location layer to PostSecret's confessional network: Users can "pin" an anonymous secret to a location.

The app has already cracked Apple's top-20 list of bestselling paid applications. More than 100,000 mobile secrets have been shared, says Warren, who is working on an Android app next.

Like many startup ventures, PostSecret's mobile move is an evolving experiment.

"It's super organic, so we don't know what kind of conversations are going to emerge," Warren says. "We don't know how people are going to use it."

He envisions the app as an alternative social network -- "a way of shining light on these hidden parts of ourselves, and in some ways sharing secrets as commerce and currency."

Some of those secrets are also cries for help. From this week's batch of postcards: "I'm considering death as a solution to the problems that will emerge when my unemployment runs out. All of the people in my life who think I'm handling this so well will realize how wrong they were."

Warren -- who spent several years answering phone calls overnight at a suicide prevention hotline -- is exploring ways to use PostSecret's growing community for advocacy and aid. The app could help shine a light on data clusters that would otherwise stay hidden, he suggests.

"We notice at a certain campus, perhaps, a lot of students are struggling with issues of abuse or eating disorder or stress ... there's a way we can talk to that school and have them offer more of their resources to students, or make them aware of what's available to help," he says.

But even for the solipsistic, PostSecret can be an illuminating mirror.

"One of the things I've learned form this project are there are two kinds of secrets. There are the ones we keep from others, and the secrets we hide from ourselves," Warren says. "Sometimes the more exposure you have to other peoples authentic secrets, the more you're able to look inside yourself and understand some parts of your life you need to deal with."
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Amazon: No California sales tax collection til 2012

           Amazon has struck a deal with lawmakers that will give the company one more year before it must start collecting sales tax on purchases made in California.

As part of the agreement, which was reached late Wednesday, Amazon has promised to back off fighting a new state law that would have compelled it to collect the tax.

Now Amazon has until July 31, 2012, to lobby Congress for a federal solution.

Right now, online retailers face a patchwork of local laws, requiring them to collect sales tax in some states but letting them skip it in others. Amazon has fought hard against local levies but says it would support a "simple, nationwide system of state and local sales tax collection."

California's sales tax kerfuffle started back in June, when California Governor Jerry Brown approved an $86 billion budget that imposed deep spending cuts. Under that law, Amazon and other out-of-state online retailers would be required to collect California sales taxes if they had affiliates, offices, workers or other ties to the state.

Amazon's affiliates program provides a commission to website or blog operators who refer shoppers to the retailer's site. Amazon, which has had associates in California for more than a decade, works with 10,000 affiliates there.

Brown's measure was expected to add $200 million to California coffers. But the same day the bill was signed into law, Amazon (AMZN, Fortune 500) announced it would terminate its relationship with its California associate. It called the legislation "unconstitutional and counterproductive."

Instead, Seattle-based Amazon wrote up a referendum challenging the law and spent boatloads of cash collecting signatures for it. Last week, the company sweetened the pot: It offered to build distribution centers in California and hire workers in the state.

"Amazon throws around a lot of money," said Assemblyman Charles Calderon, a Democrat, who helped broker the agreement. "It's not your typical corporate community. They floated their own proposal. They have an aggressive business plan, and they are wiling to take risks."

Calderon calls the 12-month push down the road a "grace period," and he said "a national solution" from Congress would make things simpler for everyone.

Amazon hasn't said whether or not it will reinstate its California affiliates. The company did not return a call seeking comment.

Meanwhile, other states have passed the so-called "Amazon tax" in recent years. Those include Connecticut, Illinois, New York, North Carolina, Arkansas and Rhode Island. Amazon dropped its associates program in all those states, except New York, where it has a brought a lawsuit against the state. To top of page
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Analysts scramble to raise their iPhone and iPad estimates

            It happens every three months. As the end of Apple's (AAPL) fiscal quarter approaches, the small army of analysts that cover the stock dusts off its spreadsheets, finds them overly conservative and starts issuing revisions. If history is any guide, the numbers will be revised again -- upward -- when the company reports its Q4 2011 earnings in mid-October.

Here are the reports we've seen so far this week:

Sterne Agee's Shaw Wu: Sees "remarkable" strength in iPhone 4 sales despite expected release of iPhone 5 in October. Ups iPhone estimate to 18.5 million (from 15.7 million), iPads to 12 million (from 10.4 million) and gross margin to 41% (from 39%). Staying pat on Macs at 4.1 million.
Jeffries' Peter Misek: iPhone sales are "surprisingly strong" he says, but back-to-school demand for Macs was "weaker than expected." Ups iPhone estimate to 18.9 (from 18.4), lowers Mac to 4.4 million (from 4.9 million).
BMO's Keith Backman: Raises iPhones to 20.4 million (from 19.5 million), Macs to 4.31 (from 4.27 million) and iPads to 11.0 million (from 10.5), adding that he "sees upside tension to 11.5 million units," whatever that means.
Pacific Crest's Andy Hargreaves: Sees "significant upside" to the numbers in his spreadsheet but doesn't seem quite ready to change them. Could easily imagine iPhone sales going to 24.05 million (from the 18.7 million in his model) and iPad sales going to 16.5 million (from 11.1 million).

For the record, the estimates we've seen so far from independent analysts (whose track record is considerably better than Wall Street's) are higher on iPhones and Macs and lower on iPads. On average, they're calling for 24.9 million iPhones, 4.85 million Macs and 10.5 million iPads.
Posted in: Analysts, Apple, iPad, iPhone, Mac, Macintosh, Mobile, Tablets
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