Rise of the Cloud Continues

              New Ventana research has confirmed that organizations are moving to the cloud now and will accelerate the pace of doing so in the near future. At least 20 percent of five different line-of-business functions use cloud-based applications, and within 12 months, at least 40 percent of eight of nine functions will.

Ventana Research undertook this benchmark research with the co-sponsorship of Information Management to assess levels of maturity, trends and best practices in organizations’ use of business data in the cloud. The research analyzed information from 141 qualified IT personnel responsible for managing cloud data.

Ventana found an increasing number of cloud-based applications in use. Nearly one-quarter (24 percent) of those using cloud-based applications have five or more deployed today, and 32 percent expect to have that many within a year.

For most organizations (65 percent) the most common pattern of data movement is between on-premises applications, but now as many must combine cloud-based data and on-premises data as need to combine on-premises data sources (both 86 percent). The research found that over the next two years cloud-based applications will grow faster than on-premises applications. Overall, organizations’ largest gap between needs and capabilities not yet addressed is in moving cloud data on-premises.

“A little bit of regressing is going on. We knew that with on-premise processes data quality and governance processes need to be followed,” says David Menninger, VP and research director for analytics, business intelligence and information management at Ventana. “With respect to cloud, these issues are resurfacing, and some are forgetting of the lessons of the past.”

All basic information management functions need to be addressed in the cloud, says Menninger. In this study, only 15 percent have completed a data quality initiative, only 5 percent a master data management initiative, and only 13 percent a data governance initiative for cloud data.

Menniger notes that only about one-fifth (21 percent) of organizations fully trust cloud-based data; more than twice as many (46 percent) fully trust data from on-premises applications. He suggests that putting automation tools in place and educating within the organization as well as getting processes established will help address cloud data trust issues.

Additionally, Ventana recommends that IT should find a way to collaborate with line of business. “We found when IT and line of business work together, the line-of-business groups are more satisfied,” says Menniger.

AGILITY IS WHAT THE FUTURE IS MADE OF: How Agile is Your Organization?

              There is a new (well, maybe not that new) methodology being used in IT to develop applications called “agile.”

Agile promises to deliver usable applications quicker and exactly the way the users need them. It has been around for more than 15 years and now seems to be gaining acceptance as a valid approach to IT development.

I learned about agile years ago, and there was something about it that I liked immediately: When business users needed something changed in a project, the developer made the changes. No muss, no fuss; the change got made, and without a lot of time or effort spent documenting the change request, getting multiple approvals, and revising the project timeline. It all might sound like a recipe for catastrophe, but agile has its own set of rules and processes to keep things under control. Without the bureaucracy, IT projects under agile are completed quicker and with higher satisfaction ratings from both the business users and the IT team.

The question I’ve worked on for a while is this: “Why can’t whole agile organizations operate in an agile way?” When a process or operating rule sits in the way of getting stuff done, shouldn’t it be as easy as just changing the process? Do we really need to touch base with multiple areas for input and get their approvals and sign-offs? And is it really the end of the world if a changed procedure needs to be changed again because something was overlooked or doesn’t work?

There are, of course, processes that fall outside the realm of what can be changed in an agile way. For example, controls under the Sarbanes-Oxley domain must be vetted and documented appropriately, and processes with the potential to negatively impact customers must be implemented with great care. Outside those types of things, plenty of processes can be changed easily and do not jeopardize the organization — such as the requirement that a supervisor sign off on an insignificant task, like making copies in a copy center.

Maybe it’s time for organizations to look for ways to implement agile, both for IT projects and as an overall operating style. The benefits could be significant for a company that accomplishes more processes faster. And satisfaction would be greater.

How to Choose the Right Web Server

              Running a business online means that your business needs to have an effective website, but often overlooked by businesses is the importance of the Web server. The Web server that houses your website is as important as the look and feel of your website. So how do you choose a web host, and do you need more than just a host?

Consult With Your Developer
Before you decide which hosting service to use, I recommend discussing the details and functionality of your website. Understanding how your website will be developed and how supportive your development firm is will help you decide what hosting firm to use. If you already have a website, discuss with your developer the traffic and bandwidth to understand what you may need for growth. Once you are educated on the type of structure that will be used to build your website or needed to grow your website, you can research the firms recommended by your developer as well as hosts you may already have in mind. You may need to graduate from a shared hosting service, which leads us to looking inward.

Look at Your Business Needs
How much support do you think you will need from your hosting company? If you're creating the website yourself or hiring a temporary contractor for the project, you may want to look at a host that provides more service support. Every hosting company has a support department, but what they consider support may differ from what you have in mind. If you're a solopreneur, you may want a firm that can help install applications. This is a task often performed by outside developers, but some hosting companies will provide this level of support -- for a price.

Uptime of your website is something most hosting firms market, but what about backups? Backups are not only needed when a site goes down, but also when someone makes an error. I can't begin to tell you how many people have accidentally renamed or overwritten a file and needed a backup restored. How quick is your host to respond to your needs? Response time can have a huge impact on any business and this is something to consider when reviewing your host. But response time and resolution time are two different things. Be sure to explore both. Don't get caught up in the marketing message; understand how firms escalate tickets and solve problems.

How Many Sites Do You Have?
It is not uncommon for marketing purposes to have more than one website. If you have more than one website, do you want a separate hosting account per site or a VPS? Virtual private servers can be a great solution to control the management of many websites, and will give you or your developer a root-level connection to handle installing Web services. VPS environments also you provide you with a hybrid of shared and dedicated applications, and, depending on the provider, a different level of support and resources.

Your website location matters both in terms of supporting you as a business owner and delivering a fast experience for your customers. Make sure to choose a quality solution that fits both objectives.

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.

10 Things Every Small-Business Website Needs

             The Web is full of horrendous sites, and we're not just talking about bad design. There are many other elements besides how your website looks that go into making it customer-friendly -- not to mention something that inspires them to actually do business with you.

From thorough contact information to customer testimonials, here are the essentials that every small business website should have for it to effectively help you do business.

1. A clear description of who you are
Someone who stumbles upon your website shouldn't have to do investigative work to figure out what, exactly, it is that you do. That means clearly stating your name and summing up your products or services right on the homepage, says John Zhuang, of Web-design and SEO-optimization firm Winning Interactive.

"Tell people this is the right website that they have been searching for," he says. "[A clear description] will attract the visitor's attention immediately within 2-3 seconds, and encourage them to stay on your website longer."

2. A simple, sensible Web address
Don't make things complicated.

"Your domain name is like your brand. It should be easy for a user to type it into a Web browser or an e-mail address," says Ron Wright, the founder of business Web design and online marketing firm Accentix.

He adds: "I always recommend the .com domain as users are conditioned to type that extension when they enter a Web address. For non-profits or organizations, I usually recommend using a .org domain for branding purposes, but also recommend having a .com version of the domain in case a user accidentally types the .com address."

Wright also suggests avoiding dashes (which can cause SEO headaches) and numbers (which can cause confusion for customers).

3. An easily-navigated site map
Clear links to the most important pages, and a site map, are crucial for guiding visitors to the information they're looking for.

"Be sure your navigation is clearly laid out. I always recommend using dropdowns in the navigation menu so the visitor can see the content under every heading from virtually any page. You want to make it very easy for your visitors to find what they are looking for, or what you want them to know," Wright suggests.

4. Easy-to-find contact information
You wouldn't want to lose a customer to a competitor just because you made it difficult for them to get in touch with you.

"Not every online visitor has the patience to click through every page on your website to find the contact information," says Zhuang.

"The best place for the contact information is the top left or top right corner of the home page," he recommends. "It is also a good practice to include contact information in every page of the website in the footer or side bar or even in top right corner, which helps the visitors to find it more easily."

You should also be sure to include several ways for them to contact you -- phone, e-mail, and a standard contact form, are all good options. Forbes also suggests including your address, and even a link to your location in Google maps.

"One of the biggest mistakes business owners make is to force only one way to reach them," says Wright. "The point is to make it very easy for users to communicate with you on their terms."

5. Customer testimonials
Honest words from others help make your products or services more tangible to customers who are visiting you online.

"They help your potential customers to build trust in you, especially if you are new," Zhuang says. "[And they] help shoppers to confirm whether the product [or] services meet their needs."

"People love to hear stories from real people," he adds. "They help people [find out] other things you haven't said [on] your website."

6. An obvious call to action
"Tell the online visitors literally what you want them to do with clear tones of commend," says Zhuang. "For instance, you may want them to call you now for free quote, or sign up to your exclusively online coupons, or add products to the online shopping cart, etc."

And, he adds, call attention to your suggestion -- by using special buttons or highlighting the text, for example.

7. Know the basics of SEO
Your website won't do you as much good if no one can stumble upon it. Become familiar with the SEO basics to make it more accessible by search engine.

"You don't need to employ mysterious, ninja, black hat SEO types to rank well on the search engines. Simply make sure your website is coded correctly," Wright says.

That means using the correct keywords throughout your text, putting in plenty of links, naming your page titles and URLs correctly, and employing the magic of images and videos.

8. Fresh, quality content
For many businesses, your website is your first impression on a customer. You want to give them what they're looking for, and perhaps even give them a reason to keep coming back.

Wright says, "The user is looking for something. Make sure you give it to them.... [and be] sure your content is original, well written and valuable."

Fresh content is a goldmine for SEO, as well. You can keep your content from getting stale (and give your company some personality, too) by incorporating a regularly-updated blog or connecting in your social media feeds.

9. A secure hosting platform
Having your online information hijacked is a nightmare, and, should it happen to your business, it could cost you customers.

"It is imperative that you have a secure, trustworthy hosting company to keep the bad guys out and your content up and running," says Wright. "It is also very important to keep your content management system updated in order to stay one step ahead of the hackers."

10. A design and style that's friendly to online readers
As Forbes puts it, "Web surfers have the attention spans of drunken gnats."

Zhuang describes it in more detail: "Online visitors often scan through a Web page to sample the content first when they open a new Web page. If they feel like they are on the right page, they will slow down to read the full story. To enhance user's experience on your small business website, you need to organize the content for scanning."

He recommends three style points for online writing to keep in mind:

Break things down into short paragraphs, with headers if necessary
Use bullet points
Highlight important words or phrases.

Wright adds, "In the end, simplicity and basic colors are the best bet. Again, the content is the focus, not dancing clowns at the top of the page."

The Benefits of Framing Out Your Website

           Suppose you're sitting at Starbucks with your corporate architect to discuss plans for an office renovation. You grab a napkin and start sketching desktops and conference areas with your pen. Some of the lines don't show up, and the napkin bunches up and tears, but you're quite pleased with your rendering--until you catch sight of your architect rolling her eyes.

Same goes for creating or redesigning your company's website. You can produce a forest of Post-it notes along with crude renderings in an attempt to communicate your point. Or you can employ sophisticated online wireframing tools or software to translate your vision into a website prototype.

Tools for Framing

While you can certainly use just about any graphics application to wireframe a website, more feature-rich options are available, including:

• Protoshare: Robust online wireframing tool that allows you to create rich, interactive website prototypes that you can share and collaborate on with others.

• Gliffy: Online diagramming tool with an intuitive interface.

• OmniGraffle: Mac-friendly software for wireframing.

• LucidChart: Create, collaborate on and publish highly polished wireframes online.

• Axure RP: Wireframing software for both the PC and Mac.

A wireframe--a stripped-down visual representation of a web page--helps you identify usability problems and market positioning opportunities early on, before you sink a lot of money into graphic design and programming. Until relatively recently, wireframes were in the sole domain of professional web designers. But today you can find dozens of wireframing tools online (see box), all with a free trial period, that simplify the process.

No real expertise is required to wireframe your site. Use the online tools to convey your ideas of what the site should look like and include. Because you're not a designer, you're not aiming for perfection; you're simply trying to convey a starting point that includes elements you feel are key to telling your story, positioning your company or brand, or drawing attention to a call to action or navigation scheme that is important to you. Your web designer will take it from there.

"I love it when clients provide wireframes," says Jerry Chrisman, owner of Grip Media, a graphic design and web development agency in Portland, Ore. "It helps me get a better idea of exactly what the client wants, and it speeds up development and avoids unnecessary complications."

So do yourself and your designer a favor. Wireframe your site before heading out to that meeting at Starbucks.

A New Model to Help Improve Website Usability

         For centuries, artists and writers have struggled to marry form and function. Click around online for a while and it becomes clear that web designers still grapple with the challenge. Achieving the optimum blend of text, graphics and white space eludes most companies. Too much text is likely to overwhelm, while too little leaves users guessing what the graphics represent. Too much white space wastes valuable real estate, while too little makes users feel cramped and confused.

How to create a clickable moment
The online experience results in a series of action-oriented visuals, where graphics, text and white space translate into actions. To create more clickable moments, do the following:

Keep it simple. Remove superfluous text and graphics to eliminate clutter and distractions and boost performance.

Imply more by showing less. Use white space strategically to showcase and amplify vital elements.

Account for menu-to-content asymmetry. Navigation menus on the top or right columns, though relatively smaller than the main image, tend to attract more attention.

Communicate purpose and intent through hierarchy and deliberate design. Layout should not appear haphazard.

Learn more about Oneupweb's Zen Triangle of Design at Oneupweb.com.

The optimum blend for any given industry or application varies. According to a June 2010 study published by Oneupweb, a digital marketing agency in Traverse City, Mich., it may require more of one ingredient and less of another to accommodate differences in user behavior (how people tend to interact with a certain genre of sites), online constraints (including two-dimensional screens and browser compatibility) and the nature and depth of the content. E-commerce and higher-education sites, for example, must incorporate more textual content, whereas B2B sites tend to make greater use of graphics and white space.

Oneupweb developed the "Zen Triangle of Design" as a model to measure and evaluate how effectively a design balances these three elements. With calculator and grid paper in hand, you can quickly determine whether a particular page's design offers a good user experience or if you may need to make adjustments. Perfect balance is not necessarily the goal. As Oneupweb makes clear, "there is no magic wand or golden rule for designing a good website." But the method does provide a benchmark--a quantitative measure--to consult for guidance.

Remember, website usability is not all about aesthetics. Functionality also plays a key role; users need to be able to go from point A to point B as quickly as possible. They demand quick access to prices, rates and other decision-making details and even quicker access to the point of sale.

A Zen Triangle moment could help you find the balance of aesthetics and functionality your site's visitors crave.

Tips for Interior Pages of Your Website

             Everybody knows the importance of making a positive first impression, but if you assume prospective customers first encounter your website through its homepage, think again. Natural search results drive users to individual pages that best match each user's search query, and often that page is not your site's homepage.

On the more than 25 websites I manage, nearly four of every 10 visitors enter the site from somewhere other than the homepage. They land on a page for a specific product or service, the About page, a page for a blog entry or even the Terms & Conditions page.

Unfortunately, most business owners and marketing managers focus 90 percent of their attention and resources on designing a stunning homepage and treat the other pages as an afterthought. Don't make this mistake. Give every page the same care and attention you devote to your site's homepage.
Interior Page Must-Haves
Every page on your site should contain the following elements:

• Company logo and tagline

• Consistent navigation, including search

• Call to actions both above and below the fold

• Clear, concise, compelling and grammatically correct copy

• Consistent design and color scheme to establish brand presence

• Advertisements to promote featured products, services and special offers

Check your website's analytics to identify where visitors most frequently enter your site, and ask yourself whether each page channels visitors to the information you want them to see and to the actions you want them to take. If any one of these pages fails to support your business-related goals, it's time to make some changes.

If you are unsure of your site's purpose, this is the first issue to tackle. You should have a clear purpose for your site before you build it, but if you skipped that step, formulate a purpose now.

Every page, not only the homepage, should communicate your site's purpose and steer visitors to the desired call to action. If you built the site to sell products online, every page should direct traffic to product pages. If the site's purpose is to encourage visitors to call in for an estimate, every page should include a phone number.

Remember that with the long-tail nature of search, you never know which door a customer is likely to walk through when entering your site. Make sure every entrance offers a greeting, projects an air of professionalism, presents relevant content and actively serves your purpose for building and maintaining the site in the first place.

Insurance Diaries: Why I Got Owners Insurance for My Home Business

             A funny thing happened to me recently while I was reporting a story for Entrepreneur.com on what insurance you need for your home-based business. I found some experts and got great advice on the types of policies available, and the coverage you need to protect your personal assets from a customer lawsuit.

In the process, I found out something important: I needed this insurance for my business. I was crazy not to have it.

Here's the story of what I found out, and what insurance I got for my home business:

I've been a freelance writer since 2005, and freelancing is a booming business at my house these days. Activities now include my husband's videography business, which involves more than $10,000 worth of videography equipment he uses to make videos both for my websites and for other clients.

It's all sitting around in the house. Customers sometimes come to over to look at their footage, and business deliveries arrive, too. Then of course, my husband goes out to clients and public locations to shoot videos.

In other words, it's liability city. None of this stuff is covered by our homeowners' insurance policy, I learned.

"If a UPS man slips and falls on your porch making a business delivery, you have no coverage," one expert told me.

The video equipment could be stolen, or lost in a fire or earthquake. Video equipment could be damaged or stolen on location. Clients or delivery men could slip and fall on our property.

I learned there are three basic types of coverage, two of which are too rudimentary for anything but a hobby small business. Adding a rider to your home insurance covers only a few thousand dollars of losses, for instance. For most of us, the answer is a Business Owners Policy.

It costs about $500 and gives you $2 million of coverage against loss, theft, injury and other liability. Pretty affordable for what you get. It took minutes to call my homeowners' insurance company and get them to draw up a BOP for me. And, hey, it's a writeoff.

The last thing I learned about getting business insurance: It can help your business land big clients, too. I just got a freelance-writing job with a major government agency, and they required that I show proof of insurance. Without it, I wouldn't have been able to get a contract worth over $10,000.

So not only do I sleep better now knowing we're protected from potentially losing our home in a customer lawsuit, but I've got more cash flow. Seems like a win-win.

Social Climbers: How Franchises Are Using Social Networking

                Whoever said there's no such thing as a free lunch obviously never visited the Facebook page of Einstein Bros. Bagels. Last year, Einstein Bros. launched its Bagel Bonanza promotion, giving away a bagel and cream cheese to anyone willing to sign up as the franchise's fan on Facebook. At the time, Einstein Bros. had only 4,700 fans across the social network, but when the digital coupon campaign wrapped up a week later, that number had skyrocketed to more than 300,000.

Einstein Bros. revived Bagel Bonanza during the spring, and it continues rewarding its online followers with discounts, menu previews and nutritional information. By the end of October, it had more than 600,000 Facebook fans.

"Social media is a place where consumers want to be," says James O'Reilly, chief concept officer for Einstein Noah Restaurant Group, the Lakewood, Colo.-based parent company and franchisor. "We're not a national advertiser, so we decided to make social media a pillar of our marketing efforts. It's a whole new channel for businesses to engage their customers in a two-way dialogue."

Einstein Bros. is far from the only company embracing social networking as a marketing platform: Nearly 75 percent of franchise businesses are now leveraging social media, according to a 2010 survey published by market research firm Franchise Business Review. And consumers are responding--69 percent say they're more likely to patronize a local business if it offers information on a social networking site, per a recent comScore research study.

"We've never been a big mass-media advertiser, and we've never been able to compete on a level with the larger casual dining restaurants that own the airwaves. We can't out-shout them with our marketing budget," says Jen Gulvik, vice president of marketing and creative director for Houlihan's Restaurants in Leawood, Kansas. "But it's still essentially free to play in social media. We can be in this space and do as well, if not better, than our larger competitors. It levels the playing field."

Houlihan's has been aggressive and creative in building out its social media footprint. In early 2008, the company introduced HQ, an invitation-only online community of more than 10,000 regular customers (or "HouliFans") across the United States. The HQ site is a direct channel for Houlihan's to solicit patron feedback on ideas and product plans, encourage word-of-mouth viral campaigns and invite insiders to members-only tastings and events. In addition, Houlihan's boasts a Facebook page and a separate page spotlighting Coaster McGee, its sassy in-store mascot. In September, Houlihan's began giving away orders of french fries to diners who check in at participating locations via mobile social network Foursquare.

Houlihan's also encourages its 94 U.S. franchise locations to nurture their own social media presence, and Gulvik says, 19 franchisees now maintain their own Facebook pages.

"We're not a traditional, conventional company. We're very cognizant of not acting chain-like," she says. "We know that consumers automatically give you a lower mark if you're a chain. There's a perception that chains equal ‘bad' and ‘cutting corners.' We want to communicate the flavor and personality of each restaurant and the community it serves."

That doesn't mean every franchisee--or every franchise, for that matter--is a good fit with social networking. Social media efforts demand the same care and attention as any other segment of your business.

"Unlike TV and radio, social media is a two-way medium, and it needs to be treated that way," O'Reilly says. "You have to have your Facebook page staffed with full-time people to help answer questions or handle issues in real time."

Gulvik agrees. "It's inexpensive to play in these channels, but it's time-intensive. You've got to make sure you have people dedicated to it," she says. "We tell our franchisees you can't just put up a Facebook page and ignore it. Putting up content is the easy part--engaging with the guests is another thing. You've got to be in there every day."

Among franchises active in social media, 45 percent tell Franchise Business Review they've leveraged tools like Facebook, Foursquare and Twitter to boost brand awareness, and 24 percent are pursuing new customers. But 11 percent are looking at social networking as a way to recruit franchisees.

"Social media is a part of every marketing campaign we have. We have a presence on various social networking sites, and many franchisees have their own sites as well," says Christie Wells, customer experience and communications manager for Häagen-Dazs Shoppe Co., a gourmet ice cream business in Minneapolis. "These are awareness opportunities for us, and we're using them to get the word out there that we're looking for franchisees."

In mid-October, Häagen-Dazs launched Ice Cream Boss, an interactive Facebook game designed to offer potential investors the scoop on owning and operating a store. Each week, Ice Cream Boss features a new story or situation unfolding in the virtual Häagen-Dazs Shop, challenging Facebook fans to offer suggestions and feedback on how best to resolve the issue.

"Our goal is to encourage people who are interested in Häagen-Dazs to play the game, then move into the franchise world," Wells says. At press time, Ice Cream Boss had only been online about a week, and Häagen-Dazs had yet to bring aboard any new franchisees as a result of it. "But we already have people playing the game and actively learning about the brand," she says. "That's great from a lead generation and contact standpoint."

"Social media is here to stay," Wells says. "The different sites and formats may change, but we're definitely keeping our focus on the medium. We want to make it a major part of our plans for expansion and shop marketing."

O'Reilly of Einstein Bros. shares Wells' enthusiasm for the platform. "The heart of the social media opportunity is that we're continuing to get better at building a dialogue with our fans. We can understand what they want and what they don't want, and respond in ways consistent with our brand equity," he says. "Consumers are smart and they're savvy, with opinions that need to be respected. Social media is the best way to keep them engaged."

By the Numbers: The Census Report on Franchises

Quick, did you know that nearly half of the optical stores in the United States are affiliated with franchises? Or that there isn't a single franchise company that sells luggage and leather goods?

Probably not. Actually, few knew until last fall, when the U.S. Census Bureau issued its first Economic Census Franchise Report. In 2007, when the Census Bureau surveyed 4.3 million businesses that have paid employees, its forms included questions about franchising for the first time. The results, which were released in September 2010, show that franchises account for 10.5 percent of all businesses and support 7.9 million workers in a work force of 59 million. Franchising sales account for nearly $1.3 trillion of $7.7 trillion in total sales.

The numbers came as no surprise to the International Franchise Association in Washington, D.C., says spokeswoman Alisa Harrison, because they closely match information gathered by accounting firm Pricewaterhouse-Coopers for the IFA's annual Economic Impact of Franchising reports.

"What did surprise us," Harrison says, "was that franchises appear in 295 different industries."

Franchising dominates several obvious industries, such as fast-food restaurants (59 percent) and hotels (47 percent). But it is barely present in others, such as musical instruments and supplies (1 percent) and driving schools (.04 percent).

The report, Harrison says, "gives us better information to present to policymakers when lobbying for issues related to our franchise community." It can also be a useful research tool for IFA members and for groups thinking of launching a franchised business. The IFA has allocated funds from its 2011 budget to hire a researcher to analyze the information and make it more user-friendly, she adds.

The Census Bureau conducts a business census every five years. The IFA is working with the bureau for the 2012 survey to include questions for businesses that do not have paid employees, such as sole proprietor accounting franchises. Owners of real estate franchises, Harrison says, might also fit into that category because their agents are independent contractors.

To find data from the report, go to the IFA's website, franchise.org, and type "2007 Economic Census Franchise Report" into the search engine.

Six Tips for Surviving a Cyber Security Threat

             You can lower your risk by slimming down what online security pros call your "attack surface." And that means going beyond simply installing anti-virus software.

Don't assume partners have your back. If you depend on outside sources for technical firepower--outsourced services, cloud solutions and the like--come at it with eyes wide open. "Many business owners think their web hosting provider is taking care of the security of their website," says Neil Daswani, co-founder and chief technology officer of security firm Dasient. "Not so. At the low monthly fees at which many hosting services are made available, the web hosting provider does not scan the websites for vulnerabilities or malware."

Serve up a safe site. Often malware distributed online is spread through legit websites. Criminals scan the internet for vulnerabilities in web applications and install bits of inconspicuous code into the site's server that infect users when they visit that site. Unfortunately, small-business sites are favored for such sneak attacks. "Those things are typically caused by small businesses not having the software on the server patched and up-to-date," says Chester Wisniewski, senior security advisor at security firm Sophos. Crooks also infiltrate third-party advertising companies, infecting code or setting up shell companies to dupe businesses into placing "malvertising" on their sites. According to Dasient, in the last quarter of 2010, 3 million malvertising impressions were served to consumers each day.

Lower your app profile. PCs from big box retailers come junked up with superfluous free apps, and the situation worsens with add-ons, plug-ins and shareware. More apps mean more avenues for hackers to attack. Wisniewski's advice: "Get rid of any software you don't need." Then, ensure remaining systems are patched and up-to-date. Michael Sutton, vice president of security research for cloud security provider Zscaler, says, "Look at browser plug-ins such as Java and Adobe Reader. These are the top two outdated components that are targeted by attackers."

Buy a "banking machine." The same protections the banking industry extends to consumer victims of identity theft are not necessarily extended to businesses. Because your liability is so much higher, it makes sense to dedicate a super-protected netbook or PC solely for online banking tasks.

Encrypt data. If you adhere to step one, assume data sent to cloud storage providers and the like is at risk. If there is sensitive customer information included in that mix, "Make sure that important data is backed up and encrypted," Daswani says. "Cloud-based backup services are likely to keep several copies of your data at multiple data centers and will generally be much more reliable and fault-tolerant than keeping a copy of data on a second hard drive in the same location as your original drive."

Think before you click. A lot of security comes down to common sense. Be vigilant about the links you're clicking through Facebook, e-mail and even search results. Kevin Haley, director of Symantec Security Technology and Response, puts it simply: "If something seems suspicious, don't click on it."

How to Move Your Business Data into the Cloud -- Safely

           Q: Which business apps should I put in the cloud, and which should I keep in-house to avoid a security breach?

Cloud services are rapidly becoming a more efficient, more scalable and less costly way for small businesses to manage data, applications and websites. Both public and private cloud services let businesses keep IT overhead low while encouraging flexibility for users to access corporate data from just about anywhere on any device.

But some high-profile outages and mishaps within the last year serve as a reminder that outsourcing IT to the cloud does not come without risk. Last April, a cloud data center outage affected Amazon Web Services clients. A Google Gmail outage two months earlier resulted in some business clients losing e-mails.

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Companies like Microsoft and Dropbox also have had problems, and though overall such occurrences may be rare, businesses should pause before migrating their IT assets en masse to the cloud, says Gregory Potter, data analyst at market research firm In-Stat. "Small businesses can make great use of cloud services, but nothing is 100 percent reliable," he says. "You just have to be smart about these things and plan for the possibility of disaster."

Start by looking at how you want to use the cloud, and what type (public or private) best fits your needs and budget, Potter says. Some small businesses use cloud services primarily for productivity applications--services like Salesforce.com, Google Apps and Microsoft's Office 365. Services from Mozy, Dropbox and Apple also can be used to store content and archived files now clogging desktops and office servers. In addition, small businesses can use the cloud for web hosting from providers like Rackspace, Amazon and Verizon.

"The great advantage to using cloud hosting is that it is immediately scalable, so that if your website suddenly gets a large number of hits, you can be confident that it won't crash or slow down to a crawl," Potter says.

Public cloud services have the advantage of being inexpensive--as cheap as $5 per user, per month--but they are also the services that have grabbed headlines for their disruptions. A private cloud service, involving rental servers from a company like VMware, is a more secure option, Potter says.
"A private cloud is definitely more secure than a public cloud, but you are buying servers and software, and it could be cost-prohibitive," he says.

Ultimately, employ common sense. "Maybe start by doing e-mail and some productivity stuff through the cloud, but maybe not mission-critical functions and sensitive business data," Potter says. "You may also want to have your own local IT backup to the cloud service … just until you find your comfort level."

Affordable Video Hosting for Small Businesses

              Entrepreneurs and small-business owners often think that incorporating video into their marketing or communication plan -- let alone configuring a website for video -- is costly, complicated and beyond reach. With the launch this week of Vimeo PRO from Vimeo, nothing could be further from the truth.

Online video is expected to account for half of all consumer Internet traffic by the end of next year, according to a recent Cisco report. Further, a Forbes Insights survey from last December showed that nearly 60 percent of those online will watch a video before reading the text on any given webpage -- and they’re more likely to make a purchase.

These findings should prompt businesses of all sizes to see the urgency of matching the growing demand for video-related content with videos of their own.

Enter, Vimeo. The second most popular online video portal behind YouTube, is finally giving small businesses and commercial enterprises overall their chance to get in on the video action. With Vimeo PRO, $199 a year gives businesses a simple and affordable professional video-hosting solution, complete with analytics for gauging return on investment. Each year, users receive 50 gigabytes of storage and 250,000 plays for video embedded on your own website in a player branded with your company’s logo. That’s enough to upload between 700 and 2,000 five-minute videos, depending on the video format you use.

Think you'll need more? It’s $199 for each 50GB increment. You can also buy additional plays in increments of 100,000 for $199. And unlike Vimeo.com, which doesn’t permit commercial content, Vimeo PRO is tailor-made for businesses -- offering a platform built from the ground up to promote or sell a product or service.

With Vimeo PRO, your business’ video content can be integrated into your website in an environment that enables you to add your logo to the video player itself. And, unlike YouTube and "regular" Vimeo, nobody else’s advertising appears on top of your videos, and you have access to an advanced dashboard featuring key performance indicators such as the number of times your videos have been loaded, played and finished, just to name a few.

Putting small businesses on an equal footing with the big boys, Vimeo PRO offers exceptional video quality -- including features like high definition and HTML5 video. It also provides portfolio websites that you can customize, video review pages and integration with leading social-media utilities and platforms. And if video isn’t your strong suit, PRO account holders can access Vimeo's online education portal, Vimeo Video School.

Vimeo PRO is a worthy choice for entrepreneurs and small-business owners looking to host video on their own sites in a branded environment devoid of the types of ads that get embedded into videos from YouTube.

Growing Pains for Social Entrepreneurs

                The appeal of "doing well by doing good" is enormous. Perhaps that's why there are an estimated 30,000 social entrepreneurs applying business practices to solving problems of pollution, poor nutrition and poverty. But despite all the good feelings that come from solving our society's problems, the ability to take a social enterprise to the next level while growing and protecting the bottom line is quite a challenge.

"It is not easy to do a social enterprise," says Gautam Kaul, managing director of the Social Venture Fund at the University of Michigan. "In private enterprise, the sole aim is my shareholders. With a social enterprise, there is something more -- social impact -- [while] growth is misplaced," he says.

Still, there are a few guidelines that are important to keep in mind if you have an eye toward growth for your social enterprise.

Stay focused
Perhaps the biggest pitfall social entrepreneurs experience as they try to grow their enterprise is broadening their focus and product lines too quickly. A lot of startups make that same mistake.

"We have to stay very narrow, keep it very simple and just focus on bottled water," says Jeff Church, co-founder and executive director of NIKA Water. His enterprise is a for-profit company that donates 100 percent of its profits to support clean-water projects in Uganda, Kenya, Sri Lanka and Nicaragua. For his part, Church focuses on selling the water and donating the profits.

Other social entrepreneurs give the same advice. "The last thing you want to do is get a reputation for not focusing on your mission," says Andy Gold, an IT consultant who has a nonprofit enterprise that donates IT and other services to charitable organizations.

That said, some believe it's important not to rely too much on the mission as the enterprise grows. As with any business, the entrepreneur needs to ask, "What is the value [I'm] providing the consumer?" says David Murphy, CEO of Better World Books, a business that collects and sells books online to fund literacy initiatives worldwide.

Remain competitive
Don't confuse helping society with ignoring the need to be business-savvy. While consumers may be willing to shift their buying behavior, they will only do so as long as the quality and cost are comparable to other similar products, says Church.

Indeed, many social entrepreneurs rely on the mission to sell their product or service. That may work initially, but it won't work in the long run as they try to scale up the business. For Murphy, "It's the selection, the online experience -- all the brand promises must be met. They come here because they want a great book at a great price," he says.

It's also imperative to think about capital structure -- creative use of debt, early-stage equity, and how to secure capital to finance growth. "It seems in the social-enterprise sector, people don't think about outside capital, which is essential to scaling up," says Murphy. To that end, there definitely is capital available. Foundations donate an estimated $200 million annually to social enterprises. There are also several venture funds that invest in social enterprises.

Hire great talent
A company -- whether for-profit, not-for-profit or a social enterprise -- is only as good as the talent it can attract and retain. In some cases, because of the appeal of the mission, a social entrepreneur can attract employees who wouldn't otherwise take a lower-paying job. "Working at a startup and being at the start of something socially engaging and important [allowed me to be] able to hire two really great candidates at a lower wage," says Church.

Still, social entrepreneurs should do what they can to remain competitive when it comes to attracting potential employees. Murphy of Better World Books created an incentive stock pool. "Top talent will be drawn to something exciting like a mission, but you also have to pay attention to incentives to draw in great people," he says.

To be sure, the best way to build up a social enterprise is to run it like you would any business. "In the beginning, you have to be three parts businessman and one part social [entrepreneur]," says Church. "… As you get the business successful, then you can begin to make it three parts social and one part profit.

Is Your Status Quo Killing Your Business?

                The more things change, the more they stay the same -- especially in business. And that's the problem, according to global business consultant, Rebel Brown.

"As much as we all acknowledge how the world has changed over the last two decades, businesses and corporations tend to continue doing things the same way they've always done them," said Brown, a consultant who has worked with companies as diverse as Silicon Graphics, NeXT and Verity, as well as startups in the U.S. and abroad.

"I can't count the number of times executives have told me, 'Well, that's the way we've always done it.' The truth is that most companies talk about change far more than they actually engage in it. That's because they are afraid of making any change out of fear -- of Big Bang disruption, of the wrong change or of leaving the safety and comfort of the known. We're stuck in the way we've always done it -- and that's a big reason why our economy is stuck in neutral."

Brown, author of Defy Gravity, believes that the key to evolving and prospering is to not only challenge some of our most basic business assumptions, but, in some cases, to reject them outright. Brown has proven through her past client engagements that businesses that let go of the status quo will begin to rise above their competition, defying gravity in a sense. In order to start that process, Brown wants executives to start questioning some of the most common sacred cows of business, including:

It's Our Best and Biggest Seller -- Sometimes clinging to the cash cow can lead to a complacency that prevents new companies from staying in sync with what the market needs. Instead, these companies become slavish to the needs of one client, and ignore the changes in the marketplace. What's worse is that the big seller may represent strong revenue, but all the extra attention this client commands may actually mean that it's big only in revenue, but not in profits. What's worse is that your company may end up completely incapable of surviving if that big seller stops selling, because myopia has prevented them from evolving to meet the changing needs of their customers.

They're Our Biggest Customer -- Are they? Sometimes our best customer commands more attention than the rest, which cuts into the actual profitability of that customer. It may also take our attention away from other customers who could account for as much profit, if the time and effort were taken to help those relationships grow. Moreover, focusing on a very select set of big customers makes us myopic to the changes in our industries, often preventing us from capitalizing on other opportunities for growth and expansion.

It's a Huge Opportunity -- The big deal, the dream client, the huge order -- all things that businesses strive for -- may not wind up being that profitable in the long run. We'll discount, deal, sacrifice strategy, dedicate extra resources and throw out the baby, the bathwater and the tub to get those deals. And once we have them, we celebrate and take our victory lap, but what have we really won? We rationalize that we'll make up whatever we spent to get the deal over the lifetime of the contract. We justify the extra effort by thinking if we can get this big domino to fall, other big ones will follow. But the reality is that those plans aren't always sure things. Remember, huge opportunities aren't always inherently opportunities for success. They can be opportunities for failure, as well.

"Let's face it, two years ago, we never expected the emergence of social media as a way to communicate with and market to our customers and prospects," Brown added. "And five years ago, many didn't expect the web would become the major revenue driver it's become. So, if the world around us is changing so dramatically, so quickly, why do we cling to the oldest ideas in business? If we truly want to defy gravity, we must first untie the tethers that bind us to old assumptions. We can use our innate human abilities to learn to think differently about our businesses by listening to our markets and shifting our perspectives -- from gravity to growth."

Winning Government Contracts: Five Things You Need to Know

             The U.S. government is the biggest consumer of products and services in the world. And some $500 billion of Uncle Sam's ever-expanding budget goes to small businesses, resulting in huge opportunities for those that know how to navigate the waters of government contracts.

However, many small-business owners have no clue about how to get involved with government contracts. Lourdes Martin-Rosa, American Express OPEN's adviser on government contracting and a federal contracting expert for nearly two decades, mentors entrepreneurs who are looking for profitable relationships with the government. She says many miss out on potential government contract revenue because they don't know how the business of government works. "A government agency works similarly to a corporation and has different purchasing methods," Martin-Rosa says. "Some agencies prefer to break up a contract and award it more quickly, while some prefer to bundle all services into one and award the big prize to one small business that can then subcontract it out to partners." Martin-Rosa believes the key to success in obtaining government contracts is to research how the different government agencies operate and see how your unique services can be instrumental.

The first step in procuring government work is to make sure you're registered with the Small Business Administration office serving your customer base. Confused about what to do next? Here are five things you need to know.

1. Make Yourself Known to Government Agencies
You need to make sure government buyers are aware of your company and its strengths, even before you actively pursue a specific government contract. Maureen Borzacchiello, owner of trade-show display manufacturer Creative Display Solutions, learned a lot about how to make her services known to the government when she worked directly with Martin-Rosa as part of the American Express OPEN Victory in Procurement (VIP) Mentorship Program. "I was doing exhibits and trade shows, and I discovered that the federal government is very peculiar about how they purchase their products and services," she says. "When I was searching for companies that had already landed contracts in my industry, there were about 40 different North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) codes and keywords." NAICS codes identify businesses by categories, grouping together companies that use similar processes to produce goods and services. Go to the Small Business Administration's site and find out what government agencies are purchasing and how they are finding these services, then make sure your business is coded properly so that you can get on the radar of the most appropriate agencies. Keep in mind, some agencies may be interested in products or services that you would not necessarily think about pitching -- but can be just as lucrative. "Besides creating trade-show displays, I also store them, which was how I got the attention of the federal government, because they don't have a lot of storage facilities," she says. Put all products and services on your search page.

2. Find Out Where the Real Opportunities Are
Do market research by searching government contracting opportunities at the Federal Business Opportunities website. Ask yourself, "Which types of contracts would fit with my own company's resources?" Make a list of contracts that have already been awarded and research the types of companies that won them. What made them successful? Borzacchiello has built a roster of government clients by seizing upon opportunities. "One of the visits I had through my mentorship was to the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. I discovered that in 2014, they are celebrating their 100th anniversary and are replacing all their signs, which gave me a great opportunity to talk about my services." Keep in mind that hundreds of other companies are approaching government agencies, so you need to be aggressive, even if you are inexperienced or your company is very small. "Your best opportunities will happen when you start small and go after small contracts," Martin-Rosa stresses. "Don't make assumptions about where opportunities lie. Do real research and find out what government agencies are really looking for from small-business owners."

3. Register Your Small Business Properly
To register to apply for government contracts, you need to provide your company's federal tax ID number (EIN), DUNS code, NAICS code and checking account number. Your first task is to register an accurate, thorough business profile on the primary government vendor database, the Central Contractor Registration (CCR), so that government agencies can research you as a potential client. One of the most overlooked steps is registering your business with the Dynamic Small Business Search, an extension of the CCR database that can greatly increase your government-contracting opportunities. You also need to get your small business on the General Services Administration (GSA) schedule. The GSA is the purchasing agent for the government and has a budget of tens of billions of dollars. It simplifies the purchasing process and represents federal, state, and regional buyers and helps establish long-term contracts to supply more than 11 million products and services. As a small-business owner, you may qualify to be an "approved vendor" on the GSA Schedule, which can help increase your credibility and make you more visible to other potential government buyers.

4. Follow the Current Market Conditions
If you want to build relationships with government organizations, you need to follow current market conditions and research hot topics. Stimulus money has changed the products and services the government is purchasing and the way small companies are doing business. "Going green" will continue to be a hot topic far into the future and has fueled the growth of Borzacchiello's company. "Everything is green now, so we decided to make going green important to us," she says. "We decided to produce new assets that are more sustainable and take a full strategic approach, not just for the exhibit elements we create, but for everything else we do. We try to reduce the carbon footprint for ourselves and our clients and make going green one of our key competencies, and because this issue has become very important to government organizations, they notice." Understand what potential buyers want and show them you can provide what's relevant and important to them. "It's all about where the money is," Martin-Rosa says. "If there is a lot of money allocated to green products, there will be more money appropriated for green businesses."

Martin-Rosa also notes that looking at the government contract procurement forecast is essential to keeping up with market trends and conditions, but small-business owners must pay attention to other sources to make sure they don't miss other opportunities that don't necessarily make the forecast. There are many services you can sign up for to receive automatic notifications of contracts to keep apprised of the ever-changing climate. You can sign up directly through the Victory in Procurement website or through sites such as U.S. Federal Contractor Registration.

5. Don't Forget to Network
Many government agencies hold procurement conferences and seminars throughout the year. It's a good idea to attend those conferences to network and build relationships with government decision makers, while increasing your knowledge about how the government spends. Because the federal fiscal year ends in October, the summer and fall represent hunting season, when networking is especially important. "Government organizations will not take a risk on a small business, so you need to build solid relationships," Martin-Rosa says. "Bite off little pieces, and if you sell products, make sure you accept credit cards. There are 230,000 federal government purchasers alone that have buying authority to purchase products and services of up to $3,000, and in emergencies, of up to $20,000. Let yourself be known via CCR, do your homework and identify four to five agencies where you will focus a majority of your marketing and relationship-building efforts."

Government contracts take a long time to procure, so be patient. On average, it takes people 18 to 24 months to secure their first contract. But, often, once you're in, you're in. Borzacchiello sees time management as key. "I try to set aside a specific time each week to work on government contracting," she says. "But don't let your meat and potatoes business fall to the side. Determine how many hours you can work on securing contracts and block it off in your schedule, as if it's a meeting with a client."

Three Networking Trends to Watch

               There are many changes on the horizon for the field of business networking in 2011. Technology will continue to evolve, of course, but the biggest change will simply be the recognition of the field itself. When I wrote my first book on business networking in the late 1980s, the most common question I was asked was, “Isn't networking just a fad?” After 25 years, that question doesn't come up anymore. Times are changing and networking is, too.

Here's my take on three major trends I foresee in business networking over the next several years -- and how they will impact the future of the industry.

No. 1. Successful networks will integrate face-to-face and online opportunities.
Many business people have said to me, “I have thousands of connections on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites. Now what?” What they really want to know is how to turn their social media contacts into real business. I believe the answer lies in forward-thinking networks effectively integrating technology and social media directly into their face-to-face operations.

Soon we'll see "walled-garden" communities accessible only to members of that group. These communities will not be sub-groups of existing social media networks. They will be independent networks with tightly controlled access based on a membership database. In effect, they will be mini-social media sites with a niche.

The integration of online communities accessible to limited individuals linked with the establishment of face-to-face interactions will be increasingly popular over the next decade. The attraction to groups like this will be the niche orientation, as well as the shared values and mission of the organizations. The technology will allow a greater number of connections and the face-to-face aspect will deepen those connections.

No. 2. More private companies will offer training in business networking.

Currently, only one or two universities in the world have a core-curriculum course on networking and social capital. I don't think that will change anytime soon. Some university professors appear to view business networking as a soft science and not something that can be taught. In my opinion, they are wrong.

I think networking will in fact be taught -- just outside the university environment. We'll see the emergence of private, professional training organizations, much the same way that private industry has controlled the educational market on sales techniques (another area where I think many colleges fail miserably).

The downside to this is that the consumer needs to be well informed about a training company's knowledge in the area it claims to have expertise. If you want to take a course in business networking, look over the qualifications of the company and the trainer. An increasing number of these programs will be offered by independent organizations in the coming future and it will be important for the consumer to weed out the hacks from the true experts.

No. 3. Attempts will be made to create associations of networking groups.

During my tenure in this industry, many efforts have been made to create an association of networking groups. The most recent was by the RNIA (the Referral Networking Industry Association). It failed, as I believe most groups of this type will.

There are many networking associations that exist for specific purposes or industries, like the National Association of Women Business Owners, the Transformational Leadership Council, and the National Association of Professional Organizers. An association of various networking groups then may present conflicts and substantial overlap. For these reasons alone, an association will struggle or fail to get off the ground. I'm afraid it's one of those good ideas that will be difficult to sustain.

While an association of networking groups isn't likely to work, the integration of technology and face-to-face networking, as well as developments on the educational front point toward a positive future. Twenty years ago, there were no books or articles on the topic of networking. Today there's a proliferation of information. Business networking is evolving and I believe it will continue to grow for years to come.

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."

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.