Faking it doesn’t mean you’ll make it

If you’re a small business owner – this post is for you.  In classic catch 22 fashion though –  if you’re a small business owner – chances are you’re not reading this blog even though it is written especially for you.  Instead – you’re busy running your business – oblivious to what’s happening online.

  • You don’t know that your business already has a free page one web presence with Google that you just need to claim to put it to work.
  • You don’t know that you have dozens of other “free” online directory listings – some of which are coming up first when consumers are looking for your business online.
  • You also are probably unaware that when consumers find these free listings – many times they have the ability to REVIEW your business.

This is a case of what you don’t know can hurt you.  Because if someone is “bitching” about your business online – you’d darned well better be there to respond.  Otherwise, all that is out there in cyberspace – the bitching and griping with nary a word from you.

However, there are a handful of business owners who are WELL aware of these sites – and even more aware of the presence of reviews on these sites.  So these businesses have gone to work creating fake positive reviews of their business online.

The NY Times reports in In a Race to Out-Rave, 5-Star Web Reviews Go for $5 that not only are people willing to “sell” you their positive review for only $5 but that businesses are scurrying to take them up on the offer.

Writing fake reviews for your business is like blowing your nose with tissues filled with sneezing powder.    Customer reviews set consumer expectations  and when consumer expectations are set to “high” then a transaction which could have earned a three star review is now doomed to receive a one star review.

I’ve always preached – I mean CHAMPIONED  here that the sure path to business success is to solve a problem that people are willing to pay money to solve.  So it should come as no surprise that there are people furiously working on ways to allow the bots which index the internet to discern between authentic user reviews – and fake ones.

There are already humans who are sharing how you can spot a fake online review.  Sandraparker wrote about her experience writing fake reviews on Money Talks and there’s another article on the site which offers11 tips to spot fake online reviews.

As more fake reviews hit these sites – the site owners will be looking for ways to weed them out.  Keep in mind that Google is a business with a dog in this hunt and they have the $$$ to not only find but implement any solution they find to this problem.

Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

In the past – when Google and the other search engines have discovered people trying to “game” the system of getting ranked in the SERPS – they have come down hard and fast – banning sites which used what are now known as “black hat tactics”.

If you’re tempted to hire fake reviews for your free business website – remember – the powers that be (a.k.a. Google, Yelp, etc.) are aware of the problem and seeking a solution.  When they implement that solution – you could very well find your online local business listing removed from the most visible sites on the web.

Your Brand – Your Business – in the Face of Disaster

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Yesterday- a disaster decimated this and many other websites across the web.  Websites whose sites were hosted on servers at the Colo4.com data center found themselves without a web presence for about 8 hours yesterday – from about noon – 8 ET in the US.

When a data center experiences an epic fail moment like this – it causes a chain reaction.   It not only affects the data center customers – who are web hosting companies -but it also affects the customers of the web hosting companies – and their customers – and  so forth and so on.

Now to make matters worse – it wasn’t oh so long ago that the forums on a popular web hosting discussion board shared tales of another hosting company which went belly up and left their customers scrambling for their website backups.  (It’s times like that when I LOVE Carbonite!)

Because I live with a level of anxiety that most people would call “crippling”  –  that’s where my mind went when my website went down.  I vividly remember the horror 12 years ago when my web hosting provider (who began his web hosting business in his basement – ah, those were the days)  sold out to a then major player who is now history.  The reason they’re history?  Because of stunts like the one they pulled when they acquired my then hosting provider.  My site was down for almost 2 weeks – while I and other web masters (as we were known as the time) wondered if the servers which housed our sites had been strapped to the backs of mules and transported from Kansas City to Atlanta as part of the acquisition.  They then raised the cost of the hosting and demanded prompt payment.  I responded by threatening to pay the bill in pennies.  (Cost to ship the payment was roughly twice what the bill was – it was the principle of the thing!)

Fortunately – that wasn’t the case in this meltdown.  However, because of the scope and magnitude of this disaster – my web hosting provider found themselves in the unenviable situation of trying to do damage control on the very popular web hosting forum. The forums were blowing up with reports of the outage.  Phones were ringing – emails were bouncing – and emotions were raw as  hosting providers and their clients were left wondering how long it would take to get back online.

I am still praising my Lord and Savior that my client’s sites are all safely hosted with a more reliable hosting provider and their sites were not affected by this outage. (Disclaimer: It’s an affiliate link.  I get paid because I’m staking my reputation on this hosting recommendation.)

As I closely monitored the board for news about the situation – I began to see postings from someone who seemed to have a lot of previous experience with my hosting provider.  I’ll be honest, I passed a lot of time researching where I would be moving my site to next and this person seemed to have a history with my provider.  So – I went to see this user’s profile and saw that this user had JUST signed up for an account on this discussion board. The ONLY posts by this user were taunting my provider about the outage.  What ever the goal was  – it failed because it was obvious this user was just a troll.

I did decide to give another web hosting company a try – and believe it or not – it’s one where the user representing the company actually stood up for my hosting provider’s company – assuring customers that this wasn’t my host’s fault but rather the fault of the data center and sometimes it takes an epic fail to realize you need a new data center.

Branding is something your customers do to your business and because of this fact – no matter what you did previously – your brand will forged during times of disaster. 

Many large corporations forged their “brand” with consumers in the South during the hurricanes of 2005.  As just one example, Tide brought in portable laundry facilities for victims of Katrina to do their laundry.   That my friends is how you build a rock solid “brand” – not some crazy stunt captured on video and posted to YouTube.  Those people will have warm fuzzy feelings about a Proctor and Gamble “brand” for the rest of their lives.

A disaster doesn’t have to destroy your business – even when you’re running a hosting company and your data center lets you down.

Whether or not I move my site to the new host I’m trying will depend upon how my hosting provider responds to this disaster.  Their response both during and after the disaster will forge their long term “brand” with me.  Maybe one day they’ll earn an affiliate link from my site to theirs … but for the moment, I and hundreds like me will wait and see how this story unfolds.

2 Simple Steps to a Solid Social Media Strategy

social media stages

The landscape of social media is shifting quickly – but it’s the touted “tools” we’re using to share which are changing – not our need to learn and share what we’ve learned.

No matter who the current “social media mega star” is of the moment – all social media products tend to follow a predictable life cycle. Today Google + is in the first “hero” spot – but don’t worry – like the weather – this too will change with time.

Too Fast – Too Furious

In case you haven’t heard, the “hip” ones – the “in” crowd – the “OMG – What’s my Klout Score” crowd are focused on Google + and creating circles which effectively divide their social networks into  friends, frienemies and followers.  Meanwhile everyone seems to be asking….

Will Google + turn Facebook into Myspace?   What happened to FourSquare?  What about Twitter?

While the hype level is high for G+ at the moment – it doesn’t matter which social media site is currently occupying the “king of the hill” spot if you’ve got a solid social media strategy in place.

This simple 2 step system to crafting a solid social media strategy is designed for business owners who spend more time managing their business than their website.

STEP 1:  Just remember – social media is about communication.

Every social media marketing tools is simply a communication tool.  These tools when wielded by skilled craftsmen and women can create “marketing magic”.  However, without direction, focus and an underlying strategy – they are at best distractions from the business at hand – and at worst an addictive time suck.

Ok – got that.  Step 1 is there is not magic here – only communication.

STEP 2:  Communicate the right message.

Social media is about communication – but it’s communication with a goal and a purpose.   Your goal is “the right message at the right time to the right people.”

If that doesn’t help, try answering this question: What do people need to learn about your business?

This is where the “original” social media magic communication tool- the blog – can really shine but is also where the waters get murky.  Way too many “WTF” business blog moments happen when business owners begin blogging about what they had for breakfast or other silliness.

For heaven’s sake start sharing stories on how your business has made current customer’s lives richer, sexier, better, easier and saucier.

Once you’ve got the right stories, then it’s just a matter of making it EASY for your customers to SHARE those stories. That’s when the current “king of the social media hill” comes into the picture. Then you simply encourage people to share this story – a story that features someone like them – solving problems they have.

Which brings me back to the beauty of blogging for your business.  Business blogging allows you to create hundreds of just such stories for your business and monitor which ones “engage” and which ones “fall short”.   It’s why I love business blogging for the entrepreneur who is bootstrapping while building a business.

When you use these two simple steps to form the basis of your social media strategy – then it really doesn’t matter which “social media tool of the moment” is occupying the top spot because in the end – they’re all just tools which help your customers share the stories of your business.

Why use Groupon when you can blog for your small business?

money making business

If you’ve considered using a Daily Deals site to promote your small business – read on and see why blogging might be a more sustainable – and more affordable alternative to growing your customer base.

As a”recovering” advertising account executive – I see Groupon and other daily deal sites differently than most people do.  In my opinion, Groupon’s success lies not in the “great deals” nor their ability to deliver those deals inexpensively to consumers by using email.  (By the way – interest in email marketing is way, way up thanks to Groupon’s success.)

The real key to Groupon’s success is a double edged sword of “deal tipping” combined with the prospect of “free” advertising for the merchant.

Deal tipping was a clever way to turn consumers who wanted to score big savings into the role of “brand advocates.” In order for any given deal to “tip” and become valid – there had to be X number of deals sold.  In the beginning – deals didn’t always “tip” despite the fact that early adopters of Groupon were actively involved in social media.

Social media + highly motivated consumers iso big discounts =  viral marketing.

However, the real “genius” in the Groupon model was to be found on the other side of the equation – with the business owners who were “lured in” by an irresistible offer.

Groupon offered merchants a flood of customers – while not charging a “fee” for the advertising.

I preach often on the value of “solving problems for your customers” and that’s exactly what Groupon offered to small business owners.  Whether it was a new restaurant in town or a spa with an empty parking lot – business owners were literally tripping over themselves to give the Groupon solution a try because in their minds – since they didn’t have to write a check – they had nothing to lose and only customers to gain.

The goal of any daily deal discount promotion should be customer acquisition but that isn’t a popular metric to track amongst startups.  David Skok is a serial entrepreneur and writes about CAC in his blog post “Start Up Killers

To compute the cost to acquire a customer, CAC, you would take your entire cost of sales and marketing over a given period, including salaries and other headcount related expenses, and divide it by the number of customers that you acquired in that period.

Few startups do this kind of analysis – and when they do perform it – they’re often shocked by the figure they see.  This is why my head spins and I spew pea soup when a business owner balks at the cost of blog hosting which includes automatic updates for the software. For less than the cost of a single monthly dinner out with your spouse and a few hours of your time – a small business owner can create a business blog which can be not only an effective – but a cost effective customer acquisition tool.

I have cut approximately 1000 words from the previous rant paragraph. Give me a moment while I clean up my keyboard and screen.

It’s been reported that Groupon rejects up to 70% of the initial “deals” offered by merchants.  Why?  Because merchants in general don’t want to create the compelling offers needed to win new customers.  That’s the difference between Groupon and ValPak.   When business owners use ValPak for coupons – they’re in control and as a result – the offers are less than compelling.

It’s understandable that a business owner who’s used to running his own deals – and seeing a 1-4% coupon redemption rate  – would be overwhelmed when confronted with a “real deal” negotiated on behalf of consumers by a daily deal site like Groupon.

Free rarely is whether its online or offline. For some, it’s a hard reality check to cash.

However, some business owners are getting “smart”… as reported by the Business Insider.

Joe Hargraves of Tacolicious said that he has probably gotten 40 pitches over the last year from Groupon and other daily deals salespeople. He refuses them all — his prices are already low, and he doesn’t think he’ll gain anything by one-time discounts to people who otherwise wouldn’t be interested in his place.

Instead, he takes the several thousand dollars per month he would spend on daily deals marketing and other forms advertising and makes regular trips to Mexico, which helps him improve his product. He also blogs about his trips, which creates a much more personal connection to his customers. (emphasis is mine)

Want to learn about Tacolicious – visit their website which – oh, by the way – is a WordPress blog. There you can read about the people – their stories – and the causes they’re supporting not to mention finding recipes and other special events.

The thing is – because they have a blog – if Tacolicios would ever decide they wanted to run a “daily deal special” – they could do so by simply creating their own email marketing campaign.   They could offer customers the ability to sign up for their email list on their blog and then – get this – REWARD those customers with their own discount offers.

Here’s where this idea gets really exciting.  See, the “deal” you have to offer via a daily deal site has to be heavily discounted – because you’re talking to people who don’t know your business.  You have to offer a HUGE discount to get consumers to take a chance and try your company.

It’s a lot easier to get people to come back to your business than it is to get them to come in the first time.

When you create your email list – and promote it to your current customers – you can offer them deals in much the same way Groupon does – only better.  These are people who know your business – so you don’t have to offer them an outrageous discount to get them to come back.  Even better –  even if you do offer an outrageous discount – you don’t have to give 50% of whatever they’re paying for your deal to the daily deals site.

Will the daily deal sites fade away?  It’s not likely.  As long as there are business owners desperate for customers and who are desperate to reach them- but not desperate enough to blog and build their own email marketing lists – there will always be fodder for the local daily deals site.

Blogging’s role in Branding your Small Business

Blogging can be one of the most powerful tools your small business can use to build your business’ brand equity.

This statement might be a bit confusing to anyone who thinks that “branding” begins and ends with logos, colors and images used on signage and in advertising.   Sure – those visual design elements are crucial elements in building your brand- but in and of themselves – these elements NOT your brand.

Rather – the careful creation and execution of those elements will help consumers identify your business – and help guide them on their journey to “branding” your business.

See -it is not your marketing team or advertising agency that builds your “brand” – but rather it’s your employees – the ones who have direct consumer contact – who are the “brand builders” of your business.

United Airlines learned this important lesson in 2009 when a social media shit storm arose from some exceptionally bad customer service – by not just one employee but many.  Social media is really great at telling customer service stories -and the root of “branding” is customer service.

You may THINK that your “brand” is a shiny logo, carefully chosen font and a tag line assembled in a committee meeting – but in reality – your “brand” is truly in the hands of your customers.

Just as the cattle who are branded are not wielding the  hot metal rod which marks their flesh – a business must accept that consumers are the ultimate “branders”.

Consumers have ALWAYS had the power of “branding” a company – but it’s only been since the web got “social” did businesses begin to sit up and take notice of that power.

So when you view “branding” and building “brand equity” through that lens – through the brutal lens of “we’re only as good as our last customer service transaction” – then and only then does blogging’s role become clear.

So often, business owners tend to look to blogging as a way to generate sales leads instead of a way to build trust with prospective customers.   Capturing sales leads is best done with a squeeze page – building trust is best done via a conversation.  Of course, the IDEAL situation is if you could sit down and talk with each and every prospective customer.  You could then explain in person why the customer should choose to do business with you and your company.  Even if you are able to do that today – count on the fact that you won’t be able to do that 5 years from now.   Your business blog posts can provide that information in a timeless manner.

Even better – those trust building business blog posts are doing double duty for your business.  Not only are they educating consumers to help build the trust needed to close the sale- they are also working hard to build your brand – a.k.a. your online authority if you’re a consultant or other independent service provider.

Whether you’re blogging for your business or not – your customers/clients/patients are sharing their tales of their interactions with you.  Good – bad – or indifferent – they are the ones “branding” your small business.

In the end – your business blog can act to support the good – upgrade the indifferent – and mitigate the bad.   So why aren’t your blogging for your business yet?