Raise your hand if this has ever happened to you:
You venture into a shop for the first time. It’s small. You’re the only customer there. You realize quickly the place is not quite what you thought it was, but the owner is looking at you, and you don’t want to just turn around and walk out. You make a good show of it. You peruse the shelves, full of products you don’t want or need. Finally, you leave. It’s uncomfortable. You feel guilty. You vow that next time, you’ll do your homework before you walk in the door of a new place.
I’m trying to do my homework on a lot of little places I’ve noticed near my new home. We’ve just moved into town, and I’m eager to explore. However, I’d like to avoid the guilt-inducing scenario above. My new home base is also hot enough to remind me daily that if I can leave my car and its fossil fuels parked in the garage, the world will be better off. So, I want to know a bit about a business before I drive off to see it.
Like many consumers, these are the resources I count on to help me learn about a business:
*The company website
*Consumer review sites
*Local media coverage
*Whatever other options pop up in Google search results
Sadly, I’m finding that many of the places peaking my curiosity (Antiques? Organics? Kidswear?) have virtually no presence online. They’re relying on bare bones, phone-book style information to pull would-be customers in, and it’s not working (at least for me).
When your prospects can’t find anything about you online beyond your address and hours of operation, it sparks several questions that negatively affect your business, including:
*Are they really still open?
*Do they sell the products in which I’m interested?
*Who are these people? Do I want to do business with them?
*Are they knowledgeable about what they’re selling?
*Is this place run by friendly, helpful proprietors?
*Will I be sorry I spent time checking this place out when I could have been unpacking? (Okay, maybe that last one is specific to me, alone.)
Online content is the small business’ best friend – an affordable, effective means of marketing upon which consumers now rely. For even the smallest small business, it should be on the must-do list.
It’s possible I have a small Pinterest addiction.
I check in once per day to see which new pins might catch my eye and give me a new idea to use in my writing, in the kitchen, or with my kids. Today, I spotted this:
The source is Honest to Nod, a blog kept by The Land of Nod, which makes furniture, bedding and toys for kids. A friend had pinned The Land of Nod’s image onto a board she keeps full of ideas to do with her daughters.
This is smart content marketing.
It’s not a sales pitch. It doesn’t even have a product on it. But that easy list, which probably took someone 15 minutes to create, is making its way onto the Pinterest boards of many parents out there who feel panic at the number of hours left to fill this summer. The Land of Nod showed those moms and dads that the company understands their needs and it can help.
Click through the pinned image, and you’ll get to a corporate blog that is heavy on the do-it-yourself ideas and very, very light on traditional marketing and sales. The message: we can help you make summer fun. We can help you plan a party for your kids. We can help you make fabric lamps from scraps you have in your closet. And, oh yeah, if you need help decorating the nursery, we can help you with that too.
You might not sell products geared toward kids, but you do have an expertise and a clientele that could benefit from it. Educate, don’t sell, and those customers will come to you to learn and to buy.
I had a conversation the other day with a small business owner about his website. He uses it as a kind of online resume, but he doesn’t have a place on the site where he can talk to potential clients or educate the market about the value of what he does.
He and I talked about why that might be an important tool as he grows his business. We talked about creating an authoritative voice, about giving people quality content they can share on social media, and about SEO. And then he asked, “But what would I write about?” We discussed a lot of topics, but I think he found the prospect of idea generation a bit daunting.
It can be daunting. Luckily, there are plenty of experts out there willing to share their knowledge. Here are some recent, useful blogs on the topic from around the Web:
I’m nearing the end of a year in Cambridge, Mass., where I’ve had the chance to hear many visiting authors read their work aloud. It’s a wonderful thing to hear an author’s voice – his or her real voice, not just what is infused into the writing.
I was thinking about this at an event last week, where a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist was reading from an as-yet unpublished book. His last novel didn’t have a traditional plot structure, and one of the first questions he got from the audience was about how he makes sure the reader can follow him as he moves between different points of view and back and forth in time.
“I never, ever think about a reader,” he said.
In fairness to this author, I think he meant that writing for an imagined reader would corrupt his art. He said plenty of other things about writing that were probably interesting and helpful, but I got stuck on that one comment: I never, ever think about a reader.
Those of us who tell stories for businesses can’t do that. We have to always think about our readers – our customers and potential customers. Business blogs give us a way to demonstrate that we understand the needs, concerns and questions of those audiences. Your blog is where you educate your audience, and you have to be clear in the way you do it.
How do you show your blog readers you’re thinking about what matters to them? Craft blogs that speak to the problem your service or product solves. Let’s say you run an auto shop. Your blogs might explain:
• Which weird noises drivers should fear and which they should ignore
• When do-it-yourself is a good idea and when to invest in professional help
• Myths about mileage and how to discern the truth about mpg claims
• Tips for keeping car maintenance costs low and performance high
• Responses to auto industry news
• Reviews of new makes and models
• How-to instructions for common problems, like changing a tire by the side of the road or picking out a great bargain at the used car lot
None of these topics will win you a Pulitzer Prize, of course, but they are likely to win you website traffic, reader trust, and customer leads.
What was the last blog post you wrote for your business’ website?
My inaugural post on this blog seems like the perfect place to consider what it took for me – a writer without coding or design skills – to put this website together and what I learned about the value of my own time in the process.
Last week, I bought a pre-designed website template made by a nice guy from Italy, who has been extremely patient with my questions. (Hi, Paco!) I did this after some brief research on what this process would be like. The key takeaway: This is going to be easy!
It was not easy. And here’s what I learned after several days and nights of stress, frustration and weird anxiety dreams. (I can’t code in real life, but when I’m asleep, I’m an HTML master.)
1. Know what you’re good at.
There are people who are born with the tinkerer’s gene, who can turn a technical problem this way or that, shake it a little bit, and figure the whole thing out quickly. I didn’t get that gene. Humility aside, I can tell you I’m a good writer. I’m a strong copy editor. I’m not too terrible of a cook, and if forced, I can sing you the entire Annie soundtrack (not well, but I can do it). There’s nothing wrong with trying new things, but it’s important to remember what you’re good at – your strengths are the things that will build your business.
2. Evaluate the costs and benefits of do-it-yourself business projects.
If I added up the hours I spent googling, “FTP client won’t load” and “How do I edit Photoshop layers” and then multiplied that by my typical hourly rate, I could easily have spent that time working and then given my money to an expert website designer. And I would have lost a lot less sleep.
3. Identify your threshold for success or failure.
It’s hard to throw your hands up in the air and say, “I give up!” But I probably should have done that at some point in this project. I blame pride and stubbornness.
4. Ask for help.
Paco knows a lot more about WordPress and CSS and Photoshop and his beautiful design than I do. I finally reached out and told him I didn’t know what I was doing and I needed some help. Thankfully, he is a responsive guy who wants his clients to succeed.
What side projects could you/should you/would you outsource if you could?