Packing a bigger punch: A checklist for collaborating successfully with another business

If the last recession did one good thing, it was to prompt many small business collaborations. These businesses joined forces to create more substantial and attractive offerings to rival the bigger players.

Collaboration with another business certainly brings many great benefits to a small company. These include accessing a bigger customer pot and pooling resources to secure greater buying power for marketing elements such as advertising.

It also enables small businesses to combine forces to create broader and more attractive product or service packages, offers or promotions. These help them to compete more effectively in their marketplace, but without requiring a sizeable investment in their infrastructure.

There are many great examples such as web design companies combining forces with SEO specialists, personal trainers doing promotions with independent sport shops and retailers offering joint loyalty card schemes. Sometimes a collaboration is just a one-off involvement, say around a specific event (eg a hair stylist and a beautician sharing the cost of a stand at a wedding fair), or it can be more involved with a close tie-up over time to offer a distinct suite of services, products or customer experience to the market (eg an IFA working closely with an accountancy practice).

There are different motivations for business collaboration but, essentially, each party wants to gain something positive from the experience. This doesn’t always happen. In some cases one half benefits more than the other, in others disappointing sales volumes, few new customers or deviations to the results originally envisaged is the upshot of joining forces.

When it comes to collaboration with another business for a marketing campaign or promotion, we have devised this checklist to ensure the planning around the venture produces a result that’s pleasing to all.

Considering the customer…

Have we clarified who our target market is for this project? Whether you both work in the same market, or a similar market, it is good to articulate who the target customer is for the collaboration. There may be subtle points of differences between your two customer bases and any campaign should reflect this. It may be that the collaboration brings you into a completely new market – say with a bigger spend and different priorities. In which case it’s important to be clear what the motivations are for this new customer profile and how your combined offer needs to be communicated to them.

Have we got an obvious synergy? It’s important both business offerings complement each other for this campaign and that your synergy is obvious and attractive to the target audience. If one side is perceived to be weaker, or the combined offering is hard to grasp, the collaborative promotion will be less effective.

Are we clear what our combined offer rivals? It may be that your combined offer brings you new competitors. If so it’s important to be clear what their competitive advantage and price is in comparison to your collaborative approach – as that will be what the potential customers compare you to.

Have we planned the customer experience for this collaborative offer or promotion? This means being clear about which business does what and when, to ensure customers gain a smooth and seamless experience. Be clear who ‘owns’ the customers at which point to avoid any confusion. If for whatever reason something feels disjointed or disappointing, the customer will walk away or may complain very vocally.

Have we identified how our branding will apply here? The collaboration may require a merging of the two brand identities and values; it may be that one brand is consciously selected to be more visible than the other or a hybrid/ new brand emerges for this venture. Whatever the decision, it is important that the visual representation of the brand(s) and their value(s) is thought-through to avoid any being weakened or damaged by the collaboration. Again, think of your joint approach from the point of view of the target customers. Will they be pleasantly interested in this campaign? Or will they be baffled or put off?

How we are going to make it work…

Do we both agree why we are doing this? If there are mixed or conflicting expectations on what the desired outcome of the collaboration is, then the parties may be disappointed with the outcome, or the collaboration may not work as effectively as it could. Compare also how you complement each other through your internal systems, processes and general approach. The more ‘harmony’ there is across the two businesses, the easier it will be to work together to the customers’ benefit.

Have we established communication points between ourselves? Both during the preparation phases and as the campaign rolls out, it is good to have established regular points of communication. This will enable both businesses to discuss the effects of the campaign and any issues which arise.

Does our campaign have a clear call to action and we know who is doing what in converting enquiries into sales? Clarity is essential here to avoid any duplication of effort between the two of you, or delays and missed opportunities because both of you think the other is ‘handling it’.

Are we clear what data and insight we are both capturing to evaluate the success of the campaign? The more consistent the approach to the metrics across both businesses, the easier it will be to pool the results and make realistic conclusions.

Have we established our review points? It is important to plan the points when you’ll both take stock and evaluate whether the collaboration has achieved what you set out to. Of course, you will be communicating along the way but it is also good to pencil in points when you review (as objectively as you can) how it’s going from both sides.

Summary

Collaborations, especially when it comes to devising a broader or more attractive offering or marketing promotion can really help to grow small businesses.

To ensure your collaboration is a success and serves both businesses well, invest time in planning the initiative together and have frank and open communications throughout. Also evaluate how the collaboration is likely to be viewed by the customers. Which competitors, for example, will they be likely to compare you to? Is your price, offer components and added value competitive against these?

If you are going to rival a bigger player, you need to offer something distinctive but also seamless. If the experience remains one of two mismatched halves, it’s unlikely the customers will return.   

In contrast, and to end on a positive note, your business size and combined resources may in fact give you a versatility, flexibility and responsiveness that puts the bigger businesses to shame… and gets customers queuing up with you for more.

For more marketing and business development tips contact Michelle Daniels, Extended Thinking

photocredit: deathtothestockphoto.com

 

Is it time to put your customer experience to the test?

There are very few businesses who don’t have competitors; and so many businesses charge similar prices for similar products and services. So why would a customer choose you over a rival? It’s the experience that buying from ‘you’ brings.

The more positive that experience; the more likely they will be, to buy from you again. And in a world where social proof and reviews are featuring more in purchasing decisions, delivering a good customer experience (as reported by your customers) can help influence others to come your way.

But what exactly are the pieces that make up your customer experience?

A journey of interactions

Think of the experience as the journey your customer goes on with you. The starting point may be noticing your products or services, having you recommended to them, checking you out on the web and reading through the reviews about you.

They may then enter into dialogue with you as they decide whether to buy. All the time they are subtly forming opinions about your business and evaluating whether their experience of it feels positive or not. These feelings will strengthen further as they progress along the purchasing process and also afterwards on receipt of your product/service. They’ll also evolve beyond the purchase with whatever post-sale communications or activities you undertake.

Each step or interaction of the journey builds to an overall experience – one which, at the end, they’ll be either happy to repeat … or not.

Expectations

And at each step the values and quality of your business approach are put through their paces. People will be looking to experience the benefits and strengths you promise. They will have expectations about what value you deliver for the price you charge and will be disappointed if those expectations aren’t met.

The challenge of consistency

Customer experience is also at the mercy of the people in your business. Irrespective of whether your product is excellent, the service you wrap round it and the way you market, sell and provide after sales care, will no doubt involve human interaction – and humans aren’t always well known for being repeatedly consistent in their delivery.

Which is why it’s important to periodically test your customer experience to make sure it’s what you think and hope it is. As teams grow and expand, core values and key strengths risk being diluted as different approaches are adopted across the business.

In recognition of this, some businesses are very clear about their values, and regularly re-affirm them to their people to ensure they continue to demonstrate them in all they do.

Sometimes little changes can make a big difference

Another way to assess if your customer experience still delivers what it should, is to take the journey yourself – or get a mystery shopper in to test it for you. Go through all the different journey stages your customers do and question if the experience is as you’d want it to be.

Recently a client of mine did just that. They were a firm of financial advisers and offered a range of high value services to high net worth individuals. One thing that became evident from evaluating their customer experience, was that a small number of components didn’t reflect that high value/high quality ethos.

For example, the meeting rooms were in need of decoration, the team served instant coffee to customers when they came in, and their customer documentation had a look and feel of being produced relatively cheaply. These may sound like irrelevant issues but they jarred with the overall strengths and qualities the firm was well known for.

The team soon set about making small changes – the meeting areas were redecorated and customer areas were made more welcoming, customers were served fresh coffee and biscuits in meetings. The firm added little personal touches like sending cards to customers on their birthday and generally became more visible and active in their local community where target customers resided. On top of this their branded materials were redesigned to have a higher quality look and feel.

Fairly quickly it became apparent that their customers really enjoyed all the subtle changes. Over time these small fine- touches have in turn led to greater customer referrals, lots of positive comments and new business enquiries.

Put your customer experience to the test

It’s getting harder and harder to motivate customers to give their feedback, as we’re all continually bombarded with requests to do customer surveys. If you are able to get your customers to tell you what they think about your experience, then you are doing very well and should ensure you act on the feedback they give, so they feel their time has been well spent.

But do also take a proactive stance and put simple measures in place to check your customer experience is delivering what it should be. Periodically take stock and evaluate (as objectively as you can) that as a business you are:

  • Communicating clearly and effectively with customers
  • Being responsive and timely to their enquiries, requests and questions
  • Offering good quality for the price you charge
  • Meeting, if not exceeding, their expectations

With the competitive landscape for most businesses only set to intensify, differentiating on product quality and price will become harder. It will be the experience people gain when they buy from us, that will help us to influence whether they return. To be successful we need to really grasp the expectations customers have when buying our products and services and deliver on these. We need to be clear what challenges or aspirations they’re looking to resolve.

The more we can create an experience which is positive, ticks all the elements on their list and gives them a good sense of well-being by the end; the more we’ll foster customer loyalty and encourage customers to send others our way.

Summary

Find ways to look at the different pieces which make up your customer experience jigsaw and see if you can strengthen them in any way. Draw on the ideas of your team so everyone can buy-in to the concept of creating an experience that gets your business offering noticed for all the right reasons.

For more customer retention and experience tips contact me at Extended Thinking. And don’t forget to let me know what you think in the comments below!

photo credit: deathtothestockphoto

How to create the right route-map for your 2015 marketing journey

As we say goodbye to the delights of Christmas and look ahead to the fresh and exciting possibilities of the New Year, many minds turn to planning.

The festive break has hopefully recharged and refreshed us, and for some, there’s now an eagerness to create a better outcome in the year ahead. In terms of our businesses, that may mean winning more customers, generating better quality or more profitable sales, or simply protecting the customers we have.

And in selecting that overarching goal for our 2015 horizon, we’ll also have to consider the steps which will get us there. This may require a marketing plan to be sketched out. But how do you avoid creating a plan which once written is soon forgotten, as the hubbub of daily business gets underway?

How do you, in contrast, create a practical and highly implementable route-map that focuses your energies and resources on the right areas; and takes you on a relatively quick and painless journey to your ultimate goal or objective?

From our many years’ experience helping business people create practical and effective plans, here are some tips to help you achieve your 2015 marketing goals.

1. Make the destination identifiable and easy to reach

When setting goals or objectives, it’s sometimes tempting to give a broad brush ambition such as – grow sales by £X, increase the customer base by Y%, or raise awareness of our Z product range. These generalised goals make it harder to build a marketing plan which has a realistic chance of being achieved. They also prevent focusing what resources you have to the best possible effect.

So scale your objectives and goals down to be very specific – say increasing the sales revenue from X customer segment of our Y product by z% in 12 months. Focusing the goal on specific customer groups and particular service or product lines, will help you channel your marketing efforts more resourcefully and effectively.

In setting these goals, be objective and make sure you’re laying down ones which are realistic and can be achieved, given your business model, state of your target markets and available resources (that includes time, as well as the people and financial budgets of your business). Finally, when setting a destination that’s identifiable and easy to reach, make sure it’s a journey where you can easily measure the outcome at the end.

This measurement should be more than a simple “Did we achieve it or didn’t we?” Ultimately you want to be reassured that the journey was a smooth one, it brought you the results you wanted and didn’t adversely affect your profitability, staff motivation and other areas of the business in doing so.

2. Make the most of what you have – before focusing on a distant shore

Quite often there is a tendency to ignore the value in what we have, and instead focus on acquiring something new – be it new customers, new contacts, new products etc. And yet often buried in your customer base are potential opportunities to add greater value, build greater loyalty, sell additional products/services or harness goodwill to procure recommendations and referrals that bring in more business.

So when planning your marketing for 2015, ensure a healthy chunk of the journey is devoted to your existing customers and supporters. Plan activities which strengthen their relationship with your business.

Consider initiatives which will make them feel special and valued by your business, and which subtly educate them on different aspects of your product/service offering, which they may not currently realise you provide.

Other useful approaches here include loyalty scheme activities, preferential offers, acknowledging and rewarding recommendations and creating a community around your product/service offering through events, social media, blogs, newsletters etc.

3. Create a route map of little steps

If you can ensure your marketing plan has steps or activities which are quick and easy to accomplish, you’ll find overall, the plan has a greater chance of being implemented than if each presented a metaphorical mountain to climb. Establish small steps you need to take to get to your destination or goal.

Put these into a spreadsheet or table that identifies when each will be actioned and any budget or other necessary resources involved. Take an objective view as to how easy these will be to achieve with the time and resources you have.

If necessary break a step down into smaller components so you are always moving forward and never hit a major hurdle. The more activities which are accomplished and ‘ticked-off’, the more motivated you and your team will be to accomplish the remainder.

4. Establish milestones

With any long-journey it’s always good to have points of achievement along the way and review progress. Establish stage goals that will lead to your over-arching objectives, which when achieved, help you gain some sense of progress. These will reassure you and your team that you’re moving in the right direction and give you assurance that your plan’s implementation is on track.

These stage goals are also a good time to review how things are going and if the next in this series of mini goals are still the right ones to get you to your destination (and in the state you want to arrive in). That means evaluating, not only if the route-map is still the best one for that long-term objective, but taking stock of the effect the journey is having on your business and if anything needs to be fine-tuned or altered in any way.

All manner of obstacles, challenges and opportunities could present themselves in 2015, and it’s good to build in some degree of flexibility, review and reflection, so you can respond well to them in your plan.

5. Avoid your marketing getting stuck in heavy traffic

It’s getting harder to get marketing noticed now, as information overload and 24/7 communications are commonplace in everyday life. The ‘push’ marketing strategies of old do not work in this noisy, busy landscape and customers have developed careful screening capabilities and significantly shorter attention spans.

This leads to a need to be visible in your marketing but not in a way that your efforts are diluted by everything else around them, jostling for attention. Your marketing should get you on people’s radars and reassure them, so when they do have a need, they come immediately to you.

This means ensuring your website is easy to find and navigate for the types of enquiries your customers will have, and that it is optimized well for the typical search phrases that point to your expertise. It also means, that whether you do social media, face-to-face networking, produce content such as blogs, newsletters etc; you talk about how you help not what you sell.

The more examples you can share of how people who buy from you have benefited, for example through case studies, stories, facts, statistics etc, the stronger and more convincing a magnet you’ll be for others in that situation. Wherever possible harness the goodwill of those who have bought from you and like you – encouraging them to give testimonials, rate/rank you and act as a referee if a potential customer wants a reference.

Being visible isn’t about trying to be everywhere and stretching you and your resources very thinly. Instead it should be about being very focused and concentrating on those channels which work best for the market you want to reach out to. The smaller and more specific that market; the more opportunities you’ll have to use your resources to create maximum impact.

Summary

Creating a marketing plan for a business is both exciting and daunting. It’s exciting because it points to making a change and endeavouring to achieve something better. It’s daunting because we can never be certain what the journey will throw at us and what factors may get in the way to prevent us achieving our goals.

A good workable plan is one that gives us the best chance of success. That means setting a destination goal which is most certainly do-able. It means playing to strengths, building on what we already have and mapping out small easy to achieve steps that move us along smoothly and successfully. It also helps to take appropriate time-outs to review and if necessary refresh the plan. This helps a business to feel good about the progress made so far, so its people are motivated to carry on.

Whatever your business and marketing goals are for 2015. I wish you the very best. But take control of your journey and try not to leave things to luck and chance. Put yourself in the driving seat and create a route-map you’ve got every possibility of achieving.

For more great marketing strategy and planning tips you can read Michelle’s articles here!

Photo credit: deathtostockphotos

Pitching for new business? Avoid these 3 common mistakes

Pitching for new work is an expensive business activity. Done well (and to have a decent chance of success), it requires a lot of time, a lot of effort and can take people’s focus away from other important areas of the business for an intense and possibly prolonged period.

When you tot up the time (and money) businesses invest in participating in pitches, it’s an expensive activity to undertake.

Of course the winnings justify that effort and expense, I hear you say. And yes that can be right – if you win.

But what if you don’t? Typically clients will invite 3 or 4 businesses to pitch, and some will invite a lot more.

And unlike the Olympics, coming second or third doesn’t bring any medals. The cold truth is that second or third place merely means you lost. All that energy and effort and time spent away from other areas of your business has been to no avail.

This may sound pessimistic but my point is, that if you really are going to go for a pitch, it needs to be one you have every chance of winning. You need to be confident that your chances of success are high.

From our work in helping teams bid in competitive pitches, there are a number of common mistakes people make. These hurdles can seriously hamper you gaining that winner’s trophy. I’ve selected three of them for this article. Ensure you avoid them at all costs to improve your chances of winning.

Mistake 1 – Being scared to say a polite ‘no’

Clients don’t just select a supplier on the lowest cost. Equally important to them, is whether they feel they can work easily with that business and its people. They also look to what additional value that business will bring them.

This additional value could be the learning curve that a supplier already has with them. It may be the supplier has systems or approaches to share, which make the client in turn more efficient, or it reduces some hassle in their working lives. It may be that they specialise in that client’s industry and can bring expert knowledge.

The temptation when an ‘invitation to pitch’ lands on the desk, is to accept it and start drafting your proposal or other such response straight away. You will however, improve your chances of winning if you are more selective in the number of pitches you go for.

Think carefully before you dive into writing. Prioritise those invitations where you already have some knowledge, or an established relationship with the prospective client. The time frame given to pitches is typically very short and it’s tough building enough rapport with the decision-makers to get them to trust and select your business for the task.

Here’s an example… In working recently with a design agency, we found they were diverting a considerable amount of ‘fee-earning’ time, to pitches where they were just another agency the client had invited to ‘make up the numbers’.

We created a ‘to bid or not to bid’ evaluation tool. It had a number of criteria to evaluate each pitch against, and in turn, assessed the agency’s chances of winning.

In time, it meant the agency politely declined more invitations but this enabled them to focus on the pitches where:

a) they knew some of the client contacts already and had more insight about the business

b) where they knew they had a chance of winning because of their sector expertise and

c) where they felt their creative output and client experience would surpass the current incumbent

Over a period of six months they found, not only had their win rate improved, their profitability and turnover was also a lot better.

Try this: Think carefully when an invitation to pitch comes in and don’t be afraid to say a polite ‘no’ if you feel your business is being invited to just ‘make up the numbers’. See if the client will let you know the competition you face and assess whether you have the strengths and approach to outshine them.

Also, if you don’t already have some relationship with the prospective client and haven’t already been in discussion with them at some point, consider whether you really can create a strong enough relationship with them during the pitch timescale (by christol). Will you really be able to convince them to say yes to your proposition?

Mistake 2 – Not getting to grips with the client’s brief and wider issues

It’s worth stressing that as soon as you decide to accept an invitation to pitch, you need to go through any brief or instructions the client has sent, again! This is particularly true if you are facing a pitch involving procurement professionals on the client side. They will have stipulated stringent rules and deadlines surrounding how your response should be submitted – ignore them and you are likely to lose the pitch.

The client’s brief or invitation to tender will only tell you so much, which is why wherever possible, you should request to meet relevant people in the client’s organisation to ask further questions. If you don’t have a pre-existing relationship with the client, this is also crucial in helping you build rapport with the decision-makers in the time you have available.

Use any opportunity you get (either in a meeting or over the phone) to find out more about the situation leading to the pitch and what the individual decision-makers are looking to gain from the pitch outcome. See how the pitch outcome fits in with other plans or business goals and what the longer term objectives are for this client. How would your involvement (if you were successful) fit into the bigger jigsaw?

Also, don’t be afraid to ask the client how they want you to present your pitch submission, if it’s not clear from the brief they’ve sent. Avoid creating a proposal document or presentation which jars with them or which is so detailed they haven’t got time to read or sit through it.

Try this: As soon as you accept an invitation to pitch, ask for a meeting with the client to undertake your fact-finding. There will be limited time available in the pitch schedule and you need to be able to ask your questions and develop your understanding sooner rather than later in the proceedings.

Try and meet or speak with as many of the decision-makers as possible in advance. Each will have their own thoughts and agenda about the pitch and its outcome. You need to ensure your proposition is aligned to as many of those personal agendas as possible.

Mistake 3 – Producing a generic pitch response

The time and other pressures people face when trying to juggle responding to a pitch with doing their daily job, mean there can be a temptation to regurgitate old pitches for speed and ease.

Don’t do this.

It’s easy to spot a generic pitch response when you receive it, and it only demonstrates to the client that you couldn’t really be bothered. It can also force you to put in lots of useless information for them to wade through (in the hope that at least some of it will resonate). This will only irritate them more.

If you’re pitching to this client, then pitch to this client. Tailor the proposal document and pitch presentation to their situation and issues. Draw on examples that show you’ve tackled projects, issues, orders etc like this before; and above all, play to the decision-makers’ preferences in the way you set out and style your document and presentation.

For example, if you know a decision-maker is particularly short of time, do a summary of your proposal with the key points for him/her.

In tailoring your pitch response, it’s important to talk more about the client and less about you. When you do talk about you, it needs to be relevant to the client’s situation. They probably won’t be interested in your organisation’s history to date, but they will want to know how you can help them and what track-record you have for this.

If you have gleaned a lot of insight in your fact-finding and rapport building, you’ll be better placed to put together a clear and attractive proposition to them. It will be one that tantalises the client, with the solution and added value they’re after, at a price which is highly competitive.

It’s not always possible to find out who you’re up against in a competitive pitch, but if you do uncover this information it can be invaluable. Use this insight to evaluate how your bid is likely to compare to your rivals – see if any of your contacts or suppliers can give you a steer on the likely strategy your rivals will adopt in this pitch.

Try this: Start your proposal and presentation on a fresh canvas. It actually will save you time in the pitch process, in comparison to trying to shoe-horn what you want into an old proposal. Spend more time carefully planning your pitch response, to save time later when writing or having to rewrite it.

Summary

Pitching for new work is tough, but the rewards can be fantastic if you are successful. It’s important though, not to underestimate the time and involvement pitches take, and to be selective about the invitations you accept. Fielding a successful pitch submission requires you to invest a lot of time in understanding the client and creating a proposition which they feel is 100% tailored to them.

Treat pitches very seriously and plan them carefully. If you haven’t got the time to do a pitch justice, think twice about bidding for it. Losing it may scupper your chances of working with this client in the long-term – not just on this particular piece of work, but with others too.

For more pitch-winning tips and support you can contact Michelle Daniels over at Extended Thinking  You can also read more great articles by Michelle here!

Let us know what you think in the comments below – we’d love to hear from you.

Photo credit: Deathtostockphotos.com

Are your customers ignoring your marketing?

Chances are your marketing is not being seen by your target audience.  The sheer volume of marketing messages vying for people’s attention on a daily basis is now so great that customers are developing sophisticated screening-out capabilities… without even realising it.

Marketing commentator, Philip Graves wrote recently that marketing campaigns which rest heavily on defining ‘added features and benefits no longer matter [to consumers] because purchases are dictated by the unconscious mind rather than the conscious, rational one’.   Meaning, your customers don’t have time to read marketing campaigns and have the capability to spot a whiff of marketing at a glance… and switch off.

Don’t underestimate the insight you have

So what does that mean to your business– especially if you don’t have a large marketing budget, time or other resources? Well, it turns out that smaller organisations may actually have a number of advantages here – especially as they often have a closer and more detailed understanding of their customers.  In fact, smaller businesses can sometimes respond more quickly to changes in buyer behaviour than their larger rivals.

This insight, which you can use to create marketing messages, offers and promotions that are highly-tailored to customer preferences, gives you an edge when it comes to marketing to your customers.  And when a marketing campaign feels personalised, relevant and timely to something going on in your customer’s lives… they will invest more time on it.  They will appreciate those suppliers who make their lives easier and whose knowledge of them helps to produce solutions, offers and add-ons which are tailored to their current situation.

Focus on small niche groups of customers

So don’t underestimate the value you will gain by taking another look at your current customer base.  Conduct an assessment which seeks to divide your customer list into small groups with similar buying habits, interests, challenges etc. To help you do this, start to record the insight you  gain when these people buy from your business. For example, ask them:

  • Why did they choose your business offering over others?
  • What situation/need led to that purchase?
  • How long did the purchasing decision take for them – from initial idea to signing up with you?
  • How did they find you?
  • What questions did they ask when buying from your business?
  • What was their profile in terms of their location, age, gender, role, budget, life-stage etc?

This insight will help you to segment your market and then guide you on which offers, add-ons and additional promotions or marketing will appeal most to each of those focused groups.  It will also help you to understand which marketing channels they’re more likely to interact with.

The essence of good marketing campaigns

Think of 3 pieces of marketing you personally encountered in the last month – why did they stand out? Why can you remember them now? What was it about them that engaged your interest for more than a nanosecond?

Good marketing campaigns will still appeal to and resonate with customers.  Good, though, usually means we find we have enjoyed engaging with a campaign in some way.  Usually the ones we remember have an element of enjoyment, amusement or ground-breaking insight that appeals to a particular thirst for knowledge we currently have.  Certain marketing campaigns will also resonate if we have a specific need (ever considered why you notice more car ads around when you’re looking for a car?).

Campaigns that do stand out also factor in the environment we are experiencing them in and it’s important to consider how best to adapt your marketing to stand out from others around it in that location and/or to relate more to setting in which it’s being seen.  Think of those ads from companies who sponsor a particular TV programme and the ones that really adapt their ad to tie in with the content of the programme more (for example Splash and Hula Hoops,   Britain’s Got Talent and Morrisons).  Of course, few small businesses can afford mainstream TV advertising but they can certainly adapt their marketing campaign to fit, suit and reflect the environment in which it is being viewed.

Think of the overall experience

To help your marketing get noticed, it really helps if you can think of the overall ‘experience’ your marketing delivers – not just the key messages you want it to convey.  In appearance does it look, for example, fun or dull?  Is it short and to the point or long-winded and detailed?  Does it rely heavily on words or summarise the key proposition in an eye-catching visual? Is that visual quick to understand or it is highly cryptic?  How easy is it to share with others who may be interested? How easy is it to view in different formats – for example on mobile, tablet, PC?

As consumers will continue to struggle to notice and absorb marketing messages, think then about building campaigns which feature more of the following:

  • Imagery which will really appeal to them at that particular time
  • Short videos – especially to convey complex messages in a more engaging and interesting way
  • Visual references to behaviour or a situation which that target market typically encounter… and which points to your product/service offering
  • Short concise messages with a clear and easy call to action
  • A quick response to a sudden seasonal or new development affecting their lives
  • Fun or humorous elements which appeal to them.  Alternatively you may be seeking to satisfy a thirst for knowledge they currently have about something at the moment (get this right and they may be share your marketing amongst their peers)
  • Interactive elements  – eg a competition or access to a handy add-on for your product/service range

Of course ‘fun’ is a very subjective thing but if you do start developing that detailed knowledge of your customer base you will be able to plot elements they are drawn to… and be able to avoid those they will be repelled by.

Summary

Yes it is harder to get your marketing noticed but the more insight you can gain about your customers, the easier it becomes to produce engaging and creative campaigns that do indeed get noticed (by pigford).  To do this effectively on a small business marketing budget it’s better to focus on small groups of customers at a time.  And in doing so, try and make your marketing enjoyable to engage with.  Make it a fun experience to help it get noticed.

 

About Michelle Daniels

Michelle is an experienced and effective business development and marketing strategist and has built a successful career increasing top line growth for service businesses and organisations. As founder of Extended Thinking, a hands-on marketing and business development consultancy, she helps her clients turn their marketing, business development and thought leadership plans into reality.    Bringing together great minds and great ‘doers’, Extended Thinking Marketing Consultancy helps clients devise and implement plans that achieve real business growth.  Our clients come from a wide variety of backgrounds and sectors, but invariably are those who are too busy or lack the resources to action their marketing and business development plans.  We roll our sleeves up and muck in to free them up to do what they really want to do and are good at doing. www.extendedthinking.com

Photo Credit: Andy Cross

How to get positive business reviews and recommendations!

I was recently targeted by a major supermarket to join a new club of theirs. In return for sending me free samples and promotional offers for their products, their request was that I share my feedback of these, not just with them but also with my contacts on the social media channels I frequent.

This got me thinking about how important the review/recommendation phase is now in the buying process – so much so that businesses who are keen to cultivate positive endorsements are allocating considerable time and marketing resources to it.

Historically, marketing and sales strategies have focused their energies on the phases leading up to the purchase, rather than what then follows it. The importance of reviews and recommendations to buyers, however, took real hold in the recession and its legacy is intensifying. Even with more upbeat economic forecasts, there is still a need on the part of buyers to try to avoid wasted or ‘disappointing’ purchases. Times are still tough for many and it’s important that the product or service you eventually buy does indeed deliver on its promises.

Technology of course has fully supported the review/recommendation evolution, enabling people to leave their thoughts and opinions on online retail sites or social media platforms. So much so that the act of consulting relevant posted reviews, has now become a regular feature of the buying process for many of us – especially if we deem the purchase to be important or of a high value.

So how do you make the most of this as a small to medium-sized business?

It’s clear the big corporates are recognising the value of fostering positive reviews and now are allocating serious marketing/promotional resources to it. Before we look at some smaller-scale examples, there are five fundamentals that are at the heart of positive reviews:

1. Quality of output

Of course you have to be doing something well for people to rate you favourably. Without a good quality product/service you are going to struggle securing recommendations and you certainly want to avoid negative feedback being sent by your customers into the public domain. To help avoid this, be clear about the product/service’s features in your descriptions of it. Aim to wrap a prompt and responsive customer service approach around it, with a transparent (no hidden extras) pricing model.

2. Get your timing right

In reality you only have a short timeframe to harness the goodwill a customer feels on purchasing a product/service that delights them. The exact timescale will depend on what your product/service is and how expensive or important it was to the customer. There will, however, be a point post-purchase where the customer evaluates the purchase for themselves. If they’re pleased and satisfied, then that’s the moment the warm fuzzy feeling they have for your business can be encouraged to produce reviews and recommendations. This means getting your timing right, before the customer’s attention is drawn to other things in their lives. Start to build a picture of the typical ‘hot spot’ for customer goodwill post-purchase of your product/service (by pigford). Find out by trying different tactics at different times to identify which generates the best response. Use this insight to make sure communications, focused on capturing reviews and feedback, appear at this time.

3. Make it easy

To encourage them to do so, it needs to be quick and easy for a customer to give a review or testimonial. More than likely they will have little time and have other things they need to get on with. So help them share their goodwill by asking for only a small number of criteria about the purchase to be rated. Don’t send them customer surveys that take an age to complete or have questions which are ambiguous and confusing. Where possible, try to just ask for their thoughts, as the descriptions and phrases they use will resonate more with potential customers.

4. Be prepared to incentivise

People really value their time and, whilst a number see value in sharing their views for the greater good of mankind, the majority will want incentivising in some way. So, without falling foul of current anti-bribery legislation, think of ways to encourage customers to share their positive feedback.

5. Monitor and respond to their efforts

If a customer does go out of their way to endorse you, then make sure you immediately acknowledge it and thank them for it – especially if the review has gone onto a social media channel. They’ll be pleased you were listening and will be more likely to do this again in future. Others will also see your timely response and be impressed too.

Review-fostering activities

You don’t have to have the sophisticated technology of Amazon or major online retailers to try and foster recommendations.  As a small business you probably have a good knowledge of your customers and plenty of opportunities to develop a dialogue with them in person, over the phone and online.  Harness the goodwill you build here, to show you appreciate their business, and that it would be really helpful if they articulate their positive experiences in a review or testimonial.  Here are some other activities we’ve seen smaller businesses use successfully to stimulate positive feedback and goodwill:

  1. A timely ‘thank you’ email with clear links to the social media sites the business participates in and encouraging the customer to share their experience
  2. A follow-up telephone call by a senior person in the business to check all’s well with the purchase and exploring if the client would be happy to give a testimonial or act as a referee
  3. Sending a small token that enhances the product/service they have just purchased (for example a professionally taken family photo session voucher to customers who’ve just undergone a dental implant treatment)
  4. Inviting the customer to join an exclusive customer club where they’ll receive relevant news, offers, invites to special events and product samples
  5. In a B2B environment, following customers’ social media, posting nice comments and buying their products where feasible
  6. Developing a points system for each review the business receives which leads to a donation to a charity
  7. Offering an incentive if they recommend a friend

Summary

The more you know about your customers, the more you can fine-tune your product/service offering to them and this in turn will help to build their loyalty, goodwill and endorsements. There is also the point that you may not be able to please everyone and there may come a time when you may have to face a less favourable review. In this situation it’s important to respond quickly and try to rectify the issues at the heart of the review. But if you feel the nature of the review or content was incorrect, then it’s important to have a raft of customers who will provide a wealth of positive feedback to help counteract it and present this as ‘clearly a one-off’ occurrence.

What’s your experience of business reviews – let me know in the comments below…

You can read more great articles by Michelle here!

Want more customers? Try this 3 course menu!

When business owners experience frustration at a poor response to their marketing efforts, at the heart of the problem is often a misunderstanding about their target market. Without sufficient knowledge of the customers a business is trying to attract, business owners can risk:

  1. Wasting money on the wrong marketing channel or media
  2. Investing in a marketing design and messaging that fails to get the target market’s attention or switches them off
  3. Creating offers and incentives that go untouched… or touched by a less suitable customer group
  4. Blowing a hole in a marketing budget for very little return
  5. Allocating hours of time, money and energy to social media channels which the audience don’t use

It can be tempting to jump on the bandwagon of the latest promotional idea, marketing channel offer or media deal, but in the long-run it really does make sense to pause and question whether this will really bring you in front of the customers you want. For most small and medium-sized businesses there aren’t large marketing budgets to draw on. Any investment in marketing needs to really deliver its worth in new enquiries and sales. Building the marketing efforts upon a strong understanding of existing and potential customers can help to ensure the business achieves:

  1. A far better return on investment from highly-focused marketing campaigns
  2. A more effective selection of marketing media – which makes it easier to decide which channels to devote time, energy and money to
  3. Greater customer engagement and enquiry levels to its marketing communications and offers.

So what form and depth should this understanding take and how do you go about finding out the insight you need? Here’s a simple menu to help satisfy your knowledge gaps.

Starters: find out why people buy from you

It’s sensible to start with your current customer base and, in particular, the types of individuals or businesses amongst them who you would like to win more of. This group represents valuable insight which can you can use to guide your marketing approaches to convert more of the same into paying customers.

  • What are people buying your product or service for? – Consider here what issue, opportunity or decision you help or support. Familiarise yourself with the situations people find themselves in which make them seek out your product/service range or those of your competitors.  Even if you think you know, it’s worth double-checking as situations change, social and economic circumstances change as this can alter buyer behaviour.
  • Why do your current customers choose you over a competitor?  Here you want to consider how you perform against your rivals’ offerings.  For example, where do you stand in the market when it comes to price? How does your offering differ in terms of add-ons, after-sales servicing, quality of your service/product etc.  Is your locality important to your best customers – or the way you deliver/distribute your service/product to them?  Are there any other aspects that your wrap around your product or service which appeals to your customers?
  • How is your service or product used once people buy it?  What sort of lifespan does it have before people need to replace it? Is there any seasonality to demand for it? What aspects of your product/service are a ‘must have’ and which aspects are a ‘nice to have’ from your customers’ perspectives. By revisiting how people are using your service or product you can remain alert to new uses (which you can promote) or spot fading uses (which may signal the end to this particular product/service line).

Some of the information to these 3 components is probably in your own head or can be found out from your sales team or sales records.  Other aspects can be gleaned from asking your customers directly – say through a customer feedback study, promotional events which bring you in contact with customers or via your sales team’s approach during the buying process.

The answers the questions give will guide you to what your marketing needs to say or demonstrate to resonate with similar customers.  It will help you to better understand the type of situation which points to your business offering and the points of differentiation or key messages your marketing needs to contain to distinguish you from other providers.  It can also help guide you on what product or service add-ons will be valuable to your current and potential customers and which are not worth investing in. If you’re in a market with strong competition, this information will be vital to help you defend, maintain or grow market share.

Main: find out who are the people buying from you

This area of insight helps you to spend your marketing budget more wisely and enables you to avoid media channels which will force your marketing messages to misfire.  It also guides you on how your marketing needs to communicate your key messages.

Here you need to consider the types of people whom your product/service appeals to.  Think back to your best customers who represent the greatest orders, profitability and loyalty to your business.  What are they like as individuals and what demographics do they reflect?  Even if you are operating in the B2B sector, behind every business purchase will be a person (or a handful of people) whose profile it will be useful to know.

Your customer profile analysis needs to uncover typical lifestyles, budgets or disposable incomes, jobs/roles, age/stages of lifecycle, locality etc. amongst your best customers.  In a B2B environment it also helps to consider who your buyers’ have to support in their organisation, what agendas (personal and corporate) are influencing decisions and the current key issues evident in their industry sector.

When it comes to looking at your best customers, consider whether they are time-rich or time-poor, how digitally savvy they are and what devices and media they use on a daily basis.   What form does their buying process take when they buy from you – is it an instant decision or do they invest time evaluating different options? Again your past experiences of selling to them will provide a lot of insight, if not, be on the look-out in future or ask them.

The knowledge you gain here will help to guide you on which marketing campaigns will best reach customers like them.  It will also influence how you should compose your marketing messages to appeal to these people.  For example, if they are time-poor and make quick purchasing decisions then you know that you marketing needs to be as short and as succinct as possible.

Dessert: find out how your best customers came across you

It’s rare for one communication channel alone to encourage a customer to buy from you.  Typically they have encountered a number of your marketing approaches before they make a purchase (eg ad + website + offer = purchase).  It’s often hard for customers to distinguish all the different marketing messages they’ve experienced and in asking them they may only remember the most recent one.

Whilst it’s always good to ask customers ‘how did you hear of us?’ it’s also sensible to try to track the levels of enquiries and quality of interest you get from your each of your marketing approaches.  Over time this will enable you to select the channels which work most effectively for the ‘ideal’ customers you want to attract.

If you haven’t got access to historic information such as this then make sure that, if you’re signing up to any new marketing approaches (eg advertising, social media campaigns etc), you investigate what volumes of your best/ideal customer profile it will put you in front of? What demographics of people can that marketing approach claim to deliver and what engagement levels have others experienced when targeting this market?  Find out first before committing any expenditure.

Of course getting the marketing channel selection right is only part of the story and you need to ensure your marketing message resonates too. This is why the work you’ve done at the main course stage and in getting to grips with the nuances of the people you are targeting is so essential.

Summary

Any time you can devote to expanding your knowledge about existing and potential customers is time well spent.  It really can make the difference between marketing that works and marketing that fails.  Of course you won’t be able to know everything, but the more insight you can amass the more chance of success your marketing activities will have.

Also bear in mind that as humans, customers will evolve.  How they interact with your product/service, what marketing they interact with and the messages they respond to will change.  The closer you can get to your existing customers now, the more opportunities you’ll have of keeping up with these developments.

And if your current customer base isn’t working for you and you want to reach out to a new customer group, use your current customer profile to be clear about what isn’t working and why.  The same approach we’ve outlined here will help you define the changes you need to make to attract the new market you want.

For more tips and marketing insight visit Extended Thinking.

Building a competitive edge from a simple thank you

As the year draws to a close it’s been interesting to see how many marketing campaigns are featuring the words ‘thank you’ in them.  This short but powerful phrase leaps off the pages or resonates in our ears when we see or hear it.  We suddenly pause what we’re doing and, for a second, take notice.

Thank you still has the power to grab our attention and, for a moment, make us feel good.

‘Tis the season

Of course the season of goodwill is traditionally a popular time to thank ones customers, valued contacts and supporters. Saying that, there does seem to be more of a movement this year to publicly declare thanks.

Perhaps it’s because there are more positive economic forecasts venturing forth in the media?  Perhaps it’s because business owners feel they’ve got over the worst the downturn has to throw at them?  Or perhaps it’s because people aren’t taking things for granted and still need that customer and supporter loyalty to help them get through 2014.

At the same time, businesses I see and speak to seem to be very busy.  There appears to be more confidence about, and the run up to the Christmas holiday is looking hectic for many.  So if you haven’t yet managed to plan your ‘thank you’ to your valued customers, contacts and suppliers, you really might want to make this an urgent priority.

The perils of not saying thanks

Because, standing out from the crowd by not saying thanks isn’t going to do your business any favours.  Also, it’s preventing you from using this simple gesture to strengthen goodwill towards your business. In fact a token of thanks can prove a catalyst for forging a closer business relationship with a customer or valued contact – one which helps you deliver more value to them in the year ahead and secure even greater loyalty from them in the long-run.

6 festive thank you essentials

So with the festive holiday looming, here are some simple tips to ensure your ‘thank you’ helps your business survive and grow in 2014.  Even though the year is drawing to an end, there’s still time to acknowledge and show your appreciation for those your business simply couldn’t do without.

  1. Be sincere – whether it’s in your choice of words, your tone of voice or your choice of thank you token make sure your ‘thank you’ sounds like you mean it.  The more tailored you can make it, the more it will ring true with the recipient and give them that nice warm fuzzy feeling.
  2. Keep it simple – you actually don’t have to blow the budget on a swanky thank you gift to show you really value someone’s support or custom to your business.  Often the simple tokens can mean more – especially if they’re personalised to that person’s interests and personality.  If you have limited budget, ensure you at least give a thank you token to the key client accounts – or those people who your business really depends on.
  3. Consider their schedule – everyone is very busy at this time of year and so you don’t want your thank you effort to risk falling off their radar. If you can, avoid email as inboxes are already bulging at the seams.  Think about when might be best to deliver your thank you message, given your contact’s schedule and commitments.  Also factor in what form your thank you should take to really get noticed.
  4. Charitable thank you’s – many firms give a charitable donation instead of sending Christmas cards.  Try to at least acknowledge customers’ charity preferences so they at least feel involved in this gesture.  Run a mini poll or ’10-second-to-complete-survey’ where customers vote for one of, say, 3 charities you propose to support (a bit like the Waitrose green token/community support scheme). Make it a fun activity and communicate the end results to build interest and show you’ve listened.
  5. Follow up – check your thank you message or token has got through to the right person and re-emphasise your appreciation of their support and business this year.  Use this positive gesture as another opportunity to find out how things are going and what is on the horizon for them in 2014.  Make a note of this and in the New Year get back in touch to offer help with the points they mentioned.
  6. New year thanks – if it’s impossible for you to express your thanks before the festive holiday ensure you deliver it the minute everyone returns in the New Year.  Use this time to stand out from the crowd and, in acknowledging your gratitude for your customers/contacts’ support in 2013, also wish them hearty good luck wishes for the year ahead.  As people take a little while to get back into the swing of things after Christmas, use this time delay to secure a catch up coffee or lunch.  Discuss the year ahead and what plans they have in store, whilst this is all fresh in their minds and they (hopefully) feel energised after the holiday.  This insight can highlight areas you can better support them in 2014.

Summary

Our busy lives mean that often the simple gesture of thanking someone gets forgotten.  Yet without our loyal customers, our valued contacts and the great supporters of our business where would we be?  A thank you can still stir positive emotions in those receive it.  So turn this simple two-word phrase to your competitive advantage.  Acknowledge those who helped your business get through another 12 months and let them know you genuinely appreciate this support.  Use the opportunity to also find out how you can better support them in 2014.

And finally, a very heartfelt thank you to you, my Women Unlimited readers.  Thank you, not just for reading my monthly column throughout 2013, but also for all your great comments and support.

Wishing you a very happy Christmas and a highly prosperous 2014.

Michelle x

Measure your marketing! 7 Simple ways to work out what’s working and what’s not

For many of today’s business owners, Lord Leverhulme’s famous quote from the end of the 19th Century, still rings true

Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted and the trouble is I don’t know which half.

When you’re running a small business every bit of marketing budget really needs to count, which is why at Extended Thinking, we’re often asked how best to measure a company’s marketing efforts. The good news is that, with developments in technology and some simple business approaches, you can monitor the outcome of your marketing investment more effectively.

1. It pays to be clear about what you want to achieve

Firstly it does help to be clear about the results you want to achieve. Often we come across vague or aspirational goals which are hard to measure, such as ‘I want to raise awareness’ or ‘I want to generate sales enquiries’. Goals which instead are specific, measurable, action focused, realistic and set within a specific timeframe (SMART) really do aid successful marketing campaigns. This is because they focus all the elements of the campaign to the task at hand and ensure progress can be measured along the way. Consider these more focused marketing campaign goals:

  1. To get 20 of our target customers to sign up to our Spring sales promotion by 31 March
  2. To generate a 30% click-through on the ABC article in the February e-newsletter followed up by our sales team within 3 working days
  3. To generate 40 enquiries to our servicing offer between 1-30 June
  4. To win 60 new customers (value £x) from within a 20 mile radius of our new Oxford office by 31 July 2014

2. Building a robust target list

If you are going to invest in the creative treatment and media of a marketing campaign, you want it to have the best chance possible in generating a positive response from your target audience. To achieve this you need to make sure:

– The data you have about your target audience is current and accurate

– You understand the nuances and profile of the people in that target list so your choice of media, timing, content and style of marketing campaign resonates with them 100%.

Where possible, focus your marketing on smaller groups in a tailored approach rather than follow a scattergun approach to a large target list. Not only are you more likely to generate a favourable response this way, it will be easier to manage and measure.

3. Trackable calls to action

One of the reasons why digital marketing is hugely popular is because its technology provides businesses owners with a whole host of analytic data. Of course this popularity has a downside too, consumers are swamped by digital campaigns and have become more selective about what marketing they interact with. The proliferation of media also means more choice and more routes to try to get in front of your target market and this can get really expensive for the smaller marketing budgets.

There’s something to be said then for still using traditional marketing, such as direct mail, where you may currently experience less competition.  The key here though is not to run generic campaigns but instead build one around a specific offering or call to action. Include a code, voucher, dedicated phone number or web page, or something that people have to mention when responding to this campaign. Record the frequency of enquiries from these sources so you can track which code/element of the campaign generated which response. Remember the more you can tailor or personalise your campaign to the recipient’s preferences, the better the response will be.

4. Numbers will only tell you so much

It’s great to be able access open rates and click-through volumes with e-shots and it’s handy to see what visitor traffic has passed through our online ads and websites. This only tells part of the story though, and if we don’t drill deeper into the data we may miss chances to convert warm customer interest into sales or other business goals. There are lots of digital marketing evaluation software programs and tools available. If the thought of this is too overwhelming for you, at a basic level the analytics that come with most e-shot packages do guide you on who clicked on what link. This insight helps you to follow up interest whilst it’s warm. With websites, do track which pages are resonating (or not) and use this insight to guide you on what tweaks and changes to make. Also see which sites are referring traffic to you – especially if you are running any affiliate marketing campaigns or ads on the web.

5. Quality not just quantity

And if you use social media as part of your marketing approach, look beyond the volume of interactions to the quality of them. Link these back to your original objectives and consider:

– Are the people we want interacting with us? If not, do we need to change our approach or pull out of this channel altogether?

– The quality of those interactions – What conversations are we having with our social media following? Is this what we had hoped for… or not?

6. Be patient and set up internal tracking systems

Some activities will be easier and more immediate to measure than others. If you want to measure the sources of sales to you, you need to put in place systems or protocols amongst your sales team which at the very least ask ‘how did you hear of us?’ Of course in reality a customer may have encountered a number of your marketing efforts before picking up the phone or sending through a contact form request. If you can record the different touch-points you initiate and record the success of these, over time you will start to see patterns of which combinations work well for different customer profiles and with certain product/service offerings.

Also try to evaluate which calls to action were most successful in your marketing campaigns – what their content was, how they were presented and which channel they appeared in. This will help you foster further success in the future. That longer-term view is important. All too often business owners are impatient and expect an immediate response straightaway from a marketing campaign. Sometimes the nature of their product offering, or customer profile means that it takes a number of targeted interactions to build credibility and ‘warm’ customers to their business.

7. Take the initiative

What with leading very busy lives and often facing information overload, customers have perfected the art of screening out marketing messages. Of course if we have a specific need we will seek out suppliers to help us solve it. Many business owners invest in expensive marketing campaigns only to sit back and hope the phone will ring or email orders start flooding in. In reality this rarely happens and their campaign is only step one in a longer sales conversion process.

Instead, the more marketing-savvy business owners see their marketing campaigns as a way of initiating interest. They then know they need to follow up and fuel that interest to convert it into new business. So be prepared to follow up your e-shots, your direct mail and your advertising to keep your business offering front of mind with your target audience.  Use telemarketing, additional insight, taster/trials or further offers to try to swell that embryonic interest.

Summary

There are many ways to track and measure your marketing investment. In doing so ensure you don’t miss out on a crucial final step – acting on the results. Make sure you do something with your data and analytics to either improve the results or maintain them. If you don’t learn from this insight then you may be disappointed or frustrated by your further marketing efforts. Remember, your customers’ preferences will continue to change and evolve over time, as will buying habits, technology and media channels. Be prepared to keep fine-tuning your approach as a result of tracking what works and what doesn’t.

If you are clear about:

    1. what you are trying to achieve
    2. the profile of your target market
    3. which marketing message, creative treatment and channel resonates most with them
    4. how best to measure that channel

It will help you generate a more positive (and trackable) return on your marketing investment.

I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below!

How to stay on the right side of Google and protect your website investment

At the heart of the marketing strategy for many small businesses is their website. This, along with supporting online promotional expenditure and social media, often represents a significant proportion of the small business marketing budget. It highlights that business owners see the web as a key tool in driving sales enquiries and converting business leads.  And if your business is focused on markets in the UK, Europe or the US, then how your site performs on Google will also be a major consideration in that investment.

But the past 18 months have felt like somewhat of a rollercoaster with Google and, if you’re like a number of business owners we speak with, you probably feel a bit punch-drunk from the never-ending cycle of changes, new rules and latest algorithm rollouts.  All of these affect the way websites perform on this vital search platform and will influence what return business owners get from their website investment.

So what are the current key changes business owners need to be aware of when trying to keep their websites in Google’s ‘good-books’.  Phil Reynolds, a colleague of mine at Extended Thinking, has been monitoring the latest developments and here are four of his recommendations.

1. Freshen up your content

Historically, the content you loaded on your site used to take a few months to feature in the results of Google searches but this is no longer the case.  Fresh content is now key for Google and it will prioritise the latest most relevant in its results for a specific phrase.  To help make the most of this (and to try to maintain your position in Google organic rankings), find keywords and phrases that are popular within your sector and customer base – look on news websites, Twitter, Facebook, Google Trends and Ubersuggest for additional help.

Focus your website strategy on building up new content around these phrases – say perhaps writing a monthly series of articles. If you already have content on your site for these keywords and phrases, update it and keep it fresh – perhaps adding some new results, perspectives or things which are now relevant. Write less about your products and services and more about the things your customers want to accomplish. Also share what you write socially across your networks to help build more ‘currency’ and fuel discussion and interest.

2. Check your link liability

Google has completely changed how it views the links between websites over the last 2 years.  Previously a significant number of links to your site would propel you up the rankings but now quality over-rides quantity.  Google’s latest view on this isn’t completely crystal clear yet and it continues to define what types of link it approves and which it deems ‘un-natural’.

To try to keep your site in Google’s good-books it’s worth using a combination of link classifier tools such as Majestic SEO, Open Site Explorer and of course Google Webmaster Tools to manually audit your site’s link profile and ensure there isn’t reason for it to be penalised.  Be careful about what text is being used as the anchor for any links to you.  Google will frown if this has a dubious relevance to where the link actually points to, or they are over optimised with too many generic keywords.  Be mindful that a total reliance on links in today’s search engine optimisation of websites is decreasing as Google’s algorithms get more and more sophisticated.  Instead focus your efforts on producing fresh content and trying to stimulate positive online word of mouth, bookmarking on the social networks and other referencing to your products, services or business.

3. Alternatives to ‘Not Provided’ search phrases in your website analytics

This development has affected how business owners measure their website’s performance and fine-tune it to perform even better on Google.  It’s a change that has been bubbling away for a little while but came to a head in recent weeks and removes some of the insight that was previously available about a website’s performance on Google.

In assessing a website’s visitor traffic, a useful set of stats used to be what keywords and phrases people had typed into Google, which brought them to your site via organic search (so not as part of an online advertising campaign). Unfortunately Google is no longer going to reveal this information and will now categorise the traffic under ‘No search terms entered’ in this section of your analytics.  This is a loss of great insight for many business owners as it was hugely valuable for understanding a site’s effectiveness to see what phrases had brought organic traffic to it… or not.

Hopefully someone somewhere will find a way of making this information available once again.  For now though, it is probably sensible to pay closer attention to which of your web pages are generating the most traffic (or not). This will enable you to draw some conclusions as to the relevancy and quality of the content on them.  Also if you have an internal search facility on your site, do keep an eye on what phrases and words people type into that as another rough guide.

Google will share some keyword data for its advertising clients so you may want to consider moving to one of their Adword campaigns if you haven’t already.  Saying that it will only share keyword data for the ad-related performance (not the organic traffic you attract to your site) so remember it’s only a part of the picture.

4. Make it easy to click-to-call you

In a study commissioned by Google and undertaken by IPSOS, 70% of mobile searchers said they used click to call functionality and favoured those sites who enabled this.  With forecasts claiming mobile browsing is and will continue to rocket, it is sensible to check how easy your site makes the process of contacting you.  Mobile sites sometimes lack even the most basic of information and yet callers are often the most qualified and warmest of leads.  Avoid losing this potential source of business by ensuring the phone numbers and click-to-call buttons are integrated clearly within your site’s mobile-friendly design. If you can improve the user experience in this regard you will drive more enquiries your way.  In fact Google suggests that pay-per-click ads with integrated call extensions have an 8% higher click-through rate whether the visitor calls or not!!

Summary

I guess one thing we’ve learnt from the past 18 months is that we’re probably set for a continuing cycle of change as Google tries to further strengthen its position, boost its revenues and respond to evolving browsing behaviour.  It’s clear that to invest in a website these days means you also need to set aside time and money to keep your site fresh and engaging which, let’s face it, will hopefully be a positive thing for your website visitor experience.  The pace of change though is unlikely to diminish so it’s worth continuing to follow the developments.

It is also worth assessing periodically how vital the web is in terms of delivering the quality of customers you want.  Set up your own internal systems to identify where new business leads come from and which channels are bringing the best quality opportunities your way.  Invest more time, effort and finances to those which bring the best volumes of profitable customers.