Category Archives: small business marketing tips
I’m talking about an informal annual report for you — or your business. It could be a blog post or an internal document. It’s simply a chronicle of achievements and activities from the past year. It can be a document you either develop on your own, or in conjunction with your partners and staff. This “annual report” is a tool for looking at how far you have come, and for deciding what goals to set in the future.
Do you take the time to do that now? If not, why not try it this year? Your effort does not have to be elaborate. I have written an “annual report” and published them on this blog every year that I have been in business. The 2011 report will be published next week. It’s my way of celebrating the progress of my company, and being transparent about our business operations. Also, all year long, I know I am going to write this annual report. So I am very good at taking pictures and documenting our successes throughout the year.
How to Write Your “Annual Report”
There is no right or wrong way to write your company annual report for the purposes I am talking about. The only wrong way would be not to write and save anything at all. It really is fun and a feel-good activity. Here is how I do it.
I review the past year’s projects and billings. I look for patterns, then I report on our business activities. I talk about the kinds of projects we worked on, and I mention current and new clients.
Acknowledgements and Thanks
The “annual report” is a perfect way to say thank you to all the people who keep your business going: from employees to partners, from vendors to referrers. And don’t forget to thank your clients, of course! We also thank our supporters in social media — including our blog subscribers, video viewers, Facebook friends, and Twitter followers. Expressing gratitude should be a regular part of your marketing outreach and business operations.
Pro Bono Work, Donations, Mentoring, Community Service, Committee Work, and Corporate Volunteerism
You will probably be surprised, as I am each year, at how much you contribute to your profession and your community. Document that service! It’s important.
Professional Affiliations and Development
Staying connected and current is good business hygiene. Those benefits trickle down to our clients. So we make a point of identifying how we kept our skills sharp and networked.
Speaking Engagements, Recognition, and Awards
Crow a little bit at the end of the year. I do! You’re entitled! All year long, I know I am going to mention recognition and speaking engagements in my annual report, and it keeps me motivated to make my best effort.
Add whatever feels right to you. And if you can publish it, so much the better! It keeps you accountable for making your best effort. Good luck, and let me know if you decide to try it this year.
I like Twitter. But I talk to a lot of business owners who really hate it. I mean, they do not mince words. They think it’s pointless and a waste of time, when it comes to their businesses.
Well, Twitter can be a waste of time, or to put it another way, recreational. And it can be tricky to sift through a rapidly updating stream of tweets from the many people and brands you’ll follow.
Unless you know how to work it!
Even if you don’t like the idea of Twitter, there are ways for your business to benefit from Twitter, with a minimal investment of time from you, or one of your staff. What you need is a system to make your involvement of time with Twitter manageable and productive. This system works well, and anyone can do it, without using third party applications. Most of the work is set-up and is done upfront, which we can help you with, if you prefer.
The first step is to stake your corporate claim on Twitter. Take the time to set up a branded Twitter account for your business. Start following Twitter accounts, just aim for 100 or less to start. If you’re looking for good accounts to follow, check out who your competitors are following on Twitter, or look at trade associations and local groups affiliated with your business. If you have a blog, fix your blog settings to post a link on your Twitter account to announce new articles.
The next step is to make sure you don’t miss anything important, like comments about your company. There are a couple of ways to do this. In Settings, set your notifications to receive an email when anybody mentions your Twitter account name or replies to you (an “at” or “@” mention). Then in Search, set up a few saved searches: your company name, important brand names, maybe your proper name, perhaps a key competitor’s name.
Next, create a few lists of people and accounts you really want to follow on Twitter. You can make them public or private. For example, you might create a list for
- Partners, trade associations, and vendors on Twitter.
- Clients on Twitter. Be sure you’re following their updates!
- Trade media, reporters, and bloggers who cover your industry. Twitter is an excellent way to build your media contacts.
- Competitors (you can put this list on private view — you don’t even have to follow them to put them on a list. If you only list your competitors and put the list on private, you can keep tabs on them — and emulate their best practice on Twitter! — surreptitiously. They will never know it’s you 🙂
- Speed Dial List: this is the private list I make of accounts I really enjoy following and ones I really must keep tabs on — best clients, most significant competitors, news about my industry, etc. Most days, it is the only list I check.
Next, just check in once day. If that’s too much, check in every other day. This is what you’ll want to do during this check-in, and it will only take a few minutes.
1. Check your followers and see if you have any new ones. Follow back new followers. You don’t have to thank them (and don’t use auto replies!) — just follow them back. Take a quick peek in case they should go on your Speed Dial list.
2. Check and respond to your @ mentions. You already get notifications, but just be sure you have responded to all the @ mentions for that day, or past couple of days. It’s important to be responsive on Twitter.
3. Use your lists to keep updated and toss in a comment here and there. This makes your Twitter corporate profile appear real, engaging, and dimensional. Now, don’t worry too much about the stream. Trying to read all those updates will only make you dizzy. I follow more than 600 people and there’s no way I could read all those updates. Try my approach, instead. Go right to your private “Speed Dial” list (your curated list of people and brands you really need to keep tabs on). What have these people and brands posted? Interesting links? Anything you can make a value-added comment on or retweet? Good. “At mention” that account: post a tweet responding to their update, but start it with their profile name, like this: “@FletcherPrince posted a great article on how to use Twitter in an effective way: http://linkhere.com”
4. Monitor for mentions: check your saved search terms to see if anyone mentioned your name or company name on Twitter recently (it will only save a day or two of posts, which is why you should check daily or every other day).
5. If you have something important to announce, or a new article, by all means, do post an update, but try to keep your updates useful and relevant to your brand on your corporate Twitter profile. Extra points if you can tie in your update (meaningfully) to a hot topic or non-disaster-related news story everyone is talking about (think seasonal, weather, sports, and pop culture references).
And that’s it! Using this simple and quick process, you will soon come to appreciate the power of Twitter and will find it much more manageable to use as you present your brand online, respond to customer queries and concerns, monitor online mentions, and track your competitors.
- My Twitter Speed Dial: People You’ll Be Glad to Follow (fletcher-prince.com)
Small business owners, rejoice! You can create all kinds of affordable (sometimes, even free!) marketing helpers for your business.
Mary Fletcher Jones shows off some of the items Fletcher Prince designed, including tote bags, note cards, post cards, and brochures.
Visit Fletcher Prince for more ideas and creative and affordable design services: http://www.FletcherPrince.com
All items printed by VistaPrint http://www.VistaPrint.com.
Disclaimer: VistaPrint did not approve this video and no compensation was received by Mary Fletcher Jones by VistaPrint. She just likes them.
I’ve recently graduated from college and I want to start my own business. What advice do you have for me?
The job market is so challenging for recent college graduates that some young people are considering starting their own small business, instead of working for a company. While I think this would be an exciting proposition for any ambitious young person, I have some words of advice that would apply to them, or anyone thinking about starting a truly small business (staff under 10).
A Small Business is a Major Commitment
To me, making the decision to start a small business is not unlike the commitment you make to have children. It truly impacts your life in every way. There are some who say they can separate their personal and business life. But most small business owners I know spend more time on their business on a daily basis than their 9-to-5 job, and their families are also more invested in making the business a success.
If your family had an established small (or large business) before you started college, and you worked for them, and wanted to continue to do so, then this advice wouldn’t apply to you, of course. But if you are not working for a family business, I would advise first getting to know other small business owners and talking to them about the sacrifices they have had to make to determine if you have realistic expectations.
Give Your Small Business The Best Possible Start: Get Experience First
I don’t think it’s wise to start a small business right out of college. You lose the valuable opportunity to learn while getting paid by someone else! I advise obtaining at least five years (preferably more) of solid work experience in your field or industry before starting your own business (in that same field or industry).
Developing a support network while you are still employed is also important. Now is the optimal time to join professional associations and network with people who can help you now and later. At this stage in your career, more experienced people are most willing to help you learn the business and make valuable contacts. Foster those important connections with vendors, clients, and partners while you are still employed. They will be important resources — and possibly your first customers and testimonials — as you start your own business.
The Importance of Savings
Starting a small business involves financial sacrifice. When you are first starting out in life, frankly, you have a lot of stuff to buy, from dishes to work clothes to a reliable car. Saving money is always an admirable goal, but not a lot of young people are thinking about creating a substantial nest egg while they have college loans to pay. Also you may find it easier to save while you are employed, while large companies offer attractive employee benefits programs to make that easy for you to do.
Having a healthy amount of savings is recommended before you start a small business. Some say you should have at least a year’s worth of living expenses saved. This means that while your other friends are going on fun vacations and out to eat, you may be scrimping and passing up on on social opportunities. Do you really want to do this now? You can start a small business anytime, but you are only going to be in your young twenties — and have all the liberty that goes along with that life stage — once. You can’t really turn back the clock.
The Impact of a Small Business on Life Experiences
It’s also important to recognize that running a small business when you are under thirty (versus working for a company) will impact your other life decisions in many ways.
For example, you may sacrifice valuable, career-building job opportunities by striking out on your own. Also the risk of small business failure is fairly high. This is a lot of risk to take on when you factor that those first ten years of independence generally also involve
- Moving a few times before you settle into a community and long-term home
- Major purchases, such as a car or home
- Paying off student loans
- Becoming seriously involved or married (or even divorced)
- Obtaining an advanced degree
- Becoming a parent
- Aging parents, with changing needs
All of these major life activities demand tremendous resources of money and energy. Consider postponing starting a small business, perhaps even for a decade or so, until life is more settled and established (e.g., when kids are in elementary school and you have a wage-earning partner with good health insurance for the family). If you foresee that these kinds of life experiences may be probable for you, down the road, as they are for many people, then it may be a better to wait ten years before you take the risks that are involved with starting a small business.
When To Take The Leap…
Still, there are situations when the idea is too good, the opportunity is too wonderful, and the timing is too right to pass up. If this is true for you, if this is your dream, and you have your eyes open about the risks, then you might want to go ahead and take a chance. But make sure you have plenty of support, as well as a Plan B.
There are many successful young people who are running small businesses. This might be the right time for you.
Good luck, graduates!
Sidewalk signs? Should you use them, if you have a storefront business? Or not?
Let me state right up front, I do not like sidewalk signs. Also known as A-frame signs, or sandwich boards. I don’t like them for this reason:
Sidewalks are for walking.
I am nimble, thank goodness. I can get around a sidewalk sign, even if it is obstructing.
Not so for the visually impaired man I saw on Broad Street with a cane. His cane got tangled in the sidewalk sign. He tried to navigate around it, and almost fell over. It was awful.
That changed my mind about sidewalk signs for good. If only for that one reason, I do not believe sidewalk signs should be allowed. But I’ve also seen people struggle with strollers around them, and once I saw a person in an electronic mobility device get ensnared with one.
And let’s be honest, who hasn’t been looking and has walked into a sidewalk sign at some point? I know I have. I mean, they just aren’t supposed to be there, in the way!
Sidewalk Signs: Should They Be Legal? Or Not?
In some local jurisidictions, sidewalk signs are not legal. Right now, under pressure from the business community, Arlington County is trying to decide whether to lift their ban on sidewalk signs.
In other places, such as Falls Church City, sidewalk signs are allowed in the public right of way (sidewalks) but are governed by permits and zoning regulations. For example, the signs are supposed to leave four clear feet of sidewalk for walking.
Here’s the rub: a lot of Falls Church businesses don’t go by the rules. Either they don’t know any better (which would be strange, because you would think they would get the info when they got the permit for their sign), or they’re just trying to get away with it. And the Falls Church Zoning Division, apparently, doesn’t enforce the rules, because the infractions are legion (and not just sidewalk signs either, on-site signage regulations were also violated all over the City).
(Surprising, and yet, also not surprising, at least not around here. After all, this is the municipality that also left the public Christmas 2009 decorations on the lamp posts on Washington Street up until after St. Patrick’s Day 2010. That wasn’t a good look for the City, and this isn’t, either.)
Result: non-conforming signs, unsafe placements, and unattractive additions to the City. Arlington County, are you paying attention to this? The only winners here are the business owners. But not all the business owners. Because I think it would be pretty hard to compete with an adjacent business that uses an illegal or nonconforming sidewalk sign, if you chose to be aware of the law, or adhere to it. How is that fair?
How Extensive Are Infractions? A Look at Sidewalk Signs
I walked around Falls Church City, just to check out the sidewalk signs. I like most of these businesses, by the way. I’m a customer. I just don’t like their signs. Okay, so almost all of them were nonconforming to regulations in at least one way —
- One business put out two sidewalk signs (you’re only supposed to have one, and you have to have a permit for it)
- Several businesses used temporary or chalk versions, with different messages on both sides. You’re only supposed to use professionally designed, permanent ones, with the same message on both sides.
- Some placed them incorrectly — too close to their business, too far from their business. One put one almost on top of a fire hydrant. Many put them as close to the road as possible, ostensibly to attract the attention of passing motorists.
- I don’t think any of the ones I observed were weighted, as they’re supposed to be.
- One sign obstructed the doorways of, not one, but two businesses.
- Two businesses left their sidewalk signs out after business hours, which is another no-no.
- One business used the word “Stop” on the sign, which is illegal.
- A few businesses propped them against safety signs.
- Some used balloons on their signs, which is also illegal (in the whole Commonwealth).
- A set of signs was placed as to potentially block the view of motorists at an intersection.
I mean, clearly, we have a problem.
Okay, what’s a few sidewalk signs? Why does this matter?
You know, yeah, a few sidewalk signs, no big deal. A chalk sign, so what? Maybe, depending on your opinion, they don’t exactly beautify the environment, and they probably distract motorists. But any problems beyond that?
Well, yeah. A few sidewalk signs are not a big problem. A few nonconforming sidewalk signs, not that much bigger of a problem. Now consider this: what if every storefront business on Route 7 in Falls Church City put out a nonconforming sidewalk sign? What if they didn’t leave a four foot sidewalk clearance, or were not weighted properly, or used graphics that were distracting to motorists? What if they ALL did? And zoning did nothing about it? What would that mean for our community? In terms of conducting business? In terms of property values and aesthetics? Safely navigating the sidewalks and intersections? Creating a distraction-free motorist environment?
What would that mean for that visually impaired man?
Because we already passed “ugly” some time ago. Does somebody have to get hurt for this to change?
I mean, think about it. Let’s just say for argument’s sake, that everyone from now on was aware of the sign regulations and had decided to obey them. What then, if every storefront business on Broad Street got a permit and erected a legal and conforming sidewalk sign? Can you imagine what that would look like? Is that the look we want for the City?
But aren’t sidewalk signs effective marketing tools?
Well, yeah. I would imagine so. I don’t have any evidence yea or nay. They’re certainly cheap. I would imagine that they do bring in traffic. But….
The problem is: at what cost? There’s such a thing as being responsible.
Sign companies say sidewalk signs are designed to attract pedestrians. The problem is, in this community, the signs are often placed to attract the attention of passing motorists. And that’s potentially dangerous.
Even the City uses them in the public right of way (grassy medians) to promote Falls Church City events. It’s illegal for anyone but the City to do this, and VDOT officials are on the record as saying they really don’t like when municipalities make this exception for themselves, as it does pose a road hazard. But they can’t do anything about it.
Is there any time when a sidewalk sign is appropriate?
In my view, I don’t think free standing signs belong on sidewalks. But I think you could use temporary, A-frame signs in some other situations, such as to designate parking areas, or for special events, and such, if used safely. Or maybe even to help identify a hazardous area, such as a sidewalk area under repair. But I don’t think they should go where people walk on a daily basis.
What are the marketing alternatives to sidewalk signs?
Every business is concerned about visibility. I understand that. I believe a better and safer alternative to sidewalk signs is to create an attractive store front that is in full compliance and erect quality, conforming, on-site signage.
Add to this direct marketing, email marketing, social media, advertising, and public relations, and a business can do without sidewalk signs.
- How NOT to Market Your Business: With Illegal Signs (fletcher-prince.com)
Stumped for gift ideas for the business owner on your list? Here are some presents they are sure to appreciate.
Gifts that Inform and Teach New Skills
- Lynda.com membership.
- Business management and marketing books.
- Subscription to Washington Business Journal or similar publication.
Gifts that Boost Productivity
- Wireless phone headset for car and/or home office.
- Office supplies; desk and file organizers.
- Business card organizers.
- Tools to track expenses: logs, organizers, software.
- A CD of their favorite music, or classical music.
- Planning calendars – desk, wall, and pocket sizes.
- PC/Mac accessories and gadgets (thumb drives, wireless mouse, etc.)
- Stationery, such as a quality set of thank you cards or note cards, packaged with stamps and a good pen.
The Gift of Networking
- Restaurant gift certificates so they can take clients and potential clients out to lunch.
- A gift membership to their local chamber of commerce, or for their industry’s professional organization.
- A cosmetics makeover at the Clinique counter.
- A professional business portrait photography session.
- Fashionable business attire or accessories: a new tie, business card holder, laptop bag, padfolio, pen, or attractive handbag.
- Smart phone.
- iPad or laptop computer so they can conduct business on the go.
- One of the new mini-projectors.
- Camcorder, so they can put their business on YouTube.
- An e-book reader.
- A digital camera.
- Accessories for gadgets they already have: laptop sleeves and cases, mp3 holders or speakers, chargers.
- Personal training sessions or a gym membership.
- Fitness equipment or clothing.
- An mp3 player holder so they can listen to podcasts on the treadmill.
- Yoga, zumba, or belly dancing classes.
- Movie tickets.