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Social Media Guide For Small Businesses

Social media has opened many doors when it comes to business and marketing. On the one hand, these networks have greatly increased competition among small businesses, as access to wide exposure results in a market saturated with alternative options. However, this same access to exposure—either at a very low cost or even free—can be hugely beneficial, if approached correctly. With all of the social networks out there, entering the social media game may seem overwhelming. This guide should help you get started.

SET SOME GOALS

Like any successful strategy, social media success relies on creating a plan based on what you wish to achieve. Of course “likes” are great, but you’ll want to look beyond these somewhat superficial markers to more grounded results, such as conversion rates and lead generation. Set specific goals, and make sure that they are measurable—you’ll want to be able to track your progress.

If you are having trouble getting started, consider evaluating your current social media activity—who is currently connected with you, and by how much would you like to increase or improve connectivity? How active are your competitors on social media, and how would you like to perform in relation to them? Look at industry leaders like Netflix and Pepsi and decide how you might emulate their successes.

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE & HOW TO REACH THEM

In order to reach your target audience, you’ll need to know who they are, where to find them, and how they use social media. You may find it helpful to create customer personas—basically just fictional characters representative of your target audience. Use any information available to you (which is quite a lot with the internet)—customer interviews, social media activity, surveys, focus groups, etc—to determine demographic trends within your target audience. Then simply gather this information into your personas.

Create representative characters complete with ages, locations, occupations, consumer goals, and even stock photos. Knowing your audience and keeping them in mind will no doubt be helpful in determining what to post on social media.

BE SELECTIVE

Social media marketing takes time, so you want to make sure that you’re investing your time in the strategies most likely to succeed. One of your first considerations should be which social media platforms to utilize. Each platform has its own benefits:

  • Facebook: Largest social media platform with over 2 billion users.
  • Twitter: Focus on brief 280-character messages to reach audiences efficiency.
  • Instagram: Visual platform relying heavily on aesthetics.
  • Youtube: Most popular platform for online videos.
  • LinkedIn: Largest social network for professionals.
  • Pinterest: User-driven platform ideal for promoting action.

Bear in mind that while social media may be a cheap or even free alternative to traditional marketing, it still takes considerable time and energy to execute properly. Be sure to select the platforms that will work best with your business. Make it easy on your yourself and begin with only one or two social media platforms until you’ve gotten fully into the swing of things.

POST!

With your goals set, research done, audience in mind and platforms selected, there’s nothing left but to begin. In order to build your brand, you should expect to spend about a half hour per day on social media activities when you’re starting out, and this will only increase as your business expands and your social media prowess develops.

Take cues from the competition on what sort of content to post. Readers will respond better to helpful and useful information. Think of what problems your readers may be facing, and what information relevant to your business might help them resolve these issues. Providing information that directly assists your readers will make them view you as an expert. In the end, helpful information will keep readers engaged and make them more likely to read more, or to return to your pages in the future.

All of your social media accounts should connect to your website, and your website is truly the epicentre of your online presence. Post content in the interest of engaging your audience, funneling them toward your website an—ultimately—converting them to paying customers.

KEEP AN EAR TO THE GROUND

Social media is like a non-stop wind circling the globe. The online conversation never stops, and at any time people may be discussing your brand. In order to find success in this whirlwind, you’ll need to join in on the conversation. Keep an eye out for mentions of your brand and respond to them, even the negative mentions—especially the negative mentions. This active participation in the banter allows you the opportunity to control the conversation, and steer it toward the positive. At the very least, your participation demonstrates that you are an engaged brand, and genuinely interested in your client’s experience.

The most difficult aspect of this task is, of course, catching what people are saying about you. With so many social media platforms, pages, forums and threads, catching one bad review can seem like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Fortunately, there’s an app for that. Try using social listening apps like Mention, which automatically scan the internet and alert you to mentions of your name or brand.

LEARN

Perhaps the most crucial step in developing social media skills is learning from your mistakes. Use tools like Google Analytics to monitor traffic and activity on your site and blogs. Pay attention to what’s working and what isn’t—in the case of the former, stick with and multiply those approaches; in the case of the latter, change it! Effective use of social media must be deliberate. Know your strategy, analyze your results, and continue to reshape your approach accordingly.

In the end, you can strategize all you want, but you will only truly begin to master social media from experience. Put your business out there and see what sticks. Your audience will be your ultimate gauge of success. Set up some accounts and take advantage of what social media has to offer.

March 1, 2018 / by / in ,
Common Marketing Mistakes

Mistakes are inevitable when it comes to marketing, with even major brands making headlines each year for catastrophic advertising blunders. Small businesses are particularly vulnerable to poor maneuvering however, with small budgets and a need to reach audiences quickly and efficiently. You will make mistakes in marketing your business, that’s an unfortunate fact of the learning curve. However, there are some common mistakes that nobody needs to make. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the most common marketing mistakes, so you’ll at least know what not to do.

NO WEBSITE

It’s no secret that the internet is a major playing field for modern marketing, and probably the single biggest mistake that you could make when marketing your small business would be to neglect your online presence. Despite how obvious this all seems, nearly one-half of small businesses in the United States do not have a website. Without a website to serve as your online headquarters, it is almost pointless to put time and effort into social media and other forms of digital marketing, because there is no page to ultimately send your potential customers.

This is a critical mistake for which there is no real excuse. Creating a website has never been easier, with several services available which make designing your own site simple and affordable—you could have the whole thing up and running with a few hours of work and couple hundred dollars.

NO STRATEGY

One of the first things you should establish before delving into marketing is a marketing strategy. Just because a billboard ad works once doesn’t mean it will keep working forever. Similarly, just because a banner ad got potential customers onto your website doesn’t mean that they have been encouraged enough to make a purchase. Focusing on individual tactics is important, but isolated tactics are not working at full efficiency unless they are part of an overarching strategy.

Set goals and determine how you can reach them in a certain time frame. Once you have determined this strategy, then it is time to turn your attention to individual tactics.

MISUNDERSTANDING YOUR AUDIENCE

Marketing isn’t just about reaching your ideal customers, it’s about catering to the people who want to spend money on your product or service. Too often, business owners have their target audience in mind when marketing and developing their business, at the cost of ignoring the customers that they already have. If you really want to sell your fitness equipment to hip young people, but only hockey moms are buying it, maybe you should stop channeling all of your efforts toward attracting that target audience that just isn’t interested.

Marketing decisions are always tactical choices—you risk your money by marketing to a demographic that isn’t interested, or you can use those resources to connect with people who care. In this example, maybe you should stop focusing on Snapchat, and shift your time and resources to physical marketing or banner ads on junior hockey sites. A basic rule of thumb: focus on whatever shows the best returns.

COMING ON TOO STRONG

Yes, you need to reach your audience quickly, but you also have expenses to think about. Unless you are blessed with a huge budget, it’s a good idea to save the cost of big-budget marketing tactics and dedicated professional marketing staff until you’ve developed an adequate stream of profits. Spending too much, too early on marketing depletes your resources which should instead be used for other things . . . like meeting demand. Keep the horse in front of the carriage; start small and grow your marketing efforts according to the rest of your business.

There are plenty of low budget marketing options out there, and you really only need to move onto bigger and more expensive strategies when you have exhausted these options. Interns, freelancers, social media, and a number of other options are available for effective, low-cost marketing—take advantage!

LACKING CONSISTENCY

Consistency in marketing your brand is important. Logo, tone, aesthetic, and cadence are all opportunities to establish consistency, and you can see this practice at work in the marketing of virtually any major brand. However, this consistency should not end with marketing.

If your ads all follow a certain rhythm, but then bring customers to a website that seems like another world, you’re going to break the spell. Whatever your brand’s image, vibe, or promise, it should carry through from the first ad all the way until the delivery of the product. Consistency throughout marketing and sales suggests integrity, organization, and reliability—all qualities that you want your brand to exhibit.

This start-to-finish consistency requires collaboration between marketing and sales. Ensure that the departments are in open communication with one another, and are making the effort to ensure that they work together to give your brand a cohesive feel.

NOT DOING YOUR HOMEWORK

Observing the tactics of successful (and unsuccessful) competitors in your industry is an excellent way to figure out what works when it comes to marketing without spending a dime. This vicarious learning provides you with tough lessons that you don’t actually need to learn the hard way—let someone else do the work!

Similarly, tracking your own results is a fundamental component of learning—and if you don’t do it, you’re not going to learn. Without studying which strategies improve conversion, you are effectively wasting money. Use tools like Google Analytics to track traffic to your site and note conversion rates for different marketing strategies. Keeping track of what works and what doesn’t is the single best way to ensure that you’re getting the highest return on your investments. This is the single most important point on this list: if you are not tracking results, you’re not learning. It’s that simple.

Marketing is complex and requires practice to execute correctly. Each one of the mistakes listed above is surprisingly common, so by keeping them in mind, you are giving yourself a head start in the game. Keep a critical eye on your marketing strategy and maintain that lead!

February 22, 2018 / by / in ,
How To Recover From Business Setbacks

Things rarely go according to plan, and that maxim certainly applies to business as much as anything else. Whether you’re growing a start-up or running an established juggernaut, it is very unlikely that the road will be without twists, turns, potholes and sudden stops. Whether it’s losing a primary client, a valued employee, funding shortages, scandals, or utter act of God, you are almost certain to encounter setbacks with your business. However inevitable these problems may be, they do not necessarily spell disaster. Here are some tips to keep things moving up, even it may look down.

CHECK OUT ALL THE ANGLES

No matter how confident you are in your business, a significant setback can be a seriously unsettling experience. Like any emergency, it is important to remain calm and assess the situation objectively. Don’t make snap decisions that you will later regret.

After a calamity, it is normal to feel stressed, disappointed, depressed and even afraid—these feelings are to be expected, although they’re certainly not helpful. In order to avoid making critical decisions based even partly on emotion, you should take the time to consult as many people as you can. Even asking friends and family outside of the business could yield potentially brilliant approaches that you may have missed. Look for positive people with can-do attitudes—misery does NOT need company.

Don’t have many positive business-minded people in your circle? Consider branching out further. Post questions to relevant LinkedIn groups or Reddit forums . . . Chances are that someone’s been there, and can share what they learned. In the end, the first step to responding to a business setback is to take a breather, and examine the situation—and your options—in full before deciding how to react.

CHIN UP, CHAMP

This is going to sound frustratingly cliché, but the importance of a positive mindset cannot be overstated. If your business is sinking, it may be unrealistic to expect to see the silver lining, however you should strive to at least identify the opportunities at hand. At the very least, this is an experience to learn and grow as a professional.

Don’t focus on the past, especially not now. Accept that a mistake was made, or a variable overlooked; acknowledge it, but don’t place blame. The most helpful thing to do right now is to simply acknowledge and accept what has happened. Focus on moving forward.

This step is especially important to achieve before moving onto the following . . .

IS IT VIABLE TO KEEP GOING?

Depending on the size and scope of your setback, you may need to step back, look at your business critically, and ask some tough questions.

  • Is it financially viable to continue? There will certainly be situations where this is simply not the case, and in such contexts, it may be best to move on.
  • Do you still believe in the company? The tough reality is that sometimes a setback is just the first sign of a significant foundational problem, and it’s simply better to walk away and start over.

Granted, many setbacks will initially appear worse than they really are. Remember the above points: stay calm, be objective, assess your options. The majority of setbacks will be just that—setbacks. Chances are there will be a way around.

. . . IF SO, TAKE ACTION!

If you’ve analyzed the issue and believe that your business can survive, it’s time to get moving. Don’t sit around and let the vultures move in—as the saying goes, more is lost through indecision than wrong decision. Nobody says that this part will be easy. The fix may involve cutting corners—whether through laying off employees, or moving to a smaller office, or some other unfortunate compromise—and there’s no use griping about it.

Aside from the brass tacks, you’ll also need to address the issue to your employees, clients, or maybe even the press. Don’t sugar-coat it. People don’t want to hear excuses. Own the problem, acknowledge it, and deliver your plan for recovery—that’s the only thing that is going to set people at ease.

Regardless of your action plan, you will need to remain flexible. This applies both to your resources and your mindset. Fixing your setback may involve delaying a planned purchase or expansion. You need to be able to rearrange your priorities in order to best fit your new circumstances. You should be flexible with all aspects of your business, and willing to go so far as compromising long-term goals in favor of new and realistic shorter-term goals.

DON’T NEGLECT OTHER AREAS OF YOUR LIFE

Time and time again, businesses tank or experience a near-miss and their founders credit their health or family for helping them pull through and keep things in perspective. Working around the clock to set things straight will likely hurt more than help the situation if it compromises your health. Whatever happens, you want to be able to face it objectively and actively—to do so, you need to take care of yourself.

Get enough sleep. Eat well. Exercise. Spend time with your family and friends. Make time for what you love. Not only will this help clear your head, but it will keep you grounded, and allow you to view the problem from the perspective of what really matters.

LEARN

Denial will get you nowhere. It probably wasn’t just someone else’s fault, and that sort of thinking will hinder your development as a business professional. Instead of finding someone or something to blame, simply acknowledge the failure, and own it. Learning can only truly occur when blame has been set aside.

Specifically, try to identify the foundational issue at the root of your setback. Poor customer service? Unrealistic expectations? Mismanaging of funds? Figure out what you can do in the future to make sure that whatever happened won’t happen again.

Setbacks are a reality of business. We only really learn when we fail, and how you deal with your setback is more important than how it came to happen in the first place.

February 11, 2018 / by / in ,
Making Financial Forecasts More Realistic

Financial forecasting is a rarely enjoyable, yet critical practice when running a business. If you are managing a small business of your own, this chore likely falls to you personally. Financial forecasters must walk a fine line between excessive optimism on the one hand, and over-cautiousness on the other. Both of these extremes present their own risks: in the case of the former, you will leave yourself unprepared to face any setbacks or unfortunate events that may occur; in the latter, you may undersell your business to such a degree that it is unattractive to lenders or investors.

Your financial forecast works like a compass, keeping your business on track for success. Not only that, but it is a reflection of both the business itself and your abilities as a planner and a doer—two things that will be of interest to investors and lenders. Above all, financial forecasts should be realistic, and here are a few tips to achieve that desired accuracy.

ANTICIPATE THE WORST, AND HOPE FOR THE BEST

There’s no use forecasting for the easiest situation—i.e. if things were to continue as they are now. Of course, that requires the least amount of critical thinking, but it is also likely the least realistic scenario. Things will change. In the next one, three or five years, the government will pass new legislation, businesses will open and close their doors all around you, bus routes will change, apps will appear . . . any number of things could have a significant effect on your earnings and expenses. You should forecast for the best and worst case scenarios, as well as the likely in-between.

Forecasting for all conceivable scenarios will give you the deepest understanding of your financial situation, as well as prepare you to answer tough questions that may be posed by investors when they’re assessing your business.

BEGIN WITH EXPENSES

Our imaginations tend to run wilder when it comes to revenue than expenses, and costs are therefore a great place to start. Rent, utilities, advertising, salaries, communications—these are basic costs that your business will incur for, well, as long as it is in business. Start with these fundamental expenses to get a solid base for your forecast; these will be some of the most reliable figures in your forecast, and you might as well have a solid foundation.

Next, you can move to variable costs, values that will shift substantially based on performance or other factors. These expenses should include things like labor costs, cost of goods sold, supplies, customer service, and packaging. You should forecast these values according to your three scenarios.

CHECK YOUR RATIOS

There are several financial ratios that are useful for checking the reality of financial forecasts. These are helpful tools to strip away hopeful thinking and doubts to reveal the bare figures.

  • Checking your gross margin ratio (gross profit over net revenue) is particularly useful for checking your best-case scenario. Seeing the ratio jump remarkably from one scenario to the next may suggest that your estimates need refinement.
  • The acid-test ratio, or quick ratio (liquid assets over liabilities) is a great way to check your business’ ability to survive your worst-case scenario.

IF YOU’RE NOT SURE, ROUND UP

Forecasting is exceedingly difficult to get exactly right, especially if you are new to the process, or to business in general. There are certain expenses that even seasoned business owners routinely underestimate. Therefore, if you’re not sure about a certain expense, it is always better to overestimate than underestimate. In particular, marketing, advertising, licensing, insurance, and legal fees are particularly fickle and elusive—play it safe and double your estimate for these values to ensure that you budget accordingly.

MAKE YOUR ASSUMPTIONS EXPLICIT

In a financial forecast, you are calculating figures based on considerable amounts of conjecture and assumption. Factors that we routinely assume will behave as we expect are overall market performance, competitors, regulations, and technological advancement. When consulting your forecast in the future, you may subconsciously take numbers associated with these elements as absolute fact in order to justify costs or free up assets for a particularly attractive purchase. Don’t allow yourself this potentially destructive fallacy.

Make notes about your assumptions to clearly identify them as such. This will save you a lot of grief brought on by misinformation. It will also provide investors with a clearer impression of your finances, as well as assuring them that you are an aware and pragmatic leader.

REVIEW AND REASSESS

Financial forecasts should not be expected to remain unchanged once finished. In fact, they should never truly be finished at all. Your financial forecast will begin with many unknowns and assumptions (hence the multiple scenarios), yet through regular review, reassessment, and revision, those assumptions can gradually be firmed up, or otherwise slashed completely. Your business is dynamic, and your forecast should keep pace. The best way to keep your financial forecast realistic is by keeping it up to date. Fill in the blanks as they become apparent. You should aim to revise your forecast at least once per quarter, though you may also wish to do so after any relevant major occurrence.

Again, this will not only improve the accuracy of your forecast, but it will also assure investors and lenders that you are on top of your finances.

PRACTICE

Financial forecasts do become easier with experience, and your estimations will prove more accurate over time. The accuracy of financial forecasts relies in no small part on the ability to spot upcoming change, as well as an understanding of costs associated with all areas of business, and these are things that come only with hours logged.

It is said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master of something—anything—so if you want to master financial forecasts, you should strive for frequency. Not only will this practice improve your accuracy, but forecasting more frequently, in the beginning, will also give you chances to catch errors and inaccuracies quickly!

January 24, 2018 / by / in ,