Top five things every entrepreneur should do to start or keep business profitable

451 Marketing Founding Partner AJ Gerritson was recently featured in Sharmen Lane’s NY Entrepreneurism Examiner column discussing the “The top five things every entrepreneur should do to start or keep their business profitable”. I thought I’d share the list here:

1. Determine how your potential customers receive news and information relevant to their industry. In today’s digital age, prospects and customers are getting answers to their questions from a variety of sources, and when and how they want. To succeed, you need to know not only what your target market is reading and viewing, but how they are viewing it. Is it through text messages, or websites, blogs or social networks sites? Then you need to determine how cost-effective it is to advertise and publicize through these different mediums.

2. Focus not on how great your product or service may be, but on how effectively it solves a problem or business need for your customers. Awards and accolades are terrific third-party validations, but prospects want to know the specific benefits that will help them. Real-life case studies, even if they are not exclusively related to your products or services but signify a growing trend (i.e. emergence of social media as a communications tool), are much better indicators of a company’s value. If a prospect reads about how one of your clients grew their business by hiring you, and you can back it up with the references, they will have a real clear picture about what to expect from an engagement with your company.

3. Become an industry expert. Ideally, you should know all there is to know about your products or services, your customers, your competitors, and the trends that will shape the marketplace for years to come. Basically, be an expert. Sit on panels, engage reporters covering the relevant beats to interview you, or initiate and lead your own roundtable panels and discussions. In essence, don’t be afraid to grow your own personal brand and align with your company’s brand. Prospects find exciting and engaging industry leaders and experts to be more credible, and in turn, will be more likely to hire them or buy from them.

4. Make sure to continue to network everyday. You may be able to position yourself as an expert, and may even already have a steady stream of new business opportunities, but you should never limit the time you spend networking. New business and leads can come from anywhere; conferences, tradeshows, parties, trips to the hardware store, or even from one of those great online social networking sites like LinkedIn. If you are in New York, you have more opportunities than most. I have found that there are several networking events going on every day in Manhattan. You don’t have to let your entrepreneurial drive immerse every second of every day of your life, but you should never forget that anyone, and everyone, is a potential customer.

5. Align yourself with causes, stakeholders and individuals that make sense for your business. Starting and growing your business from scratch can seem like a daunting task, especially if you try going it completely alone. Whenever possible, seek opportunities to align your company with causes (environmental, humanitarian, community etc) that relate to your business and showcase your commitment to being a socially responsible company. Similarly, take advantage of opportunities to join industry organizations that increase your credibility, expand your networking options, and afford you the chance to learn from others in your field. Finally, engage experts and important stakeholders (government agencies for example), and discuss your products and services, explaining how you can build a mutually beneficial relationship with them. The opportunities to identify and interact with these stakeholders online are plentiful, demonstrating once again how a successful entrepreneur in this day-in-age knows how to entrepreneurially navigate the complex online waters.

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Are you on the right track?

So why would you use social media to market your products?  Is it because it’s what the cool kids are doing? I hope that’s not your rationale.  If that is your reason, then you’re probably not using it to its full potential.

Granted, the cool kids ARE doing it, but that’s not the point.  Social Media Marketing is an incredibly effective tool with a reach that is ultimately beyond being truly quantifiable.  Nevertheless, there are techniques to track many of the results of a Social Media Marketing campaign and use those results to determine ROI.

It’s not always easy, but it is absolutely essential to running a successful campaign.  More to the point, it’s essential to get your client’s CFO to sign off on that campaign.  We all understand the profound value of Social Media Marketing campaigns, but the reason we’re successful is because we know how to communicate that value to the campaign’s beneficiary.

Here is a quick primer on some of the more basic ways to track a Social Media Campaign:

1. Site Traffic: If the goal of your campaign is to increase brand awareness, then benchmarking and measuring spikes in traffic to your website and blog or numbers of followers on Twitter can serve as a rough indication of how a campaign is driving brand impressions.

2. Conversions: Similar to what you might do with an SEO campaign, having your Social Media Campaign tied to specific conversion goals on your site can provide you with very specific success benchmarks in the form of highly-qualified leads.

3. Backlinks: If the goal of your campaign is to build a general following, then you should be measuring increases in backlinks to your Website, blog, wiki or whatever happens to be the epicenter of that following.  They can be easily tracked with Google and give you a great feel for who’s taking you seriously enough to link to you.

There are much more involved techniques that we use, but these represent some simple ideas to start with.  I’d love to hear feedback and suggestions for other basic techniques!

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Building Your Brand In 2009 – Are You The Next Clint Eastwood?

A recent viewing of Clint Eastwood’s latest film, “Gran Torino,” got me thinking about a lot more than just the final scenes of the movie and its excellent screenplay. I actually began to think long and hard about Clint Eastwood, his performance, his career path, and even, his image.

In this particular film, part “Unforgiven”-style modern day case study of the impact of violence and vengeance, and part “Million Dollar Baby” examination of the potential for connectivity between very dissimilar people, Eastwood’s machismo drives every line and every scene. But upon reflection, I started thinking more about 78-year-old Clint Eastwood “the man,” or more specifically, Clint Eastwood “the brand.”

Eastwood has utilized the medium of film over the past 50 years to create a brand for himself that is so unequivocally his own; tough-minded, shrewd, battle-tested, just, arrogant, and private. Eastwood’s brand does not necessarily personify the man or even every single role he plays as an actor or director (see “Bridges of Madison County”), but it’s strong enough to typify a likeness that has persisted over time. In essence, film allowed Eastwood to both launch his brand and maintain it over the years. But it wasn’t easy. Despite beginning his movie career in 1955, it wasn’t until 1964’s “A Fistful of Dollars” when Eastwood truly broke into the mainstream, and it was 1971’s “Dirty Harry” that officially signaled his ability to transcend genres with his brand; from spaghetti western’s to modern day examinations of violence and its consequences.

But more importantly, Eastwood’s brand consistency on the big screen ignited my thinking about how new media allows us all to create, maintain, and adjust our own brand image. Today, any average Joe can now use tools like Facebook or Myspace to develop (read: launch) their own brand profile by uploading all the relevant photos, videos, music, personality descriptions, etc. Without the power of film or television, internet users can create an image for themselves that personifies who they are (or who they want people to think they are), and they can even identify and attract their own audience. Sometimes finding this audience is as easy as a simple “friend request,” or as is the case with digital channels like Twitter and LinkedIn, the more attractive the profile (or online brand), the more likely the audience will grow. It’s simple brand marketing.

And unlike an actor, launching and maintaining your brand online can be free and easy. Without the startup costs, unexpectedly controversial or unconventional roles (or “off-brand” roles like “Bridges”), studio pressures or very public negative reviews, individuals can build and manage their brand on their own terms. And with the proliferation of new media into various channels, individuals can modify their image to please and engage different audiences (think of a LinkedIn profile as an individual’s attempt at creating their “Oscar Winning Brand”).

And the beauty of it, these same channels are just as useful for corporations, organizations, philanthropies, and all sorts of other groups looking to build or even recreate their brand.

New media, giving voices to the masses. Building your online brand would make Clint proud.

Go ahead, make his day.

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Couch Potato Predictions

As we all turn a new page and start making plans for the coming year, those of us in marketing may want to reconsider this year’s online video strategy.

2008 was a landmark year for online video. Not only were 75% of the U.S. internet audience watching videos online, but the average online video viewer watched nearly four hours of online video per month. Hulu, one of the most popular sites for watching hit TV shows and movies online, launched in March. Now it’s hard for me to even imagine keeping up with my favorite TV shows without it. Tivo? Who needs it anymore? I can watch the latest “The Office” episode right on my laptop, anytime, and with limited commercial interruptions.

I had the opportunity to attend a MITX panel discussion a few weeks ago, entitled “Planning Your Online Video Strategy for 2009”. What inspired me most was the out-of-the-box solutions the panelists suggested. Online videos are much more than just an advertising venue concerned with logo placement and banner ads. Creating an online video is really about publishing, creative story-telling and engaging the viewer. Some of the most memorable videos of 2008 were either user-generated or created under relatively low budgets. Who can forget the chubby guy lip-synching to the “Numa Numa” song (a clip which later got used in a Weezer music video)? Or the “Where the Hell is Matt?” video of a man dancing across the world? And those are just two of hundreds of viral hits.

Dynamic videos, which have been under the radar until recently, will come full blast in 2009. You may have received a link during the presidential elections where the video plays out as if you were one of the candidates. Your name appears throughout the video on billboards, in the various news headlines seamlessly, and even tattoed on the lower back of an old lady.

By customizing videos in this manner, viewers will be more engaged in the story, and given the right technology, may even be able to drive how the story unfolds. To clarify, recall those decision-based storybooks where you flip to different pages depending on what you want the hero/heroine to do? Now picture that same user-driven approach within an interactive video, and you’ll catch a glimpse of what’s to come. No two viewers will experience the video the same. PermissionTV currently has a platform for creating these non-linear videos.

The MITX panel discussion also revolved around strategies for promoting your company’s videos on a blog, through social networking sites (Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc.) and even through other videos. You really don’t need an uber-professional crew of cameramen and actors to get a video done – use the resources that you have in-house and try to get as many online videos out there as you can. [check out this successful low-budget video by HubSpot: “You Oughta Know Inbound Marketing“]

The more creative or funny you can be with the story, the better. I’d also steer clear of creating very obvious self-promotion videos. Online video viewers are very savvy and can smell an ad campaign from a mile away. Interestingly, major corporations like Gatorade, JCPenny and EA Sports, who all launched successful viral videos last year, did so with very minimal branding incorporated. Check out EA Sports’ video response to a glitch caught in their Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08 game “Tiger Woods Walks on Water” as well as JCPenny’s “Beware of the Doghouse” video. Both are extremely well done, with little self-promotion – and more importantly – they’re fun to watch while getting the message across.

It’s just a matter of time before every household has an internet-enabled TV set, and once that time comes, you want to be on-board with your own series of cool online videos. So pull out your digital cameras, figure out your strategy – and Action!

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It’s Not (Just) Your Kid’s Facebook Anymore!

I recently reconnected on Facebook with the majority of my 6th Grade classmates from P.S. 114 in Belle Harbor, NYC. I graduated from Mr. Domingo’s class in 1986 and, for the most part, have not spoken to these people since then. Facebook has illuminated old faces and rekindled a whole mess of great memories that had been filed away in the far recesses of my mind. We’ve now posted funny stories on each other’s walls, shared old photos, and simply caught up on where life has taken us since we last spoke. There is no way this would ever have happened if it wasn’t for Facebook.

What started out as a place for college kids to share drunken party photos has become a real-time reunion for 30, 40 & even 50-somethings. The fastest growing demographic on Facebook over the past year is the 35 to 54 age group. This segment has created profiles six times as fast as the 13 to 34 group and now represents roughly one-fifth of the site’s 120 million users and rising.

Technically I still fall into that…ahem…younger demographic, but while I was an early adopter because of the business I’m in, it wasn’t until this past year that I fully realized the power that Facebook has for enabling the reconnection of old friends.

As more and more of my old acquaintances join, the more people I receive “friend requests” from and vice versa. Over this past year I have reconnected with people from every period of my life – grade-school & high school classmates from New York, guys I played football with in college in New Hampshire, and old rugby buddies living around the world in England, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. It’s been a phenomenal experience. In some cases I’ve discovered that old friends are in the same business that I’m in – including publicists & reporters. I even recently placed a story in the Nashua Telegraph for a client, which was written by an old college buddy I reconnected with through Facebook

pscfootball931
1993 Plymouth State College Football Team

The best part of reconnecting via Facebook is the non-committal aspect of it all. You can decide the level of reconnection that you want and you can do it when it’s convenient. The worst part of high school & college reunions is the fact that you wind up telling your “life after school” story over and over again and feel compelled to talk to everyone in the room, when maybe you really just want to hang out with your close friends or an old flame. On Facebook, you can catch up with people on different levels – it can be simply accepting a “Friend Request” or posting a note on a friend’s “Wall”. If it’s someone you were close with, you can send them a personal message and maybe plan a time to grab a beer when you’re both in the same town (Facebook will never replace a hug an a handshake).

While Facebook will always be a place for teenagers to share party pics and plan road trips, the real power of the application is people staying connected with everyone they have met along the way. Never again will Jack opine, “I wonder what Jill is up to these days?” He will already have pictures of Jill’s kids climbing up the same hill they climbed when they were kids.

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