Archive for the ‘Second-hand resource’ category

Three best ways to use social media

January 25, 2010

What were your business resolutions for 2010? If they didn’t include something to do with social media, you may well be missing out on a lot of great opportunities, as even more of the population are joining the conversation. If you’re still not sure how to start, here’s a great, simple article to get you going. It’s by Willa Plank, writing for the Wall Street Journal. Check it out in context here, or read on!

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How else can we say it: Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn as tools to promote your services and products online. According to a recent survey of 148 private companies by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research, 43% say social media is “very important” to their business and marketing strategy, 52% are tweeting and 45% are blogging.

But don’t feel pressured to jump in quickly and create a profile on every site. First, decide if it’s right for your company. “Are you a social organization?” says Simon Salt, CEO of integrated marketing communications agency IncSlingers. “Everyone seems to know to have a Facebook page or a Twitter [account]. Is that what your business is about?”

For instance, a Facebook fan page probably doesn’t make sense for a business-to-business outfit, says Neal Schaffer, author of “Windmill Networking: Understanding, Leveraging & Maximizing LinkedIn.” And companies that target older or retired customers might benefit more from direct-mail campaigns, or even knocks on doors. “Don’t believe the hype,” Schaffer says. “Understand what fits your business.”

If you’ve decided to incorporate social media, remember that YouTube videos, blog posts and status updates are just a part of your entire marketing arsenal. Here are three best ways to use social media.

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1.Stand out by trying less-crowded or up-and-coming social-media sites. Everyone knows about Facebook fan pages. But if you’re a neighborhood business that relies on local clientele, you might want to consider Foursquare or Gowalla, which combine elements of other social-networking sites (Twitter, Facebook or Yelp) to help spread word of establishments and provide rewards to encourage customer loyalty. John Jantsch, author of “Duct Tape Marketing,” suggests trying underutilized networks that cater to business owners, such as Biznik and BizSugar. If you’re strapped for time, at least maintain a blog that provides good content and answers consumer questions, he says. Or create quick, educational YouTube videos that – along with a blog – are more likely to come up higher in keyword searches. Samir Balwani, contributor to social-media news blog Mashable, suggests creating your own social network at Elgg.org.

2.Don’t expect instant sales, but make sure to get actual results. Social media is more about brand outreach. Make sure you have a reasonable goal and a well-thought out strategy to achieve that end. First, listen to what is being said about your business and competitors on Google alerts, RSS queries, Twitter, Yelp and BackType. Make sure you have your profile account names on all print communications you distribute, such as flyers and menus. Identify your biggest fans, and figure out how to organize them or point them out in some way. For example: On Twitter, if you know a person is a loyal customer, mention them in a post or announce a free service or product they’ve won for loyalty. Or reach out to other bloggers in your industry. Sarah Endline, founder of dark chocolate treat maker Sweetriot in New York, said she connected with blog site Hungry Girl and that lead to getting her company’s name out and sales.

3. Don’t forget social media is a tool to strengthen offline relationships. Many small businesses already have personal ties to customers in their communities, and these tools are designed to enhance those relationships, not replace them. For instance, you can use social-media tools such as YouTube to give customers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of your company, or display more of your personality than you can through an ad. “It also allows you to show your culture,” Endline says. “They’re not just there to [see] a static promotion from you. They want value.” And remember, a social network is “really a big room of people,” author Schaffer says. Use it to “meet” potential clients or business partners, but make sure you follow up with an in-person meeting or phone conversation.

Write to Willa Plank at willa.plank@dowjones.com

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Where are you with social media? What sorts of articles would be most useful this year? Leave your comments here and we’ll try our best to get your questions answered.

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Isn’t the value of social media what business is all about?

December 17, 2009

Dell has long been praised for being one of the companies who have best adapted to this decades’ social media advances. In this short piece, Dell’s Vice-President of Social Media and Community argues that social media is just a digital form of what the most successful companies have been doing all along. Read the article on the Huffington Post by clicking here, or scroll down.

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Today’s corporate leaders are struggling to figure out how to use social media to further their business strategy. At Dell, we believe this is backwards thinking. Social media isn’t a means to further a corporation’s strategy, it’s a means to help determine it.

The “Mom and Pop” businesses in our neighborhoods have always followed sound and pragmatic business practices, rooted in developing, maintaining and strengthening relationships with customers. The customers and the businesses valued those relationships because “Mom and Pop” offered convenience. They listened to their customers and used their suggestions to improve the business. They provided great service and found ways to thank their clientele. Social media is really nothing more than the simple application of these business practices in a digital form.

So if you are wondering about how to leverage Twitter, Facebook, blogs, forums, and the company Web site to achieve your organization’s goals, perhaps you are starting from the wrong point. As with the corner store, if your business uses social media to engage in conversations on a human level, you strengthen your business and allow your strategy — both corporate and social media — to evolve based on customer feedback.

At Dell, we have a longer perspective on the social media conundrum than most. We’ve been an active leader in the space since 2006, with a depth and breadth to our social media presence that has earned top billing among brands using social media to engage stakeholders.

What we’ve learned is that social media has transformed the large corporation of the millennium into the Mom and Pop shop of the old days. The emergence of social media simply makes it more possible to connect directly with customers every day. Dell’s community goes well beyond our own forums — it now extends to direct contact with more than three million followers worldwide. Even during a historically difficult time for businesses of all stripes, Dell has generated nearly $7 million in global product sales on Twitter.

“Mom and Pop” knew that their business was only as successful as their relationships with customers could make it. That’s the value of the direct connection to your customer, and that’s how every company can achieve success using social media — by facilitating the conversation. No strategy necessary.

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What do you think? Is social media changing the way we do business, or is it just offering a new medium through which to do the same things? Discuss this here!

Social media checklist for small or medium businesses

December 16, 2009

Heidi Cohen has written a comprehensive checklist for small to medium businesses trying to expand or start up their social media strategy.  Click here to read it in context, or scroll down.

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As a member of the SES Chicago Social Media Checklist panel last week, it was striking to hear from so many small and medium-sized businesses wrestling with developing a viable social media marketing strategy. Small and medium-sized businesses often have more limited resources, both personnel and budgets, than large companies, so they’re looking to build more cost-effective sales streams. With the goals of raising awareness, expanding market share, and improving customer loyalty, it’s critical to be creative in how your business engages and participates in the social media arena.

Nine Questions to Ask When Developing a Social Media Marketing Strategy

Small and medium-sized businesses tend to be so focused on keeping their businesses going that it can be difficult to brainstorm on ways to leverage the dynamic social media environment. Here are nine questions to help you think about your business in ways that enable you to maximize your social media marketing efforts.

  1. Does your business tap into people’s passions and/or hobbies? With hobbies and special interests, customers may make different spending tradeoffs, particularly with “staycations,” where customers look for local activities. From a social media marketing perspective, this translates to ways that people can share their hobbies and special interests using photographs, videos, and blogs. For example, I suggested that a tea purveyor in the SES audience create a Flickr account to show off unusual teapots people collect, and invite the public to participate in this community.
  2. Can your business show off its work? While this tends to focus on visual portrayals, like photographs and video, it can also include audio and text. Sharing photographs and videos helps businesses where prospects perceive there are high risks. For example, beauty salons and tailors can show before and after photographs. Remember to get patrons’ permission or offer a free bonus to incent customers to participate. Flickr contains many bakeries showing off their finished product’s visual beauty.
  3. Can you give prospects information they find useful? Think broadly to help customers use your product. For example, a food specialty shop’s blog may describe new foods with recipes and menus to use them. A resale shop can use a blog to show how to make wardrobes and living areas snazzy using its current product.
  4. Can you extend your expertise to a broader audience? This can work very well for professionals like lawyers and accountants. Leverage videos, presentations, and Webinars giving how-to tips to explain wills or budgeting.
  5. Does your business provide reasons for people to gather? In a virtually connected world, give people a reason to congregate in person. This may drive additional revenues. Examples include wine tastings for local wine shops and cooking classes for food specialty shops and/or restaurants. Use Meetup.com to organize the community and post comments. Where appropriate, add a Flickr page to gather related photographs.
  6. Can your business disseminate fun or related information via social media? Think in terms of bite size chunks of content. This information doesn’t need to be your business’s main focus. For example, a massage therapist can create a Twitter stream and blog for meditations to put people in a more serene state of mind.
  7. Are there targeted or niche communities where your prospects and customers naturally congregate? If so, set up a group in this social media site. For example, yarn shops participate and socialize on Ravelry, a knitting community.
  8. Do major blogs cover your business’s area of expertise? If so, actively comment and add to the conversation. Offer to create guest posts to share your knowledge and broaden your audience. This means adding real value to the conversation.
  9. Does your offering lend itself to creating a small online community and/or bulletin board? For example, many religious organizations leverage Yahoo Groups to communicate with members. These interactions can move online and offline.

Seven Tips to Extend Social Media Marketing Efforts

As a small or medium-sized business, it’s important to think about how to extend your social media efforts and to integrate these initiatives into your ongoing marketing plans. (For more information on developing an online marketing strategy, click here.) Here are seven tips to help you:

  1. Listen before you participate. While social media can help small and medium-sized businesses appear bigger than they are, it’s critical not to promote, promote, promote.
  2. Monitor what’s being said about your business. This includes a variety of social media offerings including blogs, review sites like Yelp and niche communities, and discussion groups.
  3. Integrate social media efforts offline. Provide retail prospects with a similar experience through an old-fashioned bulletin board with photographs or handouts containing how-to information.
  4. Promote social media efforts online and offline. Include your Web site, e-mailings, direct mail, local advertising, in-store postings, flyers, business cards, and correspondence.
  5. Socialize social media marketing. Ask visitors, prospects, and customers to visit your social media installations and share their experiences. Don’t overlook traditional ways to extend your business such as local events like Rotary and local sports teams such as Little League.
  6. Create a content strategy. (For additional insights on content strategy, click here.) Develop an editorial calendar for content creation to ensure that you don’t get stuck thinking of what to write, especially when using Twitter and blogs where customers expect regular servings of information.
  7. Make content search-friendly. Use relevant search keywords and tags and add text to photographs and video to aid findability.

Measuring the Results of Your Social Media Marketing Efforts

Since many small and medium-sized businesses don’t spend lots of time using fancy metrics, here are the main factors to keep your business on track.

  • Revenues. Have sales increased? It’s important to note that it may take time to build up a social media following.
  • Expenses. Track actual costs as well as the time involved in participating in social media marketing.
  • Prospects and customers. Track the number of people who are engaging with your social media efforts. Often, there’s a 90 percent readers/viewers, 9 percent commenters, and 1 percent active content creators breakout.
  • Feedback. Monitor the type, amount, and quality of feedback you’re receiving.

Remember there are many ways to engage your business in social media. Consider the options and test what works best for your offering.

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Have you ventured into social media recently? Do you have any tips from your own experience? Share your comments here!

What makes the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain so special?

December 10, 2009

Having just launched the St Andrews Standard, we at the Skills Academy currently have ‘service’ at the front of our minds.  Here’s a great interview with the CEO of the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain, explaining how he trains, motivates and empowers his staff to provide excellent service to their guests.  For the article in context on ‘Forbes’, click here. Otherwise, scroll down to read more.

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Ritz-Carlton has become a leading brand in luxury lodging by rigorously adhering to its own standards. It is the only service company in America that has won the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award twice, and Training Magazine has called it the best company in the nation for employee training.

Its unique culture starts with a motto: “We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” One of its remarkable policies is to permit every employee to spend up to $2,000 making any single guest satisfied. Ritz-Carlton codifies its expectations regarding service in “The 12 Service Values,” “The Credo,” “The Three Steps of Service,” “The 6th Diamond” and other proprietary statements that are taught to all 38,000 employees throughout 73 properties in 24 countries. Simon Cooper, who has led Ritz-Carlton for the past eight years, talks about what makes Ritz-Carlton, well, the Ritz.

Forbes: What is the Ritz-Carlton model?

Cooper: We focus on three fundamentals. First, location–making sure we get absolutely the best location, where our luxury customers want to stay. Second, product–building the right physical product for what our guests want today and what they will want tomorrow, which means an investment of between $500,000 and over $1 million per room. That’s the platform. Third, people–our ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen. They animate the platform. But you must get the first two right. If you’re not in the right location, or if you don’t have the right physical product, then employees, ladies and gentlemen, can only do so much.

How do you ensure everyone is on the same page?

We use what we call “lineup,” which is a Ritz-Carlton tradition. The concept comes from the early restaurants of France, where the chef got his whole team and all the waiters and waitresses and the maitre d’ together at 5:30 in the evening. It’s a sort of round table. Everybody is there. The chef communicates what they are going to be serving. For the Ritz-Carlton, we want every single hotel, everywhere in the world, every partner, every shift, to utilize lineup, which typically takes around 15 minutes every day. Part of the lineup everywhere around the world is a “wow story,” which means talking about great things that our ladies and gentlemen have done. That is a wonderful training and communication tool, where every department layers on the department message. And it’s based on having the same message everywhere, every day, and then each hotel layers on its own message.

How do the ladies and gentlemen focus on service?

We entrust every single Ritz-Carlton staff member, without approval from their general manager, to spend up to $2,000 on a guest. And that’s not per year. It’s per incident. When you say up to $2,000, suddenly somebody says, wow, this isn’t just about rebating a movie because your room was late, this is a really meaningful amount. It doesn’t get used much, but it displays a deep trust in our staff’s judgment. Frankly, they could go over that amount, with the general manager’s permission.

The concept is to do something, to create an absolutely wonderful stay for a guest. Significantly, there is no assumption that it’s because there is a problem. It could be that someone finds out it’s a guest’s birthday, and the next thing you know there’s champagne and cake in the room. A lot of the stuff that crosses my desk is not that they overcame a problem but that they used their $2,000 to create an outstanding experience.

There are stories about hiring a carpenter to build a shoe tree for a guest; a laundry manager who couldn’t get the stain out of a dress after trying twice flying up from Puerto Rico to New York to return the dress personally; or when in Dubai a waiter overheard a gentleman musing with his wife, who was in a wheelchair, that it was a shame he couldn’t get her down to the beach. The waiter told maintenance, who passed word, and the next afternoon there was a wooden walkway down the beach to a tent that was set up for them to have dinner in. That’s not out of the ordinary, and the general manager didn’t know about it until it was built.

As chief executive, how do you manage your day and your staff?

The current economic climate requires me to spend more time on the road than in the corporate office. Thanks to technologies like the BlackBerry and cellphones, I have global reach wherever I am in the world. When I’m at home, I usually spend a few hours at my desk on weekends, preparing for the days ahead, returning e-mails. My assistant’s desk is always full when she comes in early on Monday morning.

To manage my staff, I value everyone’s opinion and listen to the pros and cons of every issue, but at the end of the day, the decision rests with me, and we move on to the next topic. As Harry Truman said, the buck stops here.

How do you keep up with trends?

We do a great deal of research that focuses on a broad study of luxury products and the market for high-end goods and services. Often you can see a trend coming before it becomes one by analyzing the data and studying the researchers’ conclusions and predictions. At Ritz-Carlton, we want to set trends, not follow them. On the other hand, we do not position ourselves as a trendy hotel company.

How do you measure success?

On the customer side, Gallup does phone interviews for us, asking two types of questions, functional and emotional. On the functional side, we ask: How was the meal? Was the food hot? Was the service good? Did you like the menu? How was your room service? Was your bedroom clean? And Gallup has established “indicators,” where this is one question that if answered as five out of five indicates that all the other questions will be answered positively. Our functional indicator is “The room was clean.” On the emotional side, our indicator is “I had a sense of well-being.” We know we must first pass the functional question before the guest will focus on the emotional question.

For employees, the most important internal metric we measure is voluntary turnover, which is an indicator of talent acquisition and training. We hire typically about 2% of the people who apply for jobs with us. Bringing on the right ladies and gentlemen and then nurturing them to provide them with career opportunities will reduce turnover. Training is really important, because it nurtures the careers of our ladies and gentlemen. Naturally, in a tough economic climate keeping staff satisfied is more challenging, but obviously it’s as important as ever.

Isn’t your growth as a hotel company limited by how many hotels you can build?

A breakthrough in our thinking was understanding that we are not a hotel brand but a lifestyle brand. For a hotel company, growth is reliant on the development of new properties, which is limited. But as a lifestyle brand, we can offer the unique Ritz-Carlton lifestyle in non-hotel formats as well. Whether you are spending a night, spending a week, buying five weeks of fractional ownership or buying a lifetime in the Ritz-Carlton, with Ritz-Carlton Residence, we feel that we represent lifestyle, that we have moved beyond being just a hotel company.

More than 3,000 people have bought in for several million dollars each, and to me those people are brand devotees for life. Of course, all strategies are sensitive to significant market turns, but from the long-term perspective of growing a customer base that is absolutely married to the brand, it has worked out extremely well.

What is the key to building a successful corporate culture?

A culture is built on trust. And if leadership doesn’t live the values that it requires of the organization, that is the swiftest way to undermine the culture. No culture sticks if it’s not lived at the highest levels of the organization. It takes an extraordinarily long time to build a culture.

Robert Reiss is host of “The CEO Show,” which is nationally syndicated in 52 markets by Business TalkRadio Network. This article was adapted from an interview that aired on “The CEO Show.” To hear podcasts of it and other CEO interviews, click here.

Simple ways to avoid common website mistakes

November 26, 2009

Here’s another fantastic article from iMedia Connection about how to make sure that potential customers aren’t put off by your website. Common mistakes and how best to fix them are listed in an easy-to-understand way by Linda Eskin.  Click here to read the article in context, or scroll down:

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A good user experience is the same as good customer service. It’s fundamental to the success of your business. You need to ensure your site is treating your customers well, just as you would expect of any other representative of the company. In this article, we’ll consider several ways to uncover problems that your site visitors encounter, as well as approaches to fixing these issues.

I recently told a friend about some ideas I heard during a brief website design seminar. He commented that it seemed like really elementary stuff. Indeed, it was. But the elementary stuff needs restating from time to time. It’s important to address basic issues before getting carried away playing with slick new features or major redesigns. The fact of the matter is that many sites don’t have the basics down — and it could be costing them business.

A brick-and-mortar business is a good analog for a website. No business has unlimited time or resources, so it’s important to triage and prioritize problems that are affecting your reputation, growth, and bottom line. If the front door sticks in a manner that causes potential customers to think you are closed, or a store aisle is blocked by a stack of boxes, you have no business picking out trendy new paint colors for the storeroom walls. You should get after fixing the front door and moving the boxes.

So while it’s great fun to take on big, dramatic changes, take a little time first to handle simple issues that make such a big difference to your customers. Even if you have a major site update planned, taking these steps now will help you discover how your new site can better serve your customers, and therefore your business. And the habits you adopt for continuous improvement will serve you well now, and will flow right into any new design as well.

So let’s look at ways you can go about finding the problems, as well as six guidelines for fixing them.

1. Understand your audience
One simple-yet-effective way to discover major issues with your site is to take a good look at it from the point of view of the people who visit it. To do this, you need to consider who they are and what they need. You probably have a fair idea of who visits your site, but you may tend to focus on one group to the exclusion of the others. Or, as many organizations do, you may be focusing on the message you are trying to convey and neglecting the actual needs of your site visitors.

For example, a site selling high-tech medical equipment may naturally be focused on its cutting-edge technology and the benefits to researchers and medical personnel. However, the site would also need to address the logistical concerns of hospital administrators, give oversight boards what they need to justify purchasing or funding decisions, make documentation and service information available to existing customers, provide information for the media, and speak to prospective employees and investors.

It is worth writing out a brief description of each kind of person who visits your site. What are their concerns, with regard to your business? How web-savvy are they? How old are they? What is their level of education? Include a representative photo and give each person a name to make them more vividly real for your team. Post these descriptions in your office, so you and your team can always keep these people in mind. Consider each kind of visitor as a different audience. They will have different needs, different backgrounds, and speak different languages. As you update and improve your site, you will want to keep each of them in mind.

2. Listen to your customers
Your customers are probably already telling you where the problems on your site reside. So listen up, and tell your team to do the same. For instance, you might hear from a shopper: “Awesome, I never knew you sold pet supplies, too! I’ve been going clear across town.” Or a caller might ask, “What’s your address? I’ve looked all over your site and there’s no map.” Never mind that there actually is a map; the point is that your customers aren’t finding it. You’re hearing from the one who cared enough to call. Others might have just gone to buy from your competition.

Incidentally, over the years, I have heard many marketers say something to the effect of, “It’s right there on our site. The users are just too dumb to see it.” Fair enough. Let’s recognize that 20 percent of your site visitors have the internet savvy of a clam, and they couldn’t read your email newsletter even if they could figure out how to sign up for it. But here’s my thump upside the head for you if you find yourself thinking that way (and we all do, from time to time): Do you want their money? Give that a little thought.

You can also give your customers a direct feedback channel. It could be as simple as an email address, or a sophisticated online feedback system. Website visitors might have requests you could never anticipate, but they’ll likely be happy to tell you if you ask.

3. Get your whole team involved
No one person, however well-versed in design or technology, is uniquely qualified to spot all the problems a website might have. Everyone on your team views the site from his or her own angle, and as such may have valuable insights into how the site can better serve your customers. Everyone on your team can and should contribute to making improvements. The first thing to do is to invite their input, let them know you value their contribution, and give them an avenue by which they can share with you any issues they discover.

Let’s say your company has a warehouse manager. That person may get calls regularly from trucking company dispatchers who can’t find your warehouse because the street is so new it isn’t shown in online maps yet. Or the manager may see frustrated customers who went to the showroom to pick up their order instead of the shipping dock. Your warehouse manager is in a great position to help you solve these real-life manifestations of website inadequacies. Be sure these types of people have an avenue to share what they know. And when they do, respond with gratitude and action (or at least with an explanation of why you cannot or should not do what they suggested). You never want your people thinking (or saying to customers), “Yeah, everyone has that same problem. I told somebody about that last year, but they never fixed it.”

4. Review the content
Content encompasses all the information on your site. It may be copy, photos, diagrams, audio, or just about anything else. Content (or the lack of content) often causes major problems for your site visitors, and it is the easiest, fastest, cheapest element to fix — yet it is often taken for granted and overlooked.

Ask yourself: Does the site give the correct impression of what your business is all about? Is it immediately obvious what the site does? Is it a store? Can visitors find your service manuals? Check the status of their en-route shipments? Do the images support the message you want to convey? Is the copy easy to read and understand? Is the content what your site visitors want, need, and expect? Does the copy address their concerns?

This is where understanding your audience comes into play, and it’s another case where your own observations won’t be the most reliable. If you can, get actual members of your target audience to use your site, while you watch. This is always fascinating, and often disheartening, as they ignore what you thought was such a clever feature, and instead use something else in a way you never envisioned. The insights from just an hour or two of this kind of exercise can give you an abundance of fodder for improving your site. If you cannot get any real representative audience members, a “next best” approach is to have someone (again, possibly a new employee or temp) role play on behalf of that audience. It’s not ideal, but it’s a good deal better than doing nothing.

A simple, organized, well-thought-out site will serve your customers well. Aesthetics are a critical aspect of communicating your message and engaging your customers, but even great design cannot overcome an underlying lack of information, frustrating features, or a site that gives the wrong impression (or no impression) of what your business is all about.

Be sure to focus on the really basic information, too, as this is often what your customers need when they visit your site. For instance, local small businesses, such as restaurants or boutiques, often neglect to mention where they are. They give their street address, but not the city and state. They give their phone number, but leave off the area code. They assume people visiting their sites already know.

People are emotional creatures. It’s easy to think everyone is purely rational and logical when making business decisions, but it isn’t necessarily so. Insult or patronize your customers at your peril. If they feel frustrated, conned, or ignored, they may give up on your site and buy from your competition. Be sure everything about your site shows that you like each person who visits, and that you want them there and value their time.

5. Address credibility issues
The perception of your company’s (and your site’s) credibility is crucial. People want to trust you, feel safe on your site, and feel good about doing business with you. You can help them in several ways.

Assure your visitors that their personal information is secure and will be kept private. Don’t expect people to notice the “https://” in the page URL. Point out security features clearly anywhere that concern might arise. Include the logo badges of any site security services you use. Similarly, have a plain-language privacy policy that explains how any data will be stored and used. Link to it not just in the footer, but everywhere you ask site visitors to share information with you.

Include photos of your facilities and of actual staff members to help site visitors make a connection and experience your business as a real place with real people who care. Consider the difference between a faceless online store selling cute garden sculptures, and the same store with photos of the artists at work, the smiling shipping team, and a wide shot of the showcase garden at the main store. Of course, always provide contact information, including a phone number and a street address.

Be sure everything on your site reflects your stated commitments to quality, integrity, and attention to detail. That is, your online presence needs to “walk the talk.” Typos, broken links, and poor-quality images reveal carelessness and introduce doubts about doing business with you. Using copy lifted from another site or a photographer’s watermarked proof photo shows a much deeper problem.

6. Test everything, often
The simplest way to find problems is to go out and hunt them down. Pick a page, or pick a feature, and go over it in detail. Is it clear where all the links go? Click them. Do they work? Look for things that could be frustrating or confusing. Does everything on the page load quickly? Are instructions or descriptions clear? Can you get to the contact information? When you search for a product, are results relevant? Some of the worst problems are easy to find, but many companies never go looking for them.

But here’s where this one gets a little tricky. You, of all people, are the least qualified to notice these problems, even when you are looking right at them. You already know how the site navigation works. The terminology used is second nature to you. You already understand all your product descriptions. You search for things by their correct names. You already know to enter your phone number in the only “correct” format that the form accepts. Sure, you might catch a broken link, but for the most part, you aren’t the one who should be doing this testing.

Professionally conducted usability testing is obviously very valuable, and should be done from time to time. But you can still get good input from a variety of people. Ask every new employee to let you know if they notice anything with their fresh eyes. Each time you have temps in the office, give them this task if they have periods of downtime in their day. Each person will have a somewhat different approach, and you are bound to get valuable feedback from all of them.

When it comes to testing, don’t consider it done after just one pass. Test your conversion paths frequently. Things can get broken when your site is updated or as external services change. It’s very easy to happily assume that everything still works, when you could actually be losing customers and sales. Can customers (on a variety of computers, with a variety of browsers) go completely through all of your conversion paths? Can they download the free trial? Do all of your payment methods work? Test the entire process for each of these. Be your own secret shopper, and place an order. Do you get a confirmation email? A shipment notification? Is the information you would need present in those messages? Do all the links in them work?

Also test all of your communication pathways. Sign up for your own newsletter, and be sure that you get it. Submit a contact request, and see if anyone responds. Try your “chat now for help” feature. Is the representative able to answer your reasonable questions? You put a lot of time and money into implementing these features. Be sure they are serving you well.

Continually improving your site does not have to be an overwhelming all-or-nothing project. Every small problem you fix is one less problem your customers will encounter when they do business with you. Don’t wait for the perfect time to get started. Begin now, even if it’s only a few small steps.

Linda Eskin is a senior user experience analyst at Red Door Interactive.

On Twitter? Follow Eskin at @lindaeskin. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Nine digital trends to watch in 2010

November 23, 2009

My Google Reader pointed me to an interesting article in iMedia Connection last week about the big digital trends we’re likely to see in 2010.  It’s worth a read to stay ahead of the curve, and start to get to grips with these developments now.  Read the article in its context by clicking here, or scroll down.

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In 2009, digital experienced some major changes — the rise of Twitter, the fall of the economy, shifting budgets, an explosion of new technologies. And 2010 is shaping up to be just as dynamic. But what changes and trends are poised to really take the marketing world by storm? Here are just a few predictions of what’s likely to come.

1. Facebook replaces personal email
Question: Google has it; Hoover has it (in the U.K. anyway); TiVo had it, lost it, and has somewhat got it back. Xerox had it, but nobody really cares anymore. So what is it?

It’s when a brand name becomes the verb associated with its use. So rather than searching for something online, you Google it. Or you TiVo, rather than digitally recording a television show. Arguably, an even more powerful phenomenon is when a brand becomes a noun, such as using the word Polaroid to represent all instantly developed photography (although that didn’t end so well).

The newest one would seem to Facebook, although it has two meanings: “I Facebooked you” could mean that the person has added you as a Facebook friend, or that they sent you a private message though Facebook. The latter would seem to be of more interest, as no one has really owned this type of communication before. No brand ever became synonymous with email. To Hotmail or to Gmail someone just never happened.

So the interesting and overlooked disruption of Facebook is its displacement of personal email as a communication tool. Completely permission based, no spam (yet), and no address book required — your friends are already there.

2. Open source software starts making proper money, thanks to the cloud
There’s something starting to happen within the open source software world. Projects that were typically for the purview of programmers, or at least technophiles, are now available to the masses.

An example is Beanstalk a fully hosted, version-controlled code repository that uses the Subversion open source project. The big deal is that to set up and maintain a Subversion repository can be a pain — plus you need a server if you want to give access to anyone. Beanstalk has created a subscription-based service that, for a small fee, removes the hassle. Services like this can only really exist with cloud computing infrastructure — so companies such as Beanstalk don’t have the huge upfront capital outlay for servers; they only pay for what their customers use. With the right skills any open source project can be commercialized in this manner.

3. Mobile commerce — The promise that has never delivered, yet
As annoyingly tantalizing yet esoteric as the word “convergence” has been over the last 10 years, mobile commerce has promised much but hasn’t delivered. However, mobile phones have delivered real benefits to societies worldwide, and in developing nations they are used commonly as devices for the transfer of money.

Yet, it’s only recently that the nations that invented and first adopted mobile technologies have extended the use of these precious devices to pay for goods and services. With the advanced browsers of iPhone and the Android platforms, one could pay for goods through full ecommerce sites, but who really wants to fiddle around with a phone in one hand and a credit card in another?

The game changer is the iPhone/iTunes platform. In-app purchases on the iPhone can tempt users to buy small items, upgrades, updates, etc., while iTunes holds their precious credit card information. All, of course, is done in seamless fashion — easily and reliably enough to promote impulse purchases. It would seem like an easy task for this to be extended to other platforms with PayPal or Google Checkout. (Though we have been here before, haven’t we?)

4. Fewer registrations — one sign-in fits all
I use a great application on the Mac platform that securely holds my login details for upwards of 50 different sites. It means that I don’t have to use the same password for each site and that I don’t have to search around for Post-it notes (my 1998 method) to log into a site I joined a week ago.

However, I’m starting to resent having to register for anything ever again. I don’t see why, if I want to leave a particularly pithy comment on a blog or news site, I have to register all over again. I’m sure I’m not the only one, and that’s why services like Facebook Connect and OpenID are particularly useful and will continue to be adopted at great speed through 2010. Who knows where these might go? Perhaps next year I’ll be able to pay for something using my Facebook login.

5. Disruption vs. continuity — alternatives to the “big idea”
As the significance of social networks continues to grow, businesses are investing more in community building as a marketing driver. According to the recent “Tribalization of Business” study released by Deloitte, 94 percent of businesses will continue or increase their investment in online communities and social media and, for the majority of these companies, their marketing function will drive this investment. At the same time, as evidenced by Google’s recent release of “free floating” social tools, such as Google Wave and Sidewiki, there is an increasing shift toward online identity and social activity being an integrated part of the network as a whole, rather than concentrated within discrete platforms such as Facebook.

With the increasing emphasis on marketing and advertising through social networks and the increasing pervasiveness of social tools, marketing objectives come into conflict with advertising techniques. While advertising has often sought to distinguish itself and stop consumers in their tracks with a disruptive “big idea,” the emphasis is shifting toward persuasion through fitting organically into the consumer’s social sphere. It will always be the objective of marketing to provide creativity and novelty, but the way in will increasingly be through persistence and continuity.

6. The continuing evolution of web-driven, open source DIY culture
Much has been said about the power and potential of collective intelligence. From solving complex problems through crowd-sourcing, to reconfiguring industries to be leaner and more innovative by harnessing the expertise of a network of independent suppliers, many of the breakthrough solutions of tomorrow appear to lie in more effectively pooling the resources and intelligence of our increasingly networked world.

On the other side of the equation, the power of pooled intelligence and networked resources has empowered individuals to tackle more complex undertakings themselves. From drawing on the collective intelligence of blogs and university open courseware to educate themselves, to services like Ponoko, Spoonflower, and CafePress that facilitate small-scale production, to offline resource pooling like pop-up retail and collective office spaces, individuals are discovering that it has never been easier to try doing it themselves.

While we find new ways to thrive in a still struggling economy, expect to see lasting changes coming from empowering individuals to work together to become more ever more self-sufficient.

7. Info-art
Where we once had pop-psychologists and pop-philosophers, we now appear to have pop-statisticians and pop-economists. The growing wealth of data and the access to rich and diverse data sources that are significant byproducts of information networks have made the art of data analysis a defining skill of our time.

By the same token, the skill of elegantly visualizing those data has become a defining art of our time. The art of the infographic is becoming increasingly pervasive as people look more and more to the growing amount of data at our disposal for insight, and more refined as the interactions of those data becomes more complex.

With an ever-increasing need for real-time analysis of a growing torrent of raw data, expect to see greater innovation spurred by more elegant ways of capturing and visualizing information by a growing number of info-artists.

8. Crowdsourcing
Across many industries and organizations, crowdsourcing will become a growing tool as part of “elance” outsourcing strategies. Organizations will mobilize the passionate special interest groups to not only carry a message but, even more importantly perhaps, to lead and take part in activities on their behalf.

Predictions for 2010 are not as rosy as we all hoped, and budgets for just about everything continue to be cut, encouraging creative thinking regarding getting things done and done well.

From political canvassing to software development, from people journalism to environmental activism, we will see huge growth in crowdsourcing models provoked and led, largely, by digital social media strategies.

9. More Flash, not less
Outside of the obvious brand sites, microsites, and media sites (video, games, etc.), Flash has often been looked down upon, if not completely discounted by techies and search engine optimizers alike. It seemed to face an uncertain future as a viable tool for serious websites and applications such as ecommerce tools and corporate websites. As it is, Adobe’s rich media tool has enjoyed the grit and determination of its advocates and external development community. Several tricks, authoring tools, and server-side scripting workarounds have meant that Flash-built websites no longer serve up a single, impenetrable page. They offer deep, searchable, indexable sites that will allow acute, detailed traffic and behavioral analytics and search engine optimization.

As websites continue to increase in their importance as a company’s storefront, the demand for rich, brand-extending experiences will also increase. Further proliferation of (lightning speed) broadband will reduce download issues, while the adoption of Flash on mobile devices will dramatically increase and fuel reach and the desire for highly usable, brand transporting, conversion-oriented experiences.

Nuri Djavit is founding partner and creative director at Last Exit. Paul Newnes, partner and commercial director, and Adam Phillip, director of strategy and media at Last Exit, also contributed to this article.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

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What do you think? Are these on your top-ten list of 2010’s digital trends? Are there other developments that you would add? What would you suggest that businesses do to prepare for the digital trends of 2010? Share your thoughts here!

How to avoid ‘Satisficing’

November 19, 2009

Matthew E. May has written an inspiring piece for OPEN Forum about a great technique to encourage you and your team to think more creatively when problem-solving. Read it in context by clicking here, or scroll down.

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I spend a good part of my professional life coaching and facilitating teams through ideation sessions, and in each one the dreaded stall point always happens. People look at the whiteboard and see nothing but unoriginal solutions, tired ideas, and boring designs. The creative tension is palpable. If the group is less than diligent, and perhaps low on coffee, it may settle for “satisficing.”

This isn’t good. It means that people haven’t expended their best thinking, so ho-hum ideas loom large and obvious. Ho-hum ideas typically don’t lead to success.

The word “satisfice” combines “satisfy” and “suffice” that Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon coined over fifty years ago in his book Models of Man to describe the default decision-making process by which we generally accept the first option that offers an acceptable payoff and stop looking for the best way to solve the problem. While satisficing helps us make it through the day, it’s deadly when you’re trying to design a compelling solution.

Here’s how satisficing works. Imagine that the Roman numberals below are sticks. Leaving the plus and equals signs where they are, what is the least number of sticks you need to move to turn the equation into a correct one?

XI + I = X

Most people get to the answer of “one” almost immediately. They jump in and start moving things around right away, seeing X + I = XI or IX + I = X as good answers, and stop at that point. But these are satisficing answers.

If you stop and think about the optimal answer to the question of “least number of sticks moved,” you’d realize that the answer ideally would be “zero.” But is that possible? Yes. Look at the equation upside down for a moment, or look at it in a mirror. You don’t need to move a single stick. If you stop for a moment, think about the question a bit more deeply and look at the problem from another perspective, the elegant solution appears.

Going back to our brainstorming effort, how do you breathe new perspective into a problem? You need to go off-road a bit with your thinking. Of all the techniques I’ve used, a fifteen-minute diversion called non-linear thinking almost always sparks something.

Let’s say your team owns a kitchen appliance company, and the problem is marketing the new refrigerator in the Arctic.

  1. Go to the dictionary, open it to any page, and pick the first noun on the page—for example: fish.
  2. Now brainstorm as many characteristics, concepts, and ideas that relate to “fish.”—for example: swim, ocean, fin, frozen, catch, boat, scale, sushi, and flop.
  3. Pick one or two of those associations and relate them back to your problem. Use them to spark creativity and new ways of thinking about refrigerators. This will help you get off the normal path of ideas associated with appliances—for example, the word “frozen” might spur the idea of selling refrigerators to Eskimos to prevent fish from freezing! Okay, so that’s a stretch, but you get the point.
  4. Now use this technique with the real problem that you’re trying solve.

The point is to get out of the satisficing box and think bigger, bolder, and different. Breakthrough thinking requires you to break through creative tension. Then, by going off-road, you can get back on track.

Matthew E. May is the author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing, and blogs here. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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What do you think? How do you think? Do you have any other creative thinking tips? Share them with us here!