Using information to connect with local customers

Marketing your business online is constantly changing. Much of the change has to do with the way that consumers are getting their information. As little as five years ago, you could depend on being able to reach a customer at their personal computer. The concerning issue was whether or not that customer was on a laptop or a desktop computer.

All of that has now changed. As a rule, consumers are now using mobile devices. And while statistics may be helpful, it is fair to say that in the next five years most of those individuals who would be your customers will be using a mobile device and you will have to reach them there.

However, one thing that hasn’t changed over the last five years is a consumer’s quest for information. Those that need and want to make their decisions based on facts, are constantly searching the internet for more information to give them assurance. Currently, one of the ways that companies market themselves is to make the information the consumers are seeking visible online as a service to those that will eventually be their customers.

However, search engines are moving to make information a component of the service that they offer. In other words, with their Knowledge Graph technology, they are less likely to deliver their visitors to websites and more likely to attempt to deliver the information themselves.

Where does that leave small businesses? Small businesses must establish their own connections with customers and deliver the information and/or education that is needed to make good buying decisions.

There are several venues that companies can use in order to deliver education. As technology progresses in its sophistication, customers can watch and experience education from anyplace where there is an Internet connected device. That means that if you can deliver content through the Internet, you can educate your customer.

Audio Podcasting

One of the ways that businesses can easily educate their customer is to use the podcasting format. Podcasting is basically an audio program organized to educate its listener. A podcast can be listened to on a mobile connected device or a special device designed for digital entertainment.

The benefit of delivering education through podcasting is that it is all done through audio files. Audio does not require that the user be seated in front of the device order to experience the fullness of the content. They can listen to it in their automobiles (while they drive), at their fitness centers (while they exercise) and even when taking a break from their work.

This is important because there are some significant ways that creating an audio trumps video creation in the education process. Often in the creation of a video recording, there are things that the creator assumes that their viewers understand as they watch. That means that even when the video recording is turned into a strictly ‘audio’ based recording, it may not communicate a full picture to the listener. The video creator isn’t communicating to provide an audio listener with a full picture.

Audio creators on the other hand, understand that their audience does not see them. As a result, they communicate images that are fuller, and they speak with the understanding that an audience needs to be cultivated to ‘see’through what they hear during their program. The audio creator, by default provides rich examples that draw in a listener.

Business owners can get started creating audio content very easily. All that is needed is a computer with mic and headset jacks. Even if that does not exist on their laptop and/or personal computer, they can use a USB port to connect a mic and headset.

With this minimal equipment (mic and headset) in place, companies can then decide whether or not to record their audio program or to broadcast it live. In order to record the program, software on a personal computer is typically needed as well to connect over telephone lines. The most cost-effective way to implement this software is to use Skype (free) for telephone connections, and the recording program Pamela to record the conversation (less than $50).

If the company chooses to broadcast their podcast live, they have several options. One option is the free site BlogTalkRadio.com, which allows at the company to conduct a call-in audio program. BlogTalkRadio.com allows the audio creator to distribute the link ahead of time and to invite individuals to hear the program to be streamed.

Once the program has ended, BlogTalkRadio.com makes the audio available to anyone that wants to hear it in archive form. The same or similar service exists with another company called Spreaker.com.

If the company wants only one person to communicate on the audio, then the free program Audacity will allow audio recordings to be created on a personal computer. In this case, the individual would simply hit a record button on their computer and create audio programming and feel real-time.

Once the program has been recorded, the company can then take the MP3 file and host it on their site or an audio sharing site. Of course, then the link would need to be made available to prospects and customers to hear.

Screen Sharing Education

One of the other ways that a business can educate their consumers is to take information on their PC and display it to viewers on the Internet while discussing its points audibly. The format is common to businesses in the webinar format. A webinar is a cross between a seminar and a web-based streamed program.

What is unique about the webinar is that the individual sharing with an audience, can allow them to see what is on their computer screen while they talk. This means that the company can do a live demonstration using images, case studies, presentations and websites. Anything that can be displayed on the computer screen can be shown to individuals attending a webinar.

Although there are multiple webinar platforms available to business owners, the standard resource is Cixtrix’sGoToWebinar. Companies that would like to test GoToWebinar to determine whether or not it fits into their program can undertake a 30 Day Trial.

The key to delivering good webinar content is to be prepared with both slides and a formal presentation. In order to keep the attention of viewers, webinars need to move quickly through their content to get to the Question and Answer portion. Webinars are unique in that they allow the host of the webinar to determine if or when one of the attendees can be brought on to the broadcast to become part of the audible discussion.

If there is a downside to webinar technology, it is the cost associated with renting the line. A webinar can cost as much as four hundred dollars ($400) every month in order to have access to the facility. This may or may not be with in your budget to spend on web-based education for your customers.

What some companies have done to limit the cost of the webinar is to deliver the content live, and then to take the recording and deploy it as an “automated webinar”. This can be effectivefor educational purposes when the viewing audience understands that they are watching a recording and not a live webinar. It’s also effective when the business creates the webinar with the understanding that it will be used in an automated format.

However, some companies have moved away from traditional webinar technology and have embraced Google Hangout technology. Google Hangouts are part of the Google Plus social network and are free to deploy by any company with a Google account.

Like webinars, Google Hangouts allow the company to broadcast screen sharing education to a live audience. The live audience can join the viewing of the presentation through Google’s video sharing site YouTube.com.

One of the advantages that Google Hangouts provide to those conducting presentations (in addition to costs) is that up to 10 individuals can be panelists simultaneously. This can be of great benefit, if the company is leveraging the following of the presenters on their social media platforms.

The other advantage that Google hangouts offers presenters is the ability to utilize the recording much faster than they would have been able to do otherwise. Every Google hangout that is broadcast across the Internet automatically becomes a YouTube video presentation. That means that it will be easy for the company to send a link to the presentation. For those who were unable to attend.

In addition to this, Google Hangouts allow for the presenters to take questions from those viewing on YouTube. This allows for an interactive presentation with a widespread medium such as the Google Plus network. Companies that do not have the capital to invest on a monthly basis in GoToWebinar can and should learn how to conduct Google hangouts as it has advantages all its own as well as the basic capabilities of webinar facilities.

Document Sharing

Whether a company is presenting on Google Hangouts or GoToWebinar, they are likely to use presentation software in order to provide the viewer with a way to follow their discussion. Typically this software will be Microsoft PowerPoint, Google Presentations or some other ‘slide-based’ software.

Once the live presentation has been completed, companies can make the information available to those that would prefer not to take the time to listen and/or watch the presentation. In this case, companies can still provide education by building out their presence on a document sharing site.

Document sharing sites include Slideshare.net, Scrbd.com and Issuu.com. In order to utilize the sites, Businesses can simply take their presentation, once they’ve completed their webinar, change it to a PDF document and upload to one of the document sharing sites.

However, in order to make the document helpful to the reader, it would be best to include verbiage on the actual discussion. Therefore, if the presentation was delivered from a script, companies can and should include it with the document. In addition to this, those companies that have their presentations transcribed, can and should include it on the document sharing site with their presentation.

In addition to this, companies can very easily upload the transcript also. What makes presentations so appealing to those that read through them is that the information has been condensed into memorable bite-size chunks.

Those that create presentations understand that they are simply providing summary content and not an entire written article. Therefore, it is very easy for busy executives to find the document sharing site scan it only for useful information they need once they have completed their investigation.

Blog Posts and Articles

Companies that seek to educate their customers using blog posts, need to take into consideration the nature of information processing in today’s fast-paced society. Consider that there is likely to be someone using a mobile device needing to sift through a considerable amount of information.

How can the company deliver education, under these constraints?

When writing a blog posts, the margins are very narrow and short sentences should be used when possible. In addition to this, the entire document should be ‘scannable’.

What is meant by scannable?

Basically, the company should follow the pattern of giving their readers an indication first of what they are going to learn. Therefore titles should be numerical in nature. For example, “five easy ways to market your business online.” By providing a title with a number and giving the structure of the presentation, the reader will be able to squeak rescan the information to find what it is they want.

Writing exhaustively on the topic, may or may not be best for a business as consumers. The best thing to do before committing to writing long pieces, is to find out what the audience would actually want and what they would benefit from knowing. In most cases, marketers will find that company’s customers would rather have short information to follow rather than long.

Video Creation

While companies can deliver video content through webinar and Google Hangout technology, it will not always be feasible to do so live. In some cases, screen sharing technology would be highly appropriate. However, it would need to be structured, condensed and delivered after thought has been given to the actual presentation. It may also be that companies may want to edit the video in order to provide branded information.

Companies should use YouTube.com and all of its available tools in order to educate their customer base. In addition to being able to create Google Hangout videos, companies can upload their premade videos to specific channels designated for their company.

In addition to being able to utilize their channel, the company can segment certain video content in order to be seen by those that have a desire for it. For example, companies can designate a certain section of videos for product reviews. And then, a company can designate another set of videos for product demonstrations. In other words, the YouTube video channel is very easy to structure so that companies can attract the viewers that they want to see the content that they designate.

YouTube also provides information creators the ability to link directly back to specific pages on their site. Therefore, once your company has educated customers on a certain issue, a link can be provided to the specific product or service from that video so that the customer can make a direct association.

Concluding Thoughts

All information based promotions take time and effort. In addition to this, the strategy has a longer cycle than just presenting sales information for immediate reaction. With information based promotions, a company is basically trying to get customers and prospects to sign up for their opt-in e-mail list. The thought is that if someone can be attracted into this part of the marketing funnel, that the company can then market to them until they become paying customers.

This education-based effort is to become a trusted advisor to the prospect or customer. When the effort is working as well as it should, individuals will tune into the content because they find it helpful.

This is one of the closest things that a company can do on a small level toward branding as anything else. It has the same effect as a traditional commercial; however, the delivery of information cements their position as an expert in the mind of the viewers.

Companies should start small and deliver content on a regular basis. This likely means that companies should choose one of the delivery platforms and begin to deliver content on a regular basis. The key to leveraging the system is to be consistent. Companies that are consistent in delivering good and helpful content will eventually began to draw an audience or following. It is this following that will be easily convinced to sign up for an opt in list.

However, all mediums (webinars, video, documents, podcasting) offer something different to the customer base. Determine which of the mediums your customer would most likely find the most benefit in attending, and began to use that medium. Ultimately, the key is not level of interest, or even listeners/viewers. The determining factor as to which of the methods to use will be percentage of conversions coming from the content delivery method.

What Would a Real Business Do: Local Search

One of the best ways for a business to increase the number of people exposed to their products and services, is to make them available through search engines. As more companies begin to use sophisticated methods to remote their business, competition, and local search is increasing.

In 2009, the companies that made themselves available in their local area, had virtually no competition. They typically hired local marketing consultants to optimize their websites and make them visible to people searching for related products and services. Those companies would routinely be the only ones in their category to have an optimized website and would acquire most of the traffic from search engines.

Local marketing consultants would make their sites visible at the top of the search results. In other words, a potential searcher would go to Google.com and type in “plumbers in Chicago” and Google would return to them everything that was listed on that first page.

Then in 2010, Google made its free online business directory available to any small business that wanted to go online and fill out the information. This business directory was called Google places. Google Places fast became the go to resource for local searchers in need of products and services.

This changed the results for local search. Instead of seeing 10 listings of websites for a particular subject, Google would display listings from its business directory first. Therefore, those companies that had their businesses to appear in the ‘Places’ portion of Google’s results would receive the benefits of being visible when other companies weren’t making the same effort.

Businesses then began to see the necessity for being actively involved in making their business visible on the Internet. While some sought the advice of local marketing consultants, others rushed to get their companies listed on Google Places.

The results were as one might expect. Companies that worked with local consultants dominated Google Places search results for their category. Companies that didn’t, wouldn’t appear on the first page of results at all.

Since that time it has become increasingly more competitive and complex for a company to have their site appear on the first page of results. In addition to this, Google continues to tweak the system in order to provide searchers with more information about what businesses would be best for consumers to choose to provide the products and services they’re searching for. In particular, the company has instituted a user based review system that allows the public to state their opinion about their experience at individual businesses listed on Google Places.

What all this means for local small businesses is that local search requires attention and focus. Not appearing in the search results in one’s local area, could mean a decline in new and/or existing customer traffic as consumers grow more used to computing using their mobile device. In addition, one bad review could sink a business’s efforts to market based on their good reputation.

Does your business appear in the local search results in Google places? If it does, have you paid attention to what is considered to be your reputation? If the answer to both of these questions are not “yes”, then it’s likely that you’re losing local search traffic to your competitors. Unfortunately, this probably has little or nothing to do with how well people speak of you in your local market.

It has everything to do with your visibility in search engines, which consumers are using with increasing regularity to find products and services. Today’s a good day to take stock of your position in your local marketplace as it pertains to local search.

Proactive Reputation Management

You’ve probably had a number of professionals call to share with you a major concern of other business owners with an online presence. In recent months, small businesses have become the target of angry customers, competitors and sometimes even marketing consulting agencies (working on behalf of their clients). These groups are sometimes actively working to make sure that competing businesses get negative results in the search engines in order to make others look good to those actively looking for products and services.

This activity sometimes takes the form of negative customer reviews on sites such as Google Plus, Yelp or Angie’s List. In other cases, it could also come in the form of negative blog posts and/or articles about the business. And because consumers are doing their buyer research on these sites,the results are often the difference between making a sale and/or having customers look elsewhere.

As a result, local marketing professionals have been offering a service called reputation management to small businesses. Reputation management allows for business owners to mitigate the effects of negative reviews and search results with positive information. By doing this, prospects looking for a business will be able to find positive information to offset negative search activity.

While the service is valuable and necessary, there are other things that companies must do to promote their positive story. Business owners should be proactive in getting this story into the right places to build positive brand awareness.

Typically, in order to build the kind of brand awareness to dissipate negative information, a company would have to employ mass-market media (newspapers, television, radio). However, spending money on these kinds of resources is typically out of financial reach for many small business owners to engage in with regularity.

However, one way that a company can manage its perception is to be active in their surrounding community. By participating in charitable events, a company can raise its profile in the general public without having to ask for a sale.

The company can gain positive awareness from those that are part of the particular charity as well as those that follow nonprofit events. Additionally, it is routine that a business’ participation will put them in contact with other company owners of high character that may be interested in joint ventures or purchase opportunities.

Trying to meet people of this caliber with cold calling methods and direct face to face networking would be difficult to impossible. Community activity makes it a given.

To leverage this kind of participation, business owners should be active in building relationships with local media professionals. Local media loves to cover charitable events with a strong human story element. Business owners that are savvy in working with local media, create story angles that reporters are more than willing to cover by including this kind of story.

Inherent in this process, is that the reporter will be trying to determine whether the business’ story will be interesting to those watching, reading or listening. If you keep their audience in mind as you seek publicity, you’re likely to secure their interest in what you’re doing.

Mobile Couponing Is Heating Up

Mobile couponing has been a growing consumer marketing practice since 2010. As mobile computing began to take hold of the everyday consumer life at this time, a little more than 10% of smart phone users were using mobile coupons. Of course, some of this was a function of the fact smart phones weren’t widespread in the public. As you probably well know, smart phones have become standard in most corporate and small business settings.

As a result, growth has been doubling ever since 2010. It is expected that by the end of 2014 that mobile couponing will have grown to well over 40 million users total. This is significant because couponing has always been a fairly tedious consumer process.

It was always reserved for those who had the time to physically clip coupons from magazines, newspapers and etc. Now, anyone with a smart phone, not only has access to coupons, but they are well equipped to use them without any extra effort.

As a small business owner you must assume that every demographic will be using coupons as time goes forward. This includes those in the Millennial age group as well as those in the baby boomer age bracket. Smart phones tend to find their way into the hands of those that have money to spend. And you will want to reach them where they are.

And unless everyone of these mobile computing individuals are independently wealthy, they will likely be looking for some kind of price break whenever they can get them. If you are willing to offer them a coupon, you can expect that they will have drawing power to get prospects into your location.

Mobile consumer statistics actually support this. Well over half of those that earn between $50,000 and $75,000 own a smartphone and that number is growing. Therefore, regardless of what it is that you are selling, you will want to integrate mobile couponing into your overall marketing plan.

Microsoft has been in the forefront of generating research among mobile consumers. Some of their recent findings include some interesting observations about consumer behavior that can affect your business. One very important observation was that consumers they preferred to receive mobile coupons more than they did text messages with discounts.

As text messaging gets to be more complicated to do as a result of regulations, mobile couponing is likely to be a viable way to reach your customer in ways that can’t actually make you more revenue.In addition to the finding regarding text messaging, another interesting fact is that consumers also preferred to receive their coupons in e-mails.

This is important for a couple of reasons. First, we would have to take note that e-mail is still alive and well in marketing. It is still, after over two decades of internet activity, a key way to communicate to customers. Secondly, by delivering discounts in this way, you may get someone to take notice of your website, and/or location that would not have done so otherwise.