Archive for October, 2013

There is exactly one show on U.S. television that focuses exclusively on the needs of small business: “Your Business” on MSNBC.  Host JJ Ramberg has just published a book titled “It’s Your Business: 183 Essential Tips That Will Transform Your Small Business.”  JJ has unique insight on small companies, having seen hundreds of them in the 6 years that she’s hosted the show.  JJ was kind enough to answer four questions for me and share four exclusive marketing tips.

Q. How did you become a small business guru for MSNBC?

JJ: My career has bounced back and forth between small business and journalism.  I started as a journalist at NBC but left to get my MBA at Stanford. After that I joined an Internet start-up and then returned to CNN as a business journalist.  Next, I left CNN to start my own company, goodsearch.com.  So, when msnbc was looking for a host for their new small business program Your Business, I had experience as both an entrepreneur and a journalist.

Q: Being an entrepreneur means taking on a bunch of jobs that have nothing to do with why you started a business.  Which of these is the most daunting?

JJ: This is different for every small business person, but I think that the one aspect that more people complain to me about than any other is the financials.  Many of the people I’ve spoken to are intimidated by the numbers and as a result, don’t make the time to really dive into them.

Q:  How are small businesses feeling about the economy now?

JJ: Small businesses are definitely feeling better than they were a few years ago. That said, there is still uncertainty about the future.   I am currently working on a couple of stories on some Bay Area based small businesses in the tech sector.  While they are certainly not representative of the rest of the country, it is a pocket of optimism.

Q: Can you give an example of a distinctive small business from the show?

JJ: One of my favorite small business owners that I’ve interviewed is Ray Petro who started Rays MTB, an indoor mountain bike park in Cleveland.  Spending all his savings and putting himself into debt, Ray took a gamble on an idea he had to create a place for people to mountain bike during the winter.  He rented an old warehouse and, with the help of friends, started to build trails.  Early on, Rays became somewhat of a mecca for mountain bikers as nothing else like it existed.   Now, because of the strong loyalty around Ray’s MTB, companies often come to him to advertise and hold event to expand their own brands.

Here are 4 Marketing Tips from It’s Your Business:

Hire Staff Who Match Your Target Demographic

If you have people on your staff who fit the demographic of your target, you’ve got yourself a constant focus group and guerilla marketing team.

When his company was just starting out, Blake Mycoskie of TOMS created a loyalty-inspiring internship program.   Every summer he hired about 20 students who did whatever Blake and his team needed them to do – write copy; deliver shoes; host events etc…  Each of these interns was in the TOMS demographic and in addition to getting cheap labor for the summer, Blake also had a group of 20 people who were fanatic about the brand and spread the word to their friends – providing the most effective marketing you could ask for: word of mouth. They also came up with great ideas to help grow the business amongst their peers.

This is not limited to students.  If you’re hiring temporary help and the job does not require a specific skill, consider hiring someone in your target demographic.  For example, if you’re selling diapers, don’t necessarily go to the local college to get your summer help, find some local moms who want to work part time.  If you’re selling products to baby boomers, hit up retirees, many of whom would love an internship.

Market Your Company By Marketing Yourself

Every time you give a speech, you’re getting your company’s name out there –this helps you get customers, partnerships and if you’re interested, perhaps even an acquirer.  So, how do you start? Who’s going to ask you to speak?  Shari Boyer, CEO of the LA-based cause marketing company Good Solutions Group says here’s how you do it:

  • Develop several abstracts: Write descriptions of topics that are timely, appealing and demonstrate your expertise.
  • Update your bio:  Make certain it positions you as an authority in your field and includes a professional headshot.
  • Research opportunities:  Start with regional business organizations, alumni groups, or local chapters of national/international industry organizations that meet regularly.  Chances are you may already be a member of one such group, which gives you an advantage.
  • Partner with a colleague:  Sometimes it’s easier to pitch a panel discussion with several viewpoints than a solo presentation.
  • Pitch with knowledge: Before contacting the appropriate organization, know the basics about the speaking opportunity such as booking lead-time, length of speech, and previous speakers/topics to make sure you’re on-target.
  • Have a video:  It’s helpful to have a video of yourself speaking on your subject, whether you’re speaking just to the camera or from a previous engagement.

Create a personal story to connect with customers

How do you make your company stand out in a saturated market where everyone is providing a similar service or product?  For example there may be five nail salons within a couple of blocks and most customers don’t know what makes one different from another.

Often a personal connection or shared values with the owner of the business will bring the customer back to your business.  Charlena Miller, a marketing consultant from Portland, Oregon says sharing your authentic ‘story’ is a good vehicle for making that connection.  For your story to be most effective, it should have two key elements:

Part A:  What inspired you to start this company?

The first part of the story should talk about your passion for your work.  Why did you pick this business?   Is it a family business?  A hobby? A talent? Something you came to in order to answer a personal problem? Why does what you are doing mean something special to you?

Part B:  What difference do you hope to make in other people’s lives?

The second part of the story should talk about your customers.  What do you want them to experience?  Are you saving them time?  Are you making them feel better about themselves and to enjoy life more? What are the customers’ needs that you are meeting?

Once you have answered those questions, you can craft your story by mixing the best parts of each.  One note of caution – while people are interested in your short story, they may not be interested in your novel.  So, try your story out on a couple of friends, and potential or current customers, to make sure it’s compelling before putting it out there for the world!

Share your marketing costs

Wholesalers and distributors often have co-op advertising funds that they can use to buy ad space in conjunction with your business.

Steve Strauss, author of The Small Business Bible remembers a billboard his father, the founder of California based Carpet World, had along the San Diego freeway.  The billboard said “Elegance Underfoot – Carpet World,” and in the corner it said “featuring Ban-Lon Carpets.”  This was a win-win situation:  Ban-Lon got visibility and Carpet World got a full billboard for half the price.

FULL DISCLOSURE:  The excerpts from “It’s Your Business” in this post are used with permission.  I appeared on “Your Business” with JJ Ramberg in 2009.  I received a free galley copy of “It’s Your Business” for review purposes.  I have no other affiliation with or financial interest in MSNBC or JJ Ramberg.

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By David Dubois, assistant professor of marketing INSEAD

Social Media can be an important part of a B2B strategy, but to make an impact within the content ecosystem, you have to have a message and move fast. Here’s a few tips based on a conversation with Hari Krishnan, managing director, Asia Pacific and Japan, LinkedIn.

Social media campaigns – the leveraging of online platforms for strategic purposes – represent an increasingly important part of many organizations that are, or want to engage in direct contact with their end-customers and other important stakeholders. For instance, many FMCG companies, such as Procter & Gamble’s Old Spice campaign or political organizations (e.g. US President Barack Obama during the 2008 and 2012 Presidential campaigns) effectively used online tools to further engage customers or mobilize their voters and foster actual purchases or votes.

Smaller companies, often less well-known, can also greatly benefit from social media through catchy offerings that go viral. For instance, Blendtec, a small blender producer, multiplied its revenues by 500 in a short span of time by designing a funny video campaign that quickly spread through online networks and dramatically increased the brand’s awareness.

These companies, whether large or small, generally speak directly to their end-customers. Yet, even though great numbers of B2B companies are not in direct contact with their end-customers, they can still benefit from social media. Although the connection between social media and B2B is not obvious at first glance, B2B companies have in fact a lot to gain by leveraging their respective positions in the industry, provided they are talking to the right audience.  As in everything, context matters, according to Hari Krishnan – when you have a professional message to put across, you want your audience to have their professional hats on. In turn, such resonance between message creators and their audience greatly facilitate communication and encourage engagement. For instance, a recent Forrester survey pointed out that some 48 percent of B2B social marketers plan to increase their lead generation usage of LinkedIn discussion groups and pages, due to the high usage of LinkedIn by senior decision makers. How can B2B companies most benefit from social media? Here are three tips.

1) Think big.  It’s an entire ecosystem, not just the market or customer

Social media is not “just” another media channel, an n+1 communication tool in a marketer’s toolbox. Its nature and scope make it a unique instrument to leverage interactions between not just two parties (such as a company and its customers) but between multiple actors (e.g. a company, its customers, employees, collaborators, public and non-governmental agencies, external talents, etc.).  This perspective is particularly relevant in the B2B context, where it helps to think about the environment as an ecosystem where companies can get a competitive advantage as the go-to party that has the tools and platforms to bringing all the actors together. In other words, think about your business as a node (a simple point in your network) and social media as the force that helps you create, maintain and leverage links that strengthen your position in the network by continuously fostering the central position you should occupy in your network. Leveraging social media, thus, helps you be seen as an essential, central actor within your area of expertise.

Take American Express for instance, a company in both the B2C and B2B spaces. American Express recently set up conversational platforms, both independent (e.g., Open Forum) and on mainstream social media platforms (e.g., Amex on Facebook), aimed at strengthening their interactions with small businesses, but also with potential investors. Key to their success was a “pull” approach, whereby they continuously power their websites with news relevant to their audience (e.g., facts and trends about small businesses), as well as posting challenging and forward-looking questions aimed at engaging their audience and creating interactions between small businesses. They would also sometimes invite experts on specific topics as an additional source of information for their users and collaborators. As a result, they managed to create meaningful threads of conversations around topics relevant to their audience (e.g., improving business processes, reaching to a new audience) and consequently positioned themselves as a center of information exchange within their industry.

Another example is Citi, which launched Connect:  Professional Women’s Network, a Managed Group on LinkedIn. The bank wanted to reach professional women in a social media setting to encourage conversations around business and financial topics, in the process increasing their brand favorability. Discussions are user-generated, partly based on news content, polls and videos. Within 4 months of its launch, the group had more than 43,000 members who are highly active, with 30-50 percent returning every week to the group and generating some 18,000 discussions comments. Overall, Citi’s objective was not so much to sell more, but to push themselves as central, caring, thinking actor at the forefront of thought such as women in leadership positions. And they were successful at doing just that.

Importantly, a key value of social media is that social networks often consist naturally of individuals or companies with similar profiles (for more on the science behind social network, see TED talk by Christakis). Thus, social media is often an easy way to access an untapped market and get quick referrals, faster than would happen through another channel. On LinkedIn, companies like HP have also gone further to cultivate “followers” by building emotional connections.  This helped it to become the first company to hit 1 million followers who are in turned connected to some 43 million members on LinkedIn.

2) Think of yourself as a publisher

The professional networking site LinkedIn understood early the importance of integrating publishing skills as a core of their value-add to their members. That is, in order to truly take become an industry leader, publishing and knowing how to publish content that is relevant to a large base of professional audience is key to driving conversations and engagement. To illustrate, LinkedIn’s most recent efforts have been to provide channels and tools to make it easier for its members to follow content that is relevant to them. LinkedIn, through its Influencer Program, also added the ability for its members to access original content from more than 250 prominent thought leaders and experts such as Richard Branson, Deepak Chopra or Jack Welch that would provide unique professional insights to its members. Besides content, LinkedIn’s publishing platform is also generating the right conversations as a result, connecting members who have similar professional interests in a virtuous cycle.

Another good example is Philips, which has more than 220,000 followers on their company page on LinkedIn.   In order to generate insights and increase brand affi­nity and engagement for the Lighting and Healthcare businesses, it established a Custom Group on LinkedIn for each business.  Each Custom Group provided marketers the opportunity to foster long-term interaction with customers and prospects, and engage them with targeted content such as video, whitepapers, Twitter and RSS feeds. The NPS score for both groups was over 50, which means these groups were highly valued by followers.

Overall, remember to think about how your social media marketing efforts can leverage content to drive conversations in your ecosystem, as that will be key to differentiating your company from the rest.

3) Don’t think anymore.  Move, and move fast

The number of companies on social media is increasing at a dramatic pace.  Hari Krishnan told me that just on LinkedIn, where companies go to engage people with a professional mindset, there are now already more than 2.9 million company pages. In this fast-paced environment, gaining the first mover advantage is enormous. Indeed, there is arguably only room for a handful of thought leaders, as individuals and companies are likely to only follow one, two or perhaps three companies at most. A simple reason for this is information overload: people cannot keep track of updates from an infinite number of companies or thought leaders. While the number is not known for companies, research on individuals suggest they can at most actively “follow” 150 to 300 other individuals online. Beyond this number, it becomes difficult for individuals to keep track. As individuals can only track a certain number of people, the number of companies they will follow is also likely to be capped. Consequently, the earlier you get into social media, the higher your chance of becoming among the most-followed companies, such as million-follower HP. In addition, another reason to move early is social media engagement is not easily replicable, and barriers to entry are high.

B2B marketing has historically relied on below-the-line interactions – interactions that social media can take to a whole new level. Social media networks such as LinkedIn can also help eliminate or partly replace cold calls.  After all, why do you need to do cold calls when chances are, someone in your network can connect you to your target? When executed correctly, and targeted at the right audience, these efforts will drive conversations that can not only boost your company’s ability to strengthen your engagement with existing followers, they will also dramatically expand your reach to new audiences. As we have seen, many companies are already doing it.  If you aren’t, pick up the pace!

As a result of writing for Forbes I’ve started getting more people following me on Twitter, my blog, and on Facebook. No offense, but I’m not sure I want to share the personal things I’ve gotten used to sharing on Facebook with all of you. With my Twitter profile and my blog that has never been an issue because I generally don’t post things of a personal nature there. But Facebook is different. It’s where I post family photos and my thoughts on economics, politics, religion, and everything else that shouldn’t be discussed around the dinner table.

I’ve had a Facebook page for some time that was connected to my blog, and so it would seem natural to spruce it up and use this page for business while keeping my personal profile private. There are additional benefits to using a Facebook page for business purposes such as unlimited friend count (instead of the limit of 5,000 for my personal profile), the ability to advertise my page (which I can’t do for my personal profile), and access to Facebook Insights, which give you valuable data. It seemed like there is no downside to switching to having a Facebook page for my business purposes, but like anything else worth doing in life, it’s worth doing a little research before investing a lot of time.

 upcoming event you’re hosting, you will be lucky if 5% to 10% of your followers see your post.” She adds that many people are reporting response rates much lower. This is confirmed by Elan Dekel, who set up a Facebook page for a client of his, only to find out that 1% to 5% of the 6,000 people who had “liked” the page were seeing updates from that page when they logged into Facebook.

To get some more in-depth perspectives on the wisdom, or lack thereof, of setting up a Facebook page for the business side of my life, I decided to talk directly to three experts. Jay Oatway is the author of the forthcoming book Mastering Story, Community and Influence: How to Use Social Media to Become a Social Leader, and has been named one of the top 50 social media influencers. Joseph Allen is the co-Founder and Chief Homie of Lava Surf, an advertising agency with social swagger providing hard nosed consulting. Michael Michelini is the co-Founder of Social Agent, an Asia-based firm helping companies leverage social media for sales. What follows started out as a bit of Q&A on the topic of Facebook pages for businesses, but in some cases turned into a larger discussion about the proper role of social media for your business. Bear in mind those giving the answers are answering within the context of their own experiences, and they are directly answering my questions–not engaging in a conversation with each other.

Q: Should all businesses have a Facebook page? Why or why not?

Allen: The question should not be whether or not all businesses should have a Facebook page but rather how does it make sense to integrate the Facebook and social experience into the brand. Most businesses look at Facebook in terms of likes, comments, shares and advertising, then assume that this makes them social and their business viral. Dumb.

Many brands play the Facebook/social game based upon their competitors’ moves and not their customers’ interests. If Facebook will help you serve customer needs and interests then you should consider effective strategies to help you capitalize on those opportunities.

Oatway: No. Every social network has its own unique culture. The Facebook culture is still, despite years of trying to professionalize it, very much like that of a college dorm. This may not be a good fit for every business. But every business should look for a social network that suits them. Try looking at Google+ if you have a business with retail shops. Try LinkedIn if you are more B2B. Try Pinterest if you are selling merchandise online.

Michelini: It’s worth the time to establish your presence there. How much you maintain it is another topic altogether.

Q: Jay, I notice you don’t have a Facebook page linked from your website. Why not?

Oatway: I set it up initially to promote my book, but I get better traction from Twitter and G+, so I don’t use it much.

Q: A lot of small businesses lack the cash to spend a lot on advertising to get likes for their Facebook page. How can Facebook page owners get maximum value without breaking the bank?

Allen: My first recommendation is to stop looking at Facebook with a “monkey see monkey do” approach. Just because everyone else appears to be doing it doesn’t necessarily make it worth doing. Who said having a Facebook page is the best and only Facebook strategy? Perhaps a Facebook group or a profile users can subscribe to would be more appropriate for your first stages of social growth. The key is creating natural momentum in the social space.

For example, imagine you have a brick ‘n mortar bicycle shop on main street. You are very passionate about cycling. You know the main influencers in your cycling community and participate in key events that spike enthusiasm and engagement. Perhaps a Facebook group of 2-4k very active voices would be even better than a Facebook page for your first stage of Facebook/social growth. Social becomes powerful when it is a byproduct of mass collaboration. Putting passionate die-hards in close proximity will promote collaboration, dialogue and catalyze user participation. This activity will enhance the business opportunity. From immediate customer feedback, loyalty program integration, notification of news and events to special promotions and sales, all in real time.

Oatway: Content marketing isn’t about spending money, it’s about investing time. If you consistently share valuable information and stories with a community, your value and authority within the community will grow. You don’t want to buy likes, you want to earn them.

Michelini: Insert the Facebook widget in your website and other marketing materials. Assign a “community manager” in the company and create regular workflows for this community manager to post to Facebook. Have this team member also publish regular newsletters and blog posts.

Q: For an entrepreneur with limited time and funds, where should they spent their resources? Facebook page, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest?

Allen: Spend resources where members of your community are most active. Various communities favor different platforms. Invest your time into conversations and connections that recognize you and reciprocate the interaction.

The collaborative environment that we are a part of circulates knowledge, news and insight with such speed that few companies ever learn how to keep up with the conversation or how to channel that power. The entrepreneur who learns how to channel the collaborative space will make serious headway on the market and separate himself from the competition. The sad thing is many businesses think going social means hiring a twenty something and measuring success by likes, follows and pins. #DontBeThatGuy

Social media is the whole company’s responsibility and opportunity! Don’t leave it in the hands of the young, novice, inexperienced twenty year old. Just because someone has 100 apps on their smartphone doesn’t mean he’s a social media expert.

Oatway: If you are starting cold. Go with Google+, you’ll be getting in closer to the ground floor.

Michelini: I know this is an annoying answer, but “it depends.” If you’re a B2B company, I’d strongly suggest Linkedin. If trying to leverage social media to improve your SEO I’d suggest Google+ and Twitter. I generally see Facebook as “its own world”, and more of a younger audience. Pinterest for women and e-commerce shoppers. Knowing your target audience is the first step to a social media strategy.

Key Takeaways

If there is any concise way to sum up what I learned talking to Allen, Oatway, and Michelini, it  can probably best be summed up by Michelini’s answer “it depends.” If you’re considering launching a Facebook page for yourself or your business, hopefully you’ve found something helpful in the various opinions presented.

Use lists to target your Facebook posts to different groups.

Following this Q&A I had a longer chat with Allen. While he is a believer in Facebook pages in the right situation, he felt my specific situation might be better suited by continuing to link to my personal profile and let people follow my comments there, rather than having them follow the Facebook page I set up for business purposes. He pointed out that if privacy and segmentation is what I’m after, I can modify my privacy settings to prevent my profile from being completely wide open, and then use lists to customize who I post to (something I’ve never taken advantage of). And while yes, I am limited to 5,000 friends, there is no limit to the number of people who can follow my updates.

So what will it be? Facebook page, or personal profile with modified settings? What would you do?

Connect with Joshua: 
Google+ | @donloper | Facebook | Linkedin | Goodreads | Medium?

I’ve been a user and fan of LinkedIn for several years and am currently enjoying reading The Startup of You by LinkedIn co-Founder Reid Hoffman. Although it has its detractors and plenty of room for improvement, LinkedIn has become perhaps the most widely used business tool since email itself. And yet even if it’s used, how many of us use it correctly, or to its full potential? Many people set up a profile, connect with some friends, and then leave it at that. Another class of LinkedIn users are much more active, but perhaps too active, spamming their connections and LinkedIn groups with get-rich-quick schemes or articles, the posting of which is designed more to bring attention to the one doing the posting than to provide any true value to LinkedIn users.

Alex Pirouz

Recently I met Alex Pirouz, a successful entrepreneur and author. In talking with Alex I learned he was featured in the bookGetting Your Business LinkedIn, so I asked him to give me his top three LinkedIn tips. Here they are, in Alex’s own words:

Connecting and effectively communicating with people through LinkedIn is no different than dealing with people outside of the network. Whether they are a supplier, potential partner or customer you need to build enough value for them to trust you in order for them to grow an interest in your company and therefore your product/service. I call this: Value Bank.

I can’t recall how many times I have accepted a connection invite from someone to then receive an email marketing spiel about who they are, what they can do for me and how much it is going to cost me.  Oh and I forgot to mention that none of this was addressed to me personally, no name at the top of the email.

To be successful on LinkedIn and in business overall you have to add value first. Just because they accepted your connection invite doesn’t mean they are interested in what you have to say, remember this quote: “To be interesting you have to be interested.”

Before you start emailing marketing to your contacts, think of a few ways you could add value to them. For example it may be that within your connections there are about 100 accountants of whom you have recently connected and would like to potentially partner with. Your first email could be a sending a link to a recent article you read/noticed in SMH. This shows you were thinking of him/her. Your second email could be a FREE Ebook you have found that helps accountants generate more business etc.

This will help develop the trust and rapport necessary between your connection so that when you contact them to hold a meeting they not only recognize you but most importantly interested.

2. Connecting with a purpose

Building your connections for the sake of having a large following is not really a sound strategy if you want to effectively grow your business using LinkedIn. Every connection needs to be linked to your goals and objectives in business both now and in the future.

Before growing your network on LinkedIn take a step back and think about some of the goals you would like to achieve within your business over the next year or so. With these goals in mind now think about who you need to connect with in order to help you achieve those goals. For example when I first started using LinkedIn I just launched my business advisory service and given I had no personal brand other then my results in business I knew this was one of the areas I needed to develop.

And as many of you would know one way to build your brand is through PR. With this goal in mind I then connected with over 500 journalist, editors and bloggers online and in a space of a couple of months I managed to get featured in over 40 publications and now write for a few business magazines.

3. Segmenting your connections

I learnt the importance of segmenting your connections the hard way. Within my first 6 months of using LinkedIn I had connected with over 1000 people within 3 different industries: Media, Accounting & Events.

My aim was to use the media contacts to get some PR exposure, Accounting connections to create a few joint venture relationships and connections within the events industry to hopefully get some speaking gigs.

There was just one problem though: All my connections were mixed in with one another, not by choice but by default. You see, little to my knowledge I wasn’t aware that all new connections are automatically tagged under a folder which LinkedIn calls: Untagged.

I knew that in order for me to reach any level of success I would have to personalize my communication and because I could not properly assess who was who quickly within the tags section I had to go through the entire (1000) connections in the untagged folder and re-tag them accordingly.

Whilst it was tedious and frustrating at the best of times it was also very empowering. By the end of the process I knew precisely how many connections I had in each industry, which therefore helped me effectively communicate my message.

Learn from my mistake, before adding even one more connection take one step back and segment your connections so you can take 2 steps forward.

————–

Agree or disagree with any of Alex’s tips? What’s your top LinkedIn tip?

Connect with Joshua: 
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Image courtesy of LinkedIn

Last week a client asked if I could stay for a bit after our weekly meeting so he could thank me, not for a PR project, but to show me how he’d used a tactic I’d shown him on LinkedIn to put himself well on the track of securing a much more aggressive marketing budget next year. Wow!

First, a little about how people are typically using LinkedIn. We recently shared an infographic on the most popular ways people are currently using LinkedIn in our agency newsletter, Snappington Post. You can subscribe to the newsletter here. I’ve included that infographic below, which was the product of LinkedIn Trainer/Expert Wayne Breitbarth of Power+Formula. Wayne also offers ongoing LinkedIn Tips through his blog and newsletter that you can subscribe to here.

In quick summary, the overwhelming majority of current LinkedIn users (84.4 percent) are using LinkedIn’s free account. Only 15.1 percent pay for premium service. Groups are an increasingly important feature of LinkedIn, paid or free: 35.5 percent of users are in 1-9 groups.

The most used features people currently use and value are, as follows:

  • Who has viewed your profile (70.6 percent)
  • People you may know (65.2 percent)
  • Groups (60.6 percent)
  • Direct messaging (48.7 percent)

LinkedIn has been most helpful in 2013 for enabling people to

  • Research people and companies (75.8 percent)
  • Reconnect with past business associates/colleagues (70.6 percent)
  • Build new relationships with people who may influence potential customers (45 percent)
  • Increase face-to-face networking effectiveness (41.2 percent)

Consumate tech editor Scott Mace (Image courtesy of WiredMuse.com)

I use the Premium version of LinkedIn. But not everyone is thrilled with the service. Friend and fellow reporter Scott Mace, Senior Editor forHealthLeaders Media, shared the following feedbacks in response to our agency’s post:

“My experiences are based on being a premium ‘Business’ user for more than a year. The tag function doesn’t work very well. You can only search on a single tag at a time, which makes it far less useful than being able to filter on matches of more than one tag. Tags aren’t incorporated into Advanced People Search at all. The RSS feed LinkedIn produced of your activity was a firehose with no options for filtering that either. The ‘Executive’ membership level which costs $75 a month doesn’t fix these shortcomings.

Now LinkedIn sends emails every day saying things like so-and-so has a new job, so congratulate them. But it’s all about visiting the site so they can push more ads in front of you. The ‘influencers’ emails they now send out are like so much spam in my mailbox.

In short, LinkedIn doesn’t let the user do any kind of serious data mining or query on their own social network and is becoming more of a distraction with useless email updates, and having the premium levels of membership doesn’t solve the problems. Considering how much time I invest in building my LinkedIn network, and how much wealth that is generating for the company, I should be getting a better return.”

I don’t disagree with any of Mace’s points. However, I have personally found LinkedIn’s best uses lie in the creative strategies practitioners have devised on their own, thus my recent favorite five tactics, to wit:

1. Scoping the Competition

This is the strategy my client accomplished last week. He had asked me the week prior, as he prepared for annual budget planning, if there was any way of assessing just how large his competitor’s marketing team and budget might be?

I opened LinkedIn and ran a search on the company’s name and any job titles that contained marketing or communications. Voila—the search produced an immediate list. As he began to peruse their titles, I suggested he temporarily change his privacy restrictions to make his views and searches anonymous. Within a few minutes of searching we were able to see how many results appeared for people currently employed in the company’s entire base and of those, how many are working in marketing. While not every employee is registered on LinkedIn, surely, he’d arrived at a reasonably close estimate of the percentage of the company’s employees who are working in marketing, which would equate at least somewhat to the level of the company’s percentage of revenue devoted to marketing efforts as well.

As may be expected, a search of employees both past and present was also helpful in illustrating a fairly significant level of churn. How long do employees typically stay at the company in question? With a bit more calculation, now we know. Some of the former marketing employees had gone into private consulting practices. Extra helpful. Subject to the confidentiality aspects of their prior employment, of course, the client knows which consultants might be especially beneficial in helping him scope out his own future competitive plans.

But my clever client showed me how he’d taken the results a step further: he’d created a simple Word document that outlined the competitive company’s full department, by job title. Next to it, he placed a column to illustrate the corresponding people and roles in his own team. The result was a picture worth more than a few thousand words. The difference was profound. He was able to inform his management team that he recognized it would not be possible to fill the resource chasm in the space of a year, but would strongly suggest the addition of four strategic new hires, and flipped his screen to show the comparison with the addition of the four new positions, in blue. He’d made his case with a single image, and indications are strong that his proposal will be entirely approved. A smart strategy.

2.  Job scoping/background checks

Yes, we fairly well all use LinkedIn to accomplish background checks, but consider the call I recently received from a regional tech company. It wasn’t a recruiter, but an internal executive who phoned.

“I need to make a PR hire that will really ‘wow’ our senior executives,” she said. “Of the resumes that have crossed my desk, I know that three of these individuals have prior connections to you. I’d like to hear your unvarnished reactions to each.”

Bear in mind that I knew nothing of the position she had opened prior to the call and that I hadn’t been listed as a reference for any of three prospects. In fact I’d never even worked at the same company as one of the three.  I gave her my feedbacks. In one of the cases, the individual had been a prior employee who had departed impulsively and badly. I might have shared that information, but I never got that far. As she heard a bit about the juvenile choices the individual had made here and there—the things a young employee thinks the boss doesn’t hear about or won’t matter—she replied, “Say no more. I wouldn’t touch this employee with a 100-foot pole. He won’t be getting a call.”

In a word: LinkedIn.

3. Advanced People Finder

LinkedIn is increasingly becoming an advanced database for finding people who are difficult to locate. (Facebook is increasingly serving this purpose as well.) There are myriad examples emerging, but I’ll mention just two.

A friend who works for a legal office is managing the affairs of a deceased client who presumably died without heirs. Using only LinkedIn and Facebook she has uncovered the track to at least four living heirs so far—maybe more. Imagine the implications.

In the second example, my young daughter, a student in a secondary education program, came home distraught one evening after a troubling confrontation with one of her instructors.

“She said she was going to report me to the Dean of Student Affairs!” I had no idea the full extent of the situation, but my daughter begged me to not be an interfering parent or to be causing a scene.

Within minutes I had determined the job history and length of experience of the instructor in question. And I was also able to locate by job title, guess who? The Dean of Student Affairs, who received a discreet message of concern from me via LinkedIn InMail. He responded. There was more to the story, of course, but without a formal meeting—in fact I have still never met the dean nor the instructor to this day—he was able to look into the situation and to bring about an appropriate response. Issue resolved.

4. A Sales Reinforcement

This is a Ken Krogue, InsideSales.com strategy. (Ken is a fellow Forbes Contributor, and as disclosure, his company is a client of our agency as well.) Instinctively I’ve used it as well, but in seeing how well he’s employed the strategy I’ve now declared the method immortalized.

Upon meeting or conversing with any new business associate or contact, or even being referred to a beneficial resource or contact, I immediately follow up with an invitation to connect on LinkedIn.

As Krogue tells it, a sales cycle will typically, statistically, require a total of six contacts before a prospect is ready to tip over the edge. Creating the LinkedIn contact (as well as an immediate email follow up message to a first conversation), will instantly move the number of contacts from a first meeting from one interaction to three. Halfway to goal. Brilliant.

5. Extra Clever Uses for LinkedIn Polls  

I have not yet made expert use of LinkedIn Polls, but the strategy bears mention in that it’s a particularly brilliant use of LinkedIn. With credit toCorey Eridon of HubSpot, you can use LinkedIn polls to

  1. Obtain quick opinion results for column and blog fodder. Dry for blog or column topics? No more. An original data tidbit in response to a salient question is invaluable news and interesting content.
  2. Obtain product and service feedback. As you consider new product features or ideas, how will the market respond? Ask the question to your group or followers on LinkedIn and you’ll save yourself immense resources (and perhaps will hear some interesting new ideas as well).
  3. Conduct immediate market research. There are great data providers available, but perhaps they’re not addressing precisely the information you need. The response to a targeted question could be a wonderful enhancement to provide you with just what you need, on the fly.
  4. Tweet poll results to generate additional group followers.  By extending the results of an interesting poll to Twitter, to Facebook, and to other arenas in addition to your current LinkedIn group you can readily interest additional people—the right people—to join.
  5. Use polls to generate offers.  You know you need to provide an offer to generate leads, but you don’t know what will interest your prospects? Run a poll. Let the community tell you what ebooks, whitepapers, crowdfunding awards, etc., will interest them and the topics they’d like you to cover.

Have I convinced you yet? Whether you love LinkedIn’s newest offerings or you’re still on the fence, think about the LinkedIn resource like a great children’s toy—the foundation is there, but 90 percent of the “play” is in the child, or in this case, in the community participant. It will likely be the clever side uses you identify for the foundational resource that will benefit you, the savvy LinkedIn user, the most. And with thanks to Wayne Breitbarth of Power+Formula, here’s his LinkedIn infographic below:

Linkedin Infographic

We’ve argued throughout that everyone will have to become an entrepreneur.

Some people take to the idea of becoming an entrepreneur like a Labrador retriever puppy entering a lake for the first time: After about ten seconds of nervousnessy, they are incredibly enthusiastic and once they are immersed, it’s virtually impossible to get them out.  (If you are not a Lab owner, ask one.)

These happy swimmers in the entrepreneurial pond are people who either always wanted to have a business of their own—and had been thwarted for some reason–and now have the chance to thrive on their own—or they just found a place they belonged, once they started their own company.

But do you have to feel that way?

Absolutely not.

You can use entrepreneurship as a means to end.

Sure, the people who extol entrepreneurship treat the businesses they starteds a member of the family. They have an extremely personal relationship with it. However, you need not feel that way.

When franchising started to become incredibly hot back in the 1970s and ‘80s there was a tendency among some “serious” entrepreneurs to refer to a franchisee as someone who was “just buying themselves a job.” The thinking went, these people were plunking down say $500,000 for a franchise that would pay them $50,000 a year for the rest of their life, thanks to the efforts of the parent company, and they were just trading their old corporate job for a new one, in slightly different form.

Well, the patronizing attitude was wrong. In the for-profit world, an entrepreneur is someone who creates and runs a new business where one did not exist before.  No, the McDonald’s franchisee didn’t create McDonald’s. But he certainly created a McDonald’s where there never was one. Franchisees are entrepreneurs, despite that “buying themselves a job” snide analogy.

But the deeper point behind the analogy can be right. One of the reasons people who start companies look down at franchisees is that the franchisee does not have a passionate relationship to his business, since he did not give birth to it. But that is more than fine. The business you start does NOT lead to fulfillment in and of itself. (You just may not have that gene.) But it can provide you with other substantial benefits such as: replacement income, more control over your life and seeing a direct relationship between what you do and the end result.

That is pretty fulfilling in and of itself.

So don’t think you need to be someone who as a kid had a lemonade stand or paper route to start a company. The ideas we advocated are universally applicable, and you will benefit, even if you couldn’t sell your mother a box of Girl Scout cookies when you were growing up.

Do you agree?

Here’s the reason I am asking.

We are in the middle of an experiment

From now until the end of October you have the chance to shape this space.  During that time this blog will be devoted to discussing the very tangible problems you have in starting and growing your business—how to get financing; what kind of customers should you target; where and how to market, and the like.

You suggest the topics and talk about the concerns you have (and also what you have found that works well) and your peers will offer their suggestions, and raise concerns of their own.  I will go through everything, cull the best answers/comments/ideas, and as a micro business owner myself (as well as someone who has been writing about this stuff for more than 30 years) will add ideas of my own.

Paul B. Brown is the co-author (along with Leonard A. Schlesinger and Charles F. Kiefer) of Just Start: Take Action; Embrace Uncertainty and Create the Future recently published by Harvard BusinessReview Press.

Please note the Action Trumps Everything blog now appears every Sunday and Wednesday. (Except this week. I will be traveling on Sunday.)

Click on the “Following” button to get the newAction Trumps Everything blog post as soon as its goes live.

Q: What’s a person to do to survive, let alone thrive in this environment?

The mere fact that we have to ask that question is unsettling, scary and frustrating, because it is something we never anticipated we’d have to answer when we finished school.

Most of us prepared hard for the future we expected, and yet when it comes to our work life today things aren’t working out as we had planned. That’s true if you have been laid off; are a recent college graduate who is under-employed; a manager who feels that he is stuck in his current position, or a member of the C-Suite who has the very real (and probably justified feeling) that her company (and perhaps her entire field) may implode around her.

This is not how we were told it was going to be.

Growing up we were led to believe that the future was predictable enough and if we studied hard we could obtain the work we wanted in an environment we understood, and we would live happy and successful lives.

It hasn’t exactly worked out that way (even for those of us who are happy.)

Our careers today rarely move in a straight line and on top of that we are worrying that the line is going to be erased all together.

Why the disconnect between what we thought would happen, and what is actually going on? We think the answer to that is pretty simple.  The way we were taught to think and act works well when the future is predictable, but not so much in the world as it is now.

You know the steps for dealing with a predictable universe:

1. You (or your parents, teachers, or bosses) forecast how the future will be and how you can have a successful life in it.

2. You construct a number of plans for achieving that life, picking the optimal one, i.e. the one that will get you there in the shortest time, or with the least amount of effort or will produce the most pleasant journey.

3. You assemble the resources (education, money, etc.) necessary to achieve your plan.

4. And then you go out and implement it.

We have become so indoctrinated with this way of thinking by our education (with the way they taught us to think) and our organizations (with the way they go about solving problems) that it is more or less the only way we approach anything.

But what is very smart approach to a knowable or predictable future is not smart at all when things can’t be predicted—like now. And that fact is at the heart of the frustrations—and fear—most of us feel.  Things simply aren’t as predictable as they once were when it comes to plotting out a superior (and satisfying) career.

It’s pretty scary when you can’t plan and control your way to security, let alone the job you want.

In a world where you can no longer plan your way to success, what is the best way to achieve lifelong security and accomplish the things you really care about?

Instead of picturing/thinking about what the perfect job or career would be and working backwards from there, begin with a direction, based on a real desire, in which you think you want to go.  Then complement that with a strategy to discover and create opportunities consistent with your desire.

In other words, you don’t search for the perfect job, you create it—either within an existing organization or on your own.

Why the radically different approach?  That’s easy to explain.

In an uncertain world you simply cannot come close to imagining what a perfect job might be. It’s unknowable, especially when you are trying to predict five or ten years out. The world can change radically in that span of time. But what is 100% known is what’s valuable and important to you. Who are you? What matters to you? Is it working in a specific industry? Managing people or not? Traveling extensively and moving every few years as part of your career in order to gain new perspectives and responsibilities or putting down roots?  The answers to these questions will point you in productive directions.

Having considered that, what are your means at hand, your talents and skills, who you know, what you know? And how do you get started on concrete actions that are consistent with these desires? Some of those may take the form of looking for a job, but others might simultaneously entail starting something of your own. In either case, as you act, different opportunities will present themselves.

So, the process from planning your future when you can’t really plan looks like this:

1. Determine your desire

2. Take a small step toward it

3. Learn from taking that that step

4. Take another step

5.  Learn from that one

You follow this Act, Learn, Build Repeat model until you have a job, your own business, or have achieved your goal. It’s not career planning. It’s acting your way into a future you want.

How do we know this approach will work?  Because it already has.

You never want to reinvent the wheel, so when we set off to create our last book (Just StartTake Action. Embrace Uncertainty. Create the Future) which was about the best ways to navigate the unknown, we went looking for people who had done it successfully.  And we found one group that was better at it than anyone else: Serial entrepreneurs, people who have started two or more businesses successfully. There is nothing more uncertain than starting a business and these people had done it at least twice with stellar results.

They used the Act Learn Build Repeat model to start their companies and we proved in Just Start that their approach to navigating successfully through the unknown would work for everyone everywhere, not just entrepreneurs who want to start their own company.

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Paul B. Brown is the co-author (along with Leonard A. Schlesinger and Charles F. Kiefer) of Just Start: Take Action; Embrace Uncertainty and Create the Future recently published by Harvard Business Review Press.

Please note the Action Trumps Everything blog now appears every Sunday and Wednesday. 

Click on the “follow” link on the top of this post to receive every Action Trumps Everything blog the moment it goes live