Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Shift in Media Consumption - Top Sites for Small Businesses Navigating Social Media

By: Chad Cohen

We get it. You’re a small business owner and you’re busy. Trust me, we know, because we’re small business owners too. Time in the office or in your store is what keeps the business moving, money flowing, customers happy and your employees working. You don’t have time to be everywhere at once and you’ve passed on digging into social media despite the so-called experts telling you otherwise.

In fact, as a small business owner, we believe you can’t afford not to explore the social media space because over the last ten years there has been a significant shift in the way people access information about you and your business. The Internet has forever changed the way we communicate, the way we buy and the way we interact with content and other people. It has made the whole world into a networked marketplace and what truly makes it different from any other form of communication is that users are now actively looking for information about you – they are starting the communication cycles.

Did you know that it’s something like 70% of all Internet users are finding their news about a company or product online? Tapping into this qualified audience just makes good marketing sense. Social media, networking and bookmarking is allowing your customers to inter-connect like never before and share both good and bad information about your business. Over the past few years sites like del.icio.us, digg, YouTube, MySpace and Facebook have sprung up and allowed users to post content, tag and bookmark items they are interested in, and then share thoughts, ideas, videos and images about your business with others. Layer on blogs, micro-blogs, message boards and a host of other social media tools, and you have more than one reason why you need to be engaged in the social media mix. Your customers are already there talking about you, so why shouldn't you be involved in the conversation also?

With this shift in media consumption, your online visibility and brand perception should be an integral component of your overall marketing mix. Small businesses need to become more proactive in monitoring their Internet presence because with new social media tools, every person online is potentially a writer and influencer regarding your product or service. With that said, below is some of what we believe are the top social media sites to help you get involved. The trick is to navigate through the clutter and find the ones that will work best for you.

Twitter
It’s hard to turn a corner these days without hearing about Twitter and its impact on businesses and social media. Twitter is about conversation. It’s about finding people talking about you and what you sell and engaging them in conversation because they are your business influencers. One of the most underutilized aspects of Twitter for most business owners is the Advanced Search feature that allows you to search for specific keywords around a particular zip code. It gives you the power to address complaints head on, answer any consumer questions and create an awareness of your brand in your specific city. For example, say you own a boutique wine shop and you’re looking for new wine club members. You can perform a search for “wine near: 33021 within 25” and find people 25 miles outside of Hollywood, FL who are talking about wine.

Yahoo Answers
There area quite a bit of question & answer sites out there, but Yahoo Answers stands out because of its large contributor base and its ability to put you in contact with people who are asking the question specific to your location. For example, there might be gentleman in Denver looking for print and digital copy services, or someone in San Antonio who is trying to find out about the best salad restaurant in his town. These are opportunities for a small business owner to reach out and respond directly to a targeted customer’s request. You just have to get out there and do it. Yahoo Answers is also valuable because you can brand yourself as an expert source in your community by answering questions relevant to your business category.

Blog
A blog is a differentiator between you and your competition. It not only acts as a customer information and educational tool, but also encourages customers to interact with you. It puts a human voice to your business and allows you to become more intertwined with the online community. A corporate blog will allow you to proactively participate in conversations and affords you the chance to interact more with other blogs and websites. This flexibility to interact in the wider online customer community means additional benefits in the areas of higher search engine rankings and exposure to new audiences. In addition, a blog can serve as an excellent crisis management tool as well. A blog is your space to show your customers who you are and to listen to them on a more personal level. There are a number of blog platforms to get you started including Wordpress and Google’s Blogger, among others.

LinkedIn
LinkedIn is a social networking site that exists to help you make better use of your professional network and help the people you trust in return. LinkedIn is an interconnected network of more than 36 million experienced professionals from around the world where you can find, be introduced to, and collaborate with qualified professionals that you can work with to accomplish your goals. When you join, you create a profile that summarizes your professional expertise and accomplishments. You can then form enduring connections by inviting trusted contacts to join LinkedIn and connect to you. Your network consists of your connections, your connections’ connections, and the people they know, linking you to a vast number of qualified professionals and experts. Through your network, you can find and be introduced to potential clients, service providers, and subject experts who come recommended to you. You can also collaborate on projects, gather data, share files, answer questions, find new business opportunities and solve problems, among other options.

Social media remains a cost effective way for many small businesses to reach out and interact with their customers. It will allow you to create more targeted, more manageable online communities that can help convert sales both online and off. The trick is not to try and be everywhere, but instead to be where your customers are.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Show Me The Money!

By: Lorne Fisher

Well, a couple of weeks ago my month of travel to Vegas began, and I’m happy to report that I’m on the final leg of my journey back and forth from Sin City. Only one more trip, Franchise Times’ conference next week. I’ll be sharing tips on how to leverage a prospect’s Circles of Influence to drive franchise sales (shameless plug). Hope to see some of you there.

Between my trips, I attended the International Institute for Franchise Education’s (IIFE) Executive Leadership and Development Summit. IIFE is part of the H. Wayne Huizenga School of Entrepreneurship at Nova Southeastern University. The Summit was attended by about 15 CEOs and senior executives in the franchising industry.

We participated in various exercises to spawn creativity and share challenges of running companies during the recession. However, the highlight for me of the Summit was Darrell Johnson’s (FRANdata) presentation of the inaugural Franchise Executive Leadership Monitor. The study will be conducted annually for this Summit and report on the top challenges faced by franchise executives. This year’s study, which you can get a copy of by contacting IIFE (www. huizenga.nova.edu/ELDSummit) was based on a survey conducted by IIFE and FRANdata at this year’s IFA Convention.

As you’d imagine, the number one challenge is financing for new franchisees. Darrell shared some terrific insights on how franchisees (and franchisors) can secure funding.

One of the many key points in Darrell’s report was the role that franchisors play in helping franchisees secure funding. No longer is the franchisee the only group that needs to qualify for funding, so does the franchisor.

Lenders today are looking at the franchisor just as closely as the franchisee. Therefore, for a system to grow, the franchisor must be prepared to share financial information with lenders looking to provide loans to franchisees. Also, an Item 19 or FPR should be strongly considered by franchisors as a way to attract lenders. This will show not only the franchisee, but also the financial institution that the concept is worth the risk. No more hiding behind the FTC.

Another insight, which there were many, was that those lending now are very different institutions. Yes, the SBA is beginning to lend more and with higher guarantees (thanks to Obama), but local banks are starting to get into the game. Also, Deposit Banks, who have survived the storm pretty well, are starting to spread the love. All good news for us in franchising.

Check out the report for more. I’ll leave you with one last thought that was not as much an insight, but more common sense – a financially strong company (zor and zee) can attract capital in good times and bad.

Good luck out there and see you in Vegas!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Aligning Sustainability with Business Success

By: Chad Cohen

At a time when we trudge ahead amid the greatest recession in more than a generation, the question many small businesses and franchises face is whether green priorities will take a back seat now that money is tight? Times are uncertain and corporate priorities could shift month-to-month, let alone by next year. Environmental friendly themes like “save the planet” and “it pays to recycle” have lost relevance when you’re talking about layoffs, budget cuts and a company’s survival.

While these macro issues are vitally important to overall business success and not to be dismissed lightly; I would venture to say that delaying action on sustainability plans now may be the absolute wrong thing to do. A cornerstone of the green movement is not just being “Earth friendly,” but being efficient and more effective with the resources at your disposal. The instinct when times get tough is to get lean and ride out the bad times, but as history has pointed out time and time again - the companies that can invest in smarter ways of doing business in down times typically rebound the fastest when the economy turns around.

Focusing now on long-term sustainability and developing ways to design, manufacture, and provide goods and services that use drastically less resources is simply good economics and generates lasting value with consumers. In fact, green initiatives and sustainability are now inextricably connected in consumer’s minds. It just makes good business sense – that is to develop product and service innovations, which can create a more profitable and innovative enterprises that build stronger relationships with your consumers, employees and the communities you serve.

The problem is for far too long we’ve thought of sustainability in the context of ecology. But circumstances have changed and now we’re forced us to think of sustainability, not just in ecological terms, but also as the fundamental building block of business, the economy, social issues, political discourse and even as part of our personal lives. The bold premise at hand is that small businesses and franchises need to start looking beyond "greening up" their services, because pollution prevention and eco-efficiency aren’t good enough anymore. It’s not that eco-efficiency isn’t needed. It absolutely is. But it’s not sufficient.

I truly believe that “Green” is here to stay and don’t think that the economic recession will limit its growth. The opportunities seem limitless for those who do it right. So take advantage of current recession, push your people to do more with less, and innovate to set your company up for rapid growth and success when times get better. They always do.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

What Happens in Vegas...

By: Lorne Fisher

Well, the April convention season in franchising is upon us. I’m the lucky one who gets to be in Vegas the next 4 out of five weeks attending client conventions and franchising shows. Actually, I’m on my way back now from the first meeting. As I sit on the plane trekking across country, I started thinking about the value these bring to both mature and emerging concepts.

Aside from the fun to be had in the various locales – like Vegas –
franchisees truly benefit from sharing best practices since most only see each other face-to-face once a year. The meeting I’m returning from was for an Area Developer network for one of our clients. For those that attended – there is always a few that feel they don’t need to be there – there was quite a lot of healthy dialogue. It was not like some meetings where the franchisor talks TO the franchisees.



Here the ADs led some sessions – roundtables – and presented a franchisee survey they created, implemented and analyzed. Their findings were very helpful to those ADs in attendance on various areas like marketing, operations, etc. However, one key area that they delved into most was profitability. Not a new subject, I know, but it was who and how the ideas were shared. The presenters spoke to trends they saw emerging not just from the obvious profitable stores, but those that were on the fence between break even and profitability. What was keeping them there and what were the key decisions they needed to focus on to take them into the black? I could see ADs in the room nodding in unison as the presenters took them through their findings.

This brings me to another key benefit of these meetings – honest, open and direct dialogue between zee and zor. We’ve all seen what lack of transparency and poor communications can do in this relationship – and any other for that matter. Even with all of the technology we have available to us, nothing takes the place of face-to-face conversations. Successful conventions or meetings should always make time to discuss important issues – whether through presentations or scheduling time for “town hall” type Q&As. Sometimes in our enthusiasm (marketing folks that is) to put on a great meeting, we schedule every minute and parade long list of presenters in front of the system to pack the schedule. Sometimes less is more.

Lastly, the educational aspect might be obvious, but the key for franchisors is to remember as systems grow – or in our case in today’s economy – contract, franchisees may need to be updated on the latest changes to the POS system, financial forecasting or how to continue to succeed with their LSM activities. New program training is good, but sometimes it’s the old block and tackle stuff that they need the most. And remember, usually the best teachers are the franchisees themselves. Peers listen to peers.

Well, I gotta go. The flight attendant is giving me the evil eye to turn off my computer. See you in Vegas!