I’m going to let you in on a secret: running a business (any business) is a huge amount of work. Crazy, right! Now that we’ve gotten that bombshell out of the way, it’s time to share some more insider knowledge with you: If you’re a business owner, you’re going to run into hurdles along the way. One of the biggies is the struggle to find new clients. There will be stretches of good days where it seems like you have more work than you know what to do with, but there will be lean days as well. Will the good days outnumber the bad? Let’s hope so! Will you notice and dwell on the bad ones anyways? Most definitely. You might find yourself awake at 2:00 am searching for new software or services that promise to solve your client acquisition problems. It is tempting to keep looking for the magic answer. But here’s the truth of it all: 99% of the time, the solution isn’t a new big idea, it is doing the little things right. If you take the time out of your week to stay on top of the little things, that is likely time better spent. For example:
1. Keep up with Professional Social Media (no not dog gifs)
I get it. You have a million things to accomplish every day, and it’s natural to prioritize the tasks that directly relate to your business. But, I bet you still find a few minutes to check your social media throughout the day. What if, instead of mindlessly scrolling through your personal Facebook feed and reading about the latest craziness from the White House, you purposefully engaged on your professional social media? We all diligently set up LinkedIn, but do we really engage with it? How about seeing what your LinkedIn connections have been posting, and consider adding your voice to the conversation? Making sure you are connected to all the people in the service organization to which you belong? Keeping yourself top of mind by wishing someone a happy work anniversary? These actions take literal minutes to accomplish and make sure that you’re keeping your business’s name out there. There’s absolutely no downside.
2. Google: Know it. Love it.
Let’s be frank, and acknowledge that Google has the biggest impact on how many potential clients find their ways to your website, and it’s up to you to make sure the Google Overlords look upon your business fondly. There’s already a massive amount of information out there addressing how to make sure your website is ticking all the SEO boxes, and I’m not going to get into that here. Plus, SEO doesn’t fall into the category of “little things”. However, staying on top of Google My Business does. Google My Business is a free tool that allows you to update your Google Business listing at any time. You can add pictures, engage with potential customers, and provide your most up-to-date contact info. If you can control what potential clients see when they do a local search for your business, then why wouldn’t you?
3. Circle Back Through to Prospects.
There is nothing better than that feeling that you get when you are on top of your game, you make an amazing pitch, and then you close the sale! The only problem is, that is so rare! Most of us that sell things know that the real gold is in the follow-up. We have written about this, but it bears repeating. Often, if you are looking for clients, the most productive list you can focus on is the one in your CRM system.
The topic reminds me of a favorite quote of mine from Thomas Jefferson, “ I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.” So stop looking for the big answers and the shiny objects and start focusing on the little things. And if you think you’re already doing the little things right, but still find yourself struggling, reach out! We’re here and we’re ready to help.
Many years ago, I received a letter from my trash company. I was surprised to see the letter, since up to that time my relationship with the trash company had been limited to the occasional wave when they came by to pick up the cans. The letter almost ended up in the junk mail pile, never to be seen again, except the headline caught my eye. “Great News About Your Trash Collection!” was printed in bold across the top of the paper. What could this great news be? Would I get an extra weekly pickup? Maybe another trash can for overflow trash?
I read on, and my confusion grew.
The “great news” was the reduction of my weekly pickups from twice weekly to once weekly. In addition, instead of leaving my cans at my door for the trash collectors to retrieve, I would now be expected to wheel my cans to the curb. Were either of these changes the end of the world? Of course not. Were they frustrating? Absolutely. Were they Great News? Not even a little.
I held on to that letter for years. For a marketer, it was a great example of how not to share bad news with your audience. Finding a way to put a positive spin on a negative situation is important. Bad news happens. It’s inevitable that at some point you’ll find yourself at a computer struggling with how to explain to your customers why your prices are going up, or your hours are decreasing, or your product is backordered. And in those situations, you certainly do want to find a positive side to the problem. But, maybe, consider taking a more nuanced approach than my trash company.
It’s About More than Positivity
Ok, fine. Stay positive. But don’t be delusional.
It’s tempting to want to wave your hand in front of your customers’ faces and say “This is great news. Trust me.” However, this approach never works. Your customers aren’t stupid. They know the difference between good and bad news, and they’ll resent you for insulting their intelligence.
Forget that detail, and instead of just helping them adjust to your original bad news, you’ll also have to repair their damaged opinion of your brand. Fortunately, with a bit of effort, you can find a way to share bad news in a way that helps your customers understand why the changes are happening, while also reminding them of why they chose to do business with your company in the first place.
The Right Way to Deliver Bad News.
Let’s say, for example, that the time has come to raise prices: a situation that we recently lived through ourselves. We raised the monthly fees for our website maintenance services, and needed to communicate the price increases to our existing clients. Price increases tend to be unpopular, and you always run the risk of customers deciding that they don’t find enough value in your services to justify the higher cost. Our goal was to break the news in such a way that we could soften the blow by clearly outlining why prices were going up, making to sure to highlight the additional services our clients could look forward to receiving with the higher prices.
Deliver a Problem Alongside the Solution:
Every problem has a solution. It’s your job to figure out a solution for your customers, instead of leaving them to their own devices.
In our situation, identifying the problem was simple. Finding the solution took just a little more effort.
Problem: Raising monthly prices for existing customers may diminish the value they find in our services, causing clients to explore other website maintenance options.
Solution: Instead of dropping the news into our clients’ laps, and leaving them to figure out if the new price was worth it, we made sure to spell out exactly how much value clients could expect to find in our services. In our case, the higher prices allowed us to offer our clients additional services on top of what they were already receiving. So, although they didn’t have the option to turn those services down and continue paying the lower price, we were able to soften the blow a bit. After reading the email, and seeing a clear list of the additional value accompanying the higher prices, all our clients elected to continue utilizing our services.
Communicate Early and Often:
After you’ve determined how you will restructure your offerings in a way that still offers value to your customers, it’s time to communicate the changes to your customer base. Ideally, this process should start as early as possible. In our case, sending each customer an email and a letter explaining your restructured offerings, and how it will affect them was the way to go. You might find phone calls or good-old-fashioned mail to be a better option. No matter how you choose to communicate, reassure your customers that they won’t see any immediate changes to their services, and that you’ll remind them before the new pricing structure comes into effect. Take the time to sincerely thank them for supporting your business, and express your desire to maintain the relationship. Touch base with them again the week before you implement the new changes, and consider including some type of promotional pricing to soften the immediate blow. Even the more skeptical customers will likely give the new reality a chance if it doesn’t cost them anything, and experiencing the new service in action might be all they need to convince them to continue doing business with you.
So, What Have We Learned Today, Class?
1. Before sharing any bad news with your customers, try to see if there’s a way you can tweak it so the customer sees more than lost value. This might be as simple as including a consolation discount offer with the bad news, or as complicated as implementing tiered pricing.
2. Communicate the changes honestly and promptly. Help your customers understand how the new reality will work for them, and why you believe they’ll be happy about it.
3. Seriously. Don’t start a “bad news” letter with “GREAT NEWS!”.
How about you? What’s the most ridiculous “bad news” announcement you’ve received (or sent. I’m not judging)? Or maybe you’re gearing up to send share some “bad news” of your own, and need some advice. Let’s hear it!
Well, we blinked, another year passed and Thanksgiving is upon us once again. As I do every year, I have been reflecting recently on where Spring Insight is, how it got there, and how many people I have to thank for that growth. This year, it strikes me in particular how much failure has played an integral (and positive!) role in what my baby has become.
Failing my way into a great team – I love my team. I know I say this every year, but I have never meant it more. I really love my team. You know what? My most recent two additions to the team are absolutely the results of failures. My copywriter, Sam, joined us after I failed to heed my own qualms on hiring and ended hiring the wrong person. My implementation marketer, Kate joined us after I failed to hire just one person (as was my plan) when hiring a copywriter.
Failing my way into great clients – Midway through the year this year, I lost one of our biggest clients. There are all sorts of reasons why, but failure plays a role. That loss stung, but it gave us great insight not only into what we could do better, but what we wanted to do and who we wanted to work with. That failure has given me a renewed focus and the direct result has been new clients that are a much better fit.
Failing my way into doing better work – I like to think that we at Spring Insight do great work, and we do! But, not 100% of the time. This year has been one marked by some failures as well. Our most recent blog discusses our recent failure to launch a marketing campaign. Failure has provided us some great opportunities to learn, to course correct, and to get better.
With all of that said, I really hope that you don’t fail to have a happy Thanksgiving. I look forward to another year of failing and learning and hopefully getting to know you better.
It’s the holidays, so all the “ladies” magazines are offering tips on staying lean in these tempting times. I’ll take my cue from them — let’s talk about being lean. But this has nothing to do with yummy, yummy egg nog. You don’t want to hear my advice about what to do if you see eggnog. (Drink it while toasting the demise of the patriarchal notions of lean!)
No, when I focus on being lean, I’m referring to your digital marketing strategy.
This topic is one that hits close to home for me, because, over the past several months, I’ve committed the ultimate sin of failing to heed my own advice. A few months ago, I had a brilliant idea of how to engage a new audience. My team and worked tirelessly on creating the perfect campaign that would be both compelling and persuasive. This campaign would be perfect.
Since you can’t see my drivers license at the moment, I want to point out that I came of age as a marketer in the world of traditional marketing, where ancient tools like printers reigned supreme. I’m proud of my background, and I think starting where I did taught me lessons I’d never had to have learned if I was starting out now. Lessons like: If you don’t proofread like a demon, you might misplace a crucial ‘L’ in the word public. If that happens, you’re gonna be at the printer aaaalll night, you are going to have dry fingers from applying expensive stickers to pamphlets, and costs are going to soar.
That lesson is important, because it demands high standards. But, in today’s age, we actually have much more freedom. We don’t need to make sure that everything is precisely perfect from the get-go. To the contrary, some of the most valuable insights we gain about our customers and potential customers comes from data we accrue as we execute a campaign.
You’ve heard the expression build the plane as you fly it? It’s straight out of Silicon Valley (and it’s a little bro-y), but it applies here. In the past your focus was on establishing a target audience, doing your best to aim your efforts at that audience, and pulling the trigger on a costly, durable, print campaign. The stakes were high, and you wouldn’t know if you’d succeeded until the whole thing was said and done. Learn a lesson? Apply it to the next campaign.
But now – oh ho! Now we have lean marketing. You can make tweaks while you’re in the midst of a campaign. A whole host of options exist to help you gauge the efficacy of your campaign – in real time. So if something is missing the mark, you can tweak it. And if you’re getting way more hits than you expected on a particular line of content, you can double down on it.
You know – you can build the plane as you fly it. My job now is to walk clients through this new, exciting, dynamic marketing landscape.
So back to that campaign… In developing this campaign, I found myself reverting back to the old days. The Ready… Aim… Aim… Aim days of yore. The Spring Insight team tweaked and tweaked and tweaked. We forgot to execute. No really – my tweaking and hemming and hawing took so long that, by the time we pulled the trigger, we’d already decided as a company to focus on another audience! (There may be some other soul-searching we need to do here, about whether this was ever the right audience, and if deep down that led to some foot-dragging. Armchair psychology post coming up!) The bottom line though, we spent thousands of dollars perfecting a campaign we never executed. (That is more than a little painful to admit.)
As usual, there’s no failure without an opportunity to learn some key lessons. Even if you know you’re going lean, it can be hard to pull the trigger on a campaign. After all, you’re putting your name on it! On the internet! You want it to be right. To avoid falling into the trap we fell into, master these five simple tricks:
1. Set tight deadlines. It can be easy to let deadlines pass, especially in your own company, and especially when it’s “just” marketing. Don’t. Set deadlines, for idea generation, pinpointing of target audiences, and establishing time sequences. Set a firm launch date, as well as dates for evaluation. Then stick to those deadlines.
2. Set measurable goals. Decide up front which metrics matter to you – what counts as success. Is it blog posts views, downloads, likes on Facebook? Define your call to action narrowly so you can easily measure it.
3. Measure your progress. Use a good tool to collect data about your campaign. I love Google Analytics and Interact, but every platform offers some analytics. We can help you figure out what’s best for you.
4. Periodically Reevaluate. Check in to see what’s working , and what isn’t. But don’t do this willy-nilly, some random Tuesday when you can’t sleep, and then reposition your whole strategy on a whim. Set timetables for when you’ll reevaluate, along with schedules for next steps.
5. Tweak Away. Use the data you’ve collected, along with critical thought by your marketing team, to figure out what’s going wrong and what’s working. Then ditch or improve the marketing channels that aren’t performing well, and invest more in channels that are out-performing.
Lather, rinse, repeat. At today’s prices, you can hone your marketing campaign for relatively low costs, and keep them going as long as they’re proving useful.
And that, dear friends, is how to stay lean during the holiday season and throughout the year. It really is just five simple tricks! And of course, if you’re interested in some guidance in executing those tricks, just give us a holler. We’ll talk over what’s right for your business. Perhaps discussing over eggnog?
Every so often, a powerful company in an industry makes a decision that shifts the earth upon which we stand. Do you remember the last time you played a game on Flash? I’m betting it’s been a while, because in one fell swoop in 2010, Steve Jobs felled Flash by announcing that Apple iOS products would no longer support it.
We are in the middle of another such shift. This time, it’s Google making the changes — and it has direct impact on your small business.
Even if digital marketing isn’t your jam, you’re almost certainly aware that Google search algorithms have a huge impact on how you construct and populate your business’ website. Well, now Google is impacting your web presence in another way: It wants all websites to use the HTTPS protocol instead of HTTP. (Yes, we’ve discussed this before, but it is important enough to discuss twice.)
That ‘S’ on the end stands for “secure,” and Google isn’t being a silly over protective grandma here. The HTTPS protocol protects both you and the visitors of your website. In a standard HTTP connection, someone wishing to cause harm could divert traffic meant to come to your site and post erroneous information, or even inject malware. Scared? You can read more about it here.
Google isn’t just hoping companies will adopt HTTPS protocol: It’s actively working to motivate companies to update their websites. Back in 2014, Google announced that it would start giving a search ranking boost to HTTPS sites. Then, in December 2016, they notified the world that they would start warning visitors on Chrome that certain sites (first those that accepted credit card info, and later those that collected any information) without HTTPS are “not secure.” This December, with the release of Chrome 63, Google plans to begin marking all HTTP sites as non-secure.
If you’re not a Chrome user yourself, you may not realize the magnitude of the change. To give you some idea of the impact, as of September 2017, Chrome held almost 60% of the browser market share.
Looking ahead, I predict Google will continue to make life difficult for non-adopters, perhaps noting “not secure” on search results page, and in the future, perhaps even gating the site, as they do now for sites they have identified as compromised.
What can you do?
Unlike many issues, this one is likely a pretty easy fix. The easiest fix is to call your website hosting company, purchase an SSL certificate and ask them to install it. (This will likely cost around $99 a year.) If you want to get your hands a bit dirty, you can go the free option with something like Let’s Encrypt, which Google sponsors, and which is also pretty easy. Details and directions can be found here.
If you’ve already seen your friends on Facebook counting down to the holiday season, you know December is approaching, and fast. Don’t delay in securing your website, so that your visitors can easily and confidently access all your small business has to offer!
As I sit across the table from a prospective client, we can absolutely agree upon one thing: Her business would be far better off if we built a fresh website from which we could promote her business and grow. I also know something else… she is not ready to do so. It isn’t that her business can’t afford a new site. It can. It isn’t that a new site wouldn’t provide substantial and (fairly immediate) ROI. I have shown her that it will. No, the objections she is raising all relate to her current website, which she had built fairly recently, at some cost and substantial time investment. We are dealing with a classic case of the Sunk Cost Fallacy.
What is the Sunk Cost Fallacy?
The Sunk Cost Fallacy is an economic theory that recognizes the difficulty people have with letting go of sunk costs – those investments and efforts they have already made in pursuit of some goal and make economically rational decisions for their future. The harder (or more expensive) something was, the more we value that item (whether it is logical or not.) An example of this (cited in Thinking Fast and Slow) is this anecdote:
Two avid sports fans have tickets for a game that they are excited to attend. One has travelled many miles and paid a lot of money for the ticket. The second is local and received discounted tickets. On the day of the game, there is a blizzard making travel to the stadium treacherous. Which of our two ticket holders is more likely to attend?
Here’s what they should do: Look at the conditions, figure out the costs of getting there from this point, and make a decision as to whether the value of the game outweigh those costs accordingly. But that’s now quite how they’ll proceed. If both attendees love the teams equally (and let’s just stipulate that they do, even though they paid different amounts for the tickets), shouldn’t their decisions about getting to the game from this point be the same? Yes. But intuitively, we all know the one who travelled further won’t be able to discount the time and effort he’s expended so far to get here. He’ll think things to himself like, “I flew across the country to get here! I can’t stop now!”And he’ll decide to go to the game based partly on the value he’s attached to it by virtue of the costs he’s already spent.
How does the Sunk Cost Fallacy Impact Small Businesses?
By now, you are likely thinking, “Yikes Erika! I thought this was about websites? Why are we discussing Econ 301?” Glad you asked. Sunk costs is important to economic theory because it impacts behavior and can be a business killer. (Stay tuned next month for the ugly details of a marketing campaign gone terribly awry, a case of sunk costs biting Spring Insight in the tush.)
Suppose you invested in some software and knew that you could reach positive ROI within a quarter and a half. That time passes and you are still in the red, but you hold onto the software. Another month passes and it is still not pulling its weight. Instead of seeking a replacement, you find yourself even more motivated to make the poor-fit software work. Worse, when you think about the cost of buying new software, you feel yourself factoring in the money you spent on the software that’s not working, and all the trainings you given employees and the extra hours you spent trying to integrate it — even though those costs are done, spent, and don’t actually mean anything in terms of whether it’s cost effective to buy new software.
So what do you do?
How do you avoid the Sunk Cost Fallacy when making decisions? The bad news: as long as you remain human, you really can’t. Good news, you can correct for it. The key is to recognize the sunk costs, and then move beyond them.
- Imagine a world in which your first decision doesn’t exist at all, and you are starting fresh. In that world, what decision would you make?
- Unless you’re giving yourself a pep talk about staying in school or finishing the race, “I have put so much effort into this” is irrelevant.
- Bring some fresh (unbiased) ears to the decision. They’ll be able to make a decision about the costs and benefits going forward, without getting hung up on what you’ve spent so far.
- Remind yourself of your original goal. Are you achieving it? What is the outlook for doing so?
- If you changed your decision, how easily could you achieve your goal?
So about that new website…
When I left my potential client that day in July, the questions I left her with were:
- What are your expectations of your website? Does this current website meet those expectations?
- Will the website you have now ever be able to provide you the functionality you need to improve your marketing and your pipeline?
- How much additional revenue would be possible if you had that functionality and were better able to convert more leads?
- If now isn’t the right time to make the change, when will that be? Why?
Note that all of these decisions are based on the value of her website going forward. Even if the last website was a pricey time-sucking beast, the important thing is whether the website is now and will in the future provide enough value to warrant keeping it around. If it won’t, it’s time to let it go.
It’s never good news to get stuck in the past. What about you? What decision are you holding on to that you need to just let go of?
And just like that, it’s school time. The most wonderful time of the year, as a memorably accurate Staples ad once put it.
I love this time of year, and not just as a parent. As a kid, I always looked forward to the return to the books, the excitement of learning new things, and even – wait for it – the report cards. #nerdalert
But seriously, there is something exciting about seeing your growth (or “areas for improvement” – ahem, sorry Mom for all those “needs to better apply herself” comments) on one neat, handy, at-a-glance chart.
I’ve taken my love for assessments with me into adulthood, and I find that quick-but-meaningful metrics are still the name of the game, especially in business. There are hundreds of ways to measure the progress of your business, and an equal number of platforms and services offering to provide them for you. Sometimes just wading through them all, or even learning what they mean, can seem daunting. Worse, you can actually get lost in all those numbers and not see the forest for the trees. So, although it’s important to have a handle on many measures of success, I’ve come realize that a consistent form documenting the most meaningful metrics at a glance is incredibly useful.
A report card, if you will.
And just as different subjects in school require different components of mastery, so too will your business’s report card require a level of customization for each subject. Because it’s my bread and butter, I’ve focused on Marketing and Sales here. Over time, I’ve come to favor these five metrics as the ones that most quickly impart the best information about my marketing efforts. Checked frequently, this report card provides me with a thumb on Spring Insight’s pulse.
Spring Insight’s Marketing & Sales Report Card
1. Web Visits & Conversion
Okay, so this is sorta two metrics, but I look at them as a pair, so let’s do that. Web visits = the number of unique viewers of your site, and conversion rate is the number of those who actually follow through and do what you want them to do on your site, whether that’s purchase a product, download an item of software or subscribe to your newsletter. Any ratio is just a division problem, so you get this number by dividing the number of conversions by the number of absolute visitors. If 500 people visit your site, and 10 convert, your metric is 10/500 = .02 or 2%.
2. Social media/email touches
Sometimes the lingo in online marketing cracks me up. Touches? I’m not sure how I feel about this word. But it does get across the idea of actually reaching a customer. This can be through email, an online advertising campaign view, social media views, blog posts and newsletters, or any other interaction you have with a potential customer. The question is, how many times have you interacted with – touched – the customer. This basic metric is akin almost to the attendance tally on a report card. It is important not just in terms of absolute number – i.e., I made 1,000,000 touches last month through my various campaigns – but also in terms of how many times each potential customer is touched. It’s important to know how many times you’re touching a potential customer before they convert to an actual customer.
3. Customer Acquisition Costs
Which brings us neatly to our third metric. This one is the culmination of the previous few. The CAC is the cost you spent to attain your customer – the cost of all those touches – including website development, blog posts, networking, billboards, and dividing it by the number of customers you actually attained. This one is much harder to accurately gauge than the prior ones because the inputs can be kind of wonky. (Does every networking event count? What happens when you meet someone at reunion? What all is counted as marketing?) I just create a “good enough” formula and keep using that.
4. Customer Lifetime Value
If you’re thinking, “But wait. My customers are actually long-time subscribers. Shouldn’t that factor into my measurements?” then you get an ‘A’! The Customer Lifetime Value (CLV) is an incredibly important number. It’s also pretty easy to determine, thanks to CLV calculators you can find easily with an online search. The number reflects that the fact that one purchase doesn’t necessarily capture the relationship you have with a customer. If a one-time purchaser becomes a loyal repeat buyer, or even a monthly subscriber, the total value of their interaction has to be taken into account for you to determine whether your marketing efforts are worth it – whether your customer acquisition costs are worth it.
5. Pipeline Strength
Finally, I look at Pipeline strength. Again, with the funny terms. Google this and you’re as likely to learn about corrosiveness of lead as you are about your business. But this pipeline is about what your business has coming in down the road. Given your capacity now, the expected changes in your customer base moving forward, and factoring in some potential unexpected shifts, does your business have a healthy flow of business moving in and out? If you have the capacity for fifty clients, ten potential clients are in the last-stage recruitment phase, and you know that several will phase out over the next few months, your pipeline is probably healthy. If no new prospects are headed toward conversion, you know you need to devote more energy to marketing, to keep that pipeline strong. Like Customer Acquisition, this is one that doesn’t have a straight forward calculation. I am embarrassed to say that I have calculated this before by hash marks on a whiteboard.
Keep it in Context
These are the numbers I constantly evaluate – at least monthly, and when it comes to pipeline, weekly. Just as with those good ol’ report cards from high school, these numbers don’t stand alone. They’re only meaningful when compared against each other over time. That’s why the quarterly grades are all neatly lined up against one another on a school grade sheet, and it’s why you should always be referencing the past – and your goals for the future – when reviewing any numbers now. 5,000 website visitors sounds incredible – unless you had 10,000 last month. The numbers are also important in reference to one another. An increased Customer Acquisition Cost may be offset by an increased Customer Lifetime Value. By keeping these five numbers in my own tracking system and comparing them over time, I’ve had a better idea of where Spring Insight is headed and what steps to take next.
You may not be the rare bird like me, who eagerly anticipated parent-teacher conference night. But if you want your business to stay on track, take a cue from your old teachers and create a report card specific to your business, to highlight your progress, and those pesky areas of improvement, in one easy-to-digest compendium.
So, here at Spring Insight, we’ve discussed how to harness the power of FREE! as a marketing tool. Free offerings are effective marketing tools, and their clarion call can be hard to ignore for business owners as well as customers. Further, samples, trials and demos can be a great way to entice and convert prospects. If you’ve ever enjoyed the Costco sample buffet, only to find yourself checking out with $300 worth of frozen taquitos, you know the principles at work here. But when it comes to your business, it’s important to realize that a $0 price tag doesn’t always mean cost-free. Having waded my way through my fair share of freebies, I’ve come to see that free doesn’t always quiiiiite live up to its name. Look, it isn’t that there is no such thing as a free lunch, it is just that sometimes free isn’t so free.
Working as I do in the digital realm, many of my default assumptions – and probably yours, too – are that certain products and services should be free. Where I’d react with suspicion if I showed up at Target and was handed a free shirt, I full on expect a software service I am checking out to let me have a free taste before I start my subscription. Based partly on this mindset, and based partly on my natural inclination to seek out a bargain, when it came to starting my company, I sought out free services.
Free project management software? Check. Free conference calling? Check. Free cloud storage, even though it came with limitations? Check, checkity, check, check. Heck, we still use free products in the day to day operation of Spring Insight… We love you Slack!
The Costs of Free
So take it from me, a freebie veteran, when I tell you I’ve learned some things along the way. If you’re making the determination of whether to go with a free service, make sure you take into account some costs that might not be immediately apparent.
Cost #1 Your Time
Free services differ pretty dramatically, some (typically the “have a taste” version) are great, others not so much. There is one thing that all free versions have in common: Customer service… or actually a lack of customer service. Of course you aren’t going to get friendly customer service with a product for which you aren’t paying. That means that when you are factoring the cost, you need to factor in your time. No one is going to train you on how to use the product. No one is going to give you pointers on best practices. You are on your own. It is tempting to forget the value of your time when determining the “cost” of a product but don’t. Every minute you spend figuring out a product is a minute you aren’t doing the job you actually started your company to do.
Cost #2 Tailoring
Free services are basic services. They are the off-the-rack, one-size-fits-all services designed to basically meet the needs of a broad swath of people – which means they actually meet the needs of almost no one. When we started shopping for my daughter’s bat mitzvah dress, a friend offered to let us have hers. It was a couple years old, not quite my daughter’s color, and it had sleeves, which wasn’t really what my daughter wanted. But because it was free, we took it gratefully and she wore it happily for one of the events. (If you’re not aware, the bat mitzvah industrial complex is beginning to rival that of weddings, and we were game to shave off costs where we could). The same principle is at work for digital services. WordPress, the service we use to create websites is a great example. It is open source and free… Yay! But for every client, we have to build it out to meet the needs of our client – very Not Free. When we looked into the cost of tailoring the friend’s dress to fit, it nearly matched the price of a brand new dress! Now we were in the worst of all worlds – a product we wouldn’t have chosen at the outset – for nearly the price.
Cost #3: Lost Revenues
Products that force you into a framework that doesn’t work for your business are a problem not just because they may not match your vision. A poor fit or lower quality product could result in real lost revenue. There’s a reason those basic free services are accompanied by a premium upgrade option. Providers start at the lowest possible level, enticing you to access pay levels by offering higher quality and features you probably want and need for your business at those levels. What’s beyond the pay wall? A wider range of services? The ability to segment your audience well? The possibility of really producing revenue?
Cost #4: You are a Billboard
A favorite quote of mine is that on the Internet “if you aren’t the customer, you are the product.” How do you pay? Much of the time, you pay by promoting the service you are using by showing their branding. A free Wix or Weebly website isn’t just promoting your brand, it is promoting theirs as well. Free conference calls are great, but can be sometimes wonky, and the fact they’re free is announced at the start of every call. I was in a coffee shop recently where ads came on over the Pandora station. My first thought was, really? It wasn’t worth $5 a month to create a seamless, ad-free listening experience? (Is that a first world problem? Yep. Are those kinds of problems the kinds your customers are in tune with? Probably). In other words, these free services aren’t just forcing you to do their advertising for them: The freeness of these ads may telegraph something to your customers — about how you feel about quality control, user experience, or even your finances, which you don’t necessarily want to telegraph.
Cost #5: Gotcha Charges
My absolute least favorite cost out there is, unfortunately, coupled with my favorite way to take advantage of free services. I’m a big proponent of free trials. They make a meaningful introduction to your products and services, making it likely your customers can choose the best fit for them. What I really don’t like about a lot of free trials is the gotcha ding if you fail to cancel a free trial it in time. So many services offer free trials for potential customers – but these trials require your credit card info, and a paid subscription kicks in automatically if you fail to cancel your trial period in the time and in the manner prescribed. The automatic subscriptions that result if you don’t cancel remind me of that Up high! Down low! You’re too slow (ha ha ha) high five game kids play at recess. It’s all fun and games until you forget to cancel and end up feeling like a fool. I despise these gotcha fees, and find myself beginning to distrust the companies that rely on them. Even the most scrupulous of business owner may miss a deadline, especially when they’re in the market for new services and have lots going on. Be sure to factor in, up front, the costs if you do. And calendar exactly when and how to cancel any trials you do use!
Cost #5 Transaction Costs
Then there’re the transaction costs that come with free. These are no trifling matter. If you’re doing the trial period musical chairs thing, you’ve got to actually monitor when services end, cancel old ones, sign up for new ones, and occasionally jump through hoops to do either. For example, many services allow you to enroll in services via email, but you have to make a phone call to unsubscribe – during business hours, of course. If you’re trying to cobble together a bunch of free services into a smoothly operating machine instead of paying someone to build a customized offering or to manage your services for you, you’re spending time on that which you could be spending on your business. All of this time, to beat some poor horse here, is NOT free. More than that, it takes mental energy and adds a source of stress. It adds another set of balls to those you’re juggling, and you’re already juggling quite a few balls.
None of this is to discourage freebies entirely. Free services are a benefit of the golden age of the internet, and many are a great addition to your technology plan. Spring Insight still uses Slack (which I mentioned above) and freeconferencecall.com, and I find it works well and doesn’t alienate any of my colleagues. I also make use of free trials – but for their best and intended purpose – to test drive a product. As it happens, I’m in the process of making over some of Spring Insight’s web tools right now (stay tuned!), and have been using free trials to winnow down my options. (And I find it quite fun!) But not everything “free” price-wise is costless. When you’re calculating your monthly budget, be sure to factor in the ancillary costs that may come from leveraging free services.
Want to chat more about free versus paid marketing opportunities? Let’s talk!
Hello everyone! I’ve been spending a fair amount of this month relaxing poolside, cocktail in hand, celebrating my birthday with loved ones in Hawaii. Lest you think I was completely idle during that time, let me assure you: I was.
But occasionally, I devoted some quality clear-headed time to thinking critically about Spring Insight. As we’ve been tailoring our packages for a number of small businesses, some of our clients have asked why we recommend a particular suite of digital strategy options over another.
It seems now is the time to discuss the length of your sales cycle and how it impacts your marketing decisions.
Sales Cycle 101
The sales cycle is the entire process a company undergoes when selling a product to a customer. It is all of the activities associated with closing a sale. Simply put, customers just think longer about making some purchases than others. It turns out that the length of the cycle itself impacts your marketing strategy.
In general, the shorter the sales cycle, the more important it is that you’re the first option potential customer sees. And the longer your sales cycle, the more important it is that you remain relevant.
Let me explain.
Say you’re a dentist. Someone looking for your services is going to make a decision whether or not to hire you pretty quickly. This is intuitive: Someone Googling around for a root canal is in something of a hurry. Even in a non-emergency situation, you can see that there’s a pretty short period of time between when someone decides they need the services of a dentist and when they choose which dentist to see (which in this case is the “closing” of the sale).
So which marketing strategies are best for the short sales cycle businesses?
Short Sales Cycle: Be the First in the Room
To capture these types of customers, a marketing approach should focus on being found and seen first. In the digital world, this is all about search engine marketing – think Google ads – and
search engine optimization (SEO – the art of directing unpaid search traffic). If someone’s searching crown repair in greater Milwaukee, and you’re an oral surgeon in the Milwaukee area, it is critical your office pops up in the client’s initial search.
The relative immediacy of the need impacts the types of research a customer undertakes. For short cycles, this is why reviews are so important. A person looking to satisfy immediate needs will be looking for quick, pre-packaged information. Reviews are so important for a business with a short sales cycle that businesses regularly offer incentives to customers to encourage them to share their feedback.
So if you have a short sales cycle, focus on a paid and unpaid search strategy that provides visibility when your customers need you. As an added layer, incentivize your customers to share their experiences, so that future customers can quickly and easily access information about your business – and quickly and easily decide to hire you.
Long Sales Cycle: Be the Last in the Room
Of course, many business transactions do not operate on such a short sales cycle. My own business – digital strategy – operates on a much longer timeline. Someone who is pondering a website overhaul or considering the next steps in their marketing strategy is likely to deliberate, and will rely on different types and sources of information than someone looking for more immediate help.
This is where you want to be the “last person in the room.” You’ve probably heard that, when policy decisions and other big controversies are at play, the person who manages to catch the boss’s ear last (be they the CEO or president) is the one whose viewpoint will carry the day.
When it comes to these longer sales cycles, there are many tactics to help you be the last guy or gal in the room. One of our favorites is content marketing. Content marketing focuses on building trust, rapport and brand loyalty, rather than on individual direct sales. To do this, an effective content marketing strategy will provide something truly valuable to a customer – say blog posts, newsletters, infographics, quizzes, or how-to guides. In exchange, your business can gain a little bit of info about your customer – most commonly, his or her email address. Now you can stay in touch, and remain top of mind.
Further, when customers are in the market for your business’s products or services, they already have the information about your business – the information you’ve been providing, along with the trust you’ve building – that they need to make a purchase decision. For products on a longer sales cycle, this source of information can be more valuable than a 3.5/5 star rating.
Determining the Length of Your Sales Cycle
You probably have a pretty strong intuition about the length of your sales cycle. In general, a decision process that lasts two weeks or less would be considered a shorter sales cycle. Anything outside of that is a longer sales cycle. Urgency is one factor which determines a shorter cycle, but there are others. The more customized your product or service, the longer your sales cycle is likely to be. If a customer is looking for something requiring a big investment or some customization – a new car, a wedding cake, or a digital communications strategy – the sales cycle involved is going to be more complex, rely more on the development of a relationship, and, in general, be longer, than for an off-the-rack or low-investment item.
The scope of your sales cycle is just one aspect of targeting your marketing dollars effectively. If you’re curious about your options and want to discuss strategy, contact us. And be sure to never miss a tip-packed blog post by signing up below! (See what I did there ?!?)
Every year I like to provide a summer reading list for you, my loyal reader. I thought I would mix it up this year and ask the women who form the Spring Insight marketing team to share with me a notable read – either that they’ve read or that they plan to – and now I want to share those suggestions for you! These books are great reads if you ever do get to the beach, or into a particularly humid waiting room somewhere.
The Handmaid’s Tale By: Margaret Atwood
Let’s start with the most zeitgeist-y. This one is as au courant as they come, but hey – our marketing team is in the know, y’all. If you’ve never read the classic Margaret Atwood novel, now’s the time, thanks to a new Hulu original series based on the book, and some certain unsettling parallels with our current political trajectory. But even if you have read it, now’s the time to pick it back up. Two of our team members, Kate and Sam, reread the book in anticipation of the television series, and both report that its story is as compelling as ever. The political tragedy, of a society in which women wake up to find their rights have been stripped away, is scarier now– less alternate-reality than it once seemed. But also, both of these mothers report, the human tragedy is achingly haunting. No one is going to call The Handmaid’s Tale the feel-good read of the summer, but we can’t recommend it strongly enough. (Also, it’s free on the Kindle for Prime members right now!!)
The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time By: Brooke Gladstone
The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time, by On the Media’s Brooke Gladstone, attempts to answer the million dollar question: How the heck did we end up here? Like The Handmaid’s Tale, this is not one we’d call uplifting. But it should be required reading (and it is, in a way, for team member Sam’s book club). It used to be that we talked about viewing things from different perspectives. We could disagree, but we could attempt to see things from “where the other person came from,” and that learning about that viewpoint could prove productive and useful. Now, it often seems as if those on either end of the political spectrum aren’t even looking at the same landscape. If that’s the case, how do we ever find common ground? Gladstone delves into the forces that brought us “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and lies disguised as truths. With excerpts from Brave New World and 1984, and a discussion on which one our current reality mirrors more (really!), Sam is finding it to be a fascinating but accessible look into the state of our political discourse.
And speaking of the trouble with reality: Your growing pile of unpaired socks (Where do they all come from?!? Where do the other ones go?!?). If The Handmaid’s Tale evokes the terror of having your life taken out of your control, and The Trouble with Reality drives home that feeling of helplessness, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up is the antidote. The author, Marie Kondo, is a Japanese wiz-kid in the world of organizational self-help, and her slim book, aimed at helping you take the reins over all the stuff in your life, has taken the frazzled set by storm. If you’ve seen Rachael Ray gushing about her new method of folding clothes, or overheard people thanking their belongings for their service before relegating them to the donation bin, you’ve seen Kondo’s influence. This summer, our own Brittany plans to read the book and give her home a little makeover. Brittany’s expecting her third child, and though she’s pretty disciplined about ditching the clutter, she’s heard the siren call of “magic,” and she’s game for some life-changing doses of it. Or at least, her nesting hormones have heard that call, and they’re in charge these days. Brittany’s got another nursery to get ready, but even if you’re in a more stable time in your life, we whole-heartedly recommend this book. It’s a short read, and it’s empowering. Kondo writes with a soothing cadence and makes you think that this time, really, you can take control.
Half of a Yellow Sun By: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
And finally, my own recommendation. This too is an aspirational read – I plan to read it this summer. I was very moved by the TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story.” In the talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian writer, warns against extrapolating from a single person’s story onto an entire culture or experience. I won’t encapsulate the talk here because I would rather you listen to the full story in her words. The talk convinced me that I should read more books about people in different places — by people in those places. I have not read much by African authors and so am planning to read her book, Half of a Yellow Sun. And bonus points, if you want to take Adichie’s advice and read more about lived experiences: Her more recent novel, Americanah, is a stunning, moving and fascinating read, about a Nigerian immigrant in America, and recently was chosen by NYC readers as the first city-wide book club selection. Do like the cool kids in New York do and read Adichie’s work!
So, with little rhyme or reason, we present to you Spring Insight’s summer reading suggestions. If you’ve read these, have thoughts, or think we missed some big ones, let us know in the comments!