5 Quick, Effective Ways to Do Market Research

Conducting effective market research has always been an essential part of business start-up, development, and growth, but these days it’s even more so. It’s hard to deny that the pace of business has been turned up several notches. There is this unspoken rush to get from concept to market in lightning speed (i.e. before anyone else does or anything changes). Moreover, countless young entrepreneurs and their Icarus moments are often being turned into public spectacles, heavily glorified and even praised by the media.

compassThe high stakes business crash and burn is has become a badge of honor.

In short, a kind of recklessness has emerged in the business world, and at the risk of sounding like a parent, it’s not the most positive of influences.

If you really want to get your new business idea off on the right foot- whether this idea is for a start-up or an established business- you’ve got to put in the time and the effort to be very clear about the current market demand and conditions.

Often, you don’t have to spend much money on this process. Here are five quick things that you can do to test out the efficacy of a new idea:

1. Get on the phone. Call up a few potential customers, the ones that best fit your ideal customer profile, and ask them if they would be interested in your product or service. This is a good way to initially gauge demand.

2. Get on social media…for research. Social media platforms are a great source of information and market research. Many of these platforms have their own built-in search functions that will help you to spot certain trends. Just a note here: don’t just focus on the trends themselves, but also pay attention to how people and businesses talk about them. What words and phrases keep coming up? What is the tone behind it?

3. Test with content. One relatively easy way to test the market waters is to create a piece of content that touches on the problem you are trying to solve and hints to the solution. You then need to post it in a place where many of your potential customers will see it and wait to see what the response is. If it generates a lot of activity and engagement from people then it’s a good sign that you are on to something.

4. Snoop out your competition. What is your closest competition doing in these space? What is working and what isn’t? What are customers’ reactions?

5. See what already works. Even if another company is not operating in your niche, you may be able to draw on their successful marketing, promotional strategies, and even products and services as examples of what you can do in your own company. Just make sure that there is some overlap in the target market.

In short, good market research is and always will be an important foundation in any business, and these days it doesn’t require a major drain on resources to do it properly. So, do yourself a favor, and don’t jump the gun in the implementation of a new business idea. Take the time and make the effort to ensure that you’ll have a profitable customer-base waiting for you at the finish line.

Zoho Targets Small Business Owners With “Pay What You Want” Campaign

Among corporate circles, Zoho is practically a household name as a robust customer relationship management (CRM) solution. But, for smaller companies, the range of products and services are often too much and too complicated.

zohoThat’s about to change, though. Several weeks ago, Zoho introduced a new CRM product specifically for small businesses called Zoho ContactManager. What’s interesting is not so much the effort to target smaller companies, but more it’s unique pricing strategy. After a 30-day trial (no credit card required), you can pay whatever you feel like paying, from as little as $1 a month.

The new ContactManager is an entry-level, cloud-based contact manager intended for small businesses that need to organize, share, and manage a broad range of business contacts. It gives users a unified view of activity related to a given contact, including email and social media activity, all in one place. The platform is also supported on a wide range of mobile devices.

Though there are other platforms out there already doing this for small businesses, Zoho brings with it, its vast experience and knowledgeable of the CRM and data management industry. This new product is particularly suitable for those who have yet to make the jump to any CRM solution, and instead are relying on “old fashioned” methods like an Excel spreadsheet.

Why would Zoho offer such a valuable service with such a “crazy” pricing model? Well, for one, it removes a lot of barriers, making it extremely cost-effective to at least give the platform a test drive. Plus, many small businesses may jump on board out of shear curiosity. Those who stick it out with the service may then pay more for add-ons and other product extras later on. Plus, if any of these small companies experience a major growth spurt down the road, they can then become customers of the full-featured CRM solution.

It definitely looks like a win-win for both small companies and Zoho in the CRM space.

10 Good Online Groups and Communities for Small Business Owners

Knowing where to turn to for advice and support in your business, can really make all the difference between success and failure. I know that may sound a bit strong if you are looking at this statement from the outside. But as small business owners, we see our fair share of ups and downs, questions, set-backs, and high learning curves. It’s the stuff that scares many aspiring entrepreneurs away. The minute they stick their toes in the water and it feels a bit chilly, they’re out in a flash.

In order to maintain some sense of balance, as small business owners, we need a place to ask questions, receive support, and get some much-needed feedback.

teamwork-1-1254520-mIronically, though the Internet is seen as a super connector, bringing individuals together across tremendous physical and cultural divides, it can sure feel lonely if you don’t know where to put yourself. There are all these conversations going on, yet it may be hard to find them or even know where to jump in once you do.

That said, the following are some great online groups and communities for small business owners to check out:

LinkedIn Groups

Many business owners may have some vague idea that Linkedin is a place where business connections happen, but they may not realize the full potential of LinkedIn for business knowledge, support, and advice. This is where LinkedIn Groups comes in. While there are many great groups to choose from, the following three provide a consistent flow of quality posts and discussion:

Small Business Accelerator– This is a great networking and information sharing group for entrepreneurs. You have to apply to join.

Small Business Online Community– An engaged online group for small business owners. Like the group above, you have to apply to join this group.

Social Media Marketing Networking Club– This group originally got it’s start on Social Media Examiner and has since moved over to LinkedIn. It’s one of the best LinkedIn groups there is for small business owners and has a very helpful, supportive community.

Google+ Groups

Google groups are a relatively recent addition to Google’s G+ social network. But, they are all abuzz if you know where to look. Here are my top three picks for small business owners:

Building a Company– Content and discussions around the nitty-gritty of building a business.

Entrepreneurs, Self-Employed, and Small Business– An active community for new and upcoming small business owners

Social Media Strategy– Active discussion on social media for small businesses and non-profits

Notable Forums

Compared to the fast-paced flow of information and constant changes that have come to characterize social media, forums may seem like an old school tactic that has past its time. Not so! There are plenty of vibrant forums to turn to for advice and support. Here are my two top picks:

Open Forum– This well-known online community and forum is hosted by American Express. Ask and receive advice and keep up to date on the latest in small business news.

Small Business Brief– This forum has been around for a few years, and it still supports an active community

Business Blogs and Social Bookmarking

We can’t leave out business blogging communities and social bookmarking sites from this list. Many niche sites have an active and helpful following. The two best in my opinion are:

Firepole Marketing– “Marketing that works!” This blog has a very active, loyal, and cohesive following. It definitely pays to spend some time there not only to absorb the insights, but to learn from and connect with the other readers.

BizSugar– This is a social bookmarking site for small business news run by the same people behind Smallbiztrends.com, and it supports a pretty active community.

Last, but not least, one other option that I didn’t mention above is Facebook groups. The reason I’m not including examples here is due to the fact that you’ll be better off finding a smallish group on Facebook that is specifically targeted to your niche or interest. There offer a lot of potential engagement, though, so it pays to search around for something relevant and not spammy.

Now it’s your turn. Where do you hang out online for inspiration, support, and advice?

Understanding the Basics of Inbound Marketing

The growing acceptance and implementation of inbound marketing represents a definitive shift in the way businesses are approaching sales and advertising. Instead of running after customers and looking for ways to make them open their wallets, smaller companies in particular have recognized the value of creating and sharing valuable content in order to encourage potential leads and to make current customers come back for more.

sales onlineIn other words, it’s a way of doing business that is based on “giving,” something that very much flies in the face of the traditional business model. For this reason, smaller companies are coming out ahead and leveraging content creation channels, such as blogging, videos, imagery, and even audio along side social media, to level the playing field against their bigger competitors.

If you are new to the ideas behind inbound marketing for your own business, then here is a rundown of the major themes:

Focus on Content Creation and Promotion. You create targeted content that answers your customer’s most pressing questions and needs, and you make a concerted effort to share that content in ways that will get it noticed by your target audience.

Marketing as an Organic Process. Your customers will go through stages as they interact with your company, and at each stage you need different marketing actions and approaches. It’s as if you want your marketing efforts to “grow” and mature with your customers.

The Power of Personalization. Without realizing it, many of your customers are already be getting bombarded with personalized content and promotional offers every time they go online. This trend cannot be ignored. As you learn more about your customers over time, you can better personalize your messages to fit their specific needs.

Multi-channel Efforts. Inbound marketing is inherently multi-channeled because it is based on reaching people where they already are, in the channel where they will most want to interact with you.

Big Integration. The platforms that support your content creation, promotion, calls-to-action, and customer support as well as the analytics tools you have in place to keep tabs on it all, must work together like a well-oiled machine. This allows you to focus on publishing the right content in the right place at the right time.

In short, inbound marketing is definitely a new way of doing business. But, it presents a great deal of opportunity to smaller companies that understand that in order to encourage the interest and investment of their customers, they need to give in order to receive.

4 Power Tips To Generate Sales on LinkedIn That Most Users Miss

Over the past few years, LinkedIn has been growing in both it’s user base and it’s reputation. The social networking platform has practically become synonymous with the online resume and business hobnobbery and recently boasted over 225 million members across 200 countries.

LinkedIn-LogoBut, with so much happening on LinkedIn, getting noticed can be a real challenge. Add to this the fact that LinkedIn has chosen to discontinue several services and apps, such as LinkedIn Answers and Polls, that were quite popular among small business owners. For this reason, if you are just starting out on the platform, you need to do what you can to optimize your time and presence there.

To get you started, here are four LinkedIn success tips that are frequently over-looked, yet can generate a tremendous amount of interest in your business:

Include a call to action. You can have the most optimized profile in the whole of LinkedIn that’s generating tons of traffic, but if you don’t have any calls-to-action, it won’t do you much good. Instead of simply filling in LinkedIn’s generic “my website” or “my blog” links on your profile page, make the effort and to give your visitors reasons to click on your links.

Showcase your products, services, and expertise. There are several areas in LinkedIn where you can showcase your work. In your profile page, you can now highlight specific projects including media-rich documents. If you are maintaining a company page, then be sure to fill out the “Products and Services” section. Not only is this your opportunity to explain what you offer in a compelling way, individuals can recommend and share the products you list, becoming ambassadors for your brand.

Optimize your profile for search. With hundreds of millions of people searching LinkedIn, you want your company’s profile to stand out. When crafting your profile language, be sure to include keywords that are related to your business and industry to help improve the chances of your name appearing in LinkedIn’s internal search results. Think of these keywords as the words a potential client would type in when searching LinkedIn.

Use InMail and targeted updates. LinkedIn gives you the option of putting your updates and messages in front of the people who matter the most. LinkedIn’s internal mail system, InMail, can help you reach professionals that may not be so reachable elsewhere. Targeted status updates can be an effective way for business owners to tailor the content in their status updates to specific types of company followers. These can be accessed from your LinkedIn Company Page.

In short, when it comes to success on LinkedIn, you need to make sure that your presence is properly optimized. It gets your foot in the door to take advantage of all that LinkedIn has to offer.

How Social Media Can Increase Trade Show Success

In a world where business communications are moving at the speed of light, trade show marketing may seem like a dusty relic… from the outside. If you’ve had any experience manning a trade show booth or attending such an event, then you know that trade shows are alive and well. They remain hubs of intensely concentrated marketing, presenting, and networking.

Biz CardAccording to the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR), 81% of trade show attendees have buying authority, and 99% of marketers say they find unique value from trade shows they do not get from other marketing mediums. The top most valued aspect of trade shows are the ability to see lots of prospects, customers, and other players, such as suppliers and resellers, in one place all at the same time.

But all of this activity presents a couple of major challenges for the presenting companies: how do you stand out from the crowded field of other presenters and how do you help to ensure that you are connecting to the right people?

This is where social media comes in. If you can think strategically and get the ball rolling before the actual trade show event takes place, then here are three ways you can increase trade show success via social media:

Generate some pre-event buzz. Set up an event page on your blog or on Facebook specifically for the upcoming trade show. Not only will this help to build excitement for the event, but interacting with customers before the show will give you a better idea of what they want to see.

Spice up your contests and giveaways. Trade shows have become synonymous with swag. But, you can break away from the custom key chains and pens by offering a few big-ticket items that will draw more interest to your booth. The catch is that to snag these top prizes, visitors must interact with you via social media.

Maintain relationships. One of the biggest benefits of encouraging social media engagement among attendees is the ability to maintain a connection with these people long after the event has ended. You can encourage trade show visitors to follow your social media sites by letting them know that you’ll be running a series of special promotions after the trade show.

In short, for many businesses, trade show marketing can be a lucrative endeavor. But, you may have to think outside the box in order to maximize the benefits. Social media provides the tools to help you do just that.

Image credit: http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/

The Traits of Successful Authority Business Bloggers

After Google started changing the search game a couple of years back, there’s been a lot of discussion about blogging “authority.” Now, plenty of people throw around the term indiscriminately. But what does being an authority within a given blogging niche look like? And, how do you get there with your business blog?

If you examine the most well-known A-list bloggers, you’ll find several traits and characteristics in common:

They communicate with authority. Just about any known authority blogger will agree that the biggest names out there are not necessarily the ones who know the most about their chosen niche. Part of what sets them apart from the rest is how they give over the knowledge and observations that they do have. Now, there is a paper-thin fine line between talking with authority and sounding like a know-it-all. To find that balance just keep this in mind: someone who is truly an authority in a particular subject won’t try so hard to get others to acknowledge it, and he or she will be open to further knowledge and understanding. Having a question, needing help, or even making a mistake won’t seem threatening.

They are connected to other authority bloggers. The top bloggers in any given niche know each other, work with each other, and promote each other’s work- even if they seem to have competing websites. Unless you are working in a hyper small niche, there is enough of an Internet traffic pie that you don’t have to worry about another site stealing your traffic. On the contrary, there is definitely strength in numbers, and you’ll frequently see top bloggers mentioning, promoting, working with, and in general supporting other top bloggers.

They have large follower numbers across channels. Take a look at the online social profiles of successful bloggers and you’ll no doubt see that they have an active presence on several different platforms and mediums and a pretty significant following in each. Now, obviously, what constitutes as “large” will really depend on your niche, so take that into consideration. Also, I suspect that many top bloggers hand over some of their social media maintenance to their hired staff or virtual assistants.

They have Klout. Put simply, it’s not just that people share your content, it’s also that those who share your content are influential in their own respects and have large followings themselves.

Their content is about relevant and timely issues. Top bloggers know their audience really well. They know what topics to discuss and how to discuss them. They also excel at content curation, using services such as Paper.li and Scoop.it.

They know where to promote their content, products, or services to get the biggest impact. The minute a successful authority blogger has a new product, service, or announcement to promote, he or she just sends out a few emails and instantly has recommendations and several links back to his or her site. This last trait is really a build up from all the points above, and it allows the blogger to instantly get targeted, quality traffic to his or her site.

In short, being an authority business blogger involves having the right mindset, realizing the importance of networking with other bloggers and being in touch with the needs and wants of your target audience. Understand this, and you’ll rise up in the ranks of blogging authority in no time flat.

How to Succeed As an Entrepreneur in 2012

Earlier this week, I saw an interesting post by Scott Shane over at SmallBizTrends.com in which he highlights a trend that so far seems to have avoided media scrutiny: an apparent entrepreneurial exodus has been going on over the past five years. Though the number of people taking the entrepreneurial plunge seems to have increased in recent years, so has the number of people leaving entrepreneurial rat race.

 

 

After reading the post, it got me thinking. There are plenty of bloggers out there who have laid out what they feel will lead to entrepreneurial success. There are even tests that people can take that can measure their potential to run their own business. But the truth is that each and every year brings with it its own set of challenges and opportunities that can significantly influence one’s ability to successfully start and run a business.

 

That said, here are a few additional factors that will help new entrepreneurs succeed specifically in 2012:

 

  • Access to capital. Though interest rates remain at all time lows, and several leading economic indicators suggest that the U.S. economy is making some kind of a recovery (albeit a slow one), a recessionary shadow (or maybe cloud is more appropriate) lurks yet around. The housing market, after all is still a mess, unemployment remains painfully high, the government is in many ways dysfunctional and opaque, and our global economic partners don’t seem to be doing any better. That said, fiscal responsibility and caution still rule the day, even on a personal level. Many new entrepreneurs these days have taken to bootstrapping their businesses rather than relying on outside money. There has also been a surge in demand for microloans and more alternative forms of financing ranging from business cash advances to crowdfunding.

 

  • A very well-defined niche. One of the fallouts of the Internet boom has been an increase in competition and “noise.” With low barriers to entry, many have jumped into the pool making it hard for some smaller businesses and solorpreneurs to tread water, let alone get to a profitable place. The result: if you want to avoid sinking online then you need to find a very specific micro-niche.

 

  • Social media fluency. Though social media has been making small business headlines for a few years now, it has become all the more vital in 2012. While conducting an effective social media strategy takes some know-how and an investment of both time and money, it is an area that new entrepreneurs and small business owners cannot afford to ignore- especially with the emergence of Google+ an all-encompassing, user-friendly social media platform.

 

  • Patience and perseverance. Though being a successful entrepreneur often comes with a healthy dose of patience and perseverance, in 2012 those qualities will be even more important- especially in light of the above trends. It often takes time to get together the capital needed to start a business while not exposing yourself to unreasonable financial risk, and it takes time to develop your niche and brand, and then to go about building communities and followers around them.

 

The bottom line is that while the new year may promise opportunity for many small business owners, there are at the same time some very unique challenges to making a business work. It’s a brave new world and success will be determined by how well you understand and adapt to that which makes it new.

 

 

Beyond the Credit Bureau: Social Sourcing Your Creditworthiness?

Just when you thought it was hard enough to remain creditworthy as a small business owner or solopreneur, a new report published at American Banker highlights a potential banking trend that could change the way credit is built and maintained. According to the report that discusses nine trends affecting risk software in the banking industry, some banks have begun to consider additional data when determining a person’s creditworthiness.

 

 

So what exactly is this “additional data”? From the report:

One idea banks are toying with is that of incorporating social media data into assessments of credit risk, for instance, by considering the credit scores of a person’s friends in addition to that person’s own score. However, information posted on social media is not always 100% accurate. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, banks have to be able to verify customer data. “If I went on LinkedIn and said I have a PhD in astrophysics, which is not true, a number of people might comment on that, but the bank would still need to check that,” Jennings points out.

Though the use of social media to assess credit risk is still just in the realm of theory for banks, some small financial institutions, such as online microlender Lenddo, have already begun to experiment with the data.

While visions of social credit snobbery immediately fill my mind: “Friends with you?! Sorry, buddy, you’re credit’s too low!” It does raise an interesting question of how our social circles can relate to our ability to maintain good credit, and it may make you think a bit before accepting that new friend request.

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Using Social Media to Hire? Watch Out or You May Get Sued!

As we all know, people post highly personal information about themselves on Facebook and other Social Media without thinking twice. Religion, sexual orientation, race relationship status and other personal issues are all part and parcel of the Facebook profile.

 

Social Networks would seem to be the ideal platform to find qualified candidates for jobs. Think about it – finding jobs or suitable candidates for jobs is often based on networking – a friend of a friend who has heard about a highly qualified individual who is looking for a job.

Theoretically, this would seem to be a win-win situation. But according to Federal Equal Employment Laws, employment discrimination is prohibited against qualified individuals with disabilities. They also ban discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin or age. In some states, even stricter rules are imposed in the matter of employment discrimination.

The sort of information related to a candidate’s race, national origin and even one’s pregnancy status comes under the definition of “protected information” and as a potential employer you are banned from asking about it in the course of an interview.

But this sort of protected information is served to you on a silver platter in the candidate’s social media profile. Is it legal for your company to use it when considering possible candidates for a position?

Let’s consider a situation where a highly qualified woman has applied for a position. But then the woman’s Facebook profile shows that she is pregnant. Legally, the potential employer is not allowed to act on this information and may just end up being sued for discrimination if he decides not to hire the candidate. The icing on the cake is that you, as the potential employer, have to be able to prove that the candidate’s pregnancy was not the reason for hiring another applicant. Not an undertaking that most employers relish.

Despite the risks, don’t discount social media as a platform for hiring just yet. Protect yourself by departmentalizing the hiring process. Have one individual conduct the online search and another entity (perhaps a screening or HR agency) deal with the actual hiring. If you choose to discuss the candidate with your online researcher, avoid any questions connected to protected information.

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