What Gmail’s New Unsubscribe Feature Means for Your Email Marketing

It seems that Google is extending its well-known crusade against spam to its popular email platform, Gmail. It all started a little under a year ago with Google’s introduction of the tabbed inbox. One of the most notable (and controversial) aspects of the new setup is that it automatically decides what your most important email is and sends it to the “Primary” tab in your inbox, while simultaneously shunting lower-priority messages (ie those from businesses and marketers) into the “Promotions” tab.

gmailAt the time, many email marketers expressed their dismay at the changes, since it seems the new setup lowers email open rates for those who manage a subscriber list.

Now that acceptance has set in, Google is once again shaking the email marketing world with the introduction of a new Gmail unsubscribe tool. Up until this point, Gmail users had to hunt for an unsubscribe link typically found at the bottom of promotional messages. Now, a new button will appear alongside the subject line of these messages. This means that users don’t have to leave Gmail (or even open the message) in order to unsubscribe from the list.

While it’s easy to see how all of these changes can improve the user experience, does it mean the death knell is being sounded for email marketers?

Far from it.

What it means is that any businesses looking to use email marketing to reach their customers must now consider how valuable and desireable their content and messages really are. Because the truth is if your content is interesting to the people you are trying to target, then they will actively wait and look for your emails. But, it means you need to be putting in the necessary time and the effort to connect with these people and understand their wants and needs. In other words, the relationship part of the customer experience is all the more important now- not just in your email marketing, but in all your promotional efforts.

So, in a way, the changes to Gmail represent a great opportunity for email marketers and the businesses behind them, because it practically forces businesses to look at their customers as people and not just email open rates, click throughs, sales conversions, and other such numbers. And, that is a very profitable proposition.

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.

Big Banks Tap New Revenue Streams with Prepaid Debit Cards

Just because the bank thinks you are too risky to be provided with a checking account doesn’t mean you’re not good enough for them to take money from do business with you. The prepaid debit card industry has been growing rapidly over the past few years, and several big banks and even credit card companies want in on the action.

ID-100108399Prepaid debit cards aren’t attached to a bank account. You can load and withdraw as much money as you want onto them from ATMs, pay your bills, use the card to make payments anywhere that debit or credit cards are accepted, and make peer-to-peer payments. Some cards even allow you to deposit paper checks (via a photo from your mobile phone), write paper checks, and even have your tax return directly deposited.

It’s easily to see the appeal of prepaid debit cards. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, the majority (59%) of prepaid debit card holders also have checking accounts. But, these cards allow them to better stick to a budget, avoid overdraft fees, and make purchases online without worrying that their account information will be compromised.

Another large population of debit card users are those who cannot qualify for a checking account at the bank (or who don’t want one). For such people, these prepaid cards are the best alternative to a checking account in that it allows them to make credit card purchases, and they don’t have to walk around with large sums of money in their wallets.

When they first came out, prepaid debit cards were pretty expensive. Users could expect to be hit with an assortment fees for practically any transaction or service. But today, as these cards have become more popular with consumers many of them are shifting their fee models to look more like… well, checking accounts. Instead of a litany of fees, users are charged a consistent monthly fee.

But guess what? Many of the most popular prepaid debit cards are issued by big banks and credit card companies, such as Chase, Us Bank, American Express, and Visa. So, whether you are not using a standard checking account by choice or by consequence, chances are you’ll still be doing business with the same big names.

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Should You Accept Bitcoins at Your Small Business?

It’s getting harder to ignore the rising popularity and ubiquity of Bitcoin, the most widely recognized open source, peer-to-peer payment system and digital currency in the world. As the digital “cryptocurrency” continues to generate serious attention, a lot of major companies and organizations have been taking notice.

WeAcceptBitcoinCurrently, there are thousands of businesses- online and off– around the world that accept Bitcoins as a valid payment for products and services. There are also countless supporting platforms that assist in the purchase and storage of Bitcoins as well as payment processing in the digital currency. Some of the big names in this space include Bitpay, Coinbase, and Bitstamp.

If you are enthusiastic about the Bitcoin movement and you are running a small business, you may have played with the idea of accepting it as a form of payment. But, on the logistical and legal side, such a move brings up a few, big important questions:

  • What is the right way to accept and account for Bitcoin transactions?
  • Is it legal? Will you get in trouble with the government?
  • How should you pay taxes on income received through Bitcoin?
  • How do you account for the currency’s volatility?

If you are going to accept Bitcoin, then you will need to use a third party platform to process the transactions in a safe and convenient way. If you are selling goods and services online, then you’ll want to use an online Bitcoin merchant solution. Some of these services allow you to automatically convert the Bitcoin to USD or any other major foreign currency. If you are running an off-line business, customers can pay using hardware terminals, touch screen apps, or they can use their wallet addresses through QR Codes.

In terms of the legality of Bitcoin and how you record your income for tax purposes, so far there is nothing illegal about processing Bitcoin transactions in your business. Most governments it seems are taking a “wait and see” approach to the digital currency and some of it’s major competitors, such as Litecoin.

For now, Bitcoin could be treated like a cash-based transaction. Consider how you normally record your cash transactions and then this process could be applied to your Bitcoin sales, and in order to decide what a Bitcoin transaction is worth, you could follow the IRS guidelines on how to value transactions made in a foreign currency.

Lastly, regarding Bitcoin’s volatility, the biggest factors to consider is what proportion of your sales you think will be processed in Bitcoins, and if your business can afford to sustain fluctuations in the value of those sales. Supporting the principles and ideals behind Bitcoin is worthy, but you don’t want to sacrifice your business for them.

In short, there are already thousands of businesses processing payments in Bitcoin. If you are considering joining their ranks, then make sure you have all the checks in place to do so responsibly.

Offering Personalized Content on Your Business Website May be a Trend to Watch Out For

As the web continues to evolve and expand, it’s hard to ignore that users are getting pretty used to the idea that their web experience should be tailored to their unique tastes, interests, and even the devices that they are using. After all, ads and search results are based on search history, responsive website designs serve up the best format based on the device of the visitor, and online consumers are offered personalized buying recommendations based on what they and their connections have purchased before. The next logical step is that a website’s content itself should be tailored to the individual.

laptop-workThe truth is this is far from a new concept.

Sites like Amazon.com nail it when it comes to personalizing the customer experience and providing content and product recommendations to match the person’s history and profile. But, Amazon is well, Amazon. They’ve got more than enough money to spend on developing and implementing such a system. What about the average small business with a website?

Enter: dynamic website personalization. Dynamic website personalization (DWP) is the ability to dynamically change the content, messaging and offers displayed to a select visitor based on a set of criteria, such as website behavior, actions, the stage of the buying process, and the person’s interests.

Now Hubspot, the popular inbound marketing platform, is one of the first services to offer DWP functionality for the small business market. Users are able to create what Hubspot calls, “SMART Content” and “SMART Call-to-Actions,” which would further work to dynamically change the content based on a set of criteria.

We’re probably looking at a few years before this becomes the mainstream user experience across the web. “Static” web pages will become a thing of the past as users get more comfortable with the idea that various parties and entities are watching their online behavior and deciding what content and messages they see. Chances are pretty good that users will even come to expect the personalization and customized recommendations.

Whether this is good or bad, this is where the web is heading, and business owners would do well to pay attention to it as it happens.

6 Content Idea Generators for Your Business Blog

These days, if you are doing any kind of business online (whether you are processing sales or are just doing some marketing and outreach), chances are you will be involved in some form of content marketing. For many businesses, this means maintaining a business blog. But, having to constantly create content may be a challenge, especially if you need to do it several times a week.

writing-on-laptop-1197801-mIf you are in need of a little inspiration, you may want to check out the following 6 content idea generators. Each one of these tools can help spice up even the most mundane content plan. Of course, you shouldn’t just rely on content generators such as these to come up with the titles that will make your audience take notice. Knowing your audience and your industry well is the key to generating exceptional content.

But, if you feel a bit stuck lately, and you just can’t shake the writer’s block, then you can give the following tools a spin and see where they take you:

1. http://titletool.contentforest.com/ – Enter a keyword related to your business or that you want your blog to rank well for, and click “Generate Titles”. You’ll then get a list of existing high-ranking titles using that keyword.

2. http://www.hubspot.com/blog-topic-generator – This is a new tool by the inbound marketing platform, Hubspot. Fill in the three fields with nouns related to your business or on something that you’d like to write about, and get back several relevant blog post titles

3. http://www.contentideagenerator.com/ – Answer 18 simple questions about your products and services and get back hundreds of great ideas for blog posts, articles, tweets, white-papers and e-books.

4. http://tweakyourbiz.com/tools/title-generator/ – Enter a noun or a verb and receive a page of title ideas including lists, bests, and how to’s.

5. http://www.contentrow.com/tools/link-bait-title-generator – Enter your keyword and select one or more of four styles: Controversial, Fun, List, or Shocking. Then press “Submit” to see your title suggestions.

6. http://www.portent.com/tools/title-maker/ This tool definitely wins the award for being the most creative. You only get one title each time you click, but they are interesting and quirky and can easily lead to some colorful topic ideas.

Know of any good content title generators that didn’t make it on the list? Share them with us in the comments below.

Where Have All the U.S. Workers Gone?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recently reported that the U.S. labor force has dropped by six million people since the Great Recession, and there has been little sign in recent years of this changing even as the economy has improved.

ID-100111821According to the BLS, those considered to have dropped out of the workforce are people who are experiencing long-term unemployment, yet are currently not seeking work. So, the million dollar question is: where did all these people go? Are there really millions of people out there who have despaired from ever finding employment?

A closer look at the situation reveals that the high unemployment rate may in part be due to the increase of those taking on contingent or freelance work. The two largest groups of the unemployed population are those age 25 to 35, and those over 55.

While it’s hard to get exact numbers on who is freelancing these days, according to the latest Freelance Industry Report, 75% of freelancers are between the ages of 30 and 59, and 12% of respondents were 60 or older. The largest group in the survey (26%) was the 30 to 39 segment.

Unless these freelance workers have officially started their own micro business, and/or are reporting every cent they make, it’s quite possible that the majority of them are just being labeled as “unemployed” by the BLS. If that’s true, then we can expect to see this same “unemployment” trend for years to come.

The economy has been quickly shifting to a more contingent workforce. This is largely due to a challenging job market paired with, advancements in mobile technology, the ubiquity of the internet, and a strong cultural push (among Millennials in particular) for the recognition that there is more to life than work. According to a study conducted by MBO Partners a couple of years ago, the number of freelance workers may surpass full-time workers by 2020, and the Freelancers Union estimates that there are approximately 42 million independent workers currently in America.

In short, as everyone chews over the latest labor report, just keep in mind that those statistics may not be telling the whole story. Not everyone there is much more to the labor market story.

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The Biggest Mistake Business Owners Make on Google+

If you have been paying any attention to the clash of the social media titans, you’ve probably heard about the explosive growth Google’s newish social network, Google+, has been enjoying- especially over the past year or so. While many in cyberspace have been quick to criticize for Google for practically force feeding G+ to the masses, there’s a growing movement of people who are starting to realize that there is an important trend silently playing itself out.

Google PlusWith it’s introduction and continued development of G+, Google is really ushering in a new era in the creation, exchange, and consumption of digital information- one that will increasingly rely on multi-media platforms and be influenced by your online profile as well as those in your network. It’s what is commonly known as the “social web.”

The key take away here is that Google+ is not just another social network; it’s just one part of a bigger user experience, and because of this, business owners in particular cannot afford to ignore it.

Many people already know the power and influence of having an optimized local search presence. These days, that means if you run a brick and mortar business, you need a Google+ business page, or your visibility online will be extremely impaired.

But, there’s more. Google+ has a number of amazing features, specifically, it’s searchability, and it’s Hangouts On Air, which offers a pretty seamless user experience across several platform’s and mediums. Plus, did you know that you can actually embed a Google hangout within a sales page? Imagine the potential over there…

That said, the biggest mistake small business owners make with their G+ accounts is that they don’t optimize them, and use them, or at least, they don’t use them enough. Whatever you think about Google, it almost doesn’t matter. There is a reality to doing and/or advertising a business online, and if you’re not going to subscribe to Google’s way of doing things, then soon it will just be somewhere else, like say Yahoo!.

Even if you don’t have so much time to put into G+, you should definitely make it a point to completely fill out your business profile and include in it important keywords. You should connect it to your business website and any other sites where you contribute content. You should also update it every now and then with fresh content. That little bit of effort will already put you several steps ahead of countless small business owners who have avoided G+ completely.

And if you have a bit of time, explore some of the new features, like Google+ Communities. Even if your peers aren’t on G+, there’s nothing to stop you from bringing them there. In many cases, you may even have a richer experience than you would on other platforms, such as Facebook.

So, the bottom line is, whether you like it or not, Google+ needs to be a part of your online marketing mix, and hey, you may just find it to be a pretty useful place once you get there.

7 Common Startup Financing Mistakes to Avoid

In the midst of all the excitement and effort surrounding the start of a new business is one of the most essential building blocks: startup financing. Yet, many aspiring entrepreneurs get this part wrong and in doing so, they cause significant damage to the business and even to their personal assets and credit.

dollarsBelow are 7 of the most common startup financing mistakes that entrepreneurs make as well as some tips on how you can avoid them within your own business:

1. Mixing personal and business accounts. Even if you are your business, and even if you will be relying on personal assets to help fund your business development and operations, keep your business accounts as separate as possible from your personal ones. This means having separate bank accounts, separate credit cards or other lines of credit, and maintaining detailed records of any personal funds invested in your business. If you are running a sole proprietorship or a straight partnership, then even with this separation, they’ll still be some overlap in your personal and business financial profiles, but it will still prevent you from many potential problems down the road.

2. Not putting enough money aside to cover personal expenses. When you start your business, you want to be in a position to make sound, long-term oriented decisions. But, this often means that you won’t see much of an income at the beginning. If you are desperate for money, you’ll be more likely to make decisions that may provide some short-term gain, but may cost your business in the long-run. So, before you quit your job to start your dream venture, make sure you have enough money set aside to cover your living expenses for the first 6 months to a year. If that’s not possible, then it may make sense to keep your job and make the startup process slower.

3. Not being realistic with time needed to become profitable. Right on the heels of the point above is the fact that many first time business owners fail to appreciate the amount of time and effort needed to really get a business up and running and generating some significant revenues. This is a major mistake than can lead to a number of other bad decisions, some of which are mentioned below. You should plan to not be profitable for the first year at least.

4. Not sticking to a budget. As I mentioned above, getting to the point where your business is generating profits may take some time. So, it is vital that you create and stick to a startup budget that covers at least the first year of operation. This will help to ensure that you spend money where it’s needed while avoiding spending more than your means.

5. Not properly estimating the costs of startup. Nothing in life or business always goes according to plan. In fact, most times it doesn’t. Yet, many aspiring entrepreneurs assume that everything will be smooth sailing with their startup process. Make sure you budget in extra funds to cover any “surprises” along the way.

6. Taking on too much debt. Even with the most well thought out business idea and plan of execution, there are no guarantees. Taking on a high level of debt in the hopes that future sales can be used to pay it off, can be very risky. It’s often better to start off small, start generating some revenues, and then slowly finance your future growth.

7. Not paying for professional advice and assistance. If there is one area where you really don’t want to be skimping, it’s in hiring a good account and lawyer. I know these professional services can get pretty costly, but if you’ve made the effort to hire good people, you will get more than your money back from implementing their advice and avoiding costly mistakes.

In short, if you really want your new business to be a success, you should make sure you are making the right moves in the most obvious areas, such as startup financing.

Motivating Employees in Your Small Business

Now that the holidays have come and gone, it’s time to get back to work and start focusing on the new year’s challenges and opportunities. One such challenge (and opportunity) that you may be facing as a small business owner is how you will keep your employees motivated and putting in an above average performance throughout the year- especially if you can not afford to throw a generous benefits package their way.

teamwork-concept-1382435-mMany businesses, big and small, get employee motivation wrong, putting emphasis and money into unproductive areas. But, you can avoid this by keeping in the mind the following five factors:

1. Hire the right people. Having motivated employees really starts here. While skills and experience are certainly important, you want to be as certain as you can be that this person has the personality and passions necessary to work in your business. Keep in mind that you are really trying to build a team. If someone really isn’t a good fit for your business, even if he or she has a resume full of amazing qualifications, then let this person go. It’s not worth it. Even the time and money-consuming task of having to recruit and hire a new person, is a small price to pay to get the right team working for you.

2. Create a clear and compelling vision. But the right team by itself won’t be enough. You need to rally them around a clear and compelling purpose and mission. When everyone is unified around a common goal, big things happen.

3. Give your employees some space. The more authority, wiggle room, and autonomy you can comfortably give your employees, the better. The more they are allowed to make the decisions and take the actions that are needed to get the job done in the best way, the more you will see them rise to the occasion.

4. Provide opportunities for advancement. Static jobs and roles are not only boring, but they are unfulfilling as well. Give your employees opportunities to advance themselves, their skills, and their careers through cross training, continuing educational opportunities, coaching, and feedback. They will be both more well-rounded and more motivated to do their jobs.

5. Randomly recognize achievement. There is a big difference between rewards versus recognition when it comes to motivating your employees. The problem with sticking to a rewards program is that the goal becomes getting the reward itself, while the bigger picture of doing a good job gets lost. A better strategy is the randomly recognize and reward outstanding performance. This keeps your employees focused where it counts while offering come recognition of their efforts.

In short, motivating the employees in your small business is not just about money and rewards. There are a bunch of other factors that can make all the difference between employee motivation being an opportunity instead of a challenge.