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Chapter 21: Ten (Digital) Marketing Stories

This is a bonus chapter of sorts. My wife Amea and my good friend Hans have been reading over this and giving me feedback over the past couple of months. The unfortunate part with enlisting people whose opinions are good is that they often make you do more work, and indeed, they’ve done just that here. They’ve said over and over again that as interesting as this web and social media thing is, they wonder if I’m being too general in some of my observations.

What they say

They’ve also noted that they’re not quite sure where the line between the person and the company falls. The fact is, that’s an accurate observation. The web is fuzzy and there are countless ways to use it. Social media also blurs the lines between the individual and the organization. As a result, many of my suggestions intend to straddle this. In crafting this section, I’ve continually asked myself if a certain piece of advice would be applicable to a local plumbing contractor, destination ski lodge, or perhaps an interior design studio. Most of the time, I believe the answer would be “yes.”

Still, I think it’s worth taking a moment to look more closely at how this digital stuff could be applied in hard, tangible ways. To give this some kind of a framework, I’ll look at ten different kinds of businesses, and what they could do right now with the web and social media. Most of these should be somewhat transferable to other types of businesses. Please note that all of these are entirely hypothetical situations and not based on any actual party or situation.

Case 1: The five-person travel outfitter offering tours of the Yukon

Based in Whitehorse (a small city in Northern Canada famous for its natural beauty), Jill and Rick have been running a small travel outfitter for the past 4 years. They use it to take people to untouched parts of the territory that are majestic and hard to describe. They work with three full-time staff guides, all of whom love the area and spend all of their spare time in the backcountry. Their operation is interesting because as far off the beaten path as they go, their expeditions are accessible to anyone and an awful lot of fun.

Over the past few years, they’ve had a great response from those who’ve taken the tours. Given the nature of these trips, though, most choose to do something else unique the year following. Some of them intend to come back again, but probably won’t do so for another few years. In the meanwhile, they’re having a hard time reaching new people and the poor global economy has slowed bookings drastically.

The group gets together for a huddle of sorts as they realize that the upcoming year’s bookings just won’t support the operation. As much as they love the work, they acknowledge that they need to sell more trips if they want to make a go of this. They meet over a weekend, go through some good wine, and try to figure out what to do next. Repeatedly they come back to the same observations.

People like the trips, but they aren’t sharing these stories. Plus, the Yukon is quite distant for many. Those who do hear about the operation have a hard time imagining the experience and some even find it a little intimidating. They figure out that if they want to get people to book, they’ll need to show them that their trips are accessible and fun. Meanwhile, they have to find a way to enable all of those excited past visitors to share their stories.

As the hours drift by (and they start to realize that their wine supply is almost gone) the gang comes up with a batch of ideas. The one idea that takes hold is to outfit their guests with small, inexpensive video cameras so they can record what they see and experience. For doing so, each guest gets to keep their camera, which only costs the operator around $150 per unit. In exchange, the outfitter gets access to the video for promotional purposes.

They edit the final videos down to make two-minute travel diaries. They then upload these clips to the web, and send the link to the guests who took the video. Each one has a “share” button directly beneath, allowing them to add them to any social network they’re a part of. So they get to share their travels with friends.

On top of this, the company starts carrying camera equipment with them wherever they go. In doing so, they start to collect a repository of breathtaking videos and photographs. They make all of these available to travel writers, media sources, and travel agencies; they also invite others to use these materials free of charge, so long as the outfitter is noted in the caption. Consequently, they receive what amounts to free advertising that showcases the beautiful sights and great times to be had on their tours.

Case 2: An interior design studio with a quirky sensibility

Siblings Bonnie and Boris run a small interior design studio in Portland. They’re an attention grabbing pair, and self-declared “enemies of boredom.” They loathed the dull and dreary houses they grew up in and decided that they wanted to fight such tediousness in their work. They like funky, playful, and sometimes weird spaces. To make these happen, they rummage around vintage shops and garage sales looking for one of a kind objects to help shape the homes they work on. They see every space as a new adventure and craft these around their clients’ interests and lives.

Although they’re really good at what they do, both of them absolutely abhor sales. Doing it makes them feel creepy, like they’re somehow “selling out,” and they just can’t get over that feeling. The real problem is that once they’re finished a project, their work is often unseen, as they mostly work on private residences. So they’re always living hand-to-mouth, waiting for the next job to come in. They tried some ads in community papers, but found them rather unsuccessful. Most of the requests were for sterile and contemporary looks, or for that flowery country style they grew up in—and hated. Both of these types of requests make the two “feel like barfing.”

It didn’t take them long to figure out that advertising broadly was a waste of time for them. The masses simply won’t “get” the kind of aesthetic they promote. That doesn’t really matter because they don’t need to appeal to everyone. Since some people delight in their approach, the challenge is for more of the right people to see their work.

The solution for Bonnie and Boris is to find ways to connect with more progressive people who want to have a little fun with their homes. They start with a simple photo blog showcasing the work they do. These images won’t connect with everyone, which is good. This filters out those who wouldn’t work well with them anyway. Then they decide to start a weekly online Q&A in which they answer others’ space design questions.

Doing so accomplishes a few things. First, it showcases their projects to people who’d otherwise never see them; furthermore, it allows them to connect with like minds. Some won’t be ready to hire them today, but will likely remember them when they are ready to. Most importantly, this gives people something to tune in to weekly and talk about with friends. In a spot like this, the weirder the design, the better, as people will be curious to check in again and see what the duo are up to.

Case 3: A software company focused on billing solutions

Paolo develops simple software that makes billing easier for home-based companies. People like his software’s ease of use. Therefore he’s been selling more every month. Since then he’s added two other developers to his team and the software is getting good reviews.

Although they’re getting some traction, Paolo realizes that they still don’t make much money—especially given they work such long hours. These days he feels like he can hardly get on top of things while he juggles development, sales, QA testing, and customer support. He can’t find the time to market his software sufficiently, and at their size, he also can’t afford a full-time marketing person. Meanwhile, their customers are asking for additions and plug-ins that they just don’t have the time to produce. Sometimes they feel like the whole thing is a hump that’s impossible to get past.

Nevertheless, Paolo’s actually pretty well connected. He knows a batch of other developers through his teaching at the local college. He’s also involved in the PHP community and his friends there have expressed interest in developing modules for his software. He can’t afford to bring them onboard as full-time staff members, but realizes that he doesn’t need to.

Paolo decides to harness the power of his community. He opens up his software as a platform for others to develop on. This allows independent developers to build out new tools and make money for themselves. This adds to the depth of his software and modules available for customers. All of these people working with him results in them becoming advocates for the software. Better yet, these connections help him test new versions of the software and share notes on how it could be improved. At no cost to Paolo, he’s expanded his product development team, enabled a committed testing team, and harnessed the power of word of mouth.

Case 4: A struggling not-for-profit addressing homelessness

A group of 20 recent university grads wanted to address issues surrounding homelessness. Being resourceful and smart, they banded together to start their own not-for-profit. They employ three full-time staff and the others volunteer on evenings and weekends. Many attest to them making a real difference, in part by getting out on the street and working directly with the people at risk

Lately though, the volunteers are increasingly forced to do bureaucratic paperwork; so many of them are getting burnt out. They signed on to work with the people and make a difference, not to fill in forms. With the economy being bad though, government funding has dried up. If they want to spread this work out a little, they’ll have to actively solicit new funds.

Most of the members of the team use social networks on a daily basis; they’re also longtime residents of the city. This makes them a pretty well connected bunch. They’re convinced that if more people knew what they were up to, they’d be able to generate the funds they require. This would allow them to hire more support staff, allowing the volunteers to concentrate on the work they love.

Their needs are to spread the word and afford a way for people to donate to them easily. They start by creating a website that contains information about what they’re doing; thereafter, they create a Facebook fan page and use it to spread the word amongst those they know. Meanwhile, they connect with some local ad people and create a pro bono campaign to connect with others. These ads are showcased on YouTube, and can be embedded anywhere. A number of their friends decide to post them on their blogs and user profiles. The cherry on top is a simply micropayment service that allows people to donate small sums to the group without hassle.

Case 5: An illustrator searching for a book deal

Cassie finished an art school illustration program five years ago. Since then, she’s been working as a part-time assistant at the library. For fun, she’s been writing and illustrating her own kids’ books. All of the stories take place in a magical land with weird and wacky creatures. She’s been testing them with the kids at the library and finds everyone loves them

She has contacted a number of publishers about the project, but few see her books as viable. The one that did offered a paltry contract and wanted substantial changes to the story and her style. None of this really worked for her. She’s convinced that the books work exactly as they are and she really wants to maintain her unique voice. From her experience at the library, she’s convinced that there’s a market for her books.

Upon talking to some friends about the dilemma, she learns about POD (print on demand) services like Lulu, CreateSpace, and Lightning Source. These allow anyone to publish immediately, without a traditional publisher. With limited setup costs, she can get something out to market the way she wants. Additionally, her creative abilities are a huge asset that will help her build community around the book and perhaps even inform upcoming releases.

Cassie takes the bull by the horns, self-publishing her book and making it available online. On the last page of her book, she invites readers to visit a little website she created. Here, readers find a number of things that allow them to extend the fun. They can read bonus sections, suggest ideas for future stories, and even upload their own artwork based on the book to be featured in the site gallery.

Along with this, she also makes a batch of t-shirts, hats, and other neat items based on the book. These are manufactured by another company like Zazzle that takes care of all the logistics of printing, warehousing, sales, and shipping. The beauty of this is that she never even has to touch the products. She simply showcases the merchandise on her site, and takes a cut from the sales.

The way she really connects with others is by actively interacting with users and building her network of fans. She does so by allowing readers to sign up for updates, which she calls “magic dispatches.” Some of these messages come in the form of personal emails from the characters, written directly to the kids. Additionally, she emails notes on new merchandise and releases as she makes them available. Oh, right—whenever she gets a “fan” letter, she asks these readers to write a positive review on Amazon.

Case 6: An independent accountant working to grow her company

Jayden just became certified as an accountant. She graduated at the top of the class and is really excited about this new career. Although she received a number of job offers from larger operations, she has decided that she’d like to go it alone. After some basic business planning and all of the other associated tasks, she starts her own firm and gets down to work.

The problem for Jayden is that she’s just moved to a new town and doesn’t really know anyone. She also has limited experience running a business and is sometimes intimidated by all of the tasks that face her. In her first couple of months, she’s managed to setup the office and get the basics working. Now that she’s done with all of that though, she isn’t sure what to do next.

She decides that it would be great to connect with other entrepreneurs, perhaps through some kind of a networking group or club. After a little searching though, she comes up empty. It seems as though there are no such groups in town. This surprises her, as she has noticed a number of new businesses and shops opening their doors over the past few months. This gives her an idea. First of all, she realizes many of these businesses could likely use help with their accounting. She also figures there’s plenty of knowledge that can be pooled amongst all of these folks.

Jayden uses Meetup to create a local entrepreneurs group. This takes her only a few moments, and once she’s done she starts to invite other interesting young business owners to join and share their expertise. This gives her a lovely “reason” to introduce herself to prospective clients and talk a little about her offering. Plus, with all of these people coming from such varied backgrounds, they can share tips on how they’re addressing common entrepreneurial challenges.

As she builds this network, she also starts a series of free bookkeeping workshops “sponsored” by her firm. She spreads the word through some ads focused on reaching entrepreneurs that run on local websites and in the newspaper. At these events, she invites people to email any of their questions to her. She then answers these questions publicly on a blog. In doing so she shows how interested she is in helping others. It also helps establish credibility in the community and also build link strength for her company’s website.

Case 7: A home-based sustainable maternity clothing startup

Gabriella and Jose just welcomed their first child to the world. As they awaited their daughter’s birth, they found themselves increasingly worried about the state of the planet due to climate change. They tried to start living in a “greener” fashion, but as they searched for more sustainable options, they found that few were available. They committed to doing their best to make the world a better place.

They toyed with a number of business ideas, but the one that stuck related to creating more sustainable maternity clothes. After six months of research, they had learned a great deal about sustainability; plus, they’d sourced some more environmentally-friendly methods and materials for their line of clothing.

All of this was going well, but they soon realized that their decisions around ethics and sustainability significantly increased the cost of their garments. They found that manufacturing locally, ethically, and with more sustainable materials made it tough to compete with those making less sustainable garments offshore. They’re getting rather concerned about all of this, realizing that there’s little possibility of their clothing appealing to retailers at its current price point.

Although Gabriella and Jose are both concerned about this wrinkle, they’re positive that sustainability is an important issue that will resonate with others. They figure what they really need to do is get people to realize that their purchases make a real difference. Ultimately, they acknowledge that theirs largely is an issue of education and they need to share this information with others.

Gabriella and Jose have limited money on hand to advertise, but they do have some time—well, at least that small amount in between burping the baby and changing diapers. They decide to put aside a few hours a day to reach out and tell their story. First, they print a series of small cards that accompany each garment, extolling the importance of sustainable clothing. The cards also provide a link to their website containing additional information on sustainable clothing. When people read this page they’re offered 25 percent off on their next purchase and an additional 10 percent off if they convince a friend to try the company.

Jose starts to write to those who blog about maternity and parenting, asking them if they’d like to try out the product. He’s clear to them that there are no strings attached, but that if they like the product, they’d welcome any support. Jose’s particularly careful about how he does this: every email he sends is addressed individually, and he ensures the recipient is interested in this sort of information. He doesn’t want them to think that this is a bulk message or spam.

Gabriella also starts to document her experiences as a recent mom. These stories often relate to being more sustainable and what a pain in the ass it can be. Her posts are funny and candid, and in sharing them she builds up a bit of a following. New people find her blog and learn about their company. More than that though, she asks buyers to email them with any problems. From this feedback they’re able to fix little issues and continually refine their products.

Case 8: A blues club based in a major center

Dan loves the blues. Scratch that—he’s crazy about the blues. After twenty years of working in a factory, he’s finally made his dream a reality. Recently he managed to get an operating loan, and his application for a liquor license was approved. Last May he opened his bar, and he’s been working night and day since. He never minds though—this is the most fun he’s ever had.

Even though he’s been able to get some good acts to play there, his bar is a little out of the way. The only people who tend to visit are those who’ve made advance plans to do so. The problem here is that with it so quiet, the spirit of the place just isn’t what it is on nights when it’s rocking.

After talking with a few friends, Dan realizes that his bar isn’t just a venue—it’s a place of worship for those who love this kind of music. He reasons that perhaps the answer is to just remind those who share this interest that his place isn’t that far away. He also starts asking how he can convert one-time visitors into regulars. He decides that the trick to all of this is to talk less about the bar, and instead, concentrate on his love of the blues.

Dan creates a simple blog in which he shares just these stories. His posts come in the form of personal experiences and photos from the shows that they’ve put on at the bar. He shares links to the websites of those who are planning to play at his bar. He does all of this simply—he doesn’t even pay a designer to make it look nice. It’s plain and sort of raw, but it comes from the heart. Slowly, he gets a bit of a following amongst local blues fans.

To learn more about what’s happening on this blog, he installs Google Analytics. He realizes that although his traffic was quite high at first, it has since gone flat. So he starts to place some small ads Facebook that are keyword and geography targeted to reach those who love the blues in his town. He also runs ads on local entertainment sites. Most of these ads link right back to his blog where people can get up-to-date news on upcoming acts. He watches the analytics data daily in order to see which ads work the best. He then tests variations in order to get the best value.

When people come to the bar, he gives away free t-shirts and bumper stickers. Each one reads “I’m crazy for the blues.” Admittedly, it’s not a great slogan, but somehow it catches on. The hook is that he puts his web address beneath this slogan. Doing so results in other blues fanatics (almost inadvertently) spreading the word for him.

The pièce de résistance is in the way Dan uses his blog as a way to connect with blues legends. He writes to a bunch of them asking for interviews on his blog. Most ignore him, but a few agree to a brief back and forth. With each that he manages to connect with, he asks them to stop by if they’re ever in town. Sure, some won’t ever do so. But by extending the opportunity there’s a possibility. Better yet, he’s had a chance to chat with some of his idols. He sure didn’t get to do that back at the factory!

Case 9: Independent filmmakers promoting their first release

Baraz and Parvana left Iran when they felt that the political climate in their country had became too unstable. They resettled in the United States five years ago, but never forgot about how things were in their home country.

Parvana is a born storyteller, and in recent years Baraz has became skilled in video production. Realizing that few knew about the situation in Iran, they saw an opportunity to use their skills to create awareness surrounding the injustices occurring there. They returned to Iran and started to make a documentary. There was a lot of risk for them in telling this story, but they finally got a finished film in place.

After completing the film, they thought the worst was over. It turns out that this was only one part of the job. Although they see their story as being important, the process of getting it to market seems daunting. Even if they get into film festivals, they worry that two few people will hear their message. Plus, they need to make some money from the film to keep promoting it.

Parvana and Baraz decide the most important thing to them is to spread the film’s message. As they discuss their options, they see that people in Iran and around the world are using Twitter to talk about the situation. They realize by tapping the power of these individuals, they can work together to achieve a common goal.

The pair decides to initially forgo a standard method for releasing a film, instead showing the entire movie for free online. Directly beside the video is a note about the costs associated in making the film. They ask those who found it important to donate a small sum to help them promote it, and recover what they’ve already invested. Meanwhile, they get on Twitter and connect with everyone talking about Iran. They ask each of these people to view the film and to consider spreading the word. Additionally, they connect with a number of Persian websites and write individual notes to the site owners.

On their website, they not only showcase the movie, but also discuss ways to take action. They do so by creating a forum for discussion that allows engagement on visitors’ behalf. They provide downloadable graphics and advertisements promoting the film for anyone who wants to lend a hand.

Case 10: An auto mechanic who works only on select imports

Rob loves European cars. He’s tinkered with them for years, and finally got his dream job at a BMW shop called PPJB Imports. After only six months though, the owner decided to retire. This led Rob to borrow money from his family to buy the business.

After a month on his own he learned that the financials weren’t as good as they had once seemed. Worse yet, he learned the past owner didn’t have a very good reputation. He feels bad about this and wishes he’d done more research before agreeing to the deal. It’s sort of a shame though. He’s affording good service and new customers seem pretty happy. Unfortunately, some just won’t get past its spotty history. No matter how hard he works to change it, he’s inherited a bad reputation and it’s hard to shake that.

As noted, Rob has been doing a great job for customers, regardless of the shop’s history. The new customers are saying good things and this leads Rob to realize he needs to quash the old legacy that’s getting in the way so much. He has to plant his own flag and send a clear message that his shop will be different.

Realizing that he can’t change every association with PPJB, he renames the shop. With the old name out of the way, he’s free to build a new legacy. He changes the storefront to reflect this, and advertises in local media to publicize the new name and his message of new ownership. He recognizes this is just a first step, and he needs to concentrate on the good word that he’s starting to establish.

He talks personally to all of his happy customers about the challenge he’s facing and what he’s trying to do. He asks them if they might help by visiting review sites like Yelp and talking about their experience with his shop. He hires a design company to create a little website for him, and asks them to showcase some of these reviews—both good and bad.

Bigger yet though, he asks for suggestions on how to make his business better. Part of this is accomplished by using cheap tools that others have developed. For example, Get Satisfaction helps him collect customer feedback and address it quickly and publicly. He also uses some services to track what’s being said about his shop online, Anytime he finds something negative, he picks up the phone and calls the frustrated party. He insists on nipping any bad reviews in the bud. If someone isn’t happy, he’ll do whatever it takes to change that. Sometimes he gives these folks $100 off their next repair; for others, he offers to redo the job and even throw in a free oil change to make up for the trouble.

In doing all of this, he takes control of his shop’s online reputation while getting real—and up-to-date—dialogue on his quality of service. Another nice perk is that when you search for BMW repair in his city, his shop comes up first every time!

The tip of the iceberg

Clearly, these suggestions represent just a few of the things you can do to connect with others, using these new tools. You really owe it to yourself to examine your personal situation carefully, experiment with different options, and determine appropriate ways to make it work for you.


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