How Service Creates Sales

I narrowed my options in a software category to two choices.    Both offered 30 day trials, one even boasting that the trial could be started without a credit card.

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I selected the one I knew had been in business much longer since both had roughly the same service offering as far as I could see without knowing the category.  (This is the marketing part.  If one is superior, the other marketers did a tremendous job causing the services to appear equal).

My software was going to work with a well known company’s website.  Both services required me to allow them to link to that company’s site and access my information there.  With my choice made for the older company, that’s what I did.

And received a failure message.

Like someone impatiently pushing an elevator’s up button to summon the car, I tried to link the service and the site at least four times.  I began getting error messages and quit, not wanting the original site to think my account was being hacked.

But at 6:30, I tried one thing.  I wrote tech support.  This company was smart enough to open its help ticket platform to everyone so even though I had never given them a penny, I was able to describe the issue and ask if I had done something wrong.  It was either past the end of the business day or near enough throughout North America.

Beep.  My email popped with a response asking for more details.  But it was a personalized response on top of a template.  I answered back and Kyle, the employee, and I went back and forth in email like you do sometimes with an old buddy when you’re having a conversation and you’re both too lazy to pick up a telephone.

By 7:00 p.m., Kyle diagnosed the issue. It seems someone whose identity I’ll cloak but whom I share many emails with trialed the service more than a year ago.  They didn’t really do much with it, and I didn’t even know they had trialed it. Kyle was emphatic that I keep the original account.  I know the cues and signals he was giving me, and I went with his judgment.

Crisis Averted.  Now What?

But could the trial be extended?

That was pushing my luck too far.   Kyle suggested I sign up for a monthly plan in lieu of a trial to minimize risk.

I waited no more than three seconds.  In that time, I thought of the competitor’s free trial still open to me.  But would they have their own Kyle?  Because no matter what else was behind this organization, if tech support’s culture was one of customer and prospect first, wasn’t it just worth a single month?

I told Kyle I would take the offer.  And then I told Kyle what I just told you in a short email.  I named the competitor and told Kyle to show it to his boss, giving them both validation and ammunition to executives that amazing service and competency is a combination that will often trump any other combination.

Your takeaway as a small business leader is to work constantly with the people who interact with customers and potential customers.  Throw away the nonsensical notions of not spending a lot of time on people just looking around.   They can be your strongest advocates who remain your customers at increasingly high margins with great word-of-mouth for years.

Why Marketers Look For The Next Search

Phrases like first click, second click, attribution and others undoubtedly swirl around your head like gnats during a summer hike across a field.   You can brush them away all you want, but if you read about online marketing, you’re still going to hear a lot about them.

Today you’re going to learn about search query refinements.

Let’s pretend your business is a men’s apparel shop and an unimaginative someone looked for a tie as a Father’s Day.  They may have arrived at your site after typing the phrase “men’s tie” into Google.

As you can see, that’s a standard search for many people. But knowing whether the person then uses your own site’s search form to refine their search and look for “bow tie”, “silk tie” or some other tie can change your business.  Here’s how:

1.  Our visitor searched first for a generic term that an apparel retailer may not even use. After all, women’s ties are not exactly hot sellers.  So we know that someone is searching with an idea but without explicit regard for price, brand or even style of tie.  We know their intent, which is simply to learn about ties at this point.

2.   If our visitor then uses our search form to type the word “bow tie” or “wedding tie” or “silk tie”, we learn a lot more and can begin understanding the linkage between the searches.  If some big percentage of our bow tie sales start off as a search engine query for “men’s ties”, it doesn’t matter what we think the right words are.

The market is telling us the proper keyword phrases.  We only need to listen.

3.  If a tie ends up in a shopping cart and your user searches for something else, congratulations!  You’re on your way to building constructs–models of typical shoppers.  Imagine 80% of your bow tie customers also purchase cuff links.  You might be tempted to advertise on the phrase “cuff links”, but your typical customer may want to square away the tie issue first before looking at other items.

Your takeaway is to create a website with the least possible “friction”.  Don’t make visitors think–guide them based on your analysis of past visitors.

Of course you have to have the tools on site if someone wants to immediately flip from “men’s ties” to “cuff links”, but that’s a different shopper.

Google just did a similar analysis on its own primary business–its search engine–using World Cup search queries.  The search company analyzed what people searched for after searching for a World Cup participant.

Their three main findings:

1.  Search for one of the world’s most popular players, and you’re likely to search for another player of that caliber.  In our example, if you search for a designer tie, you may then search for cuff links or a pocket square before searching for sandals.

2.  Players from the same country are usually connected.   This makes sense too.  If you’re looking at “men’s ties” and shift to “designer ties”, you’re going to stay in the country of ties until you buy, find a substitute or choose not to buy at all.

3.  Players on the same professional team are linked.  Professional athletes often play for their home country in international competition.   The analysis cites Spaniard Fernando Torres who plays professionally for Liverpool.  People searching for Torres might be interested in his teammates from Spain (see #2), but they may also be looking for his Liverpool teammates like Steven Gerrard who is playing for England.

Picture your tie buyer one more time.  They’ve looked at designer ties by Prada.  They may next look for Burberry.  They likely are not going to search for Covington ties, which is a Sears house brand.  If they do, you’ve just defined another shopper type–someone who is looking to move upmarket, but doesn’t close.

If you use Google Analytics, setting up your internal search forms to capture data as easy.  If you use clickstream analytics or otherwise look at individual visitors, this is going to be easy.

But starting now means that your website can be more profitable as you design pages that give customers what they want instead of making them search.

Do You Know Your Twitter Limit?

Fast.  No counting on your toes.  Just answer this question really fast.

How many characters can you tweet while reasonably expecting a re-tweet?

Email and blogs without size constraints trained a generation of people to write rambling prose.  Then came Twitter with its 140 character limit.  People have slowly adapted although those you who treat each 140 character point as a paragraph mark better cut it out.

The problem surfacing more lately as everyone makes their way to the platform is that many small businesses are not leveraging Twitter’s magical re-tweet (RT) function.  Multiple people re-tweeting your message can drive a huge volume of traffic to your site or effort.

Think about the impact.  Your message is tweeted and then four people, each with hundreds or thousands of followers, each re-tweet the message.  Your audience just moved from your Twitter followers who happen to see that message to a much bigger number.

And the cascading effect doesn’t have to end with one re-tweet.

Know your retweet size limits

But there’s a problem. When I asked about Twitter length, you probably instinctively said that the limit was 140 characters, which is the correct answer, but not optimal.

The optimal Twitter length for something you hope to have re-tweeted is 140 characters minus the number of letters in your Twitter username and minus another 5 characters.

Think about the form of most re-tweets.   The standard is:

RT @username Message.

That’s 3 characters for RT and a space, another character for the @ sign and a fifth character for the space between your username and message.

With a name like @georgebounacos, I have something else to gripe about regarding my last name.   With no spacing it’s 14 characters.   Add on the 5 additional spaces, and my Twitter limit for things I want re-tweeted is 121 characters.

Remember:  Twitter is the don’t-pause-for-anyone lifestreaming utility.  Many users access Twitter on a phone.  If they can retweet a worthy message, they often will, but there has to be real dedication to actually edit a message so that it can be re-tweeted.  And yes, Twitter has a re-tweet button, but more people and Twitter clients use the rt@ convention to risk your message.

I’ve seen some decent 4 character names (@devo, @nasa), but most everyone comes in around 6-12 characters.  You know who doesn’t?  Those Twitter founder guys @biz and @ev.  Their retweet character limits are 132 and 133 characters respectively.

So when will the Twitter client software developers create a function that flags you when you reach your “easy retweet” limit?

Google Proves SEO Is Ongoing Effort

Search engine optimization is not set-it-and-forget-it.   You can hire any number of capable individuals and agencies (including Silver Beacon!) that can analyze your website and either make recommendations or do work to optimize your site to receive profitable visitors.   You see, that’s what real search engine optimization is about: profitability.

The snake oil salespeople who guarantee that your site will rank #1 at Google are poseurs to avoid.  Even Google warns about these people.  ”Beware of SEOs that claim to guarantee rankings, allege a “special relationship” with Google, or advertise a “priority submit”, writes Google about SEO on its site.

Just this year, Google took its own steps toward transparency by auditing its own SEO efforts in report card format on various “organic” ranking factors.  Breathe easy.  That’s a link to the blog about the effort, not the actual 49 page report.    Google said it looked 100 of its properties across a dozen common SEO dimensions, and the search giant didn’t always give itself good marks.   That’s fair because some of Google’s SEO is reminiscent of the adage about the cobbler’s children’s shoes.

Critical in this post, however, is Google’s statement that they would continue measuring its performance and might use some different measurements in the future, but that Google itself would keep monitoring its own search engine optimization.

Almost any effort atrophies if left unused.  If you exercise, you know what begins happening after even a short layoff.  And if you don’t monitor your car’s fluids and the condition of its hoses, tires and belts, the mechanic may be your new best friend.  The same issues occur with SEO, but only more so because search engine best practices change all the time.

I spoke this week with a well known CTO whose decades of experience pre-date Google.   “I know when major changes happen,” he said in referring to Google’s “Caffeine” update,  but you SEO folks are like surfers riding each new wave.”

The analogy is apt.  The waves continue.   They don’t stop.  Neither does search engine optimization.  Even if Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL and Ask all decided to stop making any changes for six months, that doesn’t mean that the millions of other businesses will also stop their efforts.

Your takeaway as a small business leader is that just like a person needs a physical, an eye exam and a dental checkup every year, your website needs the same checkup.    Don’t surf the SEO waves without one.

Bruce Nash’s Everyman – Famous Marketers Series

You may not know Bruce Nash, but if you follow sports or television, you’ve run across his work.  Nash is a juggernaut, producing dozens of books, including the “Hall of Shame” series where bite-sized vignettes mix with humor and almost no preaching.   Shame is a misnomer here because Nash looks to make people laugh in 60 seconds.

He is also a television producer who has sold shows to more networks than I’ve watched in the last week.  Fox, ESPN, NBC, TLC, Spike, ABC all picked up Nash Entertainment reality and competition shows.   Look down from your Masterpiece Theater perch because Nash keeps selling For Love or Money, Meet My  Folks, Secrets of the Stars and When Good Pets Go Bed.

Scoff, but with dozens of book credits and a couple of dozen television shows, he’s done more in mainstream media than the average bear, even those bears hanging around the mainstream zoo.

Someone in his field has to ask a critical question:  are we creating art with all of the attendant issues or entertainment with haughty critics deriding Secrets of the Psychics Revealed?

Nash taps into American culture as it fragmented into niches.  For every blockbuster squeezed out of a narrow chute, hundreds of channels means thousands of opportunities.

By focusing on things people like sports that create passion or tabloid television or competitive television without the gloss of Survivor or Big Brother, Nash tapped right into the easy-to-consume entertainment better than anyone.  James Patterson is making it a race in fiction books and movies, but no one else is close.

As I often say to folks about a music site we partner with, “How can you call [insert artist name here] a hack when you know how hard it is to make a record?”

But whether we call the production by the name “genre” or other well-meaning terms, the fact is that finding a niche audience and leveraging their interests to profitability is the core of a marketer.

Finding one who has done this more than Bruce Nash in so many fields of interest (and soon movies) is difficult.  His shows don’t have to appeal to you personally, but your takeaway as a small business leader is to follow Nash’s example, find passionate audiences and give them exactly what they want.

They will buy.

Google’s Jolt of Caffeine

As major Google updates go, the search community must concede that Google Caffeine was launched with plenty of warning.

And Google Caffeine is officially live according to a post in The Official Google Blog by engineer Carrie Grimes.   Her post explains that instead of refreshing some parts of its search index every couple of weeks that Google continuously updates its index now.

There are many reasons (some spelled Facebook, some spelled Twitter and some spelled iPod apps streamed to the web) for Google to move in this direction.  Real-time search–you’ve undoubtedly seen Twitter results on a Google search page by now–has been around for months.

Do Not Fear The Caffeine Monster

Real time search is going to be more prevalent.

But your key takeway is that rankings will change more often.  They’re already subject to a variety of personally specific issues like your location, people in your social network, your personal search history and more.

Now the flavoring added to this stew is going to be Caffeine.

I adore her explanation of the process:

Caffeine lets us index web pages on an enormous scale. In fact, every second Caffeine processes hundreds of thousands of pages in parallel.

Your takeaway as a small business leader is that you should have stopped chasing rankings a long time ago and it really doesn’t matter how vast Google’s computing power is this year versus last.

Last November, I wrote that leaders should stop demanding high rankings especially on arbitrarily chosen terms and learn about their analytics so they could focus on profit.

That doesn’t change, no matter which way you take your Caffeine.   Search engine results will be more dynamic, which means your SEO person (in house or hired gun) has a few more challenges, but we were already in a log rolling contest.  The people who guaranteed high rankings are bs artists at best.

Follow the money.  Focus on profitability.  And don’t stress about the changes because too much of this Caffeine will only hurt your health if you let yourself become stressed about the less important stuff.

Photo:  Lee Brimelow

Headline Fail – VP is Safe

More blunders as mainstream media attempts to copy what makes web players successful.  This major headline fail occurred on a slow spring Saturday night.  The oil spill was consuming the world, but somehow CNN forgot to mention that the US was fighting wars in two countries and that the US and Europe had massive economic issues.  In fact, the Dow had cratered 300 points just 24 hours before this was the main section on CNN.com

We had the missing blonde girl again, a sex scandal in the NFL (yes, I read that one),  a porn actor who maybe committed suicide, a car crash, a plane crash and general interest news.  Take a look at the stories (click to make the image bigger)

Besides CNN lacking any sort of credibility that goes with gravitas, look at the circled link.  I was frustrated the second I saw the words, “vice president” and “attack”.  I knew it wasn’t anything major, but I immediately begin thinking of minor things that would warrant a story.

Did someone get close enough to Vice President Biden to throw a liquid on him?

How did the Secret Service allow that person to get close?

Oh man, I sure hope no one threw oil at him.

Because only CNN can do justice to their over-the-top headline, I’ll quote the first two sentences of their article.

Joe Biden came under friendy fire during a summer-kickoff barbeque at the vice president’s residence Saturday.

During the event for White House reporters and their families, the president’s No. 2 was attacked with sqiurt guns by his grandchildren and by children of members of the press corps.

Wait–some grandkids squirted their grandpa with a water gun?   And CNN has the gall to put that in a link with the terms “Vice President” and “attack”?   Writing compelling copy for the web is hard.  The audiences are different, the styles are different and the reading (more often scanning) is far more difficult.

CNN .com’s headline failed because they tried a direct response trick of writing an outrageous headline that generates a click.  Except when we do that in advertising, we anger the prospect unless we deliver the actual event.  They leave the advertiser’s site and the advertiser has paid for the click.   CNN did the same thing and paid not with a 50 cent click, but with continuing erosion of their ability to be reliable and relevant online.

Your takeaway as a small business is to not use wild over-promises to generate web traffic.  At best, you’ll simply waste money.  But you might take brand damage.  And that’s not damage from a water gun, even if you end up all wet.

Seasonality Also Means Events

If you’re an American small business leader, you can probably rattle off the major events impacting seasonality. Let’s try it together:

Don't rely on fireworks by others. Make your own.

January  - New Year, winter weather much of the country, Dr. King’s Birthday, post Christmas blahs

February – Valentine’s Day, President’s Day, still winter weather much of the country.

March – Spring is coming, pre-Easter and Passover for much of the country

April – Likely Easter and/or Passover, spring in full bloom

May –  Memorial Day, gateway to summer, Mother’s Day, college grads

and so on.  You know this drill.  There was a florist in our family, and I can tell you now, decades later, when those flowers were going to be flying out of that store.

But events make up seasonality just as much as the calendar, and you ignore their potential to your own detriment.

This idea comes hot on the hot on the heels of Hitwise’s Heather Doughty writing that Word Cup searches are starting to spike.  Of course they are, you grumble.  That sports thing is really big now.

But read Heather’s piece in its entirety and learn a couple of things about this event that apply to many similar events.   She writes that there are 68 different queries related to the word “schedule”.  There are also many queries related to the top 50 players.

How can you use this information?

Be imaginative.

You don’t need to run a sporting good store or bar to capitalize on this kind of intelligence.

If your website includes hours, include a World Cup schedule.  Better yet, include a World Cup schedule with some value added property like when games are on in your area and on what channel.

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If your site has anything to do with books, run the same schedule, but include nice beautiful links to books about the players.  Promise overnight shipping for nominal fees.  Would you rather have a lower margin customer on a sale and a new name on your house list or stick to your guns for $5.95 shipping?

Brainstorm the World Cup.  There are geography applications, television schedules (different from game schedules), cultural pride issues and countless others.

Your takeaway for today is that the World Cup is a huge global event and traffic surrounding that event impacts your seasonality perhaps more than the thermometer.  Think about the other events in the next two years just like we did with seasonality to start:

The Summer Olympics start in London in July 2012.  That’s just about 2 years.    It’s still too early to plan, but not too early to put on your seasonality calendar.  Start planning July 2011.

The Academy Award nominees are announced at the beginning of the calendar year and the show takes place in late winter.   Count on tens of millions of American viewers plus international audiences.    Figure out what applies to your business as we did the World Cup and start planning.  But remember that the event is when the focus happens.  Maybe you’re doing your own event in the buildup to to the event.

March Madness–the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament–should be on your calendar every year.  Bookend the festivities with St. Patrick’s Day and either spring or a religious holiday depending on your business.

Super Bowl Sunday is February 6, 2011.  Start before the NFL season.  Let your customers pick their favorite teams to go all the way and have a drawing based on who picks the game’s winners.  If you run a local business, the extensions are endless:  house cleaning, catering, babysitting, lawn care and appliance sales come immediately to mind.  There are dozens of others.

The issue here is not to say as one client recently told me that “This is our low season.”   Sure, there are seasons that are better, but by engaging in the world’s events, the water cooler events, you can catapult your small busines into relevance year ’round.

But these aren’t events that you should plan as they’re happening. Get them on your calendar now.  Buy a pizza or three and brainstorm later this week.

How can your business participate in four major events in the next 12 months?

Now what time does Greece open against Korea in the World Cup?

Oversharing Dangers

Meet Thomas Richards.  He’s my  newest, bestest friend.  I can tell you more facts about Thomas then I can tell you about some folks I’ve known for years.

Mouse and credit cardsThomas, which isn’t his real name, is one of the lemmings who jumped on the Blippy bandwagon.  If you don’t know Blippy, the online service gathers your credit card, bank and other payments and publishes them online.  Using collaborative technology, the company allows you to create RSS feeds, invite your friends, follow each other, comment and so on.

Think of Blippy as your personal Quicken file pushed to the web and shared with your friends.

Now besides being a marketing treasure trove (any affiliate marketer can mine this data from Google or other search engines), the key issue here is privacy.   I’m still shocked at the number of people who insist that Facebook is ruining their privacy yet sign up for services like Blippy.  A year or two ago, I went to the hospital overnight for some tests.  I told three people outside my family.  But if I were a Blippy customer and set up my data feeds a certain way, everyone would’ve known.

Let me know what I tell you about Thomas.

  • First, that’s not his real name because I don’t feel like violating his privacy more than he has done.
  • He’s a software student at a well known tech college in the East and grew up in Detroit
  • I know the names of 10 people he follows and 9 who follow him (that’s what I call a nice open social graph)
  • I have detailed financial transactions from multiple merchants with direct feeds as well as multiple credit cards that show merchant name, date, amount and some other detail but maybe not exactly what was purchased.
  • As I write this, there are 459 financial transactions viewable for non-members using a search engine along with this guy’s real name.
  • And the names of his friends.
  • And he thoughtfully annotated some of his purchases.

Let’s talk dossier.  I know who he is and in about 10 clicks, found out his life’s history on LinkedIn and a few other sites. Then I used data he published to Blippy to learn:

  1. He’s a junk food addict.  Many 22 year olds are.   Buffalo Wild Wings is his favorite, but he’s at a junk food place at least every other day.
  2. He pays the minimums on the credit cards he’s hooked up to the site.
  3. He likes throwback music and is an active iTunes purchaser
  4. His hair cuts cost less than $20 (and buddy, you need to change that soon)
  5. Fueling his vehicle costs $40-$50
  6. He has an iPhone and actively buys apps
  7. He is taking calculus now and also bought an intro Flash book.
  8. He bought Esquire: The Man’s Guide to Looking Good and skipped the haircut section.
  9. He just bought tickets to see Wicked with his girlfriend Kathy.  (yes, I changed her name too)

Look, he’s pushing 500 transactions to the web.  And he used his real name.  And I know his tuition, his taxes how much he pays on his credit card and all sorts of things.   This isn’t voyeurism.  If I mine his data along with the other public data, I can quickly find offers to sell him and craft offers to him via email, direct mail, Twitter or Facebook.  If the subject is:  Special for [town name] fans of [sport] and [music] and I micro-target 15 of these guys, my conversion rate goes through the roof.  If I automate that, I actually make money.

A couple of simple scripts to scrape the public data, bounce it against other public data and I have a database of actual purchase history.  We’re not talking Facebook’s self-identified interests.  We’re talking real transactions.  The mind boggles at what a skilled marketer can do with this information.

I love people who do this because they make my job easier, but for the love of all that’s holy to you, stop sharing your locations on Foursquare and Google Latitude, stop sharing your transaction history on sites like Blippy and stop whining about privacy if you’re living life in public.

Download Patent, Trademark Data

NLM computer room in 1969For anything you may like or not like about Google, we have to stipulate that the company has an amazing search functionality.  You may hate Gmail or Google Docs or Maps, but the search engine is great at chewing through huge blocks of data.

Now the company has announced that anyone can download patent and trademark data from Google.  This is the latest in a series of initiatives Google has taken in the public sector, and the scope of this project is somewhat staggering.   Google is making 10 terabytes of information available for download to open the program.

Let’s size up that whole terabyte thing.

You know the disk drive you’re proud of with all your music and photos?  The 200 gigabyte drive?    If you downloaded everything, you would need 50 of them.

Perhaps most puzzling about this partnership is the statement made by the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).  ”The USPTO does not currently have the technical capability to provide this public information in a bulk machine readable format that is desired by the intellectual property (IP) community,” the agency wrote in a statement yesterday.

That’s kind of interesting.  I know federal technology is iffy at best and when I’ve been exposed first-hand to agency initiatives I’ve longed for a communicator with Scotty on the other side, ready to beam me to the current decade.  But the USPTO can’t technically handle making its database public in a bulk format?  Maybe this kind of data failure is why Super SEO Rhea Drysdale had to spend $17,000 of her own money to block a trademark application for the term SEO.   And maybe that’s why psuedo agencies like the USPS have FexEx boxes out front and much of Europe and Japan enjoys high speed rail while we plod along on Amtrak when it’s available in that market.

So Google continues cozying up to federal agencies and your takeaway as a small business is that there are likely plenty of opportunities for you in the federal sector.  Start your research at the Small Business Administration’s federal contracting pages.  Sometimes you just have to ask.

And fill out a lot of paperwork.  That paperwork thing isn’t going away any time soon.