Author Archives: Valerie

Getting Results from Social Media

‘Like it’ or not, social media has become a key player when it comes to promoting business.  Amazingly, a recent study carried out by the Internet Advertising Bureau UK indicated that almost 80% of consumers would be influenced by a brand’s presence on social media and would be more inclined to buy more in the future from a brand known to be on social media networks.  From this, it is clear that customers expect to find businesses and brands on social media and will make purchasing decisions accordingly.  However, it is not simply a question of broadcasting advertisements on social media sites.  This is not sufficient to engage followers.  What is required is time and effort, as well as an understanding of the platforms available.  Here are some tips from experts that will be useful, especially to the smaller business not yet in a position to afford social media specialists.

 

FINDING THE RIGHT PLATFORM

It is important to pick the platform that best suits your demographic.  Used Linkedin to market to businesses.  If you are pitching to consumers, Twitter or Facebook are good channels.  This is a very important step, because if you are using the wrong type of platform, the best posts in the world will do you no good, as they will not be read.

 

BUILDING SOLID RELATIONSHIPS

Just like relationships in real life, social media relationships take time and trouble to develop.  What SMBs (Small and Medium Sized Businesses) should be aiming for is loyalty.  Don’t try to gain a huge band of followers, but do try to build up a smaller group of loyal followers.  Create a community – encourage followers to talk to each other about your business.  Interactive content such as quizzes or live Q&A or even competitions will help to get your followers buzzing and get you noticed.  Once you’ve developed good solid relationships, these can be turned into sales by including special offers to generate sales.  Beware, however, of doing this too soon or too often.  It is generally considered that 80% interesting and topical content can be balanced by no more than 20% advertising content.  If you can devise ways to effectively direct your followers into your own on-line marketing programme, you may not need to promote directly on social media, whilst still gaining new customers on your own sites.

 

THINKING AHEAD

It is important to maintain a regular posting schedule.  Experts advise a minimum of two posts per day.  Of course, that means thinking of something to say that will appeal to your target audience.  You can get inspiration from the calendar.  Plan around national holidays such as Christmas, Easter, etc.  Find out the dates of niche days that are relevant to your company and/or products.  A beverage retailer could make good copy out of Hot Tea Month, whilst someone selling beauty products might comment on Bubble Bath Day.  Have a look on-line for special days and have some fun with this.

 

FIELDING FEEDBACK

Of course, positive feedback is what you are after but it is inevitable that sometimes there will be feedback of the negative variety.  It is essential to respond to such comments quickly and thoroughly.  Such a comment can even be considered a good thing, as if people are taking the time to give negative feedback, it means at least that they have an interest and it can become an excellent opportunity for you to show that you pay close attention to good customer service and are willing to make changes for the better as required.

 

PROMOTING EXCELLENCE

When you post interesting comments and answer queries thoroughly and knowledgeably, you are effectively demonstrating that you are an expert in your field.  If your contributions show insight and convey valuable information, your readers will feel they can trust what you are promoting.  If, for example, a garden centre shows it knows its delphiniums from its dahlias and offers useful tips on caring for both, your followers will feel confident in purchasing from your on-line or off-line site.

 

KEEPING UP TO DATE

You should avoid using any of your existing usual marketing material on a social media site.  What you need to do is think up new ways to promote your wares.  Keep it current and up to date and targeted specifically at the particular audience you are aiming for on each social media site.

 

MAKING SURE YOU ARE KNOWN

You can have the finest posts on social media, but they won’t do you any good if no one knows you are there.  Make sure you take advantage of every opportunity to make your social media presence known by including social media addresses in all your communications, including media advertisements.  It is a marketing maxim that no one goes to an event that they didn’t know was happening.

 

CHANGING IT UP

It’s an easy trap to fall into – posting the same type of content time and time again.  This will have a negative effect on your followers, who will soon perceive you, and consequently your brand, as out of touch with the times, boring and uncreative.

 

BEING CONSISTENT

Whether you are the person solely responsible for posting content to sites or if, as is often the case with medium to large outfits, other members of staff are also involved, it is important to be consistent in both use and messaging.  The best way to ensure this is to devise, and stick to, a strategy that includes guidance aimed at achieving a consistent voice.  Your strategy should include a posting schedule, guidelines on responding to negative feedback and a collection of brand-related images ready for use.  It is also useful to prepare a document outlining responses to frequently asked questions.  A word of caution, however – avoid presenting uniform, ‘one size fits all’ replies.  Your followers want to feel they are dealing with a real live person, not an automaton.  It is vital that all responses, particularly to negative comments, remain personalised and fresh, dealing thoughtfully with each individual.

 

MAKING SOCIAL MEDIA WORK FOR YOU

As we have seen, social media has become a very important tool for promoting all sorts of businesses and enterprises.  Included above are some tips which will help to make the best possible use of the various platforms available.  Remember to choose ones which best suit your brand and target audience.   Avoid the temptation to post on a host of networks – choose, say, two or three and keep up a regular and lively posting schedule on those.  It takes a lot of time and effort, but in the long term the results can be significant.  And most importantly, if you treat your social media followers the same way you treat your customers or clients on-line and in-store, you will reap the rewards.

Big Data Is Here, and It’s Here to Stay

The term ‘Big Data’ is a highly appropriate description of the ever-increasing growth and availability of data.  Largely via the IoT (Internet of Things), users can access vast amounts of data on a huge variety of subjects, from consumer information to social trends to industry averages and much much more.  The availability of data on all sorts of things continues to grow exponentially, so Big Data just keeps getting bigger and bigger.

 

What are the advantages of accessing Big Data?

Across the board, executives and planners are aware that a robust fund of data can lead to more confident and effective decision making, resulting in improved operational efficiencies, with resultant reductions in costs and risk, which in turn lead to increased profitability.

 

Is there a down side?

If a user asks for Big Data on their industry – say, apple pie making and selling – they will get a huge amount of stored information on the subject, gleaned from an enormous variety of sources.  They will have a massive, unsorted pile of information about apples, pastries, apple sales, customer preference, seasonal variations and a whole lot more.  The user will be looking at more than enough information to result in apple pie information overload and very probably an upset stomach from trying to digest too much raw apple pie data.

 

How do you get usable and accessible Big Data?

The granular data that is available can translate into powerful knowledge that makes significant improvements in company performance.  But the data needs to be accessible and that is achieved by the use of an integrated business analysis platform.  Such a platform will force unruly amounts of jumbled data into comprehensive formats.  Expert analysts will produce data analysis relevant to an individual company in various formats which provide the user with a clear and accessible path of exploration, leading them to valuable decisions based on the relevant available Big Data.

 

Understanding Big Data better

Big Data is a big subject and not always an easy one to manoeuvre around.  Inevitably, several myths have arisen concerning the use of Big Data.  These need to be thoroughly debunked if users are to benefit from data analysis that is easily acceptable to all users, both internal and external.  The bottom line is that if users cannot easily digest the data it has no value whatsoever.  So – let’s go myth busting.

 

Myth:  Internal users of data value flexibility, but do not want guidanceExecutives and managers want all the data they can get their hands on and do not want guiding through it.

This is so untrue that professional analysts have found that when people do not know what to do with the unsorted data they have, their instinctive reaction is to ask for more of it!  Very few are willing to spend any significant amount of time to sort through the data at hand in order to get answers to their queries.  The key factor is that users do want to be guided through the data and to be presented with information in a way that removes uncertainties.  Analysts know what to look for and how to find the relevant answers in the Big Data haystack.  They present well planned and designed reports that are exactly what the customer wants to guide them in the right direction.

 

Myth:  Customers do not ask for data analysis.

Well, they may not ask directly for a data product, but often ask indirectly, with, for example, questions about comparing their company to the industry average.  There will also frequently be queries about ease of access to data, both for senior executives and others within the organisation.  They may mention a need to produce monthly reports and ask how best to achieve this.  All these are indirect requests for data analysis.  Professional analysts have found that companies do not always ask for Big Data reporting when a projects starts up, but inevitably they want the product as the project approaches its end.  Savvy analysts will tailor their research and their product accordingly.

 

Myth:  Analysists cannot charge customers for data the customers supply.

This shows a lack of understanding of the nature of data products.  They do not provide easy access to raw data, but rather an informed solution based on the data available.  What is being sold with data products is not the data itself, but the analysis that makes that data accessible and valuable to the user.  Reports may contain industry-specific metrics, algorithms, displays, benchmarks, recommendations and insights – all of which are of tremendous value to the user and make the raw data something that can be effectively worked with.  This, of course, will lead to the benefits that customers are after from data – enhanced efficiency, lower production costs and increased production and sales figures.  So, while customers do indeed own their data, they value and will pay analysts for knowledgeable categorisation, in-depth analysis and reporting that is specific to their particular industry and market.

 

Big Data in the future

It is clear that an integrated business analysis platform is the way to make the best use of raw data, whilst avoiding information overload.   Big Data already plays a key role in business and industry and an understanding of the importance of expert analysis of the vast amount of raw data available will increase the growth of Big Data and ensure that users get the best possible results from the data they acquire.

Web Design That Works

An effectively designed and easy to use website is an essential marketing tool for small businesses, significantly increasing sales of your products and services.  Conversely, a poorly designed website can result in serious loss of revenue and can actually drive potential customers away.  So, it is important to get it right.  Here are a few basic Dos and Don’ts that will help you to be sure that your website is answering readers’ questions, providing the information they require and encouraging them to do business with you.

 

DON’T RUSH IT

There is work to be done even before the website starts to take shape.  The temptation is to try to get something up and running as quickly as possible, but don’t forget the crucial first step, which is to research your target audience.  Many factors should be considered, including age of target audience.  An older demographic might, for example, benefit from a large font, whilst a younger group is likely to be accessing your site via smartphones, so you need to make sure your site is compatible.  You should also avoid trying to target everyone – focus on creating the best experience for your target audience.

 

DO AIM FOR A CLEAN DESIGN

A clean and unfussy design is always best.  Don’t fill up your pages with clutter, as this is distracting and unproductive.  White space gives your visitor room to breathe and to think.  Bear in mind also that flashy websites do not look good on mobile phones or tablets, and a lot of visitors will be using these.

 

DON’T MAKE IT HARD FOR THE CUSTOMER TO CONTACT YOU

It’s amazing the number of websites that seem to be trying to hide their contact details.  Be very clear on all the various ways a customer can contact you and don’t make them search for details. Customers may have queries they need resolved before deciding to purchase, or perhaps would like to speak to someone about one of your products or services.  This is to be encouraged.  A contact page with full information and perhaps even a location map is essential. A ‘click to contact box’ is another good idea.

 

DO HAVE A CLEAR CALL TO ACTION

You need to make it very clear what a visitor should do next to take advantage of the benefits your business offers.  Explain the advantages you are offering and then tell the visitor exactly what to do to get the ball rolling, and encourage them to do it now.  They might, for example, click to subscribe to your newsletter or to contact you for more information.  Your product pages should make it very easy for them to order from you.

 

DON’T GET OUT OF DATE

Your website should contain the latest up to date information about your company and products or services.  Customers want to know that you are innovative and moving with the times.  So do make sure to regularly update your site and check that it contains all the latest information.  If you are including a blog on your site, it should be updated at least once a week – or more frequently if possible.

 

DO KEEP LOAD TIME LOW

A load of flashy graphics and scripts slows things down.  People have become used to fast computers and don’t want to hang around waiting for your site to load.  Computer users are not a very patient lot these days.  It doesn’t matter how amazing your site looks when it’s finally up and running if potential customers have given up and gone away.  So minimize graphics, flash and scripts, optimise your code and delete any unnecessary tags or scripts.

 

DON’T ALLOW SPELLING AND GRAMMAR ERRORS

It isn’t just dusty old pedants who are put off by poor spelling and grammar.  When it comes to spelling mistakes you can, of course, use the spell checker, but do remember that it does not take context into account and won’t recognise that a pier of the realm standing on Brighton Peer is not possible.  Grammar too plays a very important part in ensuring that your text is clear and understandable.  Even people unfamiliar with the rules of grammar ‘hiccup’ when they stumble across a glaring error.  It might be an idea to ask someone who is good with spelling and grammar to have a look over your text before you put it on the site.

 

DO MAKE IT EASY TO GET AROUND

Visitors to your site do not want to have to make their way through a maze to visit the pages that interest them.  An easy to use navigation system is essential to ensure that potential customers do not get lost and confused and go away to another site.

 

DON’T ASSUME ANYONE CAN DESIGN A GOOD WEBSITE

It is worth considering paying a professional designer if you feel you do not have the necessary experience.  Your customers will make assumptions about your business based on the website, so it must reflect care and professionalism.  Often looking at the site will be their first experience of your business and first impressions really do count.  So, be realistic about your capabilities and get a good professional on board if it seems necessary.

 

MAKE SURE YOUR WEBSITE WORKS FOR YOU

The above are a few basic, but essential, things to look out for that will help you to be sure that your website is appealing, informative and, above all, effective.

Successful Project Planning

The Basics

Whether you are building a garage, sending a man (or woman) to Mars, or designing the latest computer, project management using project planning tools is an essential part of the process. Even if you don’t write down the steps to build your garage, you have it in your mind that you can’t build the walls until the concrete floor goes down. And it’s very unlikely you will want to install the door before the walls go up. So for any set of tasks there is an optimum sequence – an order that makes the best sense. Some tasks have to be done serially (walls first, then windows) but some can be done in parallel (windows and doors can be fitted at the same time).

The most common way to graphically describe a project is using the Gantt chart. Each task is represented by a small rectangle, with a line or arrow joining tasks together as they span the plan, left to right. The horizontal axis of the plan is marked out in time (usually days or weeks) so the full plan indicates the expected length of the project. Each task rectangle will be assigned a ‘Time to Complete’, which will determine the length of the rectangle on the plan.  Building the walls from bricks will take longer than pouring the concrete floor, so the ‘Build Walls’ task rectangle will be represented as a longer line.

Most project management software gives you the option of assigning cost and resources to each task. So, for example, ‘Fitting the Door’ task will include a cost for the door plus the cost for Fred the local carpenter to fit them, with the resource here being Fred himself. Resources generally refer to manpower, but can include anything you need to get the task done (like a mechanical digger to clear the ground).

Network chartThere are many ways to represent all this data. A Network chart is another way to graphically depict the project. This is like a glorified flow chart with interconnecting lines showing the relationship between the tasks. This method can be useful as it enables you to show more data (text) in each task box/rectangle, but for larger projects this can get unwieldy, covering multiple pages.

Planning

The accuracy of the plan (in terms of both time and money) will have a lot to do with how much time and research you put in upfront.  You might make a guess that Bill will take four weeks to put up your garage walls.  However, if you spoke to him you would find out it will actually take six weeks.  The reality in this case is that building your garage is going to take longer and cost more.  In most cases it takes longer than planned to complete a task, in which case the costs for that task will also increase. It’s always a good idea – even with as much good planning and estimates as you can get – to add an extra one third to both the task time and costs. And then to add in some extra time and costs for contingency on top of that. Reality has a habit of putting asunder the best laid plans of mice and men.

Tracing a path through the serially connected tasks will give you the project completion date. This route is called the Critical Path – aptly named because any task along the Critical Path that takes longer to complete will push the completion date out. Conversely, any task you finish more quickly will shorten the project time. This is straightforward enough when you just have serial tasks, scheduled one after the other.  However, where there are parallel tasks in your plan taking differing amounts of time to complete, things can get complicated. For example, if fitting the windows takes one day, and fitting the door takes only half a day, and both tasks are scheduled to be done on the same day, then the longer ‘Windows’ task is on the Critical Path. But if you encounter a delay of two days in getting the right door hinges, the ‘Doors’ task will then have more impact on the following tasks, and hence be on the Critical Path. Any changes or reorganising you can do to reduce the time spent working on tasks along the Critical Path will effectively shorten the length of the project.

When you are happy with your plan you can save this as your baseline. This is the plan as you believe it will unfold as you go ahead with the project. Once tasks are completed, the tasks on the plan are updated with actual costs and time taken. If you compare the baseline plan to the actual plan you can see how the project is progressing. In the workplace this process is often used to evaluate how well a team is doing – how well they are performing in keeping to the baseline plan. In actual fact, for all but the simplest of projects the actual plan will change so much from the baseline as the project progresses, that they could well look like two totally unrelated plans.  In reality, the main use of the baseline plan occurs after the project is complete. You take it to the pub with your team when the project is finished, and laugh heartily over it as you shake your heads and consider how hopelessly optimistic it was.

Software

There’s a lot of software to choose from, and even the good old Excel spreadsheet can be pressed into service for very simple projects. Packages range from free shareware to all-singing, all-dancing varieties costing many thousands of pounds. A good example of a mid-priced package that is well thought of throughout industry is Microsoft’s Project. This has been around for many years now and offers a very good balance between features and usability. That is to say, it’s not so complicated to use that you give up on it and go back to pencil and paper.

On A Final Note

It’s very easy to get sucked into the detail and complexities of advanced project management (so if you come up with a project plan to spend the next six months trying to understand your project planning software, then you have definitely got it wrong). But there are infinite opportunities at work and at home where effective project management with a good plan can help take the stress and uncertainties out of any course of action.  It is important to be realistic in the planning stage and to gather as much accurate information upfront as you can. You then carefully develop the sequence of tasks you need to complete – using the right tool for the job. Keep the software as simple as you can to accomplish your project and you’ll be fine. And just in case you wondered, no, I didn’t use project planning software to write this article.