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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Turn Your Employees Into Social Media Ambassadors

Brought to you by Steve McAbee

Brand management is a key concept that can significantly contribute to a company's success. One integral part of an effective plan is identifying and leveraging brand advocates, or ambassadors, who are passionate about a company's product or services. These consumers are familiar with the product, have used it, and actively recommend the company to friends and colleagues. Whereas a company markets to existing customers to sell more products, brand ambassadors attempt to relay their passion for the brand to new buyers.

Although branding is largely aimed at external audiences, it also has important internal implications. Employees have always been some of the most influential brand ambassadors, and now this group has truly stepped into the light thanks to the proliferation of social media. Social media enables a company to capitalize on an existing asset -- employees -- and make them active advocates who promote and demonstrate the key elements of the brand promise.

Employees now use social media outlets such as Twitter, blogs, and Facebook to continuously update their professional and personal networks on what is going on in their daily lives. Why not use their powerful voices to become agents of the brand? The thinking goes that if a company employs intelligent, happy, and satisfied people, then that adds to an overall competent workforce and positive reflection of the corporate brand.

To receive maximum benefit from these ambassadors, and ensure that employees showcase why they are your company's "biggest fans," it is important to maintain a balance between freedom of expression and an expectation of professionalism. Below are five tips on how companies can bring employee voices together to create a powerful, organic brand ambassador program.

1. Develop a social media policy
I would never suggest that employees be forced to blog, tweet, or chat about the company. The posts would appear both insincere and forced, and may lead to disgruntled employees.

Instead, employers should develop a social media policy that outlines corporate guidelines and principles of communicating in the online world. By providing structure instead of a steadfast direction on what to say, you'll give your employees the ability to speak with authenticity and a feeling of comfort when it comes to engaging online.

2. Offer training
The social media universe can be incredibly daunting to those who aren't familiar. For this reason, providing training for employees unsure of how to participate is an important part of developing effective ambassadors.

In order for employees to start a positive conversation that revolves around your brand, they first must know how to start the dialogue. One way to do this is to offer webinars or group trainings that can teach employees which social media tools are the most effective for their communication goals, and the appropriate way to communicate with their target audience. Examples can also be provided by employees who have appropriately participated in online discussions of the company or its products.

3. Provide employees with a centralized site
Giving employees an area where they can communicate both internally and externally easily opens doors of communication. Employees can engage by building off their colleague's participation and create a unified front. It also gives the company a single portal to communicate major initiatives and events, providing employees with the information to make accurate posts to social media sites.

Further, such a portal can provide a company with valuable insight into what employees think and feel about the brand and what keywords they use in discussions about the company, its products, and services. A centralized site can also be used to survey employees about their online habits and most-used channels to make dynamic changes and recommendations.

4. Lead by example
It's easier to reinforce a culture of openness and demonstrate appropriate engagement if management actively participates. Encourage high-level employees to set the example and provide them with information about cutting-edge tools and new trends so they can be passed down throughout the organization. With management involved, an organic internal conversation can begin, providing additional guidance and direction for employees who want to join the online discussion.

5. Reward influencers
While not all social media engagement needs to be insightful, industry-driven thought leadership, it is important to reward those who build influence. Reward them by providing them with what they want: valuable, exciting information about what is going on in the company.

Ask your employees for their insight into services, projects, or products. Show them you are listening, and that you are pleased and impressed by what they are saying. Some of your most influential ambassadors should have the opportunity to serve on a company task force or be recognized in internal communication materials, which can encourage others to join the discussion, adding more voices to the company's overall desired outcome.

Striking the perfect balance between strategic direction and organic thought from employees is crucial. Company ambassadors are there to help connect a brand with its audience and carry the conversation, not constantly push corporate-driven messaging. Additionally, brand ambassadors can listen and learn from ongoing conversations and then engage in them, forming bidirectional interactions. The result is a group of brand representatives who appear more like trusted friends, and less like corporate mouthpieces.

Steve McAbee is the president and founder of Wunderkind Public Relations.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

3 Must-Have Marketing Tools for Small Businesses

Brought to you by Eric Groves

Small businesses naturally gravitate to tools and strategies that quickly generate revenue without incurring significant costs. So it's no surprise that web-based marketing technologies have become a boon to small businesses because of their low cost and ease of use. Tools that are purpose-built for small businesses project a more professional image and deliver a richer set of management and monitoring capabilities than online tools targeted to consumers, which are often ad-supported and limited in function.

The essential small business marketing tools described below encourage stronger customer relationships and are easy to use and affordable, which makes them must-have tools in the small business marketer's toolkit.

Email marketing
Despite critics who have called email marketing's effectiveness into question, email marketing continually delivers the highest ROI for any marketing method. According to the Direct Marketing Association, email marketing delivered $43.62 for every dollar spent in 2009.

What makes email marketing so effective? It's simple: permission and relevant content. This means that the recipient is looking forward to receiving messages and considers the content of the emails to be beneficial. For marketers, this translates into a pre-qualified list of prospects and returning customers. All you need to do to keep them is stay in touch with content that is compelling and useful.

Businesses can achieve several important goals with email marketing, but the most important are strong, lasting customer relationships. With email marketing, you can consistently communicate your expertise, your offerings, and your brand, thereby building trust and recognition. When the time comes for customers to make purchases, they'll naturally turn to the businesses they're familiar with and loyal to, and they're more likely to recommend those businesses to others.

Online surveys
The most successful small business owners understand that listening to their customers is critically important. Yet, it's not always practical to engage in one-on-one conversations to find out what every customer is thinking. That's where online surveys come in. Online survey tools allow you to easily request anonymous feedback from your customers at their convenience.

Whether conducted frequently, such as after a purchase, event, or customer service issue, or just once a year, surveys are an excellent way to glean valuable information about your customers' satisfaction, experience with your business, or feedback on your product. For example, a retailer might survey his customers to find out what product lines they'd like to see expanded. A consultant could survey customers to learn what marketing challenges are most important to them for 2010. In both cases, the survey results will help guide important business decisions that neither business owner may have determined without the help of the customer base.

Another benefit of online surveys is the opportunity for your customers to feel like they're a part of your business. In fact, asking customers about the best way to communicate with them -- either via email, Facebook, Twitter, or some other mode or combination -- is a great first step in gathering useful feedback. By opening up a two-way dialogue and inviting them to offer suggestions and constructive criticism, your customers feel that they're contributing to your success. Knowing that you took their advice or considered their feedback creates a sense of loyalty that will naturally lead to longer and stronger relationships.

Your social network of choice
Everywhere you turn these days, someone is talking about Facebook, retweeting Ashton Kutcher's latest comment, or asking you to connect on LinkedIn. While all the hype can seem a bit frivolous, the business benefits of social networks are very real. Countless small business owners have made valuable connections, including new customers, through their participation in social networks.

Participation is the key to success when it comes to social media. Much like email marketing, you must first offer real value before you can expect to get anything in return. Simply being there isn't going to place your brand at the center of the conversation. You first have to establish your credibility as a member of the community and a legitimate expert in your field.

Establish yourself as a resource by sharing your knowledge. This may mean linking to your blog posts, media coverage of your product or business, or your email newsletter. You can easily add value and show you "get it" by offering your thoughts and commenting on another's blog post or tweet, or by answering a question on LinkedIn Answers.

Once you've committed to a particular mode of communication, be consistent in using it. Frequency of communications is always a challenge for busy small businesses owners, but a regular effort to communicate will help deliver your message most effectively. Eventually, your audience will begin to anticipate your outreach and even look forward to your next tweet, post, update, or newsletter.

Low cost, high return
Today's small businesses face an ongoing battle for mindshare among their target consumers. These low cost, high return marketing tools provide small businesses with the advantage they need to cut through the noise and get their messages heard without breaking their budget.

Eric Groves is senior vice president of global market development for Constant Contact Inc.

Monday, February 1, 2010

8 Ways to Improve Your Click-Through Rate

Brought to you by Andrew Stern

Although there are a lot of different metrics surrounding online display advertising, it seems that click-through rates (CTRs) have become the one metric that defines an advertising campaign. Every advertiser has a different end goal, but the true test of whether a campaign ends up as a success or a failure oftentimes depends on the percentage of people who actually click on a banner creative. It goes without saying that the higher number of visitors that you can get to your site, the greater the chance of them converting.

In general, web users have become numb to the way that advertising reaches them online. When banner ads first appeared on the scene, it was considered common to have CTRs above 5 percent, while 2-3 percent was thought to be average.

With all the banners that have flooded the web in recent years, most display advertising campaigns now generally fall into a CTR average of just 0.2 to 0.3 percent. That means only two to three consumers out of every 1,000 who see your banner ad click through to your website.

There is good news, however. With the following eight strategies, you can easily and intelligently increase the CTRs for your display advertising campaigns.

1. Set goals and expectations with your advertiser prior to launching a campaign
The most important things to keep in mind are the advertiser and the specific goals of the campaign. Remember the old adage: The customer is always right. By being honest up front you can save yourself a lot of trouble, and most likely keep the advertiser around for a longer period of time if the campaign does not perform initially.

Many advertisers do not know what a good click-through rate is, and some do not have realistic goals for a campaign. By clearing up uncertainties from the start and setting realistic and attainable goals, you are setting yourself up for success. You also need to identify clear CPA goals, ensure that top quality graphics and copy are used, and that the landing pages have a direct call to action.

2. Know your target audience and be specific in your web placements
Targeting is half the battle for a quality CTR. After you've established clear goals for the campaign, figuring out the proper audience for the campaign is vital to achieving an above-average CTR. It's not that web users hate advertisements -- they just hate advertisements that are not relevant to them. For too many years, useless ads have been put in front of them, and they are tired of it. Does a man shopping for a new car really want beauty skin care products? Or does a woman shopping for new clothes need a pill to increase her libido?

With targeting, not only can you reach the type of customer your advertiser is after, but you can also design creative that is specific to a certain demographic, which will thereby improve results. Targeted ads outperform run-of-network campaigns two to one.

A few additional points to note: When targeting an ad campaign, run small tests on multiple sites and networks to get a clear view of what works and what doesn't. Some ad content works well with certain sites, and some works better across an entire network.

3. Create an interesting banner
Basic, static banners that only change when you refresh a page do not work anymore. We have to be more creative now and give web users something that is visually stimulating. Animated banners stimulate the eyes and can provide a needed escape from that dreaded research paper or old TPS report. Expandable and rich media graphical banners can perform up to 400 percent better than a standard static banner. The more interactive it is, the better.

I do not mean the old whack-a-mole or "shoot the president" interactivity, but a way for the user to really see the service and product you are offering within the framework of that particular ad size. The first action does not necessarily need to be a click. It could be rotating a product, pulling a lever, or pushing a button -- all of which provide a second step into the product advertised.

Video banners also work very well and can outperform a typical television spot at a fraction of the cost. It is essential, however, not to overinflate the actual value of the product or mislead the user in any way with super-creative banners. If you get a 5 percent click-through rate but fail to sell a product, the advertiser is still going to be displeased.

4. Ad units and site placement
In many ways, the old saying that "everything I ever needed to know I learned in kindergarten" rings true with this tip. Colors, size, and shape can all drastically affect your CTR. Colors are a good way to create a buzz, but also a good way to drive away a customer.

Many think that bright and vibrant colors are an easy way to get clicks, but this isn't necessarily the case. It is now fairly common on insertion orders to see "no shaking or flashing creative," as this drives away customers and associates a publisher's website with cheap and low brow content. By selecting colors, styles, and fonts that blend in to the website but still stand out, you assist in the overall aesthetic of the web page and also increase CTRs. These are generally referred to as "chameleon ads."

There are many different ad units available now, but most still stick with the five standard IAB sizes (468x60, 120x600, 160x600, 728x90, and 300x250). While using any of these five sizes might get you more coverage across more websites, this might not always translate to greater results. Mix it up, and try something different. Unique-looking sizes and shapes get attention because most users have learned to ignore the shapes and sizes on a page that they have, over the years, associated with "advertisements."

Lastly, where the ad is being placed on the site is a very important step to gaining clicks. Many people glance over a site without scrolling all the way down or to the sides. These ads that appear within the initial frame of the website are called "above the fold" advertising. The poorest performing ads are on the footers and corners of the page, while ads toward the top, middle, and near sides do much better.

5. Advertising lingo is more important than ever
While online advertising has shifted many an ad budget away from billboards, print, and television due to lower costs and a more attentive user base, it is important to retain some of the basic elements these advertising media have had in place for years.

Human beings react instinctually and emotionally. Having engaging ad copy that appeals to a user's gut rather than that person's mind is as important as anything else. Call-to-action words such as "free trial," "click here now," "limited time only," or "bonus gift" really assist in grabbing a person's attention and closing the sale.

While you don't want to appear as a guy on a soapbox selling snake oil, you do want to impress upon your potential client that your offer is a good one, that the user will benefit from it, and, most importantly, that it won't be around forever. You can try a variety of ad copy to see what works best for each particular campaign. There are lists of call-to-action words available online.

6. Use a variety of different creative
It is important to come up with more than one set of banners for each specific campaign. This is referred to as an "A/B split." By using a variety of designs, you can get a feeling for what is causing people to click on the ads.

You will be amazed at the dramatic differences in CTR that one color over another or one word instead of another can have. By having some options, you can try out different colors, designs, ad units, animations, and so on across a large number of websites. After two to three days, you can determine what is generating the highest CTR. Experiment often, but only test a few elements at a time so that you know what is causing the different results and always have a baseline "control" ad to compare against.

7. Outsource creative work
Depending on the size of the campaign, and also the size of your company, it might be a good idea to outsource some of the creative work. Professional graphic designers can offer specialized elements or even new technologies that your internal team may have overlooked or not even known about to begin with.

With all the latest gadgetry, programs, and special effects, it is essential to keep banners simple, yet enticing. When all else fails, always follow the KISS protocol (keep it simple stupid). If banner ads are too large (over 30KB), you will lose coverage on slower PCs because the ads take too long to load. Additionally, many publishers will compress your vibrantly rich (yet very large sized) creative to fit their ad serving specs, in effect washing out your ad so that it no longer stands apart.

8. Analyze reports daily
It is important to analyze the campaign on a daily basis for three reasons. For starters, advertisers like to know that their money is going to a good cause (generally their pockets). Even if the CTR isn't what it should be, you can let them know that you are optimizing their creative, targeting, and site list to improve performance. A day-by-day increase in CTR can give you the breathing room to show your client that you will meet campaign goals quickly.

Secondly, you need the data to determine which of your experiments are working and which need to be discarded. After a few days you will have enough information to identify what is working and allocate budget in the appropriate areas. If not, more experimentation is needed.

Finally, you need to ensure that your client's minimum daily click requirements are being met. Nothing will get your phone to ring faster than an advertiser who isn't getting traffic to its site.

If you follow these eight steps to optimize your banner campaigns, you will see a significant boost in CTRs and hopefully an increase in client renewals and referrals.

Andrew Stern is president, Seed Corn Advertising, where co-author Zachary Dyler is director of business development.