Competitor Research: Don’t Dismiss the Nobody

I got an interesting note from a client the other day:

I just got an email from Awesome Propsect that they went with another vendor. I’ve asked for feedback but suspect I won’t get much but if I do I’ll send to you.  I do know that the other two vendors I had never heard of before so it wasn’t a major competitor they went with.

Here’s the thing to keep in mind: Just because you’ve never heard of the person or company you’re losing business to doesn’t mean the person or company isn’t a major competitor. Heck, there was a time when most people had never heard of Google (yes, really). Anybody you lose business to is someone to watch, to consider, and to see what they’re doing right.

Don’t dismiss. Pay attention. That’s one of the most important things you can do when it comes to competitor research and buyer personas.

How to Use Customer Testimonials: 13 Ideas

Wondering how to use customer testimonials? Here are 13 ideas.

1. On your website. Here are some ideas:

  • Home page
  • As scrolling text (scrolling testimonials) on the header graphic of your website
  • On specific service or industry pages
  • In a “Testimonials” or “Happy Customers” section

2. On the back of your business card. Don’t waste this valuable space — use it!

3. On press/speaking materials.

4. On a “Testimonials” or “Review” section on Facebook.

5. As the inspiration for a blog post or newsletter topic. Pick an idea or theme from one of your testimonials and write a blog post around it. For example, in the testimonial Lise gave me above, she mentions my ability to turn “geek speak” into approachable copy. Well, “5 Tips for De-Geeking Copy” would make a fun blog post or newsletter article.

6. On email signatures. Call it “Happy Customer Quote” or “Fan Mail” and put it after your signature and use a new one every month. Opt for short, punchy, even funny ones, or testimonials that are super, super specific and talk about the type of business you want to get more of. Different people in your company can use different testimonials specific to their jobs and talents.

7. On LinkedIn. This involves an extra step of asking your client, provided you’re connected to him or her, to write the testimonial on LinkedIn. But most people are happy to do so.

8. On invoices.

9. In newsletters (electronic or print). They make great sidebar items.

10. In brochures.They work well as call-outs in the body copy, especially if they’re reinforcing a particular message.

11. On packaging.

12. On auto responder emails. For example, think of the welcome letter people receive when they subscribe to your newsletter through Constant Contact (or some other email vendor like Mail Chimp).

13. In advertising. Again, used as a call out, it can help reinforce the message.

What other ways do you use testimonials? I’d love to hear about them. Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Oh, and if you’re wondering how to solicit customer testimonials, follow this strategy:

  • Ask (be clear how you’re going to use it and ask if you can use the person’s relevant info, like name and company).
  • Receive (always in writing — keep these permissions on file).
  • Show gratitude. A heartfelt thank you is always appreciated. And pay it forward by offering to write a testimonial for someone else who does a great job for you.

Business Anniversaries – 5 Celebratory Ideas

It always amazes me when companies overlook the simple things, like their own birthdays. Marking major milestones, like 10 years in business, is a great way to engage customers, reinforce credibility, and garner press. If you or one of your clients has a significant birthday coming up in 2011, here are five celebratory ideas to weave into the marketing plan.

1. Note it on your website. I’m not talking words, but rather some sort of a visual that appears on every page. (Yes, you’ll want to note it in words as well — a blurb on your home page and a press release in your media section will work.)

2. Create a promotion around the number. For example, if you’re celebrating 10 years in business and you’re an acupuncturist, have a contest where you’ll give one lucky winner 10 FREE treatments. You can get a lot of mileage out of a contest like this, since you can promote it through your website, newsletter, Facebook, Twitter, email signatures, etc. To enter, people can fill out a form and write a brief statement (250 words or less) as to why they should be the winner and what they’d use the treatments for.

3. Expand your “About Us” section on your website. Add  “Through the Years” or a “Time Line” (or both) on your site where you visually walk people through some of your major milestones.

4. Throw a party. Seems obvious, right? But I mean throw a party for your employees, customers, and vendors. No, not everyone will be able to come, but a party mid-year (late June is a good time) is always a great way to thank people for their involvement in your success. Here in Massachusetts, a cool, fun place to hold a corporate event in Kimball Farm (great ice cream!) in Westford, Mass. Michael Katz of Blue Penguin has been holding events there for the last several years.

5. Give gifts. Identify your top tier clients and send them a gift that signifies your business milestone. For example, if you’re celebrating 20 years in business, consider sending an arrangement of day lilies to your top clients with a heartfelt thank you note (the day lily is the flower associated with 20th anniversaries).

Have some other ideas? I’d love to hear them. Leave ’em in the comments.

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Penalized for Proper Behavior? A Marketing Don’t.

Got my car insurance invoice in the mail the other day. If I pay the bill in full right now, I’ll receive a 10 percent discount. So far, so good. I like being rewarded for good behavior.

The invoice goes on to explain that if I’m late with a payment, I’ll be charged a $25 late fee. That’s fair and makes sense. No problem there.

The invoice finally explains that if I make my monthly minimum payment on time — they call it an installment plan — a $6 “installment charge” will be added to each invoice.

Here’s my question: should customers be penalized for making payments on time? (I imagine you know what my answer is.) I’m sure, if asked, the insurance company would make an argument as to why the installment charge is necessary. I don’t need to hear it to offer my counterargument, which is this: think of your customers first. How does penalizing them for proper behavior help them? It doesn’t help them, and despite what you think, it doesn’t help your company in the long run.

Think about your own business and ask yourself if you’re penalizing your customers somewhere along the way for simply doing what they’re supposed to do. If you are, rethink that strategy.

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Messaging Strategies: Two Approaches

I recently worked on a messaging project for a client who’s in an industry where everyone says the same thing. Part of the reason for the message’s “sameness” is due to legal and compliancy issues. But the other reason has to do with fear.

When I thought about it, I realized this situation is no different from any other messaging challenge for any other industry. Basically, you can approach messaging in one of two ways:

1. Churn out the same consistent (and often expected ) messages that many, if not all, of your competitors are churning out and focus on your reach and how often you bombard the market with your message

Or

2. Turn the message upside down and on its head. Choose a different message that no one else is focusing on and/or take risks in how you deliver the message

Both strategies have pros and cons. But knowing which strategy you’re going to use will help make other decisions (like who to use for your marketing and writing) go more smoothly.

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Recent Snail Mail That Caught My Attention

Dear Copy Bitch: We’re an HVAC company, and we keep encountering marketing consultants who say we should abandon direct mail marketing altogether. But here’s the thing: our direct mail pieces convert. The ROI is great. Still, I wonder if this is just an anomaly, and if I should get out while I can and redistribute my marketing dollars elsewhere. We have an optimized website, we add engaging content regularly, and we’re delving into social media. Should we put all our focus in those things, or is it okay to still have some of our marketing dollars going towards direct mail? What say you, oh wondrous Copy Bitch? And if you do think there’s still a place for direct mail, can you give some examples of effective direct mail pieces? Thanks for the great blog!

–M.H., Atlanta, GA

ANSWER: The death of direct mail has been greatly exaggerated, methinks. A good direct mail piece can still work — and might even have a greater chance of working today, thanks to the fact so many people are abandoning this marketing method (i.e. if done right, your piece has a great chance of standing out since there are fewer pieces of junk mail, at least in my mailbox).

Now as my regular readers know, I drink at the Altar of HubSpot, and I worship Saint Godin. HubSpot is all about inbound marketing, but it recognizes that outbound marketing tactics — like direct mail — still have a place in a company’s marketing plan. Saint Godin is all about what works and what makes sense for your business and, most importantly, your customers.

So, in essence, you’ve answered your own question: your direct mail is working, people are responding to it, you’re seeing conversions, and you’re experiencing great ROI. You have marketing dollars invested in inbound marketing efforts as well. Sounds like you have the right mix right now. The key is monitoring and measuring results. What works today might not work two years from now. But it sounds like you’re well aware of that.

So what does work? Here are three direct mail pieces that were delivered to my mailbox that caught my attention (for the right reasons):

  1. A free DVD of the Oscar award-winning movie Smile Pinki from Smile Train, a charitable organization that I support. Who wouldn’t love to get a free movie in the mail? And this movie has a great way of reaching other potential donors, since I’m bound to share it (and talk about it, like I’m doing here) with others.
  2. Coupon booklets – I always thumb through the coupon booklets I get and often use the restaurant coupons.
  3. The book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? by Seth Godin. He didn’t send me his latest book because I ordered it. He sent it to me because I’d bought books from him in the past and he thought I’d enjoy it. Of course, I’d planned on buying the book on my own. I hadn’t placed my order yet, but in the letter that accompanied the book, Saint Godin said that if I already had Linchpin, then I should pass on this extra copy to someone else who could benefit. (Is the guy brilliant or what?)

Here’s a piece of snail mail that caught my attention for the WRONG reasons:

TruGreen and Lowe’s sent me an over-sized postcard with a coupon for $29.95 off my first custom lawn treatment. Problem is, I’m in an apartment building. All of us in the building got this postcard. Someone wasted marketing dollars on a mailing list that included apartment numbers, a field that could have been easily filtered out, had someone been paying attention to the details.

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What’s Wrong With This Marketing Story?

So here’s the story. There will be a quiz at the end.

  • Once upon a time, I subscribed to an eCard company that I’m going to call Colorful Peaks. (I’m sure the smartypants out there will be able to figure it out.)
  • I subscribed to Colorful Peaks over ten years ago. I figured this because when I went to put in my old standby password to login, it didn’t work, nor did any combination of password I’ve been using for the last ten years.
  • I can’t remember the last time I sent an eCard through Colorful Peaks.  I think we’re talking the Bush administration. His first term.
  • This past Saturday, at 6:30 a.m., I received an email from Colorful Peaks reminding me that it was renewal time and that my credit card was going to be charged $15.99. The email also said this: If you prefer to discontinue your membership, you can find easy instructions on our Help pages. Go to <redacted link>, sign in, and click on ‘All About my Paid Membership’.
  • I immediately clicked on the link, thinking I’d cancel my membership right then and there.
  • I did not read the above “rules” carefully, and only clicked on the link and did not sign in. I was on a main Help Center page. I’m a savvy user, however, so I clicked on the section that said, “How do I…” This brought me to a page that listed a bunch of FAQ links, including “How do I cancel my subscription?
  • I clicked on the link, and was told I needed to login if I wanted to read the answer.
  • GRRRR.
  • So I entered my email address, which was the user name, and tried every combination of password I’ve been using for the last ten years. Nada. So I went through the “Forget password? Click here” rigmarole, and waited for the password to be emailed to me.
  • I got the password, actually said out loud to no one “Wow!,” reflected for several minutes on how much my life has changed since using such a password, got depressed, thought about putting tequila in my coffee, pouted because I had to be somewhere at 8 a.m. and didn’t want to go because I would rather wallow in my depression (I’m a sadist that way), and then rallied because I needed to cancel the damn account, shower, eat, feed the cat, go through my obsessive compulsive routine of shutting off the stove, and get out of the house.
  • So I quickly logged in, poised for an easy cancellation process, ONLY TO BE TOLD THIS: To request a cancellation of a subscription, please contact our membership support center by calling 1-888-254-1450, Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m. EST.
  • DOUBLE GRRR.
  • Let’s recap here: they send me the reminder at 6:30 am on a Saturday, try to confuse and depress me with the process of trying to figure out how to cancel my account, and leave me hanging for 48 hours before I can possibly attempt to cancel said account since they sent me the reminder on the weekend, and, no doubt, were hoping I’d have forgotten about it by Monday (they hadn’t counted on the fact I’m an angry blogger with no life).

Here’s the quiz: Couldn’t the folks at Colorful Peaks have put the cancellation information in the email to begin with? Yes or no?

Answer: Yes. Yes they could have. They chose not to.

I don’t understand why companies don’t let customers cancel online. Okay, I do understand why, and so does Saint Godin who talks about the reason in his recent post about stamps.com, but that doesn’t make it any better.

However, I could have forgiven Colorful Peaks for this requirement if the folks running the show had inserted the cancellation instructions in the body of the reminder email, which, by the way, had a subject line of “Important news about your Colorful Peaks Membership.”

Here’s your homework, business owners: don’t do this, okay? If you are, go fix it. Now.

UPDATE: I drafted this post yesterday, but I just called to cancel my account. I started out with an auto attendant who decided my request was too complicated and handed me to a live person. This person was nice enough and efficient and of course wanted to know why I was canceling. I decided to see how she would respond to “I just can’t afford it.” She said they could lower the price to $11.99. I said no thanks. (She also mentioned that I had the account since 2002. I was close.)

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In Social Media, Do One Thing Well

When it comes to social media, the biggest mistake I see business owners make is starting a Twitter account, a Facebook account, launching LinkedIn, and a blog. What’s wrong with all that? It’s simply too much at once.

I’m a big advocate of the “do one thing well first” philosophy. Choose the social medium that makes the most sense for your business and dedicate yourself to it for, say, 3-6 months. Ignore the people who tell you that in addition to that medium, you can easily spend an extra 10 minutes a day on this medium or that medium and increase your reach. It’s a great idea in theory, and some people might actually succeed, but the majority of us mortals will eventually slack off. Slacking off begets more slacking off, because once you get behind it seems impossible to catch up.

I know this sounds familiar to many of you.

So buck the emerging trend that you must be doing all these social media thingies at once. You don’t. Choose one. Do it well. Once it becomes second nature, add in another medium (if it makes sense to do so) and start the process all over.

Doing One Thing Well – A Real-Life Story

I recommend this to all my clients, and occasionally one will actually listen to me. One of my clients is an online retailer who owns two brands, a western wear shop and a casual leisure shirt shop. When we first started working together she wanted to blog and do Facebook and do Twitter. I shared my “do one well first” philosophy, and she listened.

We started with Facebook. Anyone who’s created a company page knows how frustrating the platform can be (which is when I remind myself that it’s free, and I have no right to complain). My client and I read e-books and articles on creating engaging company pages. We experimented with ads. We worked hard to build a fan base. One of the brands did better than the other, at first, and the fan base shot up. We then brought on another person to help engage the struggling page, and watched as its base finally started to inch up. We worked and experimented and failed and won and tried again. We’re now humming, and both fan bases are over 1700 people each, which isn’t bad for a small business that’s had a presence on Facebook since late last fall.

My client didn’t bring up Twitter at all during this time, but we recently talked about whether we’re ready to add it in. And that’s when I heard my words coming back at me. My client said, “I listened to you about doing one thing well, and you were right.”

Warmed the cockles of this copy bitch’s heart, let me tell you.

So follow my advice: when it comes to social media, focus on one thing first. Do it well. Get really good at it. Then consider your next step.

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Close Your Eyes & Hit “Publish.” Please.

I’m not advocating publishing crappy copy. But here’s the thing: you won’t know if the copy is going to work (convert) until you put it out there and let it do its thang.

Sadly, I’ve worked with too many clients over the years who’ve fallen victim to the Perfection Notion. They want to work on the copy until it’s perfect, PERFECT, do you hear?

Guess what? Impossible.

Perfection is a worthwhile pursuit as long as you understand that while you may at times come close, you’ll never fully get there. The sooner you accept this, the easier it will be to let go of your little copy darlings and send them forth into the world. Some of your little copy darlings will fail, even miserably. And other little copy darlings will achieve things even you didn’t think possible. But you won’t know until you let your copy go.

At some point (how about today?), hold your breath, close your eyes, and hit publish on a little copy darling you’ve been holding in captivity whilst waiting for perfection. This applies to blog posts, web pages, email newsletters, marketing plans, videos, e-books, and, well, just about everything in written form. Yes, including your Great American Novel. At some point, after you’ve labored and sweated and cried and shared with others and have listened to feedback and have revised some more, you need to hit “send” and see what happens.

This piece of advice applies to many areas of life, actually. Don’t let yourself become paralyzed by the silly idea that you can create something perfect. You can’t. Neither can I. And that’s okay.

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Don’t underestimate “chatty” writing

Dear Copy Bitch: I’m banging my head over here because, once again, I’ve encountered a client who thinks writing web copy and feature articles in third person is “right” and that “conversational” is unprofessional. I know you advocate conversational copy, so how do you handle this with clients?

—Frustrated Copywriter in Boston

Answer: I feel your pain, Boston Copywriter. This writer does not believe that one should write in third person because the tone one creates is stuffy and aloof. (See?)

And I’d give my favorite George Clooney poster in exchange for the name of the first person who perpetuated the myth that conversational and professional are mutually exclusive terms.

You can be serious, professional, and conversational (next time you get “junk mail” for a charity, read it and consider the tone); fun, professional, and conversational (ditto for junk mail trying to sell you a new cell phone service or credit card); and annoying, unprofessional, and conversational (my neighbor, when he’s trying to sell God-knows-what from his balcony at 2am).

I wish I had a magic wand that I could wave over clients and it would remove any memory of the damage done by well-meaning high school teachers. “Formal writing” is fine for legal briefs and dissertations (I use the word “fine” loosely, because I think both of these items would be easier to read if written in a conversational tone). How many people go, “I’m in the mood for a good dissertation to bring with me to the beach?” No one that I can think of.

I’m also willing to say this: conversational copy is more important now than ever before, thanks to social media. You can’t have effective social media without having conversations, and you can’t have effective conversations if you’re not, well, conversational. As far as I’m concerned, this goes for ALL industries, even those notoriously “formal” ones.

So what can you say to your client? How can you prove your theory that conversational is more effective?  The best way is by conducting a split test, also known as A/B testing, because the proof will be in the conversions.

For web pages, this works really well, and it’s cost effective. Set up two landing pages for a particular campaign and have one page be in “client speak” (let the client write it–just edit it for typos) and the other be in your winning “conversational tone.” See which one converts better.

One thing you should keep in mind is this: it’s hard for some people to let go of rules that they’ve been holding onto since the sixth grade. Either accept this and applaud their baby steps or start working with those folks who recognize the beauty and effectiveness in a well-placed “bullshit.” (Guess which direction I’m taking my business in?)

By the way, I wrote about this topic in a newsletter last year and included strategies for writing in a conversational style. You can access it here.

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