Aaron’s Answers: How does it all work together?

There are lots of different things you can do online… When do you use them and how do they all work together?

I’ve had three people ask me that same question recently so I thought the topic deserved its own blog post! The people who asked me were a realtor, the owner of a bacon factory (I’m not kidding), and a trainer/educator at my client’s office.

Here’s my answer to them (but slightly generalized for everyone). Now, I should clarify a something first: This isn’t the only way to piece your content channels together, and you can certainly add or take away as necessary. I’m just outlining the basics for someone who wants to get started. I’ve seen this work effectively for all kinds of different businesses.

You want to have several different content channels because each one acts as a sort-of “interface” with your prospective market and each one has its own purpose in your sales funnel.

Create a central place to drive your traffic. This site can be fairly static (i.e. you can update the content but you don’t have to do it daily). It should be the place where prospects ultimately go to convert into customers. This can be a somewhat salesy site and acts very much like a brochure and salesperson.

Now you need something to showcase just how smart you are while it also works as a search engine optimized magnet of readers. Update your blog regularly — perhaps once a day or a couple times a week.

Open a Twitter account. Tweet daily. Follow your prospects. Listen to them and communicate with them.

Create a Facebook business page for your business or brand. Start sharing information about your business. Engage fans. Post pictures and video. Start discussions.

Once you have all four of these content channels created, it’s time to tie them together. Here’s what you might consider:

  1. Put a link on your blog, Twitter account, and Facebook page pointing to your website.
  2. Connect your blog to your Twitter account so you send out an automatic tweet every time you publish a blogpost.
  3. Connect your blog and your Twitter account to your Facebook page so that you gather all of your communication points into your Facebook interface.

Now you have four very different content channels that work together to bring in leads, turn them into prospects, and ultimately into customers. They work together to capture the attention of leads and to convince prospects to buy. In most cases, your blog and your Twitter account will capture their attention. Then your Facebook page and your blog and your Twitter account will slowly convince them that you are the right vendor for their needs. Then your website will provide the way for them to buy from you. (That doesn’t mean they’ll visit your content channels in the exact order I’ve described — they might hop around — but I believe those are the roles that each content channel plays in your sales funnel).

And you can build from here: Maybe you serve a business niche so you want to add LinkedIn. Or maybe there’s a forum where you can post links to some of your sites. Or maybe you serve a local market and want to use Foursquare as a way to get some location-based marketing.

But don’t get too carried away too early. Start with the four I’ve described and build from there!

8 easy ways to discover what problems your prospects desperately want solved

When you strip away all of the techniques and strategies and bookkeeping and SEO, a small business is ultimately about earning a profit by solving someone’s problem or fulfilling a need or want. Pretty simple, really!

So if you’re an aspiring business owner looking for an business idea, or if you have a struggling business that could use a little reviving, or if you have a successful business that might benefit from a product or service extension, here are 8 ways to discover what customers need. I recommend following these 8 steps in order to find out exactly what your target market is eager to buy.

This is my favorite starting point. Magazine editors need to sell magazines and they do so by addressing the top concerns and problems of their target market in each and every issue. Go to your local library, find a magazine (or two or three) that speaks to your niche and go through the last 6 months of issues. If you just write down the headlines, you will have a really valuable list of the top problems, buzzwords, and potential solutions that your target market is looking for.

If you don’t have time to go to the library, go to www.magazines.com and find the magazines that serve your niche. Then go to that magazine’s website and scan for headlines.

Armed with a list of potential problems, you need to broaden your search. There might be related problems or needs, and you should also be aware of different ways that those problems or needs are communicated. Check out Google’s Keyword Tool and search for some of the top terms you identified. Then, sort by Global Monthly Searches to get an approximate idea of what key terms are most popular.

Next, take the top ten or twenty terms from your Google Keywords list and Google them. (Or Bing them, if you’re so inclined). Check out the following things:

  • How many results were found? Some topics will return results in the billions. Others might only have a few thousand.
  • What about advertisers using Google Adwords? Are there a lot? Are they selling aggressively? What are they selling?
  • What are the top ten search results? Are they information-heavy, sales-heavy, or random? (Information-heavy could mean that there is room for you in this market; sales-heavy means that you’ll need to be really creative and competitive if you want to survive; random results suggest that the market isn’t well defined, there aren’t a lot of active competitors, or your target market isn’t looking here).

Popular articles is next on my list of things to read. I would hit many of the online article sites — Squidoo, Suite 101, HubPages, ArticlesBase. These articles are afast glimpse into your target market and the articles highlight the problem while the writer will often have a solution at their website.

Check out the most helpful (not necessarily the most prolific) writers on the topic and bookmark their sites. You’ll visit them in a later step. This step should round out some of your discoveries, although you probably won’t learn anything new if you spent the time reading the magazines articles back in step 1. You will, however, start to meet some of your potential competitors and see how they are solving problems for your customers.

Next on the list: Amazon.com. Find books on the subject and check out the following things:

  • The back-of-the-book blurbs
  • The Table of Contents (and any other internal pages they might show)
  • Customer reviews and feedback (is it helpful? Is it fluff?)
  • Related books

Also, take note of the author and bookmark his or her website. You’ll come back to it later.

There are groups and forums for everything. You’ll find them on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google Groups, or just Google “forum + [your niche]” to find a relevant forum. Then go in and read everything you can. If you don’t want to get involved, that’s okay; that’s not really the point of this exercise and you’ll have plenty of opportunity to do that when you are building your business. Right now, just listen to your prospects and how they talk about their problems and how they support each other and work through their problems.

Twitter’s real time search engine search.twitter.com is one of my favorite sites to see what people need… because they’re talking about what they need right now. I find that I can’t use Twitter Search until this point (and not earlier in this 8-step process I’ve been describing) because I don’t always have a good grasp on what problems my target market are really facing: I might not know the buzzwords or the key players or be able to articulate the problems. But by this point — step 7 — I’m confident enough with the information to make some informed searches and see what people are saying.

Now, I should point out that not everyone is going to talk about their problems on Twitter. They only have 140 characters and they may not want to share their problems with the world. But if your niche is open enough, and if their problem isn’t too private, you can find some helpful insight.

Now it’s time to see what the gurus are selling. Earlier in this process you’ve already collected some information about who the market’s go-to people are. Visit their websites and blogs and check out some of the following things:

  • What do they sell? A product? A service? Packages? Individual offerings?
  • How are they priced?
  • Where are they positioned in the marketplace? Are they a location-specific solution? Are they web-based? Do they serve a certain sub-niche?
  • Do they give testimonials? Who are the testimonials from? Anyone noteworthy?
  • What is their sales funnel?
  • How have they established their credibility?
  • How are they generating business?

So here’s what you should do: Choose a particular niche. Then work through this list in order, starting with a broad niche and slowly narrowing through to a specific set of problems. Then create a compelling, effective, high-value solution to solve that problem.

Or, if you don’t want to start with a specific niche, try mixing a few of the above methods together but start at a different starting point — perhaps start with something you’re comfortable doing or an industry you have a lot of experience in.

Why business growth can sometimes be a costly problem

Growth is good, for the most part. As entrepreneurs we want our businesses to grow. And although we want our businesses to grow all the time, the result of the growth isn’t always ideal.

When I say “result”, I don’t mean bigger orders or bigger bills. These are the result, of course, but I’m talking about a different result: I’m talking about the challenges that come from organic growth.

Most growth happens organically, even when we try to strategize and systematize it. Organic growth is represented by a series of short, “effective-for-now” solutions that may work for a season but may not necessarily work over the long term.

Think of a building. It may have been built in one decade and be adequate for that time, but over the decades new additions are added onto it as the needs of the occupants change. I went to a grade school like this: The original building was a small, brick two-storey edifice. A large brick extension was added on. And when I attended, there was a ridiculously long corridor of metal portable structures that had been added on year after year. By the time I got there, the school was quite large and it was also an aesthetic eyesore.

Your growing business is the same: It starts out with a series of “structures” — processes, offerings, procedures, software, roles, etc. — and over time it develops; organically growing to meet the changing demands of your business.

The result? It isn’t always pleasant, although it happens so slowly that you might not even realize the patches and workarounds that develop.

A great example comes from a part time job I held in college. It was a pretty mindless data entry job at a large medical center. Each day I would work through a stack of information slips that the various medical practitioners had filled out for their patients that day. The problem was, the system may have started out as an efficient color-coded system with a handful of sensible colors for various purposes, and as it grew, it would have made sense to the person in the role before me (because they had adapted to the changes over the years). But when I showed up — as a complete outsider — I saw workaround after workaround for these slips: The yellow ones meant on thing and the blue ones meant something else… UNLESS the blue ones had a code on them that ended in the letter A. And the green ones meant one thing if they were stapled to a blue sheet of paper and something else if stapled to a pink sheet of paper. I quit within a couple of days, only because I was worried that I couldn’t keep it all straight and would endanger the patients.

Although you might not realize it, your business is full of workarounds exactly like this. Maybe you have to copy-and-paste a contact name from and old CRM into a newer contact management system. Maybe your website has been retooled so often that links go nowhere or take customers on bizarre paths. Maybe your invoice system used to pull data from the shipping software, until you outgrew the shipping software and now you have to input your invoices manually.

These workarounds may have been patches to keep your processes going, but they can be time consuming and can lead to errors… and if you ever bring on another employee, they can cause confusion and waste your money by making your staff inefficient.

Finding and fixing your workarounds and patches isn’t easy: You’re so familiar with your business that you just don’t see them. And fixing them is just as hard because it can require you to break and rebuild processes and systems that generally work (and seem efficient to you, even though they aren’t).

The first way you can find your workarounds is by shopping for new software that will automate parts of your business. Yes, it’s rare that the simple act of shopping for something can help, but it’s true: Look for software that connects multiple aspects of your business together (i.e., marketing, sales, and customer service or shipping, invoicing, and bookkeeping). Seeing how things operate in one system can highlight the fact that your efforts to move information from one system to another is a simple workaround you developed years ago that you now perform out of habit.

The second way you can find your workarounds is by writing out your procedures. It’s a good idea to do this anyway, in order to build an operations manual to use when you add staff to your business. Just go through your day with your favorite notetaking device nearby and record every step you take in every business procedure. It sounds like a lot of work but it goes fast and it helps you to create a really useful operations manual while making you more efficient. That’s a good investment of your time!

It’s harder to make recommendations about fixing workarounds since there are so many ways that workarounds can happen and each person will create different workarounds for different reasons. (I used to ghostwrite ebooks all the time and had some standard snippets of legal disclaimers and copyright text I used over and over. I just kept these in a .txt file, which isn’t bad but there are more efficient places to keep that text).

Ultimately, if you can identify where your patches and workarounds are, you need to focus on smoothing them out: Automate them; invest in more robust software to handle them for you; delegate that part of your business; try eliminating the step altogether.

Business growth is good, but organic business growth leads to workarounds and patches that can end up costing you a lot of time (and money). Get rid of them to streamline your business!

Converting prospects into customers

In your business’ sales funnel, every stage (lead, prospect, customer, etc.) has its own goal. Moving a contact from one stage to the next is about working with the contact to achieve each goal, in order.

Here are some ways that you can convert a prospect into a customer, depending on your organization type and business model.

You will convert a prospect into a customer when your contact…

  • Pays you for a product or service that they subsequently receive (i.e. consulting services)
  • Orders a product that they subsequently pay for (i.e. a retail model)
  • Becomes a member (i.e. in a club)
  • Shows up
  • Agrees (i.e. in an argument)
  • Shows up for an appointment (i.e. in a health services situation)
  • Subscribes (i.e. to a publication)
  • Enrolls (i.e. to a class)
  • Invests (i.e. in a real estate model)
  • Deposits money (i.e. in a financial services model)
  • Signs on the dotted line

You’ll notice that the customer doesn’t necessarily have to pay. They simply have to commit. At this point in the relationship, you are no longer trying to convince them to buy from you. Rather, you have their commitment and are now delivering your offer and/or requesting payment.