Case study: Revamping a sales funnel incrementally

When your business is struggling with making profitable sales, sometimes what you need to do is revamp the sales funnel — basically take everything apart and rebuild your business from the sales funnel, up.

The benefit of doing this is that (if you plan correctly) you can do it fairly quickly, without a lot of disruption. However, it can be costly and it can be potentially disruptive… especially if you rely on the income you generate week-to-week. So the other option is to rebuild your sales funnel incrementally: To identify all the areas of your business that need to change and then to develop a plan to slowly switch over to a new sales funnel in a way that doesn’t diminish your ability to market and sell to the people in your existing sales funnel. It’s more time consuming and potentially more costly, and sometimes it can feel like you’re juggling A LOT of balls at once, but the benefit is that you don’t cut out a week or month of sales.

One of my clients, a real estate investor, was facing this very dilemma. His business was suffering because of a change in the economy and he needed to make some dramatic changes in his sales funnel. However, he didn’t want to be too disruptive to the people who were in his existing sales funnel. So we put together a plan to switch him over slowly. (Actually, he came to me with part of a plan in place already, as well as a website redesign already underway).

We laid out the plan step-by-step:

  1. First we would create content for his new website.
  2. Then we would create an autoresponder series.
  3. Then we would offer a free report to entice subscribers.
  4. Then we would start creating passive income products to extend his income-earning opportunities.
  5. After that, we would look at additional marketing plans to boost his marketing, once he had a more automated marketing/selling system in place.

As I write this, we haven’t finished yet. We’ve implemented someone of these things and the rollout is going smoothly. However, we haven’t finished creating and implementing everything just yet. As I said, it’s a long-term plan so it takes some commitment but building your sales funnel incrementally can keep your business running while you transition.

Copying, plagiarism, and how to avoid duplication and copyright infringement

I recently had a prospective customer contact me and ask about my writing services. His organization wants to create some content and they have a few pieces from competitors that they really like. This prospect wondered if I could do something similar for his company but was quick to clarify that he didn’t want me copying the competitor’s work.

This is a common request among people hiring writers and copying/duplication/copyright is also a huge issue in the writing and marketing industry. And it’s not just an issue for legal (i.e. copyright infringement) reasons but also for search engine optimization reasons — search engines prefer original content to duplicate content.

In this blog post, I’m going to give you my thoughts and ideas but let me just make this disclaimer up-front: This blog post does not constitute legal advice. If you have any concerns about copyright and copyright infringement, you should talk to an attorney. This is by no means comprehensive or exhaustively authoritative. Instead, I’m simply writing about some of my observations and rules of thumb I’ve developed over the years, and I’m trying to portray the spectrum of the issue — both good and bad. I do not endorse all of the information I am writing about here!

Let’s start with a scenario: A customer has a document (we’ll call it a “source document”) and they want their own document (an “end document”). That document could be an ebook or a website or an article or whatever. It doesn’t matter. And they may do the work themselves or with a staff writer or a freelancer or whatever. Again, that doesn’t matter. The key point I want to cover in this scenario is how the source document influences the end document.

When you think of a document, it’s not just a collection of words. It has scope, tone, appearance, a message, and it is written for a specific audience. The more of those qualities that your source document and your end document share, the more likely you are that you are risking duplicate content and copyright infringement. (Again, that is just my own opinion, drawn from nearly 20 years as a writer, but the word choice, scope, tone, appearance, message, and audience characteristics have served me well as markers of content originality).

So let’s look at the ways that the source document could possibly influence the end document…

WORD-FOR-WORD COPY

This is where someone basically opens the source document, clicks Control+A to highlight all of text, then copies the text and pastes it in the end document. Then they sign their own name as the author.

This is plagiarism and it’s illegal. There is very little argument here. The word choice, scope, tone, appearance, message, and audience are identical.

Unfortunately, it happens a lot because businesses produce so much content and it can be hard to police the issue (or, once you’ve found a culprit, to do anything about it). Trying to put myself in the shoes of a plagiarizer for a moment, I’m sure it’s tempting to copy and paste when you find something great, and especially when you compare the price of hiring a writer to write something original versus just spending 30 seconds to grab the content yourself. Plus, we live in an era where there is a lot of free stuff online anyway so the rules can seem a little blurry. I’m definitely not condoning it as a practice!

You can use tools like Copyscape to help you identify some of the times when it happens but no solution is perfect.

As someone who writes for clients for a living, and adheres to strict standards of originality, it drives me absolutely nuts that plagiarism is even an issue. I hate looking at requests for proposals from prospective clients and seeing “we will check your work against Copyscape”. I understand why they put that in their RFP and I hate that they have to do it. And I hate that there are people out there who call themselves writers but really only know how to press Control+A, Control+C, and Control+V. (Rant over)

WRAPPERS AND QUOTATIONS

This one has some good qualities to it and some bad qualities to it. So first I’ll describe it and then tell you waht I think about it: Let’s consider our original scenario again — a business that has a source document and wants an end document. One way they can draw from the source document for their end document is to copy some of the source document content, paste it into their end document, and then “wrap” that content with original content.

If you ever wrote a paper in school, you probably did just that: You wrote your own content and then backed it up with research that you quoted from others. In essence, your content copying was “wrapped” with your own original content. But it happens outside of academia as well. I see it in blogs a lot — where a business will use some info grabbed from somewhere else and then write their own introduction and conclusion.

Whether this is a good practice or a bad practice depends on a couple of things:

  • Attribution: When I was studying for my MBA, we had to review the papers of one of our classmates and noticed that the tone and word choice in the paper switched back and forth a lot. So I did a bit of research and found that his source document was written by someone else… unfortunately, instead of quoting from the source document and attributing it appropriately, he tried to pass it off as his own work. (I reported him and he vanished from class — no big loss.)
  • Amount of content: In the copyright and disclaimer sections of some books, they will sometimes list the amount of content you can copy and if they do that, they’ll often give you the reasons when you’re allowed to copy. When it’s not clear how much content you’re allowed to copy, there may very well be laws that dictate but I’ve never known what they are. In general, though, it’s hard to go wrong with some smallish quotes that, again, are properly attributed.
  • Access: This one gets overlooked a lot but I think it’s important. I think the amount of access that people have to a specific piece of content can also determine how much you can copy. If you are quoting from a book that is for sale, you shouldn’t use too much of it. If you are quoting from a popular article that is posted online, you may be able to use more. (Again, always attribute appropriately and check copyright restrictions).

The word choice, scope, tone, appearance, message, and audience are going to be mostly different for your original content and obviously the same for the copied content.

I think the key idea here is whether or not you are passing stuff off as your own or revealing a ton of stuff contained in a source document that most people have to pay for.

IDEA-FOR-IDEA COPY

Word-for-word copy is bad. No question. One way to circumvent the copyright problem is the slightly cloudier method of copying idea-for-idea. I see this in a lot of requests for proposal by people who want a end document that is almost identical to the source document but want to avoid the legal hassles of copyright infringement because you can’t copyright ideas, you can only copyright how those ideas are expressed (i.e. the words).

Idea-for-idea copy is where you simply restate the idea of the source document so that the information remains almost exactly the same but the words are different. This can be done at various levels — you can do it at the word level, at the sentence level, at the paragraph level, or at the section level.

At the word level: Let’s say your source document has a sentence like “financial representative” and you just search and replace any mention of financial representative with “investment advisor”. You find all the keywords and simply swap them out for synonyms.

At the sentence level: You just rewrite a sentence so the same information is communicated with different words. For example: “Buying your first home can be hard” can be switched to “It can be difficult to purchase a home if you have never done so before.”

… it’s the same no matter what “granularity” you use — whether restating sentences, paragraphs, or entire sections of a document.

Is this plagiarism? Well now it’s getting murky. Swapping out a couple of words for other words really is plagiarism even with the minor changes (and even if you don’t use all of the content). Remember: Word choice, scope, tone, appearance, message, and audience are going to be very similar.

It gets more complicated the more you change. At some point (and frankly I’m not sure what that point is), you move out of the realm of plagiarism and into the point where it is legal.

But is it ethical?

I’m not convinced.

Sure, your appearance might be slightly different (since you’re using different words and perhaps using different graphics and images) but everything else is nearly the same. Swapping out ideas for synonymous ideas doesn’t automatically change the scope or the tone. The message doesn’t change. And the audience hasn’t changed either.

The more granular your synonym swapping, the easier it is to spot. For example, if you are only swapping out the keywords for synonyms, it’s much easier to spot because many of the connecting words will still be original. If you are restating larger portions (like paragraphs), it’s harder to use technology to find it but someone can probably do a visual side-by-side comparison. It’s still plagiarism because you are still stealing the fundamental concepts of the original document even if you are changing the text.

SOURCE DOCUMENTS AS RESEARCH

Another way that you can use source documents is to use them as research. That is, you review the content from your source document, along with other content, and you create something original. Yes, your end document probably covers some of the similar pieces that your source document covered but the information is yours.

When you use source documents as research, you have control over the word choice scope, tone, appearance, message, and audience and you can make adjustments to those things as you go.

In my opinion, this is the very best way to create content and it is the way that I am paid by my clients to draw from source material. (Occasionally I will use wrappers and especially quotations but that’s really not how I get paid). It’s the way that causes the least number of headaches and worries — you won’t be kept up at night wondering if an angry attorney will waiting to slap a lawsuit on you.

As much as possible, I urge you to use your source documents in this way.

SOME FINAL THOUGHTS

Want to know why Biblical quotes in television shows or movies are almost always from the (very dated) King James Version of the Bible? It’s because that document is copyright free while most other Bibles are copyrighted translations owned by a publisher who will require permission before it can be used. So copyright free documents (and a relatively new concept of “uncopyrighted” documents) make this even more challenging. There is also a “Creative Commons” licensing movement that is growing to create new guidelines around how to use different kinds of content. The issue gets even trickier when you consider PLR (Private Label Rights) content that you can purchase that allows you to use the source material straight-up or with a specified amount of changes. It’s so complicated!

This is a spectrum — on the one side you have blatant copying; on the other side you have pure, original work. One is clearly wrong; the other is clearly right. But those aren’t your only two options. In the middle, it’s harder to navigate the murky waters. In my opinion, you can’t go wrong creating your own content and, when appropriate, quoting your source document and accurately attributing the quotes.

Is the ‘CSI effect’ hindering your success?

If you are a financial advisor or real estate professional, a condition very similar to “the CSI effect” could be hindering your success.

WHAT IS THE CSI EFFECT?

The CSI effect is a problem faced by the justice system when juries place too much faith in fingerprints and DNA evidence. It’s called “the CSI effect” to suggest that forensic shows like CSI (and others) are tainting real-life juries by making them believe that forensic evidence is easy to obtain, can be processed by a lab in hours, and decisive beyond a shadow-of-a-doubt.

Although the CSI effect is just a hypothesis, it does raise the issue that today’s media might be making everyone an expert.

WHAT DOES THE CSI EFFECT HAVE TO DO WITH YOU?

You might not be prosecuting criminals but you might be impacted by the CSI effect anyway… or, at least something similar. Our prospective clients have access to all kinds of information — from us and from others; on TV and the web. There is no shortage to the information that they can access.

Unfortunately, it has made “amateur experts” out of many clients, turning naive homebuyers into superstar DIY real estate agents and untrained investors into the next Jim Cramer.

Let me be clear about something before you read any further: Savvy clients are good. I’m not proposing that financial and real estate professionals would be better off with clients who couldn’t tell their left hand from their right hand. The root of the problem is NOT that they have access to lots of information to make better decisions. Rather, the root of the problem is that they have no filter to help them navigate the complicated world of real estate or investing.

They’ve been empowered and informed but not equipped.

The result is: Real estate professionals are finding lots of people going the list-it-themselves route or are assuming that they are expert househunters. And financial advisors are finding lots of people who leave voicemails on the advisors’ office overnight because of some great stocks they found while browsing online.

WHAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT

This is tricky. You don’t want to belittle them by telling them that what they know is wrong, nor do you really want to validate that their unsorted knowledge is a replacement for your expertise.

What clients really need is structure. They need decision-making systems. They need rules. They need ways to synthesize their information. They need frames. They need order. They need taxonomies. They need context. They need the bigger picture.

Right now, your clients are looking at splotches of paint on canvas; you need to help them step back and see the entire painting.

Here are some ways to work with your clients to counter the CSI effect:

  • When writing your blog, make sure you use categories (or some other sorting system) that make sense in the bigger picture.
  • In all of your marketing, make sure to highlight that the one piece of information you’re expressing is a single cog in a giant piece of machinery.
  • Prepare information, verbal and written responses, and proactive marketing to address the reality that some of your clients will tell you about something they saw on TV or the web that doesn’t mesh with what you do. (For example, a normally conservative investor tells a financial advisor about a speculative stock they just heard about from a friend on Facebook).
  • If you’re looking for a great idea for your next downloadable document, consider a “big picture” ebook that your users can use to sort out the huge, unsorted mass of information available to them on the web.

I believe the CSI effect is real… and it’s affecting more than just the justice system. I think many of my financial and real estate clients are facing a similar situation.

But I also think that this is an opportunity for you! Rather than joining the ranks of real estate and financial advisors who ONLY give out unsorted, unfiltered information, why not become the professional who helps prospective clients MAKE SENSE OF IT ALL.

4 places in your sales funnel where you shouldn’t use testimonials (and the one place where you absolutely must)

Testimonials are great tools to have for your sales funnel. You should collect them like a kid collects baseball cards (… do kids still collect baseball cards?). But are you using your testimonials effectively in your sales funnel? Or are they merely collecting dust and contributing nothing to your sales funnel?

Not all of your contacts in every stage are ready to hear a testimonial from a customer. Here’s why…

TWO STAGES IN YOUR SALES FUNNEL WHERE YOU SHOULDN’T USE TESTIMONIALS
A testimonial is basically an indication that someone has bought something from you and they were happy with it. While the “happy with it” part of the testimonial is good, implicit in that testimonial is the reality that they handed over their cash to receive the product or service. Unfortunately, that’s not something that your contacts in the Audience stage or Leads stage are ready to hear yet.

Contacts in your Audience stage or Leads stage are not making buying decisions. In the audience stage, they are only becoming aware of the problem or need. In the Leads stage they are only starting to realizing the severity of their problem or need and that you might have a solution to help them. Most of the time, Audience and Lead contacts don’t want to think about buying… and they ESPECIALLY don’t want to think about parting with their cash.

THE STAGE IN YOUR SALES FUNNEL WHERE YOU SHOULD USE TESTIMONIALS
It’s the people at the Prospect stage who need to hear or read your testimonials… and as many testimonials as you can give them without pissing them off! The people at the Prospect stage are starting to make a buying decision because they’re coming to terms with the fact that they have an acute problem and you have the solution for them. And although buyers want to believe that they are unique and special, they also find comfort in knowing that other people have the same problems as them and have found you to be the solution.

TWO MORE STAGES IN YOUR SALES FUNNEL WHERE YOU SHOULDN’T USE TESTIMONIALS
Once your contacts reach the Customer stage or the Evangelist stage, there is really no need to use testimonials anymore. After all, the positive experience that your Customer has with your product or service should be so good that you don’t need additional proof from other happy customers. Besides, your testimonials could actually harm you at the Customer or Evangelist level if they contain specific ROI numbers that your Customers and Evangelists compare their own results to. (“This testimonial says they received a 40% return on investment but I only received a 25% return… what gives?).

HOW TO USE TESTIMONIALS IN YOUR SALES FUNNEL
So, where should you put your testimonials in your sales funnel? Put them in the Prospect stage and pepper them liberally throughout that stage in your sales funnel. Make sure to include one or two testimonials in every printed communication, make them readily visible on your website or blog, add them to reports and whitepapers, include them in the footer of emails, and even construct content around them for blog posts and ezine articles. Don’t be afraid to send lots of testimonials to your contacts: For example, if you send a bonus report, include at least 1-2 pages of testimonials.

Here’s a bonus tip: Keep all of your sales funnels in one place and sort them. Content management systems might work for you; Evernote could be a good solution; or just use a spreadsheet with sorting functions that will allow you to find the most relevant ones quickly.

Here’s an extra bonus tip: When you convert a customer and they use a product or service from you, collect a testimonial. Make it a habit. Write yourself a reminder email or add it to a checklist as one of the last things you do before you cash their check and thank them for their business.

Testimonials are great… but only if they are making your sales funnel more successful.

Online reputation management: How to clean up or eliminate unfavorable search results

No matter how good your business is, you’re bound to get some bad press at some point. It’s a part of business but wouldn’t be so bad… if it didn’t appear on the first page of a Google search result! Somehow, bad news or reviews seem magnetized to the very top of search results, and they remain stuck there as an obstacle to a fast-flowing sales funnel!

I’ve worked with several businesses and individuals who have bad press from their past lurking in Google search results, and we’ve rolled up our sleeves and dug in, trying to take back ownership of their reputation by taking back ownership of their top Google results. Here is the advice that I give them:

You essentially have 2 options:

  • You can talk louder and more often than the bad news or reviews
  • You can change the story completely

Both will take time and investment (sorry). I have seen both work and can’t say which one is better, although I suspect that the “better” one has to do with how quickly you need the content removed from search results about you and how flexible your prospects and customers are.

REPUTATION MANAGEMENT OPTION ONE: TALK LOUDER AND MORE OFTEN
If you have some annoying news or reviews that aren’t budging from your Google search results, you will need to get more aggressive by talking louder and more often.

Identify the keyword that is the problem. Is it your name or your business’ name? Be certain that it’s the keywords that people are actually Googling to get to you. (If your name is Bob Smith but you have earned bunch of bad reviews about “Robert Smith” that don’t even show up when someone searches for you, then forget about trying to manage it… it’s not disrupting your sales funnel unless your contacts find it in some other way). But if it’s your name (or business name) that is causing the problem, and bad news is showing up on that word when people Google you, here’s how to talk louder and more often:

Own the word: Make sure you own the domain name of that keyword. If you can think of a few different websites, consider buying related domain names. For example, I might own AaronHoos.com, AaronHoos-publishing.com, AaronHoos-writing.com, AaronHoos-speaking.com, AaronHoos-consulting.com, etc., or AaronHoos.net, AaronHoos.org, AaronHoos.info, etc. You can’t just copy and paste the content from one site to another and you should endeavor to keep each site fresh. At the very least, start with one site that is exclusively your name or your business’ name, if at all possible.

Start a blog: Start a blog with that name in the URL. Blogger and Posterous are my favorites but there are several others. If you can manage content across all of them, then start a blog at several of them. (Make it easy on yourself by assigning a function to each blog. Maybe one blog is just a quick blog about books you’re reading and every blog post features another book. Maybe another blog is for casual posts about what’s going on in your life, and it’s tied to Flickr and Last.fm and Foursquare. Maybe another blog is your professional blog. Maybe another blog is where you post your favorite videos. Again, make sure your name is in the URLs: aaronhoos.blogspot.com and aaronhoos.posterous.com, for example.

Get social: Open a Twitter account. Use your name as the Twitter ID. Create a personal Facebook page and a business Facebook page. Change the URLs to your name. Create a LinkedIn profile and business profile (if applicable) and change the URLs to your name. Create a Foursquare page. Find other social media relevant to your niche and do the same. Get active on those sites… and own your name at each site AND make sure your privacy settings allow for being crawled by search engines and published to the web.

Post content at offsite content channels: Find 5 or more article publishing or distribution sites and get actively writing and publishing articles there. Use a combination of article distribution sites (ArticlesBase.com, Isnare.com, EzineArticles.com, etc.) and article publishing sites (Squidoo.com, HubPages.com, Suite101.com, Technorati.com, etc.)

Post news: Find an online news site that caters to your niche market and report the news in your industry or niche category.

Make your own news: Write a report – just something smallish like a 5-page PDF – and then write a series of press releases. Publish them at press release sites (and consider spending the $300+/- for a press release at PRWeb.com). Host the PDF on your site (where search engines can crawl it) but submit it to PDF search engines and ebook sites. (Scribd.com is my favorite).

Create profiles: There are several sites that allow you to create and/or manage a professional profile about yourself. They have various functions but include some of the following: GoogleProfiles, Twellow, PeoplePond, DandyID, just to name a few.

Post your resume: Create an online resume at resume sites. Depending on your industry, there might be industry-relevant sites that allow you to create a portfolio page. For a broad range of services, Guru and Elance are good examples.

And remember, the key here is to always use your name or business name (whatever the critical keyword is whose reputation you’re trying to “clean up” in Google) prominently – in the URL, the page title, subtitles, and content.

Once you’ve done all (or a majority) of these, you need to manage them: Cross link them, push RSS feeds from one to another, refresh your content, and add new content. Obviously it’s too much for anyone to do in a day or even a week, but it is manageable if you plan to write a blog every day, an article every week, a series of website refreshes every two weeks, and an update your profiles every month. Not everything has to change all the time but a good cross section of it should be refreshed regularly so that there is always something new being posted somewhere. In my opinion, there is no such thing as too much. If you can produce content – a lot of content – and that content is high quality and consistent, you will eventually claw back your reputation.

REPUTATION MANAGEMENT OPTION TWO: CHANGE THE STORY
If the above list of opportunities is too much time or effort, or if you have to move quickly and aren’t afraid of shedding a few of your prospects or clients along the way, simply change the story. Find a new, related keyword that you can use and start marketing with that one aggressively.

If you are Bob Smith and there is some bad press out there, start marketing yourself as Rob Smith, for example. If you don’t have a name you can shorten (like Aaron), switch to your initials or even a pen name or professional name. Lots of people use pen names or professional names, and not just for reputation management. If you are “Fast Web Designs,” change your name to something else and aim for another related keyword… “Quick Website Builders”.

SUMMARY AND ADDITIONAL RELATIONSHIP MANAGEMENT TIPS
The internet gives entrepreneurs an advantage and a disadvantage: The advantage is rapid deployment of marketing to quickly build and fill sales funnels with contacts. The disadvantage is rapid spread of news and reviews (which tends to more likely to be bad than good). Like any other asset, your online reputation needs to be monitored and managed carefully. And if you ever find bad news and reviews creeping onto the search results for your business, you can talk louder and more often or you can change the story.