2011 is here. Let’s get started!

Happy New Year! 2011 is here and I’m very excited about it! This is a favorite time of year for me because I love making goals and planning out what I’m going to do in the year.

This year, I have a number of initiatives I’m working on.

Last year, my work was seeming increasingly disparate. I mean: I was doing a variety of projects (copywriting, technical writing, consulting, strategy, business planning) for clients but it was becoming harder and harder to find the common point between it all. And then I realized that almost all of my work is related to sales funnels. In short, everything I do contributes to the growth of a client’s sales funnel.

It really “clicked” for me when I realized that, and it consolidated years of experience, education, and thinking into a nice, neat concept. Sales funnels aren’t new… Rather, they’re a new way for me to express how I work with clients. You’ve already read quite a bit of my sales funnel writing and you’ll see me write more about sales funnels in the future.

Expect to hear a lot more from me about this in the future. My services aren’t changing — what I do for clients isn’t changing. But what is changing is the role that sales funnels will play.

This initiative sounds a little vague, so here’s what I mean by it: I want to write more (blogs, articles, reports, etc.); I want what I write to be more useful to my readers. I want to be more intentional at building a community. I want to increase the participation on my blog and in some of my social channels (Twitter and LinkedIn are my two targets at this point).

Along with those “front-end” connectedness-improving initiatives, I have also been working on some back-end connectedness improvement. It’s mostly technical and it includes improved hosting for a faster-running blog, and improved software to build and connect with the communities and networks I’m involved with.

Over the years, I’ve collected a number of domain names and I need to clean that up a bit. It happens because I’ll work on something and pick up a few related domain names to use. Some of those projects have panned out, some haven’t. Some have run their course and been wrapped up. Some have changed names, making the original domain names irrelevant. Some are in a holding pattern… some have been in a holding pattern longer than I would like.

So here’s what I need to do: I need to figure out what to do with each one. Some of them will be purposely expired. Some will be ramped up. But I need to make sure that each one has a purpose and isn’t just orbiting out there.

The biggest initiative for me is a book. I’ve been meaning to write a book for a while now, but have always been overwhelmed with work for clients. Last year, I decided to do something about that and I cut back on how many clients I take on at once. I’ve started scheduling them farther out and am being a little more intentional and disciplined in the time I give to clients.

Working with clients is something I absolutely love, and I also love the hectic pace of tight deadlines. There’s nothing wrong with that but the result is always immediate revenue: I work today and receive immediate revenue for it. I want to slowly move my business toward a model where I receive ongoing revenue streams for my work. That’s not to say that I’m no longer working with clients, but rather that I need to also build toward the future. (It’s one of those things that I help my clients do, but I never took the time to do it for myself!).

As I write this, the year is already 23 hours old. There are basically 364 days left to achieve my goals. Yikes! I’d better get started.

Your business has multiple content strategies

I confess that I tend to write most about the sales-specific content strategy: Mapping your content against your sales funnel so that you generate more leads, more sales, more repeat sales.

But there are other pathways to which content should be mapped.

Human Resources should have a defined pathway from hire to retire and internal content can be mapped to that pathway. (In my experience, this is the place where businesses have articulated their content strategy the most.

Vision casting and then communicating that vision – which is sort of a leadership pathway or an internal communication pathway – should also have the process established to create vision in the upper echelons of the business and then communicated down through the organization. In my experienced, this is rarely done (as infrequently as mapping content to the sales pipeline) and is one of a handful of reasons why strategy implementation fails in businesses.

There should be content strategies for vendor communications (and this is growing in importance as more and more businesses outsource more and more of their work). There should be content strategies for what might be considered back-office practices like accounts receivable.

Content should align closely with business processes throughout the organization.

Staples, Office Max, and Office Depot business strategy: Market leader versus the clones

The Business Depot Ltd. and Staples Canada Inc.
Image via Wikipedia

The office supply space nicely demonstrates the strength of the market leader versus the struggle of the clones. Staples, Office Max, and Office Depot: On the surface they look to be exactly the same business — office stuff. And when you compare their products and services, it does seem to be that way. But here we clearly see the advantages of market leadership.

Staples, which started in 1985/1986, grew aggressively, entering Canada in 1991 and Europe in 1992. They opened their 1000th store in 1999. Today, Staples earns around $27 billion in revenue.

Office Depot, which started around the same time as Staples, grew less aggressively, entering Canada in 1992 and Europe in 1994/1995. They opened their 1000th store in 2005. Today, Office Depot earns around $14 billion in revenue.

OfficeMax, which started in 1988, has been dogged with being latecomer to the office party. They report having “over 900” stores (and have shut down several underperformers over the years. Today, OfficeMax earns $8.9 billion in revenue.

These business models are basically the same: Big box retail stores serving the office and home office supply needs with paper, supplies, furniture, copies, etc. Through aggressive growth and superior branding, Staples has managed to stay well ahead of Office Depot (and far, far ahead of Office Max).

Here are a few examples of how Staples has stayed ahead:

  • Their entrance into Europe was Germany and the UK while Office Depot’s first European entrance was Poland. (That’s not a knock against Poland, of course, but we often look to the UK and Germany as business leaders and they are far better springboard companies for further European expansion than Poland is).
  • Staples has a stronger brand: One brand (Staples Business Depot) and a compelling benefits-oriented marketing slogan (“That was easy”). Office Depot, however, has a fairly bland name and forgettable marketing (as this older article discusses). OfficeMax struggles with its branding, as illustrated by FurnitureMax, a division of OfficeMax that is poorly defined and barely a brand.
  • Staples has a slightly more aggressive acquisition plan, and their recent purchase of Corporate Express was a powerful way to scoop up those clients and lock them in before Office Depot or OfficeMax could get them.

The Business Diamond Framework

An application of the Business Diamond Framework to this situation shows us that Staples’ strong Leadership and more compelling To-Market sales and marketing communication are key to Staple’s differentiation. And, their size (which helps to create a Support Diamond economy of scale) locks them into the top position. It appears that all three have a Value-Add function that is extremely similar.

What Office Depot or OfficeMax can do about it

If Office Depot and OfficeMax want to do something about it, they need to stop acting like clones. They need to find something that separates them from Staples. To borrow a Blue Ocean Strategy term, they need to get out of the red ocean of office supply and redefine what they do.

Obviously I’m not suggesting that they sell something other than supplies, but rather that they change what they’re known for.

  • There are a million MBAs that are looking for work and would kill for real life experience right now. Office Depot or OfficeMax should have a business consultant with their own little office in every store to provide business advice (and the occasional upsell, of course). You can work it in a number of ways — from free advice to heavily discounted advice for card members. Whatever.
  • Seminars. I’d heard that Staples was offering seminars but I’ve never seen an actual date and time anywhere. The business-information category is big, and there is some room for local businesses to fill in where web-based business information is failing people.
  • Proactive at-your-office sales. Yes, this goes against the retail model but waiting until people buy online doesn’t always work. I think that busy small business owners would find it helpful to have a *non-pushy* sales consultant show up with a vanload of commonly purchased stuff every quarter. (Yeah, this is old school).
  • Better web-based services. When I go online to any of the three sites, I’m punched in the face with “buy now” messages. Fine… because that’s the reason I visit their sites. But Grand and Toy (a Canadian office supply founded in 1882 — yeah, 1882) is doing some interesting things their web presence. Visit their website to see far more impressive functionality and connection, and take note of their online business community, which is a partnership with SalesSpider.

Case study: Content strategy to enable business model change

The following is a case study derived from working with a client: BizTrade, the Community-Powered Business Exchange.

PROBLEM: The client approached me because they were dramatically changing their business. For several years, they had worked in the highly competitive business brokerage industry, helping business owners who wanted to buy or sell a business. But they were changing to a community-driven model and were figuring out what it looked like, how it worked, and how to communicate it.

SOLUTION: First, we worked through how the business was changing and we created numerous information assets to communicate it to all parties — essentially communicating that the current business brokerage model was broken and that a new model was required. This work included press releases, web copy, and ebooks. Next, we worked through the business model itself and this went through numerous iterations before finally settling on the model you see today. My role throughout the process was to provide the assets to be used to inform and instruct key targets (including clients and related professionals) and to create content strategy that would feed this model with high-value business content to attract and engage users.

RELEVANCE TO THE BUSINESS DIAMOND FRAMEWORK: Content strategy is a key activity of the Business Diamond Framework. Each part of the Framework needs information assets to communicate to those outside of it. BizTrade’s Leadership Function Diamond needed content to keep stakeholders up to date. BizTrade’s Support Function Diamond needed content that would instruct users on how to buy memberships. And BizTrade’s Value-Add and To-Market Function Diamonds were the basis on which I created the content strategy that would move them out of their old business model into their new business model.

Understand your customers to sell more

We can’t sell all of our products to everybody. If you’ve approached business with that mindset (“who WOULDN’T want my product?!?”) then you’ve been throwing away your money with ineffective marketing.

Businesses are more successful when they narrow their customer base, understand those customers really well, and ignore everything else. When I stopped writing content for anyone who contacted me, and focused on only 3 niches (B2B, real estate, finance), my productivity went up, my rate went up, the quality of my writing went up, and the quality of my clients went up. About once a year I pull out my customer list and compare it to where I thought I’d be and where I want to be.

Anthony Tjan wrote a post for Harvard Business School’s blog entitled “Want to Understand Your Customers? Go Psycho“. In his article, he talked about using psychographic information to figure out who your clients are (or who they might be) and to shape your offering and your marketing. In one excellent paragraph, he rightly points out that you may not have a lot of demographic information for a particular niche you’re planning to target but you may have some quality psychographic information.

Thanks to the openness and proliferation of social media, we can make pretty informed psychographic research where our demographic research may have fallen short.

Why not take a moment right now and draft a paragraph describing each of the target markets your business services. Then, think about what you can do for those audiences to add value to their lives.

In terms of the Business Diamond Framework, this is a key Leadership Function Diamond activity that influences every other aspect of your business.