(and one-woman too!) I put that there because that is what most people call micro businesses. And for two or four person workshops.
[Update: June 2015. Some things have changed in the two years since I wrote this article – and I’ve learned more. I’ll sprinkle updates throughout.]
Running a business is hard work.
Preparing estimates, chasing money, managing projects, pleasing clients, building your place in the marketplace.
The internet, laptop computers, email programs and smart phones make it easier, but most of us work extra hours keeping things straight. Building our places in our markets often comes in last. It is difficult to stay on track, or build a track, or keep the track straight.
The number one job we have is securing enough of the right clients.
Sharpening chisels, locating suppliers, putting new tires on the truck only matter and are only possible if we do that. And doing that needs to be an every day pursuit, part of the routine like turning on the lights and sweeping up around the table saw. Always farming the next job (or seven). Not waiting until the backlog gets light.
So how do we do that? Advertise? Network? Get a website? Buy on-line yellow page packages? Paste images on to Facebook? To me, these are extensions of ‘hope’ marketing. As in patch something in place and hope that it works. And it may, some. And it may not, wasting your time and money.
So I’m going to tell how I did it. And continue to do it. Right in the middle of making a delivery, spraying finish on a kitchen set or preparing a quote for a customer. I’ll mention the marketing tools I use and give some idea how I link them together, constantly marketing. What I did wasn’t instantaneous. Like many things significant, effort and learning was required. But we are making it in a tough economy…and have spent less to establish a presence in our target markets than three months of yellow pages on-line.
One caveat: our business model is primarily business-to-consumer (B2C). People. Households. End users. Not that it matters all that much. Architects, interior designers, gyms, and universities have been calling as well.
Yes. It means the web.
Decide that your most important task in your business is to get found by your ideal customer when they go looking for what you offer. Yes, this means web – it is perfect for that. If you already have web, hang on, I did too (but I couldn’t find myself in searches about what I do…well maybe 12 pages deep). [Update: You may hear about ‘Content Marketing’, ‘Invitation Marketing’ and ‘Attraction Marketing’ – IMO, these are variants of Inbound Marketing. You want people to FIND you through your content when they go looking, KNOW and TRUST you from the quality of your content, and CONTACT you as a result. Inbound – they reach out to you.]
First, read the latest version of Duct Tape Marketing. Don’t do anything yet, just read it. Mark it up. Get pumped. Take notes. Do the exercises.
Here’s something to do while you are reading. Make a directory on your computer, call it ‘WebImages’ or something. Go through your job photos (been taking them right?) and re-size them to 800 x 600, saving the new size in that folder. Watermark them at the same time. And rename them to something descriptive instead of IMG1034 or DSCN0456. Don’t over-write your originals, you may need them. [Update: don’t be afraid of long names. But don’t use spaces nor underscores. One of mine? vintage-sofa-reupholstered-modern-fabric-sewell-nj. Ouch! But, do you see the search terms it fulfills?]
Also while reading, buy and install Chaos Software’s Intellect 4 ($60). Set it up as an email client for whatever email service you use. Run it parallel with your usual email software so you can get the hang of it. It is CRM (Customer Relationship Management) software. And email. And project coordination, and calendar, and task manager, and note keeper, and contact manager. Just like Outlook, right? Not. All those things can be attached to the Contact so you can see everything relating to that client in one place. The projects and tasked can be cascaded – as in sub tasks – each with its own category, group, status, priority. I’m not in the business of selling software, but if i were, I would INSIST that every start up use this program. I told them that they don’t charge enough. They offer a free version so you can test it, but the nested tasks, etc are limited. [Update: See a more in depth write-up about CRM at CRM for an Upholstery Business. It remains my opinion that such a tool should be as ubiquitous as a telephone.]
Download and install Evernote on your desktop and laptop – the basic edition is free. Also install the Evernote plug-in on your web browser and on your smart phone. Play around with it, I love it. You’ll see why.
Now for the website.
You have the inbound thing from your reading. People have to find you when they go looking. The content you provide gets them to know and trust you enough to call/email/subscribe. If you already have a website, you’ll be doing tweaks. I can’t add anything to what was said in the books about code, style,etc. I just want to get to what I consider the essentials. Don’t worry about the social plug-ins, widgets, shareboxes and all that stuff at first.
Before getting any popular site service (free or cheap) or having one made (not so cheap) make sure it has these three capabilities:
- A blog that you can add/edit yourself, from your laptop or desktop. Adding new, specific, content to your site easily is imperative. It has to be able to handle photos. (see one here) If your blog supports tags, use them for your local SEO. For instance I would use ‘furniture’, ‘upholstery’, ‘Philadelphia Area’. If no tags, create a footer type area below the blog content to stick such tags in a sentence format. Do it EVERY time. [Update: I cannot stress enough the importance of the blog. It is a way to add stories, examples, and educational content to your website. One article a week adds 52 pages a year to your website – and a rich mixture of topic specific search terms to your index with the search engines. I’ll put up an article about how to find stuff to put on a blog soon – it is easier than you fear.]
- A photo gallery that you can add/edit/delate yourself. Uploading new visual content is the goal. The ability to tag the photos or provide titles and descriptions is crucial. Look for a tiled or thumbnail view versus a slideshow view (see one here). Folks will rarely sit through the pace of a slideshow. They want to look for what they want to see. This is where your re-sized photos go. While adding your photos, provide a title describing the view AND establishing a new keyword. Ten photos labelled ‘Mantel’ = one keyword. Use specifics like ‘Formal Dining Room Mantel’ and ‘Rustic Plank mantel’. Also put in a location name such as ‘Delivered to Stoney Hill, UK’ or ‘Built for a ski lodge in Lake Tahoe, 96150. This is for your local SEO. Do it EVERY time.
- A response form that lets people make inquiries or send comments. (see one here) People don’t like to be forced to enter their phone number. Ask for it, but don’t require it. If you require anything, let it be their email address. Some folks feel wary of web forms, so put your email address there and phone number(s). Putting a ‘mailto‘ link or making your email address a link that opens the viewer’s default email client with your address in the ‘Send To:’ area is great. Most website builder tools do this.
I don’t know all the options out there, but if you are a little savvy Network Solutions and Webs.com offer hosting packages including a custom domain, website WYSIWYG building tools, and site hosting for $200 a year or less. Beware of the ‘free’ versions – you often have a page limit and, most crucially, the free pages are often hidden from being indexed by search engine ‘crawlers’. Alternatively, you can use a blogging platform such as WordPress that allows you to create multiple pages in addition to your specific blog content page. Some have a ‘portfolio’ layout to support image rich blogs and pages. I know WordPress is indexed by search engines even in the free mode. A note about Google’s free platform: Blogger. A close reading of Google’s Terms-of-Use places your content subject to being re-used, distributed, etc at Google’s discretion in return for using their free tool. [Update: You’ve probably heard of WIX, Weebly, 1-on-1. Check them out, but definitely check out Squarespace and WordPress mounted solutions. They have some serious horsepower and leading edge performance. This is my future site, using Squarespace.]
While we’re at it, a note about Facebook. Don’t mistake it for a website. Apart from the profile information on your Facebook page, the contents in your status are NOT indexed by search engines. Which puts your photos and entries in the FB closet – with the door closed. People can’t find that content while searching the web. And you may have posted the ‘Ultimate Solution To Everything Alive Or Dead’ and it will languish there undiscovered beyond the few people who had ‘liked’ your page and happened to be looking when it scrolled by on their feeds. There is a time and place for Facebook, but inbound lead generation is NOT it. Which is NOT our main big deal.
Putting It Together | Everything All The Time | How It Works
A prospect emails you a request about how much it would cost to build a new kitchen island. The email comes in to Intellect. You add them to the contact list. You navigate to them in the contact list and open a new project called “kitchen Island”. From inside the project you email them back saying how you’d love to do it but, need some more details. On that email you include a link from your website that points to your photo gallery (or blog) that has pictures of other islands you’ve completed. Learn how to convert text to a link, so it says ‘Kitchen Island’ or some such rather than http://www.jhconklin.com/apps/photos/album?albumid=7832685 Instead of emailing them the picture by attaching it to the email, send them to your site. They see all the other stuff you do. Engagement, right?
You chat and email and develop a proposal, all the while keeping the notes and linking the documents to the project in Intellect. You do a site visit and from within Evernote take a photo of the ‘before’ kitchen. Tag it with the client/project name. It’ll be waiting for you on your computer when you get back so you can drag the photo into your photo area and rename it to ‘ClientBefore’ and watermark it. In Intellect, associate the file with the project.
The client bites and you schedule the project. In Intellect you convert the client from ‘Prospect’ to ‘Customer’ (or the category you prefer). On your website, create a new blog called ‘Kitchen Island for A Restored Farmhouse’ or whatever. Remember keyword diversity and location tags/footers. Put the before picture in the blog above the fold. (like this) If you can make an image of a rendering or drawing of the proposed island, put that in there too. Use Irfanview to blur sensitive details, then use it to create a thumbnail image and save it separately from the main image – something like ‘ClientDrawing_tn’. Type some enticing sentences and descriptions leaving out the client name and specific street address. Save the blog link in the Intellect project so you can easily find it. Then the next time you send the client an email, insert the thumbnail (_tn) image into the mail and make it a link to the blog article by copying in from Intellect.
Tell them that you’ve created a project page for them that you’ll be updating with various in-process images and details and that they can feel free to forward it to others who might be interested. Tell them you’ll let them know when the page is updated. Get it? Engagement. Referral mongering – their friends don’t have to be signed up with Facebook or Google+ or whatever. They get an email from someone they know and in order to see what their friend is all excited about they have to go to your site. And maybe browse around while there, getting absorbed in your content. Dreaming. And the search engine index spiders are crawling through all the new content you are putting up.
The island is done. Before you shrink wrap it for installation, do the photo, thumbnail, blog update. Do the email with the photo in it. Ready for delivery! Let’s schedule a day! Here’s a preview! If they were ever going to share it, now is the time. They can show their friends and family. And you have facilitated it. While building your site content, improving your reach. After delivery, take a photo of the piece in place. Then ask the client if they would like to be in a photo so you can use their project as a testimonial. Try it. Ask. A few days later, you send them a post-installation email checking to see if everything is OK. Send the last thumbnail of the picture you took and updated into the blog. Now, if you use Facebook or other social media, post a LINK to your completed blog entry. Give it some title juice. This way, if folks are moved to view it, they’ll be viewing it in YOUR domain.
Now you’ve been getting phone calls and emails for months. On the phone calls, ASK FOR THEIR EMAIL. If you feel shy about it, mention it is so you can get back to them without interrupting. ENTER IT in the contact details in Intellect. Every time, right now. So you have quite a number of contacts split between customers and prospects (we also have competitors, suppliers, resources, officials, dead prospects, deadbeats) as contact groups. And that kitchen island looked so nice you want to spread the word.
So, bulk outbound email time!
The last money you will spend will be for some serial bulk email software. Intellect can handle small groups, but depending on your email server you may have to send as few as five mails at a time. Constant Contact was too pricey for me, so I parted with $149 for the enterprise edition of SmartSerialMail. I do one or more passes through the Intellect contact groups I want to mail to (customers, prospects) and export them to CSV files. Then import them into a mailing list in SmartSerialMail. The program has email format templates that are fairly easy to tweak. I use the ones with ‘unsubscribe’ options to satisfy some regulation about persistent emails. Anyway, the key is to get a medium sized image of the island above the fold, have that image be a link to the blog article, have some teaser text that cuts off just when it gets good. Ending with a… (click to read more) that is also a link to the full blog article. And mail it! To everyone. Ten minutes or less after the first few times. Bounced emails or Unsubscribes can be auto deleted from the list if you set up the program to do it. We also delete from Intellect, so we don’t inadvertently mail something else.
Of course, your blogs and emails do not have to be just projects. You may have great ideas about articles and information your target audience would receive. I’m always tapping ideas and snapping photos into Evernote. Maybe a supplier sends you a great deal on the paint color of the year: blog it and bulk email it along to your customers, adding your own enthusiasm along the way. Nice way to stay in touch. Branching out into new areas? Get it on your site and format an announcement to send. But send a brief that uses a link to open your page or full blog article. Don’t bombard.
Get Feedback and Tweak
After three months of work install CuteRank. It is a page-rank tester that tells you where your website shows up in search results for the major search engines. The free edition is limited to one site. You enter a list of search phrases that you think your prospects would use and set it to run. I do it every Sunday. Challenge your site: include town names, long-tail stuff, high competition keywords. You can see changes week by week.
Now that you have the framework and have ingrained the ‘Constant Content’ mentality into your daily awareness you can revisit the topics in the books. And you can see how your everyday interactions with your clients provide the fuel for your content. Meta-tags, share buttons, keyword optimization, inbound links, etc. This refinement is endless as you deepen into what your target market responds to. Look at your competitors. What are they doing? Importantly, what are they not doing? Move into those gaps. You can get out in front in those areas. Keep entering and/or claiming the free directory listings that start to crop up. Fully populate the profiles they give you with photos, phone numbers, WEB ADDRESS. Practice the art of the incremental, steady pressure, a little every day.
Thanks for reading. I hope it helps. Feel free to comment or email. I’ll be sharing more.