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How to Cultivate Social Media Relationships (Outside of Social Media)

cultivate2Social media has forever changed the way we connect and communicate with people all across the globe. I’m always amazed to see the many various states – and countries – in which my followers reside. There’s no question that social media has fostered relationships that simply wouldn’t exist without this technology. Although social media helps to make communication easy and automated, there’s one very important aspect of relationship building that we must never put on autopilot or take for granted.

To cultivate meaningful (as well as beneficial) social media relationships, we must continue to build this connection outside of social media alone. Here are four important practices to help you foster your relationships and make yourself more than just an avatar.

Make it one-on-one

Following or friending a contact is only the first step, yet so many of us stop there and think we’ve built a meaningful relationship with someone. Sure, it’s exciting when your favorite celebrity follows you back on Twitter, but this hardly means you’re anything more than a number. To take it one step further, you have to seek out one-on-one interactions.

Once you get a good interaction going with someone on social media, such as a retweet, a like or a comment, follow-up with a private message (or even better an email) to continue the conversation on a more personal level. This could be a potential client, someone you admire or someone who has a question for you. While it’s not exactly face-to-face, in the virtual world, this one-on-one interaction makes you feel like you know the person on a much deeper level and is an important step in building a meaningful relationship outside of the massive, public social media platforms.

Reciprocate

It’s what every social media guru preaches, yet so often we still disregard this advice. To build a meaningful social media relationship, you must both give and take. If you have a connection that loyally supports you by retweeting, commenting, liking and sharing – look for opportunities to do the same for them!

The reason so many of us fail to do this is because we can’t rely on platforms like Hootsuite or Socialoomph to monitor this for us. Sure, they can tell us who interacted with our posts, but we need to take it one step further and closely follow our feeds, looking for appropriate times to reciprocate such support for news our contacts share. In doing so, we build mutual trust, respect and friendship that lay the groundwork for a meaningful relationship.

Put a face with a name

Any in-person, social function like a networking mixer, awards dinner or happy hour is a prime opportunity to take your social media relationships offline. There’s always that awkward moment when you know you’re already connected with someone on Linkedin, Twitter or Facebook, but when you meet them in person for the first time you still introduce yourself like you’re complete strangers. Stop the madness!

So long as you’ve kept a clean and professional relationship with them on social media (i.e. no stalking or creepy personal messages), there’s no shame in acknowledging you’re already connected with them. Introduce yourself and let them know you’re connected online; they might be thinking the same thing but don’t want to say it. This will put a (real) face with a name and show that you’ve done your homework. It will also make you memorable. Which brings me to my final point…

Be memorable

To make yourself more than just an avatar, you must first make yourself someone worth remembering. Out of all the people who contact me for various reasons, I’ve found the most memorable ones to be those who feel the most genuine. It’s easy to spot a message that was written just for you versus one that’s being sent out to an entire contact list. Private messages on social media are a great tool for cultivating meaningful relationships, but they’re also heavily abused. Be sincere in why you’re contacting this person – this will show through and help you stand out among the spam. It will also increase your chances of getting a response in return.

In a world where virtually everything is accessible online, the need to build personal and meaningful relationships becomes ever more important. It’s possible to accrue thousands of followers without a single one knowing you beyond your twitter handle. As a business owner or entrepreneur, you should strive for quality – not quantity – of connections. For it’s how well you engage your audience that ultimately determines whether they become a future client or customer.

Do you actively cultivate your social media relationships? Share how you do it!

 
 

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Appearance vs Experience: How social media has changed what we value

taking a photoHow often would you say you check your social media news feeds and see a picture of a friend on vacation, enjoying a fancy dinner, attending an expensive sporting event, meeting a celebrity or buying something big like a car or a house? I would venture to say this is likely an everyday occurrence. It’s common for social media to attract information such as big announcements or fun experiences, but what’s concerning is the trend of sacrificing the full enjoyment of these experiences in order to amplify their appearance.

We are becoming a society that is more focused on the appearance of our life experiences than we are with the actual enjoyment our life experiences. We can no longer appreciate a Valentine’s Day dinner unless we first check-in to the restaurant on social media, share a picture of our pricy entree and finish with an overly mushy (and overly personal) post about our significant other. Why do we need the validation of our social networks to confirm that life is good? Your vacation still occurred whether it’s on your Facebook newsfeed or not and your new car still exists even if your Twitter followers haven’t seen a photo. But maybe the reality of our lives is no longer enough. Maybe now we feel we need a broader audience to really enjoy life’s pleasures. This thought begs the following question…

Do we value the appearance more than the experience?

If you have ever paused, recreated or staged a moment so you could take a photo for Facebook, then the answer is yes. If you have ever updated your status in the middle of a romantic dinner, on vacation or during a massage, the answer is yes. I know I’m just as guilty of this crime as many of you may be and worse yet, it’s a hard habit to break! Next time you’re experiencing something really fun or unique, resist the temptation to update your social media. It seems downright unnatural. In particular, Facebook is becoming a “brag book” where we seek approval and validation for almost everything we do in life. It’s simply not accurate, and a little absurd, to measure the importance of such special moments by the number of “likes” a photo receives. We need to reverse this trend by refocusing on the experience over the appearance. We need to disconnect, even briefly, to allow ourselves a chance to take in the memory of a moment.

While social media has become the catalyst for this problem, it is a platform for sharing. There’s no reason not to update your networks with good news or a photo of something you enjoy. This is only cause for concern if in doing so you diminish the real-life experience for yourself. If you’re too busy trying to capture everything on your iPhone, the world is going to pass you by. Sure you’ll have photos to remind you of these great memories, but wouldn’t you rather simply live them first hand?

Have you seen examples of this emerging trend? Maybe you’re even a contributor. Where do you find your enjoyment – in the appearance or the experience?

 

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How Blogging Has Built My Business

building blocksWhen I first began blogging in June of 2011, it was an experiment. Publishing my first post didn’t feel much different than writing in a Word doc. I had zero subscribers and only a measly three or four people randomly stumbled on my blog each day. I wanted to learn how to be an effective blogger for my clients. To do so, I first had to become an effective blogger for myself. The blogging experiment far exceeded my expectations and I’m officially hooked. I write passionately for my readership of more than 700 subscribers every Monday morning.

The Bennis Inc blog began as nothing but a blank page, just as most things in life do. But it grew – and so did my business. Sure, time alone can cause growth, but I venture to say that it took more than just time. It took regular upkeep, vision and a willingness to put my thoughts out there for all the world to see. As awkward as that felt in the beginning, almost 150 blog posts later and it couldn’t feel more natural.

The best side effect of this blogging experiment was how it built my business and defined my personal brand. I’m still amazed to talk to a new acquaintance who mentions a recent post they read or to look at the stats and see the various search terms that led people to my blog. Whether you’re a fellow blogger (novice or expert) or an intrigued reader, here are the key ways in which blogging has built my business – and has the power to build yours as well.

It’s an icebreaker

My blog provides a great reason to start a conversation. Whether it’s in a business meeting or a quick run-in at the coffee shop, telling me, “Oh by the way, I read your blog,” has replaced the obligatory conversation about the weather. It has also given people a reason to reach out to me with a professional question or to explore the services I offer. If I was just a name on a web site, people may not feel this same connection or be motivated to start a conversation. This is a pleasant reminder that the time I spend putting my thoughts into words is worth something.  It’s cultivating an audience, opening doors and inspiring people enough to want to tell me about it.

It reaches further than you might imagine

My blog has opened up an avenue for communication with people from all across the world. When looking at the stats, it’s exciting to see how many different countries are lit up on the map. Even more fulfilling than just numbers and statistics is the meaningful interactions with people via comments and emails. The reach of my blog has helped to grow my business on a more local level as well. Within my local network, I’m impressed by how many people I know (and look up to) read it on the regular. I would never have imagined they had the interest or free time, but they do. This has helped to build my credibility as a writer and entrepreneur.

It’s a living portfolio

I’ve often referred to a blog as a living portfolio of your work. When a client asks to see examples of my writing, I can simply send them to my blog where they can choose from a variety of topics to really get a feel for my style. This is much easier and more genuine than putting together a dull document of writing samples. They can also see the interactions with my readers which demonstrates my ability to grow an audience. My blog has become a valuable asset to my proposal process and I believe has helped to win me some work as well.

It strengthens your SEO and your personal brand

The final and most powerful way I feel my blog has helped to build my business is by strengthening my SEO and personal brand. Adding fresh and high quality content to your blog and appropriately tagging each post is one the best ways to increase your search engine optimization. I choose to host my blog on WordPress (as oppose to my web site) because of its added SEO power. Many readers have found my blog by browsing WordPress’s categories.

My blog has also strengthened my personal brand by showcasing the “human element” of Bennis Inc – me! While my business is all about Public Relations, I choose to make my blog much more personal with many articles on the struggle of entrepreneurship, life balance and unconventional wisdom. My blog shines a spotlight on the “Twenty-Something Entrepreneur” that I’ve become.

There you have it – all the compelling reasons you could need to be inspired to create or grow your own blog! The most important thing to remember is that once you start, don’t stop. Keep writing and posting regular content. Think of your blog as a hungry little monster. It needs food to keep it growing and that’s what your posts will be, food for your blog and fuel for search engines to pull new readers to your site.

Finally, here are some tips for successful blogging to get you start. Go forth and blog!

 
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Posted by on December 16, 2013 in Business & Success, Social Media

 

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The Growing Gap Between Technology and Wisdom

dunce cap

Technology is both a blessing and a burden. It allows us to access people and information all across the globe and has facilitated countless opportunities that would never exist without its advancements. But this doesn’t come without setbacks. Technology is moving at an increasingly rapid pace, a pace that society is struggling to match. A quote from Isaac Asimov sums this thought up quite well, “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” This truth is only made more evident every time we see the misuse of social media or turn to a search engine to do the thinking for us. There’s a growing gap between technology and wisdom. Instead of embracing our ability to do more, we’re using it as a crutch to do less. Let’s take a look at a few trends that illustrate how technological advancements have come at the price of conventional wisdom.

Social Media Faux Pas

Spelling errors, outlandish or offensive statements and superficial thoughts are accepted without a bat of an eye on social media. Even if you keep your friend list to just close contacts, you’re still bound to see examples of these faux pas in your newsfeed on a daily basis. Social media has given each of us a soapbox and a megaphone, but not the common sense for how we should use it. The wisdom and better judgment we need to develop our “social media manners” is being outpaced by technology. As a result, we see daily examples of social media faux pas, some of which can be dangerous or hurtful. For the most part, social media is like the Wild West with no rules and infinite freedom. This is both a benefit and a pitfall. It will take time to develop the wisdom to utilize this technology with decorum, and it will also take our personal desire for higher standards. What can we do right now? Take careful consideration to what we share and how we share it. Use the same manners we would use when communicating through any other medium. It may be simple advice, but it’s not common sense – yet.

Lack of Common Knowledge

“I don’t know…Google it!” This is a phrase that’s echoed all across the globe. In fact, there’s a good chance it’s being said right now in multiple different languages. This is the easiest response to any question someone might ask of you. I don’t know if the bigger issue is that we don’t know the answers to so many simple questions or if we do but are just too lazy to retrieve them from memory. We can now type faster than we can think, and this is the ultimate problem. Search engines are right at our fingertips every hour of the day. Thanks to smart phones, they’re only ever as far as our pockets or purses.  I’m just as guilty as anyone else – if I want to know the capital of a state, convert feet to meters or check my spelling, I turn to Google. What did we ever do before? We committed information to memory. Search engines are fast, reliable and easy, but they’re not a replacement for actually learning the information they provide.

Communication Erosion

I’ve discussed before how technology can both bridge a gap and build a wall. It allows us more ways than ever to communicate and gives us instant access to people across the globe. But it also provides a shield that we can hide behind and has contributed to erosion in formal, face-to-face communication. When presented with all of our options, we usually choose email over phone calls and phone calls over in-person meetings. Throw social media into the mix, and Facebook messages and Tweets have become an even less formal way to get a hold of someone. This is a fine option for a quick message to a friend, but social media is not a replacement for sharing a project proposal or soliciting someone for their business. When it comes to sharing hard news or negative feedback, it’s even more tempting to hide behind technology.  Sending a generic Linkedin message to make an introduction or breaking up with someone over text may get the message across, but it won’t earn you any respect and won’t make you any (real) friends.

With all of the information we have at our fingertips, we are the “smartest” society yet. But in exchange, we have seemed to sacrifice our wisdom and ability to think critically for ourselves. Social media doesn’t spell check our egregious grammatical errors or review our half-baked thoughts, search engines have made us lazy and smart phones have made us dumb. These are the rock bottom standards that technology accepts from us, but we can demand better. Let’s aim a little higher. With awareness and commitment, we can maintain our wisdom even with rapid technological advancements. Let’s take an active role in growing our wisdom every day with the help of technology, not despite it.

In what ways have you seen the decline of conventional wisdom because of technology? Do you rely on search engines or smart phones to complete everyday tasks? Share your thoughts and add to the discussion by commenting below!

 
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Posted by on November 25, 2013 in Social Media, Technology

 

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Why You Should Become A Lifelong Learner

Head in sand ostrich

It’s tempting to bury our heads in the sand, but to remain competitive in the marketplace, we must take our education into our own hands.

The first 22 or so years of our lives are consumed by education. Our full time job is to learn as much as we can about the world around us and narrow our focus on a specific area that we hopefully will turn into a career. But once we’re launched into the real world, this commitment to continuing our education seems to wane. As we spend more and more time applying the knowledge we have, we have less and less time for seeking out additional education. Slowly but surely, our wealth of knowledge begins to depreciate as it becomes outdated and incomplete.

With the types of resources we have available right at our fingertips, this should never be the case. We always have the opportunity to better ourselves through lifelong learning even if we feel we have no time or money to do so. It’s possible – and paramount – to developing both our career and our character. Here are a few critical questions we must first ask ourselves if we want to assume the mindset of a lifelong learner.

When did we decide to stop learning?

Doesn’t it seem unbalanced that we rely upon the education we gain during the first quarter of our lives to last us for the other three-quarters? This is a common idea that society has made acceptable. Maybe it’s because we’re so overloaded with school, classes, exams and essays that when we earn a degree we want to wash our hands of this part of our life completely – never wanting to return to the anxiety and challenge that often accompanies it. The shame is that this is such a small part of what learning truly is. Learning need not be defined by a classroom, diploma or grades. The decision to start learning again doesn’t mean having to enroll in a graduate program. The options for how we can do so are virtually limitless, but first we must change our definition of learning.

How do we change our definition of learning?

It doesn’t require a classroom setting to enhance your education. In fact, most of what we’ve learned throughout our lives was from observing other people or through trial and error. So throw away the notion that night classes are the only way to re-educate yourself. Technology has also drastically changed the learning opportunities available to us for free and from home. College-level courses are available at all hours of the day and in increments that can fit into any schedule. This type of learning may not earn you a formal degree, but unless your career field has a proven return on investment for additional degrees, don’t take on that unnecessary debt. Rather, informal and free courses are just as effective at achieving the ultimate goal…a lifelong education.

Will lifelong learning really make a difference?

Yes. Making the commitment to learn throughout all quarters of your life – not just your first – will have a great impact on both your career and your character. It will keep you competitive in today’s job market. With the ever-changing face of technology, we don’t have the luxury of relying on what we learned decades ago to get us through the job we have now. Even more mind boggling is that for many of us, the job we will have 5 years from now likely doesn’t even exist yet! If you want to increase your value as an employee (and secure your job for the future), lifelong learning is a must. Also, the more you know the more interesting you tend to be. Did you ever know someone who could start a conversation with just about anyone? It’s likely that this person was well-educated and continued his education throughout his life. You want to be that person, too. Finally, lifelong learning will make you independent. The more you know how to do on your own, the less you will feel inferior or helpless. You will be able to trouble-shoot your own problems and work more efficiently as a result. There’s many more compelling reasons why each of us should become a lifelong learner, but I think I’ve made my point.

To end, I will leave you with this interesting quote from Robert Heinlein:

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

Resources for lifelong learning:

Coursera. Coursera works with top universities from around the world to offer classes online for free.

OpenStudy. OpenStudy is a social learning network that allows you to connect with individuals who have the same learning goals as you.

edX. Harvard University and MIT partnered together to create interactive, free online courses. The same world-renowned professors that teach at Harvard and MIT have created the courses on edX.

Udacity. More college level classes taught online for free.

CreativeLive. CreativeLive lets you stream live courses being taught for free (if you want to view the course later there is a fee). The courses focus on more creative and business subjects.

TED. TED compiles speeches and lectures from professors as well as interesting people from many different walks of life. This is a staple for lifelong learners! (And they tend to be far more interesting and entertaining that the college lectures you remember)

iTunes U. iTunes U has thousands of free downloadable podcast lectures taught by the best professors from around the world. Learn while you exercise or on a long road trip.

YouTube EDU. Addicted to YouTube? Put it to good use by enriching your mind with thousands of videos that cover a variety of topics.

 
 

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The Things I Would Never Know Without Facebook

facebook loginFacebook – what was life ever like before this social networking phenomenon? Old flames and friendships have been rekindled, businesses have taken off and tanked and jobs have been found and lost all as a result of our publicly displayed interactions on this single web site. With more than 750,000,000 unique visitors estimated each month, you’re in the minority (at least within modern society) if you’ve chosen to stand strong and quit or resist the temptation of joining Facebook. Because of the nature of my business and my own curiosity with other people’s lives, I don’t think I’ll ever join the ranks of Facebook protestors, just as I don’t anticipate becoming Mennonite anytime soon. However, just entertaining this idea did lead me to ponder what would I be missing if I deleted Facebook and disconnected from the world of “likes” and “status updates.” What would I never know if it wasn’t for Facebook? So here is my comical, but insightful list of the knowledge and resources I’d lack without my daily logins to the world’s most popular social networking site:

Last Names

Without Facebook I’m fairly certain I would know as many of my acquaintances’ last names as I would their phone numbers without my cell phone contact list. Which means I would basically only know the last names of my family members…maybe. Facebook has become my flash card memory game for learning people’s full names and placing them with a face. I’m always proud when I can reference someone by their full name without stuttering or second guessing. What I don’t also reveal is that in addition to knowing their last name, I also likely know what they ate for lunch and the name of their family dog…

Birthdays

What better way to make someone feel special than to remember them on their birthday? Facebook has made this nearly fool proof so long as everyone chooses to list their birthday on their profile. I’m not a supporter of the cheesy and impersonal birthday wishes on someone’s Facebook wall (in fact, I think it’s been years since I’ve done this for anyone), but Facebook does help to prompt me to send them a more personal message or mention it in conversation if I see them that day or week. Is this a cheap shortcut to actually committing birthdays to memory? Absolutely. But I know I always appreciate a birthday wish and rarely accuse someone of only knowing this because of Facebook – particularly if the wish is accompanied by cake or an alcoholic beverage. I’ll take it!

Life Milestones

Even more useful than a birthday reminder is being cued in to the major life milestones of my contacts. Without Facebook I would have to rely on second-hand information or class reunions to tell me about my acquaintances marriages, children, new jobs and even the less happy parts of life. This instant news feed of pictures and posts allows me to stay in the know and offer support or congratulations where warranted. It’s safe to assume that with the volume of “friends” most of us have on Facebook, most people look, but don’t comment on such milestones. However, the pride and excitement we experience from announcing our news to the masses is well worth the couple of haters that might come along with it.

Insignificant and Trivial Facts

Life milestones are one thing – they’re newsworthy, interesting and I’m happy to be kept informed of them. On the flip side, there are far more insignificant and trivial items that are also shared on Facebook that I could manage without ever knowing. When I spend more than 5 minutes of my day reading about someone’s rant over a ref’s bad call, cliché quotes or a self-photo shoot taken in someone’s bathroom mirror – I know that is 5 minutes of my life I will never get back and I need to remove myself from my computer immediately. There’s no denying that Facebook can be a huge time waster, so we have to keep in check what type of information we’re consuming and know when to step away.

How to Reach Someone Without an Email

Back to the more useful elements of Facebook, I’ve found it to be an extremely reliable resource of reaching people who I don’t have an email for. Mostly these are friends or distant relatives, but in some cases Facebook has also helped me to connect with someone regarding something business related. They had a bad email address or were unresponsive, yet answered my Facebook message within minutes. It’s amazing! Without Facebook, my “Plan B” for reaching someone aside from email or phone would be reduced to smoke signals or a carrier pigeon. While both are creative, they yield far less reliable results.

My Husband

I could say I saved this as the last item on my list because it’s my most exciting and most life-changing thing I gained from Facebook, but in reality it’s because I really didn’t appreciate how impactful Facebook has been on my life until I started thinking a bit deeper. It wasn’t quite as awkward or painful as an online dating experience, but the story of how we met is a pretty entertaining one that you can read more about here. My husband Scott and I first connected on Facebook after being introduced by mutual friends. Without a platform for social networking, I’m not sure how we would have followed-up and communicated further since no numbers were initially exchanged. Chances are good that the excitement to see each other again would have faded and that little spark fizzled out. But thanks to Facebook, that wasn’t the case! Our story is far from unique and the accurate number of couples who have connected and ultimately married as a result of Facebook would be hard to quantify.

To wrap up with just a brief moment of shameless self-promotion – for those of you who are among the 750,000,000 monthly visitors to Facebook, you should also connect with Bennis Inc here: Facebook.com/BennisInc. I would love to soon have our number of “likes” reflect the number or loyal readers and followers of the Bennis Inc Blog. Don’t have Facebook? I still want you to connect! Instead, comment below and tell us why you made this choice.

 
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Posted by on May 27, 2013 in Life, Social Media, Technology

 

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Social Selling: Myth or Magic? (Guest Blog by Sam Bessant)

I’m thrilled to welcome back guest blogger Sam Bessant. Her first contribution to the Bennis Inc Blog, “Success Versus the Work-Life Balance” continues to receive top hits! Learn more about Sam in her bio following this post and be sure and visit her personal blog here.

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social media tool boxSocial selling is a relatively new concept to the world as its dawn has only come through the dramatic shift we’ve all made to living our lives through social media in the last few years. The whole networking game has changed and we now have easier access to more people and more information than we’ve ever had before. But what are we doing with all this information and what impact does it have on our working lives?

The term “social selling” is being banded around left, right and centre by people who consider themselves forward thinkers in the field but few seem to understand what it really means and whether it really involves any actual selling. A new pothole for salespeople to stumble into is the idea that stalking prospects on LinkedIn and sending them a half-arsed message constitutes selling. Similarly, there is the idea that following an event on Twitter is just as good as being at the event; reading a blog about how to sell is the same as mastering the technique yourself…the list goes on. The problem is that actions taken by your “virtual” presence in the online world are just that – virtual and intangible. And the results will be too. At some point, that world of Web 2.0 needs to meet with more old fashioned actions because we aren’t living in a fully virtual society yet. People still rate people and personal relationships built up through phone calls and meetings; some people aren’t even part of this huge social network, preferring to remain aloof and test your persistence in reaching them.

So we circle back to the question of “what is social selling?” and is it something that has been created by the very people whose advertising revenue relies on us using their social networks? I would suggest not. Social selling is actually very powerful but it needs to be thought of as a tool; one singular tool in a whole toolbox of potential sales techniques. What social media allows us is the opportunity to understand more about the people we want to engage, more about the companies they work for and more about what other salespeople are doing to win themselves success. It gives us an “in” and helps to reduce the awkwardness of the initial contact because we have enough information to make contact with purpose. We don’t have to spend ages battling with switchboards to get hold of a name and we can send messages directly to C-level contacts we’d have spent months trying to target previously, but this is only the beginning.

As with more traditional sales methods, social selling takes time. You still need to qualify your prospects and build a relationship. The social media piece simply allows you to do some of the legwork before you make contact so that you can wow them with a compelling story tailored just for them. A mistake commonly made is thinking that all of the information a salesperson needs can be found online. This is not the case. What you can find is a great foundation to hop over the initial hurdles so you can spend your valuable time working on real sales opportunities rather than arguing with gatekeepers. So social selling isn’t a myth; it’s a real thing and there are real opportunities being found through social media. However, it isn’t magic either. Nobody will do the hard work for you and you’ll still need to be creative in the way you approach people and ensure you deliver the service you’d expect yourself. Social selling is a valuable tool which you can’t afford to overlook but remember…it is only a single tool and cannot replace your entire tool set.

Sam BessantSam Bessant lives in Reading, UK. She currently works the standard office 9-6 while trying to finalize the direction she will take to start her own business. Sam’s blog, 20somethingfreak was created to help Sam and others understand what it is to be in your 20s and for Sam to share some of the millions of daydreams she has every day! Be sure and visit Sam’s personal blog: www.20somethingfreak.wordpress.com.

 

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D’oh! The 5 Most Common Public Relations Mistakes

mistake homer simpson dohEven as a professional in the field, the term “Public Relations” can sometimes feel ambiguous and is easily misused. I often hear phrases like “All you need is some good PR to boost your business” or “Wow, that’s a terrible PR move.” But what does any of this really mean? I suppose like any word, the meaning is all in how you define it and the way I define Public Relations is the way you communicate, interact and serve your customers (aka or your public). So really, I’m in the business of managing and building good customer relationships and there’s a ton of vehicles which can be used to achieve this.

Most usually the businesses I step in and help simply have no public relations focus whatsoever. I like this. It’s a blank slate, people are usually open to trying anything and the things we do try tend to make an immediate impact. But what’s a bit more cumbersome is stepping in and fixing mistakes – especially easily avoidable ones. I always think that it’s so unfortunate that the business simply didn’t know what not to do and have now wound up in a mess because of it. So instead of just thinking, I got to writing. For this blog post I decided it’s about time that I express the 5 most common PR mistakes I see weekly if not daily to hopefully help even just one business owner avoid them. The good news is that for the most part, these mistakes are easy fixes that can be implemented in your own business almost immediately – or simply avoided altogether:

Mistake 1: You have no core values statement

When a customer does business with you, very rarely did they make this decision based solely off of the product or service they’ll receive. It’s a much deeper emotional decision than that – even if they’re not aware of all these factors that ultimately influenced them. As a business you never just sell a tangible item, you sell your values, your level of quality, your years of experience and your expertise along with it. This is what customers are really paying for after all and highlighting these core values is a critical way to helping your business stand out among competitors.

So what’s the best way to clearly and succinctly highlight these values? Have a defined core values statement for your business. This can be as short as a tag line below your logo or as much as a small paragraph on your web site, but it needs to be used. One of the biggest mistakes I see in Public Relations is businesses who overlook the power of creating this type of statement. The majority of customers will never take the time to read your full business biography and compile this for themselves – so do it for them! Make this statement your go-to description when introducing your business to someone. What do you offer beyond your product or service that makes you different? Maybe you’re a 5th generation family-owned business, maybe you use only locally grown and manufactured products or maybe you donate 10% of proceeds to a charity. This unique statement is what customers will remember and what will resonate with them emotionally. And I’m not sure much else can compete with the powerful role emotions play in decision making.

Mistake 2: You have no distribution of your message

Once you’ve developed your core values statement, this should be a message that you communicate consistently throughout all of your channels. Website content, social media profiles, monthly newsletters, business cards and promotional materials should all include this message somewhere. Sure your customers will become used to seeing this message and when they do they will subconsciously associate it with your business name, logo and brand. Also, by keeping these channels updated and in use, you will build a community and create a platform to distribute future messages – like a special announcement, promotion or opportunity to your customers. Another one of the biggest mistakes I see in PR is not taking the time to create and build your communication channels until you really need them – and by then it’s too late to broadcast your message to everyone you want to.

But more than just distributing your message externally, there is also the internal distribution of your message which is equally important. Your employees can act as ambassadors for your business if you empower them with the right information to do so. Every employee should be able to tell you the core values statement of the business and demonstrate it with their actions every day. If you know what you’re working for and what makes your business special, it makes you want to work harder and better. Also, the internal distribution of your message will help guide you whenever a tough decision must be made. Do you need to raise your prices? Are you considering merging with another business? These both have pros and cons, but the key to which decision is right for your business lies in your core values. With the regular distribution of this message, you and your employees will understand the foundation of the business and these decisions can be made methodically to preserve this foundation. For example: if your core value is to offer the absolute best quality of service, raising your prices might be necessary. But if your core value is to offer the absolute lowest price, a merger might better help you to continue to offer this to your customers. No matter the decision, a well-known core values statement will help guide you toward the right answer.

Mistake 3: You have no crisis plan

Plain and simple – bad stuff happens to even the best businesses, regardless of product, service, size or industry. And when it does, it’s too late to begin outlining your crisis plan. “By the time you hear the thunder, it’s too late to build the ark.” This is why one of the biggest PR mistakes is not having the faintest idea of your crisis plan until the flood waters have raised well over your head. The good news is that this is completely avoidably with just a little effort right now. A crisis plan does not need to be as intensive or consuming as a business strategy or marketing plan (though it could be). This is just a part of your overall Public Relations plan, but if you ask me it’s by far the most important since it could be the plan that saves your business entirely. A crisis plan can be as simple as answering the question, “Who will be my point person in overseeing a crisis?” And the best answer is not always “me.” Think of the other responsibilities that will likely fall on you during the time of a crisis. If it’s due to a break down in internal operations, you’ll need to focus on correcting this right away. You won’t have the time or capacity to deal with social media, customer service calls/emails or the press. Also, are you the best communicator in the business? Just because you have the most insight, doesn’t mean you’re the best person to communicate this insight and make it relatable to your customers. Think of the most professional and responsible communicator you have in your business and have that direct conversation with them about their role in a potential crisis – now.

Another highly confusing, but critical part to your crisis plan is the timing of your communication. There have been disastrous examples of people speaking too soon or not soon enough and both scenarios have the power to produce equally damaging consequences. You want to be the first to speak and tell your story, but this should not be the result of a knee-jerk response. My rule of thumb is to speak as quickly as accurate information is available. There are three components to the initial message you should communicate in response to a crisis. First, admit to the mistake (if it was indeed a mistake in any part related to your business). Second, express how you are working to fix it quickly and fully (are you offering a recall, refund or changing your operations). Third, let your customers know exactly what they can do to avoid feeling any further impact from this error (should they return a product or discontinue use).

By having a solid crisis management plan in place before a crisis strikes, you are in a much better position to recover quicker and stronger than otherwise. The bottom line is that you don’t want customers to remember the crisis; you want them to remember how well you handled it.

Mistake 4: You attempt to erase mistakes

It’s a common analogy for a commonly made PR mistake, “Deleting a comment on social media is like hanging up the phone in the middle of a customer service call.” Social media is a powerful tool that businesses have openly embraced all across the globe, but as soon as a comment turns negative, the first reaction always seems to be to hit delete and make it all go away. The truth is that it won’t go away. Once it’s live out there in cyberspace, you can rest assured that at least one other person has seen it or shared it. Because of this, it will never fully disappear and so deleting this feedback is only going to flame the fire. Whether the negative comment is the result of a crisis or a single unhappy customer, it’s an opportunity to communicate your side of the story and show how much you do appreciate your customers. Much like the crisis communication plan, this is your critical moment to turn a negative into a positive.

Some businesses have even taken this mistake one step beyond just erasing the error or deleting the comment. They have deleted the entire communication channel (for example their Facebook fan page). If a comment goes viral or your business is being bombarded with questions regarding a concern or crisis, the task of managing all of your communication channels may be overwhelming. But it couldn’t be more important to keep it active. Don’t delete any communication channel solely as the result of a negative comment or mistake. Just as you wouldn’t discontinue your customer service call center or shut off your email account, don’t tune out and turn off thousands of customers by shutting off an important means of communication.

Mistake 5: You use too much “fluff”

So often Public Relations is associated with fluff, flack and spin. All these words – in my mind at least – conjure up a negative and even dishonest connotation. It’s certainly acceptable to toot your own horn, but you must keep a level of honesty and believability in your content to prevent the risk of having customers simply tune you out. A big PR mistake I see made in web site content, social media statuses and press releases is the use of too much “fluff” language. This makes the business look and sound like an infomercial, stuffed to the gills with buzzwords and hype. There’s nothing relatable or memorable about this type of content and people tune it out just like they would flip the channel from an annoying commercial. Most distressing is that some people think this is an example of very effective Public Relations strategy. “Hey, doesn’t our business sound awesome? This here says we’re the best at everything so you know it’s true!” Just because you plug a bunch of sugary sweet phrases into your content doesn’t mean your customers will eat it up or even enjoy the taste. Instead, engage your customers through content that is more relatable, more human and maybe even a little bit vulnerable in the right places. Public Relations should tell an interesting, honest story and build meaningful relationships with your customers. Aim to engage your customers with your content, not put them into a sugar coma.

So, which of these 5 common Public Relations mistakes would you say is the most detrimental to a business? Or maybe you have a few other examples that should be included on this list. Be sure and share your comments below so we can all benefit from being aware of these mistakes and make the effort now to avoid them in the future!

 
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Posted by on March 4, 2013 in Business & Success

 

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Turning Freelance into Fulltime: Taking the Leap

This blog completes a series of 5 posts which outline and address a very valuable lesson for any industry or any career – how to turn your freelancing into a fulltime business. If you’re currently contracting out a set of skills or have at least thought about it, this can be the critical first step toward starting your own business. I invite you to join me each week as I share the 5 most important components needed to prepare for a successful transition from freelance to fulltime.

In case you missed it, read:

Establishing Professionalism

Getting Your Name Out There

Moving Away From One-Time Clients

Building a Client Base

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Taking the Leap

Man leaping entrepreneur businessLast December when I wrote the post Entrepreneurial Survival Mode,” I talked about how sometimes you have to give yourself no option but to sink or swim in order to find that inner fire to make your business a success. I still believe this. But during my own journey from freelance to fulltime, I didn’t tie a blind fold and allow myself to walk off a cliff. Instead, I carefully calculated the jump before I ultimately made the leap into entrepreneurship. The most important concept I want you to take away from that previous post and now this one is that when you can take the leap – do it without hesitation and get ready to work for all you’re worth. It’s a bold and risky move, but it holds the possibility of the most rewarding career experience…creating something that’s all your own.

Here are the key steps I recommend to every almost-entrepreneur contemplating a leap of faith:

Crunch the numbers.

I still have the first spreadsheet I created with all of my expenses versus the meager income I would make if I turned my freelance business into my sole income. It’s a great reminder of where I started and where I’m never too far from to return. But most importantly, it was the assurance I needed to know that I could make ends meet even if everything about my business stayed the same (which of course I hoped that it would improve). When I reflect on this spreadsheet now, it still offers that same assurance that if all came crashing down, I could stay afloat. At this point in my entrepreneurial journey, I learned the skill of minimizing costs. On my spreadsheet I listed all of my current expenses with my fulltime job. I was paying for internet I never used, far too big of a Comcast package and a reserved parking spot at my apartment. Before I took the leap, I really crunched these numbers. I cancelled internet and began sharing with my neighbor for a fraction of the cost. I downgraded my TV (anticipating 80+ hours a week of work on my new business didn’t leave me much time for such luxuries anyhow). I discontinued my parking spot and as a city resident was able to get a parking pass right across the street for just $5 a year. I wasn’t as surprised with my ability to minimize costs as I was shocked with why I was ever throwing this money out the window to begin with.

When you first start your own business, don’t let anyone convince you that you immediately need to rent an office space, pay for a separate phone line or upgrade the speed of your internet. There are many ways to achieve the same results for little to no cost. Separate business needs from business wants. Later down the road when money comes, so will the corner office, fancy business cards and personal assistant. You simply don’t need these things for the first year…or first five years. How much money you have in the bank isn’t just about how much money you made, it’s about how much money you didn’t spend. Minimizing your expenses will help supplement a smaller income and make your leap less of a stretch.

Consider everything that will be affected.

A salaried, fulltime position has many benefits beyond the stable paycheck. Remember that as an entrepreneur your healthcare, 401K and taxes will become something you actively worry about. These will take research and a critical eye to determine the best option for you. For healthcare, I got lucky with my age. Until 26 I’m able to stay on my parents’ insurance plan for a very minimal cost each month. After that dreaded birthday, I’m not sure what I’ll do next but I do know there are more and more options every day for entrepreneurs and small business owners. I will likely talk to a local independent healthcare provider and outline my options. For retirement, I rolled my existing 401K into a Roth IRA. Again, it made the most sense for me for a variety of reasons, but do your research and talk to several people before landing on a plan. Finally there are taxes. I dread them more and more every year as what I pay goes up in proportion to my income. As a business owner, it’s your responsibility to claim your earnings and pay taxes on them accordingly. For the first several years you may be able to get away with claiming your business as a loss or have enough deductions that you still get money back. But that can only last so long. Eventually you should consider paying taxes on a quarterly basis to lessen the blow come March  (which is by the way when business owners must file taxes—note this now and avoid a nasty letter from the IRS later).

My dad gave me the best advice when I first started making freelance money, “Spend only what you need and keep the rest in savings.” He meant this so I would always have enough to cover my taxes, but wouldn’t it be great if we all handled our money like this all of the time?

Have an emergency backup plan.

For some, a backup plan may seem like a way out. I’ve heard, and at times agree, with the theory that a safety net is only an excuse to fall. But for large enough leaps where you are risking your income, career and possibly all of your worldly possessions (not to mention sanity), a safety net is warranted. For me, my emergency backup plan came from solid relationships with past employers and key contacts who said that if I should ever decide to be available for fulltime hire, I have a standing offer for a position with them. This verbal reassurance from people who believed in my skill set was the emergency backup plan I am grateful to have never used. More than just the ability to find fulltime work should I need it, I also keep a financial “runway” of at least 3 months. By this, I mean I aim to keep enough funds in savings and in my business that if one day absolutely all income should go to zero, I would be able to continue living and spending in exactly the same way for 3 months. This is a substantial amount of time to find additional income, cut back on spending and make other adjustments to prevent depleting this runway, but it’s a comfort to know it exists.

The idea of having an emergency backup plan in place reminds me of the quote by Robert H. Schuller. “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?”  This plan is not to give you an easy way out should things get too hard; it’s to give you the confidence to move forward fiercely and passionately. When you know your next step is not doomed to be your last, you can keep moving forward with courage.

Do it right – and don’t look back.

Once you outline a tight budget, decide how you’ll handle your healthcare, retirement and taxes and setup and emergency backup plan, you’re ready. As tempting as it may be to go out with bang, scream “I quit!” and throw everything off your desk onto the floor, resist the temptation. Your grand finale should be one with grace and professionalism that demonstrates to your employer and everyone else that you are destined to become a great entrepreneur. First, speak directly to your boss. Give them the honor of being the first to know your passion for your side business and plans to take it fulltime. Whether you hate them, don’t want to disappoint them or have no relationship with them, they deserve this respect. Once they’re on board, they can become your advocate and guide you through the process of leaving. Depending on the structure of your business, you may need to speak with the Human Resources Director to place your 2-weeks’ notice. For me, I was also required to write a resignation letter (which felt absolutely wonderful to sign). Going through the proper process of resigning from your job allows everyone to be aware of why you’re leaving and to celebrate with you. It also allows you to take advantage of things like using vacation days, selling back sick days and getting that final pay check 2 weeks after you finished working. By leaving on the right foot, you’ll also start your new business on the right foot. And if you haven’t learned already, this world is a small place and you never know who you’ll see (or have to work with) again.

Once you properly end your fulltime job, that’s it. It’s all you now. During your first year it’s natural to be reminded of your old job by every season, holiday or co-worker’s birthday that would have been a special mile marker. But you have new mile markers now. Don’t look back or keep track of where you might have been had you not taken the leap. The fact is, you did take the leap and every ounce of you should be focused on sticking that landing rather than trying to backpedal mid-air.

Have you enjoyed the 5-part series, “Turning Freelance Into Fulltime?” If so, share this with a freelancer or entrepreneur you know! This wisdom was gained through my own rough and wild personal experiences and I only wish to use it to help others navigate their similar journey. Thank you for reading along.

 
 

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Turning Freelance into Fulltime: Building a Client Base

This blog continues a series of 5 posts which outline and address a very valuable lesson for any industry or any career – how to turn your freelancing into a fulltime business. If you’re currently contracting out a set of skills or have at least thought about it, this can be the critical first step toward starting your own business. I invite you to join me each week as I share the 5 most important components needed to prepare for a successful transition from freelance to fulltime.

In case you missed it, read:

Establishing Professionalism

Getting Your Name Out There

Moving Away From One-Time Clients

———————————————————————————————————————————–

Building A Client Base

rolodex business card client baseThe two previous posts, “Getting Your Name Out There” and “Moving Away From One-Time Projects” are both aimed toward the ultimate goal of building a solid client base. Reaching this goal is more than just having your business known in the local community; it’s taking it to that next critical level of getting people to actually hire you. While many aspects about taking your business from freelance to fulltime will be about building a professional brand, this particular component will most directly affect your business’s bottom line – or more accurately, its “life line.” You need to have a core client base which can provide you with a stable income while so many other aspects of your business are fluid and ever-changing. So how do you begin to build this base of paying clients? It only needs to begin with one. From there you can implement these following steps to turn this single brick into a solid foundation for your business.

Ask your existing client(s) for leads.

Your first one or two clients are much more than a desperately needed paycheck. They are a source of potential leads for new clients. Not only can they speak to your business from a firsthand experience, they are also likely to have connections in similar situations where your services could be of great value. If you are a freelance writer and one of your clients is a commercial video production company that often hires you for script writing, they are likely also connected to other video production companies that could use a freelance writer. My own client base was built in a similar way – through word-of-mouth recommendations from current and past clients. Because of my background in political campaigns, I secured my first freelance political client who I helped with public relations and planning fundraisers. At the fundraiser, many of his fellow colleagues who are also elected officials were fascinated with the services they could contract out to me. This single client helped me break into a unique area that has consistently grown my business ever since. I am also lucky that it’s an area I truly enjoy. When I first began my freelance Public Relations business during my senior year in college, I knew little to nothing about political campaigns nor did I have an interest in them. Yet with a single client, I established a whole new branch of my business. When looking to build your own client base, don’t overlook the obvious or easy. Ask your existing clients for leads from their own network who might be interested in your services. Better yet, ask them to connect you directly by personal email. If the initial introduction to your business is made by someone that the lead knows and trusts, it won’t be as easy to brush it off as a cold sales call and will speak volumes for the quality of your work.

Identify your niche.

When using existing clients as a building block for new clients, it’s natural that a pattern of businesses with whom you work most frequently will emerge. Allow this to build organically for some time before taking a critical look at what these patterns mean for the direction of your business. Essentially, you will now need to identify your niche and embrace it. Identifying your niche is not a limitation or a blinder for future business. You can and should seek out projects from all directions as you never know when this could tap into a new reservoir of work. But a niche will allow you to target many aspects of your business’s branding and marketing to appeal to this niche and establish your expertise within it. Say you make custom invitations to sell on Esty and begin to track that the most orders you receive are for wedding invitations. You can focus your web site content, social media and portfolio on wedding-related stationary. You may also choose to attend more bridal shows and advertise in bridal publications or on wedding web sites. This focus will allow you to place your time and effort in the area in which you are most likely to secure future clients. In the client building process your focus may form a spotlight on your niche, but don’t completely turn out the lights on all other categories of services. Remember that the bride you created invitations for will someday be interested in birthday and baby show invites or holiday cards. Make sure even current clients are aware of the full scope of services you offer.

Introduce and incentivize.

Once you’ve reached out to your existing clients for recommendations and have focused on your niches, next comes strategically introducing your business to potential clients. There are various ways in which you can accomplish this and the method will depend upon your type of business and the clients you’re trying to reach. One common method is a letter written to the business owner which serves as a friendly introduction to you are and what you do. This should go out to all businesses which fall within your niche or with whom you’d like to work. The letter should close with a realistic call to action. This can be as simple as inviting them to visit your web site or alerting them that you will be following up by phone in the coming weeks. If you’re in the position to do so, including an incentive such as a discount or free trial for one of your services is a very effective way to get a response. I’ve written such letters for several clients and we’ve seen some amazing results. The more personal you can make it (add in details specific to the person or their business) the more likely you are to receive a response. People want to feel that it’s genuine and not a form letter sent to hundreds of other businesses. Finally, by providing an incentive to try out your services, you reduce the risk of the unknown and take one step closer toward gaining a new client.

Stay tuned as the “Turning Freelance Into Fulltime” blog series continues with: Taking The Leap

 
 

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