Excerpted from The New Influencers by Paul Gillin, Quill Driver Books, 2007.
Stephen Powers isn’t an Internet guy. Stephen Powers is an automotive guy. He opened his first auto reconditioning shop when he was 17. That was 1983 and Powers has been passionate about auto reconditioning ever since.
Stephen Powers is smart about technology, though, and when he first used the Internet a decade ago, he realized it was going to be an asset to his business. That’s because Powers’ business, Rightlook.com, Inc., isn’t the kind you’d find in the phone book. San Diego-based Rightlook helps people get started in the auto reconditioning business. Rightlook provides education, training and materials to help them market, manage and grow a real company.
The problem with marketing a business like Rightlook is that it doesn’t fit into any conventional “bucket.” People don’t go to the phone book looking for help getting into auto reconditioning. They might look for books or magazines in the library about entrepreneurship, but they’re probably going to hit on auto reconditioning only by accident.
But people might open up Google and type “automotive reconditioning” and up pops Rightlook. That’s because Stephen Powers is a marketer at heart and has used Internet savvy to build Rightlook’s visibility and make it a leader in its niche. Rightlook’s website is about as polished as you’ll ever see for a company of its size. There are only 20 employees in the company, but one of them works full-time on the website.
In the summer of 2005, Powers bought an iPod. He began to poke around the Internet, looking for podcasts about his interests, like photography and marketing. “It didn’t take long to realize that this would be big,” he says.
Powers invested $5,000 in equipment, a princely sum in the low-rent world of podcasting. But he wanted to do it right. RightLook has succeeded, in part, because it always looked bigger online than it was in real life. RightLook Radio would be no different. Besides, the company was in the business of creating training materials. It couldn’t afford to put out a shoddy educational product.
Rightlook Radio launched in early 2006. It’s a talk-show format and new shows are posted every three weeks or so. Powers and co-host Mel Craig bring customer into the studio to talk about their success and extol the benefits of auto reconditioning as a career. The show isn’t about selling Rightlook. It’s about spotlighting success. It just happens that Rightlook’s services relate very directly to that goal.
Stephen Powers is having a blast. He’s got an engaging, friendly style and he’s a natural for radio. A female staffer conducts field interviews, a subtle message that auto detailing is a good business for women, too. In fact, one of the shows spotlighted a reconditioning business run by women.
Powers is putting every ounce of his marketing experience behind Rightlook radio. It has promoted the podcast in full page trade magazine ads, sent out press releases and made t-shirts. When clients come to visit, they get a tour of the professional-looking studio. Rightlook looks hip and in tune with technology.
Powers doesn’t have any hard statistics on the podcast’s success, but says downloads have been in the thousands. It doesn’t really matter. The whole program paid for itself after one customer signed a $24,000 deal after listening to a podcast. Another show about ozone machines led to multiple machine sales in the days after the podcast launched.
Operational costs are next to nothing, and the buzz that the program generates in its industry is well worth the effort, Powers says. “Without question, we’re going to continue to do this for a long time,” he says. And with each episode, Rightlook puts more distance between itself and its competitors.
Just do it
Stephen Powers is a prototypical New Influencer. He cares deeply about a very specific discipline. He has plenty of expertise and the gift of communication. He’s in a position to influence a lot of other people who care about his specialty. The only difference between Powers and the enthusiasts profiled in Chapter 3 is that Powers has a product to sell.
In the last chapter, we talked about the tightrope that corporations walk in venturing into social media. Small and medium-sized businesses have none of those issues, though. Regulatory pressures are minimal, everyone in the company is in contact with customers and you probably are an expert in a very specific discipline. Corporations must answer questions about why they should be in the blogosphere. Small businesses need to answer questions about why they shouldn’t.
Here are some reasons that social media is so well-tuned to smaller businesses:
It’s all about search – Google and its competitors are the best thing that ever happened to small business. Companies that can’t afford to advertise can achieve international visibility in vertical disciplines through search performance. As we noted earlier, blogs do exceptionally well on Google because of the search engine’s fondness for frequent updates and relevant page titles. A focused blog, podcast or videocast that stakes out an unclaimed niche in the market can come to dominate search results in a short time. The more you write, the faster you’ll move.
Get personal – One of the main reasons people do business with a small company is to get personal service. Blogs and podcasts are all about personality. If you bring a distinctive voice, a sense of humor and a hint of passion to your commentaries, people will feel like they know you. And that will make it easier for them to do business with you.
The voice of authority – Let’s suppose you’re a small business that specializes in scuba diving equipment, training and excursions. You decide to specialize in the new technology of closed-circuit rebreathers. Launching a blog that helps people to understand the technology and its benefits will get you quick results. People searching on that term are likely to find your helpful, educational articles on rebreathers ahead of the catalog entries of the equipment companies because, remember, Google favors content over commerce. You won’t get anywhere near that kind of cost-efficiency from advertising.
You can’t beat the cost – At monthly prices that top out at $15, the cost of a blog is a non-issue. You can produce a decent podcast for less than $300 worth of equipment. Your real investment is time, so you have to ask how much of your new-business investment you’re willing to channel into this effort.
Several tales of small-business blogging success are almost legendary at this point.
EnglishCut.com is a blog by Thomas Mahon a Saville Row tailor who was frustrated that more people didn’t appreciate the distinction between off-the-rack suits and the work of a professional custom tailor. His blog, launched in early 2005, talks about the fine points of fine tailoring. Because Mahon was one of the first tailors to start a blog, he got lots of attention from other bloggers and the media. And the recognition translated directly into business.
As detailed by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel in their book Naked Conversations, “When Mahon was in New York in December, 2005, he sold only two [suits]. When he returned 10 weeks after starting a blog, he sold 20 suits and eight sport coats, more than he had sold before in an entire year.”
Mahon’s blog has become such a must-read phenomenon that he speculates that he could make a trip to any city a success by simply posting on his blog that he plans to be there on certain days. Marketer Hugh McLeod, who dreamed up English Cut, said Mahon’s business tripled in six months because of it.
Stormhoek, a startup South African wine maker, entered the U.K. market by sending free bottles of wine to 150 bloggers – no strings attached. Instead of a website, the company channeled all its marketing through a blog. Sales doubled to 100,000 cases in the year after the experiment was launched and the company went from 0% to 20% market share in its category in the U.K. For its U.S. entry, Stormhoek invited bloggers to organize local dinners. As long as they supplied the people, Stormhoek would provide the wine. Bloggers came up with creative ideas like a Father’s Day theme in Santa Maria, CA, a hot dog-eating contest in Bellevue, WA; and a GPS treasure hunt in Burlington, Vt. The campaign was organized by David Parmet, a public relations professional and blogger.
SignsNeverSleep – This frequently updated blog by the owner of a small sign maker in Lincoln, N.H. is a testament to the power of social media as a way for craftspeople to share their expertise. Owner J.D. Iles details the loving attention that master sign makers pay to their craft in his posts and copious photos of Lincoln Sign Co.’s latest creations.
Illes spends only about 15 minutes a day on the blog, but he writes nearly every day. He told Radiant Marketing Group: “The weblog shows my customers what we are: a small business that is approachable, fun, and hopefully they like the work we do.” Websites and weblogs are great tools, but you can use a tool well, or badly. A “web-presence” should show off your company as it is, and highlight the strengths you have because of “how your business is”. Iles attributes about a 10% increase in business to the blog.
A Painting a Day – Duane Keiser, a Richmond, Va.-based painter, creates a small painting every day and posts a image of it on his blog, along with an invitation to buy. He originally sold them for $100 each, but demand got so strong that he started taking bids on eBay, according to a USA Today profile. He was soon getting $400 to $800 per painting and without the 50% commissions typically charged by galleries. Keiser, who used to sell a couple of paintings a year, is now able to make a good living selling his art, the paper said.
Nancy Boy – The San Francisco-based toiletries maker owes its success, in part to a blog. The company, which targets gay men, did about $100,000 in business in 2001, when it launched. Then it became a favorite of Shaveblog.com, a blog dedicated to shaving. As favorable references to Nancy Boy continued to appear on Shaveblog, business grew to $4 million in 2006. Nancy Boy co-founder Eric Roos also maintains a popular blog on the company site detailing his experiences as a gay man.
Here are some more recent examples of how small/midsized businesses are becoming influencers and having fun at the same time.
The Tin man
Some of the best small-business blogs are in some of the most prosaic industries. The Tinbasher Blog was started by Paul Woodhouse in May, 2004 to help out his brother, who runs Butler Sheetmetal, a UK-based metal-working company. “Initially it was nothing other than an experiment. There was very little to lose and my expectations were simply to be able to open the company up,” says Woodhouse.
The site was lightly trafficked until it was mentioned in an article in The Times of London newspaper that fall. That’s when traffic started to build and Woodhouse began to blog more aggressively. He’s developed a style that’s uniquely Tinbasher, a friendly insider with a puckish twist. “I try to convey what we’d be like if you actually came round to the workshop for a brew,” he says. “It’s informal, parochial and colloquial.”
It’s also amassed quite a following: about 2,000 visitors a day for a website about sheet metal. Tinbasher Blog has already paid for itself many times over. According to a profile in The Guardian, Butler’s annual sales rose from £60,000 to £80,000 a year before the blog was launched to £130,000 in 2005. “Probably 30% to 40% of that comes through the website,” including around 90% of new business, Woodhouse told the paper. “When we just had the website, you would get a very general enquiry. When people have read the blog, they invariably refer to an individual post – it’s a lot chattier email you receive.”
Customers have quoted from blog posts when placing orders and products features on the blog frequently see a spike in sales. Then there’s the boost in search engine results that the blog has stimulated and the media calls. Tinbasher has been profiled at length in the press.
The unanticipated payoff for Tinbasher has been the boost it’s given to employee morale. Sheet metal work isn’t exactly a glamour profession, but Butler’s long-serving employees are proud of their craft and their expertise. The blog has become a way to show off their achievements.
“At first they called it a ‘blob,’ but now they love it,” says Woodhouse. “They regularly tell me tales that have happened during the week with the proviso that they’d be good blog material.”
AskPatty.com is a new business that helps auto dealerships and automotive retailers tap the female audience. Women buy more than half the new cars in the U.S. and influence 85% of new auto and truck purchases, says Jody DeVere, president of the company.
The male-dominated auto business is notoriously weak at addressing female customers. Sales outlets tend to be owned by individuals, more than 90% of whom are male, and sales tactics are handed down through generations. With women increasingly flexing their economic muscles, AskPatty is addressing dealers’ and retailers’ needs to better serve that audience. The business model is to provide a comprehensive training and certification program for sales and service organizations, who can then display the AskPatty logo in the showrooms and on their websites.
A blog is a key part of AskPatty’s business plan. The company could have built a standard FAQ or question-and-answer section on its website, but the founders felt the user experience would be too sterile. A blog was more personal and provocative. Voice was important.
AskPatty’s blog celebrates women. Its articles not only offer advice but showcase the accomplishments of female drivers, encourage women to get into the automotive business and trumpet the power of female buyers. It features profiles of and guest columns from women who have been successful in the male-dominated industry. The site defines Patty as
…a Mom, Daughter, Wife, Niece, Grandmother and Auntie; Patty is young, old, married, single, an experienced driver, a new driver, a race car driver , a hot rod driver, a classic car driver, a mini van driver, a truck drver, a luxury car driver, an SUV driver, a disabled driver, a carpool driver, a stay at home Mom, a female excutive, is gay, straight and comes in all the sizes, shapes and colors of the rainbow…Patty is YOU, ME and US : Women Consumers.
AskPatty struck a chord with its audience. It also got lucky. Shortly after its May, 2006 launch, the site was spotlighted on the home page of Typepad, a leading provider of blog hosting software. Traffic soared to more than a half million visitors a week over the next two months. Visitors were submitting so many questions that the site struggled to meet its commitment to a 24-hour turnaround on answers.
DeVere says the blog offers capabilities for connecting with readers that a website can’t match. The authors of the AskPattty blog are clearly women and their style belies a sympathetic voice. Asked what works in running a business blog, she writes, “Pick a theme and stick to it. Don’t be afraid to use all the tools and means available to publicize your blog. Stay committed to providing interesting content at least three to four times a week. Serious business blogging takes a big commitment of time, energy and brain power.”
Becoming an influencer
The factors that constrain small/medium businesses from leveraging social media are completely different from those that limit corporations. It’s mainly an issue of time. Small business owners and employees are generally more resource-constrained and time-strapped than their corporate counterparts and the frequency with which you need to update a blog – ideally at least once a week – can be a hardship. Smaller businesses owners also don’t necessarily have strong writing or speaking skills or access to people with those talents.
But you can be effective enough with a modest investment of time to make the effort worthwhile. Here are some tricks to consider:
Specialize – If your topic is very specific, you can get away with a less-frequent publishing schedule and still see good impact in search engine results and links. The dive shop that specializes in closed-circuit rebreathers is one example. Tinbasher is another. If no one else is writing about your topic, you can afford to be a little less rigorous about maintaining a strict writing schedule.
Choosing the right topic can be tricky, though. If you’re too specific, no one will come at all. Or you may run out of things to say. Try homing in on a new practice or technology that’s affecting your business. Or you can take a tips-and-tricks approach, posting a new idea every week. Several highly trafficked blogs take this approach; take a look at 43folders.com and LifeHacker.com for ideas.
Be offbeat – Cater to readers’ sense of humor or the bizarre by featuring nuggets of trivia that relate to your business. If you’re an insurance broker, for example, spotlight the strangest claim of the week. If you own a pet store, feature an interesting cat fact or new pet idea.
Start a diary – Blog software is the perfect format for recording a sequence of events because it’s organized chronologically. Many of the most popular personal blogs on the Web are nothing more than personal diaries of people who have a knack for finding humor or meaning in ordinary events. Would other people be interested in knowing about what you do? Don’t sell yourself short; there’s a little voyeur in most of us and peeking into the day-to-day life of others is intriguing.
If you run a local theatre company, blog about the process of getting a performance ready. If you’re a hairdresser, talk about the stories your customers tell you. If you install air conditioning, write about what’s involved in ducting an old house. In fact, take a video camera along on your next job and record some of the tricks you use. Then post the video on YouTube or Google Video or another free service and link to it from your blog. This is reality TV writ large and you’re the star, if you can just get across to your readers the passion you feel about your work.
Use audio and images – All blog software supports images and a $50 digital camera can take pretty nice snapshots these days. Illustrate the topics you write about. If you’re a hairdresser, show some new styles you’ve come up with. If you own an auto body shop, snap some before-and-afters. Be sure to tag your images (we explain that in Chapter 9) so they get picked up by the search engines.
In the same vein, podcasting is a golden opportunity for small businesses. You can get acceptable quality with a couple of hundred dollars’ worth of equipment, free editing software like Audacity and cheap or free hosting services. Try Q&A interviews with your staff or sit down with a steady customer and talk about a problem she solved. How-to podcasts are also a good bet. If you’re a floor refinisher, tell people how to remove wood spots or identify different kinds of hardwoods. If you’re a recruiter, share resume and interview tips. A painter? Help customers make perfect corners. Call it “tip in a minute” and really keep your length to 60 seconds and you’ll have a winner.
Celebrate others – Small business owners enjoy a level of collegiality with others in their markets that doesn’t exist in the hyper-competitive corporate world. If there are others in your business who blog or podcast, point to their sites and compliment their good work. Send them an e-mail and post a trackback, so they know you were there. You’ll get reciprocal links and everyone’s traffic will grow.
As you can see, there is no shortage of ideas for small business people who want to build an online presence. However, one group, more than any other, has led the way in using social media to raise their visibility and promote their expertise. They’re the public relations professionals, and many people think social media is their chance to shine.