My latest article for Small Business Computing (which also got picked up by Ecommerce Guide) is titled “Marketing Strategy: Why Logo and Web Design Matter.” And, in my humble opinion, it is must reading for any small (or really any) business owner thinking about rebranding or just starting out.

Here are a couple of excerpts from the experts:

I won’t go so far to say that having a good or bad logo will make or break the success of your business, said Candy Phelps, the owner of iCandy Graphics and Printing, but it will definitely increase your success if you have a great logo and branding identity. If you have a cheap-looking, generic website and a cheap-looking logo, you’re sending a message to your customers that you may be cheap about other areas of your business, like your products and services.

Put another way, think of your website as your top salesperson or your first point of contact with prospective customers.

You wouldn’t hire, or keep, a salesperson that went out to meet customers in ripped jeans and a t-shirt, without showering, would you? asked Brad Leszczynski, the chief creative officer at 8fold. So why would you have an awful looking website and a badly designed logo? If a customer perceives your business — based on your logo and your website — to be sloppy, what are they going to think about the product or service you are offering?

Think about the last time you went to buy a product or service and were faced with multiple online choices. Did you gravitate to the website that looks like it was designed at the dawn of the Internet age — crammed with text, with multiple colors, fonts and images and hard-to-use navigation?

Or did you shop at the well-designed, easy-to-navigate site with the memorable name and eye-catching logo and color/design scheme?

If you are like most people, nine out of 10 times, price being relatively equal (or even unequal), you chose the business with the attractively designed website with a clear branding message. And your customers are doing the same thing.

To learn more, including what two successful small business owners had to say about how having an eye-catching logo and a well-designed website helped them attract more visitors and increase sales, click on this link to my article. And be sure to check out my upcoming article on crowd sourcing as an effective and inexpensive way to get a great logo or design help, which will be published on Small Business Computing in mid-August

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These days, if you really want to know what your customers are thinking (and where they are shopping), you need to connect with them online, on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Indeed, in today’s social media-driven world, having a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a LinkedIn profile, and a blog where you can interact with customers and, more importantly, they can interact with you are an essential part of customer relationship management (CRM).

To help you get the most out of the leading social media tools, I asked business owners and social media experts to share their most successful tips for using social media to help improve CRM the top 10 of which appear below.

Use free tools like HootSuite or TweetDeck to monitor what customers are saying about you on Twitter. “I provide community management for 10 to 15 clients at the same time on a regular basis. [And] responding to my clients’ customers in a timely manner and getting good content out on a regular basis is critical to great customer service,” said Lisa Loeffler, Principal, Genuine Media. That’s why Loeffler uses HootSuite and TweetDeck, “to help manage all my clients in one place, so I can respond on the fly to their clients’ needs.”

Create Twitter lists. “I have found creating Twitter lists helps me keep my Twitter audience organized,” said Jillian Koeneman, the founder of Freshlime Marketing. “I can scan any particular list to get a pulse on what [people] are thinking or talking about and respond if appropriate.”

Store Twitter and blog URLs as well as important tweets and comments in your CRM system.

Use LinkedIn to ramp up your networking and find new prospects. Patrick O’Malley, a social media consultant who goes by the name (617) PATRICK, is a big fan of LinkedIn for networking and generating sales and claims that this specific LinkedIn tip resulted in over $150,000 in sales (over the course of six to eight deals) for one of his clients, a company that sells insurance to other companies: “If you are going to contact a new company, see if any of your [LinkedIn] contacts knows someone there.” The way to do this, he explained, is to log onto LinkedIn and click on ‘Advanced’ in the upper right-hand corner, then put in the name of the company, and just below it, select ‘Current.’ In the search results, you’ll see names for people in that company. If someone is a first-level connection, you know them. More importantly, if someone is a second-level connection, you have a common contact. (The person will be listed as a ‘shared connection.’) “You can now use your own sales techniques to use them as a reference, or use their name to get in the door,” said O’Malley.

Give your Facebook fans and Twitter followers exclusive discounts and notify them of any specials, promotions or sales. “We use social media to improve customer relationship management [by] offering a discount code when a potential customer becomes a Facebook Fan of Rosena Sammi Jewelry,” said Rosena Sammi of Rosena Sammi Jewelry. As a result, the company has attracted many new customers who tend to be very loyal. The James Store, a 64-year-old clothing boutique located in Granville, Ohio, similarly rewards Facebook fans with discount codes. Those Facebook discount codes in turn “drive new fans to our Facebook page, which in turn drives foot traffic to the store,” said Peter Morse, the James Store’s marketing director, who also uses Twitter to alert followers to sales and specials.

Engage your customers on Facebook and Twitter by asking them thought-provoking or funny questions. “One of the best ways that I have found to gain and retain [customers] is to ask fun or funny questions … on Facebook and Twitter,” said Paul Draper, a mentalist, anthropologist and speaker who runs the website www.mentalmysteries.com. Draper says that posting questions on Facebook and Twitter elicits more responses than a normal post does and “when [people] answer, your question and your page is seen on the pages and in the feeds of all of their friends.” Moreover, when people who aren’t yet fans or followers see how much fun you are, they are likely to become fans and are more inclined to do business with you. Draper cautions that you need to carefully gauge who your audience is, so you don’t offend people with your tone.

Use Facebook and Twitter as calling cards. Long-time customers and employees of Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth, Michigan, fondly recall how Wally Bronner, the founder, would spend hours on the sales floor personally greeting customers and chatting with them, especially during the busy Christmas season. Today, employees are keeping that tradition alive with the help of Facebook. “When I see a fan post [on our Facebook page] that he’s coming to Bronner’s, I often post an invitation for him to stop by our reception desk and ask for me so I can meet him,” said store spokeswoman Lori Libka. “That personal touch, that face-to-face, is so important in making your guests feel that they are part of your extended family and you are welcoming them home for a visit.”

Respond to your customers on Facebook, Twitter and/or your blog in a timely fashion, even if they haven’t directly asked you for help. “For example, if you are a clothing retailer and a customer of yours has commented about a stain [on a dress] on their Facebook page, offer a solution,” said Carolyn Goodwin, the president of and senior strategist at Cake Communications. “By acting as a friend and advisor more than a product or service provider, you’ll develop a more personal relationship [with your customers]” and engender trust and loyalty.

Use social media to help customers find your products. “My company, Cape Classics, is a New York-based importer of South African wine to the U.S.,” said Courtney Luick. “As we do not have a store locator on our website, we use Twitter and Facebook to inform customers where they can find specific wines, either at a restaurant or retail.” The Nauti-Dog Company, a three-year-old retail dog-apparel business that sells both direct and online, likewise uses Facebook and Twitter to alert fans, followers and friends to where they can find Nauti-Dog products as well as events, such as its dog walks and offers them free product when they use a code phrase.

Use social media to involve your customers in product decisions. Few things engender more brand loyalty than involving customers in product development decisions. So next time you are working on a new product or service or revamping an existing one, considering querying your Facebook and Twitter followers, as well as asking for suggestions and input on your blog, advised Scott Bradley, the founder of Rapid Results Marketing Group and an expert on social media. Then when the new product or service is released, “give them recognition for helping come up with it, as well as a discount [or other token of your appreciation],” said Bradley.

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