Posted on June 21, 2011
Filed Under (Advice, General Business, Tools) by jennifer

So you’ve made the decision to give online invoicing a try. How do you choose the right solution for your small business?

“Choosing an invoicing solution purely depends on the user’s business requirements,” explained Raju Vegesna, the evangelist for Zoho and an online invoice expert. “If you send out invoices in multiple currencies, it is important to pick a system that supports multiple currencies.”

Similarly, if you regularly send invoices to the same client or clients, it’s important to choose a solution that supports recurring invoices. And if your customers prefer to make payments online (for example via PayPal or Google Checkout), or they prefer to receive printed invoices (via the mail), choose an online invoicing application that supports those things, he said.

Other questions to ask or think about when choosing an online invoicing solution include:

  • How long has the vendor been in business – and has it received favorable reviews from users? Before choosing an online invoicing service, read what others have to say (by doing a Google search or checking out online forums) and ask fellow small business owners which service they use and if they are happy with it.
  • Has the vendor had problems with security and/or data loss or an outage of service? Don’t be afraid to ask the vendor about security and outages – and check with other users if they have experienced any outages or loss of data.
  • Does the service support online payments – and which online gateways does it integrate with? While most online invoicing solutions integrate with PayPal, if your clients use or prefer another payment gateway, make sure the online invoicing solution you choose can support it.
  • Does the service provide online time tracking? This feature can really save users time – and makes generating an invoice simple.
  • Can you customize invoices, beyond just adding your logo? If having a unique-looking invoice is important to your brand, make sure you choose an online invoicing solution that supports easy invoice customization.
  • Is the solution flexible and scalable? Put another way, can it grow with your business (or shrink) – that is, allow you to upgrade or downgrade – without a hassle?
  • Does the service generate automatic reminders? “Automatic reminders solve the etiquette problem and awkwardness of asking your client to pay an overdue bill,” and can save you time, noted Karen Schoellkopk, Community Manager, Harvest.
  • What level of customer support can I expect? If you run into a problem or have a question, is there a number you can call? Or can you only send an email, or submit a question via a form? Are customer service representatives available 24/7 or just during normal business hours (e.g., 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Central Time), or does it depend on the level of service you purchased? These are important questions to ask up front.

Perhaps most important, find out – by doing a free trial – if the online invoicing service you are thinking of using will actually save you time. “Evaluate it like any business decision,” stated John Coates, the Marketing Communications Lead for FreshBooks. “How does the new solution compare to your current solution for invoicing? If it saves you more hours in billable time than the monthly subscription, it’s worth it.”

For additional information about online invoicing, including how to decide if it’s right for your small business, as well as an overview of three of the leading online billing services, FreshBooks, Harvest, and Zoho Invoice, read my article “Small Business Guide to Online Billing Software” on SmallBusinessComputing.com.

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More ecommerce businesses are using the crowd (i.e., their customers, Facebook fans and/or employees) to help them develop new products and build brand loyalty — and the strategy seems to be working, at least for some online businesses. But is crowdsourcing a viable marketing and/or product development strategy for every small business? And how do you successfully harness the power of the crowd? I spoke to ecommerce businesses OfficeDrop, SitStay.com, and Minted, all of whom had experimented with crowdsourcing, to find out.

Their advice? First and foremost, before you do any kind of crowdsourcing, you need to consider your audience [e.g., age, gender, how likely they are to use or participate in social media] and make the determination whether it’s going to help or hurt, said SitStay.com’s Chief Dog Spoiler, Kent Krueger.

For example, don’t just go out and randomly use Twitter or Facebook, cautioned Healy Jones, the head of marketing at OfficeDrop, because you can get a bunch of 22-year-old people who’ve never used your product before. Get people who are your target demographic, the people who will potentially be using your product.

It’s also wise to limit the number of choices you make available to consumers. There is this issue of paradox of choice, where if you show somebody a thousand items … that it might be too daunting, said Minted founder Mariam Naficy. And you risk overwhelming or alienating the very people you are trying to attract.

To find out more great tips, as well as how and when to use the wisdom of the crowd, please read my article titled “Crowdsourcing as a Small Business Marketing Strategy,” which is featured on SmallBusinessComputing.com, a terrific publication for and about small businesses.

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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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Virtual servers can help you save money, space and make it much easier to recover applications and files when a crisis hits. Plus, they’re less expensive and safer than you think.

Until recently, server virtualization was thought of as something that only larger companies — with dozens or hundreds of physical servers — needed and could afford. But times, technology and the cost of virtual servers have changed, and today mid-sized and even small businesses with just a few servers stand to benefit from going virtual.

How to Decide if Server Virtualization Is Right for Your Business

If you are a very small business, with just one server, you probably don’t need to go virtual. However, anybody with more than one server should consider server virtualization, said Mike Egmont, a partner at Flagship Networks, a company that helps small and mid-sized businesses go virtual. And anybody with more than three servers really should.” He also includes anyone replacing or upgrading their existing servers in the should-consider-virtualization category.

A good candidate for server virtualization would be a company that is going through [or planning] a hardware refresh, an application upgrade or is looking to improve their disaster recovery strategy, added Mark Bowker, a senior analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group. Server virtualization can also help smaller businesses better control IT costs and free up IT staff for other tasks. Similarly, it can also free up valuable real estate as a single virtual server can replace several (or more) physical servers.

To learn more about virtual servers, read my latest article, “Why SMBs Should Consider Server Virtualization.” It explains what server virtualization is in terms ANYONE can understand, and provides tips on how to choose the right virtual server and systems integrator for your small (or mid-sized) business.

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Posted on February 4, 2010

Adding search-engine optimized (SEO) video to your web- or e-commerce site can not only help you stand out from the crowd, it can increase traffic to your site and improve sales.

Indeed, according to studies conducted by Forrester Research, having an SEO video on your e-commerce site increases your odds of showing up on the first page of Google in an organic search dramatically more than 50 times greater than if you just had text on the page. Not only can a good product or promotional video increase your Google ranking, it can increase your sales. Just ask Zappos, which recently revealed that it typically sells between six and 30 percent more merchandise when a product also includes a descriptive video.

But it’s not just large companies that are benefiting from video. HudsonGoods.com, an online furniture store that specializes in vintage-style, environmentally friendly pieces, saw a 25 percent increase in sales after owner Karl Miller added videos to the site (and to the Hudson Goods blog). And Miller is far from alone.

However, simply embedding a video on your e-commerce site is no guarantee of success. Indeed, a bad video (one that bores viewers, has bad production values or is unrelated to your products or company) can do more harm than good.

To learn how you can create a great SEO video on a small budget, check out my latest article for SmallBusinessComputing.com — a fantastic resource for small and mid-sized business owners — titled “How to Boost Sales with SEO Video.”

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In mid-June, when computer maker Dell announced it had earned $3 million in revenue from using Twitter, a popular micro-blogging site, the Internet and blogosphere were all atwitter about the news. Finally, proof that social media had the potential to not only increase traffic but also sales. Though as Dell was quick to mention, it took 18 months to make that first million via Twitter, albeit only six to earn the last.

The Nauti-Dog Company
The Nauti-Dog Company
(Click for larger image)

While Dell is a large corporation, with revenues of more than $61 billion in 2008 alone, smaller businesses — significantly smaller businesses — can also benefit from using Twitter as well as other forms of social media, such as Facebook and MySpace; blogs, particularly community blogs aimed at entrepreneurs, like The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur, which features hundreds of small business owners every week; and sites like Help a Reporter Out (HARO), which links businesses with journalists for free. (Think of it as PR 2.0.)

That’s because unlike traditional PR and advertising, which can be costly, the main cost associated with social media is time, not cash (though this may be changing, thanks in part to success stories like Dell’s). And any business willing to spend some time on social media/networking sites, building a community or fan base, can benefit.

That’s the beauty of social networking. It levels the playing field and provides small business owners another platform or medium to leverage from a marketing perspective, said Scott Bradley, a social media strategist who runs the blog Networking Effectively. Social media also fosters closer and better company-customer/prospective customer interaction – call it Word-of-Mouth 2.0 – than do the more traditional print advertising and PR he said.

To find out how small businesses are using social networking sites and tools to market themselves and to build better relationships with their customers, I spoke with three retail businesses: The James Store, a 63-year-old clothing boutique located in Granville, Ohio; The Nauti-Dog Company, a small two-year-old retail dog-apparel business; and hoodiepeople.com, a startup e-commerce retailer selling premium branded hooded sweatshirts. While their products and audience may differ from yours, their tips and advice regarding social media can be applied to any business.

To hear what these businesses/experts had to say — and learn valuable tips and tricks that can help you use social media to market your small business and connect with customers — read my article, “Social Network Marketing Meets Small Business,” which appears on SmallBusinessComputing.com.

Have your own advice re how social media can help you market your business? Leave me a comment.

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Words — choosing and using the right words to convey an idea, sell a product, or promote a concept — are very important to me as a writer and marketing communications pro. But they should be important to every business owner, no matter the size of your business or marketing budget.

So when I was recently asked to contribute a guest post on a great site for entrepreneurs and small and mid-size business owners called The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur, run by serial entrepreneur and author Mike Michalowicz, I knew what I had to write about: the importance of good writing in marketing and promoting your business and/or website.

You can find my post, titled “The Five Secrets to Creating Great Copy: How the Right Words Can Increase Traffic and Sales” on The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur’s blog by clicking on the link/title of the post. And while you are there, check out Mike’s other posts, as well as his guest bloggers’ posts, for other great tips and ideas.

And speaking of helpful tips, ideas, and resources for entrepreneurs and small and mid-size business owners, I highly encourage you to check out the following sites and blogs (in addition to this one), which many (most?) of you may not be familiar with, but should be:

Making It Legal: The Small Business Mentor’s Guide to Entrepreneurship and Law, run by attorney and entrepreneur Nina Kaufman, who also runs Ask the Business Lawyer.

The “Betty” Factor, a “Conversation About All Things Marketing Related,” run by marketing guru David Politis.

Ecommerce-Guide.com, a publication near and dear to me (I’m a contributor) and your one-stop shop for all things e-commerce related.

SmallBusinessComputing.com, another great resource for small and mid-size business owners looking for tips, tools, and advice re anything and everything technology related.

Duct Tape Marketing’s blog, run by John Jantsch, which features marketing tips, tools, and advice for small businesses.

While I know there are many — probably thousands — of great sites/blogs aimed at helping entrepreneurs and small and mid-size business owners, I have found these sites particularly helpful and easy to navigate, and I bet you will too.

However, if there is a site or a blog aimed at entrepreneurs and SMBs that is near and dear to you that you think others should know about, let me know via a Comment.

Wishing you all prosperity and success in the new year…

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Like just about every online retailer trying to attract more online shoppers and generate more sales, Golfballs.com, which sells new, used and custom logo golf balls as well as golf clubs and golf apparel, lists its products on several comparison shopping engines and does its share of online marketing (including using Google AdWords).

But said Steven Broussard, Golfballs.com’s director of marketing and e-commerce, when it comes to a return on your investment, you can’t beat Google Product Search. “Google Product Search performs better in comparison to the other comparison shopping engines,” he said. “All of the engines we use send us qualified leads; however, Google Product Search sends us more.”

When I asked Broussard if there was a downside to listing products on Google Product Search, he couldn’t think of one. “A, it’s free; B, it’s Google; and C, it’s free,” he said. “So any conversion that you may get is going to be a positive ROI [return on your investment], because it’s not costing you anything, with the exception of [the time spent on creating] the feed itself. So I can’t really think of a downside. The only thing I can say is why haven’t you done it already?” 

To learn more about Google Product Search, how it can help your business attract new customers, get you better rankings on Google’s main search engine, and read Google’s Top Five Tips for increasing your online holiday sales this season, check out my article, “Find Holiday Profits with Revamped Google Product Search.”

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Posted on June 16, 2008
Filed Under (Advice, Ecommerce, Marketing, Tools) by jennifer

Ask anyone who does business on the Internet what the most valuable piece of real estate is and chances are they will say the first page of a Google search. “Being listed at the top of the results not only provides the greatest amount of traffic, it instills trust in customers as to the worthiness and relative importance of a company and Web site,” explained Lisa Cardarelli, an account manager at Bayshore Solutions, an award-winning interactive marketing services agency based in Tampa, Florida.

But getting to the top takes work and time. Optimizing your Web site so that the major search engines, in particular Google, can find you and give your business top placement in an organic search is a strategy every online business should pursue, but getting that high ranking can take months. And many businesses don’t want or can’t afford to wait that long. That’s where pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, specifically Google AdWords, comes in.

AdWords costs anywhere from a few bucks a month to a few thousand, depending on which keywords you want, and how often people click on your ads. It gives new businesses (as well as more established businesses, of all sizes) and businesses looking to promote a product or service online the opportunity to appear on the first page of a Google search (typically on the right-hand side, in the area called “Sponsored Links,” and occasionally right at the top in the center column) instantly.

But to make AdWords add up for your business, you need to do some homework. Above all, you need to determine how much you are willing or can afford to pay each month for keywords and which keywords will attract the most qualified traffic/leads to your business as you pay for each click whether or not it results in a sale or a lead.

To learn more about Google AdWords and to read a couple of (short) small business case studies, to help you determine if AdWords is right for your small business, check out my article, “Making AdWords Add Up for Your E-Business,” which appears on Ecommerce-Guide.com.

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Posted on February 8, 2008
Filed Under (Advice, Tools) by jennifer

Nearly everywhere you look online lately there’s a widget. Just go to Facebook or MySpace or any type of social site and you’re bound to come across one. Indeed, according to Internet market researcher comScore, in November 2007 nearly 148 million U.S. Internet users had viewed a widget.

But just because widgets are popular and cool, does that mean you need to jump on the widget bandwagon? And do branded widgets (which often function as ads or are ads) increase traffic and sales for online businesses?

Btw, if you are like me, and not born with a silver microchip in your mouth, you may be wondering what the heck a “widget” is.  (To me the word still conjures up visions of Spacely’s Sprockets or something you would find in a Rube Goldberg Machine.) While there are many definitions, in today’s wired world a widget is more or less defined as a third-party application, often created using Flash or JavaScript (though it can really be pretty much anything), that contains rich media (photographs or audio or video clips) and functions as a (typically) fun add-on to an existing web page.

If all of this still doesn’t quite make sense to you, read my article on widgets, “Wiley Widgets Popular, But What About Profits?” where I provide several examples of widgets in action/how they are being used to generate interest, traffic, and revenue.

For the article, I interviewed Andrew Lipsman, a senior analyst at comScore, which developed a measuring tool called Widget Metrix last year to track widget usage. The main takeaway:

While widgets are typically free for individuals to download, creating one from scratch can cost money, with the amount depending on what exactly you want to create. And having your own widget may not be right or necessary for your brand or your site, cautioned Lipsman. While younger, more Internet-savvy users are more likely to view and download widgets, older or less bell-and-whistle-seeking users could be turned off. Additionally, by monetizing widgets too quickly you could “drive away or limit potential users who see them as too commercial,” he said.

Still, with their growing popularity and ability to deliver rich content and links back to your website, widgets should not be ignored.

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