Five tips for a successful product launch

I have recently been spending a lot of time thinking about product launches. My employer, Actinic , is a few weeks away from rolling out a major update to one of its ecommerce software products. While we have the advantage of an existing user base, many of the fundamentals for launching are the same whether it is an existing product or something completely new.1. Understand the Unique Value PropositionIf your product is sat on the launch pad I would hope by this stage you know what it is that makes your offering different from the rest. The importance of your Unique Value Proposition (UVP) cannot be understated; it’s the lifeblood of any product launch. Review, discuss and research until you are totally convinced you have got it right; you only get one launch window.2. Talk to prospective customersGet out there and talk to the very people you want to sell your product to. Discuss your plans for the product, both now and in the future. Get their feedback; it could be you missed something.3. How are you going to sell and market?Choosing where to market your product can be difficult. Make informed decisions based on research. It might even be a good idea to run several small pilot schemes to see where you get the most success. However prepare to be ruthless if you’re not seeing the results. It’s easier to make decisions before you have spent the entire budget on something that’s not working.4. Make yourself heardFind out who the influential people are in your space and hustle, annoy and pester them. That is until you get a chance to demonstrate why your product is the best. Nothing is better than a personal recommendation regardless of the product or service. Go to events, chat to people and network, network, network!5. Bring the whole team on the journeyA successful product launch requires commitment and understanding throughout your organisation.When President Kennedy visited NASA in 1961 he came across a cleaner, and asked him what his job was. The cleaner replied “My Job is to put a man on the moon, Sir”. Now that probably is the greatest launch of all time.

Using social networking to build sales and improve customer relations

  1. How can social networking through Twitter, Facebook etc benefit your business?Social networks allow entrepreneurs to track down their target customersUsing the websites you can also improve your sales and customer serviceBut it's important that you listen to what your customers are telling you

I’m sure you’ve heard about social networking websites. Chances are even better that you’re on a social network yourself, especially as you consider that Facebook alone has 250m active users. Putting that into perspective, if Facebook was a country it would be bigger than the UK, France, Germany and Italy put together, and growing at about one million users per day!This is a staggering level of growth. The average Facebook user has 120 contacts and 5 billion minutes are spent on the site each day worldwide. That’s a lot of socialising.So, how can businesses use social networking effectively? In this article, I explore some of the possibilities for leveraging social networks in order to build sales and improve customer relations.So, what does this mean today?Obviously social network sites give users the ability to communicate with each other and share information, but they also enable users to find like-minded thinkers. In contrast to traditional communication tools, it’s much easier to expand your network with relevant people, or communities based on mutual interests. These communities have brought an almost unparalleled amount of power to individuals. It potentially heralds a seismic shift from company to consumer.The growth of social networks demonstrates that business can no longer rely on the traditional mediums of print, TV and radio. Whether it’s to sell, support or market products, enforcing the company view of the world has become a whole lot harder.However, it’s not all bad news. Used correctly social networks can become a real business enabler, helping you to find and identify current and future customers and respond to problems quickly and effectively.Find your customersThe first thing any business needs to do is research. No doubt you already know, but social networking can be a time sink. Researching using the medium takes real effort, so make sure this effort is concentrated in the right place. Check your demographics and find out if your customers use social networks, and if so which ones? Chances are they are on Facebook, but don't forget LinkedIn, Twitter or FriendFeed. Ask customers what they use.Don't talk, listenOnce you have found your customers sit back and listen. Social networking is renowned for its real time opinions, use this to your advantage and employ search engines to find people talking about you or your company. Even better take it a step further and listen for your competitors’ names, or search phrases that relate to your products or services.Depending on the size or type of business you're running there will be a lot of information, often too much. The challenge is to identify the wheat from the chaff and to capture good information in such a way that it benefits your business.When you do talk, be smartA person’s online social space is sensitive; respect it by being smart and polite. You wouldn't expect to barge into a normal conversation with blatant advertising, and social networking is no different. Instead, join in the conversation and offer advice that’s practical. Within my business we actively spend time helping customers. We direct people with queries to our own online resources such as our knowledge base and advisory articles.Realise the potentialSocial Networks such as LinkedIn, Twitter and FriendFeed are brilliant for asking questions. The open nature of these communities allows for anyone to ask, view or respond, so the potential for sales is obvious. Once again it’s important to play by the rules. Companies such as Ford and Dell do this incredibly well, building relationships and being proactive. Helping with enquiries boosts the perceptions of your brand, or service.The key is to remember the connected nature of social networks, recommendations prove to be the best type of sales lead and social networks can act like a mega phone for both praise and condemnation.Despite the obvious opportunities, many sales professionals I talk to remain very uncertain about social networks. While it’s true that traditional sales methods don't always apply in this brave new world, it’s important to remember the art of a good sales team is to identify and leverage the next competitive advantage. It may feel like it is taking focus away from core sales activity, but social networks allow both a greater insight into a prospect and an alternate method of communication. When I receive a cold call I am instantly put out. However if I am introduced via a common contact I am much more receptive.SummaryIt’s important to realise that web-based social networking is not a black art; it’s really about common sense. Often the first hurdles to be overcome can be one’s own preconceived ideas. If your business is still questioning the relevance, let me ask a question: Do you want to be part of, and influence the conversation that’s already occurring about your market place right now, or do you want to be left to one side? If you engage, sales will follow. If you don’t, your competitors will be making the running.

5 Marketing Disasters

In our media savvy age, advertising, marketing and brand strategies have become so ingrained into our culture, that I would argue there is no better barometer of public mood or confidence. I am sure we can all name a TV advert instantly. However, for every well executed marketing campaign there is probably an equally memorable disaster.In this article I want to look at the top five marketing disasters that have caught my eye. I’m sure that you have your own favourites and I will look forward to hearing about them in your comments.Viral campaign fail: StarbucksA confession, I am a huge Starbucks fan. It’s almost bordering on obsessive so it pains me to put my favourite brand into my top five marketing disasters’ list. Unfortunately, it’s justified.Back in the heady days of 2002 the coffee giant quickly learnt that viral marketing campaigns can back fire, and spectacularly. Starbucks issued a free coffee coupon via email to a few of its staff. The suggestion was that they “mail it to a friend”. It turns out on the internet we are all friends. Several coupon boards and photocopiers later Starbucks were in trouble.One Starbucks employee described the scene at her local store as “utter murder”. Coffee shops all over the world were literally besieged with customers claiming their essential Venti House Blend. Unfortunately for Starbucks the voucher omitted an expiry date. A few days later they had to issue numerous statements that they would no longer honour the deal.Starbucks of all people should have known that getting in the way of someone’s first cup of Jo in the morning is a dangerous sport. The company were not only heavily criticised, one angry customer even tried to sue Starbucks for over $100m. The real winners were the enterprising competitors such as Café Nero that opened their doors to disgruntled Starbucks fans by honouring the coupon, but only for a day.Product placement fail: James Bond, Die Another DayA trip to the cinema is a golden opportunity for advertisers. In the old days it started as soon as you walked into the foyer, extended into the 30 minutes of ads but stopped once the film commenced. These days however the movie itself has become the platform for advertising, known as “product placement”. Some brands even offer up to half of the production cost to make sure the hero swigs from their particular brand of cola while saving the world. I have no problem with it... when it’s subtle. In the case of the less than brilliant Bond film “Die Another Day” it was completely over the top.Bond movies have always been about material objects, the car, the watch and the gadget. However, in Die Another Day it went into intergalactic warp drive. By the end of the movie I knew which brand of Vodka went into the Vodka Martini; what life is like in BA first class; and how the perfect sweeping second hand of an Omega Seamaster could win the Oscar for best supporting actor. I would like to say that it ruined the movie but the acting, direction and script take that particular plaudit. However it felt like an exercise in brainwashing. Critics branded the movie “Buy Another Day”. It wasn’t MGM’s finest hour.Ad fail: MPAA, Movie PiracyThe anti-piracy lobby makes my list for being so out of touch with its audience it’s laughable.[youtube=]It’s targeting the wrong people, as if you’re seeing the ad you probably rented or bought the movie. In addition, it must be the single most irritating thing that an industry has inflicted on its own paying customers. If I previously thought piracy was wrong, I had second thoughts after watching their ad, with skip disabled, for the two hundredth time. The only good news is the genius of the parody videos.TV appearance fail: Bill Gates, Windows 98In my book there are two golden rules of television appearances. The first is to have a compelling reason to be there, the second, if you are selling the virtues of a product, is to be sure that it works. Poor old Bill Gates failed on both counts during the launch of Windows 98:[youtube=]Bill looked uncomfortable in the first place but his discomfort got worse as his flagship software product crashed live on TV and the whole world got to see what a Blue Screen of Death (BSOD) looks like. It could have all been laughed off, but the real-life experience for millions was of the same blue screen.Microsoft doesn’t really have a great TV track record:[youtube=]Spokesman fail: Brylcreem and David BeckhamSometimes when brands need a little helping hand the answer can be found with celebrity endorsement. The logic is sound; we live in a celebrity obsessed age and success by association can definitely work. Sadly as many brands have discovered, celebrities are a fickle bunch. Just ask Tiger Woods’ sponsors.My final example of how brands can get it wrong, goes to Brylcreem and its man of the hour, David Beckham. All the ingredients were in place for a happy marriage. Brylcreem as a brand was stagnant, its products generally associated with WW2 fighter pilots and anyone else over the age of 70 that had managed to cling onto their hair. Golden Balls on the other hand was on the way to the top, and the number one male icon in Brylcreem’s target market. To make things even better, his hair was an even hotter topic than his football.Sadly the marriage didn’t even last a year. To sell the product, the single pre-requisite required Beckham to have some hair, which he had decided, very publically, to shave off. Brylcreem were in trouble. The advertising campaign had just got into gear, the company was stuck with pre-bought air time, and to make matters worse every kid in the country was following Beck’s advice and opting for the more streamlined look.ConclusionIt took me a long time to distill this list. The problem is there are far too many examples of brands getting it wrong. During research for this article I asked the question on Twitter “what is the worst advert on tv?”. I had over 100 replies, each one with a different answer. However, it did strike me that the bad campaigns were often the ones that we best remember. So one final thought. Is an awful marketing campaign such a bad thing, or is it true that the only worse thing than being talked about is not being talked about?

Get real with Augmented Reality

One of my all time favourite films of the last ten years is the futuristic action movie Minority Report. I remember watching in fascination as our hero John Anderton passed through a shopping centre of the future. The whole sequence was brilliant. Billboards and advertising changed as people walked past, tannoy systems in shops welcomed you back and asked how your last purchase was working out. It was both a scary and tantalising view of the future.Minority Report was released in 2002 and only eight years later Augmented Reality (AR), the blending of the real and virtual world, has exploded into popular culture. Some of the highlights include iPhone apps that use the camera to overlay directions to your nearest Starbucks, and interactive kiosks demonstrating yet to be manufactured products at trade shows. For business in general, and retail in particular, it seems that the opportunities are endless.I have a t-shirt at home with a slogan "RL has rubbish FPS". Translating, this means that real life isn't as good as virtual. Sadly my t-shirt is right, the real world is still light years away from the possibilities of Minority Report. Where are the interactive billboards? Where is the personalised voice?However, with smart phone adoption going stratospheric, developers are finding new ways to supplement real life. For retail, my current favourite augmented app is Google Goggles. Goggles allows you to take a picture of a product, logo or landmark and look it up on the web.Surfing the web via real life items is a revolutionary concept. Not only will this allow you to look up online pricing while arguing with the sales person in your local garage, but it also means that you can discover more about the sculpture and its creator while on a museum trip, just by taking a photo.The ecommerce world is getting in on the act too. Several major online clothing companies are rolling out the "Magic Mirror" feature. It allows you to try clothes on via your webcam from the comfort of your own home. This Christmas Hugo Boss also trialled an impressive online and offline marketing campaign based around a game of blackjack, using both the real tangible items and virtual pixelated content. And we’re just at the start of the possibilities.Why don't you see for yourself and give one of the following augmented experiences a go:1. - A free application for your mobile phone. This shows what is around you by displaying real time digital information on top of reality using the camera on your mobile phone.2. Watch a YouTube video about the augmented reality and motion capture shopping applicationI am not yet expecting my embarrassing shopping habits to be blurted out over a loud speaker as I walk into Tesco. But some aspects of the future have definitely arrived already. Brace yourself for the ride, it’s going to be exciting.

Creating your first online store – tips for success

Everywhere we turn at the moment there seems to be economic doom and gloom. It’s almost impossible to open a newspaper without reading how the high street is fighting for survival and retail is a fast track to the breadline. However, even with the current downturn there is one area of retail that’s booming - ecommerce.Despite many predictions of a slowdown, ecommerce is still showing double-digit year-on-year growth. Online sales for December 2008 were in the region of £5bn, this was up 15% on the previous year with many analysts believing the December 2009 figure to be closer to £7bn, despite a struggling economy.So what are the key considerations in developing and managing a good and successful ecommerce site?There are three important parts to selling on the web:Getting people to your siteMaking it easy and compelling for them to buyProviding great customer service.It’s important to realise ecommerce is not about the technology, it’s about having the right product and the gumption to sell it. It’s exactly the same as with bricks and mortar stores.Successful ecommerce sites tend to have two things in common; they are well marketed and they sell from the moment you arrive. How you market and merchandise your ecommerce site must be foremost in your mind. This means knowing who your customers are and understanding their needs. You need to know which hot buttons to press in order to get people interested. This must be the entire objective of your site design.Good designResearch shows that website visitors make their mind up about a store in three seconds or less. In those precious moments your site needs to make a great impression, establish your brand and build trust. It's a tall order, and the only way to do this is through the design of your site. If you are setting up a new ecommerce store it’s worth choosing software that works well out of the box. You can also invest time into understanding design principles or just hire a competent designer.Prototype and test your design, spend time with friends, family and (if you’re feeling brave) customers, and get some input. The question you should be asking is ‘How would you approach buying from this store? The question is not ‘What do you think of the design?’.MarketingIf your store is going to be a success, people have to know about it. You need to find out how people search on the internet. What are the key words that they use for your type of product? What other ways do they look online? Talk to lots of people and try to understand a bit more about it all.A great place to start is the Google Adwords keyword tool which gives you a great insight into search engine trends. You can also find lots of useful information at,, and (look under 'Ecommerce' and 'The Marketing World').There are lots of other ways of promoting your web site. The most basic is to make sure that your site address appears on every piece of paper that your business produces. If your web site offers an improved service to existing customers, you must tell them about it.Ironically, there is a certain amount of evidence that traditional marketing (advertising, PR etc.) is more effective at generating online sales than internet-based methods. Certainly it’s crucial to integrate the promotion of your web site with everything that your business does offline.Multi-channelIn our own research at Actinic we found more than two-thirds of small online retailers take orders via mail, catalogues and the telephone and more than half of them process more than 50 per cent of their orders this way. It could also be the case you have a traditional bricks and mortar store too. If you fall into these categories then whatever solution you adopt for your online store should be integrated across all of the sales channels.The largest retail operations very often have very similar requirements to smaller business. It’s just a question of scale, and a great example is Argos. With Argos a customer can order online, in store or via the telephone and then choose a method of delivery, or opt to collect in person. Argos has developed the concept of multi-channel retailing to such an extent that it is now becoming a widespread expectation.Getting your channels into synch with each other is not an easy task. If you are selling in more than one place any ecommerce solution really should have multi-channel capability. If you are coming into ecommerce from the traditional retail world the irony is your online store could be the catalyst your business needs to search harder for a competitive advantage.Up-sellingAs with a physical retail store there are various merchandising techniques available to maximise shopper revenue and encourage customers to keep coming back.One approach is to offer more for slightly more money. Offer a great deal if they buy something else at the same time. 'Buy two and get one free' or 'Buy X and get Y half price' are a great way of increasing the overall order value and benefiting the customer without eroding your margins.Provide the ability to buy associated products. Make sure customers buy additional accessories from you by making it easy for them to buy everything together.Keeping in touchUse opt-in email. Offer a newsletter with exclusive offers and useful extra information for regular customers. This can build a sense of community and strengthen the relationship between you and your customers. You can use special links in the email to trigger special prices for products on offer. It’s also a great idea to invest time and effort with social networks. There you can find and talk to your customers directly.The single most important things, as with any type of business, is to always be adaptable. Explore new ways of selling products and find the tangibles, the items you can measure your success or failure by.So while it’s looking decisively chilly out on the high street, ecommerce is still providing retailers something to be smiling about. What are you waiting for?

Commissioning your ecommerce website (part two)

The first impression someone gets when arriving at your site has little to do with how good you are as a retailer. It's all about how good you look; in this game aesthetics are everything. However, a good e-commerce implementer will remember that the number one goal of your site is actually to sell. Everything else — and this is often a bone of contention with designers — is of secondary importance.How good is the design?Research shows that website visitors make their mind up about a store in only three seconds. In those precious moments your site needs to make a great impression, establish your brand and build trust. It's a tall order, and the only way to do this is through the design of your site. It’s a difficult balance but a good designer should have no problems.Once you have a prototype of your design, spend time with friends, family and (if you’re feeling brave) customers, and get some input. The question you should be asking is ‘How would you approach buying from this store? not ‘What do you think of the design?’.If your designer is mocking up an HTML prototype, ask them to use a heat map such as Click Heat and ask people to spend time surfing around your new site. Click Heat is a free visual heat map of clicks on a web page displaying both hot and cold zones. Ensure all of this research is available to your designer and tweak the design to ensure maximum performance. If they are not interested, maybe they aren’t right for you.What about multi-channel?In our own research at Actinic we found more than two-thirds of small retailers take orders via mail, catalogues and the telephone and more than half of them process more than 50 per cent of their orders this way. You may also have a traditional bricks and mortar store. If you fall into these categories then whatever solution you adopt for your online store should be integrated across all of the channels where you sell.The largest retail operations very often have very similar requirements to smaller business. It’s just a question of scale, and a great example is Argos. With Argos, a customer can order online, in store or via the telephone and then choose a method of delivery or opt to collect in person. Argos has developed the concept of multi-channel retailing to such an extreme that it is now becoming a widespread expectation.Getting your channels into synch with each other is not an easy task. A good e-commerce designer should have multi-channel experience, so you need to review them and only opt for a solution that fits. Could your new commerce store be the catalyst your business needs to offer a competitive advantage?How will you handle payments?If you are planning to sell online, it’s more than likely you will require the ability to accept credit and debit cards. This can be an absolute minefield and highly confusing for those new to e-commerce. It’s important you ask lots of questions and do your research. Card security and banking regulations such as PCI-DSS are your responsibility, not the designers. It will be you that’s fined by the banks if the solution doesn’t comply.If you are in any doubt, discuss the situation with your bank. The simple shortcut is that by using a Payment Service Provider (PSP) such as Worldpay you will be pretty much fully compliant.Don’t discount other payments services such as PayPal and Google Checkout — research shows they can add up to 10 per cent of sales.How will the site be maintained?The RSPCA is always telling us, “A dog is for life, not just for Christmas”. Well, it’s the same with web designers; their job is not finished just because they have handed your site over.It’s important to obtain a clear picture about what happens after you’re in control. Do this before the end of your project and definitely before they have moved on to new clients. Very often I talk to frustrated store-owners complaining about their lack of ability to add products or content. If you are planning on managing the site yourself, discuss training and devise a long-term plan that makes you independent of the designer.Last wordRemember, not knowing what you want from the beginning will cost a lot of money, either by retro-fitting features that weren't planned, or by paying for features you don't need. Arm yourself with as much information as possible, research and reel in the sales!

Commissioning your e-commerce website (part one)

If you’re just starting out in e-commerce, then choosing a web designer to turn your business concept into reality can be one of the biggest and hardest decisions you will face. Before you go trawling through the Yellow Pages, there are a number of questions that any business owner needs to answer.What are your goals?It’s absolutely critical that you understand the goals and ambitions for your site before you even approach a designer.What are you trying to achieve with your site — is it for selling or a marketing driven portal?What is the proposition and image you are offering to your customers?It’s important to define your goals and objectives. However, be careful not to shackle your designer with too rigid a set of requests up front. If you are hiring a good designer, they will take your requirements and work creatively with them. Don’t try to do their job, or you will diminish their value.Who are you hiring?Web design is a fairly ad-hoc business. There is no common acceptance of any pre-requisite qualifications and anyone can set up as a designer. As an example, I was a little shocked to discover that my dentist has a side business in web design. I spent a pleasurable 30 minutes in the dentist chair grunting at his comments about CSS. So it’s important you understand who you are hiring!Getting references and checking out the websites that designers have produced is always a good idea. But remember these are the sites that your designer wants you to see, so do your own research. It can be very beneficial to talk to a designer’s previous clients.It’s even a good idea to try buying a few items from previous e-commerce stores that the designer has worked on. That way, you can get some first-hand experience of being their customer’s customer.How will people find your site?Once you have chosen your website designer, don't be tempted to jump straight in at the deep end. It’s easy to let enthusiasm run away by discussing site aesthetics before giving any thought to how people are going to find your website in the first place.Discuss Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and ensure that your site is designed to maximise its visibility with search engines. It's vital that SEO is part of the creation and deployment process from the start. Many sites look great but fail the basic test of attracting visitors, and often retro-fitting SEO features can be an expensive addition.If you are planning to use Pay Per Click (PPC) advertising such as Google AdWords, discuss this with your designer. Larger design agencies may even have a dedicated Internet marketing consultant who can help determine how your new site fits into your overall marketing strategy. Again, the key is to make sure you get this up front and not as an expensive add-on.What solution is being implemented?It’s more than likely that a designer will implement an off-the-shelf package. It could be a dedicated e-commerce package or a free CMS (Content Management System) with an e-commerce plug-in.Choosing a boxed solution brings many advantages — it should keep costs down and ultimately save time. It will also mean you should be able to look after the site yourself, and if the designer moves on, your site still has a future.Don’t be afraid to ask what it is you are paying for — the answer you are looking for is a specific product and vendor name.I am always amazed when people opt for bespoke or badly-maintained open source solutions. If your business is a success, this software will become mission critical. Unless you have a substantial long-term budget or a real desire to reinvent the wheel these approaches are best avoided.

Is Your Business Benefiting from Social Networking?

Whenever I talk to web businesses, there is a topic that comes up time and time again: social networks. Love them or loath them, 2009 really was the year social networking went mainstream. The pessimists will have you believe this is fuelled by our celebrity-obsessed culture and almost narcissistic fascination with ego searches. However, social networking is bigger than Stephen Fry’s breakfast and hopefully by the end of this article you will see how you can use social networking sites like Twitter to bring some real business benefit.Twitter, the biggest phenomenon of the genre, operates around the open questions “What's happening?”, and you only have 140 characters to answer. Looking at my own tweets (@benjamindyer) I admit, many of them are completely pointless. I see something I like or dislike and I tweet about it. However, looking at the bigger picture, this conscious stream of information turns Twitter into a surprisingly powerful tool, especially for business.There are lots of companies doing some quite incredible things. Dell recently announced it has made nearly $6.5m in sales directly from its Twitter presence and has over 1.5m followers. Ford too has a great set of Twitter streams and US cable company Comcast is rewriting the customer service manual with its exploits on Twitter.So we have established that big companies are setting up their stalls within these social networks. Where these businesses are throwing vast sums at establishing a presence we should all be able to learn from their experience, regardless of the size of our business.First, check your customer demographics: Find out if they use social networks, and if so which ones? Chances are they are on Facebook, but don't forget Twitter is key to some and there’s Linkedin and FriendFeed too. Ask customers what they use.Next, I believe it is also important to do as much listening as talking, and this is where a lot of companies come unstuck. Use the search engine on each social networking site to find who is talking about your company. The Twitter search is incredibly powerful and can really give some amazing insight into your brand, products and customers.Also extend your searches to include competitors and anyone respected in your sector. Track what is said about the products or services they supply and what they are promoting. What can you learn?Remember that the heart of social networking is engagement. If you find someone talking about you or your products, then get chatting. Ask questions and listen to the feedback. This is an incredibly empowering process for your customers. No matter how big or small your company, we all like to feel that someone cares.A great example of fantastic engagement is the US cable company Comcast, a brand that has been synonymous with poor customer service for years. However Comcast in 2009 became a completely different animal.One change has been to embrace social networking. Comcast is on all major social media sites like Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook, etc. This presence gives it direct access to its users. Searching for examples returned hundreds of satisfied customers and barely any dissatisfied ones. Two years ago this would have been inconceivable.One great example comes from Comcast customer @cc_chapman:"Last night I made a snide remark about the lackluster quality of my HD picture on Comcast during the Celtics game. Comcast saw that and tweeted me back minutes later. This morning I got a call from their service center. This afternoon someone came out. Now my HDTV rocks! THAT my friends is customer service and how it should work all the time."Engaging closely is one thing, but remember that a person’s online social space must be respected: Be smart and polite. Don’t go butting into someone’s conversation with a blatant plug. This is a fast track to achieving the exact opposite result and being blocked. Far better to offer advice that’s relevant and of interest to your audience.While most people now have some sort of online presence, the biggest complaint I hear is, “I haven’t got enough time.” It’s understandable and depending on your business and the social networks you intend to have a presence on, you’re bound to drop some plates. However, there are free tools that can really help. A good one is the brilliant Tweetdeck. Tweetdeck connects up to a number of social networks (Twitter, MySpace, Linkedin, Facebook), its power comes in the ability to define searches or groups of people to watch. These searches are organised into columns that aggregate the data.Social networks are not just the preserve of those interested in Britney’s personal life, it’s a mine of information. If you’re not using it I can guarantee your customers are already talking about you. And your competitors are probably talking to them.So, what are you doing?

Making social media work for an online business

A lot has already been written regarding social media strategies and ideas to increase customer loyalty. However, it’s always a great idea to go over the basics to double check your social media strategy is still ticking the right boxes.Listen before talkingSocial networking is as much about listening as talking, and this is where a lot of companies come unstuck. Use the search engine on each social networking site to find out who is talking about your company. The Twitter search ( is incredibly powerful and can really give an amazing insight into your brand, products and customers.I also like to extend my searches to include competitors or people of interest in your field of expertise. What is being said about their products or services and what are they currently promoting? Can you learn anything from them?EngageThe real power of social networking is engagement; getting close and personal is the name of the game. If you find someone talking about you or your products then befriend them. Get chatting, ask questions and listen to the feedback. This is incredibly empowering process for your customers. No matter how big or small your company, we all like to feel that someone cares.A great example of a company doing brilliant things online is the US cable company Comcast, a brand that has been synonymous with poor customer service for years. However Comcast in 2009 is a completely different animal, so how did it turn itself around?One way has been to embrace social networking. Comcast has a presence on all major networks (Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook, etc.). This presence allows it to pay attention to its customers. A quick search for examples found hundreds of satisfied customers. In fact I had to really search hard to find a dissatisfied one. Two years ago this would have been inconceivable.Be polite and relevantWhile it’s great to engage closely, it’s also important to remember that a person’s online social space is a sacred thing; respect it by being smart and polite. Barging into a conversation with blatant advertising is a fast track to achieving the opposite of what you intended. Instead join in the conversation and offer advice that’s relevant and of interest to your audience.Use toolsWhile most people now have some sort of online presence, the biggest objection I come across while talking to business owners is the lack of time argument. I totally understand this; depending on your business and the social networks you intend to have a presence on, some things will fall through the cracks. It’s impossible to be connected 24/7. However, it is worth trying some of the free tools like TweetDeck for Twitter to narrow the signal to noise ratio to an acceptable level.ReviewTo conclude, it’s worth remembering social networking is all about one thing, engagement. If you’re just starting out, or already have an established presence, it’s always worth reviewing to make sure your strategy is hitting the spot.

Six top tips for building an online community

A community is an enabler; it allows you an unparalleled level of access to your user base and empowers the otherwise voiceless consumer to feed back to 'the man'.However, setting up and running a community is not easy. The Actinic Community was established in 2002 and today has more than 10,000 members. This provides our company with a daily insight into our customers and their views on our products and services, while highlighting both our strengths and weaknesses.1. Don't rush in, have a planAn online community is a little like a building project - you provide the bricks and mortar to build the environment where your members will reside. Once built, however, you need a plan to get people in. The traffic you attract - or don't attract -will be the measure of your success or failure.Ideas to do this could be as simple as including details of your community at every 'touch point' you have with your customers, such as outgoing email signatures, phone messages or literature. Do your research and discover where your customers currently reside online; this could be Twitter or Facebook, so establish a presence there - but make sure you refer back to your own community.I have seen hundreds of communities start up and turn into ghost towns because the basics of how to attract members were not in place. If you are unsure about starting a community, why not test the water with a decent blog. If you start to get a good level of comments then it's a good indicator that your customers are ready to talk.2. Dedication's what you needCommunity building takes time and commitment to make happen. If you are confident that your strategy is correct, stay the course. For every community I have seen fail due to lack of traffic, two have the plug pulled because of a perceived lack of progress.For your community to be a success, you need to look after it. You need to dedicate resource, especially in the early days to help it grow. The Actinic Community is amazing as we have so many subject matter experts, but it wasn't always the case.3. You're the bossCommunities need leaders -- it's a tough job, requiring many hats to be worn including politician, preacher and even policeman. You need to define how you will approach each role, but it needs to be consistent.Community leadership is all about engaging and inspiring others. Constantly ask yourself 'Am I doing a good job?'. If not, ask for help. Good leaders will help set the tone for the rest of the community so it is vital you get it right.4. Know your demographicsI like to divide community members into three camps: newbies, casual users and the hardcore fanatics. It's clichéd I know, but it's true. These camps tend to play out distinct roles: newbies ask questions, fanatics answer them and the casuals move up the scale, or get bored and go elsewhere.Be very careful about getting too hung up with the fanatics: while anyone passionate about your offering is valuable, they probably represent only a small slice of your community pie. The trick is to work with the most dedicated posters to help engage with the casual browsers. Your goal is to build a community, not pander to the whims of a small minority, however tempting.5. Set some rules, but don't invite StalinIf you want to build a successful community, you need rules. These rules need to be the cornerstone of the community's existence. Without rules governing how your community is run, prepare for Armageddon. Trust me, nothing devalues a brand more than your own customers slugging it out on your public space.However, the very purpose of a community is to empower your customers to talk. Don't stifle conversation just because it is going against you, or exposing a potential weakness with your offering.We all screw up; what matters is how we react when we do. Be honest and open with your community - this is your chance to learn what your customers really think. Listening to comments and engaging with criticism proves you want to be proactive and create better solutions for your customers.6. Don't let the haters get you downAt some point you will get a good kicking, whether justified or not. Due to the disconnected aspect of an online community, people act differently than if you met them face to face or even on the phone.Managing aggressive criticism while maintaining freedom of speech requires a careful balance, so never respond badly in a public space. It can be a humbling experience. However, if your efforts to engage with your customers are being derailed by abusive members, you need to act. Exclude them if they persistently ignore your requests to be more moderate.Running a community is hard work, but it can be a fantastically rewarding experience for both you and your customers. The reality is that if you have a successful company, product or service, your customers will be talking about you anyway. What you need to decide is whether you are willing to facilitate the conversation.