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Three ways to outperform your online rivals

September 14, 2015 by Marketing Donut contributor

Three ways to outperform your online rivals{{}}Are you worried that your online competitors are stealing customers from your business?

If so, you're not alone. In our recent survey, 46% of businesses told us this was their greatest fear. Another 27% were worried that competitors' prices were lower; 18% reported concerns that their competitors have better marketing.

But business is competition, so how can your company gain the advantage? 

In order to outperform your competitors, you'll need to think strategically about the differences between your business and theirs. Here are three steps you can take to make it easier.

1. Get to know your brand, reputation and customers

Your business is your brand - without a strong brand and a solid reputation, you'll find it much harder to convert and retain customers.

Check out online reviews to see what customers are saying about you. When customers give you a glowing five-star review, what do they praise the most? When they're unhappy, what are the most common complaints? Many customers feel more able to voice their opinions online than in person, so this is an excellent way to learn what customers really think of you.

Understand your brand's appeal from the customer's point of view - why do they buy from you instead of your competitors? Does the customer perspective align with your company's presentation of the brand?

Once you've explored opinions of your brand, get to know your customers' needs and desires:

  • What do they want from your product or service?
  • What do they want you to start doing?
  • What do they want you to stop doing?
  • What do they want you to continue doing?

One of the simplest ways to discover this information is to conduct a consumer survey.  As the majority of consumers use mobile devices, a mobile survey lets you reach them wherever they are and provides an easy way for them to respond.

2. Get to know your competition and their customers

It's important to keep track of what advertising and marketing tactics your main competitors use, from SEO and SEM to social networking and email marketing. Notice any changes in their approach so you can gain insight into their broader strategies.

Take the time to audit your competitors' online performance:

  • Do they rank well for the search keywords that your company targets?
  • Do they publish great content online on a regular basis?
  • Do they have an active following on social media?

Subscribe to your competitors' email marketing campaigns to see how they're using this channel. Use a non-corporate email address for this, to avoid flooding your business inbox with competitor marketing campaigns or tipping off your competitors about your research activities.

Now learn more about your competitors' customers (and how they could become your customers):

  • Keep track of comments left on your competitors' social media profiles, websites, review sites and blogs. Try to get a sense of your competitors' typical customer profiles.
  • Look for gaps you can exploit. Are your competitors lacking a service or product that your company can deliver?

3. Gain insight to inform your decisions

Guesswork won't give you the insight you need to make the right decisions, but accurate data will.

To obtain data on your customers and how they interact with your brand, consider using lead conversion software. This can track key metrics including: impressions compared to click-through rates; conversion rates of different customer segments; conversion rates of different landing page designs; and how your chosen metrics change with the time of day, the day of the week or even the seasons.

Copyright © 2015 Paul Liascos, managing director of ReachLocal UK.

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What makes a good strategic partner?

September 07, 2015 by Shweta Jhajharia

What makes a good strategic partner?{{}}A strategic alliance is a loose partnership between non-competing businesses that can add profit to each other's bottom lines. This calls for commitment rather than investment but the right partnership can pay serious dividends.

Since strategic alliances do not have the backing of a legal agreement, it usually requires time to build up the relationship. This involves regular reviews to refine and develop the agreement. In short, partnerships are long-term strategies that also require short-term activity.

In fact, the reason strategic alliances are so often neglected as a strategy is because of the level of dedication and commitment they require.

Your mindset is also important; you do not want to think of this as "getting" something from your alliance partner. There is a powerful concept used in the BNI networks that they call "givers gain". It's best to think about how it is that you can help your alliance partner first, then you can think about how that partner can potentially help you back. Your alliance will flow much more smoothly as a result.

What makes a good strategic alliance partner?

Just as you identify the characteristics of your target customers, you also need to draw up a picture of your ideal partner.

Start by considering other firms that supply your customer base. For instance, if you are a business-to-business company, potential partners could include stationery suppliers, accountants, lawyers, financial advisers, cleaning companies, business coaches and so on. If you are business-to-customer, think about other complementary retailers, service providers or local organisations.

Once you have a long list of potential suppliers, you need to whittle that down to the strongest contenders. Here's what to look for in a potential strategic alliance partner:

1. They have a similar audience

Their audience does not have to be exactly the same as yours, but it definitely should be a similar clientele. For example, if your target person is usually wealthy, then you want to target services that are more likely to have wealthy customers, such as financial advisors or high-end retail.

2. They are not your competitors

Your service should be adding value to their customers, not competing with their services. If your product is too similar to theirs, why should they want to help you promote yours when they can promote theirs? You will get the greatest benefit from those who have a distinct service from you but a similar audience.

3. They can give you access to new customers and prospects

Ideally, you want them to have a database of clients and/or prospects that you can easily access. It could work to your advantage if they are not making the most of their database. Imagine if you could offer to help them a) build their database and b) communicate with their prospects and customers with an offer in a positive way. That, in itself, is adding value to them straight away; but it also gives you access to new prospects.

4. They want to work with you

This is an important point. If the potential partner is already satisfied with their sales and marketing and they cannot see much value from you, you should probably move on. Qualify all your potential strategic alliances the same way you would your sales leads. If they are not as excited about the partnership as you are, then it probably will not work out in the long term. They may look like a good prospect but they are just not that into you.

5. They want something you can offer

You need to be able to offer something that they want from you. Within the core products that you offer, there should be something that is valuable to your partner's customers. If you can identify that, then in the long term you can be a giver. And, as we know, givers gain.

Copyright © 2015 Shweta Jhajharia, principal coach and founder of The London Coaching Group.

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Seven ways to improve your sales proposals

September 01, 2015 by Andy Bounds

Seven ways to improve your sales proposals{{}}Persuading people to do what you want is hard; especially if you aren't there to do it – which happens when someone has asked you to submit a written proposal.

Here are seven quick ways to make your proposals more persuasive:

  1. Agree your solution before writing it.
  2. Agree the layout before writing it.
  3. Agree the follow-up before writing it.
  4. Ensure your titles engage ("Our proposal" doesn't).
  5. Ensure your emails impress.
  6. Include a timeline.
  7. Make it easy to read.

1. Agree your solution before writing it

You are more persuasive than any piece of paper could ever be. So, don't rely on your proposal to do your selling for you. Instead, make your proposals a confirmation, not an exploration.

In other words, agree your proposed solution verbally during your meetings with your prospect. Then use your proposal to confirm with her what you've already agreed.

This is much better than using your proposal to explore possibilities you haven't discussed with her yet. (A good check: you should be able to write "as discussed" before every sentence in your proposal).

Benefits: it's more likely to work; it's much quicker to write.

2. Agree the layout before writing it

It's also important to agree with her what you'll write in the proposal. If you don't, you're guessing what she wants to read. And you'll be wrong. You'll write too much. And it'll take ages to think what to put in there. And, even then, she won't read much of it.

To bring this up in your meeting, simply say "I don't want to bore you by sending irrelevant information. So let's agree what the headings of the proposal will be".

How can she possibly refuse? She isn't going to say: "It's ok - be irrelevant".

Benefits: it's much quicker to write; she's more likely to open it instantly, because it contains exactly what she asked for.

3. Agree the follow-up before writing it

If you've ever written a proposal, you'll have experienced the Black Hole of Doom that many proposals fall into. You send it. You don't hear back. You then worry - do you chase (and maybe annoy her) or wait (and feel powerless)?

The simplest way to resolve this: agree before sending it when you'll speak afterwards. Something like "So, I'll confirm what we've agreed in a proposal for you. When shall we speak again, to discuss it?"

Benefits: you keep momentum high; no Black Hole of Doom.

4. Ensure your titles impress

Most proposal titles are dull - "Our proposal" and the like. And the section titles can also be dull – "About us", "Our experience", "Our track record"…

But titles drive everything. They're a document's first impression. So they have to draw the reader in. You know this to be true – after all, if this wasn't the case, every article in every newspaper would have the title "More news".

For the title of your proposal, include her number one priority. So, if it's to increase market share in Belgium, call it "Proposal: how we'll increase your market share in Belgium".

For the sections, think what she'll find most interesting in that section, and put that in the title.

For example, I recently helped a large IT company win a £multi-million contract with a customer that wanted to improve their competitive advantage. We changed one section's title from "Our cutting-edge IT" to "How our cutting-edge IT will transform your competitive advantage" – much more interesting to the client.

Benefits: great first impression; the prospect reads everything.

5. Ensure your emails impress

If you email your proposal, she'll have read lots of things before even looking at it. Ensure they all impress:

Covering email title: Not just "Your proposal". Instead, something like "As discussed: our proposal about increasing your market share in Belgium".

Covering email: Make it short; after all, you want her to open the proposal. But it must be well written and benefits-rich; plus remind her of the follow-up you've already agreed.

Your attachment: The attachment file name will probably be similar to your email title. This is much better than a proposal file name I saw recently – "Proposal TS000625April15".

Benefits: great first impression (plus, you don't undo all the good work you've done so far.)

6. Include a timeline

When people buy, they want certainty. So, help her visualise how things will go. Timelines work really well for this. They clearly show who is doing what, by when. And that, the sooner she agrees to go ahead, what will happen immediately. Always good for building pace.

Benefits: clarity of offering; injects pace into the process as she sees what she'll get the minute she says yes.

7. Make it easy to read

I know you think she'll print out your proposal, turn off her email, put the phone on divert, go into her favourite room with a cup of tea and devour it over many hours…
But she won't.

It will be a skim-read, where she's searching for the content she's most interested in.

So, it must be easy to read quickly:

  • Short paragraphs – four lines maximum;
  • Short sentences.
  • Short phrases/words. So turn things like "prior to the commencement of" to "before".

None of these seven approaches take more time than you currently spend on proposals. In fact, most reduce it.

So, seven ways to write better proposals… and in less time. Good for the customer; good for you.

Copyright © 2015 Andy Bounds, communications expert, speaker and the author of The Snowball Effect: Communication Techniques to Make You Unstoppable. You can sign up for his free weekly tips here.

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Podcast: how I grew Prezzybox in a highly-competitive market

August 27, 2015 by John McGarvey

Prezzybox logo{{}}You might think that the year 2000 was a bad time to start an internet business. After all, that was the year the dot-com bubble burst, and investment in online companies dried up

But the crash didn't destroy every internet business. Take Prezzybox. This online gift retailer launched in September 2000, by founder Zak Edwards and a small team.

Initially run from a borrowed office with a bright orange wall, the company has since grown to have an annual turnover of £5m. In a highly-competitive sector, that's no mean feat.

Website eCommerce MasterPlan recently interviewed Zak for their regular podcast. During the half-hour discussion, he explains how the business got started, reveals his favourite online tools, and gives essential advice for anyone who's running - or thinking of starting - an ecommerce business. Listen now:

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Are we in danger of oversharing?

August 24, 2015 by Amir Jirbandey

Are we in danger of oversharing?{{}}Some might say we live in a world of oversharing. You can find just about anything on your social feed - from what your friend ate for lunch to a video of a squirrel getting drunk on fermented pumpkin. We share unique content (like this blog post) and we share frequently because we're positively reinforced with "favorites", "likes" or an increase of new followers. It becomes a cycle, a lifestyle.

But does this trend carry over to email marketing? Just what is social sharing in email and how effective is it?

Mixed reviews

If you've researched social sharing in the past, you may have seen mixed results across studies. One recent study showed that including links to share on social platforms such as Facebook and Twitter generated a 115% higher CTR (click-through-rate) than emails without an option to share.

But another study, by MarketingSherpa, suggests that social sharing buttons are not as effective.

So should we or shouldn't we add social buttons? The answer is that it depends on both your audience and the content that's being shared.

Know your audience

Always have your audience and your end goal in mind. Producing highly relevant, quality content will always be the best motivator for customers to share.

On the flip side, social sharing buttons can eat away at traffic or conversions if you aren't careful. If the goal of the email is to increase blog traffic, you may want to consider having social sharing buttons that directly promote the highlighted blog post.

Or, if you're aiming to drive sign-ups through social, provide a direct link to the landing page for users to share.

Having users refer your product to a friend is much more organic, with the added value of social proof. In return, it guarantees that you're able to attract those with similar interests to your most engaged customers.

Additionally, if you're simply looking to drive exposure on social, you can consider adding "Follow Us" buttons instead. I use these in my own email campaigns and have seen 20% of click-throughs attributed to social media follows.

So always have a specific ask and work to integrate all parts of the email towards that one goal.

Getting social with it

There are a few ways to add social sharing buttons into your email.

Most template editors allow you to drag and drop in pre-made social sharing buttons. For a more customised approach, you can code your own button. Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter have documentation with pre-made code you can use.

Twitter's Tweet Button allows you to craft a personalised message for your contact list to share. The Facebook button may be a little bit trickier for the non-developer to pick up, but is also highly customisable.

Social sharing buttons have the potential to be highly impactful, providing a high ROI for the time it takes to create and integrate them into your email templates.

Copyright © 2015 Amir Jirbandeyis marketing lead UK at Mailjet.

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What to expect from the next Panda update

August 18, 2015 by Marketing Donut contributor

What to expect from the next Panda update{{}}After some sites have been seeing ranking fluctuations, speculation is starting to build about a potential new Panda update from Google.

We're certainly intrigued as to what a new Panda update could mean for small businesses and content marketers. From what we have learned, it seems that the update will be less of a quality penalisation (which we have previously seen) and more of a quality assessment, where Google is re-assessing what it sees as good and bad ranking factors and encouraging sites to up the quality of the content on their site.

It is expected that Google will:

  1. Attribute more ranking power to detailed content.
  2. Attribute more ranking power to universally relevant content.

What does this mean for small business marketing?

The new update highlights the need for truly valuable content; content that is useful, relevant and engaging for the target audience. Now is the time to really focus on and invest in creating high quality content.

There are two top-level actions you can take as the owner or manager of your business:

  1. When creating new content, focus on making sure that it is relevant and targeted at your audience, but most importantly, that it is highly detailed.
  2. Revisit old content to improve its value to the target audience using the same guidelines mentioned above.

What next?

After speaking with a contact at Google, we've learned that Google wants online marketing to be an even more integrated part of a company's marketing function, where online marketers and SEO experts work together to devise strategies and produce content that is highly detailed and relevant to their audiences.

But Google is also aware that many digital marketers don't have long-term content plans and that one-hit-wonder content ideas don't build on a wider digital marketing strategy.

The Panda update will affect a wide range of business types, it's not just content aggregators that are going to be affected by the update.

How will the next Google update affect you?

Consider how the update may impact your business and industry. Are you selling a service? Ensure that all of your services are represented throughout your site with well-written service descriptions and structured supporting content.

Are you selling a product? Think about your product pages – are they well-written? Product descriptions should be unique to your site and have strong levels of information, if they don't, then you may see drops in rankings.

We believe that Google's strong focus on content is going to continue well into the future. If the search giant is going to retain their very large market share, then they need to continue to provide the highest quality search results. Meanwhile, business owners must invest in an effective online marketing strategy, regardless of algorithm updates.

Copyright © 2015 James Taylor of Impression. This blog originally appeared on the Impression website.

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