Thirteen years ago, I co-founded a company called ClickZ.com. It was one of the first sources of how to market your business online. (At the time, Internet marketing was so new we called it "e-marketing," which seems impossibly dorky now.)
In its infancy, ClickZ was a simple website featuring a single daily how-to article. At the time, it was a hot source of cutting-edge information on things like how to create an effective banner ad, ways to count ad clicks, how to brand online, and—within a year or so—the emerging business of email marketing. In 1999, at ClickZ's first in-person event, an attendee pulled me aside and confided, with rising panic in her voice, "There's so much to learn... and now email marketing, too? How am I supposed to keep up?"
From time to time I think of her small freak-out, because I can't help but wonder how she's faring now: If she thought online marketing was a complex business then, can you imagine the depth of her despair today?
But we've all felt that pain, haven't we?
All the time I hear refrains similar to hers. Often, I hear laments from folks who barely have a website running, who haven't a clue how to start a blog (or a Facebook page, or a Twitter feed, and so on), and who are grappling with the essential question of whether they should do any of it. They feel so far behind the curve that they can't discern any kind of arc up ahead.
Their mood is best described as Overwhelmed, with a subtext of Isn't it impossible to catch up now?
What advice would you tell someone who is a "digital slowpoke?" How would you advise them to begin creating a digital and social media presence?
(Let's assume for a minute that they've asked and answered some hard questions, by the way. Let's assume that they know why they need to be online but just haven't much of a clue how to get there.)
Here are my ten suggestions.
1. Create a solid Web presence. Of course, you need a website. Create one using one of several free website development tools. Some good easy-to-use options for non-geeks include Weebly, Wix, Webs, Yola.com, or Flavors.me. For a stupid-easy solution, use blog software from WordPress.org as your main Web page.
Using blogging software like WordPress, by the way, doesn't mean your site must look like a blog. There are a bunch of inexpensive, flexible, smart design templates you can apply to blogging platforms to create a compelling-looking site, or you can pay a Web designer to customize it for you. Check out Wordpress-built Wandering Goat Coffee, Boston Martial Arts, Nette Media, Seasons wellness center, or finally Package Machinery to get some inspiration for the possibilities.
2. Open the door to interaction. Make sure you spell out on you website what your small business does, who it serves, and where it's located. That sounds obvious, right? But it's surprisingly easy to overlook the basics when you're the one building it. Include an obvious way for people to get in touch with you. Some companies rely on contact forms, but I much prefer an actual email address that belongs to an actual person, and not something like firstname.lastname@example.org. A real name and address signals, and reinforces, that you are approachable and willing to engage.
3. Start a database. As Chris Brogan has pointed out, a customer and prospect list is key to any kind of successful engagement. Even a simple spreadsheet will do. This will help you stay in touch with people who have left comments and feedback and who have voiced interest in staying up to date with you and your business.
4. Start publishing. Use your customer database to start a newsletter for your customers or your vendors. Launch a blog and commit to refreshing it two or three times per week, and allow users to subscribe to your content via RSS or email. Use a simple Flip camera to create customer testimonial videos onsite, at trades hows and events. Upload them to YouTube. Use Flickr to catalog fun and interesting photos of your business, staff and customers at work, and feature them on your site. Showcase photos and videos on your main site. FirstWind tells its story mostly through video; Dunkin' Donuts rocks Facebook; and I like the funky feel of Free People's blog.
What should you publish exactly? Where should you be precisely—Facebook? Twitter? A blog? YouTube? Or what?
The answer depends entirely on where your customers are, and on your own strengths, budget and capabilities. It depends where you can best connect with your customers. This is why it's important to address items #2 and #3 above. In the end, you want to publish valuable content that will help attract and engage prospects and customers while underscoring your unique strengths.
5. Open the door to interaction a little farther. There are other ways to encourage interaction, too: On your homepage, include links to any social platforms where you have established an active presence—a Facebook fan page or a Twitter account or LinkedIn group—in a big, obvious spot. (Notice I said active… so make sure you are actively engaging before you point people there.) But, ultimately, the best way to encourage interaction is to interact yourself: Create remarkable content on your site (#4) and allow comments to it; encourage its sharing across the social sphere with widgets like AddThis or ShareThis or TweetMeme or Facebook social plugins.
6. Encourage the content creators in your company. The CEO or owner doesn't have to be the official "voice" of your company. Encourage those within your organization who have a passion for people, communication and social media to create content on your behalf. It's wise to remember that in social media, passion trumps position, as my friend Jay Baer has said.
7. DIY. While getting outside help to kick-start your efforts may be helpful, don't cede your publishing or social media management completely to consultants or (please!) interns. The best way to learn how to master social channels is to first wade in yourself. Try blogging, Facebook or Twitter (or other social platform) on your own, before you try it on behalf of your company. It's easier to get comfortable and to see the potential when you're just playing around, and pretty soon you'll find your "digital center," as The Digital Handshake's Paul Chaney terms it: the place you feel most comfortable.
8. Understand the bigger picture. Blogs and other online publications (like this one!) are a great way to keep on top of new marketing trends. But sometimes you need something meatier like a book to ground you solidly in the new world of marketing. Particularly good for understanding the big picture are David Meerman Scott's seminal New Rules of Marketing and PR (Wiley, 2nd edition 2010), Mitch Joel's Six Pixels of Separation (Business Plus, 2009), or The Digital Handshake by Paul Chaney (Wiley, 2009).
9. Get a smart phone. Business today is global, mobile and social. For many businesses, geographic boundaries don't exist, and you can extend your reach via social media to anywhere in the world. If you don't have an iPhone, Android, Blackberry, or some other smart phone, get one today with an unlimited data package and spend time texting, browsing and communicating in the medium.
10. Don't stall. Do something now. You don't have to do everything, but you do have to do something. The best way to think about how to move forward is to envision ways that new tools can strategically extend your business (your message, products and services). Today is as good a day as any to start. After all, your competitors are...
Photo credit: Kables
BIO: Ann Handley is the Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs. Follow her on Twitter at @marketingprofs.