29 September 2006

A sound business idea

A little while ago, Chris and I met a young man and woman who want to set up a business in the UK. They have some experience at running a business and have developed some good contacts as well as contracts.

The area they are hoping to enter is ruthlessly competitive and the UK is a world-leader in this sector. Together they make quite a good team. He is the technician and understands how he can develop the business by offering different types of skills to different types of customers - she is obviously quite capable of making appointments and organising meetings.

They don't need much from us at this stage, but it is possible that we will do something for them as they grow. We wish them well.

28 September 2006

Today's opportunity and thoughts about channels

Yesterday I talked about 2 new opportunities and how different they were. Today there is another - this time a 3 year old, high-end clinic in London specialising in a well-defined niche. What is worth reflecting that each of the 3 came to us in a different way:
  • the well-established business looking to grow its sales is a referral from another business' sales campaign because they didn't feel confident to bid for the work
  • the media company came to us through Yellow Pages since Chris still keeps a listing in there for an adverting business
  • the clinic came through our website and are the most enthusiastic of the 3. They have already started thinking about the questions on the site. The website has, in this instance, been valuable in bridging the trust gap
So, if anyone tells you that a particular channel doesn't work, or that one is guaranteed to work for you, they're almost certainly wrong. These leads have come to us with a very different understanding of how we can help them, and this is partly due to the channel they came through. That apart, they are all serious people, looking for help.

27 September 2006

New opportunities

This week we came across two new opportunities:
  • one is a good-sized, well-established, UK business, which amongst other things wants to increase its sales revenues
  • one is media business which is relatively new but which has had some success in building businesses in France and francophone Africa and is now looking to launch a similar business in the UK
Obviously these are very different types of client with entirely different served markets, products, services and level of resources to bring to bear on the problem. It is almost inevitable that the larger business will require a more consultative approach, working with its specialist staff to deliver the outcomes they are looking for while the smaller business will almost inevitably require more direct support in order to deliver sales.

The point of the post is simply that all clients are not the same. If they were, then all the answers would be the same, too. While I'm confident that we have broad enough core skills to help both these businesses, it would be naive in the extreme for us to put together a standard Red Splash Business Development product and say, "take it or leave it"!

26 September 2006

Where do the subscribers come from?

Someone asked me where my subscribers are based and I don't have a good answer. I have subscribers from Europe, Scandinavia and the USA but I'm not sure how many sit in any particular country although I do get a report about subscriber totals which shows how the numbers vary from day to day and which mechanism they have used to access the feed. I know where some of them are of course, I have a Vienna user based in Spain, but that's the extent of my knowledge - I may well have Firefox live bookmarks readers based there but I don't know.

This looks like a non-trivial exercise best left for someone with much more time on their hands than me.

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AdWords thoughts

AdWords have developed into a highly dynamic advertising medium that has a great flexibility, but of course they aren't perfect for every product, or every segment.

For example, one of our clients has a swimming pool maintenance product and when he wants to sell to the pool owner then AdWords is almost certainly one of the options he should consider. However, if that same client hoped to target swimming pool installers and maintenance services in order to encourage them to recommend his product then there are almost certainly better and more effective ways of reaching those kinds of businesses.

B2B websites exist and serve a vital function, but many of them won their Internet audience by investing in more conventional marketing channels. If my client had an AdWord for his pool maintenance product which landed on a page which made it clear that the minimum purchase was several thousand dollars then many of the people who clicked would move away as quickly as possible. If he uses heavy pre-qualification in the AdWord to get across the message that he is interested only in B2B sales, then the price of clicks will have to rise substantially in order to get any reasonable exposure for the Ad. That doesn't necessarily mean the Ad will be uneconomic, simply that the economics will be very different than for a B2C Ad.

Another organic engine

Now that champagne has hit the top of MSN for a pretty good search string which gives us a 10% click through rate on AdWords, the site is now number 5 for another search string in Yahoo! for a search which is twice as popular and which delivers a 7.85% click through rate.

Why is that important if we are already getting such a good response on AdWords? Well, it's all down to the way people read material on a screen. The experimental evidence is that people tend to read a search page vertically, close to the left hand edge until they find something that interests them - they are relatively unlikely to go over and read the zone on the far right, where the AdWords sit, unless they can't find what they want on the left hand side of the page. That's why having a strong front page location is worth money in terms of eyeballs since each search that brings up your site in an organic list is likely to deliver more visitors than an AdWord placed on the same page.

Once again, a hat tip to Brad Callen.

24 September 2006

Top of an organic engine at last

Yesterday I noticed a visitor to our Champagne site that had originated on MSN. As I sometimes do, I re-created the search to check which keywords had been used to deliver the visitor.

Good news. Not only was the search string highly relevant to the site, we were number 1 on MSN for that search. A vindication for the advice of people like Brad Callen who have given me a lot of insights into what is important in drafting websites.

September is looking up

About 2 weeks ago I wrote a post about how September was the post holiday part of the year and the impact that could have on Sales & Marketing. It's certainly had an impact on subscriber numbers.
  • 30 day subscriber figures are 25% higher than all time numbers
  • 7 day subscriber figures are 20% higher than the 30 day figures
  • Today's subscriber figures are the same as the 7 day average - ie well down from the week's peak, but a good performance for the week-end
The all time graph is now showing a steady upward trend over the 6½ months that the blog has been running.

23 September 2006

Negotiating for potential business

Everyone negotiates to some extent for potential business.

Initially you should sell the value of what you are proposing.

The second key negotiation tool is content - "OK, you want it cheaper, which bit of the proposed activity do you think we can do without"? Sometimes though, there is a stand-off where the potential target says - "I want everything, but I want it cheaper". In that situation you need to give yourself some time.

If you find yourself negotiating specifically on price rather than content, the first thing is to think through your position carefully before the negotiation so that you have considered most of the likely questions and developed a justification for your price. If you suspect that the content issue will not bridge the gap between you and the buyer then you need to have considered what is the minimum you would accept and still do the work. That at least provides you with a context in which the detailed price negotiation can take place.

However, if your target makes an offer anywhere in the acceptable range then it is still a good idea not to accept the offer immediately. I call this break, "going to ask your Mum". There is always a justification why you cannot accept the offer immediately - you need to check the availability of resource, you need to confer with other managers in the business before accepting the offer. Whatever the reason, the break confirms to the buyer that the offer is testing your limits and when you eventually accept, he has the clear impression that he hasn't left money on the table and has negotiated a tight deal.


22 September 2006

Targeting for dummies

We were sitting with a client today, working together to think through the approaches we could adopt to increase the number of leads being generated for his product. There was some useful stuff which emerged.

During it all we started talking about AdWords. The goal of every salesman is effective targeting - we want to have live fish in the barrel, ready to shoot. We want to meet people who want to buy. Traditional targeting uses proxies like industry sector, company size, existing technology (if known) and current business environment to develop lists of targets which are more likely to contain potential buyers than a vanilla list assembled randomly.

AdWords allows us to generate a response from people carrying out a particular kind of search. We don't know their industry, their size or anything about them except that they have used a particular search string to look for an answer. Couple an effective ad which sifts out tyre kickers and leaves us with people that are more likely to be potential buyers and a landing page that engages them, and we have the beginning of a more active sales process which doesn't require a heavy investment in outbound telephone calls.

It's a tool that I am learning to like more and more.

21 September 2006

Why didn't it work?

One of the frustrations in the last few days has been a database. One of the clients we work with uses a database for his contact data and 3 of us have copies which we should be able to synchronise. I was the last to get my machine set up, so I went through the process of installing the database software.

As part of the installation, the software checks for updates and goes through an update process. I downloaded my copy of the database I was supposed to work with, but I couldn't synchronise it with the server. That caused consternation, particularly since the FAQ for the database software was offline when we tried to investigate the error messages.

Today the FAQ suggested that there was a logical answer to the problem. The error message that we were generating indicated different versions of the software running on the server and the copy on my machine. Despite the update during the installation, I was running behind current technology. OK, running an update should be easy. If only that were true. It didn't matter whether I asked for my old data to be backed up or not, the installation wizard failed. Failure meant restarting from the beginning and starting the 50MB download again. After several failed attempts I decided to do something more radical. Removing the database completely eventually allowed me to complete the update. I am now running the same version as my 2 colleagues. Later today I will download my version of the data and check whether synchronisation is now possible.

What are the objectives

The three of us were in meeting with a client's stakeholder and one of their team got talking about our website and asked us how many visitors we got to the site. We didn't answer the question directly, because we didn't set out to attract large volumes of visitors to the Red Splash site.

We offer a B2B service around Marketing and Sales skillsets, so although not many businesses will say "no" to the question "do you want to increase your sales revenues" we don't need many visitors to come to the site, providing that they are the right quality and the website is designed to begin a dialogue with the visitors who land. We had some idea about what we hoped the site would deliver in terms of business and it seems to have achieved that easily. We have had several pieces of walk-in business, some of which have been of a good size. The most recent is a well-established offshore drinks producer who is looking for some highly specific support. There is no question in my mind, the site has been an excellent investment.

What got me thinking about this is that one of my tasks today is to provide a critique of a client website - not in terms of the technology, but in terms of how it sets up a conversation with its visitors and the extent to which it seems to have a specific audience in mind in the way it uses language. The site is well constructed and W3C compliant, but it's in the objectives and the language that it uses that it falls over.

20 September 2006

Try and be critical about your presentation

A presentation or series of presentations is key to the success of a start-up business. These presentations will be the mechanism which will inform your target audience about your product or service. This week I have seen a number of presentations by start-up or re-launch businesses. One of these was totally incoherent and didn't give me any confidence that the business was capable of delivering against any sales it might make.

Some of the other presentations were defective too, but in relative terms they were better. What the authors of these presentations failed to do was read their output critically. I'm a pretty quick writer, but I still spend half my time trying to read critically what I have written so that I can improve the quality before other people see it.

Getting the proposal right

One of the things that make writing a proposal difficult is that the client rarely shares everything at the first meeting. It can happen, but it's typically at about the same frequency as total solar eclipses where I live.

I was with a psychologist yesterday, tallking about tools for getting information. Everyone knows that interviews are very poor at getting at information, but what's the alternative? I was surprised by 2 things:
  • the range of tools available
  • their simplicity and power
Now I'm not going to suggest that the first meeting with the potential client should be an opportunity to really uncover what they are looking for in the proposal by applying a range of psychological tools - not surprisingly, the first proposal will do that all by itself. In a very real sense, the first proposal is a test of the relationship. The client wants to know:
  • did you listen carefully to what you were told
  • did you invest thinking time on developing the proposal
  • were you creative in your response to the problem
The fact that the proposal is invalid because of some key information which was withheld isn't seen as a problem. You took the problem seriously? Fine, I need to tell you something else that slipped my mind last time. The relationship has moved on, we are closer to winning the work and the first proposal is just part of the cost of sale.

Why can't we leap straight to the second proposal? Well, we can sometimes - but the next client like that isn't due in the door for another few years. In the mean time we are dealing with clients who want to learn more about us and the way we think. They want to trust us and going through this slow waltz seems to be one of the mechanisms that helps the process along.

19 September 2006

Getting Marketing to work more closely with Sales

How can marketing activities make a bigger impact? When there are so many potential marketing actions, how does the marketing team isolate those key elements which will deliver a ROI against the time or cash invested?

Let’s start by thinking about the activities that drive a wedge between the Marketing and Sales teams. Too often, Sales blame Marketing for producing the wrong kind of leads and Marketing people complain that Sales People couldn’t shoot fish in a barrel.

Let’s remember Andy Bounds
Andy Bounds says that successful presentations should talk about UBPs rather than USPs – focusing on the Unique Buying Points that are preferentially attractive to your target audience. That requires you to think hard about the benefit that your targets will get from your product or service. You need to be able to think about your offering as a potential customer and answer the question “what’s in it for me”? That may require a good deal of work on your part, going out and meeting people, finding out what they need, how their decision process works and what kind of support they need to help them understand how the offering will help to make them more successful.

If Marketing can help to drive its own activities on this basis, and help the sales team to make presentations which promise to be more successful by focusing on the target's needs then it will be creating real value for the business.

What's Plan B?

We were in the car today and got talking about someone that Phil and Chris knew who had just set up his own micro business but didn’t seem to have a clear idea of what was involved in running it.

Running a small business is non-trivial. It requires plenty of energy and a refusal to give up as well as a strategic view of what is important in delivering success. That combined role – Chief Executive and Operations Director doesn’t come naturally to many people and many businesses fail precisely because people misunderstand how to make their idea successful.

As always, it isn’t the quality of the idea that is important in determining whether a new micro business will be successful – it is the quality of the execution. No-one plans to fail and the Business Plans for these start ups very often have over optimistic revenue projections. For most of these businesses, Plan B (the one they move to when Plan A fails) is very often Plan A, only working harder at getting the balance of activities right.

14 September 2006

I only wanted a coffee

The other evening I went to a local station at about 5:30 to catch a train into London. I thought that I would have a double expresso and popped into the coffee bar and placed my order to be told that "we aren't serving coffee now". It was a bizarre conversation, one worthy of a TV sketch, particularly since the 3 people who followed me also wanted one variety or another of coffee.

Any line you draw is always going to be arbitrary. Effectively closing at 5:30 while the staff clears up for the following day may be logical, but it still left me feeling that I was short the coffee that I had been looking forward to. Maybe the next generation of coffee bars will have self-serve expresso machines. Assuming that they could get it through the Health & safety legislation without taking all the flavour out of the coffee.

In a high footfall area, expresso machines can be cash fountains. A manager of a coffee bar at Gatwick once told me that the 2 machines in his tiny bar space had cleared £12k on the previous Saturday. That's a lot of hot drinks. But I bet he didn't do it by saying "we aren't serving coffee now"!

09 September 2006

It's the season

This blog has been running for almost exactly 6 months. I took a look at the subscriber numbers this morning:
  • 30 day average subscriber numbers are 25% higher than the all time average
  • 7 day average subscriber numbers are the same as the 30 day average
  • Today's subscriber numbers are 20% higher than the 7 day average
Truthfully, subscriber numbers are erratic. When I post regularly, they tend to grow and when I miss a few days because I am away on holiday or because I am immersed in work, they tend to drop - often quite sharply. Since August is a holiday month and both I and the readers have been away on holiday, the 30 day performance has been flat.

The same has been true for the Red Splash newsletter. Although numbers have shown pretty steady growth, recently we have had a flurry of people signing up as subscribers.

It has to be the season. Now it's September, most people are back from holiday, and they are starting to think about the projects that they want to complete before Christmas. We can sometimes forget how important timing is in Sales and Marketing, but it is absolutely true that you could meet the same client twice in the space of a month and have two entirely different outcomes, based on their attitudes to their short-term business.

The value of networking

We have just had some walk-in business. It is the kind of thing we do - setting up and managing a sales team for someone, but we might not have found out about the opportunity in the normal run of events. It's walk-in because the client got in touch with us and was so impressed with the recommendation that he got from a friend of his (one of our networking contacts) that he wants to know if we want to do the work, and when we can start.

There is no doubt that these kind of recommendations are highly valuable - almost as valuable as a recommendation from an existing client. Like those referrals, networking-based opportunities are difficult to control in terms of timing, but they can be a very useful addition to your normal business development activities.

It says too, that networking contacts have to be treated with care and it is important to keep your elevator pitch very short and memorable.

08 September 2006

Feed readers and User Agents

In early August I reported that the Feedburner report was 31 lines long excluding category headings. Today it has 34.

Feed readers and aggregators:
  • NewsGator Online
  • Thunderbird
  • A Java-based feed reader
  • Biz 360 spider
  • Blogwise-CacheBuilder/0.3
  • Firefox Live Bookmarks
  • Google Feedfetcher
  • Jakarta Commons Generic Client
  • Linkie Winkie Crawler
  • MJ12bot/v1.08
  • My Yahoo
  • NetNewsWire
  • Snapbot/1.0
  • URI::Fetch/0.05
  • Vienna
  • msnbot-Newsblogs/1.0
  • wwwster/1.4
not forgetting the email subscription service (1), web browsers (4) and assorted bots (12). Quite a collection, I'll be interested to see how it progresses.

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07 September 2006

Not just one familiar face

I'm not used to working with people that I know. Projects in my working life have tended to bring a host of new faces and my involvement in sectors has been relatively short-term. My definition of short-term is flexible - I had a major client in the electricity sector for about 4 years and I developed a relatively detailed understanding of some aspects of that sector during that period.

A current client has a partner who supports one of their channels. One of the directors of the partner business is a familiar face. We worked together some time ago on a good-sized project at PwC where the objective was to reduce the overhead costs of a monolithic client.

Today I found out that a competitor business to the partner I have just mentioned is sponsored by another familiar face, an angel that I came across a couple of years ago. At that time I was interested in raising finance for an entrepreneur with a novel piece of technology which had developed a following in digital media-intensive industries. The Angel was the non-Executive Chairman of the business and we had sufficient common views that he passed over a couple of Business Plans for me to review.

So a sector where I thought I knew no-one suddenly has two people who were already in my diary. It will be good to have a catch-up with them at some point to find out how we have found ourselves working in the same general area.

The changing face of PR

I have been busy this week on a variety of tasks, one of which is the development of some content for our client with the budgeting, forecasting and performance management software. Writing content can be tedious for some people, but if I have a well-developed point of view, I find that I can write material relatively quickly.

The content I have been developing is a short series of issues based articles. These can be valuable if they are picked up by journalists, but there is a change in their value as the media channel picture continues to complicate. Tribble has posted extensively on the decline of paper based media and the failure of traditional Advertising and PR agencies to recognise this shift. The issue isn't that content is becoming less important, it is more that the increasing competition and fragmentation of the channels which require content means that the nature of the content may have to change to address the issues of small audiences.

In turn, content producers may need to produce more, not less material to deliver two quite different objectives:
  • material which is specific to audiences with different needs
  • reach across several audiences with different needs
All that puts pressure on traditional ways of doing things so we can genuinely watch new approaches developing month by month. Not quite a nascent sector, but one certainly undergoing an evolution.

02 September 2006

Where else would an 's' be worth a 20% premium?

I have talked before about the sensitivity of AdWords and my latest split test shows just how volatile they can be. The two Ads are identical apart from an additional 's' in the third line of the Ad. That line reads:

Improves service and profitability

Changing the line to read:

Improve service and profitability

delivers a click-through-rate which is 20% higher the first Ad

Why would that be the case? Sorry, I can't tell you that, but I thought that there was a significant chance that it would deliver an improvement, which is why I tried it. My overall point is that it is vital to keep experimenting in the structure and content of the Ad. Here I was very happy to experiment with the 3rd line, the qualification of respondents takes place in the first 2 lines.

Would it always make the same difference? The answer is almost certainly no, and it is because the language builds on something in the previous line. It's unlikely that it would work in quite the same way in another Ad although similar principles might well apply.

Changing a PC

Plenty to do in our house this week-end. My son has built a highly elaborate games machine for an inordinate amount of cash and I have bought a laptop for about a third of what he has spent. Each of us is now going through the highly tedious process of installing our preferred software and going through all the set ups so that our new machines look and feel pretty similar to the old ones.

Some suppliers offer to transfer files between an old machine and a new one, but that isn't the key problem for either of us. Now, if somone would offer to transfer all the files and set up the new machine the same way the old was set up, that would be a service worth buying. Even deleting the redundant software that came with the laptop seemed to take over an hour and that was before doing all the important stuff.

01 September 2006

Getting the Buyer from A to B

I mentioned earlier that we were taking up a strong operational role with a business which is involved in the Knowledge Management area. Up to now, this client has tried to bring Buyers into either a Buying process for a seminar or a full implementation.

As a first step we have assumed that the majority of the visitors to the client's website won't even have a clear idea about what Knowledge Management is, so one of our first tasks is to provide a way of educating the audience without alienating them.

We have designed a multi-level offering which includes:
  • clearer navigation for audiences with different backgrounds
  • high level case studies for free download
  • White Papers for free download which set out the range of options in Knowledge Management
  • relatively low cost eBooks for download which provide a more detailed description of how the appropriate Knowledge Management approach for your organisation can be selected together with detailed case studies of companies which have implemented the solution and the benefits that they have obtained
  • low cost public seminars on Knowledge Management
  • a Knowledge Audit which will provide clear insights into organisational vulnerabilities with an assessment of how they can be mitigated or avoided
  • A Knowledge Management workshop which provides a department an opportunity to work on a specific knowledge module which will deliver a defined output
  • a more comprehensive implementation
This range of opportunities provides information and reassurance to the Buyer and allows the organisation to become familiar with what is required in adopting Knowledge Management principles. The way we have designed the process allows an organisation to enter at any point and since there are a range of financial commitments, there is genuinely something for everyone. We are very confident about this and only time will tell if we are right.