31 December 2006


The guests were arriving in a few hours, the lasagne had been carefully constructed, the house was clean, but the kitchen looked a little worse for wear. Fortunately our worktops are made of 35mm beech, so it doesn't take more than an hour to take off the top surface and re-oil it with a rustic oil.

Normally I don't worry much about how they look - wood is a natural product and marks and dents are all fine by me so our worktops don't get the same love and attention as people lavish on their black stone equivalents. Incidentally, I'm told by people in the trade that much of the stone which is sold as worktops is pretty inferior product. Beech on the other hand is difficult to palm off in the same way because the colour and grain are obvious even to the uninitiated.

Rubbing down the worktops isn't something I would recommend to everyone on New Year's Eve, but we have all the kit so it is just a matter of getting it out of the garage. As my father-in-law would have said when he was alive "the better the day, the better the deed". This job has already earned me brownie points and maybe I should buy some more papers for the orbital sander, just in case I have to do it on another day when the shops are closed.

Have a good New Year's Party and don't make any resolutions for your business that you can't deliver.


What are the AFTERS, exactly?

“AFTERs” is a word coined by Andy Bounds to describe the benefits which remain after the presenter has left the room. It works just as well for salespeople.

Good copywriters always use this idea when they focus on what a product does for someone rather than what it is. Amazingly very few salespeople exploit it fully in their sales pitches. He claims that when he started using the concept his close rates rocketed and so did those of his clients as soon as he got the message through to them.

Think about any product – even something as basic as a daily newspaper. You didn’t buy it just because you wanted sheets of paper with the news printed on them. You wanted the knowledge you’d get AFTER reading that paper, or the gossip, or your horoscope, or the TV programmes, or the weather report – whatever mattered to you.

  • Bought a lamp? You wanted light.
  • Toothpaste? Clean teeth.
  • A pair of glasses? Better vision.
  • Contact lenses? Better vision without anyone knowing you’re short sighted.

You could have sworn you wanted to buy a newspaper, a lamp, some toothpaste, a pair of glasses, contact lenses. AFTERS is simply a method of looking at features versus benefits. When you think about it, features are what you do; benefits are what your prospect is left with AFTER you’ve done what you do.

AFTERs is also a more helpful term than “benefits” for two reasons:

  1. It forces you to think about the future good of the client, which is the only true way they’ll see a benefit in the purchase, and
  2. When salespeople use the word “benefit” in a pitch, their prospect is most likely going to think “Here we go – here comes the sales pitch”, because many of them know salespeople have been taught to sell using the word “benefits”
Many salespeople spend their time telling their prospect. “We’ll do these things when we’re with you”… “This is how we operate”… “This is our unique process”…etc. These salespeople are actually talking about how they operate, they are talking about their organisation, their processes, their expertise.

If the salesperson majors on what the client is left with AFTER they have finished, it’s much less about the salesperson – after all, they aren't at the client’s premises any more; their work is done – so they come across as much more helpful. Many people like being helped and dislike being sold to.

There are people - and I'm one - who enjoy being sold to, but I'm not necessarily concentrating on the content as much as I am on the process.

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30 December 2006

You're telling me that it's a bargain

Yesterday I went out to buy some dishwasher salt. A decent-sized sack, 25kg. The guy behind the counter gave me the standard upsell - "It's much cheaper if you buy 3!" - that's true, but I didn't buy the 3 sacks.

Why not? It isn't difficult to justify the decision:
  • it takes me a long time to use 25kg
  • my price comparison isn't people who sell 25kg sacks, it is Tesco selling small packs weighing 1.5kg - I'm already on a huge saving against that comparison so the additional reduction doesn't sound a big enough incentive to take 3 sacks. Free might persuade me but then I would just have more stuff cluttering up my garage
Offers have to be considered in the context of the individual. An offer can be rejected for a variety of reasons, some of which may have little to do with the product or the price. Sometimes, it is simply timing. Make the same offer later in the year and the buyer may be more interested. Sometimes the offer is simply wrong for a particular buyer and will never persuade them to change their buying habits.

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29 December 2006

The price / volume curve

The economists amongst you will be familiar with the price / volume curve. Prices for small quantities are normally priced at a premium to the price for large volumes and this curve holds true for many types of products.

Is it universally true? No. Where doesn't it hold true? Scrap. If you are a jeweller who works with gold then you will produce gold waste in a variety of forms, some of which are highly impure. The greater volume of gold you collect, for a given level of purity, the higher the average price that you will receive from your buyers. That is why manufacturing jewellers burn their floorboards relatively infrequently - the price of scrap gold doesn't justify the cost of replacement floorboards very often.

Stupid example, I'm not a jeweller. OK, let's imagine that you have found a cigarette packet with some aluminium foil inside - you could remove the alumininium foil, separate it from the paper and you would find that it has virtually no value (I would be surprised if you could find a buyer) - collect a kilogramme and buyers would be willing to buy it, but at a discount to the bulk metal price and as you acquired more and more scrap aluminium foil, the greater the price you would achieve in the market.

It is almost universally true that the price / volume curve for scrap materials is the inverse to the price curve for manufactured product. That is why it is the business model for businesses in scrap to aggregate product and for businesses in manufactured products to break bulk - each is behaving rationally in order to achieve a price premium which justifies their behaviour.

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Which bin was that again?

My local council had adopted 'recycling' in its refuse collections. There are now two collections which run every 2 weeks, a week out of phase. This means that we have a collection every week.

Tomorrow is the recycling collection:
  • plastics, particularly PET, but no PP, PVC or blown styrene
  • metals (aluminium, steel or coated steel)
  • paper (including newsprint) and carboard providing there are no plastic interlayers
  • compostable rubbish including garden clippings but no raw vegetable waste (?)
Recycling doesn't include glass which is a big volume item, at least in my house.

General waste is everything else. There are already complaints by some of the more pernickety of my neighbours that a 2-week collection cycle for general rubbish means that the bins are malodorous. People are already saying that they rinse more things before they put them in the general waste bins. Now on which planet did we imagine that a move to 'recycling' would result in an increase in the biological oxygen demand (BOD) of waste water? This needs to be checked regularly, because we risk shifting costs onto the water companies which they weren't expecting.

The 'green' revolution seems to be badly misunderstood. eCademy will plant a tree if you become a fee-paying subscriber of its social networking service (and you will be awarded carbon neutral status) while at least one terrestrial news programme in the UK was encouraging viewers to buy natural Christmas trees during December because they were greener than the alternatives. Trainer tip: planting a tree at any time of the year is carbon neutral - the tree absorbs carbon from the atmospere as it grows, but it only becomes a carbon sink if the wood is used for stuctural purposes (furniture or fencing), while any other use releases the carbon back into the atmosphere, the only question is when. Even the furniture or the fencing will result in carbon release at some point in the future. These 'green' arguments are being put forward by scientific illiterates.

Why can't we have a sensible debate about the economics of recycling - glass is already so plentiful that it has almost zero scrap value. There is also plenty of room about a sensible debate about the carbon cycle.


eGovernment - does it work?

eGovernment is a great idea - access to government services at any hour of the day or night. The delivery seems to be a little patchier. My wife paid for her car tax at the end of November using the website and waited for her tax disc.

... and waited for her tax disc

... and waited for her tax disc

Three phone calls, two of which were supposed to have sent replacement tax discs and we still didn't have the disc. For those of you unfamiliar with UK law, it is not enough to pay the annual registration tax for the vehicle, it is illegal not to display the current disc in the corner of the windscreen.

This morning, the third call led to the suggestion that we go to Reading and pick up a disc in the tax office. This piece of eGovernment has now cost me the time wasted chasing the missing disc and a round trip of 35 miles taking over 3 hours since the post-Christmas shopping blitz was going full force in Reading today and traffic was moving at the speed of a tortoise.

Prime Minister, your devotion to eGovernment is welcome - but perhaps you and your team need to focus more strongly on the delivery of the end service than providing a website which takes money. Or, find where in the process things are going wrong - if the tax discs are being sent out then somehow those discs are being removed from the mail before they get to householders. Isn't it time to use some RFID technology to find out just where in the supply chain they are disappearing?


Will it work for you?

You are surrounded by new ideas which people are keen to deliver into your business. New information systems, new business processes, new approaches to training, new concepts in brand development. Wherever you look, ideas are being thrust at you to consider.

How do you go about deciding which of these ideas will work for you and how do you go about prioritising them?

When you are looking at the next idea which is guaranteed to deliver huge value to your organisation, it is worth taking a few moments to test how it is going to support the core of your business. My simple test is to start by asking what’s really important to your organisation? Your list might look something like this:

• Mission – what is it that you are trying to do?
• Your competitiveness – what is your edge and how can you improve further?
• Execution – how effective are you at delivering what you want?
• Change – how good are you at adapting to change?

The shiny new idea is important only so far as it is able to support your business improve its performance against these dimensions (or the dimensions that you and your colleagues believe are fundamental to your success). If the idea doesn't contribute to one or more of these areas then file it in the interesting but not not mandatory box in your office (the waste bin) and get on with your life. The ideas which seem to offer the best payback against one or more of these areas need to be considered in more detail.

Change for change's sake is rarely a good idea.

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28 December 2006

Growth can be frustrating

Growing a business is a bit like wind surfing. The theory is simple. The real life practice is difficult and frustrating. You can pick it up or you can't.

It is like having a good business model. Good means a profitable return in the market conditions that you find yourself in today. The environment changes all the time and even if you are pleased with your business model today, there is no reason to suppose that you won't need to revisit it as unexpected events knock you off course.

You can develop risk management tactics with your colleagues, to reduce the risks or mitigate the impact if some undesirable outcomes take place. The reality of business life is that the things that will knock you off course will be the things that you don't expect.

At the early stages of your business, it is vital to stay focused, because otherwise you won't be using your time efficiently - but it's vital to stay agile too, because unless you have the flexibility to readapt and redesign your business on-the-fly it is likely that something will take place which will stop your growth trend in its tracks.

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You want to forecast better - look at what you lost!

It sounds contradictory but one of the best sources of sales information for marketing and sales managers in evaluating sales performance is lost sales. Many companies view lost sales as simply the headline value of the order, but in many forms of capital sales the lost sale implies not only the failure to win the revenues associated with the deal but also all the recurring revenues which would flow from that order.

The key to successful sales forecasting is understanding what is driving the sales numbers and what needs to be done differently to get them where they need to be. Lost sales can provide a significant flow of information which can help you understand how the market values your offer.

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27 December 2006

A question from a subscriber

Someone using Yahoo! to look access my RSS feed sent me an email to ask what had happened to me over the holiday - had I stopped posting permanently? No actually, I haven't stopped posting at all. I have posted every day of the holiday, and on average nearly two posts per day.

It seems that Yahoo!, despite sending a bot to run over the feed several times a day (four times in the last hour) hasn't been reporting the updates to my subscriber. Maybe this is the real reason that people move around from feed reader to feed reader. People use one for a while and then find that it isn't working perfectly so they move somewhere else in the hope that the new one will work better.

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Don't scare people away

Sometimes in a middle of sales pitch the prospect suddenly closes down and the salesperson is left wondering just what happened. Why does the prospect pull back and almost deny the existence of problems that they had talked about candidly just a few moments earlier in the meeting? Why doesn't the prospect see the salesperson as someone who can help with those problems?

If you have ever tried to sell anything to anyone, you're probably all too familiar with that scenario. What may well have happened is that the prospect has been scared away by the urgency of the sales pitch as soon as his / her problem was mentioned. The salesperson has created the problem by rushing too quickly to a solution.

That dash to a solution (easy though it is to understand from our side of the desk) can create a significant obstacle to doing business with a new prospect.

How can you prevent this from happening?

The salesperson has to change their behavior. Their prospects need to know that they fully understand their situation and care about helping them. While the salesperson may think that immediately offering a solution does this, in the eyes of the prospect it can come across as self-serving. All the prospect can think about at that stage is how to escape from the meeting without agreeing to anything tangible. So what does the salesperson need to do differently? As soon as the prospect mentions an issue, take a deep breath. This prevents them from rushing into a detailed presentation and keeps them in a consultative mode. Then they have to ask questions, lots of them. They need to find out why it's a problem. They need to ask the prospect to expand on the issues. They need to learn how they've tried to address it already. They need to explore the impact that the problem is having on the prospect's business. That helps them to uncover the value proposition.

After all those questions, the salesperson needs to shake the prospect's hand and arrange another meeting to present their ideas. Barreling headlong into the presentation before the prospect is ready and has fully agreed the real costs of the status quo will often result in them being frightened away.

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Yesterday doesn't count

A few days ago I posted some thoughts about the nature of the sales process. Professional sales is difficult, and most people either fail to understand what is involved or underestimate the difficulty of achieving consistently high performance.

Sales quotas are leading revenue drivers for many companies. When sales quotas are missed, the entire company must realign its budgets to cope with the reduction in revenue. It is vital that salespeople work out how to hit their targets consistently.

I have worked with sales teams over many years and it is surprising how many sales people don't regard their numbers as vital to either their success or their company's future. At one stage I collected salespeople's excuses to justify why they were having difficulty with their targets. Here are a few of the most popular:
  • My sales quota is made up in the backroom - no-one could hit it
  • I don't need to hit my sales quota
  • Our product isn't competitive - it's not my fault
  • I would have hit my target but my boss messed up my biggest opportunity

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26 December 2006

The learning experience

One of the tasks that I had to do this holiday was a review of the on- and off-page options for a client's site. It was a useful experience, not just because I was able to highlight a number of things that they could do to improve their site's ranking against their selected keywords but it also made me think about our sites as well.

I can incorporate some of these changes into the champagne and towels sites pretty well straight away, and I'll ask Phil if he can look at incorporating some changes into the Red Splash site. We learn something every day, perhaps we need to be a bit better at applying what we have learnt.

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Seasonal tasks

I've got plenty to do over the holiday - there are two reports which I have to prepare and send out and there is also a presentation that I want to develop with one of our clients which we will be pitching to one of his targets around the middle of the month.

I have also made a few minor changes to the eCommerce sites to keep them topical. Nothing major, just a few edits to catch the visitor's eye. These changes won't be picked up by the search engines for a couple of weeks and it is possible that some of the alterations are so minor that they simply wouldn't be noticed - I'll just feel good that I've done something positive.

The good news is that by doing some of this now, it will take pressure off the early part of January which is still looking very busy.


25 December 2006

Plenty to do

Christmas has been great. I doubt that everyone would have enjoyed my presents but I have had an excellent time. It has been an opportunity to pretend that I'm still a bit of an engineer and no, I'm not saying what I got.

I just took a look over at Hive Spy and I'm stunned, the flow of new material continues unabated. It may be Christmas but there seems to be an undiminished stream of new content. We tend to assume that the internet is all-pervasive which it isn't yet, but it has been a major change to the lives of people in the developed world. What will it be like when even more people are on it and using it regularly?


24 December 2006

It's the season

FeedBurner cautions, quite rightly, not to get excited if subscriber numbers fall off at week-ends. They should include major holidays as well. It isn't just subscribers, it's visitor counts as well.

Just for fun I took a quick look at the visitor stats for an A list blogger and was pleased to see that I'm not the only person who has had volatile stats during December. I'm not trying to suggest that the two sets of data are comparable - the A list blog is enormously popular and it regularly has 90,000 visitors a month. Within the totals though, there is enormous daily movement and that's true for my counts, too. Whisper it quietly, but my daily figures show lower volatility!

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Hitting the numbers

Sales is unforgiving. An annual target represents a series of quarterly and monthly targets and if one of them is missed by too large a margin then it makes it very difficult to hit the overall target. That means a continuous focus on the pipeline and the business that can be closed in the short term. It also means that sales targets have to be subtle - if the sales person is behind the target after only two months then the annual target may be so far out of reach that it is no longer an incentive.

Salespeople are regarded as short-termist by marketing people because they seem to be obsessed with those monthly targets. If Marketing was rewarded on the same basis, they would be equally driven. This has nothing to do with brains, vision or drive - sales have to be closed. The business has to be serviced as well, but that is a secondary problem. Without a strong focus on what business is closing and when it will be confirmed, the rest of the business wallows.

In a small B2B services company it is as important to make the numbers as it is in any other sector - the difference is that it can be harder to squeeze the client to a close by a specific date. That's a tension, but the balance has to be in favour of retaining the client relationship. If all else fails, people can be drafted in later in the year to work on an account which has been slow to close. Some businesses see that as a disaster, but it isn't - as businesses grow this type of phasing by clients becomes easier to manage, but even in larger organisations it is important to have a very clear eye on maintaining the flow of business.

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23 December 2006

Is this relevant?

Someone has just taken a look at the blog following a search on Google. Nothing newsworthy there, I can hear you say. In general you would be right - what makes this search so unusual to me is the length of the search string. It was 18 words! That is a searcher who knew exactly what kind of results they were looking for. They obviously didn't find it - this blog was the first result out of the box and I wouldn't have started looking in here to find the results of that search.

So, search results are still capricious even when we use long search strings. Relevance is difficult for organic search engines to deliver with precision day after day. Relevance is even harder to deliver when there are relatively few searches for the algorithms to work with and this 18 word term would be an isolate in anyone's distribution curve.

Search is getting better, but it is a long way from being perfect - the fact that it is satisfactory for most of our requirements blinds us to the imperfections.


Why can't a mobile be more like a phone?

Mobiles are in the news. According to this item, 2.7 billion mobile phones were in use at the end of 2006 and phones are going to become even more feature-laden in the future.

This is a bit of a hobbyhorse of mine. I must be odd. I want a phone with great battery life and long talk time and it needs to be able to offer clear calls and be simple to use. I happen to use both IR and Bluetooth so they would be good, too. I have held on to my second Nokia 6310i well past its normal working life because I thought it was close to being the ideal business phone. However, dropping it on the floor periodically hasn't improved its functionality, and the disappearance of the ring function a few weeks ago prompted a look for a replacement.

Finding that replacement hasn't been easy. I have eventually settled on one but it isn't ideal. It has Bluetooth but no IR. It still has the consumers' must-haves (the MP3 player, the camera and the video camera) but it also has my must haves - well over 300 hours stand-by or about 6 hours talk time. Those are the features which explain why I got it. This comes back to something that I posted here - benefits are individual and when we are trying to sell something to an audience we are taking a judgement about the benefits that will be attractive. If I had been face to face with a mobile phone salesperson, they would quickly have de-emphasised their pitch about cameras and MP3 players and focused on what I was looking for. This deal was put together more remotely, so I was working with the sales pitch put together for a more general audience which wasn't written with me in mind. I still bought the phone, but I am still irritated that it has 'features' that I have no intention of using.

Interestingly, it has a benefit which I hadn't thought about but which I actually value - it isn't too small - it is very slim, but it is wide so it feels like a proper phone. I have small hands, but I find that an extraordinary number of handsets have been designed to be held by six-year olds (maybe that is where the real money is to be made ...).

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22 December 2006

Now would be a good time to plan

Today is our planning day. Standing back from the business to take a more strategic view of what we have done over the past 12 months, the extent to which we have achieved the targets we set ourselves, the areas where we have failed to achieve targets and what we plan to do going forward. The good news is that this year has been great groundwork and we start next year pretty close to capacity.

We plan because we believe that the investment pays back during the year. Outside the planning cycle, we don't waste time considering whether an idea is on strategy or not because each of us is in close agreement about what our strategy should be during the year. Many small businesses complain that they 'never have time to plan' - they never will have unless they make the time available.

We think through what it is that we want to do, whether we need to adapt our positioning statement to reflect what that new vision is and how we are going to resource it. Of these, the overall strategy and the positioning statement are the most important. A positioning statement is never going to be used in customer facing situations, but it underpins almost all sales and marketing activity. Who are you targeting? What is the nature of the product or service? What is the value proposition of the product or service? What are the real benefits that clients and customers will enjoy as a result of buying your product or service? What makes you different from other suppliers of similar offerings?

Thinking through benefits is non-trivial. Benefit selling is a subject in itself – there’s only room for a brief caveat here: don't assume that the benefits that attract you will attract all buyers, and don’t assume that all buyers want the same benefits. In B2B selling, you often sell to a group (a committee or the board), each member will (possibly secretly) be looking for different benefits. The secret of successful selling is to discover the benefits desired by each individual. In positioning we have to bet on the most likely benefits desired by our target audience, but that’s not what you do in one-to-one selling.

What's your positioning? If I asked your colleagues and customers, would they be able to construct a positioning statement about your business, based on what they know about you or could find out about you? With that thought I should stop writing and give you time to think through what your plans are for next year.

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21 December 2006

The Digg effect

Writing about Hive Spy, I accidentally caught a new fashion trend. Someone spotted what I had written and put a link in Digg technology/upcoming and I have been deluged by Digg visitors while the post has drifted down from the first page to page 42 (that took about 2 hours). Digg itself appears to be like a slow motion version of Hive Spy.

I'm concerned that these people were directed here under false pretences - this is not a blog that normally concerns itself with technology (upcoming or not) except when it (technology / current) lets me down, so the post could not be considered as being typical. That said, a number did stay to look around, some for quite a while, no doubt frustrated that they couldn't find any more about technology.


Getting a virtual terminal

Having described a couple of days ago that PayPal had now released a version of PayPal Pro in Europe together with the eagerly awaited Virtual Terminal, we applied. We have been rejected, with no clear explanation (this is PayPal we are talking about here) and told that we can reapply in 90 days.

The alternative is probably to go with a merchant account from our business bank through CardNet linked to ProtX payment gateway and RomanCart cart). The advantage being that we have been accepted for this solution but PayPal Pro held out the promise of the functionality we were looking for coupled with highly competitive costs - now that we have been pushed back it seems inevitable that we will go down the CardNet / ProtX / RomanCart route.

The reason for the desire to change is that we know we are losing sales in PayPal standard which we are fairly confident that we could deliver with virtual terminal functionality. This is costing us money and PayPal's unwillingness to share why we have been rejected isn't helpful.

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20 December 2006

A sale is a paid invoice

Someone used a credit card on the towels site at the beginning of November and we sent out the order the next day. Despite not contacting us in the interim, the cardholder has now rejected the transaction saying the the card was used without their knowledge.

This is known in the trade as a charge-back. As soon as a chargeback takes place the value of the transaction is ring-fenced within your account so the sale (in terms of our receiving the money) is currently pending our appeal. We are saying that we treated the transaction as completely normal and we hope that we will eventually get the cash.

At the moment we don't have the revenues for the sale and we have to bear the costs of the appeal as well as the costs of the towels that have been sent. Just as well it is the season of goodwill to all men.

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Not to forget Yellow Jacket

which is the rather oddly named bot sent to crawl my feeds by a site called Hive Spy. I didn't include it in yesterday's stats from FeedBurner because it only appeared today. Hive Spy collects feeds from a variety of sources and then scrolls them, allowing you to pause the scroll at any point if something catches your eye.

It's clearly not intended for serious search although it does have a tag cloud which you can use if you want to look at a more focused set of results. The point of Hive Spy - and it is weirdly hypnotic, even if for just a few moments - is to highlight just how much content is being uploaded every minute.


19 December 2006

FeedBurner stats

I periodically look at FeedBurner's stats to see how many Feed Readers and Aggregators have accessed the blog over time. The current figure is 41 different types of browsers, bots, readers and aggregators.

That's a lot of variety. I'm sure that this experimentation comes about because people aren't sure how they want to access RSS and they are continuing to try a range of different tools to see if their customer experience changes substantially. None of their friends are telling them that THIS is the product to use.

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There's a keyword for it

I have been doing some keyword research this morning - all around the general area of cosmetic dentistry. I have been using NicheBot, an absolutely invaluable tool and no, I'm not part of their affiliate programme.

Yesterday I was working with some of the client's staff and developing the base keyword list - this morning I have enhanced that list by adding in every keyword that they have ever used in their AdWords campaign. From that I had a base list of 60 base keywords and developed a list of 350 keyword phrases. Even after deduplication we are looking at a list of about 270 keyword phrases.

Now what we are proposing to do requires some focus and 270 keyword phrases sounds pretty broad brush so we are ranking that list by competitor and by count - we want to look at keyword phrases which are commercially important (they generate plenty of searches) but they don't have too many competitors (there aren't an enormous number of sites which are optimised for that keyword phrase). There's plenty to do. If you would like to see what our client's business is all about, here is a link - they specialise in Cosmetic Dentistry.

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16 December 2006

PayPal again

We wanted to get a virtual terminal to support the eCatalogue opportunity for our egyptian cotton towels and so we have been looking into a variety of different providers. None of them looked like what we wanted and virtually all of them required us to have a merchant account. We had been told that PayPal had one which didn't require the merchant account but when we contacted PayPal's Customer Service team we were told that it wasn't available yet. That was Thursday.

The response from PayPal was disappointing from another point of view - it was virtually incoherent - how can they put in systems which allow mangled language to go out to people who are paying them money to use their systems?

Anyway, today - only two days later - PayPal Pro appears to have been released in Europe with Virtual Terminal. This seems to offer us all the functionality we want and at very competitive rates. We're going to give it a try.

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14 December 2006

Blogger beta

I got a comment from a reader this morning - just the normal gripes. They had found a post of mine on Technorati that they wanted to read but when they went to follow the link it didn't work. I hadn't realised that in the move from Blogger to Blogger Beta that all the links would break. Silly of me, more than a moment's thought would have given me the answer.

I dashed off a quick response with a working link and sat back to hope that it doesn't happen too often in the future. I have quite enough to do in my electronic life without managing version control on links to everything I post.


Once you have the design right - don't change a thing

Christmas brings its normal spate of family update letters and here is an extract of one of these letters (from a polyglot friend of mine who lives in Switzerland) about a Steinway grand piano.
Here I have a 106 year old piano, with a truly divine tone, which is indistinguishable from new. Yes, I really mean it. The only way you can divine the age of the instrument is by reference to its serial number. It is remarkable that once Steinway had established the design for its four main grand pianos, Models A, B, C and D in the late 1800s, nothing was subsequently changed, other than a few decorative mouldings cast into the frames, which have been modified over the years. The Model C of today, made only in Hamburg, is identical to the one I have purchased, which was made in 1900. So, I guess one must say - "They got it right".
That's something that many businesses forget. They continue to tinker and increase their costs without improving the delivered product or service for their customers. Periodically it is worth standing back and asking the idiot question "Is further development necessary?". Although people often ask this question in relation to software development (even if they ignore the answer), it has relevance over a much wider spectrum.

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13 December 2006

We've disappeared ...

Well, not literally of course. The statement refers to one of our client sites.

One of our clients has a site which sells a very sophisticated swimming pool coating which reports inbound links on Yahoo!, but the site itself doesn't appear to be indexed by Yahoo! That is, it was properly indexed by Yahoo! until mid November and then it disappeared from their index. The inbound links have continued to be reported and actually increased after the site disappeared from the index. Google first crawled the site a few days after Yahoo! and has continued to crawl it, deeper and deeper since it was first indexed.

Do I have an answer for this kind of inconsistency? No, I'm afraid not. We are going through the process now to try and make sure that this kind of oddity doesn't happen again.

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On page or off page?

What the heck is he talking about now? One of my clients asked me to describe the difference between on-page and off-page optimisation activities - here's a quick overview.

On-page refers to the things that website builders do to the content and code to make sure that a website can be spidered and ranked by the organic search engines. It includes a range of things including:
  • title tags
  • header tags
  • bolding, underlining and italicising
  • alt image tags
  • meta tags
  • content rich text
  • keyword density
Off-page activities are the things that search engine marketing people do, helping to build the number of inbound links to the site. Key things to monitor include:
  • the anchor text used for the link
  • the title of the page the link is on
  • the page rank of the linking site
  • and the theme and content of the linking site
OK, if that is the list of things that you can do on and off the page, which are the most important?

Well, since I have mentioned it before on this blog, let's take a look at Adobe's page. If you do a search in Google for the term 'click here' you will find that Adobe.com's Reader Download page ranks number 1 and number 6 for the same search on Yahoo!. Now, if you want then you could search Adobe's site for the keywords 'click here', but I'll save you the trouble - they aren't there. If they aren't in the words that we can see we can safely assume that Adobe hasn't optimised its site to be ranked highly for those keywords.

If that's the case, then why is Adobe ranking so highly for a search term it has made no obvious attempt to optimise for on-page? Does this mean that something is happening off-page which is giving Adobe a high ranking for this term? The answer is yes, Adobe gets linked by many sites with very high page rank and many of them use linking text which includes the words 'click', 'here' or 'click here'. Adobe's situation arises because they have made no serious attempt to control the linking text. Now, if you could control the anchor text of inbound links to your own site, imagine how you can improve the quality of your inbound links and the ranking of your site for the keywords that you do want to promote.

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Planning for January

At our Operations meeting last night we went through the current pipeline in some detail. It was a pretty cheering experience. We look to have a solid chance of starting the calendar year with a really good month, but to do that we have to close some of the business in the pipeline.

It's important to review the pipeline regularly in terms of its quality. Of course every situation is competitive, even if the competitor is the status quo. The reason that we like our current pipeline so much is that there are a number of prospects in it who all have burning reasons for not staying with the status quo.

The best news for us is when a business approaches us - better if they are selling into corporates. They know that we are a commercial business and they have already half made up their minds to work with us. Clients like this can take a while to close down, but often that is because of the internal difficulty of their team sitting down together to agree on what to do.

I'm looking forward to a good New Year.

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11 December 2006

What to reveal and when

Initial meetings for organisations selling business services, as we do, are an opportunity to let the client see how you think. Those meetings are also a potential minefield:
  • how much expertise to share?
  • how critical to be of existing suppliers?
Of these, the first depends on the nature of your work and the extent that your client can understand it and has resources to deliver it. If he understands the nature of the work and has the resource then it is probably best to talk about satisfied clients and not try to share too much detail of what he might do differently. If on the other hand, your expertise is a black box and he lacks the resources to do much in the area then you can share as much expertise as you like and there is little commercial risk. We think that we strike the balance reasonably well - it is important to look well informed and creative without giving away what we believe are the 'right answers'. The one truth is that whatever you share, the client will assume that you know more.

The second is much more problematic. I met someone recently and he told me about one of his suppliers and the advice they had given him. I believe that - as described - he has been given bad advice, but it is important not to be too judgemental without knowing more about the situation. As I have said before on this blog, clients aren't always briefing perfectly during these introductory meetings.

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10 December 2006

SPAM for breakfast

Phil noticed my post the other day about SPAM and decided that it would be a good idea to set the SPAM filters at our ISP. The first I knew of this was a report in my inbox this morning to tell me that I had a lot of SPAM for review. I would have let it sit there until it was purged automatically but in the summary report of emails from Jorge and Maria selling me a new penny stock were some emails from Phil. I decided to open the SPAM file straight away.

It seems that I have been storing "SPAM" from legitimate senders including Phil since last January, and I would never have known had he not decided to change the SPAM settings on my email. With no irony whatsoever, one of his messages in the SPAM file was sent yesterday to tell me that he had changed the filter settings.

What this has encouraged me to do is to look at the mail settings that I have with other ISPs. It is possible that this has happened on some of my other email accounts so I need to check that there is nothing lying around which I should have read and responded to months ago.

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09 December 2006

Lies, damned lies and statistics

I've been going through some numbers for our sites - we have got a variety of different tools in use and it's very distracting to see how little overlap there is. As a reader there is a temptation to believe that the truth is out there somewhere and looking at a variety of tools will help to track it down. That isn't an enormous problem when the numbers are ours since we are relatively happy to deal with amibiguity - what was concerning me was how we could put this argument convincingly to our clients.

That was until I came across an article in Business Week, Web Numbers - What's Real?. What makes this article so interesting is that we aren't alone in our confusion. There isn't a single tool that delivers an accurate result for everyone and the picture is becoming increasingly confused as channels proliferate.

Now that sounds like a business idea that plenty of people would be prepared to support.

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08 December 2006

If it's in the plan it must be possible

There is an MD that I know who is a strong believer in plans. He is looking for an equity injection at the moment and he was wondering aloud with me whether he had any chance to pick up some angel finance.

His business is doing quite well and one of his revenue streams looks as though it is on the point of a break-through. The problem is that the business is cash-hungry and doesn't break even for 6 months and that is true for every installation in the contract. Since a single contract may account for more than 1000 installations, it is inevitable that a guess about contract profitability is challenging - since even at maturity the contract will have some installations which are relatively new. This is the business that he is hoping that the angels will like enough to support.

The good news is that the prospects are all alpha names and there is no problem with credit worthiness. The issue is that Alpha plc takes some time to make up its mind and two of the contracts that he is hoping to close in the next few weeks have been thinking about his service for more than nine months - that's quite a long sales cycle for a business with limited sales resources.

If all goes well, his business will grow rapidly and it makes a compelling argument in the plan. The problem is that this is an organisation which has not been good at staying on track on its forecasts so I was quite amused to hear him talk up the quality of the plan. I'm glad that I'm not an angel.

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SPAM for lunch

There seems to be a growing harvest of SPAM in my inbox. Some of it comes from my regular email addresses but some comes from people guessing which email addresses might find an inbox from our eCommerce sites. Phil has turned off the site redirects except for a few addresses that we thought we should sensibly retain and the volume seems to be unabated. Heaven knows what the volume would be if he hadn't done that.

If I had $1 for every piece of SPAM that I have deleted this month then I would be able to take advantage of some of the penny share offers that seem to constitute the bulk of the unsolicited mail that I get.

It must work. I don't know why. Here is a channel which people dislike - unsolicited email - often written in an unappealing way with little thought to 'professionally' constructed copy - and logic tells us that it must work! The payback must exceed the time costs of constructing the SPAM mail. Given those kinds of disadvantages, what could be possible when we send a well constructed mailing to a welcoming audience?

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06 December 2006

The laptop question

Chris has been struggling with the performance of his laptop for a couple of days. Tonight the machine was almost unusable. Booting up seemed to take forever and switching off was almost as long.

Fortunately I had copies of everything on my machine so we were able to use my laptop instead. It brought it home that despite all the development of PCs over the last few years, they still lack a simple built-in diagnostic that says where the problem is. Not everyone is interested enough to learn how to do simple diagnostics which creates a good business for some people. The real problem is that we have become so dependent on our computers that to have one performing below par puts a significant crimp on our ability to produce work for our clients.

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05 December 2006

Subscribers - they come, they go

Looking at my subscribers over time they show a fairly steady trend upwards, but that statement glosses over a significant level of day to day movement. During the first six months or so, it wasn't unusual for the low in a month to be less than 40% of the peak value.

What has changed during the last couple of months is the level of volatility. While subscriber numbers continue to change every day, with unpredictable highs and lows, the lows are staying within 65% of the peak value. What it may mean is that as the subscriber base has grown I have acquired a group of subscribers who switch on their RSS reader more regularly or at least more predictably. In the early days, I was looking at a curve which exhibited the statistics of small population and that wasn't really representative of a larger universe.

That's important to remember when we do any form of research, particularly if we are drawing conclusions from the data. It has always been true to say that people access their RSS readers on different timescales which can make subscriber numbers appear volatile. It wouldn't have been true to draw a conclusion that the inherent volatility of subscribers to this blog was 60%. A small population can help illustrate a truth - subscriber figures are volatile - but it cannot be used for accurate forecasting purposes.

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04 December 2006

A better offer

Someone looked at our towels site and offered to act as a new channel at a remarkably low cost of sales. On the assumption that this wouldn't cannibalise the sales revenue that we generate for ourselves, this looks like being a sensible opportunity to explore a little further.

In this instance, the site making the offer has a page rank of 6 and they are a serious catalogue sales site. The question that we have to answer for ourselves is whether enough of their visitors will want to find our product. If the answer is yes, then the question of whether we join them takes no thought whatsoever.

We will talk about it tomorrow.

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It's a great offer

We got an offer this afternoon, to take our champagne site to a top 10 ranking on Google, MSN or Yahoo!. It seemed like a good offer, but if you have been reading this blog for more than a couple of days you will know that we are already pretty pleased with our organic search position against 3 search terms on all 3 engines.

The reason that this offer failed was that it was incomplete - it assumed that because something was not in place that the site couldn't have a high ranking. They are right - something is "missing" - but it hasn't impacted adversely on ranking. If things change then we will plug the gap, but at present we will hold things just as they are.

So, if you draw a conclusion about someone and tell them what your conclusion is, as part of a mailing of some sort, it's probably a good idea to do a sanity check. Are our assumptions correct? If they aren't, as they weren't in this case, the source of the offer loses brownie points instead of gaining them.

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03 December 2006

Organic report on champagne

Another week on and here are the positions for the champagne site in Yahoo, MSN and Google. I'm pretty pleased now with the latest positions. We are now first page for the three search terms that I have been tracking since 13 October. Hat tip to Brad Callen on how to do it but we had an easier time through having a great product which allowed us to put together really relevant copy.

Here are today's results with the figures for 25 November in round brackets, 13 October positions in square brackets:

3 word search term
Yahoo 5 (4) [3]
MSN 3 (3) [7]
Google 4 (19) [not indexed in first 1000 sites]

2 word search term
Yahoo - 5 (5) [7]
MSN - 8 (7) [13]
Google - 10 (311) [not indexed in first 1000 sites]

2 word search term
Yahoo - 1 (1) [1]
MSN - 1 (1) [1]
Google - 1 (1) [1]

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So what's in a name

There are plenty of people in the world who repeat the mantra "build the list, build the list" without thinking too carefully about the quality of the contacts in the list. For me, quality is key.

Building a list of undifferentiated names who may never buy from you sounds like a waste of effort to me, akin to buying undifferentiated traffic for a website. At root, this argument is about coverage. If you put your message in front of 10,000 names then that must be 10x better than putting it in front of 1,000 names, mustn't it? Err, no - not if the additional 9,000 are added to the list simply to give it a thud factor if you ever get around to printing it out. The theory is that some of the 9,000 will like your offer so much they will buy, or will know someone who might buy so they will pass it on to someone else. That may be true, but none of it is guaranteed, and depending on what you are selling, it is quite possible that if you didn't work hard to build the first 1,000 names then you probably wouldn't break even on the remaining 9,000 if you charged your time at full value.

This thinking about lists comes from mail order which can be highly scaleable for all kinds of offers. Bear in mind though, that the highest efficiency in mail order comes from list targeting, and the highest efficiency lists are those which comprise buyers for similar products. The argument about scalability is true - it all depends on what you are scaling.

The offers on our websites are attractive to someone who is looking for something a little different. UK Retail Ltd is boasting about its 25% reductions ahead of Christmas. We offer value competition - a series of products each of which has their own story which can be thought about or retold whenever someone uses the product. That's not an offer that's compelling to everyone which is why we are so keen to make sure our lists contain prospects, not just names.

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02 December 2006

Christmas is coming

I spoke to someone at one of our clients yesterday and they were just about to stop work to have their Christmas party. It seems early, but really it is just over 3 weeks until Christmas Day. Given that December seems to suffer from a surfeit of potential activities, yesterday is probably a sensible day to have a party.

The other area we have noticed the change of season is on the consumer sales sites where we are getting more orders and more questions about what we are selling. That's all good, but wouldn't it be great if it could run at that rate all year? The good news is that each of these orders and each of these enquiries becomes an opportunity for a sale next year. They have contacted us, so we will include them on the distribution of our sales emails.

Having a list is the great opportunity to deseasonalise a business. It may not be fully efficient, but at least it puts the business under your control rather than trying to operate reactively.

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