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Online Forums Give Small Businesses Leverage February 20, 2010

Posted by David Dirks in business strategy, e-Small Business Resources, marketing.
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Consumer research from the web gives small businesses leverage they’ve never had before.  You name the area of interest, and I’ll be you’ll find any number of places online where people can ‘chat’ about it.  Savvy marketers and business owners have found chat rooms and public forums to be great places to sift though and find  information than can be of significant benefit to their businesses.  Investing some time each week or at least on a monthly basis researching what people are saying in your community of interest is well worth it.  Sure, there’s a good amount of mundane drivel coming out of chat rooms but you can eliminate those fairly quickly during the scanning process.

Online chat rooms are for the most part, unedited conversations of those who have some level of interest (usually deep) in subject at hand.  In between the unvarnished and silly things that people will say, you’ll find a healthy percentage of people who have substantial points or information to impart to others with the same interests.  If you’re in business (and I don’t really care what business it is), you should find enough online chat rooms or forums to keep your interest.

This is especially true if you are a small business owner.  Most small businesses don’t have the resources or capacity to undertake market and consumer research.  The advent of online forums and chat rooms has offered the small business owner the ability to tap into consumer thoughts without having to spend very much money.  In most cases, you only need an investment of time and web access.

What kinds of things can you learn from chat rooms?  First, you can get a sense of what the key ‘hot topics’ of that time are.  What are people talking mostly about?  What seems to make them mad or excitedly happy?  Are they focusing on a specific competitor?  Are they discussing specific products or services?  Are they talking about challenges they face and looking for input?  What are they not talking about?

How can you make this kind of information work for your business?  Here’s how:

1.  Given the large number of online forums where people can discuss any manner of things on any specific topic these days, narrow your scope.  In most cases, the best forums (with the most amount of participation) are the larger ones.  How to find these forums?  Easy.  Just Bing or Google the specific type of forum you are looking for.

For example, if I’m in the fly fishing business, I’d search under “fly fishing forums”.  When I do that, I can find 4,860,000 results.  Stick to the first 20 results and scan those to see which ones have regular participation and have some quality in the depth of the online conversations you see.

2. Social media sites have a tremendous amount of information.  On Facebook, do a search for fan pages that are in your area of interest.  On LinkedIn it’s easy to search for groups and join them to get regular updates on online discussions.

3. Scanning forums becomes easier and faster with practice.  No one wants to sit for hours reading sometimes eye-poking drivel.  Scan each comment looking for key words that you might be interested in.

4. When you find a comments that you feel are worthy of further thought, copy and paste them onto a document and save them.  In one sitting, you might accumulate several pages of commentary.  Copy and paste at will!  In a day or two, go back and review the comments to see if you can spot trends or information that you could incorporate into your business directly or indirectly.

5.  “So might all this information I’m accumulating mean to me and my business?”  Fair question.  Like any other research, you never know what you are going to find exactly.  Surely, you are trying to find information that could lead you to perhaps product or service innovations; new processes for running your business; and who knows what else.  You have to get in the habit of scanning on a regular and disciplined basis and over time, you will see trends.  You will get kernels of ideas that can have an impact on how you manage yourself and/or your business.

Investing time in researching and scanning commentary generated in public forums gives you the opportunity for those “Aha” moments.  “Aha” moments are moments of discovery and confirmation.  Just stick with it and sooner than you think, you’ll be both inspired and challenged by the feedback you’ll see on forums.  It’s time well spent and time that most of your competitors are leaving on the table.

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Beating A Recession – 12: Blow Up the Brick & Mortar! February 23, 2009

Posted by David Dirks in business strategy, e-Small Business Resources, Increasing Your Profitability, Innovation: Not Just for the Big Dogz, Recession: How to Beat It!, Retailer Store Strategies, Sales Strategy/Tactics.
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David DirksWant to save a significant amount of annual expense and increase your profitability…and lower your cost of goods and services so you can remain competitive?  Sure you do.  However, many of us are still married to the concept of having a retail or service space to conduct business. I’m challenging that right here and now.

First, instead of investing dollars in ‘brick and mortar’ retail or service space, invest heavily in transferring your ‘place of business assets’ to your website and create an intranet that allows your employees to work remotely.

The growing trend is for businesses to move their infrastructure investments into creating a better user experience on the web and being able to conduct their business via the web.  Invest and make your website so customer-friendly and seamless to use (navigation and purchase-orientations) that you no longer relay on a ‘physical’ presence in order to be able to conduct business.

Case in point.  I have a friend of mine who recently decided to close down her retail shop that sold hiking and camping equipment.  It wasn’t too long ago that she had expanded her ‘brick and mortar’ presence to increase her retail space.  Then the economy took a hit and gas prices jumped.  She then decided to close the retail business.  However, she didn’t give up.  She had maintained that retail space for over 10 years and had built up relationships with her customers, who were both local and national.  She already had a pretty good website that contained excellent information of value to her customer base.  On top of that, she and her husband have a gigantic amount of expertise (intellectual capital) built up based on years of experience in the outdoors.  Why waste those assets just because the retail space was bleeding the business?

So she decided to invest time into expanding their website so that customers were still able to come and tap into their expertise and knowledge but also make purchases on the web. She is in the process of transforming her business onto the web and creating a customer experience that made them popular for many years.  Note: She’s still refining the website to her satisfaction so I promised her that I wouldn’t reveal it.  Once she is operational, you’ll hear about it via this blog.

Before you say, “So what? Isn’t everybody doing that?”…the answer is no, few local business invest in creating a robust and powerful web vehicle to sell their expertise and products.

Sure, most businesses have a website (and there are a bunch that still don’t!) but the website was usually built as cheaply as possible.  Some are just awful and look like they were pasted on construction paper then slapped on the web (I wouldn’t bother then).

Here are a few things I want you to consider, even though it might creep you out to think of operating your business from your website:

1.  Can I sell what I’m selling now without having to carry the burden of a retail or office space? The common reaction is, “what?  and have no place for my customers to touch and feel the product?”.  Yup…that’s exactly right.

Let’s say you own a health food store.  Banishing the ‘brick and mortar’ seems like a trick, right?  I’m mean, customers are used to coming in and asking you what you recommend for this or that issue that affects them, right?  People like the personal service and the expertise you might have in the area of health foods and herbs that are designed to help with an ailment of some kind.

What if you could create that same personalized experience on your website?  What if you had the ability for people to ask you the same questions in realtime…both online and the phone?  You could ‘chat’ with them and make a few product recommendations.  Then they can purchase your goods either right from your easy to use and super secure website or via phone order.

2. Let’s take a shot at a service based business. No products but selling services.  Let’s say you are a CPA and have a few partners with some additional specialty accountants on the staff.  Most firms of this description would rather jump in front of a moving bus before giving up the office space.  What are they spending on space?  $3,000…$5,000 a month? Whatever it is, it’s a pretty hefty sum and doesn’t include the utility bills, liability insurance, etc.  that tack on additional expense.

Who said you have to carry expensive office space?  You do.  However, I’ll bet most of your business is conducted by phone and you probably meet them at their place of business for the face-to-face meetings that are needed (and sometimes necessary).  But what if you invested instead on the infrastructure that allowed your partners and other expert staff to work from the comfort of their own homes?  Shocking, huh?  I understand that nervous twitch you just got from the thought but I have to tell you that this kind of transfer of ‘conduct of business’ is already underway.

Listen folks, the technology is already here that allows you to work remotely and securely from any location that has access to high-speed internet.

What I’m suggesting here is that you close down your offices and work from a distributive environment.  Need to house files?  Sure.  You could still maintain some dramatically limited office space if you need to house phyisical files?  But what if you optically scanned those docs and made them available on a securely-accessed site, so you peeps could still work?  Yes you can.

I’m hard pressed to find too many businesses that couldn’t make this change from ‘brick and mortar’ retail or office space to a web-based, distributive work environment.

Let’s take a quick look at just a few of the key advantage:

1.  Dramatically reduced expenses (after an initial investment for upgrading your distributive work environment and your website experience) means you have more capital to work.  Freeing up cashflow is critical in any economy, let alone this one we’re in now.

2.  Lower operating expenses means you can re-direct those funds to build up cash reserves, lower you cost of goods/services, hire more people, and expand your product/service offerings without worrying about the cost of doing these same expansions with the limitations of the usual retail or office space.  Note: unless you can arrange drop shipping directly from the manufacturer or distributor of your products, you will of course need to access some physical storage space for warehousing and distribution of product to customers.  Usually that kind of space requirement is far less expensive to maintain than a premium retail space.

3.  No geographic limitations anymore.  Wow.  This is my favorite one of all.  The infrastructure investments you make to create a website that is customer-centric, user-friendly and seamlessly allows people to buy from you means you can do business any where in the world.  Think of that kind of website married to a distributive work environment takes the shackles off your ‘local’ business.  You’re not local anymore.

4.  You can now take the infrastructure savings of reduced or eliminated reliance on ‘brick and mortar’ and apply that to a powerful and robust marketing budget to expand both your ‘local’ and web-wide ability to sell products and services.

Take a white sheet paper out and begin thinking through how you could design a way to conduct business without the ‘brick and mortar’.  Force yourself to think it through with the attitude of “How can I do this” versus “How many excuses for not doing it can I come up with?”.

In succeeding postings we’ll take a look at some businesses that have been doing just this…and doing it well.

How to Create More Revenue Streams March 9, 2008

Posted by David Dirks in e-Small Business Resources, Increasing Your Profitability, Sales Strategy/Tactics, Solving Business Problems.
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David DirksIf you’re looking for ways to increase revenues, www.cafepress.com might have the fix you need. The concept is simple: you set up a free online store within cafepress.com, decide what kinds of items you want customized to your designs, and start selling them.

If you have a loyal customer base, they might want to purchase items with your customized designs on them. Shirts, hats, mugs, books, cds, you name it and Cafepress.com can just about make it for you.

In this case, you don’t carry any inventory nor do you pay for any until a customer actually purchases it from your online store provided by carepress.

How do you profit? You make the difference between what Cafepress charges you for the item and what you decide to charge for it. And, with their basic store, you pay nothing. If you decide to upgrade to an online store with more features, then it could cost you as little as $4.95 per month to have your own online store.

Check out their website at www.cafepress.com and check it out. Build a free online store; determine what merchandise you want to carry, and promote it in every communication point you have with your customers. They can’t make it any easier than this.

Non-profits take note: This is an excellent way to create additional development funds when donation money gets tight. You risk no capital and have the chance to get your nonprofit supporters to buy merchandise that provides great benefit to your cause. It’s all good.

Increase your Success and Profits in 2008! January 1, 2008

Posted by David Dirks in e-Small Business Resources, Solving Business Problems.
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dirksphoto.jpgAs Rick and I wrap up our first year with this business blog, we want to thank all of you who have taken the time to visit our blog during 2007. We’ve had a lot of fun providing you with what we feel are some of the best practices and ideas that are designed to help you continue in your successful business endeavors. If you found the blogs we provided during this past year helpful to you, just wait until 2008!

During 2008, we want to provide even more blog information than we did in 2007. In order to make our blog better, we need your help. One of the intentions of this blog was to create a venue for business owners like yourself to get your organizational and/or marketing & promotional questions answered directly by us.

If you have a question or business challenge and would like for Rick or myself to help you, just email us at dirksmarketing@gmail.com or rbronder@gmail.com. By sharing your current challenges with us, you will also help others who are probably facing the same issues.

The Big Dogz are never afraid of asking for outside assistance. When faced with business challenges that are dogging their every move, Big Dogz reach outside of their turf and get expert help to help them successfully overcome.

In 2008, we resolve to provide you with the best insights on business ideas and best practices that can help you move your business forward. Why not resolve for yourself to take advantage of our experience in 2008? What do you have to lose?

Note: If you want to get some feedback on a particular business issue you are facing and want to keep your name/business confidential, we’ll respect that. In that case, we’ll mention the business issue and our response to it in this blog, but will NOT post your name, etc. We can do that…it’s a no-brainer.

We wish you the best for you and your business in 2008!

Dave