Stop Comparing and Start Improving: A Lesson from Ellen Bremen

Ellen Bremen is my favorite professor and she teaches about 2,500 miles away from where I went to college. Ellen is a tenured professor of communications at a college in Seattle, Washington. She is passionate about connecting with her students and facilitating a revolution in the student-professor relationship. I met Ellen, known on Twitter as @chattyprof, through the 12 Most community and recently discovered the publication of her new book, Say This, Not That to Your Professor. [Read more…]

Pokism #7: On Picking Yourself

“Reject tyranny of ‘picked.’ Pick yourself.” – Seth Godin”

My prolific blogging friend (and mentor), Anthony Iannarino wrote an article exactly two weeks ago, titled “Your Permission Slip.” I printed off the article, signed it, and framed it. Maybe you should too…

Remember back in grade school when you were going to go on a field trip and needed express, written permission from your parents in order to go? Remember when you needed a “Permission Slip?” It seems so childish doesn’t it–to have to ask for permission?

Yet unfortunately, as adults, most of us never grow out of asking for permission. Not just from our parents, but from everyone. We are constantly seeking approval to justify acting on our convictions. We ask our teachers, our bosses, our employees, our colleagues, our friends, and even our enemies.

We Need Someone Else to Tell Us It’s Okay

I’m not talking about completely ignoring the advice of others. Sure, it’s a good idea to consider other perspectives, especially when they are coming from people who care about and want what’s best for you. No, I’m not talking about disregarding everything everyone says. But I am talking about not being controlled by it.

Because, you see, when all is said and done, you can’t blame others for the bad advice they gave you. You can only blame yourself for having taken it. You are responsible for your actions–whether you admit it to yourself or not.

I think that’s why so many need the input of others, though, in order to validate our convictions. If we go with our gut, we have no one to pass the blame on when we fail. If we let others run our lives for us, we can escape some of the guilt and self-loathing that comes with the setbacks. Waiting for permission–or even instructions–is simply just easier.

Waiting to Be Picked

Seth Godin, in his book Poke the Box, talks about how everyone is always waiting to be picked. Entrepreneurs wait to get picked by venture capitalists. Employees wait to get picked for a promotion. They need someone to select them, he says, in order to validate the value they bring to the table. I don’t have a solid business idea unless I get funded. I’m not really that great of a work unless I get promoted. “Reject the tyranny of ‘picked.'” Seth Says, “Pick yourself.”

A couple of days ago, Anthony Iannarino wrote another post about a few of his undergrad students wanting to launch a business. Apparently, one of their other professors had told them not the waste their time because there was a group of MBAs attempting to do the same thing. “What makes you think,” he asked, “that you are able to start a social media consulting practice?” Anthony’s advice for those students? Ignore the skeptics and go for it!

You know your capabilities. You know what you want. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t or shouldn’t accomplish the goals. Allow your convictions to be shaped by reason and good sense. But ALWAYS ACT ON YOUR CONVICTIONS!

What are you waiting for? Who are you waiting for? Stop waiting. Sign your permission slip and get going.

Why Do You Do What You Do?

I’m coming up on the 6 month anniversary of this blog and the small business consulting business I launched along with it…and I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching.

I could do a number of things to earn an income. I have a broad knowledge-base, a decent skill set, and more interests than I know what to do with. Why did I settle on web consulting for small business owners? Well, the answer’s going to sound simplistic and maybe even a little cliche:

I want to help other people become successful.

I get a rise–a feeling of personal and professional satisfaction–when I help someone else get ahead. And that feeling is worth more than wealth. It’s worth more than fame. It’s worth more than anything “just doing my job.”

What You Do Vs Why You Do It?

We are obsessed with talking about what we do. We talk about our industries. We talk about our jobs. We talk about our skills. Those are the things people ask about. Those are the surface things–the things they can see. But those aren’t the things that matter.

People want to know what’s in it for them. My clients don’t care that I do web consulting; they care how I can help them improve their businesses. In other words, they don’t care about what I do. They care about why I do it.

What Motivates You?

I hope it isn’t money. Sure, you need to make a living. But there’s a point at which you forego a higher income in order to make a difference you are capable of making. I hope you are motivated by something more. I hope that you do what you do, because you want to help others. I hope you are doing what you do, because you believe deep in your heart of hearts that the world would be worse off if you didn’t. I hope you are driven by a relentless passion to improve the lives of those you touch.

Here’s a neat little exercise: instead of just thinking of yourself as a proprietor of the product or service you provide, think of yourself as someone who helps someone else do something. Fill in the blanks for your business: I help ___________    _______________. For example…

  • I help small businesses owners become more successful on the web. (me)
  • I help my patients live more pain-free lives. (a chiropractor)
  • I help my clients find their way home. (a realtor)
  • I help my customers capture their most important memories. (a photographer)
  • I help my patrons feel better about their bodies. (a gym owner)

Who do you help? What do you help them do? That’s why you are in business. Never forget it.

Next time someone asks you what you do, ignore the question completely. Answer instead with why you do what you do. That’s the answer that matters. That’s the answer they really want to hear. And that’s the answer that will keep you grounded in providing the value you need to provide for your customers.

Never forget why.

The Story You’re Telling and the Story They’re Hearing

I heard a great presentation a couple of weeks ago about marketing in a down economy. The presenter, Richard Hahn of Keynote Media Group, brought up a very interesting point about branding. The point wasn’t really a new idea, but it is something we often forget about as we go about trying to reach our audience. The idea is this: there is a difference between our brand identity and our brand image.

Your brand identity is how you see your brand. It’s how you want your product positioned. It’s what you want your customers to think about your company. It is manifest in all of your marketing literature. Your slogans. Your taglines. Your mantras. It’s who you say you are and, in your own mind, who you really are.

Your brand image is how your customers see your brand. It’s the market that is really drawn to your product. It’s what your customers really think about your company. It is manifest in the feedback you may or may not get. It’s in the online reviews. In the Tweets. In the coffee house conversations. It’s wherever you are being talked. It’s who other people say that you are.

The Identity-Image Tug-of-War

You say you are something. Your customers say you are something else. And so it goes…

There is a constant struggle between what you think your brand stands for and how others perceive it. All too often, business owners trudge along marketing the heck out of themselves and expecting customers to just buy the pitch. And that’s not to say that business owners are being dishonest. I believe that most have the best of intentions when they are marketing their brand. However, they often make promises that don’t bear out in reality. And customers can see that…

But business people are stubborn. I know. I am one. We fall in love with our message and want to shove it down the throats of our customers–even if it is inconsistent with what we actually produce. We love to tell our story. But guess what? The real “story” is not in our marketing literature. It’s not in what we say about ourselves. It’s what we do. That’s what customers see. That’s what they respond to.

All too often, though, we have no idea what our customers are thinking. Because, deep down, we don’t care. We just want them to buy into our message. We want them to fall in love with our story the way we have. But maybe, just maybe, we’re missing some huge opportunities by not listening to the feedback. Maybe there are some things we can learn from our customers. Maybe our customers could help shape our brand…

Take a Look in the Mirror

Each and every day, allow your brand to check itself in front of the mirror; it may just have broccoli in its teeth.

Are you aware of what your customers are saying about you? How shocked would you be if you stepped out from behind your promotions to say how people are actually reacting to your brand. Have you set up Google Alerts for your brand to discover when you are being mentioned online? Are you using a service like Tweetbeep to monitor conversations about you on Twitter? Have you opened up the door for feedback by having a solid Facebook page?

If there is one thing the web has to offer that is more important than anything else, it is the ability for you to monitor your brand. Yes, people are still talking about you with their friends in real life, but you can’t hear those conversations. You can hear the conversations that are happening online. Are you listening?

The closer your brand identity gets to your brand image, the more successful you will be. Do you know what you look like to others? In the end, it’s all about alignment. How consistent is the story you’re telling with the story that is being heard?

Own Everything You Touch

I just finished reading, “Do You Mean Business?” by Babette Ten Haken. The book, in a general sense, is about bridging the gap between the nature of engineering and sales. But there is an undercurrent that goes far beyond sales and engineering to the very core of what it means to be successful in any business endeavor. Babette renounces the notion that your “job” (regardless of your role) is simply to perform your particular function. Whether you’re a salesperson, engineer, manager, or the owner, your job is to add value to your organization. In Babette’s own words, “You are your job’s CEO.”

What if You DO own your company?

Most of my readers here are owners of small businesses of one kind or another. You aren’t employees trying to generate revenue for your organization. You’re owners of the organizations. So, do you really need to be told to take ownership? Well yes, unfortunately, I think owners need to be told to take ownership more than anyone else.

If you own your business, you need to act like you own it. That’s the benefit of working for someone else: you can shrug off accountability and get away with it. Maybe not for long, but it’s possible for a while to just follow the rules and blend in without adding any real value. If you own your business, you are accountable for keeping it alive. The reigns are in your hands, whether or not you choose to steer.

As owners of businesses, we don’t transcend human nature. We are subject to the same temptations of mediocrity and the status quo as employees working a 9-to-5. It can be very easy to take a passive approach to business, sitting back and watching it unfold instead of determining the direction it goes.

As business owners, we need to own everything we touch. We need to be inescapably accountable. We need to be accountable to:

  1. Our team: The people we hire (or the people we contract) have expectations of us. They need clear direction. They may be too afraid, apathetic, or uninformed to provide you exactly what you’re looking for. Yes, you could get mad at them and tell them that it’s their responsibility to uncover your needs and expectations. But that’s not very productive. Own it. Forget about their responsibility. Think about your responsbility. Own the outcome of your relationship with your team.
  2. Our customers: Here’s the flipside. Your team works for you; you work for your customers. You may say that it’s your customer’s responsibility to tell you what they want. Don’t shrug off the responsibility for making your customers happy. Own it. Ask them questions. Uncover their needs. Be relentless about improving their lives or businesses. Own the value that is created for your customers.
  3. Ourselves: Don’t treat yourself as the owner of your business. Treat yourself as someone you’re employing. Manage yourself. Lead yourself. Own your personal and professional development. Because, guess what? If you don’t, no one else will. Own it.

What about you? Are you stuck in a rut watching your business unfold before your eyes? Or, are you in the trenches owning everything that you lay your hands on?

Blogging for Business Part 3: How to Blog

Okay, so you’ve heard about this blogging thing. You know what it is (Part 1) and why it’s important (Part 2) for your business. There’s just one last hurdle to overcome–you don’t really know how to do it. Maybe you’re not really well-versed in technology. You can barely type. You only use a computer at work. You add a “The” in front of every website you talk about (i.e. “The Facebook,” “The Twitter,” The Google,”). So, what are some basics about blogging protocol that could get you started in the right direction? Well, I’m glad you asked.

Make it Findable

When you blog, the articles you write aren’t going to magically show up in front of the people you want to read them. They have to either A) stumble upon your article while searching the web (Google) or B) be directed to your article from a place they hang out on the web (Facebook). Both of these possibilities require a little preparation on your part.

First, you’ve got to make your articles SEO (Search Engine Optimization) friendly. Your titles should reflect questions readers would ask while searching. Plumbers: perhaps, “How to Fix a Leaky Faucet.” Landscapers: perhaps, “How Often Should I Cut My Grass?” Restauranteurs: perhaps, “What Goes Great with Potatoes?” List posts are great, articles like “7 Steps to…” or “5 Reasons to…” or “3 Ways to Can…” These both contain the key words that your readers are searching for and tell them that the article is going to be straightforward, informative, and easy to digest.

You can also increase the visibility on search engines by posting frequently (1-3 times a week is best, if you can manage). The more webpages you can put out there with relevant content on them, the more likely your target audience is to read something you’ve written. After you’ve written your post, you may want to go to blogs that have similar articles and comment on them. This will typically provide links back to your article–and search engines love when other reputable sites are linked to yours.

The second part of making your articles easier to find is to connect to your readers where they are already are. That means social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn as well as social bookmarking sites like Reddit and Stumbleupon. Many times, your readers will be online but not really searching for anything in particular. They will just be browsing the things that they’ve subscribed to. They’ll be looking at their Facebook or browsing their twitter feed. You want to be able to show up where they already are and grab their attention there.

Link your blog to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. so that, every time you post, the article publishes to those social networks. The people that you are connected with on those channels will then be able to view your articles in their newsfeeds. The easiest and most important traffic you can get!

Many online readers use an RSS reader to view content online. They subscribe to feeds that are fed into resources like Google Reader,, Zite, or even their email inboxes. Make sure that your blog is available in RSS form. Most of them are, but just be sure. You never want to have a blog that can’t be subscribed to. It’s a lot easier to get people to read your stuff when it’s showing up in front of them by default.

Make it Readable

If readers can find your article but are turned off in any way once they get to it, you’ve wasted all your efforts. It’s important to make sure your article is visually appealing. You never want to write an article with long blocks of text. Break up your texts into as many paragraphs as possible. This is another reason to blog in lists, as I mentioned above. It breaks the article down into smaller tidbits of information that your readers can easily read.

Space out your paragraphs with headings (like my “Make It Findable” and “Make It Readable”). This will let your readers know what each section of your articles covers–and encourage them to keep reading.

Always use an image. Images (if you title with right keywords) improve your search engine results dramatically. But the most important reason to use images is that it makes your articles more readable. Yes, even as adults, we still prefer to read text with pictures. Can you imagine reading a newspaper that doesn’t have any pictures? Blogs are approached the same way. People need visual stimulation as encouragement to keep reading. Also, when your articles are shared on social media sites, the imaged will typically be attached if you are using one. And people are much more likley to click through to read the article when they are given an image as a teaser.

Never make your articles too short or too long. Preferably, stay within the 300-1500 word range–though the optimum length is probably about 600 words. When you finish writing an article, always take a moment to stand back and ask yourself, “Would I be able to read it in this format?”

Make It Interactive

Whenever you write a blog post, you don’t want people to simply read it. You want them to respond to it in some way. This is what markets call a “call to action.” You want your readers to do something after reading your article. Getting people to read your article is stage one; stage two is getting a commitment out of them after they’ve read it.

The easiest way to get your readers involved is to end your article with a question–asking them to leave a comment. Generating comments is a great way for you to build a community. You will be able to see who the real dedicated readers are. Also, many commenting platforms (Disqus, Livefyre, CommentLuv) provide links to the commenter’s other reference points online. You can connect with people, through, commenting, that could someday become partners or customers. When people do comment, always respond–preferably within 24 hours. You want your readers to know you’re there for conversation and not simply for broadcasting your message.

Another, somewhat passive call to action, is to include “widgets” or “plugins” that enable your readers to share your articles on social media sites. Have a “Facebook Share” button or a “Tweet” button. This makes it as easy as clicking the mouse for your readers to pass your article along to their networks. Rarely is someone going to copy and paste your URL into Facebook so that their friends can read your article. They might, though, spare two seconds and click the button you have conveniently placed below or alongside the article. Make your article shareable.

If you really want to generate leads from your blog, you’ll want to (on occasion) take a more direct approach. Offer something free to your readers (like an eBook, a webinar, entry into a drawing, etc.) in order to get them to sign up for a newsletter, register for an event, or any other activity that is likely to result in revenue for you. Make sure the call to action is loud and visible. Always use a graphic, maybe one with a big read button or a huge arrow–something that grabs your readers’ attention and lets them know that the offer is worth paying attention to.

In the end, your blog is all about making you more successful. Many business people have started blogs only to, months later, give up on the activity. They don’t get any traffic, so they figure the whole thing is a waste of time. If you aren’t generating the results you want, it’s probably because you’re doing it wrong. There really is a science to it. Hopefully, the things I’ve touched on here today have given you some guidelines as you get started.

Have you just started blogging? What are some things you’ve been struggling with? Let me know in the comments below…

#FreethePee : A Plea for More Common-Sense Customer Service

About a week ago, Amy Tobin wrote an excellent article titled “Restrooms Are for Customers Only.” Her contention was the sign that so many business people choose to hang on their restroom doors.  The justification, of course, is that business owners don’t want the general public taking advantage of services intended for their customers. But, as Amy says, “Don’t many of your ‘customers’ come in and NOT make a purchase? Isn’t browsing allowed anymore?” What is the difference between coming in to use the bathroom and coming in to just look around?

The problem, of course, is not the sign itself; the problem is what it represents. It connotes a sort of snobbery–a surcharge for just being nice. Think about it–you’re telling people that they have to pay to use your restroom. Is your restroom really that nice? Bottom line: if your restrooms don’t double up as spas, posting this sign is just absurd. We live in the age of free. Free wi-fi. Free eBooks. Free seminars. And all of these things are NOT for customers ONLY. They are gestures given in hopes of reciprocal business, but not in expectation of it. With all these companies given away such great stuff for FREE, can’t you spare a five-minute bathroom pass?

People with Bladders are People with Wallets

Besides the “just be nice” argument, it is completely ridiculous from a marketing standpoint to alienate people who come into your store–even if it is just to use the restroom. Think about it. You spend so much money advertising on Google, the Yellow Pages, the local TV station, or wherever you advertise. Why do you spend this money? To get people in your door! Guess what, the people who need to use your restroom are already there! Maybe they won’t buy something; maybe they will. But, if you put up that sign, guess what? They definitely aren’t going to buy anything.

Johnny Bee, a friend of Amy’s on Twitter, left a comment on Amy’s post saying, “How about advertising your products on the restroom & stall doors too?  Make good use of the space.  I mean you have a captive audience, right?” Funny, but true. Smart business people will welcome everyone, not just paying customers, to experience their brands. Word of mouth is a powerful thing and you don’t know which mouths will speak. Who’s to say that random stranger who came in just to use your restroom isn’t going to go out and tell a friend, “Hey, I saw ________ at _________ when I went in to use the restroom.”

It’s Time to #FreethePee

I’ve got to give credit where credit is due: Johnny Bee came up with the expression, “Free the pee,” as a call-to-action for business people to open up their restroom doors. So, here’s my call-to-action: help us spread the hashtag, #freethepee , on Twitter. It isn’t just about restrooms; it’s about a whole mentality. It’s about being nice. It’s about customer-service being intended for more than just customers. It’s about bringing humanity back into business. Are you game?

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