The One Thing You Can’t Afford to Blow Off

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I have lots of friends who are entrepreneurs. Some have day jobs as well, others are making a full-time living in their businesses. Some think they “aren’t really entrepreneurs” because they run schools or nonprofits.

Some are successful and some are struggling, but we’ve all got one thing in common. We’ve maxed out our personal resources. Not our checkbooks or credit cards (although sometimes those too), but our creativity, our time, and our productive energy.

Scheduled maintenance

Ever work with a big, high-volume copy machine? High maintenance doesn’t begin to cover it. There’s always something wrong with the damned things–they start having hourly paper jams, or they get into the habit of sprinkling cheerful ink confetti on your documents. And of course they have pricy ink and toner that need frequent replacement.

The only way to keep these things running is to get ahead of the problem–to have the fix-it-up-chappie come out on a regular schedule to keep everything aligned and in good shape.

If you’re “too busy” or “too broke” to make that happen, the karmic law of disasters guarantees that the machine will break down spectacularly at the exact moment the FedEx guy is waiting for you to print out the biggest RFP of your career.

Scheduled maintenance is critical for any complex piece of equipment that’s working at or close to its maximum productivity. And the fix-it-up chappie will tell you that delicate equipment is a lot easier and cheaper to maintain than it is to repair.

How to get anything done

There’s a lot of verbiage out there about productivity, but most of it boils down to one central habit. If it must get done, you must carve out dedicated time for it. Twitter, gossip and television can all be fit into the spaces left over from real work. Returning client calls, hard thinking about business strategy and any kind of writing all need to be on your calendar. And in there for real, not just an Outlook appointment that you snooze every 15 minutes until you dismiss it, undone, at the end of the day.

You, my friend, are a high-maintenance machine.

You’re the complicated invention that can’t be replaced. Your work relies on your energy, your creativity, and your enthusiasm. And you can only fake those things on a very limited basis. Starbucks is a crappy substitute for creativity and life force.

By now, I suspect you’ve gotten my main point. You have to schedule maintenance on yourself. And you probably need to do that daily. (Sorry, workaholics. I don’t make the rules, I just write them down.)

You are too busy for a psychic breakdown. You are too broke to be forced into taking a week or a month off to repair your damaged nervous system. So start taking care of your machine every day.

Starting today.

The maintenance program

Figure out one or two times a day when you have a decent level of mental energy. Mornings are good for lots of people, but they might not be right for you. Don’t use “junk” time for maintenance–it’s too important. It doesn’t necessarily have to be your absolute peak performance time, but don’t use time slots when you have the creative capacity of a flatworm, either.

If you have a fabulous life, take an uninterrupted hour every day for maintenance. If you have a life like the rest of us, take 20 minutes in the morning and, when you can, another 20 before bed.

Use this time to do something just because you like it. It should be pointless and highly satisfying. Stupid is optional but not bad.

Read trashy books. Color with crayons. Take a hot bath, preferably with puppets or bath crayons. Make pornographic origami or models of Star Wars spaceships.

The one unbreakable rule: there must be no practical application whatsoever to maintenance work. Writing blog posts doesn’t count. Reading business books doesn’t count. Painting your toenails is iffy. Baking cookies is fair game, but only if you eat them all yourself.

Unless you are already magnificently sane and productive, and the words “homicidal rage” are quaintly foreign to you, nothing you regularly do now counts. Working out is great, meditation is great, but if you already do them and the machine is still making that funny grinding sound, you still need some stupid fun time.

The more uncomfortable this post makes you, the worse you need it.

If you’re mentally shrieking that this is pointless advice that only an irresponsible bonbon-eating slacker could give, you are in crisis. Your machine is just about to break, leaving you with a smoking pile of springs and burned gears and no way to get your work done.

Keep going the way you are and your work is going to start to get worse. The machine starts to disintegrate from the inside, corroding the parts that are very, very hard to see. You won’t notice it right away, but once the rust takes hold, it’s hard as hell to get rid of.

A broken machine means no work, or lousy work that quits getting results. It means crappy money, crappy success, crappy momentum. It means significant pain for the people who rely on you, whether they’re your clients or your kids. A broken machine is frustrating, massively inconvenient and painful as hell.

Step away from your to-do list. Buy a watercolor paintbox and some glitter before it’s too late.

Srsly.

Photo from icanhascheezeburger.com

The Toddler’s Guide to Salesmanship

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They wreck our stuff, kill our sleep and chase away our non-parenting friends. But we still love ‘em and want to take care of them. I’ve learned a lot about effective persuasive communication from my three-year-old.

And it only makes sense. Toddlers are too small to do much, and lack their own credit cards, but they need the same food, shelter, love and amusements that anyone else does. All they have are their powers of persuasion.

These suggestions aren’t (just) tongue-in-cheek. Try them out in your own communication to make some stronger connections.

Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself

Parents of young children are typically broke, frustrated, chronically anxious, time-crunched and sleep-deprived. In this, they strongly resemble customers.

Toddlers know that when you’re speaking to a distracted audience, you might have to repeat your message 6 or 7 (or 60 or 70) times to get heard.

Repetition at toddler levels will drive your customers out of their minds. But you can repeat your message a lot more often than you think you can. Just like exhausted parents, your customers are only listening to you with half an ear. Be sure you’ve made your point enough times for them to get it.

Grown-up tip: Look for varied ways to convey the same message, or you’ll run into Are We There Yet Syndrome.

Look for ways to surprise and delight

My boy imperiously demanded some animal crackers the other day. “Animal crackers!”

“Hmm, what could you say that would make me want to give you animal crackers?” I said, in that mom way I have.

“Animal crackers, darling?” he said.

Darling bought him a lot more animal crackers than please would have. Their ability to surprise us and make us laugh is a big part of what keeps toddlers alive on those difficult parenting days.

Grown-up tip: It’s not always easy for us to reproduce the sideways logic of a toddler. Start by capturing all your ideas, including (especially) goofy ones. Set aside some time regularly to noodle on communication ideas that are “too silly” or “can’t work for me.”

When you come up with something both simple and surprising, you may just have a winner.

Use the language of your audience

The other day, my always-entertaining small person looked me in the eye and asked soberly, “Mama, is Papa maybe not a morning person?”

One of the vastly amusing things about toddlers is the way they repeat our phrasing exactly. This gets kind of stressful when we start worrying about the kid getting kicked out of Montessori school for R-rated language. But mostly it’s one of the great joys of hanging out with little kids.

Toddlers know that we hear best when we get a message that uses our own words.

Grown-up tip: One of the less-known uses of surveys and testimonials is to find the language of your customers. Look through everything your customers send you for wording you can mirror back to them. Artful, “writerly” language isn’t nearly as important as using the words and phrases that your customers do themselves.

Added 6/21: Don’t miss Bob Hoffman’s brilliant observation in the comments below that “clients are just toddlers with money.”

If you found this post useful, subscribe to my free email class on creating better content!

Flickr Creative Commons image by Kah_Zanon

Unlock the Secret Art of SEO

SEO (search engine optimization) has a reputation as some kind of mystical black art, with all kinds of arcane divinations needed to placate the great and mysterious Google.

Some folks believe that you need to pay giant dollars to a specialized wizard consultant to burn the right kind of incense and play the right kind of games that will put you on page one of Google. Conveniently for these wizards consultants, Google changes its rules constantly, so a good wizard consultant spends a lot of his time casting runes and squinting into Magic 8 Balls to see what the rules look like today.

Other folks will tell you that SEO is all snake oil. There's no such thing as effective SEO, you just live with a pure heart and noble intentions, and Google will find you. In this worldview, Google is so smart that they will always learn to pick out the spam from the real stuff. If you have real stuff, you will be bathed in eternal Google love and go on to live happily ever after.

Both of these camps are dangerously wrong.

Content comes first

We all know it, but it bears repeating (and repeating). If you want to do well in the search engines, it is a very smart idea to pull together some really good content.

Your content has to be useful. It has to be relevant to what people are looking for. And you probably have to have a bunch of it. (It also helps if you update it frequently.)

Google likes Baby Bear, in other words. But Baby Bear alone doesn't necessarily rise to the top without a little technique.

SEO is just a set of techniques

Not magic beans. Not games. Not super secret tricks you have to spend thousands of dollars to learn. Just some straightforward techniques that put you in the best light and that let the search engines know what you're doing.

Playing games with Google is like playing games with the IRS.* If that's your idea of a good time, ok, but I'm a little more risk-averse than that.

But the right kind of SEO is just like maximizing legitimate tax deductions. Play by the rules, play within the system, but don't be a damned chump about it. Fortunately, there's a lot of simple white-hat SEO (that's SEO that doesn't depend on spammer tactics) that is about 10,000 times easier than finding out how much childcare you actually get to deduct this year.

(8/9/08 edit: SEO School is no longer available, but I'll keep the post up in case it gets reinstated one of these days.)

My friend Naomi Dunford over at Ittybiz figured out that there was a lack of simple, straightforward SEO advice out there, so she put together an eBook. It's written for normal people–you don't have to be a techie or a marketing geek. And it's full of advice you can act on right away.

You can find out more about it on Ittybiz, or you can go right to the order page. It's pretty cheap, and it looks like if you enter the coupon code "MovingDay" before July 1st, you get it even cheaper.

No Magic 8 Ball required.

* For my readers who don't live in the U.S., the IRS is our beloved national tax agency.

The Three Bears of Social Media Marketing: Part 3 (Baby Bear)

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By Sonia Simone

OK, if Mama Bear is about conversation and connection, and Papa Bear is about listening more than you talk (sometimes known as lurking), what's Baby Bear?

Baby Bear makes friends easily, and he always has a lot to say. He can be awfully cuteā€”even adorable, if you do it right. So I hope you'll forgive him for not really being a bear at all.

Baby Bear makes himself useful

One of the smartest things you can do with social media tools is to make yourself useful. Take information, which we all have too much of, and turn it into something people can use.

Compile a bunch of good advice into a simple, readable format, or come up with a great framing metaphor to make a complex subject easier to understand. Take complicated stuff and make it easy. Take overwhelming stuff and make it manageable.

In other words, create a Baby Bear strategy: put together a whole bunch of killer content that solves a real problem or fulfills a real need.

A lot of folks mistakenly think that great content is the same thing as great writing. It's not, at all. Great content is useful. Great content does something to make people's lives better. It might save time, frustration, money or brain damage. There's lots of great content that just makes people giggle.

Great writing is nice, but completely optional. The audience for great writing is small (and shrinking), and there's an overabundance of great writing out there to consume. There are more brilliant novels than any of us can ever read in a lifetime, and that's not counting all the stellar nonfiction plus weekly doses of The New Yorker.

Please understand, I'm no fan of crummy writing. If good writing matters to you, by all means, learn to write well, and take pleasure from that. But great content is a lot easier to create than great writing, and has a much wider audience.

Baby Bear is friendly, whether or not he's social

There are true "social media" uses of a content strategy (like blogs) and then there are not-so-social uses (like email newsletters). But whether or not you have a mechanism for your readers to engage you in a true conversation isn't actually very important. Either way, having lots of useful, relevant content makes you look friendly.

The smartest content providers make their stuff feel like a conversation even when it isn't. Most good content uses a friendly, accessible voice and feels more like a letter from a pal than a textbook.

Most of us are influenced by our friends and by authority figures. A solid content strategy turns you into both. Every piece of useful content you create is like doing a small favor for your readers. It also establishes you as a smart, thoughtful authority on your subject.

Your content might suggest a rather chilly personality, like Jakob Nielsen's, or you may come across as a lovable train wreck like Dooce. It doesn't matter. Either way, readers who tune into your stream of regular content develop a connection with you over time. That connection translates into trust, which can be translated directly into dollars.

Baby Bear can't shut up

The tricky part about Baby Bear is you have to keep it going. It's work–enjoyable work most of the time, but it's still work.

A blog falls on the time-intensive end of things. The whole point of a blog is to provide lots of fresh content. Even blogs with good search tools (I'm working on getting that for you guys!) don't really invite dipping into your most compelling past content.

You also have no control over how readers work their way through your stuff. Which means if your great article on LOLcats requires a whole bunch of set-up, you don't have any way of making sure your readers have the right context.

Lately I've been falling hard for my email autoresponder. These are email programs that send a predefined sequence for you (like my 10-part marketing tool kit), which you can expand, move around, and generally evolve and refine to your heart's content. You can create a sequence of 3 messages or 3,000, the system doesn't care.

If you're already sending out an email newsletter and you don't use the autoresponder feature (you may have to dig, I didn't realize for months that Emma had one), you need to start now. You can create a sequence of your brainiest, most useful content and put it in front of every fresh reader.

And if you flake on getting your newsletter out in a timely way (like I do every month), you'll at least make a great first impression. Plus your readers stand some chance of remembering who the hell you are when you send something later.

If you've never thought about doing broadcast email but you think you want to start, in my opinion there is exactly one vendor to consider: Aweber. Their deliverability (percentage of messages that reach readers vs. spam filters) is just better than anyone else I've seen, their system is extremely easy to use, and they just added a whole bunch of gigantically useful analytics tools. Plus they're cheap.

Tell them Baby Bear sent you.

The Three Bears of Social Media Marketing: Part 2 (Papa Bear)

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By Sonia Simone

OK, the Mama Bear of social media marketing is the customer conversation model. It's about connection, warm fuzzies, community, all that good stuff.

The Papa Bear model isn't quite so fuzzy. I call it Papa Bear because it's the model that makes the most sense for gigantic organizations, but it can also be an important social media strategy for individuals or smaller companies. It has a common sense side and a potentially creepy side. So let's get into it.

Their eyes and ears are everywhere

Let's say there's a gigantic packaged food company. Now let's say the gigantic company has a program to listen in on public blogs and forum discussions, and learns about a novel use for one of its products. Maybe they make a chewing gum that's particularly good at clearing dust from your throat. That might not be a feature anyone in the marketing department has ever promoted, but customers have noticed it on their own.

Maybe, then, people are chatting in forums and military support blogs about sending that gum to their family members fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, to alleviate the choking dust that soldiers are facing there. The idea turns into a modest craze, with earnest volunteers coordinating sending cases of the stuff to soldiers deployed overseas.

Armed with the knowledge of this interesting new use of their product, the gigantic company now has all kinds of options. They can create ads around this particular feature, to reinforce the conversation that's already taking place. They can put special displays in supermarkets, saying that for every package of gum sold, the company will send a package to the military. Or the company could get their PR agency busy pitching the story, maybe coordinated with making a massive donation of the gum to the troops.

None of these has the gigantic company actually sending a representative to the online forum and chatting with the folks there. But it is still communication. The customers talk, the company listens and responds. It responds with action rather than literal conversation, but does that make it less meaningful?

Remember that adage, you have two ears and one mouth? You should therefore . . .

Listen twice as much as you talk

Papa Bear knows how to keep his mouth shut. He listens to what's going on. He finds out where his customers are hanging out. If he's really big, he might engage a company like Collective Intellect to analyze what's most significant about the conversation. (Subscribing to Sonia Simone in Google Alerts is pretty darned manageable to follow. Subscribing to "Coke" or "Mercedes" or "iPod" is not.)

Papa Bear watches the conversation and looks for themes. What are people upset about? What do they get really jazzed about? What's bugging them? What problems aren't getting solved? What great stuff are people saying about Papa Bear's competitors? Are Papa Bear's support people doing the right thing by customers, or are they prompting near-AOL level rants?

If Papa Bear isn't a multinational conglomerate (or possibly even if he is), he might be able to morph into Mama Bear and enter the conversation on a human level. But it's a good idea to spend at least some of your time in Papa Bear mode. People will always speak a little more freely about you if they don't realize you're in the room.

Is it too sneaky?

Online media have an unappealing word for this behavior: lurking. It conjures up a picture of some creepy guy hiding in the bushes outside your window.

So what do you think of Papa Bear? Is it sneaky and deceptive to listen quietly on the public conversation? Should we always step out of the shadows and make our presence known?

And is listening (and following up with action) "real" communication, or just eavesdropping?

I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Next in the series, of course, is Baby Bear. He's adorable, cuddly, and . . . not actually a bear at all. Subscribe in a reader or by email so you don't miss him!

Flickr Creative Commons image by thelearnr

The Three Bears of Social Media Marketing: Part 1 (Mama Bear)

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By Sonia Simone

The Ad Contrarian Bob Hoffman, who can always be counted on to spice things up, wrote a thought-provoking post for Copyblogger last week about the lack of real interactivity for the huge majority of Web users.

Bob has long held that the idealistic social media model of a rich, layered conversation replacing traditional advertising doesn't scale, and makes no sense for products like frozen chicken, floor wax, etc. Actually, I believe the expression "complete bullshit" may have come into play.

While I definitely fall into the category Bob calls "online zealot," I also think it makes sense to look at this stuff with your critical faculties fully engaged. One thing I've noticed is that the follow-up conversations I've seen talk about "social media marketing" or "conversation marketing" like it was one thing. In fact, there are a lot of different flavors.

There are three I find particularly interesting, so I thought I'd share those different models with you, along with my take on the pros and cons of each. To make them a little more memorable, each one is associated with one of the three bears. Yes, it's a dopey gimmick, but if I can use cute pictures of bears, you'd better believe I'll take advantage of it.

The customer conversation model

Customer conversation is what I think of as the "Mama Bear" model. It's all about love and connection–except when it's pissed off, at which point it becomes one of the scariest things you will ever encounter.

This is the classic Cluetrain Manifesto paradigm. Instead of mass advertising that gets broadcast to duped, mindless consumers, companies have complex conversations with their customers. Geoff Livingston expands this to say that there are no more audiences or consumers, only communities.

There are two common criticisms of this model. One is that it can't scale–not everyone who likes Budweiser can engage in a conversation with Budweiser.

The other, which I think is more pertinent, is that no one in his right mind wants to engage in a conversation with Budweiser.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind about the conversation model.

It's always a spectator sport

In any given online community, usually no more than 1% of users ever post anything to the conversation. In fact, that number can be far, far lower.

It's a common mistake to assume that the only people influenced by the conversation are the ones who actively add to it. But customers can and will watch how you conduct yourself in a conversation of this kind and make decisions about how trustworthy you are.

Hoffman's certainly right that those lurkers are not really "interacting" with the conversation, they're consuming it. But the interactive model informs their buying decisions all the same.

For bloggers, this means that your commenters may very well not be your customers–but they're providing the entertainment for your customers, and making you look good in front of them. This is not to be sneezed at.

Does that mean it's "not really social media," or that the customer conversation is just a really complicated ad? You can decide for yourself if it's "real social media" or not, and if that question is even important to you.

It works for some organizations and not for others

Southwest Air gets an insane amount of goodwill from its blog "Nuts About Southwest."

At least from my casual observation, the scandal over Southwest's safety rules hasn't cost them their community, although it must have dented it. People feel less LUV when it looks like you're willing to roll the dice with their lives. In fact, when you've convinced them to trust and care about you, it makes the betrayal hurt more. But fresh-faced Southwest employees continue to make heartfelt posts, and those posts receive comments from at least some customers who are still drinking the Kool-Aid.

Scandal or no, Nuts About Southwest works for a couple of reasons. First, Southwest has a folksy, little-guy corporate culture. Most of their employees seem not to hate their jobs, which is actually pretty damned astonishing. Southwest's warm, friendly workforce effortlessly (it seems) give a human face to their blog, and so to their company.

A United or a Delta are never going to be able to successfully reproduce that model. Neither their employees nor their management are wired for it.

Probably more important, there are people out there who actually want to have a conversation with scrappy, personable little Southwest. No sane customer wants to have a conversation with any of the giant airlines, unless it includes a lot of inventive profanity.

It ain't the only way

The customer conversation model has a lot going for it if you have the right kind of organization.

Namely, you need enough articulate, dedicated employees who can keep the conversation going. Even harder (and more important), management needs a heroic level of trust to allow those folks to be honest, even to the point of allowing them to knock the company every once in awhile.

But there are a couple of other models I find extremely interesting–what I call the lurker/spy model (Papa Bear) and the friendly authority content model (Baby Bear). I'll unpack both of those for you in the next few posts.

If you want to learn more about the model I personally find to be juuuussst right, subscribe to the blog feed to make sure you get the rest of the conversation! Catch you in a day or two . . .

Why Being A Dork is a Wonderful Thing

I had a ton of fun with the Copyblogger post last week. And just for the remarkable communication readers, here's the line I cut out because it seemed unseemly for Brian's blog:

Fake enthusiasm is as easy to spot as a pair of fake DDs, and even less appealing.

Unleash Your Inner Dork to Become a Better Copywriter