Blogging For Your Small Business

Presentation to the Shenandoah County Chamber of Commerce's Rev-Up Marketing Seminar Series on October 4, 2017

You're all in different places

Good evening! I’m delighted to be here and I want to say thank you to those who had time to answer the survey I sent out last week (CLICK HERE for survey results). You represent a spectrum of positions when it comes to online presence and visibility—from no website at all to a website with a blog—and some of you are just starting and trying to figure things out. Many of you just want to crank things up a notch and are trying to decide where it makes the most sense to invest your time and marketing dollars. Only a couple of respondents say they are already blogging with any regularity.

My goal today is not to convince you that you need a blog – you may not need one at all. But I do want you to understand what a business blog is, what it can do for your online visibility and engagement with your customers, and how you can decide if it’s for you or not. Because even if it’s not for you now, it may be at some time in the future.

This is not the place or time to get into exactly how to set up a blog, but your chamber director should know that there is a fair amount of interest in a “How To” workshop on that topic. I’ve also created a resource handout with my best suggestions for where to go if you want more information and training, as well as quite a few ideas on blog content.

Some Definitions:

Let’s start with a big-picture view of marketing and a definition of a blog.

The common definition of “marketing” is the action or business of promoting and selling products or services. That’s certainly accurate, but I’d like to suggest “marketing” might also be defined as a combination of strategies that reduce the friction between a potential customer or client and their decision to purchase a product or service from you. You want to remove the barriers, be they psychological or tangible, that are keeping them believing they need your product or service or from choosing yours over other options they might have.

The word “blog” is short for a “weblog” – and that is a website in which a blogger produces an ongoing online narrative. For you as small business owners, a business blog is no more—and no less—than a content management tool (CMS)—a way to offer content that provides value to your customers and prospects and helps them know, like, and trust you and your offerings enough to hand over their credit card.

This content is typically posted by you —or someone in your organization — with some regularity (at least monthly, but preferably weekly) and the type of content should not just be sales content, but should also include relevant helpful information, problem-solving, education, entertainment, and public service content. The regularity is important so your readers come to expect your content, but they can consume it and share it at their convenience 24/7 – that’s another way you’ve reduced the friction between your business and your customers.

Typically, we find business blogs integrated into a business website, and you’ll often see it as one of the major menu categories on a business site, along with HOME, ABOUT, PRODUCTS, and CONTACT US, etc.. It certainly doesn’t have to be called BLOG – It might be called NEWS or TIPS or RESOURCES or UPDATES or WHAT’S HAPPENING, but it’s a blog because there is new, fresh content posted at intervals. Every new entry is called a post, not to be confused with the pages on your site where your visitors will find the more static content that doesn’t change very often.

Do you really need a blog?

Some of you will remember Chuck Maddox – He and I served together on the First Bank board for many years, and whenever there was a discussion about where to build branches or invest money, he always shared this bit of country wisdom, “If you want to shoot ducks, you have to go where the ducks are.”

Every year, more and more of your potential clients are online and are expecting you to be online, but while a website has become almost essential, a blog is not.

You should NOT consider a blog

…if any of the following applies to your situation:

  • If you don’t think your prospects are likely to read or respond to online content
  • If you think offline referrals and networking are more effective in your industry.
  • If you’re not willing to post regularly
  • If you’re not willing to post interesting, valuable content
  • If you know you won’t take the time and you don’t have anyone else in your organization to create content and you don’t think it’s cost-effective to pay someone else to do it for you.

A weak blog that hasn’t been updated in months is worse than not having a blog at all.

You should consider a blog

…if you think these potential benefits of a blog can help your business’s customer engagement and online visibility:

  • When your blog subscribers get an email notice that you’ve posted new content, it’s a friendly nudge to remind them that you’re there and ready to help them when they need you – it keeps you “top of mind,” even if they don’t read every single email you send.
  • When you regularly add content to your blog, it can greatly improve the SEO—search engine optimization— of your whole website and make it more likely that Google will include your site in its search engine results for the keywords you’ll use. Google loves FRESH content!
    • When someone puts “insurance agents (or beauty salons, or bed & breakfasts, or antiques) in Shenandoah County,” will your business pop up on the first page of Google search results?
  • When you post valuable and engaging content related to your business, you begin to establish yourself as having knowledge and authority—someone your prospects will turn to when they need what you’re selling.
  • Online content is easy for your readers to share – by email or social media. If you wow them with your content, they’ll help you by sharing it with friends and family. This can be powerful.
  • New content makes your site seem fresh and current, especially if you display your latest content somewhere on your homepage so it looks a little different every time someone visits.
  • You can provide value to your followers by answering their questions and helping them solve their most pressing problems relating to what you do. If you find yourself answering the same question repeatedly, this might be the perfect content for your blog.
  • You can promote community and nonprofit events in your area by including information about them and their events on your blog.
  • You can shine a spotlight on your best clients/customers by congratulating them on your blog when they achieve milestones.
  • A blog can be used in conjunction with an email service provider to build a larger email list for your business. I’ll speak a bit more about that later.
  • You can notify your followers when you’re having a sale or offering a special discount, new product, or holiday package.

Notice that I put the sales use of a blog last on the list. That’s because if you use your blog primarily to promote yourself, readers will stop paying attention and delete notices of your posts without reading them.

What should you write about on your blog?

Talk about what you know!

  • A landscaper could write about how to choose the right plants for the season in your area
  • A B & B could write about the health benefits of a weekend of being unplugged from cell phones
  • A beauty salon could write about popular hairstyles or outrageous trends
  • A mechanic could write about how to check a timing belt or change a tire
  • An insurance agent could write about the pros and cons of long term care insurance or what kinds of insurance you need for your college kids
  • A nonprofit could write about success stories from needs they’ve met or talk about how they spend every donated dollar
  • A fitness center or coach could talk about age-appropriate exercises or fitness tips
  • A restauranteur could write about what goes on in the kitchen or how they source their foods

Your industry trade association may offer content or ideas you can use for your blog, either free or by subscription.

Ask your customers/clients what’s on their mind. Create a short survey to give to people when they come in your store, or use SurveyMonkey.com to create a short survey to email. You’ll be surprised how many ideas you might find for future blog posts this way.

Use Feedly.com to sign up for RSS feeds from bloggers who write about topics in your industry or when articles are published online for keywords you specify. This will give you an idea of what topics are current in your industry – you can share these on your blog or write about your own perspective on what others are talking about. Curated content saves your readers time when you pick out the best information and present it to them clearly.

In my handout, I’ve included a list of ideas for things to write about.

Let's get specific…

Okay, let’s just do a little bit of quick brainstorming. Get out a sheet of paper and a pen. I've provided a more expanded handout with a Brainstorming Exercise for blog content, but let's do a bit here:

  • What are some questions you get frequently from customers or prospects?
  • What are some of the most pressing problems that your service or product can solve?
  • If your customer were asking you for a list of tips, what might they include?
  • What things do you most want your customers to remember?
  • What are some things you know about that your clients or customers would love to learn from you?
  • What have you read (or seen or heard) lately that might be of interest to your clients/customers/prospects
  • If you were going to write a post that begins “Introduction to_____” what might some topics be?

Must your blog topics be specific to your industry?

Interestingly, the answer to this is “Not always.” If you want to establish yourself as having knowledge and authority, you should showcase relevant topics. But you’d be surprised how much your customers enjoy occasional departures from that:

  • Inspirational quotes
  • Your family’s favorite recipes
  • Hearing an occasional story about you, your childhood, your hardships, your successes, your family, your vacations
  • Book reviews/recommended reading
  • Sharing your favorite tips for relaxing (or reading or getting healthy, etc.)

Avoid politics and controversy – there’s enough of that available elsewhere.

Do you have to allow comments on your blog?

No, the comments function can be turned on or off in your blog’s settings. If you enjoy feedback from your site visitors and want them to be able to interact with you, comments can be great, but you also run the risk of people griping in the comments and leaving a negative impression on others (unless you resolve the problem quickly and tactfully, in which case you might look like a hero).

Who will see your blog and how does a blog help to build your email list?

Do NOT buy into the myth that “if you build it, they will come.” Most of us—and certainly most of your prospects and customers—are faced with information overload every single day. You need to give them a reason to open your emails and read your blog.  Your email service provider is an invaluable tool by providing easy subscription sign-up for your blog, easy delivery of your blog content to subscriber In-boxes, and protection that your emails comply with anti-spam laws.

A customer email list is not necessarily the same as your blog subscription list, but once you have a blog, new additions to your email list should be agreeing to receive your blog content as well as any other emails you send them.

Your email list can be one of your most valuable business assets. Think about it: these are people who have said, “Yes, you have my permission to send me information by email.” You should be building an email list even if you decide you don’t want a blog.

An email service provider makes it easy to do this by providing sign-up forms, opt-in confirmation (so you don’t later get accused of spam) and the legally required UNSUBSCRIBE link at the bottom of every email that goes out in your name, giving your recipients the option of unsubscribing at any time.

Give your site visitors an incentive to sign up for your email list and/or subscribe to your blog. This might be a discount coupon, a tip/helpful hints sheet, an eBook, or a How To article that relates to your business. With an email service provider, as soon as someone adds their name to the list, they’ll receive the incentive.

Now here’s the cool thing – an email service provider makes it easy to do a few things:

  1. Automatically alert your email list when there’s new content on your blog
  2. Send out a manually generated message to everyone on your list with one keystroke.
  3. Create a URL/link you can use in your social media, email signature, or other communications that will go straight to an email list sign-up form
  4. Embed sign-up forms anywhere in your website – a special page, a sidebar, etc.
  5. They make it easy to create email newsletters, and they provide a way for them to show up on your website in addition to being mailed to your email list.
  6. You can create segmented lists if you wish – one for customers, one for prospects, one for vendors, etc.

Popular email service providers include MailChimp, Constant Contact, Aweber, and ConvertKit. Most are by subscription, but I believe MailChimp still is free up to a certain number of emails on your list.

Does content have to be written?

Absolutely not!

If you’re more comfortable talking to your video camera or doing a video-recorded demonstration, recording an audio file, creating a Powerpoint presentation, or sharing content that others have created (with appropriate accreditation), use those and post them on your blog – or better yet, mix it up.

Many of you know Annette Petrick and her podcast ConsiderThisRadioShow.com. She has a blog of the same name, and each recorded episode is posted as a new blog post along with its transcript and a few sentences of backstory.

YouTube makes it easy to embed their videos into your blog, but just remember they are often promoting other people’s businesses instead of yours.

Have any of you tried adding video or audio recordings to your website?

Where do you find the time to write a blog?

Just like anything worthwhile, if you decide it’s important, you must build it into your schedule. That usually means something else must go, but most of us can find an hour a week by cutting out time-wasting tasks, going to bed and getting up a little earlier, or shortening our lunch breaks.

Many bloggers prefer to batch their content creating sessions, so they’ll set aside a whole morning and crank out enough weekly blog posts for the next month. Posts can be scheduled ahead of time.

Do you need to include graphics in your posts?

Most business blogging experts say it’s important to have at least one graphic to go along with every blog post. Not only does it provide visual appeal and make it more likely to be read, but a picture will be more likely to be shared on social media than just a post title. I use Canva.com to create title images for my blog posts.

There are many online sources for free or low-cost graphics, and I’ve included some in your handout, but, of course, you or your employees can take your own pictures and use them in your blog.

Are there good alternatives to a blog?

If it suits your business or your personality to post information for your clients and customers “on the fly” rather than through a more formal blog, there are lots of options:

  • A Facebook or LinkedIn page or group
  • Instagram if you like to take photos
  • Pinterest if their demographic matches yours
  • A podcast if you’re inclined towards audio or video content exclusively, but often this works in conjunction with an existing blog.
  • An email newsletter

Here’s the bottom line

Don’t get overwhelmed! No one knows how to do any of this stuff intuitively. Most of us with knowledge have spent hours and hours learning by trial and error – and spending a fair amount of money on courses and training.

The Internet is your friend!

You can find tutorials on virtually any topic by simply going to Google or YouTube and typing in whatever it is you want to know about in the search box.

Before you take the time and trouble to add a blog to your marketing strategy, spend some serious time thinking about whether it will really add value to your customers and their experience with your business. Start with the customers in mind and add only tools that will truly help you serve them better.

Go forth and prosper!

Survey Results

Business Owner Blog Resources

Brainstorming Exercise

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Capture The Life Stories That Must Be Told and Remembered

Write down these life stories while you can

When my 95-year-old father died, friends and family gathered to celebrate his life throughout the following week, and there were dozens of stories told about him and about the ways, large and small, he touched people's lives. Born in 1918, a fighter pilot during WWII, he witnessed a remarkable span of world history, and much of his perspective on those things will be lost except those which we had the foresight to preserve on tape or on paper.

I'm so grateful that he recorded some of his memories, and I'm also glad I wrote about him in a blog post called “Life Lessons From A Great Dad.” 

Memories all around us are being lost every second, so I was thrilled to find out that Dennis Becker, a wonderful man whom I met when I attended the NAMS conference in Atlanta, has created a remarkable e-course called Writing Life Histories for Fun and Profit and is offering it at the crazy low price of $17.00. I have just bought and taken a look at it, and I'm promoting it enthusiastically to anyone who wants to write life histories, either for themselves or for others. If you do nothing more than use his guidelines and interview questions to write your own or a loved one's family history, you can't go wrong at this price, especially with Dennis's 60-day money-back guarantee, but Dennis's training includes all the material you need to create a business writing life histories for others if you should ever want to do so.

http://www.riverwoodwriter.com/LifeStories

You won't believe the value in this e-course!

Here's what you'll get from this downloadable e-course:

  • Everything you need to get started as a personal historian!
  • Learning how easy it is to turn oral interviews into printed, published gold for pennies on the dollar.
  • Learning how to turn writing simple personal histories into a powerful business for yourself, including the ability to charge hundreds up to thousands or more in some specific situations that you’ll learn inside.
  • By the time you finish this course, you’ll be able to either write personal histories for your own family’s legacy or for others.

For this small investment of under $10 (Dennis says the introductory price will go up soon), you have the tools to quickly and easily capture these incredible life stories all around you. They're perfect for helping you write your own life story, and there are many more among your family and friends who have their own priceless stories that are begging to be told. And if you want, you can do this for others as a lucrative writing service.

Time is fleeting!

http://www.riverwoodwriter.com/LifeStories

If you're a freelance writer, helping capture life stories is a natural service to add to your offerings. Even if you're not a writer yourself, the interview questions in this e-course can be used to record sessions with your loved ones. Or record your own answers to the questions and get them transcribed for your family and friends.

Click the link above, read more about the course and what it includes, and grab this wonderful e-course “Writing Life Histories for Fun and Profit” now. Because NOW is the best time to start preserving your own memories or those of others.

Back on its golden hinges
The gate of Memory swings,
And my heart goes into the garden
And walks with the olden things.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox

 

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How I learned to write like James Chartrand*: A Non-Fiction Writing Course Like No Other

New sessions of this course have been running in early spring and early fall each year, with sign-ups usually in January or early February and August. To be notified when registration is open—and to get lots of great free writing tips between now and then—get your name on the course's email list HERE. Absolutely no obligation.

===================================

In the beginning, I could write.

I was a nuts-and-bolts writer for twenty-five years. I did technical writing for an engineering company and medical writing for physicians. For both, I turned obscure terms and concepts into writing a layperson could understand. Subscribers found my home-business content valuable when I wrote for a home-based entrepreneur website. At a local community foundation, I became the go-to person when a written piece needed just the right touch. On a personal level, I’ve always gotten warm feedback from my handwritten notes of thanks, sympathy, or encouragement. I thought I was a decent writer.

Then the blogging bug bit me.

I started Heartspoken.com and began writing about topics to teach and encourage readers to live their most wholehearted life at any age. To accomplish that, I needed an entirely different result. I wanted to inspire and educate… …but the practical, utilitarian writing of my past was too often flat—and rarely compelling. I hired a proofreader, Karen Sanderson, thinking she would at least save me from embarrassing typos. Her first proofreading job came back covered with comments and red lines. I was horrified! Little did I know she was an accomplished editor who believed in giving extra value by making suggestions beyond correcting mistakes. As I absorbed each comment and saw how her subtle changes added kick and direction to my writing, I came to a startling realization:

I really needed to crank my writing up a few notches!

I thought writing classes were just for imaginative souls who wove characters into fiction plots, so I hadn’t considered there might be a writing course for bloggers or business writers. I found plenty of blogs talking about blogging, though. I signed up for updates from Men with Pens and Copyblogger. I eagerly anticipated posts from James Chartrand, Sonia Simone, Brian Clark, and Jon Morrow. Their writing was strong and compelling; they became my rock stars. It never occurred to me I could learn to write like they do.

Damn fine timing brought me a writing course on steroids.

The next thing I knew (ah, the Universe is a wonderful thing), I received an email from James Chartrand, A-list blogger and founder of Men with Pens, about her writing class called Damn Fine Words.The course description said I would learn how “to create compelling, engaging content… the kind of content that reaches your target market, increases your readership, pulls in new clients, boosts your sales and brings you better success…” Yowzer, this looked good. And that was only the beginning. The course would help me smash writer’s block and teach me how to write quickly and easily on any topic, regardless of my niche. I’d be able to overhaul my website copy, write the ebook that has eluded me, and write marketing copy and newsletters like a pro. But here was the clincher: The course included personal coaching from James Chartrand herself! I couldn’t get to the sign-up form fast enough.

Damn Fine Words delivered!

My classmates included bloggers, entrepreneurs, artists, an attorney, a comedian, a martial arts instructor, and a handwriting analyst. What bound us was a commitment to becoming better communicators, and by course design, we learned from each other as well as from our teacher. Ten weeks and 20 value-packed lessons later, I feel like Superwoman, with a commanding new arsenal of writing weapons that empower me to take charge of my writing. The practical, immediately implementable strategies included learning to:

  • Create a writing space and ritual that makes me much more productive.
  • Be clearer on my goal for each piece before I even start writing.
  • Develop a system for capturing ideas immediately. (I have filled my editorial calendar for months ahead!)
  • Crank out lots of “shitty first drafts” to ensure a supply of pieces that can be quickly whipped into shape when needed.
  • Recognize where breaks and formatting add punch and readability.
  • Spot unsupported statements in my own and others’ writing.
  • Write with the reader’s needs in mind.

There were highs and lows, to be sure. I got behind in a couple of spots, and I still need to practice, practice, practice. But thanks to James Chartrand’s Damn Fine Words, I write with much more confidence and authority. That makes me a Damned Fine Writer, and you can become one too. This university-level class has been offered twice a year, usually in late winter/early spring and late summer/early fall, so Click here right away to start receiving free information and updates, with absolutely no obligation. These emails alone, from course designer James Chartrand, are loaded with writing tips, tricks, and free information.

Aren’t you just a wee bit curious?

Headshot of James Chartrand, founder/owner of Men with Pens

James Chartrand, founder of Men with Pens and creator of Damn Fine Words writing course

This was the best investment I’ve made in myself in years, and if your source of income or your mission in life depends on your ability to communicate clearly and passionately, this could be your best investment too. It costs nothing to learn more about what the course covers, who it’s designed for, and all about James and her staff. Click here NOW. After reading this, you’ll know whether or not the course can help you. All the links to the course here are affiliate links, which means I get a commission if you sign up. If you know me, you know I would never endorse something I didn’t believe in wholeheartedly. I’ll sweeten the pot for you with two offers:

  1. Feel free to call me at 540-436-3969 between 10am and 5pm Eastern Daylight time to ask me any questions you want about my experience with the Damn Fine Words class. Or email me at elizabethc@riverwoodwriterdotcom
  2. Anyone who becomes a paid class member through my affiliate link will get a prize. Just email me your receipt with your name and snail mail address and I’ll send you a gift of personal stationery.

Don't miss registration for the next session

Don't wait to find out about this terrific course today. If nothing else, get on the email list and start receiving lots of free writing tips. The class is usually offered twice a year, usually in March and September.

 * James Chartrand founded and owns one of the world’s most respected copywriting and website design companies and its wildly popular blog, Men with Pens.

Top photo credit: “Digital vs Analog” by David Crockett via BigStockPhoto
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7 Tips to Run Your Business Frugally And Increase Profits

dollar-499481_640When we hear the word frugal, we usually associate it with something people do for household expenses. It’s a word viewed in a negative way. It makes us think we can't ever spend any money or buy new things. And most of the time, it’s not a word people associate with running a business. But if a business owner is frugal, she can usually build her business faster and increase profits faster.  Running a business frugally also helps reduce stress associated with business ownership.

Let’s focus on how you can cut back on your spending and increase profits with 7 easy-to-follow tips.

1. Budget carefully

If you don't have a business budget set up yet, it’s important to set aside some time to create one (See my earlier post “5 Budgeting Mistakes Business Owners Should Avoid.” You absolutely must know what you have coming in each month versus what’s going out. How else can you find out if you're spending on unnecessary items so you can cut back? This will help your bottom line which means one thing—more profit in your pocket.

2. Analyze ruthlessly

Go through your budget with a fine tooth comb. When I say analyze, I mean analyze everything. What are you spending on advertising? What is the return on investment of those advertising dollars being spent? What about outsourcing—what do you pay contractors? Are you seeing a return on that investment?

But take it one step further than just analyzing places you're currently spending money. Create a system so you have to analyze any future investments. You want to make every effort to figure out if it’s going to be worth it before you actually spend the money.

3. Consider free software and applications

One of the easiest ways to run your business frugally and to pocket more profit is by using free versions of the programs you need to run your business: e.g., budgeting or invoicing tools, Skype, etc. Use Google to find these programs (i.e., type “Free graphics program” in the search box), or ask around in forums or from business associates.

Cautionary note: Just because something is free, however, doesn't mean it’s always the best choice. With malware and viruses, etc. you need to do your due diligence and research the different applications and software that are free. Because they're free, they're often what’s known as open source, and using open source products definitely comes with a risk.

5. Shop by comparing

Whenever you've got something to buy—from office supplies to office vehicles—be sure to shop around and get the best price. At some point, of course, the time it takes to do this is better spent elsewhere, but try to identify and use sources that give you good products and services at a great price. Develop a relationship with them, when possible, and take advantage of sales and special offers.

4. Outsource

While outsourcing might be a place you're spending too much money, it is often the smartest investment you can make if it frees you up to generate higher level business.

Yes, you probably can do many of your outsourced tasks yourself, but you have to really think about whether it would be better for you (your business) to have someone else do these tasks instead? For example: if your Virtual Assistant handles your customer service (help desk tickets, emails, etc.) and it takes 8 hours a month and they charge $30 an hour, that's $240 a month for VA services. That may seem like a lot of money to spend on something you can do yourself, but because your VA isn't emotionally attached to your business like you are, they can handle that customer service more easily. So if a nasty email comes through, they won't spend hours dwelling on it and wondering how to respond back. They’ll know the procedure (give the customer a refund, etc.) and just do it. No hard feelings. They’ll also get in there and get out. What takes them 8 hours a month could take you 8 hours a week, and that’s time you can focus on the money-making projects instead.

Running a frugal business means you have to spend money on the things that make sense, and outsourcing is often going to be an expense that makes sense.

5. Barter, partner, and negotiate

Unlike traditional outsourcing, there may be some things you can outsource on a less expensive scale, sometimes even free!

Look for services or products that cost less. Let’s say you have a product set up and ready to launch, but you don’t know how to write sales copy. You found a copywriter, but they charge $500 to write one sales page, and it’s not in your budget to spend that kind of cash.

Perhaps there's someone with whom you can barter.

What product or services do you offer that could be a good fit for someone who does copywriting? Approach them with a win/win situation – the barter has to be beneficial to both of you for it to be a good idea.

Voilà, you now have your sales page ready so you can launch that product, and they now have, for example, five hours of coaching with you (or whatever you decide you can offer).

6. Leverage professional memberships

If you belong to a chamber of commerce or an industry professional organization, they have often negotiated excellent pricing on things such as insurance, office supplies, etc.. Scope out their membership benefits and see if any can save you money.

If those organizations offer you any kind of free publicity—an ad on their website or publication, for instance—be sure to take advantage of it.

7. Recycle for profit or charity

When you buy new equipment, sometimes you can trade in or sell your old equipment. Always ask! If you choose to donate it to a charity, perhaps there's something that charity can do for you: list you on their website or in their newsletter; or provide volunteers to help you the next time you have an event and need assistance.

I have one final bonus tip for you – take a look around your office. Can you cut back on office supplies (do you really need all those pens, sticky notes, etc.?). Is there anything that can be bought in bulk? Sure it will cost more upfront, but in the long run you'll save. What about reducing how much paper and ink you use? Is there any way you can cut back on electricity use? Can you cancel that landline phone you’re paying for and use Skype, Vonage, or Google Voice instead? Do you really need to subscribe to that newspaper?

I bet when you put some time and effort into looking at your business and everything you spend money on, you'll find some ways to cut back. Start being more frugal and watch how quickly you'll increase profits.

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What Goes Into Your Company Operations Manual?

business manualLet's face it; bad stuff happens

Of course you don't want to admit that something could happen to you that would keep you away from your business, but you know it could. You've got a lot of knowledge rattling around in that brilliant head of yours, but without you, would your employees or business associates or family members know the things they'd need to know? In other words, have you planned for the unexpected?

Many of these concerns can be alleviated by creating a company operations manual and designating who will be handling the day-to-day business operations if something does happen to you.

How to create a company operations manual

Something as simple as a list created in a Word Document would suffice. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just a way to keep all this information in one place. You could also use an Excel spreadsheet to create the list. It's a good idea to print this information off and keep it in your desk drawer or in a folder or binder on your desk—somewhere that you and your next-in-command will know where to find it.

Don’t let the word manual scare you off. It doesn’t have to be long, but it’s crucial to have some key elements (information) in your manual. These might include:

  • Business mission statement
  • Outsourcing contractors contact information
  • Insurance policies
  • Equipment Inventory
  • Financial statements, budgets, and recent tax filings
  • License numbers (if you have any)
  • Banking information
  • PayPal information
  • Critical usernames and passwords

It’s important to have this information readily available in your business manual so that if something does happen, whoever is handling your affairs can:

  • Contact your team (Virtual Assistant, webmaster, project manager, etc. – anyone on your team who helps with your business)
  • Access your bank accounts
  • Access your PayPal account
  • Stop your subscription-based payments

Details are critical

Your lists should include the following for each subscription, contractor, client or account:

  • Contact Information – name, phone number, cell phone number, email address, home address (if you have this info)
  • Relationship – who this person is (Virtual Assistant, web designer, etc.)
  • Responsibilities – what does this person do and what will you need them to do during your absence/or need them to know?
  • Money – this is a good idea to have included so that if you’re going to be gone short-term but payments will be need to be made, the person handling your affairs won’t have to go digging for this info. Include payment info for subcontractors, subscriptions, etc.
  • Payment Method – don’t forget to include how each of the above are paid. Make not if it’s with your PayPal account, business checking account, or even if it’s a subscription based payment via PayPal.
  • Dates – Again, another important thing to make note of: the date that each of the above is due.
  • Usernames and passwords where applicable to access accounts for each of these.

Another page should be created in your business manual with notes on where things such as client files or important projects can be found on your computer. Add any relevant information that will make things as easy as possible for whoever’s handling things during your absence or, in the worst-case scenario, the termination of your business.

Don’t forget to sit down and talk to the person who will handle things for you. Whether it’s a family member or business partner, this is a tough conversation that has to be done. If something does happen, they'll know where to find the manual and know what to do and who to contact.

One last piece of advice

After you've gone to the trouble of creating an operations manual for your business, make sure everyone else knows where to find it!

What additional information would you put in a company operations manual? Let us know in the comments below.

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3 Organizational Tips To Reduce Tax Season Stress

tax-time

It’s almost that dreaded time of year again

Tax filing season.

I'm guessing this is what you usually do: You procrastinate until the last minute. When you sit down to work on tax preparation, there’s no organization whatsoever, and you find yourself staring at a shoebox bulging with receipts and wondering why you thought that was a great place to file things in the first place. Or you realize, as you get started, that you’re missing information.  Is it lost in the sea of disorganized paperwork, or did you never have it in the first place?

You’re not alone!

This is what millions of people face every April. Remember that old saying “Out of sight, out of mind”? For 11 months out of the year, taxes aren’t on your mind (or the mind of other millions of Americans). But suddenly April is upon you, and once again you’re mad at yourself for procrastinating and not having some sort of order to the way you filed and saved things for the past 11 months.

It doesn't have to be like this!

Start in December or January, and save yourself lots of time later. The tips suggested below will help you get through your taxes with as little stress as possible.

1) Gather Your ID Numbers

In April you're going to need quick and easy access to your social security and tax identification numbers. You'll also need the social security numbers of your spouse and dependants. If you have a filing cabinet where you store important documents, create a folder for this information. Label it clearly, and when April rolls around (or any other time you may need access to this info), it will only take a second to pull the file and have the numbers at your fingertips. These numbers don't change, so this task is “once and done.”

2) Gather Your Income Forms and Statements

What you'll need here depends on whether you’re employed by someone or self-employed. If you have an employer, they will send you a W-2 form for the past year.  If you do not have an employer and work for yourself, it’s important to make sure you pull reports that document both your profits and expenses for the fiscal year. If you're using accounting software, this can be done easily by generating a profit and loss statement for the twelve months of the tax year.

Find your previous year’s tax 1040 or business filing forms and get in the habit of saving these in a place where you can find them easily the next year. There is information on these forms that you (or your accountant) will need.

Starting in January, you'll be getting tax forms in the mail from places such as your bank, your investment firm, and your mortgage holder. The forms from investment firms will document how much income you've received in dividends, interest, and capital gains. If you own stock directly, you should also get a form about dividends paid to you. If you have a savings or money market account at your bank, they'll send you a form telling you how much interest you've earned. The mortgage holder for your home and/or your equity line of credit will send you a statement showing mortgage interest paid.  If you've made donations charitable organizations, you may get a statement documenting the amount. Be on the lookout for forms containing Medicare, Social Security, and retirement monies.

If you have done considerable business as a subcontractor to another business client, they should send you a Form 1099. You have undoubtedly accounted for this income in your profit and loss records, but If you receive any Form 1099s, they should be kept so you can attach them to your tax return.

When these forms arrive in the mail, there will often be a message on the outside of the envelope such as “Important Tax Document enclosed.” As they arrive, put them in a special folder so they'll all be together when you need them in April. Keep personal and business forms separate.

3) Gather Your Receipts

Remember that bulging shoebox? While this is literally how some people keep their receipts, I don't recommend it. I use a simple file folder labeled “Riverwood* 2014,” but something like a coupon organizer or a plastic collapsible accordion style organizer might work better for you. Some prefer the folders with a slot for each month of the year.

You don't have to keep every single receipt for the year. There are some that won’t matter and you’ll end up throwing them away in the long run. What you do want to keep are receipts from business expenses (business trips, office supplies, etc.), childcare expenses, medical expenses, etc.

Let me remind you again to keep your personal and business receipts in a separate place. If you have a home-based business, it's tempting to throw them all together and sort them out later, but don't do that! The only way you can maximize your business deductions is to keep good records of your expenses, and if you ever get audited, you don't want the IRS to think you're not taking your business seriously.

Here's how I organize my files: I have a home-based office and file a Schedule C for my business on my personal tax return. Last January, I created these new files that I keep in a hanging file drawer right next to my office chair:

  1. Receipts 2014: I use this file for household receipts and invoices. I keep them until the following January to make sure all my payments have cleared, then I throw most of them away unless there is an overriding reason to keep something.
  2. Donations 2014: This is where I put receipts for my charitable donations.
  3. Medical/Dental 2014: This file is where I put receipts for all medical, dental, and eyeglasses expenditures for the year. It makes them easy to add up in case I qualify for a medical deduction.
  4. Taxes 2014: This is a file for other receipts or documents I might need the following year to prepare my 2014 tax return. It includes invoices for legal or accounting professional services, as well as real estate and personal property taxes paid. When tax documents start arriving the following January for the 2014 tax year, I put them in this folder until I'm ready to start preparing my tax return.
  5. Riverwood 2014: I put all my business receipts in this file. I try to staple receipts for items charged on my business credit card to the appropriate credit card statement.

I usually make personal donations instead of business donations, but if you make donations from your business, you may wish to keep a separate folder for those receipts. Be sure to keep any real estate tax or personal property tax for your business too.

Each year I make new files for the following year and consolidate the previous documents for storing. Tax-related documents should be kept for seven years.

There you have it

These three simple tips will help keep you organized throughout the year so when April rolls around, you'll have all the information you need readily available. You'll save hours of time get through your taxes more quickly, more easily, and with less stress.

Do you have a great tax organization tip you'd be willing to share? Leave a comment below.

*RiverwoodWriter, LLC is the legal name of my business

Photo Credit: Philip Taylor PT

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Stress Reduction Tips For Small Business Owners

stress-relax

Of course you're stressed!

You wear so many hats, and each one of your jobs is critical to your business. It’s inevitable you'll occasionally—or often— find yourself stressed out. You've got to take care of yourself the way you would care for your most valuable asset…because you are.

Stress Reduction Tips

Here are five stress reduction tips you can try to help keep your peace in moments of stress:

Stress Reduction Tip #1 – Exercise

We're not suggesting you have to carve out 60 minutes at a time (though if you can, it's great). In reality, most people can't find that kind of time anyway. Start with something as simple as a 10-15 minute walk around the block or even around the building. If you can't sneak outside for one, hop on the treadmill. It doesn't matter – the point is to just do it! 10-15 minutes is a perfect amount of time to clear your head, raise your heart rate, and release some of those feel-good endorphins.

Stress Reduction Tip #2 – Eat a Healthy Well-Balanced Diet

Eating a diet full of sugar, sweets, carbs, and processed foods is not only unhealthy, but these foods also cause a “crash” once they wear off. This means you'll find yourself feeling sluggish, irritable, and moody a couple of hours after you eat them. A well-balanced diet full of fruits, vegetables, and “good” foods will give you more energy and help you feel more alert. You'll be able to handle stress so much more easily.

Stress Reduction Tip #3 – Meditate

Meditation, at its simplest, is just the practice of sitting and getting quiet.There is no right or wrong way to meditate. Find your favorite place to sit and watch nature (flowers, birds, animals, etc.). Some people use white noise apps to get the sound of rain or surf. If you want to get a little more serious, you can learn proper breathing techniques and yoga positions.

Stress Reduction Tip #4 – Listen to Music

If you're a parent you may have battled with your kids because you wanted them to remove their headphones and quit listening to music while doing their homework. But studies have shown that music can be a great source of concentration and relaxation. Find some music that relaxes you and create a playlist you listen to in times of stress.

Stress Reduction Tip #5- Use Essential Oils

The sense of smell is our oldest sense from an evolutionary standpoint. That's why a scent that you associate with happiness or relaxation can, with one sniff, reduce your stress and take you to a calmer place. If you're trying to reduce stress, aromatherapy doesn't have to be a long complicated process. Just pull out a bottle of lavender, lemon, peppermint (or whatever scent works best for you) and take a few sniffs. Some people also rub the oil on their wrists. Another option is to purchase an oil diffuser to dispense the essential oils into the air.

Find what works for you

When it comes to stress reduction, it’s not a one-size-fits-all answer. What works for one person may not work for another. Don't put off finding your own stress reduction strategy. Every minute you're stressed takes a toll on your mind and body. Try one or more of these five tips. If they don't appeal to you, simply CLICK HERE or type “simple stress reduction tips” into your browser's search box and get ready to find hundreds of ideas. It’s just a matter of trying different things and finding what works best.

Please let us know what simple, healthy strategies you've found to reduce stress.

Friday-Quick-Tips-Crosswordb
[important]Did you find this helpful? CLICK HERE or use the form in the sidebar to sign up for more great small business tips, delivered—free—to your Inbox every Friday.[/important]

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Can prospects find your contact information?

People holding signs that spell CONTACT US

Where's the contact information?

Today's post was inspired by a recent project my Virtual Assistant was working on for me (Tishia Lee – Tishia Saves Time). I had her researching bloggers in my niche who might be candidates for a joint venture of some sort. I was shocked when I looked at the spreadsheet she compiled for me and saw several who had absolutely no contact information listed on their website—not even a contact form! What a shame! If she couldn't figure out how to get in touch with them, their prospective clients/customers are going to have the same problem.

So today's message to all small business owners:

Make it easy for potential clients to get in touch with you! 

You must have some sort of contact information available. At the very least, please put a contact form up on your website, even if you don't want to include your email address or phone number.

Your contact information homework:

Contact IconsAt least once a year, set aside some time to sit down and visit your website…not as the website owner but as a first time visitor. Take a good look at your site and answer these questions:

  1. Is the contact information easy to find? Is the information up to date and correct? If you're using a contact form, take a couple of minutes to contact yourself to test the process and make sure everything works. Check your email to make sure you get notified of the contact form submission.
  2. Can I navigate easily? Do all the links on the navigation menu work properly?
  3. Are there social media icons? Do each of the links go to the correct social media profiles?
  4. Does the opt-in form stand out and draw attention? Is it clear what people are getting when they sign up? Make sure the description of the offer is enticing enough that people feel like “they just have to have it”. If you've been using the same description for awhile, maybe it's time to change things up -a bit. (Tip: if you're giving away a free report, think about using an image of the eCover so people have a visual of what they're getting.)
  5. Does the opt-in process work the way it should? Take a few minutes to sign up and test this. Make sure everything works the way it should and that any emails that come through are conveying up-to-date information. Glance through your opt-in gift (if it's an information product or report) and make sure the information is current and links are still working properly.

Friday-Quick-Tips-CrosswordbAsk others to find your contact information

It's also a good idea to enlist the help of a friend or family member. Ask them to visit your website and get their feedback – is it easy for them to navigate, do they know where to go/what they're supposed to do when they land on your homepage, etc? Have them test out the opt-in form and contact form – was the process smooth? Did they notice anything that didn't make sense or was confusing?

Here are a few bonus tips:

  1. If your hosting company offers customization of your 404 error page (the page people see if they land on a page of your site that is no longer active or there's a typo in the link) – utilize this space to make an offer for a product, service or to opt-in to your newsletter. Put some sort of call to action on this page.
  2. Check your “About” page – again, this is a great piece of virtual real estate on which you can put a call to action or some sort of offer.

And one last thing: If you have a mobile device (smartphone, iPad or other tablet), visit your website on it. What does it look like? Does it display correctly? Are you using a responsive theme (a theme that responds to the device being used to view a site)? If not, maybe it's time to think about switching and making your site more mobile friendly.

[important]Don't have time to evaluate your own website? We offer a great Website Critique Package that offers an analysis and report on how user-friendly your site is and where it needs some improvement. Your website is out there working for you and your business day and night. Make sure it's equipped to represent you as effectively as possible. CLICK HERE for more details or call Elizabeth at 540-436-3969.[/important]

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Another Content Creation Tool: Headline Analyzer

Sign post showing emotion one direction, mind another direction, decision both directions

Why do business owners need to know about content creation?

You may be more familiar with the term “copywriting,” but content creation is essentially the same thing. It is the term used today for writing that becomes content for anything from blogs and websites to articles, ebooks, books, and advertising on TV, radio, TV, or the Internet. Whether you're writing your own content—as many small business owners are—or hiring a copywriter or freelance writer, you want your content to be attention-grabbing and compelling.

Use Headline Analyzer to grab your readers' hearts as well as their minds

Last week's Friday QuickTip was about the handy tool Tweak Your Biz Title Generator for content creators. This week's tip fits nicely right beside that in your toolkit. Unlike Tweak Your Biz Title Generator, this week's tool, Headline Analyzer, doesn't give you ideas for titles. Instead, this handy free tool analyzes your headlines to determine the EMV (emotional marketing value). When it comes to creating your content, you need to connect with your market on an emotional level – that's the key to good copywriting!

When you enter your headline into the entry box, Headline Analyzer gives you an EMV score along with an explanation. It will tell you in which of the three EMV categories, your title has the most emotional impact: intellectual, empathetic, and spiritual.

Here's an example

Using one of the titles generated in last week's Friday QuickTips tutorial–7 Ways To Blog Persuasively–I plugged that into Headline Analyzer, chose the category and then clicked “Submit for analysis.” There aren't a lot of category choices, so I usually choose “business/professional services.” Here are the results. It's hard to read all the words in the screenshot, so I copied them for you below the image:

screenshot-results

click to see full size

This score indicates that your headline has a total of 40.00% Emotional Marketing Value (EMV) Words. To put that in perspective, the English language contains approximately 20% EMV words.

And for comparison, most professional copywriters' headlines will have 30%-40% EMV Words in their headlines, while the most gifted copywriters will have 50%-75% EMV words in headlines.

A perfect score would be 100%, but that is rare unless your headline is less than five words.

While the overall EMV score for your headline is 40.00%, your headline also has the following predominant emotion classification:

Intellectual & Spiritual

We've determined that your headline appeals equally to people's spiritual and intellectual spheres.

Words with Spiritual impact are best used with people and businesses desiring to make an appeal to some aspect of spirituality. This does not mean religion specifically, but any product or service that resonates with “spirituality” oriented markets are appropriate. The clergy, new age, health food and related markets all respond favorably to sales copy heavy with Spiritual impact content. Women and children also respond strongly to words in the Spiritual sphere. Marketing documents with strong Spiritual impact content can make for the most powerful presentations in the marketplace, but must be used with considerable skill.

Intellectual impact words are best used to attune copy and sales messages aimed at people and businesses involved in the fields of education, law, medicine, research, politics, and similar fields. While not restricted to these groups, by giving presentations which are weighted with Intellectual impact words, your clients and customers will be more positively influenced and you are more likely to attain a more favorable response.

Friday-Quick-Tips-CrosswordbBasically, this tells me my title is a pretty good one. It will make an emotional connection for my audience both intellectually and spiritually, and those of you who know me will appreciate how tuned in I am to the power of connection.

I plugged in the title of this post and got a score of 50%. I'm surprised it got such a high score, so I'll be doing more testing.

Not only is Headline Analyzer a good resource for checking the headlines of any current content you're creating, it's also a great way to go back through and see how some of your old content headlines do on the EMV level. I can see this tool as being particularly valuable for nonprofits who are often trying to engage potential donors through their emotions.

Thanks to Advanced Marketing Institute for providing this free tool!

[important]If you need some outside help with the creation of your compelling content, call me, Elizabeth Cottrell, at 540-436-3969. I love helping my clients express themselves clearly and powerfully. CLICK HERE to learn more about my freelance writing, blogging, and editing services.[/important]

Photo credit: “Emotion or Mind” by L. Klauser via Dollar Photo Club

 

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Book Review: It’s Your Business; It’s Your Future

WilfongBookCoverIt's Your Business It's Your Future: Success Can be Yours! 

A business reference guide by Judy Day Wilfong

If ever there were a primer for small business owners to beef up their customer relations and business development skills, this is it. Refreshingly honest and chock full of useful and practical examples to illustrate every point, author Judy Wilfong is speaking from experience. She is founder and president of New vision Windows & Walls, Inc., a successful decorating business she has managed for over 28 years. She has more recently been a business advisor and teacher to business owners across the country, and she shares the core of her teaching in this small, easy-to-digest book.

Amidst the tide of books about using technology to build customer relationships (relationship marketing), Ms. Wilfong’s book goes back to the basics of three areas critical to any small business: 1) Customers and Relationships; 2) Effective and Efficient Communication; and 3) Handling Problems and Conflict. In each, she covers several key areas that small business owners encounter on a regular basis, ranging from building an excellent reputation, the importance of body language and listening skills to contracts, expectations, and when to let a customer go.

Her examples are sometimes cautionary tales about the consequences of mistakes made. Other times they are shining examples of things that were done right. In both cases, they turn what could be a dry textbook into an experiential learning lab where lessons are understood and internalized.

Judy Day Wilfong

Judy Day Wilfong

I found this book to be highly valuable for anyone trying to start or build a business, regardless of whether the owner is operating from a bricks-and-mortar storefront, going to the customer as a service provider or consultant, or operating online. It would make a terrific gift for someone starting out, but there are lots of lessons from which even seasoned entrepreneurs can benefit.

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