Monday, November 29, 2010

MyVoucherCodes Local Promotes Smaller Retailers

If you're a retailer offering a promotional discount you want shoppers to know about it before they come into your shop.

Because telling them will encourage increased footfall, as more shoppers pay a visit to see what you have to offer.

The problem for small, independent retailers is that they often don't have the marketing power to reach customers outside of their premises.

Some might put adverts in the local newspaper or fliers through letterboxes, but for many the best way of drawing in passing trade is through shop front signage.

Now there's a new way for local shops to advertise special deals to customers, reaching them through their mobile phones.

MyVoucherCodes have launched a local, mobile service that lets shoppers see what special deals are available in the shops around them. The shopper simply looks at their phone and it displays the discounts to be had nearby. Using GPS it gives them an indication of how many minutes it could take to walk to a specific shop.

Set up in 2006, MyVoucherCodes is now used by over 11 million people every month and they claim to have driven over £480 million of sales in 2009.

To use the new MyVoucherCodes local on their phone shoppers download an application which they can check when they're out shopping. In 2009 they saved £52 million by using vouchers and codes from the website and the hope is that they'll save even more now that they can access savings while in the high street or shopping mall.

The MyVoucherCodes website says businesses can register for a free listing. They can also pay for services which give them more visibility to shoppers.

This new service is aimed at local, independent retailers. Mark Pearson, Chairman of MyVoucherCodes, said: "We have a proven track record of saving money for consumers at more national, well known retailers and businesses." He now wants to emulate this success at a local level.

Currently the MyVoucherCodes Local application works on the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. An Android version is under development.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Gemma's Fresh Start in Online Retailing

Last year I wrote about Gemma Dawson's new online business selling fancy dress outfits and clothes.

That business failed.

Gemma (pictured right) has been willing to share her story here, to encourage other entrepreneurs to keep going in the face of adversity, and to learn from the hard lessons that business can deliver.

Having two very young children means Gemma's already got her hands full. She's young, not yet 20, and ambitious. Before going into business she wisely invested time to learn about it.

She studied Business and Management at college, tooks lots of training from BusinessLink, and researched her potential suppliers. She then launched her fancy dress and clothing websites in late 2009 and waited for the sales to come rolling in.

They didn't. Having spent £5,000 getting the business going Gemma was spending more time uploading information to the site than she was processing customer orders. Something had gone wrong.

Rather than hoping sales would improve she reassessed her plans and did more research. She found that many of her competitors in the fancy dress market also sold party supplies, so she decided to follow their example and ditched the idea of selling fashion clothing.

A couple of months ago Gemma launched two new sites, GD Party Supplies and GD Fancy Dress. This time she's engaged the services of an SEO (search engine optimisation) company to improve their visibility online and the investment is already generating results.

She's also employing a copywriter to create content and blog posts, which help generate more search engine traffic. Articles are also being placed on third-party websites, with links back to her own sites, and these are helping to build her SEO.

Gemma's advice to anyone starting a business is be willing to invest. She admits that the first time around she was afraid of spending money on SEO and copywriting. She tried to do it all herself but didn't have the right skills. Now she's paying specialists to do it she's seeing more traffic to her sites.

She also recommends that entrepreneurs get as much feedback as possible about the quality of their business website, and should not become defensive when they receive criticism. No site will please everyone all of the time, but it's still important to listen to what people say and be willing to accept that much of it is probably right.

Gemma's example is an inspiration to anyone who's been brave enough to set up their own business only to see it fail. She's learned from her mistakes and is bouncing back.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Is Email on its Deathbed?

"We don't think a modern messaging system is going to be email," said Mark Zuckerberg earlier today.

The CEO of Facebook was announcing a new messaging system that will be rolled out to users in the coming months, as reported by Yahoo!

Quite what it will look like is not clear. But Zuckerberg's intentions are. "If we do a good job, some people will say this is the way the future will work," he told the audience. Which is an understated way of claiming to be replacing email with something much, much better. And with the Facebook stamp all over it.

The fact is that young people don't use email. They message one another through texts, status updates and chat. Curiously they don't seem to have wholeheartedly embraced Twitter although its short form communication fits right into their way of doing things.

Of course it's far to early to know what will become of email. And it's highly unlikely that long form digital communication, in the form of person to person messages, will disappear. It will always have a place, as do handwritten notes and face-to-face encounters.

The way email integrates with other systems will definitely change. Facebook's new communication system will pull together telephone text messages, online chats, emails and Facebook messages into a single system that is driven by user preference rather than technology. The term email may, in time, become redundant as it's absorbed into a wider form of digital communcation.

Quite what the new Facebook system will look like and how it will impact on our lives is yet to be seen. Zuckerberg had the wisdom not to trumpet it as the new way of sharing information; we've all seen what became of the much vaunted Google Wave, which was meant to transform the way we worked but has died quietly because no one used it.

Email is not dead, or even dying. In fact it could be on the road to rejuvenation and a completely new look.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Do You Use Bribes to Secure Business?

Your answer to the question in the title is probably 'no'.

But from April next year it might not be so clear, especially if you or your company provide any form of corporate hospitality as part of an export business. Your firm will also be responsible for the behaviour of people acting on your behalf, which means you need to be doubly careful.

The purpose the of Bribery Act 2010, which takes effect from April 2011, is to clear up the current mess of legislation under which people and firms are currently prosecuted for bribery. It's also an attempt to clean up what the government calls an "increasingly sophisticated, cross-border use of bribery in the modern world."

Businesses of all sizes are concerned about the impact of this legislation. David Frost, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce warned that the new law could have a major impact on small businesses. He's reported in the as saying: "Where small businesses are exporting and are using an agent or third party, how will they ensure that everything is above board?"

The Federation of Small Businesses wants 'specific' guidance for firms with less than five staff. And the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) wants the government to clarify the rules on corporate hospitality.

Firms and individuals will need to take care that they are not breaking the new rules. The Serious Fraud Office has set up a special unit to deal with bribery and the new law will result in a new focus.

So even if your answer at the start of this article was 'no', and you don't think there's even a risk that bribery is going on, it would be wise to have a stated policy of zero-tolerance. And if you're working with people where you believe there's a real risk of bribes changing hands it might a good time to find alternative ways of doing business.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Google Add Another Feature to Search

Yet more information is now available to users of the Google search engine.

Yesterday Google announced the launch of Instant Previews. The concept is very simple - the user sees a snapshot of the page that was found by the search engine.

If you're using Google regularly you might have already spotted this. But it's not obvious because to make it work you need to click in the area of the search result to turn it on (at least, that's how it seemed to work in Google Chrome).

Once on, the preview changes everytime you move the mouse cursor over a different search result. It didn't work for sponsored links.

What does Instant Previews mean for businesses?

Users can see a preview of your website before they choose to click on it, and what they see might make a difference between whether they click through to you, or not.

In a search of 'plumber london' the fourth site listed come up as 'no preview available.' That might be because their site uses the nosnippet meta tag - Google warn that this turns off the preview function.

Another website has an ugly grey box at the top of the preview, indicating that it requires a plugin. When opened, the page contained a moving Flash graphic. This looks great on the page itself, but it spoils the preview.

According to Google searchers are 5% more likely to be satisfied with the page they choose when they've previewed it first.

So why not take a look at how your website appears in a preview, and think what you can do to make it more attractive.

More information on Google Instant Previews.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Has Christmas Come Early? (Not in a Good Way)

"It's like everyone's already slowing down for Christmas," a local estate agent told me last week.

If that's what's really happening to the UK housing market, it's bad news for anyone who earns a living from it. Because it's still early November.

Anecdotal evidence from estate agents implies that both buyers and sellers have reduced their activity in the last two or three weeks.

And today's news from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) seems to confirm that the Christmas lull may have already begun. Their latest survey states that the market remains cautious "with many buyers signalling that they are going to wait until the spring to make a decision."

In the survey, 55% of surveyors who operate as estate agents confirmed that prices in their area dropped over the last three months and only 4% reported a rise. The level of completed sales was at its worst since June 2009.

The only change in the recent gloomy market trends is a fall in the number of people putting their homes on the market.

It appears that buyers are reluctant to commit to a purchase in the fear that prices will continue to drop. Or to put it another way, they're waiting to get a better deal.

To a certain extent this is understandable, but for many it's perhaps short-sighted. If you're buying a property you plan to live in for five or ten years, it's highly likely to appreciate in value over that time, even if it dips slightly after purchase. Barring a massive economic disaster, the long term outlook for the UK property market is good.

Unfortunately the nature of house buying means that the decisions of relatively few people dictate the state of the market. Because houses are usually sold in chains, the choices of the people at the bottom largely determine what happens to everyone else. Those with properties to sell can't choose to buy now even if they want to, because they need to dispose of their current houses first.

So as the first storms of autumn strike the UK in a grey November, perhaps it's time to break out the mince pies and brighten up the country with multicoloured lights. After all, if the Christmas slow down really has struck the housing market early, we might as well start enjoying some of the benefits of the festive season!

Monday, November 8, 2010

How To Make Someone Redundant Without Feeling Too Bad

Telling someone their job is no longer required is rarely easy.

Doing it in the environment of a small business is particularly hard. Big companies can blame the cut on faceless executives and the market's insatiable desire for results. There's almost a safety in numbers.

But when you're the owner of a small firm and you decide you can't afford somone any more, it can be very, very hard to deliver the news. Trust and personal relationships are on the line, along with a nervousness about whether it's really the right thing to do.

Here are some tips to help make the process a little less painful. You'll still feel bad afterwards because (almost) everyone does, but these may help to smooth what's always a difficult path.

1. Don't delay. If you've decided you need to act, then do it. Don't hold off in the hope that next week things will pick up or that your staff might leave before they're pushed.

2. Always take professional advice. Don't assume that your staff will understand and go quietly, even if you know them very well. It's amazing how someone's attitude can change once they're made redundant. Get advice about the process and follow it to minimise the risk of being taken to a tribunal.

3. Be honest about the reasons. You need to spell out why someone is being made redundant. Partly because it's essential to make it clear it's the role, not the person, that's being cut. And partly because it's the right thing to do. If someone was making you redundant, you'd like to understand why.

4. Don't make unrealistic promises. It's too easy, in the heat of the moment, to offer more help with finding another job than you can reasonably give. Or to make commitments to the staff who remain. You can't guarantee that there won't be a need for more redundancies in the near future, so don't say there won't be any.

5. Don't use redundancy as a cloak for dismissal. Sometimes you need to get rid of someone because they're not up to the job or their behaviour is poor. It can be tempting to do this as redundancy because it's relatively easy and less confrontational. But it can create distrust amongst the remaining staff who know what's really going on.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Mature Accountants Founder Predicts Trouble Ahead

"Things can only get tougher for the foreseeable."

So says Martin Lloyd-Penny, founder of Mature Accountants, a UK recruitment firm that specialises in placing finance professionals who are yet to reach their use-by date.

He's talking specifically about the market for his stock-in-trade. In his latest newsletter he says there was: "a rally for the first 8 months of the year" but "the Public Spending Review seems to have spooked everyone."

But what's happening in his sector is a reflection of the wider economy. Organisations need accountants, even mature ones, so his experience is a reasonable barometer of what's going on generally.

The good news from Martin is that the very existence of his business proves accountants, indeed any professional, can change direction in their career. His website is candid about his background - after a successful career as qualified accountant, which included many senior positions, he found himself enjoying 'a period of recent inactivity' when he was about 50.

Martin then discovered that accountants of his vintage found it difficult to get work, despite having massing experience and so much to offer. His response was to create Mature Accountants in 2005, which has grown at a 'dizzying rate.'

He's since launched a number of other Mature brands although not all have succeeded - he's in the process of winding down MatureMD. On the other hand, he says that newly birthed Baby Interims, which focuses on providing maternity cover, is gaining weight nicely.

We all know it's tough and most fear, as Martin does, that it could get harder before it gets better. But his story offers a glimmer of hope to anyone fearful for their future - it is possible to turn 'inactivity' into success with a change in direction.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Are You Struggling With Social Media Marketing?

You probably haven't got your head around social media marketing yet, have you?

Go on, be honest. You might have set up a blog, a Twitter account and a Facebook page for your business. You've probably added the little bird and F icons to your website. You undoubtedly had a bucketload of good intentions.

But then day to day reality took over. It's all very well for the marketeers to say, 'Just give it 15 minutes a day,' but 15 minutes writing a blog, updating Twitter and Facebook adds up to 45 minutes in total. And who really writes a half-decent blog post in just 15 minutes anyway?

And what's the return on the time you're putting in? The majority of people don't use Twitter and most Facebook users are occasional visitors.

This blog post is not going to give you the answer

The truth is that despite all the hype and the statistics, social media marketing is very new. Some people are making it work for them, but they're in the minority.

Swanage based confectionery makers Chococo are followed by over 3,000 people on Facebook and have produce a consistent thread of short, interesting posts which spark lots of comments. But there are plenty of other business pages languishing unloved on Facebook. Perhaps you have one.

Part of the secret to success, at least for small businesses, is having the right product. Social media marketing appears to work best when it's talking to consumers who make repeat purchases. More people will be interested in a firm selling hand-made chocolates than, say, a local retailer of domestic electrical goods.

It's also about having the right approach. Social media marketing is not about blasting out adverts for your products. It's about that now overused phrase - engaging with your customers. Quite what that engagement looks like and how well it works is, frankly, down to you.

Social media is here to stay, just like the Yellow Pages

It's not a fad that will pass. It will settle into the mainstream and even if the names of the industry leaders were to change, the channels opened by social media won't close.

But not everyone will use them. There are already a multitude ways to market yourself, including telephone directories, web sites, newspaper ads and flyers pinned to lampposts. They all have a different audience and varying levels of effectiveness.

So if you're struggling with social media, the best advice is probably, "Don't worry about it." Nor be persuaded to part with large amounts of cash to a consultant who promises to transform your business using Twitter or Facebook. Don't let fear of missed opportunities keep you awake at night.

Wait until you see how it's working for others. Talk to fellow business owners about their experiences of using social media to promote their business. And take those Twitter and Facebook icons off your website if they point to pages that you're not updating.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Another Day, Another Statistic

For those attempting to forecast the coming fortunes of the UK economy there's no shortage of news and statistics.

The difficulty lies in trying to make sense of the daily updates from various sources.

Today the Bank of England decided to keep interest rates at half a percent for the twentieth month in a row. No surprise there, but the news was still welcomed by bodies representing business, such as the British Chambers of Commerce.

Also today the Halifax announced that house prices rose by 1.8% in October when compared with the previous month. This wasn't quite as expected, as andecdotal evidence suggests vendors seem to be regularly reducing their prices to achieve sales.

Yesterday the clothing retailer Next predicted the prices of its products could increase by up to 8% because of rising cotton prices. That, along with the VAT increase in January 2011, won't help the rate of price inflation to fall next year.

Oil prices have also returned to a relative high in the last few days. Rising prices will push up inflation and that will eventually force interest rates to move upward. Which will in turn hit already fragile household budgets.

This week has also seen threats of over a million people being added to the unemployment numbers.

How do we make sense of all this?

Perhaps we shouldn't. All these statistics are a reflection on past events and while they might indicate trends, we shouldn't allow them to determine what we do.

Take buying a house, for instance. If you're looking to buy right now you might be tempted to hold back because some people have been predicting a fall in house prices. The very act of holding back may cause sellers to cut prices, meaning that they do indeed fall.

Similarly, fear of rising interest rates might put you off borrowing.

However, there is a more positive approach. It's wise to be aware of what's going on around you, but you should base your decisions on what's right for you, right now.

If you believe a particular course of action is right and viable, and you can afford the consequences, then go for it. Don't wait for the economic figures to become more positive or, indeed, more consistent. Instead, help to make them better to taking some positive action yourself.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Who's Responsible For Your Business Woe?

If your business is struggling at the moment, who are you blaming?

The bankers for greedily squandering our future with their short term greed? The government for making huge cuts in spending? The media for replaying the doom and gloom message and persuading people to hold back from spending?

Or maybe the blame is more local than that. Maybe the council aren't doing enough to promote business in your area. Or roadworks are diverting passing trade away from your door. Or your bank aren't lending you enough money, keeping cash flow tight and holding you back.

If your business is struggling, there's a reason for it, and our natural tendency is to find someone to dump the blame on. If only they weren't doing what they were doing, things would be different.

But blaming others isn't really going to help. Yes, the economy is not in good shape at the moment and yes, people are being very cautious with their spending. But if you run a business your challenge isn't to decide whose fault it is, but to do what you can to generate more trade.

Don't waste time moaning about how difficult it is to find customers. Be proactive about winning them back. Hold a sale. Launch a promotion. Think of cost-effective ways to market your products. Make sure your customer service is so sharp that it can't be faulted.

Almost every business that folds could have done more to prolong its existence. It might demand hard work and long hours, and if that's more than you want, or can, put in, then so be it.

But don't waste time blaming others for what's happening. Instead, do all you can to climb out of whatever pit you're in. You might not want to take the blame for your business struggling, but you want to take the credit for its success.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Want More Web Site Visitors? Add More Content

If you want your web site to keep attracting fresh eyes, it's important to keep adding fresh content.

There are stacks of businesses out there who don't bother. They invest time, effort and (usually) money in building a site. They might even pay someone to weave some SEO magic over it. Then they let it sit for months without adding a single new word.

As a result less and less people visit the site. Successful sites aren't static, they're active.

This blog is a case in point. It hasn't been updated for about three weeks. As a result the level of incoming traffic has dropped off. The same thing happened when it was neglected over the summer. No new content means visitor numbers decline.

Any business that wants its web site to play a key role in marketing or sales needs to make the effort to keep the content fresh. Adding a new page every now and again, or simply posting new blog entries, will make a difference.

It may not seem entirely logical. After all, if you have a site that's packed with information about, say, dog biscuits, then it'll keep attracting visitors searching for information about dog biscuits, won't it? Well, yes, it will. But if the content isn't changed or added to, the number of visitors will fall.

There is a continuous stream of competing new sites and pages being added daily. Search engines often have a preference for newer sites. And there's simply the effect of time - if it's old, it's generally less interesting.

So the message for me and for you is simple. If I want this blog to attract more visitors and if you want your web site to get more hits, we need to keep adding new content. It's very simple.