Crises Management: Messages Sent Now Will Define You Forever

Branding is about who you are and who you want to be . . .
and the steps to take to make that happen!

I sat down to write an article on the preparation of electronic files for various purposes – commercial printing, publications, the Internet, electronic ads, novelty items, etc.  However, we are in the middle of a world-wide health and financial emergency, and my partner and I felt we’d be remiss not to address that subject instead.

When a crisis occurs, you have an opportunity to demonstrate that you are a good corporate citizen and simultaneously cement and communicate your brand to current and potential customers in a positive way.

Developing Your Message

One of your first priorities as a small business owner when trouble strikes is to send your employees and your customers a message about the situation.  You need to be empathetic to their circumstances and emphasize that you are all facing the same difficulties because (most of the time) you will be.

You need to provide an overview of the steps you are taking to manage the crisis and (if relevant) explain any modifications being made to your products/services to deal with the situation and address special needs.  Finally, you must emphasize the importance of good communication and outline in detail the best ways to contact you with any problems or concerns – phone, e-mail, text messaging, social media etc.

Needless to say, you have to prepare your employees for any changes to their roles due to the crisis, and you should coach them on the proper information to communicate when dealing with the public.

Once you have figured out the correct content of your message, you need to prepare versions for all of the various media you will be using:

[   ]  e-mail

[   ] letter

[   ]  web site posting

[   ]  social media posting(s)

[   ]  signage for physical location (including any changes to usual hours) and instructions for getting in touch

[   ]  PSA (Public Service Announcements) for local media

[   ]  Press releases communicating information of interest to the public

While not all of these vehicles will be appropriate for everyone, every business will need to utilize more than one, remembering that different customers have very different preferences for receiving information.

Memories Are Long

Part of being a good corporate citizen is to honestly assess the part your product/service plays in the community.  Are you essential . . . or a luxury?  If you are the former, you will need to reassure people that you will continue to serve them with the least possible disruption.  You want to be sure to stay away from any language or unintentional suggestion that you are exploiting the situation for profit or gain.  Conversely, any steps taken at such times to offer charitable assistance and lend a hand to the community at large are important.  While your business might be suffering from a less profitable moment, too – chances are others are dealing with even more difficult circumstances and could use your help.

Memories are long.  When conditions improve, your customers will remember your behavior.  Did you lend a helping hand . . . or just help yourself?

Be Honest

In all of your communications, be honest and truthful.  People have an innate ability to recognize when you are being evasive and less than forthcoming.  While we certainly understand that some information is private or cannot be shared due to the likelihood of being misunderstood, you will do your business and your brand the most good by developing a reputation for being the kind of company a person can trust.

While honesty can be difficult in the short-run because hard messages sometimes have to get delivered, the long-range benefits will be worthwhile.  People will be inclined to believe ALL of your messaging, which is one of the key benefits of building a good brand.

Be safe.  Be well. 

Observe the guidelines implemented for our collective good!!

Note:  In the midst of a crisis, future planning is probably the furthest from your mind.  Nevertheless, planning is also an act of faith and optimism for the future.  An upcoming article will explore the reasons all of us should be developing contingency plans for portions of our business that can be conducted online. 

In Search of the Holy Grail (of Branding)

In Search of . . .

Customer Loyalty!

Why is this quality so very important . . . and the ultimate goal of all branding activity?

Once you achieve customer loyalty, consumers will:

  • Choose your product or service over others . . . regardless of your competitors’ behavior.
  • Select you without price shopping . . . and perhaps even be willing to pay a bit more.
  • Become repeat buyers – often for years and potentially crossing multiple generations (an impressive brand success).
  • Recognize your product by your logo and other branding elements without a reference to your name. 
  • Become your best sales force – promoting your product/service through word of mouth.
  • Expect you to make good on brand promises – those qualities you have promoted that have resonated with your audience.
  • Present you with growth opportunities – in part through cross sales.

In other words, once you have achieved customer loyalty, your sales acquisition costs should decrease significantly because less marketing and sales expense should be required to generate the desired revenue.

So . . . How Do You Create Brand Loyalty . . . and Avoid Getting Lost in the Crowd?

While I’m sure you’ve heard about (and probably been pitched) loyalty/incentive programs, such tools are just one of many that are available.

Note:  Loyalty programs encourage shoppers to return to stores where they frequently make purchases. Some of the incentives may include advanced access to new products, additional discounts, or sometimes free merchandise. Customers typically register their personal information with the company and are given a unique identifier, such as a numerical ID or membership card, and use that identifier when making a purchase. (Investopedia) Want to learn more?  Check out these seven examples of some of the best:  https://www.leadquizzes.com/blog/7-examples-of-customer-loyalty-programs/

That said . . .

Instead of focusing on those prepackaged plans, you really just need to expend your energy on building a great brand and consistently promoting your strengths via consistent implementation of the basic branding elements you’ve put into place. Specifically, you should:

  • Provide a customer service experience that reflects your brand. 
  • Utilize social media to establish an online presence.
  • Build a visual brand identity that reflects your products/services and overall operations . . . so the message you are trying to send reflects reality and stands a chance of resonating with your audience.
  • Establish credibility (and trustworthiness) by making good on your brand promises.
  • Incorporate best practices in all that you do AND be the best.
  • Know your audience and make sure your products/services satisfy their needs . . . even as those needs may change.
  • Maintain strict consistency in your spoken, written, and visual message – enhancing recognition.
  • Focus on creating loyal, repeat customers who will continue to frequent your business.  (Why so important . . . ?)

THE LAW OF THE VITAL FEWThe Pareto Principle states that 80% of your company’s future revenue will come from 20% of your current customer base, making it imperative that you focus on creating loyal, repeat customers that will continue to frequent your business. (Written by the Forbes Agency Council)

  • Make positive contributions to society part of your culture.  (To do so can enhance the environmental, social, and governance aspects of your operations, which in turn, enhances the sustainability of your success.)
  • Add extra value above and beyond the basic product/service provided.
  • Check in with your customers regularly via surveys, conversations (research groups), calls, etc. AND really listen to them.

Don’t Be Brand X!

If your business has achieved customer loyalty, you’ve mastered one of the key measures of success – your products and services are no longer generic (. . . and interchangeable) in the eyes of you audience.  You are no longer just another Brand X!  You have a personality and identity; you’ve established a relationship with your customer.

As this article suggests, this goal is accomplished in many ways, including a consistent, well-developed branding program that sends a clear message to your intended audience.

Special Note:
Brand Building for Small Business has been identified by Feedspot (www.Feedspot.com) as one of the Top 100 Branding Blogs. Feedspot provides “the most comprehensive list of branding blogs on the Internet” so we are pleased to be part of that group.  To learn more, visit https://blog.feedspot.com/branding_blogs/.

Social Media: One More Reason to Bother! (Betting on the Long Shot)

Recently, my blogging partner published an article about getting started on Facebook, and she also set up a page for our blog – Brand Building for Small Business.  If you followed our lead and did similarly (creating your own site), you’ve probably posted several messages by now . . . and seen little tangible reason for continuing this exercise.

Well . . . the entire message of this article is “Stay the Course!”; you never know who might be paying attention and the kind of impact that person might have on your ultimate success.

Who knows? One day, you just might get kind words from the Oracle of Omaha or some other noteworthy individual that you’d like to pass along!!  Keep posting to get your social media platform ready.

My best real-world example that offers proof of the wisdom of this advice happened just a few short years ago.  I was working for GUARD (my employer at the time and an affiliate of Berkshire Hathaway).  We were just getting started with social media (an intentional delay on the part of our company), and we were experiencing slow growth in the numerical results usually used to measure success – likes, followers, visitors, shares, etc.

We had established a regular schedule (at first weekly; then twice a week shortly thereafter) for posting new content.  At that time, my employer was in the middle of a five+ year stretch of 25% per year growth and had new infrastructure needs to accommodate hiring.  As part of that process, the company had applied to the state for a significant economic development grant.  While that request seemed to have a decent chance of success because many new jobs would be created, lots of viable projects were competing for the same dollars.

Fortunately, we had just closed the books on a very good year. In fact, our run of success had been good enough that the Chairman of our ultimate parent company (Berkshire Hathaway) had elected to give us a “shout out” by name during the heavily publicized and well-attended Annual Meeting of the Shareholders in Omaha, Nebraska.  Turns out that when that gentleman, an individual by the name of Warren Buffett, chooses to praise you, people stop and take notice.

Recognizing an opportunity, we transcribed the sound bite and posted a social media mention of the message, quoting Mr. Buffett’s generous remarks.  While this content generally got more attention than our low norm at that time, the first person to “like” our message was the individual who would be responsible for evaluating our worthiness for the grant we were seeking!

Did our social media posting make a difference?  While we will probably never really know, I can’t help but believe some good was done that more than justified the entirety of the time and effort we had devoted to date to social media.

So . . . the moral of the story (especially during the early stages) is this:  you don’t have to produce eye-popping numbers for your effort to be worthwhile and totally justify the invested time and energy.  You just have to keep using the platform you’ve created to communicate your message (. . . AND YOUR BRAND!) in a number of new ways . . . and hope that somewhere along the line the right set of eyes will read your words.  (Rem:  Strong preparation creates opportunity.) 

Frankly, I’m an optimist . . . so I’m always imagining all sorts of interesting people reading my words on the other end.  Every once in a while, the imagined even becomes reality (and that IS fun)!! 

I hope you have a happy and successful New Year in 2020.   My partner and I would love to hear from you and explore suggested ways in which we might be of help.

Role of Branding in Direct Mail/E-mail

Direct mail/e-mail is not for the faint-of-heart . . . OR for the impatient.  When a campaign is working well, results tend to be measured in single digits with the difference between success and failure often just tenths of a point.  (Try explaining that to someone and justifying the value of the effort.)

Despite the negative sound of my opening remarks, I am, indeed, a strong proponent of direct response tools.

Why?

  • You have a blank page just waiting to be filled with a refined, well-branded message that can include a sales pitch as well as a reminder about who you are and plan to be – providing a glimpse into your culture.
  • Direct mail and e-mail are extremely inexpensive and can be repeated many times without a loss of effectiveness, which aids branding through repetition; in fact, by sending your message over and over again to the same list, you ensure your message is heard at the right time – buying time . . . which, in turn, can occur as often as every day or so . . . or as infrequently as once or twice a year.
  • While the numbers measuring results tend to be low for any single mailing, the cumulative impact can be great as you produce small gains on a very regular basis and retain those new customers over time.

Note:  According to the Direct Marketing Association, the average response rate for direct mail house lists is 9% and 5% for prospect lists. However, if your direct mail piece is advertising an expensive or complicated product, a response rate that is less than one percent is not unusual.  (Responses / Pieces Sent = Response Rate)

While the quality of your “creative” (i.e., text, art, branding, etc.) DOES matter as well as the quality of your mailing list, timing may be the single most important factor in determining your success.

More About the Message

Direct marketing provides an excellent blank tableau for you to communicate who you are, what you sell, and the company you hope to become.  Furthermore, you can express this information in a manner consistent with your culture and the image you want to project.  Beyond that, your self-portrayal needs to reflect reality to resonate with your audience and, therefore, be more memorable.

The Headline – Headlines matter and create your first (and often only) chance to grab the attention of your audience.  Short, memorable, and descriptive works best . . . but ain’t easy to accomplish!

I developed my first appreciation for the potential impact of the headline many, many years ago.  The company I worked for had bought an old furniture store and was disposing of the contents via flash sales conducted by their small group of employees, most with non-sales jobs.   

The first two weekends went great and all of the big, expensive, and nicer items were sold pretty quickly.  Clearly, we had gotten the word out.  By week three, however, only lots and lots of odd accent items were left . . . and we weren’t having much luck selling them out.

Our solution:  we took out a large full-page ad in the newspaper (which people actually read back then) that ran under the headline “Adopt an End Table or Be a Foster Family to a Few Good Lamps and Chairs!”

Something about the line struck a chord because the crowds returned the very next weekend, and the majority of the remaining merchandise was moved.  Since then, I always pay close attention to the headline, very often using that as my starting point when creating an ad, flyer, or direct mail letter.

Copy (The Message and Offer) –   This point raises one of the great disputes of all time.  What sells best?  Long copy or short.  If you can conclusively answer that question, your name will be entered into the annals of the direct marketing hall of fame.

Just search long copy vs. short copy, and you’ll get the general idea:

Frankly, I’ve used both successfully.  Cop-out?  No.  My personal preference has always been long copy . . . and I have identified substantial amounts of expert opinion in support of the long-copy case (ex:  David Ogilvy in Ogilvy on Advertising – an industry standard).  However, my professional career has mostly involved parties who believe “no one reads anymore!” . . . so “bulletize” (another way of saying “dumb-down the content”), though the words used to express the sentiment are generally more like “keep the wordiness to a minimum.” (Just writing this paragraph has kicked up my stress level a notch or two.)  In the end . . .

If you are preparing a direct mail piece and answering only to yourself, I suggest using as many (or few) words as are necessary to make your point persuasively, remembering that one or two pieces of carefully chosen and cited data can be the key to establishing credibility and making your point in the most convincing possible way.

Artwork/Graphical Visual and Format – Your need for (and selection of) artwork will depend upon whether you are sending just a letter, just a flyer, or both.  Traditionally, multiple pieces were recommended (though current conventional wisdom is far more flexible).  Personally, I’ve used all of those approaches in format and have not noticed a significant difference in the outcome.  Other factors – such as the quality of the list, effectiveness of the message/offer, and timing – seem to be the determining factors.

That said, artwork – when included – can be an attention-grabbing element.  As a result, choose the most compelling OR familiar image available.  If you have some well-known quality with a high degree of recognizability (perhaps your physical location), use that to your advantage and stick to a picture that capitalizes on a good address.  Humor can be successful as well as art that in some form presents the unexpected.

To state the obvious, always be sure your logo and any byline are prominently displayed as part of your basic branding of the piece.

Note:  While the choice of traditional mail vs. e-mail will affect your selection and use of some of the items discussed in this article, your choices can be easily tweaked to work in either environment.  In fact, these elements should be similar to ensure consistency across various media.

Snail Mail vs. e-Mail – So . . . which works better?

The answer may ultimately depend upon the nature of your mailing list (with the first question being whether or not e-mail addresses have been included).

Needless to say, e-mail solicitations are faster, less expensive, and very immediate – all very attractive qualities.  You can:

  • Link to large volumes of supplemental materials.
  • Create custom “landing pages” that provide an easy (and very trackable) opportunity for immediate response expressing an interest.
  • Repeat the process many times.
  • Get immediate feedback about mailing list names that are no longer valid and are now undeliverable.

However . . .

  • In this era characterized by inundations of electronic messaging and spam e-mail, you can be easily ignored AND DELETED UNREAD! 
  • Spam and junk mail filters can keep your messages from being seen by the intended party.

While one might logically guess that the cost, time, and immediacy of e-mail would doom snail mail to extinction, I have found that certain (often demographically older) audiences pay more attention to physical mailings.  Interestingly, the traditional approach also has the added benefit of a longer shelf life with parties interested but not currently at “buying time,” causing them to set aside the printed letter or flyer for a quick review at a later date closer to the actual time of need, which gives you the best possible chance of success.

My proof?  I’ve had mailings that produced a response that could be absolutely traced back to a physical mailing occurring six months before.  While an electronic equivalent to setting a piece of paper aside clearly exists, I’ve seldom seen evidence of that occurring.

A Direct Response Project for Our Own Blog

Huh?

Well . . . one of our goals for this blog is to build an audience.  As a result, we searched for (and found) a list of associations, agencies, and affinity groups that appear to have a connection to small businesses (https://smallbiztrends.com/2018/05/small-business-associations.html).  As a result, we are planning to systematically approach at least some of them via e-mail and/or mail with a request to link our blog from their web sites.  Unlike some mailings, our intention is to do just a few at a time to properly manage the kind of follow-up required. 

Since our blog is still in the early stages of development, we will wait until we feel we have accumulated a sufficient amount of content.  (Perhaps 20 or so articles?)  Also, we realize we do not yet have any meaningful performance data (i.e., visitors, followers, likes, etc.).  So, the letters will initially have to be created without those key elements that will be added upon becoming available.

Nevertheless, we have drafted the text of a message and included an offer with the intention of sending out the first few inquiries in the upcoming weeks with plans to revise our message as time passes based on new feedback, performance results, and early results.  (We’ll keep you posted.  Until then, feel free to comment upon our draft.)

Looking for More Concrete DIY-Type Information?

At least two more direct response articles are planned for the upcoming weeks.

  • Detailed instructions on preparation of a Word Mail Merge document that can be linked to an Excel address spreadsheet to generate your own mailing.
  • An article explaining the various alternatives that exist for generating a mass e-mailing, including the use of vendors vs. your own word processing and e-mail programs.

Until then, good luck moving forward with your campaigns.

Other Resources

 For information about the typical elements of a direct mail package, see:

FitSmallBusiness.com

Accurate Mailing Services