SI Review: February 2011

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Get Out There

Free (and Almost Free) Ways to Market Your Business

With the economy tanking and new forms of media overwhelming the senses, traditional advertising methods just won’t cut it any more. In the past, the remedy for a slowdown in business was to order more mugs and pens. That’s a reactive strategy.

What businesses need today is a proactive strategy. Using a mix of newsletters, speeches, public relations and community involvement, you’ll keep your company front and center in the minds of clients and prospects. These methods won’t cost much – if anything – in actual dollars, but they will require investment in terms of time and sweat equity.

Employing such a strategy accomplishes two principle goals: First, you’re continually reaching ever-broader audience bases. A well-integrated program of newsletters, seminars, and other activities reminds people that you exist. You’ll even have the opportunity to boast subtly about your strengths and successes. When you do initiate contact with a prospect, you won’t be complete strangers – your reputation will have preceded you.

Second, being visible via newsletters, seminars, and PR appearances builds credibility. People automatically assume that if you’re quoted in a newspaper or you deliver a speech to the chamber of commerce that you know what you’re doing and that you’re successful in your field.

Be forewarned that all these strategies are not going to generate instant sales. If audiences feel like they’re being sold something, they’ll tune you out and you’ll lose credibility. Individually, these strategies could be categorized as communications, public relations, and old-fashioned networking. Put them together, though, and you’ve got free (and almost free) ways to market your business.

Publish a Newsletter

A newsletter is exactly that – a periodic update on a given topic. The easiest and lowest-cost method to distribute one is via e-mail. Newsletters provide the opportunity to reach current clients, prospects, and other contacts on a regular schedule. Just by e-mailing the newsletter, you remind them of your existence, and your position as an authority figure or subject-matter expert is further burnished if you provide valuable content.

The key to a successful newsletter to clients and prospects is to disguise its marketing intent. Provide real value to readers; don’t tease them. Start with a hook, or a lead, that garners initial attention, then lay out the details, making sure the piece is worth your reader’s time.

 Never leave a reader asking, “So, what?” when he or she finishes the piece; leaving articles unfinished reduces your credibility.
If you think the message you’re delivering is too valuable to express in this fashion, don’t include it in a newsletter – find a more appropriate, sales-oriented forum. Rather than being secretive, keep your newsletter as open as possible. The second-best thing that can happen – after someone calling immediately with a job order – is for the reader to forward the piece.

Consider the scope of your newsletter as well. If you deal in a specific niche, address only topics in that niche and focus on the intricacies that show you really understand it. Your goal is to position your firm as the leading authority in that market. For example, if you staff accounting and financial jobs, and publish an article on an arcane new finance law that a company is having trouble understanding, you’ve automatically positioned yourself as a potential solution.

 By contrast, let’s say your company serves several markets – admin/clerical and professional and technical. Distributing a broad-based newsletter is an opportunity to showcase the range of your abilities and compel clients to take advantage of your full suite of services. For example, imagine one client only uses you for administrative

staffing needs – but then reads your comprehensive article on the challenges of executive recruiting. That plants the seed in the client’s mind that you’re a resource the next time it needs a senior manager.

In either scenario, one of the most effective tactics is to present a problem that the reader didn’t realize he or she had. Discuss the new threats and the new way of doing business and leave the reader wondering, “Why aren’t we doing that?”

Using that framework, what should you write about? News is a good place to start. When you consider all the changes in the industry – new laws and regulations alone – there should be plenty to cover: tax rules, nurse-patient ratio, hours restrictions, I-9 and employment verification, visa availability – the list is nearly endless. Make sure to be timely. If you’re reporting new laws or regulations, do your best to announce them before they take effect. If possible and appropriate, offer your own insight on how the news affects the industry and tips on how to react to the news. Doing so establishes you as an expert and authority in the field – a person to whom the reader can turn if he needs help with the issue.

Offering tips or advice is another way to establish yourself as a trusted authority. Find elements about your industry – accounting/finance, healthcare, light industrial, etc. – and offer tips on the latest developments and practices. Be open and try to provide solutions. Don’t worry – a three-paragraph article isn’t going to give the reader enough tools to implement the idea. He’ll likely call you for help because you gave him the idea. In these types of articles, it’s also OK to mention specific staffing solutions – just keep it general and don’t focus too much on your company. It’s marketing when you talk about your company specifically – that turns people off. A general approach is considered news, and readers place news in higher regard than marketing.

Case studies, though, are your opportunity to mention your company specifically – but be careful how you use them. The general idea of a case study is to focus on a specific business conundrum and how you helped solve it. If you’re going to do this, first get permission from the client involved to use its name. In fact, even if you don’t intend to use the name, it’s still advisable to get permission. Second, keep it newsworthy by focusing on the results: Your intervention cut costs by 25%; your technique increased revenue 15%. A testimonial, or quote, from the client lends further credibility to your reporting. Work with the client to make sure the testimonial focuses on results or value-added solutions and sounds like a news quote and not marketing pitch.

When it comes to writing the content, be professional. Your company’s name likely graces the newsletter title, and you’re communicating with a business audience. Avoid first-person pronouns, such as “I,” “me,” or “we.” Speak the language of your industry, and remember to explain or define new terms you introduce and to spell out acronyms on the first reference. As the newsletter’s purpose is to be informative, assume the reader knows nothing. Start with the basics, and educate as necessary to prepare readers for the meat of the content.

A few more mechanics: Include your content in the body of an e-mail, as opposed to a PDF or Microsoft Word attachment. Content in the body is easier to read and format. Stick to a regular publication schedule, whether it’s weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, or quarterly. Be predictable and reliable with the schedule. Use short, snappy headlines – with active verb tenses – to attract attention. Compel action in headlines by using verbs such as “get,” “access,” “click here,” and “download.”

To build the e-newsletter’s circulation, or distribution list, start with your existing clients. Either automatically include them, or send a polite note asking for permission. Also ask for the addresses of other key figures. Then, mention your newsletter everywhere you go and invite people to join. Don’t be bashful about promoting it – be confident and present the content as must-read material. If you’re at a gathering and collecting business cards, simply ask people if they’re interested in being added to the mailing list. Finally, always include some way for people to do so in your e-newsletter and be vigilant in keeping your distribution list updated.

Write a Blog

Blogs are the 21st century’s answer to the newsletter. The two are not mutually exclusive; a good blog and newsletter can complement each other nicely. The word blog derives from “Web log,” and it’s basically an online diary-like compilation of entries on just about any topic. Musings are posted in reverse chronological order, meaning that the most recent appears at the top of the page and scrolling down is like going back in time. You could host your blog on your corporate Web site, or post it via Blogger, TypePad, or WordPress. You could have one corporate blog with select employees allowed to post, or multiple blogs written by key personnel. The publication schedule is totally up to you: hourly, daily, weekly, or just about anytime you feel like it. Frequency is critical, though, because you want readers to check in frequently.

Typically, blog posts cover anything relevant at the moment of posting. A quick and easy post is to alert readers of the availability of the latest newsletter edition – give the option to join the mailing list and include a link to the online archive. Otherwise, you can comment on the staffing news of the day, offer tips and tricks, highlight the achievements of temporary candidates, or give directions to the next speech you’re presenting. A good formula is to take some relevant news item, summarize it or link to the story, then offer commentary on the issue.

Blogs offer the opportunity for personality and individuality that are usually inappropriate for e-newsletters. Your tone can be far less formal. First-person usage is perfectly acceptable, but remember to adhere to basic standards of professionalism, as your audience is primarily clients and prospects. Keep postings brief, and cover only one topic per posting. Keep it staffing and business related. A company blog is not the forum to discuss your family vacation, for example.

In the blogosphere, freedom abounds and rules are virtually non-existent – which presents opportunities and liabilities. The good news is anyone, anywhere, at anytime can access your blog. Ensure maximum visibility by registering with blog search engines, like Technorati, Google Blog Search, and Blog Pulse. Find similar and complementary blogs to yours and try to get a mention in their blog roll – a list of hyperlinks to other blogs the author reads.

The bad news is that anyone, anywhere, at anytime can access your blog. This only reinforces the importance of keeping things professional. Don’t leak client secrets or badmouth competitors. Basically, if you don’t want the whole world to know something, don’t include it in a blog.

Who should be permitted to blog and what control you have over employee blogs presents a whole different set of issues. Basic labor law gives employees the right to keep personal blogs of their own and even reference their company. However, they are not allowed to divulge company secrets or other privileged information. Protect yourself by establishing an online code of conduct that clearly defines rules and expectations.

Another consideration is preparing the authors of your company’s official blog. They are essentially spokespeople, and whatever they write will be construed as being endorsed by the company. Set ground rules and clear expectations of what they’re permitted to cover. Keep things simple: finance people cover finance issues, marketing people cover marketing issues, etc. Ensure their “business literacy” – their understanding of your company, the market, and industry – is up to date. Establish beforehand if you’ll allow reader comments and the opportunity for bloggers to respond to reader comments. If there are topics that are simply off limits, make that known up front.

Give a Speech

Public speaking is one of the best ways to gain recognition for you and your staffing company. While e-newsletters and blogs are somewhat removed and impersonal, giving a speech or seminar puts you in the forefront. Because so much of staffing sales rely on personal relationships, one dynamic speech in front of the right decision maker could pave the path to a new client. Speeches also provide the opportunity for immediate follow-up through question-and-answer sessions or post-speech mingling. Shake hands with the audience, grab business cards, get names to add to the newsletter list, and give a call just to say “Hi” a few days later.

Opportunities for speaking engagements abound. Think of all the business and trade groups out there, such as Rotary Clubs, chambers of commerce, or professional societies. They typically meet weekly or monthly over lunch or breakfast with an accompanying presentation. A program coordinator usually books the speakers, and trying to find 52 presenters a year can be a daunting task. Identify the program coordinator, then pitch a presentation idea to him. Target groups and organizations that make sense for your niche and that would likely include decision makers in the audience.

Most such presentations last from 40 minutes to an hour. Keep the content professional – you’re not delivering an infomercial or giving a sales seminar at an airport hotel. If the audience senses you’re selling something, it will lose interest – and not invite you back. You can get around this, however, by presenting the audience with a problem it didn’t realize it had, much like the newsletter strategy. Lay out the issue in a manner that indicates companies that aren’t reacting appropriately are the ones left behind.

Develop one or two stock speeches, ensuring that 85% of the content is relevant to any audience, with the remaining 15% adaptable as necessary. One speech could focus solely on your company or staffing in general. Discuss what you do and how you do it, and some of the trends in the overall industry. Most audiences are surprised to learn the depth and the breadth of the staffing industry.

For the other type of speech, pick an issue that affects everyone and present yourself as an expert. Topics could range from local employment trends, workforce preparedness, or anything else related to staffing or labor. Put in the requisite research, and, because you’re an “expert,” be prepared to answer questions that may or may not be directly related to the speech. Organize the speech like your newsletter articles: Start with a compelling hook, cover the relevant factual data, and finish up with an insightful conclusion.

Develop a PowerPoint presentation to accompany both types of speeches. Several templates are available from Microsoft, but the best design includes your company name and graphics. Don’t overload the slides with text; many presenters live by the Rule of Five (or some variation): no more than five bullet points, and no more than five words per bullet. Remember, too, that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Once the speech is written, practice it until you are well-prepared, but not over-prepared. You don’t want to deliver a robotic, memorized speech; nor do you want to seem unfocused and unsure. Rather, be extemporaneous – speak naturally, as if you’re having a conversation with the audience. Incorporate hand gestures. Practice how and when you’ll advance the slides.

It’s usually prudent to e-mail your slides to the program coordinator ahead of time if you’re not taking your own laptop. If you’re going to include audio or video elements, arrive early to make sure the equipment is set up and functioning properly. Print out the slides and leave a copy on every chair. Audience members can concentrate on you – not their note taking – and leave with a tangible reminder of you and your company.

Arriving early also affords time to familiarize yourself with the room. Will you be speaking from an elevated dais? Can you roam around and interact with the crowd? Will you be using a microphone? Is it handheld or attached to your collar? If you’re so inclined, greet audience members and shake their hands as they arrive. It takes the edge off – they are no longer complete strangers – and offers an engaging first impression.

During the speech, remain confident and poised. Use the PowerPoint slides as cues, and take note cards and other reminders as necessary. Prepare for interruptions, but encourage the audience to save questions until the end. Be mindful of the time constraints and respect them. Allow time for questions.

When the speech is complete, stick around to mingle with the audience and take more questions. Never rush out or come across as being impatient to leave. Stay! Pass out your business card and collect business cards. Thank the program coordinator for the opportunity and ask him how it went and if it met his expectations. Avail yourself to speak again as necessary.

Teach a Class

Teaching a class requires the most work, but could also be the most rewarding – you might get paid for it! Think of all the commercially oriented business schools that have sprung up recently – University of Phoenix, Ashford University, National University. Using industry professionals as instructors, instead of detached, ivory tower academics, is part of the attraction for students. Night schools always need faculty and most experienced practitioners meet the qualifications. Enrollment typically goes up during recessions as people want to increase their skills and knowledge base either to stave off a layoff or get back in the workforce after a layoff. Depending on the curriculum, classes meet once or twice a week for a few hours, and semesters range from six to 15 weeks.

Why is teaching a good stealth marketing opportunity? Think about who such classes are marketed to – “busy executives” and “working professionals” who don’t have time to attend a full-time program. Your students will already have jobs at a diverse range of companies, and if you impress them with your acumen, they just might remember you next time they have staffing needs. Additionally, by teaching classes on workforce planning, your students will likely work in their companies’ human resources, staffing, or recruiting functions. (You may also find some great candidates to place, too.)

Now, what to teach? Browsing through the schools’ online catalogs is a good place to start. Like traditional business schools, commercial ones are typically divided into various departments or degree paths, and topics like management, human resources, or workforce planning would suit you best. If there isn’t a staffing-specific course offered, call up the administrator and nominate yourself – it could be that the school hasn’t found a qualified instructor. Other options might be labor law, co-employment, strategic staffing management, or benefits administration. If you’re still having trouble deciding, consider enrolling for a semester and moonlighting as a student. If you think you’re more knowledgeable than the current instructor and could teach the course better, you may be on to something.

Make no mistake: Teaching requires a lot of work and preparation. Each hour spent in the classroom is backed up with at least an hour of preparation. You can’t afford to slip or have an off night, either. Unlike casual lunchtime seminars for which you’re essentially volunteering, students at commercial business schools have paid good money for your insight.

Fortunately, many commercial business schools strive for continuity and use similar books and lesson plans regardless of the instructor. Nevertheless, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the content and be prepared for follow up questions and discussions. If the school lets you choose the textbook and curriculum, simply browse the Internet to see what other commercial schools and universities use. Academic textbooks almost always come with an instructor’s manual that includes curriculum suggestions and assignment topics.

Another avenue toward using teaching as a subtle marketing effort would be to lead a class on a professional certification, like those awarded by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Many such curriculums are just as thorough, detailed, and demanding as any college course. Skilled instructors are hard to find. In addition to SHRM, most communities also have some type of employers association. Also consider some niche-specific certifications that you might teach, whether your field be nursing, accounting/finance, technical, or light industrial.

Volunteer in the Community

Being active in your community is a great marketing and networking tool. Donating labor, such as painting a recreation center, is free, while sponsorships could cost anywhere from $500-$10,000 – though that comes with the added benefit of having your company name printed on event T-shirts, signs, and brochures.

As usual, tie in your volunteer programs to your specific niche. If you do healthcare staffing, volunteer at a blood bank or conduct a health seminar. If you do accounting/finance, help seniors with their taxes. If you do light industrial, find community construction and beautification projects.

Here’s an ideal case: Imagine various organizations are banding together for a landscaping project at a local park. Think about the impression it makes if your company’s volunteers all arrive on time wearing matching company T-shirts. If the media shows up they’ll likely focus on you. If you or one of your employees takes a leadership role in organizing the project, such a proactive approach also broadens your opportunity for media coverage. With a volunteer project looming, never hesitate to call local papers, TV stations, and radio channels with the details, such as time, location, and scope. While contributing to a good cause, having fun, and building team unity should be your overriding goals as volunteers, possible media coverage and community goodwill make wonderful side effects.

Joining a non-profit board of directors presents another fantastic marketing and networking opportunity. Your name and your company’s name will be on the organization’s Web site and most of its other print and electronic publications. If something newsworthy happens, you’re also well-positioned for media interviews.

And think of the personal relationships you’ll develop. Most non-profit boards consist of 10-20 community leaders, most of whom are high-powered local businesspeople. If you sit next to these people at monthly board meetings, they’re going to remember you. Furthermore, if you take board leadership positions or lead special projects, they’ll see your capabilities and talents up close.

The ultimate prize is to get your staff and candidates involved. Imagine the organization has a big project coming up, whether it needs to stuff 3,000 envelopes, knock on 1,000 doors, or paint a senior center. If you avail your staff as volunteers and do the project on time and under budget, you leave a very lasting impression on potential clients.

Of course, do such projects for the right reasons, not marketing. Never force your staff to volunteer, and be clear that the project is unpaid volunteer time that occurs outside normal business hours. Don’t add pressure by publicly stating your need to impress a potential client – you should be the only one treating the project as marketing, and that aspect ranks far below the actual good deed and the team-building aspects of community involvement.

Turn Up the P.R. Machine

 Garnering favorable media coverage distributes your name much farther than standard networking tactics and positions you as a knowledgeable and trusted source of authority. First, do your homework. Scour the local media and figure how and when business and labor topics are covered and who covers them. Establishing a strong relationship with the editor or reporter can be your ticket to being their preferred source.

Then think about what’s newsworthy, which you’re probably already doing through your e-newsletter. When staffing or employment-related news breaks, give a quick call or e-mail to your contact availing yourself as a source – someone who can provide expert commentary. Additionally, tip them off anytime your company does something newsworthy. Start with a broad scope of what’s considered newsworthy, which you’ll then quickly refine based on the editor or reporter’s preferences. Keep in mind that newspapers, radio stations, and TV channels face tremendous pressure in filling thousands – if not millions – of hours and column inches of content each year.

To be a trusted source takes time. Make sure you’re up on the news and have real insight to add to the story. Be ready when news breaks – news cycles are increasingly short, and if you wait even a few hours to react, you may have missed the window.

Before the interview, research the topic and develop key talking points. Stick to those talking points during the interview and keep your answers short and focused. Provide statistics and graphs if they add to the story. Provide the news outlet with a “boilerplate” paragraph stating the company name, your name and position, and a one or two sentence description of the company. Make sure the reporter can pronounce your name and the company name correctly.

If the local media doesn’t seem to be covering your niche, it may not be due to lack of interest. Rather, it could stem from a lack of resources. Therefore, volunteer to cover it yourself. For example, most newspapers have a Sunday jobs section with classified ads and a syndicated jobs-advice column. Why don’t you volunteer to write a local jobs-advice column? How about you contact a radio channel and pitch a weekly or monthly labor trends report? Do the same thing with any weekly printed business journal that covers your market.

Tie It All Together

If you implement two or more of the strategies described herein, integrate and cross-promote them. Mention your next speech on your blog; add names to the e-newsletter distribution list following a speech. Let the media know about your upcoming volunteer event. Write about the volunteer event on your blog beforehand; cover it in the e-newsletter afterward. Adding the title of college instructor improves your résumé and burnishes your credentials as both a media source and public speaker.

When you find a combination that works for your needs, you’ll soon be humming along and adding contacts to your sphere of influence in no time. These free (or almost free) marketing techniques all have similar goals. One is to keep your company’s name prominently positioned in the minds of both current clients and prospects. The more people who subscribe to your e-newsletter, read your blog, attend your speeches, or see your name in the paper, the better. Your goal is to be the first name that people think of when they think staffing.

Equally important, such tactics build confidence among prospective clients. People automatically assume that individuals giving speeches or being interviewed speak from a position of knowledge, authority, and experience. Prospects may not need you now, but when they do, they are more likely to remember that you are the person whose name keeps popping up when the topic turns to staffing. Your reputation precedes you, and whether they call you or you call them, you’re starting from a position of leverage. Be that name and use its credibility for all it’s worth.

Mark Hersberger is a freelance writer who covers the staffing industry and employment and human resources issues.

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