Put Cybersecurity at the Top of Your List

By Sandra Collins —

 

Everyone has a list. We keep lists of goals, things to do, shopping lists, bucket lists. The people with probably the longest list of things to do are those in charge of cybersecurity—the information technology (IT) professionals who seek to prevent hacking and cyber attacks on computer systems, as well as develop recovery strategies in case of breach. Given the ubiquitous nature of computers today, and the fact that they’re largely vulnerable to attack from hackers all over the world, cybersecurity professionals are very busy indeed.

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I spoke with Roota Almeida, Head of Information Security at Delta Dental of New Jersey, on behalf of Women In Technology International (WITI), an international professional network. Roota will be speaking at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium on May 18, 2016 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on “Mitigating Cyber Risks in the Growing World of Internet-Connected Devices.” It turns out that on the long list of information security activities, this is at the top.

At the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, you’re discussing mitigating cyber risk and connected devices specifically. Please talk about why you’re focusing on this area.

Almeida: The security of connected devices justifiably merits keen attention because the number of “things” connected to the evolving “Internet of Things” (IoT) is growing exponentially. IT Research firm Gartner has forecasted growth from today’s approximately 5 billion connected units to nearly 21 billion in 2020. More devices mean more threat access points, more data, and more connections—all representing the vulnerabilities keeping security professionals up at night. More and more, things are becoming interconnected. This is not only the “Internet of Things,” it will be the “Internet of Everything.”

The security industry started managing connected devices back with the advent of “BYOD” (Bring Your Own Device), the trend in which employees began to access company networks via their personal smartphones. Suddenly, users wanted 24-hour access to all types of web-based systems using any connected device, wherever they were located. Wearable devices are now added to the mix. The challenge for cybersecurity professionals has been to find balance between providing the accessibility users want and maintaining system security. We rely on different types of software and solutions to protect the information.

Tell us about some of the challenges you face in today’s cybersecurity environment.

Almeida: One of the biggest challenges is that the types of threats and access points are continually changing. Hackers and “hacktivists” (hackers driven by political or socially motivated purposes) are creative and ingenious, requiring our constant vigilance. Their expertise is growing and they are working hard to get through the security to access systems. To get what they’re after, they have to be right only once, but to stop them, security professionals have to be right every single time.

In particular, a system’s user identities are the most vulnerable link in its security chain. Security professionals must flexibly manage identification and authentication processes to allow access from diverse types of users, partners, and vendors, all using different devices worldwide, but at the same time we must ensure we’re resisting breaches and protecting the data.

And speaking of the data, the increasing amount of stored information adds additional complexity. Initially, people did not store data on their phones, except for telephone numbers. Now, a large amount of data and images are stored on phones and other devices, as well as a growing number of wearable devices. Security professionals must follow company data and ensure that it is secure, no matter where it is—on devices, on servers, or in the cloud.

Please elaborate about the nefarious elements of cyber crime—the people using their powers for evil instead of good.

Almeida: Unfortunately, the black market for stolen data and malware is thriving. In security circles, we refer to 2014 as “the year of retail” cyber attacks, in which a lot of credit card data was hacked. Hackers then realized that their timeframe to use stolen banking and credit card data was limited once the accounts were flagged, so they turned their focus to personal data and 2015 became “the year of healthcare” cyber attacks. Healthcare data is valuable on the black market. If your financial data is breached, you can get secure again, but if your private information is breached, you can’t get private again. Fingerprints, genes, DNA, and retinal scans aren’t going to change, they can maintain their value for much longer.

So far in 2016, we’re seeing an upward trend in the use of ransomware internationally. Ransomware is a type of malware designed to infect computer systems, holding them hostage by prohibiting access to the data until the owner pays a ransom to the perpetrators.

Infrastructure threats are another topic we discuss frequently. Unauthorized access to a nation-state’s infrastructure control systems, such as for power grids, dams, and mass transit systems, can pose significant threat to populations. Now, many governments are recognizing cybersecurity as a top priority. In the U.S., President Obama has proposed allocation of $19 billion for cybersecurity as part of the FY 2017 budget. In addition, the administration has worked with Congress to pass the Cybersecurity Act of 2015 to strengthen the country’s cybersecurity efforts. The legislation also seeks to make it easier for private companies to share cyber threat information with each other and with the government.

To encourage more collaboration within the industry?

Almeida: The people in cybersecurity have been working together cooperatively for a long time. Professionals from different kinds of businesses, industries, governments, intelligence agencies, and individuals have close ties and work together to protect against threats and emerging risks and to advance the collective effort against cyber crime.

We also continue to learn from each other, from the threats and breaches that have happened to others, and also from the resolutions to these events. CIOs are much more focused on building IT plans with integrated security, and investing in protection, monitoring, and incident response. We know in this day and age it is not a question of whether you will be hacked, but when. No one is immune.

It’s important for business leaders to realize that typically the cost of avoiding threats is much lower than the cost of recovering from them. However, when the time comes that you must recover from an attack, how you move forward and prepare after that attack is critical to its affect on your business.

What about Artificial Intelligence? What role do you think it will play?

Almeida: It’s really impossible at this time to predict AI’s evolution and how it will be used to protect systems or whether it will pose a security concern. Caution is warranted, however. Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, said not too long ago that we need to be very careful with artificial intelligence and that we’re “summoning the demon,” such as in a movie. We may think we can control it, but that may not be the case.

It sounds like you believe that large enterprises are doing a good job with security. How about small and mid-sized businesses?

Almeida: Yes, in my work in the industry and frequent contact with CIOs, I do think large companies are doing a good job. That said, businesses of any size or type should feel confident that they, too, can do a good job with security. Small businesses can work with managed security service providers (MSSPs) who will bring expertise and 24/7 monitoring, and will help with mitigating risk and complying with regulatory obligations in line with business objectives. Medium-sized businesses will often bring in MSSPs to augment their internal IT security teams. In any case, we advise all businesses to have proactive strategies and systems in place.

 

Business owners take heed: if cybersecurity isn’t near the top of your list, now’s the time to take action.

Roota will tweet from the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium: Follow her @RootaAlmeida.

 

Cybersecurity; Roota Almeida; CISO; CIO

Roota Almeida is a dynamic senior IT Executive and CISO responsible for successful implementation of information security, risk and compliance systems and strategies across multiple industries with global operations. Currently, she is the Head of Information Security at Delta Dental of NJ responsible for managing the development and implementation of enterprise-wide information security strategy, policies, risk assessments and controls.

Roota has over 15 years of direct experience in establishing and maintaining global security strategies, architectures, standards, and compliance while driving the necessary cultural changes to affect measurable improvements in the organizations security posture. Recognized as a thought leader in the industry as a Co-Chair, Governing Body Member and a frequent speaker at various information technology summits; she also has various articles and interviews published in security magazines and websites.

Singing in Tune: Your Social Media “Voice”

By Sandra Collins

This blog is about social media.

 

Each social media platform holds its own user expectations for how and what content are shared. This is often called the “voice” or “tone” you use when you post. If you’re just getting started with social media, you may find helpful this overview of the most popular platforms.

BTW, in general, social media sites often have options for paid advertising via ads or “sponsored” content; that topic isn’t covered in this post.

Facebook

  • Facebook is friendly, relaxed, and feels personal. For business purposes, it tends to be used for B2C (business to consumer) more than for B2B (business to business) organizations.
  • For B2C, you can use it as your primary social media tool and share information related to your business as well as employee-related happenings.
  • Facebook tends to have a friendlier feel than the professional content on LinkedIn. You can post information on the products/services that you sell and business-related content and suggestions, but it’s generally kept shorter and a little lighter in tone, with more like a “Hey, here’s news!” feeling.Singing a social media tune
  • While you may have a personal Facebook presence connected to your friends, you should have a separate Facebook presence just for your business. (There’s information on setting up a business page here: http://curiousdog.us/1mU6PmY and here: http://curiousdog.us/1Zi80Z6.)
  • B2B companies generally use a LinkedIn business page as their primary social media presence; however, if resources permit, I like to see B2B companies have a business Facebook page as well, where they can share employee-related and fun information that allows followers to see the “human” side of their business. Consumers’ wishes to see this kind of information has been one of the results of the huge growth of social networks.
  • You can also share your business-related information on your personal profile (a) if your friends don’t mind, (b) if they like to know what you’re up to, or (c) if they might refer people to your business so you’d like to stay in front of them. However, be sure to avoid the opposite – don’t post on your business page the personal content you’d send to your friends. So, while it would not be appropriate to share photos of your wild birthday party on your business’s Facebook page, it would be appropriate to share the business’s human content, such as a company picnic, an honor bestowed on you or one of your employees, or photos of a community activity that your business supported.
  • You can follow and post to other business pages or groups, and you’ll see some of their status updates in your Facebook news feed. This activity is an especially good idea if you “partner” with other businesses to provide services or to refer prospects for non-competing services.

LinkedIn

  • On LinkedIn you build a personal profile focused on your professional life.
  • Professionals use LinkedIn for connecting with their business contacts about business-related things; it’s not for personal content like Facebook is. Keep in mind that if you own or are employed by a business, the content you post to your personal account will reflect on your company as well. People have gotten into trouble by connecting with business associates (or clients!) and then posting content that isn’t appropriate. Keep the content professional.
  • In your status update feed, you can share business content you have found on LinkedIn or elsewhere and add your thoughts if you wish. You’ll see content that your connections have shared as well.
  • You should limit the self-promotion you do on LinkedIn because you’ll be judged as a spammer and social media judgment is harsh.
  • Personal opinions on non-business topics aren’t appreciated; for example, even if you feel that current politics have a direct affect on business and the economy, posting information that is biased to your view of one particular party would be seen as inappropriate. Ditto for religion and other “personal” topics.
  • You can join and participate in dozens of Groups on LinkedIn. There are a large number of topic-focused groups to choose from; do a search on key words to find them. If you have limited resources, you can choose to join just a small number of groups, so you’ll be able to focus and participate more frequently. You can adjust how you would like to receive updates from these groups and you can post updates to the group that members will see when they access the group or receive notifications. Many people spend a lot of time in groups looking for prospects and like-minded peers; you may even connect with someone who will become a customer. You can start or respond to discussions that groups members have, and offer helpful information if you wish. In these discussions you can direct people to your own website or other assets, but remember that you must do this rarely, gently, and judiciously.
  • A nice advantage of LinkedIn is that you can use their publishing platform to post long-form content you’ve written about professional matters. It’s connected to your personal LinkedIn profile rather than to a company page. People you’ve connected with on LinkedIn will be alerted whenever you post. Once you’ve posted more than three articles you’ll have your own author page that features all of the articles you’ve written, which may drive up the number of people following your posts, exposing your content to a wider audience.
  • If you’re a business owner or run your company’s social media function, you can also create a company page on LinkedIn where you’d promote your business’s content, including company announcements and sales promotions. People who follow your company page will be alerted in their feed when you post content there. It doesn’t automatically interact with your personal profile – you would update your company page separately. You can create a separate status update on your personal profile to share your company page content if you wish. Read more about setting up a company page here: http://curiousdog.us/1mSMaiv.
  • Generally I decide about having a company page based on this distinction: if your business and your brand is all about YOU (say, you’re a consultant), you can decide whether you’d like to forego a company page because your own personal LinkedIn profile would cover many aspects of your business. If you have employees and your brand is your company’s name, you would want to use a company page in addition to your personal profile.

Twitter

  • Twitter’s content updates (“tweets”) are limited to 140 characters so content is concise. (Twitter shows you the number of characters you’ve used as you’re typing.) People use Twitter to share their viewpoints, news, and other information.
  • You can use Twitter in combination with a Facebook business page and/or LinkedIn profiles/pages, and generally your tweets should reflect the content style you use when you post to those platforms (i.e., friendly vs. professional). You can post short tweets about content you’ve posted on those sites, with links to where people can read the details. Again you should refrain from posting personal information using your business-centric account. Some people choose to use one account for both their business and personal tweets, especially if they themselves are their brand, but remember you’d have to keep the personal information appropriate. I, personally, don’t love that approach because some people start sharing irrelevant personal information like what they had for breakfast.
  • Twitter is also useful for promotional announcements and reminders, such as when a sales promotion starts or ends or you’re hosting an event at a particular time.
  • I’ll make the general statement that the younger your target market is, the more likely they use Twitter.
  • Generally if you choose to use Twitter, you need to go through the effort to follow other people on Twitter so you can re-tweet their tweets, keeping you engaged with the greater community. If someone re-tweets one of your tweets, you can tweet to thank them, “favorite” their tweet, or even decide to follow them. You’ll see tweets from people/companies you’ve followed in your Twitter feed, and you can share the things you think would be helpful to your followers.
  • Twitter and most of the other social media platforms use “hashtags” (#) to organize information. You can make up hashtags or use hashtags other people have made up, and then tweets that have used that hashtag will be organized together on a Twitter page. Then, if someone searches or clicks on that term they would find the page of tweets using that hashtag.
  • Alternatively, there’s the @ symbol, which is used to identify a particular account a person or business uses. If you are going to re-tweet someone’s tweet, you’d use their @ to refer to them/their account.
  • As an example, say we’re talking about Bruce Springsteen. He uses @springsteen as an account name, so if you were tweeting about his content directly or re-tweeting his tweet, you’d make sure @springsteen was in your tweet, to point back to him and his account. However, if you were tweeting that you saw him in concert, you’d use a hashtag such as #BruceSpringsteen or #SpringsteenConcert to clarify your post or to organize your tweet along with others.
  • You could even make up a hashtag to express a thought, such as #SpringsteenRocks and then the tweet would be on a page with other tweets using that hashtag. You could also add commentary to your tweets by creating or using hashtags such as #awesome or #GoodIdea.
  • Hashtags don’t have spaces in them and upper and lower case are recognized as the same. Generally, it’s not a good idea to use more than two hashtags in a tweet because it hinders readability.
  • When there is a recognized event or a social “movement,” it will often have a hashtag to identify it, and when you use the hashtag you are participating or showing solidarity with it.
  • Find out more about using hashtags here: http://curiousdog.us/1P7HcFc.

YouTube

  • YouTube, of course, hosts videos.
  • The tone here tends to be relaxed and friendly, and may even focus on a video’s entertainment value, though serious content is fine as well.
  • Creating videos about your business is a great idea. The popularity of videos as a means of communication continues to soar, and they’re very effective marketing tools. Plus, search engines index content and your videos may be found in search results. You can put videos on your website as well as on YouTube.
  • Be aware that the longer the video, the more viewers will exit part-way through the video. It’s just the nature of our attention spans. Less than three minutes is preferred. However, longer how-to videos may keep viewers for a longer period of time if they are earnestly seeking information, as will videos with high entertainment value.
  • It’s rare to create a video that goes viral (i.e., gets shared by hundreds, thousands, or millions of people), as much as we would all love that. However, if you produce brilliant, entertaining videos, who’s to say it couldn’t happen? The nature of viral content is notoriously fickle. It’s hard to say why some cat videos get shared a million times and others don’t.

Instagram and Pinterest

  • Content on Instagram or Pinterest is posted via sharing visuals such as photos, and generally includes little text. These platforms are primarily used by B2C companies. Content on Instagram is posted (and largely consumed) only via mobile devices, not on desktops.
  • Either or both of these platforms are a good choice if your business can share interesting and frequent visuals. People follow others and share content.
  • The content voice on these platforms is relaxed and can help you share insight into the personality of your business. You can (and should) link to your website or other assets.
  • Here’s an older but still relevant article about these platforms, focusing on Instagram but with some comparisons as to how it differs from Pinterest: http://curiousdog.us/1Op0gzh.
  • It seems to me that people tend to prefer using one platform or the other, so as a business owner if you’re using online analytics you’d probably need to use both and see which is referring more people to your assets.

Promoting and Cross-Promoting Your Content

  • You can use social media platforms to share content you create, such as blogs, and to make announcements about your business, such as any events you are holding.
  • The various platforms generally allow you to include a photo, video, or gif.
  • Whatever social media platforms you use, wherever you can you should include links to your other content such as longer-form online articles, blogs, web pages, and landing pages. When you link to an online location, the post will generally show one of the photos that’s on the destination page.
  • On your website you should include buttons for people to follow you on social media.

If you post worthwhile content, others will follow you and they’ll be alerted when you post, and if they share your content it will spread the word to new audiences, promoting your business. Once you’ve established a social media account, you can also use those ubiquitous buttons you see all over the web to share content via your account(s).

How to Participate in Social Media

By Sandra Collins

This blog is about social media.

 

In prior posts I wrote about using social media for your small business and how to get started choosing platforms you can use. Here I’ll provide some advice for what kinds of content you can post.

There are a lot of options, but definitely you want the content that you post to be useful and informative to your readers. Remember that your social media posts are contributing to helping prospects to know you, like you, and trust you. Even if prospects aren’t going to buy from you directly, they may pass your information onto others who will.

That being said, I know it can seem like if you share your hard-earned knowledge for free, you’re compromising a prospect’s need to actually buy your products or services. So, yes, you can certainly choose to not reveal your expertise via free media; however, your objective is still to be helpful to draw people in and encourage them to share your insights with others, as well as to demonstrate your unique value in your areas of expertise. It can be a fine line and, ultimately, it’s your decision to make.

A rule of thumb: Don’t post things in bad taste or things that would alienate part of your audience; use good judgment. Arguably, a portion of people on social media seem easy to anger or offend, so carefully consider the risks of what you post.

So let’s talk about some ideas for social media content. In this post we’ll talk about subject matter. In the big picture, subject matter can be divided into several types:

Information / How-to

  • You can share short or long content that delivers information related to your business or that your followers would find helpful. For example, you can include foundational information that people researching products or services in your area of expertise would want to know as part of their buying process.
  • You can post information on how to do simple things that your prospects may want to do themselves.
  • It’s fine to post fun information occasionally, as long as you use good judgment.
  • Think about the things you find interesting, or that you could picture your prospects being confused or concerned about.
  • Speak to your clients about what interests them and what they’d like you to write about, or what would have been helpful to know when they were looking around for suppliers.
  • Ask your employees what questions they get – particularly pre-sales, after-sales support questions, and topics that come up related to your customer service.
  • Get ideas for topics from information you hear about or read about in your industry.

Stories

  • Stories include any background or descriptions you share. They also include personal stories and community-related stories. Their purpose is to help prospects and customers to know you better and relate to you better.
  • Examples of stories would include: how you got into business; something interesting you heard; something that happened that week and why you’d like to tell your audience about it or why you think it’s important; a description of how you helped a customer (helpful information, not boasting); how one of your customers successfully used one of your products; creative ideas for how customers can use a product; what happened when you did a particular thing related to your business; a story about an event you attended; a cause or charity your business supports, with a story about a particular event with which you helped; a story about something that happened to you and what you learned from it.
  • If sharing stories involving customers, don’t use their full names unless you obtain explicit permission. Of course, don’t use confidential information.

Opinions

  • You can share opinions on matters related to your business.
  • It’s frowned upon to speak negatively of your competitors. Actually, avoid negative talk in general because it will compromise your image.
  • If your business involves customers expecting you to have expertise in a body of knowledge, posting your opinions can help them to see how you approach matters.
  • If there’s controversy about aspects of your industry, or if different people in your industry do things in opposing manners, include descriptions of the benefits of why you do things the way you do.
  • If there is a “comments” section for your post, ask your readers for their opinions or experiences (if appropriate).

Curated

  • Curated content is content you obtain from somewhere else and share.
  • It’s very important to ask the creator of the content for permission to use it if you are going to share more than a few sentences word for word, or if you’re going to summarize their content at length.
  • Always give credit where credit is due. Be sure you spell any associated names correctly.
  • If the information is located online, link to it in your post.
  • You can combine descriptions of your opinions on a subject with sharing curated content. For example, you may write, “I read this article by John Doe in which he states [such-and-such].” Be sure to link to the information online. “I agree with that [for these reasons] and I’d like to offer an additional comment…”

Promotional

  • Promotional content informs your audience about things such as sales promotions, new products, or upcoming events. Often they’ll be associated with a particular timeframe.
  • Your first post should announce the content and after that you can post short, quick reminders such as, “Don’t forget, this month’s special offer ends on Friday!” and remind people of the details or link to that information online. Try to word each reminder differently; don’t just repeat the same thing each time or it can get irritating. Avoid doing a lot of reminders on LinkedIn.

In all cases, you can post links from your posts to longer-form online pages such as articles, blogs, web pages, landing pages, your other social media accounts, or to your prior posts. Over time, connecting your social media posts when you can helps people view more of your content and gives you a solid online presence. If you’re able to point to pages on your website (such as your blog), people can visit other pages on the site if they wish.

The types of subject matter I’ve described can be used on any of the social media platforms that you choose to use, keeping in mind that each platform holds its own user expectations for what content is shared. More on that in the next post.

P.S. Your posts do not have to be long, but if they are interesting you’ll get much better readership.

Getting Started With Social Media

By Sandra Collins

This blog is about social media.

 

In a prior post, I wrote about how to start using social media for your business. The key takeaway was that when you are strategizing how to participate in social media, it’s most effective to know where and how your customers and prospects want to connect with you.

As I wrote in the prior post, social media is a communication channel that supplements the locations where you share your core content. In and of itself, it generates very few sales leads that turn into customers. It does, however, help prospects and customers get to know you, like you, and trust you, which for most businesses is a critical phase of the buying cycle.

When strategizing how you’ll participate, first consider how you currently find those who become your future customers. (These work in combination with each other.)

  • If your business usually requires in-person interaction, or consultative involvement, there isn’t going to be a replacement for that. However, if your customers and prospects are using social media, finding you there can help them feel more connected with you and your business.
  • If buying your products/services isn’t complex and your website (or wherever you provide your core content) generates interest for you and helps your prospects to understand how to do business with you, social media can augment that and help your prospects feel more comfortable with you as a supplier.
  • If your products/services are more complex, or if there is an expectation that you as a supplier will have specialized knowledge, using social media will help others to see your expertise. Answering questions and contributing to conversations, or publishing helpful content that seeks to connect with others, can help you get noticed.

Second, be aware that in all cases, the trend is also to help customers and prospects get to know you better on a personal level. Even if you’re in business-to-business, the people making decisions are still people and want to relate to you on that level. They appreciate it when you’re helpful and friendly. They like to feel connected with you as someone who genuinely cares about customers and not someone who just wants to sell them something. Transparency is valued. They want to know your stories: how you got into business, how you do things, your experiences, the experiences others have had. The younger your target market is, the more important this is to them.

Third, when contributing to social media, consider these questions:

  • Where would your customers and prospects expect to find you? Do they actively develop and interact with their networks and professional groups on LinkedIn? Are they on Facebook and want to have more friendly interaction with you or see your personal side? Do they get their news and updates real time from Twitter and would they follow you to hear about the latest? In any/all cases, the social networks that are important to them are where they would expect to find you, too.
  • What do your customers and prospects want to know? What helpful tips and information can you offer them or how can you make understanding your products or services easier? Can you help them with ideas on how to use your products/services more effectively? Can you help them better understand the benefits? Can you help them to know you better as a person and as a professional? What stories can you share with them to help them know you? Read more about types of content you can post.

When strategizing how you’ll use social media, limit the number of platforms (methods) you use. It’s better to focus on a couple than to spread yourself too thin trying to be everywhere. It’s much more effective to post consistently on one platform than to post once a month on a bunch of them.

Lastly, if your target market isn’t particularly interested in social media, I’d still find a way to get in front of them occasionally, to help them keep you in mind if they are going to buy in the future or have an opportunity to recommend your services. I’ll write more about that in an upcoming blog. In the meantime, keep in mind that as time goes by your prospects will increasingly be from the generations of folks to whom social media is as natural as breathing, and it will be vital for you to connect with them there.

OMG! Who Has Time For Social Media?

By Sandra Collins

This blog is about social media.

 

As a small business owner, you may have heard a lot about social media and that you “have” to use it. I, myself, think it’s best to be clear about how it helps all concerned.

I have heard the title comment about social media more than once, particularly from small business owners. It’s not surprising, because it’s true that it can take up a lot of time. The key is to use it wisely and to keep your customers in mind.

To start, let’s clarify that social media is a channel to distribute information. It will not replace your other marketing and sales efforts; it’s another method to communicate. How it fits into your marketing activities depends upon your business.

Another thing to clarify is that social media directly generates only a small number of sales leads (if any). Often people want to know the ROI of the social media initiatives they put in place, but in reality it’s usually not easy to measure sales that resulted directly from social media because its influence is largely indirect. In essence, its purpose is to help prospects and customers to know you, like you, and trust you.

In addition, you should consider whether your prospects expect to find you on social media. If your target market expects to find you there and you’re not participating, it will pose a “lost opportunities” cost. Generally, the younger your target market, the higher the likelihood they expect to find you there. With young target markets, not having a social media presence is comparable to not having a website (or other venue to promote your core content); younger prospects expect to get to know you through authentic social interaction and if you’re not present, depending on your business, they’ll look for someone else.

So, the first step in evaluating your social media participation is to know what your prospects want and/or expect. Recent research cites 65% of adults now use social media, making it an effective channel with which to connect with prospects. On the other hand, I would then assume that means about a third of prospects don’t use social media.

Of course, if your prospects are asking frequently to connect with you in a certain way, you should be listening. Otherwise, the issue is more subtle and depends on a combination of your resources and your prospects’/customers’ needs. Certainly if you have the resources, it’s great to be found in all of the hot spots. However, if you’re a small business owner with limited resources and you’re considering a social media presence, it’s best to limit your choices so you’re not spreading yourself too thin. I’ll make the following generalizations:

  • The most popular social networks are currently Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. LinkedIn is generally business-oriented (B2B) and Facebook is generally consumer-oriented (B2C), but it depends on where your customers and prospects are hanging out. Twitter is popular in combination with either Facebook or LinkedIn.
  • Having a YouTube channel is very popular if you’re able to make videos.
  • Some people have found Google+ is worthwhile. (Here’s an article discussing/debating multiple aspects of the value of Google+: http://curiousdog.us/1Rq3c2S.)
  • In addition, posting on Instagram, Pinterest, or Snapchat are popular if you’re in a business that’s very visual.
  • If you’re in a business that gathers people together regularly, a Meetup group is worthwhile.
  • While not considered social networking, posting blogs on your website is a very effective way to help prospects and customers get to know you, like you, and trust you.

Also not a social network, remember that email is an effective way to communicate with customers and prospects, as well as to run campaigns. Email requires gathering and maintaining a list or database of folks who have opted in to hear from you.

It’s possible that there are other places prospects in your particular industry would expect to find you. There are a huge number of apps and websites out there that have diverse bases of followers and the number increases daily. So, when you’re starting out in social media, talk to your customers and find out where they would have welcomed your presence and start out in the location you hear about the most.

Read about Getting Started With Social Media.

Marketing Content and the Sales Funnel

By Sandra Collins

This blog is about how to help buyers using informational content.

 

It can be helpful to use specific terms to describe potential buyers during the buying process (the “sales funnel”) so your team is referring to them consistently. There are numerous sets of terms one can use; following I’ll describe one set of terms you may find useful. (This one has some nuances; your particular process may be simpler.)

It’s best to align your communications with stages of the buying process. The communications approach is undertaken thoughtfully because, over time, marketing communications and sales processes have been transforming considerably from a “hard sell” to a “helpful sell.” For those of you who like to cut to the chase this can be a little frustrating, but it’s a result of our society now being able to access (and turn off) information on its own terms.

  • The Market – People who may at some point consider products/services in your area of expertise.
    Your Objective: It’s beneficial these days to make information available to a broad audience that wants to know more about your industry (your company’s areas of expertise), with the intent of being helpful to others and also to get your name and expertise out there.
  • Target Market – People with a set of similar characteristics who would benefit from your products and/or services. You don’t know them individually yet.
    Your Objective: Generally, you are thinking of these people when you share information about your areas of expertise because they would find it the most relevant. Your information helps them understand more about the products/services you know well, if they have some level of interest.
  • Potential Buyers or Prospects – People who are considering a purchase at some point. As they search for information, they are starting down the sales funnel.
    Your Objective: Your information helps potential buyers understand more about your areas of expertise, helps to educate them on their options, and some of it helps them to know your company better (but avoid sales pitches, which turn people off). You can also offer downloads, demos, or samples to help potential buyers to know more about your products/services, and to generate contacts and leads.
  • Contacts – People for whom you have at least one data point of information (name, email, etc.). You’ve obtained information about them using a method that causes you to believe that they may be part of your target market, although they’re not yet ready to buy; for example, they may have signed up to receive emails from you.
    Your Objective: You can continue to “nurture” contacts with communications because they have an interest in your topics. This is beneficial because they will know who you are if they get to the point of wanting to buy. However, you need to be careful not to use obvious sales pitches because if you are annoying they will go away.
  • Leads – Contacts who intend to purchase from someone. They know who you are and you know who they are.
    Your Objective: Your information at this stage should be more in depth, with the intention of helping leads to know you better and decide if you’re a fit with what they want. You can offer them more specific information on ways to purchase, and can also raise awareness and increase demand using campaigns.
  • Qualified Leads – Leads who are planning to buy and are in touch with you. These are sometimes separated into “Marketing-Qualified Leads” and “Sales-Qualified Leads.” This stage mostly is used if you interact with your leads directly and your buying process is lengthy.
    Your Objective: Here you’re working with them to assess if their plan to purchase is feasible, and how you can provide information about doing business with you. You want to be sure they understand you can help them solve their needs.
  • Opportunities – Qualified Leads whom you believe are ready to purchase and with whom you are sharing enough specifics about your company, products/services, and the transaction so that they are able to make a purchase decision. In many transactions this involves a quote or proposal.
    Your Objective: Ensure your communications are as clear as elsewhere in the process and have been presented in writing.
  • Customers – People who have completed the transaction.
    Your Objective: Continue to communicate with your customers. Welcome them and give them details on what comes next. Ensure they know all about your customer support program. Continue to nurture them in your communications process to keep them informed and engaged. As always, your primary objective is to obtain complete customer satisfaction.

The Sales Cycle

By Sandra Collins

This blog is about understanding the sales cycle.

 

People considering an important purchase usually go through a buying process called a “sales cycle” or “sales funnel.” Generally it includes:

  • Identifying their own wants or needs for the purchase
  • Research on available options (products/services and suppliers)
  • Evaluation
  • Decisions

A sales funnel is a visual metaphor describing, at its widest part, the whole market of potential buyers, down to its narrowest part, those who actually buy and become customers. Potential buyers descend through the funnel as they gather information and make decisions about their options – namely, which supplier and which products/services most completely fit their needs and the value they seek.

Sales Funnel 2

The length of the sales cycle varies with the business you’re in and the complexity of what you sell. With uncomplicated products/services, the process may be very condensed. If customers are comfortable with ordering via your e-commerce system, they may rarely talk to one of your company representatives at all; if that’s the case, the information you’re providing to the public must do all the work. (A note of caution here: You’ll need to examine the sales process thoroughly to be sure people will want to buy based solely on your e-commerce system, without interacting with humans at all.)

Transactions will vary as far as when a buyer goes from researching options to actually contacting suppliers. Many buyers will do a lot of their research before reaching out to you directly. In this case, again your objective is to provide clear information to the public – to ensure that when your products/services are truly a fit for buyers, you’ve helped them to understand why they should choose you as their supplier.

Of course, remember that if buyers come into contact with your company’s representatives, the strength of your sales and customer support systems is crucial and is separate from your other marketing efforts.

It’s most effective to align your marketing communications to appeal to and provide information to prospects as they are going through the buying process, to help them to know you better and consider you as a supplier. Read more about that and the sales funnel here.

Why Didn’t You Call Me?

By Sandra Collins

This blog is about providing core content.

 

When people are considering making a significant purchase, they often start with research to better understand their options. They look for information online and/or offline; they may also solicit input from others, opinions available on social media, and customer reviews.

Much of their research will be done prior to or in addition to conversations that prospects have directly with you or your company’s sales representative(s). (Read more about that here.)

Providing information in the places that potential buyers will be looking for it increases the possibilities that they will consider you as a supplier. Increased consideration is one of the factors in getting more business.

shake-hand-369025_rev2

I believe marketing information falls into three categories:

  • Messaging – the primary description of what you do (you need this!)
  • Core Content – the information that helps prospects to know you and determine whether your products/services will meet their needs. This type of marketing content is generally the most productive for small businesses
  • Content Marketing – additional information that helps prospects to like you and trust you

Let’s talk about Core Content. That’s the information prospects want to know as they progress through the buying process. You’ll want to ensure they have this essential information, whether they get it from your website, a brochure, a video, or any other method of distribution.

It’s best to develop some “short form” content such as a summary paragraph that you can put in various locations, like at the end of a guest blog. Then you should also have more in-depth core content about what you offer and how it meets customers’ needs or solves their pain points (their problems).

Don’t assume people will hunt for the information they wish to know, or that they will call you if they have questions. Convey important information about what you do, especially if it narrows their options; it can be frustrating for prospects to spend a lot of time looking at your information and then find out you don’t serve their geography or don’t provide products/services compatible with their needs. Listen to the questions you get from prospects and customers and try to integrate the answers into your core content.

Also, if you make it easy for your prospects to know what you do, you won’t lose out on opportunities. You can avoid getting into the “Why didn’t you call me?” situation, which has a scenario like this: You own a landscaping company and you’re talking to the facilities manager at one of your client companies and she says to you, “I had a tough time finding someone to take care of my yard,” and you find yourself replying, “What? Why didn’t you call me?” In this case, you would want to be sure your communications promoted the fact that your company does both residential and commercial work.

If prospects like to know fairly in-depth information before buying, it’s helpful to have one location where you can steer them. For many businesses, that’s their website. Websites have the advantage of being able to hold a lot of information that can be consumed in small bites, as quickly or as thoroughly as the prospect wishes. (This is also helpful in the case of a broad selection of products or complex products.) However, in this day of expanded communication channels, if the information isn’t lengthy, your core container of information could be somewhere completely different.

Once you address the core content about what you do and why you’re a great supplier, additional content helps prospects to know you better, and moves them toward liking you and trusting you:

  • Your “about us” information and your “story”
  • Your mission, primary objectives, what’s important to you
  • White papers with in-depth explanations of your products/services (only if they are technical or complicated)
  • Customer perspectives, contained in stories, interviews, or case studies
  • Customer testimonials
  • Information that helps others, including “how-to” information and insightful articles

Read more about aligning your content to a buyer’s location in the sales funnel.

Tell Me, Who Are You?

By Sandra Collins

This blog is about communicating your value (“messaging”).

 

Your branding and the image you convey are the first impressions that your prospects will receive about your company (read more about that here). The next key piece of information in their assessment of you should be your messaging. “Messaging” is the primary way you describe what you do, and it should accomplish two things:

  1. Let prospects know what you do (at least at a high level)
  2. Describe your primary target market (if you have chosen to target a specific group of people with a specific need) and/or convey your primary value proposition

The objective of messaging is that when prospects intersect with your company (wherever that may be) they know right away what you do and why they should care. If they have no other available information, they know whether what you do intersects with what they are looking for. If they are in an information-seeking stage, this makes sure you are available for consideration and not disregarded.

To illustrate, let’s look at Curious Dog Marketing’s messaging. To start, the word “marketing” is part of my company’s name. If the name had been only “Curious Dog,” it wouldn’t be obvious what I do and busy people might pass on by because they aren’t in need of a doggie daycare or grooming salon.

Next, the tagline, “Fetching More Customers With Marketing,” gives you more information: The primary objective of using the marketing products and/or services is to obtain more customers. This helps you know that the end result (benefit) to you is to obtain more business rather than, say, to access a marketing training program.

Next, the primary messaging you see on my website’s home page is, “Curious Dog Marketing helps small business owners earn more business by communicating more actively with potential customers.”

That sentence tells you several things:

  1. It again emphasizes the benefit is to obtain more business.
  2. It identifies my primary target market as small business owners. It doesn’t prohibit me from appealing to larger businesses or to people other than owners, but it makes clear that my value proposition involves striving to meet the needs of small business owners. Thus, when this sentence is read by small business owners, they know they’re in the right place.
  3. It uses the term “helps small business owners” to be clear that the services provided are to help small business owners to do something rather than implying a standalone outsourced function that doesn’t leverage collaboration.
  4. It specifically cites “communications” as my area of expertise rather than, say, product development or market research.

If you’re familiar with an “elevator speech,” messaging is a written version of that. It’s key to marketing (and thus sales) because it identifies what you do and for whom so that more of your busy prospects will consider you rather than pass you by because they’re not certain what you do. Clarity is essential.

For some businesses, messaging may require more than one sentence. However, shorter is always better. Also, be sure you are direct and state your message simply. Otherwise, you risk your prospects either losing patience and moving on or getting the impression it would be too hard to work with you because you obfuscate the desideratum. :)

There’s one more thing about my own branding and messaging I’d like to use as a helpful example. I’ve added some personality to my branding and developed a company name, logo, and tagline that are friendly and a little playful, to set myself apart as a pleasant person with whom to work. I know that a prospect who dislikes my branding probably would not enjoy collaborating with me (and vice-versa) and thus I have subtly conveyed more information about my target market that is helpful to both me and my prospects.

Who is Your Ideal Customer?

By Sandra Collins

This blog is about identifying your target markets.

 

A “target market” is a group of people with a set of similar characteristics who would benefit from your products and/or services. Defining a target market helps you to articulate the benefits your products/services provide.

In some cases, you will have multiple target markets. Some companies find it clarifies their understanding to define what marketers call “personas.” Each persona is a description of a particular type of person with particular needs.

Articulating personas and target markets helps you target your messaging and communications and increases the effectiveness of your sales process. The more narrowly you are able to define your target markets, the more specifically you will understand their needs and the more specifically you can let them know how you can help them.

It’s possible that the target market of people using your products/services will be different than the people who make the decisions about purchasing them. You’ll want to provide information that helps each of them to understand your value from their own unique perspective.

You define your target market(s) based on your knowledge of your current customers. If you’re just starting out, you may have to speculate on this information and then keep refining your market as you go along. If you’re seeking to expand your target markets, you’ll need to define what new group of people will have a need for your products/services and why.

Start by looking at the characteristics of different types of buyers and see if you can group them into “segments.” Consider all of the factors applicable to your buyers and users, which will vary based on your business. For example:

  • Demographics (personal characteristics such as geography, age group, sex, race)
  • Job title (if you’re selling B2B – business-to-business)
  • Particular industries (vertical markets)
  • How people use your products/services
  • Why people buy your products/services
  • The benefits or end results people value
  • Certain factors particular to your product/service offerings (for example; you may have a series of products for users without a technical background, and other products for technically advanced users)
  • Channel (the way people prefer to buy your products/services)

To illustrate, let’s say you provide coaching services for transitioning from a current occupation to a new occupation. Asking questions to define your target market(s) may look like this:

To whom have you provided these services in the past? What kinds of people or circumstances have synced best with the way you provide your services?
– “My customers have been located in my area because most of them like to meet in person.” Good, narrow it down further.

– “Well, I’ve been working a lot more with women than men.” Good, go further.

– “A lot of them have been in their current occupations for a while and want to try something new.” Why do they seek your services?

– “Some of them are bored; some feel too stressed; some have talents they want to use but currently don’t; some want to find more meaning in the work they do.” What else do you know about them?

– “Most of them have been 35- to 55-years-old, but some of them haven’t been out of college long.” Okay so there are probably two markets here: the older group and relatively recent college graduates. (Distinguishing these different demographics is important because later you will want to think about how to reach people who may need your services.) What else do you know?

– “The older age group usually has been somewhat affluent because they have been working, so they are able to afford to hire a coach. The younger group generally isn’t, so we might just meet a few times and I help them better understand the knowledge they’ve been developing and how they can apply it to a profession to start their journey.”

Now we have more of an idea of the primary target markets. You can see how you would continue clarifying your target markets as you understand more about:

  • Their demographics.
  • Their needs.
  • How and why they buy.

You may have other customers who fall outside of your primary target market(s), but if you know the primary markets you wish to address, your communications can be more targeted to help them to know you understand their needs very specifically. (Sometimes this is called, “Show me you know me.”)

You may find that it’s helpful to refine your product/service offerings themselves so that you have different options to appeal to different target markets. In the example above, we start thinking about having an offering for experienced professionals who want to switch occupations, and a different offering for new graduates who wish to get started on a professional track.

Some companies find it helpful to start out with a smaller, more well-defined market with a very particular need, often called a “niche.” (In the example we’re using, you might target women who have worked specifically in the healthcare area, and your communications would reference that.) Companies develop a reputation for great customer satisfaction in this niche and begin to get referrals. They then either choose new niches to add, or they find new niches developing based on the referrals with whom they succeed. Accordingly, they then may develop a specific set of products/services that appeals to the new niche, and so on.

You Never Get a Second Chance to Make a First Impression

By Sandra Collins

This blog is about creating your image.

 

In a prior post, I wrote about why the image your company conveys is important during the sales process. Here are some best practices for defining or redefining the image you want to convey, to ensure you’re making a great first impression.

  • Usually, a company’s image is based on its target markets. For example, if you were in the travel industry, you might be expected to convey an image of reliability – people want to feel their travel arrangements are in reliable hands. However, if your company organizes trips centered around extreme sports, you would want to consider an image that appeals to that particular target market; that is, the type of people who engage in extreme sports. A dynamic, distinctive, and cutting-edge image would attract their attention much more than a relaxed image. (Or more effectively, appeal to the image people wish to have of themselves.)
  • In some industries, there might be general expectations; for example, prospects would expect an accountant to be precise and informed. A company providing the latest market data would be undermined by an old and dowdy image. Providing a contrary image to what’s expected may cause your prospects to rule you out quickly; you should build upon any primary expectations as you create an image for your business.
  • Is your value proposition directed at a particular demographic or industry? Consider this when crafting your image. For example, if you were in the travel industry and you design trips for senior citizens, your image should appeal to that demographic. It’s very important you understand your customers’ needs. Start with the basics of what they expect to see from you, and build upon that with what makes you better or different. In this case, the image most definitely would be different than the extreme-sports image.
  • Choosing an image that corresponds with your value proposition works well. For example, if you’re providing design services, you would be well served to ensure your image is creative and fresh. You would bring this into your own creative design and branding. You also might choose unconventional ways to communicate or get noticed.
  • Perhaps your image is a differentiator for you (something that distinguishes your company from others). For example, maybe your competitors provide only complex and vague product information, so you choose to be the company that shares straightforward, accessible information that makes it easy to choose products and do business with you.
  • A key piece of defining your image is knowing why your customers do business with you. Talk to them and be sure you understand your strong points. How are you different from other companies? Ask them to describe you in one word. Ask them how they would describe you to a friend. Do they refer you to others? Why or why not?
  • Talk to your prospects as well; understand what they consider when they’re in the buying cycle.
  • If you can get it, information on why you were not chosen as a supplier is vital to your self-improvement.
  • While building your image, you can consider how you’ll provide “personality” to your business. You might be a marketer who loves dogs. :)
  • Think about the image you would want to see if you were going to do business with a company like yours. How are you doing that well? What can you improve?

Once you define your image, you’ll want to extend it to your branding, messaging, and marketing communications.

Why Branding is Important to Your Sales Process

By Sandra Collins

This blog is about branding.

 

“Branding” is the marketing term that describes the elements you construct to communicate your company’s image. It includes your logo and other graphic design, your tagline, and how you convey your value proposition (which is called “messaging”).

Branding seeks to influence the impression people will have of your company and what it stands for. In a marketing sense, branding is the first frame of reference people have when encountering your company (your brand). It’s much like the “first impression” you get of people when you meet them.

With both branding and your overall marketing communications, your company’s first impression will be much better if you work to consciously craft what people see when they interact with you. You want to be sure your brand appeals to your prospects so that you are considered during the buying process.

Let’s talk about why branding and the image you convey are important.

  1. Fit. Ultimately, buying decisions are made in a type of “sales funnel” that brings prospects through a process of understanding your value and judging if it’s a fit with what they want. The first impression a prospect forms about your company and whether you may be a fit most often begins with the image you are conveying with your branding. For example, do you appear professional? Knowledgeable? Savvy? Informed? If your image isn’t a positive fit, people may not listen to what you have to say.
  1. Limited time. These days, everyone is busy. If the image you convey is weak, there will be prospects who will rule you out solely based on that, as they won’t have the time or inclination to find out more about doing business with you. “Weak” is anything that doesn’t meet buyers’ expectations. With small-business marketing, this tends to occur most often with branding and communications that aren’t very credible or aren’t as professional as your target market expects; for example, an amateurish logo or grammatical errors in your content. If your messaging is weak, busy prospects won’t take the time to figure out what you’re trying to say. However, note that if your products and services are seen as weak, that’s a much more important priority to address than improving your marketing.
  1. Competition. A very compelling reason your branding is important is that people usually have a lot of choice in suppliers, and the image you convey is one of the factors people use in making their decisions. In short, you’re competing with your competition’s branding, especially if you are a small business and are challenged with fewer resources than your competition.

As an example of conveying a positive image, let’s say you’d like to contract with an accountant for your business. You go to a networking event and there you meet two accountants. One is dressed professionally*, takes a genuine interest in your needs, is able to articulate his or her expertise, and provides you with information about his or her practice. (*I’ll admit I dislike the fact that appearance makes such a difference in the choices most of us make, but I’d be silly to believe that’s not true.)

The second accountant is the opposite of the first.

Which of the two are you more likely to consider as a supplier?

Further, let’s say the second accountant writes down the URL of his or her website for you. You already have the first accountant’s website address on the (professional-looking) business card or handout provided. You check out both websites. The first accountant’s website is straightforward, articulate, and provides all of the information you seek as you consider hiring an accountant. The second website is unattractive, confusing, and gives you very little of the information you want to know.

Again, which of the two are you more likely to consider as a supplier? In the case of the second accountant’s website, how likely is it that you will spend the time to read through it, or contact them directly, if the website doesn’t inspire confidence?

When reviewing your branding, think about your target market. (Read more about target markets here.) What do the members of your target market expect to see? Talk to some people you trust who have characteristics of your target market. Ask them, if they were considering buying what you sell, how would they describe:

  • Your logo
  • Your tagline (if you have one)
  • The clarity and impact of your messaging (the way you describe your company and what you offer)
  • The design of your website (both the graphic design and the navigation)
  • The information on your website (or whatever method you use to provide information to people)

The key question is: Would they be compelled to look more closely at doing business with you?

Discussing your branding with others is important because sometimes you are too close to it to really have an objective viewpoint. Getting input on how others see you – especially relative to your competition – will help you to think about how you can make improvements to your branding that will appeal to your prospects and improve your consideration rate (the rate at which you are seen as a possible supplier during the buying process), garnering more customers.

Read more about defining an image here.

Customer Satisfaction is Your Primary Goal

By Sandra Collins

This blog is about your value proposition.

 

When you run a business and you’re considering marketing initiatives, it’s important to put things in their proper perspective, especially this:

The primary factor in whether people will buy from you is that they want your products and/or services and they consent to the value you provide.

In marketing terms, what you provide and why it is valuable together are called your “value proposition” or your “unique selling proposition” (USP). The strength of your value proposition is the most important factor in whether prospects buy from you.

Further, repeat business and referrals are based on your customers’ satisfaction: with the products/services you have provided and continue to provide, as well as how effectively you implement business transactions.

Secondary to those things is marketing. Marketing can help you communicate your value proposition, but it does not replace it. Sometimes there’s a mystique about “marketing” and what it will do for you, and marketing people don’t deny its power, but in reality it comes in second behind your value proposition. Clarity in your communications increases the efficiency and effectiveness of delivering your value proposition, to increase the likelihood that people will consider your company as a supplier. However, marketing is not a substitute for the primary reason people buy from you. In other words, if people don’t need what you are providing and they don’t see value in the transaction, marketing alone will be unlikely to get them to buy. (You heard it here first!)

Great marketing and communications will do these things:

  • Support the image you wish to project to customers and prospects
  • Help prospects to know you, like you, and trust you
  • Raise awareness of why people should buy from you (this aspect also includes promotional campaigns and special offers)
  • Contribute to a great customer experience

As a marketer, I believe marketing is essential to effective selling. However, in and of itself, it’s not the most important thing you do. It won’t, for example, solve weaknesses in the value you provide nor get people to buy what they don’t want. Sales techniques are definitely trending away from this approach.

In addition, it’s important to remember that social media now provides multiple channels for people to communicate their satisfaction or dissatisfaction and thus influence others. Little can be concealed. If your customers are very satisfied, you’ll benefit from their positive words. However, the opposite is true in the case of customer dissatisfaction. This is why complete customer satisfaction should always be your primary goal!