How Should Professional and Personal Social Media Presences Differ?

Wake up! It’s 2011 — If you’re a professional in any field, you need to be doing social media. If you aren’t connected, the world is completely blind to you. But there is an inherent problem with maintaining a professional social media presence, and it stems from social networking’s humble beginnings. Most people began doing social media as a personal hobby, connecting with friends, family, and having care-free fun on their networks of choice.

Once you establish a new, separate professional account for yourself or your business, it’s an entirely new game. How should you differentiate between your two online lives? What behavior is appropriate, and is a personal presence even all that personal anymore? Today we explore how to successfully nurture both online presences without stepping on your own toes.

Overlap is Okay to a Degree

Before launching any personal or professional social media, you need to determine your intentions for each campaign. Keep in mind that it is perfectly reasonable for there to be some overlap here, just as there is surely overlap between your life at home and at work. Non-profit business resource Big Duck advises you to “Consider your personal goals and those of the organization you work for. Where do these goals meet and how do they differ?”

Imagine that the company you work for (or own) is in the business of animal rescue, care, and adoption. You probably want your professional page to discuss your latest rescues, the pets you have up for adoption, and touch people’s hearts with stories and photographs of your work. At the same time, you need to appear as an expert in the field of animal care, and your personal page should reflect this interest by sharing more intimate musings on your work and passions. Be careful not to spam your friends and family with re-postings of everything your business does — this will annoy them fast.

Both Should Focus on Relationship Building

You may be surprised to learn that your professional social media presence will consist of almost as much relationship-building as your personal one. Gone are the days of clear division between “Businesses” and “Friends”; the best professionals make their business relationships feel as cordial and important as their personal ones.

Social Media Magic tells us that in 2011, success with professional social media demands that you treat your social presence this way. “The businesses that are making the most money off social media are the ones that spend the most time nurturing genuine relationships,” they report. “The only way to manage your professional relationships this year is to work at them – like you do with your real friends.”

Don’t waste time crafting emotionless reports to blast out and then disappear for days at a time, hoping that conversation will magically occur — this is the old way of doing things. People don’t log onto Facebook or Twitter to be preached to, they come for interaction and conversation. This isn’t to say you should be sharing your baby pictures with your latest joint-venture partner, but it does mean you should keep up with your professional connections and engage them in appropriate, meaningful discussion.

Be Aware of Your Personal Social Behavior

If it hasn’t been made clear by now, nothing is private on the Internet. The safest assumption you can make is that absolutely everything you publish on your personal page can and will be read by everyone you come into contact with. This includes your upper-managers, business partners, interviewers, etc — you need to watch over your profile like a hawk.

Put another way, it isn’t appropriate to keep pictures of your last-ever college keg party on your personal page, and allow friends to post comments about how “wild Atlantic City was last night.” The Internet is the eternal public stage, and all someone has to do is point the spotlight at you to reveal everything you bring to the performance. Don’t assume that just because you show people your professional page they won’t find your personal one. Nine times out of ten they will, so tread lightly.

Determine Your Two “Positioning Statements”

Social media makes it so simple to do so much that it can be very easy to lose sight of your purpose online. To effectively make decisions about what you should and shouldn’t do with each of your presences, you need to remember why you’re there.

Perhaps the easiest way to accomplish this is by designing two separate social “positioning statements,” one for your professional and one for your personal campaign. Big Duck describes this as, “The big idea you want people to associate with you,” and provides the following template for designing them:

“I am a ___________ in _________ for __________.”

Once you’ve carefully thought about these statements and filled in the blanks, keep them by your computer. Whenever you find yourself questioning your social activity, re-read them and ask whether what you’re doing is in line with these goals.

Be More Accessible With Your Professional Presence

Most social media outlets now offer a number of privacy settings, and its only natural to wonder how public you should make each of your presences. With your professional media, the answer is to be as open and accessible as possible. Social Media Magic likens this to treating your customers and business connections like friends. “That’s how you build a real relationship with your community. Friends expect you to always be there for them!” they proclaim. “They expect to be contacted, filled in about your life and asked to participate in it.”

On the other side, your personal presence might either be completely locked down or as open as your professional one. This decision depends entirely on your personal positioning statement and the goals you have for that presence. If your intentions are simply to maintain a close-knit community of friends and family, share pictures and talk on a very casual level, you should treat it like an exclusive club that only very important people are given access to.

Don’t Over Think It

As important as it is to think about the differences between your personal and professional campaigns, you should keep in mind that few deals are ever closed by online image alone. Social media should be seen as a way to establish relationships and wet mouths, but never as a substitute for in-person or by-phone relationship building. To that end, remember the principles for sound social media management and adhere to your separate online purposes, but don’t spend too much time endlessly optimizing your pages when you could alternatively seek out those who are already interested in working with you in person.

Additional Resources: Visit Invesp.com to learn about Invesp landing page design.

What Are The Most Common Mistakes That Small Businesses Make

Businesses don’t come with owner’s manuals, you have to write your own. As you might imagine, the unfamiliar challenges you face as a business owner are yours and yours alone to grapple with. While every business will face its own unique hurdles, there are several mistakes that seem to crop up for the majority of new executives. To avoid the most severe errors, please be on the look out for the following mistakes.

Not Knowing Your Target Market

A shocking number of businesses cannot articulate in a few sentences who their typical customer is. The common characteristics and personality types of their target market remain somewhat of a mystery as their marketing teams tries to reach the greatest number of people possible with their new message. This is a dangerous strategy, considering that “everybody” does not buy your product, a specific group of people do.

Ultimately, business is often about customers buying the product, not the product itself. Thus, you must start with an understanding of why your customers buy your products and work from there. Are your customers mostly young or old, college kids or CEOs, accountants or moms? Constraining your marketing efforts to exclude everyone not in your target market may seem limiting, but doing so may drastically increase your profit margins and provide you with a better understanding of your unique buyer.

Management By Crisis

There are many management styles that business owners can operate under, but by far the most dangerous (and unfortunately quite common in the early days of a company) is management by crisis. Essentially, this management style means that you are always reacting to problems rather than proactively moving forward. If the only time you pay close attention to your business is when something is going wrong, that’s management by crisis.

Management by crisis can be poisonous because it keeps a business stuck in neutral. On the good days, everyone cheers, but no one may push any harder. Then something goes wrong and it becomes a mad dash to restore the status quo. Effective management means paying the most attention to your business when things are going well so that you can learn from your victories and grow from there. Strive to prevent a crises rather than simply responding to them.

Not Systematizing Work

Too many business owners deal with each job as it comes. What they fail to realize is that many of their tasks have similar qualities and characteristics that may always need to be handled the same way. For example, if you own a web design firm, each of your websites might need the same tracking code, shopping cart implementation, and branding elements.

By figuring out what these common tasks are, you can systematize the work by defining step-by-step guides for completing jobs. Creating systems allows tasks to be completed with less mistakes, and in less time each time they come around. Look around your business for reoccurring tasks and seek to set systems in place for how they are to be completed each and every time.

Not Being Open To Change

Paul Graham, a notable venture capitalist and co-founder of seed funding firm Y-Combinator, says that “In some fields the way to succeed is to have a vision of what you want to achieve, and to hold true to it no matter what setbacks you encounter.” Getting an Olympic medal is one such example. Business, he argues, is a lot more like science in that you have to follow the path wherever it leads.

The lesson Graham is imparting here is to stick to your business plan, but be willing to adjust to circumstances when they arise. Your customers, through their buying behavior and feedback, will tell you what they want from your product. Don’t fight it — be willing to embrace it. It’s like Graham says, “If you want a recipe for a startup that’s going to die, here it is: a couple of founders who have some great idea they know everyone is going to love, and that’s what they’re going to build, no matter what.”

Spreading Focus Too Thin

The best businesses you know do one or two things and do them very well. Rare is the company that goes a mile wide and an inch deep and turns a sizable profit. Consider a new company diving into web design, property management, file sharing, and affiliate marketing — this is an extreme example to be sure, but there is no doubt that this business would quickly crash and burn. There is simply too much to know in each domain for any one team to do them all well.

Take Google for example. Sure, now they offer a wide variety of products, but they got to where they are by being the best at search. Had they never buckled down and dedicated themselves to that one goal, we might never care when they came out with new products today. The trick is to find the niche you can serve best, and throw all of your efforts into it. If opportunities for expansion become sensible down the road, consider them when the time is right.

Only Considering Current Competition

World famous hokey player Wayne Gretzky once offered the advice, “Skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” Applied to new businesses, this means that you must try to have foresight and anticipate competition that may not be prevalent or mainstream yet. If you’re in a market where you don’t believe you have any competition, it means one of two things. It could mean you don’t have an economically viable idea, as Paul Graham explains “You can only avoid competition by avoiding good ideas.”

There is another possibility, though. It could mean that your competition is still so small that they aren’t yet visible to you. Like you, they could be holed up in a tiny office or bedroom somewhere plowing away at your very product. Keep this in mind as you work, and try to anticipate moves from a small company closing in on your same niche. By keeping this in mind, it will increase your odds of not being caught by a surprise competitor jumping onto your scene.

Additional comment: A great example of a company that has avoided these mistakes and is continuing to grow is the auto insurance company Allstate.

Rising Above the Recession: 5 Small Business Strategies for Beating a Bad Economy

The long road of the recession is strewn with casualties, most of which are small businesses unable to successfully navigate increasingly hazardous terrain. And yet, while potholes and pitfalls still loom ahead, the economic downturn has presented many businesses with unique opportunities for growth, opportunities which often remain unrecognized. With this in mind, here are 5 proven strategies which, if properly implemented, could help a majority of small businesses not only survive but thrive in a downward economy.

1. Flexibility: Although the upside of an economic downturn may be a “thinning of the herd”, in terms of your direct competition, keep in mind that those who survive will up their game in terms of retaining and gaining new customers. As a result, the ability to revise and adopt fundamental business practices to better meet the changing needs of customers is critical. If your company is service oriented, strive to provide that service in the most effective and efficient way possible. Product based companies should seek to structure and streamline their delivery and support systems to provide an optimal buying experience for their customers.

2. Effective Hiring: While the downward economy has dramatically deepened the pool of prospective employees, this will only work to the advantage of those businesses with the most effective hiring practices. According to corporate business coach Janis P. Whitaker, author of the book Interviewing by Example, “One of the major flaws of the corporate hiring process lies in the inability to effectively screen and identify qualified applicants during the interview.” Being that the goal of any company looking to hire new employees is to find those with the skills to make the business more successful, emphasis should be placed upon certain criteria, including the applicant’s ability to communicate effectively, demonstrate adaptability and show promise in fulfilling the needs of the company, not only today but next week and hopefully for years to come.

3. The Virtual Advantage: A direct result of the sluggish economy is that more businesses are realizing the benefits of virtual diversification. Although a virtual office is not always feasible or desirable, small business owners looking to cut current operating costs and facilitate cost-effective expansion can do so by hiring virtual help, such as assistants, accountants, social media managers, SEO specialists and advertising affiliates. Online meetings and webinars also offer several advantages over more structured and less spontaneous offline meetings; in particular, the ability to exchange vital information and implement new plans of action in a more timely and efficient manner. A company with the capability to respond and adapt to the demands of an ever changing marketplace stands a good chance of gaining and maintaining a strong competitive edge.

4. Be True to Your Brand: To compete in a downward economy it’s critical for business owners to identify what they do best then focus all their energies on doing it better. In other words, find your specialty, then hone it and own it. During a downturn, the tendency for many small businesses is try to generate new revenue by offering add-on services that can ultimately dilute the brand, creating a “jack of all trades” perception. However, a business that concentrates on clearly defining and promoting what it is and what it does stands a greater chance of gaining greater credibility, visibility and acceptance in the marketplace, the net result being an increase in business and the ability to handle growth and expansion.

5. Parallel Partnering: One of the great advantages of a bad economy is that it forces the owners of businesses both large and small to find new and better ways to operate. Leveraging relationships with like-minded business owners and forming alliances with parallel or complimentary companies can be a very effective means of increasing efficiency and profitability. At the most basic level, many businesses can immediately benefit by sharing office space and equipment to reduce operating costs. But the greatest benefits come from the formation of synergistic business relationships. For example, a business that specializes in SEO and marketing through Social Media would benefit by forming alliances with other companies that offer related services that they do not, such as web design or pay-per-click advertising. Through the formation of such alliances, each company benefits by becoming more valuable to its respective customers via the ability to refer them to a trusted alliance company which will best meet their additional needs—thus creating a business scenario for which the overused term “win-win” applies in any economic climate.

Additional Resources: For more help on succeeding in today’s economy visit Omniture.com where you can learn about many other strategies such as target marketing.

How To Run a Paperless Office

Twenty years ago, having an office meant being surrounded by paperwork. In the pre-Internet days, there was simply no way around it: no matter what line of work you were in, every aspect of daily operations (from invoicing to project management to document creation) left an enormous paper trail. Luckily, that is no longer necessary today.

Using the free/low-cost Internet tools below, modern businesses can, if they choose, run a completely paperless office:

Google Docs

America’s offices are flooded with hard copies of documents that rarely (or never) looked at on a daily basis. Whether in filing cabinets, stuffed in your desk drawer or piling up in the hallway, these papers clutter your workspace while adding no value in the process. With Google Docs, this can be stopped once and for all.

Google Docs not only has all the standard functionality of Microsoft Office (word processing, slideshows, spreadsheets, etc.) it also allows an entire office to share important documents with one another. Thus, while your current office policy might be printing out and storing records for later use, you can now simply keep them in Google Docs and print them when a need actually arises.

Skype

Looking for a way to do free videoconferencing over the web? Look no further than Skype. This handy tool enables your partners or employees to remote conference with anyone in the world (so long as they also use Skype.) The only requirements are a webcam and a microphone headset. For a nominal by-the-minute fee, you can also use Skype to place outgoing calls.

Best part: Skype also doubles as an instant messaging utility, meaning any text conversations you have with conferencing partners are automatically and digitally logged for later retrieval.

Mint

Most of us know that Mint.com is an excellent (and free) money management and simplification tool for individuals. Yet with a little ingenuity, it can just as easily perform those same functions for your small business. The typical startup has an operating account (checking) and a reserves account (savings), with perhaps an ancillary account for advertising or other purposes.

If your company is set up this way, Mint can paperlessly track and manage your corporate expenditures with little manual effort. Simply feed Mint your corporate bank account details instead of your personal ones, and watch as all financial activity is painlessly graphed, sorted and explained before your eyes.

Freshbooks

When it comes to office clutter, invoices are one of the biggest and oldest culprits. You know the drill: print one to send out, and another copy for record keeping. In addition to being incredibly time-consuming, it’s also wasteful and inefficient. In 2011, there is simply no excuse to burden yourself with paper invoices anymore.

Instead, join the 21st century and invest in a Freshbooks.com subscription. Freshbooks handles your invoicing electronically, on automated schedules. If you have three paying clients or less, you can use most of the service’s features for free. For companies with more customers, Freshbooks can streamline your invoicing process for the less than the cost of a few new Polo shirts.

Shoeboxed

Nothing looks uglier on a desk or filing cabinet than an unwieldy bundle of receipts. Different colors, different shapes, different paper textures: they’re inherently annoying to organize and almost no one bothers to even try. As a result, they just accumulate wherever they get thrown and clutter your entire workspace up. And who wants to sit down and sort them out at tax time? (Neither do we.)

That’s why Shoeboxed is such a godsend. For reasonable fees, Shoeboxed will automatically scan and categorize all the receipts you send them. Just bundle them up into an envelope, send them in, and a few days later, you’re organized – with no effort or organization on your part whatsoever.

Basecamp

It’s true: a shocking number of offices have no real project management system at all. Instead, initiatives move forward on the backs of unstructured Word documents, back of the napkin sketches and other stopgap measures that create more chaos than clarity. To become both efficient and paperless in one shot, switch to Basecamp.

A flagship product of 37Signals, Basecamp is a fully web-based project collaboration tool that centralizes every project management task you have. To-do lists, milestones, deadline reminders and document sharing are all standard features. From day one, everything you used to scribble down or print out becomes exponentially easier to just store in Basecamp instead. A free trial is available, as are pricing options to support virtually any budget.

Additional Resources: Visit HP to find products such as scanners or a laptop.

Why it Makes Sense to Invest With Someone Else’s Money

If you want to invest money in a new business, then chuck those overburdened checking accounts, piggy banks, change purses, mini-safes, and spare mattresses into the fireplace and look no further than your nearest banking institution, friend, or investment firm. Loans are a low-risk endeavor when compared to taking money out of your house or personal savings to front a business venture that has the potential to fail — and leaving you and your finances hanging out to dry. With a loan, you can ensure that your business has everything it needs to thrive while not worrying about your own financial ruin. That way, if business goes south, it might go bankrupt, but you won’t. Here are a number of investing options and why we think they’re worthwhile:

Small Business Loans. Though small business usually require a decent credit history on your part, you have a number of options for financing. Secured loans require a form of collateral assistance (and, as a result, offer low interest rates and flexible repayment options) while unsecured loans, which do not require collateral, can have interest rates as high as credit cards, even. Still, if your company is profitable and you do well with payments, this is a much lower-risk option than fronting the money yourself.

Government Business Loans. A government-backed Small Business Administration loan may be an option for those that want a bit of oversight on their risk. While the government does not exactly provide loans in this instance, it acts as a loan guarantor, agreeing to pay your lender back a certain percentage of the borrowed amount in case you default on your repayment. There are tons of loans available — from start-up funding assistance to expansion assistance –and the government’s funds are vast enough that they’ll have enough to lend to you during bad economic times, as well. Special groups (like women, Native Americans and veterans) have targeted funds.

Angel and Venture Capitalist Funds. It’s the job of venture capital firms to invest — and if your business is fast-growing and particularly “entrepreneurial” in spirit, you’ll probably attract an investor. In exchange for an equity stake in your business and some influence on the decision-making process, venture capitalists commit funds to expand the growth of your business. Consultants determine whether your business proposal is high- or low- risk before deciding on a commitment. VCs also have more money down the road, should you need it.

“Angel” investors put up private money, and typically require high returns on their investments — but they have no “set” limit on the amount of funds they may contribute. They also act as mentors and educators, having already made it big in the corporate world. There are no monthly payments, and you get a large network of contacts and information in exchange for equity.

Gifts/Grants. Friends and family can be surprisingly cooperative when it comes to financing your venture. The funds are usually available quickly, and the contractual obligations are low — although, to be safe, you should write and prepare something in case of fallout.

In addition, there are a number of government grants that can fill in the gaps in your investment money. Your state or local economic development agency probably has money set-aside for projects or ventures tied to a specific cause, and, because the money is essentially “free,” there’s no need to pay back returns or interest. Other investors will love this kind of debt-free funding and potentially rank you higher in their consideration because of it, as well.

Remember: if you intend on making your business successful, you might as well start with a bang. What’s better than using someone else’s?

Additional Resources: For help finding banks, investors and other funding sources check out Funding Universe.

Free Cloud Apps That Small Businesses Should Be Using

If you want to save time, money, and energy while building up your small business to its ultimate potential, you should absolutely consider using cloud applications. The following are some free user-friendly and effective programs to get you started in exploring the wonderful, cost-effective world of “cloud”.

Freshbooks

Freshbooks’ tagline is “painless billing” — and with their user count currently at over 2 million (and write-ups in Tech Crunch, USA Today, and the New York Times) they must be right. Use Freshbooks to manage invoicing/expenses and time sheets for up to 3 clients, as well as send and receive an unlimited number of invoices for free. Unfortunately there isn’t really any competing service that offers more for free — and a Freshbooks upgrade starts at $19.95 for 25 clients.

Google Docs

Google Docs is an entirely free service, and an immensely popular part of Google’s growing cloud arsenal. It’s ideal for sharing, editing, and commenting on documents (and has html and chat capability, as well.) It also features revision tracking and a drawing utility — and with every subsequent improvement/upgrade, Docs is starting to rival Microsoft Word in capability.

Skype

Skype, the immensely popular online phone service, is a smart choice for small businesses that are burdened by phone fees. Skype is free when calling/contacting other Skype users (yes, even across the world), and the call quality, not to mention, is excellent. You can even conduct conference calls with three or four users for free (with video capability included). Calling to landline telephones does cost money, but the fee is minimal — much less than wallet-busting international fees for traditional cell phone service, for sure.

PicNik

Newsflash: Not everyone has the latest edition of Photoshop installed on his/her hard drive — and that’s quite an expensive proposal, at any rate. Picnik is a free tool that allows you to share, edit, crop, resize, and rotate photos entirely online (it works on Mac, Windows, and Linux platforms.) Additional features include a variety of creative fonts and effects, shapes, and frames. If you want the fancy version, though, you’ll have to upgrade to the premium version for $24.95 a year.

Windows Live Skydrive

That lone storage bin in your company copy room filling up pretty fast? Look no further than Windows Live! Skydrive, a password-protected file sharing and storage service that allows you to upload up to 25 GB of documents for free (and individual files limited to 50 GB). It can also host photos using Windows Live Photos (pictures are categorized into albums with this service).

Zoho

A Google Docs competitor, Zoho is free for a group of three users or less; additional users bump up the cost to $50 (per user, per year). The India-based company has over 3 million users currently, and does almost everything: word processing, mail merging, spreadsheets, presentations. It has small storage capability, and provides support for custom domain names and shared contacts/calendars. Most importantly, it supports a number of document formats and can create PDF files as well.

Doodle

If your employees and management have a hard time coordinating meetings and phone conferences due to heavily mismatched schedules, Doodle might just be the perfect solution. It’s a polling app: If you’re trying to schedule a meeting, then you delimit a series of possible times and dates that are then sent out to others. Recipients respond to the poll (which is colored-coded according to whether they can or cannot attend a specific meeting) and voila! instant scheduling success. You’ll never run around harassing co-workers for their schedules again.

Additional Resources: Check out Adobe.com where you can find customer management software along with many other products to help your business grow.

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