Getting in the Social Media Management Game

Social media management for small businesses is a very hot area. A few weeks ago, I posted a blog about social media management solutions available to help small businesses manage their online and social presence more efficiently and effectively. While this is still a very nascent area in terms of customer adoption, there has been a bumper crop of vendors bringing these solutions to market over the past few months. We have been talking to many of them, and in the last couple of weeks, posted podcasts (Marchex, ZooLoo), videocasts (HubSpot) and briefing highlights (BatchBlue, ZooLoo) for several of them.

Why So Many Vendors are Bringing Social Media Management Solutions to Market

Several factors are compelling vendors to invest in this area. For starters, growing the business is the number one challenge most small businesses face. They’re always looking for leads–new ways to make the phone ring, and drive traffic to their Web sites and physical locations. In addition, at they become familiar with social media as consumers, they recognize how important it is to monitor and manage their brand in the digital world. Last but not least, individual social media tools are simple to use–it’s easy to jump in and start experimenting with things such as Twitter, Facebook etc.

However, many small businesses quickly start drowning in social media. They’re busy running the business day-to-day, and find it hard to keep up with the ever accelerating rate and pace of change and “new stuff” out there. They typically don’t have the time, money or expertise to decipher what all these things do, let alone how to effectively incorporate them into small business marketing. It can become very time consuming to tend to the care and feeding of social media—from creating content to keeping tabs on what people are saying about your business and responding. And, its difficult to figure out if their efforts are paying off. According to this Wall Street Journal article, “Entrepreneurs Question Value of Social Media,”although social media adoption by businesses with fewer than 100 employees doubled to 24% from 12%, only 22% believe that they made a profit last year from promoting their firms on social media.

Seizing the Social Media Marketing Management Opportunity

But as I said upfront, this area is in its infancy–and small business use of social media will continue to pick up speed. As they get more involved, small businesses will look for ways to move from a trial and error approach to a more systemized way to participate, manage and measure their social media engagement efforts. Right now, small businesses’ awareness of these solutions is low—and the education curve is steep—but this curve should flatten quickly because word about solutions that work can spread virally and rapidly. And, while new social media management solutions aimed at small businesses are proliferating like wildfire, consolidation is bound to start snowballing, with bigger vendors that have complementary online marketing solutions gobbling up the little guys. In fact, this has already begun, with ReachLocal acquiring SMBLive (aka CloudProfile).

The plethora of vendors in this space are coming at the social media management conundrum from different angles. Some are providing extensive inbound marketing platforms, with everything from domain name registration to social media management tools, while others are providing social CRM solutions. Some are providing tightly bundled solutions, others provide tools in an ala carte fashion.

More traditional vendors with other small business marketing solutions—from email marketing to web site hosting to CRM—need to have a strategy in place to determine what capabilities they’ll need to offer in this area–as small businesses will need to use these solutions in a more integrated fashion. If not already doing so, vendors need to thoroughly evaluate the landscape, and assess options to partner, build or acquire the capabilities they’ll need for an effective play in the social media marketing solutions game.

Top Trends Most Evident at the 2010 Small Business Technology Summit

Back in the beautiful Live Free or Die state after attending the 2010 Small Business Summit earlier this week. This is a fantastic event coordinated by Ramon Ray and Marian Banker, and held at the Digital Sandbox in the financial district in New York. Whether due to Ramon and team’s hard work and great marketing, or a glimmer of hope for an economic recovery, attendance was up over last year. More than 500 attendees turned out and  as usual, Ramon energized the crowd and a great networking experience was had by all.

As I’d done in 2009, I wanted to compare our Top 10 SMB Technology Market Predictions with what I was hearing at this event as a reality check on our musings. But as a duo, Sanjeev and I had 13 predictions for 2010—as compared to the measly five I’d put together on my own in 2009. So I’ve selected the 2010 predictions that we made that I saw most in evidence at the event.

Pent Up Demand Will Be There—But Won’t Be Easy to Capture. This was our #1 2010 prediction. Small business owners and employees at the Summit were most jazzed up about solutions with clearly demonstrable bottom and/or top line business benefits. In the words of one customer, “We have to spend money wisely to do more for our clients and make more money.” A few of the solutions that won the Hottest Technology awards that really seemed to hit the mark:

  • EzTexting, a solution that lets you easily send SMS text messages to customers to help capture their attention at the right place, and right time.
  • SugarSync, which helps you manage multiple devices, locations, versions, authors, editors, etc. by synching up everything on all your devices automatically.
  • Broadlook Technologies, Inc.’s Profiler, which helps you quickly find key contact details–names, titles, email addresses, phone numbers, bios, media mentions and more–for companies and  imports it into your CRM solution or sales database.

More vendors are also stepping up to the plate to make a long term commitment to tune in to true small business requirements and provide a more accessible, personal and positive lifecycle experience to win small business hearts and minds. For instance, the Dell panel, hosted by Dell Small Business VP Mel Parker, featured three small business customers (Vitals.com, TecAccess and Rightsleeve) to underscore Dell’s focus on two-way conversations and belief that the best way for it to shine is in the reflected glow of customers that are using Dell solutions to help grow their businesses.

SMBs Accelerate Their Shift to Digital Marketing Media. This was our #2 prediction for 2010. At last year’s event, attendees were asking about how to Tweet or blog. This year, most are now highly engaged in many social media venues. Summit attendees are a web savvy crowd–a show of hands indicated that most have a Web site ( more than 40% of small businesses in the U.S. don’t have a web site). But even this web-savvy group is struggling to figure out how to get the biggest bang for their social media buck. For many, the speed of innovation and the universe of social media solutions and options is overwhelming.

During the panel on “Strategies for Success”, moderated by Angus Thomson, leader of Intuit’s Grow Your Business Division, many of the questions that attendees asked centered on how they can more efficiently identify and use tools to help drive traffic to their web sites. Attendees also had plenty of questions for Melanie Attia of Campaigner about how to boost results from their email marketing campaigns. On top of that, they’re grappling with how to leverage social media into the digital marketing mix so that they can better integrate customer interactions across the seemingly endless expanse of digital venues. InfusionSoft had a steady stream of traffic from people interested in its email marketing plus social media integration story. In a nutshell, there’s a lot of confusion about how to best leverage all of these–and a big opportunity for vendors that can help small businesses sort this out.

The New Face of Small Business. In our #4 2010 prediction, we’d posited that vendors need to look at the small business market through a new segmentation lens. No doubt about it–the recession, generational changes, globalization, and the frenzied pace of technology innovation are the equivalent of an extreme makeover on the face of small business. Baby boomers aren’t retiring, they’re starting new businesses, and were well-represented at this event along with Gen X, Gen Y and Millenial entrepreneurs. But they are coming from different places in their experience and perceptions in areas such as digital marketing and social networking–and technology in general. They all want to figure out how to reach the same destination—business success—but are likely to take different paths in how they discover, evaluate, purchase and implement solutions. Vendors will need to tune marketing, training and services to meet these different requirements.

SMBs’ Appetite for Managed Services Grows. Jumping down to #8 on our 2010 list–we should have moved this one higher up! Many of the small business owners and IT people I spoke to at the event realize that they need technology to support their business goals, but have reached a point where they don’t have the time, expertise or resources to do it right on their own. As one business owner told me, “My business is only as strong as the IT foundation it sits on. We can’t afford for our systems to go down.” Dell’s booth did a brisk traffic with its Dell Managed Services offerings, as did CMIT Solutions, which also provides managed services. Small businesses are realizing they can’t do it all, and are looking for cost-effective, round the clock remote management services with onsite support. Vendors that can deliver affordable, put proactive, responsive and comprehensive  services—and do it scalably and profitably–will be in demand.

And what about the rest of our predictions? While I did see and hear evidence for most of them, some, such as “Virtualization Boosts Cloud Computing” are probably more in tune with mid-market requirements than those of small businesses. Others, such as “2009 Acquisitions Drive New Value for SMB customers in 2010” and “Vendors Scramble for SMB Developer Loyalty—and New Integration Needs Arise” deal more with vendor trends, and rightfully were in background, rather than foreground at this very customer focused event.

At the big picture level, above and beyond individual predictions, what struck me most were that the two themes that really seemed to resonate with the audience were pragmatism and inspiration. Attendees ate up down to earth tips from Shashi Belamkonda of  Network Solutions, who offered a rapid fire list of ways to immediately boost return on your social media participation, and from Ellen DePasquale, aka the Software Revitalist, who provided practical information to help small buisnesses get better results from software solutions. (By the way, here’s a link to all the great pictures Shashi took at the Summit).

However, attendees were also riveted when Seth Godin, bestselling author and entrepreneur, urged them not to get out of the commodity business and trying to “fit in”—or price alone will dictate whether you are in or out. Seth’s call was to be an artist in business, aiming to change the status quo in your category, instead of following the conventional wisdom to do the same thing as the cheaper and better.

Of course, there were many other interesting discussions, people and solutions at the Summit, but I’m out of time. Check the tweet stream #smallbizsummit for lots of good info and insights from the many Tweeters at the event. I’m looking forward to the 2011 Summit already!

What is SEM, and Why Should You Care?

(Originally published in Small Business Computing, November 30, 2009)

Technology insiders tend to throw around technical terms and business jargon, assuming people outside the industry understand what it all means. By its nature, technology vocabulary is often confusing and complicated, and insiders often add to the confusion by over-complicating things. To help add a sense of clarity to the confusion, each month, Laurie McCabe, a partner at Hurwitz & Associates (a business consulting firm), will pick a technology term, explain what it means in plain English, and then discuss why it may be important to you. This month, Laurie takes a look at search engine marketing.

What is Search Engine Marketing?

Search Engine Marketing (SEM)is an umbrella term that describes the different methods you can use to make your Web site more visible on search engines so that you can drive more traffic to your site. SEM blends organic search engine optimization (SEO) with paid search or pay-per-click (PPC) advertising to increase exposure for your Web site.

SEO focuses on designing and optimizing your Web site so that your site will rank higher within the organic search results pages—the list of Web sites that pop up when you conduct a search. Basically, search engines such as Google or Bing look at a page and try to decipher the most important or relevant information on the page. SEO revolves around figuring out what keywords people will use when they are looking for the types of services and/or products you provide, and using these in your Web pages and content so that search engines accurately index your site and people can easily find it. When you use SEO techniques, you are not paying search engines to appear or move up on their site, you are simply optimizing your content so that it will naturally place higher in search results.

In contrast, paid search or PPC advertising involves paying search engines so that your site appears as a sponsored link in the small text adds that appear on the top and right hand side of a search results page—think Google AdWords. While it is free to display your ad on Google or another search engine, you pay the search engine vendor every time someone clicks on your link. The search engine vendor positions your site on the results page based on a combination of how much you are willing to pay-per-click, and a subjective quality assessment of how important your ad is in relation to others on the page. This quality measurement includes things such as the percentage of clicks on your ad and how many times the search term appears in your ad.

Why Should You Care?

What good is your Web site if you’re not driving traffic to it? You invest in a Web site to help educate and promote your products and services to prospects and customers. But, if people can’t find it, you will not get the kind of results you want form your Web site.

Both organic and paid search techniques can help you drive traffic, but each method has different plusses and minuses. For instance, cost per click is less for organic SEO than with a PPC approach. While you invest time (and maybe money, in the form of an SEO marketer or a service) to optimize natural search results, you’re not paying the search engine vendor for every click-through. In addition, people click on organic search engine results much more frequently than they click on PPC ads, because of where they appear on the page.

On the other hand, a PPC campaign can typically ramp up traffic to your site much more quickly than organic SEO. So, if time is of the essence—say you need to drive holiday sales—PPC is likely to help you get better results.

Many businesses find it most effective to combine both SEO and PPC approaches. For example,PPC enables to you to quickly test keywords to see which search terms work, and which don’t. As you discover which terms work best in a PPC campaign, you can also incorporate them into your organic SEO approach.

What to Consider

Web searches are becoming the top way for both consumers and businesses to research and shop for products and services. Consequently, small businesses are rapidly shifting their marketing initiatives from traditional media to digital marketing media tools, including SEO and SEM.

These marketing tools are often less expensive to use than traditional marketing options such as print advertising and direct mail. A small investment can help companies significantly boost marketing reach and return. SEO and SEM give small businesses more visibility into whether they’re reaching their target audiences, easier ways to track and measure payback on their efforts, and the ability to rapidly adjust and refine campaigns and outreach as needed.

However, search engine marketing techniques involve both art and a science, and are evolving at a rapid pace. What works today won’t necessarily work tomorrow. To stay ahead of the competition, consider services that are tailored to your specific market and needs. For instance,

Lotusjump provides a service to help small businesses optimize organic search results for hundreds or thousands of keywords to generate more qualified leads. The automated service automates the process of building more qualified leads based on more specific “longtail” search terms. So if have a retail business, you can create keywords specific to the hundreds or thousands of products that you sell.

Own a bakery or tree service business? If you do, everything is local, and services that help to reach the local market are what you care about. WebVisible, for instance, buys advertising space from multiple media providers and ad networks, and provides many types of online marketing solutions, including fully managed search advertising, banner/display advertising, call tracking solutions, custom landing pages, promotional URLs and more. Using the WebVisible platform, small businesses can target local advertising more effectively. Yodle, meanwhile, focuses on local services businesses, helping them to create a Web site, develop an effective SEO campaign across the Web, and help make the phone ring when the business is found through a Web search.

The Web is becoming our virtual shopping mall. Small businesses that make an investment into understanding different types of organic and paid search approaches and using those most relevant to their business will have a big advantage in bringing in traffic.

Top Takeaways from IBM’s General Business Influencer Summit

Last week, I attended IBM’s General Business (GB) Influencer Summit for analysts covering the mid-market (companies with 100 to 1000 employees and larger enterprises that are not currently spending a lot with IBM, sometimes termed “white space” accounts). I’ve attended this event since IBM began holding them a few years back. IBM recently split GB into two groups, creating separate sales and marketing arms for the mid-market and white space large enterprise accounts to better tune its resources and initiatives to the very different needs of these two sectors. While Big Blue is a natural to grow market share in the large enterprise space (especially as the ranks of Sun defectors grow), the mid-market is an area that IBM is still figuring out. It’s also the area that I cover, so focused most of my attention on how IBM is evolving strategy and execution in this area. Here are a few key takeaways that bubbled to the top for me, and that underscore some of the ways IBM is shifting gears to better reach and serve the mid-market.

  • Telling a more aspirational, transformative story. IBM is making its corporate Smarter Planet (which centers on the message that the world is rapidly becoming more intelligent, instrumented and interconnected—in other words, smarter) more relevant to mid-market customers by engaging them in deeper, more industry-specific conversations, such as “What does it mean to be a smarter retailer?” and providing solutions that will help them to achieve better business outcomes from their IT investments. In addition to the industry-specific approach, IBM has themes that run across industries, such as Dynamic Infrastructure, New Intelligence, and Green IT. While it may be difficult for IBM to condense the Smarter Planet story in sound bites, if IBM can clearly articulate the vision in a targeted way (by industry and/or horizontal requirements), it should resonate as the economic recovery gets underway and mid-market companies re-focus towards growth.
  • Continuing to shift from commodities to solutions and bottom line business benefits. Mid-market customers prefer to buy solutions, not piece parts. To that end, IBM continues to push its revenue mix further towards software and services. The vendor is introducing more integrated, cross brand offerings that zero in on top mid-market issues such as improving efficiency, reducing costs, getting new customers, increasing productivity, improving customer service and managing risk. The goal is to make it easier for mid-market customers to deploy solutions for specific workloads, and speed time to value from them. For example, IBM has introduced solutions building blocks that offer customers pre-configured, pretested building blocks that combine IBM hardware, services and financing. IBM packages the components in a loose bundle that customers can order and assemble quickly. Comprehensive Data Protection and Cognos Express are some of the first out of the gate, with more scheduled for 2010. Then there’s IBM’s Linux based smart appliances, which include the SmartCube and Lotus Foundations (see What is a Business Applications Appliance and Why Should You Care? for background), as well as a growing portfolio of cloud-based services (see below). IBM’s new integrated solutions story is kind of a back to the future experience—ala the AS/400—that IBM has had great success with in the past. This time, however, IBM is offering customers many more solution paths, which is good for choice, but also makes the story more confusing. IBM will need to clearly position and delineate benefits and outcomes to avoid getting in its own way.
  • Shaping its cloud strategy and portfolio. Like most legacy hardware and software vendors, IBM has been somewhat ambivalent about the cloud. However, it seems to be moving past this ambivalence with a more decisive strategy that includes both public and private cloud offerings. IBM will significantly expand its Smart Business Services offerings, which are standardized services that run on IBM’s cloud, such as LotusLive, which IBM currently offers, and a slew of planned solutions for  analytics, development and testing, desktop and devices, infrastructure and storage, and business services. Smart Business Services also includes IBM’s private cloud services, in which IBM builds and runs a private cloud behind the customer’s firewall. In addition, IBM is developing Smart Business Systems, an integrated platform to deliver and manage cloud solutions. While the vendor still has a lot of work to do to clearly position and market these solutions, and is still searching for the right formula for creating value with SaaS developer partners, it seems to have a more substantive and cohesive strategy than its had in the past.
  • Ramping up and revamping partner programs. In addition to significant investments in global partner recruitment and enablement, IBM is restructuring incentives to help partners weather the recession. The vendor has moved from a cumulative type ladder approach to a simplified incentive program that pays partners in a more linear approach from step one. IBM is also trying make it easier for partners to do business with it, with new PartnerWorld communities and concierge service designed to remove administrative costs and hassles. Being the behemoth that it is, IBM may never be able to make the partnering process friction-free. But, I’ll give it points for pushing the needle forward, and more points for helping cash-strapped partners stay the course in difficult times, and its efforts to remix its channel to better align with evolving mid-market customer requirements.
  • Increasing investment in demand generation. Partners have told IBM to focus more on demand generation, and less on lead passing. So IBM is scaling up resources for high air cover marketing. All told, IBM conducted 835 marketing events, drawing more than 63.000 mid-market customers, in the past year. For instance, the vendor is conducting what it terms “Grand Formaggio”sessions around the world to personally engage mid-market CEOs with senior IBM executives, and also has a series of events aimed at CFOs. IBM also recently launched InfoBOOM, a social network for U.S. mid-market businesses, in partnership with CIO Magazine. IBM sponsors the site, but content is designed around mid-market themes and issues so that IBM can better understand and share with the community. IBM intends to launch this in other countries soon. Successful demand generation will be critical to raising IBM’s profile and heightening awareness about what IBM can offer mid-market customers—and keeping the channel happy.
  • Reconfiguring operations for growth markets. IBM has invested in building two management systems, one for established markets, and one for emerging growth markets. This enables IBM to tune in to the different requirements, approaches and government investments that different regions afford, and accelerate expansion in emerging growth markets. For instance, IBM has added more than 50 new offices in growth markets, and investing in leadership and talent development by moving seasoned IBMers from developed markets to emerging ones, and bringing fresh new faces to more established territories to learn the ropes. Big Blue has built new innovation centers in countries such as Vietnam, South Africa, Poland, Brazil and Hungary, and a global innovation center in China.
  • Better financing programs for the mid-market. IBM’s 30 year-old Global Financing arm (IGF) is strong, healthy and proactive—in fact, financing accounts for 9% of IBM’s pretax income. The vendor offers solution financing for hardware, software and services with at least 20% IBM content, and has simplified rate structures and contracts to help streamline the financing process. IGF has also introduced some “recession busters”, such as a Q4 deferral program and 0% financing for Software Group financing for 12 months. IGF also runs a huge asset recovery program (processing about 40,000 pieces of hardware a week) and $1.5 billion dollar used equipment business, which offers cash-strapped companies value based alternatives as well. IGF is also ramping up partner programs and education to help partners better engage mid-market CFOs in the IT purchase conversation. In the current economy, IGF is clearly one of IBM’s most powerful marketing weapons, helping companies to invest now to jump start growth as the economy turns around.
  • Continuing investments in asset-oriented acquisitions that can scale to the broad market. IBM has been on a shopping spree, acquiring companies such as Internet Security Systems (ISS), Cognos, Outblaze and SPSS, among others. IBM can use its global distribution capabilities to expand the footprint for these solutions, and as necessary, make them more relevant for mid-market customers.

As it nears its 100th anniversary (in 2011), IBM is putting a more shape and substance into its mid-market strategy and execution capabilities than it has ever done. However, in a market where brands such as Microsoft, Dell and HP dominate, and Google and other “born on the Web” vendors are ascending, IBM’s job isn’t easy.

The IBM brand is already well-respected in the mid-market, but IBM will need to continue to step up its efforts to become more relevant. Unlike many of its competitors, IBM doesn’t have a consumer or even a small business presence to leverage in the mid-market. Big Blue will need to wow the mid-market to move customers out of their current comfort zones.

One of IBM’s strengths is that it has a very rich portfolio of offerings and solutions, but this is also a double-edged sword. IBM will need to articulate and position overlapping solutions to help guide both customers and partners through the clutter to best-fit solutions. IBM will also face challenges on the channels front. How will it make the economics of the channel and the economics of lower-cost, volume based solutions work? And how will it fold high-growth SaaS vendors into a value-added and profitable business model?

To succeed in its mid-market quest, IBM will have to fire on all cylinders over the long haul, continue to sharpen its mid-market focus, and ensure that its offerings stack up well not only against the Microsoft-centric status quo, but against the increasing array of newer solutions available.

Demandbase—Can it Turn Your Web Traffic Into Treasure?

Like most analysts, my schedule is usually chockfull of briefings from vendors. Some of these are boring, some are interesting, and once in a blue moon, a vendor comes along with a solution that everyone should know about.

Demandbase (www.demandbase.com) is one of these solutions. I initially came across the vendor late last fall, when I was judging for the Destination CRM Awards, and Demandbase was one of the nominees. I wanted to learn more, but between the Christmas holidays and my job change, I didn’t get to schedule a briefing with them until a couple of weeks ago.

Here’s why Demandbase is so interesting—particularly now, in this bruising economy. Companies spend a lot of time and money to drive prospects to their Web sites in the hopes of converting them to paying customers. With email campaigns and a dizzying array of social media (not to mention direct mail and other traditional marketing tactics), there are more tools than ever to get visitors to your site.

But most companies—especially in the B2B space—have a tough time harvesting the quality, “best-fit” leads from the irrelevant traffic. How can you tell if your campaigns hitting—or missing–the mark when it comes to reaching and attracting the right visitors to your site?

Demandbase zeros in on this problem by giving B2B companies much more visibility into who is visiting their Web site, and delivering qualified, scored lead services. Demandbase starts by aggregating and scrubbing lists from major database providers such as Hoovers, LexisNexis, Dun & Bradstreet and ZoomInfo. This provides the underlying business contact data for its lead qualification and scoring services, which are integrated with each other.

These services help you weed out the irrelevant leads and target the quality leads. Demandbase offers free, pay-as-you-go, and subscription based services. Demandbase Stream is the freebie service, and even this offers great value. You download a widget from the Demandbase site, and link it to your Web site with some JavaScript in a couple of clicks. Once you set it up, it displays ticker-style information about who’s visiting your site, what search terms they used, and what pages they looked at. It deciphers web traffic URLs, and filters out the ISPs and other irrelevant data. You can also create a Watch List to alert you when existing customers, prospects, partners and competitors are on your site. Demandbase Stream even works with blogs. (However, some blogs, such as wordpress.com, don’t allow you to add JavaScript to your page, so you have to use the company’s image-based tracking system instead. Its not quite as detailed, but I’ve installed it and am finding that even this more limited information is useful).

Demandbase fee-based services work with Demandbase Stream. For instance, when you see a qualified lead in Demandbase Stream, you can use granular search capabilities to locate specific people in targeted geographic areas, and purchase business contact information from Demandbase Direct. With Demandbase Standard, you create a target customer profile, and buy leads that fit your profile one at a time, or by the thousand, directly from it’s aggregated database. Demandbase can send them via email or to your CRM system. Price per lead depends on the score, and is typically about $2 per record. Demandbase is currently offering $20 worth of free contacts so you can take Demandbase Standard for a free test drive.

The company launched Demandbase Professional last week, which is a subscription service that starts at $325 per month. Demandbase Professional provides all of the services above, and additional features that integrate inbound marketing programs like online advertising, search marketing, social network marketing, etc. that drive traffic to your site with your outbound direct marketing programs.

Demandbase closed an $8 million round of funding last summer, and says that it is growing 30% quarter over quarter. This trajectory should continue, since Demandbase addresses a challenge that is ever present, but particularly compelling when times are tough. So compelling that I think the right question is, can your B2B business afford not to try it? 


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