VerticalResponse: Taking the Guesswork Out of Email Marketing and Social Media for Small Businesses

vrlogo-gradient_1000pxLaurie: Hi, this is Laurie McCabe from the SMB Group, and today I’m talking to Janine Popick, CEO at VerticalResponse. VerticalResponse helps small businesses grow with email and social marketing tools, and recently Vertical Response introduced a new version of their solution which is what I’m here to talk with Janine about today.

So Janine, before we get into what the new VerticalResponse solution is all about, can you just let us know a little background about the company and what you’ve been doing up until now.

Janine: Oh sure, and thanks for having me here, Laurie, this is great. I launched VerticalResponse back in 2001 really with the premise that there was a lot of email marketing solutions out there for big businesses but there’s not a lot of solutions for small businesses. We’re based in San Francisco, we’re still headquartered here today, but really those big companies have that expensive software to manage all of their marketing, especially their email marketing. It was the right time for us to launch a company and get those small businesses from sending email out of their Outlook to more professional looking emails and a more professional solution. Currently here we have about 105 current employees at VerticalResponse.

Laurie: Ok, and about how many customers do you have?

Janine: Well we have over a million businesses that have come to use us over the course of the last 13 years. We’ve got probably on any given month about 40 to 50,000 active customers that are in there using the system.

Laurie: Ok, thanks. That’s a great introduction too. So why are you introducing a new version of VerticalResponse now?

Janine: Well, over the course of years newer technology surfaces so that companies like VerticalResponse can build some really neat stuff for small businesses to use, easier to use technologies, and we really decided it’s time for us to do that. Our self-service platform really lets those small businesses connect with their customers using both email marketing and social media marketing.

Laurie: Right, I did get a look at it last time we spoke and it does look really easy to use, which is always a good thing for any of us.

Janine: Yeah, you know small businesses really want to get in there and get out and do what they do best which is running their business.

Laurie: Exactly. Who would benefit from this? Is it your existing customers, is it new customers? How will it help them?

Janine: Well definitely new customers and existing customers. It really solves lots of problems but two that come to mind are time and money. Right? So with VerticalResponse these customers can keep in touch with their customers through the email marketing and social media marketing without spending, like you said you thought, without spending a lot of time to learn a complicated technology. This new platform has lots of amazing features. We really focused on drag and drop designer and with that drag and drop come templates that are mobile friendly. We’re really over 50% of all consumers today are checking their email on their mobile phone or on their tablet, so we really put an emphasis on mobile friendly templates, but you can also post messages to Twitter and Facebook right from the same dashboard, so you don’t have to log in to all those different platforms to do your social media as well, it’s kind of like that nifty one-stop shop for email and social.

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Laurie: Right, and that’s very convenient. Also, if I remember correctly, once you create your email marketing campaign it will render across any of the mobile devices or somebody’s laptop or desktop without you having to do anything different to it. It’ll render correctly, right?

Janine: Absolutely. We really wanted to take all that guesswork out of it for our customers who are the small businesses.

Laurie: Yep, make it idiot-proof. How about for the customers using the original version that you have, are there any gotchas? Should they switch to the new version or is it something they need to kind of look at some trade-offs or what?

Janine: Well I think at the get-go they should look at the new version, especially if they have under a thousand contacts on their list, it’s free, the whole product is free. That’s one benefit for our current VerticalResponse customers. Over the course of the next two to three quarters, we’re going to be incorporating all of the features that most of the Vertical Response current customers are using into the new platform in an even better and easy-to-use way. As those features come available we’re going to be communicating to those customers that use and love those features that hey, they’re available in the new Vertical Response, come on over and start using them. So that’s pretty exciting for current VerticalResponse customers, I think.

Laurie: Yeah, definitely, so kind of get your feet wet now even if it’s not got every bell and whistle that you want, it will have it and you can learn it and be ready when it’s all available.

Janine: Exactly.

Laurie: So right now the new version is completely free or is it a freemium kind of model where there’s an up charge or how does that work?

Janine: Well it is a freemium model, it is completely free if you have a thousand or fewer customers. Once you go over the thousand contacts on your list it’s as little as nine bucks per month, depending on your list size that’s where it starts. It is completely free but as soon as you start growing and you might want some more bells and whistles, then we’ll ask you for a charge.

Laurie: Yes, sure, typical freemium model. What’s your URL, what’s the website address where they can learn more both about the new product and maybe the existing one too?

Janine: The website is www.verticalresponse.com, they can go, they can sign up right then and there and begin trying it out. It’s pretty easy, they get in there and just try it out and see if they like it.

Laurie: When did you put it up there for people to start trying?

Janine: On the 14th of March.

Laurie: Ok. Have you had a lot of hits or how’s it going with that?

Janine: We have actually. We have the most sign ups that we’ve had over the course of many years, which is just great to see. We think it’s catching on, we think people like it and it’s just going to keep growing, so we’re pretty excited about what we’re able to offer to our business customers.

Laurie: Ok, well that’s great, Janine. I really appreciate your time today and thank you for joining us to share the information and the news.

Janine: Thank you.

Discussing SMB Tech Trends: Part 1, Social Media Marketing and Technology As a Game Changer

Recently, I was a guest on Act Local Marketing for Small Business with host Kalynn Amadio. Each week, Kalynn shares information and actionable tips to help inspire and motivate small and medium businesses (SMBs) reach their business goals.  On this episode, Kalynn and I discussed SMB Group’s 2014 Top Ten SMB Technology Trends and what they mean to the marketing and running of your business. This, the first of a four-part series, summarizes our discussion of  “Social Media Marketing Stalls as SMBs Re-focus Marketing Practices” and “Progressive SMBs Use Technology as a Game Changer.”

Kalynn:Welcome back to Act Local Marketing for Small Business, Laurie. I just want to let you know that the show you were on last year, discussing the 2013 SMB trends was the most downloaded interview that I have ever had on the podcast.

Laurie:Thanks, Kalynn and Happy New Year!

Kalynn: This is a perfect time of year for you to be on the show again because SMB Group recently published its 2014 Top Ten SMB Technology Trends.  We won’t have time to go through all of them, and of course I’m more interested in the ones that are more relevant to marketing.

The first one I want to talk about is social media marketing. What you discovered might surprise a few people. Can you give some insight into that?

free social networkingLaurie: As you know, SMBs have been rapidly adopting social media as a marketing tool, whether building a presence on Facebook Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, or some combination thereof. In fact, more than half of small businesses and two-thirds of medium businesses are using social media for marketing.

But, more SMBs are realizing that even though they don’t need to spend a lot of money to establish a social media presence, social has a voracious appetite for more and more content. There’s a lot of pressure to keep the content fresh because that’s what keeps people coming back. This is wearing on some businesses.

It’s also tough to keep up with changing social media preferences, for instance as millennials move from Facebook, for instance, to Snapchat or Instagram. So we predict that while social media marketing isn’t going away, it will stall a little as SMBs focus more on figuring out what really works and clicks with their target audiences.

Kalynn: Which makes a lot of sense. Google is a content monster; to get found you have to give it more and more content. But there has to be a happy balance between creating content and promoting your content. You need to promote your content more than once but you do have to find that balance.  All audiences will probably be different depending on what market you’re in, how often they’re willing to hear the message before they start to tune it out, and you do need fresh content.

Laurie: Absolutely, and at the end of the day it’s all about converting social connections that you’re making into customers and advocates. So the first step is to look at how you can repackage and reuse content in different ways to reach a wider audience.

I’ll give you an example. Today we’re talking about our 2014 top ten trends list. We initially published it in December and sent it to clients, prospects and press via email marketing, and got good traction with it.

As the new year started, we created individual tweets about each prediction, and that sparked more interest. Now I’m talking about it here on your show. It’s just not feasible for most of us to create fresh content every day, so it’s important to repackage it in different ways.

We also see more SMBs integrating social media marketing with their marketing and sales applications to get more insight into what’s going on, how what they’re doing is working and to make the information more actionable from a sales and marketing perspective.

free chess image 2Kalynn: Your very first prediction was another one I wanted to talk about: technology as a game changer for SMBs.

Laurie:That’s our overarching theme because of what we’ve been seeing since we started doing our surveys 5 years ago.

SMBs split into some clearly defined segments. One segment is what we call Progressive SMBs, who share a few characteristics. They’re much more likely to view technology as a business enabler; they invest more in technology; and they are also more likely to be growing revenue than other SMBs.

This gap has been widening and we predict it continue to do so. Trends such as generational shifts, the sharing economy and new technology fueled services that you may not even think about as technology solutions are accelerating this and reshaping what it means to be an SMB.

Kalynn: You talk about the generational shifts; I talk a lot about this with my primary audience, baby boomers, age 50 and over. There’s a drastic difference in communication styles between boomers and 20-somethings and millennials…people don’t retire early as often as they used to…that means there are many technologies and ways people are communicating. And also many ways that a business needs to be able to converse with customers and prospects, and it can be overwhelming.

Laurie: It can, and that relates to social media too. I think everyone should be spending at least some time with social media just to keep a pulse on what’s going on. It’s really important.

But we also see how Progressive SMBs are increasingly capitalizing on technology, cultural and demographic shifts to create new market niches and invent entirely new businesses. Just think about the businesses that have started up in the last few years and have been replaced in the last few years. I think the last Blockbuster finally closed. Now we’ve got Roku and we can stream everything whether it’s from Netflix or Hulu or whatever.  There’s also a shift in talent acquisition and management…with more use of outsourced services or Elance for contractors or freelancers instead of hiring salaried employees.

Or, in rethinking office space. Shared office space and shared IT infrastructure services are really growing in popularity. These are all ways to think about your business in a different light. And most often technology provides the fuel that businesses need to really get ahead.

Kalynn: Right, and in case people are not aware, Elance and oDesk, who recently merged, are websites where you can virtually hire temporary staffing, either for projects, or on a day-by-day or week-by-week basis.

They serve as middlemen, but protect you because they help with any disputes if things weren’t done well or not to your satisfaction. And they make it easier to track everything and for somebody not to get taken advantage of; either freelancer or the business owner.

Laurie: Yes, it’s basically a technology platform to help you manage the projects, execute the payments. The take care of all of the transaction stuff for you. People bid on the jobs, and you can see the ratings of each Elancer or oDesker, and you pick the bid you like.

At a higher level, we see that these more agile, Progressive SMBs taking advantage not just of technology per say but of solutions that are built on technology and also the sharing economy. Whether it’s shared workers, shared office space or shared IT infrastructure in the cloud or shared workers, you don’t have to own all your resources.  As a matter of fact, sometimes it’s better not to.

Kalynn: Absolutely; there’s less headache often if you don’t own them.  And, you can adjust more quickly and scale up and scale down more quickly through projects, so it’s actually a really good thing.

In the second of this four-part series, I’ll recap Kalynn’s and my conversation about “Mobile Management Becomes a Priority as SMB Mobile App Use Soars.” You can listen to the complete podcast here

Social Media 101: A Guide for Small Businesses

Originally published on October 1, 2013 on QBSBDC.com as the second of four blog posts in a series designed to help small businesses, and those that serve them, be successful.

Nearly 80% of active U.S. internet users visit social networks and blogs, according to the SMB Group’s 2012 SMB Social Business Study. This explains why social media marketing is commonplace and effective for most large companies.  At the same time, only 28% of small businesses using social tools identify themselves as applying social in a ‘planned, strategic way.’

Small businesses that use social media in a strategic way are more likely to be satisfied with results than those using it in an ad hoc way. Social media can give a small business the boost it needs to advance to the next level. In fact, 42% of small businesses using social media reported an increase in leads or traffic to their website.

What does it mean to be a strategic user of social media? Here are five best practices worth exploring: 

Step 1: Scope out the competition

Spend a little time on the most popular social media networks and check out how your competitors use those sites. Where do they post? What do they write about? How often do they post? Next, set up your own accounts and start experimenting.

Step 2: Explore customers’ use of social media

Discover how often your customers visit social media sites, what information and experiences they seek, what tools they prefer and what kinds of information they share. 

Step 3: Research what people are saying about you

As you become more familiar with social media, look at how people engage with your company online, including positioning, credibility and following on social networks.

Step 4: Ramp up gradually

Start slowly and then maintain a steady pace. If you begin by posting frequently and then peter out to nothing, your fans could lose interest.  

Step 5: Have a game plan and chart progress

Create a series of posts to cover at least three months of social media activity. Think in terms of upcoming holidays, seasonality, your own promotional calendar, and other time-linked events. This will help keep the content fresh and relevant to your audience.

Of course, you should update your scheduled posts if there is a newsworthy event, showing you are in tune with what is going on. Always respond promptly to social media messages about your business to demonstrate that you are listening to customers and engaged.

 

Collaboration and the Progressive SMB

Almost all businesses aspire to success–but not all achieve it. SMB Group has identified and written quite a bit about what we term “Progressive SMBs.” Progressive SMBs are more growth driven and invest more in technology than their counterparts. They also view IT as a tool to help the business grow, create market advantage, and level the playing field against bigger companies.

Most important, being a Progressive SMB pays off. In our 2012 SMB Routes to Market Study, 85% of SMBs that plan to invest more in technology anticipated revenue increases. In comparison, only 42% of SMBs that plan to decrease IT spending expected revenues to rise.

Personifying the Progressive SMB: Apex Supply Chain

apex logoI recently had the chance to speak with Karolyn Schalk, VP of IT Infrastructure at Apex Supply Chain. Apex designs and manufactures what it terms “Point-Of-Work Solutions”— vending machines, cabinets, and other devices, as well as software to manage use, inventory, and replenishment. Apex solutions can manage any supplies, tools or equipment that need to be tracked and controlled.

Apex illustrates the kind of attitudes and behaviors that make the fast-growth, Progressive SMB tick. Founded just seven years ago, Apex has grown to become the global leader in automated vending, supplying over 6,500 companies with vending machine solutions. Apex has fueled this growth with new employees, innovative solutions, new locations and acquisitions.

As the company grew, it invested in sales, marketing and service solutions to help increase sales and provide responsive service. But Schalk realized that Apex also needed a better way to collaborate. Sticking with “email collaboration” would eventually slow down innovation, time to market and customer responsiveness–and along with it, growth and expansion.

Cleaning Out the Collaboration Junk Drawer

junk drawer Apex had opened more locations, hired more employees, created new offerings, and made a couple of acquisitions. It’s network of external suppliers, partners, contractors and installers expanded.

But Apex was still using Microsoft Small Business Server and an assortment of email, file sharing and SharePoint for collaboration. Over seven years, Schalk explained, “this had turned into the equivalent of a big junk drawer. Whatever organization was initially in there had been lost.”

As a result, people had problems finding the information they needed, locating the right contacts to get a job done, and tracking tasks. With “end-users living in email, time was wasted and the risk of things falling through the cracks grew,” notes Schalk. “We needed something more manageable and useable to share information and track work.”

Crossing the Collaboration Chasm

Everyone wanted something better. But, despite its faults, end-users were used to the devil they knew–the junk drawer of email and shared files–and skeptical about if and how a different collaboration solution would work.

Schalk realized that successful adoption of any new solution would hinge on users understanding why improving collaboration was critical for the company, and how better collaboration tools would help to facilitate it. She recruited different end-user groups in the company to evaluate collaboration solutions. In the process, Apex evaluated or reviewed cloud-based collaboration solutions from three major vendors, which helped to get people thinking about, seeing and talking about better ways to collaborate and get work done.

Schalk also designated a technology advocate to help end-users understand how a new collaboration solution would help streamline tasks and make their lives easier. As she observed, “My biggest ‘aha’ was understanding we needed a technology advocate. We’re all creatures of habit. People need hand-holding and encouragement to believe that there is a better solution, and show them how it can make it easier for them to share and keep track of work.”

Selecting a Solution

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Apex had decided upfront that it wanted to deploy a cloud-based collaboration solution because, as Schalk noted, “We have a lean IT staff. So the cloud gives us a way to get more value, more quickly and easily than an on-premise solution.”

“Functionality was important, but so was simplicity,” explained Schalk. “We wanted all of the collaboration tools–instant messaging, meetings, community, wikis, blogs, email, etc.–but it needed to be integrated and easy to use.” Other key factors included flexibility, support, security and backup, an easy and secure way to bring external contractors and partners into projects, and mobile capabilities.

After evaluating different solutions, Apex selected IBM’s Smart Cloud for Social Business and deployed in March 2012. According to Schalk, “The initial solution was simple to use and the pieces were well-integrated. In addition, IBM gave us great access to the product team. We felt we’d have input into product development so we’d get changes as our needs evolve.” Since the initial deployment IBM has made several enhancements; in particular, Schalk liked the direction IBM was taking with its Mobile First design point, which gave her confidence that Apex would get the capabilities it needed for a more mobile workforce and world.

She also liked that support came bundled into standard Smart Cloud for Social Business subscription pricing, and that IBM provided “corporate-grade security and backup for highly confidential new product ideas and designs.” The Smart Cloud for Social Business guest model, which lets companies set up free guest accounts for external users, was another point in its favor. “The guest model would make it easier for Apex to collaborate with contractors, suppliers and partners in a secure way,” she added.

Keeping Up With the Speed of What Customers Want

Schalk reports that with the help of the technology advocate, end-users began to explore the tool set and found benefits specific to their work groups. Since then, they have quickly begun using more of the functionality in Smart Cloud for Social Business, because “they don’t have to install anything new, its easy to use, and its all integrated.”

Apex is now better able to “keep up with the speed of what customers want.” For example, the solution is easing the roll out of Apex’s new ERP solution. According to Schalk, “People are updating the task list every 20 minutes because it’s easy. They can do work from anywhere, from home, on a tablet. Almost every other day, someone says, wow, it’s so easy to get things done with a pop-up meeting or iPad app.”

On boarding new employees in this fast-growing business has become much simpler as well. Before, people had to “hunt around to find the right info for each new hire. Now we can just point new hires to the places where we’ve published information about projects, policies and procedures,” explains Schalk.

Schalk says that employees are also using Smart Cloud for Social Business as a complement to their Salesforce.com sales and service applications. Although she would like to see the IBM and Salesforce products more fully integrated, customer support and sales teams view them as complementary, and are sharing relevant conversations and tasks between the solutions.

Perspective

Social Business People Network  inside Speech BubbleProgressive SMBs that create and sustain rapid growth are defined not only by larger IT investments, but their attitudes about applying technology to help achieve business goals.

Many SMBs recognize that effective collaboration is critical to building and growing a successful business. Taking steps to develop a more collaborative culture, such as Apex did, pave the way to getting the results you want from a collaboration solution. As the Apex story illustrates, it pays off to:

  • Focus on collaboration as a means to desired business outcomes–such as faster time to market, or faster decision-making.
  • Get people engaged in the process early on to elevate awareness and conversations about better ways to get things done.
  • Lend a helping hand–such as a technology advocate–to help users who are reluctant to change see how a different approach will make their lives easier.

This sets the stage not only for selecting the solution that will best meet your business needs, but also ensures faster user adoption and, ultimately, the outcomes you’re looking for from that solution.

This blog was sponsored by IBM Smart Cloud for Social Business to help educate small and medium businesses (SMBs) about how collaboration tools and social technologies can help their businesses.

NYEXPO Panel: Using Technology to Drive Innovation & GROW Your Business

Thanks to all of you who came to our panel yesterday at NYEXPO,  Using Technology to Drive Innovation & GROW Your Business, moderated by Ramon Ray, Regional Development Manager, NY/NJ Infusionsoft and Editor of Smallbiztechonlogy.com, with panelists Shashi Bellamkonda, Sr. Director, Social Media, Web.com and Adjunct Marketing Professor at Georgetown University, and yours truly.

What a great event–I hope you got as much out of it as I did. Several of you asked for copies of the presentation, so I’m posting it here. For anyone who didn’t attend, our panel discussed the ground-breaking technologies–cloud, mobile and social–that are changing how small businesses operate, market and sell. I shared some market research and perspectives, Shashi provided social media guidance, and Grant gave us a great demo of the latest tools and gadgets that you may want to check out.

Enjoy and please let me know if you have any questions!

Drinking From the Dreamforce Fire Hose: Part 1, The Big Picture

Dreamforce, like Salesforce.com’s ambitions, just keeps getting bigger. This year’s event in San Francisco claimed 90,000 registered attendees and 250 media, analysts and bloggers. The pageantry surrounding the event—from MC Hammer to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and from Tony Robbins to Colin Powell—is also on the rise, seemingly in direct proportion to Salesforce’s enterprise ambitions. Anyway, with so much erupting from Mt. Salesforce, I need to write a two-part blog post. This first post covers the Salesforce.com’s vision and announcements, and my perspective on them. The second post, which will be up in a few days, will cover how Salesforce’s ever-expanding ambitions translate and apply to small and medium businesses (SMBs).

The Big Picture

CEO Marc Benioff’s keynote featured the success stories from marquee customers, including Activision, Burberry, Coca Cola, Commonwealth Bank, GE, Virgin Atlantic and Rossignol. Through these customer vignettes, announcements, demos and, interestingly, IBM’s 2012 CMO Study, Salesforce made its case for enterprises to buy into its version of the social enterprise. While Salesforce isn’t the first vendor to come up with any of the ideas put forward, Benioff and team continue to aggressively extend the Salesforce footprint along cloud, social, and platform themes, and its push beyond CRM into other functional areas. A drink from the fire hose includes a slew of new directions and offerings. A few are available now, but most are slated for general availability later in 2012 or in 2013. They include:

  • Added social selling capabilities. Salesforce Touch and Data.com Social Keyadd new social and mobile oomph for sales people. Salesforce Touch puts Salesforce on any mobile device, giving reps anytime, anywhere mobile capabilities. Salesforce Data.com Social Key integrates data from social networks with company data to provide companies with a more comprehensive view of their customers.
  • Social marketing. Salesforce Marketing Cloud brings social listening, content, engagement, advertising, workflow, automation and measurement into one place through the combined technologies of (recent acquisitions) Buddy Media and Radian6.
  • Platform Push. Salesforce announced Salesforce Identity, touting it as the “Facebook for the Enterprise.” It will provide a single, social, trusted identity service to manage multiple apps and includes single sign-on across apps; social identity to enable Chatter to push information from multiple apps to a user in one feed; and centralized identity and access management to make it easier for administrators to provision and manage users across applications.
  • Work.com: Rypple is now Work.com, and Salesforce is positioning it as a social performance platform to manage performance reviews and provide recognition, rewards and feedback to employees.

As important, in just a few years, Salesforce AppExchange has grown to become a mature ecosystem for developers. Over 350 partners attended Dreamforce 2012, and Force.com development partners such as FinancialForce, BMC Remedyforce and Xactly Express are enjoying a great growth ramp on Salesforce’s coattails. In the analyst Q&A, Benioff explained that Salesforce is trying hard to move from geek speak to talk and walk like the new breed of IT customer, the CMO. In both the keynote and the Q&A, he reiterated that IT spending will increasingly shift from IT to CMOs. He also underscored that Facebook has become the most popular app on the planet because it is so intuitive, and his belief that all business apps will eventually need a Facebook-like activity stream because that is the interface users know and will demand.

Perspective

Really, what could play better into Salesforce’s hands as it tries to expand its enterprise footprint against stalwart ERP vendors? Larger enterprises have pretty much taken care of business in the back office. And smaller companies top priorities most often center on revenue growth and customer acquisition. With a CMO-centric view of the world, Benioff & co. can position Salesforce as chief mentor and leader in the next wave of IT innovation—in the front office, collaboration and user interface arenas. For example, I think that Benioff is spot on with his statement that all business apps will need a Facebook-style feed interface to take the friction out of using them and facilitate user adoption. Meanwhile, compelling customer success stories and strong partner growth underscore that Salesforce is ready to take its game to the next level. Unlike some of its competitors, Salesforce also has social in its DNA from the top down, which should prove to be an enormous advantage. However, rivals are not going to yield turf easily. In fact, it’s ironic that, in addition to helping to fuel Benioff’s agenda with its CMO research, IBM already walking much of the Salesforce talk. IBM coined the “social business” term before Benioff coined “social enterprise,” and many of the solutions that are in the works at Salesforce bear a close resemblance to IBM solutions such as IBM Connections, Smarter Commerce and SmartCloud—all of which are available now. Meanwhile, many of Salesforce’s newly announced offerings won’t be ready for several months or more–and are somewhat lightweight compared to comparable offerings from the competition. But sometimes, lightweight is better. Some apps are so clogged with feature bloat that they actually hinder getting work done instead of enabling it. And, I’ve said many times, Benioff is a marketing genius. He has an uncanny knack for winning by articulating a new value proposition better than anyone else in the industry. While he may need to play catch up in terms of getting his solutions to market, it’s likely that his messages will be the first to come through loud and clear in many corporate boardrooms.

SMB Tech Tidbits: Focus on Social Collaboration!

This week I had a chance to attend the 2012 Enterprise 2.0 conference  in Boston, which focuses on social business and collaboration solutions. This edition of Tech Tidbits features a roundup of some of the more interesting collaboration and social apps aimed squarely at small and medium businesses (SMBs) that I was able to speak with at the show.

But first, I’d like to share three key trends that surfaced very clearly at the event:

  1. More vendors are paying attention to SMBs. Until recently, many vendors were putting the lion’s share of their attention on large enterprises. But several vendors I spoke with are focusing either exclusively or primarily on SMBs.
  2. Vendors are starting to understand that moving from traditional to a social collaboration represents a major cultural shift for most companies. They are trying to ease this transition with easier to use apps and services to help companies cross the chasm.
  3. Social business and collaboration vendors are moving beyond using their platforms to share information. They are connecting collaborative activities with business processes–both internally and with external customers, partners and suppliers. This should make all of these solutions much more interesting to SMBs looking for more actionable and practical ways to use collaboration platforms.

The solutions below are good examples of some or all of these trends in action!

Broadvision showcased Clearvale, a newish (launched in 2010) cloud-based social networking platform which lets SMBs create separate social networks for employees, customers, partners, suppliers or whoever–but manage them together as a whole–kind of like circles in Google+.  Clearvale “hybrid network” approach lets administrators set up different permissions for different types of users, and create collaborative workspaces that are either public or private.

Clearvale includes analytics to measure and track social network use, and an incentive system to encourage and reward user participation. Clearvale comes in two editions. Clearvale Express is the freemium version, which includes basic collaboration capabilities, file sharing, and activity streams for a single network. Clearvale Enterprise adds collaboration tools (blogs, wikis, forums, polls); mobile access, LDAP and OpenID authentication, developer APIs, and the ability to customize the app for your business. It also features one-button integration with Microsoft Outlook (unfortunately this is not yet available for Google Gmail). System integrators, telcos or others can also private label Clearvale for their customers via the PaasPort reseller program.

The company also features a 90-day “social enterprise transformation” program to help customers map relationships and business processes to Clearvale. Pricing depends on the number of users, and discounts kick in based on the level of activity. I like the idea of this program, as it acknowledges the fact that becoming a social business takes more than turning on a cloud app, and it puts skin in the game for both the SMB and Broadvision.

Citrix recently acquired a company named Podio, which has a social collaboration platform designed to help businesses “get work done.” You can work with employees, clients and partners in dedicated work spaces. In addition to an activity stream, collaboration tools, and permissions, Podio has an app marketplace (which currently has about 600 free apps) that users can plug-in to address specific needs, such as competitive tracking, lead management or planning an event. Or you can build your own, no programming skills required.

One of the things I really like about Podio is that it integrates out of the box with Google Apps, Gmail, Google New Feed, and Facebook–tools that many small businesses in particular already rely on. Podio is also fully mobile-enabled for Apple IOS and Google Android devices.

Citrix also recently purchased ShareFile for enterprise-grade file storage and sharing too. Podio integrates with ShareFile as well as with other popular file sharing services such as Box.net and Dropbox. Podio is available free for the first five users, who get full access to all functionality. After that, pricing is $8/user/month.

IGLOO takes the approach that businesses need interconnected “hubs” or social networks for different groups, whether different internal business units, customers, suppliers or partners. With IGLOO, each business unit can manage their own individual network, and IGLOO is working on providing the ability for users to publish content across multiple networks. In addition to the ubiquitous activity stream, IGLOO features a full roster of social networking tools, including IM and DM, different ways to create and share content, personalization capabilities, document management, search and a rewards and badge system. And it integrates with several key applications, such Microsoft SharePoint and Salesforce.com as well as Microsoft and Google personal productivity tools.

Visitors to IGLOO’s  site can complete a short form requesting a free trial, IGLOO contacts the individual (often within minutes, at most 1 business day) to learn more about their requirements. From there, IGLOO sets up a custom collaboration environment based on one of its 8 social business applications (each application is preconfigured, but also customizable for the user).  Then IGLOO gives the user a guided tour of this environment, sharing insights and best practices on everything from configuration to driving user adoption.

DoubleDutch debuted Pride, a new, free mobile collaboration app. You can use Pride to post and share short, microblog entries about what you’re doing. Pride has some built-in smarts to help identify patterns and connections and fill in some of the details for you. You can download Pride on the Apple’s iTunes app Store and Google’s Play Store. According to DoubleDutch CEO Lawrence Coburn, the sweet spot for Pride is companies with 5 to 50 employees.

DoubleDutch also has positioned itself as an enterprise mobile apps maker. Pride shares some of the functionality of DoubleDutch’s Hive mobile CRM app, but Hive also addresses sales specific needs, such as tracking the stages of a deal from lead to closed business.

Pride is a more general tool that could be used by marketing and business development executives to share their activities and keep up with those of their coworkers. The solution also provides some nice analytics so you can see where people are spending their time, so you can make adjustments if needed. Pride is an easy and lightweight way for teams to stay on the same page. It doesn’t have a full-blown desktop version yet so it could be frustrating for users that want to use it via both mobile and desktop devices.

Tech Tidbits for SMBs: Yahoo! Marketing Dashboard and InsideView

While it’s tempting to paint the “SMB market” with one broad-brush stroke, the term actually represents very fragmented terrain. You can slice and dice it many ways–by company size, industry, degree of technology savvy, type of customers the business sells to, and more–and end up with a dizzying array of “SMB” combinations and permutations.

With that in mind, this edition of Tech Tidbits features a couple of interesting digital marketing solutions that reflect this diversity. Maybe one of them can help your company. If you use or try any of these, please let me know about your experience and outcomes!

Yahoo! Marketing Dashboard

If you’re a small business looking to grow your business , but are dazed and bewildered by the gazillions of options out there, and have a hard time managing disconnected marketing services, you’re not alone. SMB Group Research shows that most small businesses cobble together different tools for different sources and then get frustrated because they can’t tell what’s working and what’s not.

If you face this problem, you might want to check out Yahoo! Marketing Dashboard, which Yahoo! launched earlier this month. Marketing Dashboard pulls together a few core tools into an integrated marketing management dashboard designed for small business owners–not marketing pros.

The Dashboard provides a unified view into:

  • Reputation Management, to see the latest online ratings, reviews and mentions about your business from blogs, Yelp, Facebook, and thousands of other sites. The free service gives you the two most recent reviews and/or mentions. Premium (priced at $19.99/business/month for 12 months) provides unlimited reviews and mentions, and the ability to see this info for your competition too.
  • Local Visibility for search engine and directory listings, to make sure details about your business are available and accurate in top search engines and directories (e.g. Yelp, Citysearch, Google, etc.) so that customers find you. The free version pulls in info from over 100 directories, and highlights in red anything that isn’t consistent so you can fix it. The paid version ($9.99/business/month for 12 months) lets you submit business information in bulk to over 100 search engines and directories so that you don’t have to update them individually.
  • Email, search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine management (SEM) campaign tracking, to give you visibility and reporting so you know how well your web site, email, and search marketing activities are working. The catch here is that at this time, the service works only with Constant Contact email marketing and  OrangeSoda SEO and SEM.
  • Site traffic, a free service that gathers web site traffic data from Yahoo! Web Hosting, Yahoo! Merchant Solutions, or Google Analytics (depending on which of these services you already use).
  • Online sales, which pulls in order and revenue reporting for companies using Yahoo! Merchant Solutions online store.

Yahoo! has been plagued with many crises over the last few years, but the company still has a vast presence in the small business market, and supports $3 billion dollars in merchant sales. When he briefed us, Yahoo! GM for Small Business, Tom Byun told us that small business continues a key focal point for the company, and that despite the turmoil, Yahoo! is doubling-down to remain a leader in the small business arena.

The solution seems well-suited to small local or digital businesses who need to use digital media to drive traffic into  physical stores and/or to their website. If you are already using one or more of the marketing services noted above, why not take it for free test drive? It could make your life simpler. And if you’re just getting your feet wet with online marketing, this could help you take an organized approach from the start–again, with little risk.

InsideView

Are your sales reps tired of cold-calling? Are you tired of them coming up short on their goals every month? If you are an SMB with a direct sales force, InsideView’s “social selling” solution can help your sales people spend less time doing research to find people and the ice-breakers necessary to start conversations with them, and more time talking to qualified prospects and customers.

What the heck is social selling? In a nutshell, social selling taps into the fact that customers are smarter, more connected and more socially engaged than ever. The Internet and social media make it easy for people form opinions about brands and products–and influence others about them–without seeing an ad or hearing a sales pitch.  With smarter customers, cold calling isn’t likely to work. Sales people need to get to the right customer, at the right time, with the right conversation to establish and nurture the relationships that can lead to sales.

InsideView goes beyond contact management to give reps the richer, more personal information that they need to start and nurture relationships. It harvests structured and unstructured information from over 25,000 sources, including social sites, news networks and research groups. It compares and rationalizes similar information from multiple sources to develop detailed profiles, reports and alerts. Just getting this information in one place would be nirvana for many sales people who I know.

But, you also want to know if all this social selling stuff really pays off. So earlier this month, InsideView announced a new ROI dashboard to help businesses track ROI for social selling activities. The dashboard identifies opportunities that InsideView influenced as they move through the sales pipeline. This enables businesses to gauge the value of InsideView to the building the sales pipeline and generating revenues, and helps sales management fine-tune their tactics to improve results. It’s available now for Salesforce.com, and will be ready for Microsoft Dynamics CRM later this quarter.

InsideView also launched new, customizable Sales Team Activity Reports, which give sales managers a visual summary of how reps are using InsideView, so they can more easily set and monitor social activity goals and drive team performance.

InsideView has a free, standalone edition for small businesses that don’t use CRM–or just want to get a feel for what they solution does. The standalone version is limited but can still provide significant value. But the biggest bang for the buck is for companies that use CRM. Pricing for InsideView with CRM integration starts at $29.99/user/month.

YouDazzle: Where Cloud Collaboration Meets Network Marketing

In SMB Group studies, small business decision-makers consistently put colleagues, friends and family at or near the top of the list as key sources for advice when it comes to selecting technology solutions for their businesses (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Who SMBs Turn to for Guidance About Technology Solutions

So when start-up YouDazzle CEO and co-founder Cary Cole told me that YouDazzle will sell its newly launched cloud-based collaboration, storage and online meeting platform via a network marketing distribution strategy, he got my attention. Although companies from Avon to Tupperware have successfully deployed this model, YouDazzle is, as far as I know, the first applications vendor to take this approach.

What YouDazzle Offers

YouDazzle offers small businesses with cloud-based collaboration software that integrates online file sharing, web meetings and screen sharing into a unified service.   As with other small business cloud collaboration offerings, the goal is to make it easy for people to share, access and store any type of file via any type of device. Some of the interesting differentiators include:

  • Integration with Dropbox to provide customers with branded data rooms and other extras. You can sync desktop files to YouDazzle with Dropbox  and vice versa; instantly share Dropbox files with up to 100 people at once via YouDazzle web meetings; and add comments to  files.
  • Built-in analytics to monitor trends and decision-making processes and provide feedback on deals and projects. You can see who has visited your data rooms, uploaded and downloaded files, provided comments, etc., and  customize how you’re notified about user activity.

Pricing includes three options, all of which include live file sharing, screen sharing, unlimited rooms and guests, activity analytics, Dropbox integration and custom branding. Plans start with the entry-level Pro Plan, at $19.99/month, which includes 1 host and 20 GB of storage, and work up from there. YouDazzle offers a 14-day free trial and discounts on yearly subscriptions.

Taking Network Marketing to the Cloud 

Like companies such as Avon, Silpada, PamperedChef and others, YouDazzle intends to deploy a network marketing strategy to sell its products. Here’s how network marketing works for YouDazzle:

  • A $49 sign-up fee gets you in the door to sell YouDazzle. Once you’re signed up, YouDazzle provides you with a business launch pack, which gives you a co-branded replicated web site and storefront (which interfaces with the YouDazzle web site). YouDazzle also provides training via local in person events, webinars, and materials that educate marketers on the network marketing compensation model.
  • When you start selling YouDazzle, you earn a 20% margin on your first 3 sales. After that, you make 35% on subsequent sales–and you get a retroactive bump to 35% on the initial 3 sales that you made. Then the network component comes in, where you can make money on top of the network of other YouDazzle marketers that you recruit when they sell.

Cole believes that cloud solutions for small businesses are a good fit for the model, for several reasons.

  • The cloud has eliminated the need for marketers to install any hardware or software.
  • Unlike network marketing for physical goods, marketers don’t need to invest in inventory (such as the suitcase full of Avon cosmetics).
  • Small business owners look to colleagues, friends and family for guidance on technology solutions (as our research also indicates).
  • Social media is overtaking traditional advertising and marketing.

Will it Work?

There are many competing collaboration solutions on the market for small business–from Citrix’s “GoTo” solutions to Google Apps. And some of these services are free. But YouDazzle believes it has a good blend of collaboration tools, and that custom branding, an easy to use interface, and strong entry point to current Dropbox users will help it develop a foothold in the market.

Of course, the most intriguing bet that YouDazzle is placing is in its marketing and sales model. Cole thinks the network marketing will appeal to marketers that want to capitalize on the cloud opportunity. As important, he believes that their local, personal touch with prospective customers will differentiate YouDazzle from the typical self-service trial approach that is most prevalent in the small business cloud solutions market (although other approaches are emerging — see Going Beyond Free Self-Service Trials: Raising the Bar in Cloud Computing). The rationale is that a little bit of TLC will help prospects see how to use the tool more productively, boost conversion rates and nurture retention.

In my view, this will be interesting to watch. Although network marketing has worked well in the consumer space for products such as personal care products and jewelry, will it work to sell business solutions to small companies? Sure, small businesses turn to friends and colleagues for guidance, but do they actually want to buy from them?

Another challenge is that people seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum in their perception of network marketing. Although some people love it, for others network marketing has negative connotations–ala “pyramid marketing.” These people get one whiff of network marketer coming and cross the street–they just can’t face another basket party or make-up demonstration from someone that they may feel some obligation to buy from.

That said, I think a lot of YouDazzle’s success–or failure–rests on how well it can train its marketers. YouDazzle will not only need to teach them how to sell and implement the solution, but also how to make it most relevant to the different requirements of each small business. It will also need to structure things to ensure that marketers strike the right balance between recruiting new marketers, signing on new customers and supporting existing customers. Finally, it will need to help marketers avoid being pinned with the negative network marketing stereotype, by helping them understand things such as when a situation is appropriate for selling and when its not.

Let me know what you think!

Slideshow: Highlights SMB Group 2011 Social Business Study

We will be launching a new version of our SMB Social Business Study this spring. In the meantime, we wanted to share some of the highlights from the 2011 study for the small business segment (1-99 employees) to whet your appetite for the 2012 edition!

The 2012 Social Business and Collaboration Study will refresh the 2011 version. It will zero in on how SMB social business trends, and compare 2012 trends to 2011. Sponsorship opportunities are available–please let us know if you’re interested!

Meanwhile, enjoy.

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