Marketing Your Services – Lessons from a Journey to Bhimavaram

Vijayawada Junction

Recently I had to travel to Bhimavaram in West Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh. Of course I had to look it up on Google Maps to figure out where it was. It’s about a 120km north northeast of Vijayawada. As my  daughter had to be there at 9am on a Saturday morning and had forgotten to tell me but five days before, I had to scramble to make the arrangements. Now that I’m back in Bangalore I realize somewhat belatedly how everything we needed was handled almost a 100% online.

The Economist in its latest issue talks of Indian technology firms and where they may be headed. While I didn’t agree with everything they asserted, my own experience of making it to Bhimavaram and back resonates very well with their core premise that technology, the web and mobile have already changed Indian businesses irrevocably. Here’s what I found and learned.

Google – of course this is where it began – with Google Maps figuring out where Bhimavaram was and the nearest airport – Vijayawada in this case. Cleartrip was my next stop to check out airline tickets. Once I found Jet Konnect had the best connections checked out their website as well and bought the tickets there directly. Usually when travelling to a new city, I’d call friends, to see if they had any recommendations for hotels. Given I was travelling with my daughter, I checked TripAdvisor for reviews and everyone seemed to suggest the Taj Gateway awas the way to go. So off I went to TajHotels website. Then I had the bright idea to check hotels right next to them – as in centrally located by not as expensive.  I decided to check out Stayzilla who’s ads I’d seen in Bangalore – and they got me a good deal at the Taj Gateway. Then off it was to find a rental car. I called the Taj up and asked them to refer a cab company. Once again I felt the cab rates were quite high and so a quick Google search revealed a service called Saavari.com that fit the bill – they could get you a cab (including rates, ratings, the works) in practically any city – most importantly in Vijayawada in this instance. However, I couldn’t figure out a few things re quoted price online, so I called them on their toll free number. They said they’d get back to me and never did. So in the meantime I kept searching and here’s where Google Local came in real handy. Several cab companies in Vijayawada had excellent reviews ratings on Google and I reached out to one of them over the phone after checking out rates on their website (which I’m finding hard locate just now). So here we were four days before our travel, with flight tickets, hotel bookings, local taxi rental all done over a couple of hours online and on the phone – to a city we’d never been to, whose language we did not speak and with some measure of perceived safety for my teen traveller.

Lessons learned

  • Online reviews matter – the hotel we ended up staying in had good reviews on TripAdvisor. The cab we used had good reviews on Google local. These were instances of a local supplier beating out a larger national “professional” supplier. Social and community word-of-mouth is getting better, even it’s not from someone personally known to us.
  • Websites matter – Even after locating the cab company via a review, the fact that their website had clear rates, reviews and contact info is what tipped us over. Good websites matter – Savaari.com and Stayzilla I had to look up in my mail trial as I couldn’t recall their names – and in the formers’ case I couldn’t figure out the pricing and latter’s case I had to resort to the phone to resolve issues.
  • Customer service matters – Saavari.com said they’d get back to me and they never did. They had a beautiful website – clean and while my use case was not a clear fit to their standard offerings, phone calls were not returned. Similarly Stayzilla called me back to say that the Taj Gateway room was no longer available – that they’d put me in an another hotel on the same street. To give full credit to them, they constantly followed up but were caught scrambling. The place they finally got me I passed on due to poor reviews on Trip Adivsor. Jet Konnect won over ClearTrip as it was easier to cancel or make changes with them.

This was the first time that I travelled to a new city – let alone a Tier 2/3 town – without seeking direct personal inputs from friends or family and did so at short notice and had a uniformly pleasant experience – despite not speaking a word of Telugu in this instance and carrying minimal cash. Whether web and broadband penetration is where we’d like it to be or not, for businesses the web and mobile have changed how they do business forever.

Enhanced by Zemanta

3 Rules to Keep Your Sanity in Social Media

“It seems like there is always another social network to join or another tool I’m supposed to learn. How can I keep up?”

You can’t, asserts Alexandra Samuel, CEO of Social Signal in her Harvard Business blog.

SM Marketing Madness @HubSpotImage by HubSpot via Flickr

Like all cliches, the assertion that the blogosphere is one giant echo chamber, has a good deal of truth to it. To newcomers, it appears there are the few and exalted stars of the blogosphere, and a vast ocean of unwashed unread masses, that is the rest of the us bloggers. Unlike in Mumbai or Hollywood, it doesn’t seem you can work your way up, being a waiter, then an extra, minor part player and eventually get that big break to become a star. Or then again, even without the casting couch, maybe building a social media brand is not that different from a movie career. A lot of hard work, some teeth gnashing, a great deal more of prayer,and a dash of luck to achieve your dreams goals.

So let’s learn from the folks who’ve gone before us. Having done a fair amount of stumbling myself, here are the insights I have gained, to keep my sanity in social media. And there’s a benefit to taking the long term view as Marc Meyer reminds us.

the summary

  • focus – pick a few sites to make your presence felt and stick with ’em. Use a tool such as Posterous or Tumblr to be able to write once & publish wide
  • specialize – be something very specific, even if it is to very few people. you are more likely to stand out and enjoy doing this in the long run. Others will find you.
  • community – better to have a few highly interactive friends than vast hordes of “ships that pass by the night”. Participate, give and weed periodically.

Focus We all have only so many hours in a day, that we can devote to any one thing. It is therefore critical to focus on a few – be it blogs you track/read (how many of us have more than 1000 unread posts in our feedreaders?), people you follow on Twitter, social media sites you will be on. If you had to pick only one, I’d choose Posterous or Tumblr – as these are simple ways to set up a your blog, even via email and get things sent out to all the other locations you’d like to be seen in. Sure focusing could mean that some times you are going to pick a Hi5 or a MySpace but find the world’s moved on to a FaceBook – you can move then. And using a tool such as FriendFeed or a Twitter client such as TweetDeck or Seesmic

Specialize Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Even when you think you are specialized, you can probably specialize further. Don’t be another parent blogger or Adobe Air specialist, dive deeper – be a father of pre-teens, or focus on UX on Air alone. It will be scary and will at times seem that you have gone too far. You can always step back, but focus on being yourself and bringing things of value to your reader. While Copyblogger.com and Lifehacker.com seem to have built broad based properties, that is not the place to start IMO, given where the world is in 2009.

Community The raison d’etre of social media is to build a community of interested, if not like-minded, individuals – a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts. This implies two-way and many-to-many conversations. The secret to building such a community is to give of yourself first, commenting, re-tweeting, meeting in person and virtually. All best done with small groups first. So focus on building a high degree of interaction, one of high quality rather than quantity. If you view your community as a garden, weeding it is just as important as seeding and watering it.

Focus, specialization and giving to the community will act as a virtuous cycle, if done right.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

7 Easy Steps To Get Started with Social Media

Unless you have been living in a cave (or exploring one or spelunking) you’ve been bombarded by stories about Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media. And like most people I know over the age of 30, you have a vague feeling of “Is this something I should be doing?” or “Where the heck do I even start?”

Well look no further. This last year or thereabouts I have spent a good deal of time blogging, poking, tweeting, digging (more like del.icio.us – ing) around the social media sphere trying to separate the chaff from the wheat. While trying to persuade some friends, who I believe have a lot to offer, to start blogging, I realized, having a simple “Here’s what you need to do” might be the best way to get these folks started. In planning for one perfect yet tight post I nearly didn’t do this. Instead have opted now to get started and spell it out as I go. Clearly I build on the shoulders of others who have gone before.

For the skimmers, here is the quick & dirty version

  1. Have a written goal for why you are blogging
  2. Have one handle or name across all media properties
  3. Get started
  4. Do your homework
  5. Give, give and give some more
  6. Work across mediums – not just text
  7. Don’t forget the real world!
  1. Write down your purpose & goal This is as simple as being clear why you are doing this. Not because your boss told you, or your cousin thinks its a good idea or worse yet, your spouse wants you to. It could be as simple as “Coz I want to” which is want most mountaineers seem to state as their reason. Of course it’d be a whole lot better if you said specific thing such as
    • “Be seen as the #1 De-cluttering/organizing expert in the Tri-cities”
    • “Be perceived as a top 10 blogger in analog design in India” or
    • “Build a loyal following for my classical music compositions”

  2. Pick ONE name Think through the name you are going to use, for you are going to use it in a whole lot of places very soon – on your blog, on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, SlideShare – and that’s just for starters. It has got to be distinctive (so folks can remember it), specific and long enough for folks to make out it’s you but short enough to not chew up too many characters. This may not seem such a big deal, but it can be if you are successful. So might as well plan for it. Some good ones to emulate
      Of course there are no hard and fast rules – one of the most popular vcasters of all time is http://garyvaynerchuk.com/ (I had to look that spelling up) – his Twitter handle is a little easier & different at @garyvee. Sure http://rohitbhargava.com/ and http://sramanmitra.com/ are also popular, but no one outside South Asia will be able to spell their names without a lookup. Their success shows content trumps all other considerations. I’d still recommend that you use a short & descriptive handle.

  3. Get started As my dad was fond of saying, none of your preparation for swimming is useful, if you don’t get in the water. So soon as you finish reading this para article, get started. Put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard and start typing. Sure it would help if you make a writing calendar – could be as simple as, “I will spend 30 minutes each morning or 2 hours on Tue/Thur.” Whatever works for you. But don’t wait for the calendar. Start with your own “natural” voice. Sometimes it takes a few posts to discover what that is. Regardless don’t try to speak in a voice that is not yours – be yourself (probably the hardest advice to follow)
  4. Do Your Homework Building up a good social presence is no different than finding a job or getting hooked up. You gotta let everyone know and it helps if the people you talk to are themselves well connected and well thought of. Do your homework. Find out where the audience, you think you speak to, hangs out. Who are the thought leaders/bloggers in the space that you plan to blog about? Get your tracking infrastructure in place – starting with Google Analytics. There are any number of good posts & resources about building an audience for your blog – so when they come, you can know where they are coming from, what they are reading. If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.
  5. Give, give & give some more Your mom was right. You gotta give, before you can expect to get something. So focus on giving – I mean freely – what would be of value to your readers. This could be links to other interesting articles, gadget reviews, your grandma’s secret crochet techniques or other exotica (no, that was not a typo.) Find what you are good at, and what is valued by your audience and deliver it reliably with no further expectations. It’s also worth keeping in mind that much of the social media is about conversation, which usually involves more than one voice – yours – alone. The best way to give is to comment on other people’s blogs, to participate in conversations on Twitter or other social forums. Give first and ye shall receive!
  6. Cross mediums – try audio, slideware, video This might seem a stretch. Here you are still planning to get rolling or maybe just started in stringing a few words together, maybe Tweeting or mini-blogging (on Tumblr or Posterous). As one of the hottest social media stars, Gary Vaynerchuk has found – that video is his gig or as a zany Aussie hardware engineer did, you too may be a natural video star. Sometimes your content served up as a podcast may resonate with your audience on the go, as Chief Penguin Michael Katz has found. Till you play with it you will not know – iTunes, YouTube and SlideShare and others are changing the landscape of blogging & social media

  7. Real world exists In the echo chamber that is the blogosphere (& now Twitter and FaceBook) it’s easy to lose sight that there’s a real world out there. So don’t forget to get out there, shake hands and pat backs (or is the other way around). Write for your local newspaper (if it is still in existence), attend seminars and better yet give talks. Volunteer with your local NGO, or BarCamp or TweetUp. Teach a class. Anything that tickles your fancy, will recharge you and change the world a little. You will bring all that and more back to your blog and writing. If you are like me, visiting the real world helps to stay married and seeing the kids before they get old enough to drive (away). And it will make you a whole lot more interesting.

Technorati Tags: ,,
Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Four Things Entrepreneurs Can Do (More of) to Win

In 45BC, Julius Caesar decreed the Julian Calendar. This formalized the then-new trend, that a calendar year begin in January—which for centuries before had started in March. Little did Caesar know that two millennia later, even with the minor modifications of the Gregorian calendar, the world at large would use this time to take stock.

With our own startup still finding its feet and so many good friends looking for jobs, I thought it might be appropriate to look at what entrepeneurs can do in 2009 to win. Even for those of you lucky enough to have a job, as Tom Peters said many years ago, you are the CEO of Me, Inc. and may want to check these out.

So here are 4 things that entrepreneurs need to do more of in 2009

[a] Give – as in contribute freely, your knowledge and at least some of your time. Start with your employees, who may be worried about the company, their own jobs and unclear how best to contribute. Share your learnings with peers in your trade organizations, with customers and prospects – be it in a blog, newsletter or a speech. At the very least, you will realize that you are not in half as bad a situation as many others are. Giving is not only psychically fulfilling but is an investment in your own future that makes just plain good business. And on any given day, giving need not take more time than a longish lunch break!

[b] Reach out – get out in the field, in front of prospects & customers every other day. This means you—not just your marketing or sales person. You can’t talk to customers too much (in a single meeting you can, but then you may never be called back!) The silver lining in a downturn is that customers have time to talk. So reach out. You can start by calling on all those folks you haven’t connected with, just this last year, and work all the way back to those you haven’t spoken to since high school! Remember you are not trying to sell, but to connect.

[c] Listen – having reached out, it is important to listen. You would be surprised at the insights that arise when we truly listen to our customers. Often customer themselves gain clarity when they talk and so many of our own assumptions get uncovered and prove to be baseless. Listening requires both preparation as well as asking clarifying questions. Only those of us who do this well will get invited back.

[d] Simplify – this is a great time to simplify everything about our business and jobs. Simplify your products, your collateral, your sales pitch, your internal systems, your website – you get the picture. Make it easier for people to find you, to understand what it is you do, why you do it better than anyone else and why buying from you and using your products is going to simplify your customers’ own life and work. Simple is not easy – simple is hard! So the sooner you start the better.

In a downturn it’s easy to batten down the hatches and focus on the numbers – which is important, but we are never going to dig ourselves out of a hole, let alone grow or thrive with just a defensive game. So it is important to stay the course with Giving, Reaching out, Listening & Simplifying (GRLS). While this sounds like a lot of work, it is not. GRLS require passion, planning and perseverance – but aren’t these the very reasons you got into business in the first place?

You might want to check out the following two articles for interesting takes on this topic.

3 Steps to Build Your Startup’s Brand

The Coca-Cola logo is an example of a widely-r...

If I had a dollar for every prospective employee who said he loves what he’s seen and heard at our company but his father/spouse/friends feel more comfortable if he joins ‘Giant Co Ltd’ next door, I’d be a rich man. And every one of those prospects was honest enough to admit that their father/spouse/friends felt far more comfortable with the safety, reputation and BRAND of ‘Giant Co Ltd’.

Brand, the very word seems to connote a variety of images. Advertisements, billboards and neon signs, models and Bollywood stars are what many people associate with the word. If you probe further, you may hear AirTel, Britannia, Disney, Coca-Cola and Pepsi or Sony and Samsung as companies that people think of as brands.

People in the trade, be it marketers or financiers, talk of brand equity, brand loyalty, and brand names. When you talk to entrepreneurs about brands and what it means to them, they, particularly those in the early stages of their business, admit that brand is important and something that they aspire to build one of these days. However, right now they have to run and take care of this cash flow matter or woo that key hire, so they will get back to it when they have more time and when it’s more appropriate!

So what is a brand and how much should entrepreneurs care about it? And when should they care about it? Doesn’t it cost a lot of money to build a brand? Is it a luxury for a struggling start-up? These are a few questions worth considering and answering even as you embark on your business.

Brands, simply put, are what people think they are. In other words, when people associate Amul with butter, Kissan with jam, Disney with TV (if you are an Indian child) or with Mickey (if you are a 40-year-old American) that is what those brands are. Beyond word association, they often denote something specific — what marketers such as Al Ries, co-author of Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind call the brand promise. For instance, among cars BMW promises performance, Mercedes luxury, Toyota reliability, and Volvo safety.

The key point that Al Ries has been making for the better part of three decades is that a brand’s positioning or promise is determined by how it is perceived by the consumer and not what you as the product or service’s maker believe or state it to be. In the simplest sense, as a start-up or an entrepreneur, if you comprehend and internalise this, you are already on the road to building a differentiated brand.

Know yourself

You have already persuaded some friends and a few former colleagues to join your start-up and are now trying to hire a few more key people. “I am quite happy where I am right now. I am not really looking for a change,” is what you’d usually hear from really good people, the kind you’d want to hire for your start-up. One of the key factors in their decision-making will be your brand and what it’s perceived as. At this stage, when you have just started or have not even become operational, it may seem counter-intuitive to talk about your ‘brand’ — don’t be fooled, the day you began dealing with people other than the founders, you began building your brand.

The reality is that your candidate is thinking about the pros and cons of staying at his present job and the alternative opportunities he may have elsewhere . In other words, he is positioning this opportunity against others and the moment he does that, he is associating a brand such as ‘risky’ or ‘unique opportunity’ or ‘great technology’ with your company. If you want to participate in this mental conversation and persuade him to indeed make the leap to your organisation, having clarity about your brand and what it connotes is critical.

The best way to build your brand is to have clarity — namely knowing yourself — as in what does your business stand for, what do you promise your employees, your customers, and other stakeholders. Once you have the clarity, state it and act on it each day. The day you open shop, your brand matters, and if you don’t state it and shape it yourself, the other guys will be they competitors or prospective employees and, most importantly, the spouses of your current employees.

Be yourself

As Anthony J. D’Angelo, creator of The Inspiration Book Series put it: “If you talk the talk, you damn well better walk the walk.” If you thought knowing yourself and stating it succinctly for others was hard, being yourself consistently is harder still. At this point, particularly in the context of start-ups and entrepreneurs, it’s worth pointing out that ‘brand’ is not something people associate with your product alone, but with your company and many times with your employees and you.

Southwest Airlines is one of the best examples of such brand value and perception permeating not merely the flights and on-board service, but also the founder and first CEO Herb Kelleher and all employees of Southwest from gate agents to in-flight staff be they pilots or cabin crew. So if your image is one of love and fun (as it is with Southwest), you had better exhibit it every day and everywhere.

Nearer home, the Tata brand as personified most recently in the Nano announcement or how Ratan Tata himself is perceived or how an entire earlier generation views the Tata Administrative Service, speaks of knowing and being oneself.

Just as it is a good idea to get a friend signed up when you embark on any new and often difficult activity (running three miles a day or yoga), walking your talk as an entrepreneur is easier if you get your team signed up. They are with you every day and will be (much like your spouse) the first to point out when you stray from the path of walking your talk. So if you make that guy who has come to interview with you wait interminably while you finish something, you are not walking your talk of “individuals matter” (if that is your position). Similarly, if you say “Ship it so that we can make the billing and we can fix it afterwards,” you are not walking the talk of “quality at affordable prices”. As any married person will vouch, telling the truth is always the less expensive option (regardless of near-term consequences). Similarly, being true to who you say you are as a business is the best way to building a brand. Who said it would be easy?

Sell yourself

Jack Stack, founder and CEO of Springfield ReManufacturing Corp (SRC) in his book A Stake in the Outcome states: “The company is the product.” For an entrepreneur and a start-up, there is no truer statement of their raison d’etre. It is easy to ascribe a brand or positioning to your products or services, but much harder to both conceive of and work on your company itself as the product. Great entrepreneurs, be it Dhirubhai Ambani or Richard Branson, have known this intuitively and Reliance and Virgin are a direct result of this ‘company is the product’ philosophy.

From day one, it is this vision of what your company is (or will be) that you need to sell, starting with your team all the way to your customers and their customers (the reason Intel advertises its products to consumers, who are its customers’ customers). Some of you may feel uncomfortable with the idea of ‘selling’, be it your products, your company or yourself. The lesson you need to draw from good sales people is that selling is less about talking and all about listening!

So listen to what the world is telling you and be consistent and true to yourself, and the brand will take care of itself.

This article was first published in the Business Line print edition dated September 8, 2008

Enhanced by Zemanta

Marketing for Success

Most people seem to have a reasonable idea of what engineering (design and build stuff), finance (manage the money) or sales (make money by selling stuff) do in a business. Marketing is another story altogether, being confused with sales in the best case or perceived as a money-sucking black hole in the worst. It is likely the most misunderstood part of doing business.

Marketers, in turn, are often perceived by other employees as spending the company’s money on flashy ads or on exhibitions and junkets that involve travel to resorts and fancy meals. The words ‘entertainment expenses’ seem to dance before their eyes when they think of marketing. While some or all of this may be part of marketing, they don’t make us a marketer any more than reading the business pages of a newspaper makes any of us a stockbroker.

So what is marketing and what are marketers supposed to do? And why should you care? Theodore Levitt, the American economist, in his seminal book The Marketing Imagination asserts that “marketing … view(s) the entire business process as consisting of a tightly integrated effort to discover, create, arouse and satisfy customer needs.”

He also makes the distinction: “Selling concerns itself with the tricks and techniques of getting people to exchange their cash for your product. It is not concerned with the values that the exchange is about.”

Even if entrepreneurs agree that marketing is important, they sabotage themselves in a number of ways stemming from not comprehending how best to go about it. The real or often perceived expense of marketing is the most common concern that cash-strapped start-ups have.

When company founders are technologists, there is a belief that superior technology or product performance sells itself. Marketing, I argue, is a critical function for entrepreneurial ventures. It is every employee’s job, starting with the CEO, and is too important to be left to the marketing department alone.

Discovering needs
The dictionary definition of the word discover is to “determine the existence, presence or fact of.” Discovering customer needs is rarely as simple as asking them — though that is always a good place to start. And it helps if you begin this even before you start building your product or service.

Once customers state a need or requirement, repeatedly asking the question ‘Why’ helps. When a mother states “I wish I had more time to exercise” or “I wish I could feed my children healthier food,” she may be talking about the lack of household help or her commute time or how much organic food costs. So understanding the core problem to be solved is important, and many a time the customers themselves may be unaware of it till they go through this multiple ‘Why’ questioning. Even when the desired outcome is clearly stated, such as “Increase the gross margins for our digital cameras” or “Shrink our order fulfilment time by 50 per cent and reduce mistakes to one part per million,” asking ‘Why’ ensures you are working on the right problem.

The first job of marketing is to discover the pain points for the target customers and define them as requirements. Once we have a well-defined set of questions (what and why), we can look for the answers (how).

The challenge for entrepreneurs or start-ups is that they usually get started due to a perceived gap in the marketplace such as “Buying tickets for inter-city bus travel should be easier than it is.” Being men (and women) of action, they immediately set out to solve this problem. Of course, once you have a part of or the whole solution and then get it out there in front of people, you find that your product or service is not exactly setting the world on fire. This is why discovery prior to product development is an important piece of your marketing success. In real life, you don’t do discovery only at the beginning, but iteratively at each stage of your product or service’s lifecycle.

Creating and arousing demand
The most mystifying aspect of entrepreneurship is that once you have built that better mousetrap, not only is the world not beating its way to your doorstep, it’s not even returning your calls when you try to tell them about your solution. As a good marketer you did your homework and discovered that people found buying inter-city bus tickets painful. So you developed your easy-to-use, Internet-based online bus ticket booking system and yet it’s greeted with a great yawn. Creating and arousing demand, what technically the marketers call demand creation, is a critical marketing step. In a previous article, I noted “Build and they will come” only works in films. It is for marketing to get customers to move from “I have a problem” to “This is a good solution to my problem,” where ideally “this” is your product or service.

Creating and arousing demand will require re-acquainting the customer with the learnings of the discovery phase. Tell your customers, “Adding GPS to your digital camera is a good way to differentiate yourself from the competition and it will allow you to hold your price and hence stop the decline in your gross margins.” This way you state the key problem they have, your solution for the same and how the solution works.

Satisfying the demand
The most dangerous stage (and cause of much teeth gnashing for marketers) is the transition from demand creation to fulfilment or satisfying the customer need. Having comprehended the customer’s needs in the discovery phase and evangelised your solution in the demand creation phase, if you don’t execute well in this last phase, your competition is likely to satisfy the customer and enjoy the fruits of your labour.

So having a clear plan to fulfil the demand you’ve created and executing it is key in this last stage of marketing.

Satisfying the demand created rarely ends with product delivery as this only highlights other unmet needs or even the gap between the expectations raised and the reality of your solution. Ensuring customer satisfaction through sustained support and a new iteration of discovery, creation and satisfying is needed. So don’t begrudge your poor marketing guy’s dinner expense — he’s on a tread mill, get on it and support him and sign that darn expense report!

This article first appeared in the Business Line print edition dated May 5, 2008.