Update Your Competitive Intelligence

At any point in the life of your business, it’s wise to update your competitive information. Depending on the type of enterprise that you operate, refreshing your competitive info can be as easy as taking a 30 minute walk around your neighborhood and making note of new businesses that are preparing to open. Reading local newspapers is also useful, since there is frequently mention of new stores and restaurants that are scheduled to open.

Your customers can be excellent sources of competitive information as well, in particular if your venture draws primarily from customers who live or work in the immediate neighborhood, and that’s another reason why you, business owner friend, want to develop good relationships with customers.

B2B service providers don’t have it so easy when it comes to obtaining vital or actionable competitive information, I’m afraid. The problem is, there’s often no way to know the identities of competitors. Everyone who offers services similar to what your organization offers, everyone who works with clients of a similar profile ($1 million or less in annual revenue, $1 million to $10 million in annual revenue, and so on) and everyone who submits a proposal for an assignment on which you’ve also bid is a competitor. It’s nebulous, to say the least, but nevertheless I encourage you to find ways to extract relevant competitive data from every available source.

Reading your industry and other business journals and joining a networking or skills development organization tailored to your specialty is probably the most effective way to confirm which services that clients you want to work with are requesting most often as well as the services they may request in the future.

It won’t hurt to create a more or less formal Competitive Analysis document (an Excel spreadsheet will work nicely) for your information, so that you can review and update as desired. In your Competitive Analysis spreadsheet you can identify your direct and indirect competitors and perhaps choose to focus on four or five, maximum. If you can learn enough to evaluate their strategies and determine their strengths and weaknesses in comparison to your business, so much the better, but it’s more likely that you’ll only be able to document the products and services they offer and check out their client lists. If you see ways that you can rename or repackage one or more of your own services in the hopes of making yourself more marketable, then by all means go for it.

Another compelling and potentially actionable reason to perform a Competitive Analysis is to enable yourself to evaluate what makes your products and services unique in ways that appeal to clients. It’s especially important for B2B service providers to articulate any distinct competitive advantages you have over the competitors you’ve identified.

Furthermore, you can refine your data and clarify the picture by grouping competitors according to how directly they compete against you. It may be helpful to ask yourself questions that will serve to further describe your competitors. These questions include:

1. Who are your top three direct competitors and how busy are they?
2. What services do competitors offer that you don’t and vice versa? What might that mean to clients?
3. Can you assess your competitors’ strengths and weaknesses?
4. In which media outlets do competitors advertise and how frequently do the ads run?
5. What other types of marketing do your top three direct competitors do?
6. What potential threats do your competitors pose to the marketing of your products or services?
7. Do you see additional opportunities for marketing your products and services, in terms of new customer groups, niche markets, or reconfigured service packages?

Pricing is also a big factor in competitive information and once again, B2B service providers are at a disadvantage when it comes to obtaining pricing information about competitors. However, there is a way to gain insight into the pricing of similar services in different parts of the country by checking out the bidding prices listed in the U.S. Government contracting system MOBIS. See “view catalogue” on the far right. Choose a company and click. Scroll through and find pricing info for that company.

MO
BIS

Thanks for reading,
Kim

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Newsletters, the Jewel in the Crown of Content Marketing

Email marketing remains a highly effective way to engage and connect with clients, prospects and referral sources.  Email marketing can take several forms and according to marketing experts, newsletters are the most effective format.  There are few content marketing tactics that do a better job of attracting, retaining and even winning back lapsed clients than a newsletter that contains well-presented, relevant information that arrives on a regular basis.

Whether readers discover your newsletter while browsing your website or it’s delivered to inboxes by an email marketing service, a newsletter (or blog) will build and enhance your brand, keep your business at top-of-mind, drive traffic to your website and encourage prospective clients and referral sources to learn more about your products and services.  Listed here are building blocks that will help you create a newsletter that will reflect well on your expertise, your business and your brand.

  1. Goals   The newsletter will be one component of your overall marketing /content marketing strategy.  Acknowledging that your newsletter is the cornerstone of your content marketing strategy and that your content marketing strategy plays a leading role in your overall marketing strategy will help you to identify appropriate goals and metrics that will monitor the success rate of your marketing activities. Consider how launching a newsletter will support your organization’s marketing goals.  Are you looking to generate leads and sales? Or are you attempting to establish yourself as a thought-leader and expert as a way to build trust and attract more prestigious clients, expand referrals, get a teaching appointment, or speaking engagements?
  2. Frequency   Decide what your schedule will allow you to do in terms of researching sources and publishing original content.  Be realistic about your time, because sticking to a predictable publishing rhythm will be important to your readers.  Choose as your publishing schedule a date (like the 1st, 15th, or 30th of the month) or a day (the 3rd Tuesday, for example).  A monthly newsletter will help you to build readership most efficiently, but a bi-monthly schedule might be OK.
  3. Template   Reinforce your visual brand and use the colors and graphic style elements used in your business cards and website also in your newsletter design.  An online search will bring you to numerous free newsletter templates and email marketing services will have templates as well.  Choose a template that you like and that will be easy to read.  Readers should be able to quickly scan topic headlines.  Make sure that your template will allow you to upload images as desired. Hubspot, the Cambridge, MA content marketing firm, in a recent survey found that 65% of email marketing readers prefer images to text when reading newsletters.  It’s also important to choose a template that will give sufficient “above the fold” space for you to create headlines that encourage readers to dive in. “Above the fold” is a newspaper industry term that describes the area above the fold in the newspaper.  In a digital newsletter, above the fold refers to what readers can see without scrolling.  Place your best headlines above the fold to reel in readers.
  4. Mobile friendly   A 2018 study by Adestra, a U.K.-based email marketing service, found that 59% of emails are first opened on mobile devices but according to Marketing Land, a digital publication whose target readers are marketing professionals, only 17% of marketers regularly send responsive emails.  Take the steps to format your newsletter in responsive design, so that it will be easy to read on a smart phone or tablet.
  5. Newsletter content   Create a newsletter that consistently delivers to readers  information that they are likely to find interesting and useful.  There are those whose idea of a newsletter consists of links to articles that have appeared in industry journals, sometimes accompanied by a personally written prelude.  That’s probably OK to do two or three times a year, but I highly recommend that you research a topic or two and write 800 – 1500 words of original content.  Your newsletter does not have to exceed two pages, including photos or short videos.
  6. Subscriber base   Your mission will be to capture as many email addresses as ethical behavior allows (no spamming please!).  Take a passive approach and make it possible for readers to subscribe on your website.  Take an active approach and initiate a business card exchange as you meet people in your travels.  Mention that you have a newsletter that covers a particular topic and ask if they’d like to receive it.  If the answer is yes, then you’ll add a new name to your list.  Include an unsubscribe feature in your newsletter template.  Check the statistics of your newsletter, in particular the bounce rate and open rate.  Correct or remove bad email addresses, to keep the list clean and your statistics accurate.  According to Mailchimp, the average newsletter open rate is 20%.  However, when you publish a newsletter that consists of original content that readers value, the open rate can be much higher.  From 2012 – 2016, I was the principal author of a women’s club newsletter (I am still a member) and the open rate approached 70%.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Bob Bernstein (l) and Carl Woodward at The Washington Post in May 1973. The two won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1973 for their reporting on the Watergate story.  ©Associated Press

Freelance Projects: Cover Legal Bases and Manage Expectations

The number of Freelance professionals working in the U.S. continues to increase. According to a 2017 survey jointly conducted by Upwork, the online marketplace that connects prospective employers with Freelance professionals in search of project work and The Freelancers Union, a not-for-profit organization that provides advocacy and health insurance to Freelance workers, 36% of the U.S. labor force derives at least some portion of annual income from Freelance work assignments.  The survey authors predict that by 2024, the percentage of Freelance workers in the U.S. will grow to include 50% of adults employed full-time.

1099 or W2?

If your organization plans to increase staffing, make it a priority to understand worker classification rules.  The Internal Revenue Service and state Departments of Revenue are watching and you don’t want to run afoul of the law.  There are three factors that help employers determine whether their staffing plan points to hiring a Freelance contract worker who will receive a 1099 form in January, or a part-time or full-time employee who will receive a W2 form in January.  If the answer to one or more of the questions below is yes, your new hire would be classified as a Freelance contractor.

1. Is there an expectation that the worker has the right to simultaneously provide  similar services for other organizations?

  • Does the worker have a business website and/or social media accounts
  • Does the worker have a business bank account
  • Does the worker have his/her own business cards and other marketing materials
  • Did the worker form a legal entity for his/her business (LLC or corporation)
  • Can the worker choose when and where the work is performed

2. Does the worker use his/her own equipment and office supplies when at work?

3. Must the worker invoice your organization to receive payment for services rendered?

Project specs in writing

Whether expressed in a formal contract or in an email, a smart Freelancer will commit to writing all duties that a client requests.  The project deadline, milestones and total fee should also be included.

Copyright exception

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, the general rule is that the person who creates a work is its legal author and owner.  The exception to that rule is “work made for hire,” i.e., a creative project or work assignment that is specially commissioned by the hiring company and produced by a non-employee.  When project work qualifies as a work made for hire the commissioning party, i.e. the company, is considered to be the work’s author and legal owner.

It’s worthwhile to include in any Freelance work contract a clause that describes the work produced for the company by the Freelancer as work made for hire, to make clear the ownership of any text, body of work, or images produced by the Freelancer.

Project payment schedule

The client and the Freelancer will discuss and agree to the project fee and its format, whether flat fee or hourly rate.  Especially in a flat fee agreement, clients are often asked to pay the Freelancer some portion of the fee in advance of beginning the project work.  When that advance is paid, it is expected that the Freelancer will immediately begin the project work.

Interim payments may be tied to the achievement of agreed-upon project milestones, or to an agreed-upon timetable.  Final payment is made at the conclusion of the project, typically within 30 days of completion.

The Freelancer should specify if credit card payments are accepted, or if checks are preferred.  How the check should be made out must be specified and tax ID information must be provided when the amount of the project will reach or exceed $600, per IRS rules.

To sum up, the Freelancer will draw up a contract that will include all important points of the work agreement. Ideally, the contract that will be signed by employer and Freelancer and each will retain a copy (but an email will suffice in most cases). 

  • Duties for which the Freelancer will be responsible
  • Project milestones
  • Project deadline
  • Work made for hire agreement
  • Project fee total amount and the payment schedule

The employer will send to the Freelancer a W9 form, which will provide the information necessary to create the 1099–MISC form that is required when payments to the Freelancer will reach or exceed $600 in a given year.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Perry Mason (CBS-TV Season 1, Episode 9, November 16, 1957) l-r Raymond Burr (Attorney Perry Mason), Pierre Watkin (Judge Keetley), Carol Leigh (Veronica Dale)