7 Great Tools Small Businesses MUST Use

Most small businesses have nimble bare bones teams that get an astonishing amount of work done every single day. They are used to stretching a bit more, staying at work a bit longer and (usually) putting in a lot more effort than teams in large organizations.

However, working (or running!) a small business does not have to be so punishing. With technology by your side, there are tons of everyday business activities that you can and MUST automate to achieve greater efficiencies. Who knows, with all the spare time that these tools will give you, you might just start a new line of business!

So here goes.

1. Google Analytics

Every business, big or small has their own website today. If you have a website, you cannot NOT have Google Analytics or GA as it is “fondly” called by long time users. According to Builtwith, 66.2% of the top 10,000 sites in the world use Google Analytics.

Google Analytics is the eyes and ears of your website. It tracks in minute detail what people are doing on your site, which pages they land on initially, which pages do they leave from, which parts of the world do they come from, what time of day and so on.

This virtual gatekeeper, is a necessary resource as it tells you whether your site is attracting traffic, is the traffic growing, whether that traffic is converting into sales and where the leaks are.

Key Features

  • Basic as well as advanced site analytics – track traffic, sources of traffic, keywords being used to arrive at your site, navigation patterns and more.
  • Create goals and track them for conversions. Conversions could be sales, registration on your site, downloading data, sharing content to social media etc.
  • Create and share tailor-made reports and dashboards. You have the option of saving these dashboards and running them on a regular basis.
  • Track the effectiveness of your marketing campaigns by identifying the sources from where conversions happened.
  • GA can be integrated with other tools. Google Analytics works well with other sales and marketing automation tools. It can be linked to your marketing campaigns, CRM software, your social media pages, your Email Marketing Software and so on.
  • Multiple users can access GA simultaneously. Every member of your marketing team can stay hands on with the latest numbers using Google Analytics.

Costs

Google Analytics is completely free. There is a paid upgrade available, but for the vast majority of users, the free version is more than enough.

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2. Optimizely

While Google Analytics gives you data about what people do on your site, Optimizely lets you test how they would behave differently if certain elements on your site were rearranged, modified or dropped altogether.

Optimizely is one of the most easy to use website optimization tools out there, which allows you to test each web element on your site and see which iteration of your web design works best for overall conversions.

Key Features

  • A complete testing suite comes with Optimizely. Test your website in every possible way, ranging from A/B Tests, Multivariate tests, Split tests and more.
  • It is extremely easy to install – no downloads, no 3 day implementation process during which your site is out of commission. A simple line of JavaScript is all that needs to be included on the pages that need to be tested and voila, you’re all set!
  • It can be easily integrated with website analytics tools like Google Analytics, Site Catalyst or KISSmetrics.
  • Modify Optimizely based on your requirements. Unlike a number of other closed box software options, Optimizely allows you to tweak its code any way you want to match your business requirements.
  • Take website modifications live instantly using Optimizely. When you zero in on the best version of your site by testing it using Optimizely, you can take the winning version live right away to 100% of your site visitors. Your developers can take their time to convert the site into the desired version while Optimizely takes care of the live traffic on the chosen version of your site in the meanwhile.

Costs

Optimizely is a paid service with a range of plans available. The cheapest plan starts at $14 per month and can go on to $299 per month for fully customized enterprise edition versions.

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Choose Your Experiment Type

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Preview Mode

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Diagnostic Report

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3. MailChimp

The one marketing tool EVERY small business needs to embrace is email marketing.

Email has many things going for it – it’s cheap, allows you to send out communications when you want, to the exact individuals you want at the best ROI available today.

“Email marketing delivers $67 of revenue for every $1.7 spent.” ~ Direct Marketing Association

You need automated tools that can send emails to thousands of customers at one go and manage your email communication for you. Enter MailChimp. MailChimp is an end to end email marketing suite that allows you to design, test, send out and monitor email campaigns to your subscribers.

Key Features

  • MailChimp is a web based tool – no downloads, no plug-ins. Just log into your account from anywhere on the internet and get going.
  • It allows you to design and test your emails before send out. Use the free templates that MailChimp offers or use your own. Send out test emails to check for content, design or coding errors before the actual send out.
  • Test various elements of the email – subject line, send time, design and layout – on test audiences. This will allow you to pick the best options to get optimal results before sending out the emails to the entire subscriber base.
  • Schedule email send times in advance. This allows email marketing to continue as per schedule, whether or not you are in the office to hit ‘send’.
  • MailChimp goes beyond marketing emails. You can also send out transactional emails, auto responder emails or triggered emails based on customer behavior using MailChimp.
  • Maintain multiple email databases on MailChimp. This is useful if you have different sub brands that have mutually exclusive audiences. It is also useful when you split your original database into different customer segments based on their needs and user behavior.
  • MailChimp equips you with top of the line email analyticsopen rate, click rates, bounces and more. It also links up with your website analytics tools like Google Analytics or SiteCatalyst to track how the users who click through from your emails to your website behave. This helps in tracking conversions from your email campaigns more efficiently.

Costs

MailChimp has a free account that works great for most small businesses without the need for an upgrade to a paid version. The free account allows you to reach out to a maximum of 2000 subscribers and send out a total of 12,000 emails per month.

Once you exceed these limits, you can opt for paid plans that begin at $10 per month and get more expensive as your subscriber base grows larger.

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Dashboard

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Lists

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Template editor

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4. QuickBooks

Managing finances is not always an entrepreneur’s forte. Book keeping, taxation, payroll are all fields requiring specialized training and dedicated teams to manage them.

This is not necessarily true with tools like Quickbooks. Quickbooks is an extremely user friendly accounting software designed for small businesses that allows novices to manage complex accounting, invoicing and payment functions with ease.

Key Features

  • Generate and send invoices to clients using Quickbooks’ automated tool. Invoices are archived in Quickbooks for future reference and auditing needs.
  • Elegant dashboards that give you a single screen look at the financial health of your business. Income, expenses, profit or loss – all get captured and displayed in one shot.
  • Get instant alerts on important activities like overdue payments, invoices, or tax returns.
  • Receipts can be scanned and their data will be automatically captured by Quickbooks. No more manual entries of your utility or internet receipts.
  • Generate and send invoices to your clients. Pick from any of the available templates or make your own.
  • Manage payroll and reimbursements. Tax calculation and deductions are taken care of automatically.
  • Sync your company’s bank accounts with the rest of your financial data to make payments faster and frictionless.

Costs

The most basic version of Quickbooks is available at $12.95 per month while the more feature rich versions cost $26.95 or $39.95 per month. You can take Quickbooks for a test run with a free 30 day trial period.

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Main Dashboard

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Sync Your Bank Accounts

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Invoice Creation

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5. Concur

Every small business owner knows the woes of keeping travel, official entertainment, telephone bills and other such expenses under control. There is invariably a bunch of missing receipts, tickets or authorizations that will surface at the end of the financial year, throwing your accounting into disarray.

Concur takes care of this vital but oft overlooked area of expense management. It manages reimbursements, authorizations and payments to employees for expenses made for official purposes.

Key Features

  • An easy to use UI that allows employees to enter their expenses in minutes and create their own expense reports. It also stores expense reports on its system for each employee, making it easy to retrieve records at a later date.
  • Set expense limits for individual employees or for different employee levels.
  • Create travel itineraries and book your travel on Concur and expenses get authorized automatically using the employee’s authorized expense limit.
  • Click a picture of receipts, tickets etc and upload them into Concur and it’ll pull out information from scanned receipts automatically. No more manual entry of expenses with paper receipts.
  • Mobile app that allows your sales teams to book travel, report and get authorization for expenses made ‘on the road’ instantly. The Concur app shows travel itinerary details, directions to your hotel and maps integration so you’ll never be lost on your business trips.

Costs
Concur has versions for every size of organization. A small business can go with their starter small business version that comes at $8 per user per month. The costs involved go up with the number of users, the number of reports the company generates per month and the features that you choose to include in your version of Concur.

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Creating Expense Reports

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Track and review past expenses

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Maps integration with directions to your hotel, airport, train station etc.

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6. Tableau

Every business needs to crunch the key numbers – production, sales, shipments, orders received and so on to see where it stands today and to chart a course of action for the future. Arriving at successful corporate strategy requires the right type of business intelligence and data that will help you make the right decisions at the right time.

Tableau is a beautifully designed, comprehensive, yet easy-to-use business intelligence tool. With its reporting and corporate strategy features, it can give your small business an edge over the competition. Visualize and control key data about your business, identify opportunities and take decisions that get captured into the tool in real time using Tableau.

Key Features

  • Drag and drop various data sets into a single screen to create your own tables and analysis. The dashboards you’ll create are interactive and ‘speak to you’ even as you move data around from one column to another.
  • Pick from a variety of visualization and charting options that offer a birds-eye view or granular details depending on your decision making needs.
  • Unlike most business intelligence tools in the market, Tableau is extremely fast. Every query dives into hundreds of millions of data records and retrieves the data you need in seconds, making the user experience extremely smooth and quick.
  • It can be supported on individual desktops, on company servers or even the cloud depending on your preferences.
  • Sharing data is super easy with Tableau Server. You can publish your charts, graphs and insights on the internet in minutes and your team can access this information anywhere in the world.

Costs

Tableau is a paid tool, but unlike most other tools, it offers a free trial of its full-fledged platform to give you a taste of its real capabilities.

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Opportunity Dashboard

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Sales Performance

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Shipping KPIs

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7. Basecamp

If you don’t use a collaboration tool to work together with the various teams in your organization, do it now! Basecamp is a wildly popular collaboration and project management tool that lets cross functional teams work together on a project simultaneously.

Key Features

  • Create multiple projects and record them all in one place. Basecamp allows you to send messages to your project team, share data and upload files with them in real time. No more missing documentation or last minute scurrying about for lost data.
  • Assign roles to team members using Basecamp. Allow various members to contribute to projects based on the levels of permissions that you can control at your end only.
  • Create project schedules and manage timelines. Track the progress of each project using Basecamp – a one stop shop for your project management needs.

Costs

Basecamp has double the usual trial period – it gives you 60 days to play around with it before you put down your money. Plans depend on the number of projects you’ll manage and the amount of storage space you’ll use. Starting from $20 for 10 projects and 3 GB of storage space, plans become progressively more expensive as the number of your projects and storage requirements grow.

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Manage multiple projects

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Scheduling

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Collaboration

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What Next?

Tools are available for the asking. Even as you wonder which tool would make most sense for your business, somebody somewhere is busy working on the next big challenger to Plain Jane MS Excel.

Evaluate your current business position and take each of the tools listed here for a test drive. Start using the ones that you find the easiest to use and the most important given your stage of business. Once you get comfortable with a handful, move on to the rest and try and incorporate every one of these into your business. It’s not going to be easy. But the business of being in business was never easy to begin with, right?

Image Source: 1

 

How to use images to improve customer engagement

Hand pointing at online streaming of imagesThe use of visual imagery is becoming an increasingly important part of online communication. The meteoritic growth  in social networking sites like Pinterest and Instagram illustrates just how significant images have become in increasing engagement and interaction amongst consumers.

Indeed, research shows that articles containing an image have, on average, 94% more total views  than articles without an image, indicating the power of a good image.

Psychologically, consumers love imagery, and seeing visually appealing things creates positive emotions. Most people — between 65 and 85 percent — also describe themselves as ‘visual learners,’ forming meaning and organizing thoughts based on what they see more so than what they read.” Trend Reports

According to Forbes, image-centric marketing will be one of the top online marketing trends for 2014. Therefore, understanding the potential benefits of images and using them effectively on your website and in your marketing can increase engagement and interaction amongst your customers. Images can help:

  • Grab people’s attention
  • Convey meaning quickly
  • evoke emotions
  • Illustrate a point
  • Make text-based articles more visually appealing by breaking up reams of text
  • Convey complex information in an easily digestible format (think infographics)
  • Showcase a product effectively online.

How to make the most of images online

Your website

The use of visual imagery on your website is essential. Not only are images valuable in terms of SEO, they are central in terms of engaging customers. Nobody is going to find a solely text-based website enticing. Using photos, illustrations, graphics, icons, infographics and videos are all great ways to improve the content of your website and as a result, increase its appeal to customers.

Your product pages are a key area to focus on, since images are one of the most important elements in a customer’s decision-making process. So, ensure you are using high-definition images and spend time thinking about how to showcase your products to their full advantage. Research shows:

  •  67% of consumers say that the quality of the image is very important when they are purchasing a product.
  • 63% of consumers  saying a good image is even more important than product specific information.

social media like imageSocial Media

Social media and images go hand-in hand, just look at the phenomenal success of Pinterest in recent years. Think about how you can use images to enhance your presence on all your social media sites.  For example,  when you are posting an update on Facebook, always  include an appropriate image, be it an update about a new product, service, staff change, industry news, special promotion or competition. Including an image will make it far more likely for your update to capture people’s attention and in turn generate more likes and comments.

Blogs

Putting an image right at the beginning of your blog post is a great way to pull readers in. A relevant  image can help readers understand what your post is about, help illustrate a point and stir-up an emotional response. Images are also a great way to break up text if you have a long blog. And don’t forget, images can also be used when you promote your blog post on your social media sites and in your email newsletters.

Infographics also work really well in blog posts. They’ve grown in popularity over recent years as they present statistics and research in an interesting, relevant and engaging way.

Email and Online Press Releases

People tend to skim through emails and online press releases, picking out the salient points. Therefore, using images is a great way to help you get your message across quickly, break up text and create engagement at the same time.

You Tube on ipadVideo marketing

And finally, don’t forget the moving image. Using video  is a great way to boost your search engine rankings (search engines love video).  It’s format is engaging and it is a great tool to use  if you need to educate or explain something to your customers – think product demonstrations and video tutorials. Just remember to put it up on YouTube as well as on your website.

What makes for a good image

Where possible try to avoid using staged business photos as you are more likely to capture people’s attention and get an emotional response by using real people, real-life situations, humour, interesting visuals or stunning photography. Take a look at which boards get the most re-pins on  Pinterest  and you’ll get a real feel for the type of images that really work.

Make sure you  add Alt Text to your images. This is essentially a concise and accurate description of the image and is used as alternative text when the image can not be displayed. This is important as:

  1.  it makes the image accessible to all users, including those that are visually impaired as screen readers can read the alternative text provided
  2.  it one of the factors that can help improve your SEO performance.

Sourcing images

There are plenty of low-cost  and free images available on the web, but if you are not using your own photos or images then you must be careful about copyright and get permission from the author. Look for royalty free stock images that are for commercial use. I’ve listed a few of the low-cost and free websites we use for images and they’ll  tell you whether an image requires an author credit or not.

FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Stock.XCHNG

Dreamstime

We’d love to hear your thoughts on this post, so please do leave a comment

Image streaming image courtesy of  nokhoog_buchacon at FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

Like button image courtesy of tungphoto at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

YouTube on Tablet image courtesy of Winnond at Freedigitalphotos.net

How to save your website from shopping cart abandonment

Guest Author: Jessica Kornfeind

Jessica Kornfeind is the Social Media Specialist at Ripen eCommerce, which has provided comprehensive eCommerce solutions for clients since 2004. Working in close partnership with online businesses, Ripen’s eCommerce web development, marketing, creative and technology teams build intuitive user experiences that boost online sales.

shopping cart on computer keyboardSave your online business from shopping cart abandonment

An endless problem for eCommerce companies is the fight against abandoned online shopping carts.  Your customers are showing a genuine interest in your company by taking the time to choose items or services and placing them in their cart.

Even then, about 67% of customers are still leaving without making a purchase. What can you do to prevent buyers from leaving your online store empty handed?

It’s time to evaluate the order and checkout process of your site.  With a few simple tweaks you may see a drastic reduction in the amount of potential sales left in online shopping carts.

Let’s dive in and finally solve the problem of abandoned eCommerce carts:

shopping cart abandonment infographic

 Infographic created by Ripen eCommerce

Shopping cart keyboard button image courtesy of Stuart Miles at freedigitalphotos.net

We’d love to hear your experiences and thoughts on this post, so please do leave a comment

Small business guide to marketing planning : part 1

marketing plan conceptWelcome to 2014. It’s the start of a brand new year and now is the time to start planning your marketing activity for the year ahead.  

We realise it’s not always easy to discipline yourself to put time aside for planning. Small business owners often have to juggle multiple roles, and planning can feel like it’s just one more thing to add to the bottom of a long of list of priorities – and before you know it you’re already halfway through the year. However, we firmly believe that putting some time aside now to plan your small business marketing strategy for the year ahead is well and truly worth the time and effort you put in.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be looking at each of the elements that make up a successful marketing plan in more detail. First though we’ll look at why creating a marketing plan is so important for SME’s.

Why a usable marketing plan is so important for small businesses

Spending time planning your year ahead will actually help you focus on the areas that will help drive your business forward. By the end of the process you should have a relevant, useful working document that you can refer to time and time again over the course of the year. A good marketing plan will:

  • give your business direction through creating clear goals and objectives
  • help you to better understand your customers, online environment and competitors
  • help you put your resources and budget in the right places
  • provide a marketing strategy and plan of action for the year ahead
  • give you benchmarks by which to measure your performance.

How to write a marketing plan

How formal and structured you maker your marketing plan is  up to you. It  will depend on your business and the time and resources you have available. However at the very least you should consider and each of the areas we’ve outlined below as they’ll help you formulate your strategy and marketing activity for the coming year.

There are plenty of useful marketing planning models – marketers all  have their own particular favourites. In this post we’ll be using SOSTAC as it is a simple, useable framework to structure your plan around.  The SOSTAC model was created by Paul Smith in the 1990’s and is still one of the most widely used and popular models for marketing planning.

SOSTAC marketing planning model:

Situation Analysis – where are we now?  This is where you review your current environment to give you a better idea of where your business currently stands – what the current opportunities and threats are.  Situation analysis involves undertaking some marketplace, customer and competitor analysis enabling you to gain a better insight into your current situation and help you focus on where you want to be.

Objectiveswhere do we want to be? Setting clearly defined goals and SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely) objectives will enable you to focus your marketing strategy to support your overall business strategy and business objectives. For example, if growing your online sales by x% is one of your business objectives this year then a key marketing objectives is likely to focusing on increasing traffic to your website.

Strategyhow do we get there? Your marketing  strategy essentially defines how you will achieve the marketing objectives you have set out. For example how you will position yourself in the market place and differentiate yourself from your competitors, and how you will segment and target your market.

Tactics exactly how do we get there? Tactics are simply the tools you use to achieve your objectives and support your marketing strategy. Tactics are essentially based around the 7ps of the marketing mix (product, promotion, price, place, people, process and physical)

ActionsWhat is our plan? Actions are the specific details of the tactics you have decided upon –  essentially who, when and how you intend to implement them. This often involves putting together of schedule of actions, budgets, timeframes and responsibilities.

Controlmeasuring success?  Control is how you intend to monitor the performance and evaluate the effectiveness of your marketing, using measurements like web analytics, customer feedback, sales, conversion rates and so on.

We’ll be looking at each of these elements in more depth over the coming few weeks so by the end of the process you should be able to create a useful marketing plan that supports your overall business objectives and gives direction to your marketing activity over the coming year.

Marketing Plan Book image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
 

We’d love to hear your experiences and thoughts on this post, so please do leave a comment

Online objectives – drive traffic, generate new customers,  retain existing customers,

Marketing for small business: Getting started with Pinterest

The Pinterest PhenomenonPinterest logo

For the last year or two, this social media phenomenon has been the buzz word on every marketer’s lips. It is already massive in the US and looks like set to take the UK and Europe by storm as well. So as a small business what does Pinterest mean for you? Should you be including it in your social media portfolio?

Impressive Pinterest Statistics

There is no doubt that Pinterest has seen meteoric growth since it launched in 2009. Here are a few statistics to give you a feel for the sort of growth it has experienced in the US  – a trend we are likely to see replicated in the UK:

Push pinSo what is Pinterest all about?

“Pinterest helps people collect and organize the things they love” Pinterest

The easiest way to think about Pinterest is as a sort of social media pin board or scrapbook.  People share their interests by ‘pinning’ them to ‘boards’. It is a social media platform with a strong emphasis on the visual and people connect to each other through feeds and by following boards that has content they find interesting.

Pinterest explains the ‘Pin Cycle’ as follows:

Pin

For example, lets say an unusual piece of jewellery on a website catches the eye of someone on Pinterest. The pinner pins the image onto their ‘unique accessories’ board

Repin

A follower of the pinner likes the pin and repins the jewellery onto their ‘stylish jewellery’ board.

 Discovery

Someone browsing their feed or searching for ‘stylish jewellery’ or ‘unique accessories’ will find the pin for the unusual piece of jewellery

Click through

As more people discover and repin, the more people click-through to the source of the pin – the original website

Benefits for small businesses

As we mentioned at the start of this post, statistics indicate that Pinterest is growing and is likely to be here to stay as a social media platform, so there is value to getting on-board. If you are concerned about time and resources, then perhaps a good starting point is to think about how easily you business lends itself to Pinterest.

If  you are in retail – particularly B2C you’ll probably find Pinterest is an easy step to make without too much effort. B2B can work well but it may require a little more creative thinking at the start. For example, if you are already generating content in the form of say a blog or video then these can work really well. In fact here at ShopIntegrator our first board was our Small Business Blog as it was an easy first step into Pinterest for us.

If you are able to commit some time to Pinterest then it offers an additional opportunity to engage with and learn about your customers. It also provides a good way to help build your brand and develop your brand’s personality.

A few useful tips for getting started

1. Get a feel for Pinterest

Before you dive in setting up your own presence, spend a bit of time getting a feel for how Pinterest works. What are other businesses doing? This way you’ll get an idea for what works and what makes a  pin popular (how many times a pin has been re-pinned is a good measure of popularity). Check out  your competitors and those businesses in a similar market that are popular and have a good following. Pinterest also has some interesting  case studies that are worth looking at for some inspiration.

2. Think about your target market

You should be thinking about your target market when you start creating your presence.  What are your customers likely to be interested in? If you sell kitchenware for example, you’d expect your audience to be interested in cooking and food so your pins could include recipes, seasonal produce and new food trends. Make yourself a bit of an expert in the areas associated with your industry or market. Look at your customers own pinboards – what are they pinning and who are they following. This will give you an insight into what it is your target market is likely to value and find interesting.

3. Create and organise boards

Once you have got a feel for who it is you are pinning and creating boards for, you can get started on generating ideas. There are all sorts of popular boards that you can create in addition to product boards. Here are some popular boards that could help get you started: client showcase boards (showcase your customers latest products), fan boards (customers can pin images to a board that show your brand off in real life environments) employee recommendation boards (get your employees to set up their own boards perhaps with employee recommendations or top tips)  how to boards (give your customers ideas and tips for using and getting the most out of your products), blog boards, seasonal boards and contest boards. Pinterest is a great way to get creative.

4. Follow other boards and repin

Like any social media Pinterest is all about interacting and engaging with the community – your customers. So, to make the most out of your presence be active – follow other people’s boards, repin, like and comment on pins that relate to your business area.

5. Promote your Pinterest presence

Promote your Pinterest presence on your website and emails by adding the Pinterest button. Don’t forget you can also use your other social media to help promote your boards.

Useful resources from Pinterest

The great thing about getting started with Pinterest is that it is all pretty straightforward to set up and use – we’ve put some useful support links from Pinterest below that will help you make the most of your Pinterest presence:

Pinterest Set up: http://uk.business.pinterest.com/setup/

Guides: Pinterest guide for Business http://business.pinterest.com/best-practices/

Useful Tools: Pinterest analytics, Pin It Button, rich text pins http://uk.business.pinterest.com/rich-pins/

Pinterest Business Blog:  http://businessblog.pinterest.com/

Happy pinning!

Image: Single pin image courtesy of  Master isolated images, freedigitalphotos.net
 

We would love to hear your own experiences and thoughts on this post, so please do leave a comment

Monster mistakes small businesses need to avoid

Frankenstein's monster

Monster Mistakes Small Businesses Should Avoid

Running a successful business is exciting, challenging and can be hugely rewarding. But a sad fact is that a high proportion of SME’s fail within their first few years, many from mistakes that could easily have been avoided.

All businesses are different and there is no one magic formula that will determine whether a business fails or succeeds.  However, avoiding some of the common mistakes made by small businesses and start-ups could make all the difference to long-term success and profitability.

Six common mistakes small businesses make

1. Lack of research

Launching a new business without undertaking  adequate market research is a surprisingly common mistake new businesses make. Often enthusiasm, coupled with a resolute belief in the viability of a particular product or service can mean the important area of research is overlooked. However, before you embark on any business venture it is essential that you have fully researched your market, your customers and your competitors. You must be able to answer questions like; where does your product or service fit into the current market? Who are your target market and what needs do they have? Who are your competitors and what are their strategies? You cannot make informed business decisions without a solid understanding of your market and insight into your customers and competitors.

2. Poor planning

It may not always be everybody’s favourite area of business management, but I can’t stress the importance of proper planning enough. Every business should have at the very minimum a business plan, financial plan and marketing plan. You cannot successfully move your business forward without proper planning in each of these key areas. There are plenty of free resources available (I’ve listed some below) that provide guides on how to put together useful and relevant planning documents for your business.

3. No clear goals

A number of SME’S find themselves floundering because they don’t really have a long-term goal for their business. Every business needs to have a clear vision of what they are working towards and what it is they want to achieve. Without this your business is likely to lack the direction it needs to enable it to move forward. Setting realistic long, medium and short-term goals and objectives will help you focus your precious time and effort into the important areas of the business. Of course goals and objectives are only useful if they  are realistic. So when setting them use the SMART acronym and make sure they are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely.

4. Poor understanding of finance and how it works

Many successful and profitable businesses have failed because they haven’t fully understood the financial elements of their business. You need to be able to manage and monitor business finance closely as it is all too easy lose track of where you are financially. Getting to grips with the monetary aspects of your business such as cash flow, contingency planning, budgeting, forecasting, invoicing and tax is essential. Either spend time learning about these elements yourself or call in some expert help. Either way finance not an area to be left to chance.

5. Overlooking marketing

Ignore marketing at your peril. A surprising number businesses make the mistake of assuming that their product is so amazing that it will sell itself and customers will simply come to them. Unfortunately that’s not how it works. You need to raise the visibility of your business in order to drive traffic and sales.  It is essential that you put time and resources into marketing strategy, planning and implementation. No matter how small your budget, with time and planning there are plenty of low-cost inbound marketing tactics you can undertake to help drive traffic and increase sales. Have a read of the attached blog from SmartInsights for a few helpful tips to get you started. http://www.smartinsights.com/digital-marketing-platforms/business-blogging/inbound-marketing-small-businesses-and-start-ups/

6. Trying to wear too many hats

As a small business owner it is tempting to try to do everything yourself which means you can end up putting all your time energy into areas that don’t warrant it. Don’t be afraid to outsource where you can. That way you can actually focus on the business  areas that you need to in order to move your business forward, rather than being bogged down in issues that someone else could quite easily manage.

Useful resources

There are plenty of free resources out there that can help you get started and equipped with the knowledge you need to avoid some of the common pitfalls that we’ve outlined above.

http://www.gov.uk/starting-up-a-business

http://www.gov.uk/business-finance-explained

http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/startingup/index.htm

http://www.smallbusiness.co.uk/starting-a-business/small-business-advice/2388358/planning-for-your-first-year-in-business.thtml

http://www.startupdonut.co.uk

http://www.smallbusiness.co.uk

We’d really love to hear your thoughts on this post, so please do leave a comment.

Advantages an Online Store Brings to Brick-and-Mortar Businesses

Guest Author: Gina Smith
 

Gina Smith writes freelance articles for magazines, online outlets and publications on behalf of a number of companies, including Global Response.  Smith covers the latest topics in the business, golf, tourism, technology and entertainment industries.

Online shopping Smartphone with ProductsMany brick-and-mortar businesses struggle with whether or not they should incorporate an online store.  This is an especially conflicting proposition for businesses that have been operating for several years.  Some business owners are simply just comfortable with their walk-in customer base. They have established a loyal following and prefer to remain status quo.  While this may work for awhile, it is not a sound long term strategy.

Change is scary, and not too many of us enjoy it.  However, for a business to keep moving forward, they must embrace change and be willing to incorporate new strategies into their marketing mix.  Whether we want to accept it or not, in today’s society, the Internet is king.  If you don’t have an online presence, sooner or later you will be isolating a portion of your customer base.  Let’s examine some advantages an online store brings to brick-and-mortar businesses. 

Computer Mouse wrapped around globeYou’re Now Global

A website can transform a local business into a global enterprise.  People from literally anywhere in the world now have access to your store and products.  This is especially beneficial for boutiques and specialty shops who carry hard to find products, handmade items or local artwork.  For example, when my husband is in need of a rare part or fixture, he visits the online store for a local hardware store he use to shop at when we lived in another state.  They always carried items he had difficulty finding.  Even though we now live hundreds of miles away, he is still one of their best customers! 

Clock, 24 hours, 7 days a weekOpen 24/7

An online store allows customers to shop 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.  This is especially convenient for people who work restrictive hours which prevent them from coming to the store during regular business hours.  Then, there are others who prefer to shop or browse from the convenience of their own home.

Seasonal Customers Can Make Purchases Year Round

I see this all the time living in Florida.  Business tends to be slower during warmer months, then picks up during the winter.  This is primarily because of the growing population of people who spend summer up north and head to their second homes in the south when the cool weather starts to set in.  Establishing an online store means customers have access to your products, whether they are “in town” or not.  I frequently visit the North Carolina mountains and can always count on discovering a new, unique shop with interesting and eclectic merchandise.  Those who have websites generally earn my business year round because I have ready access to them all the time.  I even share my favorites with my friends and promote them across social sites.  One customer armed with your online store can generate an impressive amount of residual business!

So, while taking the step incorporate an online store can be intimidating, it is very manageable and can open up new opportunities. Browse the Internet to get an idea of the types of online stores out there. Once you know what general style you like and function(s) you want, a qualified website design and marketing professional can help develop the best option for your business.  Be sure to do your research and choose a firm with a good track record and excellent references.  There are even some website design and marketing companies who specialize in small business, offering customized services at affordable prices.  Good luck!

We’d really love to hear your thoughts on this post, so please do leave a comment.

Images Courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.Net: Smartphone and products: Naypong, Globe and Mouse: Master Isolated Images, 24/7: David Castillo Dominici