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STATE OF THE INDUSTRY / 2011


High-Tech Tactics
Eight ways to improve customer relationships and expand your business

By Dave Vagnoni

Make New Connections On Facebook


Social media gurus stress that companies should have fun with Facebook – games, contests, prizes – without losing sight of the elements that matter most.
IMPROVE YOUR CUSTOMER SERVICE

With even a quick look at Sonic Promos' (asi/329865) Facebook page, you can see why the company's social media strategy succeeds. The colorful page is bursting with case studies, links to new blog entries and, of course, episodes of Promo Minute To Win It. "More and more suppliers have come up to us recently and asked to play," says Seth Weiner, CEO of Sonic Promos.

Online ExtraSOI To-Do Video
Online social networking can be valuable to a distributor's business, while it can also be a time-waster. Go to www.CounselorMag.com to check out a video offering tips for how distributors can make the most of their social media efforts.

The game – a take-off of the NBC show – challenges supplier reps to complete a specific product-related task in a minute or less. "We had a BIC Graphic (asi/40480) rep come in and play the game of the three little BICs," Weiner says. "He had to build three log cabins with three different BIC pens and then blow all the houses down in under a minute."

With its Facebook space serving as a landing spot for so much of its content, it's no surprise Sonic's page is now "liked" by 412 people and counting. "We really started to push it in August of last year," Weiner says. "We've set a goal for 500 likes."

While studies haven't uncovered hard evidence that Facebook is a surefire generator of sales, social media consultants see a link between "likes" and referrals. If someone's Facebook friend "likes" a company or a product, it bodes well for the building up of a brand. "Ninety percent of consumers trust their friends," says Josh Harcus, director of business development for SayItSocial.com.

Harcus suggests three ways to establish more Facebook connections. First, he recommends marketers increase their Facebook page's engagement level. "Ask questions on Facebook and make it interactive," he says. "Questions should be consistent with what you represent as a company."

Next, Harcus makes a case for the strategy of Like-Gating. "What you're doing is forcing someone to 'like' your page before they can see content or take part in a contest," he says. "Start a contest with friends and let it go from there."

Lastly, but maybe most importantly, Harcus stresses a company's website must drive visitors to Facebook with linked tabs or symbols. "There needs to be clear direction," he says. "You can find Facebook buttons for websites free online. You can also make a button and then create a link."

Launch A Mobile App

With 600,000 apps in the online marketplace and 61 million smartphone users accessing them, targeted mobile marketing continues to ascend in reputation and relevance. According to a recent study, the mobile app market will be worth $17.5 billion by next year, with downloads reaching 50 billion. "We've found our customers are on the run and our mobile app is great for them," says Kim Laffer, director of strategic development at New York-based distributor Motivators Inc. (asi/277780). "We developed our app last year and we keep making edits."

The Motivators app – available for the iPhone and Android devices – offers customers the chance to view products, check pricing and even send images of items to others. The app also links to the Motivators website, allowing customers to purchase products online without being in front of a computer. "We really listen to our customers and it's taken time to get a feel for what they need," Laffer says. "We did a bunch of tests and we've gotten a great response from customers."

Even if a company doesn't immediately earn sales directly from an app, some consultants argue there are still valuable gains to be made by marketing your brand through a mobile device. "These are really social apps," says Tyler Musson, CEO of Musson Media Consulting. "You don't want a hard sell with them. They're important in nurturing relationships."

Musson says creating a custom or native mobile app can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $100,000, depending on what services a company wants to present. It's common for app developers to charge $100 per hour and take weeks to finish a project, which is why the cost can escalate quickly. "It can take six to 12 weeks just to write the code," says Tobias Dengel, CEO of WillowTree Apps. "A good average is to say it takes three to six months to develop an app."

And yet, despite the hefty price tag and development time required, experts believe mobile apps will eventually overtake computers as the best online avenue to reach customers. In fact, in a recent interview, Ilja Laurs, the CEO of mobile app provider GetJar, had this to say: "It is easy to see how mobile apps will eclipse the traditional desktop Internet. It makes perfect sense that mobile devices will kill the desktop."

JOIN THE CLOUD

With its umbrella of 46 distributors generating annual sales totaling $190 million, Facilis Group has no doubt found its industry niche. “We’re not right for everybody, but our focus is on growth,” says Randy Conley, director of new business development at Facilis. “We give our partners a competitive advantage in their local marketplace.”

While Facilis provides its distributor partners with expanded buying power, its strength is in its technology. For example, the company’s @ease business management system integrates a user’s CRM software, order processing and e-marketing, among other tools. “It means distributors can have more face-to-face time with clients, while we manage services for them,” Conley says.

This bundle of real-time services – an example of the practice of cloud computing – isn’t exactly a new concept in the business world, but it’s certainly an evolving one. “The cloud is the future,” Conley says. “It’s become a buzzword in the last year or so.”

The reasons for the buzz are many. “For a small business, cloud computing levels the playing field,” says Ted Theodoropoulos, president of technology consulting firm Acrowire. “Companies with fewer resources can now leverage the same sort of reliability, scalability and recoverability that larger companies have.”

Rather than operating through a local server or a personal computer, cloud computing uses a network of remote systems hosted on the Internet to manage, store and process data. That means businesses can be run from virtually anywhere, without the need for constant internal software and hardware updates. “It really improves a company’s agility,” Theodoropoulos says.

In addition to offering backup protections, cloud computing services typically include user-friendly interfaces and standard data maintenance, like security updates. Companies can save money through reduced equipment, cheaper energy bills and improved efficiencies.

Taking full advantage of the cloud, though, is definitely an investment that requires planning. “For basic infrastructure like e-mail, file sharing and instant messaging, it can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $4,000,” Theodoropoulos says. “Then it would run $6 to $10 per user, per month. For more advanced applications like a cloud-based CRM, it can cost $5,000 to $10,000 just to set up.”

With so many vendors available, ranging from tech giants like IBM to start-ups like NephoScale, choosing the right provider of cloud computing services can be tricky. “People can be resistant to change,” Conley says, “but the number one comment we hear from those that have made the transition is ‘gosh, I wish I would’ve done this sooner.’ It’s one of these things with short-term pains that can lead to long-term gains.”

ADD FRESH WEBSITE CONTENT

West Caldwell, NJ-based distributor MSI Promotions (asi/258169) doesn’t sell ad specialties online. Don’t expect that to change anytime soon. “When we were working on our new website, we thought about putting products on there,” says Amy Hershman, MSI’s president. “It’s just not who we are. We look at our site as an introduction to clients and a way for them to get ideas.”

By design, MSI’s new site, which was just launched in May, presents the company as more of a promotional firm than a product provider. “We want to appeal to high-level clients,” Hershman says. “To do that, you have to be professional and creative. It’s important to us that we’re relevant and we’re in the present.”

To stand out from the competition and improve her company’s Internet search ranking, Hershman knows the content of MSI’s website must be fresh. So in addition to a section devoted to case studies and testimonials, MSI’s site includes a comprehensive blog, which provides marketing ideas for specific industries and highlights topics like quick response codes. “We need to talk about things of interest,” Hershman says.

When pursuing prospects, it also helps to show interesting things on the Web. That’s why Inkhead Promotional Products (asi/231159) – one of the fastest-growing distributors in the industry – is in the process of creating a series of short online videos. “They’ll be less than 30 seconds each and they’ll be focused on products,” says Jim Franklyn, vice president of sales and marketing at Inkhead. “We’re going to try to produce 10 product videos a month.”

In considerable contrast to MSI, 90% of Inkhead’s business is Internet-driven, placing great emphasis on search engine optimization. “With SEO, fresh content is huge,” Franklyn says. “Once or twice a year Google goes through a major search algorithm shift. Google still owns the Internet and what used to get you ranked at the top of searches might not anymore.”

In a significant shift in March, Google attempted to reward sites that provide research, in-depth information or original analysis. The Online Publishers Association estimates that the algorithm change shifted $1 billion in annual revenue for businesses. “We’re expanding our product descriptions and we’re blogging like crazy,” Franklyn says.

IMPROVE SEARCH ENGINE OPTIMIZATION

With the rapid growth of Internet marketing, search engine optimization (SEO) is a key factor in gaining leads and winning sales. In fact, according to a recent study released by Web services firm Optify, the top 10 Google search results on a specific topic earn 90% of consumer clicks. In other words, if your website doesn’t rank highly, the chances of your webpage being found by a prospect is low. We asked Jeffrey Smith, president of SEO Design Solutions Inc., for five ways to improve a company’s search ranking.

1. RSS Feed Syndication – Set up multiple RSS feeds within a site to syndicate your content to attract natural backlinks. A proper RSS campaign alone can build sufficient links for your website. Combined with a development plan and time-released topical content, this strategy can drive traffic and increase domain authority to produce relevance in even the most competitive vertical markets.

2. Target Keywords Within Reach – The more competitive the keyword, the longer it takes to see results. However, the more words that are in a query, the less competitive it becomes. Broaden the range of keywords you use through synonyms and supporting modifiers.

3. Update Content – By adding relevant content regularly and over time, your website will rank higher without links, becoming a topical authority instead of having to chase keywords.

4. Deep Link – Linking to internal pages (not just to your homepage) will improve website relevancy and visibility.

5. Watch For Broken Links – Devastating for flow, broken links weaken a site from within. Monitoring your improved SEO is also a critical factor in gaining momentum on the Web. Consider using Google Analytics – a free resource – which helps track conversion rates.

SAVE MONEY WITH SKYPE

J ason Robbins believes Skype has changed the entire culture of his company. “We’re now more connected than ever before,” he says in a video testimonial on Skype’s website.

Robbins, the CEO of ePromos Promotional Products (asi/188515), uses Skype to connect with employees around the country – including his company’s Minnesota-based vice president of marketing, Sheila Johnshoy. “I was nervous about hiring someone who is remote,” Robbins says. “Obviously being in New York City, to fly somebody in and put them up at hotels every night for $300 gets pretty expensive as well.”

But with Skype, Robbins’ concerns were removed. “Now we have our TV up in our management meetings,” he says. “Every Wednesday when we run our hour, two hour meeting, she’s right there and she can see the body language of everybody.”

Johnshoy isn’t the only member of ePromos’ staff working remotely. Skype helps ePromos’ managers communicate better with off-site employees. “We have 17 people that don’t work at our headquarters,” Robbins told Counselor. “We never want to lose a good employee, so we end up opening offices for them wherever they are.”

Twitter Bird

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Sales presentations – sometimes in person and sometimes online – can often be vexing for even the most seasoned rep. Go to www.asicentral.com/soi9 to check out a podcast providing tips for nailing that next presentation. Share this link with your online friends.
Besides improving internal communications, ePromos also uses Skype to evaluate samples. “We’re able to see if a product isn’t right,” Robbins says. “We can cut days out of production time.”

Consultants believe Skype will soon become even more prominent as a business tool, offering formidable competition to challengers like Apple’s Facetime and Google Talk. Clearly, Microsoft executives see great value in Skype as well, having paid $8.5 billion in May to buy the peer-to-peer system. “There’s a lot of potential with Skype,” says Ryan Flannagan, CEO of NuancedMedia.com. “Microsoft will be piling it into other programs and it should get more stable over time.”

CAPITALIZE ON QR CODES

A two-dimensional barcode that’s readable by an iPhone, Android device or a BlackBerry, a QR code can be easily integrated into a marketing campaign through its placement in print or on products.

QR codes are especially useful for marketing because they accurately measure response rates and engage consumers on a more personal level than other messaging styles, like e-mail or texting. “By scanning a QR code, a person chooses to invite the advertiser into their personal space, which means stronger brand attachment,” says David Schaaf, communications coordinator at Counselor Top 40 distributor Newton Manufacturing (asi/283300). “Marketers use QR codes because they quickly convert advertising impressions into action.”

In an effort to educate Newton’s reps, Schaaf recently authored a guide for selling with QR codes. “We’re still in an early adoption phase,” he says. “We’ve used them in magazine print ads. We’re also using them as a recruiting tool.”

With Nielsen’s prediction that smartphones will soon outnumber traditional mobile devices, now is the time to build up your knowledge of QR codes. Here are nine facts to help you get started.

1. Creating a QR code doesn’t cost any money. There are several free sites – QR Stuff, Kaywa and Mobilefish, to name just a few – that will turn your URL into a QR code in a matter of seconds.

2. No licenses are required to use QR codes.

3. Currently, most smartphones can scan codes as small as .75 inches.

4. While QR codes are usually printed in black and white, other color combinations can work as well.

5. Roughly 62% of people have scanned a QR code two or more times.

6. QR code usage is highest among people between the ages of 25-54. Early data shows women scan more QR codes than men by a two-to-one margin.

7. Phones developed by Apple currently scan the majority of QR codes (68%), followed by Android and then BlackBerry devices.

8. Linking a QR code to a Flash site is something to avoid. Most smartphones can’t display Flash animations.

9. If your goal is to link someone to a URL and you want to track the number of scans, using Web service bit.ly may be the best option. After someone scans a QR code, bit.ly can redirect a visitor to a target URL. The reporting tool offered by bit.ly then allows you to track visits via your QR code.

SECURE YOUR DATA

Bret Bonnet might seem a bit fanatical about protecting data. But considering his house was once struck by lightning, he’s a guy who’d always rather prepare for the worst. “I believe in sacrificing a bit of convenience for security,” he says.

It’s fitting, then, that Bonnet’s company, Quality Logo Products (asi/302967), employs a top-notch information protection system that includes finger-recognition technology and a fireproof, explosion-proof safe for customer data. “There are two reasons for this,” Bonnet says. “It’s for security and for disaster recovery.”

Even if you’re unable to take such extreme measures as Bonnet, there are still ways you can protect your company’s data and, just as importantly, the personal information of your clients. In an exclusive interview with Counselor, Sari Greene, president of Sage Data Security, offers four tips for improving information security. She also outlines four leading security threats that currently exist for businesses.

Stay Safe

1. Use A Layered Defense Model – Combine tough-to-crack passwords (uppercase and lowercase letters, as well as numbers, in every one) with up-to-date antivirus software, operation system and application security patches as well as a strong firewall.

2. Employ Encryption – Make sure all removable media and devices are encrypted.

3. Click With Caution – Don’t ever open unexpected attachments or click on embedded links in e-mails. Also, never respond to unsolicited requests for information.

4. Choose Wisely – Pick a hosting company and website designers that understand security. 

Prepare For Threats

1. Malware – Be especially aware of Trojans Zeus and Spy Eye, which are designed to help criminals steal log-on details and passwords, in particular those associated with bank accounts.

2. Corporate Account Takeovers – Small businesses that engage in online banking transfers such as ACH (Automated Clearing House) should remember that there are no regulations that protect commercial accounts. If credentials are compromised and fraudulent activity ensues, a bank has no obligation to make accounts whole.

3. Social Engineering – Social media is now widely used to infiltrate companies, so only associate with those you know.

4. Cloud Computing Dangers – Confidential data like bank information shouldn’t be placed in a computing cloud where a user gives up control of information to a service provider.


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Making You Money: What ASI is all about.

Promotional products, also known as ad specialties, make up a $20.5 billion dollar industry and are used by virtually every business in America. Why? Items like mugs, pens and t-shirts are memorable and provide a better cost per impression for advertisers than almost every major marketing effort like prime time TV, magazines and radio.

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