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April 2014

Referral marketing versus marketing automation

Carl Maerz is a co-founder of Rocket Referrals, a startup company focused on helping businesses gain referrals from customers.

While exiting the Des Moines downtown YMCA last week, I caught glimpse of a lady searching through a phone book. I was flooded with nostalgia and left thinking of my childhood - the last time I remember using one of those (to look up a number anyway). It also left me considering the ways businesses are discovered by new customers. There are those that are searching for you, and those that are referred to you by others. In both cases businesses should consider ways in which they can improve their ability to be found (marketing automation) - and ways of encouraging referrals (referral marketing).

Marketing automation

Marketing automation platforms seek to streamline sales by replacing high-touch, repetitive manual processes with automated solutions. They accomplish this by taking advantage of the internet to reach new customers - or more specifically allow them to be discovered by qualified leads. In terms of the phone book, think of it as finding ways to be first in line for those people thumbing through the pages - only doing so on the internet.

 

But again, the days of Yellow Pages are limited so marketing automation uses search engine optimization (SEO), inbound marketing, drip marketing, and tracking/analytics to drive customers to your website and improve conversion rates. Google has some complicated algorithms which decide which website to be listed when someone searches for “car insurance” for example. Companies such as HubSpot, Marketo, Eloqua, and others specialize in ways of driving those prospects to your door and using email marketing to convert them into sales.

Referral marketing

Marketing automation is important to capture those prospects that are searching for you online. But what about those prospects that rely on recommendation from friends for services or are not yet searching for you? That is where referral marketing fits in.

PhonebookA referral is the bridge that connects a company to a new client by means of an existing customer. Because of this direct link between the company, customer, and prospect, trust transfers. Therefore the barriers that exist with a typical prospect and the company are broken down by way of the active promoter. As the trust transfers, the resistance is diminished, and sales are much easier to obtain.

Science in the field of social network theory describes the pre-existing connection between current customers (A), companies (B), and prospects (C) as triadic closure. According to sociologist Georg Simmel “if a strong tie exists between A-B and A-C, there is a weak or strong tie between B-C”. In other words, a link between a company and prospects already exists via current customers. Referral marketing aims at exploiting the relationship between your customers and prospects - as it yields a much higher conversion rate and research shows it brings better fitting and higher profitable customers.

Referral marketing is rapidly evolving online with some companies offering incentive based programs. I recommend choosing a referral strategy that is not based on monetary incentives (as I outline here). After all, people refer friends and family for many reasons (reciprocity, social status, obligation, homophily, exclusivity, etc.) but generally not for personal gain.

Again, both marketing automation and referral marketing are important strategies for businesses to effectively compete in today’s market. Optimizing your ability to be found and leveraging your current customer base are separate, but important components to any marketing plan.

 

There's a bargain and then there's...

Bigstock-Stretched-Money-12016097_opt...ridiculous.  

As you might imagine -- good marketing is all about walking that fine line.

If your customer base is cost conscious, one of the ways you can make them feel like they're not only getting a good deal but that they're also in control of their buying decision is to give them choices.

The key is knowing when you've stomped all over the fine line.

I thought Allegiant went too far when they announced they were going to start charging for sodas. But Frontier Airline makes that foolishness look like reasoned thinking with their announcement today that they're going to start charging for the overhead bin space.

Depending on when you book your overhead bin space -- it could cost you anywhere from $25-$50 per bag.  Add to that -- if you want to actually select your seat (meaning anything but the middle seat) you'll have to pay for that too.  $3 for reserving a seat in advance if you do it while booking online and $8 if you choose it at the airport.

Most people already feel like they're part of a cattle herd when they fly. These additional fees and changes continue to de-value the experience and make the customers feel less valued and less important.  That's not exactly marketing 101.

In fact, there's a few marketing caveats that seem in danger here.

Don't give someone too many choices:  It's been proven that too many choices can actually paralyze a buyer -- leaving their wallet frozen in place.  While consumer do like to feel in control, they don't like to feel overwhelmed.

Economical is one thing, cheap is another: Most people enjoy saving money but they also want to believe they are spending their money on something of value.  You don't want your customers to feel nickeled and dimed on their way to saving a couple pennies.

Understand your reputation: If you're in an industry that consumers are already pretty disgusted with -- you might want to keep your eye on the customer service aspect of your choices. In fact, out of 43 industries, airlines rank 40th in terms of satisfaction (the only industries consumers hate more are Internet service providers, Internet social media companies, and subscription TV services), according to data released Tuesday by the American Customer Satisfaction Index.

Serve your best customers best:  I think these airlines are aiming for the occasional budget conscious flier, not a frequent traveler. I'm not so sure it makes a lot of sense to build your product to capture your least frequent customers.

Only time will tell if airlines like Frontier and Allegiant are making a smart play or if it's going to cost them marketshare. But they are certainly playing with fire.  

Would these new changes and charges influence your buying decision one way or the other?

~ Drew McLellan, Top Dog at McLellan Marketing Group

 

 

Planting the seeds for others' success

Kelly Sharp is the owner of Heart of Iowa Market Place

I recently spoke to the Young Professionals Connection about the value of building relationships to grow business and was reminded it's that time of the year when college students are looking for internships. I was also reminded that any time of the year is a good time to mentor young professionals.

While students gravitate to a variety of companies, it seems like retailers --particularly specialty retailers -- are left out of that mix. Young people tend to look to us strictly for summer jobs, but students and retailers miss a golden opportunity when they do. Honestly, it surprises me, too, that more marketing students don't look to the niche retailers to learn more about their chosen profession.

It's only logical that we retailers focus the bulk of our time and energy on peer-to-peer relationships and marketing. After all, businesses run on profits -- and profits only come through sales.

But, just like in other areas of business, tunnel vision is a dangerous thing. A laser focus on sales, sales and more sales makes it very easy to overlook chances to be a mentor to up-and-coming retail talent. That oversight not only does a disservice to young people, but it can be a real missed opportunity for us, too.

Mentoring interns or young professional can re-energize us as we pick up on the excitement of young people who are learning. It helps us to look at our own profession and business in new ways as we answer questions we might not have even thought of asking ourselves. It can give us new ideas and the latest thinking coming out of our universities.

Mentoring can create a talent pool and even broaden our own marketing base by introducing our business to a new and younger audience.

Whether you decide to work with a college intern or a young professional with an entrepreneurial spirit, mentoring is a tremendously rewarding opportunity that shouldn't be overlooked.

You'll grow. They'll grow. And, for years to come, they'll remember how important you were to starting them on a path to success.

Email marketing – leave it to the experts

Katie Stocking is the owner of Happy Medium LLC.

I got an astounding email this week that stopped me dead in my tracks. How could a company send out an email to a list of customers that was this bad?


First of all, it was clear the company was using a regular email client and blind carbon-copying all the recipients. This meant they weren’t getting any analytics or tracking, and their email servers were limited to sending to a certain number of people.

Content-wise, it was supposed to be giving the “Top 5” of something and only listed three things. So then the company sent out a second email with the rest of the list. Not the most professional or effective, right?

This may be a seriously horrendous example of email marketing gone wrong, but I see mistakes and missed opportunities in e-newsletters by brands and companies every single day. And my response is: just let someone help you!

There are a number of important things that should be given attention when creating an email marketing campaign. Subject line, timing, design, layout, contact information and list management are all crucial to the success of an e-newsletter.

All of those things plus the message you’re trying to get across plus dealing with all of this while running your business is a lot to deal with. It can take a lot of your very limited time and end up costing you in the long run. Your time can be better spent elsewhere and that’s why you should let a professional manage your email marketing for you.

Letting an expert help with your email marketing will not only provide cohesive branding (so your emails recognizable by customers), organized content (so your message is easy to understand), perfectly executed send (so no information is left out), and reporting on how many people opened your email and who they were (so you know that it’s working). The return on your minimal investment will be exponential.

Email marketing isn’t going away anytime soon so now more than ever is the time to get it right!

Tweet me your thoughts @klstocking!

--Katie

What Will They Think of Nest?

An amazing 90% of programmable thermostats are not programmed!!!  Can you believe it?  When I got a new furnace I immediately programmed my thermostats.  There were oddities even with a programmable thermostat.  Like what, you ask?

I set the thermostat to vacation mode, but when I return from the Mexican beach it is like an IGLOO in my house for hours.  Or I work out early in the morning except Wednesday but cannot program day by day.

NEST 1Then voila.  The inventor of the iPod comes up with the NEST thermostat which can save up to 20% on your energy bill.  It learns your habits and sets a schedule over time to meet your lifestyle.  For the first week you adjust the temperature manually and the NEST learns what time you get up each day and when you go to bed.  It sees the routine in your life and sets a schedule.

It’s even got an ‘auto away’ feature that goes into energy saving mode if it senses no activity for 90 minutes.  Better yet, if it sees a regular pattern it goes into energy saving mode in 30 minutes.

NEST 2Away on vacation?  No problem.  Just use your tablet or phone to connect with your nest.  When you return to the Iowa tundra wearing flip flops your house will be warm and toasty.

Best part?  It sends you an email once a month to review your energy usage and makes suggestions on how to save energy.  Like having a building engineer in your closet!  What will they think of nest?

Want more info?   Who could explain it simpler than Ellen DeGeneres.

Send your thoughts to rsmith@smithmetzger.com

M&A Trends for 2014

Steve Sink is the founder and managing partner of Phoenix Affiliates Ltd.

Picture of Steve
The opportunity for strong M&A activity is set for 2014 and the coming years. The key drivers are:

1.  Many M&A funds (Private Equity Groups) are scheduled to exit from previous acquisitions, freeing up funds for new acquisitions. 
2.  In anticipation of higher interest rates, forward-looking M&A funds will be forced to focus on increasing the long-term value of their current holdings, if they are to achieve their sales goal.
3.  Low interest rates (cheap capital) currently support the ability to do deals now and the urgency to do deals before the increase in interest rates.
4.  Banking regulations have had a negative impact on M&A and thereby created a lending opportunity in the private sector for capital.
5. There is a growing confidence in forward earnings. This confidence is somewhat motivated by the anticipated change in the administration.
6.  Companies can recapitalize at very favorable terms and rates -- at much lower costs than an IPO.
7.  Higher confidence levels will lead to sale higher multiples.
8.  Government regulations are the main reason for creating uncertainty and the ability to make capital investments with confidence.

Steve Sink
Certified Business Intermediary
Merger and Acquisition Master Intermediary
ss@phxaffiliates.com


Leadership – An introduction

Rowena (Ro) Crosbie is the president of Tero International Inc. This is her first IowaBiz blog post.

Leadership is all around us. In our businesses, governments, sports teams, homes, schools andRowena Crosbie
communities. Many of us are called to lead formally. All of us are called to lead informally. 

What is leadership? Who is qualified to lead? What are the qualities of leaders? How do leaders bring out the best in others? What role does hard work play? What about ethics and values? Where does motivation and emotional intelligence fit in?

The definitions of leadership are numerous and the theories about what makes an effective leader are mixed. We do know that leadership is learned and that most leadership happens on a small-scale in everyday situations.   

This blog is dedicated to the subject of leadership and will be published twice a month. Stories, research studies and theories will be presented here. 

Why a leadership blog?

In 1993, I started Tero International with an idea and $200 that the bank required to open a business account. The first Tero office was a spare bedroom in our home. I named two house cats vice presidents of the company. They were my constant companions (at least as constant as you can be when you sleep 16 hours a day). Leadership was simple.

The idea: To provide presentation skills training to professionals who believed that competitive advantage was due, at least in part, to the ability to communicate persuasively and confidently.  It was a good idea in 1993 and corporate education is even more critical two decades later. 

Today the cats are retired, the business has grown and my role has changed. I am privileged to lead a team of professionals committed to helping clients build leadership and interpersonal skills. Like most of us, I have been a work-in-progress in developing my own leadership capacity. Unlike most of us, my job allows me to immerse myself in leadership research, a time-consuming luxury few leaders enjoy. This blog will share insights from both vantage points.

We hope that in this blog you will find ideas, inspiration and a community to help you develop your leadership capacity and improve things in whatever context you lead. For Tero graduates, we hope this blog is a valuable resource to further your professional development.

Learning leadership is a journey that happens over the course of a lifetime and in partnership with others. I look forward to our travels together and welcome your comments, suggestions and questions.

Asking for referrals doesn't work

Carl Maerz is a co-founder of Rocket Referrals, a startup company focused on helping businesses gain referrals from customers.

Needless to say I discuss the topic of referrals on a daily basis. I meet with individuals working in service industries mainly- those where close relationships with clients is common and referrals are important to growing their business. And just as I sink into the adjacent chair and initiate conversation I am met with this: “You’re right, I need to be better about asking for them.” At first I wanted to stop the agents, lawyers, advisors, realtors, doctors, (you name it) in their tracks and shout “you don’t need to ask!” But anymore I don’t even wince at this widely held misconception. I simply lean back in my chair and explain that, not only is there no need to ask for referrals - but doing so is remarkably ineffective, and there is research to back it up.

Screen Shot 2014-04-11 at 3.25.06 PMWithout doubt this will turn the notion of referrals upside down for many people. But, the most effective referral strategies are proven to include tactics that do not include asking for referrals. A study by Advisor Impact, which focused on customer loyalty and referrals, surveyed over 1,000 clients and asked the reasons why they referred a service to others. An overwhelming 98% cited reasons that included helping their friends and family. Only 2% of the cases did clients say they referred because the business asked them for a name of a friend. This research proved that by not first identifying customers likely to refer, businesses were asking the wrong people to give a referral. Also, by asking for names, they were not effectively leveraging the reasons why people refer, and thus yielding scanty results.

Avoiding asking for referrals doesn’t mean you should let your referral strategy take care of itself. Doing nothing at all just as ineffective. Unfortunately, customer satisfaction alone doesn’t translate into referrals - it is merely a prerequisite. So, asking for referrals is a no-no, and sitting back relying on happy customers to speak up also doesn’t work. Here’s what you can do to increase referrals, and it doesn’t involve uncomfortably asking your clients for names.

Identify your most loyal & disgruntled clients

By finding your most loyal and engaged customers you are able to refine your communication - making your content more effective, personalized, and cost efficient. Also, by identifying your disgruntled clients will also not only increase customer retention, but converting frowns into smiles is a prime opportunity to capture referrals. For more info on how to gauge customer loyalty see the Net Promoter Score system.

Convey the importance of referrals

Let your clients know that you value referrals. Tell them that you would love to help their friends and family. This is accomplished by developing the referral mindset which I discuss in an earlier post. By doing so you will teach your clients that referring you is not only welcomed, but appreciated.

Coach your referral sources

Provide your most loyal customers with content that will encourage more referrals. In other words, enable your referral sources so that when they are motivated to refer you they know what to say, and to whom. Educate them on who your most ideal customers are. Inform them on the wide breadth of services you offer. Describe the triggers (life events) to look for that indicate a good person to refer. Make it easy to pass on your contact information. Tell stories that so that you are more easily introduced into conversation.

Touch your customers

I’m not asking that you invade their personal space here, just to make use of important touchpoints. Send loyalty cards, birthday cards, anniversary cards, National Pigs-In-A-Blanket Day cards (yes it’s real, and this month!). The goal is to keep you top-of-mind. The more personalized and special the better. I recommend sending handwritten cards. It is also a good idea to have an informative newsletter. Let your customers know that you are here for them and appreciate their loyalty! They will think more of you, and of you more often.

Now, I am glad we cleared up the subject of asking for referrals. Makes me feel warm and fuzzy knowing that perhaps less people will ask for names and start obtaining the referrals they deserve!

It's Tax Day and a New Iowa Law Will Govern Shareholder Access to Corporate Financial Records

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Matt McKinney is an attorney at BrownWinick Attorneys at Law.

Given that this post is being published on tax day, I thought it would be fitting to dicsuss new legislation signed into law just days ago that changes how shareholders in Iowa corporations receive and access corporate financial recrods. On March 26, Iowa Governor, Terry Branstad, signed a new bill (Senate File 2200) into law that modifies the manner in which Iowa corporations are required to provide financial information to their shareholders.

Previous Iowa law required most Iowa corporations to deliver certain financial information to their shareholders within 120 days of the corporation's fiscal year end.

Such information inlcluded providing shareholders with a balance sheet, an income statement, and a statement of changes in shareholders’ equity. The new Iowa law provides that many Iowa corporations, including those with less than 100 shareholders, are no longer required to deliver financial statements to shareholders if they meet certain minimum standards. Additionally and in an apparent effort to further modernize Iowa's corporate laws and save a few trees, Iowa's new law permits certain Iowa corporations to comply with the new financial notice requirements by making financial statements accessable to shareholders via the internet.  

To read the full text of Iowa's new law, including a redlined verion of Iowa's prior law on the topic click here. Further, if you are curious and interested in learning about all new legislation signed into law thus far during the 2014 legislative session, click here.

The April 15 day-trader deadline

20130409-1Joe Kristan is a CPA at Roth & Company P.C.

We usually think of April 15 as the deadline for settling up with the IRS for last year.  But for the nation’s doughty day traders — especially the unlucky ones — it’s an important deadline for this year. 

The tax law normally limits capital losses to capital gains, plus $3,000. That means many busy traders will have to hope for great advances in life extension technology to ever fully deduct their capital loss carryforwards.

There is an escape from the $3,000 treadmill for taxpayers who qualify as “traders.” The IRS explains what it means to be a “trader”:

 To be engaged in business as a trader in securities, you must meet all of the following conditions:

  • You must seek to profit from daily market movements in the prices of securities and not from dividends, interest, or capital appreciation.    
  • Your activity must be substantial, and    
  • You must carry on the activity with continuity and regularity.

The following facts and circumstances should be considered in determining if your activity is a securities trading business:

  • Typical holding periods for securities bought and sold.    
  • The frequency and dollar amount of your trades during the year.    
  • The extent to which you pursue the activity to produce income for a livelihood, and
  • The amount of time you devote to the activity.

If the nature of your trading activities does not qualify as a business, you are considered an investor, and not a trader.

These are pretty steep tests. You pretty much need to be trying to do it for a living; another day job is a bad fact, as in this case.  But if you pass these tests, you can make a “mark-to-market election” under Section 475(f) of the Internal Revenue Code to deduct trading losses as ordinary. If you make this election on time, it applies to 2014 taxes. It’s too late to make the election for 2013.

The Section 475(f) election comes at a price. If you make this election, gains are ordinary, too, and you have to mark your gains and losses on open positions to market at year-end — paying tax as if you had sold the positions on December 31. Yet if you are exclusively trading short-term, where you pay taxes on gains at ordinary rates anyway and have few open positions at any time, this may not be a great sacrifice.

This election cannot be extended, so traders need to make the election by next Monday.  You make the election for 2014 by attaching a statement to your 1040 or extension for 2013 with the following information:

1. That you are making an election under section 475(f) of the Internal Revenue Code;

2. The first tax year for which the election is effective; and

3. The trade or business for which you are making the election.

Happy trading!

Winning the networking race

Danny Beyer is a sales executive at Kabel Business Services. He is a serial networker and often speaks about networking tips to groups in the community.

In 2012, I ran and completed the Des Moines Marathon (don’t look up my time it’s kind of embarrassing.) My goal for that race wasn’t to come in first for my age division or even finish in the top 50; it was simply to finish. The race itself was brutal and exhausting, but I never would have been able to finish without the training. Those 12 weeks of running helped condition and tone my muscles and cardiovascular system to enable me to complete that run. I had to be willing to put in the time in order to achieve the end result.

There are a lot of similarities between completing a marathon and building a solid network. For starters, both take time. People continually share stories about how networking just doesn’t work for them. When I ask how long they’ve been networking I generally hear anything from a few weeks to a couple months. Most people want instant gratification and when they don’t see a return immediately they give up. The fact is a good network takes time to build. New connections need time and positive experiences to develop trust and refer business, just like human legs need time to adjust to long distance running.

Along with time, both activities require effort and follow through. Around the sixth week of marathon training I was ready to throw in the towel. The miles were piling up and my body was breaking down. At one point I simply wanted to give up. The same can be said for building a network. There are numerous times when I don’t feel like attending an event or meeting new people. It’s okay to take a day off now and again, as long as it stays at just a day or two. Relationships need to be fostered in order to grow and that can only be accomplished through effort and follow through by both parties.

Finally, both marathons and good networks start with that first step. No one ever completed a race from their couch just like no one built a great network sitting in their car or office. That first step doesn’t have to be a 10k or an event with 300+ people. It’s OK to start off small and go a lap around the block as long as you’re trying something new and giving yourself the opportunity to meet new people. I believe the following quote holds true whether you’re in to running or not –

“No matter how slow you go, you’re still lapping everyone on the couch.” – unknown

So, who are you going to lap today?

They have to know how much you care…

Kelly Sharp is the owner of Heart of Iowa Market Place

I'm sure you've heard the John  C. Maxwell quote, "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."

Of course, for specialty retailers, the first way to show how much you care about your customers -- and appreciate them -- is to offer a unique experience they can't get anywhere else, and to deliver exceptional service each and every time they do business with you.

One of the areas that has really helped my business, the Heart of Iowa Market Place, grow, is the customization we do in our business-to-business program. Creating gifts just for our customers or branding it with their logos, colors and specific products.

We also do things that are outside the box or the typical scope of our business. For instance, we had a client that was already purchasing gifts from us for a party and they asked us if we could help them with centerpieces for the event. They wanted centerpieces for a party - they were already purchasing gifts from us and asked if we could help them. We did and had a lot of fun doing something that was different. By delivering that extra service, our customer didn't have to spend time finding another source -- and we were able to show how much we value that customer.

There are other ways, however, that you can and should show your appreciation to customers throughout the year. It can even be as simple as sending a quick but heartfelt thank you note or making a call to express your gratitude.

Frankly, it doesn't hurt to make a note in your planner every few months to remind yourself to show at least a few of your customers how much you care.

Consistently showing your customers that you appreciate them is a key to building solid, lasting relationships and solid relationships are a key to building a solid, lasting business.

To save Younkers or not? That is the question!

Younkers burned

Rob Smith is a principal at Architects Smith Metzger

Many people have asked me since the Younkers fire if the building can be saved.  I have answered “Why sure. If 100 story buildings can be built, then Younkers can certainly be rebuilt.” I have no doubt technically it can be done even though looking down from the Hub Tower one can see steel beams twisted from the extreme temperatures. 

It would not be the first major change to the building. The east half started as a five story building and was renovated into a seven story building.


Younkers1 Younkers2 Younkers3

The elaborate cornice was removed when the shorter six story addition occurred and the building took on a more stream lined look. The flat arch windows were a poor gesture to the grand arched windows of the original building. The construction of the west half was obviously steel and concrete since it remains standing.

The sustainable thing to do is to rebuild the exterior and construct the inside with a steel and concrete structure with new exit stairs and mechanical shafts. The east exterior could even be a “reinterpretation” of the original building. That way Des Moines retains part of its history which seems the important thing to many.

The other viewpoint is to remove the building and start anew. Some have suggested green space. Other ideas are an iconic crystal court with grand stairs to the skywalk. Only time will tell which way the economic and political winds will blow.

Ah yes, it’s that sustainable dilemma knocking at the door again!

Send your thoughts to rsmith@smithmetzger.com

Is your website built to be a marketing tool?

Bigstock-Technology-Internet-Websites-R-7414239Drew McLellan is the Top Dog at McLellan Marketing Group

Back when websites first came into being, they were little more than a digital brochure with some photos and text that validated your business' existance.

Today -- if your website isn't one of your most useful marketing/sales workhorses -- you're missing the boat. Want to know if you're maximizing the potential of your website?  

I can't do justice to that question here, but I can give you some food for thought. Answer these five questions to get an idea if your site is really serving you well.

Do you have a call to action "above the fold" on your website? In other words, without any scrolling? The Google algorithym gives priority to content above the fold. Don’t waste this valuable space on just a large header or image on pages within your site or blog articles. 

Do you talk about yourself all over your site or use the space to make your visitor smarter? Today's buyers do 60-70% of their shopping online, before they ever shoot you an email, pick up the phone or visit your store. They're coming to your site to learn and see if you're a good fit. Make them smarter by teaching them something useful to show them what it would be like to work with you.

Your goal is to get permission to stay in touch. How are you doing that? Most web visitors are potential customers. But they may not be ready to buy today. So you need to stay in touch until they are. How are you capturing their email address and what value are you offering for it?

What do your analytics tell you? Pay attention to the pages your visitors are spending time on. That should help you decide what to highlight on your home page and core navigation. It's clearly what they want to know more about.

Who are your voices of reason? People are skeptical and hate being sold to so why not use some testimonials from happy clients to reassure them that you're the real deal. Ideally those testimonials would be specific and give details about the value you brought.

So how'd you do?  Is your website doing all it should for you and your business?

~ Drew McLellan, Top Dog of McLellan Marketing Group

 

Storytelling 101: The role of the sidekick

Claire Celsi is a public relations practitioner in West Des Moines, Iowa.

We've known it for centuries: Storytelling is an effective way to communicate information. A narrative with relatable characters engrosses us and makes us stick around to learn the ending. We become invested in the outcome of the story - and in the process - we're more likely to remember the moral of the story. Donkey-in-shrek-the-third_wallpaper

The sidekick - who typically has a lower station in life and has less power than the protagonist - often provides much needed logistical support, advice and even comedic relief. But don't let the sidekick's lowly status fool you. The storyteller can use the sidekick in meaningful ways to improve the storyline and highlight the main character (protagonist). Here are some ways the sidekick can help the story move along:

  1. Highlight the attributes of the main character: The main character in a story can have a cathartic change during the course of the story. Sometimes, using the sidekick as the "explainer" works as a way to highlight the internal struggles that the main character is facing. A perfect example of this is how Donkey humorously interpreted Shrek's ongoing struggle to regain control of his swamp.
  2. Provide the back story (history) of the main character: There are ways to show past events in visual stories and books - like the flashback - that can inform the reader or viewer of a past event that has shaped the main character. The sidekick can provide a convenient shortcut for the storyteller. Rafiki, the wise monkey in Lion King was often the one who reminded Simba the Lion of his lineage and responsibilities, influencing him to make the right decisons.
  3. Contribute complementary skill sets to those the main character lacks: In Sherlock Holmes, the brilliant intuition of Sherlock Holmes was complemented by Dr. Watson, who brought his brilliant analytical mind to the duo. Watson also becomes the person who makes sure Holmes' skills are recognized in the London press when a case is solved.

There is one very important thing to keep in mind when creating a sidekick character in a story. It may sound harsh, but the sidekick shouldn't have much of a life story of their own. The sidekick's role is to support the main character - not distract from the main storyline. If you develop the sidekick's life story too much, they lose that special "sidekick quality" and just become a co-equal actor in the story.

Sidekicks are readily seen in advertising, but also appear in PR and branding. (remember the lonely Maytag repairman and his apprentice?). Using a story with a sidekick in a PR pitch is smart, especially if trying to quickly build empathy for a cause. A good example is featuring the friend of a cancer survivor shaving their head to show support, while raising money for a good cause. Everyone can relate to the heartache that comes with being the friend of someone who is suffering.

Including a sidekick is a smart way to add dimension to a story and provide opportunities for extra insight into the main character. Elementary, my dear Watson.

Networking tips and tricks - Tip 4: Save business for the end

Danny Beyer is a sales executive at Kabel Business Services. He is a serial networker and often speaks about networking tips to groups in the community.

When I first started building my professional network I had one goal in mind – sell something.  Every interaction I had was dictated by the desire to sell payroll services to the person I was talking to directly or to someone they knew. The process was always the same: Tell them how great Kabel is, share all of the wonderful payroll knowledge I had obtained through training sessions and experience, then try and close a deal or get to a decision maker. The ABCs of selling – Always Be Closing, right? Wrong.

I quickly realized that people were not listening to me. They didn’t care about my great payroll service or the fact that we could save them money. Most of the time the person I was talking with wasn’t even the main decision maker anyway. Their eyes glossed over, they nodded their heads, and their mind wandered to their next meeting or what was for supper that evening. I was getting nowhere, fast. That’s when I changed my entire strategy and the sales door swung open.

The big change? I stopped talking about business. I started getting to know the person I was actually talking to. What they did for fun, where their kids went to school, how they spent their weekends, where they liked to eat, how many brothers or sisters they had – the stuff that truly matters to people. As soon as I put business at the end of the conversation, and made the meeting about the person I was actually talking to, business started to come my way.

So stop talking so much about business. Instead, get to know the person in front of you. The business will come. 

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