Remote Workers: Challenges and Rewards
It’s 2022 and with more and more businesses allowing work from home, both the challenges and rewards of remote workers have been made clear.
Many of us have a healthy fear of change, and new best practices in any industry are often slow to be adopted. Especially since the pandemic, there’s been a real uptick in remote working, but it’s still something many shy away from. This is despite the fact that studies, polls, surveys, etc report increased efficiency, work performance, profits, etc.
There’s clearly much to be gained from remote workers, but there are a couple of challenges too. We’ll cover the most prominent issues in this article, hopefully helping you get a clearer image of how a remote business set-up can work for you and what you stand to gain.
Things to Consider Before Going Remote
A business can be run remotely or from home permanently, and the decision and subsequent success have little relation to time elapsed. Rather, there are two major considerations to be made.
Firstly, you must look with a critical but unbiased eye at your own strengths, weaknesses, and character. It takes a particular type of person to be self-motivated enough to keep going no matter what. The loneliness, pressure, and repeated failures of business can lead to depression or mental health issues. I’d even go so far as to say that you need to be a bit maniacal and obsessed with your project. These are qualities you need as a business owner even if you’re not remote, but with the added potential for distraction and isolation, they become even more critical.
Secondly, is the business itself definitely suited to being run without an official office, studio or warehouse? Many businesses would simply find a remote set-up impossible and never allow staff working from home, let alone not having a central physical hub. Can’t see it happening anytime soon with a café, for example.
But apart from the exceedingly obvious such as in the case of eateries, some obstacles in this situation could be legal impediments (e.g. health and safety), an element of physical work (e.g. checking stock) needing to be done, or credibility with clients or customers.
For some businesses, a solution may be found by creating standard operating procedures (SOPs) to be created and having them be followed by remote subcontractors. For example, if you sell products online, could they be manufactured, warehoused and fulfilled by a third party?
Everyone considering the remote path needs to think objectively about these things. If their personality, character, or business isn’t suitable, they’ll be in for a harrowing lesson.
Rewards of Remote Workers in a Small Business
Lower Overheads (Higher Profits!)
If you’re a small business that works on tight margins, paying the steep lease prices on city-centre or business-park offices, or even warehouse spaces, can make the difference between generating profit or accumulating losses.
Even if you have more of a budget to play with and can easily afford moving into somewhere swanky, at the end of the day, money saved is money saved. The cash spent not only on rent but all of the other costs that go into running a business space such as heating, electricity, equipment, consumable amenities, etc, can seriously add up.
A remote team means that that money can be spent on more worthwhile things, such as better software that might make the work process more efficient, marketing, or better yet, bonuses for employees to keep them motivated and attract top talent.
By having a remote business, you can enjoy more flexibility and agility in the way you run, which means higher resiliency in the face of problems, and being able to budget more carefully.
Without having to fill certain office roles such as cleaners, you have more control over hiring and can expand or contract on a person-by-person basis. Whatever job you need to hire for, you can now consider candidates from anywhere, including those from countries with lower expected wages, cutting costs further.
Optimized Business Environment
When fully remote, a business can adopt a more dynamic culture where every practice can be analyzed and optimized. If we don’t need a centralized office, what else don’t we need? Where’s the waste in the workflow? Where are the missed opportunities? Every team member can start to focus on what’s truly essential to drive the business forward and discard the relics of tradition.
Furthermore, in most physical offices, a lot of time slips through the cracks in a general workday. People idly chatting to each other, getting distracted by what coworkers are up to, maintaining communal spaces, arriving a bit late because of traffic, etc. For the most part, these cease to be issues with remote working, so you ‘optimize’ the hourly wage you pay in that regard too.
For a long time now, it’s been the dream of many to be able to work from home and earn a living without having to step out of their front door. And why not? The home environment is not only more comfortable and familiar, but means avoiding the daily hell of getting stuck in traffic, wasting time and money on public transport, being cornered off in a grim office cubicle, and facing odious bosses and co-workers.
Offering remote work often means that you’ll have more content employees and, in all likelihood, attract a far higher standard of talent. Remote positions are hot property due to all of the quality-of-life benefits they offer!
Most people need the structure and discipline of an office, and they get into a flow state while interacting with others. The office suits alpha types, who enjoy leading and controlling, and betas who need to be led and controlled.
A third personality type which is often overlooked (alphas usually get all the limelight) is called gamma; they don’t like to rule or be ruled! They excel if left to do their own thing and get into a flow state where they can make magic happen. Imagine the mad scientist down in his lab, or the eccentric author that goes to write on their own in the forest – these people work wonders and would not do so in an office.
The main pro of running a virtual office is pulling a team of brilliant people who will do better work for you than they would in an office and require less managing to boot. You also open up access to new groups of people from over the world and potentially superb candidates such as those with mobility issues who would not be able to get to an office otherwise.
The main con is that your business might fall apart if you mistakenly employ the wrong people, but that’s true of traditional workers too!
Challenges of Working with Remote Employees
I’ve worked remotely for nearly a decade as a freelancer and now as a small business owner. Every choice in life involves a compromise; very few things are ‘all good’, especially concerning work.
Overall, the negatives of remote work (bouts of loneliness, overwork, neurosis, etcetera) as preferable compared to the alternatives. Office work can often mean lengthy commutes, energy-sucking politics, and working directly with sociopaths and bullies.
Working remotely, it often feels that opposing challenges can be solved because we’re ultimately in charge of our day and workflow. In an office, unless you’re at the top of the pecking order, you have to suffer the negatives perpetually. That element of personal control and empowerment is the real differentiator.
We all have routines and best practices that we follow in the office, but some of them don’t translate so well to remote work. One example is the 9-5 workday, which actually suits relatively few people. We tend to find that we’re either morning or evening people, and there’s some interesting studies showing that genetics back that up.
I struggle with sharpness in the morning, regardless of how early I’ve gone to bed or how well I’ve slept, so I end up doing some of my best work in the late evening. Equally, I know people that prefer to get up at dawn and get a couple of hours of high-level creative work done before breakfast.
With remote work, cultural norms can be examined and adjusted. This applies not only to work hours and breaks, but also clothing and snacks. Workers can fine-tune their work processes to enable more peak mental flow states and better efficiency.
Communicating with Remote Employees
Using remote employees can offer tremendous rewards for small businesses as already mentioned, but you can quickly cut into your potential savings and increased efficiency through miscommunication.
In a worst-case scenario, the time it takes to re-explain and re-do incorrect work makes the task more expensive than having had a specialized freelancer do it. Delays and mistakes can even lead to lost clients.
It’s good practice to always work on the assumption that there is a high chance of misunderstanding. With this in mind, you can get in front of the problem before it occurs.
Create a standard operating procedure and document for every task that is likely to be carried out more than once in the future. Do this before allocating labour to the remote employee. You can then verbally go over the task through Zoom or similar and send the instructions over after.
These documents should be stored safely so that, over time, every routine operation procedure gets documented. That will pay dividends when hiring new staff (external or remote) as well.
One of the biggest challenges in working remotely is in managing time. In an office, we know when we should be working, when break time happens, and when we finish. Bosses know if people are working because they can see them. We rarely audit how long individual tasks take. One person might be twice as productive as someone else on the same day, but managers might not know.
When working remotely, things are a bit more opaque. Start, finish and break times blur, and leaders can’t see what’s happening. To avoid awkward accusations or unnecessary productivity-anxiety, allocate times for everyday tasks and schedule them. Doubt and fear will be reduced if the schedule is agreed upon and broken down.
Managing Remote Teams
There has been an explosion in the use of outsourced and remote workers over the past few years, a shift helped in no small part by the pandemic as thousands of companies were pushed into managing remote teams to be safe and meet government regulations.
This shift in work set-up comes with huge potential benefits, but there are some pitfalls to be aware of too. Advantages include things like far lower overheads and thus higher profits, but if badly managed, performance can suffer and clients may be lost.
While most of the perceived problems around remote working are paper tigers or have little basis in reality, there are some things to be aware of. In this article, we’ll cover why remote working is so great, and some of the dos and don’ts to follow when it comes to managing remote teams.
Successfully Managing a Remote Team
There are three major fundamentals to focus on run a remote team successfully.
Firstly, there needs to be a shared communication channel. Basecamp, Slack, Google for business, it doesn’t matter too much what you use, the main thing is that everyone is on it and appropriate team channels are set up so relevant people can see relevant information.
By relying on older methods like email or fracturing people across different programs, omissions in communication and misunderstandings will continuously occur.
As an addendum, never assume anything about the people you’re dealing with, and make communications as easy as possible. Just because someone has a glowing resume or many years in a role, it doesn’t mean that they’ve entirely understood you or that they have the same way of solving the problem. It’s common for a team member to spend days or even weeks going in the wrong direction.
On video calls and text exchanges, keep asking people to repeat their interpretation of the current mission and how they intend to move forward. Explain that the reasoning behind this is to ensuring that everyone is on the same page, not that you don’t trust them.
Secondly, set up standard operating procedures, write documentation, and record help videos – that way you only need to explain things once.
This library can be updated and improved over time as the business evolves. For the most part, once each process is polished, even taking on new staff shouldn’t result in much extra downtime for the extant team because the fresh hire can just be directed towards the documentation and guides to get to grips with themselves.
Thirdly, and most importantly, find remote workers that are intuitive and highly self-motivated. Regardless of the position you’re trying to fill, for any role, self-motivation is one attribute to look for above all others.
Having to remotely micromanage people would mean that you could never get your work done. You need team members to do their tasks better than you could, and whether they work in a coworking space, café, or their mother’s basement, without a high level of internal drive and discipline, they’ll fail.
In this new age of remote working and personal freedom, many people dream of working remotely, but only a small minority have the mettle to really thrive with it.
What to Look For in a Remote Employee
For the most part, the things that make a good remote employee are not too different from what makes a good employee in general, but there are some traits which you’ll want to place particular attention on when you’re considering taking on a new remote worker or considering whether your current team will be up to it.
You need people who are particularly self-motivated and driven, people who can be relied upon to complete tasks regardless of whether someone is monitoring them. In other words, they need to be self-starters who are comfortable working more independently and won’t need micromanaging.
You also need to take their personal preferences and psychology into account to some extent – there may be people who you could trust to work alone and still do a good job, but if they actually really dislike working this way and miss the more social atmosphere of a typical in-person role, chances are that they’ll burn out quickly or performance will suffer regardless of their talents.
Ideal remote workers are hard to find and typically either have an entrepreneurial mindset or a self-employed one. Worker bees who just want to be told what to do tend to disappear, leaving you only with initiative-takers and self-employed types who are comfortable with more independence and will make managing a remote team easy.
Securing Your Valuable Remote Workers
The potential problem with the kind of entrepreneurial people mentioned above is that they will often outgrow their position in your business and possibly even set up their own gig in competition with yours.
To tackle this problem before it arises, you need to provide a leadership path for them within your company. Develop a clear roadmap of rewards, goals, and timescales, even if they don’t ask.
If you’ve identified someone really worth holding onto and want to induce stellar results, then future directorships, shareholding, and profit shares should also be on the table.
The self-employed and seasoned-freelancer types need to be paid well right now, or you’ll find they get poached and will happily bolt to receive their proper market rate elsewhere.
It’s worth making any diamond-in-the-rough you find the exact same offer you would to a strong entrepreneurial type since you can’t be exactly sure of people’s mindsets, and you want to foster loyalty with incentives as soon as you can.
Wait too long, and unbeknownst to you, they’ll be applying for other jobs and/or only performing at a fraction of their potential since they see no point in putting in more effort than necessary.
Onboarding and Training Remote Employees
Just like with in-person jobs, the onboarding and training that needs to be delivered to a worker in a remote team depends on their job type.
Roles are commonly categorized as either systems/process-driven or creative/skilled. Bringing on a new employee into one of these two groups will require a different approach to the other.
People who are doing systemic or operational work generally need to follow finely-tuned manuals and standard operating procedures.
For example, an existing staff member may need to do each task, map it out, and see how long each measurable unit takes. A new person will then be able to get all of the recorded information immediately, and they can review and absorb this at their own pace. You’ll be able to see if they’re performing just by looking at the numbers over time and seeing whether mistakes are being made.
For more creative jobs, the chances of you being able to bring on someone with no experience but the right attitude and training them from scratch are slim.
It’s always going to be less of a gamble to find someone with a demonstrable track record. You know what you’re looking for, they know what you need, and they’re able to hit the ground running.
That’s not to say that training people is impossible though – far from it. In fact, even if you get a real expert, it’s likely that they’ll need some level of training to get acquainted with the particular procedures and tools your company uses which they may not have encountered before.
Remotely training people can be done in a ‘hands-on’ way by setting up a video call and mutually screen-sharing to show and explain what’s being done on screen. This is just as good as sitting next to each-other in an office and pointing to your screens as you explain.
Creating Your Own Training Resources
And again, just like in an office where people might be given print-outs, you can easily create PDF guides with screenshots and numbered guides to explain how to use software or company systems, documentation on following company policy, etc.
Create a folder with notes, instructions, drafts, and, ideally, a standard operating procedure for anything likely to be done more than once in the future. The most vital or complicated tasks will need a more detailed folder. Videos, flowcharts, and step-by-step instructions will make life far more comfortable in the future.
You’ll realise how valuable this library of resources is when you find yourself giving a new team member the same job after the last one has left the organisation. Sometimes, you’ll save yourself having to go over everything again with the same person!
External online course providers are also another great option for the continuous professional development of a remote team. There are loads of options out there covering all sorts of topics, from health and safety to programming. Many are officially accredited and will provide your workers with expert guidance at no time cost to you.
How to Evaluate Your Remote Workers’ Performance
Keep good records of standard operating procedures (SOP) and the time it takes to complete each task. If the task is something you yourself can do first, you can time yourself as you create the SOP. Depending on the task, a specialist could complete it in more or less time, but at least you can have a bare minimum benchmark.
For the most part, a specialist should work faster, but there are times when their specialist knowledge or creative process means that they actually need longer but the end result is much better, so take results into account and adjust expectations over time.
Everyone works in their own way, and one of the biggest benefits that remote workers themselves appreciate is more freedom to get their heads down and do things in a more focused style that suits them best, so try not to be equivalent of a bridezilla control freak when it comes to managing your remote team.
Remember that really all that matters is if they can give you the results you need in a given timeframe. This is what you measure success by – not how often they’re wiggling their mouse or how many keystrokes they’re clocking between 9:00 and 17:00.
Raising Engagement When Managing Remote Teams
Having operated entirely remotely for over five years, we at Out of the Box Innovations have learnt a thing or two about the process and are afraid to tell you that ideal remote workers are born, not made, so there’s no easy blanket method for keeping people engaged.
Again, not to sound like a broken record here, but you need people who can motivate and manage themselves – the kind of person who would rate high on conscientiousness if you put them through a Big Five test (which isn’t a terrible idea for a new hire, just saying!).
Let’s think about an office environment：
Some staff seem to need constant policing; others benefit from less authoritative and more hands-off coaching. A third group is highly self-motivated, and any attempts to influence their mindset can actually spoil their work ethic and performance.
Typical offices will have a mixture of the three, and the ratios vary by department, company, and industry. People can also be any one of these three types of workers at different points in their careers and depending on their company environment.
The key to remote working is finding people that are already self-motivated. The only help these people need is for you to empower them to focus on their work without nannying, coercion, or manipulation. It’s better to spend a bit longer on the hiring process finding an exact match candidate rather than expending effort on creating engagement later on.
But How Can You Motivate The Right Person More?
During crises like the pandemic, fears that people won’t be working properly and pulling their weight will come to the fore, and you may be trying to think of alternatives to micromanagement or cutting costs through shuffling your payment structure.
When it comes to motivating people, direct financial rewards have a limited effect and can make your work relationships feel transactional. A better option when managing remote teams is to look at making small gestures and offering assistance which shows you care about their well-being.
As often as possible without becoming obnoxious, reach out to check that your employees are okay and if they have any questions or concerns, and know that giving the occasional unexpected reward or gesture of gratitude can go a long way.
It can be harder to pull off in an effective way with people you’re not in the same room with and may have never even met, but these actions encourage a deeper human bond and feeling of kinship.
This works as an emotional carrot and stick rather than being a purely financial or authoritative one; if a remote worker feels genuine friendly feelings and appreciation from you, they’ll feel much more motivated to produce good results for you, and guilty if they don’t meet your expectations.
Managing Remote Teams: Tracking Work Time
Rather than having employees check in multiple times a day and justify themselves (or using screen-sharing apps that can be somewhat invasive at best, straight-up spying at worst), both manager and worker can agree on how long a set of tasks should take. That makes it simple to map out a week. A trusted staff member, or manager, can do each job once and time themselves. (They can even record themselves to produce a standard operating procedure video).
This way, if an employee has a 12-hour day one day and then decides to take half a day the next, it doesn’t matter. If they want to stay in bed until lunch and then work through the night, it’s okay. Keep in mind when managing remote teams that everyone has their own productivity hacks and works best at different times. By “setting and forgetting” like this, no one will be hampered by worrying about micromanaging or having to look like they’re doing enough.
While it might be hard for employees to stay self-motivated at home, a manager of a remote team who chooses not to spy will struggle to understand if their people are indeed putting in the agreed time, effort, and focus.
Some workers will overwork as they feel they’re not getting enough done. Due to the high risk of burnout, this becomes self-fulfilling as they grow fatigued and take 12 hours to do what could really be done in 8. This can also be driven by being micromanaged remotely, where manager’s messages and nudging can be more stress-inducing, as messages lack tone and body language and can thus be mistakenly interpreted as more harsh, impatient, etc than they actually are.
How about Managing Yourself?
Managing a remote team is important, but you need to make sure that you can manage yourself and your own time just as well!
Experiencing remote work and learning what works and what doesn’t for yourself also gives you more insight into the process and a better understanding of the problems your employees may be facing.
To really put together an ideal workflow when starting to work remotely, it pays to test all office-based rules and see whether they’re optimal for you. Write down every rule, custom, and convention that occurs to you and seems feasible, and then set about experimenting with them.
For example, do you feel more professional and work-focused if you continue to wear a suit or some other “work” uniform? If so, carry on. Are you a 9-5 person? Most people aren’t – perhaps now’s the term to set a new schedule which covers your peak alert hours and see how your efficiency changes.
Experiment and optimise every aspect of your workday. Do you find that long 10-hour days with a full 3-day break offers maximum productivity? If so, then a four-day workweek could be excellent for your quality of life and work performance.
When managing remote teams, you can experiment with these sorts of factors for yourself, and then discuss the findings with your team to see if they’d like to make similar changes to you too.
Flexibility – The Biggest Benefit of Advertising Online in 2022
Over the past decade, advertising has experienced a real renaissance. In the early days of the internet (otherwise known as the noughties), traditional advertising methods such as those used on screen, billboards, and in print were replicated online through banners, long-form sales pages, and flyers.
But as technology and culture evolved, those traditional strategies went from being simply recreated online to being completely overhauled. The potential for more creativity and flexibility rolled around at the same time as mini tribes (online communities) and personality cults (influencers) gained power, leading to much more power in online advertising’s ability to influence people.
So, what exactly are the advertising strategies that have accompanied the progression of web 2.0 into web 3.0 and which you can use in your own business? Let’s take a look.
One of the most effective online marketing strategies is content marketing, which can direct substantial social media and search engine traffic to your business website over time.
Newspapers always had advertorials, but these were obvious advertisements that no one had any illusions about. Who could have predicted that some of the most powerful adverts would one day comprise pages of text in which there was nothing obviously for sale? What’s “for sale” and being advertised through content marketing is knowledge, experience, integrity, and sometimes even frivolous shock value or pranks.
Content marketing is one of the best ways that we can get attention in crowded spaces. Users that are completely desensitized to more obvious ads (AKA ‘ad-blind’) can still be lured into reading an entertaining post or watching a compelling video.
There are two main difficulties that people come up against when trying to achieve an effective content campaign:
1) Most successful business-minded people are not lucky enough to also be blessed with great writing or graphic design skills. Creating original, professional content is hard even for specialists, let alone dab-hands.
2) Anyone you employ to create content on your behalf is unlikely to have genuine in-depth knowledge about your industry. Readers who do have such knowledge tend to grasp right away when the author of what they’re reading doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
A strategy very much related to content marketing is repurposing content, i.e. finding things you’ve made that have never been published online before and getting it into a publishable condition. Whenever you write, film, or record something – a report, PowerPoint, or some guidance notes, for example – think about how it could be transformed into valuable content to be published to your site.
If you’re still struggling to come up with material, an extremely effective method that you might not have considered is going over email exchanges, Microsoft Teams or Skype conversations, or anywhere else where you’ve been explaining things or solving problems over text.
You can then cut and paste these types of conversations into a draft folder, but be careful to omit any identifiable details or sensitive business information, trade secrets, and so on. What you’ll hopefully be left with is a plenty of good material that just needs a thorough edit to get into publishable condition.
Sitting down with a blank screen or a sheet of paper is a recipe for writer’s block, especially for a non-writer, so this repurposed content can work as a life-saving foundation for easily creating highly authentic material that’s completely relevant to your business space.
Using Influencers (or Becoming One!)
Influencers have had a huge effect on the marketing world and now play an enormous part in reaching audiences, particularly younger ones. You no longer need to fork out ridiculous sums for celebrity endorsements – you can get YouTubers, Instagrammers, and podcasters to tout your product for a fraction of the cost and in a much more authentic, relatable way.
Influencers typically attain their positions through skill/achievement (e.g., titans of industry), genetic luck (e.g. Instagram models), happenstance (unexpectedly going viral), or some combination of the three.
Making a realistic plan for becoming an internet influencer is easier said than done – after all, there are legions of teens and young adults hoping to be the next YouTube Star or Instagram celebrity, and they’re not all making it – but there are steps you can take to increase your chances.
For example, you need to follow the principles of good marketing. Adapt what you know about marketing products and services to marketing yourself. Find a niche, offer something unique and intriguing, and get on the radar of your chosen audience.
You can even try living in the twilight zone between being a zealot, insane, or just obsessed. Act like a televangelist or eccentric billionaire, and people will be polarized and interested if nothing else.
You’ll need to pick a space where you can not only sustain your own interest, but incite a cult-like commitment from your followers. The only downside is that you are what you do – so be careful lest you really turn into your eccentric online persona (a trap that some prominent influencers seem not to have avoided!).
The Importance of Creativity to Marketers
When writing your resume, including examples of game-changing insights and the results you’ve gotten throughout your career is a sure-fire way to impress employers. Practical, concrete case study highlights will excite those in charge of hiring because they’ll be hoping that you can repeat the feat and do the same for them.
The most valuable skill that a marketer can nurture is developing insight and sparking creativity within themselves to suit different situations. These skills aren’t really teachable, and you’ll never see a course for them on a college timetable.
Before too long, chatbots, machine learning, and AI will begin to dominate the marketing industry and swallow up a lot of advertising tasks. We’ll be able to upload every clickable headline, call to action and close, and let machines split test with an efficiency and accuracy that no human could ever hope to achieve.
However, one of the most far-off developments for AI is true creativity and the ability to do artistic work. In the meanwhile, flashes of market-crushing inspiration come to human marketers that persistently exercise their creative muscles, and this has always been absolutely critical to the most successful marketing campaigns and viral hits. It was the most vital skill back in the days of Mad Men, and that’ll probably continue until we reach true spontaneous sentient AI (if ever!), so nurture that creative streak and never stop trying to think out of the box.
Broaden Your Focus
There’s a tendency for those in business to be industry-centric and focus only on events that are directly relevant to their customers and competitors. For example, an SEO firm will generally follow the top SEO blogs and go to SEO events and just leave it at that. This, of course, applies to all industries, not just marketing.
The problem is that such a narrow approach means that people only find out about hot ideas after they’ve already lost some or much of their novelty, having trickled down the grapevine and been held in store for that next scheduled event or blog post. By this time, they may already have lost a lot of their effectiveness.
Innovation tends to occur when new ideas and principles are introduced to an industrial ecosystem. Historically, these ideas often came from other countries, but nowadays, they’re more likely to be lifted from other industries because of the internet.
So, one of the best things you can do to get marketing advice is listen to podcasts covering multiple industries. Podcasts can be created and uploaded in a day, meaning you can get high-quality content while it’s still fresh. This is unlike reading marketing books from ‘gurus’, which can take six months to a year to be published. You can also listen to podcasts while travelling, exercising, or doing chores, and it’s less straining on the eyes.
A highly recommended podcast in which you can hear what the fastest growing companies are doing is This Week in Startups (TWIST) by Jason Calacanis. There, you’ll hear brand new information from entrepreneurs who work with some of the very best new companies. They share marketing ‘secrets’ because they are more focused on their products and are thus not so guarded about their marketing tactics.
Rub Shoulders with Bigger Fish
One more tip on how companies can better market themselves is through a better mindset. Most industries are crowded with players, but the leaders always command a disproportionately huge slice of the market. Getting noticed can be immensely difficult for companies that aren’t in the top three. Unless you have done something seriously innovative, then you may find it hard to be heard through the noise of other marketing messages.
Everyone in our field should ask themselves, “how can we mingle with the market leaders?” For example, if you want to blog about entrepreneurship, don’t just post on your own blog. Try to get your best articles submitted on a relevant site like entrepreneur.com. I was a co-founder of a recruitment company, and I’ve been mentioned on recruiter.com a couple of times. This is much better marketing than publishing on my own blog.
The same applies to industry forums, conferences, and events. Try to mingle with the biggest audiences in your industry and be front-and-center stage rather than just beating your own drum in a back alley.
One Channel at a Time
Marketers generally focus on doing content for their own websites and the websites of clients. All forms of marketing tend to be very time-consuming (at least when done well), and without focus, there can be a struggle to get overall traction.
The key is recognizing when it’s time to draw a line in the sand on a task or project and move on to the next thing. If you’ve got plenty of new top-10 search engine ranking positions under your belt thanks to your SEO efforts, it’s probably time to stop and start thinking about actual conversions. Sometimes it’s clear that Google and Bing have a preference for certain websites that you’ll have trouble beating, in which case your time could be better spent going after new keywords rather than straining to nudge the existing ones slightly higher.
You always need to keep in mind where your focus can best be directed for the highest ‘ROI’ on your time. This means getting page views, but most importantly: leads and sales.
Value Your Time
If marketing, or one of the skills relevant to it such as writing or website creation, happens to be your passion, that’s great! But it also means that you can end up putting too much time into certain favored tasks and neglecting others.
No matter your job title, there are going to be parts of a job that you like to do (or at least hate less than the rest!) and other things that you’d rather put off, but at the end of the day, it’s all got to be done.
Especially if you’re a business owner or working in a small company, you generally have to wear many hats and handle multiple workflows that go into making a business successful.
Since you presumably don’t want to be spending every waking hour working and not getting anywhere fast, you need to be on top of time management for yourself and any other workers you manage.
Know the value of your own time and consider outsourcing things where you can, or pay an upfront cost for tools (software or hardware) that’ll ultimately save you time and money in the long run.
Writing and content creation for corporate blogs, for example, is a commodity service that often works out to be worth much less than it costs to create when considering the time spent having a business owner write it.
Perhaps if you tend to write for your own blog, outsource content a few times this year. When I started to do this more, clients didn’t complain or even notice because I made sure that the quality was still there. Delegation is the single best thing that an owner, executive, or manager can do to take control of their business – not to mention their life.
Accept that the Masses Prefer ‘Digital Junk Food’
Clickbait headlines, titillating images, embarrassing gossip, and copywriting that reads like a snake oil pitch… These are forms of marketing and advertising that are to your brain what junk food is to your belly.
Unfortunately, the same lack of taste applies online, where the most popular content tends to be highly consumable and have no substance – nutritional or otherwise!
If you’re a digital marketer who cares about the craft of writing, it can be a bitter pill to swallow when you realize that thoughtful, quality content is typically not going to be the road to success.
You can do your best to create quality content that helps people and provides value, but most of the time you’re forced to do it within the confines of simple, streamlined, SEO-optimized content that you can get out quickly and will appeal to the damaged attention spans of the modern masses.
We’re not saying that quality content and good writing done at a slower pace doesn’t work, but it really depends on what exactly you’re marketing and who your audience is. You’ll be able to assess that for yourself, but at the end of the day, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Swallow your pride, stuff those keywords into your article, and get liberal with the emoji use (Facebook posts that use emojis receive 57% more likes and 33% more comments and shares than those without them, don’tcha know?)
Be Wary of Scarcity Marketing
Scarcity marketing is almost always dishonest and has a connection with reality that can be tenuous at best, non-existent at worst. It preys on the powerful negative human emotions of fear (of missing out) and greed (consumption and acquiring things that others can’t have).
These emotions stem from primal instincts that evolved to warn us we might be looking at our last meal or missing out on a chance to pass on our genes with a suitable mate. In our modern plentiful society, such instincts are no longer so critical to our success, but unfortunately they continue knocking around in our lizard brains and can be use for manipulation in marketing.
Scarcity marketing works when the consumer is not being mindful of reality, pushing them into an emotional state which short-circuits their rational thinking skills and gets them to make impulsive spending decisions.
Unfortunately, the cure for this is primarily down to the individual nurturing a sense of mindfulness and skepticism within themselves. After all, we can’t rely on marketers to stop themselves from going after bigger profits and using borderline unethical tactics to do so.
Make Your Brand Stand Out
It’s a cliché at this point, but if you don’t stand out from the crowd in some way, your business is set to fail.
Modern customers are bombarded by an onslaught of marketing coming from every direction and for every kind of product or service these days – quite possibly including offers from your competition. Whether it’s getting in through their email inbox, their e-reader homescreen, banner ads on their apps, websites they view, videos they watch, the radio… the point is that there’s an awful lot of competition for attention. Everyone is trying to get everyone else to click, read, watch, and buy.
So, whichever position you take in the market, there’ll be plenty of competition. There will be those that are bigger, smaller, more bespoke, more mass-market: services that are overseas, national, local – all will be appearing on the radars of your potential clients daily.
So, you need to make sure that your message holds particular appeal to the particular people you’re targeting. Just how do you stand out?
Sometimes this can be done through a charismatic and physically attractive leader who posts help videos online. Another way of standing out is to niche down to an industry or sector and become one of the few that understand the space.
Diversify Your Tactics and Accept Reality
Arguably the biggest, most expensive, and most common mistake fledgling business owners make is the “build it, and they will come” fallacy. Regardless of how amazing you think your company, product, or team is, most people simply could not care less.
Even if you pour time into promoting yourself and your company by creating content, recording webinars, and setting up events, gaining traction is far from guaranteed.
So, it’s best to diversify your tactics by developing symbiotic or even parasitic relationships rather than relying entirely on your own steam.
This means things like spending more time at the events of other industry leaders rather than hosting your own. If you create physical products, you’ll generally always be better off listing them on Amazon, eBay, or Etsy than only on your own e-commerce store.
Somewhat on the contrary to the previous point, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel – you need to stand out in some ways, but following the crowd in others is simply good business sense that’ll save you time and money, especially in the beginning when you’re relatively unknown.
Learn About Keywords
Ask yourself: do you really understand how keywords, keyphrases, and those with a short or long tail work? To the right kind of mind, SEO and keyword research can be an immensely satisfying and interesting field to get on top of (and keep up with). Learning about keywords isn’t exactly just for fun though – getting a proper grasp of them can seriously supercharge your efforts in content marketing.
Careful choice of keywords will make a monumental difference to your marketing and advertising campaigns, so one of the best things that any business owner can do is to learn about keyword research for online exposure. By finding out which terms customers are using to search for your product or service, you can fine-tune all online efforts to help them find you.
A ninja tip would be to research what your competitors are doing and look for ways to catch up or even overtake them. For example, SEMRush can show you who your close match competitors are and which organic and paid keywords are successful for them.
Fine-tuning your website and social media bios with more effective keywords can create instant, long-term results and little cost.
Take Advantage of a Narrow Focus
While you tend to see the same big names cropping up in the top results over and over, for most search queries, you’ll see at least one first-page result leading to a niche website. Google knows that websites with a narrower focus tend to provide more in-depth, high-quality information.
As a smaller business owner or freelancer, you can make use of this knowledge by also focusing on putting out high-quality content based around a small range of topics, or even just one. Larger players, by definition, cannot do this and thus inevitably end up with a level of dilution in the quality and depth of their content.
Target Messages According to Relevancy
Advertising and promotion used to work as a one-size-fits-all model where the focus was mostly on potential reach. Slogans, jingles, and amusing adverts would be successful if they were memorable enough to make it into the cultural conscience and be shared by word of mouth.
In the digital age, we see ever-increasing levels not only of tribalism and polarization, but of customization and targeting. People access much more specific content than ever before and build their own (mostly online) information environments perfectly adjusted to their tastes.
People now have all kinds of niche interests and personality labels which never even existed until the past few decades. This, in combination with the aforementioned fact that there’s a whole lot of competition who are specifically angling their ads towards certain groups, means that by comparison, a blanket banner advert is no longer likely to appeal to anyone.
Also, note that anything too salesy or promotional is generally ignored in the B2B space. A ‘time-sensitive special offer’ that increases B2C sales can be seen as cheap manipulation to those sitting at an executive meeting table.
Another final factor to consider is that different messages belong on different platforms: what works for a Facebook advert won’t suit email marketing, and LinkedIn content usually can’t be replicated effectively on Instagram.
The basic marketing process generally follows these steps:
- Identify distinct groups that you want to engage.
- Figure out their needs.
- Consider where they spend time online.
- Create separate content that offers value to each group.
At Out of the Box Innovations, we create in-depth content for business owners, homeowners, eco-conscious people, and industry workers in training, which works really well in search engines (and for our clients!).
As for the content we create for ourselves, we find that when doing consultations, new clients will often mention the various content of ours they’ve seen, which is usually non-commercial in relation to our core business. In helping business owners, entrepreneurs, freelancers, and so on, we aim to win the hearts and minds of those in our industry, and particularly those just getting started.
In short, focus on targeting distinct tribes in the places they already hang out at online with tailored content. Do it right, skip the cheap tactics, and the business should come to you naturally.
Test and Scale
We’ve seen businesses that have effectively wasted their marketing budgets, not to mention months of time and effort, by working on things that are a bad fit for them.
Many marketers recommend focusing on one channel at a time and perfecting your strategy there before moving on to the next. This could be Adwords or Facebook ads, for example. The conventional wisdom is that you should develop your skills, maximize ROI, and only then begin to delegate.
But what if the first few chosen marketing tools are a bad fit for your business? It can be a bitter pill to swallow when you realize that there was a fatal flaw to your strategy from the beginning and now you’re running out of money.
Looking at all the big wins that we’ve had at Out of the Box Innovations over the years, we realized that the most effective strategies were never particularly complicated ones; they just happened to be the right strategies for the right products or services at the right times.
Rather than becoming an expert of something that’s never going to work, you should try a test-and-scale strategy. This means running a brief test, then scaling it up for a rough idea of how things might work in the long run. For example, you could run digital ad campaigns at a low daily spend or knock on doors for two weeks, then multiply your stats by 26 to see where you might be in a year.
Sit down, brainstorm, and write a list of all the possible marketing tactics that you could use. Then, order them according to which you think are most likely to work. Following that, all that will remain is the task of testing each one for a minimum amount of time and identifying a pattern. You should easily be able to see what works and what goes down like a lead balloon, allowing you to really hone in on what’s effective for your business and focus your attentions, saving months or years of time, struggle, and your precious budget.
Getting Started With Branding a Small Business
After sales, shipping and other operating essentials, figuring out how to brand a small business and craft a strong company identity should be the top priority.
Products and services can get copied quicker than ever, and those with better unit economics diminish margins. Competition for user attention is incredibly stiff in the digital age.
The only reliable way to build a robust and profitable business now is to have people searching for and choosing your brand specifically, which means you can’t just randomly push content out there and cross your fingers that people will see it and fall into a sales funnel.
Despite our path toward digitalization, us humans still mostly prefer to deal with real people and more ‘approachable’ businesses, not faceless conglomerates. This means that building a brand that’s relatable, trustworthy, and genuine can be a major game-changer for setting yourself apart and securing loyal customers.
Consequently, thoughtful branding of your small business is the ultimate key to larger profit margins and market share.
Developing a Value Proposition
The first step in crafting a solid brand for your business should be coming up with a value proposition.
Follow a three-step process and keep it as simple as possible. You need to cut right to the core and convey in as few words as possible what you do, who you do it for, and the results you’ll get.
For example, here’s our company value proposition:
OOTBI does ROI-focused SEO for companies involved in solar, windows, and safety training. This also means tracking, reporting, and demonstrating the results.
Rather than going into all the types of digital marketing services we do, various kinds of companies we can help, and the niceties of the jobs we do, we just get straight to the point. This makes it memorable, digestible in half a second, and it doubles as an elevator pitch.
With a value proposition like this, prospects will instantly have an idea of whether you’ll be a good fit for their needs. The follow-up questions can come afterwards, once interest has already been sparked.
Get Seen at the Right Time
The average company in most industries isn’t that savvy with nurturing its online presence, and that means they’re missing out bigtime on hooking in new customers and retaining old ones.
We’ll be the case study here. We provide conversion rate optimization, web design and analytics services, but the focus is on revenue-driven SEO. A website redesign or a content marketing campaign can be a rare one-off event for a client. At the same time, our competition constantly sends spam emails offering similar services as us.
So, the difficulty we face is being on the clients’ radar right when they want to invest in their website. When we contact people, it’s common for us to hear ‘not at the moment’ or pick up the pieces after a low-quality job has already been done by charlatans who managed to snipe them when their need was urgent. You no doubt face similar.
There’s no universal solution for this, but again, a strong, trustworthy brand and online presence for any small business will go a long way. By marketing with a consistent voice across multiple channels (social media, website, emails, etc), you’ll stay in people’s minds and hugely increase the odds of them actively coming to you when they need something. This definitely beats having to rely on constant outreach and just crossing your fingers that you hit upon someone looking for what you’re offering.
The Key to Successful Branding for Small Businesses
The most crucial factor in successful branding is positioning yourself correctly in your market. Depending on what exactly your business does, there will be areas where you simply can’t compete, such as for bulk-buy pricing or getting to the first page of Google with competitive keyword terms. As such, it makes sense to really narrow your focus down to a small segment of the market with less contextual competition.
Once you have identified your target audience, you’ll want to try to reach them as directly as you can, bypassing gatekeepers and stymying systems wherever possible.
Being the Face of Your Company
Being the face of your business can be an easy way to keep the human element and lend instant credibility to your propositions, but it’s wise to build a brand image simultaneously in case you want to sell the business off or diversify in some way someday.
Use your own name often, but brand your website, products and so on with a company name. The hope is that the brand of your small business outgrows you, but you want to create a brandable company name that will be easily transferable if you decide to exit.
Being the well-known ambassador and champion of your company but maintaining the company’s separate identity when you’re branding your small business means you get the best of both worlds.
The Human Touch
Offering clients a personal one-on-one connection with the owner or founder of the company they’re dealing with is an advantage that many businesses are either unable to or uninterested in offering.
Our own clients at OOTBI benefit from dealing directly with our founder. We supply web design, SEO, and marketing services for companies in specific industries, so when clients find our company, they see the advantage that we only work with clients just like them. Once they get in touch, our founder interacts with every client throughout the process, even if much of the work is done by other employees or freelancers.
Key people like founders and owners sit at the top of the business structure and thus have the most at stake when it comes to the success or failure of client projects, so clients can feel more confident about not being fobbed off when given a direct line to them.
Having the chance to build working relationships with owners etc is also flattering to the people the business deals with, making them feel like they’re being given special attention from important people.
Protecting Your Online Brand
You need to stay one step ahead with managing your reputation – you don’t want to be caught out when a problem occurs.
Sometimes, companies will have to deal with bad press surfacing in the top ten search engine results. When that happens, they’ll usually be caught out and switch right into disaster-aversion mode. The biggest problem they’ll face is that bad press or reviews and reports can attract unflattering backlinks, then the problem snowballs as problematic pages become more authoritative and harder to beat.
One tactic you can use to pre-empt this issue is capturing the first couple of search pages in advance. Set up some rock-solid social media profiles, get quoted and mentioned on powerful industry and news websites, start on PR and SEO immediately, and you’ll be well positioned to sit far ahead of future bad reviews and press in the search engine rankings.
The Importance of Personal Branding
Personal branding has never been so important, and at the same time, it’s never been easier. This is thanks to a combination of globalization, the internet, and massive demographic shifts.
And why is it now so essential? Because we have moved out of the industrial age and are now wading neck-deep into the technological age, where people consume information and make choices in a totally different way.
Job security is far from what is once was, and people will now not only have more jobs but more full-scale careers over the course of their lifetimes. Now that the average work stint is coming down to only a few years, and the average person will have 12 jobs, everyone has the possibility to become a serial achiever.
For many, the most prominent way that their serial achievements will be chronicled and presented is through their social media presences and blogs. The age of a dry black-and-white corporate-focused resume with a handful of references is over. Who would you prefer to employ: someone with just a good CV and solid references, or someone with those as well as a high-traffic blog in a relevant industry? What if this latter person also had hundreds of thousands of social media followers and could lend some of their branding to your company, all on top of doing the actual job role you’re hiring for?
Creating a strong personal online brand can be the path to opening doors that would never have even existed in the past, let alone been accessible! We can see this in action with YouTube and Instagram ‘influencers’ moving into acting, comedy or singing – Justin Bieber was one of the first examples of this, having been accelerated to global stardom after being discovered through YouTube.
With the power of the internet and these universally accessible platforms, anyone can start making a name for themselves at zero person cost and without the need to ask permission from anyone, all from the comfort of their own bedroom (if they so choose!).
Building an Online Reputation when Branding a Small Business
Unfortunately, despite the practically non-existent barrier to entry, carving out a real successful space for yourself online is easier said than done. There are no shortcuts to fame unless there’s already a good reason for you to have a high profile online, such as if you’re a legitimate industry leader, sports personality, politician, whatever. In these cases, you’ll draw attention effortlessly upon creating accounts, but for the rest of us, there’s a bit more legwork to be done in getting noticed.
To deal with that potentially long and arduous journey of getting your initial followers, you’ll need to cultivate the right mindset. One basic but incredibly important thing that shouldn’t be overlooked when trying to brand your small business is your choice of industry/niche. You need to choose something in which you’ll be happy to spend your life. Also, realize that as soon as you begin, you’re already years ahead of the swathes of daydreamers who haven’t even (and may never get) started.
The Best Way to Improve Your Online Presence
We see people making plenty of mistakes that stem from procrastination and an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude. This means things like building an online presence upon shaky (if not outright crumbling) foundations, and then sitting back and waiting until the need for reform becomes critical to take action.
For example, when someone finally loses their job, they’ll go to dust off their dated resume and update a long-neglected LinkedIn profile. Likewise, many hopeful new business owners will wade into the start-up and entrepreneurial worlds with a new venture whilst have little to no online presence to launch themselves from. Starting a new business is hard enough without also having to haul yourself up from the first rung of the internet ladder!
As with so many other things in life, getting ahead of the curve and being proactive pays dividends. With tenure rates decreasing, job security plummeting, and swathes of people juggling multiple careers, it’s time to be dynamic.
So, for maximum adaptability and insurance, it makes sense that everyone creates three websites:
- A personal blog. Regardless of your industry, this will give insight into your character and act as a showcase for who you really are, what you’ll be like to work with outside of the cut-and-dry business grind.
- A professional blog. This will showcase your expertise in your current industry and can easily be converted into an almost ready-made business website with content, backlinks, age, and authority in the search engines in the future if necessary.
- Finally, a passion website based around a hobby, interest, or worthwhile cause. Depending on your theme choice, this website could later become a money-maker through affiliate marketing.
No need to do all three all at once, and go for quality over quantity. If you think you can only maintain one really good website, then pick whichever will be most useful to you and get to work.
One benefit of creating these long-term internet platforms is that unlike social media pages, you’ll really own these. Whatever you post, you won’t run the risk of being censored, banned, or the website closing down (taking your content with it!).
With extremely approachable software solutions like WordPress and Squarespace now mainstream and the costs of hosting so low, there’s never been a better time to get started.
Takeaway for Branding a Small Business
At the end of the day, the only reliable way to build a robust and profitable business now is to have people searching for and choosing your brand specifically. Branding for a small business that’s relatable, trustworthy, and genuine can be a major game-changer for setting yourself apart and securing loyal customers, and there are multiple ways to go about doing this – the tactics mentioned above are just a few options!