Author Archives Michael J. Coffey

About Michael J. Coffey

Michael started learning about online marketing as the web store manager for a scrappy little game retailer during the "dot com bubble" of the 1990s. Since then he's helped fitness companies, tea wholesalers and retailers, lawyers, clothing designers, restaurateurs, and entrepreneurs in many other fields. In his spare time he drinks very high quality tea, writes letters with a fountain pen, and reads literature.

Dubious Data and Murky Measurements

Eaton’s Special Nickel-Cased Pocket Watch, 1917

“A man with a watch knows what time it is. A man with two watches is never sure.”

—Segal’s Law

Can You Show Me How To Do Data Analysis?

Recently, a person I worked with at a previous job contacted me to ask if she could take me to lunch so I could explain Google Analytics to her.  I was happy to help, but also wanted to help set expectations.  I pointed out that there were thousands of different reports that were possible in GA, and that was even before doing segmenting of visitors, comparing different time periods, and other more advanced ways of looking at the data.

The same week, a client asked me to show him how to interpret a report on Google Analytics.  That one report turned into almost an hour of conversation as we discussed some of the nuances that might be going on in the background behind the chart we were looking at.

Those conversations got me thinking about some of the things that seem obvious to me about looking at website data that don’t necessarily jump out at entrepreneurs who are just getting started marketing online.   One of those things is that the data is rarely clear cut.  Allow me to explain…

A Simple Example of Problematic Data

I track “reach” for my own social media marketing (among other things).  That is, how many times has someone seen something from my brand on social media.  I use Google+, Twitter, and Facebook, and all three have a way of showing what the reach is for your business account.  Easy, right?  Just look up the data for each site, compare them, and then I know how much reach I had on each site.

Au contraire, mon ami!

I bet at this point you expect me to talk about how each site measures reach a little differently and so they can’t be compared, right?  But no!  It’s even more complicated than that.

When I go to Google My Business (the dashboard behind the G+ business page) for my tea-education brand Tea Geek, this is what I see:

Total Views on Google My Business

Easy enough.  My all-time views are 313,846.

But hold on.  Before the site transitioned to the “new” Google+ format, you could display your views on your profile itself.  I switched back to the “classic” view and saw this displayed on the page:
Total Views in the Classic Google Plus version

My all-time views are 474,236.  That’s basically 50% higher.

Let that sink in for a moment.  In one place, Google says my all-time views are 313,846…and in another Google says it’s 474,236.  How can the same source (Google) give such wildly different numbers for the same thing?

Are they the same number…?

Okay, so the first thing I think is that they measure two different things.  I dig into the help files.

The total views number (313k), according to the Google My Business help files, includes how many times I’ve appeared on:

  • Google Maps
  • Google Search
  • Maps for mobile
  • Google+ page (as in, my business “profile”)
  • Other people’s streams (my individual Google+ posts…but it doesn’t count ones that might show up in Gmail)

It also counts views of photos I’ve posted (which might show up in Google+, Search, Image Search, Maps, and other locations).

Okay, and the other, larger number?  It’s supposedly just views of my profile and its contents.  So that would still be my G+ posts, page views, and photos, but probably not Maps, Search, and so forth.  This measure seems to be just looking at views within Google+ itself.  But it’s the bigger number at 474k.

How can it be that looking at a subset of locations returns a bigger number?  As I write this, I have to think it has to do with the time frame.

According to the help files, the smaller number covers the time period from October 1st, 2012 to the present.  I can’t find any data on when the “classic G+” profile number started counting.  However, Google first announced business pages on the social site on 7 Nov 2011.  I created my business page at some point between then and 17 Dec, 2011, when added the page (9 followers!)

In other words, it might be that the profile number is larger because it started counting almost a year earlier…a year in which Google+ was new, and when business pages as a feature was new, and people were trying everything out and seeing what was available.  Then as the looky-loos stopped visiting and the novelty of business pages faded, the Google My Business count started.

At least, that’s my best guess.

Back to the analysis…

The real takeaway here is that analysis isn’t always a clear-cut world where every number is accurate and describes what you think it describes.  And that’s why looking at your website numbers isn’t straightforward and makes analysis a complicated endeavor.  Many measurements are mildly murky.  There’s a whole layer of knowing where inaccuracies might be coming from.  Or watching out for inconsistencies from one source to another (or in this case, from the same source).

Sometimes I’ll send out things you can check for on your own website in my monthly mailing list.  For example, I recently talked about how you can see if spammers have gotten some dubious data into your Google Analytics.  In fact, “data hygiene” is its own area of work, where errors and duplicates and other data problems get cleaned up.  So there are some simple, basic things you can do.  And then there’s the other stuff.

Of course, that’s what I do.  So if this sounds like something you don’t want to do, or seems stressful, or brings up questions in your mind, get in contact with me and maybe I can help out.

Have you run into dubious data or murky measurements?  What impact did it have?  How did you deal with it?  Let me know in the comments!

Image credit:  Wikimedia Commons

Note:  Google says it will soon be defaulting to the “new” version of Google+ for all users, so who knows how long the “classic” version will be available.  

Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  0 Comment  |  in Analysis & Testing

Brainstorming: Terrible for Solving Problems

A thunderstorm in Port-la-Nouvelle, since brainstorming images are boring.

I’d like to illustrate one of the main pitfalls of brainstorming with a situation I see frequently: when I meet with a client for the first time, one of the things I try to determine is “What problem are you trying to solve?”  More often than not, they’re not completely clear themselves.  The typical answers I get include:

  • I need to improve my website
  • I want more sales
  • We’re not using social media very well

Note that while these are, generally, suggesting an area where a problem might exist, they’re not really the problem itself.  Compare to these hypothetical answers:

  • My goal for the website is to get at least 10% of new visitors registered for our free online orientation course, but it’s only getting about 3%.
  • Right now our ecommerce sales are averaging only about $15 each and packing and shipping costs are really eating into profits, so we’d like to get that average sale above $25.
  • We want to be using Pinterest to drive branding and interest in our jewelry line among upper-income white women, but don’t even have an account yet and don’t know how best to approach it.

See how the second list is far more focused on a specific achievable something?  Something you can envision being achieved?  When a new client says they want “more sales,” I typically ask, “So if you make one penny more this year than next, you’d consider that a success?”

The Pitfalls of Brainstorming

Oh, but here’s the pitfall.  Many a business owner’s mind goes directly to the default strategy of many a school or business:  brainstorming.  If you’re not sure, let’s come up with as many ideas as we can!  That’s what being creative looks like!

But here’s what we get when someone starts brainstorming problems:  lots of problems.  Not only that, most of those problems generated would still not be satisfying successes even if they were solved.

In fact, now, instead of just a mushy sense of direction where the problem might lie, you now have a huge pile of items that you probably shouldn’t be worrying about at all, pulling you in every direction.

Convergent vs. Divergent Thinking

More specifically, brainstorming is the wrong strategy because it triggers the wrong kind of thinking.  Solving a problem is convergent thinking–mental effort that converges on a single thing: the solution.  Convergent thinking is, essentially, thinking that eliminates possibilities (such as approaches that won’t likely solve the problem).

Brainstorming, on the other hand is divergent thinking–mental effort that increases the number of options or possibilities.  Creativity is divergent.  But often so is distraction and procrastination.

I once worked for someone who asked me to brainstorm with her different ways she could remember the dates that I’d be out of town.  To do so would have been wasted time because we already had a sufficient solution:  putting the dates on her calendar.  Could we have spent lots of time being creative?  Sure.  But more creativity (read: divergent thinking) would bring us no closer to solving the problem than we already were.  We only needed to implement the solution.

When Convergence is Most Appropriate

We circle back now to the situation I mentioned at the beginning.  “What problem are you trying to solve?”   And think also of another question:  “What could you paint a picture of?”  The first question is likely to have a single best answer.  The other, to have multiple equally valid answers.

That’s the trick here.  As entrepreneurs, we like to think of ourselves as creative problem solvers, but “creative” and “problem solver” require two different, diametrically opposed modes of thinking.

A better way to go about it is to first decide, “Do I want more or fewer things?”

  • If you want to be decisive, you want fewer.
  • If you want to focus, you want fewer.
  • If you want to be clear, you want fewer.

Those are all terrible situations to use brainstorming.  Instead you want to use logic, or to prioritize and eliminate the lowest-priority items.  Sherlock Holmes never said to Watson, “Let’s sit down and brainstorm all the things that might have happened!”  Instead, he said, “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

When Divergence is Most Appropriate

On the other hand, if you’re thinking, “We’ve tried everything and none of it worked,” you want more.  If you’ve been asking, “What else could we offer…?” you want more.  That’s when you brainstorm.  I should note that if it’s clear that you don’t already have a solution to a problem in your set of things you’re considering, then maybe you can brainstorm first–but switch quickly to narrowing!  That’s the scenario much less often than people think, though.

In short, when you are determining a goal, or a problem you intend to work on solving, use processes that converge on your best answer, not generate more.  Eliminate, narrow, and prioritize.

Image by Maxime Raynal from France – Orage PLN, CC BY 2.0,

Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  0 Comment  |  in General Marketing

Ever Have One Of Those Days … All Year Long?


The other day, I was having “one of those days.”  The dish towel got caught on the cabinet knob somehow and ripped.  Trying to put it back, it slipped off and fell in the food waste container.  I went to get some of my allergy pills, sneezed, and dumped them all on the floor.

The thing is, not long before that, I’d had another “one of those days” wherein two different people stole stuff (flowers in one case, and fruit in the other) from my yard, and not in the “feet still on the sidewalk” kind of distance, but fully trespassing first in order to take stuff from our garden.  There was the other-people’s-dogs leaving little gifts for us in the grass.  And the bed frame collapsing.  And the ants invading the living room.  And on and on.

In fact, “one of those days” seemed to stretch back in an almost unbroken series to nearly the beginning of the year.

All this happens in business, too, of course.

Clients cancel at the last minute.  The tax bill is higher than expected, just as everyone starts paying late, seemingly in coordination with one another.  You break your foot and need surgery just days before you’re due to be the speaker at a conference on the other side of the country.  People unexpectedly dispute charges on their bill.  The copier dies.  The shipment of materials for the next batch doesn’t arrive.  The next shipment does arrive, but it turns out to be an empty box or the wrong item.  The roof springs a leak.  Your site gets hacked.  Your email server goes down.  The Internet slows to a crawl just as you need to transfer a ton of data, or upload the new video, or download your presentation.  The tiny screen on the printer demands that you replace the magenta and yellow toner cartridges (which you’re out of and cost $100 each) before you can print the black-and-white documents you need for this afternoon’s event.

And yes, all of those have either happened to me or to a business owner I know, most in the last year.

Individually, each might be relatively minor.  But they stack.  I once saw a bumper sticker that said, “I try to take one day at a time, but sometimes several attack me at once.”

The lesson here is not to try and make these things not happen, because they will.  Sure, make sure you’ve got good procedures and policies in place to minimize the things that could be prevented, but there’s always something else.

What I try to do is build flexibility into my system.  I include contingencies in my procedures.  I work to have a cushion of both time and money for the unforeseen stretch of time (months?  really?) of downturn or rough times or the occasional emergency.  I figure the more my system can give and flex, and the bigger the cushion, the longer I can make it.

But I gotta say…2016 is getting a little ridiculous.  Is it just me, or has it been one of those days pretty much all year?

Image credit:  Théodore Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa”  At least I don’t know of anyone who practiced survival cannibalism this year so far…shipwrecks are a bit beyond “one of those days.”

Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  0 Comment  |  in Goals, Strategy, and Planning

Why Am I Writing This Blog Post?

Image of Thomas Carlyle looking like he wants to know why am I writing this blog post.

Even Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle wonders why I wrote this blog post.

Why am I writing this blog post?  It’s a good question.  It’s also one I can (and will) answer.

Before I do, though, I have three questions for you, which for some reason came to me in a snotty-teen-Valley-Girl tone of voice, so that’s how I’m going to write my headers…

Why Do You Have A Small Business Blog?

Tell me why you have a blog.  Well, you don’t have to tell me, but do think about what your answer would be.  Do you want it to bring in more visitors to your website?  Do you blog because you want to demonstrate your expertise in some area?  Is it there to help you build a community around your product or brand?

Or even:  Do you blog because you heard that’s what you should do if you want to market online but don’t really know what blogging is all about?

Who Does That?

Next, do you have an ideal customer?  This could be a real person, or a fictional “customer avatar,” but it’s basically the idea of the kind of person you’re hoping will be influenced by your blogging activities.

For example, if your answer to the previous question was about building a community, the person you should think about would be the kind of person that would ideally be part of this community.  If your “why” answer was about showing off your authority in an area, who do you want to impress with your vast knowledge?

Got that real-or-fictional person in mind?  Good.

What Is Their Problem?

What is this person concerned about?  What questions do they ask?  If you chose a real-life person, or combined aspects of various people you know to make your fictional person, what are their common needs, problems, questions, anxieties, frustrations, or issues?

And to be fair, think of the flip side, too.  Do you know what they enjoy?  What delights them?  What makes them laugh?  It’s not all about problems, after all.

If you’ve been in business for a while, you’ve probably talked to a bunch of folks and know the most common answers.  Great.

What’d You Put Down For Question 3?

Okay, so here are my answers to the previous questions.

I have a business blog because I want to teach small business owners how they can use the Internet more effectively.  A secondary reason is that it can be a demonstration both of my expertise, and my ability to get the ideas across to those who aren’t techno-geeks…maybe even those who aren’t particularly comfortable with technology.

That, of course, is also a description of my ideal client: a small business owner (or maybe someone who’s not yet started), who knows the Internet has some powerful tools for marketing, but who would much rather help their customers than learn and play around with the technology.  Can you picture that person?  Sound like you or someone you know?

My full client avatar is actually a 53-year-old woman of color, too, but those attributes aren’t as crucial for my point here.  However, notice how you might find the lower interest in the online world, or higher anxiety about technology in general, in this demographic compared to the average white guy in his 20s.*

Finally, the problem usually focuses around some kind of question related to the online world.  That might be, “What is this whole social media thing?  I don’t get it.”

Or “How can I improve this page so that it gets more sales/subscriptions/etc?”

Or “Why are my online sales going down?  We haven’t done anything different.”

But the real problem is that often rather than finding out the real answer, my target client will guess and then act on it.  But the guess is often wrong.  And that leads to more problems.

Okay, So Why Am I Writing This Blog Post?

Simple.  To answer a frequently seen problem among my target audience, as a way to increase their marketing effectiveness.

See, lots of business bloggers, particularly if they’re running a solo- or micro-enterprise, think that blogging is just talking about stuff.  Whatever idea comes up that the owner thinks is interesting or cool or shows them off well is what they should be writing.  But while that’s sometimes the case, it’s often not.

What really matters is what the target market wants to see, not what the author wants to produce.

When sitting down to write your next blog article, then, think about those three questions.  What is the intended purpose of your blog?  What people help you with that purpose?  What do those people want?  Then write something that addresses that question, or issue, or desire.

In other words, shift your focus from yourself to your audience before even coming up with an idea of what to write.

Did this help?  Did you learn something, or at least get a different perspective on blogging?  Let me know in the comments.  (And if you really feel a burning desire to actually tell me what your blog’s purpose is, you can do that in the comments, too!)

* Also, if you find it troublesome that women and people of color are under represented in the world of technology, check out Black Girls Code, a nonprofit program I recently heard about and think is really cool.

Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  0 Comment  |  in Blogging

8 Reasons Your Small Business Shouldn’t Do Search Engine Optimization (SEO)


Search engine optimization is a process where you make changes to your website so that specific pages on your site rank higher for particular searches on the search engine results pages (SERPs). This can be beneficial because in general, the further down in a SERP, or the number of pages from the first, the less traffic you’ll get. So the better your ranking, the more people are likely to come to your site.

“Great! Let’s do it!” you may be thinking. But wait! There are many good reasons to NOT do SEO for your small business. You may be wasting time and energy by focusing on this one marketing behavior instead of something that will serve your business better. I’ve pulled together a list of some of the most common reasons to do something other than SEO.

1. Don’t yet have a marketing strategy

Search engine optimization is just one tactic that can, and should be, aligned with a broader strategy. Try to fill in the missing information in this sentence:

I’ve chosen SEO as a tactic because it’s the best one to achieve (INTERMEDIATE STEP) which supports the larger business goal of (MEASURABLE LONG-TERM GOAL)

If it isn’t patently obvious what should go in those two blanks, try reading my previous blog posts on business goals and marketing strategy and work on those ideas before you ask your digital strategist if SEO is right for you.

2. Your ideal and most common client behaviors are a mystery

You get paid when certain people take certain actions, but the specifics of that ideal action depend on what kind of business you run. If you make money because of ads on your website, the “certain actions” would be visiting your website and occasionally clicking on an ad. If you have an ecommerce site, it’s adding an item to the shopping cart and going through the checkout process. If you sell a services, maybe it’s filling out a form to get a quote or request a website diagnostic.

Before you start doing SEO, you need to know a couple of things. First, you need to be very specific about what that goal behavior is, and on what page or pages it can happen (yes, make a list–even if that’s a spreadsheet of web links to every single product on your website). That’s the ideal behavior.

Also figure out what people actually do. It’s often not the ideal, but can reveal all kinds of interesting things about what they really want or need, and how they’re trying to go about it. The more you understand your visitors, the easier it will be to optimize your pages not only for the search engines, but also to guide them toward your goal behaviors.

3. Don’t know where your most likely “converters” come from

Following on the previous item, let’s assume that you know the ideal behavior is that you count as a “conversion.” Next, you’ll need to use some web traffic analysis to divide people into two groups: Those who did the thing, and those who didn’t. Once they’re divided—or “segmented” as it’s typically called—you need to see if the Converters group were more likely to come from a search engine than people who didn’t.

If you go through all that, and find that your Converters are indeed coming from search engines far more often than your Non-Converters, then SEO is a good choice. Why? Because it will likely bring you in more people who will do the thing that makes you money. But if there’s no difference in search engine traffic between the groups, or if the Non-Converters are more likely to come through search, then SEO isn’t the best next step for you. You might be working hard only to bring in the wrong people.

4. You need immediate results

One way to tell people who don’t know what they’re doing with SEO, or who are more on the scammy side, is when they say they can guarantee you quick and/or guaranteed results. Google and Bing use hugely complex and largely secret methods to determine what to show in SERPs. But what the real, legitimate folks in the field will tell you is that it often takes several weeks, if not months, to really start making a difference. And that’s especially true if you’re not looking in the right places for indications of change.

Part of what makes this complicated is that not only does nobody know for sure (except the software engineers at Google and Bing) what criteria are used to rank results, but where you rank is also influenced by everything that all of your competitors are doing. Not only that, but with a few exceptions, information about what the searcher is, and has been, doing affects the listings as well.

So SEO is a highly dynamic and constantly shifting situation. In a way, it’s kind of like a logroll—the longer you do it, the more impressive it is.  That means lots of time behind the scenes, not results you can see in a couple of days.

Two people logrolling, which is like SEO because the longer you do it the more impressive it is

Image credit:

5. Aren’t yet building a list

I often quote a phrase I first heard from James Wedmore when I was a member of Reel Marketing Insider:  “If I don’t have a list, I don’t have a business.” He was specifically speaking of an email list of people who have expressed interest in what you do, but it could easily apply to more traditional forms of the same thing. (Do you still have a Rolodex? A file cabinet with paper copies of forms filled out by clients? Those are “lists” as well…just in a more inconvenient format for regular use.)

Don’t do SEO if you either haven’t collected your list, or aren’t using it as a business resource. This is a much lower-hanging fruit, and one that often can be more valuable to act on. They do say that it’s much easier and less expensive to make another sale to a previous customer than to bring in someone new. You can building your list, get permission to contact them so that they expect to hear from you, provide them value over time, and occasionally offer something they can buy.  That’s far easier and more direct than optimizing all the pages of your website for the robotic spiders indexing the Internet and diving into the motivations of people who might be searching for something related to what you do.

6. You don’t treat your website like an employee

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking no further than “I need a website.” However, the most successful companies treat their website like an employee. You wouldn’t hire someone without knowing what you expected them to do, simply hoping that having them around doing whatever it is that they end up doing will somehow helping your business. Yet that’s exactly how many business owners treat their website—particularly new entrepreneurs or those who aren’t very into the technology.

If this sounds vaguely like you, and you’re considering SEO, first do some prep and write your digital “employee” a job description. What are they supposed to be doing with their time? Getting you more leads to follow up on? Making sales while you’re out of the office? Giving future visitors directions to the shop? Write down what you’re expecting your website to do for you. Give it performance targets. Until you have that information, search engine optimization isn’t going to do you any good. And you might find that you’ve been optimizing the wrong pages, or optimizing for the wrong kinds of searches, once you do figure out what the website should be doing for you.

7. Your website doesn’t do its job very well yet

To extend from the previous item, if you’ve got a job description for your website, it’s time for an employee evaluation. How well is it doing what you set out for it? Has it met its performance targets? Is there room for improvement? The result of SEO, if done correctly, is more of the right people coming to your site. But if it’s not performing optimally, you’re throwing away opportunities. It’s better to make sure your site will handle more visitors the way you want before you send more visitors to it.

Have you ever had the experience of being in the express checkout line at the grocery store and thought that they must have put the new trainee cashier there because the regular non-express lines are going faster than the express ones? Well, that’s the experience you’re giving your customers if you do SEO before you get your site working effectively and efficiently at carrying out its duties.

Doing this will take some careful looking at your web traffic numbers. Traffic analysis, customer paths, conversion rates, and more will be your friend when turning your site into a smooth-running machine that does that thing you want done from #6, above.

8. Looking at the code scares you

There’s a whole big chunk of search engine optimization that requires you get into the code that makes up your website. If looking at HTML code seems daunting, or you have no idea what rel=nofollow or meta-description means, then SEO isn’t something you’ll do well…at least not for a while.  Now, you could hire someone to do it for you, or you could just focus on what is going to make your business successful: serving your customers well, and developing loyal relationships with them. And you know what? If you’re not being too sales-y on your website, and not trying any tricky short-cuts, but just being helpful and useful to your potential customers, you’re doing most of the non-technical SEO stuff anyway.

For example, some of the high-impact SEO elements that don’t require much technical knowledge include providing high-quality content, making the text (regular page or article text, as well as titles, headlines, captions, and so on) clear about what that particular page is for or what question it answers, and being an authority in your field that people might link to or share on social media. And you should be doing those things anyway, whether you’re “doing SEO” or not.

In short…

Search engine optimization is a powerful, though complex, activity that can really improve your business.  However, many small business owners jump straight to that when there are many other things that might be more effective.  Particularly early on, you need to spend your time and energy where it’s best used, and that’s often not doing SEO.

What are your experiences around this?  Did you go the SEO route?  How did that work out for you?  Did you pick something else?  Are you happy with your choice?  Leave your answers in the comments below!

Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  0 Comment  |  in SEO

7 Reasons to Learn Headline Writing

Illustration showing someone learning to write headlines, or at least writing something.

Why learn to write good headlines?

Originally, I was going to write an article on how to write a good headline for a blog post, but in doing a little research, I noticed two things: First, there are a lot of articles on that topic, and second, many give the why short shrift. While the how is certainly a useful skill to master, and one that I may still write myself about in the future, if you don’t understand what that skill will give you, you’ll never prioritize learning it.  I put together what I think are seven key reasons to learn headline writing.

1) Your headline is the article’s “first impression”

One of the statistics I’ve seen again and again is that roughly 80% of people read a headline, but only 20% go further. So if you work the basic idea of your article into the headline or title, you’ll actually reach a larger audience. For example, the title of this post: 7 Reasons to Learn Headline Writing. For the 80% of people who only read the headline, they’ll still go away understanding that there are many reasons to increase their skill in headline writing. That in itself might be enough to plant a seed in their mind, or adjust they way they think a little bit.

2) Learn headline writing and you’ll use it everywhere

When you learn to write good headlines, you’re learning a skill that can serve in a variety of situations. The same thing that makes a good blog headline also makes a good title for your white paper that you give away as part of your lead capture system. Or the title of the page where people subscribe to your email list. The same rules serve you well when writing email subject lines.  The skill applies to social media posts and image captions. Learn headline writing once, use it a thousand times.

3) Directly and positively impact your sales

Online experiments, something I do for my clients, can often show big gains when a headline is improved. One business I worked with experimented with the bold “headline” text on a coupon they used. One version used their usual positive tone, the other was more of a warning about something negative. The new version had significantly increased responses. In this example, we could actually measure how much more business the better headline had brought in, and that’s not an unusual thing to see when doing headline tests.

4) Sometimes the headline is all you can see

People share links all the time on social media.  Sometimes, the only thing that shows up in the preview is the title of the page. Guess what? Yup, another place the headline shows up. When people share your blog article with their friends on Facebook or Google+ or wherever, you don’t know how it will display because you don’t control your their sharing behavior.  However, almost all sites display at least the headline in link-type social posts.  Here’s an example of how one share of a link to this blog was shown on Facebook:

Facebook's display of a link showing only the headline; learn to write headlines well so when this happens people have a better chance of visiting

Notice that it didn’t pull any images from that page, and only a tiny amount of the text of the article.  The main thing people have to go on is that big text at the top, which happens to be part the title of the article.  This ties in a little bit to #1 on the list, but in the case of many “previews” on social media sites, it’s not that only 20% read the article, but that they actually can’t read the article unless they take the extra step of clicking on the link and opening it up. A good headline can actually make that happen, which leads us to…

5) A good headline drives action

When you want readers to do something, it’s often advised that you include a “call to action.” This is where you say, “Call now,” or “Click here,” or “Subscribe to get your free gift” or whatever, you’re calling people to action. Although CTAs are typically much shorter than a full headline, they draw from the same set of skills to engage readers and pull them in. So even if you’re not focused directly on sales, but rather getting more people looking at your stuff, sharing your content, or subscribing to your YouTube channel, good headline writing will help with all those goals as well.

6) Search Engine Optimization

Search engines aren’t really that smart. They’re improving a lot, but they’re still just machines. How do you help the search engines understand what your article is about so that they are more likely to show it in the search results of your target market? You bet, you write better headlines. There are lots of things that impact what pages show up where on the search results, but the title of a page and its major headlines are a couple of the big ones. Why? Because search engines want to show results that are relevant to the searcher’s needs, which means the search engine needs to “understand,” at some level, what the page is about. What better way than using what humans do to get a sense of an article–look at the headline! Your headline writing will help you reach not only the humans you’d like to connect with, but also the computers who can help you do that.

7) There’s some fascinating psychology involved

This one’s just kind of fun. It’s not necessarily about your business directly, but human beings are kind of interesting.  Marketers and writers, and all those other folks who regularly have to write effective headlines, have learned all kinds of quirks about human behavior. For example, earlier I mentioned the experiment comparing a positive and negative headline. I was not surprised that the negative one came out on top because psychologists have found that the fear of loss is about twice as strong in most people than the desire for gain. (Test this out on yourself: if a stranger came up and offered to give you $10 if a coin flip comes up heads, but you’d have to give him $10 if it came up tails, would you take it? What if he’d give you $20 if you won, but you only had to give him $10 if you lost?) These are the sorts of things you’ll end up learning about when building your headline writing skills. And that’s kinda fun.

While it’s not specifically about learning headline writing, this recent article about a “social network mind trick” from Kelsey Libert on the blog is just such an interesting tidbit of psychology that I’m talking about.

Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  0 Comment  |  in Blogging, Email & Lead Capture

Stop Guessing! Find The Right Answer Instead

Catherine M. Rooney with her 6th grade class, 1943.

Previously on this blog, I’ve written about determining if you have an online marketing strategy and how focused it is, setting business goals as a part of that strategy, and being clear what key performance indicators would measure progress to those goals. I’ve even touched on doing experiments to increase effectiveness. All along, I’ve been saying this stuff is important and lead your small business to greater success online. What I’d like to do here is show how these things interconnect. In a nutshell: they help you stop guessing.

Why should I stop guessing about marketing?

The first question we should get out of the way is maybe, “What do you mean by ‘guessing’?”  Many entrepreneurs and small business owners that I’ve talked to over the roughly 15 years I’ve been coaching do this thing where, in areas they’re not highly skilled, they latch onto the first idea that occurs to them.  I sometimes tell the story of a client who decided to use Twitter to market her product.  When I asked why social media, and Twitter in particular, she explained that she wouldn’t be overwhelmed by writing 140 characters.  No mention of whether or not her target market was on Twitter, or if it was a good format for getting across her marketing message, or what business benefit she hoped to get out of it.

That’s what I call “guessing.”

She didn’t have any business-based reason for doing what she was doing.  She didn’t have information supporting the decision, and she wasn’t even going about collecting data to see if the decision made sense.  She just picked something and went with it.  Granted, she did have “reasons”—her own convenience, mainly—but that’s not what makes business success.

In contrast, I often say I love Google+ for marketing.  If someone asked me why, I’d say, “Because although it’s not my #1 source of website traffic or even my top source of traffic from social media, it is by far where the most likely buyers come from for my business.  It’s also where the most social media interaction happens (total and per-follower), as well as exposure-per-follower.”  And I could go into how important interaction and exposure are as it relates to reaching my target market, since small business owners and entrepreneurs are more likely to strike out on their own rather than clustering into groups like some markets.  See how that’s a different kind of answer to “why are you using that particular social media site”?

It may go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway just in case: just because you like doing something, or even do something well, doesn’t mean that’s automatically a ticket to success.

To answer the question in the header of this section, then, you should stop guessing about your online marketing because it’s not consistent or methodical; it’s a poor, haphazard way of making progress to the successes you’d like to achieve.

So take a moment and think about each of the marketing things you do and ask yourself why you chose those things.  Can you show measurable data to “prove” that you’re making the right choices?  Can you tie those choices to your business goals?  If you can’t approximate an answer like I gave for Google+ above, then you’re probably “guessing” about your marketing, and therefore probably doing things that aren’t as effective as they could be.

Is there any role for guessing?

Actually there is.  It’s at the very beginning of any of those parts mentioned earlier.  When you’re trying to figure out what your business goals are, you’ll be guessing.  When you’re setting up your first strategy document, you’ll be guessing.  But the most important and consistent place you’ll be guessing is at the beginning of any experiment.

Let’s say that you have your web designer make a site for you.  Every choice made by your designer is a guess.  They aren’t going to know what placements or color choices or photos are going to make your website a perfect engine of business.  Now, they’ll probably make something that looks pretty good, and that in itself will help retain visitors who are sensitive to that kind of thing.

But that’s just the beginning point.  From there you can begin running experiments to see if the red button, or the green button, or the blue button gets more clicks.  Or if the photo with the product by itself, or the one being held by a person, increases purchases for that product.

In other words, you start with a guess, then you refine and collect information until what you’re doing is no longer a guess, but a honed plan backed up by data.

Data is more crucial than you think.

I know it’s overwhelming or scary to a lot of new entrepreneurs, and you don’t need something else on your plate.  But I really want to urge you to look at the importance of data in what you do in your business, even if the business is just you…maybe even just you when you’re not at your day job.  Data is still crucial.

I recently saw an interview with Eileen Burbidge, business advisor to UK Prime Minister David Cameron and to the mayor of London.  Before she was in the UK, she worked at little businesses like Apple, Sun Microsystems, Skype, and Yahoo.  What struck me was this quote:

Lots of traditional industries started by doing digital as part of their customer engagement, advertising and brand, but now they are having to think about how it will transform their businesses, their core propositions. It’s like changing the engines on an airliner while it’s mid-air. It really is the second industrial revolution, it is on that scale.

Or think of it another way:  The term “digital native” refers to people who grew up with the Internet.  They’ve never known a time when they couldn’t get online.  The dividing line for this is often given as people who were born in 1980 or later.  In other words, as I write this at the end of 2015, anyone under the age of 35 is a digital native.  We’re in reach of two full generations that expect to be able to do things digitally.

Demographically speaking, the digital natives are very close to 50% of the US population.  (Worldwide, we’ve already passed 50%.)  Of course, every passing year just makes that number grow.

Therefore, using the Internet well is, as Eileen Burbidge put it, on the scale of the industrial revolution.  And the currency of the Internet is data.

Business used to be about making shrewd guesses and following hunches because it was just too cumbersome to collect and crunch the data needed to make well-informed decisions unless you were one of the big guys.

Those days are gone.

Even if you’re a part-time business owner, you have more access to more accurate data at your fingertips—much of it for free, no less—than any business but the giants ever did before.

There’s no excuse not to be using it.  In fact, if you’re not using it, you’re falling behind.  I really can’t think of a nicer way to say it.  So stop guessing.

Instead, start knowing.

Image source:  U.S. National Archives

Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  0 Comment  |  in Goals, Strategy, and Planning

Does My Small Business Have A Marketing Strategy?

21589500680_77e8faa9a1_o cropped

I’ve talked elsewhere on this blog about what strategy is and why it’s important.  But I just realized I hadn’t put together a list of questions to help you figure out if you’ve got one for your business, and if so, how finely tuned or tight it is.  Does your small business have a marketing strategy, or are you in danger of running aground?

So here you go…be sure to count the number of “yes” answers you get.

  1.  Do you have a set of 3 – 10 specific actions that you take to build your business?  If you haven’t determined a list of the things that are “in” (as in, “my business does this to grow”) and the things that are “out” (likewise, “my business doesn’t do that”), then you don’t have a strategy.  Period.  As I’ve said in classes and other articles, strategy is selecting the best course and not wasting time on less-effective paths.  A random shotgun approach isn’t a strategy.
  2. Do you take these actions regularly?  I want to emphasize the word regularly because often business owners are so busy they aren’t doing their chosen things consistently, and that consistency is an important part of a marketing strategy.  However, “regularly” doesn’t have to be daily.  Maybe it’s a once-a-month industry networking event, or a blog post every other week.  But it has to be something that you will do at appropriate intervals.
  3. Did you choose those actions because you know they actually build your business?  The potential pitfall here is regularly doing actions you’ve heard work for some people, and/or choosing them because they’re “smart strategies.”  (Really, in this context, they’re tactics, not strategies.)  But effort put into a strategy that doesn’t produce results isn’t smart no matter how you cut it.  Can you point to leads, opportunities, or customers that you got because of each of your chosen actions?
  4. Can you quantify how effective they are?  There is certainly an element of serendipity in marketing.  You can’t always be sure where the next opportunity is going to come from, but you can certainly keep track of where the ones you get originated.  Do you have a way of measuring the effectiveness of each action?  Can you pull up a list of the leads you got from the networking event?  Or show what percentage of people who read your blog go on to purchase from your store or sign up for your list?  If you can’t say “Yes” to at least 80% of your listed actions, you have to take a “No” for this question.
  5. Have you experimented with other actions, using the measurements in the previous question to update your action list?  Here’s the gold standard for marketing strategy.  If you are regularly evaluating your list, using the metrics of effectiveness to prioritize what you’re doing (and more importantly, what you’re choosing not to do), then you get a “Yes” here.  But if you choose mainly based on what seems easiest, or makes you feel good, or have been doing exactly the same thing for more than a year without checking the numbers, you have to take a “No.”

If you got all five, congratulations!  You have  a focused, self-correcting business strategy!  However, if you got a “No” on any of them, it’s time to spend a little time on whatever the earliest question is where you ran off the road.  I put the questions in the order of strategic refinement.  Go back to your first “No” on the list and you’re looking at the question that is going to be the biggest bang for your buck.

Questions 1 and 2 can be addressed by most people with a little planning and time management.  Once we hit Question 3, knowing that your actions are actually building results for you, it sometimes takes some technical know-how.  Yes, with the right tools and setup, you can know if the Facebook ad campaign you ran sent you visitors, or how many blog readers you have.

Question 4 adds a little bit extra to what’s needed in #3, namely having some additional analysis (and sometimes a new data-collecting tool or the like).  So instead of just knowing of that ad campaign sent visitors, you can actually find out how many dollars of e-commerce revenue you got because of it, or the number of newsletter registrations came from your blog readers.  This level gets answers that are far more granular and specific.  (And if the thought of learning all this gives you chills of horror, contact me because I love doing this kind of thing.)

Finally, Question 5 brings us back around to a time-management thing you can probably do on your own, but with a twist: you need to be in a “big picture” mindset, not a “what do I need to get done?” or “what do I like to do?” mindset.  You’ll need to mentally step outside your business and look at it dispassionately from the outside.  And that’s really difficult for some people.  Often it helps to have a mentor (or, dare I say, a business coach) to help get you into that right mental space on occasion to reevaluate using the new information you have.

I hope this was helpful, but either way, please let me know your thoughts in the comments below!  Thank you!

Image Source.  Modified from the original by Michael J. Coffey

Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  0 Comment  |  in Goals, Strategy, and Planning

OMG! What Happened To My Social Media? It Isn’t Working Like It Used To!

Woman freaking out because her favorite social media site changed

You’ve just logged into your favorite social site, and now it’s different.  “Where did the button for X go?”  “Hey, that doesn’t take me to Y any more!”  “What happened to the Z feature?”  The panic begins to rise.  You start thinking back to whether you did anything different to cause this problem.  “Did I click on something I wasn’t supposed to by accident?”

Relax!  Social media sites change.  Sometimes it’s a tiny thing, and sometimes it’s a big thing.  Sometimes you get notification that a change is coming, and other times you don’t.  That’s just how it is.

But take this moment to savor the opportunity.

“Opportunity?” you exclaim.  “Everything’s messed up!  I don’t know how to get my regular stuff done any more!  I’m back to square one!”

Precisely!  You are back to square one.  But the opportunity is that so is everyone else.

A frequent refrain from the less tech-savvy folks I work with is that there’s so much to learn and that they fear they’ll never learn everything they have to in order to be effective.  But when a social media site changes things, everyone goes back to square one.  At least briefly.

Granted, those of us with a bit more experience will probably get up and running again a little faster than those starting from scratch the first time.  However, it’s in these moments of equalizing and resetting that the newbie can make a bunch of progress relative to the “experts.”  They are just as unaware of what the new thing does, or where that old feature went to.

Rather than sitting back and wanting to wait until the experts figure everything out, then, what you should be doing is leaning in because you are just as much an expert as anyone else right now.  Figure something out yourself, then look for others who are asking about that thing.  Answer their question.

Now who’s the expert?

You are.


(Note: This article was triggered by the Google+ redesign launch of mid-November 2015.  However, the same dynamic came up in 2011, for example, when Facebook launched the “Timeline” or when Twitter made video content more prominent, or Pinterest changed both their terms of service and how pinning worked, and will continue to be the case in almost every social media site change for as long as there are social media sites.)

Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  0 Comment  |  in Social Media, Tools & Terms

Focus with the Ladder of Desire

Ladder rising from darkness into a brightly lit openingLike it or not, we’re all human (except for the spiders, of course). You are, your customers are, and I am. As humans, we’re not entirely clear on what we’re trying to achieve, or even if we are, we often don’t articulate it very well. Whether you’re not entirely sure what your clients want, or what you want, I may have an idea to help you bring more of these things into focus: the Ladder of Desire. I’ll first cover the idea itself, then get into how it can help you understand and better serve your customers, and to clarify your own needs.

If you’re confused about the spiders reference above, I recently talked about the “spiders” that crawl the Web in my newsletter.  Subscribe to get a monthly tech term defined, tips for improving your online marketing, and more!

The Ladder of Desire–An Overview

I was reminded of this idea while reviewing notes I took in a workshop a while back. The Ladder of Desire divides the strength and type of desire a person has for something into three broad categories. As you go up the ladder, the intensity of desire increases. Similarly, both the price tag and the involvement of others also increase.

Rung 1: Lowest desire for help/product/service, lowest cost, and lowest involvement for a supplier, consultant, expert, or other person who might be brought in for help. This is the “tell me how to do it” level. If you want a chocolate cake, Rung 1 would be represented by a cake recipe. It’s cheap, requires very little effort from someone else, and depending on your personality, motivation, and skill level, least likely to actually result in a chocolate cake that you can enjoy.

Rung 2: Step up a rung for a medium level of desire, cost, and involvement. This is the “show me how to do it,” or “do it with me” level. When a potential client says to me, “I could use a little hand holding,” I know they fall in this category. With our cake example, this would be a baking class. It’s more expensive than a recipe, and the baker or pastry chef needs to expend more time and effort than they would if they just handed you a recipe card, but most of us would be more likely to achieve a delicious chocolate cake afterward.

Rung 3: The top rung is where everything is cranked up to the highest level. Here’s where people say, “I’m willing to pay for you to do it for me.” If you’re married, did you take a baking class to learn how to make your own wedding cake?  Probably not. Instead, most people pay a lot of money for a skilled professional to take care of it for them so that they just go directly to the goal without worry or mishap.

Here’s where human nature gets funny, though. Lots of people are torn between valuing their money and valuing their time, between wanting the skill and wanting the result of the skill. In my own family, a story often told of my uncle was that as a child he’d complain that he wanted to be a great pianist but without practicing. And this is where the goal setting gets confused, and why the Ladder of Desire helps.

Serving Your Clients with the Ladder of Desire

It is a rare client who comes in knowing, and able to express, precisely what they want from you. Usually there’s some shopping around, or exploration, or asking questions. See if you can estimate which rung they’re on, first, because that is going to help guide the conversation.

For example, I used to work in a tea shop. Some customers were at a low level of desire. Maybe this was their first time into a tea shop at all, or they’d heard tea was good for you or something and wanted to look into it. I’d usually give those people our one-page price list of our most popular teas, including descriptions of each.  But some had specific questions about brewing tea (“What’s the difference between a teapot and tea kettle?” or “How do you use a gaiwan?”), so I would do a little demonstration. Customers could “try out” teapots to see how they felt to pour, whether they dripped, and so on. That’s a Rung 2 sort of activity. And, of course, we put on occasional immservie experiences like tea dinners–where the food is prepared with tea, and other teas are paired with the dishes. Or professional-level tea tastings. These were high-ticket items because they required the most from us as a shop, and only the die-hard tea aficionados (that is, Rung 3) would sign up.

The usefulness of the ladder doesn’t end there, however. In addition to helping identify what a customer might be most likely to purchase, you can also use the ladder to create new products or services. Are you serving each level of the ladder equally well? Are you pricing them accordingly?

Finally, you can also use the ladder as a way to draw people in. People who have engaged with you at Rung 1 are warm leads for Rung 2. After all, if they have your instruction sheet, or recipe, or price list, they have expressed interest in your offering. That’s warmer than random people off the street. Can you find a way to get those people to “buy up the ladder”? Perhaps they’re at a lower rung than they really should be, and the right conversation or the right offer will help them understand that they should be higher up…meaning both that they are better served and you’re increasing revenue.

Understanding Your Own Goals with the Ladder

Your busisiness is also someone else’s customer. So are you in your non-business roles. All of your vendors, suppliers, shops, restaurants, and other folks you do business with see you as a customer, but they may not be thinking with the Ladder of Desire. However, they’re going to love it if you’ve already done so.

When I worked at the Washington Women’s Business Center, we’d often tell people that every business owner should identify an accountant, a lawyer, and an insurance broker that they’d like to work with. (Now, I’d add a digital strategist because the Internet is so important to businesses these days, but as a digital strategist myself, I’m a bit biased.) Let’s say your business is fairly new and you’re still looking for an accountant. What’s your desire level? Are you looking for a book or software recommendation so that you can take care of everything on your own (Rung 1)? Do you want to take a Quickbooks class so that someone can answer your questions as you learn how to use the software package (Rung2)? Or do you want someone to just take all your numbers, put them in, and file your taxes for you (Rung 3)?

What do you really want? Going into a conversation with an accountant knowing that information will be so much more productive.

If you find a conflict in your desires, that can be useful as well. What if you want the Rung 3 work, but can probably only afford the Rung 2 level of service? That’s something you can articulate more clearly now! “I’d really love to have someone who can do all of this for me, but I’m just not there financially yet. How would you suggest I prioritize the services you offer? How have your other clients dealt with this situation? If I can only pay for you to guide me on a few things, what’s going to give me the most bang for my buck?”

Put It Into Action

Here’s your assignment: Go out into the world this week. Whenever you’re in a place where you can watch people doing commerce of any kind, from the grocery store to your own business, try to keep the Ladder of Desire in mind. See if you can develop a “sixth sense” for which rung someone is on. When you’re looking at advertising or marketing–yours or someone else’s–identify which rung is being offered. Is this “tell me how,” “show me how,” or “do it for me”? Raise your awareness and see how it can help you see things differently, be more clear of what you want, and what you might be able to offer your customers.

Image:  Alcove house entrance, Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico, USA, by Wingchi Poon (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Posted by Michael J. Coffey  |  0 Comment  |  in General Marketing
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