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Why you need to blog for your readers first and search engines second

October 19, 2010 by Fiona Humberstone

Blogging has many benefits. It will help you build relationships with your clients and prospective clients. It enables you to demonstrate your expertise and helps you gain immediate feedback on an idea. And done correctly, you’ll also gain targeted leads. Oh, and the traffic you receive from your fabulous content will also help you in the search rankings.

There’s a reason I added SEO (search engine optimisation) as an afterthought – it’s because it should be when it comes to blogging. SEO is a nice outcome from a good blog – not the reason for its being.

At a recent blogging workshop I ran, a large chunk of our audience was motivated to blog because of the perceived SEO benefits. They felt that if they could manipulate their blog to bring them in thousands of visitors, that would have a positive impact on their website. I’m delighted to report that by the end of the day they all felt different.

Your blog will receive thousands of visitors if the content is great, if it looks good and you post regularly. You’ll build up a following of loyal readers who will recommend your blog to their friends and where it features in the search engines will be but a distant memory. You’ll be generating enough business from the blog that it won’t matter.

Recently, I stumbled upon a blog that had clearly been contrived to provide search traffic for the writer’s business. It was an imagery-based website and the images were gorgeous. Sadly, I felt a little “used” because the writer clearly wasn’t writing for my benefit, she was writing for the search engines. She’d clearly handpicked a couple of search terms (and no, I won’t tell you what they are). Every blog title was pumped full of these keywords. And scrolling down the list I could see this wasn’t a one off, this was a search engine optimisation onslaught.

Imagine this blog, full of lovely images but pumped full of keywords that mean very little in relation to the post they’re describing. How would you feel as you were reading it? Like a valued reader who just had to return to see what said company had been up to or a little used and worthless that the point of the blog was simply to scramble the website up the search rankings?

There’s an art to using your blog to gain traffic and pumping your titles and posts full of “clever” keywords. I’m not suggesting that it won’t work from an SEO point of view – I’m sure it does. But my point is that this isn’t a blog.

A blog is your chance to journal what’s going on in your world. It enables you to showcase your expertise, build relationships and generate profitable business. Make the most of the opportunity: if you don’t, your competitors certainly will.

Fiona Humberstone, Flourish design & marketing

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The Apprentice: cuulis and cat fights

October 15, 2010 by Rachel Miller

Missed the second episode? Catch up here.

The task

Heathrow Terminal Five. The candidates are hoping to jet off somewhere hot. But Sir Alan is just messing with their minds. The two teams are staying in London to design and produce a beach accessory and try and sell it to three retailers — Boots, online retailer Kit2Fit and World Duty Free.

The best bits

Product design always entertains. The boys plus Stella English come up with a multi-purpose towel/bag/cooler which they call the Cuuli complete with umlauts. They’ve succumbed to the temptation to create a product that does several different things. It makes for an entertaining if amateur pitch. But this multi-function approach rarely works in the real world. It fails to impress two of the retailers but Kit2Fit does put in an order for 100 units.

The worst bits

The girls come up with a product that is almost as bad as the cardboard camping shelving unit of the last series of Junior Apprentice. It’s a device to hold your book. But it doesn’t do that very well and the girls get no orders at all. Worst of all, however, is the moment when the mighty Boots offer to work with the girls on improving the design as long as they are prepared to offer exclusivity. An amazing offer. And team leader Laura Moore turns it down. Accusations fly in the boardroom. It’s not cool — or even cuuli.

The losers

The girls have blown it and Laura brings Joanna Riley and Joy Stefanicki back into the boardroom with her. Joanna’s crime is to be a self-confessed “gobshite”. Joy’s, it seems, is that she hasn’t pulled her weight. Laura made a colossal mistake turning down Boots’ offer of exclusivity. But she says, “I never make the same mistake twice”. The result? Joy gets fired and Joanna gets a warning from Sir Alan to work on her aggression. The girls as a whole get a massive telling off from Karren Brady for making business women everywhere look bad.

The one to watch

Stella English absolutely shines this week. She is in her element on the boy’s team and starts by saying, “I have no problem whatsoever in whipping these boys into shape”. Sure enough, she quickly establishes herself as team leader and the boys are putty in her hands. She does a great job of managing the project and as a result, she gets a big thumbs up from her team in the boardroom.

Quote of the week

“I’ve been called the battering ram, the bulldozer and the bulldog. I tend to stick my teeth in and I tend not to let go.” Melissa Cohen

Missed this episode? Watch it on BBC iPlayer here.

Flexible working: is it good for businesses?

October 12, 2010 by Simon Wicks

Employer relations minister Ed Davey has announced an extension to the right to request flexible working, which will allow 288,000 more parents to have their requests to work flexible hours formally considered by their employer.

Davey has also revealed that the government is preparing a consultation on a universal right for all employees to request flexible working, saying: “We want to make sure the law better supports real families jugging work and family life, and the businesses that employ them.”

But what do small businesses think? We asked Matthew Jones (MJ), founder of Open Study College what he feels about staff having flexible working hours.

Q: How many people do you employ? Do any of them work flexibly?

MJ: “We employ 20 people and currently allow many of them to work flexibly if they wish to. It boosts staff moral and leads to a more relaxed working environment. Some of our staff commute a reasonable distance to work so we also allow people to work from home during bad weather; it’s safer for everyone and ultimately means they aren’t spending unnecessary hours travelling.”

Q: How is increasing the right to request flexible working likely to affect you?

MJ: “We run a small office so absent staff always have an effect on us. We do have to be aware of presence for time-sensitive roles, but providing our customers don’t suffer and the work gets done on time we look auspiciously at requests for flexible working from staff with or without children. Increasing the age limit will have a minimal effect on our business.”

Q: Is flexible working for all employees a good idea?

MJ: “Flexible working can be a very positive concept providing it is fair, managed and controlled. It leads to a better working environment and more motivated staff. It also makes us appear forward-thinking to our customers and suppliers. It can sometimes be a pain when trying to book meetings and ensuring staff are available, but this is a small trade-off when you consider the benefits. It can help greatly with day-to-day activities such as booking doctors’ appointments and takes the stress out of having to wait for an after-work slot.”

Q: How clear has the government been that this is a right to request, not a right to have?

MJ: “The government has been clear that flexible working is not compulsory, but whether this will filter down accurately I can’t say. But we are clear with our staff regarding what is available to them and it seems to work well.”

Q: Will having this right help to create a “fairer, family-friendly society” as Ed Davey claims?

MJ: “I believe that there’s an inherent problem with childcare and how society deals with it in the UK. While laws and guidelines have been put in place to support parents, it would seem that “childcare” by its very nature has not changed much for a long time, in terms of the hours in which children can be looked after. I would also like the government to help on the other side of the coin, too, with the children themselves, as I don’t believe an employer should be completely responsible for the entire burden of childcare.

“Unfortunately, with today’s strain on purse-strings many families find it hard not having a two-parent income when bringing up children, so we try and do what we can for our staff. It certainly won’t affect our staff here because they already receive these benefits.”

Not all business owners and managers are in favour of giving the right to request flexible working, however. Charlotte Williams of recruitment and HR company Novalign told us:

“The new law could have a negative impact on some small businesses who may feel pressured to accommodate requests for flexible working. This could result in additional and possibly unaffordable costs, inability to compensate for employees with flexible working hours and a detrimental impact on the business’ performance including failure to respond to customer demand.”

What do you think? Please leave your comments below.

The catalogue is back

October 11, 2010 by Fiona Humberstone

After years of believing the holy grail of marketing was a flashy website with plenty of SEO activity, online retailers are getting back to basics and placing the catalogue at the heart of their marketing campaigns. It’s a clever strategy and something small businesses would do well to take heed of.

In our age of information overload – hundreds of emails a day, blogs, Twitter and other social media – the catalogue (to borrow an analogy from a famous beer brand) quite literally reaches parts other marketing media can’t reach.

A catalogue is intrusive. It lands on your doormat or desk just when you’re not expecting it, with its “oh so evocative” photography and asks you to sit down with a cup of tea and see what’s the latest must-have.

A catalogue will travel round the house with you: from kitchen table to sitting room, up to the bathroom and your bedside cabinet. A catalogue can be marked, written on and well thumbed. You interact with a catalogue physically in a way you simply can’t with a website. And you can dip in and out of it at your leisure. In fact, you’ll probably revisit a favourite catalogue much more than you will a website. A catalogue is a truly powerful medium.

To sell successfully online, you need an offline strategy, too. The big retailers know that. The White Company, Viking, White Stuff, Boden and Isabella Oliver have been doing it for years. Small businesses understandably see doing away with their catalogue as a way to save money in a tight marketplace – but it’s a shortsighted strategy.

A catalogue is your branding tool. It will underpin your web and retail propositions and help your business become memorable. According to The Catalogue Exchange, when you mail a catalogue, 45% of recipients will visit your website. You compare that to an email campaign where if you get a 17% click-through you’re doing well and you can see why the big companies haven’t given up on direct mail.

For every £1 spent on a catalogue, The Catalogue Exchange says you’ll get back between £2 and £5 in store or online. And if you run a luxury brand – or any brand come to that – you need to differentiate or die. A catalogue, with its evocative brand images, space to properly communicate and the way it intrudes on your customers, will help you do that.

I’m not for one moment saying you should ditch your online marketing methods, but what I am suggesting is you look at where your marketing spend is going, and invest it in the activities that are going to give you the greatest return. Put together a proper strategy that you believe will bring you a real return. If you’re spending anything on advertising, you can afford to create a catalogue. Advertising will build brand awareness if you’re lucky (and you chuck lots of money at it). A catalogue will bring you a return on your investment.

Fiona Humberstone, Flourish design & marketing

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The Apprentice kicks off with a banger

October 07, 2010 by Rachel Miller

Missed the first episode? Catch up here.

The task

It’s midnight in the boardroom and Lord Sugar has called in the 16 new candidates all hoping to be his next apprentice. Two teams — the girls and the boys — are tasked with creating their own sausages and selling them for a profit. They have 17 hours.

The best bits

Watching the stall-holders of Smithfield market make mincemeat (sorry!) of the candidates as they try and negotiate the best price for the meat they are buying. The boys leave one stall-holder abruptly after they have negotiated a discount so when they eventually come back to him, he puts the price back up! I am also loving this year’s fabulous crop of names — Raleigh Addington, Stella English, Paloma Vivanco. They could be straight out of a Jilly Cooper novel.

The worst bits

The boys’ appalling and sometimes abusive sales technique. The boys’ disgusting-looking sausages. The boys’ lack of “synergy” — their team name. It was a bad day for the boys.

The losers

Dan “shouter” Harris. No-one had a good word to say about boys’ team leader Dan. So he got the chop. But Sir Alan was also sorely tempted to boot out Stuart “everything I touch turns to sold” Baggs as well.

The ones to watch

Stella English and Liz Locke quietly got on with some impressive number crunching and came out looking like contenders.

Quote of the week

“On paper you all look very good. But then so does fish and chips.” (Lord Sugar)

Missed this episode? Watch it on BBC iPlayer here.

Are your backoffice systems good enough?

October 06, 2010 by Matt Bird

Like it or not, computer systems are a part of everything to do with operating your business and are crucial to its success. An ideally tailored system, one that is adaptable, usable and affordable, will transform your business and be a huge enabler for future expansion. No matter how talented you and your staff are, a poor system will hold you back.

I certainly know that the recently introduced backend systems at my business Stinkyink have exceeded all expectations in how we can adapt and scale them to our changing needs. And I believe it is possible for any start-up or small business to be just as fortunate.

Any system that does what we need is fine

While the above statement is true to a certain extent, don’t let it control the direction of your business. An inflexible system, while satisfying your initial needs, can hold back a new business idea for pushing yourself to the next level. This “future-proofing” is key, especially as a start-up. The path your business takes will rarely be the one you imagined, and this highlights the importance of being supported by one that can survive in a changing environment.

The old systems and their providers had no intention of implementing features that are now crucial in all areas of our business and the backbone of the excellent service we provide. We would still have been good on the old software, but now we can be great.

Behind any good system there is a good team

Adaptation and scalability are key for a backoffice system, but there are other critical success factors. Dedicated support from the software supplier, knowledgeable employees and – crucially – an ability to take criticism and user advice, should all be part of the service. The sheer scope and reach of some backoffice systems, depending on the complexity of your business model, make training a necessity, and the quality of this training will heavily impact how much you get out of your system.

The best way I can sum up the ideal support team for your backoffice system is that they take any criticism or request that you, the user, highlights, and see it as an opportunity to enhance the package, for others as well as you. We are lucky enough to have that with our supplier, AxisFirst, and the efficiency gains we have experienced with little tweaks to the original system really are priceless.

Even if you’re happy – look around!

I am all for loyalty, but the sooner you can implement your ideal backoffice system, the better. Even if your existing one performs well, question it.

  • Are there criticisms you or your staff make frequently?
  • Something you’ve been told is not possible?
  • A day-to-day activity that should really be automated?

It is a competitive market, so look around. You might be surprised how the system developers begin to think outside the box and things become possible when you see what competitors are offering.

Matt Bird of printer cartridge supplier, StinkyInk

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