Six Ways to Track Your Competitors Online

March 31, 2011

In previous posts, we discussed the importance of research in the marketplace, on your competition, and on potential and existing customers.  In the article below, Renee Oricchio expands on using the Internet as a source for getting instant and detailed data.  Covering topics from social networks such as Twitter and LinkedIn to RSS feeds and eBay, Oricchio provides some very useful suggestions for “industrial espionage” in the digital age.  These sage words are particularly useful for homepreneurs starting a new business or purchasing an existing one.

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Who needs industrial espionage these days? Keeping tabs on your main competitors has never been so easy. You can use the Web in a variety of ways to make sure the competition isn’t leaving you in the dust.

Executives love to read and quote the ancient Chinese military strategist, Sun Tzu, who famously noted in his treatise The Art of War that “if you are ignorant of both your enemy and yourself, then you are a fool and certain to be defeated in every battle”. Sun Tzu was talking about hand-to-hand combat on the battlefield, of course. But in the business world, he has become perhaps the poster child of competitive intelligence gathering.

That being the case, Sun Tzu would have loved the Internet. Never has it been so easy to keep up with adversaries. Business owners have traditionally turned to their marketing department to churn up information on competitors. Nowadays they might be better off turning to their webmaster. “If your webmaster doesn’t ask you who your top three competitors are, then you probably hired the wrong webmaster,” says Sara Mannix, president of Mannix Marketing based in Albany, N.Y.

Of course, premium information does come at a price. Just run a Google search on “competitive intelligence” and watch over 11,000 results pop up. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of consultants among those results that are available to help a small business owner help identify and gather the dirt on every competitor in his or her market niche. For those just getting their feet wet, however; save your money. Here are six ways to get started in being your own competitive intelligence gatherer on the Web and it won’t cost anything, but time.

1. Google alerts. “I use Google Alerts all the time. It’s probably the best tool out there,” says Mannix. Google alerts allows users to set up alerts by keywords and phrases that trigger an e-mail notification and link every time that word or phrase pops up on a site, blog, or news story — depending on how the alert is configured. A business primarily concerned about three top competitors, for example, might set up a Google alert on all three companies and their top executives monitoring every time they get a mention online.

2. Search engine and site analytics. It may seem like a no-brainer to keep an eye on the search engines and note which companies in your niche are beating you in the rankings. What to do about it is another matter. Mannix suggest the following tips:

  • Check back links on competitor websites. A recent survey by the non-profit Pew Internet & American Life found that only 50 percent of American Internet users actually use a search engine everyday. So what’s a big factor driving traffic to a site? The answer is link backs. That is, other sites that link to the competition’s site. “What small businesses need to know is that they need to find links that drive traffic,” says Mannix. To make her point, Mannix tells the story of a local travel site in upstate New York, where her company is based, that researched its back links of a competitor’s site and found 80 percent of their traffic was coming from one site: RVParks.com. It only cost a hundred dollars to get linked from the site, which was obviously money well spent.
  • Look at keywords. What keywords is the webmaster at your company using to boost the corporate site in the rankings? Now have the webmaster take a look at the competition’s keywords. This is easy information to gather from sites like Key Word Density. Another way is to simply look at the code of their websites. Simply go to the site and click on “View” at the top of the browser, then “Source” or “Page Source” depending on your browser. A page of htmlcode will pop up and the keywords will be buried in the code near the top of the page.
  • Monitor traffic. Just as you are monitoring numbers like unique visitors, length of stay on the site, most viewed pages, and where visitors are coming from, follow those same analytics on other sites. This is easy information to track on such free sites as Alexa.com and Quantcast.com.

3. Monitor eBay. For online retailers, keeping an eye on eBay is essential and you can do it from trolling the search engines. Business owners need to be mindful of what’s happening in their line of products on eBay. Check prices. Follow what brands, colors, and models of products are moving faster than others. Note the number of sellers in that niche and which ones have a website presence, as well. “It’s a completely different world. Companies often throw their clearance items on eBay and use that to lure them into their real site,” says Mannix.

4. Monitor Twitter. For those business owners who have never even heard of Twitter, it may be time to get acquainted. Twitter is a social network site that allows members of its community to send short one to two line dispatches throughout their day updating what they’re doing, talking about, thinking about, etc. If this sounds like an invitation to monitor the minutiae of the lives of others, for the most part it is. However, it is also increasingly a place where industry buzz starts. “Twitter produces the edge of what’s going on. It’s where you often now hear the first low rumble of something. You have to participate, though. I’ve shown this to clients and you should see how their eyes are opened as to how much is being said about what’s going on out there,” says John Jantsch, author of the book and popular blog entitled Duct Tape Marketing.

5. Keep an eye on their staff. You can learn a lot about a company just by reading their “About Us” page and monitoring their job postings. Note the backgrounds of the top brass, especially new blood. Their resumes will give you an idea of where the company might be going. If your main competitor is a medical supply company and they just hired a new CEO with a background in surgical equipment, then there’s a clue which area they may plan to beef up sales. If the online bios of the executive team are vague, try researching them on one of the professional networking sites like LinkedIn or Plaxo. If a company has several postings for jobs in another state, chances are it’s expanding with a new location there.

6. RSS feeds. If this sounds like too many channels of information to monitor on a regular basis, there’s an easy solution to save time and simplify — RSS feeds. Jantsch is a big fan of RSS feeds for intelligence gathering. “You can keep up with entire industries, customers, and competitors by feeding things like Google Alerts, Twitter, and all of your other RSS feeds into one RSS feed,” says Jantsch, who recommends MySyndicaat.com as an effective tool to combining RSS feeds.

By Renee Oricchio

Source:  http://technology.inc.com/managing/articles/200809/competitors.html

7 Website Improvements That Will Increase Sales Now

March 30, 2011

Homepreneurs or small business owners often need a website to advertise; in some situations, products and services are sold via the web.  Often websites are static, confusing, and difficult to navigate.  As Homepreneurs, consider clients coming to your Internet location as a partial victory, much like customers finding a brick and mortar boutique.  A boutiques’ front windows often display examples of trending goods or showcase products to pull in customers.  Similarly, once in your virtual store, the goal is to create instant interest and “make” the client want to look around or “shop.”

In the article below, Ivana Taylor suggests 7 steps for improving an online presence and gaining additional sales from the changes.

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If your website still looks like an online brochure, then you are missing out on the most effective lead generation tool that you have. These seven website design tips will make it easy for your website visitors to become your ideal customers:

1.  Place an identifying tagline at the top. Tell your customer where they’ve landed. The biggest reason people leave or bounce from a website is because they don’t know if they are in the right place or if you have what they are looking for. Use this simple formula as a website positioning statement: [YOUR SITE NAME] is where [YOUR TARGET AUDIENCE] goes to [INSERT WHAT YOU OFFER].

2.  Answer your customers’ questions right away. When people land on your site, they have the following questions: Where am I? What’s this site about? Is this what I’m looking for? How does this compare to what I’m using now? Make sure that you have the answers to those questions easily visible on the site so that your customers know they have landed at a place that has what they are looking for.

3.  Highlight keywords and phrases. Create big headlines and subheads that use the same keywords and phrases that your target audience is searching for. If you offer software support for Apple computers, say it BIG and BOLD! Don’t let your audience wonder what you’re about. That might be OK for multi-million dollar Super Bowl commercials, but it doesn’t generate sales.

4.  Have at least one call-to-action on every page. A call-to-action is what you want your customer to do. For example, do you want them to register for a newsletter, download a white paper or sign up for a webinar? Make sure that you know what you want your audience to do and then make sure that it’s easy for them to take that action. If you want them to call, make sure that phone numbers are big and easy to find. If you want them to download something, make the button big and bold and have it say something like, “DOWNLOAD NOW.”

5.  Reduce the number of clicks to get to the gold. Don’t make your customers work to get to the good stuff. The only thing you really need from your website visitors is a first name and an e-mail address—this is just enough to start building a relationship. Give them the good stuff to prove your value, then start building a relationship with them and educating them on your product or service.

6.  Invest in good and descriptive graphics. Make sure that you have a picture of your product on the site—even if it’s a digital product. There are many tools you can use to create a picture or set of digital products. One software option is BoxShot3D.com. Photos and graphics are important, but don’t overdo it. Use graphics that show your product or the benefits of your service. Another great source of photos and graphics is iStockphoto.com.

7.  Create an irresistible offer. Your customer has landed on your site because they hope that you will have a solution to their problem. Create an offer that’s focused on what’s important to them when they are buying what you’re selling. For example: “Download this FREE Report to Learn How to Generate More Leads.”

If you’re still not sure how to put these tips into place, then focus on who your audience is and what sites they usually visit. Then click around the sites and evaluate them as a customer. What do you like? What don’t you like? What should those sites do differently to get your business? Then make those ideas a part of your website design.

Before you start any website changes, be sure to check your Google Analytics and site statistics and document a baseline. Then make a change or two at a time and measure the changes you see in traffic and conversions. Make these easy changes to your website design and get more leads that turn into customers.

By Ivana Taylor

Ivana Taylor is the president of the strategic marketing firm, Third Force and the publisher DIYMarketers.com. Ivana is the Book editor and contributing marketing expert for Small Business Trends (www.smallbiztrends.com). She writes the popular blog Strategy Stew (www.strategystew.com). She is currently #21 of Fast Company’s list of most influential people on the internet.

Source:  http://www.openforum.com/idea-hub/topics/technology/article/7-website-improvements-that-will-increase-sales-now-ivana-taylor?cid=openweekly-20110329-8&campaignid=openweekly-20110329-8&extlink=sm-openweekly-nl

The Truth About Working From Home

If you spend much time at all online, chances are you have been bombarded with work at home opportunities, especially ones that state that you can make money online with very little effort.

Unfortunately, legitimate “work from home” opportunities seem hard to come by, though the principle of using the internet to make money online really does make a great deal of sense. Those who make money online have found ways to use the internet as a tool to reach a wide variety of clients and customers without having to go to the expense of having a physical office or store or ever having to meet their clients face to face.

Of course, this has also given rise to the scammers and spammers who make promises to make you rich when you choose to buy their training materials detailing how to make money online from the comfort of your own home. “Work from home!” the ads shout. “Make money online, fast!” the classifieds declare. “Get rich quick!” others seem to promise.

Before you pay one red cent to anyone you have never met in person, whose first and last name you don’t know, and who doesn’t seem to have a legitimate phone number or physical address, keep the following in mind:

Legitimate employers will never require you to pay anything to work from home for them. If someone claims they want to “hire” you to work from home, but then they ask for an upfront fee of any sort, don’t do it! There are instances where independent contractors may be required to invest some money in their own education or work materials before qualifying to receive work from a particular company, but no legitimate employee will ever be asked by an employer to pay to work for them.

Work from home online opportunities come in a variety of forms, but one particular invitation you should be somewhat leery of deals with online ad processing or online marketing or reading emails online. Many of these “opportunities” to work from home are all variations of a particular setup that while not technically a scam it certainly doesn’t seem highly ethical.

What happens is you respond to an ad from an “employer” looking for a certain number of individuals to work from home processing ad responses, reading emails, or something along those lines. When you respond to the ad, someone emails back requesting that you send them a one-time only fee (usually somewhere between $5 and $20) to cover the cost of your training materials packet so that you can start work right away processing ads from home.

They claim that you will easily be able to make $300 to $700 a week, and that you will get back the money that you paid when you process your very first ad response. Those who are foolish enough to pay for the training material packet find themselves reading information telling them to create the exact same sort of ad that they responded to, request the ad readers to pay them a certain fee for training materials, and then send on to the new foolish individual the same training packet that they are now reading. It is an obviously pointless cycle of people paying for nothing other than to teach them how to get some other gullible person to pay for nothing with no genuine exchange of services taking place.

There are legitimate “work from home” opportunities, but it ALWAYS pays to do some serious research before paying ANY amount of money. The only truly proven way to work from home and make money online is to own your own online business that is centered on something you already are an expert regarding. There are online retail stores, training programs, tax preparation and bookkeeping services, and so forth. There are real estate agents, lawyers, teachers, and others who have all found ways to make additional money using the Internet as their primary tool.

If you truly desire to work from home and have chosen to make money online, find something you are already GOOD at, and invest some time, effort, and money in YOURSELF to make your dream a reality. If you aren’t willing to do that, then you are probably only looking for a way to get rich quick and make money online without putting any of yourself into it.

By Jacey Armada

Jacey Armada is a youth motivational and educational speaker.

Source: http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/302032/the_truth_about_working_from_home.html?cat=35

Legitimate Ways for Homepreneurs to Make Money

Despite difficult times, stay at home parents, the retired, and unemployed are finding ways to make extra money from home.  These homepreneurs do not involve mid-level-marketing or direct selling, but are full and part-time jobs based from home.  Many positions are found on the Internet most allow a flexible schedule and create work-home balance.

Choosing an appropriate opportunity requires common sense more than specific training or talents and experience in given areas.  In order to be successful, an individual should plan on working a couple of hours each day and be committed to the position.

Please refer to following list of Homepreneurs options:

Secret or Mystery Shoppers

Homepreneurs do not always “work” only at home.  Secret Shoppers visit assigned retail stores and act as average customers, writing confidential reports about their experience with employee customer service, product knowledge, and sales skills. The reports are typically in template format, with numbered ratings, and a comments sections.  Secret Shopper reports assist owners and managers in evaluating store staff and training needs.  Hired by a third-party organization, Secret Shoppers may also be asked to evaluate a store for cleanliness, organization, shopping or dining experience, and product selection.

Experience is not always necessary for these positions.  More important is an ability to read, speak, and write English (in some cases Spanish too), honesty, dependability, and ability to shop at specified store locations in a time range.  Common industries that use Secret Shoppers include:  Larger retail stores, airlines, and restaurants. To find out more about Secret Shoppers, please visit http://www.mysteryshop.org.

Virtual Assistants

Another excellent opportunity for homepreneurs is as a virtual assistant: “A virtual assistant (VA) is an individual who provides business support services in a variety of areas. They do not work out of your office, but work virtually for you from our company offices. Support service areas can include website development and maintenance, marketing, search engine optimization, content writing, graphic design and link building. A VA is not employed, but an independent contractor who provides services through our organization for a monthly retainer.” 1

Some skills and experience are often required for these positions:  Basic computer skills – Word, Excel and Powerpoint.  Advanced positions may require: Database maintenance and creation, web design, research, blog or website content writing.

Many websites claim to offer virtual assistant jobs and will gladly charge a fee for including you in their database of potential workers.  Please remember that you should not pay a company to list your qualifications.  Once placed – if as an independent contractor – a retainer charge may be required.  Other Virtual Assistant listing companies get paid by employers to locate qualified workers.  Be aware that a background check may also be required by the listing company.  Virtual Assistant appears is source of positions http://www.virtualassistant.org/ .  Again, please do independent research and verify their claims.

Become a Content / Web Writer

An increasingly common opportunity for those interested in writing or editing for others.  So called “ghost writers” provide content websites and blogs.  “The price range for this style of writing runs from 1 cent per word to several dollars per article. Beginning ghost writers may charge as little as $1 per article.” 2

Ghost writers may also be paid on an hourly basis or on commission, depending on the terms of the contract.  Experienced writers can expect to earn more. Important skills to have: Writing and editing skills, computer skills (Word), knowledge about specific topics (if writing for that area), research ability, and patience.

Also required are for starting content writer work:  A computer and Internet connection, a PayPal account or credit card or bank account.  Most website content / articles are between 300-500 words each; keyword density and formatting needs will be part of the contact terms.  Be sure to understand exactly what the requirements and due dates.  An informational site:  http://www.exquisitewriting.com/freelance-ghostwriter-hire/

Blogging

As discussed in a previous article on homepreneurs, money can be made from blogging.  By itself, blogging won’t lead to huge success, but can yield a smaller stream of income while providing a stepping stone to careers such as ghost writing, eBooks, editing, etc.  Articles on a blog can be used in your writing portfolio and lead to bigger and better writing opportunities.  If done correctly, well-received blog posts on specific topics may be combined into a book, as written in a previous article on homepreneurs.

Further, blogs can provide additional money via advertising and by using Google’s Adsense.  After having 10-15 posts on your blog, submit an easy application at www.google.com/adsense. Once  approved, add some Google-provided script to your blog and Google will automatically display ads related the blog’s theme.   A blogger makes money by when the adds are clicked on (pay-per-click or ppc) by a visitor.  An individual click may not pay well, but a total of hundreds of clicks can bring in a nice amount.  These clicks can be passive income:  A blogger produce the code or advertising, it is automatically done by Google’s program.  Make money at any time of day, whenever an article is read and a link clicked.

Affiliate marketing

Affiliate marketing or referred selling is another way for homepreneurs to make money from web sites or blogs.  Affiliate marketing is a marketing practice where business rewards one or more affiliates for each visitor or customer brought about by the affiliate’s (your site/blog) own marketing efforts.  Many companies have an affiliate program and will pay people to advertise their products.  These companies will provide a banner or text ad using programming code that you insert in your website or blog.  In return, you will receive a percentage of the product(s) sold.  A key point to remember is to align your target market with a potential advertising client.  A company specializing in linens won’t want to advertise on a blog dedicated to sports.

Here are three sites that may help you with affiliate marketing:

http://botw.org/top/Computers/Internet/Web_Design_and_Development/Authoring/Webmaster_Resources/Affiliate_Programs/

http://www.dmoz.org/Business/Opportunities/Online_Opportunities/Affiliate_Programs/

http://dir.yahoo.com/Business_and_Economy/Business_to_Business/Business_Opportunities/Directories/Web_Site_Affiliate_Programs/

Many opportunities, small and potentially large, exist for Homepreneurs.  Some provide passive income – affiliate marketing – others via more directly.  None of these is a get-rich quick scheme, but can provide needed additional income, especially as a second job or for the stay at home or unemployed.  As always, it is strongly recommended that research and homework are done prior to signing up for any opportunity!

By Dion D Shaw
Dion Shaw is the founder and owner of homepreneurs.

References:
1) http://www.virtualassistant.org/
2) http://www.ehow.com/facts_4899931_how-much-does-ghostwriter-paid.html

Trying to Be “The Next Big Thing” Will Usually End in Failure

A friend of mine has worked at an internet startup that shall remain nameless since 2006.  During that time, the company has been unable to actually produce a clear product and has changed direction several times.

When I asked him what the culture there was like, he told me that the leader of the business was obsessed with being “the next Facebook” or “the next Twitter” or “the next Google.”  He was constantly focused on what these big successes had done.

Some small business management types might tell you that he’s doing a good thing in trying to emulate these big success stories.  However, there’s a big difference between emulation of success and jealousy of success – and being on the wrong side of that line can cause a great deal of business problems.

Almost every small businessperson has a business that they admire.  I certainly have several businesses that I admire greatly – and, yes, Google is one of them.  I respect many aspects of their business and think that by studying them, I can learn quite a lot.  Do I want to be “the next Google”?  Absolutely not.

I’m going to use Google as an example here because they’re a recent enormous success story and they’re a business that countless people look at with envy.  Countless advertising-based search engines have been thrown up by jealous entrepreneurs.  All of them have failed to unseat Google.

Businesses succeed when they produce something special, something different than what can already be found out there.  Google succeeded because they were able to offer great internet searching for free, and their secret was tying targeted advertising to those search results.  If you’re in the search business and you’re striving to be “the next Google” by figuring out new ways to bundle search results and ads, you’re wasting your time.  Yahoo is figuring this out the hard way.

What do you offer that stands out?  What “secret” do you have that enables you to offer it?  That should always be the core of your business.  Let’s look at these elements.

What do you offer that stands out?  The only way you’re going to achieve the success you want is to offer something that stands out among the competition.  If you’re merely going to build a “better” advertising-funded search engine, Google will crush you.  You have to offer something different, and when you’re doing that, you’re not merely being “the next Google.”

What “secret” do you have that enables you to offer it?  You have a great idea that is going to cause people to beat a path to your door, but unless you have a way to turn those exchanges into something profitable, you’re either going to fail or, if you’re lucky, get bought out.

I’ll use two examples from small businesses in my own area.

One restaurant business succeeds by simply trying to be the best “bistro” style restaurant in a college town.  They offer a great meal with very elegant ambiance for a reasonable price in an area where there isn’t a large population – and thus not a lot of competition in that niche.  How do they make this work if there isn’t a lot of people?  They placed the restaurant near the campus and focused directly on reaching out to the college professors in the area, finding out what they wanted and needed from such a bistro.  The restaurant looked at the town, identified exactly who would be their primary clientele, and focused entirely on meeting their needs.  By doing that, they strongly attracted a particular customer base right off the bat.

Another business, a comic book store, succeeds purely through customer service.  They make a very specific point to have all of their employees greet people immediately upon entry, offer to help them with what they want to find, and then leave them alone.  However, if you ask for just about anything imaginable there, they will try to find it for you.  Their employees are incredibly well-informed about virtually everything sold in the shop and can answer almost any question given to them quickly and correctly.  Their prices are higher than what you find online, but they have cultivated such a strong customer base due to their service that they do incredibly well and have opened a second shop.

You can learn from what others have done, but you will never succeed by merely being “the next Google” or whatever business intrigues you.  You have to beat your own path.  What will you offer that stands out?  What is your “secret” that enables you to offer it?  Answer those questions first.

By Trent Hamm

Trent Hamm is the creator of TheSimpleDollar.com, a popular blog on personal finance, career, and personal development topics. He is also the author of “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” a book divulging tactics for living on a budget.  Follow Trent on Twitter @trenttsd.

Source:  http://www.openforum.com/idea-hub/topics/money/article/trying-to-be-the-next-big-thing-will-usually-end-in-failure-trent-hamm