How to Protect Your Startup’s Website From Malware and Cyber Attacks

protect your small business from malware and cyber attacks

Congratulations! Now that you officially have a website, what started as a seed of an idea has grown into a full-fledged business—and the possibilities are endless.

Creating your business’ website is an important step whether you plan to sell online or simply point prospective customers toward your brick and mortar location. It’s a platform—one that’s entirely under your own control—for helping customers to discover both your brand promise and what you offer.

The Ecommerce Foundation reports that 88 percent of consumers research products online before making a purchase. Having a website means your product or service is in front of more eyes, leading to more potential sales.

If you’re like most small business owners, you probably relied on an open-source content management system (CMS) like WordPress to build your website.

If you have little to no developer experience, starting this way is appealing because of their relative ease of use and ability to create beautiful and functional sites that can be easily updated. Plus, building your own site is an easy way to get your business off the ground—particularly when you don’t have the budget to hire a developer to build a fully customized site.

That said, there are a couple of security-related concerns all startups and small businesses should know about when using a CMS to build their websites.

What puts a CMS website at risk?

Because a CMS is open source, it’s difficult to effectively manage the code you used to build your site. In effect, you’re relying on features such as plug-ins and themes; they have to be updated regularly, or you risk security vulnerabilities.

If they’re vulnerable, you can bet that attackers are going to find ways to exploit these vulnerabilities. More than 27 percent of the internet is powered by WordPress. It’s by far the most popular CMS, but that also means it’s the most popular target for hackers.

Plug-ins allow the customization and ease of use that WordPress is known for, but they can also be risky. According to research my company conducted, sites with 20 or more plug-ins are 3.6 times more likely to become compromised, and the administrative dashboards on an open-source CMS like WordPress are easily accessible to attackers if site owners leave them open and unencrypted.

Business Startup Guide

What is a malware attack?

Malware attacks can be damaging to both your profitability and your reputation—especially if your site is taken offline or removed from search results. It can be difficult to keep an invisible threat top of mind, but we found that websites are subject to an average of 63 attacks per day.

Many small business owners mistakenly assume they’re safe because of their size. Unfortunately, you’re never too small to be hacked, and half of the 28 million small businesses in the United States have been victims of a data breach. All it takes is one successful attack to compromise your site, and the road to recovery is even tougher on a tight budget.

How to improve website security for your startup in 5 easy steps

When my company surveyed website owners, we discovered that nearly half were under the impression their hosting providers included security measures. In reality, securing your website is your responsibility. Thankfully, taking basic steps to secure your site doesn’t have to break the budget. Start with the below tips to protect your website from malware.

1. Be thoughtful about which plug-ins you use

Do you really need that plug-in that counts the number of visitors to your site? Maybe—or maybe not. Stick to the plug-ins that you truly need to build out your website, and splurge on one or two premium ones if they’re vital to your site. Plugins aren’t inherently bad or to be avoided, just don’t go overboard. The more you use, the more you need to update.

Some website owners resort to WordPress piracy, downloading bootleg versions of premium plug-ins, but that’s not a good idea. The distributors of these stolen plug-ins don’t make their money by giving value away for free; they make it by spreading malware that can be difficult to get rid of.

2. Keep your CMS, plug-ins, and themes updated

Keeping your CMS updated is one of the most basic defense measures you can take to improve website security. Our research found that the majority of malware-infected WordPress sites weren’t running the latest security patches when the security breach occurred.

And even with an updated CMS, only rely on plug-ins that are properly maintained, and avoid the 44 percent that haven’t been updated in more than a year.

3. Ensure submission forms include a CAPTCHA

Not only can CAPTCHA save you from going through hundreds of spam submissions, but it can also block bots looking for vulnerabilities or entry points into your site. All it takes is an unprotected contact form for a bot to inject code that allows hackers to access your customer info or even hijack your website entirely.

The best part: You don’t need a full IT team to add a CAPTCHA. For a CMS like WordPress, it’s as easy as downloading and installing a plug-in.

4. Use a website malware scanner

Website malware scanners help you find and fix malicious software and patch vulnerabilities.

The best ones are automated, allowing them to regularly perform their functions without the need for human intervention. They’ll protect your website from malware by scanning for threats and removing them, ensuring your visitors aren’t interrupted by a crashing site, slow speeds, or an alarming message from Google explaining that the site is infected and blacklisted.

5. Install an SSL certificate

You can recognize sites with an SSL certificate because the URL has a lock logo followed by “https.” These certificates don’t provide website protection themselves, but they do encrypt information that’s sent from the website to the server.

For example, let’s say one of your customers enters a credit card number and submits his or her order. If a cybercriminal intercepts that payment information while processing, it will be indecipherable thanks to the SSL encryption. If you accept payment on your website, an SSL certificate is an absolute must.

Small business website security shouldn’t be an afterthought. Malware attacks are cheap to conduct, and cybercriminals frequently go after easy targets. Your business may be small—but don’t make the mistake of assuming that excludes it from cyber attacks. Protect your website from malware and protect the reputation of your business by following the above steps to build a strong defense.

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Monique Becenti

Monique Becenti is a product and channel marketing specialist at SiteLock, a cloud-based website security provider currently protecting more than 12 million websites globally. Monique is passionate about improving the customer experience for all. SiteLock’s combination of dedicated research and developmental efforts, aggressive product road maps, and access to a massive global data set make the company a leading innovator in web security.

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Stop Apologizing: Widen Your Focus to Grow in Business and in Life

stop apologizing and grow your business and in life

Life can be crazy and hectic sometimes.

The thing is, finding the right ways to learn while developing your expertise (and yes, adulting and doing life and family) can feel mind-boggling.

I’m beginning to realize that information and industry knowledge can feel so siloed. How do you know where to go to find the right solutions, answers, facts, and so on, to get from point A to point B?

At Palo Alto Software (makers of Bplans), we hear this from small business owners and entrepreneurs a lot too:

What will it take to get my business from where it is now to where it’s going to go?

What if what I really want is to go out on my own and start a business?

What is it like to start a business if I have a family and funding is hard to find?

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The resources and opportunities to learn and grow are out there

The thing is, there are solutions. There are resources. There are places and tools that can help solve them. Take our tools LivePlan and Outpost, for instance, and our blogs, of course—we built these to help small businesses solve their pain points and grow.

If I’m looking for marketing expertise, I have my go-to newsletters, blogs, and podcasts.

If I want to learn about being a mom, I ask my family and friends.

If I’d like to get the best tips for staying healthy and active, I’ll lean on my local athletic club and stand out athletes in and from Eugene.

If I want to get inspired to get involved in the community, I find out what my local Young Professionals network is up to and the organizations they’re involved with.

Do we have to pick just one path to really be happy and successful?

The challenge I keep running into is asking myself—with all the possible places I can direct my attention, do I really have to pick just one? The foundations of a linear trajectory stem back to my childhood. The one question reiterated, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I selected my courses, extracurriculars, internships, major for one thing. I curated my choices to lend themselves to being good at one thing.

I can be the best job candidate, the best pick, the best teammate—so long as my development points to one thing. Everything else that doesn’t fit in the puzzle could arguably be a distraction.

But why can’t I be this and that? It’s similar to the questions we get asked each day from our community of entrepreneurs and small business owners.

With each publication, source, connection, and more the advice tends to relate to this thing or that thing. You can be great at building your business or your career if you focus all your attention there. You can be a great mom if you purchase all of the top recommended car seats and nursery items. You can be great at staying healthy if you work out at one gym and eat whole foods. You can have a great marriage if you read up on the five languages of love.

But, there aren’t always mentions of how I can try to accomplish this thing—be an X, do Y, and so on, while my husband is building a business. And while I’m still working full time, trying to schedule necessary appointments, and we’re volunteering on committees at lunch and after work. All this while trying to uncover just one single hour to ourselves for self care—and above all right now, while we’re figuring out how to be new parents for our beautiful baby girl.

Stop apologizing for seeking balance

So how do I figure out the balance in all parts of my life?

Again and again, I yearn to learn more, but I feel that different parts of me are advancing because I’m focusing my efforts on them—while others are getting neglected, or left behind. Sometimes it feels overwhelming and I just want to give up.

Until I got my hands on a book that gave me the pep talk I needed.

I finally realized that yes, I can be this and that—I just got stuck in a standstill because I couldn’t let go of apologizing for all the things I identified as. I can be a great mom and work full time. I can be a digital marketing whiz and creative dance instructor. I can be past me while I work on future me.

The book is “Girl, Stop Apologizing” by Rachel Hollis.

Girl, Stop Apologizing book

It’s fitting that my mom gifted me Rachel Hollis’ book for my birthday. I think through osmosis (O.K., but actually my lengthy talks on the phone with her) that she knew this was the book I needed at this point in time of my life.

Here’s the part that really stood out:

“It’s possible to pursue something for yourself while simultaneously showing up well for the people you love.

It’s possible to be a great mother and a great entrepreneur. It’s possible to be an awesome wife and still want to get together regularly with your girlfriends.

It’s possible to be this and that. It’s possible to decide that you’re going to be centered in who you are and what matters most to you and let other people’s opinions fall away.

Don’t buy into the hype or the pressure or the guilt that you’ve got to be one or the other.”

Rachel Hollis—you are speaking my language. I couldn’t have felt more validated in this one paragraph and it was just what I needed to read to feel empowered.

You don’t have to be just one thing or another

Trust me, my husband, friends, and family have all been incredible by giving me messages like this throughout the ebbs and flows of life. But sometimes you just need a moment of solitude and a book straight in your lap to have the exact words you’ve been wanting to see staring you straight in the face.

So here’s my rallying message and fill-in-the-blank template that I’d like you to complete.

“I’m  ________ and  _________.”

That’s it. It’s that simple.

Stop apologizing and grow your business

Maybe yours is:  “I’m running a business and sitting on a nonprofit board, or “I’m trying to get a loan to grow my company and I’m still working full time at a day job.”

Jot it down. Say it out loud in the morning to start your day with intention. Run it through your mind in moments of doubt and uncertainty.

I even give you permission to fill-in-the-blanks more than one time. I believe that versatility and complexity and balance can all co-exist.

Because for me:

I’m a full-time employee and a loving mom.

I’m an all-out extrovert and a quiet puzzle-doer.

I’m a gracious dancer and an absolute klutz in real life.

I’m a daughter, and a wife, and a friend, and a volunteer, and a supporter, and a giver, and a doer, and a maker, and…and…

…and you know what? I’m going to stop apologizing for it.

What are you going to stop apologizing for?

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Alyssa Powell

Alyssa Powell is the Digital Media Marketing Specialist for Palo Alto Software and a mother, dancer, reader, writer—all made possible by cold brew coffee. She has a knack for setting up CRMs and choreographing dances in her sleep. Connect with her on Medium.



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4 Networking Tips for New Nonprofits

networking for nonprofits

Building a nonprofit from the ground up is a challenge. Newness creates a certain level of liability, which is evidenced by the fact that nonprofits—like startups—are more likely to fail closer to their founding.

Staffing is another common concern; most nonprofits don’t have the budget to match salaries in the for-profit sector. It can be challenging to get a good enough handle on your cash flow to feel confident that you can afford to add a new hire salary to your budget to begin with. And then there are government regulations, strategic planning challenges, changing tax codes, organizational growth, membership, revenue, and other barriers.

Of all those obstacles, funding may be one of the biggest challenges. A new nonprofit must develop a strong and comprehensive fundraising strategy to have any chance of securing the funds it needs to operate. It also must build a sustainable and scalable donor engagement program and an active board of directors. For these reasons (along with many others), networking is one of the most important tasks for new nonprofits.

Trouble connecting

My biggest challenge when starting a nonprofit was finding projects that made an impact with a reasonable amount of funding—networking was critical to its success. As you begin to build up a network, you can partner with other early-stage programs that are encountering similar challenges.

Creating a nonprofit network, however, can be just as challenging as building a nonprofit. For one, few people understand how to build and sustain a group of organizations focused on a shared social goal. They often see each other as competitors vying for the same funds, leading these partnerships to become one-off affairs.

If they were to look at the bigger picture, they’d realize how conducive an organizational network is to the nonprofit sector. Most nonprofits work on relatively large and complex issues that could benefit from a pool of common resources.

Coming together also provides an opportunity to learn from one another and tap into a more diverse breadth of knowledge. If one organization lacks a specific skill set, the odds are likely that another nonprofit has that expertise in spades. Nonprofits can ease a lot of the uncertainty that accompanies launching new programs or initiatives by lending each other a helping hand.

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Getting to know you

Chances are you feel that your time would be better spent cultivating donors than building a network. Fundraising and networking go hand in hand, however, and the following are a few of the best places to begin your networking efforts:

1. Develop a fundraising strategy

It’s one thing to invite people to share in your mission—it’s something else entirely to inspire them to donate to your cause. This often begins with a fundraising strategy. Define the specific issues you’ll be addressing and how you intend to address them. Determine what kind of value you’ll provide, what outcomes you want to achieve, and what success looks like.

Better yet, identify community need. When you understand the needs of your community, you can adjust your mission to address these needs. Local businesses can then fall in line, as most business owners want to enrich and strengthen the same community. Only after you understand what’s actually driving your mission should you invite others to join forces and share in your organizational vision.

Another aspect of any strong fundraising strategy is community presence. Look for ways to build a presence for your organization within your community. Some nonprofit leaders join their respective city councils while others become part of a local rotary. A rotary club usually brings together representatives from a cross-section of businesses, so it provides substantial exposure and a great opportunity to flex those networking muscles.

2. Host an event

Events are common fundraising efforts in the nonprofit sector, but they also provide an opportunity to connect with other community members. Focus on the social aspects of the occasion and get to know more about the people in attendance—their interests could provide a chance to talk about your organization, its mission, and its initiatives.

Avoid going for the hard sell, though. Even if some attendees can contribute significant funds, focus more on cultivating and strengthening relationships with potential partners and donors. Ask questions and develop personal connections with attendees. When people feel like you’re interested in them—and not simply what they can do for you—the chances of continued support increase exponentially.

What’s more, consider attending their events. If a local nonprofit is hosting an auction or a similar benefit, get on the guest list. It’s not just another opportunity to network with other like-minded professionals—it’s a show of support. Considering that support often begets support; your attendance could also boost the crowd for your next event.

3. Join a nonprofit network

Linking up with a group of like-minded people is an essential part of building a strong network. As with any event, nonprofit groups provide an opportunity to connect with others in your industry, with an added bonus: advice. These people know what you’re going through, and can offer valuable insights.

Take, for example, Habitat for Humanity in Egypt. This nonprofit’s activities are similar to your local chapter, with volunteers building homes and revitalizing neighborhoods. But they have also taken steps to build a network with community-based organizations to address other aspects of homelessness.

Try to take these relationships beyond the traditional “partnering up” for a single program; develop an actual network of nonprofits committed to a single cause. Think of it as pooling your resources for greater, more sustainable success. Networked nonprofits often achieve their missions more efficiently and effectively than those that go it alone.

4. Use board members’ networks

Board members bring a wide array of skills and insights to nonprofits. If, for example, you lack public relations expertise, a PR professional could be a great candidate for your advisory board. But pro bono expertise isn’t the only reason for board recruitment—all board members also become organizational stewards.

While stewardship takes many forms, it has unmatched potential to help you connect with people you don’t already know. From there, it’s up to you to cultivate relationships with these new connections and encourage them to get involved—whether it’s attending an event, volunteering their time, or making a monetary contribution. This rapid network expansion is one of the most effective ways that board members can add value to your nonprofit.

There is no shortage of challenges in the nonprofit space. Why add to the mix by alienating others who want to achieve the same goals as your organization? Put yourself out there, mingle with like-minded folks, and get to know other leaders on a personal level. It could be the key to your fledgling nonprofit’s success.

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Kevin Xu

Kevin Xu is the CEO of MEBO International, a California- and Beijing-based intellectual property management company specializing in applied health systems. He also leads Skingenix, which specializes in skin organ regeneration and the research and development of botanical drug products. Kevin is the co-founder of the Human Heritage Project.



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How to Apply for a Federal Tax ID Number – Bplans Blog

Federal tax identification number employer identification number

This article is part of our Business Startup Guide, a curated list of our articles that will get you up and running in no time!

A federal tax ID number is also known as a federal employer identification number, also called an EIN or FEIN. It’s a 9 digit number assigned to a business by the IRS.

The U.S. Internal Revenue Service uses these numbers to:

  1. Identify businesses located in the United States and its territories
  2. Recognize a business for purposes of tax documentation
  3. Identify what business employees filing taxes work for

Essentially, any business that has employees needs to obtain one, but depending on such things as the type of tax return you file, you may need one even if you have no employees. You can find out whether or not you need to obtain an EIN on the IRS website, or use the checklist here (last updated May 2019).

If you can answer “yes” to any of the IRS’s questions below, you need to apply for an employer identification number:

  • Do you have employees?
  • Do you operate a business as a corporation or a partnership?
  • Do you file an employment, excise, alcohol, tobacco, or firearms tax return?
  • Do you withhold taxes on income paid to a non-resident alien, other than wages?
  • Do you have a Keogh plan?
  • Are you involved with trusts, except certain grantor-owned revocable trusts, IRAs, or exempt organization business income tax returns?
  • Are you involved with estates?
  • Are you involved with real estate or mortgage investment conduits?
  • Are you involved with nonprofit organizations?
  • Are you involved with farmers’ cooperatives?
  • Are you involved with plan administrators?

How to apply for a federal tax ID (FEIN) number:

Applying is a simple process, usually done online. If you prefer to apply via fax, mail, or telephone, you can do this too.

It’s also worth remembering that applying for a tax ID number is free. If you’ve been asked to pay to apply, you’re on the wrong site!

You can apply for your federal tax ID number here.

During the application process, you will be asked to provide basic information including details regarding your business structure or the type of organization you operate, personal information, addresses, and other details relating to your business.

If you are not applying yourself, you will need to select a person designated as the “responsible party” for this application. If you are the small business owner, it will most likely be yourself, but it could also be a business partner if you have one. Whoever the responsible party is, they will need to have a valid taxpayer identification number (such as a social security number) to apply.

Download your free business startup checklist today!

When can I start using my EIN?

Once you have completed the online EIN application, you can begin using the number immediately.

This will come in handy if you are:

That said, it will take a couple of weeks for your EIN to become a part of the IRS’s permanent records. So, if you are looking to make an electronic payment, file an electronic return or pass an IRS taxpayer identification number (TIN) matching program, you will need to wait until you are a part of the permanent record.

I already operate a business, do I need a new tax ID number?

In certain circumstances, you may need to replace your tax ID number. These are situations which affect the structure of your business, such as taking on a partnership or filing for bankruptcy. If your business is going through a structural or organizational shift, look into whether applying for a new EIN is right for your circumstances.

What happens if I lose my federal tax ID number?

Once you receive your number, take a moment to write it down. You will need easy access to this number throughout your business’s life so it’s important you don’t actually lose it!

If you do lose it or forget it, however, you can call (800) 829-4933 and choose EIN from the list of options. Find out more about recovering a federal tax ID number here (last updated May 2019).

Key tax resources

If you are applying for a federal tax ID number with taxes in mind, it may be worth taking a look through some of the following resources:

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Angelique O'Rourke
Angelique O’Rourke

Artistic + intellectual pursuits. Social justice. Actress. Model. Musician. Eugene // Portland.

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No Competition? Not Possible! | Bplans

no competition not possible

Your business idea is brilliant. Nobody else is doing it. You’ve got no competition. It’s sure to be a gold mine, right?

Maybe.

One mistake many new businesses make is thinking that just because nobody else is doing exactly what they’re doing, their business is a sure thing.

Is there a good reason why no one else is doing it?

The smart thing to do is ask yourself,  “Why isn’t anyone else doing it?”

It’s possible that nobody’s selling cod-liver frozen yogurt in your area because there’s simply no market for it. Ask around, talk to people, do your market research. If you determine that you’ve got customers out there, you’re in good shape.

But that still doesn’t mean there’s no competition.

How are customers getting their needs met?

There may not be another cod-liver frozen yogurt shop within 500 miles. But maybe an online distributor sells cod-liver oil to do-it-yourselfers who make their own fro-yo at home. Or maybe your potential customers are eating frozen salmon pops right now.

It doesn’t have to be an exact match to be a competitor

Don’t think of competition as only other businesses who do exactly what you do. Think about what currently exists on the market that your product would displace.

It’s the difference between direct competition and indirect competition. When Henry Ford started successfully mass-producing automobiles in the U.S., he didn’t have other automakers to compete with. His competition was horse-and-buggy makers, bicycles, and railroads.

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Competition can be a good thing

Having competition can actually be a good thing for your business.

For starters, it’s an easy validator—it’s more likely that there are people who might be convinced to pay for your product or service if there are already people buying from your competitor.

Writing the competition section of your business plan

If you’re thinking about competition because you’re writing a business plan, use this guide to help. One of the best things you can do is use a competitive matrix as a tool to make it easy to see how your product or service compares to your competition.

Sometimes you have to think outside of the box when planning your business. Chances are, if you’ve got a product or service that appears to have no competition, you’ve already got a talent for thinking differently. Be sure to put that talent to use.

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Is Your Marketing Plan Aligned With Your Branding Goals?

branding and marketing goals

When your marketing plan aligns with your branding goals, your company becomes memorable to the masses. Nearly every business owner has goals, but how you define and carry them out often makes the difference between success and failure.

Around 84.5 percent of American companies use some type of digital content marketing. Marketing and branding are two different elements of your business’s image, but they also work together toward building an overall picture of who you are as a company.

Make sure branding and marketing align by following the 11 steps below to sync your business branding goals with your actions.

Step 1: Create your branding goals

If you don’t yet have branding goals for your business, your first step is creating a solid plan. If you already have some goals, take a few minutes to re-evaluate them and make sure they still align with your company plan.

Branding goals are tricky because the brand is how others see you. You can control some aspects of this, but not everything. Goals should include things such as how often your brand is presented to consumers and ideas for how you’d like others to see your business.

If you’re doing digital marketing, you’ve probably already aligned your marketing goals with your company’s sales goals and forecast: in order to achieve X percent growth in sales, you’re using a number of different marketing and sales tactics to increase your revenue.

Branding goals are a little different—think more about the top of your sales funnel. You’re looking to increase potential customers’ awareness that you exist. You’re also looking to increase their positive associations with your business.

Then think about the other end of your sales funnel—retaining your customers. We often talk about that in terms of brand loyalty, or more directly, their lifetime value. What will you do to keep them coming back?

Step 2: Align marketing with branding

Once you’ve solidified your branding goals, it’s time to align them with your marketing plan.

First, write out your branding goals so they are near as you work on your marketing plan. Then, create a roadmap for each quarter of the year, making sure each marketing point correlates to branding.

For example, if your branding goal is reaching 100 new people and making sure they know what your business does, then a marketing goal might tap into ways of finding them, such as adding informational videos on social media, or embarking on a PR campaign, or putting together a targeted content marketing strategy, aimed at bringing people to your website through organic search or SEO. If a marketing tactic doesn’t match your overall branding or sales goal, put it on the back burner for another time.

View our Business Branding Guide today!

Step 3: Map out your customer base

If you’re a brick and mortar business, one way to approach identifying your target market—your key customers—is to map out a list of your competitors and their locations and then look at where it makes sense for you to market.

Are there any underserved areas? One technique is starting near your home base and then expanding until your business growth meets your goals. There is little point in marketing to an area that lacks your target audience. A map shows you where you should concentrate your efforts.

Another way to “map” your customers is to develop a user or buyer persona. This means looking at your ideal customer’s demographics—how old are they, where do they live, what’s their income, and so on. Use those demographics to put together a fictional—but very useful—persona. Thinking of your ideal customer as an individual person can help you target your branding voice, tone, and message, and also your marketing spend.

Step 4: Consider your mission

What does your brand stand for? What’s your business’s mission? If your branding and marketing goals don’t align with who you are as a brand, then customers won’t see you as authentic and trustworthy.

Take a step back and study the history of your company and your vision. Look back at the initial business plan you wrote before starting your business. You’ll find clues about why you started the company in the first place, which will point you to your purpose as a brand.

Once you know your purpose, such as helping single moms with childcare solutions, then you’ll understand how you want others to view your brand as well. You can then ensure your marketing and branding goals align with who you are at the core.

Step 5: Utilize current customers

One of the toughest parts of growing a successful business is building a strong customer base. However, once you have those first clients, you should utilize them for information and help. It’s market research.

Poll your current customers. What about your brand attracted them? What would they like to see improved? Take note of raving fans and ask for testimonials to use in your marketing efforts. Also, ask them to tell others who might be interested in your products or services.

Step 6: Measure return on investment (ROI)

As you begin to implement your marketing plans in service of your branding and sales goals, make sure you track metrics so you can measure the success of each campaign.

Conduct A/B testing to see if your efforts result in new customers or sales. The ROI isn’t always monetary—especially with branding goals. You might really be focusing on increasing awareness—a top of sales funnel goal. You might measure and track metrics associated with increased website visits, or video views, or social media engagement.

If your goal is gaining new leads (a middle of the sales funnel goal), then you’ll measure how many new contacts you gain from a campaign. If your goal is to increase your net promoter score, or the likelihood that a customer would recommend you to a friend (a bottom of the sales funnel goal) you might look at the number of referrals that resulted in a sale, or the number of positive reviews.

Branding, or positive association with your company and your product or service, doesn’t stop with the sale. Make sure you’re attributing sales successes to your branding efforts when it makes sense.

Figuring out what result you want and then tracking numbers shows you which efforts need to be repeated and which ones need to be replaced.

Step 7: Set longer-term goals

When you completed the first two steps of setting branding and marketing goals, you likely looked at the next 12 months. Take time to write out some long-term goals, such as where you’d like your brand to be in five years or even 10 years.

Knowing what kind of company you want to build, and what you want it to look like, well into the future can be really useful. If you don’t set a long term trajectory for your business, you’re leaving a lot to chance.

A useful framework for this type of planning is a Lean Plan—a shorter form version of a business plan. If you’ve heard of a business model canvas, a Lean Plan is a better alternative to that. It’s easy to update, and a great place to map your ideas for the long term. You can download a free Lean Plan template here to help you get started.

You must plan if you want to beat the odds, fixing weak areas along the way and adapting to rapid market shifts.

Step 8: Decide on tone

Your business, no matter what industry you’re in, has a unique personality, tone, and voice. If you sell something fun, your voice might be lighthearted and joyful. On the other hand, if you’re in education or financial services, your tone might be a bit more serious.

Choose a tone that aligns with your brand goals and use it in your marketing efforts across all platforms. Users should recognize your personality immediately, whether interacting on social media, reading an email from you, or talking to your team on the phone.

Step 9: Understand your unique value proposition (UVP)

Marketing is about the promise you make to your audience regarding what you’ll bring to the table. You must first figure out what unique advantage you offer that no one else does, and then communicate your UVP, or your unique value proposition.  through all your marketing efforts.

SnackNation is one company with a strong UVP with a highly targeted audience. The brand provides healthy snacks for homes and offices on a subscription-based service. Each week, SnackNation adds about 1,200 new leads segmented into a marketing list that specifically meets the needs of that particular audience.

When you land on the SnackNation website, you’re asked to choose if you want snacks for the home or office. You are then offered a free sampler box to pick one that’s right for your needs. This is just one example of how to use your UVP to help you build a more personalized customer experience.

Step 10: Evaluate the look of your online marketing

Spend time on each platform you market on and make sure the look matches the overall appearance of your brand’s image.

If your branding goal is to show you have higher-quality products than any other competitor, but your website or Facebook page looks cheap with photos that aren’t very good, you are missing an opportunity. Ideally, you’re continuously testing and optimizing your website and digital marketing campaigns.

Step 11: Improve communication on your team

As your business grows, one challenge you might face is keeping your branding and marketing standards consistent between different areas of your team. Who is in charge of your branding? Do you have a branding guide your whole company can refer to as needed?

As a leader, make sure you’re empowering everyone on your team to be a good, consistent steward of your brand and your sales, marketing, and branding goals. Doing something new? Running tests? Let your team know so they can help and support your efforts.  

Re-evaluate often

Over time, you’ll probably come up with fantastic new ideas for marketing your products, but they may not align with your branding or corporate goals.

Every three to six months, spend a little time looking at plans for branding and marketing and making sure everything still meshes together. Make any adjustments as needed and re-evaluate goals as your company grows.

With a little attention to detail and a lot of communication, your marketing and branding will work together and increase your customer base steadily.

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Lexi Lu
Lexi Lu

Lexie Lu is a designer and UX strategist. She enjoys covering topics related to UX design, web design, social media, and branding. Feel free to subscribe to her design blog, Design Roast, or follow her on Twitter @lexieludesigner.



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Is Cash or Accrual Accounting Best for Small Businesses?

accrual accounting cash flow

Customers owe your business money. Your business owes its vendors money. Would you rather keep track with records in your books, or just in your head? That, in a nutshell, is the difference between cash-basis and accrual accounting.  

That is what’s at stake as you choose between cash-basis or accrual accounting. It turns out that all business bookkeeping is going to be either cash basis or accrual. Those are the rules—just ask your small business accountant or take a look in your accounting software. It’s one of the first decisions you’ll need to make when you set up your business’s books.

And there is some good news in this area. Accrual may sound off-putting but it’s better, and it’s also easy to understand, once you get over the sound of it. Give me just five minutes to read this blog post, and you’ll get it.

Cash basis sounds simple—but it isn’t

Unfortunately, the phrase “cash basis” sounds much better than the buzzword “accrual.” Right? Doesn’t cash basis sound much more hands-on, intuitive, and practical than accrual?

Cash basis hides information

But cash basis isn’t simpler, or more intuitive, or better than accrual accounting. Cash basis means that until the money actually changes hands, you don’t keep track of it—the transaction doesn’t go on the books.

In cash basis accounting, if you sell goods and don’t get paid immediately, the sale doesn’t show up on the books. Sure, there was a sale, and now somebody owes you money. But cash basis bookkeeping ignores it. That sale gets into your books only later, when you get paid. The money your customer owes you doesn’t show up. You keep track of it in a shoebox, or maybe in your head.

Also, in cash basis accounting, when you order some goods, nothing happens. Sure, you now have an obligation to pay; you’ve agreed to spend some money. But it’s not in your books. When the goods come, if you don’t pay for them in cash when they arrive, nothing happens. Yes, you have a debt at that point, but it doesn’t go into your books until you pay it. You keep track of it in a shoebox, or maybe in your head.

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Cash basis is suitable for extremely simple, cash-only businesses

Cash basis bookkeeping, as it turns out, is better for only the very simple hands-on businesses that manage everything in cash.

What kind of business is that simple? It’s hard to think of examples. Even the handicrafts vendor at the local flea market has to buy materials in advance. Even food carts want to pay their vendors regularly, but not immediately.

During the decades that I lived off a consulting practice, even though inventory was irrelevant and I had no vendors willing to extend me credit, I was still better off with accrual accounting. Why? Because my client companies never paid immediately; they paid me only after receiving an invoice and taking weeks to process.

Accrual accounting is better

In accrual accounting, when you make a business-to-business sale on account, you record the accrued amount as accounts receivable, so you keep track of the amount, the date, and the customer who owes it to you. Unless you never sell without immediate payment, accrual basis is better. Otherwise, you’re just in the dark about your cash flow.

In accrual accounting, when you receive the goods you ordered, but you don’t pay for them immediately, you still owe that money. You have an invoice to pay. You record the accrued amount as accounts payable, along with the date, a record of what you bought, and who and when you are supposed to pay.

And with that, in accrual accounting, your bookkeeping software keeps track of these important amounts and reports on them as often as you want.

Keeping track of balances

The illustration here below, from a sample business plan, demonstrates the huge advantage of accrual accounting: it keeps track of money owed to the business (accounts receivable), the value of inventory, and money the business owes (accounts payable).

That gives a business owner an instant accounting of the true financial position, with no surprises, no forgetting what’s still coming and still needing to be paid.

accrual cash flow

When in doubt, go for accrual basis

I’m so sorry that the accounting standards that were set a few generations ago chose to call it “cash basis” when you don’t record money owed into your books until it’s paid, or money you owe until you pay it. It’s a terrible idea to keep that information in your head instead of in your bookkeeping.

Furthermore, as your business gets going, banks and financial analysts tend to mistrust cash-based bookkeeping because it can hide—whether intended or not—financial realities. For example, as a loan manager looks at a potential business loan, they want to know what the company really owes (accounts payable), its inventory performance, and how much it’s owed (accounts receivable) too.

Frankly, cash basis bookkeeping can too easily cause many mistakes as we business owners fail to keep track and remind ourselves of these outstanding obligations. And yet, ironically, they call that “cash basis” accounting. I do wish that the right way to do it, which is accrual accounting, didn’t have such an off-putting name.

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How to Find an IT Provider for Your Small Business

IT support provider

As a small business owner, you’re no doubt aware that protecting your website and all your web- and network-based tools is crucial.

Startups and small businesses are targeted in 58 percent of all cyber attacks, according to Verizon’s 2018 Data Breach Investigation Report. However, you may feel like expert IT support is a luxury you can’t afford.

Your small business’s limited budget may not even have room to hire a single full-time IT person, let alone a whole team. Yet you need someone who can secure your network, fix a printer connection, and answer your questions about cloud storage—often all in the same day. One person, no matter how qualified, won’t have the full range of expertise to handle all of your technology needs.

The solution for most small businesses is to outsource your IT support to an IT service provider. Hiring a support provider often gives you an entire team of experts for less than it would cost to keep a single full-time employee on staff. It also frees up your time, energy, and money to focus on growing your business instead of worrying about cybersecurity and network connections.

Why outsource IT?

Your expertise is running your business and the product or service you offer. Because you need to focus on your business, it just makes sense to outsource some things.

Because your daily operations almost certainly rely on IT functioning smoothly, having a service provider on call means you and your team won’t lose out on business when there are hiccups in your technology. This option will prevent issues from arising and will allow your business to always run smoothly. The right IT support company acts as a partner rather than as an employee or subcontractor.

You can hire an IT firm on a one-off basis to handle a particular project or challenge—for example, if your email is down and you just want someone to get it up and running again so your clients don’t think you’ve abandoned them.

You’d make a one-time payment or pay at an hourly rate until the project was completed. In this case, you become a general contractor, which means you assume all risk if the project doesn’t go as planned, takes longer than expected, or the solution isn’t sufficient.

Outsourcing to an IT service provider lets you have an IT department whenever you need it—without having to keep a full-time, fully staffed team in place.

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What do you get?

An IT support provider can usually provide an array of services, including application, network, system, and e-management services, and you pay for the ones you need now with the option to scale up or down when the time comes. In addition, most IT support providers supplement their own services with those from other providers to ensure they can offer capabilities like web hosting and internet access as well.

If you’re in the market for an IT service provider, look for one that offers a monthly fixed-fee pricing model. An IT firm that charges by the hour has no incentive to fix problems quickly and efficiently.

With a flat fee model, however, your service provider will handle any IT-related issues that pop up within the agreed-upon budget. Upgrading PCs, setting up firewalls, backing up files, and protecting email accounts are all the responsibility of the IT support company, and it makes sense for them to address those situations as thoroughly and as quickly as possible to remain on your payroll.

What are the drawbacks?

If you do hire on an IT support company, it’s important to be aware of the drawbacks as well as the benefits. For starters, they’ll manage your IT remotely. If you have an issue with your printer or in your server room, for instance, you may need someone who can be physically available to perform the instructions that your service provider gives over the phone or via email. With that said, most service providers offer on-site support when needed, though check your contract—it may cost extra.

Moreover, a managed service provider isn’t a technology panacea. Your support company can help you keep software applications like a CRM up and running, but it won’t be the one to train your team on how to use it or to customize it to your business. After all, you don’t want to outsource your core competencies.

Finally, you will need to add into your budget the cost of working with a reputable IT support company. The expenses are likely to include upfront fees plus several hundred dollars a month at minimum, depending on the size of your company and your technical needs.

What questions should I ask to vet IT support companies?

To decide whether outsourcing your IT support makes sense for your business, it helps to think through your IT needs and goals. Most small businesses have one or more of the following needs: securing systems and data, speeding up response times, and increasing the power and performance of their networks.

As you vet potential IT support companies, ask these key questions:

1. What’s included in the cost?

The first thing you want to know is how and how much you’ll be billed. And read those terms carefully to be sure you know exactly what’s included in that cost. Some providers will claim to offer all-inclusive prices, but somehow you’ll still end up with a separate bill for something like a server upgrade at the end of the month.

2. Are you compatible?

Make sure that the platforms a provider supports align with the technologies you rely on—and those you might rely on in the future. Some support companies have strong technical acumen around Apple products, for instance, but aren’t as familiar with Microsoft or Cisco.

3. How are passwords protected?

Ask a potential provider how they handle passwords internally. If they don’t mention multifactor authentication—that’s a big red flag. Far too many providers simply keep their customers’ passwords in plain-text, unencrypted Excel spreadsheets.

It’s easy, and it works, but it’s absolutely not secure. IT support companies are a prime target for hackers, who need only to exploit one vulnerability to get access to all of their clients’ passwords. Make sure any company you hire has complete protocols for keeping passwords and other sensitive data secure.

4. How do you train employees?

As human error is so often the cause of a security breach, ask a potential IT service provider how they train their staff members against cybersecurity threats. It’s a good sign if they train every employee to guard against phishing attempts and they update the training regularly.

If an employee at your IT support company opens the wrong email or mistakenly clicks on a malicious link, your entire IT infrastructure could be put at risk. Your IT support should be protecting your data, not potentially compromising it.

The best provider will work with you like a business partner. Your goals should be largely intertwined. Do your homework and get to know a number of providers before settling on one. When you do find a trustworthy IT support company that can provide the services you need, your entire business will benefit.

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Jon Schram
Jon Schram

Jon Schram is a husband, father, and entrepreneur. He is the founder and CEO of The Purple Guys, a Midwest-based information technology support company. The company has grown since 2001 to become the Midwest’s premier IT support company with more than a 96 percent customer satisfaction rating. Jon and his wife, Jill, have three children and have founded two businesses.



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Valuation: Is Your Small Business as Priceless as You Think?

business valuation

After spending years building your small business, it can be hard to quantify the time and energy you’ve poured into it and the sacrifices you’ve made to get where you are now. Your company probably seems priceless to you, but there inevitably will come a time when you must calculate precisely how much your business is worth.

Perhaps you’re preparing for retirement or for a transition to a new owner—whether it involves a single private owner or a sale to employees. Having a exit plan or a succession plan is a good first step, but you’ll also need to understand the value of your assets and the tax implications of transferring them to the next generation. This will require an accurate valuation.

The value of your company is subjective. Buyers and sellers don’t always agree on what’s valuable and what isn’t, which is why hiring a valuation consultant or a CPA who has experience valuing businesses is a good idea. That said, it’s not overly difficult to come up with a reasonable ballpark valuation on your own—you’ll just need to avoid some of the common misconceptions first-time sellers have.

Know what you’re working with

Most business owners pour their hearts and souls into their companies, and they logically expect to be compensated for that when it’s time to sell. Unfortunately, many founders find it difficult to swallow the realities of the market for buying and selling small businesses.

In nearly every case, small businesses are bought and sold based on the cash flow they produce—with prices adjusted up or down to reflect other qualitative features. Rather than focusing only on cash flow, however, most intermediaries use a figure called “SDE,” or seller discretionary earnings, as the core data point of a valuation.

SDE is similar to cash flow, but it has one important caveat: The owner’s nonessential expenses are “added back” to arrive at a comprehensive figure of the new owner’s total compensation.

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Let’s say you own a corporation that earns $150,000 a year in EBITDA and pay yourself about $100,000 in salary and benefits as the CEO/owner. In theory, all (or some) of this salary should be “added back” to the EBITDA number to arrive at an SDE of about $250,000.

This is the amount of money that a new owner acquiring the business could expect to earn if he or she worked in the business. (An owner not planning to work in the business might only accept a certain percentage of that salary number.)

While this seems straightforward on its face, it can get convoluted in practice. To illustrate, let’s say that you’ve attended annual training courses for the past few years to stay abreast of industry trends. You could certainly make the argument that a new owner wouldn’t need to do the same. But is this realistic? A new owner is likely to face the same market environment that you do, and add-backs like this can become a point of contention that ultimately derails acquisitions.

While these ideas may seem foreign at first, it’s possible to become as well-versed in small business valuation as your intermediary might be. Keep reading for a few simple, actionable steps to help get you there.

1. Read industry reports

IBBA’s Market Pulse Report offers valuable insight into the multiples business owners might expect to sell their business for—and the published quarterly data is free to the public. A quick Google search can lead you to plenty of other up-to-date reports as well as provide you with historical data for context.

Look online today, and you might suddenly be eager to explore selling: 2018 was a record-breaking year for small business owners selling their companies, according to research from BizBuySell, with a 4 percent increase in transactions over the previous record set in 2017 and a 31 percent increase over 2016’s numbers.

Furthermore, the same report indicates that 70 percent of business brokers expect to see more transactions in 2019 than before. A deep understanding of the M&A landscape and your respective industry can help you arrive at an informed valuation.

2. Talk to your CPA

Aside from you, your CPA has better insight than anyone into your company’s financials. If your CPA has been trained in valuation or follows industry trends, he or she should be able to provide you with an approximate price range based on your business’s trajectory. Perhaps more importantly, your CPA should be able to advise you on the most tax-advantaged way to structure a future transaction—as well as any steps you might need to take to prepare.

If you plan to seriously explore selling, work with your CPA to start getting your books in order. Potential buyers will heavily scrutinize your past three to five years of financials, so make sure all your finances are prepared correctly.

3. Organize your documents

There are a number of critical documents you’ll need to have in order to arrive at an accurate valuation. For starters, you’ll need to specify exactly what is available for sale. The simplest transactions, and those that most investors prefer, will always arise from selling your business as a going concern—in other words, selling the entirety of your business’s assets, contracts, and receivables in a single transaction.

Regardless of how your deal is structured, a proper valuation will require you to account for everything the business owns, ranging from the tangible (hard assets on your balance sheet like trucks and machinery) to the intangible (things like goodwill, patents, proprietary processes, brands, or trademarks). The relative quality and value of these assets can have a significant effect on your business’s ultimate valuation, so you need to keep an accurate record of everything.

Ultimately, we’re all just guessing

I once heard an interesting viewpoint on valuation that illustrates its simultaneous complexity and simplicity. I was speaking with a peer at a conference, and this person said, “We can model out everything, run the numbers, and look at industry reports. But ultimately, any asset’s value is established at the moment a transaction occurs—and not a second before.”

This is something that business owners should keep in mind. Although arriving at a valuation is a quantitative exercise, it’s still largely an art. Like it or not, the buyer on the other end of the transaction ultimately establishes your business’s true value in the marketplace.

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Jim Moran
Jim Moran

Jim Moran is the founder and managing partner of ValueStreet Equity Partners, a San Diego-based firm investing exclusively in small businesses. His entrepreneurial endeavors began in 2006 and culminated with the founding of a small business that grew to more than $30 million a year in sales. After exiting his business in 2016, James founded ValueStreet to pursue the work he loves on a larger scale. He holds a B.A. from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, and he lives in San Diego with his wife and son.

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If Facebook Disappeared Tomorrow, Would You Lose All Your Customer Data?

facebook customer data

Having a worldwide audience at your fingertips is great, but if a social media platform is the gatekeeper of your contact list, do you really own that information? I would argue no.

I understand why social media marketing is attractive to small businesses. You can set up a Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter page for free and instantly access nearly 3 billion people. It’s simpler than setting up your business’s first website. For a small business trying to build an online presence, gaining hundreds of likes and followers early on can be exciting.

Maintaining an upward trajectory on social media, however, is more challenging. Facebook’s algorithm for de-emphasizing commercial content means that unless you pay to boost your posts, they won’t always reach your audience. Even if you temporarily beat the algorithm, the platform has way more resources dedicated to outrunning you.

This makes it much more difficult (or even impossible) to sustain that early growth. As social media platforms continue to grow in popularity, the advertising and business space becomes more competitive, and you’ll be less likely to receive free traffic.

Case in point: A 2018 Search Engine Journal poll found 37 percent of businesses reported much lower Facebook traffic than the previous year. Today’s platforms change their algorithms and update their advertising rules frequently, meaning an ad that performed well last year—or even last week—might not be up to snuff now.

Most social platforms are optimized for engagement only within that platform. That’s at odds with what you want for your small business. Likes, follows, and comments aren’t the same as eyes on your website, newsletter sign-ups, and qualified leads. Basically, social media success translates less and less into real value for your company.

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The gatekeeper trap

Not getting what you expected out of a free platform is disappointing, but alone, all you lost is time and effort. You can recover from that. The real trouble comes when Facebook is your main (or only) channel for reaching your audience. As I already mentioned, you don’t really own your data if you’ve made Facebook—or really any social media platform—its gatekeeper.

With Facebook, you have no control over the algorithms and rules that make that audience data useful. In fact, as platforms grow more crowded, it’s not uncommon for them to make it harder for you to reach followers. You have to shift strategies quickly to stop your marketing efforts from growing stale, and the platform’s main goal is to limit your organic reach so it can monetize your traffic immediately.

Plus, social media leads are not nearly as qualified as leads from other sources. It doesn’t take much effort to click “Like,” so engagement on the platform doesn’t really equate to real interest. While 84 percent of social marketers track and measure social media effectiveness against existing goals, nearly 30 percent still have trouble proving its value.

In fact, you don’t even control the layout or presentation of your social media pages, so you have few opportunities to stand out from other business pages. Temporary snapshots of your business gain more traction than any overall picture of your company’s activities and value.

Most importantly, your business’s activity benefits other businesses, too. Amazon, for instance, can copy and out-promote a well-performing product from one of the 6 million sellers on its Marketplace platform, running small companies out of business. Similarly, Facebook offers up your free and paid-for audiences (and all their data) for other similar businesses to target. You pay for advertising, then these sites use your activity and that of your followers to make even more money.

4 ways to gain back control

I’m not saying you should forgo social media marketing. On the contrary, when used properly, it can be a highly valuable asset to your overall marketing strategy. The trap springs when you use social media—a channel you don’t own—as your sole means of reaching your audience.

With word-of-mouth and email marketing—emails you capture through your own website, you not only eliminate any gatekeepers to your audience data, but you also build a reputation that lasts longer and means more than a social media following. Emails can be exported and imported into different systems, so you don’t have to worry about a single platform holding your data hostage.

The bottom line is that you don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket, especially if you’re not the one holding the basket.

Instead, reach a broad audience while protecting your data by following these four tips:

1. Claim ownership of your data

I can’t stress this enough: It’s essential to go through every marketing platform and channel you use to determine if you’re the data’s sole owner.

  • Does the platform hold the rights to all published or profile data?
  • Can other people access your data without your permission?
  • Can your data be sold to other people and used in direct competition of your business?

Clear up any ambiguity as soon as possible, and if necessary, switch or leave any platform that claims ownership of your data. At the very least, limit the use of the platform and ensure that you have a separate contact list for your followers on it. Make sure you’re building your own wealth, not just that of the platform you’re using.

2. Prioritize emails and phone numbers

You can’t take followers, views, and likes to the bank, but you can take phone numbers and email addresses with you no matter what system you’re using. In addition to never losing your contacts, you can utilize this information for more effective digital marketing channels, such as email, that convert into solid leads and higher return on investment than social media.

You can prioritize this information by including a short call to action on all your social media posts and ads for readers to sign up for an email newsletter. Instead of curating these leads on Facebook or other platforms, incorporate the data into an email or customer relationship management program. You can then reach them via more personalized channels and easily add any other data points you collect.

3. Do your own market research

In many cases, word-of-mouth and email marketing are way better methods of reaching your audience than social media or direct mail. However, that isn’t always true for every business. Do your own market research. The data and metrics provided by social media and other advertising platforms may be misleading.

Within a CRM platform, you can track exactly which marketing channels brought in which leads, the conversion rate for each channel, and which channel has the highest ROI. If you actually own your audience data, you have the means to use it to effectively direct every arm of your marketing strategy.

4. Don’t erase your social presence entirely

As you conduct your own research, you may find that your business can benefit from social media advertising. If so, keep the strategy ethical, set reasonable goals for the social media page, and don’t rely on it as your main source of leads or audience contact. Rather than erase your social media presence, just use it more strategically.

For example, if your goal is to appear credible rather than gain new leads, dedicate a few hours every month to social media upkeep. Update the page with new posts, publish fresh content routinely, feed reviews to your Facebook page, and respond promptly to comments and direct messages. Use your presence as an engagement tool rather than a lead-generation one.

The instant gratification of seeing your business’s social media presence blossom can be encouraging, but don’t be fooled. If you don’t own your data, you’re at the mercy of the platform that does—and you’ll be out of luck if it pulls a fast one. Own your audience data by eliminating the gatekeepers, and take control of your business.

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Tyler King
Tyler King

Tyler King is the CEO and co-founder of Less Annoying CRM, a simple CRM built from the ground up for small businesses. Thousands of small businesses use LACRM to manage contacts, track leads, and stay on top of follow-ups. When Tyler’s not obsessing over improving the product, he’s working with the rest of the team to make sure that LACRM truly lives up to its name. Follow Tyler on Twitter at @TylerMKing.



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