Are you answering what your customers wonder and worry about? (REVIEW)

they askThis review first ran in the July 21 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

They Ask You Answer

By Marcus Sheridan

Wiley

$30

Marcus Sheridan was on the brink of financial ruin.

The bank was calling. His credit cards were maxed out. His employees were sitting at home wondering if they still had a job.

Sheridan’s company installed fiberglass swimming pools. Finding homeowners willing and able to spend $50,000 on a pool was a tough sell in the aftermath of 2008’s global financial crisis.

Sheridan needed a miracle. “Unless we found a way to garner more leads and sales than we’d ever had, even though there were fewer potential buyers (because of this economy) than ever before, we were going to go out of business within a matter of months.”

The miracle arrived when Sheridan made his company a teacher of fiberglass swimming pools. Sheridan became obsessed with answering questions with fierce honesty. While competitors talked about themselves, Sheridan focused on addressing what prospective buyers were wondering, worrying and asking about.

They ask, we answer became Sheridan’s business philosophy and it saved his company.

lion question markHe started publishing articles and posting videos every week to his company’s website.

“How much does a fiberglass pool cost?” was one of the first articles to go up on the website. Pricing and cost were not something that pool builders posted on their websites. “The fact that no one had addressed this question meant a blue ocean of opportunity for the business,” says Sheridan. “The marketplace was dying for someone to be open and honest enough to address this question and so that’s exactly what we did.”

Sheridan also posted articles where he acknowledged that fiberglass swimming pools weren’t for every customer and even made referrals to other local installers.

Sheridan tracked what prospective customers did after reading and watching the content he posted online. The more content they consumed, the more likely they were to become customers.

His article on the cost of fiberglass pools would generate $3 million in new sales.

“Without exaggeration, this single article saved my business. It saved my home. It saved the homes of my two business partners. It also saved the jobs of all our employees.”

In 2007, Sheridan’s company sold 75 pools after meeting with 250 prospective customers for a closing ratio of 30 per cent.

By 2013 and with a website full of content, that closing ratio jumped to 79 per cent as appointments with 120 homeowners resulted in 95 sales. Sheridan’s team met with far fewer prospects yet sold more pools.

On average, the 95 customers who bought pools had reviewed 105 pages of content posted to the company website. They were well-informed and ready to buy when they met with Sheridan and his team.

Sheridan also discovered that the overwhelming majority of prospects who looked at less than 30 pages of content prior to an appointment never made a purchase. Care and attention could then be redirected to providing even better service to customers.

Whatever product or service you sell and whether you’re in the private, public or non-profit sectors, Sheridan says you are first and foremost a media company. To earn our trust and our money, you first need to show us your story, your company culture in action and the people who work for you. Customers are vetting businesses more deeply than ever before and we want to know what you believe and why you believe it.

Get everyone involved in drawing up a list of all the questions and concerns that you’ve heard from customers. Sheridan recommends hiring someone with journalism training who knows how to create clear and compelling content and work to deadline.

“As consumers, we expect to be fed great information,” says Sheridan. “Are you willing to meet their expectations? Or would you prefer that the competition be the one who answers the question for them? Remember, they’re going to get their answers from someone, so wouldn’t you prefer they get their answers from you?”

Sheridan is now the founder and president of a coaching and consulting firm that helps other companies create customer-focused content that drives sales.

His book gives you permission to do what you’ve always known your business should be doing to win customers. Quit talking about yourself. Instead, be the best teacher within your industry. Obsess over your customers’ questions and concerns. And win their trust and their business by answering with fierce honesty.

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Field notes from a marketing and communications conference (25 takeaways)

field notes

Here are my top 25 content marketing, social media, video, issues management and crisis comms takeaways from the 2nd annual Marketing & Communications for Post-Secondary Conference held May 7 – 9 in Toronto. The conference was produced by Summers Direct and Swansea Communications and presented by Academica Group.

Highly recommend this conference for anyone working in marketing or communications with colleges or universities and looking for some inspiration. You too will leave with a book full of notes and ideas.

1.     With content marketing, the sweet spot is the intersection of what your audience wants, what your organization is an expert in and where there’s untapped potential for marrying the two. – Graeme Owens, LinkedIn Marketing Solutions

2.     The most engaging and shareable content is helpful, inspiring and entertaining. – Graeme Owens

3.     On social media, visuals are the new headlines. Don’t use stock photos. Shoot your own. Enlist the help of amateur photographers in your organization. – Graeme Owens

4.     68 per cent of Canadians are now on social media. We either use it a lot or not at all. Very few of us are still using social media passively. – Jane Antoniak, King’s University College and Dr. Alex Sevigny, Master of Communication Management Program, McMaster University

5.     Instagram is the fastest growing platform. Seniors are the fastest growing demographic. – Jane Antoniak and Alex Sevigny

6.     Facebook is our 21st century commons. Young people aren’t excited to be there but they’re not leaving in droves. – Jane Antoniak and Alex Sevigny

7.     In managing an issue, borrow from the Arthur W. Page Society playbook. Tell the truth and be patient. Show contrition through your actions. Listen to your stakeholders. Manage for tomorrow. Remain calm, patient and good-humoured. Conduct PR as if the fate of your organization depends on it. – Christine Szustaczek, Sheridan College

8.     Unions are doing a better job than your organization in communicating with your employees. And they’re going to get even better at it as they invest in new technology, including smartphone apps. – Priya Bates, Inner Strength Communications

9.     If what you’re communicating isn’t relevant to the day-to-day realities of your audience, you’re training them to ignore you. – Priya Bates

10. Communicate with the key influencers in your organization. These frontline, on-the-ground, respected and connected influencers are not your formal leaders. – Priya Bates

11. How do you know if employees are engaged? They SAY great things. They STAY with you. And they STRIVE to go above and beyond in their jobs. – Priya Bates

12. If others in your organization can do a better job of telling your story, let me. Harness the power of testimonials from real people. – Michelle Blackwell, UBC Library

13. Content marketing is about creating real value for your audience. Provide a solution. Stop selling and start helping. – Lauren Lord, EDge Interactive

14. Provide your audience with the answers they’re looking for and then supply the information you want to give. – Lauren Lord

15. Online content that will draw an audience to your organization includes how-to tutorials, human interest stories, lists, controversial posts where your organization takes a principled stand, guest articles and videos. – Lauren Lord

16. If content is king, distribution is queen. To get your content out to your audience, know who you’re trying to reach and then use a mix of paid, earned, shared and owned (PESO). Paid social is the best way to generate reliable traffic, to launch a new campaign, boost high-performing content and target specific groups for specific outcomes. – Lauren Lord

17. Instagram Stories is the new television for teens. – Dr. Philip Glennie, Academica Group and Kayla Lewis, Seneca College

18. Consider Takeover Tuesdays and Throwback Thursdays on your social media accounts. Seneca College hands over its Instagram account to students and even incoming students (with supervision from the comms team). The college also posts archival photos from the its 50-year history. – Dr. Philip Glennie and Kayla Lewis

19. Before you can tell your organization’s story, you need to get your audience’s attention. Video is the best way to do that. – Warren Weeks, Weeks Media

20. The most watchable and shareable videos are 30 seconds to 2 ½ minutes, tightly edited and tell a story with an emotional core. – Warren Weeks

21. If your organization has a teleprompter, throw it out or sell it on eBay. Use the money to invest in a light and a mic so your videos don’t have the look and feel of a hostage video. – Warren Weeks

22. In a crisis, it’s not what you want to say. It’s what we need to hear. Anchor your communications in shared, foundational values. Listening is key. – John Larsen, Edelman PR

23. You can’t communicate your way out of a problem. To regain our trust and restore your reputation, you need to take action and fix the problem. Tell us what you’re doing to make things right. This can include telling us you have a longer-term plan with a commitment to report back. – John Larsen

24. Don’t be afraid to pause. Be careful and deliberate. Figure out what’s known and unknown. Validate information. Mistakes can be made by moving too fast. – John Larsen

25. Have clear roles for spokespeople in a crisis. Your PR person POSITIONS the story and provides context. Your subject matter expert PERSUADES (for example, your Chief Information Officer explains what’s being done in the aftermath of a data breach). Your executive presents the PERSONALITY of your organization (this is what we fundamentally believe and stand for). – John Larsen