Reflections on the 2010 IMA Conference

I budget a lot of money on seminars every year, I feel my education is important to me and my business. Although IMA is fairly a new trade association, I continue to be impressed with the conferences that is put on. This year’s conference, which I’m still thinking about, was no exception.

I didn’t have the opportunity to go to all of the ASD & IMA seminars (this photo by IMA president Fred Neff is of just one of the well-attended seminars).

Because I’m familiar with videos and blogging, the rest of the social media venues and networks intrigue me most. So I found this video extremely powerful, and I hope you’ll take the time to watch it.

I keep remembering what Rick Wilson of Miva Merchant (an IMA diamond member) said: social media is a “circle of life.” It’s about the three C’s: connections, then conversation, and then conversations. So if we can build a community of supporters for our businesses and give them good content, they can help us tremendously with our marketing.

Here are some free tools I learned about at the conference:

  • Backtype.com, which is a real-time tool for you to keep tabs of what people are saying about your business
  • Alterian has a freemium version of its monitoring service for you to monitor your social media venues
  • Here is a free tool that helps you with documents, www.docstoc.com
  • And another for PowerPoint presentations, www.slideshare.net

What did you enjoy most about the conference? Please share your learnings.

3 Steps To Creating Your Social Media Strategy

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Shashi Bellamkonda of Network Solutions, who will be speaking at the 2010 IMA Conference next month. If you haven’t already, sign up here.

Whether it is jungle drums or smoke signals, humans have always improvised methods of communications and connections to each other. Village gatherings formed early social circles and networks. Communications have always been evolving – messengers carrying messages on horseback to the pony express to railroads to today’s USPS, UPS and Fed Ex all satisfy the need of communications.

Have you noticed some of these communications means have survived?  Even though we do not use the telegraph, we use the Internet to communicate with short messages today called microblogging.

For a business it is both a challenge and a necessity to find new ways to increase the efficiency of your business.

In the past businesses could make the changes and expect the customers to adapt. In the new millennium, media is now more often in the hands of the users and businesses are beginning to adapt. The Internet, websites and social networks are now replacing village gatherings and spanning users across the globe communing together to discuss common interests, discuss products and companies.

The speed at which conversation spreads has changed the pattern of how movie reviews worked. In an August 2009 article Michael Sragow wrote in the Washington Post, “Although word of mouth could always make or break a movie, it usually took days to affect the box office. But the rise of social networking tools such as Twitter might be narrowing that time frame to hours. And that has Hollywood on edge.”

As a business owner wouldn’t you like to know what your customers are talking about when it comes to your products and your business? These new media tools also give business the same power to learn feedback almost instantaneously.

The 3-step process you could use to shape your strategy is:
1. Listen
2. Engage
3. Create

Listen

Think of the listening phase as an extension of your existing communication and feedback mechanism. The main difference is that feedback through email, phone calls, web forms and maybe even snail mail is mainly directly to you – social networks offer an opportunity to listen in on to public conversations about you. Here’s what you do:
1. Set up Google Alerts
2. Search for your brand /product or your company or your geographical area on http://search.twitter.com
3. Use a tool like Backtype to monitor comment conversations on blog posts.

Engage

In the listening phase, you have identified where the conversations relating to your business are taking place. Now, you can participate by showcasing your knowledge and thought leadership or even asking for feedback:
1. Setup profiles in at least 3 social networks which you have identified as helpful for your business (Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter could be the three)
2. Identify 3 blogs on your particular field or industry to follow. Comment when you have a opinion. In case you are mentioned in any blog post head over the blog and thank the author
3. Look at the questions on networks like Linkedin to add your expertise

Create

This is the phase where you will have learned enough about the conversations about your business and your products to be able to begin creating valuable content that is not about you but your customers and the community:
1. Make sure you have a website. You can get one for free at Network Solutions
2. Start a Facebook Page and encourage your customers to become fans of your page. Create special offers for your Facebook Fans
3. Reinforce your web presence with a blog. Make the blog personal along with writing useful tips for your customers. It does not always have to be about your products., Invite your customers to tell their stories.

You should measure the success of your efforts in terms of increased brand mentions, foot traffic or online traffic, increase in customer satisfaction or higher product awareness leading to higher customer uptake.

Remember all these tools are making human connections so you should show the personality behind your business. And make sure you remember your goals for engaging in social media for your business, since these tools can also be distracting if not used diligently.

When I speak at conferences the best reward is the communication or Twitter messages I get from the audience, sometimes even after a year, with some good news about using social tools for great success. I am hoping the same thing will happen when I speak more on the topic at the IMA conference in March. If there are some topics you would like to hear about specifically please let me know.

Recommended reading:

  • Israel, Shel, Twitterville: How Businesses Can Thrive in the New Global Neighborhoods. Portfolio Hardcover (September 3, 2009)
  • Scott, David Meerman, The New Rules of Marketing and PR: How to Use News Releases, Blogs, Podcasting, Viral Marketing and Online Media to Reach Buyers Directly. WILEY, (June 4, 2007)
  • Campbell, Anita Online publication for small business owners,entrepreneurs: http://smallbiztrends.com
  • Small Business Success Index: http://www.growsmartbusiness.com
  • Women Grow Business: http://www.womengrowbusiness.com
  • Social Media news and Web tips: http://mashable.com/
  • Shashi Bellamkonda is Director – Social Media & Social Media Swami of Network Solutions, a company that works together to help small business succeed online with web hosting, do-it-yourself website builder software, online marketing tools and domain names. Visit his blog here. Shashi is a regular contributor to the DC Examiner and Tech Cocktail. This article contains the opinions and observations of the author and may not necessarily reflect those of Network Solutions or its clients or partners. Connect with Shashi on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook or BizSugar.

    Image: Terry Hart, Creative Commons

    3 Ways To Use Your Email Signature to Market Yourself

    Remember how, in the “old” days, folks would “call on” others and, if they weren’t at home, they’d leave their calling card behind? I haven’t been able to find an academic reference to it, but it makes sense that the modern-day practice of exchanging business cards stems from there. And even in this highly electronic day and age, there’s still room for business cards, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

    But are you maximizing the use of your most basic calling card? And that’s nothing more than your email signature.

    We all suffer from email overload – I’ve long since stopped counting how many emails I get in a day. Even when I’m not working or on vacation, I use my BlackBerry to delete unnecessary emails from my inbox, in an effort to keep on top of the traffic (sigh, it never stops!).

    But I also know that when I send an email out, it’s a unique way to remind others of what I do, particular affiliations I have and things that are important to me.

    Here are three tips to maximize your email signature as a marketing tool:

    1. Proclaim yourself.

    You normally include your contact information in your e-signature, right? Why not include hyperlinks to all the relevant data you think people should have access to? For example, these could be your website, blog or Twitter handle. How about your Etsy site or another storefront? If it’s in your signature, it’s right there for the recipients to click through to, yet you’re not hitting them over the head with it.

    2. Add a visual touch.

    Go one step further and add some visual pizazz to your e-signature; and a terrific way of doing this is by using a program such as WiseStamp. What’s cool about this is that you can actually embed the hyperlinks rather than simply include them, and you can also include select social profiles such as Twitter, SlideShare, etc. at the bottom of your signature. Here’s a screenshot from their site:


    3. Put a shortening service to work for you.

    Working on a special promotion? Use a URL-shortening service such as tr.im, bit.ly, ow.ly (or several others) to draw attention to it just above your signature block. For example, I used this as a way to raise funds around my birthday: “Why I’d like you to know how old I am: http://tr.im/K6Yi.”

    Granted, it’s not often that a woman is proclaiming her age for all and sundry to hear, but if you use short but sweet copy and a dedicated URL, it’s an easy way to add to your marketing mix with almost no effort.

    What other ways do you use your e-signature “real estate” to market yourself? Please share by leaving a comment below.

    Image: Rich Bowen, Creative Commons

    Top 6 Reasons for E-Commerce Merchandise Returns

    Written by Pat

    It’s a cost of doing business and a headache for a lot of online sellers: accepting merchandise returns.

    There are valid reasons that we get returned merchandise from our online customers, but there are some times that costly returns can be avoided or prevented.

    According to a recent Distribution Center Operations Report from The Supply Chain Consortium and Reverse Logistics: Returns, Refunds and Recalls Hot Topic Report, the top six reasons for customer returns were:

    1. The customer ordered incorrect product or size
    2. The customer decided the product was not needed or wanted
    3. No reason for return given
    4. The product did not match the description on the Website or in the catalog
    5. The product did not fit the customer’s expectations
    6. The company shipped the incorrect product or size

    e-commerce shoppers

    So, as an e-commerce company, how can you stem the tide of product returns?

    At first glance, it would seem that the merchant might be responsible for only #6:

    The company shipped the incorrect product or size

    This, of course, is generally a clerical error that might be avoided with improved systems and procedures and employee training.

    However, there are quite a few steps an e-commerce seller can take to prevent returns based on some of the other reasons that were cited.

    How about these reasons?

    1. The customer ordered incorrect product or size

    4. The product did not match the description on the Website or in the catalog

    The number one reason is incorrect product or size and the fourth most popular reason is that the description was not accurate. How can you as an online seller prevent this?

    Ask yourself:
    How clear and accurate is my description?
    How many pictures do I have for each product?
    Do the pictures show the product from various angles?
    Do the pictures show relative size with a ruler or other measurement of scale?
    For clothing items, are there sizing charts available?
    Do I link to the sizing charts from the respective product page?
    Do I provide measurements?

    Another way to avoid having customer returns is to allow customers to leave product reviews.

    Besides providing descriptive language that will help the search engines better index your products, reviews left by past customers can help shoppers make the best decision based on their experience. Who better to know that a pair of shoes runs small and to order a half-size up? Or that the orange shown in the picture is just a little bit brighter than the actual color of the purse?

    As an e-commerce website, we will always be susceptible to returns, but it is possible to greatly improve your company’s return rate by improvements to your site and product descriptions. These changes will not only lower your merchandise return rate, but provide a boost to your customer satisfaction rate as well.

    IMA Conference: Need a Reason To Register?

    Here is a preview of just one session from the 2010 IMA Conference….

    rick wilson

    Have you ever shopped on a website and couldn’t find the checkout link? Have you wanted to add another product and couldn’t figure out how to do it? Were you required to fill out a lengthy registration form that seemed to never end? And then you finally got to the end only to find out that the products were out of stock? Does this describe YOUR checkout process?

    Customers want to buy your products and they want the process to be quick and easy without any hassles. Rick Wilson, MIVA Merchant will be presenting “Top 10 Tips for Designing a Great Checkout Process” at the Internet Merchants Association Conference in Las Vegas, March 2-3, 2010. This is just one topic that you don’t want to miss!

    Sign up today at the discounted Early Bird rates, but hurry – this offer ends Sunday, January 17th.

    IMA Member Spotlight: The Gentle Bath & Company

    Brenda Collins owns The Gentle Bath & Company, and is a textbook case study in branding and marketing an e-commerce business. We sat down and talked with her.

    How and why did you start selling online?

    Before launching my business, I was an RN. I suffered an injury which forced me to “retire” from nursing, so to amuse myself, I sold items from around my house on eBay. That, coupled with the computer and marketing skills I’d learned in Hospital Education, and the design skills I developed through scrap booking when my son was born, set the stage for my launching an e-business.

    Initially I opened an eBay store in the Bath/Spa category in March 2007 – and began to sell items within an hour! I chose that segment because I had a very hard time finding quality items when redecorating my own master bath. I ordered a set of Bamboo Blend bath towels on a whim; I ended up loving them so much they became the foundation of my store. I started out with less than 20 items, gradually adding to them (now I carry around 250 items). After the first year, which was full of growing pains, I launched my own website, and sales soon surpassed those of my eBay store. I closed the eBay store in 2009 at the end of last year and am concentrating on my own website now.

    Tell us about your company.

    The Gentle Bath & Company offers luxury bath items at affordable prices. Our tagline, “Transform your bath into an oasis”,  says it all. We carry a variety of bath-related items from luxury towels to bath caddies to Lady Primrose Bath and Body. We aim to provide our customer with an exceptional internet buying experience.

    What were some of your biggest mistakes? How did you overcome them?

    I’ve had some white elephant products in my inventory; it’s been hard to pinpoint exactly why they don’t sell. I’ve found that sticking with more “known” brands helps with search and sales. I have a clearance category and put some of the items in that, which I’ve been able to return other items to the manufacturere even though I had to pay a restocking fee.

    What do you know now that you wish you’d known when first starting your business?

    Where do I begin?! Probably the biggest thing would be building a website sooner than I did. Starting a store on eBay is a great way to begin with a limited investment, but now there are so many quick and easy website options that I think I could have opened a website sooner than I did.

    Another would be how much time a good shipping program can save you. When I implemented my shipping system (Shipworks) with a dedicated thermal label printer, I cut my package processing time by 200% or MORE!

    “It is vital when choosing your shopping cart that you investigate the shipping processes available for the cart.”

    What three things would you tell aspiring entrepreneurs?

    a. Research research research – your products, your choice of carts and your choice of payments, everything about your business should be researched and then chosen based on what is the best fit.

    b. Always try to exceed your customers’ expectations; they will remember you for it and refer their friends and family to you if they trust you will treat them right.

    c. Join groups such as IMA and the Internet Retailer Association. You can learn so much from others who’ve been there longer than you, and get feedback and information about many cutting-edge practices in the field of Internet sales.

    What has been your greatest business success?

    I think the “branding” and “packaging” that I’ve built is what I am known for.  In addition to my products it is my packaging that stands out from many other Internet companies.  I have often talked to customers about their orders, and apart from my products it’s the packaging that they remember and is what stands out when they think about their order.  It is this attention to detail that often leads a customer to refer their friends and family to my store.

    What are your goals for your company?

    My goals are always changing as my business evolves.  My long-term goal for my company is to maintain profitability as I focus on my website for my sole source of income.  My short-term goals for 2010 are to:

    • change my merchant account from PayPal to one that is more economical,
    • choose and implement an email marketing  program, and
    • take advantage of my new WordPress blog theme and implement all the Google advertising opportunities that are built into the themes framework.

    What are some of your favorite business resources?

    1. IMA – they have so much to offer on their website in addition to one of the most helpful member forums available for the Internet retailer.

    2. Facebook Fan Pages – one of the best free advertising you can get for your business.  I also think their paid ads have some of the best returns for the money.  You can build your fan base and then have a captive audience to communicate with directly regarding all facets of your business. In fact, I find the Facebook interface to be one of the most powerful and easiest to use of all the social networks out there.

    3. SCORE – Service Corps of Retired Executives will provide a small business counselor free of charge.  I have met with mine a few times and that’s been very helpful for me.  Their website is also loaded with resources for the small business owner.

    Finally: why did you join IMA and has it been worth it?

    YES YES YES!!  I was looking for a group that both understood eBay but also focused on business outside of eBay. I found all of that and more in the IMA.  In fact, the member forum is the most helpful forum that I  belong to.  They’ve also started offering more education and that has been very helpful as well.  For the small internet business owner there is no better group to belong to than the IMA!

    Brenda, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us. Best wishes in 2010 and beyond for The Gentle Bath & Company!

    Edited by Shonali

    Business Conference – How Do You Continue Your Education

    written by Cathy, Visibility Unlimited

    We all think we are the best person to grow our business. The best person for SEO, the best web designer, the best IT person, the best at everything we do. But the problem is that your competitors think the same. The e-commerce industry moves so fast that it is actually impossible to keep up with all the trends and changes. You need help; we all need help to stay ahead of our competitors.

    I have taken my education very seriously the last few years and to be honest, the improvement in my bottom line is the proof that it was well worth it. I have gone to business seminars, web design conferences, SEO conferences and many marketing seminars and to me, the cost of being away from my business and the conference expenses were worth every penny. A conference can cost up to thousands of dollars and when you spend this kind of money, it is important to make sure that this investment is going to help your business grow.

    One of my favorite conferences that I look forward to every year is the one from the Internet Merchants Association (IMA) which will be held in Las Vegas, March 2-3,2010. It is presented in conjunction with the ASD/AMD Sourcing Show where IMA offers free business seminars to the attendees. This year on the 1st & 2nd of March, IMA will present titles that include “The ABCs of Web Design”, “Big Ideas for Small Businesses” and “Get Found in Search Engines: SEO 101″ to just name a few.

    Rick Wilson, Vice President of MIVA Merchant will present an important topic at the IMA Conference, “Top 10 Tips for Designing a Great Checkout Process.” I look forward to hearing what expert Rick has to say about the checkout process. The checkout process for your customers is so important and if your customers “don’t get it” then you can be out of business quickly.

    While I love to blog, I am not consistent with the “other” social media stuff. I really do understand it but there has to be a way to make it more financially viable for my business. “Nine Ways to Make Your E-Commerce Site More Social” will help me pull it all together and complete my 2010 plan for my business. Another title that I am looking forward to attending at the IMA Conference in March is “How 21st Century PR Can Build Your Brand”.

    I hope you can attend the IMA Conference, March 2-3 in Las Vegas. If you do attend, track me down and I will be happy to buy you a few drinks in the IMA Networking Suite.

    Consumers are Going Social

    Written by Pat

    The results are in…and social media is more than just a passing phase, particularly in e-commerce. A new study by Oneupweb that was released earlier this month showed that “social sites are creating much more online traffic to e-commerce sites” which bolsters the argument that e-commerce sellers need to be involved in social media to drive traffic and business. The study showed a significant shift in traffic at the largest e-commerce sites, review sites and social sites over the last two holiday seasons. Consumers are using the social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to search for product information and recommendations. “The integration of social media and online search provides consumers with a way to quickly search for information, reviews and price comparisons,” explains Oneupweb’s Founder and CEO Lisa Wehr. “It’s clear that social media is influencing search behavior and affecting the purchases a consumer makes.” Wehr’s observations suggest that e-tailers should be “embracing social media.” Oneupweb’s study, containing examples of how some e-commerce merchants are using social media to drive traffic, can be downloaded at their site: www.oneupweb.com The Internet Merchants Association wants to know how you are adjusting your business to reflect the growth of social media, especially with the holiday season nearly upon us.

    Online Retailers: FTC Is Watching Your Endorsements

    written by Cathy, SnorkelingOnline

    SEO is always on my mind. Ok, call me a dork… but organic search is very important to my ecommerce business. And with SEO, blogging is up on my “to do” list. Now who doesn’t like blogging? You can tell the world what your personal opinion is. And this can include product endorsements.

    As President of Internet Merchants Association, I am going to tell online retailers, that ASD/AMD is the best & largest sourcing show in the world. Their next show is February 28-March 3, 2010 in Las Vegas. You can find almost anything you are looking for, to sell online.

    Now, what is wrong with that statement? I am endorsing ASD/AMD. And the Federal Trade Commission recently says that I need to disclose to the consumer that Internet Merchants Association accepts money or free products from ASD/AMD (actually we trade services) for a review on their product/services. The FTC is taking a closer look at how we (bloggers) are promoting ecommerce merchants.

    So to all the bloggers, becareful… state your relationship & payments accepted or you could get in legal trouble which could include a fine of up to $11,000.

    Social Networks: Is Big Brother Watching You?

    written by Cathy,SnorkelingOnline

    This does not include only online ecommerce sellers, this involves everyone who is involved in social networking. Make time to read this report, that was released last month, On the Leakage of Personally Identifiable Information Via Online Social Networks.

    Over half a billion people are on various Online Social Networks (OSNs) and have made available a vast amount of personal information on these OSNs. OSN users make movements around the Internet can now be tracked not just as an IP address, but be associated with the unique identifier used to store information about users on an OSN. This OSN identifier is a pointer to PII about the user. Cookies and other tracking mechanisms on the Internet have been prevalent for a long time. The general claim of aggregators is that they create profiles of users based on their Internet behavior, but do not gather or record PII. Although we do not know that aggregators are recording PII, we demonstrate with this work that it is undeniable that information is available to them. Aggregators do not have to take any action to receive this information. As part of requests, they receive OSN identifiers with pointers to the PII or in some cases, directly receive pieces of PII. This PII information can be joined with information from tracking cookies obtained from the user’s traversal to any site that triggers a visit to the same aggregator. The ability to link information across traversals on the Internet coupled with the wide range of daily actions performed by hundreds of millions of users on the Internet raises privacy issues, particularly to the extent users may not understand the consequences of having their PII information available to aggregators.

    While most social networks do have a policy that state that they do provide non-identifiable information to third parties for advertisers, but what they dont tell you is that with the advanced technology, they can now allow third parties to access your user name, birth date, sex, social security numbers, etc. and other linable personable identifiable information that can identify the user. Is this violating their private policies? Be cautious of what private information you put about yourself and your business.