Author Archives: Lis

Why SEO isn’t a magic pill

One pill a day is guaranteed to make you drop pounds fast without diet or exercise – at least, that’s what those slick banner ads want you to believe. You know the ones – a hot mom in a bikini, a tape measure wrapped around her whittled waist, vaguely alarming side effects listed in the fine print underneath her.

Thanks to common sense (and high school health class), most of us realize that downing a cocktail of questionable-sounding chemicals won’t guarantee weight loss. Yet some marketing companies lure in prospects with an equally dubious promise:

“Your site will be in the first page of search engine rankings if you hire us for search engine optimization, guaranteed.”

If an agency says this to you, run. Anyone who promises you a specific ranking is, well, lying.

Without a doubt, SEO is a valuable tool that you can and should use to boost your website’s rankings on Google, Yahoo, Bing and other search engines. SEO is not the magic bullet some agencies want you to believe it is, however.

First of all, it’s impossible to crack the codes that search engines use to generate their rankings. They’re complex, fiercely guarded and constantly changing. Google, for example, uses more than 200 factors to rank pages – and unless you’re Matt Cutts, there’s no way to know the exact formula. While you can take cues from what’s worked in the past, how can you be sure you’re going to win the rankings game when you don’t even know what the rules are?

In addition, traditional SEO techniques, such as incorporating keywords and inbound links into a site, are just part of the puzzle when it comes to nabbing a high search ranking. When Google revamped its ranking formula last year, the Internet giant revealed that the way users interact with a website would factor into the site’s search rankings. The search engine also considers whether a site’s content is trustworthy, substantive and grammatically correct when assessing its rank, according to this blog.

The lesson? Companies need to have quality content on their site, and they need to update it often to keep visitors coming back. It’s not enough to pepper your site with keywords once – giving your readers valuable and timely information, whether it’s a how-to article on your blog or posting a newsletter, is essential for breaking the first-page ranking ceiling. Of course, you also need to incorporate appropriate keywords into that quality content and review your keywords regularly to make sure they’re still relevant.

Sound difficult to you? Maybe, but it’s the best way to land and maintain a high search ranking. Instead of thinking of SEO as a magic pill – one that guarantees you that coveted top spot in the rankings – think of it as part of your overall diet and exercise regimen. With some time and effort, you’ll get the results you want.

How “safe” is your marketing plan?


Last week I attended a building safety seminar about what we’re all supposed to do in an emergency. The presenter drilled home that the best way to cope when things fall apart is to be prepared – have a plan and play the role assigned to you. Here at The Simons Group, everything ties back into marketing, so it didn’t take long for me to come up with an idea for my next blog post.

A company’s marketing agenda is a lot like an office building – without a solid plan, a minor setback can turn into full-blown chaos quickly. I’ve talked to more companies than I care to admit that say, “We can’t talk about marketing strategies until so-and-so gathers and formats our email list/comes back from a trade show/finishes his TPS reports,” “Hmm… that ultimately goes through Amanda, and she’s on maternity leave until February,” or, “Bob used to do that, but he’s gone and we can’t talk about branding or social media until a replacement is onboard.”

Organizations can solve each of the above situations by assigning roles to everyone in their marketing process for individual projects and establishing backups in case someone can’t fulfill his or her role. That way, if team member A hasn’t performed his part of the project, it doesn’t have to hold up the process, since team member B knows what she can do to keep the process moving. If a person quits, is laid off or is out of the office for an extended period of time, the remaining team members can pick up that person’s duties.

As the safety presentation drove that point home to us, let me take that same point and (in a calmer fashion than our drill-sergeant instructor) redirect it to our readership. A team member’s extended absence or a big project that comes out of nowhere and needs to be done yesterday is the marketing department equivalent of a building emergency.  Just as our building implements a safety plan and assigns roles, having a clear description of how your plans will unfold if a situation arises can ensure that your overall marketing plan continues to run smoothly and remains “safe.”

St. Bernard’s winning new website design

After months of preparation, St. Bernard Hospital welcomed a new baby this week. You won’t find this bundle of joy in the hospital’s maternity ward, though – you’ll have to go online.

We’ve spent the last several months working with St. Bernard to create an updated website for the organization, and we launched the new site Monday. St. Bernard, which is the only hospital in Chicago’s Englewood community and is nationally recognized for its medical care, had a unique list of website needs.

The hospital’s old website featured a lot of information and a complex design, and St. Bernard wanted a streamlined site that visitors could navigate easily. St. Bernard also wanted to make the site more interactive for patients while showcasing the hospital’s strengths for vendors, physicians and donors.

Many hours of copywriting, editing, graphic design and Web coding later, we and St. Bernard are thrilled with the final results. Here are some of the site’s highlights:

Clean design — We created a design for the site that features a lot of open space and incorporates the colors in St. Bernard’s logo to reinforce the hospital’s brand. A simple navigation system and easy-to-read navigation buttons allow visitors to find what they need quickly, and the clean layout is visually appealing.

Simple yet sophisticated writing — We knew St. Bernard’s website visitors would be a diverse group, so the site’s content had to be simple to understand, but not dumbed down. We used concise sentences and addressed patients directly in some sections to get the message across, but still included appropriate medical terminology throughout the site.

Interactive features — Whether visitors want to request an appointment, apply for a job, pay a hospital bill or visit a patient, a menu on the home page directs them to just the right spot. We also included calls to action throughout the site, such as encouraging visitors reading about medical services to view a list of doctors in that specialty, to keep site users engaged.

Culturally appropriate material — St. Bernard is in a predominantly black community, and the website reflects that demographic. We used photos of St. Bernard’s patients and staff wherever possible so it would feel authentic to site visitors.

Content management system — St. Bernard’s website features a content management system, which allows St. Bernard to update the site. While we’re always there to help, having this system puts St. Bernard in the driver’s seat – if the hospital wants to add a news item over the weekend or late at night, it can take care of it on its own. Before handing the reins over, we will hold a training session for St. Bernard on the content management system’s ins and outs.

Social media — We set up a Vimeo channel for St. Bernard that links to its website so visitors can see the hospital’s videos, including a local NBC news clip that features St. Bernard. As part of our training session for St. Bernard, we will teach the hospital how to add content to its Vimeo account.

Does all this talk of websites make you wish you were expecting your own special delivery? Let us know what you’d include on your dream website in the comments below.

Make your party rock

My husband and I got married two years ago. Like most couples, the year leading up to our wedding was filled with cake tastings, venue visits and emails to our church’s wedding coordinator. Juggling planning duties with a full-time job was hectic, but by the time we tied the knot I could address a save-the-date in my sleep.

Recently, I got married again – or at least it feels like I did.

Don’t worry, my husband and I didn’t split up. I’ve spent most of the last year sampling hors d’oeuvres and reviewing guest lists with a major client that celebrated a milestone anniversary this year.

As part of a rebranding initiative that included everything from a new logo and tagline to an anniversary blog series, our client threw a bash in downtown Chicago to celebrate its accomplishments and thank clients and colleagues for their support. Our company coordinated the event, and I was the party point person.

A party is a great way to connect with clients, meet new prospects and build goodwill for your company, making it an effective tool in your marketing arsenal. But unlike most of the marketing initiatives I work on, I found myself using skills for this assignment that I didn’t learn in school, but as a bride.

Anyone who’s ever spearheaded an event knows that the list of to-dos is almost endless. Planning our client’s party – just like planning my wedding — involved finding the right venue, planning the perfect menu, choosing flowers and other decor, handling RSVPs, and coordinating communication between the venue and vendors. We also created save-the-dates, invitations and banners for the party that showcased our client’s new look and set the festive mood.

While party planning may seem daunting, never fear. Whether you’re planning a bar mitzvah or a company blowout, following these steps can help make your event great. Take it from me – I’ve been there (twice).

Assemble your dream team. Planning a big event is a Herculean task for one person, so enlist the help of others to lighten the load and bring fresh perspectives to the process. My husband and I got married in our parents’ hometown about two hours away from Chicago, so stopping by the reception hall or florist after work wasn’t an option. Fortunately, my mom had it under control, handling the day-to-day stuff while we came in on weekends as needed. While planning our client’s event, I worked closely with the company’s marketing manager, who handled the guest gifts and other tasks and kept a close eye on the party’s bottom line, and the company president’s wife, who represented her husband’s interests on everything from the menu to the music.

Get organized. I’m a sucker for lists, and rarely are they handier than when you’re planning a big party. I was glued to during my engagement, thanks to its master schedule that helped me remember when to send out invites and how far in advance I needed to book transportation for the big day. Those same organizational skills were key during the planning process for our client’s bash – while RSVPs were coming in, I sent daily Excel updates of the RSVPs to our client so they could follow up with invitees who hadn’t responded and gauge whether to invite additional guests.

Make sure the event reflects you. Little touches that show your unique interests make your event more personal and special to you and your guests. My mom’s an amazing seamstress, so I asked her to sew my wedding dress. It turned out beautifully, and everyone got a kick out of admiring her handiwork. Our client found its own way to work family history into the event. The company’s founder was from Sweden, so one of the buffet stations featured traditional Swedish dishes, including some mouthwatering meatballs I’m still dreaming about.

Remember, it’s supposed to be fun.  Looking around our client’s party after so many months of planning, I felt the same sense of joy and accomplishment I did at my own wedding reception. A lot of hard work goes into planning a party, but it’s all worth it when the big day finally arrives. These events tend to go by in a flash, so don’t forget to enjoy the celebration – and grab a helping of Swedish meatballs while you’re at it. 

Mind your email marketing manners

Good marketers know that when it comes to gathering information on prospects, permission rules. The European Union is hammering that point home these days with a new set of privacy rules, which are set to take effect May 25.

The rules require marketers to get explicit consent from website visitors before tracking and storing their information, so companies that have prospects across the pond should take note. While the rules apply mainly to companies that use cookies on their websites to tailor ads to visitors, marketers who direct their customers through their websites to read e-newsletters or other marketing messages also need to comply with the law by having subscribers opt in.

The European Union’s get-tough stance on privacy goes back to the No. 1 rule of marketing etiquette: Always ask permission. Remember, just because a guy connected to your LinkedIn profile or exchanged business cards with you, he doesn’t necessarily want your e-newsletter. Ask before collecting a prospect’s information — and don’t even think about buying lists of names from other companies. Sending emails to people on purchased lists can get you blacklisted as a spammer and possibly in hot water with regulators. That goes for both sides of the pond.

Here are a few other etiquette tips for building and maintaining your mailing list the right way:

  • Keep it confidential. When someone trusts you with personal information, honor that trust. Don’t share email addresses or other prospect information with third parties, and post your confidentiality policy on your site.
  • Identify yourself. Send messages from an email address that belongs to a specific person in your company so that subscribers know exactly who’s emailing them.
  • Give them a reminder. If you’ve been collecting email addresses for years, some of your subscribers may have forgotten why the heck they’re getting email from you. Add a note to your messages that says, “You’re receiving this email because you signed up for news and offers from XYZ Company.”

  • Make changes easy. Include a link on your messages that allows subscribers to opt out of future messages or update their information. When prospects make changes, send them prompt confirmation that you have completed their requests.
  • Obey the law. The United States has its own laws regarding email marketing, such as using an accurate subject line, including a physical address on the message and giving recipients a heads up that the message is an ad.

Marketing, with a side of mac and cheese

If you want evidence of how much social media has changed marketing, look no further than The Southern Mac and Cheese Truck.

This glorious van of cheesy goodness pops up around downtown Chicago during lunchtime each weekday to dish out a few varieties of gourmet macaroni and cheese. To the delight of everyone in our office, it stops right down the street from our building on Tuesdays. The truck’s employees post updates to Twitter and Facebook to let hungry customers know when they’re on their way — leading to some pretty frequent late-morning screen refreshing around here.

Although the truck usually comes around the same time each week, its plans can change. Some days, the truck makes an unannounced stop somewhere else first to test-drive a new location; other days, a lack of parking might leave the truck circling the block for a few extra minutes. Luckily, all we need to do to find out exactly when to head downstairs is glance at the truck’s social media sites.

The mac and cheese truck is the kind of operation that would have been nearly impossible to pull off before social media. A lot of things can crop up at the last minute when you’re driving through Chicago, and Twitter and Facebook allow the truck to communicate quickly with customers. These sites also give the truck a low-risk way to try out new markets. What’s more, the truck can use the customers who visit the truck’s Twitter and Facebook pages for schedule information as a sounding board for other business decisions: “Would you rather eat andouille or chorizo mac?”

The takeaway for b-to-b marketers? Take advantage of the unique — and often low-risk — marketing opportunities available to you through social media to build your brand and boost sales. If you want feedback on your product’s latest update, ask your fans on your Facebook page. Is there a last-minute schedule change at the conference where you’ll be speaking? Post a quick message on Twitter. Whether you’re selling mac and cheese or widgets, the results can be huge… and delicious.

SOCIAL MEDIA SAVVY PART 6: Putting the ‘you’ in YouTube

NOTE: This is the final part of a six-part series designed to help businesses jump-start their social media campaigns. Check out our earlier posts on getting started, LinkedIn, blogging, Facebook and Twitter.

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then what’s a video worth? Even more, if you’re a marketer.

Forrester Research has shown that you’re 50 times more likely to get on the first page of Google’s search results if you have video on your page. With more than 2 billion daily video views, YouTube is the leader in the video hosting world, and the site that we’ll focus on here. Other hosting sites include Vimeo and Flickr.

Build buzz and have fun at the same time

Here’s the breakdown on YouTube:

How to use it: You’ll need a script, videographer, talent for the video, and audio and editing capabilities to produce a video successfully. Once you create your video, you can post it to your company’s website and video hosting sites, using keywords in the title and tags to make it more visible in searches. Many companies have also created branded channels, which allow you to customize your page’s background, post additional links and forgo the banner ads on regular pages. And once your page is up and running, you can link to it from your other social media sites for maximum exposure.

The goal: To engage your customers, employees and prospects in ways that can’t be achieved through text and photos. The companies that do this best are sometimes rewarded by having videos go “viral” — meaning they’re viewed by thousands, or even millions, of people.

Potential uses:

  • Drive traffic to your website
  • Generate business and sales leads
    • Demonstrate how to use your company’s new product
    • Share messages from your CEO
    • Post video testimonials from your customers
    • Upload recordings of your presentations or events
    • Provide online tutorials
    • Give a tour of your offices and staff

Time involved: The most time-consuming part is making the video. Between writing a script, shooting the video and editing the finished product, you can expect the hours to add up. As for managing your YouTube account, you’ll want to check in regularly to monitor comments on your videos and keep your content current.

Money involved: Video is a big financial investment. You don’t have to be Rich Uncle Pennybags to make a great video, but be prepared to lay out enough money to have it done professionally, whether you hire a staffer with video skills or outsource the work. If you want to create a branded channel on YouTube, you’ll need to dig into your pocketbook further.

Drawbacks: The expense and the technical skills required are the biggest challenges for many b-to-b companies interested in breaking into video.

Learn more about YouTube, including how businesses are using it in creative ways.

But wait, there’s more…

While this wraps up our social media series, you can expect much more on social media in future posts on this blog. As long as businesses keep asking, we’ll keep sharing what we know. After all, it looks like social media’s here to stay — you may as well get the most out of it.

SOCIAL MEDIA SAVVY PART 5: Keeping it short and sweet on Twitter

NOTE: This is the fourth part of a six-part series designed to help businesses jump-start their social media campaigns. Check out our earlier posts on getting started, LinkedIn, blogging and Facebook.

140 characters. That’s all you get on Twitter, the social media site that makes a blog post look like War and Peace. Created to be compatible with texting software on smart phones, Twitter allows users to post brief messages in real time that even the most time-crunched person has time to read.

Around since 2006, Twitter is named after the tweeting sound that birds make; in the founder’s words, tweets are “short bursts of inconsequential information.” Yet the site’s popularity has proved to be quite consequential for many businesses — 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies have a corporate Twitter account with at least one tweet issued in the last 30 days, according to research from University of Massachusetts Amherst. That’s up from 35 percent a year ago.

The next best thing to the easy button

Here’s the breakdown on Twitter:

How to use it: Once you create an account, you can post messages, photos, videos and links to other sites that appear on your profile. Anyone can see your profile by searching for it, and the Twitter users that “follow” your profile will see your messages pop up on their Twitter walls when they sign in. You can also send direct messages to other Twitter users; “retweet” another user’s message, which means you send it out to your own network; and incorporate “hash tags” into messages that users can search for on the site (i.e., #wintersale).

The goal: Twitter is a hassle-free way to alert your customers, employees and prospects to your business’ interesting new content and to build relationships with them through back-and-forth dialogue. It’s quick and easy for you to post, and it’s equally quick and easy for your followers to glance at your new messages. Think of Twitter as the bow that ties your social media presence together — you can use it to direct people to your blog, your Facebook page and your website, as well as provide small bits of new content.

Potential uses:

  • Announce sales, specials or events
  • Drive traffic to your website
  • Provide live updates during conferences or events
  • Invite prospects to in-person events
  • Create multiple targeted accounts for different sectors of your audience (clients versus employees, for example)
  • Set up alerts to find out when other users mention your company
  • Follow users that are relevant to your business
  • Sync your Twitter messages to also post on LinkedIn and Facebook

Time involved: Writing posts doesn’t take much time, but you need to update your feed frequently and respond to other tweets quickly. In a medium that moves this fast, logging in once a week isn’t going to cut it.

Money involved: Twitter is free to join.

Drawbacks: Everything you post is public, so this isn’t the venue for you if you want to share information with a select few. And again, it’s a fast-paced tool, so you have to be prepared to keep up.

More free expert tips

Get more of our insights on Twitter, including specifics on how to use it to solve common business problems.

The end of our social media series is in sight. Wrapping things up will be YouTube, the platform that takes your tech skills to the next level — and if you’re lucky, takes your company viral. Check back Monday for more.

SOCIAL MEDIA SAVVY PART 4: Businesses ‘like’ Facebook

NOTE: This is the fourth part of a six-part series designed to help businesses jump-start their social media campaigns. Check out our earlier posts on getting started, LinkedIn and blogging.

What started as a humble project in a college kid’s dorm room is now a massive site that boasts 500 million members, including the majority of Fortune 500 companies, and inspired one of this year’s nominees for “Best Picture” at the Academy Awards. There’s no doubt about it: People love Facebook.

Facebook, like LinkedIn, is a relationship-building tool that allows you to connect with customers, prospects and employees. Facebook has a looser, more personal feel than LinkedIn, though, and users reap the benefits of Facebook’s own impressive brand stickiness — 50 percent of Facebook members log on every day.

Make an impression – and make it count

Here’s the breakdown on Facebook:

How to use it: You might already have a personal Facebook page, but a business page functions a little differently. Instead of becoming friends with you on the site, Facebook members will need to indicate that they “like” you, which means your messages will begin showing up in their news feeds. You can post comments as well as photos on the site, and your contacts can comment on anything you post. You can also build your Facebook presence by installing a Facebook “like” button on your website. If visitors click it, your content will show up on their Facebook pages.

The goal: To build your base of contacts and foster deeper relationships with your current ones. Want to get instant feedback on your company’s latest product or recent event? Post on Facebook and let your contacts comment away.

Potential uses:

  • Drive traffic to your website
  • Generate sales leads
  • Promote upcoming events
  • Share timely news about your company
  • Offer discounts or other relevant rewards to users who “like” you
  • Create photo albums of company events or new product launches

Time involved: Moderate. A Facebook page is easy to set up, and most of the posts are quick and easy to write. The average user posts 90 unique items a month, so plan to spend a couple of hours each week creating content. Facebook users also value timeliness, so make sure you’re checking for and responding to comments frequently.

Money involved: Facebook is free to join.

Drawbacks: Some people say that “Facebook fatigue” may be setting in among users — Google “how do I delete” and “my Facebook account” is at the top of the list. The privacy rules for Facebook are also constantly evolving, so you’ll need to monitor your privacy settings regularly to avoid sharing more sensitive information than you intend to. A final word of caution? It’s easy to blur the line between your personal and professional life on Facebook, so be vigilant about keeping the two separate.

Dig deeper

Find out more about Facebook, including clever ways b-to-b marketers can use it to their advantage.

You say you want more social media? Well, you’ve got it. Up next, we’ll look at Twitter, the perfect platform for capturing an attention-challenged audience. Check back on Friday for all the details.

SOCIAL MEDIA SAVVY PART 3: Blogging your business

NOTE: This is the third part of a six-part series designed to help businesses jump-start their social media campaigns. Check out our earlier posts on getting started and LinkedIn.

Dust off your dictionary and brush up on your writing skills, because blogs are a b-to-b marketing boon. They’re an effective way to showcase fresh news about your company, position yourself as a thought leader in your industry and bump up your search engine rankings to boot.

You’ll find more than 100 million blogs on the Web these days, so how can you make sure yours will stand out? By focusing on informative (not salesy) content, good research and writing, and frequent updates.

Wow blog readers and crank up your SEO

Here’s the breakdown on blogs:

How to use them: You’ll need to set up your blog first, ideally on your company’s website to maximize the effect on your search engine rankings. A number of software programs will help you create a blog. Once you’re up and running, you’ll create short, regularly updated posts that will appear in reverse chronological order. Blog posts can include text, photos and video.

The goal: To share information about your company, show you’re informed about general industry issues and build relationships with repeat blog visitors, who can be customers, prospects, employees or industry colleagues. If your blog is built into your website, you can also aim to raise the ranking of your website in search engines by incorporating keywords into your writing.

Potential uses:

  • Drive traffic to your website
  • Share timely news about your company
  • Tell readers about upcoming events
  • Provide your takes on industry news and issues
  • Engage customers and prospects through contests with audience-relevant prizes

Time involved: Blogging can be pretty demanding time-wise. Plan to spend at least one or two hours crafting a good blog post, and plan to blog at least once a week. Add in the time needed to develop blog ideas and to monitor comments, and you’re looking at a significant time investment.

Money involved: Many software platforms are free, but you may need to pay someone to build the blog into your existing website. And if you don’t have enough time to keep up a blog yourself, factor in what it will cost to hire a new staffer or outsource your efforts.

Drawbacks: The time commitment is off-putting for some companies. You may also have to deal with negative comments on your blog.

Want more?

Read more 411 on blogging, including how b-to-b companies are doing it well.

Moving right along in our social media journey, we turn to Facebook — it’s not just for college kids anymore. Check back on Wednesday to get the scoop.