Is fear holding you back? Consider these three lessons

girl running from imaginary monster

Maybe it’s time you stopped running from your fears and faced up to them.

Napoleon Hill once said that fear is the single greatest obstacle to success. Yet, even with success, fear does not go away. Instead, it burrows into your subconscious in more subtle and insidious ways. You get comfortable, and you hardly notice your fears. But when comfort and safety are your refuge, how much risk are you willing to take?

Max Lucado, in his book Fearless, poses an interesting question: “Can the safety lover do anything great? Can the risk-averse accomplish noble deeds?” No, he says. “The worship of safety emasculates greatness.”

I have been meditating on some fears of my own that I need to overcome to get to the next level in my business. Identifying your fears is the first step to conquering them. Here are three that you might recognize in your life:

1) The fear of not being good enough

In the early 1980s, I wrote several freelance articles for City Paper, DC’s alternative newspaper. My day job was writing a Washington newsletter for the National Restaurant Association. I also freelanced for several other publications. One day after work, I met the editor of City Paper for a drink. I announced with some fanfare that I was thinking about going back to school to get a master’s degree in journalism and that I had set my sights on Columbia University, one of the top journalism schools in the country. I thought he would be excited, clap me on the back and say, “Jay, that’s a fabulous idea!” Instead, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “If you want to be a journalist, then be a journalist. You don’t need to go to back to school for that, you just need to do it.”

It occurred to me as I drove home that night that he was right. I had gotten it into my head that despite my success in writing, I needed more education. If I wanted to be “real” journalist, I would have to go back to school. I didn’t have the right credentials, and of course the solution was to go to Columbia. This is how fear gets inside our head, creates insecurity and convinces us that we’re not good enough. We don’t have the experience. We didn’t go to the right schools. The reality is that for most careers, unless they require technical knowledge, we just need to believe in ourselves and go for it.

I did not go to Columbia or pursue a career in journalism. I found out I really liked association work. In addition to writing the weekly newsletter, I contributed to the association’s magazine and wrote congressional testimony and speeches. I traveled with the president and did media relations. In short, I was doing it, and I thrived on it—in part because I abandoned my fear that I wasn’t following the right path to success.

2) The fear of not being perfect

When I was at the restaurant association, I met Jerry, who worked in the public information office at the Small Business Administration. Jerry wanted to start a trade association for franchisees. He invited me and several other association professionals to join him on the project. For the better part of a year, we met every few months to review Jerry’s ideas. He’d pass around research that he’d done on franchising, membership benefits the association might offer, ideas on how to structure the organization, etc. I was excited because I had never been part of a start-up. But as time went on, I became frustrated. Jerry never seemed to get past the development stage. With each meeting, there were more charts, more franchises he said we needed to study and more work that needed to be done before we could get started. Then Jerry got an offer to work in one of the SBA’s regional offices in California. He took the job, and that’s the last I heard of Jerry and his plan for a franchisee association.

Jerry’s story isn’t unique. I see that same caution and over-analysis in my work sometimes, too. The fear that things aren’t perfect keeps us from following through on our goals. Because the blog isn’t perfect, we don’t push the “publish” button. We linger longer on assignments than we should. We decide not to submit the proposal because it needs work.

The fear of not being perfect has a co-conspirator. It’s call procrastination. When we keep tinkering with a plan, wordsmithing a document or studying a problem, that’s the foot-dragging of procrastination. I’m not suggesting that we rush into new projects without doing our homework, but I do think that our fears can sabotage us before we even get to the starting block.

We tend to forget that nothing is perfect. You can’t prepare for every single contingency. At some point, you just have to take the plunge. Push the publish button, give the speech, perform the song. Chances are it is ready. Chances are it will be well received. Heck, it might even be great!

3) The fear of not being accepted

It was the summer of 2008, and I was riding in a church van to the airport, where we would board a plane and ultimately arrive in Girdwood, Alaska, for a 10-day mission trip. I had never been on a mission trip, and I didn’t know what to expect. And while we all attended the same church (Annandale United Methodist), I didn’t know the people on the trip that well, either. I was still new to the church and frankly wondering whether I had made the right decision to go. It had seemed like a pretty good idea when I signed up—see Alaska, do some good and get to know people. As I sat in the van listening to all of those voices happily chatting away, I suddenly felt alone.

For 29 years I was married, but now I was going through a divorce. My life had been turned upside down. This trip seemed to me a way to right it, a way to get my bearings. I was excited to be going, but I was also weighed down by the past. Just walking through the airport gave me the willies. It reminded me of other trips in better times when my wife would have been at my side.

But a funny thing happened on that Girdwood trip. A lot of my anxieties melted away. Looking back on it now, many of those fears were magnified by my state of mind. But that’s how fear gets the best of us. I’ve seen the fear of not being accepted—one of our most basic fears—grab a hold of otherwise successful people. The boss who wants to be liked by his employees, so he punts on tough decisions. The CEO who doesn’t want to rock the boat when it comes to board members. The politician who pays more attention to the polls than the real needs of the country.

Taming the fear of not being accepted starts with accepting who you are and recognizing that you have intrinsic worth. It begins with understanding that you have a purpose that’s bigger than you are. On a mission trip, that’s not hard. Those 10 days made a huge difference in my life. I often think that God threw me a life-preserver that week, and thankfully I was smart enough to grab it.

The trip opened my eyes to what my life could look like, and I saw that I would be okay. It renewed my passion for life. On the flight home, I added to those voices that were laughing and carrying on. As it turns out, Girdwood was the beginning of something very special. I now count the people on that trip as my best friends.

When we let go of our fears, we free ourselves to grow and serve others. Like the traveler in Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” we have a choice:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

It’s easy to take the beaten path, the one that leads to safety, comfort and fewer fears. But the road less traveled, the one that seems scary at first, that’s the one that leads to real success.

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Make talking to your customers a learning experience

Man talking on phoneOne of the things I like about my line of work is that I’m always learning something new. Over the past year, I’ve learned about cybersecurity, satellite technology, electric utilities and asset/liability management, to name a few of the topics I’ve written about for my clients. In each case, I got my information the old-fashioned way: I talked to people.

For example, I was recently asked to write an article on automatic circuit reclosers. What the heck is an automatic circuit recloser, you might ask? Well, I put that question to one of the engineers I interviewed. He gave an answer that was easy to understand and that will stick with me long after the article is published. “It’s like a ground fault interrupter (GFI) outlet in your house, only on a much larger scale,” he explained. “Reclosers on electric power lines work the same way, only they’re programmable and can reclose multiple times.” That explanation was better than any I could have looked up online or read in a book.

The interview is a tried and true means of getting information, and I highly recommend it. I write frequently about credit unions, and I can learn more from talking to a handful of credit union executives on the phone than from reading a pile of trade publications. It helps that, in my case, I’m often interviewing them for an article, but you can use the same technique to learn more about your clients’ business or your own industry.

It’s amazing the things you can pick up by simply talking to your customers or members—not just information about their company or area of expertise, but valuable intelligence that can help you improve your own business and better serve your customers.

I have a client whose business is designing and installing satellite communication systems. She and I are working on a new website for the company. Last week, we were on the phone comparing designs and features we liked on other websites. The conversation turned to what makes a good “About” page. This will be the third website we’ve built together, and I’m seeing an evolution in her thinking that I like. A previous site took a traditional approach to the About page: formal portraits of the company’s principals with standard bios. Now she was showing me examples of About pages that were much more creative, less formal and incorporated design elements with content to create a fresh take on what a company’s all about. It made me think about my own website (very traditional in that regard) and the fact that I haven’t updated it since I started my business in 2011. Hmm, I thought, maybe it’s time for me to make some changes, too.

Learning comes in many forms. You may not always have time to read a book, take a class or sign up for a seminar, but you can (or should) be able to find time to talk to your customers, members or stakeholders. Don’t ever discount the value of learning from them, whether it’s from a conversation, interview or a quick survey.

There’s also a business advantage to talking to your customers. Paul Schoemaker, writing in Inc., suggests that if you take the time to learn from your customers, you’ll know what they want even before they do. By seeing the world through their eyes, you’ll be able to anticipate their needs and beat the competition.

As Schoemaker says, “Try to listen with a third ear, as an anthropologist would, to what your customers are saying to you. If you can truly hear them, they’ll tell you all you need to know.”

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Give me your tired, your poor, your aging baby boomers

Woodstock Music Festival

Believe it or not: Everyone who went to Woodstock is old enough to collect social security. Photo by Derek Redmond and Paul Campbell.

The generation that wore bell-bottoms and tie-dye shirts, smoked pot, marched for peace, started a sexual revolution and vowed never to become part of the establishment is getting old. I mean geriatric old. The oldest baby boomers are turning 70 this year.

I’m a boomer myself, but I came a little later. I missed out on Woodstock and was too young for Vietnam. Yet I see plenty of gray hair when I look in the mirror.

My generation was supposed to “stay forever young.” After all, we’re the “me” generation, and the biggest self-indulgence for us has been our bodies—making sure we stay healthy and active and don’t get old and flabby.

Baby boomers jogged, Jazzercised, Bowflexed and Botoxed their way past 50, pushing the boundaries of middle age. First 40 was the new 30. Then 60 was the new 50. Now 70 is the new 60. Baby boomers don’t slow down. They just get knee replacements and pain injections.

Hate to say it, but a lot of people in my generation now carry AARP cards, ask for senior discounts, collect social security and have a calendar full of doctor’s appointments.

I read some statistics recently about baby boomers that really surprised me. If you’re a boomer, you might want to sit down because all those fantasies you’ve had about being young, invincible and healthy are about to get crushed. Sorry.

  • Researchers at West Virginia University found that baby boomers are more likely than their parents to have chronic diseases, and 39 percent of boomers are obese (compared to 29 percent of adults in the previous generation).
  • Boomers are also more inactive, with 52 percent of them reporting no physical activity (compared with only 17.4 percent of the previous generation). Baby boomers are also more likely to have diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol than their parents.
  • Overall, 32 percent of adults in the previous generation reported they were in “excellent” health compared to only 13 percent of baby boomers.

How can this be? The generation that supposedly made healthy eating and fitness a lifestyle choice has been backsliding. Too many hours sitting in front of a computer; too many processed foods and snacks; and too many micro-beers.

The upshot is that our generation is expected to live longer but be sicker. And the bad news doesn’t stop there. We’ve fallen short compared to our parents when it comes to retirement savings, too.

We may be the first generation to enter our golden years less well off than previous generations. A lot of it has to do with the demise of the traditional pension plan and the shift to 401(k) plans.

  • Only 4.2 percent of employees aged 50-55 have a pension benefit, notes the Center for Retirement Research. In comparison, 37 percent of those 75 and older receive pension benefits.
  • A Fidelity Investments survey found that almost half of all baby boomers will not be able to sufficiently cover basic living expenses in retirement without making adjustments to their lifestyles.
  • On top of that, boomers took the biggest hit to their net worth during the recession. And many who lost their jobs as a result of the downturn have not been able to find work that pays as well.
  • The Center for Retirement Research reports that the typical household facing retirement has only $42,000 in 401(k) savings and will rely on social security for 70 percent of retirement income.

Wow.

No wonder suicides are up for baby boomers. Since 2007, boomers have had the highest rate of suicide of any age group in the U.S., when, historically, people between the ages of 40 and 64 have had one of the lowest rates.

But let’s not go there. Instead, let’s vow to eat healthy, exercise regularly and throw a few more dollars into our 401(k) plans. We’re not getting any younger, you know.

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Credit unions rev up for auto loan growth

TFCU auto lendingYou might say that reports of the automobile industry’s demise are greatly exaggerated. Despite sales falling to as low as 10.4 million vehicles in 2009 (due to the recession and Americans postponing new-car purchases), light vehicle sales reached their highest level ever (17.5 million) in 2015. And this year may be even bigger.

In my cover story (“Auto Lending: Credit Unions Rev Up for Growth”) in the most recent issue of The Federal Credit Union magazine, I explore what it means to the nation’s credit unions, which are seeing remarkable growth in auto lending.

The CliffsNotes version is that credit unions are gaining market share, and credit union auto loan growth has been in the double digits for the last three years.

Here are some trends worth watching in 2016 from Stacey Doyle, senior auto industry analyst for TrueCar (who I interviewed for the article):

  • Light trucks (pickups and SUVs) are expected to outsell cars.
  • Millennials’ share of the auto market will increase to about 21 percent.
  • Baby boomers will buy the most cars (the average age of a car buyer is 54).
  • Loan terms will continue to get longer (72 months or more).
  • Leasing will remain popular (40 percent of luxury vehicles are leased).

According to Automotive News, the boom in U.S. auto sales is driven by low gasoline prices, pent-up demand, widespread credit availability, an increase in leasing and employment gains.

Trucks, SUVs and crossovers have set the pace, jumping 13 percent in 2015. Car demand, on the other hand, fell 2.3 percent in 2015.

As always, kudos to my friends at NAFCU for producing a solid magazine. And special thanks to Curt Long, NAFCU’s chief economist and director of research, for his help with industry trends and data.

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Tips for making your writing plain, clear and scrupulous

pencilsThe same year Congress passed Obamacare, another monumental piece of legislation made its way to the president’s desk: The Plain Writing Act of 2010. Okay, Okay, there were no floor fights over The Plain Writing Act, no demagoguing or name-calling, no threats of a government shutdown. Its sponsor, U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley of Iowa, was hardly a national figure, and the entire bill weighed in at a mere two-and-a-half pages (compared to the 2,700-page Affordable Care Act). Still, you might say it was one small victory for clear writing.

I came across the actual bill the other day when I was looking at a guide on “Clear Writing Through Critical Thinking” published by UpWrite Press for a Graduate School USA course. I presume the guide was developed for government workers in response to the act, which requires federal agencies to communicate with us citizens using plain language.

I have to say, I like the act’s definition of “plain writing”:

PLAIN WRITING.—The term ‘‘plain writing’’ means writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience.

I also like the guide’s “Seven Traits of Writing,” originally developed by researcher Paul Diederich in the 1960s. According to the guide, Diederich asked 50 professionals to identify the qualities that make writing strong. The group came up with hundreds of qualities which were then organized into seven traits. These traits became the basis for teaching writing in many states:

1.  Ideas (developing and supporting a strong main point)
  The piece focuses on a main point.
  Supporting points are logically developed and well explained.
  Information is accurate, precise, complete and current.

2.  Organization (arranging your ideas in the best order)
   The writing has a strong opening, middle and closing.
   The organization fits with the audience and purpose.
   Details follow a clear order.
   Transitions link sentences, paragraphs and sections.
   Lists make information accessible.

3.  Voice (addressing your audience effectively)
   The tone is positive, polite, confident and convincing.
   The piece shows attention to the reader’s perspective.
   The voice connects with and encourages the reader.

4.  Words (choosing the best words for your audience)
•   Words are conversational and understandable.
   Key words and technical terms are precise and defined.
   Language respects gender, ethnicity and ability.

5.  Sentences (using smooth-reading sentences)
   Sentences are concise and easy to read.
   Lengths and patterns are varied.
   Active and passive voice are used effectively.

6.  Correctness (following the rules for language use)
   Grammar, punctuation, spelling and mechanics are correct.
   Correctness makes communication clear.

7.  Design (presenting a clean, easy-to-read finished document)
   Format is complete and consistent.
   Page design makes the document attractive and easy to read.

You can’t go wrong following these seven traits. Yet, as good as they are, can anyone (besides Strunk & White) match George Orwell for succinctness when it comes to dispensing writing advice?

George OrwellAs a bonus, here are Orwell’s six questions that a “scrupulous writer” should always ask (from his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language”):

1.  What am I trying to say?
2.  What words will express it?
3.  What image or idiom will make it clearer?
4.  Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
5.  Could I put it more shortly?
6.  Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

And here are Orwell’s six rules of style (from the same essay):

1.  Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2.  Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3.  If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4.  Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5.  Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6.  Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Now that’s worth taping to your computer monitor, along with the definition of plain writing.

(Incidentally, if you’re curious about what the government has done to implement The Plain Writing Act, check out plainlanguage.gov.)

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The afternoon is bright…

Wall

“The afternoon is bright,
with spring in the air,
a mild March afternoon,
with the breath of April stirring,
I am alone in the quiet patio
looking for some old untried illusion –
some shadow on the whiteness of the wall
some memory asleep
on the stone rim of the fountain,
perhaps in the air
the light swish of some trailing gown.”

–  Antonio Machado
Selected Poems#3, Translated by Alan S. Trueblood
(from gardendigest.com)

Image by Chance Agrella on freerangestock.com.

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Excuse me, is that a fake Einstein quote on your blog?

Einstein

So many quotations have been falsely attributed to Einstein that they’ve been dubbed “Neinsteins.” Photo by Sophia Delar from Wikimedia Commons.

There’s nothing like a good quote to spice up your prose. That’s why speeches, essays, books and social media are peppered with the sayings of Lincoln, Twain, Edison, Gandhi and other notables. I use quotations in my own writing to emphasize a point or add color, but I’ve learned to be careful about their source. Many of the maxims collected on sites such as Goodreads or BrainyQuote, or that you see on Tumblr or Facebook, have been misattributed—or worse, they’re just plain fake.

For example, one of my favorite Einstein quotes for many years was:

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Only trouble is Einstein never said it. Sociologist William Bruce Cameron actually first wrote those words in a book published in 1963. There are so many quotes falsely attributed to Einstein that they are known as “Neinsteins,” a play on the German word for “no.”

Here’s another Neinstein that I’ve seen widely circulated:

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.”

There’s no evidence that Einstein ever said that. When you think about it, does it really sound like something he would have said? And that’s the point: you should be skeptical of quotes that seem too good (or glib) to be true.

If you’re suspicious about a quote, take a moment to track down its source. A good starting point for anything that doesn’t seem right is snopes.com. If it’s not covered by Snopes, it may be on one of the quote-buster blogs that have sprung up to stamp out false attributions. One site I like is quoteinvestigator.com, which explores the origins of quotations. But there are any number of specialty sites such as fakebuddhaquotes.com that you can check out as well.

I once used a quote attributed to Lincoln in a post on how to stop procrastinating:

“Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.”

It was the word “hustle” that made me wonder if Lincoln really said it. So I did a little research. It turns out “hustle” wasn’t used in its current sense until after Lincoln’s death. Commentators also said Lincoln was unlikely to have used the words “things may come.” I decided to keep the quote because I liked it, but I changed my post to say that Lincoln probably never said it.

John Oliver Last Week TonightOf course, I’m not the only one who’s been fooled by fake quotes. Last October, on “Last Week Tonight,” comedian John Oliver showed clips of three presidents—Reagan, Clinton and Obama—misquoting Lincoln. Oliver lambasted politicians for being sloppy with quotations, calling the practice “the karaoke of ideas.” In particular, he lampooned Ben Carson for claiming that Jefferson had spoken against gun control, even though the phrase “gun control” wasn’t used until the 1960s. Like nearly everything he spears, Oliver’s take on bogus quotes was funny and spot on. “Either we care about the accuracy of quotes and where they’re sourced, or we don’t care at all,” he intoned.

Obviously, Oliver thinks we should care, and so do I. We should always strive for accuracy in our writing—and that includes the words we attribute to respected historical figures. As the presidential race heats up, I’m sure we’ll be hearing more mangled quotations out of the mouths of candidates. It’s incumbent upon us to respond with a healthy dose of skepticism and redouble our efforts to be careful in our own writing and speaking.

‘Say it ain’t so!’ 5 famous misquotes

Last year, writer Kali Halloway compiled a list of history’s most famous misquotes. Here are five that might surprise you:

  1. “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Henry Russell “Red” Sanders, the football coach at Vanderbilt and UCLA in the 1940s and 50s, coined this expression—not football legend Vince Lombardi.
  2. “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” It’s a beautiful sentiment, but, no, Gandhi didn’t say it.
  3. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Maybe Freud thought about it in his subconscious, but there’s no evidence that he ever said it out loud.
  4. “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” Even the U.S. Post Office got this quote wrong when it put it on a stamp honoring Maya Angelou last year. The quote comes from a book of poetry written by Joan Walsh Anglund.
  5. “You can fool all of the people some of the time; you can fool some of the people all of the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” While much scholarship has been devoted to determining whether Lincoln actually said this, the verdict is he probably didn’t.
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Convergence and the brave new world of PR and marketing

Working togetherA few weeks ago, Phil Rabin and Paul Duning of Capitol Communicator spoke at an Independent Public Relations Alliance luncheon about trends they are seeing in the PR business. One development they mentioned is the convergence of public relations and marketing, especially in the digital space.

Convergence is not new. And being the gray-haired communications veteran that I am, I began to think about previous encounters with convergence in my career. Back in the 1990s, I was hired by a DC trade association to be its first director of public affairs, a position designed to blend the separate disciplines of government affairs and PR. On paper, it was a wonderful concept. I would work with our lobbyists to tell their story in the press, using earned media, issues advertising, coalitions and community outreach. They, in turn, would get valuable exposure and support for their advocacy on Capitol Hill.

I quickly discovered that there was a gulf between the two departments that was difficult to bridge. Our lobbyists were not inclined to share Hill intelligence. They felt they were most effective when reporters didn’t know what they were doing. My PR colleagues and I, on the other hand, were anxious to promote the association’s positions. Obviously, we couldn’t do that without the lobbyists’ cooperation. It wasn’t until we were engaged in a major legislative battle (healthcare reform) that we really started working together as a team. It was an all-hands situation, with lots of late nights, but in the end I think the broader, public affairs approach proved its mettle.

Fast-forward about 10 or 12 years, and I was at another trade association where convergence took on new meaning. This time I was trying to bring together the marketing and communications departments. Again, a great idea in theory, but there were definitely some cultural differences. Despite opening the lines of communication, holding joint meetings and working hard to more closely align marketing and PR, I never felt we achieved the synergy that I had hoped for. In the end, I think it had more to do with the different objectives each department had than anything else. Marketing focused primarily on promoting membership and conferences, while communications focused primarily on consumer outreach and government affairs. The two did not always intersect.

I hear the words “seamless” and “integrated” used a lot these days, but I am skeptical that marketing and PR will ever be one, big happy family. My advice to anyone trying to combine the two is to study up on change management and be prepared for some silo busting.

Marketing and PR each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Marketing, with its link to sales and consumer buying behavior, has always been revenue-driven and usually better at measuring results. Public relations, with its focus on image, reputation and influence, usually has difficulty measuring its impact—except when something bad happens and everyone agrees, “We need PR!”

The rise of digital media has created new possibilities for these two disciplines that smart organizations are leveraging to their advantage. Using web and social media analytics, both marketers and PR professionals can better measure their efforts and more clearly demonstrate ROI. At the same time, there is room for immense creativity. Storytelling has become the new mantra for brands, an area where PR people should absolutely shine. With new ways to tell your story and better metrics, it’s a great time for both the PR and marketing professions.

As Phil and Paul told us at the IPRA luncheon, these new technologies have also led to significant changes in the PR agency system. The big agencies are downsizing. They’re becoming leaner and more nimble. They’re partnering with marketing firms to get the technology and social media expertise they need to stay competitive.

There’s no doubt that the viability of the traditional agency model is being tested. Is it cost-effective to do everything in-house and maintain offices in multiple cities when you can hire the talent you need on a project basis? According to Phil and Paul, shared office space, virtual teams, consolidated back-end operations and partnerships will be the new normal in this period of flux and change.

As a result, independent practitioners should be in greater demand. That’s assuming they have the skills and technology know-how to meet their clients’ needs.

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‘How will I find you?’ 5 ways to build brand awareness

promotion and marketingSuppose you are meeting someone for the first time in a public place. Wouldn’t it make sense to tell this person what you look like? It seems only natural to describe your most identifying features so you can quickly find each other. Yet, it doesn’t always happen, leading to embarrassment (“Are you Dave?”), wasted time and missed opportunities.

Now think about your business. Your success depends on connecting with new customers in your market. Wouldn’t it make sense to describe to them who you are? How they can find you?

It seems like a no-brainer, but so many people fall down when it comes to marketing themselves. Here are five questions you should be asking yourself to build brand awareness:

1. Can you be found on Google?
It’s been said that if Google can’t find you, no one can. Many articles and books have been written about search engine optimization (SEO) and other strategies for popping up near the top of Google searches. Google actually makes it easy to see which keywords your customers might be using to try to find your business or services.

Google Trends allows you to view the relative popularity of search terms over time (since 2004) and by country. You can compare up to five keywords, which makes it useful for determining the relative strength of terms. For example, suppose you are a heating and air-conditioning contractor. You could type in “heating and air conditioning,” “HVAC,” “air conditioning,” “heating” and “building contractor.” What you’d find is that “heating” is by far the most-used keyword. As you might imagine, you’d see that “heating” spikes during the winter months and “air conditioning” spikes in the summer. Google also gives you a list of related searches and the relative strength of those keywords.

Google AdWords Keyword Planner is available for free, even if you haven’t purchased any Google AdWords for your business. It provides helpful information for selecting keywords and a “suggested bid” price for specific keywords, i.e., what it might cost per click. You can enter keywords that describe your products or services and/or a specific landing page. It gets interesting when you type in your own website or a competitor’s. You can search on date ranges, geographic locations and product categories.

Google My Business is a new tool that puts your business information on Google Maps, Google+ and in Google searches. It’s especially helpful to retailers since it allows you to post photos of your location, business hours, telephone number, driving directions and Google reviews. I have not used it, but I understand that it replaces Google Places and has a dashboard where you can make changes to your profile, view traffic via Insights and Google Analytics and check your reviews.

2. Do you have a social media presence?
Think of Google and other search engines as a wide net that is constantly being cast into the digital sea. Your goal is to be a big enough fish to get caught in a search engine’s net. You can do that by increasing your presence on social media. Keep in mind, getting noticed online requires effort and persistence. I’ve had people say to me, “I need to be on social media”—as if all you have to do is flip a switch, and “voila!” you instantly have 10,000 followers! When I explain to them what it entails—the same careful and steady nurturing of relationships that’s required in the real world—they begin to hem and haw. The advice that I give below for real-world networking applies to virtual networking, too. In order to be known, you have to engage. Choose one or two social media networks to get active on—ones that make sense for your business—and then start to participate. Make comments on other people’s posts, and post your own content. Social media is an excellent way to push out your own content, but it works best when you become part of the conversation. It’s like a virtual cocktail party. You don’t want to be a complete bore by always talking about yourself. Show some interest in what other people are saying and provide value by contributing ideas and suggestions that will be helpful to your target market.

3. Are you building relationships in the real world?
We often call it networking, but a more apt way of putting it is “in-person socializing.” In your quest to add more Facebook friends, LinkedIn contacts and Twitter followers, don’t neglect personal connections and relationships. When it’s time for someone to make a hire or give a recommendation, who’s most likely to come to mind? A Facebook friend or a real friend? Genuine interactions also have many ancillary benefits. You can float new ideas, foster collaboration and form a sense of community that results in the mutual betterment of everyone in your circle. In his best-selling book Never Eat Alone, Keith Ferrazzi distinguishes relationship building from the “crude, desperate glad-handing” usually associated with networking. As he notes, “It’s never simply about getting what you want. It’s about getting what you want and making sure that the people who are important to you get what they want, too.” Make a habit of getting to know people you meet at networking events by suggesting that you have coffee or simply arranging time for a follow-up phone call. You’d be surprised how one thing leads to another and a lasting relationship begins.

4. Are you talking to your customers?
Active listening is a skill that seems in short supply these days, but successful business people have learned the art of paying attention to what their clients are thinking and what they need. A few years ago, I invited veteran DC marketer Bob London to speak to the Independent Public Relations Alliance. “Every client has an ‘elevator rant,’” he told us. “This is what keeps them up at night. It’s the thing they would tell you in the space of an elevator ride that is really bothering them.” London has been able to create added value by translating his clients’ rants into marketing solutions. “Once you’ve talked to customers and better understand their concerns,” he said, “questions about strategy, message and channels just fall into place.” Taking the time to listen to your customers—drilling down to discover their needs—shows that you take a genuine interest in their business and want to help them succeed. It also puts you top of mind with your customers and further strengthens your brand.

5. Are you taking advantage of earned media?
The old adage that earned media is better than paid media still holds true today. Being quoted in a publication is one of the most credible ways of building your brand. News outlets are always looking for story ideas. If you have an interesting client project or news item, send an email to the appropriate reporter. You might just find yourself being interviewed. With the proliferation of online media, there are many ways to get exposure for your business—most of them free if you are willing to provide the content. It’s not that hard to approach bloggers, website editors or e-publishers to see if you can write a guest blog or occasionally submit an article. You’ll be creating awareness for your brand, plus you’ll have some great content that you can link to your own website and social media accounts. Social media also has the power to “amplify” your content many times through sharing and likes. I have found blogging to be a wonderful way of communicating my views, engaging in conversations and demonstrating my skills as a producer of digital content. Find the medium that works best for you, then set out to make yourself known so that no one ever has to say, “How will I find you?” They will already know.

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