Monthly Archives: February 2016

Changing Channels III: Social Media

Love it or loathe it, social media has become one of the biggest forces in communication today—and, as a result, marketing and promotion. The misunderstanding that many people have with social media marketing is the expectation that it will generate X dollars of revenue or new business in Y period of time. This is the wrong way to think about it. Social media marketing—social networking, basically—is best thought of as akin to in-person networking, as we discussed in previous posts. It’s about gaining visibility and building relationships that may eventually pay off over time. You don’t go to a networking event with the expectation of landing five new customers right on the spot. So, too, should you not launch a social media marketing strategy and expect it to produce immediate results. It takes time—and, more importantly, it takes diligence and persistence.

For some people, social media is almost an extension of their bodies: they sleep with their phones, they are notified of every single update, and virtually all aspects of their lives are shared online. For others, it’s a hated time sink. And for still others, it is begrudgingly acknowledged as important for business networking, a necessary evil. Regardless of where you fit on that Continuum of Social Media Enthusiasm, there are best practices vis-à-vis small business marketing.

In the next series of posts, we’ll look at the Big Three networks—Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter—and then look at some other social media services that may be more applicable to your business.

Changing Channels II: Online Channels

In the previous post, we looked at selected print media channels. Up now: online channels. (We’ll save social media for a whole slew of separate posts.)

Website

A well-designed, easy-to-navigate website is vital for any 21st-century business. A well-optimized website is found when potential customers do Google searches. You can also take advantage of paid search, where you can pay Google to have your listing come up when certain keywords are searched.

Banner Ads

You can also take out a banner ad on a high-traffic website, although it doesn’t necessarily have to be high-traffic. It could be your local newspaper’s website, a prominent blog in your industry, a local non-profit community or arts organization’s site, and so on.

Craigslist

If you’re old enough, you may remember newspaper classified advertising. Craigslist is sort of a modern equivalent of classified ads with the Yellow Pages thrown in, and all sorts of products and services are advertised and purchased via a Craigslist listing. It is entirely free, and each general geographic region has its own set of listings. Check it out at www.craigslist.com.

Superpages

You may remember the Yellow Pages—the phone book, essentially—which has fallen into disrepute these days, although it still has its fans. Superpages is the Yellow Pages’ online directory of businesses, and you can either get a free basic listing, or you can pay for display ads that appear on the Superpages site or on other websites. There is also a Yellow Pages smartphone app.

E-Mailed Press Releases

When you open your doors for business, complete major projects, land major accounts, win awards, or accomplish some other achievement, e-mailed press releases to industry or local media can help get the word out about it and can even lead to features in local newspapers or your local business press. Trade publications in your industry are also always looking for news to “feed the beast” of daily online publishing.

Direct E-Mail

Direct e-mail, as you probably know intimately from being on the receiving end of it, is a promotional e-mail message sent to a mailing list of current or potential customers to promote a product, service, or upcoming event. Some e-mail campaigns blur the line between direct e-mail and electronic newsletters (see below). Some blur the line between legitimate campaigns and spam.

E-Newsletter

An e-newsletter is an e-mail-distributed publication that provides news, information, and commentary related to the industry your business is in. The primary difference between an e-newsletter and direct e-mail is that a newsletter should be news- and information-based, rather than strictly promotional. The frequency of e-newsletters can be anywhere from daily to monthly—with some outliers publishing more or less frequently. (Our Home Office That Works! E-newsletter is published every two weeks.)

In the next several posts, we will take a reasonably close look at social media and specifically how they can be used for small business marketing efforts.

The “Home Office Gurus” Offer Advice to Make April 15 Less Taxing

“The Home Office That Works!” Authors Talk About the Home Office Deduction and Other Issues

February 19, 2016 — Wake Forest, NC, and Saratoga Springs, NY — There are best and worst practices for coping with tax season, and those working from home offices often must be more careful than other taxpayers. They need to keep precise records of income and expenses via QuickBooks or another accounting program (a best practice) and avoid handing their accountant a plastic grocery bag full of hundreds of random receipts at 11:50 p.m. on April 15 (decidedly not a best practice).

The authors of The Home Office That Works! (the 2016 Edition has just been released) have coped with a combined total of more than 40 tax seasons, and have practical advice for making tax time as painless as possible, both in their new book and in personal presentations.

The Home Office That Works!, 2016 Edition, available from amazon.com, is an informative, entertaining, and indispensable guide to work-at-home life for novices and home office veterans alike. We asked authors Dr. Joe Webb and Richard Romano questions about their tax advice.

What is your number one piece of advice for home-based business owners?

First of all, neither of us is an accountant or tax expert. We speak from practical experience about tax preparation, deductions, and other matters, but our top recommendation is to get solid advice from an experienced tax preparer or certified public accountant. Ideally, you’ll have an ongoing relationship with them over the course of the year; if your income fluctuates from month to month—or your third quarter ends up being far better than you had expected, for example—they can help adjust your quarterly estimated tax payments so you’re not overpaying and potentially running into cashflow issues during the year, or underpaying which can create tax penalties which always seem to come at the worst possible time.

What deductions are available for home-based workers?

The most important is the home office deduction. If you use some portion of your home for business purposes, you can claim a deduction on your taxes. In 2013 (2014 tax year), the IRS introduced the so-called “Simplified Option” which features a flat rate per square foot of your home rather than a rate based on overall percentage of your home; simplified reporting of other business deductions; no depreciation deduction; and more (details are at www.irs.gov). Equipment, computers, office supplies, utilities (like electric), phone/Internet, and other business “essentials” are deductible to varying degrees, depending how much is for personal use and how much is for business use. Workers should thus keep track of their space and their time. What’s interesting is how few people with home offices use this deduction. According to the IRS, 26 million Americans have home offices, but a mere 3.4 million taxpayers claim it. That means only 13% of eligible taxpayers are taking advantage of what can be a significant tax savings.

How much latitude do home office workers have in deducting expenses?

Common sense should prevail. If you use a computer mostly for Facebook or streaming movies on Amazon Prime or Netflix, and only once in a while for checking work email, it’s not a deductible expense. (Neither is your Amazon Prime or Netflix account.) But there are gray areas. This is why having an experienced tax accountant is a must, especially when your business is new. Guessing what is deductible, stretching or double-dipping deductions, and so on, may come back to bite you in the end years later. On the other hand, we’ve found that many home office workers overlook some items that are deductible.

What about telecommuters? Or do home office deductions only apply to home-based businesses?

If you are a full-time employee of a company and telecommute part- or full-time, you can still take the home office deduction, and some other deductions related to your work. However, if you get reimbursed for any of these expenses by your company, they are not deductible. For expenses that are not reimbursed, workers should ask their tax advisor about IRS Form 2106, unreimbursed business expenses.

Not everyone I worked for gave me a tax form. Does that mean I don’t have to report that income?

Companies you contract with are required by law to send independent contractors a 1099 form in lieu of the W-2 form regular employees receive. That said, not all companies are diligent about sending 1099s, which is why you need to carefully keep track of whatever income you receive and from whom, because you are still responsible for declaring it. It’s also in your best interest to doublecheck the amount on the 1099 form(s) against your own records. Companies can make mistakes, but they need to be corrected promptly.

Any other advice?

Be organized, and don’t put off tax prep until the last minute. Companies have until January 31 (or the following Monday if the 31st falls on a weekend) after the end of the relevant tax year to send all tax forms, so set aside some time the first week of February to start pulling everything together. It’s a good idea to prepare a rough return in November and have a quick chat with your accountant so you can make tax time a lot easier. Accountants are less likely to give you their full attention when they are busiest during the March/April tax season.

Advice about tax planning and preparation, and virtually every other aspect of running a home office, can be found in The Home Office That Works! Make Working at Home a Success—A Guide for Entrepreneurs and Telecommuters.

Availability…

The Home Office That Works! Make Working at Home a Success—A Guide for Entrepreneurs and Telecommuters (2016 Edition) is available in paperback at http://amzn.to/1kPkbip, or an Amazon Kindle e-book available at http://amzn.to/1oDUTGv. Visit the authors’ website at http://homeofficethatworks.com.

About Dr. Joe Webb

A home office worker since 1987, Dr. Webb is a consultant, entrepreneur, and economics commentator. He is a doctoral graduate in industrial and corporate education from New York University, holds an MBA in Management Information Systems, and a degree in managerial sciences and marketing. He has taught in graduate and undergraduate business programs and resides in North Carolina.

About Richard Romano

Richard Romano has been a professional writer since 1990 and officially launched his home office in 2000. He has also authored or co-authored a many books about graphics hardware and software, and is a freelance writer of ads, e-newsletters, magazine features and news stories, and research reports. A graduate of Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications, he lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Editor’s Note…

Additional information is available for editorial purposes. Please make inquiries directly to the authors at authors@homeofficethatworks.com.

Speaking Events and Business Contact:

The authors are available for speaking at events, webinars, and business meetings. The book is an excellent promotional vehicle for retailers and service providers targeting the needs of small and home businesses. The authors can also create custom versions of the book. Dr. Webb and Mr. Romano also offer coaching services for teleworkers/telecommuters, either one-on-one or in small groups; advisement for veteran teleworkers; consulting services for businesses considering hiring teleworkers/telecommuters; and more. For more information about these services, contact the authors at authors@homeofficethatworks.com.

Changing Channels I: Print Channels

We have been looking at developing a marketing plan for your home-based business and, in that context, looking at all the channels available. Let’s start with print channels; we probably don’t need to spend a lot of time explaining what print is (we hope!).

Newspapers

Although a lot has been made of the decline in print newspaper circulation, in many communities local papers still serve a vital purpose, and advertising in them remains a viable marketing strategy. So depending on the status of your local paper, some advertising in local newspaper may be a worthwhile strategy (you may also get a package rate that includes banner advertising on the paper’s website). Also don’t discount weekly “Moneysavers” and those other free publications that turn up unbidden in people’s mailboxes. They are still very effective.

Phone Books

A Yellow Pages listing may not be as important these days as online search—and there have been wars waged against the delivery of phone books—but it is a function of whom you are trying to reach. While people under 30 (or even 40) may not use the phone book to find local businesses anymore, many older folks still do, so if you are targeting them, you may want to include a display ad in the phone book as part of your marketing strategy.

Specialty Print Items

We spoke about business cards and other collateral in previous posts, but don’t ignore assorted specialty print items (T-shirts, bumper stickers, refrigerator magnets, pens, posters, etc.). A hot item in the specialty print world today is custom-printed smartphone covers.

These items may not be as expensive as you think, and everyone still needs them. If you are going to attend or exhibit at a trade event, novelties can get your name in front of potential customers. The key to these specialty items is to make them useful. A pen is useful. A refrigerator magnet is useful. But a pin-back button? It may look nice, but really, who is ever going to wear it anywhere? Decide what might actually come in handy and what will likely end up thrown in a junk drawer.

QR Codes

There is a place for QR codes in even a small business’ marketing plan—and they cost nothing. A Quick Response (QR) code is a type of bar code that, when scanned with a smartphone camera and QR reader app, launches a website, video, or some other type of interactive or immersive experience. They are best employed on posters and flyers—outdoor real estate advertising, for example. You pass a new set of condos, and there is a sign with a QR code that, when scanned, launches pictures of the interior, the floor plan, and other rental or purchase information. Although the QR code is perhaps best thought of as a transitional technology (better ways of accomplishing the same thing already exist), it’s a good way of driving people to a website in places where it is not convenient for them to laboriously type a URL.

Direct Mail

And let’s not forget old-fashioned direct mail. Postcards, brochures, one-page flyers, etc., can be printed and mailed to a prospect list. Direct mail is more expensive than direct e-mail or other electronic communications, but it can be more effective. Not everyone is a fan of so-called “junk mail,” but in this day and age where we get so little physical mail anymore, it can actually be the best way to attract someone’s attention. An e-mail can and will, in all likelihood, be deleted sight unseen in the average user’s morning mailbox purge of overnight messages. Direct mail can be static (you send the same thing to everyone) or variable (you customize or personalize each piece in some way so that it is more likely to be relevant to the recipient). Printed variable direct mail does have better response rates than generic direct mail. The key to any direct mail campaign is that it must be relevant, and it works best when it includes some kind of offer, such as a discount or some other incentive.

In the next post: online channels.

Media Channels: The Way We Were—and The Way We Are

Last week, we kicked off a series of posts about developing a marketing strategy for small and home-based businesses. (A lot of this discussion is adapted from our 2012 book “Does a Plumber Need a Website?”)

Let’s take a quick look at how the media landscape has changed over the last 40 years or so.

The Way We Were: The 1970s

Small businesses in the 1970s and even the 1980s most often used some combination of the following media channels—depending on size and budget—to promote themselves:

  • word of mouth/referrals
  • location/attractive signage, if allowed by zoning regulations
  • Yellow Pages advertising
  • display advertising in local newspaper
  • TV ad on local station
  • radio ad
  • cold-calling prospects by phone or in person
  • sponsoring local events, Little League teams, etc.
  • printed brochures and other collateral materials (like business cards)
  • custom printed proposals for each client
  • diner placemats
  • vehicle graphics (hand-stenciled graphics or adhesive letters)
  • trade show and other event attendance
  • printed press releases to industry or local media

Again, not every business used every one of these, but these were the options back in the day.

The Way We Are: The 2010s

Today, most of the above channels still exist, but they have been complemented and supplemented by online (and even new offline) media. So, here are the available channels for small businesses today, grouped into general categories:

Online

  • website
  • Google search
  • paid search
  • banner ad on high-traffic website
  • Craigslist
  • Superpages online entry
  • e-mailed press releases to industry or local media
  • direct e-mail
  • e-newsletters

Print

  • some advertising in local newspaper
  • Yellow Pages listing
  • business cards and other collateral
  • specialty print (T-shirts, bumper stickers, magnets, pens, etc.)
  • QR codes
  • direct mail

Social Media

  • Facebook pages/Facebook Groups
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn profile/LinkedIn Groups
  • Instagram
  • SnapChat
  • blog
  • online video (YouTube or on your own site)
  • other social media sites (Tumblr, Reddit, etc.)

Location Services

  • sites/apps like Yelp!
  • Augmented Reality (AR)
  • Groupon/Living Social

Offline

  • word-of-mouth
  • physical location/attractive signage
  • radio advertising (terrestrial or satellite)
  • local TV/cable advertising
  • sponsoring community events
  • speaking at workshops, seminars, briefings, trade shows, Chamber of Commerce events, and other public venues

Never heard of some of these items? Don’t worry. You’re not alone, and  we’ll examine them in turn. What’s really scary is that this list is in no way complete!

Notice how some things have not changed…or have they? Word-of-mouth referrals, for example, are still highly effective for cultivating new business. What has changed is that “word-of-mouth” is now more often than not “word-of-mouse,” in which there is some overlap with social media.

It’s tempting to say, broadly, that offline channels (print, TV, radio) have been replaced by online channels (Web site, social media, search), but that is not entirely true. We’ll look at some of these channels more closely in the next few posts.

Developing a Marketing Strategy: A Brief Overview

As we saw in the last several posts, having a set of printed and electronic collateral materials is important to get the word out about your business, but so, too, is developing some kind of overall marketing and promotion strategy for your business. This involves availing yourself of various “media channels.” The channels you choose for your strategy will be a function of:

  • your budget
  • the time you have available for promotional activities (“none” is not an acceptable answer!)
  • the audience you are trying to reach

As a small business, you don’t have to implement a campaign which is as costly and expansive as one by Pepsi, Nike, or some other large consumer corporation. And, in fact, you may not want your marketing to be too successful, otherwise you run into the problem of not being able to meet demand. That is, as they say, a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem, and you can end up being the home office-based version of Lucille Ball in the chocolate factory. And an expensive marketing campaign may not even be relevant to your business and the people you are trying to attract.

There are so many media channels today that it is virtually impossible—especially as a small or one-person business—to be active in all of them. Indeed, social media marketing alone can be practically a full-time job. So the goal of developing a marketing strategy is to choose what channels and other initiatives are the most important for your specific business, and to devise a plan that would take time and effort away from the work that actually comprises your business.

So, on Tuesday, we’ll take a look at what all the various media channels are, and beyond that, we’ll discuss them in detail, with an aim toward identifying ways of whittling them down to an effective few.

Collateral Damage

We have been dwelling on the website as one of the primary elements of “marketing collateral”—along with the business card—but there are some other types of collateral materials you may want to have on hand.

By way of definition, “marketing collateral,” says Wikipedia, “is sometimes considered the collection of media used to support the sales of a product or service.” Business cards, your website, and similar materials are considered marketing collateral. Sell sheets are also perhaps one of the emblematic examples of collateral, but these tend to be used more for manufacturing businesses.

For the home-based service business, printed brochures can be distributed at events or left in hotel lobbies, visitor centers, and other public “drop spots,” depending on your business. If you are attending a trade show or other event, printed brochures or one-sheet handouts remain—even in this age of electronic media—the most direct way to distribute information about your business. Sure, you can give someone your web address—but will they ever go there? It’s become common to hand out thumb drives (aka memory sticks) with promotional material about a business on them—but does anyone ever really open them? A printed flyer or other document—attractively designed, reasonably well printed—puts the information you want to convey front and center.

That said, though, you should be sure to include downloadable PDF versions of brochures, handouts, and other printed materials on your website.

Collateral materials are small individual pieces of an overall marketing strategy. Over the next few weeks, we will be looking at developing a marketing strategy for your home-based business.

Responsive Design

We conclude our top-level look at web design and development for the home-based business with one final topic.

A term you sometimes come across is “responsive design,” or “responsive web design (RWD),” which refers to creating a website in such a way that it will automatically detect what device is accessing it—laptop, tablet, or smartphone—and optimize the display accordingly. As more and more people access the web using smartphones, it is more and more important to ensure that your website can be legibly displayed on those devices. Sometimes a desktop-optimized site will look just fine on a smartphone, and sometimes even a responsively-designed site will be hard to navigate on the device it is supposedly optimized for. If you already have a website, it may be worth taking a few moments to access it with as many different devices as you can lay your hands on (friends and relatives may have a variety of devices you can borrow for a minute or two) and see how it looks. If it looks generally OK on the majority of devices, you may not need to worry about making any changes. But if it is illegible and unnavigable, you may want to seek help.

And while responsive design may be important in and of itself, Google has changed its search algorithms so that responsively designed sites are ranked higher than regular sites. Since Google search is one of primary ways (if not the primary way) that businesses get found, this may be a very big deal. It might be worth having a conversation with a professional web designer or Internet consultant.

As we said at the outset of this discussion about websites, they have become the new business card. Having a web presence is just as—if not more—important as having a printed business card. As a result, it should not be approached in a haphazard fashion, and it might be worth spending a few bucks to get it done right.

Sailing the Seas of SEO

Over the past few posts, we have been looking at some tips for website design and development for home-based businesses. There is one other important consideration when creating a website for your business, and that is “search engine optimization (SEO).”

SEO is a means of ensuring that website content contains specific keywords that someone would search for so that your site would turn up toward the top of the first page of hits of a Google search. After all, it’s been said that the loneliest place on Earth is the second page of Google hits.

The simplest way of doing this is to describe your business on your home page. If you are a graphic designer, home page copy would read something like “Jane Smith Design offers graphic design and production capabilities for print and web-based media.” And from there, Ms. Smith would then identify other services she offers, either in paragraph form or as a bulleted list. The key is to make it organic; you don’t want to just strew random words on your home page just to have keywords on it. Also bear in mind that words that appear in images (GIFs, JPEGs, or PNGs) will not be searchable by Google or other search engines, so if you are using an image as your webpage header, and it contains keywords, they will not be captured by searches.

Another part of the SEO strategy is to embed keywords in the page code itself—and this may be a bit beyond what the lay web designer can handle. There is an art and a science to SEO, and web consultants get paid a lot to optimize sites. You may not have the resources to go all out with SEO, but think about what word(s) a potential customer would enter in Google to find you. Make sure those keywords are included in the copy on your home page, and any other pages that may comprise your site.