The Internet Marketplace
This is an article written for the April issue of The Business Bulletin. It's part of a 3 part series about online marketing for business owners that I'm going to be posting in April. Then I promise I'll go back to normal white girl life in Haiti posts!!! If you have a business, enjoy! If not, don't unsubscribe! I'm also thinking of starting a group for Mennonite business owners with a focus on social media marketing. Let me know if your interested! Info at the bottom of the post.
A traffic jam in Port au Prince is a hub of commerce. In fact, I think there is a parallel to what happens to us every time we switch on our smartphones or computers. We are bombarded with selling. There is the poor little beggar girl on crutches with the open hand – please donate to my extremely worthy cause on GoFundMe. There is the car creeping by with its loudspeaker droning, “If you have trouble climbing a mountain, if you have infection, if you have headache, if your child doesn’t sleep well at night, try this syrup.” That’s like all the pop-up ads for supplements and weight loss plans that seem to know all your medical problems almost better than you do. Then there are the online swindlers – may I compare them to the gangsta with dreadlocks who defiantly washes your windshield with a dirty rag and demands payment, calling you stingy if you refuse, and running along the car shouting all the while.
But when I am out with my husband, and I’m hit with the Coke craving or I need some papita (plantain chips) for a salty snack, I block out the beggar girl, the windshield washer, and the lady striding purposefully by with a tub of lacey underwear on her head. I scan the crowd for a certain type of merchant, a young man with a big rice sack on his head; or I look for a rusty wheelbarrow full of ice and slushy drinks. When I spot one, I shout out the window, “Hey, Coka!” and I get exceptional customer service – an icy Coke delivered straight to my window, the man half-running along the side of the car to make the handover.
This is marketing. I am the customer. I have a problem: being thirsty. He has the solution: a slushy Coke. He is constantly scanning the street for thirsty customers, always walking, always on the move. He’s listening for that call, “HEY, Coka!” And he wants to be the first to get to my car with what I need. He does it many times a day, and each transaction makes him about 15 cents. And he still flashes a smile at each customer.
I invite you to think of the internet marketing word like a “virtual” Port au Prince traffic jam. It’s just as noisy, chaotic, and competitive. Here are some general principles. If you want to get rich quick, stop reading now. Because like the guy selling Cokes, you might have to learn the meaning of hustle. And sometimes even the best hustler might go home some nights with an empty pocket. There’s always a bit of chance involved.
1. Post with a purpose: Everyone will tell you one thing about internet advertising. You have to keep showing up. Research suggests that someone needs to see something about seven times before they buy. That’s probably true, but if I see the same photos of the same restaurant food or am reminded every time I check my phone, or the same hullabaloo for a certain sale going on, it gets annoying. I may in fact just block you. So post with a purpose. You are competing for your potential buyer’s time and attention, and you need to be willing to put effort to make an attractive, creative post. Sometimes you need to give free information or be willing to share something personal to build trust. Every post needs a long-term goal: tell about a new product or sale, establish yourself as an expert on a certain topic, build rapport with customers, etc. You will lose effectiveness by posting generic content that all looks the same, or by posting randomly without a clear purpose in mind.
2. It has to be all about the customer, not all about you! First of all, who is your customer? A busy young mother snatching a moment with a cup of half-cold coffee… browsing WhatsApp statuses or some social media platform? She needs to offered an easy gift for next week’s baby shower. She’s feeling guilty that she doesn’t have time to make something handmade – so your offer better seem special and personal enough for her best friend’s baby. Maybe your post about a new cookbook offers quick and easy meal ideas. It needs to have that little exhausted mom joke added in. She’ll smile a wry smile – you understand her – and click buy now! Is your customer a new widow whose husband always took care of the oil changes? Your website needs to be very simple and easy to navigate. The phone number and maybe your first name should be in a prominent place, making you seem trustworthy. And of course, a friendly, patient voice on the other end of the line will guarantee a repeat customer. What about the busy farmer looking for someone to fix the broken windshield on the minivan? Your website should come up in Google search results and then load fast before he loses patience and hits the back button. You should have clear, detailed information about your services and pricing, and enough personal details to prove that you’re a real human – another honest and decent small business owner just like him. He just wants to call you, then be able to forget about the minivan and know it’s in good hands. Successful businesses are built on solving problems for other people. Good ads focus on the problem you solve, not your good-looking resume.
3. Free things are free for a reason: Social media advertising can be a good tool, but it can turn into a hamster wheel if you get hyper-focused on it. Any “free” social media advertising platform has a rich corporation behind it. Their goal is for you to spend as much time on their app as possible. They also have control of your audience. I’ve heard stories of hackers that gain control of accounts and post content (example: an ISIS flag) that causes Facebook or Instagram to delete that account. Those people lose years of posts and followers. So if social media is your only tool, it’s like having a rented office (with a very temperamental, volatile landowner) instead of owned property. A serious business owner needs their own website, even though it takes money and effort to set up and maintain. The modern business owner needs to focus on building their business around relationships with customers, like people have done for years. Online marketing should just be another strategy to connect with customers.
4. Make it easy for people to do business with you: Port au Prince market merchants are experts at this. Many times I’m sitting just staring out at the scene. I think, “Oh, papaya juice would be lovely tonight.” And right on cue, a merchant looks straight at me and holds up her papaya. Irresistible! Try to anticipate what customers want and the things that will get in their way of closing the deal. They shouldn’t have to search around for your email address on your website, and your online checkout process should go off without a glitch. Your website should be full of “calls to action:” visible buttons that say things like, “buy now,” “get started,” or “subscribe.” You need to put time and thought into the text on your website. Listen to the questions people are always asking you and the phrases they use to describe their problems. This is the information that needs to be on your website. Also, a website is something that will always need maintenance. From time to time, re-read content to make sure it’s still relevant, and double check on different types of devices for typos, broken links, hard to read text, or pictures that aren’t showing up right.
5. Is your website working for you behind the scenes? You need to have a basic knowledge of SEO (search engine optimization) and while I try not to get fixated on it, I always make sure each page has a good meta description, my site images are named properly, and the site is registered with Google and connected to any social media accounts. The more quality content your site has, and the more often you update it (such as by blogging or adding products), the more Google is convinced that you are an expert in your field. Try making a list of keywords that people would search for when looking for you and use them a lot. (Keep the writing style natural though! No one wants to read five paragraphs where every third word is plumber or Wisconsin!) Website traffic snowballs. The first traffic is hard to get. But once the ball is rolling and people share your site with others, even Google will believe it’s worth looking at, and your site will start to rank better.
6. Cultivate your writing skills. It is so very important to use good grammar and a clear professional writing style. If you didn’t learn it in school, work for it now. When in doubt, simplify your writing style. Use bullet points, lists, and headings/subheadings in bold print. This also helps with SEO if done properly. Remember people aimlessly scrolling through their phone will have a very short attention span. Many experts say to write at a 12-year-old reading comprehension level.
7. Should you expect your creative hobby to pay the bills? Right now, I’m living in a country where I see beautiful women walking the streets selling things all day, and men walking around with Natcom aprons, hoping to sell a 50 cents worth of cell phone credit. One day I saw a woman with a single watermelon, wandering through a crowded space, selling it by the slice. So my viewpoint is this: if you have space in your life to do something creative, thank the good Lord. If you have something that you enjoy creating, from fresh roasted coffee to baby quilts, and you make a bit of money from it, thank the Lord again! It may never pay your bills. But relax. Be thankful you have a chance to create something of value. Whether you sell 5 or 500, enjoy the process.
8. Keep social media at a distance: There is something that the Christian should never forget. The Bible verse that talks about “the pride of life” comes to mind when I think of this whole world people have built - of airbrushed photos, political drama, and competing for likes. The people that built the platforms know that it’s addictive. They are making money off your time. They also prey on vulnerable people with insecurities and people who are naturally gullible. Obviously, make sure your content is honest and not exaggerating benefits to make a sale. Post on social media with a clear plan to grow your business. And if you ever get super focused on those likes, or your finger is opening Instagram way more times in a day than you ever thought it would, you can always take a break. Someone else may get to the top, but you will be putting God first and enjoying real life with family and friends.
9. Pray about your business, no matter how small it is! I firmly believe in this. Our ancestors prayed for the land they farmed during the Dust Bowl days. Our grandparents prayed as they pioneered the many little Mennonite businesses now scattered across America. They accepted the fact that even with hard work, sometimes things fail. Most of them were not sidetracked by get rich schemes. If God is with you, it is easier to be generous when you succeed, and easier to accept when you fail. My husband said this many times after our tap-tap was stolen: “God gave it to us, and we were always faithful with paying tithe. If he allowed it to be stolen, he has another plan to take care of us!” God cares about the Haitian lady selling watermelon by the slice, the Kansas farmer who sells fresh roasted coffee, and the Manitoba housewife who has a fabric store in the basement. And isn’t that more comforting than judging your success by your Facebook statistics?
Do you need a boost in your internet marketing?
I feel like many Mennonite business owners are like me - social media and any kind of online marketing can be such a drag! I'm not super comfortable on Instagram - my Mennonite friends aren't posting cute baby pictures and cat videos like the rest of the world, so what's the fun? I feel like I'm just trying to talk/sell products into an empty space full of strangers!
Here's my idea! Maybe we need a group of Mennonite business owners to learn from each other and most importantly, stay motivated! I'm thinking of a simple Telegram group with 3 things:
A weekly topic to share ideas - things like photography tips, content ideas for different types of businesses, helpful tools/software, which platforms you're most inspired with, etc.
Account spotlights - choose one or two businesses to spotlight every week and the group could check out what they're doing and give constructive feedback or observations
Accountability - couldn't we all benefit from just being asked at the end of the week - did you post on Facebook? It might give a little push to put SOMETHING out there because consistency is better than perfection.
If this interests you at all, let me know in the comments, or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with your ideas! I'll decide whether to start something at the end of the month based on your feedback.