Anita Campbell is the Founder and CEO of Small Business Trends, a popular U.S.-based site for small business advice. Small Business Trends has been mentioned in the Wall Street Journal, MSNBC, and the New York Times, and Anita herself is a popular writer and speaker and is on several advisory boards. She talks to us about content creation, content monetization, and entrepreneurship.
My questions and comments are in bold.
Tell us a bit about Small Business Trends – I read you started it as a version of an email newsletter? Who was your first audience?
My audience is and always has been small businesses and entrepreneurs. But at first it was some friends and clients for whom I was doing consulting on business plans.
You see, I got into this line of work accidentally. After leaving the corporate world, I started helping friends who were entrepreneurs, with their business plans. One day I said to myself, “If I’m going to be a consultant, I might as well try to be as successful as possible.” So to market my business I started an email newsletter early on – this was about 10 years ago. My initial list consisted of about 250 contacts I’d met in person.
So I started sending a monthly newsletter with articles. But I was having trouble publishing articles for the newsletter. Someone suggested that I try out a blog. In the summer of 2003 I started with Blogger.com – which at the time was state of art for blogging software.
I couldn’t believe how easy it was to publish articles! I would publish the articles on the blog, and link to them with a short snippet in the newsletter. A few months later, many more people were reading the blog than the newsletter. So I decided to focus more efforts on the blog.
Fast forward to 2012 – and now I’m in the online publishing business.
And how have things changed since 2003?
Where do I start? So many things have changed:
- With millions of blogs today, content has become “cheap” in a sense. I think there will always be a place for great content, but you have to work harder at it to differentiate yourself and your blog. There’s still plenty of room for niche topics in independent blogs – although for broad topics the competition is fierce. There will always be a place for company blogs (i.e., blogs attached to company websites) too — they are an important communication strategy for businesses.
- Marketing is more important than ever, especially social media marketing. Today I think you have to spend at least as much time and expertise on marketing as on writing – maybe more. You need at least two social media outposts, so you can network and attract an audience to your blog. So that means you have to spend time and effort building up a Facebook fan base or a Twitter following, etc. – so that you have outposts from which to reach out and grow your network and attract visitors back to your site or blog. And there’s an investment of time just to learn to use social media sites – they keep getting more complex requiring ever larger learning curves.
- Search engine optimization is important, and it has gotten much more complex, with Penguin, Panda and other updates. Even experts in that industry have struggled over the past two years to figure out how to stay on top of the search rankings.
- Guest blogging has become quite popular, even commonplace. Today we get dozens of requests a week, whereas previously we used to have to “convince” people it was worth their time to guest blog.
- And of course mobile is changing everything. The small screen real estate is requiring some dramatic rethinking about what the website is all about.
You’ve got so much recognition for your work – what is it that you’re most proud of in your years of running Small Business Trends?
Thank you. I am most proud of still being here nine years later, and employing a number of people and providing many others with opportunities to grow their businesses.
Conversely, what’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a business-owner?
It keeps getting harder and harder to make money with straight banner advertising. We’ve adjusted our revenue sources to not rely so much on banner advertising.
I think that’s why you now see so much sponsored content today, and things like “promoted posts” on Facebook and “promoted tweets” on Twitter. People bemoan how commercial the social media sites are becoming, but if advertisers won’t pay for banner advertising, then we will see much more “creep” of advertising and sponsorships into content itself.
Right now, there are so many social media platforms and tools that ostensibly make things easier, and there is so much expert advice on what marketing activities a small business should be doing. What do you think is the most important marketing activity a small business should focus on?
To some degree it depends on the type of business. However, speaking broadly, SEM or search engine marketing will probably bring the great payoff in terms of online marketing. Some combination of organic and paid search, in other words. Once you have the basics of getting qualified traffic from the search engines down, then I think social media is next (although in the real world you’ll probably work on social media concurrently with SEM).
Small businesses often struggle to make sense of their data… what’s the one metric they should keep an eye on?
Number of sales and prospects in the pipeline. Whatever you sell, know that you have a steady stream of business coming down the pike. Number of prospects, length of time for the sales cycle, and other specifics about the pipeline depend on the business. If you’ve been in business for a while, you should have a good idea of what to expect in an average month or quarter, so you want to extrapolate from there.
What sites do you recommend for small-business marketing advice – apart from Small Business Trends and BizSugar, of course?
My personal favorites are Duct Tape Marketing and Social Media Examiner for social media how tos. MarketingProfs is also good. There are a lot of smaller blogs that I learn from. That’s why I love BizSugar so much – because I learn the most practical marketing things from blog posts shared there on BizSugar. And they have the most interesting titles, too!
I believe small businesses can be responsive towards their customers and in their marketing in a way big businesses struggle with. What other advantages do you think small businesses have?
Small businesses, with their lower costs structures, can make a go out of very narrowly drawn businesses — they can go “nichey.” A larger business might carry too many costs to make a niche worthwhile, or might not think there’s sufficient market potential. In other words, a large corporation might look at a narrow niche and say “There’s only $5 Million potential there.” Whereas, a small business owner might look at that same niche and say “Wow, there’s $5 million potential there.”
Which social media platform do you think is the most effective for small businesses?
It depends on the industry and your audience. Start to answer that question by asking yourself, “Where do my customers hang out?” You might know the answer to that question, or you might have to dig around a bit.
That said, I can make a few generalizations. The big 3 for social media for small businesses are still Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, although Google+ is also starting to pick up.
If you’re in a B2B business, then LinkedIn and Twitter are probably good choices. If you sell products or services to consumers, then Facebook is likely key. If you’re in retail and/or hospitality, then you also want to pay attention to consumer review sites such as Yelp and local sites such as Google Places.
Whatever you pick, make it count. I’d pick one social platform and devote enough time to it, to really learn the ropes. It’s better to be a master of one platform and do it well, than be a dilettante and fritter away a lot of time on many platforms, with little to show for it.
What social media platform do you personally like best?
For news sites like ours, Twitter is king. Twitter lends itself to alerting people about new articles. Also, Twitter is simple and easier to learn than many other sites. It isn’t fraught with as many arcane rules as a site like Facebook, which can get complicated with EdgeRank. Also, Facebook seems to change formats and rules every time you turn around, making it even more complex.
Plus, you can pretty much see who’s doing what on Twitter, making experimentation and measurement much easier to do. LinkedIn and Facebook, especially, are such “closed gardens” that it’s much harder to see exactly where traffic is coming from (i.e., who’s sharing what). That makes it harder to tell what is working or not working.
What are your favorite online tools – social media, productivity, or anything else?
We use Manymoon for project management. Google calendars shared by the team help us a lot with scheduling and workflow. Our team uses Hootsuite for scheduling social updates (although I mostly prefer to use the Twitter site itself and am usually on it several times a day). And we use Google chat and Skype for quick communications.
What’s the one thing you hate doing but still force yourself to do every week?
It’s not that I hate it, but I find I have less and less time to write. So I really have to force myself to write.
What’s the most important piece of advice you’d give a small-business entrepreneur?
Be in it to be successful, and don’t give up too soon. Too many people have “overnight successitis,” and underestimate how long it actually takes to grow a business. Anything worthwhile takes time. Rewards come to those who stick it out.
Awesome! Thank you very much for doing this, Anita.
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