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This article was prepared for the November 14, 2001 edition of

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Ideas for Getting Back on Track

On Monday, November 19, at 3 p.m. small business guru

Jane Applegate speaks at a Back on Track America "Whistle

Stop Tour" at the Performing Arts Center in Newark. Back on Track

America is a project of Applegate’s SBTV.com, an online small business

network at (www.janeapplegate.com). Sponsors include Fleet Bank, ING

Aetna Financial Services, America Online, SCORE, Entrepreneur

magazine,

Amtrak, Wyndam Hotels and Resorts, and MasterCard.

Back on Track America is a coalition dedicated to revitalizing small

businesses reeling from the recession and the September 11 attacks.

It offers free advice, information, resources, and inspiration aimed

at helping small business owners manage in a difficult environment.

Each Back on Track America event consists of a three-hour work session

and concludes with a networking reception and a community town hall

meeting. It’s all free. Call 888-567-0615.

In addition to spearheading Back on Track America, and founding SBTV,

which broadcasts stories on finance, law, human resources, marketing,

and more, Applegate is the author of three books of advice for owners

of small businesses. The latest is 201 Great Ideas for Your Small

Business (Bloomberg Small Business, $14.95). Here are excerpts:

Create an Active Database. If you look at the piles of

business cards on your desk and just see a mess — look again.

What you’re really looking at is potential income.

No matter how small your business may be, you should be creating and

updating a database. With simple software, a current database allows

you to easily mail newsletters and sales information to customers.

You can also target prospective customers by renting mailing lists.

Add telephone numbers, and your database becomes the basis for a

telemarketing

initiative.

Collecting detailed information about people and their companies is

easier than you think. Business cards, sales invoices, catalogs,

directories,

and magazine and newspaper articles all contain invaluable information

and contacts. Small-business magazines such as Nation’s Business

usually

include contact addresses and telephone numbers in their articles.

The easiest way to create and maintain a database is with a simple

software program. There are many very affordable programs on the

market

that keep track of the information and allow you to cross-reference

and access it in several ways.

More complex programs, such as Goldmine, Act!, and Sharkware, organize

your daily appointments and remind you when to place important

telephone

calls. The biggest headache is entering the data into the program,

but you can certainly assign this task to a staffer or hire a

temporary

worker or student to do it.

Use Coupons to Attract Customers. On a balmy spring

evening,

I took myself out to the local movie theater. Standing outside the

door was a young man in a Haagen-Dazs apron. He was passing out

coupons

offering a "double feature" — a free scoop of ice cream

when you bought one scoop at the regular price. I immediately knew

where I was heading after the show.

Ticket stub in hand, I trotted down the block to be the first in line.

(I didn’t want to embarrass myself by running.) For a mere $1.85,

I savored my calorie-laden pralines and coffee-chip double scoop.

The kid even let me keep the coupon for a repeat performance. Talk

about generating goodwill!

Giving away a free scoop of ice cream brought me into the store for

the first time. And, of course, it won’t be the last. It also proved

to me that a coupon is a low-cost way to attract new and repeat

customers.

Coupons are great because they are cheap to print and easy to

distribute.

You can send an associate to place them under the windshield wipers

of parked cars. Although, admittedly, this method can be annoying

and produces litter, it’s good for a local promotion. You might also

consider giving your coupons to neighboring merchants — and offer

to pass out their coupons in exchange.

Use a Mascot. Brenny Watt didn’t set out to find a mascot

for her small store, but she ended up with a famous cat.

"One day, a stray cat wandered in, and we started to feed

her,"

said Watt. "Then one night, we accidentally locked her inside

the store. The next morning, when we came in, she was asleep in the

window. She became an instant celebrity."

People, especially kids, loved Lily the cat and came to visit her

weekly. To raise money for a local school, Watt decided to host a

"Tea with Lily." It was easy to promote the event, because

by then most people knew who Lily was.

Today Watt works as a freelance writer, but she remembers her famous

cat mascot. "She was wonderful PR for us and loved her unusual

home."

But remember, if it’s appropriate to have a pet in your business,

make sure it’s a people-loving one.

Some small businesses are fortunate enough to hook up with a celebrity

spokesperson. David Blumenthal, president of Lion Brand Yarn Co. in

Manhattan, learned that Wheel of Fortune hostess Vanna White loved

to crochet. He immediately contacted her agent to ask if she would

be interested in becoming the spokesperson for their line of yarns

and crochet patterns.

They made a deal that has endured through the years.

White worked with Lion on two illustrated pattern books on crocheting.

She consistently wows customers when she appears at trade shows on

behalf of Lion Brand Yarns, demonstrating her crocheting skills and

emceeing a fashion show of crocheted creations.

It doesn’t make sense in every single case, but many small businesses

benefit enormously from a mascot or spokesperson. It’s a component

of your marketing plan that can help establish a brand identity for

your product and stir up a good deal of excitement, too.

Publish a Newsletter. There are about 5,000 subscription

newsletters and thousands more for free, according to industry

experts.

Newsletters cover everything from fly fishing and school violence

to gluten-free baking.

With the right mailing list, exclusive or proprietary information,

and a few thousand dollars, just about anyone who can write or hire

writers can start one. But making money is another story.

"You have to pick a field as narrow as you can get it, but leave

it wide enough so there’s an audience to promote to," advises

Howard Penn Hudson, president of the Newsletter Clearinghouse in

Rhinebeck,

New York. "Too often, people who start newsletters find they

haven’t

narrowed the field enough."

Health care, technology, and celebrity newsletters are hot right now,

according to Hudson, who publishes the Newsletter on Newsletters,

founded in 1964.

Host an Open House. One of the best ways to acquaint

customers

and clients with your business is to arrange a visit. An open house

combines a social event with the ability to do some serious one-to-one

marketing. Of course, if you deal with toxic chemicals or dangerous

machinery, you’ll have to decide whether or not an open house is the

best way to boost awareness of your business.

One of my strongest and fondest memories is touring the Pepperidge

Farm bakery on a third-grade field trip. I’ll never forget the sweet,

yeasty smell of the bakery and the freshly baked loaf of white bread

they gave each of us to take home. Since that tour, I’ve been a loyal

Pepperidge Farm customer.

Hershey Foods is another big company that invites thousands of

visitors

into their factories each year. That open door policy has turned

Hershey,

Pennsylvania, into a major American tourist mecca.

Even if you rarely have visitors, think of the things people would

like to learn about your business. Few people ever have the

opportunity

to see how things are made and packaged.

You may not have a glitzy office, but even a small-scale open house

can draw people to your door. No matter how boring you think your

business is, remember that people love to have a behind-the-scenes

look at anything. Consider the incredible popularity of Universal

Studios and the tours that visitors line up for.

In planning an open house pick a time of year when your business looks

its best, and weather won’t jeopardize attendance. Send out

invitations

at least a month in advance, and ask people to RSVP via telephone

or fax. Schedule the event to last two or three hours — no more.

Ask all your employees to tidy up their areas and find places to lock

up any valuables about a week before the open house.

Hand out a flyer with basic information about your company along with

an event agenda. Assign plenty of staffers to act as hosts and guides.

Buy flowers or plants to decorate the reception area. Rest up the

night before so you are ready to meet and greet people.

You might also invite your local station or paper to participate in

your event as a media sponsor. This takes more time and effort, but

it may be worth it. Be sure to involve all your employees and their

families in your event.

Purge your database regularly. Creating a database is

a great idea, but if it’s filled with out-of-date information it

becomes

a waste of time and money. Every year a certain percentage of people

in your database will move or change jobs, so it’s important to update

the information at least once a year.

A simple, cost-effective way to dean up your database is to send out

a perforated, two-part postcard with a simple offer or discount and

a space for people to update their information. Be sure to print or

stamp "address correction requested" on each card, so the

post office will return the undeliverable cards. You pay the postage,

but it’s worth it.

Prepaying the postage on the return card will definitely increase

your response rate. When the undelivered cards come back, spend time

deleting the names. Then update the responses as they are returned.

Doing this kind of purge is important, particularly if you are

planning

to do a major mailing. A clean, accurate list will increase your

chances

of a strong response rate to any offer you send out.


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