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Where Marketers Go to Grow

Marketing / November 2, 2006 Small Business Websites: Online Brochures or Growth Engines?
Small Business Websites: Online Brochures or Growth Engines?

By Brian Halligan

This is an interesting article about small business websites that I recommend. I talk to many small businesses who spend thousands of dollars designing a gorgeous website that their mothers are impressed with, but essentially function as a brochure online that virtually nobody outside of their Rolodex ever sees. Rather than spending countless hours working on the design, I humbly recommend that marketing executives and small business owners should focus instead on the messaging, on ensuring the site is optimized for search engines, on ensuring the website's content is fresh and ... Read More

Marketing / October 31, 2006 Learning From The Legends: Quick Insights From Buffett and Gates
Learning From The Legends: Quick Insights From Buffett and Gates

By Brian Halligan


I saw a great interview of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett at the University of Nebraska last week. I have not spent much time consuming Warren Buffett-isms over the years, but I was duly impressed with his wisdom, so while I was at it, I watched three other interviews of his with Charlie Rose. Here are some of the highlights:

Buffett On Ethics : Imagine that what you are doing every day is being scrutinized by a smart, skeptical reporter who is going to write an article about it every day on the cover of your local paper. If you ever think you actions would embarrass you or your company in front of your family, customers, peers, etc., don't do it.

Buffett On Founders : I only buy a business if I can buy the managers with it. It is okay if the managers love the money, but much more important is that they demonstrate a true love of what they are doing.

Gates on Reading Vacation : Gates takes two weeks per year where he sequesters himself for a "reading vacation." He takes books with him and papers/proposals written by employees from all over Microsoft. [Dharmesh and I have been talking about doing one of these for awhile, but haven't got around to it yet]

Buffett on Decisions : Asset allocation is done by me only, not by committee or vote, I make those decisions. A committee/vote would tend to bring our decisions toward the mean and make the likelihood of finding a unique opportunity lower.

Buffett & Gates on Reading : I was surprised to hear how much they both talked about reading and how important reading was to their daily work. I read all the time and know many others that do so too, but I don't hear people talking about how important reading is in their daily lives like these guys did. When asked if Gates could be a superhero, what power he'd want to have, he said he'd like to be able to be the fastest reader in the world and Buffett agreed.

Buffett on most his important skill : Ability to focus. I thought that it was interesting to hear in light of the attention deficity disorder going on in our culture.

Buffett on the "ovarian lottery" : Called himself lucky over-and-over again to be born in the US in this era where his natural gifts were well suited for our society. Made a comment that if born several hundred years earlier, he and Gates probably would have been some other animal's lunch because they did not see well and could not climb trees well.

Buffett on predicting success : He quoted an interesting study he had seen that tried to correlate "things" (i.e. business school, grades, athletics, etc.) with future business success. The study found that the thing that most closely correlated with future success was the inverse of the age at which you started your first business (i.e. paper route, lemonade stand, painting co, other).

Buffett on baseball : It turns out Buffett is a huge sports fan, especially baseball. He is an especially big fan of Ted Williams' book "The Science of Hitting" which is all about getting a pitcher in a position where he has to throw the batter a strike…He likens his investment decisions as "waiting for the right pitch."

Buffett on his schedule : Likes to keep it open and says "no" to as many meetings as possible. Reads 80% of the workday. When he goes home at night he either keeps reading or plays bridge. Schedules online bridge games on the weekends with Gates.

Gates on his schedule : Jam packed every day with meetings. He goes home at night to have dinner and then gets caught up on emails.

Buffett's career advice : It's platitude, but do what you love sooner, rather than later. Don't wait your whole life to do what you love like most people do.

Buffett on life : He advises people to make decisions based on their "inner scorecard" and pay less attention to the "outer scorecard" (i.e. what other people think). He says if you follow an outer scorecard, your life will be a little hollow when you get to be his age. …He advises people to reverse engineer their lives from what they want to be when they are 70 and map the steps needed to get there from today.

Buffett on friends : Buffet says that "real" friends are a referendum on your life. …Buffett also seems to reject the platitudes around working with friends as it appears many of his closest friends are people who work in his business.

Buffet on investments : His criteria are that he must fundamentally understand the business (often this means it is simple); the business must have an enduring competitive advantage; the business must have management he trusts, admires, and love what they do; and the business must be attractively priced.

After spending several hours listening to Warren Buffett over the last week, I became really impressed. I hope you enjoyed the highlights...

-- Brian Halligan.

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Marketing / October 27, 2006 Internet Marketing: A Pragmatic Guide To Domain names For The Small Business Executive
Internet Marketing: A Pragmatic Guide To Domain names For The Small Business Executive

By Dharmesh Shah


Chances are, you may have registered for a domain name (example:  mysmallbusiness.com) some time ago.  You may even “own” a few domain names and perhaps one of these domain names is where your current business runs.

I’d like to provide you a quick introduction on how domain names work.  As with my prior articles along similar lines, my goal is to give you, the insanely busy small business executive a simple mechanism for understanding this – so you know what’s actually going on.  By the end of this article, you should be able to impress most of your non-technical friends and family (and maybe even a few technical ones).  As common is the topic is, most people really don’t understand how it actually works under the covers.  After this article, you will.

Understanding Internet Domain Names
 
  1. IP Addresses:  To really understand domain names, you need to have a quick grasp on IP (Internet Protocol) addresses.  This is not that hard.  Basically an IP address is a unique way to identify every single machine/server/device on the Internet.  Public IP addresses are basically those that can be “reached” by anyone connected to the Internet (kind of like a public phone number can be called).  All public Internet web servers have a public IP address.  IP addresses usually are represented in “dotted” form like this:  216.128.28.18 (this is the IP address of the server that runs HubSpot, my software company’s website).  So, fact is, if you knew what the IP address of your favorite website was, you could use it to the site within a browser.  You can try it out by typing 216.128.28.18 into a browser and see what happens.

  1. Why We Need Domain Names:  The reason for domain names is very simple.  Carbon-based life-forms (unlike computers) tend to have a difficult time remembering something like 216.128.28.18.  Our brains are not wired that way. We are much more likely to remember a word (or set of non-random characters).  So, all a domain name really is is an alias or pseudonym for an IP address.  If it weren’t for this need for human convenience, we probably wouldn’t have domain names.  As you might expect, if an IP address has to be unique, than a domain name has to be unique too.  In most cases, all a domain name is is a “pointer” to an IP address.  That’s like saying, when I type “hubspot.com” what I really mean is 216.128.28.18.  And the magic that is the Internet figures it out.

  1. Top Level Domains:  As it turns out, instead of having domain names (IP address aliases) that are just simple words, the powers that be (people much smarter than you and I) decided that it might help to “organize” the way names are created to make things easier.  So, what they decided is that we’ll have a set number of “top level” domain names (TLDs).  The most common examples are “.com”, “.net” and “.org”.  All domain names must end in a known top-level-domain in order to work.    So, you can’t have mynameis.joe as a domain because “.joe” is not yet recognized as an official top-level domain.

  1. Why You Need A Registrar:  So, a set of organizations manages one or more of the top-level domain names (like .com).  What they do is ensure that one (and only one) second level domain name is assigned within each top-level domain.  So, we can have hubspot.com, hubspot.net and hubspot.org.  All of these are different domain names as all are within a different top-level domain name.  Now, to keep things somewhat manageable, you can’t go directly to all knowing, all registering entity that manages all these domain names.  They have “agents” that act on their behalf.  These domain name “registrars” help you “register” a domain name and do something useful with it (like “point” it to an address of your choosing).

 
  1. Renting vs. Buying:  Though many people talk about buying a domain name, what they are really doing it is renting it for a period of time.  There are terms and conditions around the rental (which, as long as you pay your annual rental fee, you get to continually “control” which IP address the domain points to – which is all you really need and care about).  Once you have an agreement with an official registrar, all you have to do to keep it yours is make sure you keep paying the annual fees.    (The general market rate for this is about $10-$20 annually)

  1. Last Step, the DNS Servers:  Now, it doesn’t really end here.  Just like an organization controls the top-level domain names (.com, .net and others), now you control the second-level domain.  So, let’s say you and three buddies decide to start a strategy consulting company (Four Aces Consulting).  You go to a registrar and register “fouracesconsulting.com”.  What this means is that you can now control all sub-domains of the primary domain “fouracesconsulting.com”.  The most common sub-domain is “www” (so you would have www.fouracesconsulting.com ”.  In order to accomplish this final step, what you need is DNS (Domain Name Service).  This piece of software (often provided by your registrar) is what lets you define all the sub-domains from your primary domain which computers they should go to.  So, you might have www.fouracesconsluting.com for your website, you might have blog.fouracesconsulting.com for your blog and you might have mail.fouracesconsulting.com for your email server.  These may all be running on the same server – or they may not.  The DNS software is what lets you define all the sub-domains you want to use and which IP address they should point to.  Important note:  You also get to define the “default” sub-domain (i.e. when users just use “fouracesconsulting.com” which by general convention should act the same as www.fouracesconsulting.com ).


Quick summary:  Web servers and other devices need a unique address so we can “find” them on the Internet (like a phone number or physical mailing address).  The standard way to assign these is an “IP” address which is really hard to remember.  So, domain names help us by providing a nick-name or alias for the IP address.  The result is that you can type in www.hubspot.com , the Internet figures out that this really means IP address 216.128.28.28 and you don’t have to know the difference.

Now that we’re through the technical bits, in a future article, I’ll talk about the strategic side of domain names (how to pick one, whether it must be “.com” to be worthy, etc.).  If you have questions around this topic, leave a comment on this article and I’ll try to address these in the next article.

- Dharmesh Shah
 
 

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Marketing / October 26, 2006 Sales Transformation: A Presentation To MIT Students
Sales Transformation: A Presentation To MIT Students

By Brian Halligan


Today I had the pleasure of being a guest lecturer in Professor Cusumano's Business of Software class on the topic of software sales over at Sloan. Professor Cusumano teaches what I believe to be the only MBA class in the country on the business of software. He also is the author of some great books, including Microsoft Secrets , Platform Leadership , and The Business of Software .

Attached is my slide deck. The presentation has some Sales 101 thoughts for context, some thoughts on how "sales" is being transformed by the internet, thoughts on sales strategy, and a case on sales transformation at Groove Networks.

If there are parts of the presentation that are less than obvious from the slides, leave me a comment and I can elaborate on certain points in future articles.

MIT Presentation Slides

-- Brian Halligan.

internet marketing kit
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Marketing / October 20, 2006 The Importance of Google PageRank: A Guide For Small Business Executives
The Importance of Google PageRank: A Guide For Small Business Executives

By Dharmesh Shah


If you’ve spent time (or are simply curious) about online marketing, then the topic of search engine optimization (SEO) usually comes up.  And, no discussion of search engine anythingis complete these days without some mention of Google.  This article provides a brief overview of how Google ranks search results with a look at their PageRank™ algorithm (a key component).  I’m not a search engine expert (that’s the bad news).  The good news is that I know enough to describe Google PageRank in relatively simple terms (such that you can impress your friends and family with your new-found knowledge).

Quick Intro To SEO (Search Engine Optimization)

Put quite simply, SEO is the process of optimizing your website for the search engines (like Google).  By “optimizing”, I mean attempting to make it such that searches for specific phrases rank your website higher in the search results than other websites.  There are lots of good reasons to want to rank higher, but for businesses, the primary reason is to generate good leads for your offering.  Millions of people use Google every day looking for a product, service, or information.  Some of these people might be potential clients looking for your particular offering.
There are two ways for you to show up on the results page when users are doing a search. The first is with paid search (I’ll talk about this in a future article) and the second is what is known as “organic” (or “natural”) search.  The natural search results are listed free and are dependent on Google’s estimation of how relevant and credible your website is.  Natural search results are my favorite kind, because you don’t have to pay money for them, and they often works better than paid advertising.  I liken this to the difference between getting mentioned in a magazine article and purchasing an ad in that same magazine.  

If you can rank high on the free (organic) search resultsfor Google, it’s like getting tens of thousands of dollars worth of free advertising in the most relevant trade magazines for your industry, every time a new issue comes out.  I’m not sure about you, but that’s pretty interesting to me.  It’s a great way to grow your business and find new clients.  So, how do you get all this free, effective advertising in the search engines?  Well, to do that you need to understand the Google algorithm and how it determines who gets listed.

Google’s Search Algorithm

First, let’s establish a simple example which we can use to frame our discussion.  Let’s assume you are the partner in a boutique strategy consulting firm.  Lets further say that your specialization is advising technical founders of high-growth, venture-backed companies on how to be better at selling.  Now, you could probably identify a number of search phrases that your potential clients might use when interested in this particular topic.  Users may search for something like “technical sales consultant to founder”.  Or, they may just start by looking for content (instead of consulting) and search on “successful technical selling”.  In either case, Google has an algorithm that figures out which websites of the hundreds of millions out there should be displayed in rank order on the results page.  These are the organic (i.e. non-paid) results.  You want to rank high on these results.  [Author’s note:  If you do actually search Google on “successful technical selling”, you’ll find that my OnStartups.com blog ranks #1].

Though Google’s algorithm is extremely sophisticated, it boils down to something like this:

Search Ranking = Relevance * PageRank

Relevance is basically the measure of how your website (or more accurately one of your web pages) matches the search phrase the user has entered.  Measuring relevance is a relatively sophisticated process, but it boils down to some fundamentals like the title of the page, words on the page and how frequently they occur, etc.  So, if your home page contains keywords like “technical selling”, it drives up the relevance for this particular search.  The reason my blog article is ranked #1 on Google for “successful technical selling” is in no small part because of the title OF ONE OF MY ARTICLES (“Successful Selling Tips For The Technically Gifted”).  Basically, Google figures out what your page is “about” by looking at it’s content (and by looking at other sites with similar content that are linking to yours), and then uses this to figure out how relevant your site is for a particular search phrase.

PageRank is an independent measure of Google’s perception of the quality/authority/credibility of an individual web page.  It does not depend on any particular search phrase.  For the public (you and me), Google conveniently reports this as a number from 0-10 (10 being the best).  So, assuming for a second that your web page and your competitor's web page have the same relevance – whoever has the higher PageRank gets the better ranking and shows up at the top of the results page.  This is why PageRank is so important.  Your relevance is based on your content (if you’re a consulting company specializing in technical selling, your relevance for stainless steel monkey wrench searches is going to be understandably low).  Your PageRank is what counts.

How PageRank Is Calculated

There has been a lot written and a lot debated about Google’s PageRank, but on one point there is near unanimous agreement.  PageRank is primarily determined by how many other web pages are linking into you.  Google considers this kind of inbound a link a vote of confidence.  But, here’s the trick:  Not all inbound links are created equal.  Web pages with more credibility that link to you have more “value” to your PageRank than those with less credibility.  How is this credibility determined?  Why, by their PageRank, of course!  So, let’s take an example.  Let's say you have your Uncle Charlie link to you from his blog to your small business website.  Let’s also say that Uncle Charlie’s blog has a Page Rank of 3 (this is being a little generous because all Uncle Charlie writes about is his dog Sparky and he has limited inbound links).  This link from Uncle Charlie will certainly help you – a little bit.  It will help you more if you can find 100 such Uncle Charlie websites with a PageRank of 3 and get them to link to you.  

However, if you get a single link from HubSpot.com (the sponsor of this blog), it’ll help you more than a 100 Uncle Charlie websites.  Why?  Because HubSpot.com has a PageRank of 6 and a link from it is much more valuable.  I divide up PageRank into these broad categories:

0-3:  New sites or sites with very minimal links
4-5:  Popular sites with a fair amount of inbound links
6:  Very popular sites that have hundreds of links, many of them quality links
7-10:  Usually media brands (NYTimes.com), big companies or A-list bloggers.

Now, it’s important to note that PageRank is believed to be calculated on a logarithmic scale.  What this roughly means is that the difference between PR4 and PR5 is likely 5-10 times than the difference between PR3 and PR4.  So, there are likely  over a 100 times as many web pages with a PageRank of 2 than there are with a PageRank of 4.   This means that if you get to a PageRank of 6 or so, you’re likely well into the top 0.1% of all websites out there.  If most of your peer group is straggling around with a PR2 or PR3, you’re way ahead of the game. 

What’s Your PageRank?

There are two ways to figure out what your approximate PageRank is.  One, you can download the Google Toolbar (the PageRank feature is not turned on by default, so you’d have to enable it after installation).  

The other way is to use our immensely popular (and free) Website Grader tool.  It will not only tell you your Google PageRank, but a bunch of interesting other stuff too.

Quick recap: 

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Marketing / October 16, 2006 Why Business Blogs Shouldn't Be on BlogSpot.com
Why Business Blogs Shouldn't Be on BlogSpot.com

By Dharmesh Shah

Disclaimer:  HubSpot offers a business blogging engine as a component of our software package.  But, this article is not about HubSpot.  For the record, I’m a big fan of WordPress as an alternative for the tech savvy folks out there.

A couple of weeks ago, we moved Dave Kurlan’s blog “ Understanding The Sales Force ” off of Google’s Blogger product and over to HubSpot.  Dave is an active blogger, runs a successful sales consulting practice here in the Boston area and is also the author of a book called “ Baseline Selling ”.   [Side note:  If you’re involved in sales or are running a company with a sales force, you should check out his blog].

In any case, in this process of moving Dave’s blog off of Google’s Blogger, I learned a lot.  I am now even further convinced that most businesses should not be using the “yourcompany.blogspot.com” alternative for hosting a blog on Google.

Top Reasons Why Business Blogs Shouldn’t Be On BlogSpot.com  

1. Google Doesn’t Need The Help:  Lets assume you have a company website (you do have a company website , don’t you?).  This website is probably on its own domain (example:  yourcompany.com)  By hosting your blog as a sub-domain on BlogSpot.com you’re basically depriving your primary website of any real search engine optimization .  Instead, if you’re using blogspot.com, you’re kind of benefiting Google instead.  Trust me, Google does not need your help to rank highly on its own search engine.  Even if you don’t switch blogging platforms, please do yourself a favor and get your own “real” domain now.  At least this way, if you decide to switch later, you won’t lose all the search engine optimization (SEO) that you’ve built up.  See the next bullet for more details.

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Marketing / October 11, 2006 Engineering Blog Readership – 7 Ways To Drive Prospects To Your Small Business
Engineering Blog Readership – 7 Ways To Drive Prospects To Your Small Business

By Brian Halligan


A friend came to me today to ask me how to drive traffic to his business blog. He started his blog over the summer, posted some articles and ended up with trivial readership. Other than write articles, he did not do much else to drive traffic. He took a “Field of Dreams” attitude – build it and they will come, or more aptly, “write it and they will visit.” Guess what – they don’t come unless you take some action over and above just writing.

Dharmesh and I started writing the Small Business 2.0 internet marketing blog a little less than a month ago. From a stand still, we have now grown to about 500 subscribers and 1000 - 1500 unique visitors/week. We are also placing well on some interesting search terms on Google that are relevant to our business. What’s interesting is that we have achieved this readership through a marketing engineering effort and have not just left things to chance. Here are the best practices that have worked for us:

7 Ways To Drive Prospects To Your Small Business  

1.  Comment on other blogs you follow. If you are new to blogging, go to Google's blog search tool , search on topics interesting to you, subscribe to the most interesting blogs, and start to follow the thought leaders. When you see blog posts that you are interested in, leave comments. If you thought the article was interesting, others probably did too and will link to you off of your comment. Most blog commenting systems will allow you to enter an optional website link. By entering this link you are leaving a “breadcrumb.” The idea here is to make your comments insightful and further the conversation. It you do a good job of commenting, people will read the comment and follow the trail to your own blog.

2.  The more you write the more readers you will get, but as a general practice, you should focus on a consistent, regular pattern of posting. We’d recommend about once a week.

3.  Publish articles in the morning. Both our gut and our anecdotal evidence tells us that users read blogs in the morning like a newspaper. We are working on a very interesting statistical analysis tool that uses regression to tell us the parameters that are most likely to result in a successful posting.

4.  Think about the title of your blog as much as the blog itself. They say never judge a book by its cover, but you do anyway -- same goes for blogging. Dharmesh’s blogs that have David Letterman style Top 10 lists in the title seem to be particularly well received.

5.  Send an email with a link to your article out to friends/colleagues that you think might be interested. If they like it, they may subscribe to your blog, forward the article to others who may be interested, or bookmark it.

6.  Put a convenient link to del.icio.us, reddit, and digg on your site. These are all social book-marking sites where people who enjoy your article can bookmark/vote on it, so that others can find it. If enough people bookmark your article, you can reach a mini-tipping point of traffic to your site where on any given day you get an order of magnitude more traffic. This is incredibly interesting traffic for a small business because it drives people to your site who are both interested in your topic and have likely never heard of you before. If your friends who you sent the link to are users of these products, you can get a head start on the linking/voting process.

7.  Have an email sign-up on your blog for non-RSS users and send subscribers an email with a link to the new article every time you post.


The benefits of the Small Business 2.0 blog to us are substantial:

1. Hundreds of the people who have visited our blog have kindly signed up to be beta customers for our product. These are companies that found us – we did not make cold calls to tens of thousands of uninterested companies to get the hundreds signed up.

2. We are in the process of acquiring one company that found us through our blog and are finishing up another transaction (that we will announce shortly) that found us through our blog.

3. Our Google page rank has moved up (to 6) since we started the blog. Many terms that we never would have guessed when we started the blog are getting pretty high up on Google, Yahoo, and MSN’s search results. For example, if you search on “how small company beat large firm” on Google, our site comes up #2 on the first page. These types of search terms are driving non-trivial numbers of potential customers and partners that are beyond our collective rolodexes into our funnel.

I wrote last week about how the internet is transforming small business . We are living, breathing evidence of how the internet has tipped the playing field in favor of small businesses. Our research will continue as to how to engineer traffic and we will make sure to update you as more learning emerges. Meanwhile, if you have questions or thoughts on the topic of generating demand for small businesses online, we’d love to hear your comments.

-- Brian Halligan

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Marketing / October 9, 2006 Understanding RSS: A Quick Guide For The Insanely Busy Executive
Understanding RSS: A Quick Guide For The Insanely Busy Executive

By Dharmesh Shah


If you’re a tech-geek like me and already know most of what there is to know about RSS, there’s no need to read this article. But, I would advise that you keep a link to this article around and forward it all the people you know that haven’t clued in to the value of RSS yet. It’ll save you the 10 minutes of conversation and arm-waving you would need to try and explain this to someone. Those are 10 minutes of your life you’ll never get back.

If you don’t know what RSS is, or are not using it yet, read on.

As an insanely busy guy myself, I’m always on the prowl for useful tools that make my life easier, save me time and give me an edge over my competition. Much like those early days after you discovered email, and now can’t even think about how you’d live without it, RSS will change your life. Unlike email, it won’t take you that long to get started and it won’t cost you anything.

I’ll tell you what RSS stands for (Really Simple Syndication), but it’s really not important to know that unless you’re looking to impress your friends and family.

What it does: Let’s assume that you go to some number of websites on a semi-regular basis. Could be mainstream news sites, could be blogs like this one, could be any number of different places. The reason you go to these sites is usually to get information. Let’s say there are 20 or so of these sites. Some sites you may visit daily, others you visit “every now and then” just to see if there’s something new of interest. Now, imagine you had an assistant, we’ll call him Ralph. Here’s what Ralph does: He visits each of the sites you care about every 15 minutes. He checks to see if there’s anything new on those sites. If he finds something new, he retypes the relevant content from just the new stuff he found (ignoring all the other old stuff that you’ve already seen) and provides it to you in your email inbox – magically categorized by which site it came from. Boy this saves you a bunch of time! Instead of you having to manually go to the sites, Ralph does it for you. Instead of having to mentally “adjust” your reading habits based on the fonts, graphics and other layout of each individual website, Ralph makes it easy for you to scan the article you’re interested in – because they’re all in the same format. Most importantly, Ralph makes sure that you don’t waste a second reading the same content twice (which you may likely do if you visit the sites on your own, because you have to scan around and try to remember what stuff you’ve already read). So, RSS makes possible what Ralph does – only better.

Why You Should Care:  Two primary reasons:  It's a quick and reliable way to keep track of information on websites that you care about.  Beats having to visit these sites sporadically.  Second, since the information is formatted in a consistent manner, you end up spending less time "scanning" the information.  Imagine if your newspaper was printed such that each article was in it's own font and had it's own layout.  That's the way the web is for you withour RSS.  Using RSS fixes that problem.  Net result is that you're able to process information more efficiently than doing this manually.  It's worth the 10 minutes time it takes to get started.

How It Works:  Basically, you use an RSS reader application (either web-based or desktop-based) and add a list of "feeds" (basically websites) that you want to subscribe to.  Once you do this, the RSS software goes out and visits your designated websites periodically.  Whenever it finds something new, it pulls that information in for you to read.  When it does this, it uses a special format to get the data (which is a form of XML).  This is what makes it possible to visually show you the content in a consistent manner. 

What You Need: The basic software you need is known as an RSS reader. This is the software that replaces Ralph. You basically tell the software all the different websites you want it to visit, it checks their “RSS feed” and determines if there’s anything new. There are lots of free RSS readers out there (I use OnFolio, which is now free as part of Microsoft’s Live Toolbar). But, if this is the first time you’re experimenting with RSS, no need to even download anything, you can use one of the existing web-based RSS readers for that. Google just came out with a free web-based RSS reader. You can signup for it here: http://www.google.com/reader . Another popular reader is BlogLines (http://www.bloglines.com) Either of these will take no more than a minute, and you’ll be subscribing to RSS feeds in no time.

How To Get Started: It’s easy. Once you have Google Reader (or your RSS software of choice) ready to go, you simple keep an eye-out for websites that have an orange icon that looks like this  or this . These icons indicate that the site you are visiting supports RSS. At this point, you can click on these icons. The resulting page may give you a simple way to add the website to your RSS reader (for example, you may see an “Add To Google” button). If not, simply copy the URL from your browser into your clipboard. Then, click on the “Add Subscription” button on the left in Google reader and paste in the URL. That’s it.

Once you start using RSS as a way to quickly get website updates, you’ll never turn back. It is a significant time-saver.

-Dharmesh Shah

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Marketing / October 6, 2006 Website Analytics -- Is Anyone Else Frustrated?
Website Analytics -- Is Anyone Else Frustrated?

By Brian Halligan


Too Many Tools To Get The Picture

Below is a picture of the tabs of my browser session right now. As you can see, I have our SmallBusiness2.0 blog up; Technorati up to see who is linking to us and what our rank is; FeedBurner up to look at the number of people "subscribing" to the RSS feed; Google analytics to see how many visitors we are getting and from what geography; and Alexa up to see how we are doing relative to every other website/blog on the planet. I tend to go through the exercise of looking at all of these tools once a week prior to our weekly meeting to update the team on how the top of our funnel looks relative to previous weeks/months and I also tend look at this information during the day that I post a meaningful blog article that I think should get traction.



I think all these tools are great if you are a professional blogger or are a dedicated full-time marketing analytics person, but it is pretty cumbersome to track all this stuff if it's not a fulltime job. This is especially true for a small business where everyone in the company wears multiple hats.

For those of you who have day jobs beyond report creation out there, do you feel like I do?

Not Real-time Enough

The other thing that frustrates me about all these tools is how they are not "real-time" enough for me. I wish Technorati updated the inbound links more often and had more real-time rankings. I wish FeedBurner showed you what was happening at the very moment versus just a daily snapshot and I also wish they updated their data at 12:01am for the previous day. I wish Google would stop the sandboxing process for new domains and I wish they would update their PageRank information (shown in the Google toolbar) more often. I wish Alexa would show better data on what is happening in the last week and rankings in real-time for smaller sites.

For those of you who use these tools, do you have the same wish-list as I do?

GoogleTrends for My Small Business

I'm not sure if you have had a chance to check out Google Trends, but I think it is rather addictive. My only issue with it is it does not work at a company level (unless you are a massive company) and it does not allow you to put in custom events to show how your marketing activities correlate with traffic.

For those of you addicted to GoogleTrends, do you agree?

-- Brian Halligan

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Marketing / September 25, 2006 Small Business Website: Are You Spending Too Much On Yours?
Small Business Website: Are You Spending Too Much On Yours?

By Dharmesh Shah


When talking to many of my friends and colleagues that are running small businesses, the issue of website design investment often comes up (this is particularly true for new businesses that are just getting started).

How much you should spend on your website is important, but it’s also important to decide where you should spend it (i.e. on what attributes).

Here are the two ends of the spectrum:
  1. Spending almost nothing:  This is where you get a friend or family member that is an “expert” on website creation (here, expert is often described as someone that knows more than you do).

  1. Spending like a “big” company:  This often occurs when small business owners used to work for a big company and have big company contacts.  Another contributing factor to this is that small businesses that are trying to “look” big by investing big dollars in website design.


As you might guess, I’m not a fan of either extreme.

Important point:  Deciding how much you should spend on your website is important.  Deciding how to spend it is equally important. 

Here’s an example:  Lets say you are the partner in a small professional services firm (consulting, legal, etc.).  Lets also say that you decide to allocate $2,000 on getting a “professional” website up.  You want to convey the right image and be on equal footing with the “big firms”.  In fact, you may have even worked for one of these big firms earlier in your career and decided to go independent.  Now, I’m not going to argue that $2,000 is too much to spend (we’ll assume that this is the “right” amount for discussion purposes).  The important thing is how do you allocate this money ?  I think the answer is:  it depends on your clients and your business.  The wrong answer is to spend most of this money on a flashy design that’s going to win the web designer local recognition and “street cred” (i.e. they build their portfolio).  Chances are, your clients and prospective clients are not going to be impressed with the snazziness of the website.  That cool Flash intro video that took up half the design budget will likely not help your business a whole lot.  Instead, you will likely be better off investing in the message (vs. the medium).  What can you convey on your website that will make it more likely that the best potential clients will be more likely to select you?  What features can you add to your website that will increase the service you can give your existing clients – and hence increase your retention?  Do you need a blog?  How about an email newsletter subscription service?  Chances are, any combination of these things is much more likely to help you improve and grow your business than a website designed as if you were in the fashion industry (nothing against the fashion industry, they just value different things).

Here are questions I’d ask yourself when trying to make a decision:
  1. Who is the website for?   Are you looking to impress existing clients, potential new clients or friends and family?

  1. Who is the website not for?   Do you care if the local design firm is not going to put your website in their portfolio?

  1. Will it make you money?  Are you doing commerce on the web or otherwise making direct sales?  (If so, it will dramatically impact what you should spend and where).

  1. What functionality is appropriate?  Are you content with a static, brochure-ware site are you looking to do more?


In my experience, too many small business owners either spend too little on their website (and hence miss an important opportunity to leverage the Internet) or they spend too much in the wrong places.  In a future article, I’ll look more deeply at some of the tactical aspects of what to do (and not to do) when creating a small business website.
 
 

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Marketing / September 21, 2006 Why CRM Initiatives Fail At Small Businesses and Startups
Why CRM Initiatives Fail At Small Businesses and Startups

By Brian Halligan

I have been implementing and using CRM softwares for my whole career, as a VP of Sales at PTC , as a VP of Sales at Groove Networks , and for several venture backed startups I consult for in the Boston area. The way business is conducted has been transforming over the last few years and has led to the current state of the CRM art becoming nearly useless for small businesses. Most small businesses I deal with have either tried and failed on a CRM implementation or are getting marginal value from what they consider a sunk cost in software and human brain-damage from their implementation. Here are a few of the reasons why these initiatives tend to fail...

Counting v. Creating Customers: The current crop of CRM systems are very useful for large companies with thousands of customers that want to "count" them in interesting ways. If you are like most small businesses, you probably only have tens or hundreds of customers -- your main problem is finding new customers and efficiently growing existing customers, not counting customers in interesting ways.

Measuring the Wrong Thing: The current crop of CRM systems is myopic in focus. They measure the activities of prospects after they have "self-selected" in some way by calling the your office or filling in your form somewhere. Pre-internet, prospect "self-selection" occurred early in the buying process while today "self-selection" occurs late in the buying process. Think about buying a car...Ten years ago, the first step in the car buying process was going down to the local dealerships to chat with their salespeople and go for a test-drive. Today, most of your research is done on the internet and you don't end up stepping into a dealership until you are well on your way to a decision armed with as much information as the salesperson. This pattern repeats itself now not only on the consumer side, but also on the business side. CRM systems have not accounted for this change in shopping behavior and moved the measurement up the process to what is happening on the web prior to "self-selection."

Stuctured v. Unstructured Data : CRM systems are essentially databases with customer oriented forms built on top. They are very good at capturing and organizing structured information, but are horrific at capturing and organizing unstructured information. Therefore, the interesting/reusable knowledge about customers/patterns is captured in employees' email threads instead of the CRM system. That means the knowledge that can really help you nail a major new account or help you rethink your positioning based on buying patterns is stuck on individuals' desktops versus in a centralized, searchable repository that survives changes in personnel, territory shifts, and memory lapses.

Ease-of-Use ( for IT folks only) : Most CRM vendors say their product is "easy-to-use." The reality is it is easy to use if you have dedicated "operations" people or a dedicated CRM IT person to figure out how to do the hard/useful stuff. If you want to create a decent graph that depicts the state of your business every week for the last year, it can be a mind-numbing task that involves learning the vendor's own particular/peculiar vernacular. This task and many others is beyond the reach of people who have a day job outside of IT. This problem is not limited to just the “old school” CRM companies, but the newer, web-based ones as well.

"Feeding the Monster": Like many knowledge management initiatives, CRM requires end-users to take actions that are not part of their natural work process in order to "update" the system. After all, CRM output is only as good as the input -- "garbage in, garbage out." Most end-users in small businesses, whether a partner in a law firm or an account manager at a consulting shop, interact with customers in their email system (usually Outlook). The act of opening the browser, putting in your password, navigating to the proper account, and filling in a form, fundamentally wastes that user’s time. The only way to motivate most users to "feed the monster" is by forcing them to update the system prior to the weekly meeting. Many sales organizations make updating the CRM system a requirement for getting paid. In fact, we added a paragraph in Groove Networks' sales compensation plan requiring the updating of our customer systems (feeding the monster) as a requirement for getting paid. […CRM needs to learn a lesson from Del.icio.us and the rest of the web2.0 crowd where the application provides real value to the user and incidental value to the network/community.]

Transactional Systems v. Solution/Relationship Systems : Today's CRM is more useful for transactional (i.e. call center) types of companies than it is for small businesses who have client relationships that are more solution oriented in nature. Call center people are at their desk all day, so feeding the monster is easy. A partner in a law firm, a business development manager at a startup, or a major account manager at a consulting company is roaming all over the planet, so feeding the monster is more complicated. A structured set of fields is just what you want for a highly repeatable, transactional, individual-centric call-center. That structured set of fields limits creativity and limits team collaboration when dealing with complicated relationship/solution-oriented sales.


What inspired us to start HubSpot was how poor the state of the art was in terms of the current toolsets at helping small businesses take advantage of the transformative effects of the internet to grow their business.

-Brian Halligan

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Marketing / September 18, 2006 Business Blog: Answers To Common Objections To Starting One
Business Blog: Answers To Common Objections To Starting One

By Dharmesh Shah


I find myself having more and more frequent conversations with other small business executives regarding the topic of blogging.  In these discussions, I’ve learned that there are a similar set of concerns and questions amongst these executives.

I thought I’d try and capture some of the most common patterns and share them with you.  
  1. Isn’t blogging just for teenagers and tech pundits?   Not anymore.  When blogging first became popular, it was often more like a personal diary on the web (the word blog itself is a concatenation of “web log” – a log you keep of your life on the web).  This is no longer the case.  All types of people blog now for all types of motives.  The whole area of business blogging (the focus of this article) is continuing to gain traction.  More and more savvy small businesses are catching on to the value of blogging.

  1. What if I don’t care about driving more traffic to my website?   Just like attending tradeshows are not just about handing out more business cards, blogging is about more than just driving traffic to your website.  Blogging is about creating awareness for your offering and sharing what makes you unique.  The idea is not just to drive more random traffic, but to increase the number of right prospective clients that find and select you.  Blogging is a great way to increase the number of potential sales opportunities  to grow your revenues.

  1. What if I already have enough clients?   I hear this all the time, particularly from professional firms (lawyers, consultants ,etc.).  With these types of small businesses, the revenue is often a function of the number of partners and they often have more than enough business already.  Even in this case, I would argue that blogging creates value.  The reason is that you currently may be taking on clients that are convenient instead of optimal .  Convenient clients are those that just fall into your lap because it’s a friend of a friend or a referral from an existing client.  You didn’t have to do much to “acquire” the client  The optimal client is one that your offering is perfect for.  This is the client that needs exactly what you offer and will place value on why you are different.  If blogging can increase the quality of your client-base (even if you don’t want to increase the quantity).  Increasing the quality of your client-base improves the quality of your business.  Optimal clients stay longer, generate more revenues for you and tend to refer other optimal clients.  

  1. How often do I need to blog?  I’ll let you in on a secret.  Though it is always helpful to blog consistently and frequently (that drives the most value), you can get a significant amount of value by writing just a few articles (lets say 4 or 5) and then not blogging again for a while.  Here’s what I would suggest:  Start by writing just an article or two that is a personal and authentic message about what makes you different.  What you are passionate about.  Pretend as if you are writing directly to your potential optimal customers that are out there reading your content.  What you will find is that just a few blog articles on your website that convey the right message will improve the rate at which you can acquire the right types of clients and generate more sales and revenue.  

    1. Example:   Lets say you are a law firm and have over the past several years really done some exceptional work around patent law for biotech startup firms.  Chances are, your website will have some generic statement trying to convey that you’re a “highly specialized patent law firm that has done recent work in biotech”.  (Actually, chances are, your website hasn’t been updated in months and may not even say this much).  In any case, now imagine a potential new client coming to the firm’s website.  How likely is it that this potential new client (who would be just perfect for you) will understand how deep your knowledge in this space is?  Do they know that you are perfect for them?  Probably not.  Now, if you had just two blog articles on your firm’s blog that talked about the two most recent engagements you had, the odds increase significantly.  The two articles can describe the type of work you did, what some of the challenges were and the parts that you enjoyed the most.  Even if you never wrote another article for the blog, just these two articles would close more business for your firm.

  1. I’m already insanely busy, when will I find the time?   First off, as noted above, there’s no rule that says you have to post every day (or even every week) to your blog.  You can find a pace that works for you.  Also, chances are, you’re already generating content that could easily be repurposed for a blog.  For example, we have a new client that is coming on board HubSpot that was already writing a newsletter.  The articles for this newsletter are perfect for posting on their blog.  Same time investment, multiple channels of value.  Don’t let the time investment scare you off.  Just try it.  Right just a few articles and see what happens. 


I think too many small business executives are continuing to rely on just their Rolodex (i.e. their existing network) to drive new business.  A business blog is a great way to start expanding that network, generating more prospective clients and improving the overall quality of your business.  

So, what have I missed?  What other concerns or questions are keeping you from kicking off a blog for your business?

In future articles, I’ll talk more about the how to (and how not to) aspects of business blogging.

-Dharmesh Shah
 
 

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Marketing / September 15, 2006 Blue Ocean Strategy: A Small Business Case Study
Blue Ocean Strategy: A Small Business Case Study

By Brian Halligan

I read "Blue Ocean Strategy" by Kim & Mauborgne recently and thought it was compelling. I thought I'd give you some excerpts from the book and use my current startup as a case study to explain some of the Blue Ocean concepts. I'm hoping it will spur thinking and feedback from you.

The theme of the book reminds me a lot of what my strategy professor from MIT Sloan (Arnoldo Hax) used to talk about when he quizzed us on cases. He repeated over and over again that we should "watch our competitors, but never follow them" and that we should "play a different game on the same field as the competition." This professor used to stress that within marketplaces, conventional wisdom about the rules of competition build up and that over time, those rules become irrelevant to potential customers.

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Marketing / August 25, 2006 The Need For Service: Transitioning From Old To New
The Need For Service: Transitioning From Old To New

By Dharmesh Shah


I came across an interesting article by Michael McDerment today on a concept he calls “ Transitional Services ”.  It’s well worth the read regardless of whether you’re a small business, or seeking to provide technology to small businesses.

Transitional services are “services that facilitate a user’s transition from one platform to the next – or at least ease their pain.”

I think the lack of transitional services are a key reason why many small businesses are not able to make the technology leap.  Unfortunately, both parties lose in this process. Technology vendors lose because they miss out on potential clients and small businesses lose because they miss the opportunity to implement technology that would likely have improved their business.

The solution, I think, is for technology vendors to spend some time thinking about how they can facilitate users moving from the “old way” of doing things to the “new way” of doing things.  This goes beyond simply being able to import data from some old software to some new software (like a database application that allows you to import your old Excel spreadsheets).  What about when your data is not even in Excel yet – but sitting on post-it notes or in your physical Rolodex?  If you’re moving to a new, powerful, interactive website that allows you to manage your content and create a blog, how do you migrate your old site? Unfortunately, many of these services can’t be automated yet and it takes good old fashioned service (delivered by people) to make this happen.

This is where things get tricky.  Technology providers like to automate everything and shift as much of the effort into a “do it yourself” model as possible.  This is not hard to understand.  This is how they make the most profits.  People, particularly competent people, are expensive.  That’s why most software vendors selling applications over the web simply want to sell you the software – but rarely the services you need to actually get value from it.  In the big enterprise market, this is not as large of an issue as it is conventional to always have some services along with a software sale.  This is what is known as “solution” selling (basically software + service = solution).  In the small business market, the conventional wisdom is that you can’t charge for service.  I think the notion that small businesses can’t or won’t pay for services is a myth.  Sure, we as small business owners are not going to pay $250/hour to have our website migrated – but, the concept of paying for service is not that foreign to us.  It’s surprising (at least to me) that so few technology providers selling to small businesses get this.  Most don’t have any way of purchasing their assistance or guidance in helping use their product.  My message is simple:  service is often necessary for the software to succeed.

So, my advice to the technology providers seeking to sell to me (and to other small businesses):  Make it easy to buy both technology and service from you.  Charge a fair price, and I will pay it.  Don’t make it difficult for me to pay for your time and definitely don’t make me feel guilty for using your service when I need it.  If I’m willing to pay for it, I should be able to pay for it.

My advice to small businesses: When selecting technology providers, make sure that they are easy to do business with.  Reward the providers that are willing to take lower profits on service in order to earn your business.
 
 

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