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This column was published in Auctioneer Magazine. Used by permission.
By Carl Carter, APR
Once in a while – if you work hard and have a little luck – magic happens. You get into a profitable market niche early. You establish the right contacts, hold a string of great auctions, and gain a reputation as the go-to firm for a certain type of asset. Or a specific region. Or a seller profile.
Sales come in as fast as you can handle them. So you do the smart thing and make hay while the sun shines. You target your sales and advertising at the hot market. And while you know it won’t last forever, you go with it, because you’ve worked your whole life for just that kind of market.
In other words, you play it smart. But if you’re not careful, you can step into the “good times trap.” You focus so exclusively on what’s working that you forget to hedge your bets. You stop doing things that have worked for you over the long haul, assuming that the current run will last forever. But it may not. I’ve seen companies disappear virtually overnight because the conditions that made fed their success disappeared. You probably have too.
So here are some things you can do during the good times to avoid that trap. By all means, you want to focus on what’s working. But it’s also a good time to look ahead and be ready for the changes that almost always come. Here are a few things you can do to make the transition easier, just in case the good times don’t roll forever.
Increase your marketing savvy. Good times are the ideal time to get creative with your marketing. By all means, do what you know is working. But this is also a good time to test some new ways of promoting your auction company, because you have less pressure to go for the quick payoff. Sign up for some seminars on marketing techniques you haven’t tried yet. Educate yourself on Internet-only auctions if you haven’t already. Bring yourself up to date on the current media landscape. Who’s going where for their information?
Look for logical extensions to your current success. Who has assets similar to those you’re selling now but isn’t using the auction method? Get in the habit of reading news from different types of businesses and see who’s having problems liquidating what. Where are the clogs in the the supply pipeline? Who has idle assets and needs cash? Who’s looking to cash in?
Expand your marketing reach. The time to start reaching out to new markets is when you’re enjoying success in existing ones. Maybe you have a newsletter that gets you a lot of compliments. Great! So build on that by expanding the distribution list. Identify an industry where you don’t have a presence and start reaching out to prospects there. Identify the leading trade publications and web portals for that industry and begin reading them, if possible. Join an association or two. Attend a trade show or expo in an industry you’ve never penetrated.
Keep your foothold (and reputation) in cooler markets. You never know when a dormant source of business might heat up, so it’s a good idea to keep pursuing auctions even for properties that might seem marginal compared to your current bread and butter. People quit thinking of your firm for an asset you haven’t sold in recent memory. I’ve heard many an auctioneer say, “Oh yeah, we’ve sold a lot of properties like that.” But not lately. So nobody remembers the good work they did before. They watch helplessly as the auction goes to somebody who’s sold more properties recently in that market space, and the auctioneer faces an uphill battle to re-establish a reputation for that asset.
Be lots of places, lots of times. I have a friend who – still in his early 30s – had built and sold two very different successful businesses and was enjoying a lot of success in a third. One day I asked him how he managed to do it. “The only way I know to be in the right place at the right time is to be lots of places, lots of times,” he said. It made sense. He was constantly on the phone, out at social gatherings, and busy with events and groups around town. He got in front of people. He listened. When he saw an opening, he moved boldly. While most of us are better served by a strategy of building one business for the long run, I couldn’t help admiring him, and I learned a few things as well.
Ever since Facebook rolled out its last set of tweaks in early December, folks have been trying to figure out how those changes affect marketing strategies. This has led to a lot of hand-wringing about how Facebook is trying to force marketers to start spending money on paid ads.
Get over it. You had a free ride for years, and it was never an entitlement. You didn’t earn it or pay for it, so there’s nothing to be gained from a conversation about what how you’ve been done wrong, or what Facebook should have done. Instead, here are some constructive ways to respond – things that will work in pretty much any environment.
- Generate content. By content, I don’t mean just Facebook posts. Beef up your website with informational articles, advice, announcements and other content, then provide links to it on Facebook and other social media.
- Become a groupie. What’s going to do you more good, shouting something on a street corner or getting into a roomful of prospects to exchange ideas and build relationships? Invest a little time and effort in finding and joining Facebook groups where people in your target market gather. Resist the temptation to jump in and start posting in a group you’ve just joined. Hang around and listen for a few days. Learn who the “players” are, and figure out the unwritten rules of the group. Then gradually join the conversation. In short, use the same judgment you use in “real life” social interactions. (Note: While my focus in this article is mainly Facebook, this is true of LinkedIn as well.)
- Segment your “friends” and limit who sees what. Like a lot of people, I have a “friend list” that spans a number of different worlds – auctioneers, journalists, PR colleagues, people I grew up with, and family. There is very little overlap of interests between them. By using lists and segmenting, you’re just using the same sound judgment you do in your face-to-face conversations. You tailor what you say to the setting and your audience.
- Scale back the trivia and controversial stuff. When you waste people’s time or make them mad, they tune you out. You don’t even have to do it directly. Let’s say you’ve been posting a bunch of fluffy kitty shots. That’s fine, but remember that lots of others are doing the same thing, and your friends know how to “hide” posts on a specific topic. (See screen capture.) If folks are worn out with kitties and you’ve posted more than your share, you could disappear from some people’s feeds altogether.
- Focus on one-to-one communications. This may be the most productive thing you can do. Stop thinking of Facebook as a stage and start thinking in terms of individuals. Identify prospects or people you’d like to know better, and send them a private message. Make it specific to something they’ve posted.
Above all, manage your expectations. If you have 700 people, don’t expect your posts to reach 700 people. Don’t buy into the delusion that the world is waiting for your next outburst, bit of feelgood philosophy or strategic insight. There’s no magic. There never was. It’s just that it’s easier to realize that now.
Note: This is adapted for more general audiences from an article originally written for Auctioneer Magazine. Here’s the published version, which is more targeted to auctioneers.
By Carl Carter, APR
One of the quickest ways to get me in a foul mood is to hand me a copywriting assignment and tell me to “add the fluff.” It always means the same thing: Take the asset or service being sold and slather on a bunch of adjectives and adverbs. I hate that kind of writing, because it doesn’t say anything. It looks like it should be saying something. It has words and periods and takes up space. But there’s nothing there.
Great copy starts with verbs and nouns, because they contain practically all of the language’s power. All you need for a complete sentence is a noun and a verb. He flew. I ran. They knew.
I know you can’t write a whole brochure or web site in two-word sentences. But you can tell a much more powerful story if you start when them. What are you selling? An antique sideboard? Nice. But you’ll really get my attention if you tell me it’s a Greene & Greene reproduction made of red oak with ebony plugs and splines, as well as hand-cut dovetails.
That takes a little work. You have to ask more questions, but but it beats the heck out of breaking out the same old filler words like beautiful, classic, ornate and elegant. Plus, it actually means something.
Let’s say you’re selling a luxury home. Of course it’s beautiful. Gorgeous, even. People with the money to build luxury homes rarely build something ugly (and if they did, and you wouldn’t tell anybody). So “beautiful” says little or nothing.
It has a big, luxurious kitchen (yawn) with top-of-the-line furnishings? Don’t they all? Tell us about the seven-foot-long island built of walnut, with a two-inch thick rose granite countertop from a quarry in Brazil.
Don’t tell me it’s an open floor plan. Tell me the stovetop faces outward so that I can see across the dining area and through the 14-foot floor-to-ceiling glass doors out onto the travertine patio and the 11,000-foot peak beyond.
If it’s a farm, let me know how many acres are tillable, with what kind of soils. If it’s a commercial tract, don’t just tell me it’s a great location. Get the traffic count and tell me how many blocks it is to the civic center.
Years ago, I had the challenge of writing about a home set up on a hillside in Colorado, and when I wrote the brochure copy, that was about all I knew. The seller assured me that “no expense was spared” in construction, and I was struggling not to doze off.
“What cost so much?” I asked.
“I wanted to build something that would last forever. You see those beams up on the ceiling? Every one of those is joined using mortise-and-tenon joinery. There’s not a nail or screw in the whole works.”
Now, you could argue that he was just being wasteful, but he was after the kind of buyer who’d like to know that sort of thing. It told the story of the home’s quality far better than a generic statement that about “exquisite detail and superior craftsmanship.”
As I recall, we sold the house, too.
If you can’t break the habit of recycling the same old fillers, try this: Every time you publish a brochure or ad, look through it and make a list of all the modifiers you used. Start a Word file with a list of them, and refer to it before you start writing your next one. Over time, you’ll build up a nice list of words you’re probably wearing out, and it’ll force you to put more thought into your next one.
There’s so much stuff coming at us, from so many directions, that we can’t possibly sort it all out. So here are some ways you can make better use of your time, stay informed and avoid misinformation.
Resolution #1. Read, but don’t watch. We can read much faster than we can watch TV, and you’ll get more serious reporting that way. Learn to use Feedly or Flipboard, which enable you to quickly scan headlines of dozens of publications in a fraction of the time it would take to watch a local TV story about a guy with a trained parakeet. Then you can actually read the ones that look worthwhile.
Resolution 2: Learn by listening. How many hours did you waste last year listening to ranting idiots on sports talk radio saying things like, “State’s gotta quit trying to run up the middle”? I listen to NPR a lot, but I also enjoy listening to podcasts. Install a podcast app on your smartphone (I use Podkicker, but there are a number of very good ones.). There are scores of excellent podcasts ranging from news programs you couldn’t hear live (minus the commercials) to news/political programs to humor. Break it up so you don’t get bored. (If you feel like you’re missing out on cable news, at least you can do it this way while you’re accomplishing something useful.)
Resolution 3: Support quality journalism. Subscribe to The New York Times and your local newspaper. I know, you may feel like the Times is a liberal rag, but they have the best reporters in the business, and they do have a paywall now, so that if you read it regularly, you’ll soon be asked to pony up. Depending on where you live, you can probably subscribe to your local paper for $12-15 a month. Even if you can get it free online (or through Feedly or Flipboard), consider it an insurance policy on your future information flow. You don’t have to take the “dead tree” version. The point is to support a valuable resource (or one that should be), because if reporting news ceases to be profitable, your news will disappear and you won’t have your “free” news either. I also strongly encourage you to support your local NPR station. NPR has the best broadcast reporting in the business today.
Resolution 4: Read to be informed, not to share. One danger of using an RSS reader like Feedly or Flipboard is that it’s very easy to hit the “share” button and put a link on Twitter, Google+ or Facebook. If you’re not careful, you’ll catch yourself sharing things you haven’t read, which can be embarrassing and annoying. Keep the horse in front of the cart by remembering that the point of reading news is to read news – not to link it.
Resolution 5: Nix the viral sites. The Internet and your Facebook feed is awash in memes, videos of dogs greeting their owners returning from war, and pirated pictures with text across of them. The’re all a waste of time, and the entire “viral” phenomenon has sparked an industry of low-quality stuff with splashy headlines. The “hot” ones nowadays are Upworthy and Buzzfeed, but that could change by the time you read this. You’ll know it when you see it. Even worse, they’ve become a breeding ground for hoaxes that will just make you look stupid if you share them. Just stay away like they’re poison, because they are.
Here’s my question: If you took away the photos, would it be obvious which headlines were from CNN and which were from the National Enquirer?
Holiday weeks can be frustrating for those of us who serve other businesses. Some simply shut down for a few days (especially the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day). Even if they’re open, they probably have a skeleton staff, and the decision makers may not be around.
But those “dead” days can be among your most productive of the year if you put them to good use. Here are a few ideas:
- Update your web site dates. You don’t have to do a big overhaul, but those slow days are a good time to go through your site and update anything that is still talking about the year before. Go ahead and change the year in the copyright line. (Hardly anybody’s going to see it in the dead week anyway, and you’ll forget it once things heat up in January.)
- Make sure the scripts on your web site are up-to-date. If you manage your own web site, it’s easy to forget to update any installations of software that runs your sites. When we’re busy, it’s easy to neglect this, but if you don’t, you could end up with a security breach that results in a hacker using your site to send out spam. Or you could get a call from your ISP telling you that you’re now hosting a Bank of America “spoof” site. Don’t forget those little scripts you installed on a whim one day just to test them out, or for a temporary project. If you don’t need them, uninstall them. They’re just a big mess waiting to happen.
- Revisit the services you use. This is a good time to take a look at the various services you’re buying. The marketplace is constantly changing, and you may find better values or services than you’re getting. For example, I took a hard look at the service I’d been using several years for web conferences, and found there were a quite a few companies offering better quality, more features and lower rates. Other things to look at: Email newsletter service, package delivery, mail processing, web hosting, phone and data services.
- Comb your credit card and phone bills for unintended charges. Now and then, we all fall for a “free” offer in which we put in a credit card number to get a free service for a month. Then we forget to cancel, and the charge is small enough that we just let it go even though we’re not using the service. American Express had been sending me a magazine I’d never ordered, and I didn’t think much of it. Then they billed me $57 for it. Um, no. This is a good time to get rid of those. (As a bonus, you get to pat yourself on the back if you don’t find any.) Your phone bill may also be getting padded with services you don’t need.
- Update your sales presentation. What have you learned or accomplished during the past year that you need to tell prospects about? What services have you added? You may have some things in your pitch that really aren’t profitable. Why not just drop them? This is a good time to move your slides around, trim the fat and organize your presentation into a theme with more punch and better graphics.
- Write a blog post about ways to make good use of the slow holiday season workdays. Never mind that one. It’s been done.