The best business advice, opinion, news and expertise in Greater Manchester and further afield.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Guest Blog: Marketing for SMEs

By David Wright of BSA Marketing

I recently sat in on a 30-minute seminar targeted at an audience 
of SMEs entitled “Online Marketing”.

Although I have to acknowledge that it is a tough brief delivering such a broad subject in just half an hour, the presentation was somewhat underwhelming!

The presenter ticked the usual boxes:

• Engage your audience
• Get found on Google (aka Search Engine Optimisation)
• E-mail
• etc. etc.

Undoubtedly all good stuff, but the one thing that I wrote in my notes in the whole seminar was:

Internet Marketing for SMEs: Step 1 – Switch off your computer!

Before I hear shouts of “Luddite!” drowned out only by the deafening sound of clicking as people look for something else to read, please bear with me…

The issue I have is that although the internet offers a whole range of channels for communicating your marketing message and engaging with your market, they are just that, channels.

They give you the How but not the What, Who, Why, Where or When.

You can only use these channels effectively once you have answered a few fundamental marketing questions:

• What are my business/marketing objectives?
• Who is my target market?
• Why would they buy from me?
• Where can I find them?
• When should I communicate with them?

By leaping straight for the web browser before answering these questions, there is a real danger that you will just chase after the NBIT (Next Big Internet Thing) or be sold the next “magic wand”, which are unlikely to deliver any sustained marketing benefits.

Let’s illustrate the point by looking at two NBITs: Search Engine Optimisation and Facebook marketing….

Search Engine Optimisation

Don’t get me wrong, I believe Google (as the big-boy of SEO) is a key to effective web presence, and making sure that your site ranks well on search engines is important. Not least that if someone types your company name into Google, they can find you!

However, although a high ranking for a relevant key phrase may make you feel good, a page one listing well for some apparently relevant phrase is no guarantee of effective marketing communication and whatever anyone tells you about organic/natural search ranking they are not free.

Whether you are spending your time doing your own SEO or your money with one of the many SEO companies, search engine marketing costs, and needs to deliver tangible business marketing results.

Furthermore, if you have answers to the five questions posed above, you may well find that there are other, more appropriate channels through which you can engage with key segments of your target market in a controllable and cost-effective way.

Search Engine Optimisation should not be ignored, but rather considered amongst a ‘toolbox’ of communication options and (where appropriate) used as one element of a structured marketing communications plan.

Despite what some agencies may tell you, SEO is not a marketing magic wand, nor your path to the pot of gold at the end of the marketing rainbow!

Facebook Marketing

Facebook is a great marketing tool and there is no doubt that when used appropriately it is a very powerful communications medium. My gripe is with the idea that a facebook page is regularly touted as a ‘must-have‘ element of any online marketing plan.

Experience tells me that Facebook is primarily used by individuals in a social context. If you communicate with your target market in this context then Facebook is definitely worth looking at.

If, however, your target market is B2B and you are communicating with people with their professional/work hat on, then I would argue that Facebook is at best irrelevant, and at worst is a distraction that draws resources away from other more fruitful marketing activities.

BSA Marketing primarily works in SME business to business markets, and because of this, there is no doubt that my view is biased. We did have a Facebook presence for a short while but it didn’t take us long to make the decision to pull it .

A recent experience demonstrates my point perfectly:

While reviewing a number of North West companies in B2B markets, I started looking at links to the companies’ Twitter and Facebook pages.

Looking at these pages, some numbers tell a story:

Company 1
Company 2
Company 3
B2B Marketing  
Twitter followers
Facebook ‘likes’

These are three examples that illustrate a common position.

I am sure that if any of these companies had spent time asking the question “Who is my target market, and where can I interact with them?”, they would quickly have established that Facebook was not an appropriate channel - the very reason why BSA Marketing does not have a Facebook page.

In Conclusion

The internet has had a huge impact on SME marketing. It offers affordable, sustainable marketing communication opportunities to SME businesses in ways that were previously only accessible to big companies with big budgets. Nevertheless, the marketing fundamentals haven’t changed. Addressing some core marketing questions before starting to click will really pay dividends.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Guest Blog: Fit for Driving

By Wayne Dunning of ELAS 

For employers that rely on meetings at clients’ respective places of business, having a mobile workforce is absolutely essential. However, with the benefits of employees with their own cars, also comes the liability. The Health and Safety Executive states that health and safety law applies to driving in exactly the same way as all other work activities and, statistically, driving is the most dangerous business activity that employees can undertake with 220 people killed every week as a result .

Companies are responsible for all workers while they are driving for business purposes, whether they are in a company car or their own vehicle. This means employers must manage the risks associated with driving within a comprehensive health and safety system.

In order to ensure the risk to your employees is minimised, there are a number of recommended actions that companies should undertake. The employer is ultimately accountable for ensuring that the cars used are roadworthy and that the employee has sufficient insurance coverage, which means making sure that each vehicle is properly taxed, has a valid MOT, valid insurance for business use and is serviced according to manufacturing recommendations.

Staff awareness is key, which means communicating to the workforce the company’s requirement that an employee’s vehicle is legal, safe and fit for purpose. You can do this as part of the induction process and staff training, as well as through team meetings.

It is also beneficial to have agreed minimum safety features and conditions for use. Seat belts and head restraints are a legal requirement for vehicles, but there are no specific laws for cars to have airbags or ABS brakes.  However, you are within your rights as an employer to include these features as a minimum requirement as long as employees that do not have them can use a company vehicle as an alternative.

The minimum conditions for use can include an agreement for drivers to show documentary proof of the roadworthiness of their vehicle and insurance on request, to conduct regular vehicle safety checks and to not carry unsuitable or hazardous loads. If any employee does suffer a collision while on business, however minor, it is important that you have a procedure in place for them to report it to the company.

A major issue is mobile phone use while driving; 39 per cent of car drivers admit to using a mobile phone on the road, rising to 55 per cent of company car drivers. But research indicates that mobile phone users are four times more likely to crash, regardless of whether or not they use a hands-free device.

The law says it is an offence to ‘cause or permit’ a driver to use a mobile phone while driving, which means that as an employer, you can be held liable if your policy requires employees to use a phone on the road. Even hands-free devices do not completely absolve the issue, as the driver could still be charged with ‘failing to have proper control of their vehicle’ while using them in certain circumstances.

Make sure that the dangers associated with mobile phone use are properly communicated in the same manner as other driving risks, and that your mobile phone policy is fully compliant with the law and understood by all parties. You should also make it clear to staff that your company will co-operate with any police enquiry that results from a crash, including the provision of mobile phone records where requested.


Friday, 21 June 2013

Friday Guest Blog: Is this the last generation of young entrepreneurs we will see?

By Neil Brabbs - EMEA Sales Manager, Arc Window Films Ltd

From start-up, to winning clients, through to the day to day running of a business – becoming an entrepreneur is a lifestyle choice made by hundreds of thousands of determined individuals every year. However, with the incentives diminishing and the barriers to start-up increasing at an alarming rate, could this be the last generation of young entrepreneurs we will see?

With every generation it is becoming increasingly difficult for young entrepreneurs to emerge and start their first business. The current recession and lack of finance is certainly a challenge, but it is not the biggest concern for the future. The recession will end, and along with it the uncertainty and inherent barriers to funding. However the unfortunate reality is that the incentives are simply not perceived to be enough by the youth of today, and the barriers to starting and running a business seem to be increasing at an alarming rate.

A key trend which could hinder the emergence of new young entrepreneurs is the increasing delay between the initial start-up and the receipt of any financial reward. The torrent of red tape and paperwork required in business has not only increased the time investment required by entrepreneurs, it has also lengthened the time before they can actually work on (and receive any return for) their core business efforts. 

Even when a completely unique and new concept is ventured, the harsh reality is that it is much easier for an existing large business to cope with the bureaucracy required to emulate the venture. In today's world a first mover advantage is becoming shorter and shorter, and any returns that are quick are also usually short lived.

After the initial start-up period the burdens to growth and expansion seem to be increasing too. The challenges of Business Rates (a tax on requiring premises), Employers PAYE (a tax on job creation), and H&S (a paperwork overload for SMEs) are well documented, and are frequently touted as a burden to businesses new and old. The worrying trend is that new challenges continue to emerge, with RTI the latest burden for SMEs and start-ups. Admittedly these challenges are faced by both new and existing businesses, but for an entrepreneur considering a new venture they could be serious deterrents to starting.

Thankfully there are those who are simply destined to be entrepreneurs and will strive to succeed regardless of the challenges put in front of them. As trends change and new products and services emerge, the attraction of the self-employed world will always be naturally alluring to such individuals. During a recession the cost of stock, premises and advertising plummet, and the lack of available jobs acts as further motivation for some to pursue their own ventures.

Support networks and entrepreneur focused communities such as Shell Livewire, Blue Orchid and the GM Chamber continue to support, develop and inspire the upcoming entrepreneurs – knowing that our future economic growth is in their hands.

The government may not consider the long term effects of the ever increasing difficulty of business start-up, but with the support mentioned above entrepreneurs no longer have to face these challenges alone. With new problems come new solutions – and the recession and other challenges will never be a match for a talented and driven entrepreneur.

Is this the last generation of young entrepreneurs we will see? I seriously doubt it.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Friday Guest Blog: Are You Sitting on a Cloud Decision?

By Andrew Roberts, Managing Director, Pennine Telecom.

Once dismissed as a passing fad, cloud computing has now settled over the IT world, raining conflicting messages of its pros and cons down upon business owners and managers.
With the latest version of Microsoft Office suite now offering access to files and applications via a personal ‘Skydrive’ cloud, it’s definitely here to stay.  
But will a cloud make your business shine brighter? There are undoubtedly many benefits. Because resources are hosted remotely, cloud computing removes the need for an IT infrastructure, reducing both capital expenditure and costs associated with supporting it. There are other bottom line benefits too, such as lower fees for software licences and data storage. We’re talking potentially major reductions in overall IT spend.
As clouds give anywhere-anytime access they’re also likely to positively impact financial (and business) performance more subtly, with staff able to use both company and their own devices to catch up on work. In addition always-on connectivity promotes collaboration.
Clouds are also impressively scalable and flexible so, for example, you can pay for applications and storage only when you need them, with capacity for the latter all but unlimited. Cloud architecture is, as you might expect of an Internet hosted service, particularly robust with failsafe mechanisms in place to convincingly minimise the risk of downtime. Business continuity is also protected by back-up and disaster recovery services which are typically included within cloud packages, the cost of which tend to be much cheaper than traditional IT infrastructures.
The major con is, naturally, security. You need to choose your provider with care because you will be entrusting them with commercially sensitive and private data. You need to know they have integrity – including their financial status because if they go bump where does that leave you? Watch out too for any contractual “lock in” that might make it difficult to migrate to another vendor in future.
Overall the pros outweigh the cons which is why cloud services are fast catching on in the corporate world. But before you take the plunge make sure you get good advice on which of the four cloud models and multiplicity of vendors and contracts will best suit your business – because not all will have a silver lining!
The next IT Directors’ Forum will focus on the cloud, so why not join the debate on 19th June at The Point, Lancashire County Cricket Ground: 

Friday, 7 June 2013

Friday Guest Blog: Could Exporting Make You Millions?

By Dan Davis, DDH Global Limited
High profile businesses, such as Jaguar Land Rover, Rolls Royce and Cambridge-based ARM Holdings are selling over 75% of their product into overseas markets. A number of local SMEs have also built up considerable export businesses.  The following quotes are from SMEs based in the North-West:
"Exports are critical. Very, very important to our business. We have developed and had great success with our product in the UK, but the true volume potential will come from exports, and we're definitely starting to see that". Sports Sector.

"We could no longer exist without exports. If we had not made moves a few years back, given the increasing globalisation of our industry, I don't believe we would be around today." IT Sector.

"Exports have been fundamental to our growth. We are now exporting 60-65% of our output and expect this to climb to 80% within the next five years as we continue to grow." Light Engineering Sector.

So why is it that so many businesses are missing out? For businesses that have an exportable product (and many may not realise they do), the opportunity exists to participate in a market with a population one hundred times larger than the UK, and generally showing stronger year-on-year growth. It takes a great deal of effort to develop and launch a product successfully in local markets, so with all that hard work done, it surely makes sense to consider extending the reach of your business to the very greatest extent through growing your channels into export markets.
If exporting may be of interest to your business, what's the next step? Let's first of all recognise what exporting isn't; it's not an opportunist venture or something that can be successfully pursued half-heartedly or driven by short-term objectives. Success is realised when an exportable product is complemented by a supportive unified long-term vision for the business, enthusiastically endorsed at all levels of the organisation.  A refreshing of the current positioning of the product and the acquisition of new skills may also form part of what's required to make a business truly "export-fit". If done right, exporting can transform a business and hugely increase its valuation.
Which products typically perform well in overseas markets? Some products very obviously lend themselves to exporting - it's inconceivable that Samsung or Apple would offer their products to one country only - their market is wherever there is humankind; national borders are a mere detail. For a manufacturer of fresh foods with a 3-day shelf-life, options may be more limited; although if there is demand for the product, solutions may still exist to internationalise. Every product deserves to be considered on its own merits. In that context, the following attributes, often present in a profitably exported product, should be seen as merely representing a guide:-
  • a truly differentiated product / niche offering
  • the prospect of repeating sales - one-off projects need to be high value to warrant the upfront marketing cost
  • secure technology / intellectual property
  • high product value relative to shipping cost
  • minimal need for overseas infrastructure (at least initially) - e.g. local office, engineering support, etc.

Many smaller businesses are wary of export, dissuaded by the apparent complexity, uncertainty and risk. Much of this is around mind-set – an understandable aversion to the unfamiliar. If such psychological barriers can be overcome then there is a potentially transformational growth opportunity that can greatly enhance the value of your business.

If you have a great product and curious to know more of how exporting transforms the fortunes of businesses, I would welcome hearing from you. Please contact me on 0161 485 2926 or email to