Learn from the Examples of Successful Businesses
August 12th, 2014
This post was originally written in December of 2013, but was unintentionally not posted online. I was sharing my thoughts on my return flight from Orlando and the IAAPA Attractions Expo, the last and largest of my company’s fall trade shows. I took that opportunity to pause and reflect upon my recent experiences … and how they can be applied to your business.
Out of the fall events, the Pennsylvania Campground Owners Association convention and trade show was held at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, a first class operation in the Laurel Highlands of Southeastern Pennsylvania. From a business marketing perspective, there is much to be learned from these conventions, and much of that knowledge may be gained by observing the operations and management of the host facilities. We are all working within the broader tourism and outdoor recreation industries – where customer service is the key component of our businesses, but many of us tend to learn only from our peers, in this case fellow campground owners.
I have always been a firm believer that campground owners can learn a great deal from the operators of cruise lines, airlines, theme parks, and resorts like Nemacolin. The things that these businesses do to satisfy their customers – or the things that they do to alienate and annoy their customers – easily translate to the family camping industry. Regardless of your particular business, your customers want to be treated with respect and to be provided with exceptional service.
We are all human, and mistakes are inevitably made. One of our goals should be to minimize those mistakes, whether made directly ourselves or by one of our staff members. When a mistake has been made, damage control is time-critical.
Nemacolin Woodlands Resort
At the PCOA Convention, a mistake was made by the kitchen staff of Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. One of the meal functions was a pasta buffet and, almost incomprehensibly, the facility ran out of pasta before everyone had been served. In fact, they ran out of pasta before perhaps half of the people in the dining room had been served. The situation made the resort look bad and made its guests unhappy – regardless of the quality of their prior experience. The barometer had suddenly changed.
Here is where there are lessons to be learned. A mistake had been made, and it was impossible for it to be unmade; however, the immediacy and the extent of the management response saved the day, maintained the reputation of the resort, and prevented PCOA from looking bad by association.
As soon as it had been confirmed that it was impossible to prepare additional servings of food for this many people in a timely manner, the cash bar became an open bar. This response in itself probably satisfied many of the inconvenienced guests, but management took a further step to insure everyone’s satisfaction. In the trade show hall the following morning, a member of the resort’s management staff took to the microphone to personally apologize for what should not have occurred the evening before. He then directed anyone who had been inconvenienced to see one of the several staff members at his side for a certificate that could be redeemed for a free night’s stay over the course of the following year. Each of these vouchers had a potential value of as much as $489.00. The resort had recovered from an awkward and embarrassing situation, and any lingering dissatisfaction from the previous night had been totally reversed in grand style.
What can your campground learn from this management response?
If someone complains that your restrooms are less than spotless, if a family’s sleep was interrupted by noise from an adjoining site, if a scheduled performer cancels out at the last minute, what is your response? If your response is simply that “stuff happens”, or if you assign the blame to somebody else, you are failing to provide exemplary service. We are all willing – perhaps even anxious – to pardon mistakes, but few people are willing to tolerate a business that demonstrates that it does not care.
Going back to the restroom example, do you ever profile a guest as a “complainer” and dismiss his concerns? Worse yet, do you ever take the attitude that everything is fine because 95% of your guests are content with the status quo? If a guest tells you that your restroom facilities require attention, it is time for you to drop what you are doing and personally look into the issue. Ask the guess to show you the problem that you might have been missing all along but that is capable of creating an indelible impression upon a new set of eyes. Empathize with your guest, apologize if necessary, then take immediate measure to rectify the situation. Your guest will no longer be displeased.
Particularly given the power and the persuasiveness of the social media and online review sites, you cannot simply hope that time heals all wounds. The fact is that time actually compounds those wounds. A lack of response – or an inadequate response – has the capability of harming your business both immeasurably and indefinitely. Think of yourself as the guest – and how you would expect to be treated under the circumstances. When mistakes are inevitably made, go out of your way to overcompensate as rapidly as possible. Never wait for a complaint to be aired online before responding. Worse yet, never assume that most of your guests are content and that you can simply pretend that nothing bad ever happened. The guests who have been left unhappy will have a bitter taste for your business. If they happen to have been first-time campers, you may have just poisoned them toward the entire camping experience. The weight of an industry is on your shoulders. Do your business and the industry a favor by treating your guests with respect. Respect is contagious, and the world will be a happier place.
This post was written by Peter Pelland
Build Your Campground Website’s Traffic in 10 Easy Steps
August 6th, 2014
The best website in the world is ineffective if nobody sees it. It is a fact today that too many people obsess over search engine optimization (SEO) and the employment of a wide variety of tricks in an effort to outsmart Google’s search ranking algorithms. The bottom line is that nothing is more effective or easier to implement than links to your site from established websites with related, relevant content. Referring sites will send you direct traffic. More importantly, the presence of your links on those sites will also enhance the ranking of your own site, due to its direct association with sites that are already deemed to be “important” by Google.
The most important referring sites will be travel-related sites like TripAdvisor, and industry-related sites like Go Camping America. Once you have the big players covered, it is time to get your website listed on the “B list” of referral sites, and I will save you some work by presenting the following list of 10 websites that include online directories of campgrounds. Nine of the ten offer free listings. Check each site to see if your park is already listed, or if an existing listing might require corrections or updates. If your park is not listed, follow the links to get your site added.
Although every valid link is helpful, links from highly ranked sites with heavy traffic are the most valuable. For that reason, I am including the Alexa ranking and the StatShow traffic estimate for each site. The Alexa ranking is a metric that presents the site’s overall ranking against all other websites. The lower the Alexa ranking number, the better. StatShow indicates the average number of users and page views per month, where the higher the numbers, the better. As an example, the Alexa ranking of Amazon.com is 10, with a StatShow ranking of 220,280,520 visitors and 3,150,011,700 page views per month.
- RV Points. This is a relatively new site, launched in early 2012, that looks like it is trying to be the Groupon of campgrounds. Listings are free, although there is a fee to be listed as a featured park. You do not have to present a special offer to participate. Go to http://rvpoints.com, then follow the signup link. Alexa ranking: 10,821,800. StatShow ranking: 1,320 / 2,940.
- Leisure and Sport Review. This site provides a state-by-state listing of events and lodging, including both campgrounds and cabins. Find it at http://www.lasr.net, with a signup form at http://www.lasr.net/addBusiness.php. Alexa ranking: 222,547. StatShow ranking: 64,350 / 141,570.
- Mile By Mile. Nothing fancy in this directory of resources, including campgrounds, that is designed to help families plan road trips across the United States and Canada. http://www.milebymile.com, with edit listing / add listing form at http://www.milebymile.com/update.php. Alexa ranking: 477,532. StatShow ranking: 29,970 / 65,970.
- RV Resources. Nearly 15 years old, this site presents everything that has to do with RVing, including a directory of campgrounds. http://www.rvresources.com, with a listing form at http://www.rvresources.com/addsitenew.php. Alexa ranking: 530,214. StatShow ranking: 27,000 / 59,430.
- RV Zone. One of the oldest RV-related sites on the Internet, this site offers listings that are quick and easy to submit. http://www.rvzone.com, with the “suggest a site” link at http://www.rvzone.com/SuggestASite.cfm. (No stats currently available.)
- WorldWeb.com. This is an international travel directory that includes both the United States and campground listings, representing a useful resource for international travelers to find your park. Go to http://www.worldweb.com, then follow the Add > Business link in the upper right of the page. Alexa ranking: 26,275. StatShow ranking: 544,920 / 1,198,860.
- The Modern Outback Adventure Travel Guide. Based in British Columbia, Canada, this site presents comprehensive listings of campgrounds, resorts, wilderness lodges and destinations in the United States and Canada. Find it at http://www.modernoutback.com, then add your listing at http://www.modernoutback.com/addlisting.html. (No stats currently available.)
- RVNetLinx.com. This site lists campgrounds, campground associations, RV repair services, employment ads, and more. http://www.rvnetlinx.com, with a “submit your site” form at http://www.rvnetlinx.com/wpsubmitsite.php. Alexa ranking: 3,080,156. StatShow ranking: 4,620 / 10,200.
- RV Mechanic. This is an online directory of everything that relates to RV repairs. It also includes a directory of campgrounds, with an easy form to add your listing. Find the site at http://www.rvmechanic.com, then, to add your listing, go to http://www.rvmechanic.com/company_register.html. Alexa ranking: 560,380. StatShow ranking: 25,560 / 56,250.
- RV Park Hunter. This one is not free, but costs $25.00 per year on the 1 year plan, or $10.00 per year on the 5 year plan. http://www.rvparkhunter.com, with a listing form at http://www.rvparkhunter.com/listing.asp. Alexa ranking: 2,883,568. StatShow ranking: 4,950 / 10,950.
As you can see from the statistics, some of these sites might actually send some significant traffic to your site, which you can track and verify if you are running Google Analytics. In other instances, the greater value will be in simply having the search engine robots visiting the sites and catching the outbound link to your site.
This post was written by Peter Pelland
Finding It on Google Does Not Mean It Is Yours to Use
July 23rd, 2014
It’s late at night, a tired driver pulls up in front of your house, walks in your unlocked front door, and proceeds to enjoy a sound night of sleep in your spare bedroom. How would you react? Confronting the stranger, he tells you that an unlocked door is an open invitation to guests. Another night, your door is locked, and another stranger climbs in through a window. This one brings his entire family, redecorates, changes the locks on the doors, and wants to know what you are doing in his house.
You might think that these stories are crazy, and you would be right; however, have you ever done an image search on Google when you were looking for a certain photo or illustration to use in your own promotional materials? Unless it is specifically marked as “freeware” or “open source” by the original artist, you are probably just as guilty as one of those uninvited guests.
Most people know that just about any image or text that is ever posted online will be shared, re-posted, and indexed by search engines. Even embarrassing personal information has a life of its own. In fact, it took a May 2014 ruling by the European Union’s top court to enforce the new “Right to Be Forgotten” policy that affects Google search results that are based upon an individual’s name. In the first month, according to The Wall Street Journal, over 40,000 removal requests were filed; however, the removal process is a slow and tedious procedure that is currently in effect only in EU member countries.
When it comes to that image search on Google, when you click on an individual image, the only disclaimer is the “images may be subject to copyright”, wording that is intended to relieve Google of liability, not to protect either you or the rights of artists. It is safe to assume that any use of an image found in this manner is a copyright violation and inherently illegal.
Put yourself in the shoes of an artist – or an author, in the case of text – and try to see the situation objectively. Nobody has a right to stay at your campground without paying a fee. Your campground is your livelihood. Well, the same thing applies to artists, illustrators, authors, and other people engaged in creative pursuits. They earn a living, put food on the table, and clothe their children by selling rights to their work.
One of our clients was mildly chastised recently for using a piece of artwork that he found in a Google search on one of his Facebook posts. Google did not clearly warn him that the artwork was copyrighted, but the artist did. It was a simple matter of apologizing and deleting the image; however, if the image had been used on printed materials, it could be another story with an entirely different outcome. Fortunately, most artwork found online is low resolution and unsuitable for use in print. Using artwork found online in printed materials could actually lead to a cease and desist order that could require any materials containing an unauthorized image to be recalled and destroyed.
Another of our clients, Baker’s Acres Campground in New Jersey, has a very distinctive raccoon logo that we hired an artist to design on their behalf back in the 1980s. It is the campground’s registered trademark, they paid to have it created, and the original artwork is in our files. I just discovered that another campground has been using this artwork as its own logo, simply adding a feather to the back of the raccoon’s head. I spoke with the owner of the campground, and he sounded like a very nice individual who had no ill intent. He simply thought that he had used a piece of art that was in the public domain and then modified it. It apparently appears online and on his brochure, although I advised him to stop using it. Other instances may not result in such a friendly outcome.
If you require artwork for any purpose, there are two options. Either hire an artist to create custom artwork or buy usage rights to royalty-free stock images. Artists or illustrators can be easily found online through various resources such as www.elance.com; stock photography and illustrations are also readily available online through various resources such as www.shutterstock.com and www.123rf.com. Prices are remarkably affordable, and it is difficult to put a price on peace of mind.
The bottom line is that a Google search for images might be fine to provide ideas regarding what is already being used, perhaps helping you to avoid using something that is too similar to existing art; however, it should not be used as a resource for finding unique images that are free for the taking. In other instances, the search results might include watermarked stock images, with a link to the site where usage rights may be purchased.
Think about it: the reason that Google is indexing an image is because it is already online and being used, almost certainly by a business that has paid for that privilege. You do not want to act like that uninvited guest who is looking for a free place to spend the night.
This post was written by Peter Pelland
The Fine Art of Handling Negative Reviews
July 16th, 2014
Not all reviews are negative. The negative reviews are simply the ones that most deserve your attention. Some negative reviews are worse than others, but the worst negative review is the one that was left unanswered.
In most instances, I find that small business owners cannot be objective when handling criticisms of the businesses which are often extensions of themselves. That is understandable, but it is important to put subjectivity aside and recognize that, in the vast majority of instances, a negative review is providing valuable input regarding improvements that you should consider making.
In other instances, a negative review might provide insight into a situation that requires urgent action; however, if you are unaware of the review, the situation is likely to continue and the viral power of the online review will only multiply. Let me share an example.
I recently did a search of Google for the name of a business, hoping to find its correct mailing address. At the absolute top of the search results (#1 on page #1) was the following review that has been online since January of 2012. I have changed the names and any other identifying information, but the point is clear.
“While driving on Eastern Avenue (near Spring Street) today (01-11-12) at 2:05 PM I was tailgated by someone driving a truck (license plate RVJ-524) from Acme Enterprises. I was forced to pull over because the driver was driving too close. When I pulled over I was given the finger and when I continued driving the driver doubled-back to actually chase me! I’m a member of the [a local business association] and I will certainly be sending an email blast to my fellow members to ensure they avoid this organization. I took a picture of the driver and have it on file.”
Wow! Can you imagine this being at the top of the search results for your business for 2½ years, and not knowing about it? Can you imagine having an employee acting in this manner while driving a clearly identified company vehicle? I presume that any business owner would take immediate corrective measures if he knew about this situation. Without any such knowledge, this type of behavior on the part of an employee is only likely to continue.
Yes, this is an extreme example, but it is totally true. How about the employee who is short with one of your guests, or the employee who did not perform a maintenance task up to the expected standards? Those are often the foundation of a negative review. Even if a review site does not give you, as the business owner, an opportunity to directly respond online, it is still providing you with valuable information that should probably be incorporated into your next company meeting, job description, or employee performance review. The reputation of your business is at stake.
When you do have the opportunity to respond to a negative review, here are a few suggestions:
- Listen to what the reviewer has to say. Try to be as subjective as possible, putting your ego aside. The review is not a personal attack upon your reputation (even if you think that it is.)
- Empathize, introduce a positive factor into the conversation, and apologize if necessary. An apology is not an admission of guilt but simply a polite acknowledgement that the reviewer had less than a perfect experience involving your business.
- Try to take the conversation offline. I recently posted on Facebook how dissatisfied I was when an energy audit contractor failed to show up for a scheduled appointment. The organization saw that it had been mentioned on Facebook, responding by asking me to contact them privately with my telephone number. Offline, they apologized and re-scheduled the appointment for the following day. Any damage was under control.
- Despite the urgency of responding quickly, before posting a response to an online review, always run it by another set of eyes. Too often, in the absence of body language and tone of voice, a response with the best of intentions might sound condescending or even sarcastic. Remember that you are trying to rectify a situation, not make it worse.
There are literally dozens of online review sites, the most important which impact the travel and tourism industry being TripAdvisor, Yelp, and Foursquare. Other types of businesses are reviewed on sites like Angie’s List, MerchantCircle, Manta, Buzzillions, Epinions, and Insider Pages. Then don’t forget the BBB (Better Business Bureau) Online, where any consumer can file a complaint against a business.
Just as important, any comment on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+ is a de-facto review within the writer’s network. In fact, those can often do the most harm because they come from somebody whose opinion is trusted within his or her network of friends.
There are also more than a dozen of which are specific to the campground industry. These include RV Park Reviews, CampRate, Campground Report, Campsite Reports, RVparking.com, RVcampReviews.com, RV Park Finder, and of course GuestRated. Some of these sites get much more traffic than others, but keep in mind that only one person reading one negative review can translate into lost business. Do your best to try to keep that from happening.
This post was written by Peter Pelland
Your Prime Season Is the Time for Photography
July 9th, 2014
Until about 7 or 8 years ago, I spent my summer weekends executing on-location commercial photography assignments at campgrounds throughout the East Coast. It was not profitable work, but it gave my company a competitive edge when designing brochures and building websites. We knew that the photography was not going to be the weak link that would limit the effectiveness of the finished products.
After the weather, the greatest source of frustration when it came to scheduling photography was procrastination on the part of my clients. My main concern was sunny skies (which seem to be less and less common these days), but my clients’ main concern seemed to be making excuses for why the upcoming weekend was not the right time for photography.
The excuses ranged from being too busy and too crowded to not being busy enough. With the exception of three-day holiday weekends, photos generally needed to be taken on a Saturday, which eliminated 6 out of the 7 days of the week. Saturdays were the days that were packed with activities, and the occupancy levels insured a ready supply of impromptu models. The weather could be gorgeous on a Wednesday, but empty campsites, an empty playground, and an empty swimming pool do not present a high level of marketing appeal.
Basically, all bets had to be placed on Saturdays, when the weather needed to be somewhere between partly cloudy and sunny. It does not require a statistician to know that the pieces did not always magically fall together. I spent many Thursday nights wondering if the weather would be sending me to North to Maine, South to Maryland, or West to Ohio. Even then, everybody knows that weather forecasts are notorious for their lack of accuracy.
My point with all this is to encourage campground owners to take photos when the time is right. As I write, it is already approaching mid-July, with two major holiday weekends and the entire month of June (perhaps the single best time to take photos) already behind us. If you have not already taken photos, what are you waiting for? Are you waiting for your pool to be closed for the year, waiting for the kids to be back to school, or waiting for pumpkins and mums to enhance your landscaping?
As I mentioned, I stopped taking photography assignments years ago, although my company does its best to locate talented freelance photographers who have the necessary skills for on-location commercial assignments on behalf of our clients. Year after year, I have campground owners contacting me looking for a referral the week before Labor Day weekend. Guess what? They’re out of luck.
Here are a few tips:
- Hire a qualified and skilled commercial photographer. Get a referral, then view the photographer’s portfolio. Portfolios are all online these days. If the photographer shoots babies and weddings, look elsewhere.
- Expect to pay $800.00 to $1,200.00 for a day of commercial photography. Define the day, including the expected start and finish times. If more than 100 miles or so of travel is involved, expect to pay additional travel expenses. Look at the bright side: there are no longer any fees for film and processing!
- Expect your photographer to be using professional equipment (probably a digital SLR), including basic lighting (for interiors like your store and cabins) and a tripod. Professional photographers will always use a tripod.
- Expect the photographer (or an assistant) to take responsibility for model releases.
- The photographer should know how to “style” the shots, moving things around if necessary to improve the composition, but he cannot be expected to mow your lawn, pull weeds, rake your beach, replace burned out light bulbs, repair a torn volleyball net, or paint the side of a building. In other words, prepare in advance for your day of photography. If you were selling your house, would you show it to prospective buyers when the beds were unmade and there was a pile of dirty dishes in the sink? Do not expect everything to be “fixed” in Photoshop!
- Outline in advance how long it will take for you to receive the images taken the day of the shoot and how they will be delivered (most likely on discs). Also determine in advance what usage rights will be provided. Typically, the photographer will retain the actual ownership or copyright to his work, conveying full, royalty-free usage rights to the work that was produced on your behalf. That is a reasonable expectation, particularly these days when there is no original film involved.
- To get the job done right, the photographer you need is almost never going to be the person who you see in the mirror or somebody who addresses you as “Mom” or “Dad”.
With these tips in mind, put an end to the procrastination. Photography is almost always the weak link when my company is hired to assemble brochures, rack cards, directory ads, and other printed materials. Although websites demand lower resolution than print, the difference between good photos and bad photos makes a world of difference.
So many people obsess over the volume of traffic that reaches their websites, giving far less thought to their customers’ experience after reaching the site. The wrong photos send visual messages that essentially drive away the very same people who would be attracted by professional compositions.
If you would like much more information about planning a day of photography than could be included in this article, click here to access the online version of a seminar that I have frequently presented on this topic. The more you understand about the basics of professional photography, the better that photography will work to promote your business. Have you ever heard how a single photo is the equivalent of 1,000 words? Ensure that those words are all positive!
This post was written by Peter Pelland
Pelland Advertising Responds to GoUSACamping Announcement
June 19th, 2014
Rushed Decisions or Long-Term Plans?
So far this season, 2014 is turning out to be a year where campground owners are seeing many changes in the sea of vendors serving their industry. Following on the heels of the announcement by Evergreen USA RRG, the recent notice from GoUSACamping is certain to impact many campgrounds at the most inopportune time possible – at the height of the camping season in Northern states.
Pelland Advertising is not in the business of chasing ambulances, and we do not seek to profit from the misfortune of our fellow industry vendors; however, we also would like to assist individual park owners to take the time to make informed, long-term decisions rather than hurried choices that bear a semblance to panic attacks.
The notice that GoUSACamping sent to its clients included the advice, “If we designed and hosted your web site then contact a website hosting and web builder company such as ‘godaddy.com’ or ‘1&1.com’ to assist you with a new website.” We take strong exception to that advice, and would never advise any small business owner to turn to one of those Internet industry behemoths to provide website development or hosting services. There are several campground industry vendors who are small enough to know their clients by name, who understand the unique needs of your business, and who have a track record of serving the industry. Pelland Advertising is one of those companies.
Whether your park is directly impacted by the GoUSACamping announcement – or you simply feel that the time might be right for a change – Pelland Advertising would like to present an alternative to a rushed decision. We are one of the campground industry’s leading suppliers of website development and hosting services. Independent of any alliances with third-party online reservation services, the reservation engine of your choice may be embedded into or linked from your site. Many of our clients prefer a simpler online reservation request system that is highly effective, particularly for smaller parks, and free of transaction fees. We offer solutions and alternatives.
If your park is directly impacted by the GoUSACamping announcement, we would like to assist you in making a carefully considered decision that will provide an easy transition that will not interrupt your business and will also be as seamless as possible in the eyes of your customers. We will provide the following services:
- Move your site to one of our dedicated servers at no charge.
- Begin hosting your site at an annual rate that will reimburse you for 50% of the cost of any prepaid hosting fees that you may have already incurred for 2014.
- Perform the necessary content revisions as specified by GoUSACamping, at no charge.
- Build and install an online reservation request form onto your site for a discounted flat fee, allowing you to independently handle inquiries while you make an unrushed, intelligent long-term reservation software decision.
- Get all of this done within the 30-day window (July 18, 2014) specified by GoUSACamping.
Afterward, when your unhurried decision has been made, we will replace the online reservation request form with the reservation engine of your choice, either embedded or linked (depending upon what is available from the third-party service provider that you will have chosen.) We will also provide a courtesy discount should you choose to have Pelland Advertising build a new site within the next 12 months.
The timing may not be ideal, but we are here to help park owners to maintain the type of continuity that is essential to their long-term success.
This post was written by Peter Pelland
What Is Branding All About?
June 12th, 2014
There is a lot of buzz about branding these days. In fact, there is so much indiscriminate use of the term that it sometimes sounds like marketing’s latest pet rock. When properly orchestrated, nothing could be further from the truth. Proper branding can make the difference between success and failure. It is the combination of many facets of marketing, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Your brand is what differentiates you from your competitor across town or down the road. In fact, it is the founding principle behind successful franchises from Hilton to KOA. It is the reason behind the word associations between “four wheel drive” and “Jeep”, “golf clubs” and “Callaway”, and “ketchup” and “Heinz”. It should be your goal to establish that same degree of name association with camping in your area.
Probably the first step in the creation of brand identity is the design of a distinctive logo. In the 18th and 19th centuries, logos were little more than visual icons. Most business was local, and much of the population was illiterate. An icon of a tooth identified you as the town dentist, and icon of a mortar and pestle identified you as the town druggist, and the icon of a horseshoe identified you as the town farrier or blacksmith. In the early 20th century, as businesses began to serve broader markets and grow beyond single locations, a more distinctive identity became necessary. Simple icons became replaced by distinctive and carefully crafted logos. Think of some of the distinctive logos that have withstood the test of time, from Coca-Cola to Kodak, Ford to McDonald’s, or Sherwin-Williams to John Deere. With one look at their logos, there is no chance of confusing any of these well-established companies with any of their competitors.
The recently released 2014 BRANDZ Report from Millward Brown lists the 100 most valuable global brand names. The top 10 are Google, Apple, IBM, Microsoft, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Visa, AT&T, Marlboro, and Amazon. Keep those highly recognizable and distinguished brands in mind when thinking about the branding of your own business.
It All Starts With Your Logo
A successful logo may sometimes be simple, but it will always be distinctive and it should never be cluttered. As the common element of your branding campaign, avoid skimping on your logo design. It should never be delegated to one of your children who happens to have “an eye for graphic design”, and it will rarely fall within the realm of expertise of the marketing person on your staff. In addition, steer clear of online “logo factories”, where the assignment will be subcontracted to somebody who has no understanding of your business or industry.
When entering into a logo design project, provide the artist with as much input as possible. Are there already colors that are identified with your business? Are there colors and fonts that you really like or intensely dislike? Are there two or three key design elements – avoiding clichés – that might summarize the distinctive appeal of your business? Expect your logo designer to present you with several initial concepts that incorporate your input, but then carry things to the next creative level.
There should be plenty of back-and-forth communication between you and your designer during a process of fine-tuning a final concept. In the end, you want a logo that is distinctive and goes well beyond looking like a montage of unrelated pieces of clipart. Ask for variations of your logo that will maintain its integrity but allow for flexibility in usage. For example, some applications might favor a wider, more panoramic appearance. These might include letterhead stationery or the header on your website. Other applications might favor a more vertical, “stacked” appearance. You should also confirm in advance that your logo will reproduce cleanly and be legible when reproduced in grayscale color mode. This might be used in advertising on newsprint.
Your finished logo should be provided to you as one or more vector images, usually an EPS (Encapsulated Postscript) or AI (Adobe Illustrator) file. It is quite likely that you will not be able to open a vector image on your own computer, unless you have a drawing program like Adobe Illustrator or an image editing program like Adobe Photoshop installed. A vector image is resolution-independent because it is made up of lines and curves, rather than pixels, meaning that it can be opened in any size without loss of quality. The same file can be used on everything from your website to a large billboard.
The designer will probably also provide you with JPEG and PDF versions of your logo, but it is important that you always provide the vector file to people who will be reproducing the logo on your behalf – from your webmaster and printer to a sign company and people producing branded merchandise. In fact, be wary of any of these people who might not know how to use your vector file.
Beyond the Logo
To be effective, your branding should be developed with some end strategies in mind. It should distinguish your business from its competitors with its clarity, enhancing the credibility of your business on several levels, some of which will be purely emotional. If your branding is effective enough, you essentially have no competition. Ultimately, you want to establish a sense of loyalty in the minds of your customers to the degree that you are motivating them to take various courses of action:
- In the case of first-time guests, persuading them to choose your park over any and all of the alternatives.
- In the case of existing guests, insuring that they are comfortable enough to refer your park to new campers, post positive comments on social media sites, and write reviews on sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor.
- In either case, encouraging your guests to raise their level of involvement. This could include making reservations for special meal functions, volunteering to assist with your park’s community service events, and simply showing up for your scheduled activities – all instances where everybody will have a more enjoyable time if more people are involved.
If you are thinking that these are unrealistic expectations, it could be the result of failed or non-existent branding on your part. To be effective, your branding should not only reach out to your customers on an emotional level, it should be based upon research into the actual wants and needs of your clientele. It is this identity that will establish the necessary emotional attachment. As a broad example, if the primary appeal of camping at your park is the opportunity to enjoy a memorable family experience in an outdoor setting, you need not concentrate on affordability or ease of access. At other parks, the primary appeal might very well be the affordability or ease of access that are not as important at your park. Do your research to properly define – then build – your brand.
The Venerable Tagline
Along with your logo, your branding might include a tagline that will pervade your marketing. Consider some of the great taglines that have been ingrained in our memories over the years. Is there any doubt which companies are associated with the following taglines?
- Can You Hear Me Now? (Verizon)
- Where’s the Beef? (Wendy’s)
- When You Care Enough to Send the Very Best. (Hallmark)
- Think Small. (Volkswagen)
- Just Do It. (Nike)
- We Try Harder. (Avis)
- You Deserve a Break Today. (McDonald’s)
There is a tagline just waiting to be born for your business, but a tagline must be totally original in order to succeed. Forget about clichés like “The Best Kept Secret” that we have all seen a dozen or more times.
Putting It All Together
Another key branding element is your color scheme. In the campground industry, what does the color combination of yellow, red and black designate? Nobody but KOA! The colors of your logo should either be the colors of – or complement the colors of – your buildings and décor.
Is your logo on your entrance sign? Is it on your vehicle signage? For that matter, do you even have vehicle signage? The last thing that you want to do is have somebody create a sign that is not consistent with your overall branding. A multitude of random elements are not components of effective branding.
The same thing applies to apparel and other “branded” merchandise that you might sell in your store or hand out as premiums. Be certain that so-called branded merchandise is actually working to advance your branding, not work against it. A t-shirt or baseball cap that depicts a pleasant scene and includes your business name is not working to further your branding efforts. Always remember that most buying decisions are based upon a long-term accumulation of impressions. Be sure that each of those impression counts!
In the final analysis, branding is all about keeping things in focus. Try to ensure that everything that you do that will impact your business is done consistently, in a positive light, in a manner that distinguishes your business, and in a way that will engage your customers or clientele on a powerful emotional level.
This post was written by Peter Pelland
Beware of Award Scams: An Update
June 4th, 2014
Back in early October of 2013, I blogged about an award scam being run by an outfit calling itself the Small Business Institute for Excellence in Commerce (SBIEC). I had never before heard of the organization, and as far as I was able to determine, the company’s only “business” was sending out these awards. The award announcement that I received read, “Each year, the Small Business Institute for Excellence in Commerce (SBIEC) panel identifies firms that have demonstrated excellence in their respective fields and achieved commercial recognition. Your firm has been one of those selected this year and this award exemplifies that distinguished accomplishment.” That vague announcement read like your horoscope. But wait, there was more! For only $358.00, you could get a framed certificate, a crystal award, and your own press release campaign (which, of course, cross promotes the SBIEC). In our instance, they would even correct our business name. Basically, they win, you lose.
Fast forward 8 months, and things have changed a bit. Thanks to that blog post and a related post on the Pelland Advertising Facebook Page, a Google search for the Small Business Institute for Excellence in Commerce featured our blog post, our Facebook post, and several related consumer complaint sites more prominently than the website of the perpetrators themselves. In reaction to that reality, the outfit has now changed its name to the United States Trade and Commerce Institute (USTCI), disabled the original website, and has an otherwise identical website to be found under the new business name. In an effort to create an air of authenticity, the About Us page even outlines various “philanthropic outreach initiatives” such as helping to finance microloans on Kiva.org “since 2007.” Well, isn’t that special? Their business’s website was only created on March 13, 2014. In a Google search for the United States Trade and Commerce Institute, we are now dogging the new business name, too.
The spam e-mails that people receive claim that the USTCI has a “panel of industry executives and consultants” and a “Media Division”. That means that the USTCI is comprised of at least 2 people, who probably spend most of their time harvesting the e-mail addresses of small business owners and processing the credit cards of unwitting award winners. They are now targeting small businesses outside of the United States, particularly Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain with the same award scam. Non-English speaking countries are bound to be targeted next.
The comments posted on our Facebook Page make it abundantly clear that it is very easy to qualify for this dubious award. At least two people posted that they had received 2013 “Business Excellence” awards for businesses that had closed in 2012! In a sad sort of way, the posts are quite entertaining. Complaints can also be found elsewhere online, on a variety of consumer complaint websites, including The Ripoff Report. Phone calls to the SBIEC reach an answering machine with an “out of office” message, and a check of their address with the U.S. Postal Service returns with, “The address you provided is not recognized by the US Postal Service as an address we serve. Mail sent to this address may be returned.” The address on the old website could also not be located on Google Maps, with the closest recognizable address being the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC. The new website lists an address of 212 North Glebe Road in Arlington, Virginia. This is an image from Google Street View that shows the Knightsbridge Apartments that are located at that address. Hardly the location of such a respected and reputable company, is it?
Once again, how do you know if an award is a scam?
If you are told that you or your business is being nominated for an award – or is being presented with an award – it is probably best to think twice before you run out to buy a new tuxedo or evening dress. Follow a few guidelines, and ask a few questions.
Who is presenting the award? Do a Google search for the award. As you type in the name of the alleged award, is Google suggesting that it be followed by the word “scam”? I remember being called a few years ago (not coincidentally, during an election cycle) and being told that I was a small business leader who had been selected to be part of a recognition ceremony to be held in Washington, DC. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well, not exactly. It turns out that the “award” had been concocted by a PAC (political action committee) that was designed to generate financial contributions for the National Republican Party. I know people who fell for the “award” and took the trip to have their pockets carefully picked in the nation’s capital.
Is there an entry fee? We have received direct mailings on a regular basis in recent years, inviting us to enter our work for the Davey Awards. The direct mail pieces typically look like they were designed by an untalented 9 year old, but that is just the first tell-tale sign that something is fishy. To enter the competition, you need to pay a $99.00 single entry fee, a $185.00 campaign entry fee, or $270.00 to enter a so-called integrated campaign, or go all out and pay $305.00 to enter a marketing effectiveness category. Adding insult to injury, if you win one of the dubious awards, you will be billed a $175.00 “acceptance fee” for your statuette and certificate.
We have also received similar direct mail pieces from the Telly Awards. According to their website, the organization receives 10,000 to 15,000 entries from small advertising agencies that are hoping to promote their businesses, each paying a minimum entry fee of $85.00. Do the math. That means that this questionable award generates about $1,000,000.00 for its promoters … just from the entry fees. Want to, once again, add insult to injury? If you “win” one of these dubious awards, you will be automatically charged an additional $170.00 for your award statuette (probably plastic) and your certificate. This seems to be a bargain compared to the Davey Awards, since the minimum entry fee is slightly less, and you will pay $5.00 less for your statuette if you “win”. It is no surprise that, if you search for “Telly Awards scam” on Google, there are currently 113,000 results. The Telly Awards and Davey Awards are not alone in preying upon companies that are eager to broaden their exposure. They are joined by the Webby Awards and many, many other questionable enterprises that appear to be in the business of generating entry fees and selling statuettes. Do you think that anyone who wins an Emmy, Oscar, Tony, or Grammy pays for their award?
Are winners asked to make purchases? In addition to obvious scams, there are many so-called “awards” where the winners are presented with the opportunity to spend money with the award presenters. Among the longest-running are the various Who’s Who directories. Do not be thrown off by what appears to be a recognizable and once-respected name. Who’s Who directories are about as commonplace as Yellow Pages directories these days. For years, I have been asked to validate my nomination to “Who’s Who among Executives and Professionals”. The congratulatory letters read, “The Publishing Committee selected you as a potential candidate based not only upon your current standing, but focusing as well on criteria from executive and professional directories, associations, and trade journals. Given your background, the Director believes your profile makes a fitting addition to our publication. There is no fee nor obligation to be listed. As we are working off of secondary sources, we must receive verification from you that your profile is accurate. After receiving verification, we will validate your registry listing within seven business days. Once finalized, your listing will share prominent registry space with thousands of fellow accomplished individuals across the globe, each representing accomplishment within their own geographical area.”
I do not know a single successful businessperson who needs to be included in a directory of this nature. Despite what the promoters say, there will be a fee to be listed and, of course, you will be presented with the opportunity to purchase one or more of the (very expensive) printed directories. These directories are useless in these days of online reference sources, and even most public library reference departments no longer purchase the worthless volumes. About the only buyers are the same people who think that they were honored by being included. Go to Wikipedia to learn more about various Who’s Who scams. There are currently 47,500,000 search results for the term “Who’s Who scam” on Google.
Does the award require a reciprocal link to the award website? If you remember the early days of the World Wide Web, there were an abundance of website awards that fed the egos of early webmasters. Today, if you search for “website awards” on Google, there are 1,780,000,000 search results. Most of these awards are totally worthless, randomly selecting “winners” who are encouraged to “proudly display” the award badge on their website, linking it back to the award website. Basically, these award sites are link farms that are trying to enhance their own SEO through a network of links. As time goes on, Google and the other search engine robots have gotten much better at ignoring these sites – and even penalizing the sites that are linked to or from them.
Is the award organizer the primary recipient of value from the award? Many regional newspapers, magazines, and radio and television stations present annual “Best Of” awards, covering a wide range of categories. The categories all happen to consist of potential advertisers, and the awards are almost universally run by the advertising departments of the publications or broadcast organizations. The awards that are compiled based upon the votes of readers or viewers at least carry a bit of credibility. Even in those instances, the voting process may require a visit to the sponsor’s website (and all of its accompanying self-promotional messages). In almost every instance, the business that is presenting the awards will supply certificates that winners are encouraged to display at their places of business, badges that may be displayed on their websites, and award icons that may be added to their print advertising. All of that awareness does more to promote the businesses that are presenting the awards than the award recipients themselves. Is it any surprise that these awards have been concocted by advertising departments, and that winners are encouraged to buy advertising to help to promote their awards? This type of award is not an outright scam, but I would caution recipients against being overly manipulated in the process of engaging in their own part of the self-promotion.
Is the award presenter and the award recipient the same organization? There are also many thinly-veiled attempts to cross-promote one’s business ventures by having one organization present an “award” to what is essentially another arm of the same organization. This is somewhat along the lines of having General Motors present an award to its Buick division as the “Automobile Manufacturer of the Year”. Nobody would fall for that. Or would they?
Let the Winner Beware
The bottom line is that we all like to be recognized for our efforts, but beware of being exploited by people who prey upon that fact. Even recognition under legitimate competitions within an industry or a member association can be somewhat dubious because winners are only selected from among those who enter. Run your business properly, and your efforts will be acknowledged on a daily basis by your success and the satisfaction level of your clientele. This is the best recognition possible … and all that you really need.
Stay informed, because perpetrators of scams like the SBIEC and the USTCI will do their best to cover their tracks and change their appearances like chameleons. Spread the word to fellow small business owners. Information is our best defense against being scammed and exploited.
This post was written by Peter Pelland
Some Common Sense Thoughts on SEO
May 29th, 2014
In the business world today, there seems to be no greater obsession than SEO – Search Engine Optimization. If website traffic falls short of an owner’s ever-increasing expectations, it is an all-too-common practice to blame SEO that is somehow not up to snuff. It amazes me how many people think that the same three letters can be either the reason for their success of the reason for their failure. In reality, people have far less control over SEO than most of us would be led to believe.
Because of that common misperception, there is an entire industry that thrives on exploiting small business owners and their belief in a silver bullet. Have you ever gotten an e-mail from a self-proclaimed SEO expert? I got spammed just this morning by somebody with the message, “Want more clients and customers? We will help them find you by putting you on the 1st page of Google.” There are no listings on the “first page of Google”, a page that only contains a stylized Google logo and a search box!
In addition to those e-mails, you have probably also gotten telemarketing calls from people who claim to hold the key to the pot of gold at the end of the Google rainbow. Sometimes the caller ID even says that the call is from “Google” … something that is easy for anybody to spoof. Trust me when I tell you that Google is never going to call you and they are never going to call me. Think about it. Have you ever been able to call Google and even speak with a receptionist?
The people who claim that they can get you that elusive prime search engine placement are – almost without exception – skilled con artists who will put the average used car salesman to shame. I recently met with the owner of a small campground who had been spending $300.00 per month for alleged SEO services with a company that was accomplishing nothing on his behalf. When he tried to cancel the service, the salesperson tried to convert him to the company’s $75.00 monthly plan. When he told me the name of the company, I did a Google search for the company name followed by the word “complaints”, and there were 755,000 results!
Search today is localized to the computer performing the search and is based upon a user’s previous usage patterns. It is relatively easy to make it look like your site is appearing near the top of broad search results, but this does not mean that your site is going to appear anywhere for somebody doing a search in Peoria or Wichita. Google has built its reputation upon providing the most highly relevant search results for any particular term and any particular user, and no self-proclaimed SEO expert can outsmart Google at its own game.
I have a friend who likes to say that his website comes up in the # 1 search position on Google for long, convoluted phrases that would never be used in an actual search. If his business was a campground, his website would appear at the top of the search results for the search phrase, “full hookup pull-thru campsites with free wi-fi on Lake Winnipesaukee in Meredith, New Hampshire”. See what I mean? Unless a business holds an international monopoly or trademark on a certain product or service, it is not going to appear at the top of the search results – on its own merits – for either a broad or highly specific search term. If you search for “iPhone”, you will be taken to Apple Computer; if you search for “2014 Mustang”, you will be taken to Ford; and if you search for “Cheerios”, you will be taken to the General Mills Cheerios website.
On the other hand, if I search for “oat cereal”, at least based upon my browsing history, Cheerios does not appear anywhere on at least the first 10 pages of search results, except for the paid “sponsored search” ad at the top of each page. Do you see my point? If I was not already familiar with “Cheerios” and specifically searching for that well-known product, it would not appear in my search results. In the case of your campground, the total number of websites in the world is expected to exceed 1 Billion by the end of June 2014, according to InternetLiveStats.com, and there are over 13,000 private campgrounds in the United States alone. Can you understand how easy it is to get lost in those numbers?
A person searching for the broad term “family camping” is unlikely to be looking for your specific campground. If your campground’s website appeared at the top of the list – outside of localized content and the user’s established usage patterns – Google would lose its credibility and its dominance in the search market. Beyond localized content and usage patterns, search results are based upon relevance (primarily found in the text on pages), a site’s relative importance, timeliness of content, and a site’s general volume of traffic. Yes, the odds are stacked against the website of a small business, particularly if that Web presence is either relatively new or if it is old and static.
The old days of keyword lists have long been replaced by today’s intuitive and content-based search results. Content is king. Most importantly, it is essential that your website delivers the type of quality experience that will ensure that, once people find you, they will be more likely to stay than leave.
With a better understanding of how search results are delivered these days, you are now better prepared to ignore those phone calls and spam e-mails from people who are in the business of selling false promises and victimizing the uninformed.
This post was written by Peter Pelland
Domain Name Registration Essentials
May 16th, 2014
In recent weeks, I have been in a position where it was necessary to transfer several domain names from one registrar to another. In another instance, I successfully negotiated and rescued a domain name that had been lost four years ago by a previous webmaster who had since dropped off the face of the earth. Time and again, I am reminded of the importance of choosing a reputable registrar AND being aware of your domain name registration details.
As most people know, nobody actually owns a domain name. Think of it as a long-term lease (from 1 to 10 years) that you enter into with a domain name registrar (the equivalent of a rental agent, in this instance.) If you were leasing an apartment or an automobile, you would probably try to avoid getting burned by somebody working out of a back alley or who prefaced the conversation with the words, “Have I got a deal for you!” The same gut feelings apply to domain name registrars. My general recommendations are to never choose a registrar based solely upon price, avoid registrars that are based outside of the United States, and to resist the lemming-like tendency to choose a registrar based upon name recognition. Just because a registrar advertises on the Super Bowl does not mean that it should be your first choice.
When the time comes to transfer a registration, I have had transfers complete within 24 hours, and I have also had transfers that have dragged on for a month. I have generally found that the worst nightmares involve working with registrars based in foreign countries. In one instance, I had a client willing to pay $500.00 for an unused domain name, the widow of the registrant eager to facilitate the sale, but a registrar in Norway that refused to cooperate and eventually prevented the sale from taking place.
The first step in preventing that you ever find yourself in this type of nightmare scenario is to check the status of your existing domain name registration(s), particularly if they were registered by a webmaster or somebody else acting on your behalf. The quickest and most accurate way to check the registration of any domain name (and also to explore the availability of new domain names) is to perform a whois lookup. Go to www.whois.com, and enter the domain name in the “Whois Lookup” search box in the upper right of the page. If checking an existing domain name, the first thing that you want to check is the “Registrant” information. This should list YOUR name and YOUR business name and address, along with YOUR e-mail address. If the information is outdated or incorrect, update that information without delay. If the information is not recognizable, you may be paying for a so-called private registration. More on that later.
Another important piece of contact information associated with a domain name registration is the Administrative Contact. This will often be the contact information for your webmaster. The important things are for this to be updated if you change webmaster and for the associated e-mail address to be current and correct. Nothing will hold up a domain name registration transfer like an old e-mail address that has not been used in years. Finally, check the expiration date on your domain name, just so you can be aware of that timeframe.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when you register or renew a domain name:
- Avoid Add-Ons: I mentioned private registrations earlier in this article. That is probably the most commonly purchased domain name registration add-on, usually incurring an annual fee of $5.00 or $10.00. In almost all instances, a private registration is a total waste of money, and it will prevent you from confirming your domain name registration details without logging into your account.
- Don’t Take the Bait: Domain name registrations can be registered for terms from one to ten years. Unless there is a significant long-term discount, I would suggest registering domains and renewing those registrations on a year-to-year basis. Of course, any registrant would like to have your business locked up for the maximum 10 years. In fact, one registrar (GoDaddy) actually spread the misinformation several years ago that a 10-year registration would enhance a domain’s search engine placement.
- Be Aware of Scams: The reason that registrars would like you to register for 10-year periods is because of the domain slamming that contributes to the already high rate of “churn” within the industry. Be particularly wary of any mailed solicitations that you WILL receive in the mail from a company using the names “Domain Registry of America”, “Liberty Names of America”, or “Domain Registry Services”. The letters always show an icon of the American flag or the Statue of Liberty next to the return address, which will also show an address in either Buffalo or Niagara Falls, even though the company is conveniently located over the border in Canada – beyond the reach of prosecution by a number of otherwise eager state attorneys general. The letters imply that you are at risk of losing your domain name and must renew it now. Your domain name expiration date is probably months away – remember, the actual renewal date will appear in the whois lookup – and the fine print at the bottom of the letter will explain that by signing and returning the form with the required fee, you will actually be initiating the transfer of your domain name to the new registrar.
- Beware of Country Code Solicitations: You will probably also receive e-mail solicitations (spam) from companies (usually in China), alleging that another company has “expressed interest” in registering the .cn version of your domain name. They further imply that they are paying you the “courtesy” of offering you a right of first refusal to “protect your trademark”. They will then offer you the dubious opportunity to register the .cn (the country code for China) and various other versions of your .com domain name. Doing so is a total waste of money.
- Avoid Working with Drop Catchers:Drop catchers are people who make a living offering expired (dropped) domain names to businesses with similar domain names. When a domain name is not renewed by its registrant, it goes into a 30-day grace period, then another 5 day lock period. It is during this time period that drop catchers, without even having to actually register the expired domain in most instances, will offer it to you for purchase.Usually, they will imply that the domain name has a high value and will be going to auction. In fact, if it is of interest to you, it is highly unlikely that it will be of interest to any other business, unless there are many businesses with names similar to yours. Sometimes the drop catcher will insist that the name will go to auction. Either way, if you really want the domain name, I typically offer only $100.00, and the drop catcher will generally jump on the opportunity, since they rarely have other prospects and will have just earned about a $90.00 profit.
The domain name registration that I recently rescued after it had been lost four years ago by an old webmaster was registered with a drop catcher. Although I was able to persuade him to do the right thing and release the domain name to my client at no charge, this is a highly unlikely scenario and a stroke of extremely good luck. The most common registrars that tailor their services to working with drop catchers are SnapNames, Enom, Pool, and GoDaddy.
When you transfer a domain name from one registrar to another, it will renew the registration and extend the expiration date by one year. This is a reciprocal arrangement that applies to all registrars. Also, once a domain is transferred to another registrar, it will be locked from further transfer for 60 days.
If you are wondering why any of this is important, just keep in mind that your domain name is essentially your second business name. Losing your domain name can be just as damaging as a wildfire or flood that devastates your business. Whether you handle your domain name registration(s) yourself or have a trusted webmaster who handles that responsibility on your behalf, take a minute to check the details of your registration and be aware of the scams and pitfalls that proliferate in the online industries.
This post was written by Peter Pelland