The End.

Word Works has been on quite a ride over the past two years.  Unfortunately, due to various complications so regretfully common in business and life, we have reached the point where we cannot continue.  Rather than belabor an explanation, let it suffice to say that we found ourselves in a situation where the skill sets and the willing attitudes simply didn’t match the circumstances.
If any former clients or prospective new ones reading this are looking for the kind of assistance we provided with Word Works, please contact Stephen at stephenheiner@gmail.com or Brandon at brandon.james.carlson@gmail.com, and we’ll do our best to help you independently or put you into contact with someone else who can help.
Thank you!
Stephen and Brandon

Owners

Word Works, Inc.

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Sometimes DIY Isn’t The Answer

As a small business owner, you’ve probably gotten used to doing it yourself no matter what “it” may be.  Whether that’s the part of your business that you’re passionate about — the thing that made you want to own your own business in the first place — or the accounting for your business, or the marketing for your business, or the technology for your business, or even the cleaning up the mess at the end of the day…you probably do it yourself, or at least you did for a long time way back at the beginning.  Whether it’s something that’s built into the DNA of most small business owners or simply a necessity from being forced to run as lean as possible, DIY is par for the course in the small business world.

But there are times when it’s not in your best interest.

blogging-428954_640While it’s always wise to understand every part of your business, there comes a point of diminishing returns when the specialized knowledge that your business really needs just isn’t worth the time or effort for you to develop it yourself.  Sure, given enough time and energy you could probably learn how to do it as well as the “real” professional, but who runs your business during the time it takes you to get there?  It’s demanding enough just to build and grow a business, but to do so while learning all of the new specialized skill sets necessary to make it successful is approaching the impossible.  For some, the knowledge in question is the accounting.  For others it might be the sales or marketing.  Technology is often something that isn’t a ready part of a small business owner’s skill set.  There’s a reason there are so many independent small businesses that provide precisely these skill sets!  Most small business owners eventually begin to outsource these more specialized pieces of their life’s work to specialized professionals — whether employees or not — because the cost of paying them is less than the cost of doing it themselves.  Blogging is one of those specialized pieces.

Yes, it’s true: in the year 2015, anyone can start a blog for free in just a few minutes.  You can even make it look pretty decent, too.  But, in today’s social media driven society where you have just a few seconds to connect with your blog’s visitors before they move on to the next thing, can you grab (and hold) their attention?  Can you keep them coming back day after day, week after week? Can you build a growing readership?  Much like working the drive through at McDonald’s, blogging sounds a lot easier to do than it really is.

For one thing, blogging is its own kind of writing.  It’s not high-minded or formal academic writing, but it’s not messy, sloppy, and nonsensical, either.  In the same way that even professional authors struggle to jump from novels to short stories to newspaper reporting, it takes a significant amount of time, effort, and experience to develop the right tone of voice and style for a blog.  This can be even more tricky when you factor in the exact subject matter and content of your own particular blog, but in order to have an authentic and consistent voice, that is exactly what needs to be done.  On top of that, the mechanics of the writing needs to be high quality.  It is not uncommon to find minor typos or grammatical errors even on websites of major companies, but the more of these a reader sees, the less credibility the blog carries with that reader…if they bother to come back at all.

But it’s not just about the writing skills.  If your readers leave comments or interact with your blog in any way, it becomes even more paramount that someone with experience is on the other side of the keyboard to curate and nurture those interactions in a positive way that not only builds your brand but also provides extra value to your readers.  We’ve talked before about how to do — or not to do — social media (here, here, here), and in many cases these disasters occur because of inexperience with the platform.  If you’re not sure you can manage the inevitable trolls — or if you don’t even know what a troll is — then you may want to think twice about doing your own blogging.

success-620300_640It’s becoming more and more important to enter the blogging and social media game on behalf of your small business, but it’s also critical to get it right.  If you outsource other specialized pieces of your operations, then it only makes sense to outsource your blogging, too.

Trends To Watch (And Use!) For 2015

Being active in social media and content generation is a must for all businesses in 2015, especiallystock-exchange-295648_640 small businesses. In order to effectively utilize those tools, it helps to be on the front side of the trend curve whenever possible. One of the biggest trends in social media in 2015 is the move toward less disclosure. While this may seem counter-intuitive, understanding the reasons for the move helps put things into context.

To illustrate, let’s look at the struggles of the biggest social media platform in the world, Facebook. Facebook grew to prominence on its enormous appeal to Millenials and youth because it allowed them easy access to the comings and goings of their friends. Last year was a watershed moment for Facebook because they actually lost users for the first time in almost a decade. It would be overly simplistic to attribute this loss to any one cause, but there can be no doubt that a big part of the reason is that Facebook use is now skewing toward older adults rather than Millenials and youth. Facebook’s struggle is the fact that Millenials don’t want to be “friends” with their parents and grandparents, and don’t want to have their online activities patrolled just like their real world activities. This is precisely the reason for the move toward less disclosure on social media.

Those Millenials and youth who cause rapid growth on social media platforms are fleeing toward other options that allow them to still connect with their friends without the older generations being privy to those interactions. Believe it or not, one of the hot new trends this year is the comeback of chat rooms. Users can enter the chat room, have their interactions, and leave, all without anyone unknown hopping in alongside them. In most cases, when the chat is done there is no enduring record of the discussion.

Another reason driving the desire for less disclosure is that social media has been widely adoptedshield-107860_640 by citizens of countries all around the world where censorship is used to quell unrest or prevent freedom of speech or expression. The need for instant communication with mass numbers of people is beautifully filled by social media, and in a very real sense, people’s lives may depend on disclosing less information about the identity of those users.

Another trend that has continue to grow is that of visual social media, especially on mobile devices. Platforms like Pinterest, Instagram, and Snapchat have experience massive growth and show no signs of stopping, confirming the truth in the old saw that a picture is worth a thousand words. Video platforms are coming up quickly, too. In addition to YouTube, newer services like Cinchcast and Screenr seek to make it easier than ever for anyone to create and publish their own videos about any topic of choice. As mobile devices continue to get more powerful, and as readily available broadband public networks continue to spread, the hurdles of mass video distribution have become very low.

Another big trend that appears to be emerging is that of new and creative strategies about how to use social media. For example, rather than simple brand marketing through social media, many companies are moving toward influencer marketing to make more genuine connections with potential customers. If a popular or well-known figure endorses something they use in social media, it is likely that many of their followers will do the same. Similarly, as consumers get more social media savvy, they expect more personal messaging than a typical Twitter hashtag or Facebook pay-to-play ad. A growing number of large companies use social media to interact directly and personally with customers — and have done so with great results — and small businesses will be expected to follow suit quickly. One example is airlines quickly re-routing lamp-432246_640stranded travelers via Twitter after mechanical or weather problems. Some companies, like Lego, have created entire user communities where enthusiasts can meet and interact without any direct involvement from Lego itself. However, by paying close attention to these communities and tapping into their leaders for special projects, Lego has essentially created a system of free idea generation and innovation guidance while simultaneously building loyalty through active user engagement. The bottom line is that an emphasis should be placed on creatively making meaningful connections with customers and providing real value to them rather than simply pushing information at them. Companies who are able to do that will develop a loyal and engaged following that improves their bottom line, especially as more and more social media platforms build payment services directly into their service.

There are a few honorable mentions I wanted to toss out there, too. Wearables are just starting to hit their stride, and it’s too early to estimate the magnitude of effect they will have on the social media space. Some think that social media outlets will become reservoirs of information in themselves, and it will just take the right interface to tap into those reservoirs to create a vast searchable hub of real time information. Aggregation is on the rise, as well, whether in the form of big data analytics for corporations, tools to help small businesses better understand which social media is working for them (and which is not), or being able to blast out content to multiple social media platforms in a single click.

All of these are merely guesses at this point; time will tell which of these become fixed in our society and which will not. Regardless, it is wise to do everything possible to stay on the forefront of the industry. Using social media is no longer just a fun little side gig. Instead, it should be viewed as a core part of the business’ strategy to reach, attract, and retain loyal customers over the long term.

Make Google Work For You

Google has more tools than handyman’s toolbox. Most people know about the big ones, like Search, Gmail, Drive, Docs, and Maps, but there are many more. One of the ways in which Google innovates is by putting out numerous beta products for free, just to see which ones are picked up and used by large numbers of people. The most popular ones receive more focus and resources, and eventually become full-fledged products (Gmail was technically a beta product until mid-2009, five years after it was first released). However, there are loads more that many people haven’t heard of. For a (mostly) comprehensive list, go here. However, one of the most useful tools isn’t even on the official list of products: Google Alerts.

Google Alerts is a terrific way to make Google Search work for you and on your timeframe – think of it as customized search results delivered to your email inbox. To set up an alert, go to the starting page. There are pre-built suggestions listed there, but to customize alerts for your needs just enter your search terms in the box at the top of the page. Sample results will appear below to give you an idea of the kind of information that will be delivered by the alert. Next to the “Create Alert” button is a drop-down list of options allowing you to control how often you receive an email from the alert, what kind of sources the email will include, and several other factors. Pick the options you want and click the create button. You’ll start receiving emails with the information of your choice right away. It’s that simple.

Now that you know how to set up alerts, let’s explore why you might want to. One of the biggest challenges for a small business is reputation management. The reality of 2015 is that more and more people are looking online for answers to their questions, meaning anything that’s posted online about your company could be seen by current or potential customers. Whether it’s checking reviews on Yelp or monitoring hashtags on Twitter, you need to be wherever your customers are looking so you can make sure false information doesn’t go unchecked or requests for help don’t languish. Unfortunately, most small businesses don’t even have a marketing department let alone a PR department, so anything that can be done to simplify these critical responsibilities can be a life saver. Setting up Google Alerts for keywords like your business name or top product lines can help keep you informed of what’s being said about you online, thus giving you a chance to respond. There are other reasons, too, though. You can keep up with general news and trends on your industry, saving a lot of time by having the applicable information sent directly to you. You can do a little virtual stalking of your competitors, if you’re into that sort of thing. You can keep track of who is linking to your site by using “link:www.yourdomain.com” as your keywords. If you want to get fancy, you can use operators to nail down some specifics. For example, let’s say you want to be notified if someone hacks your site and posts racy pictures on it.  You can set up an alert with the following search terms:

Nude OR naked OR porn OR sex site:www.yoursite.com

That should run along happily invisible until such time as a hack-and-post occurs, and then it will notify you right away.  It’s a nice little bit of extra reassurance on top of your normal online security procedures.  Feel free to set up as many alerts as you’d like – Google will allow you up to 1,000 of them. It’s just a single click to edit or delete your alerts, so anyone can do it.  More tips and details about customizing your alerts can be found here.

But it’s not just for businesses. Individuals can use alerts to help discover potential identity theft or content theft, follow sports teams or Hollywood celebrities, or stay on top of new products and technologies. You can set up an alert to perform the written digital equivalent of a selfie to find out what other people are saying about you. If you’re a traveler, you can use alerts to keep you posted on what’s happening back home. If you crave savings, you can keep an eye out for coupons, discount codes, or free goodies. You can even use an alert to send you notices about a particular job title you’re interested in.

Google Alerts is a very versatile tool for just about anyone who wants to get customized search results on just about any topic. Alerts take almost no time to set up, they function with very little maintenance once created, and can be an extremely powerful way to keep tabs on the information that matters most to you. Give it a shot, and feel free to come back and leave us comments about what works (or doesn’t) best for you.

Who Do You Trust?

You’re out and about and it’s time to eat. You’re not in the mood for fast food, but you’re not sure what else is available nearby. What do you do?

If you’re like millions of other people, you whip out your phone, run a quick search for nearby restaurants and check Yelp to see how the reviews look. The trouble is, that may not give you the full story.

Though clearly the 800-pound gorilla of online review sites, Yelp has had its share of controversy and scandal, especially in recent months. It started with an increasing number of business owners accusing Yelp of everything from unfairly filtering reviews through outright extortion. It was all anecdotal, but at some point complaints become numerous enough that they start looking like they have substance. MakeUseOf recently featured the mess, including this thumbnail sketch of how things seemed to play out all too often:

The story is always the same:
– Yelp approaches a business and asks if they want to advertise with Yelp for a modest price.
– If the business declines, Yelp pursues them with more aggression.
– If the business still declines, their Yelp rating plummets as their 4- and 5-star reviews become filtered for no apparent reason.
Not surprisingly, this story also flows the other way:
– Yelp approaches a business and asks if they want to advertise with Yelp for a modest price.
– If the business accepts, they pay the fees.
– Coincidentally, they begin receiving good reviews that boost their rating while having poor reviews filtered out.

This story — or a similar version of it — played out so many times that a lawsuit was finally brought against the company to force them to cease and desist these alleged practices. The verdict was rendered earlier this fall, with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruling in favor of Yelp’s ability to legally manipulate its ratings to earn more money.

On the one hand, this makes some sense. After all, Yelp is a publicly traded company, and that means its purpose is to earn money for its shareholders. There are many companies — and indeed some entire industries — that exist and thrive in an ethical gray area, many of which could easily be said to be much worse than this. However, on the other hand, for a site whose sole purpose is to provide legitimate reviews to consumers on behalf of businesses to manipulate those reviews in a way that looks a whole lot like extortion, well, it just doesn’t pass the smell test.

Yelp steadfastly maintains its innocence, claiming it uses an automated system to promote and demote businesses based on their star rankings, and there isn’t really any hard evidence of wrongdoing (the 9th Circuit merely ruled that it would be legal if Yelp chose to manipulate its reviews, not that they actually were manipulating them). Are there plenty of valid reviews on Yelp, and is it still useful as a tool to guide consumers to the best products and services? Certainly. Is this a problem unique to Yelp? Certainly not.

In fact, the same arguments can likely be made about any major review service, and finding legitimate, fair, and honest reviews will probably remain a challenge for as long as human civilization exists. But, in the meantime, there are other options. Urbanspoon is an obvious alternative for food choices. TripAdvisor is focused on visitors, but the information is just as valid for locals, too. Major search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing generally provide review information on restaurants, events, and many other things. Angie’s List is another big name in the industry, trying to solve the review problem by requiring a paid subscription to use the service, and a more stringent review vetting process (though the same accusations have plagued it in the past, too). There are many others, some based on location, some based on a topic, and some based on nothing at all. Search around and try some new sites; you may be pleasantly surprised.

At the end of the day, this mess with Yelp should be at minimum a cautionary tale to both business owners and consumers alike. Small businesses can spend a lot of time and effort trying to appease online reviewers, and to do so for reviews that are deliberately squelched or unfairly manipulated is both costly and maddening. Similarly, consumers may miss a high quality business simply because it has run afoul of a review service, or go to a business expecting one thing and getting something entirely different, causing an equally maddening experience. The bottom line is that online reviews should always be viewed with a giant grain of salt. If you want to be really thorough, it’s probably best to use multiple services to check any business. It should probably go without saying, of course, that asking people you know with first hand experience of those businesses is perhaps the best way to go because they’re not trying to make money off of their recommendation. Of course, their recommendation may depend on what they think of you, but that’s an entirely different subject…

How Many Connections Should I Have On LinkedIn?

That, my friend, is an excellent question!LinkedIn

There are two primary schools of thought on this: quality or quantity.  Those who lean toward quantity will try to create the biggest list of connections possible in order to expand their network as far as possible.  This could come in very handy when looking for jobs, especially targeted searches for particular companies or industries – obviously, if you have thousands of connections, a single post to your LinkedIn page is going to reach far more people than if you had just a couple hundred connections, thus increasing your chances of finding your target somehow.  LinkedIn has also become quite the gathering ground for business- or industry-related articles and opinion columns.  Having a lot of connections means a lot of eyes will see whatever you post, and increase your chances of getting interactions and notice from others in your industry.  However, there are some downsides to having a huge network on LinkedIn, and they need to be considered, as well.

For one thing, one of the best ways to connect to someone new and grow your network is through LinkedIn introductions.  Normally, you would ask one of your existing connections to write a brief introduction message and put you in touch with someone you’re trying to reach (who is a connection of theirs).  If you have a vast network of connections but don’t really know them very well, that introduction message is likely to lack a certain heartfelt genuineness that could put off the recipient and fail to bring about an actual contact in real life.  Second, when you connect with someone, you can see all of their connections…and they can see yours.  Whether or not it’s fair or right, the people with whom you associate do reflect on you, so if you don’t know your connections well, it’s possible that their actions, words, or histories could be damaging to you without you even knowing it.  Finally, studies show that it’s usually the quality of your connections rather than the quantity of your connections that are more likely to land you a job.  It’s those personal recommendations from people who really know the kind of person — and professional — you are that carry weight with those making the hiring decisions.

Social network connections by pnx - NetworkingThis leads us to the quality school of thought.  In addition to the recommendation aspect previously mentioned, there is the flip side, as well.  If someone asks you to introduce them to one of your connections, but it’s not someone you know well enough to thoroughly endorse, then why bother having them as a connection in the first place?  Similarly, you don’t want to introduce someone to one of your connections that ends up being a total flake; that makes you look bad!  Actually knowing all of your connections is probably the single biggest thing to keep in mind when it comes to either side of the recommendation coin.  Of course, there’s a threshold below which being choosy in your connections becomes silly – if you only have three or four connections, then you’re kind of wasting your time on LinkedIn.  Find a happy medium that works for you.  There’s also that association thing at play, too; you don’t want to be connected to someone who turns out to be a serial killer, and you certainly don’t want to introduce them to anyone new!

In all seriousness, though, the bottom line is that when you’re setting up your LinkedIn network, first stop and think about how you plan to use it.  Is your goal to get as big a network as possible because you plan to post industry relevant information on a regular basis?  Is it just to have a convenient online resume that people can see when need them to?  Is it to make (and help others make) genuine connections in a way that jobs are found and lives are improved?  Bottom line: what’s your purpose?  This question will go a long way toward guiding your decision-making process on who your connections should be and what threshold you use for determining which connection request to send or accept.Contacts by roshellin - Contact Book

One more thing – don’t be afraid to remove connections.  It’s probably a good idea to sweep through your LinkedIn contacts list at least yearly to remove contacts with whom you no longer keep in touch.  Think of it as a digital spring cleaning.  If nothing else, use that sweep to first try to re-establish contact with people and renew those relationships.  If they don’t respond, then you know it’s time to remove them from your list.

LinkedIn is a terrific tool, but like most other tools it is only really useful in the right situations and in the right hands.  Develop your purpose, make a plan, and then execute it.  You’ll be doing yourself a favor.

Burn Some Time Or Engage People: Flipbook And Disqus

The Internet isn’t exactly brand new anymore, but many people still don’t have a firm grasp on just how effective it is in terms of enabling people to be creative and engage with one another.  Sure, everyone checks email and does some browsing on a regular basis, but the sheer volume of ways to connect with other people is mind blowing.  In this post, we’ll discuss two of them.  

If you have a creative streak in you or want to dabble in animation, this could be a great discovery.  A traditional “flipbook” is a book of static images that, when flipped flipbookquickly with a thumb or finger, blend together to create a movie.  Flipbook is the digital equivalent of the traditional entertainment tool.

This clever app allows the user to create a series of pictures one at a time, then automatically strings them together into a video that the user can share with others.  With multiple layers, the user can modify the background frame by frame while leaving the main character in the foreground alone, or vice versa.  Each layer can be manipulated to seamlessly tell whatever story the user wants to share.  Flipbook makes it dead simple to save the video for later viewing or share it with others.  A companion website provides a centralized location for users and visitors alike to view other people’s flipbooks, vote on the ones they like, and share them with others.  The only major downside is that it is not currently available on Android, the biggest smartphone and tablet platform in the world.

Still, a brief spin through Flipbook’s archives shows the kind of enormous variety you’d expect from a multitude of users unleashing their creative genius.  Most are short, topics are as numerous as there are grains of sand on a beach, and the quality of the art varies widely.  For some, Flipbook is just a fun way to pass some time; for others, it’s a serious medium to develop and share some serious digital art talent.

Disqus

Maybe words are your thing more than pictures.  Maybe you like to engage directly in dialogue rather than simply share a link to something you like.  Maybe you just can’t hold back from a lively conversation.  If any of these things come close to describing you, take a look at Disqus, one of the biggest commenting platforms on the Internet today.

disqus_logoDisqus is primarily a commenting system for blogs and online communities who wish to include discussions on their sites.  Currently, it serves roughly 75% of all such websites that use a third party system for comments, and has almost 150 million unique monthly visits in the U.S. alone.  A single Disqus login can grant you access to conversations on a myriad of websites, with no fuss whatsoever – if you’re on a website that uses Disqus for its comment system, just login and join the fun!  There is a system of upvoting that carries the best and/or most helpful comments up to the top for even more exposure, so it could be a great tool for business owners trying to drive discussion on a certain product or topic.

But that’s not all – graphically, it’s very satisfying, as well.  Take a gander at the Disqus website, and you’ll find a mesmerizing synopsis of all of the conversations currently taking place on Disqus, organized by categories like Games or Celebrities or Sports.  Each category is floating on the screen like a bubble, with the number of comments registered to the category attached to the bubble.  You can watch as new conversations pop up on the bubbles, and old ones fall off.  A simple click will give you the most recent comment on the subject, but you can drill into it even more and be taken to the article being discussed.

Website owners can harness the power of this phenomenal level of collaboration for their own site, and in conjunction with other social media sites, Disqus can be a fantastic tool for not only keeping up with current digital discussion trends, but also in driving them.

engage_with_customersThese sites will appeal to different people for different reasons, but both are well designed and achieve their missions with style.  Whether you’re looking to just burn some time on the Internet, or looking to engage with people for one reason or another, both are worth checking out.