Do You Have Social Media Game?

social media strategy for small business
Anyone can set up a Twitter account – but not everyone can see a business lift from tweeting. It all comes down to your “social media game”. Although social media initially started as a fun way to keep in touch with friends and family, it’s become a valuable business tool that can help directly increase your bottom line.

But since anyone – and everyone – is doing social these days, you have to keep your skills a cut above the rest. Keeping your social media accounts active is a first good step, but if you want to improve your game you have to go one step further – planning.

Social media planning is the key to leveraging this platform for your small business. Not only will you save time, but you’ll see better results because your approach will be more targeted and well thought out. You won’t just grab links, post and see what happens. You’ll develop a plan for connecting with your audience in a meaningful way that will build trust and lead to sales.

Best of all, your customers want you to reach out. According to research from Edelman’s annual “brandshare” report, 9 out of 10 surveyed customers want to have meaningful interactions with brands on social media.

Here are four steps you need to take each day to improve your social media game.

  1. Interact.

    Your current customers are the foundation of your business, so your first priority is to interact with them regularly. Whether you’re marketing on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or a little of each, you need to take time to respond to customers on these platforms. In just a few minutes a day, you can login to each platform, reply to questions and interact with customers in meaningful ways. Accept new connections, welcome new followers and thank others for sharing your content.

  2. Spy.

    Once you’ve dealt with the real time responses, the next step in your social media plan should be spying on your followers, competition and other influencers. During this phase, take note of trending topics and other popular content that would be relevant to your audience.

  3. Post.

    Next, you’ll want to schedule your posts for the day on your selected platforms. You can use scheduling tools like Sprout Social or Hootsuite to schedule posts for optimal times of day. Use your own content or select from the most popular content you discovered during your “spy” phase.

  4. Review.

    Reviewing your success on social media is key to continuing that success in the future. You need to know what types of content are doing best, which platforms are ideal for your audience and how often you should be posting. There are no absolutes when it comes to these factors – it will all depend on your unique business. Use the native analytics tools inside of each platform, or look to one of the scheduling tools for comprehensive analytics. Review these on a weekly basis and make changes to your plan.

Don’t let your social media game suffer! Interact, spy, post and review on a daily basis to create a plan that works for your small business.

About the author:

Tobi North – Creativity rock star and marketing master
I enjoy being innovative and creating communications that customers can relate to. I am always looking for that “light bulb” moment, when I find an interesting topic that I know our customers will love to learn more about. In between creative brainstorming sessions, you can probably find me at a concert or searching for the best BBQ joint in town. .

Follow me on Twitter.

5 Biggest Tax Breaks You Might Be Missing

tax breaks you don't want to miss
Now that another tax season is upon us, it’s time to get cross your T’s and dot your I’s – and to be sure that you’re maximizing your tax savings. There are a number of different breaks that you can benefit from on a personal or a business level. Here are five that you may not know you were eligible for.

Startup costs

If you started your business in 2014, be sure to take advantage of all of the write offs available to you. Startup costs like computer equipment, consultations with business experts like lawyers and accountants, and even auto expenses can be deducted. As soon as your business starts making sales, you can deduct up to $5,000 in startup costs during the first year. The rest of the costs will be amortized across the next 15 years.

Higher education

Pursuing your MBA to round out your skills and take your business to the next level? You could be eligible for the Lifetime Learning credit. It’s meant to offset costs for higher education – and unlike the American Opportunity Tax Credit, it is available for any years of attendance of post-secondary education and not just the first year. It can also be applied if you are just taking some extra classes and not pursuing a formal degree. The Lifetime Learning credit can be as high as $2000 per eligible student.

Charity donations

Although most businesses are aware that the money they donate to their favorite causes is tax deductible, don’t forget about the physical items! If you donated food to a homeless shelter, crayons to an after school program or drove anywhere to help volunteer for a charity, you can write off the costs. Be sure to save your receipts throughout the course of the year and get the deductions you deserve.

Employee reimbursements

If you reimbursed any of your employees for business related expenses, you are eligible for deductions. Gas, meals, hotel accommodations and more can create a tax break for your business. You need to have an “accountable plan” to prove that the funds were actually reimbursements for business related expenses – so keep copies of receipts and clear records.

Marketing costs

Spending money on tooting your own horn can be a good thing! Any costs that you incur while promoting your business can be written off at the end of the year. This means that everything from printing new business cards to designing a new website can save you money at tax time. Public relations efforts, advertising and product samples fall under this category as well – so be sure you’re taking advantage.

How are you going to save at tax time this year?

About the author:

Jenn Boutwell – VP Marketing & Strategic Alliances
I am a Sage One brand ambassador and team building virtuoso. Professionally I am known for building strong teams and organizing complex situations. I am passionate about making small business owners’ lives easier so they can spend more time on what they are passionate about. When I’m not running between meetings, I’m running half-marathons and training for a full marathon.

Drop me a line at jennifer.boutwell@sage.com.

How to Fall Back in Love with Your Business

fall in love with your business again
February is the month of love – at least according to the greeting card companies. So how much do you love your business? Striking out on your own as an entrepreneur is an act of love. You’re declaring to the world that you’re so passionate about what you do that you’re willing to charge for it. You’re willing to put your blood, sweat and tears into your business because you are absolutely in love with it.

But just like love in romantic relationships, your love for your business can fade with time. It’s often said that there’s a big difference between a wedding (a symbol of love) and a marriage (love expressed over time) and the same is true for your business. You may have been fueled by passion and excitement when you first launched, but now that thrill is fading and you’re faced with the very real work of keeping your business going.

Without a true love for your business, you’re going to find it harder and harder to stay motivated. Before you know it, everything has become routine. You start to feel bored and trapped – just like you did at your old 9-to-5 job.

It doesn’t have to be this way! Just like any relationship, you need to actively rekindle your love for business over time. Make February the month where you’re going to reignite your passion. Here’s how.

Revamp your mission statement.

One of the most important steps for any new business is to define a mission statement. But there’s only so much you can define when you are first starting out. Your initial mission statement needs to be revamped so you feel excited and engaged with your business. Dust off your old mission statement and reread it. Does it still get you fired up? If not, it’s time to draft a new one that will help you rekindle the love.

Delegate, delegate, delegate.

Your business is *yours* – but that doesn’t mean you have to guard it like a jealous lover. A lot of small business owners resist the urge to outsource because they want keep control. If you’re the same, you could be creating your own recipe for falling out of love. By trying to do far too much, you’re going to burn out and get pulled further away from the parts of the business that keep you passionate. Get some outside help and delegate out all of those little tasks that drag you down.

Look for opportunities to grow.

Entrepreneurs love a challenge – so if your business life falls into complacency you might fall right out of love. Go beyond the same old, same old. Plan a project for the next six months that will take your business in new directions. Enter a new market, challenge yourself to start public speaking, reach out to another business about referral opportunities – it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you’re growing. Challenge yourself to try something new and you may find the passion you’ve been missing.

Love doesn’t happen on its own. If you want to stay passionate about what you do, you need to get refocused, delegate where you can and look for new opportunities.

How do you keep the love alive for your business?

About the author:

Lawton Ursrey – Sage One awareness guru and fellow entrepreneur
I have a healthy disrespect for the impossible and a passion for the little details. While I run my own small business, I am also passionate about helping other small business owners. If I’m not running my business, or helping you run yours, then I’m probably playing guitar.

Follow me on Twitter.

How to Work from Home – And Actually Get Stuff Done

Tips for working from home

Your dreams of working in your pajamas and making millions are being frittered away with far too many distractions. From the pile of dishes in the sink to the ever present temptation of checking in to Facebook, you might be falling victim to procrastination and a steep decline in productivity. But it doesn’t have to be this way! You can work from your home office and be productive. Here’s how.

Declare a “work zone” in your home.

Working from home doesn’t mean you should spend your time on the couch with your laptop. Having a dedicated home office – or at least just a work station – will help define the lines between your work time and your home time. This makes it easier for your brain to shift in between “work” mode and “play” mode, even though you haven’t left the house. When you enter your home office or sit down at your workstation, you can easily shift your mindset and be more productive.

Define clear work hours – with specific tasks for each day.

Don’t try to squeeze in your work wherever it fits. It’s far too easy to get distracted and lower your productivity if you’re doing a few minutes here and a few minutes there. When you sit down at your desk or in your office, you need to have a plan for how long you’ll be there and a plan for what exactly you’ll do. For example, you could make it part of your plan to update your social media accounts at 10 am every day – or read through an industry blog every Friday afternoon. Having set hours and a specific schedule will keep you focused.

Take regularly scheduled breaks.

It’s theorized that your brain can concentrate on a task for about 25 minutes, and then you’ll need a five minute break. But when you’re working from home the minutes and hours can seem to run together. Schedule regular breaks between tasks, and a longer break for the afternoon so you can stay refreshed.

Get your family and friends on board.

Sometimes other people can be the cause for your distractions. If they are used to you being available for a quick lunch time catch up or a mid-afternoon phone call, they can derail your plans for productivity. Once you’ve established your new work hours, let them know you’ll be unavailable. Don’t respond to non-work related texts, emails or phone calls.

Find time to get outside of the house.

Working from home can be convenient, but it can also lead to isolation. Make it a point to get out and about a few times per month. Find a networking group through MeetUp so you can connect with other local entrepreneurs. Or consider spending a day or two at a local coworking space. Getting away from your home office will give you a fresh perspective, and may even lead to a joint venture opportunity.

What are you going to do to make working from home work?

About the author:

Jenn Boutwell – VP Marketing & Strategic Alliances
I am a Sage One brand ambassador and team building virtuoso. Professionally I am known for building strong teams and organizing complex situations. I am passionate about making small business owners’ lives easier so they can spend more time on what they are passionate about. When I’m not running between meetings, I’m running half-marathons and training for a full marathon.

Drop me a line at jennifer.boutwell@sage.com.

How to Kick Your Referral Engine Into High Gear

how to ask for business referrals

According the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA), 90% of small businesses use word-of-mouth referrals to attract new business, and 59% of Americans make buying decisions based on referrals. So what are you doing to make sure that your current clients are telling their friends, family and associates how great you are?

If you want more business, you need to foster referrals. They don’t happen automatically. Fortunately, there are several proven ways that can help you build a referral machine inside of your business.

Get out of your own head.

A lot of small business owners avoid asking for referrals because they feel too sheepish to ask. Asking for a referral isn’t being pushy or “salesy.” It’s a natural part of growing your business, and your happy clients will be thrilled to spread the word about your services. Get out of your own head and focus on the end results.

Ask right away.

You just finished a contracting job for a brand new client and they are thrilled with the results. The time to ask for a referral is right now – and not six months down the line when the glow of your awesomeness has faded. Asking for referrals should be a regular part of closing each project or finishing a job for a client. Integrate it into your normal project or job closing process.

Experiment with different phrasing.

You don’t have to say, “Do you know anyone else who might benefit from my service?” in order to get referrals. Try getting specific so your customers know who to refer your way. You can ask “Do you know of anyone who has similar issues that you experienced, which I can help with?” or “Who do you know that might need to solve this type of problem too?” If you’re looking for homeowners, single moms or executives, be sure that you specify that in your referral request as well. Make it easy for your customers to send people your way.

Add requests to your emails, invoices and other documents

Always ask for a referral directly – but make use of text to send gentle reminders to your client base. Your email signature line, invoices and other documents you send to customers can have a brief statement that encourages referrals. For example, “I’m never too busy for any of your referrals” or “If you love our work, your friends will too!” can serve as a reminder to customers that you open for referrals.

Express your thanks.

Ask every customer who comes your way how they heard about your business – and thank the referral. Send something nice to the people who have referred your company. You don’t have to break the bank to say thanks. While everyone would appreciate a $20 gift card to Starbucks, a handwritten thank you note can be just as meaningful.

Referrals can have an amazing impact on your business – if you don’t sit around waiting for them to happen. Use these steps to create a referral machine within your business and watch the new customers stream in based on word of mouth.

Tobi North – Creativity rock star and marketing master
I enjoy being innovative and creating communications that customers can relate to. I am always looking for that “light bulb” moment, when I find an interesting topic that I know our customers will love to learn more about. In between creative brainstorming sessions, you can probably find me at a concert or searching for the best BBQ joint in town. .

Follow me on Twitter.

How (and Why) to Take a Real Vacation

why you need a real vacation
With the busy holiday season behind us, now is the time to start planning a “real” vacation. I know you spent time with friends and sipped a little eggnog in December, but did you really unplug over the holidays? Putting your nose to the grindstone may feel like the only way to make your small business a success, but when you work at 110% for too long, you can find yourself burning out really fast.

A real vacation – one away from the office and out of your email app – is essential for your personal health, and for your business. Even if you absolutely love what you do, avoiding leisure time can increase your negative emotions, decrease your health level and reduce your overall life satisfaction.

But how do you make this happen? It all comes to down to prioritizing, planning and disconnecting.

Prioritize your “must do’s.”
In the weeks leading up to your vacation time, you might be tempted to overwork in order to justify taking time off. Instead of overloading yourself and spending your vacation recovering from burn out, take time to prioritize your “must do’s.” Sending your client a project on time needs to stay on your list, but you might want to put off updating your website or reading the latest industry white paper until you’re fresh from vacation.

Plan what needs to happen while you’re gone.
If you understand the power of delegation, you’ve probably got a team member or two that you work with closely in order to get more done. Use a collaborative tool like Sage One to plan out what needs to happen when you’re gone. You can attach notes, resources and instructions to each to do item so you won’t constantly be worried, or following up with your team via email when you’re supposed to be relaxing. Set clear expectations with your team for communication (ie: you’ll be checking email each morning) so they know when they should and can contact you.

Disconnect from your role as an entrepreneur.
Being a successful entrepreneur requires a lot of focus – so it’s easy to let personal relationships, self-care and just plain fun fall to the wayside. During your vacation time you need to make a mental shift and think about yourself as a whole person instead of a business owner. If you see yourself as a busy entrepreneur who is guiltily stepping away from the office, you aren’t going to enjoy yourself as much.

Do yourself a favor and take a real vacation – even for just a weekend. You’ll avoid overwhelm, get new ideas and become a more well-rounded person.

What’s your plan for taking a break this year?

About the author:

Lawton Ursrey – Sage One awareness guru and fellow entrepreneur
I have a healthy disrespect for the impossible and a passion for the little details. While I run my own small business, I am also passionate about helping other small business owners. If I’m not running my business, or helping you run yours, then I’m probably playing guitar.

Follow me on Twitter.