Reflections on fallout

Reading time:

Some months into COVID and work-from-home, I was taking a meeting from my bed. I’m generally exiled to my bedroom, as my six-year-old is simultaneously schooling from home, and with four classes per day, sometimes hours apart, his non-class time is spent spread out playing in the common areas while listening to kid’s podcasts. On that day, while I was speaking in the meeting, my child wandered into my room, grinning, with green marker all over his face, eyelids, lips, and neck. It was a new bead on a string of parent-life and work-life collisions that now happen regularly.  

I sighed and kept speaking.

I can’t complain. In all, he is a joy and an easy kid. He’s generally happy, I can mostly figure out what he needs, and he has a rich imagination he can occupy himself with.

But when I first began working from home, I was suffering from COVID. Living in the Pacific Northwest, I was an early case; too early for testing, and when antibody tests came out, too far past infection to measure for those. But doctors noted my inability to draw anything but shallow breath, as well as a decreased blood oxygen level, severe lethargy, fatigue, muscle weakness, kidney pain, blinding chronic migraines, confusion, sinus difficulties, and inability to smell, and they concluded I was an extreme case. Still suffering, in the same way, six months later, I was diagnosed as a long-hauler

At this time last March, I also experienced grief over the fact that I could no longer work how I used to. The number of plates I could spin reduced by a third to half depending on the day or week—sometimes more. Thankfully, I wasn’t alone in this regard at work, and my colleagues supported me. But there is no adjustment to an unsustainable reality. While I was trying to get “ahead” by making dinner for us during lunch, walking the dog, and reading to my child all within an hour, I wasn’t registering that intense productivity at all. I was erasing it, concentrating only on what I wasn’t doing. And somehow, through illness, I kept working and parenting full time. During the worst months, I often had to call a friend to come make dinner and play with my child because I couldn’t stand up or lift my arms.

Still, I could recline with a computer on my lap, weak arms propped on pillows. And though I was completing task after task at work by computing when my child was asleep and before waking, I dismissed the value in it. All I could see is where I was falling down. Like so many, I couldn’t keep the house clean like I did before. I couldn’t find time to recenter myself or feel like anything but a brain at a computer and a parent trying to meet needs, day after day. It was hard to find any personal meaning or value in the haze of chronic productivity.

“One thing that has saved me is TikTok. Really.”

“One thing that has saved me is TikTok. Really.”

As the months dripped by, that haze and that constant feeling—the feeling that I was never close to the waterline, let alone above it—became totally blurred by a smear of work and life enmeshment. My computer was always open. I was constantly monitoring what was happening and ready for an extra 15 minutes of work whenever I could manage. My health finally picked up a bit in summer, but I immediately did too much in an attempt to catch up to some imaginary bar I had set for myself, and my health went into a tailspin again in autumn. 

In this cloud and always sitting on the brink, the ways I thought about myself and reflected on my life evolved at a crawl. One thing that has saved me and served as a mirror, aside from amazing friends, is TikTok.  

Yes, TikTok. 

In March of 2020 I found myself cranking through story after story on TikTok—not only content creators doing clever dances and creating happy trends, but moms working from home, trying to do everything, feeling like no matter what they were failing, always dressed in yesterday’s sweats; juggling a kid, a phone, a computer, laundry, snacks, a dog, dishes. And yet, still knowing what shoe size their kid was in and when they would need to upgrade, still setting up and getting their kids to doctor appointments, still reading parenting books, still working with their kids to build their emotional IQs and help them through quarantine, still sending out birthday cards, still scheduling virtual playdates, still making holidays special for children. 

One day a friend listened to me as I cried recounting all the ways in which I felt like I was failing and how at sea I felt floating among it all, and very far from the fulfilling creative projects I had abandoned. She reminded me that I was measuring myself through an impossible lens, a lens solely focused on productivity, and one that says nothing about the quality of a person, their soul, their evolution, their growth or development. It struck me in that second, as though my head knew that—that the target always moves, and enough is never enough—but my heart was late to the integration. 

Over on my beloved TikTok, other people—and especially moms—are starting to connect that messaging too. People are raising the idea of a four-day workweek, for example, or more vacation time, more time self-development, more time for being filled up as a person. These sorts of changes could transform the world, the habits, and the model our children inherit for the better.

It’s curious to see this connection and mental shift, which looks like a collective realization—one that has shaped in the wake of feeling like we are chronically falling short, because maybe, probably, it isn’t us. Maybe it’s the untenable expectations to be perfectly ideal parents and chronically productive, all of the time. Those expectations don’t serve us in our current reality—nor, likely, our future. 

“We are continually told that we are the flaw. That if we just got up a half-hour earlier, read those books, watched a certain webinar, stopped buying avocado toast…”

“We are continually told that we are the flaw. That if we just got up a half-hour earlier, read those books, watched a certain webinar, stopped buying avocado toast…”

My brother-in-law is a Deputy Chief in the Fire Department of a major city. He’s second in line, managing city catastrophes and hearing FEMA’s plans, thinking, and processes during national and local cataclysms. He has always maintained our country is two simultaneous disasters away from total fallout. After this last year, it’s clear most of our lives are like that too. We’re so chronically taxed, racing, wildly chasing mechanical hares, stretching for brass rings that are purposely unattainable, that when stresses pile on, we are in a state of shock and dither or overcompensation and performative busy-ness until we swallow the knot in our throat and have the courage to realize: it isn’t us falling down, it isn’t us that’s failing.    

We are continually told by media, blogs, influencers, that we are the flaw. That if we just got up a half-hour earlier, read those books, watched a certain webinar, stopped buying avocado toast, and so on endlessly, that then, and only then, would we be deemed “highly-functioning.” This mode of mentality erases everything else we do, and the places where we have soul-worth; worth for ourselves outside of external validation, which might be meaningful, or not. It inhibits our ability to be real people who come into union with ourselves and our personal sense of curiosity and interests; people who are free to revel in hobbies, who have regular and sustained joy for joy’s sake, who are sparked by wonder and throw themselves into exploration.   

Work can, of course, fulfill us, but not totally, and parenting can fill us up, but not all the way. We need our hands in the earth, planting and tending, or our minds creating open-ended paths for projects, exploring ideas, stringing together our own words, or wondering, or woodworking, or reading, or resting, or programming something just for the joy and exploration that feeds us alone. 

“Work can fulfill us, but not totally, and parenting can fill us up, but not all the way.”

“Work can fulfill us, but not totally, and parenting can fill us up, but not all the way.”

This moment has unfolded as an opportunity to reimagine our whole world. We can spend more time on what we love, even if it doesn’t have a measurable impact of some kind—especially if it doesn’t. We can make the work-at-all-costs attitude a relic of the “Before Times.” We have a singular chance to create a foundation and show our communities, children, and loved ones what it means to keep growing, evolving, and developing, modeling curiosity and depth that we can portray and share. 

I hope we sustain and retain the idea to let go of telling each other what we do, and start finding out who we want to be and are becoming, outside of productivity, far outside of what is measurable; wonder for wonder’s sake.

This last year has vibrantly reflected so many absurdities and traps of output-at-all-costs, and thankfully connected my head to my heart in this regard, altering not only my own measurements for success, wholeness, and worth, but that of many others, and I hope that understanding is something that becomes highly communicable… in a good way. 

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Marketing agencies, IT services, design and development firms, video studios, consultants—the world of business-to-business services has changed radically in recent times. As clients approach their trusted service providers, they do so with new needs, new demands, and historically high expectations. How can businesses best satisfy and retain clients who are counting on them?

We sat down with Justin Dunham from ércule, a full-service content and search engine optimization agency, to find out how he’s adapted his business and stayed on top of evolving client expectations.

Read the interview

Jill McKenna: Hello, everyone. I’m Jill. I’m the brand manager here at Ruby. And I’m so delighted to be speaking with Justin Dunham today. Justin is owner of ércule. Justin, do you mind explaining a little bit about your work and what ércule does?

Justin Dunham:
Yeah. So, ércule is a boutique digital marketing agency and our mission is to make it so that your content is successful. One of the things we’ve noticed is that people can write and produce all kinds of things, but there’s so many other things that you need to know to actually translate what you write and create into success. We do a lot of SEO for clients. We do a lot of content strategy, and we situate that in a full-service agency. We often do things, like marketing operations and analytics, too, and even paid media for folks as well. That’s what we do.
 
Jill McKenna:
I know business services clients can often come with high expectations and sometimes high dollars attached to them. Can you speak a little bit about developing those unique relationships and managing them?
 
Justin Dunham:
The number one thing we’ve found in this business is it’s all about creating that personal connection. You just can’t templatize everything. It has to be about the people who you’re dealing with on the client side and the people that you are dealing with on the agency side, and the relationship between those people. And of course, it’s about the work, but the relationship has to be really good for it to be successful.
 
So in terms of managing these projects, I think a lot of it is the emotional energy that you bring to the interactions with people. It’s being responsive to what they’re looking for. It’s being willing to sometimes not necessarily go way beyond the scope of what you’ve been hired for, but trying to be as responsive as you can to all kinds of unexpected or perhaps even uncommon things that might come up during the process. And your job as somebody who’s in client service is to do the best you can to actually help the client with that problem and help them look really good at work.
 
Jill McKenna:
But how do those relationships change over time and through multiple projects? Because you can have these relationships for a very long time. So how does that evolve?
 
Justin Dunham:
I think the way those relationships evolve, hopefully they get a little bit deeper. And as a result, they get more efficient. So I can think about lots of examples where we’ve been hired to work in one very specific area and it becomes possible to expand that work or deliver more value for our client because we’ve gotten to know them in this one area. We know their approach. We understand their business. We can work together well with them. And that lets us work on other things that might be more challenging or that might be adjacent to what we were originally working on.
 
And that’s what you really want. And that’s a huge part of this business is being able to evolve the relationship in that way. I think the other thing that happens too, is your client hopefully becomes an expert in a lot of these areas along with you. Or maybe not an expert-expert, but part of job as working in client service is to really help educate them. And so, they’re asking better questions. And so they can work with you on getting deeper and deeper into the real challenges, the real places that you might be able to create value for them.
 
Jill McKenna:
So, what kind of client experience and service standards do your customers tend to expect and how is that driven by that relationship that you’ve explained?
 
Justin Dunham:
We’re an agency with a real focus on partnership. We’ve had clients who have engaged us and a big reason has been, hey, we’re not talking to your salesperson. We know we’re talking to the actual team that we’re going to be working with. And that’s a big deal for our folks. So in terms of how the engagement works, we always try… And again, let me know if I’m giving you the answer that you are looking for here. In terms of the way the engagement works, there’s a lot of responsiveness in terms of, for example, all of our clients have their own Slack channel with directly with us. And we don’t have an SLA. You know, we don’t say like, we’re going to get back to you in an hour or two. It might take longer than that. But just having that channel where they can actually really talk with us at any time they want, even if we don’t respond right away, makes a big difference.
 
So I think that’s part the engagement and that’s part of creating that relationship with them. I think the other thing is, of course, you have your weekly meetings and there’s all sorts of other things, too. When we do reporting with our clients and updates, our decks are always in the same format. They’re really easy to read. We think a lot about the user experience that our clients are going to have in terms of parsing the data that we’re giving them. A lot of agencies, we’ve seen them send clients like Excel spreadsheets that are not very well-organized or long memos that are not formatted or not well-written. Writing is a really key part of communicating as well, especially digitally and in digital marketing with clients. And so good writing, good, well-structured writing is also a really important part of that.
 
Jill McKenna:
What do you wish people knew about business services work and what you all do and what this is really like, tending those relationships every day?
 
Justin Dunham:
I wish people knew that business services is this: To do it well is this incredibly complicated and often very fun—a combination of technical expertise, which you have to bring to the table. You have to know what you’re doing, that’s what you’re being hired for. But together with that, there’s a big emotional component to it, which is around explaining what you’re doing and why it’s valuable, being responsive to what your clients, perhaps their fears about what might happen with a project or even what might be going on with their business. And also responsive to the fact that usually clients hire you because they don’t know very much about a certain area and they don’t have the expertise.
 
You have to find a way to communicate that to them and help them understand more and feel really good about what you’re doing for them, knowing that by definition they’re not in a position to always deeply evaluate everything that you’re doing from the position of an expert. I think people really overlook that emotional component to the service. And again, technical expertise is the foundation for the whole thing. Providing the services, doing it efficiently—that’s the foundation, but there is a huge component, which is just about building the relationship, good service, keeping your client first, really thinking about what their needs are even beyond the technical stuff you might be delivering for them.
 
Jill McKenna:
Thank you for that answer. Justin, it’s been so great to talk to you today. I’m so thankful for your time. Where can people find you online?
 
Justin Dunham:
Check us out at ercule.co. We have a library there—we’re constantly writing about topics that are useful to know for small businesses and startups around marketing and how to make yourself successful and how to get everything set up. I’ve also got a chatbot. We’re always happy to do office hours. You can reach out to me on LinkedIn—Justin Dunham. I’m right up there and posting all the time. So it’d be great to hear from you all.
 
Jill McKenna:
Thank you so much.
 
Justin Dunham:
Yeah, thanks a lot.
 
Jill McKenna:
Have a good one.

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For lawyers like Ashton Taylor of the A. Taylor Law Firm, recent months have brought rapid change. Ashton, like many lawyers dedicated to using their knowledge and skills to support their communities, has embraced and leveled up his technology, apps, client services, and equipment at a much more accelerated rate than expected. 

We were delighted to sit down with this valued Ruby customer to hear about what has worked, what hasn’t, and how changes have revolutionized his service and trajectory.

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Jill McKenna: So first, this is my first time getting to talk to you, which I’m super excited about. So I’m Jill, I’m the Brand Manager here at Ruby. Do you mind please telling us a little bit about yourself and your work?

Ashton Taylor:
Okay. I’m a small business owner, as you said, an attorney here in Texas. I’ve been practicing on my own for about nine years—well, it’ll be 10 years this year. I started back in early 2011. My background is in accounting and finance. I worked in corporate America and oil and gas accounting finance here in Houston, Austin area. I decided to go to law school, like a midlife crisis thing. A lot of people go backpacking and jumping out of planes—I just decided to go to law school. I went to law school up here in Texas at Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University and got out. It was a change for me.

School was challenging. I was an older student at the time and just wasn’t used to studying and staying up late and having the weekends where I still had to work. I was working in corporate America. As you know, in business, the weekends were for me. But back in school, it was changed because it wasn’t really any weekends. You just worked through the weekends—Sundays, Saturdays, the same. So that was a big adjustment for me, and it was a different industry. Fast forward—I finished, passed the bar exam. My wife—she wasn’t my wife at the time, but she’s my wife now—she’s an attorney here in Texas and she was just looking for jobs and everything, so I came back and I just started my own firm.

In the beginning, I was just doing anything that came into the door. Because I was on my own, I didn’t have a lot of money for overhead, so I had to get the computer and thank God, my wife, we got married, so she had health insurance, so I didn’t have to worry about that, which was a tremendous blessing.

I was able to do a lot of same kind of work with people that couldn’t really afford attorneys. A lot of my work was court-appointed and court-appointed attorneys, indigent defense work. I did some car accidents and things of that sort.

To fast-forward, over the past 10 years, that business has just grown. And I didn’t do a lot of advertising. I was just blessed to get caught appointments, and through that, get some private business also through Facebook and friends of friends, and things of that sort. I have a good foundation of colleagues and friends from working in the corporate world—and then being from New Orleans, a lot of people that transitioned from New Orleans to Houston in ’05 from Katrina.

The thing about New Orleans—and like you were saying earlier about you being from Chicago—New Orleanians like to put their faith in other New Orleanians. That helped me out being in this big pond in Texas, because everybody that I knew with the Louisiana connection would still come to me and, thank God, give me the business.

I’ve touched every area of the law that’s on a solo basis—family law, criminal defense, I had a business client, breach of contract fraud, I’ve been in federal court, probate, wills, estate planning—and that goes back to my accounting background, I was able to do that. But just now, it’s been good. I’ve been able to hire some other associates. I have another full-time attorney who’s working with me now. She came on staff, and so that’s where I am. I have been pretty successful, I will admit, but up to the pandemic…I’ll stop there and explain to you now where I am.

Jill McKenna:
So, first of all, how did COVID change the kind of businesses that are coming to you?

Ashton Taylor:
To be honest, I’m a community attorney, I feel like. Like I said, I don’t advertise, I’m not on a billboard, but I represent a lot of people in my inner circle, which is in my community. I come from New Orleans—I come from an “impoverished background”. My parents were great. My parents always had us in the best schools and everything like that. So I’m not going to tell that story, like, “I didn’t have any money.” My parents took care of us. They took care of us. But I know that area because I know that, so most of my clientele are people that are low-income. And especially when COVID hit, because like I said, I do get court appointed when it comes to criminal, but a lot of people in family law—because I have a big family law business—that are dealing with divorces and child custody issues, I still have to charge them.

When COVID hit, all the family law business went that way—went up—but the people didn’t have money to pay for an attorney. I had to start just taking things and working with people with payment plans, and it was really, really frustrating, because the level of someone, maybe full-time employer not knowing if they were going to continue to work—I know I have a lot of friends and clients that are bartenders, that work in the hospitality industry, and so you know what happened with restaurants and bars, they immediately shut down. So a lot of my clientele or a lot of people that needed the family law because they’re shut down, but people still have those children issues and those custody issues: “Oh, it’s a lockdown. I don’t want my kids to go to online schooling.” So the issues just went up, but the money didn’t. That was a big challenge. My family, my business—it picked up, but I had to turn down a lot of cases because people didn’t have the money to pay me.

Jill McKenna:
Wow. I mean, talk about a shift in structure, and I feel like we’re seeing that in so many ways. There’s healthcare—people who are out of work can’t afford it. So all of a sudden I feel like we’re seeing more sliding scale, we’re seeing more payment programs arising, and probably that’s an overdue thing for our economy.

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Most small businesses have encountered forced changes this last year involving commerce, tech, and customer shifts. We sat down with well-known small business advocate and journalist Loren Feldman of 21 Hats, to talk about collaboration, creativity, and resilience among small business owners.

Read the Interview

Jill McKenna: Thanks, everybody, for joining us. I am Jill McKenna. I’m the campaign marketing manager here at Ruby, and I’m delighted today to be talking to Loren Feldman. Loren is many things, wears many hats—he’s a writer, editor, podcaster, blogger, entrepreneur. And Loren, you’ve been working in the small business sector and industry for a very long time. I know you’ve been an editor and writer for The New York Times, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc.—can you explain to our viewers a little bit more about your background and how I got to speak to you today?

Loren Feldman:
Sure. Well, thank you Jill. It’s a pleasure to be here. I appreciate your having me. I have been doing this a long time—about 20 years now, it pains me to say. Previously, I’d been a general interest journalist with magazines, a little bit of business stuff. I did go to business school, undergraduate. But in 2002, a friend of mine was named editor of Inc. magazine, and he was kind of figuring out what he was going to do with it, and I happened to have been fired from a job as editor of Philadelphia Magazine previously, So I was looking for something to do and he invited me to sort of just hang out, no pressure, see if I could help and get to know it.

I had had some experience with business journalism, but no experience with entrepreneurship, and I kind of fell in love with it. I thought I would be there for a few weeks, and 20 years later I’m doing the same stuff. It’s been great. I spent about six years at Inc. and then I went to The New York Times. They kind of asked me to build their version of an Inc. magazine as a web vertical inside The New York Times. I did that for about six years, and then I went to Forbes and they wanted me to do their version of it. And I spent about five years there.

They’re all great publications with really smart people. At each place, they all wanted something a little bit different, and I learned something really important at each of them. And then ultimately, about two years ago, decided to leave Forbes and try to bring it all together in one place. I found a partner who was kind of my backer and we created something we called 21 Hats, referring to all those hats that an entrepreneur has to wear. The idea was to try to bring together everything I’d learned at Inc. and the Times and at Forbes, and create the platform for business owners. Unfortunately, we ran into this pandemic thing you might’ve heard about, and our plans haven’t quite played out the way we hoped, but we’re still working on it and still trying to do some good stuff.

Jill McKenna:
Are you seeing any industry or business model shifts that are working right now?

Loren Feldman:
The one obvious shift that is really widespread is that people who have been reluctant to adopt e-commerce and really go online have been forced to do it. That’s another difficult transition. That doesn’t work for everybody. But people are being forced to do it now. Some are succeeding at it, some are not. There are a tremendous number of small businesses that are run by people who went into the business not because they wanted to be famous or make a fortune, but because they loved whatever it is they do. Maybe they make a product that they’re passionate about. They create a service that they’re passionate about. Maybe it’s artistic, involves crafting or artwork of some kind. So they focus more on the art and less on the commerce. And they’ve been able to make it work in a brick-and-mortar setting and now that’s more challenging. So, can they translate that to doing something online? I think that’s the big shift right now.

I mean, it’s happening to big companies and small. We’re all buying a lot more groceries online than we ever thought we would. People are adopting that much faster than was expected. I don’t think there’s any going back on that.

But the same thing’s happening to brick-and-mortar stores. I actually have been working on a story I’m writing about the yarn industry. It’s a very small industry, but it’s exactly what I was just describing. It’s made up of wonderful people who care deeply about the craft, are very passionate about it. Most of them have your typical neighborhood yarn store—probably does, if they’re lucky, a few hundred thousand dollars a year in revenue. Maybe there are 10 yarn shops in the entire country that do more than a million dollars a year in revenue. So, it’s small, but you can imagine during the shutdown, if you didn’t have a presence online, you didn’t have a business. And so there have been a lot of people headed to Shopify, and a lot of them, I hear, are very happy with it. I’ve never used it myself. I don’t mean to give them a plug, but I have heard that over and over.

It is a difficult transition. If you go looking for somebody to help you design an e-commerce site, you’ll wind up with a list of gurus who will promise you the world. How do you know which one to trust? It’s so easy to take that leap down the rabbit hole and spend way more money than you expected. Shopify is something you can take off the shelf and use very easily, whether you have any technical skill or not. I’ve been told, it helps to have a consultant who’s got some experience. If you have no experience, you might want to talk to somebody who can help you optimize your site. To me, that’s the big transition that’s happening right now.

Jill McKenna:
Yeah. We’ve seen that a lot. A lot of our customers are attorneys who have just kind of put off their online presence. A lot of people, they don’t even want to pick up a phone right now. So we’ve seen this huge rise in web chat and web chat apps. So that, when somebody goes to a website, it’s not a static experience, it’s like you’re having a staff member there who can actually engage and get people to the right place. But so many questions about: Do you require masks? What time are you open? Do you have special hours? And all of those can get answered so quickly from somebody’s phone with typing instead of them having to call. So we’ve seen a lot of that.

Loren Feldman:
There are also all kinds of social media tools that people are using. Some of those yarn shop owners I’ve talked to, a lot of them basically started running their business on Instagram. With Instagram IGTV, they could basically do a show from their shop. Somebody would be looking at them on their screen and say, “What color is that over your shoulder? No, the one below that.” And just literally on social media, grab a ball of yarn and put it in a bag and ship it to somebody, which is not something that people were doing a lot of before this happened.

Jill McKenna:
Do you find that there’s a rule right now about which small businesses are doing better? Is it by industry, by model, or by attitude? Or do you see any trends kind of popping up that way?

Loren Feldman:
Nothing that isn’t obvious. I think the most important thing… Here’s a great example. I think there’s no set formula, there’s no right answer that works across the board. And it’s important for business owners to understand that and not put that pressure on themselves. For some people, we’ve heard so much talk about pivoting and how important it is to be flexible. I can give you great examples of pivots. I know you could give me probably more examples of pivots that have succeeded and that weren’t obvious, and that are really impressive and inspirational, but that doesn’t mean there’s a pivot for everybody. There’s some businesses, it’s just not going to work right now. The smart thing might be to shut down and keep whatever powder you have dry until the situation changes a little bit.

We had this conversation on the podcast recently. One of our business owners makes high-end conference tables that he sells primarily to other business owners. Somebody who wants to have a statement table in a board room that will impress people, clients, or board members, whatever it is, will buy a table that can easily cost $30,000 or $40,000 from Paul Downs, who’s my podcast regular. Right now, not only is there economic crisis and people aren’t spending money, a lot of people aren’t spending money the way they before, a lot of businesses are struggling. That’s an issue. But we don’t even know who’s going back to work when this thing’s over and who’s going to want that impressive table in an impressive boardroom if everybody’s working from home. So he’s got a really big question mark hanging over his head and he’s had lots of people giving him unsolicited advice saying, “You know, you should start making other pieces of furniture.”

Well, he developed his success 20, 30 years ago because he focused really tightly on doing one thing really well and becoming known for it and doing it right. So what should he make now? People have told him, “You know, you should make some kind of desk that people can use when they set up their work from home office.” The thing is, you can find something for a couple hundred bucks on Wayfair. He sells tables for $30,000. He’s not going to be able to employ his full factory contingent of employees making $200 tables competing with Wayfair, which doesn’t make any money of course. There’s an example. He’s pretty much decided, we have some work to do, we’ll see how much comes in. Sometimes there are government offices or embassies or police departments that need a table, maybe we’ll get enough work to keep going with that.

He’s already had to reduce his staff, some. He’ll reduce it more if he has to. But his goal is to not waste money, not to blow money on marketing a product that he’s not sure he can make money on and live to fight another day. One day, this will stop and his hope is that we won’t all work from home, there will still be offices, and he will go back to making lots of tables someday. He wants to be ready to do that when the time comes, but he’s not going to risk his company by trying to do something he’s not good at doing right now.

Jill McKenna:
Yeah. That makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, a lot of people are in that position of having to make those types of decisions. It’s probably not going to change anytime in the near future. So if folks want to find out more about your podcast, your daily email, where can they go and find out more?

Loren Feldman:
Well, they can find me on LinkedIn if they’d like to connect. I’m always happy to connect with people. It’s a Loren, L-O-R-E-N, Feldman, F-E-L-D-M-A-N. They can go to 21hats.com and find our archive of podcasts there. We’ll be publishing a new one on Tuesday. We always publish on Tuesdays. Or they can go wherever they get podcasts, whether it’s Apple or Google or whatever.

Jill McKenna:
Thank you so, so much for your time and insight. I’m really appreciative.

Loren Feldman:
My pleasure.

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We are so grateful to sit down with well-known small business community leader, journalist, podcaster, and entrepreneur Loren Feldman, of 21 Hats. In the first of our three-part conversation with Loren, we discuss necessary collaboration, problem solving, and shared knowledge for survival and success.

Read the Interview

Jill McKenna: Thanks, everybody, for joining us. I am Jill McKenna. I’m the campaign marketing manager here at Ruby, and I’m delighted today to be talking to Loren Feldman. Loren is many things, wears many hats—he’s a writer, editor, podcaster, blogger, entrepreneur. And Loren, you’ve been working in the small business sector and industry for a very long time. I know you’ve been an editor and writer for The New York Times, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc.—can you explain to our viewers a little bit more about your background and how I got to speak to you today?

Loren Feldman:
Sure. Well, thank you Jill. It’s a pleasure to be here. I appreciate your having me. I have been doing this a long time—about 20 years now, it pains me to say. Previously, I’d been a general interest journalist with magazines, a little bit of business stuff. I did go to business school, undergraduate. But in 2002, a friend of mine was named editor of Inc. magazine, and he was kind of figuring out what he was going to do with it, and I happened to have been fired from a job as editor of Philadelphia Magazine previously, So I was looking for something to do and he invited me to sort of just hang out, no pressure, see if I could help and get to know it.

I had had some experience with business journalism, but no experience with entrepreneurship, and I kind of fell in love with it. I thought I would be there for a few weeks, and 20 years later I’m doing the same stuff. It’s been great. I spent about six years at Inc. and then I went to The New York Times. They kind of asked me to build their version of an Inc. magazine as a web vertical inside The New York Times. I did that for about six years, and then I went to Forbes and they wanted me to do their version of it. And I spent about five years there.

They’re all great publications with really smart people. At each place, they all wanted something a little bit different, and I learned something really important at each of them. And then ultimately, about two years ago, decided to leave Forbes and try to bring it all together in one place. I found a partner who was kind of my backer and we created something we called 21 Hats, referring to all those hats that an entrepreneur has to wear. The idea was to try to bring together everything I’d learned at Inc. and the Times and at Forbes, and create the platform for business owners. Unfortunately, we ran into this pandemic thing you might’ve heard about, and our plans haven’t quite played out the way we hoped, but we’re still working on it and still trying to do some good stuff.

Jill McKenna:
I’m curious, with your work with the small business owners and in speaking to them, what are the creative collaborations or problem-solving practices that you’re seeing entrepreneurs embrace now? Which ones are working, and which ones maybe are not so much?

Loren Feldman:
Interesting. That’s a really good question—that I should have some more time to think about.

Jill McKenna:
I can come back to it.

Loren Feldman:
No, let me give it a shot. I’m trying to think of a good example. I think we’ve all been so thrown off by what’s happened. We’ve all had to develop new routines and figure out new solutions, do things differently. Again, a lot of that’s been out of desperation, and it’s been difficult and not all of it has succeeded, but I think it’s broken down barriers that will help a lot of people in the long run.

Just the fact that you and I are having this conversation over video right now—this kind of conversation happens—you’re doing this to publish it—but people are doing this all the time not to publish it. And one of the things that changed for me, we collaborated with a lot of people on webinars. I mean, webinars have existed for a long time, but the idea that we could get a large number of people to set aside time in the middle of their workday to watch a webinar at the drop of a hat—it never would have occurred to us. But it became something that was acceptable and people started doing it, and we found ways to partner with other companies that had information to share.

I just did a webinar for a really terrific organization called The Great Game of Business. They’re not that well known. They’re not a household name, but they have a cult-like following among people who believe in the practice of open-book management—the idea being that if you share what really drives your business with your employees, your employees will get much more engaged, they will care more about their jobs, they will look for opportunities to help the business, they will generate ideas from the frontlines that you otherwise wouldn’t have gotten. A lot of business owners who do it actually say it takes the weight of the world off them because it means they no longer have to answer or solve every problem themselves. A lot of the best answers—better answers actually—come from the frontlines, up to the top.

So anyway, they have a terrific organization. I’ve been going to their annual event every year for, I don’t know, close to 10 years. I’ve made a lot of great contacts there. This year, they to cancel it. Actually, I think it was held last week, or maybe this week—I’ve lost track now—but I suggested to them that they let me do a pre-conference webinar talking about all the reasons not to do open-book management, because a lot of people are skeptical of it. A lot of owners say, “Why do I want to share that information?” If they’re not doing well, they’re concerned that they’ll scare their employees away. They’ll run in the other direction. If they are doing well, they’re concerned that their employees will ask, “Well, why aren’t I getting paid more?”

Those are very legitimate questions. There are good answers to them. So, I pitched this collaboration: Let me do it. We’ll host it, but I’ll do it for you. And it’ll turn into a video that you’ll be able to use for years, because anybody who considers joining your organization and adopting this practice is going to have these questions. They’re going to want to get them answered. Let’s just create the best possible conversation we can. I took three of the owners from my podcast, who I knew were skeptical about open-book management, and got the organization to supply three of their superstars, people who have done this for years and had success with it, and we had a conversation. I orchestrated it, it got a little tense at times, because there were differences of opinion, but we got to the heart of the matter. We had entrepreneurs asking very real questions.

I’m sure we scared some people away. I’m sure we brought some people in. But that’s what we wanted to do. It’s not for everybody. Some people who were scared away should have been scared away—it’s not right for them. But for others that would work. And I’m hoping we had a conversation that helped a lot of people. I don’t know if that is what you were looking for, but that’s a collaboration that would not have happened if it hadn’t been for this crazy environment.

Jill McKenna:
Yeah. I mean, that’s exactly it. I’m seeing things happen that we…I liked to say as I was an entrepreneur with competitors and people in my industry, rising tide raises all ships, right? There are so many different ways to come together. When this all started, I was reading an article that was about Mark Cuban speaking to nonprofits about they’re going to be facing. And kind of the hard answer for them, from his mouth, which I think makes a lot of sense, is you might have to combine forces. You might have to meld your ideas into one. You can’t all survive and ask for the same amount of money. Some of you have better mailing lists, some of you have better adoption events, some of you have better whatever, and it’s maybe time to group, which I think makes a lot of sense. And I know that there’s even small businesses doing that. Does the city of Chicago need 25 comic book shops? No, but maybe it needs 10 or 15, and maybe you’ve got a better back catalog than I do, or whatever.

Loren Feldman:
Right. Some of that’s painful collaboration as people are weeded out, but certainly that kind of thing is happening.

Jill McKenna:
Right. And I’m curious, to that end, what do you love about entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship? This is your primary language. What do you love about it?

Loren Feldman:
Oh, I could talk for hours about that. I had no idea what I was getting into when I got into this. As I told you, I went to Inc—at the time, I had kind of specialized in helping magazines redesign and rethink what they were doing. I’d done that at a couple of places, and I thought I would do that at Inc. and then move on, but I really did fall in love with it. Part of it is I love the intellectual challenge. I love trying to figure out which businesses will succeed and which ones won’t, and how much of it is the idea and how much of it is the execution. To me, that’s all really fascinating. So that was part of it.

Entrepreneurs are really interesting people. I’m not going to tell you anything you don’t know. Obviously, they’re by definition risk-takers. One of the things that I learned doing this is something that a lot of my colleagues as business journalists still don’t fully understand. I mean, I’ve worked with some of the smartest business journalists in the world at Forbes and The New York Times. And they would often ask me, “Why are you interested in covering small business or entrepreneurship?” To them, all they heard was the word “small.” They understood that it was important in the aggregate, but they didn’t necessarily understand what I found exciting about it. And to them, it was, “Alright, entrepreneurship—I get it if you’re talking about a venture-backed company that’s going to take over the world and change the world, Uber or something like that”—that they got.

But the typical, smaller entrepreneur, who’s not venture-backed, they didn’t realize that that’s real risk. That’s risking your own money and your own livelihood—and often your own house. Most business journalists have no idea that it’s routine for a business owner to borrow against their own home. They think risk-taking is what happens on Wall Street, which is of course risk-taking with someone else’s money in most instances.

I love that I learned from a lot of people at Inc. Their star writer at the time was a guy named Bo Burlingham, who’s written some terrific books, including Small Giants and Finish Big. He kind of took me under his wing and I sort of followed him around for a few years, met a lot of great people, and learned a lot from him.

One of the things I learned from him is that he discovered that a lot of the best ideas in business bubble up from smaller companies. If you pay attention to what’s happening, they’re the ones that are really being creative. He was aware of that long before you saw big companies creating accelerators, deciding that their own R&D department wasn’t working as well as the startups out there that were independent and doing their own thing and not dependent on the budget of a big corporation. You’ve seen this trend of big companies trying to create their own accelerators to harness that power of entrepreneurship and startups. Bo saw this a long time ago.

Even what I just mentioned to you, the open-book management idea—that’s something that bubbled up from a small, failing company. It was actually a division of International Harvester that was told that had to shut down in Springfield, Missouri. They remanufactured engines there. And the head of the union at that shop said, “Wait a second, give us a chance. We’re going to buy this from you and we’re going to make it work as a company.”

They did that about 30 or 40 years ago, and it’s a more than $600 million business today with all kinds of divisions—all predicated on this open-book practice and, in fact, on employee ownership. They have people who work on the frontlines, working on an assembly line who retire as millionaires because they own a piece of the company. They have a stake in the outcome.

That’s a long answer to your question. But to me, learning about these things was really exciting. I loved meeting the people, hearing the ideas, and sharing what these companies have learned so that other companies can emulate them and try to do the same thing themselves. To me, that was really exciting.

Jill McKenna:
Yeah, and I think we’re seeing so much of that “difficulty breeds ingenuity” attitude right now. When I had a business, it started during a recession and it took off like gangbusters. And a really interesting story I came across doing this series is I talked to two folks in Louisville, Kentucky, and they were attending a protest after David McAtee’s murder. And during the protest in Louisville, Kroger shut down in the neighborhood with customers inside, said, “We’re not doing this,” boarded up the windows, people coming in got kicked out, and left the whole West End of Louisville in a food desert. They ended up starting their own delivery and order service for groceries for their neighbors and community—a nonprofit—and then they realized that the community really needed it.

Now they’re starting a for-profit business, and I’m not sure what the model is called—they’re taking very low profit—but what they’re doing is creating living-wage jobs and giving the employees at this market that they’re creating some status in the community—”These are good jobs. We’re not going anywhere. We’re not a nonprofit who’s coming in here, fly by night, ‘we’ll only be here six months’—we’re going to establish and stay here and create a community market so that we’re not reliant on these other companies that are just going to leave when things get hard.” That’s one of the coolest stories I’ve heard come out of this. And what a business model to create from difficulty that supports its own community and become symbiotic. It’s been great.

Loren Feldman:
That’s a great example. And actually, what you were saying about your own business, you only mentioned it briefly, but that’s a perfect example too. When I first got started and started meeting entrepreneurs like you, it was all new to me. And the idea that growing really fast, that that seemed like, well, that’s everybody’s dream, right? That’s what you want. That’s everybody’s goal. But the stress that that can create and the dangers of failure that that can create, I had no idea. I’m not saying anything that an entrepreneur like you doesn’t already know, but for someone from the outside, learning that, trying to understand that, that’s just a perfect example and why I loved meeting entrepreneurs like you as I started trying to figure this out.

Jill McKenna:
Yeah. I mean, it’s a tightrope every day with no net. It is every single day. Before I came to Ruby, which is such a great place for me to be, because I’m really serving small businesses which I understand so much, every single day was…you never knew what you were going to get. It was often in the car, eating grocery store sushi on the way from meeting the banker to go meet somebody to see if I want to hire them, to go meet a manufacturer, to go meet a vendor—and then, if I’m lucky, get home at a decent hour, eat dinner, and then start working again until midnight. It’s every day, and that was for 10 years. And yeah, I’m just sad I didn’t meet you sooner because I think we would have avoided some of the pitfalls of being successful. Nobody tells you in our country, with our model of business, that you can be too successful and you can be too successful too quickly.

Loren Feldman:
If you haven’t seen it, there’s a terrific book called No Man’s Land. It was written by a guy named Doug Tatum. What he writes, essentially, is that every company that has any success is eventually going to reach a point that he terms “no man’s land,” where the things that allowed you to succeed to the point where you succeeded are no longer going to work. You reach a point where you get a big contract or something happens and you have to step it up. And the people you have in place, maybe they’ve been great. Maybe they’re your friends, maybe they’re your relatives. They’ve been incredibly loyal, you love to see them, maybe you spend Thanksgiving with them, but they’re not the right person to take the next step, and you have to have a really difficult conversation with them. That’s just one small example. It might be your relationship with your bank that you’ve outgrown. There are any number of things. You’re going to hit a wall in all sorts of ways—and that’s if you’re successful! And that’s something a lot of people don’t realize. It’s just so hard.

Jill McKenna:
So if folks want to find out more about your podcast, your daily email, where can they go and find out more?

Loren Feldman:
Well, they can find me on LinkedIn if they’d like to connect. I’m always happy to connect with people. It’s a Loren, L-O-R-E-N, Feldman, F-E-L-D-M-A-N. They can go to 21hats.com and find our archive of podcasts there. We’ll be publishing a new one on Tuesday. We always publish on Tuesdays. Or they can go wherever they get podcasts, whether it’s Apple or Google or whatever.

Jill McKenna:
Thank you so, so much for your time and insight. I’m really appreciative.

Loren Feldman:
My pleasure.

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The COVID-19 pandemic redefined healthcare models and spurred a new openness to change for healthcare consumers. More than ever, patients are willing to shop around to find their ideal experience, searching for convenient, connected approaches to care.

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The answers lie in telehealth. According to Chris Jennings, healthcare policy consultant and former advisor to the Obama and Clinton administrations:

“There’s the assumption in primary care that you always had to have in-person contact, and that telemedicine would be unsatisfactory, or wouldn’t fill the void. That’s been exposed—actually, it’s safer, it’s quicker, and it’s easier. … People are now seeing this model, which we thought would take years and years to develop. And it’s probably been accelerated by a decade.”

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Ready to grow your practice in 2021? Ruby is here to help.

Healthcare providers of all kinds rely on Ruby to connect with their patients online and over the phone. Our HIPAA-compliant live virtual receptionist and chat services elevate client experiences from the first “hello.” We’re available 24/7/365 to offer support and answer non-medical questions. It’s all private, secure, and 100% based in the United States. See how Ruby’s digital patient engagement capabilities work at ruby.com/healthcare.

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Is your website ready for customers to visit? We have a short window to tell site visitors what we are about once we get them there.

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Read the Interview

Jill McKenna: Hello, everybody. Thanks for joining us today. I am Jill McKenna. I’m the Campaign Marketing Manager here at Ruby, and I am truly delighted today to be speaking with my friend and colleague David Lambert, who works with us at Ruby. David, can you say a little bit about what you do for us and your background?

David Lambert:
Hi, Jill. I take on all of the paid media here at Ruby. So I do all of our digital advertising spend, Google Analytics, Google ads, Facebook ads.

So mostly anything that we do from a paid perspective, I’m involved in one way or the other when it involves marketing, and then really trying to tie that into long-term goals and optimization and efficiency. So that’s where I spend the majority of my time, as well as helping some of our systems connect and talk to each other.

Jill McKenna:
When you’re meeting with new clients, are there one or two or three things that even if they’re not going to work with you, you want to impart upon them? Like, “Hey, these are the things you really need to be doing, even if you don’t work with me?” What would those things be?

David Lambert:
It is always finding your hub. You need to have a dedicated space for people to look at you and look at the services you do. Whether that’s your website, whether that is your social profile, you have to understand if I’m telling people to check me out, see how I can help you, you need to be sending them somewhere and then that needs to be the hub of your operations or your marketing.

Generally it’s your website. You want to have your campaigns funnel into this one spot, so that you’re really proud of that one spot that you’re sending the vast majority of people that you interact with. And it’s a really good starting place for a lot of companies because they don’t necessarily think of it in that manner. But you know, your emails are all being driven to one spot. Your social networks are being driven to one spot. Your advertising is being brought to one spot.

And then getting that messaging right. I think that the five second rule is really helpful to people understanding you need to communicate something very, very quickly or else they could be lost in the shuffle, which is fine, but you really want to put that best foot forward: This is who I am. This is what I do. This is how I help you. And generally you only get a sentence, a couple of words, and maybe a little context paragraph underneath, but it might be two sentences. As much as you can whittle down your value proposition, what you do and what you want to help people be doing, boil that down to one or two sentences and then showcase that. That’s where you stand, so that’s super important because if I’m a potential customer and I hit your site and I don’t know exactly what you do, if I’m confused, that might be the only chance that I had eyes on you and I might never come back.

The likelihood of me coming back or digging into your website more is if I understand what you do and how that could help me specifically. And then you kind of build out the rest of this stuff to fortify that and help prop that up. But having those, if you have one customer, what’s the two sentences you would tell them now? I think that is super powerful and then creating, starting to think about your operations as a hub, like your website is generally that, because we don’t have as much especially now brick and mortar experiences. You want to turn your website into your store.

Jill McKenna:
That makes sense. For people just starting out or tracking their ads and their marketing spend, do you have favorite programs or software or what do you recommend for maintaining and monitoring your ad efforts?

David Lambert:
So when you’re first starting out, you’re going to be utilizing the native dashboards. So you’re going to be utilizing Google does a really good job of showing you everything that’s going on. They’ve improved vastly in the last eight years that I’ve been using them.

Once you get up to the system, it’s easy to dig into a lot of insights there. Same with Facebook. Unless you’re doing a lot of advertising, you’re just going to be utilizing those platforms and hopefully you have something on your website where you’re able to track web traffic or these other programs. It’s very common to have Google Analytics on your website where you’re able to see where people are coming from, but as you get more refined, you’ll generally want a customer relationship management software, CRM, where you’re putting all these leads into a database and attributing them to certain efforts, but it gets more refined and it’s definitely a lift from a software management perspective.

For a small business, I wouldn’t say that that they may or may not have a CRM. They may not have a person with that aptitude. It’d be really utilizing the dashboards and relying on that information and as you mature, and these are successful, then you’ll want to have more analytics set up on your website, whether you pay for someone to set it up for you so you can easily read dashboards. But to have that insight and that feedback, it does become important, especially as you start to invest more and more into your business and into advertising.

Jill McKenna:
Great. Is there anything else you’d like to impart on people who are so wondering how to go about advertising before we finish up today?

David Lambert:
I’d say I find advertising these super exciting. It’s also, nerve-wracking when you’re first starting out because you know, you worked hard for that hundred dollars. So I would take it seriously when you’re deciding to spend money for someone to look at your site. So, that’s always the test I try to give someone when they’re talking. They say, “Hey, I want to run Google ads, or I want to run Facebook ads, or I need to be all over Twitter.” So, I like to come with them with the anecdote of, how much would you spend for someone to look at your website?

That really puts it in a good lens of, “Oh, I haven’t thought about it that way.” Like, I don’t want to spend a dollar for someone to look at my website. I don’t think it’s ready. I don’t think me giving someone a dollar to visit it, would end up in a sale or a lead.

When you start to put it in that perspective, I think you get much more critical about what you want to say about the look. If you’re set, if you’re willing to spend 50 bucks for someone to click, it’s been five seconds on your site, make that five seconds impactful and really try to look at it in that lens and how am I communicating to this person? Who is this person? What are they really looking for?

Jill McKenna:
And of course you don’t want to spend $50 to get somebody on your site if your average sale or your average service is $65.

David Lambert:
Exactly.

Jill McKenna:
It’s probably not going to be your best effort. But like you said, like just monitoring it and dialing it in, it does become a puzzle. I think that one thing I see is people launch efforts, and then they feel intimidated and they don’t follow up with how it’s actually doing and then they call it a failure. But really it just needs a little bit of babysitting and tending and tweaking.

David Lambert:
Yeah, so know your numbers. That’s a great point. If it might not make sense for the $50 person to visit, if your sales aren’t there, but knowing if you sell to your customer one time or five times, if you know, most people buy five products. They come back to you several times—use the first sale. Like, you break even on the first sale. They spend 50 bucks on your site, spend 50 bucks to get in there and then they’ll, as you kind of push them to buy more, then that becomes a profitable customer for you, that’s a really good way to offset it or to think about your funnel and your numbers. And then, yeah, it’s off to the races.

Jill McKenna:
It is. I find it exciting too. Thank you so much, David. Thank you for your time and all of your thoughts and your energy and you can reach out to us at the marketing team at Ruby, if you’d like to hear more thoughts or hear more from David. We are more than willing to help out with ideas and experiences that we’ve been through. Thank you.

David Lambert:
Of course. It was a pleasure. Reach out if you have any questions. We’re happy to help in any capacities. Hopefully this was helpful to all you.

Jill McKenna:
That’s marketing@ruby.com—and one of us will field it and get back to you all. Thank you so much, David. Thanks for your time.

David Lambert:
Great. Thank you.

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Can paper mailers, radio, and print ads still matter? Absolutely!

In this second part of our discussion with David Lambert, Sr. Manager, Growth Marketing at Ruby, we talk about how technology has changed the way we use paper mail and why clients and customers are ready to see you in their snail mail.  

Read the Interview

Jill McKenna: Hello, everybody. Thanks for joining us today. I am Jill McKenna. I’m the Campaign Marketing Manager here at Ruby, and I am truly delighted today to be speaking with my friend and colleague David Lambert, who works with us at Ruby. David, can you say a little bit about what you do for us and your background?

David Lambert:
Hi, Jill. I take on all of the paid media here at Ruby. So I do all of our digital advertising spend, Google Analytics, Google ads, Facebook ads.

So mostly anything that we do from a paid perspective, I’m involved in one way or the other when it involves marketing, and then really trying to tie that into long-term goals and optimization and efficiency. So that’s where I spend the majority of my time, as well as helping some of our systems connect and talk to each other.

Jill McKenna:
So let’s say somebody goes and they do all these great advertising efforts and they really make a point to invest in engaging people and bringing them to their website. What are the biggest mistakes you see when people get people to their website and they don’t necessarily have a great experience?

David Lambert:
There is quite a bit there. A lot of it is the initial messaging. It is easy to get… You’re just trying to cram so much into your website. So you really want to be careful of when someone hits your page. What’s the one message? What’s the one thing you want them to do when they’re there? Do you want them to click to call you? Do you want them to read a headline of who you are? A big thing in web development is the five-second test. If someone hits their page, you know within five seconds who the company is, what they do, why you’re there.

That’s a really, really strong first step that you want them to know, I’m a hairstylist in Chicago and this is my brand—that “Oh, I’m in the right place. I’m looking for a hairdresser.” But then having the contact being easy to reach out, that’s the next thing. So they’re in the right spot, but how do I connect with you? There’s a couple of ways that you do that. There’s forms or telephones or emails being listed up, but we’re also seeing web chat be such a big driver of that, when it can directly communicate. I know as younger audiences, sometimes we don’t like to pick up the phone as much, but when we do, it’s really beneficial.

Sometimes that bridge of having that low friction of “I’m just going to chat to this person to ask a quick question”—that’s been super helpful for many businesses. I know that I do it when I don’t want to fill out a big form or go into their email. I just want a quick response. Then that helps me dig into further what that company does or it helps put me in this perspective of, “No, this might be a service I actually want. It needs to do this or that and I’m not finding it on your website.” It kind of replaces some of the search functionality that we’ve had to do on websites, which is often difficult to get exactly what someone’s looking for.

Having someone answer it directly to your chats, I’m sure that many people have experienced that, where it is a much quicker version of I’m able to find what I’m looking for right off the bat. Then I can decide: Do I want to call? Do I want to pursue this more? But we’ve seen really good results with helping companies utilize that, specifically at Ruby.

Jill McKenna:
Yeah. We’ve seen a lot of rise of chat since COVID began. I mean, for a lot of reasons, right? We’re in Zoom meetings all day. We don’t have time to pick up the phone, but we can get on a website and see are they open? Do they require masks? Is there a pickup protocol that I need to follow? It seems like so many industries are really embracing that. You would never open a store and not have a staff member there, and that can be the experience when you go to a website and it’s like, “Well, what now?”

David Lambert:
Yeah. Well, it’s so easy to get lost in the shuffle of things. If you went into Walmart and there was no signs or no people in there, it would take you forever to find what you’re looking for, and then the signs are helpful, but we’ve all walked down those large aisles and I just cannot find the sign that says batteries and I’m stuck. I just want this and I can go. So you flag down someone in a vest and that they kind of point you in the right direction. It’s very akin to the chat service of, I’m looking. I don’t want to dig through your FAQs. I don’t have time. I’m running between meetings. I just want this quick question answered to know if this is going to work for me or not.

Generally, those really start to prod out different things that companies wouldn’t know about that potential customer, whether that is what they’re really looking for, the questions they sort of ask. So it helps dig into their perspective of a potential lead for you. So even if they don’t convert into a paying customer or they never visit your website again, you can understand who the audience is that first was driven there and try to align either your product or service more closely to those results, or try to make those messagings more clear. If you get always the same questions, try to bubble that up so that people have that and you can check that box right away so that they’re not having to dig through.

Jill McKenna:
Yeah. I’m curious about retargeting. So for those who don’t know, you’ve definitely experienced retargeting. It’s when you look at something online and all of a sudden you’re seeing it on every webpage you go to. It’s popping back up trying to get you to look at it again and hopefully buy it. So when is retargeting worthwhile? When is maybe it not? How does somebody start thinking about retargeting for their services or brand?

David Lambert:
That’s a great question, and it comes up in 100% of conversations I have when I’m consulting for this kind of thing, it’s kind of an art and science. So it is, there is a bit of unknown of, especially when you’re starting out your first ad campaign, you really don’t know the response, or how many customers, how many potential customers have to see your website or see your ad before they convert into a sale, or even a lead. So it has to be something you’re comfortable with. You have to have enough for it to be impactful for, you know, a few hundred dollars generally a month would be pretty minimal. So you want to be looking at it in that framework. But if you know you have a high value customer, a lot of Retargeting is—I would honestly say there is mostly no situation where retargeting isn’t helping you out. It is far cheaper than getting someone to click on your site the first time. So if I’m running a Google search ad and someone clicks and gets to my site, that’s going to be far more expensive than when I’m following them around for a period of time on the internet with some graphic of reminding them, “Hey, you checked out our site. Do you still want the solution?” So as long as it aligns with your business, I think it always is fruitful, especially when you’re not charged unless they click on that banner ad or that retargeting again. It only helps to keep that conversation going.

A big thing with advertising is frequency: how many times someone sees your brand in general. Because like we were talking about, you’re bouncing between meetings and different things, and you’re trying to purchase all this different things. Once you get out of the search mode, it’s on the back burner. I might never think about those sunglasses that I actually thought were cool but I was on the fence because I didn’t want to spend 50 bucks right now. So then I’m going about my day, I’m looking at other stuff, and then that sunglass picture pops back up and I’m like, “Oh, I really do like that. Maybe I should just purchase it.”

So that’s essentially how it works, where you’re just putting a pixel on your site. People that visit then are put into an audience and you’re able to advertise based on their web traffic to other places and kind of follow them around a little bit. I would say it’s super strong. It usually has a better return because you’re utilizing those first web traffic hits and you’re trying your best to say, “Hey, we’re still here.” Especially for someone that’s not familiar with your brand at all, they might’ve searched and found you that one time, you aren’t as familiar as you need to be, you need to kind of see and be reminded a few times before you’re just going to go out with this person. It’s like hanging out with someone for the first time. You kind of want to see them a couple of times and then you’re like, “Oh, we could hang out. It wouldn’t be awkward.”

Jill McKenna:
Yeah. You want to judge how they treat the waiter or the waitress.

David Lambert:
Yeah, exactly.

Jill McKenna:
That’s going to inform everything you need to know.

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Advertising 101 with David Lambert

Reading time:

Small business owners have a few top questions like: How do you create Facebook ads? How do you identify your ideal target audience? What’s the best way to allocate budget? What are the best channels to use?

In this fantastic first installment of a three-part interview with our brilliant Senior Manager of Growth Marketing, David Lambert, we discuss the questions we hear most from small business owners and how to navigate being new to marketing.

Read the Interview

Jill McKenna: Hello, everybody. Thanks for joining us today. I am Jill McKenna. I’m the Campaign Marketing Manager here at Ruby, and I am truly delighted today to be speaking with my friend and colleague David Lambert, who works with us at Ruby. David, can you say a little bit about what you do for us and your background?

David Lambert:
Hi, Jill. I take on all of the paid media here at Ruby. So I do all of our digital advertising spend, Google Analytics, Google ads, Facebook ads.

So mostly anything that we do from a paid perspective, I’m involved in one way or the other when it involves marketing, and then really trying to tie that into long-term goals and optimization and efficiency. So that’s where I spend the majority of my time, as well as helping some of our systems connect and talk to each other.

Jill McKenna:
I have a whole list of questions for you, but I want to start with the one that I hear the most when I’m in any of the marketing groups I’m in—the women in business groups, the entrepreneur groups. The number one question that small business owners seem to have that I encounter is: How do you do Facebook ads and Facebook boosts successfully? So first, can you tell us if there’s a difference between boosts and using the ads?

David Lambert:
Yeah. The difference is pretty small. It’s pretty minor, but a boosted post is essentially something that you just put out for free. It’s an article, it’s a picture. It’s a status update, but then you’re telling Facebook: “Hey, I want to show this to an audience outside of the people that come to my page.” So I want to be promoted to, there’s different targeting parameters, but essentially it’s a post you’ve already put out there, and you’re like, I really love this post. It’s getting Likes. I want more people to see it. So then you just put it out into the world. An ad creation is essentially the same thing, but it didn’t start from a post that you’ve already done. And that’s the biggest difference. All the targeting options, being able to pay to promote it, are still all there. It’s just kind of where you started in that initial journey of things.

Jill McKenna:
Great. And to that end, for both, you really need to know who your target audience is, right? You really need to know who it is you’re targeting. Otherwise you’re just throwing salt into an ocean and it’s not going to make a difference. So how does a small business owner go about identifying their ideal customer profile or perhaps their target audience?

David Lambert:
Sure. That’s a great question. So you worked hard on your content. You know what your messaging is. And really the biggest point is: What audience do I show this in front of? Just like you’re saying. There’s a couple of ways to go about that, especially on Facebook. There’s so many different parameters, whether that’s demographics, whether you’re going after men or women, location, industry, there’s a lot of things. It’s easy to get caught up in really dialing that in super narrow, or going way too wide. The biggest thing is to find a balance. And the easiest way to do that is connecting your Facebook to your website. So you add a little script—they call it a pixel—and basically it evaluates your website traffic.

And you can go then into Facebook and say, “Hey, Facebook, do your thing. You’re an algorithm. You’re automated. Look at my traffic and find people who are similar to that.” So they do a lot of legwork, and there’s different percentages without getting too technical, but there’s like a 1% match, a 2% match, 3% match and so forth, I think up to 10. That’s a really great place to start, because you don’t have to necessarily ping down everything you’re doing. And Facebook does a good job of trying to find those people. So I think that running those kind of campaigns, along with another segment, or audience, is really powerful. So generally I start with one lookalike campaign or ad that targets what Facebook is automating, and then create an audience, a saved audience, based on who you think your customer is. Whether that’s industry specific, like lawyers, or home services, or if it’s demographic, if you know that [age] 30–45 is really where your sweet spot is with people resonating with your product, you kind of drill those down.

And Facebook does a really good suggestion for how big your audience size is. If it’s too narrow, if it’s too broad, they’ll tell you. There’s a little graph that it tells you exactly where you are. So that’s a good thing to look at in general, to know if you’re close or not, but that’s where I dig in. And then you can play with going after different little audiences. I’d start out a little broader, unless you know that this is your customer. Like, if you only sell to barbers, just go with that. You don’t have to do ages, you don’t have to go too narrow, but you want to pick a point where you’re kind of comfortable and it’s all about monitoring that success, and how many click-throughs you get, and the web activity. So I’d start a little broad, unless you are a hundred percent certain who you’re talking to, and then you can narrow it down over time and kind of save yourself some dollars there.

Jill McKenna:
And when small business owners and small business managers think about starting to dedicate a budget to ads on Facebook, or on any social media, how should they start to think about allocating dollars? And what’s a logical way to go about creating that budget?

David Lambert:
That’s a great question, and it comes up in 100% of conversations I have when I’m consulting for this kind of thing, it’s kind of an art and science. So it is, there is a bit of unknown of, especially when you’re starting out your first ad campaign, you really don’t know the response, or how many customers, how many potential customers have to see your website or see your ad before they convert into a sale, or even a lead. So it has to be something you’re comfortable with. You have to have enough for it to be impactful for, you know, a few hundred dollars generally a month would be pretty minimal. So you want to be looking at it in that framework. But if you know you have a high value customer, a lot of times people take a portion of what that first sale will be.

If your first customers walk in the door and spend a thousand dollars, you could easily calculate: I’m willing to spend 200 bucks to acquire one customer. And then I’m going to test a campaign—say I’m going to spend it a thousand dollars over the course of a month and kind of see what leads I get, how the response is and formulate it there. So it’s really important to know what your lifetime value of your customer is. But a lot of business owners, that’s a sticking point for them. They’re not too well-versed in that. In that scenario, I usually suggest, if you know your profit per month, take a percentage of that, that you’re comfortable with, whether that’s 10, 25% of your profit, try to utilize that for finding future customers, because that’s going to help bring leads into your funnel, without getting too technical, of like you’re building up an audience that you could sell to next month. You always want to be bringing people in of interest so that you’re not struggling, you’re all of a sudden, “Oh, I don’t have enough customers this month or this week. And now I don’t know what to do. I need to just spend enough money to keep the doors open.” You want to be trickling that out, and being better about optimizing or refining that, so that people are able to find you amongst the other free ways that you’re promoting yourself or improving your website. So I’d just kind of pick something that you’re comfortable with, whether that’s $100, $200, or, if you have a 10k budget, great, I probably wouldn’t throw it all at once. I’d probably slowly ramp up, but it’s deciding what you can sustain as a business and try to lure in more people to see your message.

Jill McKenna:
So, some broader questions, and transitioning to just some things I hear from: I know a lot of entrepreneurs, I know a lot of small business owners, and I see some patterns develop once their businesses is maybe a little bit established, but they’re not totally sure what to do next. And marketing or advertising can seem really overwhelming, and like something that would be a time-suck to learn and start doing. So. I’m curious if you can give a brief overview of some of the best channels for advertising for small businesses. What’s the best return on investment they can seek through some channels?

David Lambert:
Sure. There’s a lot out there, so it is easy to get daunted. I would say probably, my favorite channels, especially starting out, are generally Facebook or Google search ads. And those are for two different reasons, Google search ads, you can really get to the intent of someone. So when someone types something into Google, flowers nearby, or pool cleaners in Houston, Texas, and you see the ads pop up before the organic results, and those are people bidding on those strings of words, they’re keywords, they can be phrases, and it’s really easy to get to that intent. They cost more than, say, going to Facebook, but you know that person is actually looking for your service. So it’s easier to get into that mindset and craft your message to someone looking for pool cleaning in Texas, rather than interrupting their feed through Facebook.

And that’s more if you’re a service business. I feel like that’s really strong if you offer a service, just because you can talk to that person looking for that right now. So you have a good chance of getting there, but it’s going to cost you a little bit more for someone to click on your ad, say, five to a hundred dollars per click, depending on the audience. Like, if you’re a dentist, you’re going to be paying quite a bit of money for that click, but if you’re a pool service cleaner, it might be $15, $20 in your area. It’s an auction, so it’s hard to say just flat out, but that wouldn’t be uncommon. For Facebook, you’re kind of interrupting. They’re searching for other things, or reading news articles. And the cost is much, much cheaper. So a cost per click in that scenario could be a dollar or two; $10 would be pretty high for Facebook, depending on your segment. It could be well above that. But for general small businesses, I think that that’s realistic.

But that ad is shown to many, many more people if you set it up in that way. So even if they’re not clicking, hundreds of people are going to see your graphic. And it’s a good way to kind of establish brand, especially for consumer products like sunglasses, or food products, or something I could buy on Amazon and ship to my house in two days, those perform really well on Facebook, not that services don’t, but it just takes a little bit longer, because you’re interrupting their search. They weren’t thinking about pool cleaners necessarily.

And then they have to kind of categorize that in their mind. And if you’re shown to them several times, then it’s likely that they could convert, or they could be more interested, but it’s not as direct to the conversation as say, Google search ads would be. So I think that those are probably the best, and they’re also the biggest platforms. So if you figure those out for your business, it becomes a big staple of your marketing campaigns, and you can refine and have these new, very well-known channels that are very effective, if you figure out your formula for your audience.

Jill McKenna:
Awesome. How does a business owner go about knowing which channels might be best for them? Are there certain channels that are better for certain industries? You explained a little bit of that, but I’m wondering if there’s a hard and fast rule for some of that.

David Lambert:
I wouldn’t say super hard and fast. It tends to be a little split that way, where I would say physical services, or like people powered services, Google does a really good job. If I’m looking for an accountant, if I’m looking for a trusted professional, I think Google is just better about that. It’s more likely that they’re going to see your website. So you have more real estate for them to actually click, because they’re looking for that. So it tends to be a little higher value, but Facebook is super good about digital services. If you’re selling widgets, if you’re selling marketing services, if you’re selling some ebook, or even Amazon books, those are kind of the impulse, lower value, is a really good way for a lot of companies to start out there. But I wouldn’t say that if you’re in this segment, you can’t advertise on both.

I’ve seen it work across the board. There are ways that I would tend to go and test out. That’s the fun thing about advertising, or the not-fun thing if it’s your dollars and they’re not directly turning, but it is sort of experimenting on every channel. The investment level also really dictates where you’re going to go. Most people can’t… The small business, their first venture in advertising—I would pick one channel and really try to walk up your experience and see kind of the feedback you’re getting from it, whether that’s web traffic, whether you’re starting to get leads, rather than say, “alright, we’re ready to go, we’re ready to advertise—let’s go on all channels.”

I think that that’s the biggest thing that holds people back when they’re doing small businesses—”I need to be everywhere, right now, all the time.” And that’s really not the case. I find you’ve got to put your effort in one area and you can have it split up a little bit, but you really want to figure out one channel, whether that’s getting your website dialed in, whether that is getting a Facebook profile where people are starting to interact and comment on your stuff, or whether that’s trying Google search ads, or display ads, or YouTube if you happen to have video content, and then trying to figure—once you get some legs there and are sustainable—then you can start to think about bringing on these other channels and broadening your audience to your products.

Jill McKenna:
With that train of thought, what are some easy ways to advertise that people often look past? Often, it feels so overwhelming, we think we’ve got to reinvent the wheel, and we kind of dive in the deep end and then we feel overwhelmed and quit our efforts. So what are ways that small business owners and entrepreneurs can look at advertising in just small ways to see if they’re happy with what it might yield?

David Lambert:
Sure. I always think the most underrated campaign is not direct advertising, but word of mouth. I think we overlook that so much as just businesses in general. It’s not that well understood. I would put money toward your customer referral programs or anything, because you have someone that’s happy with your service. It can act like an advertising avenue, if you say to your happy customers, “You refer someone, we love the business.” Especially if you’re a small business, making a case, people love to help out services that they really enjoy. So I would think about putting together a program where for every sold referral, you give them some incentive, whether that’s 50 bucks, whether that’s 10% of the sale. I think that that’s a really good avenue, and it really helps you think about some of the biggest assets you have, which are your customers, and people really take recommendations and testimonials very, very highly. It’s a channel that I’d really look at.

From an advertising perspective, ones that we haven’t really hit on are, it’s a little more difficult, but those influencers, they can be really beneficial to your company if they speak directly to your customers. Or even better, is partnering with a company that’s aligned with you, but not competitive. So if they’re complimentary, that’s a really good channel to get into. So if you sell digital marketing, like SEO, search engine optimization, but that’s all you do, and you find a company that does graphic design, or they do web design, try to partner up with another small business and say, “Hey, we can pass referrals back and forth. Here’s a finder’s fee for it both ways.” That’s a really good way to try to utilize some business, because a lot of people get leads that they can’t fulfill.

So, either finding a complimentary service, or people at different stages of company size. If you’re better at working with really small businesses, it’s likely that a bigger ad agency or service provider, that’s not a good customer for them just for how they practice business. So if you can come help underneath and support customers, or leads that they’re already getting, that’s a good way to start capturing that and figure out some agreement there.

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Business Unusual: Sustainable Models

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In this third and final installment of our vital interview with Shauntrice Martin, Founder of Feed the West and Black Market KY, she speaks about the drawbacks of non-profit structure and why she chose to establish her business as a for-profit model as a social enterprise, ensuring a sustainable living wage and a beneficial establishment for her community as a whole.

(Please note: this was recorded while Shauntrice was in transit, during her only available window of time. We recognize the sound quality is less than perfect, but felt her work and words were too important not to share. We did our best to clean up the sound so that everybody could benefit from her wisdom and vision!)

Read the Interview

Michelle Winnett: So thank you for joining us, my name is Michelle Winnet, Vice President of Partner’s in Strategic Marketing at Ruby. I am so delighted to be talking this afternoon with Shauntrice from Feed the West in Louisville, Kentucky. Could you introduce yourself and maybe share a little bit about how Feed the West got started?

Shauntrice Martin:
Absolutely. So I’m Shauntrice and I’ve been a volunteer with Change Today, Change Tomorrow for almost a year, and that’s kind of how Feed the West started.

Michelle Winnett:
You explained that Feed the West is kind of the nonprofit part but Black Market is going to be partly … Or going to be profitable in an effort to maybe support well-paying jobs for the community. Can you speak a bit about that structure and different functions of the local market while maintaining grocery donation and delivery? Are they completely separate entities?

Shauntrice Martin:
Yeah. I’m happy to talk about that. Black Market, initially we thought about making it a nonprofit, like another program within Change Today, Change Tomorrow but what we found when we did research on sustainability and all the historical analysis of past small black grocery stores that used to exist, is that a lot of them did. Even on paper they were for-profit, they operated as a nonprofit. So largely on donations and having super low prices, which is good in theory but it means that you have to depend on a foundation or community donations. We don’t want to do that. We want to make this something that is truly sustainable, and that allows us to pay our workers a living wage instead of just minimum wage, which here is about $7. And that in turn will allow us to open another store in the future or just franchise it out, not for money but to tell people, “Hey, this is how we did it.”

Shauntrice Martin:
So for us, the for-profit model as a social enterprise, was the most appealing option and within our operations, we ensure that I as the owner, Shauntrice will always be the lowest paid employee, so that’s within our operations. So if I ever do take a salary, which I don’t plan to do for at least the first year, it is within our organization at Black Market, that I will always be the lowest-paid employee. We also include childcare and transportation for free for employees for the first month that you work and we’re working on making sure we have the funds to do that for longer. That’s for most full-time, part-time employees, whoever works there, making sure that everyone makes a living wage [inaudible 00:02:44] and then I mentioned transportation which can be barriers, but oftentimes people will see in that patient not apply, They don’t think they have the skills and the hiring managers in the past and for some [inaudible 00:02:57].

Shauntrice Martin:
And yeah, so we for sure are going to cover the first month of both childcare and transportation for all employees, no matter if you’re part-time or full-time, and we’re hoping to be able to continue that. But at the very minimum, we want to commit to that for the first month, because a lot of times when you start start a job there are so many costs associated with starting a job and it can feel very expensive to set it up. And so in recognition of that, we want to cover some of the barriers that folks have to starting a new job. We’ll also be providing clothes. So we’re not sure yet if we’ll have uniforms for example, but if folks need professional clothes or they need non-stick shoes or non-slip shoes, we’ll provide those things too, because we don’t want anything to hold folks back from their potential.

Shauntrice Martin:
And ideally the folks who work as part-time or work as cashier will want to own the grocery store one day. So those are the sorts of things we keep in mind in order to have a thriving business, there can’t just be a, “What are we going to do today?” There has to be a, “What are we going to do in six months, a year, five years, in perpetuity? And so we want the employees to be part of that conversation because they’re the ones on the ground. And I think what happens often when companies are successful, they stop listening to the folks who are really on the ground doing the work. And we don’t want to make that mistake, which is again, why I will always be the lowest-paid employee, no matter what. And I have a great advisory board, that’s going to hold me accountable for that. And so, like I said, I feel very blessed and privileged to provide this opportunity, and I’m hoping it’s a catalyst for other businesses that come into the West End and beyond.

Michelle Winnett:
Well, what you’ve described is inspiring and visionary and a fantastic blueprint for other businesses. What do you think? Is there anything else other project managers or directors would need to embrace in order to build an equitable business like you’re describing?

Shauntrice Martin:
Yeah. I mean, they have to get comfortable with not making that much money. So during Feed the West, I had two jobs. I was a loan officer and I was a community organizer for KFTC. And so I never really depended on Feed the West as my moneymaker. Like I said, I’m a volunteer there. In Black Market, I consider myself the owner but also an investor. And if I’m investing in the long-term stability of this company I can’t, in good conscience, take a salary because I need to make sure that folks are taken care of, that this is a good company, that this is a solid company. And so I need to be willing to sacrifice a potential salary. And I know that’s not the norm, but my suggestion for folks who have the privilege to not take a salary, I suggest that they don’t. And if they want to still make money, come up with other ways outside of the pool of money that pays your employees and pays your vendors because we’re paying a living wage. I don’t think it makes sense for me to take a salary, at least, in the first year.

Shauntrice Martin:
And I don’t think that’s something that folks in this industry want to hear. I don’t think that CEOs are very excited about not making money. That’s not why they got in the game. The Kroger CEO makes $11.7 million and I’m sure … I mean, I’ve asked him to give up his salary, but I’m sure if someone that he respected more was like, “Hey, how would you feel about giving that money away and not having it?” I don’t think he would be very open to the idea and that’s how CEOs generally are. That’s how folks in C-suite level executive positions are, they are there to make money, even if they believe in the business or the idea. And so by no means am I saying no one should [inaudible 00:06:42] at least part of their salary to make sure that folks can have a living wage, folks can have a job that is secure.

Michelle Winnett:
Absolutely. You mentioned a lot of collaborations and partnerships being important both from a networking perspective and from resources and donations. How do you hope to increase partnerships? Or do you have a strategy around that kind of outreach?

Shauntrice Martin:
Yeah, so we actually just secured a few more MOUs with some of our local black-owned businesses. For me, it’s really about getting out into the community and it can be challenging because of COVID to do that, but what we found is even networking online or over the phone has been a tremendous way to support each other and to network. So for instance, I was originally going to go to an event last week, but as this hunger strike has developed, I haven’t been driving around much but I looked at all the people who were on the list who were supposed to speak, who were involved, even the sponsors. And I looked them up on LinkedIn. For some of them, I find their numbers on their company websites. And so through that, I just called people like, “Hey, I saw this article about you. Hey, I was supposed to be on this call that you were on Zoom and I really like what you’re doing. Could we have a conversation about how to partner? Here’s what I’m doing.” That has been really successful.

Shauntrice Martin:
One of the companies that we reached out to recently, we worked on an MOU on the phone on that first phone call. So it’s been really good to kind of do it old school, just pick up the phone and call someone. And so for us, the goal is to have at least 60% of our vendors and employees be black and, or from the West End. And it’s really easy in a lot of businesses here in the West End, just to pick up the phone and call someone and say, “Hey, this is what I’m doing. By no means, am I an expert, but this is how I see us possibly working together. What do you think?” Sometimes they’re like, “Yes.” Sometimes they’re like, “No.” Sometimes they’re like, “Oh I’m not sure.”

Michelle Winnett:
Which is, if people want to learn more about your work, support it, where can they go? How can they they get involved?

Shauntrice Martin:
Yeah. So if you want to get involved with Feed the West, the best thing to do is go to our Facebook page, which is at Change Today, Change Tomorrow. You’ll find all our latest updates. We have a website as well but Facebook is the best place to get up-to-date info. So if you want to donate food, if you want to volunteer, if you need groceries, the best place to go is our Facebook Page at Change Today, Change Tomorrow. You can also visit our website just to find out more about what we do. It’s change-today.org and you can follow us all around social media.

Shauntrice Martin:
And if folks want to get involved with the Black Market, you will find us at Black Market KY all over the internet, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, even LinkedIn. And if you contact us through Black Market, even though I say we it’s me, so I’m pretty accessible. If you’re interested in just learning more, figuring out how you can do that in your own community. I’m also happy to talk about that because I really just want more people to get access to good food.

Michelle Winnett:
Thank you so much Shauntrice.

Shauntrice Martin:
Thank you so much. I’m so excited.

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Business Unusual: Growth in Uncertainty

Reading time:

It takes a true visionary to witness need and step up to implement beneficial change with minimal resources starting out. In part two of our incredible interview with Shauntrice Martin, we spoke about collaboration, creating innovative change during crisis, and utilizing community partnerships to benefit the many.

(Please note: this was recorded while Shauntrice was in transit, during her only available window of time. We recognize the sound quality is less than perfect, but felt her work and words were too important not to share. We did our best to clean up the sound so that everybody could benefit from her wisdom and vision!)

Read the Interview

Michelle Winnett: So Feed the West was born out of a need during a crisis. And it isn’t every business person who naturally embraces helping others during uncertainty. Can you speak about the importance of giving and serving when a shifting landscape can make it feel counterintuitive to try to do it right now?

Shauntrice Martin:
Yeah, it definitely when I first talked about the idea to folks, they were like, “That’s terrible. It’s like good in theory, but how are you going to do it? How are you going to distribute stuff? It’s COVID. How are you going to make sure it’s safe? People aren’t going to trust you to just show up to their doors and bring food. They don’t know you.”

Shauntrice Martin:
And the really beautiful thing to see was we had like 900 volunteers sign up in that first day. We had hundreds of people asking for food and not one of them was like, “Oh no, but like, I don’t want a stranger to come. I’m just going to come get it myself.” Like, it’s COVID. People appreciated us having the delivery system. And the other thing we saw is type of like, we don’t consider ourselves a business accelerator by any means, but we also got to connect with businesses.

Shauntrice Martin:
Some of them, like the convenience stores and the small food marts that are in our neighborhoods in the West End, they also weren’t able to get certain supplies or they couldn’t buy in as big of bulk because they weren’t sure if they would be able to sell those products with folks being quarantined.

Shauntrice Martin:
So what we were able to do was work with a couple of those small black owned convenience stores and figure out what’s their inventory, because as a nonprofit we have access to buying in bulk despite the coronavirus pandemic. So we were able to buy some of the inventory for these convenience stores to help them stay afloat. We were able to pay small black businesses that were caterers or restaurants that were struggling to make sure that they had business during the pandemic.

Shauntrice Martin:
We’ve had dozens of black owned restaurants that we’ve worked with over the last few months. And we’re also able to say, “Hey, corporate sponsor, yes, you gave us this grant, and that’s great. But also, for any of your events, here are some black businesses that could really use your support, that could really use your dollars.”

Shauntrice Martin:
And the same thing with our PoC owned businesses. There’s one I want to shout out, Dragon King’s Daughter, which we sent a lot of people to. We love working with her. And then we have black businesses like Queen of Sheba and Shamita’s Little Store. I mean, I can name a bunch, but these businesses have been amazing. And some of them may not have the means to pay for social media ads. They don’t have necessarily the background like they are chefs. So they’re great at cooking the food and presenting the food, but they may not have the capacity or the staff to amplify their message.

Shauntrice Martin:
So we’ve been very blessed to be able to do that for folks, because we don’t want to jump into the restaurant game by any means, but what we can do is help those folks, make sure their businesses stay afloat during the pandemic and beyond. So we’ve been very proud to be able to do that in a small way.

Shauntrice Martin:
And so, as a person who has started businesses, who has worked with startups, it’s not just food. It’s connected to so much more. And a person who is struggling to have their business get off the ground, but they’re also struggling with food, clothes, and shelter, if you can give them some free groceries a few times, that means that they can, “Okay, now I can pay for my website because I don’t have that bill. Now I can make sure the lights are on.” It connects to so many other things, and it just helps folks to blossom professionally and personally. So it brings me so much joy to just be able to connect with folks and see how their businesses grow.

Shauntrice Martin:
I just spoke with … I picked my son up actually from an organization that didn’t really have the opportunity to flourish before the pandemic, because there was so many posts competing with them and they couldn’t really get the word out about their program. And so it’s been really good to have that opportunity to make sure that these businesses that would otherwise kind of sink get to flourish. So Real Kids Playcare is a black owned business that not a lot of people knew about, but now we were able to pay for a bulk of hours. So parents can just drop in and say, “Hey, I’m with Change Today Change Tomorrow and they said I could have two hours today, or I can have eight hours today.” And it’s been great because then those parents can work on their business plan while their children are being taken care of in a COVID-safe environment and a healthy … emotionally and otherwise healthy environment.

Shauntrice Martin:
So we are very proud of that. And part of the reason we’ve been able to do that more in the last few months is because people trust us from Feed the West. I know I’m like talking your head off with that. One thing I’m really proud about is just those connections.

Michelle Winnett:
It’s fascinating. Absolutely. And Feed the West’s growth in such a short time has also been amazing. So what has happened in a few months time and what is the trajectory look like from here?

Shauntrice Martin:
Yeah. So we actually just hit 17,000 people getting food from us in the last three months. It’s almost three months. It’s almost our three month anniversary next week. So we’ve been able to give groceries to 17,000 people in the West End. Each person gets at least $85 worth of groceries. Now, some weeks we may have a lot more donations or we might have a grant that month. And so we’re able to give more. But at a base we give at least $85 worth of groceries, and it has been amazing.

Shauntrice Martin:
And in addition to the groceries, we’ve also run Clothe the West through Rebecca Ward at Black Lives Matter Louisville. And she’s been able to work with hundreds of people and it’s just, it has flourished. And it’s just, it’s really exciting to see folks start businesses and start initiatives from doing Feed the West or volunteering with us.

Shauntrice Martin:
We’ve had some folks who, when they started with us, they had zero non-profit and development experience and now they’re able to consult for other organizations. Now they’re able to add this on their resume, that they helped us raise money for a program or helped us coordinate a program. And Feed the West has again, turned into something else.

Shauntrice Martin:
We also have Black Market Kentucky, which is going to be a grocery store in the West End, small grocery store focused on primarily black owned vendors. So having food in the store that was produced and created by black folks, specifically black farmers like Kentucky Greens, Cleave Family Market, Barber Farms because a lot of times those farmers through historical injustices and share cropping have not gotten the opportunity to be in major stores. So we’re super excited about that.

Shauntrice Martin:
And it’s allowed us to have an ecosystem of success. So not just the food from where we’re getting our flyers printed, by the way, it’s the Mattel Group, which is also black owned. I know I’m shouting out a lot of people here, but it’s enabled us to do something we’re passionate about while also being able to sustain our own families.

Shauntrice Martin:
In this time a lot of people are struggling. A lot of people don’t have an opportunity like we do. And we’re trying to share the wealth. And while I’m still a volunteer, so I don’t get paid for Feed the West at all, I’ve been able to connect with people who have been able to join executive boards where I’m making connections with folks. So even though I don’t get paid as a Feed the West volunteer, I do get in touch with people who want to pay for my services, which is amazing. Because I don’t know if I would have this robust of an opportunity, pre-Feed the West. So I’m very close to all our residents who trusted us enough to let us come to their homes and bring them a bunch of food. It’s been a crazy ride and it’s been amazing to see.

Michelle Winnett:
That’s awesome. Just a few more questions if you have a little bit more time. How has technology helped you to meet your own goals and vision for Feed the West? Which like apps and tools are you using to kind of get the word out there and to try to cultivate those partnerships?

Shauntrice Martin:
Yeah. So for us in the beginning, technology was great on the volunteer side. Like folks can sign up on. We use When I Work now. We also use Google forms of course. We use SurveyMonkey. And then our tech person has been Seun of Grid Principles. She’s helped us with a lot of systems, again, Nigerian, black owned business, graphic design, and web stuff.

Shauntrice Martin:
So that has been great on the volunteer side. But what we found on the resident side are folks getting groceries from us is that technology can often be a barrier because a lot of people don’t have a computer or don’t have internet access, especially with COVID. You can’t go to the library or McDonald’s to get the Wi-Fi.

Shauntrice Martin:
And so what we’ve been doing is using technology to help us get the materials that we need for those folks. So we use technology on our volunteer app so that we can say, “Hey, we need at least 20 flyers in this place at this time because it looks like a lot of residents in this area based on our surveys don’t have internet access. So they’re going to need printed flyers. They’re going to need a phone number to call.” So being able to set up those things so that we are not making the mistake of a lot of organizations, which is relying too much on social media.

Shauntrice Martin:
So we’ve been able to segment our communication for our residents. We focus a lot on in-person stuff, canvassing, being places where they already are like a LG&E or like a water company, the post office, grocery stores, obviously so we can hand out a physical flier in a COVID safe way. But technology has been able to supplement those efforts and it’s been really great.

Shauntrice Martin:
I’m working with a couple techies from my days in Silicon Valley to develop some more robust systems for when the grocery store opens. But it’s been really good to see folks reach out who are willing to help us push this forward. And I’ll shout out to, even though it’s not necessarily a tech company per se, but Canva has been amazing. We use it for our graphics and we do not have the time and capacity to do as much as we want to do. But having Canva has been great because it allows us to make a quick graphic that still looks professional and nice, and is in the right colors and everything. But it also means that we’re able to teach our interns and our youth volunteers some skills with graphic design and promotion through Canva because they can make a free account.

Shauntrice Martin:
I mean, we have a paid account as an organization, but it’s something. It’s a transferable skill. It’s a portable skill that in other internships, they’re just expected to get coffee. But with Change Today Change Tomorrow they’re doing things that are going to make them excellent entrepreneurs in the future or non-profit leaders. So it’s been good to leverage technology in that way.

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Business Unusual: Opportunity & Crisis

Reading time:

Shauntrice Martin is a visionary business owner, leading progressive change in her community and in the business world. Director and founder of #FeedTheWest, a food justice program sponsored by Black Lives Matter Louisville and Change Today, Change Tomorrow, Shauntrice studied food apartheid in Belize, Iceland, Mexico, Trinidad & Tobago, and across the United States.

Recently, she started Black Market KY to address food insecurity. Shauntrice has earned numerous awards including 2019 Louisville Forty Under 40, The Coalition of Black Excellence Impact Award, and Silicon Valley Business Journal 2017 Woman of Influence. Check out the first of this incredible three part interview with Shauntrice!

(Please note: this was recorded while Shauntrice was in transit, during her only available window of time. We recognize the sound quality is less than perfect, but felt her work and words were too important not to share. We did our best to clean up the sound so that everybody could benefit from her wisdom and vision!)

Read the Interview

Thank you for joining us. My name is Michelle Winnett, Vice President of Partners and Strategic Marketing at Ruby. I’m so delighted to be talking this afternoon with Shauntrice Feed the West in Louisville, Kentucky. Could you introduce yourself and maybe share a little bit about how Feed the West got started?

Shauntrice Martin:
Absolutely. I’m Shauntrice, I am the mom of one very amazing seven-year-old. I’ve been a volunteer with Change Today Change Tomorrow for almost a year, and that’s kind of how Feed the West started. We were passing out free food, as we usually do, to protestors, unhoused folks, single parents, elders in our community. While we were doing that at the beginning of June, essentially the Kroger closed in response to folks peacefully protesting the killing of David McAfee and the police leaving his body out in the streets. We saw Kroger close, they said they were closing indefinitely. Some of our elders had taken the city bus there or public transportation and without notice they didn’t have a way to get food, so we decided to start Feed the West just as a two-day emergency response program so that we could give folks food who needed. It’s a completely free program.

Shauntrice Martin:
Yeah, it definitely hasn’t just been two days. It’s been almost three months. The reason we kept it going is because a lot of people were asking us for more access to food. Through Feed the West, we also make sure that there are healthy options, there are vegan and organic options, because the local Kroger and many other food marts in the area, in the West end, which is predominantly Black, they don’t have the fresh food option, they don’t have fresh produce.

Shauntrice Martin:
That’s how we started it, and like I said, it went from being a two-day emergency response program to being this three-month initiative that has really allowed us to connect more with community members and it has allowed us to make partnerships outside of just food, so we connect to housing through organizations, we connect to making sure folks have clothes and good education and supplies and things like that. It’s been a whirlwind for sure.

Michelle Winnett:
That’s amazing. Place is obviously incredibly important to your work, and I know you’ve traveled a lot, lived all over, but chose to settle back in Louisville. Can you speak about the importance of place to your work and vision?

Shauntrice Martin:
Yeah, I was born and raised in Louisville and I didn’t leave for good until after college. I got a job working as an intern in Trinidad and Tobago. It was great to be on an island, to be with other people. It was an amazing cultural exchange. I got to work on a project that centered around poverty and feminism, so that was really great. Then I got to work in DC at one of the juvenile detention facilities. I also got to lecture at Georgetown Law on my work at the juvenile detention facility, through one of my great friends, Elizabeth Jones, Dr. Elizabeth Jones, because she just got that PhD. From there, I ended up going to Baltimore and then to California, and I got to work in Iceland last year, which was amazing, as well as some other countries, but doing some similar work.

Shauntrice Martin:
When I was in Iceland, I thought about what do I want to do? It’s great to travel, I’ve been able to bring my son on a lot of these work trips, but what do I really want to do? I thought about what I needed the most when I was younger, which was access to food, access to clean water, those sorts of things, and I thought how can I be a person who supports that? Instead of just starting an organization, what I did initially was I decided I would take a year where I would just do a bunch of different things, like volunteer, have different jobs, consult.

Shauntrice Martin:
But yeah, after just searching around, it became clear to me that food was the thing I was most passionate about, so I connected with Cassia Herron and joined the Louisville grocery co-ops board, which has been wonderful. Again, I volunteered with Taylor. She was one of the organizations I first connected with through Change Today Change Tomorrow. I saw what she was doing with food and I was like, “Yes, this is exactly where I want to be. You’re all about food justice, you’re about equity, and you’re centering around what the community wants,” because a lot of nonprofits tend to just come up with an idea and go implement it instead of asking the community what they want or what projects they’re already working on and how we can amplify those. I was very inspired by Taylor and her vision for the organization, and of course, our children play together, which is a bonus.

Shauntrice Martin:
Being in Louisville was really important to me, one, because my family’s here, but two, because all my experiences and other countries and other states showed me ways things can go really right and ways things can go really wrong. I wanted to take that expertise and bring it back home because a lot of folks here are struggling and they’re parallel struggles to the ones I’ve seen in Oakland, in East Palo Alto and other places. I’m really passionate about making sure folks who look like me and folks who have been impoverished have an opportunity to utilize their skills and not just be whatever they need to be to pay the bills, but really to focus on their potential. I think one barrier to that can be food. Food insecurity is a serious barrier, so I’m passionate about making sure beyond just Feed the West that we have viable sustainable food options for folks in the West End.

Michelle Winnett:
That’s amazing. I personally have also thought a lot about sustainable food and sourcing and just I choose to eat vegan a lot of the time, and I’ve felt like it’s really expensive to do that. To eat healthy is way … To get a bag of apples is more expensive than 10 things of Kraft macaroni and cheese or something like that. It’s just infuriating.

Shauntrice Martin:
Right. I’ll say too, for us, in addition to, like you said, the price difference when you’re going between something organic or not organic, or even just going between, like you said, something unhealthy and something healthy, what we’ve also seen is just a lack of choices. I created the Bok Choy Project, and it just shows the disparities between Kroger locations in predominantly Black neighborhoods and predominantly white neighborhoods, here in Louisville specifically. We saw that there are some children who’ve never seen certain vegetables. They’ve never seen fresh okra or never seen bok choy or these other vegetables that for me, after living in California, is like, “Yeah, I know what that is.” Even living in Maryland, I helped run a grocery co-op there called The Glut, and so I got to see a rainbow of vegetables, both organic and conventional. My son has been able to grow up seeing all these different types of fruits. Jackfruit is something that has never been available in the Western grocery stores, but it’s available in others and I’ve been privileged to see and eat so many different things in different countries.

Shauntrice Martin:
We really want to make sure that folks, no matter if you’re poor or you’re wealthy, that you get more options. I think that’s a big barrier to health. In the West End, we have a lot of negative indicators for health disparities, and having access to a bigger variety of healthy foods can address that.

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During changing times it’s hard not to second guess our instincts, and small business owners need to keep generating customers, as well as respect their bandwidth. In this 3rd part of our talk with Justin Dunham from Ercule, we discuss gated content and how to keep Google loving your website.

Read the Full Video Transcript

Jill McKenna: Thanks everyone for joining us today. I am Jill McKenna. I’m the campaign marketing manager at Ruby. And I’m delighted to be speaking with Justin Dunham today from Ercule. Justin, thanks for joining me.

Justin Dunham:
Hey, Jill. Yeah, it’s great to talk to you today. I am, as you said, Justin Dunham, I started Ercule a few years ago and I work with the team and we are a content performance and SEO agency. So we focus on taking existing content marketing that people are doing and really making it work all the way up and down the content stack, and also optimizing the entirety of our client’s library so that they get the most out of that.

Jill McKenna:
So I just wanted to get your thoughts if you have any about gated versus ungated content at this time and how it’s working. And by gated, if folks don’t use it out there, asking folks to fill out a form or add their email to something in order to gain a piece of content like an eGuide or eBook. How’s that working in this environment and is that changing?

Justin Dunham:
Yeah, so gating is a very complicated topic. I would say a few things about it. Number one: just to get this out of the way, a lot of people are saying, you know, we don’t really think we should be gating our content. And the rationale there is that gating really hinders the performance of your content because all of your best stuff is unfindable by Google. It’s behind a form or somebody doesn’t necessarily want to fill it out, et cetera. And that’s kind of a bummer for all the best content that you worked really hard to produce. With that said, the way that if you did not use gating, you would engage customers, is you have to have a lot of faith and be very strategic that we’re producing the right things, we’re looking at metrics, and ultimately people are coming back and they’re reaching out to us. And that can take time to build and to know that you’re doing the right thing.

Justin Dunham:
So I think gating is kind of slowly going away, but I also think that it’s very understandable why people will be skeptical of not gating content. With that said, if you decide to gate content, there are a lot of things that you can do to make it work way, way better. So number one major thing, and I’d be saying this, even if I weren’t talking to you or talking to anybody, is having a live chat is really helpful for a couple of reasons; number one: if you can engage somebody through live chat, that’s a much more pleasant experience that having them fill out a form and get back to them. And so that could be a really good way to kind of make that experience better.

Justin Dunham:
Number two is when you have that experience with them, you’re typically able to move them through the funnel a little bit faster. You’re not relying on them to do their own education process you’re helping surface the right questions to them. So if you are going to gate content, live chat can really help. If live chat is not a possibility, and with the technology out there today, I have to say I think it is for basically everybody, and you are focused on the form or forms of just what you’re doing now, really the key things are you want to have as few form fields as possible. And there’s lots of technologies out there that can help you reduce the number of form fields you have. And you really need to explain, you need to do this whenever you post content, exactly why the content is valuable, what it’s going to help somebody do, and so on. That transaction of, you fill out a form and you get a content, is something you have to sell just like you have to sell your product later.

Jill McKenna:
Yeah, that makes a whole lot of sense. I hope this doesn’t get us too far into the weeds, but we’re going to see.

Justin Dunham:
That’s great.

Jill McKenna:
Something I’m curious about. I know a lot of young entrepreneurs or small businesses that are really quick growing startups, they build a really dynamic website. That’s very important of course. It’s the front page of their business or the front door of their business. But I also see them get paralyzed by this idea of Google’s algorithm changing and this fear around I’ve built all of this stuff and one day it might not matter. Can you speak a little bit to that fear and how that actually unfolds when it happens?

Justin Dunham:
Yeah. So a couple of things on that. First of all, absolutely justified. Like not absolutely justifying the sense of it’s definitely going to happen, but business owners have a lot of concerns and that could be one of them. And you could say the same thing about Facebook; cost per engagement on Facebook continues to go up. You can say the same thing about Twitter. You can say the same thing about all of these other channels. The nice thing about content is it really helps you build your audience so that you own your audience and get in touch with them without necessarily relying on other channels like that. However, it’s not really in Google’s interest to do that. And realistically, what we’ve seen is for people who are producing the right content, that’s again high quality and is authentic and intended to reach people and help them, we’ve only seen either neutral or mostly positive effects from algorithm changes.

Justin Dunham:
So if you are trying to hack Google, which we never recommend, and a lot of other SEOs do recommend it, we don’t, then yeah you might want to be a little bit concerned about that. But if you’re focused on consistently producing high quality content that comes out of what your value proposition is, that you’re uniquely positioned to provide, number one, probably don’t really need to worry about it because it’s not really in Google’s interest to deprioritize high quality content. Number two, content is an asset that you own and you can redeploy it wherever you want. So we don’t just talk about Google. We also think about social and Slack communities and email. We always tell our clients, you’re going to deploy your content everywhere, not just on organic search. And number three is it’s a good reason to focus on building your audience as quickly as you can, because the audience is something that you own. You can get in touch with them. And content and authority and trust are the best ways that you can do that.

Jill McKenna:
So when does a small business owner know it is time to hire a content creator for their team and when can they still keep using freelance and contract writers? What’s the right threshold there?

Justin Dunham:
Yeah, that’s a really good question. I would say that it really differs for every company. A lot of it depends on how complex the product is. And as a company matures, one of the things that tends to happen is the product gets more valuable, but also more complex and covers more use cases. And there’s lots of other things that at that point is where we see, Hey, we need to have somebody in house because we need to have somebody who has used the product, can talk to everybody and really understands it. So there isn’t one point that I would pick, but I would say the way to think about it is, do you feel like you have freelancers who are empowered enough to talk to customers and talk to people at your company and really understand the product at the level it needs to be understood and it has the potential to be understood at?

Justin Dunham:
And once you get to a point where you start building out these use cases, you start taking on enterprise customers that are larger and other things like that if you’re B2B, that’s again where you start thinking about, maybe I need somebody in house who can really have their whole brain dedicated to this.

Jill McKenna:
Great. That makes perfect sense. But that adds to the question of when does a company then know it’s the right time to use somebody like Ercule or call in a partnership with Ercule and create one? What’s the right point in time or development to start doing that?

Justin Dunham:
Yeah. And so we have the most success with clients who have usually, sometimes they’ll have a freelancer or two, usually having a full-time content marketer [inaudible 00:08:05] is a good time to bring us in. The way Ercule works is that we are meant to be a force multiplier for your content team. So we’ve designed our offerings that it’s extremely efficient, really focused on the fundamentals. Quite honestly, very competitively priced and much more effective than a lot of other solutions out there, agency solutions. And so the way we typically talk to clients is we say, well, you’re making an investment of X in your content. And if you think about the fully loaded cost of your content marketers, and you think about people are working on your website, you think about your demand generation people, put all of that in your content budget. And we come in and we’re a very small fraction of that larger cost, but we tend to increase effectiveness quite a lot, especially given the investment.

Justin Dunham:
So folks usually bring in Ercule when they’ve got, again, smallish content team. We’ve had clients who have a really good freelancer who’s focused. We’ve also had clients who have three, four or five full-time content marketers, and sometimes larger. And then we can come in and sort of answer very specific questions, help with the strategic aspect of things like how do we organize and think about our content plans? And also help with what is our strategy and what’s going to work to make sure distribution is effective. [crosstalk 00:09:23].

Jill McKenna:
All right. Thank you so much Justin. Take care.

Justin Dunham:
All right. Thanks a lot, Jill. It’s great talking. Bye.

Jill McKenna:
Have a good one.

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Business Unusual: Content Creation & SEO

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Content Marketing & SEO

“The marketers who are going to win are building trust and authority with customers and prospects, and the way you do that is through content.” Justin Dunham, Ercule

Interested in hearing more from Justin?

Check out Part One of this interview!

Jill McKenna:
Thanks, everyone, for joining us today. I am Jill McKenna. I’m the campaign marketing manager at Ruby. And I’m delighted to be speaking with Justin Dunham today from Ercule. Justin, thanks for joining me.

Justin Dunham:
Hey, Jill. Yeah, it’s great to talk to you today. I am, as you said, Justin Dunham. I started Ercule a few years ago, and I work with the team. And we are a content performance and SEO agency. So we focus on taking existing content marketing that people are doing and really making it work all the way up and down the content stack and also optimizing the entirety of our clients’ libraries so that they get the most out of that.

Jill McKenna:
Can you speak a little bit to why content strategy is still important or maybe more important than ever, just a really basic guideline?

Justin Dunham:
Yeah, totally. Content strategy is how people are going to distinguish themselves in the new world. A huge percentage of the buyer’s journey, even up until now, I think it’s between 60 and 80%, is offline before your customers talk to you directly, but they’re getting information from the content that you’re putting out there. And that number is only going to increase as more and more of these interactions become partly digital and then completely digital. So an investment in that today is really important.

Justin Dunham:
I’d say another reason for investing in content strategy that’s important is just building trust and authority because all of these new channels are going to get more and more saturated, as they always do. But the marketers who are going to win are building trust and authority with customers and prospects, and the way you do that is through content.

Jill McKenna:
And how have recent events changed long-term planning in this regard, or have they? Do we still want to keep with the same strategies we’ve had before, or is there really new thinking that we want to have in mind for the next two years, three years, four years?

Justin Dunham:
Yeah, well, everybody’s re-planning, of course. And I would say that, again, the major shift that we’ve seen is just on the demand gen side, where are we making our investments? And honestly, a lot of that investment is coming away from live events and more toward digital channels. So the only thing I would say about that right now is the companies who, again, are focused and strategic about how they’re engaging with their customers on digital are the ones who are going to be most successful there.

Jill McKenna:
So you’ve spoken a little bit about events, and I know you guys aren’t obviously an event company, but a lot of your customers do do events. Are there ways that you’re guiding them to think about online events now or reposition themselves to have to pivot over to online events?

Justin Dunham:
Yeah, the main way that we are engaging with our customers around events is one of the things that we do for all of our customers is it’s not just about SEO and content performance and conversion rate optimization, all the things that you need to be successful with content. It’s also about helping our customers build a pipeline in their company so that all of the expertise that everybody on their team has can be easily converted and taken out into this more accessible format, which is on something like a blog or something like that.

Justin Dunham:
And events are a really important source of this information. So if you’re running certainly a webinar, but more so I’m thinking something like an online conference or something like that, it’s a great opportunity to promote those talks in advance by linking to them and talking about them in content that you’re producing. And it’s a great opportunity, once those events happen, to take all of the content that is produced in those events, the talks, the panels, other things like that. And then after the event, turn that into blog posts, articles, updating existing content that now needs new information, all sorts of stuff. So a major overlooked value prop from events and especially online events is the content creation possibilities that come out of that beyond the event. In fact in some ways, I would say that for a lot of companies, that is the major value of running events is the contribution to evergreen content that they can create.

Jill McKenna:
I think a lot of people don’t think about that when they make events, that hub and spoke model of what can come from… Even anything, an e-guide, event, a webinar, it creates a lot of your SEO keyword terms for you. And strategically deploy them, then you’re all the better for it.

Jill McKenna:
You did bring up something, you touched on something I was curious about. How do you think about small businesses in collaboration with other small businesses or partnerships? Are there ways that you want to guide your customers to think about thoughtful collaborations at this time and moving forward as things continue to shift?

Justin Dunham:
Yeah, that’s a really interesting opportunity that’s available for people. So I think there’s a few different things. The obvious answer that most SEOs will give you is you should guest post on your partners sites and stuff like that. And I’m going to say something vaguely heretical, which is that guest posts can sometimes be effective. But a lot of the times that we’ve done just straight up guest posting or been asked to do that, it doesn’t have the effect that we’d like to see it have. And there are ways to do it and make it work.

Justin Dunham:
But I will say that there are lots of other opportunities for partnership, obvious things are both of these companies, if you’re partnering with another company, have built an audience. And presumably, that audiences has a similar set of concerns. And so something we talk to our clients a lot about is borrowing audiences, because just building audience is one of the hardest things that you can do as a marketer. Just getting people following you on social, in your email list, in your Slack community, whatever it is.

Justin Dunham:
So that’s how we suggest to clients that they think about these partnerships, is can you borrow an audience, and that can manifest a lot of ways. Like I said, it can be things like we’re doing a joint webinar. It can be things like we’re producing a piece of content together, rather than I’m producing a piece of content for you. So something like a guide that’s co-branded can be really great. And there’s lots of other opportunities, as well as you move down to customer success, even as you move down the sales funnel, to bring partners in the right way and to work together and team up.

Justin Dunham:
And especially also given that for most small and medium businesses, there are so many pieces of technology and other stuff that are being used to be effective. It gives you just a ton of partnership opportunities to find those audiences, get the word out there, help each other, and so on.

Jill McKenna:
I want to backtrack a little bit just because I know a lot of small businesses who are just starting out or are struggling to keep so many plates spinning in the air. What’s the best guidance you have for them, if they’re just considering SEO and keywords, and they’re like, I have to make a list of 200 keywords. What are some basic guidance that you can give to them?

Justin Dunham:
Yeah, I would say first of all, of course it depends on resources. And what we would much rather see is I can put out one very high quality blog post a month on one topic, and that is a great place to start. And so the other thing that we suggest is, as you think about like, oh, we think we want to get more traffic from organic search, yes. Use the content for that, but also think hard about everything you produce. Where else can I use it? If I produce a white paper or I produce… Let’s say I produce a bunch of blog posts. Can I add those blog posts up in six months into a white paper? Can those blog posts be used for my sales reps to reach out to prospects? Can I produce those blog posts by having somebody who works directly with customers do a recording, and then I edit it later? So efficiency in content creation and focus and really using content creatively are three things I think are super important for getting started with that.

Jill McKenna:
If somebody writes a really thoughtful piece of content intentionally for their blog, what are the worst things that you see happen, once they write that piece and put their little baby out there in the world? What are the mistakes that people often make?

Justin Dunham:
The number one mistake I see people make is just doing it once and then forgetting about it and hoping, hey, I produced one really solid thing, and it was updated three years ago. And the thing is that we think it’s really important to think about your content as a library. And so you always want to keep it updated. You could be a small business, you could have 15 or 20 solid posts that you wrote over the space of two or three years that you used customers to write, or you use sales reps to help write, or you build out of a webinar, do all of that, build 15 to 20 high quality things, put them on your site, but then don’t forget about it. And because you’re already communicating with your customers about how to use the product, what updates there are and all of this, every single CEO or director of marketing we’ve talked to has all of this stuff in their head.

Justin Dunham:
So it’s thinking about the entire library as you produced it, keeping it up to date, not just letting it go away. You don’t have to produce a post every week for three years. You don’t need, if you’re a small business, 200 or 300 blog posts. In fact, I’d rather see, again, 15 to 20 really high quality things that get reused, remixed, promoted really well, and then that’s pretty much it. But it’s very hard.

Justin Dunham:
And oftentimes, things like what should the strategy be? Where should we focus? Where should we make our investments? Folks come to us, even if they haven’t engaged us and say… and we can well, here’s our experience with this or with that, or maybe you want to make this trade off. It’s very difficult. But again, the number one mistake we really see is just doing one or two posts and not being consistent.

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Business Unusual: Website Content 101

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We all know that simply creating a website isn’t enough to keep traffic coming, and that’s where content creation comes in. In this first or three parts discussion with Justin Dunham from Ercule, we demystify content creation and dispel the belief that creating content needs to be difficult.

Jill McKenna:

Thanks, everyone, for joining us today. I am Jill McKenna. I’m the campaign marketing manager at Ruby and I’m delighted to be speaking with Justin Dunham today from Ercule. Justin, thanks for joining me.

Justin Dunham:

Hey, Jill. Yeah, it’s great to talk to you today. I am, as you said, Justin Dunham. I started here at Ercule a few years ago and I worked with the team. We are a content performance and SEO agency. We focus on taking existing content marketing that people are doing, and really making it work all the way up and down the content stack, and also optimizing the entirety of our clients’ libraries so that they get the most out of them. I’m joined here today by my Sylvia Plath the finger puppet and my Salvidor Dali finger puppet. I’ll try to work them in. I can’t guarantee anything, but I’ll keep them ready.

Jill McKenna:

I’m just delighted. Puppetry and great artists, two of my favorite things. This is the best interview I’ve done. I think that content and SEO are two things that, as small business owners, you can often feel overwhelmed by. It feels a little bit like a wave that’s going to crush you, like you can never do enough, and you’re never keeping up, and it’s never good enough. I think part of that is kind of the unknowns. I think that you all really de-mystify that and that’s a really important thing to be able to do for small businesses.

Justin Dunham:

Yeah. One of the things, and one of the reasons we started Ercule, was that content marketing and SEO are way harder than they need to be for people who are trying to run a business and trying to educate customers and prospects. The way that we approach this is pretty different. A lot of agencies, when folks bring them on, they’ll come in. They’ll take a few months to do a keyword strategy. They’ll take a couple months to do a technical audit. We’ve seen technical audits that are dozens, hundreds of items. Then a lot of that just gets kind of thrown on the client to sort of deal with, figure out.

Justin Dunham:

We started Ercule partly out of frustration with that status quo. The way we really try to focus is on, first of all, the fundamentals. Just to take something like technical stuff, you can go out there and you can find dozens of guides that have hundreds and hundreds of things that you can do, but what we recommend on the technical side, when we work with clients, is we’ll do a technical audit. It’ll take us a week or two and we’ll find lots and lots of things to optimize, but we really try to focus on things that are related to high quality user experience and just related to, “Does Google know what’s on my site?” That’s number one, I think, on the technical side and that’s the easiest to dispatch with.

Justin Dunham:

There are a bunch of high priority items that we try to work with clients on, things like, “Is this site relatively fast? Is the design good? Is the user experience?” All the fundamentals that you would expect, rather than like super long detailed lists of things, but then in addition to that, we really kind of view that technical piece, which is important, as just kind of getting your out of your own way. You don’t want to have it so that your site’s not indexed. You want to make sure that all the great content you’ve produced can actually show up, but what we very quickly pivot to is the right strategy and the right content.

Justin Dunham:

The way we think about strategy, and for folks out there who are watching this video the way you should think about strategy, is what you want to do is you want to find a set of topics. Depending on the size of your business, it can be as few as 20, it can be as many as 50 or 60. Most companies will only be able to focus on three or four at a time. Pick those topics. Pick the things that are relatively high volume, tons of tools out there you can use to figure out search volume, relatively low competition. Lots of tools that you can go out there to see, sort of, where you can just Google each one of them and seeing who’s ranking, but also critically high relevance to your business.

Justin Dunham:

With Ruby, for example, the things that are relevant to the business are topics around live chat, how that helps being able to talk to human, human connection, all that stuff, right, things that your brand is uniquely positioned to talk about and educate your customers on. We sort of started giving this answer because there’s a tsunami of stuff to think about, but our perspective is the technical stuff. It’s not necessarily simple, but there isn’t a lot of it. There’s just a few things you need to focus on and that’s around user experience. Once you get out of the way, our suggestion is always pick topics that you can talk about uniquely that educate prospects and do things that are valuable for them, that don’t have too much competition, but have some volume.

Justin Dunham:

Then you just want to write about that stuff and you want to write good content. A lot of agencies will come in and say, “Hey, we think you should produce 20 articles about such and such,” and they’re fluff. One of the things we do with clients is we actually deliver an outline every week to explain, “No, no, no. Here are the ways, the things you want to talk about, the things Google and your customers want to hear about,” and you create those longer form things. You can do one a week, is a great way to start, picking one topic and then doing one really solid article a week. That’s kind of it in a nutshell, but there’s a lot of extra stuff that people feel like they need to do. It’s really about focusing on those fundamentals, even for small and medium businesses.

Jill McKenna:

I love everything you just said. Now I have about nine follow-up questions. We spoke earlier a little bit, a couple of weeks back, and had kind of a warm up conversation to get to know each other. This is not one of the things we went over, but I’m really curious about your position or what your thinking is around letting a brand’s values that they’ve identified drive the content that they produce before they start getting into the weeds of, “What’s my competitor doing?” How do you coach or help companies to do that and to really think about how values play into their content?

Justin Dunham:

Yeah. Before I answer that, and I will answer that in a second, I think there’s a related thing, which is that SEO is important. It drives massive numbers of clicks and lots of discovery, especially for small and medium businesses, but when you produce content, don’t think about it as producing it for SEO. Think about it as producing it for your customers. SEO is going to be one channel, but not the only channel that you’re going to use to get your content out there. You’re also going to have your sales representatives know about your content. You’re going to share it on social. You’re going to reach out to folks who may have done business with you before, or you may want to have them do business with you in the future, for your customer success folks. You’re going to join Slack groups and LinkedIn groups that relate to what you’re talking about and share the content there. That’s the first thing I want to say is that people get really focused on SEO and there’s a lot more to the picture that is about, once you produce the content, getting it out there.

Justin Dunham:

With that said, the question about having your values shine through in your content is incredibly important because, if you think about why you’re running the company you’re running, why you created the technology that you created, something to do with how your company wants the world to be is involved with why that technology was created.

Justin Dunham:

Quite a few years ago I used to work at a database startup that did extremely well. One of their main values and the reason they created the product was because their database was a lot easier to work with and made it easier for people to build apps. That was really important. Content there ended up being about that. Because that’s what developers were also looking for, it ranked well on search. It was responded well and developer communities. We were able to send it out email and have people respond to it.

Justin Dunham:

This idea of when you produce content, the content that’s going to perform well, generally the content that’s going to perform well in SEO is going to embody some of the ideas that you have about how the world works. Not to get super philosophical about it, but it’s going to embody some of the ideas about how you want people to change their behavior. When they changed their behavior in the way that your product enables, then they start to use your product. I think having your brand, your identity, your voice super important, as long as the information is there to help them.

Jill McKenna:

What are you seeing that’s good and bad related to what companies are doing right now related to COVID content and what’s happening socially in the country? Which issues related to content are you seeing companies encounter right now during COVID-19?

Justin Dunham:

Yeah. I think there are a few different pieces here. One is that almost every client that we work with is extremely interested in producing stuff about working from home. That can be really good if it relates to what you’re actually doing. If you are a customer who produces robots for factory automation, probably creating an article about best practices for working from home isn’t going to be all that performant for you.

Justin Dunham:

Also, the thing about content in general, and SEO in particular, is that it’s a long play. It’s really strategic. It’s very hard to take advantage of sort of those types of changes if they’re not directly related to your business. However, clients that we’ve had where working from home is connected, their product enables it, or their product will enable it, or their product helps people do that better, can do very, very well having even general things like remote guides and things like that, but also specifically like, “Hey, here’s how you can use our product to solve this particular problem that you now have.”

Justin Dunham:

An obvious one for us at Ercule is a lot of our clients have had to cut way back on live events and other things like that. When we’re building content and sharing it with our clients, sending calls, obviously we’re talking a lot about, “How can we use organic channels and other ways of leveraging your content to make up that gap?” That’s kind of what we’ve seen that’s sort of successful or not successful around what’s currently going on. A lot of these things are going to require changes on an ongoing basis.

Justin Dunham:

One thing we also see is that clients who are thinking about, “Hey, digital is probably permanently going to be a much more important part of our marketing mix.” We’ve always seen them do better and we expect we’ll continue to see better if they’re able to take a strategic approach to this. Something that we’ve seen that’s also not great sometimes is clients who are kind of like, “Hey, we’re going to cut back on stuff that’s not working immediately.” That’s very understandable in sort of the cash issues that we’re and more companies are having, but we urge our clients not to shortchange that longer term importance of having the right content, keeping it updated, focusing on the value that they’re going to deliver to their customers and prospects.

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