Beth VanStory is an online business pioneer. Since running New Media for The Weather Channel and leading OfficeDepot.com to profitability in its first year, she has built, managed and advised teams and organizations on leveraging the online channel. Beth has spoken at numerous conferences, testified before the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, and taught marketing at both the undergraduate and graduate level.
Her firm, Thinkout, provides strategic and marketing consulting and executive coaching to companies ranging from startups to Fortune 500. Beth and her team help clients strategically leverage technology and the benefits of the Internet to improve customer experience, drive business efficiencies and maximize cross-channel opportunities. Sample clients include Verizon, The Wine Enthusiast, and numerous smaller companies.
BusinessInterviews.com: What are some ways that you help your clients identify market opportunities that they may have overlooked?
Beth: Focus is a great thing for small businesses. However, sometimes focus results in narrow vision and missed opportunities. I’ve helped several clients think more broadly to identify new products and new customer segments.
In other cases, I’ve had clients trying to appeal to a mass market with little marketing budget. In this situation, I help clients identify key targets and focus on them with a laser-like marketing approach. In one case, I worked with a company that provided remote computer help to move from a mass approach to targeting small businesses and women. This approach resulted in more strategically targeted marketing and higher conversions.
BusinessInterviews.com: Can you share your top tips when it comes to branding?
Beth: Strong brands command a premium. To build brand value, you must clearly define it. A brand goes far beyond a name and a logo. You must articulate what your brand stands for and ensure that every experience a customer has with your brand lives up to your brand standards. Speaking of standards, creating a brand standards guideline document that outlines the treatment of your brand across all mediums is the first step to ensuring brand consistency. Strong brands like Mercedes protect their brand by disseminating their brand guidelines to dealers as well as marketing agencies that will be creating ads and other materials. Mercedes closely monitors adherence to its brand standards. Coke is another great example of a strong brand that maintains strict brand guidelines.
BusinessInterviews.com: Can you elaborate on why you believe that the ability to decide what NOT to do is one of the most valuable skills an executive can possess?
Beth: In today’s busy world it seems that everyone wants everything immediately. Ideas are plentiful and come from everywhere: customers, employees — even family members. As a result, there are almost always more ideas than there are resources to execute them all. Management indecision on priorities leads to discontent, confusion, and reduced productivity. A great executive understands this, makes decisions on priorities, and then communicates them clearly. This last part is especially important because somebody was championing the projects that did not get prioritized highly. Taking the time to explain to the team members the rationale for priorities can go a long way in maintaining good morale and retaining employees.
BusinessInterviews.com: What are some emerging trends that you’re excited about or think that our readers should be paying attention to?
Beth: Mobile is one that is hot and that many companies are handling poorly. There are so many apps with few users because they don’t provide real value. Many companies would be better off to have a mobile-optimized version of their site vs. an app that people have to download and access. It’s going to be interesting to watch the evolution of responsive design where designers and developers can author code once and that code is responsive to the device on which the user is accessing it. Hopefully we’ll see things move away from separately developed mobile sites and towards a more consistent experience across platforms.
Another piece of the mobile landscape that is going to evolve quickly over the next few years is the mobile payment space. Right now there are over one hundred firms in the nascent space. Some of the more well know names include Square, Bitcoin and Google Wallet. Over the next few years we’ll begin to see significant consolidation. This space is much broader than just payments. I think that the winners in the space will be the ones who can provide the greatest value in terms of marketing tools. For example, integrating with merchant loyalty programs will become a minimum required feature for widespread adoption. Merchants are also anxious to reduce or eliminate the high interexchange fees charged by banks on credit card transactions. It’s going to be a wild ride and one I look forward to watching.
BusinessInterviews.com: Can you expand on how consulting is more about hiring expertise that will help with a specific issue or problem?
Beth: Few consultants are experts in all areas. When you hire a consultant, look for specific, deep domain expertise. If you need help with your website, ensure that you have someone who understands customers and user experience design to develop your plan. Usually, if you go straight to developers, you won’t get the best performing site that fulfills the needs of customers. Think about it like this — would you go to a carpenter or an architect to design your house?
In the marketing field, the big buzz these days is social media. A friend recently sent me an announcement that a recruiting firm has hired someone to focus on recruiting social media experts. Looking at social media as a separate part of marketing is a mistake. Your social strategy needs to be integrated with the rest of your marketing efforts to ensure consistency of message and brand experience across channels. Yes, it’s important to truly understand social, but having it stand apart from the rest of marketing is not wise.
BusinessInterviews.com: What advice would to give to a small business that is contemplating launching their first email marketing initiative?
Beth: First, understand and quantify your goal and know how you will track and measure it. Second, ensure that the content is relevant and well written. Third, be sure to include calls to action and make them visible via buttons or text links. Including a few navigation links will increase reader engagement. You will absolutely see more click thrus. Do not include paragraphs and paragraphs of text. Have an offer visible. Most importantly, allow recipients to select the types of emails they wish to receive from you and the frequency. Allowing options can help reduce the number of unsubscribes. Fourth, segment and clean the data in your list. Fifth, think about sending the email to a test list before sending it to your full audience. Finally, consider using an email platform that is white-listed with Internet Service Providers (ISP)s. A few easy-to-use systems include ConstantContact and MailChimp.
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