Effective Internet branding is the foundation of strong online marketing. The days of conducting a successful business without a robust web presence are mostly gone. So, for most people, an ad in the phone book (remember those?) isn’t enough. For that matter, in 2021 a website alone won’t cut it; you need a full-blown web presence. And that means you need a brand.
Branding is the communication of identity. Your brand is the image your audience has in their minds when they think of you. It is what they believe about your values, your purpose, and your character. Building an effective brand requires authenticity first and foremost. In a sense, brand is a commitment; authenticity is the degree to which your actions match your words. Authenticity is honesty.
Internet Branding: SEO Marketing is Key
Internet branding adds a complicating factor: SEO. SEO marketing is a vital method of expanding your audience. Search engines put your content in front of the people you want to communicate with. And search engines match your content with people searching for particular key words and phrases. You’re competing not just with other providers of similar content, but with the enormous amount of content that search engine web crawlers find every second. Effective use of key phrases, or SEO marketing, is essential to getting your content in front of your audience.
The Problem with SEO
Unfortunately, the techniques that are most effective for SEO marketing can come across as inauthentic. And because people can sense a lack of authenticity very easily, your SEO optimization can backfire when building your brand. Effective Internet branding means preserving your authenticity while optimizing key phrases and using effective SEO techniques in your content.
This isn’t an either – or scenario, thankfully. Producing quality content that delivers value to your audience and optimizing your web presence for priority search engine results aren’t mutually exclusive goals. Effective Internet branding does both.
In the next few posts I’ll tell you a little about branding and how you can use effective Internet branding to build your own brand on the web. I’ll give you some background on branding, then I’ll tell you how effective Internet branding techniques can add clarity and structure to your content that adds value for your audience. Finally, I’ll give you some examples of effective Internet branding you can use for your own content. Stay tuned.
Having just started my new online business–https://americanmaderetailcompany.com–I’ve been thinking a lot about two common mistakes I and others have made: confusing goals with plans and plans with goals. I want to show you what those two mistakes look like, how to recognize them, and tell you two strategic planning techniques I’ve used to handle them.
Mistaking the Goal for the Plan
This is a really common error and people make it all the time, usually without even realizing it. Here’s what it looks like: “I’m going to get rich by making a bunch of money in the stock market.” Or, “I’m going to get in shape by losing weight.” Notice what’s missing? Here’s a hint: there’s a one-word question that a goal doesn’t answer but a plan does. How?
The purpose of a plan is to describe how you’re going to reach a goal. What this mistake represents is your reframing or refining the goal. There’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but it doesn’t help you get closer to success. This is like trying to drive to Paris by buying a postcard of the Eiffel Tower.
But fixing this is simple once you’ve recognized it. Ask yourself what specific steps are required to get where you want to go. How are you going to lose weight? How are you going to make a bunch of money in the stock market? Answer those questions with specific, actionable steps, e.g. “I’m going to stop eating junk food”, or “I’m going to find promising startup businesses and buy their stock”.
Mistaking the Plan for the Goal
Who hasn’t fallen into a rut? Many times I’ve found myself doing the same things over and over again but failing to accomplish anything other than wearing myself down and wondering why I was making the effort. This is a sure sign that you’ve mistaken the plan for the goal. If #1 is about answering the How, then this is about answering the Why.
In strength training, the phrase “chasing reps” refers to this. When you fixate on getting one last rep, or lifting just a few pounds heavier, even though you know you’re likely to injure yourself or you’re going to have to cheat a little bit to get it, you’re mistaking the method for the objective, or the plan for the goal. The objective of strength is to…wait for it…get stronger. Lifting weights is the method you use to accomplish the objective, and it’s only valuable to the extent it helps you achieve that objective. In other words, if you hurt yourself on that 10th rep because your form was sloppy, or you have to do a little hop to get that extra pull-up, you haven’t really made any progress–unless your goal was to strain your shoulder. Instead, focus on the objective. The reason you’re lifting is to get stronger; the numbers are just tools, not ends in and of themselves.
So what do you do when you’re fixating on the method? Simple. Stop what you’re doing and think about what you’re trying to accomplish. Ask why you’re doing what you’re doing. If you can ask why about that answer, that’s not your goal. Keep asking. Once you get to an answer that isn’t a How–that isn’t just a method, a task, or an event–that’s your real purpose.
The Most Important Strategic Planning Technique You’ll Ever Learn
When your plans and your goals don’t compliment each other, you can’t succeed. It’s a recipe for frustration. You’ll pour effort into tasks and never get any closer to the end. As you get closer to what you think is your objective, you’ll realize that it’s always on the horizon, like a mirage. One of the reasons people confuse goals and plans is because they haven’t really thought about good goal-setting.
The most valuable takeaway from my MBA was my introduction to one of the most useful strategic planning tools or techniques I’ve ever encountered: SMART. The SMART acronym stands for: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, and Time-Limited, with various sources differing on the last two. It’s a strategic planning technique used to set goals effectively.
Vague goals don’t provide targets you can aim at effectively. How do you know how close you are to finished, or even that you are finished, if you don’t really know what “finished” looks like? Setting SMART goals gives you realistic targets and helps you string together lots of little victories, which is a powerful motivator. If you’re setting limited, specific, achievable, actionable goals, you’re much less likely to fall into the trap of mistaking a goal for a plan.
Stop Doing Things that Don’t Get You Closer to Your Goal with This Strategic Planning Technique
The other side of the coin is to avoid mistaking the plan for the goal. This is where another of the more popular strategic planning techniques comes into play. Now that you’ve used the SMART technique to set a realistic, limited, achievable goal, consider what you will need to do to get there from where you are now. Envision yourself at the end of your journey, and look back to the beginning. What was the last thing you did to achieve your goal? What was the thing you did before that? And before that? And so on, walking back until you reach the first step.
Now, you’ve got your plan. At each point, stop and ask yourself, “How is accomplishing this task bringing me closer to my goal?” Even better, ask yourself, “How does accomplishing my goal depend on my performing this task?” Get specific. If you can’t come up with a clear answer, it’s probably a distraction rather than a necessary step. At best, it’s not getting you any closer to achieving your goals. At worst, it’s a step back. Either way, it costs you time and effort and risks demoralizing you, or making you lose focus.
If you find yourself invested in doing something that doesn’t move you forward to your goal, stop and recalibrate. Take the time to reassess where you are along your plan. Do you need to change the plan? Do you need to reconsider your goal? Or do you just need to step back onto the path and keep going?
Thanks for sticking with me this long. I’ve thought often about strategic planning, a lot of the time thinking about mistakes I’ve made and lessons I’ve learned. I hope I’ve left you with some useful strategic planning techniques that you can apply to your own endeavors. If you’ve found this worth reading and want to check out some related posts, take a look at my observations so far as a new entrepreneur here: Five Thoughts on Online Retail from a Newbie.
I’ve been running my online retail business, The American Made Retail Company, for about two weeks now. That’s not long, of course, but it has been long enough for me to notice a few things. I’d like to get them down here for posterity so that I can come back in a year and be embarrassed by how much I thought I knew…
Hedging with another job let’s you trade free time for debt. If I wasn’t running this business as a low-pressure side project I would have come up with a formal plan that included at least marketing and operations budgets–no inventory since I’m using dropshippers–and likely taken on some debt in order to finance the business until it became profitable. That would mean being in the hole two weeks in and owing people money. With that much on the line, I’d need to invest a lot of time getting everything online as soon as possible so that I could afford to pay the debt off. That would likely require making this my full-time job. In other words, no day job, no steady income, just jumping into the deep end of entrepreneurship and sinking or swimming. People do that all the time, but, man, talk about pressure. Instead, I’m spending very small amounts of my own money and accepting that my growth rate is going to be slower and more gradual. I’ve still got my day job, but I’m using my free time to work on the business. I don’t have all my eggs in this online retail basket, so I don’t need to go 100% from day one, which means I don’t need to go into debt. I can spend the time I have instead of money I don’t. It’s not a better way, but it’s a lower-risk way, I think.
Marketing is the most important skill a person can learn. It’s debatable how much I really gained from my MBA, which was online from the University of Maryland Global Campus and received at the age of 42. One major takeaway for me was a completely new understanding of marketing. Like a lot of people, I assumed marketing and advertising were essentially the same thing (and that advertising and writing pitches were the same thing, another common mistake) and decided I wasn’t interested. It wasn’t until a class a year ago that I learned just how big an umbrella the term “marketing” spreads. And, maybe the biggest lesson of all, the first and arguably most important part of marketing is finding the market. I think this is the thing that is going to determine the success of my business, if I do in fact succeed: my ability to determine who is looking for what and how to bring them together.
You can’t escape social media, and you shouldn’t even try…but you can engage it on your on terms. I’m not a social media guy. The last platform I was at all active on was MySpace. I was tepid about Facebook at best before deleting my personal account several months ago, and I’ve frankly never understood Twitter. Seriously, I’ve never understood how to use Twitter, not to mention I don’t really get the appeal. But the numbers don’t lie. When I compare the organic traffic my online retail store sees to referrals from Facebook, it’s not even close. This puts me in an awkward position, because I genuinely dislike the lopsided, biased way that the most popular social platforms police speech. Frankly, I even see this in the troubles I’ve had with advertising on Google and Facebook. Still, it seems to be worth at least trying to get exposure on these platforms if for no other reason than the expansive reach they command.
Volume and margin are like the chicken and the egg. In the online retail dropshipping model I’m pursuing margins are pretty thin. The short version is that I market products provided to me at cost by a dropshipping company. When someone places an order with me, I forward it to the dropshipper, who charges me for the product cost and shipping. In exchange, the dropshipper handles everything but the marketing: shipping, manufacture or supply, etc. It’s a great system in terms of ease, but the margins are necessarily narrow. In order to be competitive, I have to eat most or all of the shipping costs. When I set the retail price, I have to walk a thin line between being low enough to compete with other retailers–often other retailers who can charge lower prices–and high enough to remain profitable. The more volume I sell, the lower my retail prices can be–increasing volume–and still cover my overhead, never mind actually make a buck or two. However, to get volume, my prices need to be so low that I’m not covering my overhead at current volume. Remember the risk I mentioned avoiding earlier by hedging with a day job? It shows up here, too; I’ve got to take a leap of faith and hope that I can hit a profitable sales volume at margins too low to reach profitability at lower sales.
Selling things is addictive. I’d heard before that most entrepreneurs are driven by the thrill of success more than money. I’d always thought that was a bit of romanticism. I was wrong. There’s really nothing to compare to making your first sale, and each sale afterwards just renews that feeling. It’s genuinely exciting. I’m passionate about this in a way that I really didn’t anticipate. And it’s not just the prospect that at the end of all this I might be able to live off of my own business, with no boss and no schedule other than the one I set for myself. It’s not easy to put in words, so I’ll borrow someone else’s and paraphrase. On some level, the money is just a way to keep score.
Read more about my new business here, and find links to both my online businesses here.
NDNM (Ni Dieux, Ni Maitre, or Neither Gods, Nor Masters*) is a new brand I’m building centered around political philosophy and current events from an anarcho-capitalist perspective. These are all original designs created by yours truly. It’s more of a passion project than a business venture, but I’d love it to be both. Check it out, I’ve got some good stuff up there and I’m working on new designs around the clock.
* This was the motto of French anarchists around the late 19th century. I like it because, while the English version was embraced by atheists and labor activists angry at the bosses, the French version can be understood to refer to all of us: neither gods, nor masters, but equals. Pretty good motto for anarcho-capitalism, I think.
Two interesting things happened to me the other day.
Facebook rejected my ads for allegedly attempting to exploit controversial social issues for commercial gain, and I discovered my Duolingo account had been hacked.
Facebook’s presumably automated ad checking algorithms flagged advertisements I attempted to run for violating their policy regarding controversial issues. What issues? Pet bandanas advertised as being made in the USA. I’m not sure whether it was the idea of putting a scarf on a cat or letting people know where the scarf was made that shocked the tender sensibilities of Facebook’s enforcement wing. I’ve requested a review and await clarification on that point. I am not holding my breath.
The very same day I checked into Duolingo to continue my leisurely-paced Spanish education and, happening to click on my account information, discovered that my profile picture, password, and contact email address had been changed.
Congratulations, AryanxD. I hope you enjoyed your time with my Pearl Level badge.
These two object lessons reinforced something I’ve been thinking about and preaching but, apparently, not practicing adequately: depending on Big Tech is careless to the point of recklessness. Google’s single sign-on is very, very convenient. It’s also a serious vulnerability. Think about how many websites, services, and even devices you can log into automatically once authenticated through your Google credentials. Fortunately for me, I’ve been moving away from the Google ecosystem for some time now, otherwise AryanxD might have had access to a lot more than my Duolingo account settings.
And then there’s Facebook. This is a new business for me. I’m not dependent on it for income–which is good, because there hasn’t been any yet–and I’m not putting all my marketing eggs in Facebook’s basket. It’s just one of several social media venues I’m using for marketing. As much as I find Facebook’s policies and political leanings unsavory, their reach is undeniable and I would be a fool not to try to use it for outreach. And yet, as near as I can tell based on what I have seen so far, my ads were being rejected for merely using the phrase “made in the USA” to describe very conventional products marketed to people on the basis of pet ownership, not political opinion. The violation seems to be the perception that “made in the USA” is a signal to people Facebook finds objectionable. I’ll leave that observation without further comment and allow you, the reader, to make of it what you will.
The common thread is this. Depending on Facebook for advertising or Google for authentication leaves me at their mercy. These are massive companies who seem to be at least indifferent to the concerns of individual customers simply by virtue of their scale. Building around them is building in vulnerability.
Which brings us to the antifragile approach. Antifragility is a concept made famous by Nassim Taleb to describe systems which respond to disruptions by becoming stronger, as opposed to fragile systems which break or resilient systems which return to normal.
In this case, Facebook has provided me with some excellent ad material which I am using to promote my brand on competing social media platforms such as MeWe that are more open to a broad array of opinions, or at least aren’t outright hostile to a particular perspective. The good people at Duolingo were kind enough to reset my password and disconnect my account from Google. I quickly changed the password to something much more secure and switched my contact email to my personal address.
The moral? Move away from the centralized web. Don’t be fooled by the apparent convenience of outsourcing your information security to companies that sell information for profit. Build your own decentralized, redundant networks. To paraphrase Sun Tzu, first make yourself invulnerable, then be ready to seize opportunities that present themselves.
I’ve been thinking about getting into the online retail space for some time but I wasn’t really sure how to do it. After spending so much time stuck at home this past year, and having just finished my MBA, I felt a surge of motivation. I came up with a few ideas–most of which I’m going to pursue–but the one I kept coming back to was the idea of selling products that were in high demand but that were most often provided by foreign manufacturing.
There’s nothing wrong with imported goods, and I will never speak against free trade. However, I think it’s important to support American workers and American manufacturing for a number of reasons. Besides the economic havoc the past year has wrought we’ve also been taught a serious lesson about depending on foreign imports as COVID-19 policies limited international trade. With as many things as I purchased online, I wanted to support local workers and help bring American manufacturing back in whatever small way I could.
The mission of the American Made Retail Company is to offer a range of products made in the USA at the best prices possible. You won’t find the cheapest products at AMRC, but you will find the best value. And, you’ll be helping to rebuild American manufacturing one dollar at a time.