Automate. Automate. Automate!

I recently built a tool for a provider of an ERP system, to allow his clients to automatically publish inventory to their business websites and keep the sites in synch with his system. It got me thinking (again) about automation, and how business can do more with tools they're already using.

The specific use case is a system targeted to providers of heavy equipment for the construction industry: bulldozers, earth movers, pavers, cranes, etcetera. The company provides a cloud-based tool for managing accounts, contacts, sales and inventory. It's called Vizybility CRM if you're curious - an Asset Focused CRM solution tailor-made for capitol and mobile equipment sales.

The client actually came to me looking to improve the SEO value of the URLs in their system and fix an issue with image orientation. Instead, I built an integration that not only fixed those issues, but enabled a new line of business.

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Isn't technology is supposed to make our lives better?

How best to automate? To some, it's the holy grail of business systems. The problem is that there are a million different ways to automate, and umpteen providers trying to convince everyone that their product is the solution. As often as not, technology presents daunting complexity and a confusing array of options instead of improving people's lives or enabling better business practices.

It's a lot like cell phone sales, which the CRTC in Canada conducted an 8 month public inquiry on and concluded that harmful sales practices "exist in all sales channels, including in store, online, over the phone, and door to door."

The problem is that buyers are at a disadvantage because there are so many options out there and they're conveyed in ways that make it next to impossible to conduct an "apples to apples" comparison.

Everybody's selling. How do I know who to trust?

Trust yourself. Trust your own instincts. You're right to think you don't have time to sift through everything trying to find the right tool for your business. It's a mess.

Don't do it, delegate it.

To who? That depends on your budget and your timeline.

It's possible that you have someone in-house who can reliably sift through the technology solutions available and come up with something that works for you. What's more likely is that an in-house solution will cost you far more than a third party contractor or team.

Management belongs in-house. Execution you can outsource.

Facebook, Google, Amazon, eBay, Shopify, Etsy, PayPal, WordPress, SharePoint, Stripe, Wix, GoDaddy and a host of other providers offer solutions for business. What makes sense to use?

They all offer similar tools. Deciding what to focus on and use is a business development decision, not a just a technical question.


CRM

Arrows Heads Arrowheads Opposites  - Clker-Free-Vector-Images / Pixabay

Communication with API

Ads Advertisement Website Layout  - 200degrees / Pixabay

Your Business Website

How do I find the tools to automate my website? What should I look for?

Every major hosting platform offers what are called APIs - API stands for Application Programming Interface. These days, an API usually refers to a set of "endpoints" that programmers can use to hook into systems and perform various activities that would normally require a human being to be logged in to do.

Facebook, Google, Amazon, eBay, Shopify, Etsy, PayPal, WordPress, SharePoint, Stripe, Wix, GoDaddy and a host of other providers offer API-based solutions for business. Furthermore, there are a lot of small companies who've built their businesses on creating API-based add-ons for various software packages.

The solution I created for Vizybility CRM uses their API to allow a WordPress Plugin to create a custom post type for heavy equipment called "Machines". The "machine" posts are essentially a catalog, listing all the machines a given company has for sale or rent.

What if my business can't afford a custom solution? How do I automate?

That's a fair question and a fair concern in these days of coronavirus lockdowns and looming recession. Luckily, even if you can't afford to pay programmers and designers for a custom integration, there are a lot of companies who make their living selling "cookie cutter" solutions that tie APIs to a variety of products. Companies like Zapier make their money with inexpensive or even free automation tools that can sit between your site and a variety of APIs. Zapier calls them "Zaps".

There are hundreds if not thousands of WordPress Plugins that enable integration with sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, MailChimp, Aweber, and a growing plethora of companies whose bread and butter is helping you to automate.

As I said above though, these "solutions" are part of the problem for small business.
Network Web Digital  - geralt / Pixabay

Isn't it expensive to pay someone to automate? Are there DIY solutions?

Yes to both questions. It can be expensive, and you can do it yourself.

I'm not going to lie to you and say custom or comprehensive solutions are cheap - you can expect to pay a fair premium for custom code that hooks into your various APIs and automates business processes or publishing tasks. There's a caveat, though: while initial development and setup are relatively costly, the return on your investment is usually far higher than the outlay. A "fair premium" is exactly that: fair.

You're not paying for the time it takes to do, you're paying for results, and results are what these tools deliver. When you consider that the ongoing cost of paying staff to manually update your website is completely unnecessary, the labor savings alone justify the cost to produce and maintain API automation.

Seriously, do the math. It's like having a staff member who works 24/7 for the price of coffee and snacks.

Can I automate in the other direction?

Yes! Chances are, your website already has an API of its own!

For just a few thousand dollars - or a few weeks of effort - you can probably enable all the same automations that impress you about Fortune 500 sites, e-commerce providers and large media outlets. You can even just add bits and pieces whenever you have a spare couple of hours, using whatever equivalent of a "Dashboard" your hosting service provides.

There's a way to automate the creation of shops on every major sales platform. Ways to automate social media posts. Ways to automate follow-up emails and chat bots.

The really great thing about all this is that there are companies like mine who can make Fortune 500 functionality accessible on "local Main Street" budgets, and who know enough to advise on what makes sense.

Sadly, I don't know anyone who's better at it than us, so I can't give you a referral. 😉
automate so many things

Do it yourself automation example.

Summing up:

There are two approaches:

  • Do It Yourself using pre-made add-ons, web hooks, or plugins. This seems like the less expensive approach, given that many of the tools are free, but the cost to deploy is far higher than you'd expect once you factor in the expense of having non-technical staff install and configure the tools. The labor cost alone is likely to be far higher than the cost of simply hiring an expert to do it for you. Not to mention the aggravation factor.
  • Hire a professional Web Developer to install the tools and write custom code for the bits that aren't freely available. In the long run this is likely to be less expensive than "free" alternatives, and far more effective for achieving your goals and getting good ROI.

I get it. It's scary. Coronavirus has knocked the wind out of your sails and broken the rudder.

The scariest thing is that even though it's already a crisis, this is just the eye of the storm and the only way out is through the other side.

It's going to be alright.

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I should have known better, but I was hit with a wave of panic when the government announced the beginning of the corona virus lock down. I thought that might be it for my business. How would I get new clients? What about the meetings I had already scheduled? What if everybody stopped spending? Even in a digital business it's sometimes difficult to see past traditional expectations.

To my eternal relief, I learned better. On one hand I saw it coming, but I also thought that maybe people would be tightening the purse strings. You can't always rely on people to do the smart thing.

The response of some of my clients has been not to hit the brakes and scale back on digital transformation, but to accelerate and double down on already-planned development. In turn, that's forced me to re-evaluate the way my company was structured and take a new route.

The result is that while they've been speeding up their timelines and wanting faster changes and better tools, I've had to streamline my own approach and start changing the way I do business. I'm entering into new business relationships and attracting new associates, and it's paying off in the ability to do more, diversify my offerings, and serve customers better.

In a recent Facebook post I jokingly said "Come ahead, we'll scale up!"

Turns out, I wasn't joking at all.

Here's wishing all of you the same luck I've had, and offering a hand up for those of you who are smart enough to see the writing on the wall.

Business owners often have a difficult time defining the role of their Website.

They confess to feeling overwhelmed by technology, and rather than deal with the complexity they settle for a site that's less functional than a business card or a billboard. This is a mistake.

In this day and age, viewing your Website as a necessary expense rather than as an investment that's expected to produce a return is such a critical misstep that it's difficult to even frame the magnitude of it in words.

The "billboards and business cards" approach to your site guarantees that you'll be throwing your money away.

It's like a bricks-and-mortar retailer deciding to locate their flagship store in the basement of an abandoned factory in a ghost town - then closing the door and not telling anyone about it.

So what's my advice if you're thinking "I just need a 5 or 6 page Website that tells people what I do and how to contact me"?

The billboard site is only useful as a stopgap solution while you get your act together. Don't get stuck there.

Don't throw your money away. You can do better. You can be better.

Take a grown up approach to your online presence, forget "billboards and business cards"  and hire the right expert to advise you. If you don't, you'll just keep wasting money trying to cut corners.

Suck up that ego and admit that you don't know this game or you'd already be winning it.

The reason you're viewing it as a cost instead of an opportunity is that your approach guarantees lackluster results.

As a Consultant, I see this a lot.
It's so prevalent that it's a recurring ethical concern.

Clients approaching a business Website with this mindset are demanding that I let them pay me to do them a disservice.

Some Web Designers and Developers are either unethical or they don't have the chops to see it, but we have an obligation to at least try to steer Clients in the right direction.

"So how do I ensure a Return on my Investment" you ask?

It's actually pretty simple. Do your homework.

Websites seem like a complicated morass of obscure technical terms and difficult concepts, but when you strip away the jargon, it's very straightforward.

Step 1: Strategize

I've framed this as a single step for simplicity's sake, but this is actually a big ask with a lot of detail.

This is where small business owners break down and give up without allowing themselves to embrace the process.

It's like making a business plan; another process many small business owners give short shrift. It requires you to think about your whole business and put your online presence in context.

There's very little value in creating a site without thinking it through in exquisite detail. A scattershot approach can produce results, but a well thought out strategy inform your efforts in a way that saves time and money.

You don't need to write a complete business plan for your site, but that's actually a great idea. If you do this right, you'll be close to having one anyhow.

Step 2: Deploy

You've defined your target market, specified the metrics you'll use to measure success, decided on a Strategy for your overall business that includes your online presence.

Now it's time to figure out how you're going to Deploy it. Are you going to do a wholesale replacement of your existing site or add functionality? Is the deployment going to happen in stages or all at once? How does your budget impact your approach? Are you relying on increased sales in one stage to bootstrap the next? You need to figure this out and have a frank discussion with whoever's leading the project about this.

A Deployment Plan can come in many flavors, there's no fixed framework that will work for every business in every situation. Don't presume you know it all.

You need a competent expert to guide this process, and you need to be honest about budgetary constraints, staffing, expectations and level of commitment.

Step 3: Measure and Adjust

This is where you see your ROI

Google Analytics, Facebook Pixel, Pinterest Analytics, Amazon's Athena - there's a fantastic array of tools available to help you collect and analyse your data.

Do NOT get lost in the minutiae. Focus on your bottom line and other Key Performance Indicators.

You don't need to know it all. Ideally, this isn't your department except at a very high level. Someone else should own it in collaboration with other technical staff or consultants.

Either insist on access to a "Dashboard" that gives you an overview, regular reports, or a synopsis of the game plan informed by  whatever combination of solutions you  chose to implement. 

What you need to think about before (re)building your site?

Your Marketing Objectives

This is the key component of your Web Strategy. It's what you'll be using to measure ROI.

These might include:

  • Increased traffic to the site
  • Brand awareness and brand building
  • Sales
  • Other Conversions like signing up for mailing lists or downloading special content
  • Cross-selling, Upselling
  • Customer service
  • Loyalty and Retention

Your Target Audience

People roll their eyes at this one, like it's so obvious it's almost insulting to ask them to define.The truth is, many business owners haven't bothered to figure it out properly, and it's costing them money every day.

You need to appeal to individuals, not some imaginary mass that includes everybody.

In order to do that, you need a clear idea of who you're talking to. This is why knowing your target market is crucial.

In terms of online marketing, knowing where to find your target market is also key. What websites and social networks do they frequent?

Your Site's Content in Context

Your site may be targeted at specific demographics, but there's also the customer's level of engagement to consider.

You don't want to put the same content in front of an idle browser that you do for an informed customer. You need to have different kinds of content available for different stages in the sales cycle.

That means thinking about what will appeal to the first time visitor, the visitor who's already considering buying, and the informed customer in need of expert guidance.

All three types of content need to be thought through and included in your site, so brainstorm.

The Plan

Now you've defined your Marketing Objectives, you've got a Target Audience and you've planned different types of content for people at different stages in the sales cycle.

Now it's time to think in practical terms about how this is going to fit in to your daily business practices:

  • Who's going to do the writing?
  • Who's going to make the videos?
  • Where are we getting the pictures?
  • What's the schedule for all this?
  • Is this realistic or pie-in-the-sky?
  • Is it fair to dump this on [insert name here] or is that a recipe for resentment and poor performance? Do they really have time for it?
  • Does it make more sense to outsource it or hire someone new to focus on it?

Think this through and be brutally honest with yourself.

Don't kid yourself that an already fully engaged employee is going to be able to do this well. They won't. If you're going to add it to somebody's already full workload without helping them free up the time for it, you may as well take $5,000  in cash and give it to a panhandler every month for the good it will do your business.

You need someone to take ownership of this, that person needs to be rewarded, and that person is NOT YOU.

Deal with it.

Promoting Your Business

Ads with generic marketing copy that's designed for broad appeal read like exactly that. Nobody likes to be sold to, especially not in a transparently self-serving manner. People might want to buy, but they're looking for a fit. That is, a company they feel like they actually want to buy from.

Luckily, there's an easy way to figure out how to do this.

Once you've decided on what promotional platforms make sense, you don't need to rely on your gut or suck your ideas out of thin air. You can look at what's working for your competitors, or for Fortune 500 brands in your industry.

Most importantly, every online venue for promoting yourself is track-able in real time, so you can SEE what works and what doesn't, and adjust your approach accordingly.

NO EXCUSES. DO IT.

Again, you need someone to take ownership of this, that person needs to be rewarded, and that person is NOT YOU.

You're the boss. Demand results, and delegate.

Measurement

Once they're defined, and before the redevelopment of your site is underway, TRACK Key Performance Indicators on your existing site, presuming you have one.

You need to establish a baseline against which to measure performance.

Track how people are finding you, track which keywords work and which don't, track which pages get the most engagement, track sales, etc. - track whatever you can right now.

This is what we talked about in "Your Marketing Objectives".

Remember to Delegate!

Not every Corporation has a Chief Technology Officer.

In small business - Incorporated or not - it's pretty normal for the "C Suite" to reside in the owner's brain.

I've got a friend whose business does $20 million in business yearly and supports 30+ employees, with a globally distributed supply chain and manufacturing, and it's all in his head! He's a brilliant guy, but that's a problem. He's stuck without a successor and afraid to retire.

In a best case scenario, that's what happens to people who don't delegate. Most people aren't as bright as my friend though, and there's really no bottom to that pit.

Short Answer: Maybe.

It's getting more imperative with each passing day that you get up to speed with modern best practices, empower your workforce with tools they can use anywhere, and connect with your customers in the ways they've come to expect from big brands.

For half a century - arguably since the 1950s and definitely by the 1970s - the world has been on a trajectory towards Digital Transformation. More and more of our day-to-day activities have been impacted by what's become commonly known as the Information Age.

Digital technology is now being used to solve an ever-expanding variety of problems, or change (and usually enhance) traditional ways of getting things done. Some have called this the Digital Revolution, or the 3rd Industrial Revolution (the second was a phase of standardization and adoption of new non-digital technologies).

We can quibble about terms and timelines ad infinitum though, and I'm not really interested in talking about that. What concerns me in this article is that it's more important than ever that you get your business up to speed.

Can your business afford to miss out on the COVID-19 E-Commerce spike?

The worldwide crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has made it crucial that businesses find ways to connect and do business without requiring in-person transactions. In some estimates, consumer use of e-commerce has grown by up to 30% since March 2020, and is continuing on an upward trajectory.

Some will argue that this will change once the crisis is over and people go back to their normal patterns, but will it? People are establishing new habits in response to the crisis, and once they're established, habits stick. That's kind of the nature of habits.

We don't know what will happen, but some experts predict this is the beginning of a cycle of lockdowns that might recur intermittently for several years - or even become the new normal.

Analogous to the Agricultural Revolution and Industrial Revolution, the Digital Revolution marked the beginning of the Information Age.

This isn't going away anytime soon.

So... What to do?

At least 40% of all businesses will die in the next 10 years… if they don’t figure out how to change their entire company to accommodate new technologies.
— John Chambers, Cisco System

Digital Transformation isn't optional, it's mission-critical. Even before COVID-19, businesses that were failing to transition were starting to fail.

Digital Transformation is more than just using computers and the internet; it's using them in a way that increases your business' agility and resilience.

You might think of it as preparing for the future, but the fact is that it's more like catching up with the present.

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