Columbia Falls is not a redundant facility

We’ve been here before.

We’ve listened to a major employer who for decades said one thing and often did another. We’ve heard whispers and listened to double talk about what’s in the ground (or isn’t) and about plans to reopen and what the future holds. Our future is not our past.

We’ve seen Plum Creek as a solid community supporter and employer for a long time. Yes, there have been layoffs and temporary closures, but the company continued to support local causes and invest in CFalls – such as the MDF plant and technology infrastructure.

Yet buyouts change things.

We’ve been here before.

No matter what a company says they’ll do after the buyout, companies have a fiduciary obligation to shareholders. No matter what they feel obligated to say, redundant facilities are ALWAYS on the short list for elimination. It’s common sense.

It’s unrealistic, if not wishful thinking to believe that a company says that “closure of (your local) facilities isn’t planned” after buying out a massive competitor.

Columbia Falls knew better. We understand companies have to say those things. The officers have a responsibility to protect the company. That includes not inciting panic, drama or worse by telling staff in that area that “closures are possible but we don’t anticipate closing anything here”.

In this situation, a company’s thought process has to include something like “If we tell them what’s planned (or what we think will happen), people will leave (including some we want to stay), and those who stay will be distracted (or worse). The speculation will negatively impact the attitude and performance of the CFalls team.

When buyouts happen, people worry about feeding their family, much less being able to take care of a house payment, the bills, college expenses, etc. You expect that. Professionals take care of business, even when worried about their families – no matter what the press release said.

I’m losing my job, now what?

Even though we’ve been here before, that doesn’t make it any less scary, worrisome, or frustrating. The pressure to produce cash flow to feed the family and pay the bills is on everyone’s mind.

If you’re targeted for layoff, I’ll bet you have skills, experience and knowledge that you’ve taken for granted for years. They’ve become second nature to you. I could wake you up at 2:00 am and ask you something related to whatever you do or know and without having to think about it, you’d rattle off great advice about how to deal with it, fix it and/or do it.

This is an opportunity to take control, even though you probably don’t feel you have much of that right now. You might have a dream that was always delayed by the “golden handcuffs” of a long-term job. Can you pursue it now?

There is no better time than now to start your own business. There is no better motivation than to create some control over your family’s economic future. It won’t be easy, but it’ll be yours.

Redundant Facilities?

It’s easy to say the phrase “redundant facilities“, isn’t it? Who would want such a thing? Sounds wasteful.

When you say “redundant facilities“, you don’t have to think about 200 families who are wondering how they’ll pay their bills. It lets you sidestep the economic effect the job losses could have on the community. Say it, and you don’t have to wonder about the impact of families who leave the valley in order to meet their employment / financial needs. Saying “redundant facilities” allows you to ignore the impact on the CFalls real estate market, schools, charities and businesses.

If you’re wondering who will come riding into town on a white horse and rescue Columbia Falls, don’t. We know that no one will do that, and that’s OK. Columbia Falls doesn’t need someone to rescue it.

Columbia Falls is not a redundant facility.

As always, the people of Columbia Falls will make do, find or create new careers, recognize market opportunities, and find a way to manage the economic risks we all face. When you see a new business pop up in town, take a chance on them – and keep visiting our existing businesses. They feed Montana families right here in town.

Columbia Falls is open for business. It’s a great community with awesome, welcoming, kind people and to me, the only place that feels like home. Come see us.

Omaha! Omaha! Omaha!” – Who knows, but it can’t hurt”

Broncos Defense

Any number of claims will be made about this weekend’s Bronco victory in the AFC Championship game, but one stands out above the rest.

Sponsorship evaluation firm Front Row Analytics said the city of Omaha got its money worth with each verbal mention of Omaha worth the equivalent of $150,000 in advertising.

This claim, from an ESPN story about Manning’s calls during the game – each of which generated donations to Manning’s Peyback Foundation, ignores marketing reality and most likely determines the value of advertising based on conference championship football game advertising rates.

Problem is, that’s not what determines the value of advertising – though it can impact the price.

While the PR and donation campaign by the Omaha Chamber is pretty smart, don’t even think about believing the claim that “each verbal mention of Omaha is worth the equivalent of $150,000 worth of advertising”. In no universe is this claim going to hold water.

It’s quite clear that Omaha Steaks’ SVP Todd Simon understands the nature of this project – in this quote from the same ESPN story:

“This is really great for Omaha as a community and for the businesses that are embedded here,” said Todd Simon, a senior vice president of Omaha Steaks, which his family owns. “Who knows whether any of this will translate to the bottom line, if ever, but it can’t hurt.

The emphasis in the above sentence is mine.

Don’t get me wrong. This was a very intelligent project by the Omaha Chamber and they should be quite proud of what they pulled off. It’s particularly impressive to see them jump on it so quickly and get something fun, beneficial and PR-friendly organized after last week’s game against the Chargers, where Manning said “Omaha” 44 times.

It’s also a great example of the “Use the news” tactic that we’ve discussed repeatedly in the past.

“It can’t hurt”

If each of Manning’s 31 mentions of “Omaha” are worth $150k, then Front Row should be able to describe how Omaha can track those mentions to purchase / investment and related actions made as a result. Obviously, I don’t believe they can do this. They can certainly inquire at every sale made over the next few months, but this is unlikely to produce results that would provoke someone into additional advertising investments.

Small businesses should not be investing their marketing budget in “who knows…but it can’t hurt” advertising.

Every bit of your advertising spend can be tracked so that you know whether it worked or not. Don’t let it out the door if it isn’t trackable.

How to use calendar marketing

SpaghettiOsPearlHarbor

When I say “calendar marketing”, I’m talking about using the context of historical events and dates, holidays and current events to spice up your marketing.

Done right, you can briefly tie what you do to the event, date or holiday, have a little fun and perhaps get the attention those about to buy.

Like any tactic, there are right and wrong ways to use it. Like any tactic, there are right and wrong ways to use it – as the SpaghettiOs social media team found out on Pearl Harbor Day.

While social media provides good and bad examples, keep in mind that your efforts in this area can be leveraged in almost any media.

Doing it right

Doing it right involves asking yourself a few questions.

Q: Who will see it?
A: If it’s good enough, everyone. If it’s stupid enough, everyone.

With that in mind:

  • How will you feel if everyone sees it?
  • How will your customers react?
  • What will they be inclined to do?
  • Will it makes things better or worse for your business?

No matter what – Think it through.

Oreo is a good example to watch, but even they slip up now and then:

AMCOreo

How do I know I’m about to do it wrong?

If your thought process is “Let’s use their memory, our logo and wrap them together in the flag in our marketing”, that would be wrong. Stupidly wrong.

This shouldn’t have to be explained to you.

Anyone who isn’t doing this in a strictly robotic fashion has to have this thought process going on:

  • Remembering Pearl Harbor – Good.
  • Slapping your flag-wrapped logo on it – Dumb.

While SpaghettiOs managed to apologize (and delete the earlier tweet), your goal is not to put yourself in this position. Some found it offensive, some stupid or at the least – felt the message could have done without the cheesy brand + flag graphic.

No matter what, it distracted from the reason for the post in the first place – to encourage their customers to take a moment to remember.

SpaghettiOsPearlHarborApology

Numerous major brands have misfired on things like this. In each case, you will see calls for whoever wrote the original tweet to be fired, or for their agency to be fired. That doesn’t make it any better – it just makes a few angry people feel better for a few minutes.

For a small local business, national outrage is unlikely, but you could provoke a local boycott or worse.

Have a “Reason why”

Earlier this week, USA Today had this headline re: Mandela’s death (hat tip to @JSlarve and @SameMeans for catching it):

MandelaUSAToday

The point is not to point out the mistakes that major brands make. Everyone makes mistakes. There are plenty of examples to learn from.

What you need to keep in mind is WHY you are creating this content (doesn’t have to be an ad) in the first place:

  • To honor someone? Fine. Keep your brand and schtick out of it. Stick to the topic. Say what you feel. The old GoDaddy always remembered Veterans Day and the Marine Corps birthday – and you never saw their typically cheesy stuff in those pieces.
  • To be funny? Make sure it really is funny, rather than funny at the cost of some group or individual.
  • To provoke someone to buy – see the prior two and then consider every bit of copywriting experience you have.

Your message has to be focused on that reason – whatever it is.

Connect rather than being just another “Me too!” marketer

Ill-advised content aside, calendar-based marketing is an effective tool when used thoughtfully.

The temptation is to do “Me too” marketing here. Things like a holiday-themed sale on a holiday weekend are not going to stand out in a crowd of me-too sales.

Sometimes connecting national to your business to local works well. For example, you might have Super Bowl-related promotion or event that encourages people to visit/buy and make note that you’ll be passing along a percentage of Super Bowl related promotion/event sales to a local youth athletic program. It doesn’t have to be football and it doesn’t have to be a percentage.

In Columbia Falls MT (pop 4000ish), Timber Creek assisted living facility hosts the Rotary “Brunch with Santa” community Christmas event in their public areas. While no one is selling assisted living that day, hundreds who would never go inside otherwise get to see how nice the place is – planting a seed that might sprout next week or years from now.

The forgotten 25% – will they be your customers?

The “Merging Method” of Agricultural Genetic Modification – (MMAGM)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Ian Sane

On average, 25% of US students drop out of high school.

I have little tolerance for “being average”, mostly because little changes have a way of propelling you well above average.

It isn’t that average is bad, but remember that average is like scoring 50th percentile on a test – half of the people are below average.

On any one test, maybe that’s not a big deal – unless the test is your life.

It’s “just how it is”

While the overall U.S. dropout rate is 25%, 50% of American Indian students drop out.

Regardless of lineage, some say that’s just how it is because “most dropouts are disconnected and unmotivated”, or they’re “intellectually under-performing” – meaning they’d never be able to graduate because they aren’t smart enough to complete the work required to graduate.

Whether those things are true or not, it doesn’t seem ideal for a community’s future to have 25% of students stumble out of school with little or no life, work or business skills any more than than it would to return to the days when two million kids aged seven to 12 worked 70 hour weeks in factories and coal mines. Never mind that it took Congress over 100 years to outlaw child labor, and even then, did so only to allow depression-era adults to get work.

Some of the 25% will struggle, suffer and become the people we look away from, some will manage thanks to skills gained from their family, and some will figure it out.

What can we do?

So what can a community do to improve the chances of a good outcome?

I wonder if some life skills (like budgeting and goal setting), some technical skills (like welding, heavy equipment operation or diesel repair) and/or some business skills (such how to plan and start a new business on a shoestring budget) might give these kids the foundation they need to become “a normal part of society” (you can decide what that means).

For this, we may need to know about the portion of the 25% who got past their slow start.

It’s likely that there’s research showing what improves the likelihood of helping these kids get started on the road to a successful life where they can find rewarding work, save some money for a rainy day, have a family if they wish and prepare themselves financially for old age. We may need to know the turning points that kept them out of prison, “soup kitchens” and shelters.

25 percent is acceptable

25% may seem pretty bad, yet as our day goes on, many of us manage to accept it. Either we think we can’t do anything about it, or we’re doing all we can just to keep our own stuff together.

Here’s how 25% feels in other parts of our lives:

  • Three eggs of every dozen would be rotten.
  • Three beers in every twelve pack are flat.
  • When you put a dollar into a change machine, you always get three quarters back.
  • One tire on your car is always flat.
  • Two pieces of every pizza have no sauce, cheese or toppings.
  • 7500 U.S. commercial flights crash every day.

If these things happened daily, there would be plenty of uproar, Congressional hearings and so on.

Yet one in four dropping out is what we seem to accept as a society, as long as our kid or adorable little grandchild isn’t dropping out – kind of like how 25% of Veterans living on the street is somehow OK (?), as long as it isn’t our family’s Veteran.

Look, I’m not saying big brother should swoop in and (s)mother these kids. What I’m saying is that we should recognize and attempt to improve how we address the real and societal costs that result from dropping out and as a result, how these kids deal with the life they’ve chosen, the life they appear to have chosen, and/or the hand they’ve been dealt.

The exception cases, like the 1.2% of dropouts who start multi-million dollar companies, shouldn’t be an escape clause. It should instead suggest how we identify patterns of success. What was different about those dropouts and could that affect more of them?

What does this have to do with business?

These people are potential customers, potential employees and/or their family members. They’re part of the community where you and your staff work, play and live. Isn’t that enough to make it matter?

The Amazon Prime Directive

Moving away from the light....and into the darkness of night
Creative Commons License photo credit: mendhak

What did you learn from – and change in your business – after Amazon launched Amazon Prime?

If you aren’t aware, Amazon Prime is a membership-based service that provides access to Amazon video-on-demand and free Kindle books from the Kindle lending library – but more importantly, it upgrades all purchases to from regular ground shipping to free two-day shipping.

The question remains – what did you take away for your business from the launch and subsequent success of Prime? Did it provoke you to change anything about your business and how you work with customers?

Even if you don’t do retail, there are lessons to be learned from what Amazon is doing.

The Fresh Prime of Bel-Air

Plenty has been written about the success of Prime and what it’s done for customer loyalty.

One quote from the Small Business Trends piece (linked above) that might get your attention – a comment from a Morningstar analyst who researched Prime:

What we found is that, generally speaking, last year Prime members spent about twice as much as non Prime members. (emphasis mine) They spent about $1,200 dollars compared to $600 for non Prime members. What’s also interesting is that the average person shopping online last year spent approximately $1,000. What that says to us it that Prime members generate more incremental revenue per than non Prime shoppers. They are doing most of their online shopping on Amazon as opposed to going to other sites. Prime members generate more income.

Recently, Amazon took the service a step further with the introduction in Los Angeles of Amazon PrimeFresh, which expands upon their Seattle-based test program.

What can you take away from this and implement at your business? Do it for them. Deliver it for them. Automate it for them, as appropriate. All with more personal touch than Amazon can afford to do *in your community* and *in your market* with *your customers*. Yes, automation *can* result in more personal touch.

The key is the emphasis on your community, your market, your customers. I’m not suggesting that you try to clone Amazon.

Behavioral shifts

There’s much more to this than automation allowing you to buy produce via your web browser. Customer behavior is central to what Amazon does.

When Amazon saw that Prime members behaved differently, then they could work differently with them. Simply by buying a membership in Prime, a buyer is telling Amazon “I am going to buy more, more often.”

If your customers could send you a signal in advance like that, how would you use it to improve what you do for them? How do you care for your best customers? How do you encourage new customers to take advantage of what you offer like your best customers do? How do you make buying friction-free and easy?

Now reverse that. If you look at customers who buy more and more often from your business, what are you doing to take care of them? What if you did those things for more of your customers – would it turn some of them into Prime-like customers?

Amazon, WalMart, You

We’ve talked repeatedly about “When Wal-Mart comes to town“. Amazon’s taken WalMart’s game and made it more convenient and logistically efficient.

Take from them what makes sense for your business and implement it a step at a time, even if your implementation looks completely different. The lesson is doing what matters for your customers, rather than blindly cloning what Amazon or WalMart do.

For example, let’s say you sell high quality, organic meats that your area’s chain grocer doesn’t carry.

Do your customers forget to stop by your place? When they’re at the grocery, do they grab something there because it’s in front of them? That convenience can cost you a $25 sale. How many can you afford to lose each week?

While you probably can’t afford to provide same-day delivery like Amazon does in Los Angeles, you can serve your neighborhood or small town in a similarly convenient way. Maybe you deliver on Thursday evenings so people have their weekend meat supply for campouts and family gatherings in advance of their weekend grocery shopping. A part-time employee could deliver their pre-paid orders.

You don’t have to cover the whole state 24 hours a day, just your market area (or part of it) as convenient.

Make quality, local buying easy. That’s the local Prime Directive.

The value of trust

In this TED talk, Amanda Palmer explains “Business is Personal” in the context of her music and art businesses.

It’s obvious that her connection with fans and followers is personal and immensely important to her.

From a business perspective, not having that connection would mean she’d have to act like most other musicians. IE: Sign with a label, obey the label’s rules, accept their limitations and perhaps tolerate their tweaks to her music.

Making this connection means getting a new fan – and connected fans are where the feedback, revenue and a surfable couch come from.

This personal connection is everything for her – and it can be for you.

Depending on which acts you’ve seen lately, you may or may not have experienced after-concert meet-and-greet sessions like the ones Palmer described. I saw this for the first time at a Heart concert last summer and was pretty impressed. After their set, the opening act (which I’d never heard of) came out into the large grassy seating area. People lined up to connect with them, talk, take photos and get autographs.

Think about it…isn’t this the kind of interaction you’ve like to have after seeing a speaker, musical act or similar performance? Yet so few do, probably due to a fear all too similar to the fear-of-asking that Palmer talked about.

Lessons

Two of Amanda’s comments stand out for those seeking connections with the people in their market:

  • “Celebrity is about a lot of people loving you from a distance, but the internet… [is] about a few people loving you up close and about those people being enough.”
  • “I trust you this much. Should I? Show me.”

The first one speaks to the personal nature of your business that we talk about regularly: the effort you make to establish trust and connect with KK’s 1000 true fans. The second one is even more personal. You’re asking for some of the most frank feedback you can get. Are you strong enough to ask for it in that way?

Important for entrepreneurs: Amanda talks a little about the trouble with her label. She defines what success means to her, rather than letting her label define it. A huge “discovery” for many entrepreneurs.

Hat tip to Gayle Valeriote for the passing Amanda’s vid to me.

Take advantage. Leave your small town.

Does your community talk about the flight of youth?

The shrinkage and simultaneous aging of communities is a critical issue for rural places.

Young people graduate and move away for good jobs or for college and they may not come back for a decade or more, if at all.

Recently, a high-achieving, hard-working college student told a just-laid-off friend to take advantage of the layoff and use it as an opportunity to leave our rural community. No question – job loss is a great time to take advantage of opportunities that might’ve been out of reach because you had a full time job – but it’s still disconcerting to hear one of the smartest, hardest working college kids I know advising a friend to “get out of Dodge“.

It illustrates how much is left to accomplish in order to strengthen the relationship between communities, employers, schools, colleges and the youth that local people say they want to retain in (or attract back to) their communities.

It’s not a simple thing to fix. Is it something that can/should be “fixed”? Or is it simply a reflection of market forces that rural communities must recognize and address?

Addressing the gap

Programs to bridge the gap between where youth are and where employers need them aren’t just about the job, but that’s usually the focus.

You’ll find internships, vocational-technical education (which changes the person, not the job or the employer) and many other programs that try to get younger workers to develop a passion for something that will enable them to earn more than what’s available via traditional service sector jobs.

High school graduates who have college aspirations sometimes don’t go right out of high school because they just aren’t sure what they want to do. Internships are one way to offer a look-see at different careers. Employers and colleges of all kinds could do more to offer a look-see of their own.

But it isn’t easy.

Challenges at every turn

Many high school students care pressed for time given that they’re in school from 8:00 am to 3:00 pm or longer, with before and after school activities like “zero period classes”, sports, work, band, etc.

While some think that this younger generation is afraid of work, I think those who claim that are simply more aware of the less-motivated than they were in the past. It’s repeatedly been shown that most rural youth have a strong work ethic because of responsibilities they had while being raised.

Despite a good work ethic, someone still has to manage/mentor an intern. Who does it? When does it happen?

Most employees will expect to be paid for giving up weekend/evening/family time and management may not have the funds for that. College students and high school graduates with jobs might have time for internships during the mentoring business’s “normal” work day, but this still requires employee time for mentoring/training.

In order to work past these challenges, motivation might come from looking at the outcome of succeeding at these programs. Imagine your community with a substantial, community-involved 18-35 year old workforce. What community wouldn’t like that?

Figuring out how to get there won’t be an accidental process, but this visualization could provide the motivation to plan how your community will make it happen.

Making it happen

Some rural communities, including mine, have been growing lately, but the influx is primarily “empty nesters” rather than 18-35 year olds and young families. Research has repeatedly shown that communities must have more to offer than “just jobs” to attract the latter.

Culture, recreation and work flexibility, aka “powder days”, are growing in importance, even while school quality, cost of living and more traditional requirements remain critical.

Culture is more than just art, music and theater. It’s vision too. An attractive community will likely be moving toward achieving a vision (whatever that might be) that’s intertwined with the causes and values attractive/important to a young workforce/young families. Quite often, these will be the things they learned to value while growing up in your town.

What does your community do to attract young workers and young families? What should they do? If these things work, is your community ready for an influx of young families and the leaders among them? If not, is your community ready for the alternative?

The Price of A Hug

Recently, a small business owner hugged the President.

He wasn’t tackled by the Secret Service, or cuffed and taken to jail.

Instead, his business’ Yelp page was inundated with fake reviews from political loyalists from sides of the aisle.

Yelp is a social media business rating/review websites. The timely, personal reviews on this site, like those at UrbanSpoon and TripAdvisor, are highly influential because they come from real customers who post reviews during or immediately after visiting a business.

The mass of reviews weren’t just from those against the hug. Supporters reacted too. Likewise, those reacting to the prior two groups. And those urged on by pot stirrers on both sides.

Thousands of people descended on the review page for this man’s family business, and as is played out every day on newspaper comment sites and blogs all over the world – a “flame war” erupted. The reviews weren’t about the service or the pizza and they weren’t from people who had actually visited the restaurant.

They were about red and blue. Good and evil, evil and good.

The irony of it all: when the business owner was asked about his business, his politics and his impression of the President’s small business policies, he said “My business is stronger than it was four years ago, and that’s because I take accountability for my business,” he said. “I personally run and operate my business, and I don’t depend on the government to help me.

Somehow I suspect neither group of fake reviewers would have expected that.

This is our best?

I struggle with the possible damage inflicted on this business, despite my repeated assertion to business owners that “Anything you do is everything you do.” Usually, that’s about service, marketing and product quality. Today, it includes politics.

Business owners have to be careful about their “public facing persona” because everything they do is on the public’s radar. Whatever you do and say, not only in your business but in public actions and comments, will be evaluated. If you rub the wrong group the wrong way, that group will be quick to dogpile your business. Their efforts could go beyond actions taken from the safety and anonymity of a keyboard.

In the “good old days”, political reactions included lynchings, burning churches and shooting people at medical facilities. Today, reactions could include a “church” members picketing Veterans’ funerals or drive-by shootings. Is the next step is torching pizza joints?

It should make you think before you act/speak.

A choice

What should business owners do about publicly stating political opinions? It’s bigger than a national corporation being boycotted until their issue is pushed off the public’s radar by the latest reality star’s escapades. “Will they burn my building?” or “Will they come after me, my family or my employees?” is a real possibility – as is no reaction at all.

Do you choose to alienate half of your customers by saying something, or say/do nothing publicly in an attempt to avoid angering a cause’s most volatile followers? Does it matter?

For me, these conversations usually have little substance and rarely change minds. In some cases, they serve only to isolate, anger and create divides among people who had no idea they needed to argue about something. My political opinions are no one else’s business until I decide to share them. So far, I see no benefit to the listener for me to share them.

But not everyone agrees with that. Some feel they deserve to know your stance – and that’s their choice, not yours.

Silence has its risks

Silence is often interpreted as tacit approval of a situation or cause. If I don’t publicly react against something, it implies to some that I’m for it.

Make sure everyone understands that the off-hours behavior of management, owners and staff can impact your business. While you can’t regulate their political activity outside of work, it still reflects upon your business and could create conflict at the office – something you have to manage.

Whatever you do, be sure of yourself, your opinions and your actions, and be willing to accept the public’s response, because the one thing you can’t control is the public’s reaction to a hug.

Do you love your local business environment? They do.

This video is a stunning demonstration of creativity with the iPad, but also a strong testimonial for the city of Stockholm’s business environment.

The business environment where you live might be like potting soil. Or not. Regardless, it’s your garden. You decide what to plant and where.

If the local business environment isn’t as enriching as Miracle-Gro, what can you do to improve it? Your business community needs leadership as much as your business does.

If making that sort of change isn’t your thing, supporting the folks in those roles and encouraging the right people to step up, invest and lead might be your focus.

If all else fails, there are these things called “roads” in your town. You decide how to use them, as a foundation for your business or as a route to a better place. No regrets regardless of your choice.