Communications expert Alan Duncan provides some practical information on how small firms can hone their online strategies in an age of digital disruption.
The process of building a digital strategy can tend to generate more questions than answers for many small firms. The speed and scope of change in the digital marketplace can be overwhelming for many business leaders struggling to come to terms with what’s required to flourish online.
As digital communication becomes both more global and personal, firms will need to create content that resonates with audiences around the world. To do that, identifying the universal pains their solutions solve will be essential, according to Alan Duncan, Managing Director at Agile Communications.
“Today’s online consumer demands what I call ‘authentic value’,” says the experienced marketing professional. “These are interactions not driven by sales but by a genuine desire to add value to the customer based around the beliefs and values of your brand. It may be entertaining, educational, value-based, whatever – the key is that it is authentic and backed by the actions of your business in the physical world.”
He adds: “Driven by better internet speeds, mobile data packages and smart technologies, the way in which people consume content is also changing. While text-rich content still plays an important role, businesses should look to develop material across a plethora of media.”
In 2011, Duncan launched SelectPR, a B2B and technology PR agency that put content at the heart of brand strategy. Over the years, the firm has continued to innovate better approaches to raising engagement and credibility between its clients and their markets.
The recent rebrand to Agile Communications reflects the evolving nature of communications. “Today, for marketing to have any hope of meeting your business objectives,” declares Duncan, “you need to adopt an omni-channel approach, developing and adapting your content to capture the attention of your audiences across email, print, digital and social media.
“We’ve been fortunate to work with some amazing, forward-thinking businesses that have trusted us to help them tell their best story. While we work with a number of large multinationals, I still love getting down in the trenches with small and medium-sized businesses to develop communications strategies that deliver growth.”
We live in a world where the relentlessness of change is driving a desire for a new way of thinking in how we do business. However, Duncan stresses that not all Irish firms are getting it right in terms of their digital output. “Some small Irish businesses are absolutely nailing their digital strategies,” he says. “Sadly, I think they’re in the minority. For most, failure to commit the necessary time and budget, not understanding their consumers’ behaviours and inconsistent implementation means results tend to be quite poor. It’s a real shame, as there are fantastic companies with amazing products and services that do themselves a disservice as a result of poor digital communications.”
Duncan stresses that the biggest mistakes tend to happen at the outset for small firms. Keen to get started, too many businesses go straight into posting on social channels or blogging on their website without a clear strategy. “Take the time to really understand your customer and the value your brand can offer,” he explains. “Then look at your messaging: does it resonate with the consumer? Once you’ve done that, consider the type of content you need to create and map how it will work across the various channels your customers use.”
The second biggest mistake, according to Duncan, is erratic communications, which tends to come as a direct result of the first error. He states: “Businesses start their comms efforts with a flurry, but quickly
their ideas begin to dwindle, motivation dries up and activity plummets. Countless social media accounts, company blogs and newsletters have been resigned to the scrapheap of neglected communication tools because they failed to effectively plan out their content strategy.”
Long live the king
The role of a digital team is to conceptualise and oversee the company’s digital presence, but too often there is no official role for a digital team or individual. For Duncan, there is no doubting that all modern businesses should have a dedicated communications person. “You wouldn’t use size as an excuse for neglecting your company’s accounting, so why neglect the functions that will help you grow your business?” he asks. “If you don’t have the budget to hire a dedicated content manager, invest in a consultant who can help you develop a strategy you or your team can implement, and demonstrate how
different marketing channels can be integrated.”
Small firms need to understand the impact of their communications activity and constantly review what’s working and what’s not, while also considering their strengths and weaknesses. “In terms of training, Google Analytics is a must,” informs Duncan. “But consider where your markets hangout too. If they’re on LinkedIn, then educate yourself about utilising LinkedIn as a marketing tool. Or if you have an amazing writer in the company, then invest in their development through writing courses, SEO training, etc. If you’re a natural in front of the camera, then focus more of your efforts there.”
Companies that succeed digitally truly practise what they preach by developing and syndicating amazing content that meets almost every issue their target market experiences. Furthermore, they connect their digital communications with traditional marketing and sales functions to create an incredibly effective system that powers their bottom line.
Quality content is still king, according to Duncan, but understanding how you will distribute your content is equally as important. “Like in a game of chess, the king cannot succeed on its own,” Duncan says. “No matter how great your content is, if no one ever sees it, it won’t achieve anything for your business. This comes back to strategy; when developing your content calendar, you need to identify what form the content will take and where it will live.
“For example, if you’ve invested in creating a truly insightful industry report, is there a media angle you can use to create a press release? Can you make the data more visual through infographics? Do you have
expertise to answer the challenges thrown up by the report? If so, would a webinar be suitable? Would people be willing to share their data to get the report? If so, how are you using social media, email, etc. to drive people to the ‘gated’ content?
The need for an agile digital strategy is clear, yet it feels out of reach for some small or micro businesses, but there are multiple benefits from working with an external consultancy firm – the most obvious being the expertise an external company brings in managing your communications, allowing you to focus on the growth of your business, but external consultancy can also bring a fresh perspective.
“It is very easy to become blinkered in your communications approach. Whereas an external firm is not caught up in the day-to-day running of the business and can see things differently and can identify opportunities you might otherwise miss.
“We’ve worked with numerous companies across a variety of industries developing and refining their digital communications to meet their goals,” Duncan informs. “We know what works and what doesn’t. Also, delivering quality communications takes time. There’s a common misconception that social media is free. It’s not – the time you spend managing social accounts or drafting a blog is time you could have invested in billing clients or enhancing your product offering.”
Duncan’s plan for the year ahead is to continue developing Agile Communication’s reputation as a go-to comms agency for B2B and tech companies in Ireland and the UK. “We’re on a strong growth curve,” he states. “We’re also developing a number of training courses to equip businesses that might not have the budget or need for a retained service with the knowledge and skills to make their marketing communications a success.”