Archive for August, 2010


Small business? THIS is how to work the social web!

Over the past year, some of the most powerful marketing lessons I’ve learned haven’t come from a book, a guru or a webinar. They’ve come from Chandra Michaels.

Chandra is an Austin-based entrepreneur and artist who hasn’t just created an audience of customers, friends and followers for her Sugarluxe brand –  She’s created a MOVEMENT.

Chandra has skillfully used the social web to connect to fans around the globe with an amazing spirit of community, devotion, and authenticity.  In the difficult business world of art, she now receives about 40 percent of her total sales through Facebook and has turned up in the pages of leading magazines such as Life, Us, and InStyle. Her artwork has been featured in places as diverse as the MTV Awards to a permanent installation in San Francisco’s famous Hotel Des Arts.

I feature Chandra’s marketing style and success prominently as a case study in my college classes and now I want to introduce this visionary businesswoman and exceptional friend to the community on {grow}. If you’re an entrepreneur and want to learn how to leverage the social web as a marketing channel, pay close attention to one of my marketing heroes:

Chandra, what’s the recipe for your secret marketing sauce?  What would you tell others trying to emulate your success of igniting a movement?

Well, I’m convinced that you and I share the same secret ingredient.  A heaping spoonful of sugar!

Being kind to others, finding and sharing something you admire or appreciate in them, connecting with someone on a personal level — that’s at the core of who I am and how I do business.

It’s what drew me to you instantly because you have such a truly caring and captivating personality.  The way I’ve watched you connect with your readers, clients and students comes from a place of genuine concern, passion and a love for what you’re doing.   People are very smart.  They can spot a phony.  I think success, at least in part, comes from being real, risking being vulnerable, and reaching out to build lasting relationships with the people who believe in what you do.

As an entrepreneur, how do you specifically use the social web to fuel your business success?

First, and I can never say this enough, it’s about Quality over Quantity!

I don’t ever let myself get sidetracked by a desire to accumulate big numbers to impress people. The number of fans, followers and friends I have is essentially irrelevant to me.  What matters most is the quality of interaction and participation.  A lot of businesses simply don’t get that.

Word of mouth remains one of the MOST powerful ways to market. I’m very dependent on it.

Even though my collection is sold by major retailers, the lion’s share of money in these situations, goes to those entities. We have a multitude of revenue streams, but the only way for me to really make profit is to sell direct.

I view my visibility in the retail sector as getting paid to advertise. We make everything here locally (mostly in-house), the cost of goods is high and selling wholesale is not very beneficial to the bottom line.  My hope is that if someone discovers my work in a big box store, they are curious to know more about me.  Then, maybe they will search for the Sugarluxe name on Google, find our website, and if I’m really lucky they tell their friends about me too.  Knock on wood, it’s worked pretty well so far…

How has your marketing strategy evolved?

I learned a long time ago that I can’t just build it and they will come. It’s amazing how many people subscribe to this myth. But seriously, and as you already know Mark, it takes so much strategic planning and effort.

I write every single word on our website.  I work methodically to optimize my copy for good search engine placement. On our accessory lines, Sugarluxe is on page one, if not on the very top, for most our key search terms. And I’ve never paid for keyword advertising. Heck, I’ve never paid for any advertising. It’s time consuming, but I’m competing with so many choices out there. Small businesses MUST do this themselves or hire someone who can.

Also, I have to go where my buyers are.  When they were on MySpace, I was there. By the end of 2008, most had migrated to Facebook. I was reluctant to follow suit because it felt so much more personal than MySpace. Until that time, most clients and customers didn’t even know my real name. But I set up a business/fan page on Facebook last year and it quickly paid off.

Getting out from behind the comfort of my canvas has helped me to better understand the people who buy my work — so that I can continue to evolve as an artist. My participation in social media and (although inconsistently) writing on my blog has not only helped my business grow, it has helped me grow and learn as a person.

You told me that Twitter has been a challenge for you. What’s up with that?

Twitter’s cool – I use it occasionally, but I prefer Facebook. It feels like a real community to me. In my view, Twitter handed out what amounts to millions of virtual megaphones. Everyone is shouting into them at the same time, and because it’s so hard to hear, very few are able to really listen.

And getting people to listen is critical.

In order to tend to your life, business and art, you’ve taken big chunks of time away from your social web activities. What are some of your time management challenges, and when you step away, do you find it disrupts the momentum of your online community?

What a great question!

Everything about time management is a challenge for me. I don’t have a particularly healthy work/life balance yet. But I’m getting better.  And if I’m good at anything, it’s interviewing, hiring and training people. It’s part of what I did in my early corporate career.  So when I started hiring for Sugarluxe, I was experienced at finding the best and brightest candidates. Committed, passionate employees can make a huge difference.

In terms of stepping away from the web?

I worried about this very thing when I decided to take a little “social” break.  The amazing thing is … this month has been our very best month in the history of my company and it’s typically a slow time. But you’re right – for 6 months – the marketing part of my business has been on auto-pilot. I’ve been working like mad behind the scenes, but I had to retreat from the public eye.

I went through some personal turmoil and I just couldn’t give of myself for awhile. Going back to my earlier comments about being genuine … I can’t feign interest or happiness.   I felt empty for a little bit.   I wasn’t going to pretend to be something I was not.  And I was afraid my business would suffer for it.

But in fact, it did the exact opposite. It gained more momentum. Credit is entirely due to loyal friends and fans. They kept it alive for me so that I could recharge.  I’m so incredibly lucky that I’ve been able to cultivate this type of environment and surround myself with such amazing people.

To many of your fans, you’ve become more than an artist. What has it been like transitioning from a young, struggling artist to role model and a celebrity in your field?

I wish you could see me in person. You just made my cheeks so red.

When I was young, I always imagined I would be published as an author long before being published (or possbily even recognized) as an artist.  Not that I’m a great writer, but I have an overwhelming urge to tell people they’re not alone in their struggles.  It wasn’t until much later that I discovered I’m much better conveying my thoughts with images than I am through words alone.

Like anyone else who reads this, I’ve encountered some bad people. Their marks could have been indelible.  But I refuse to let those people have permanence in my life.

I want to focus on what’s good, what’s right, and what’s wonderful. I’m a sensitive, artsy type. I could get so down if I allowed myself to wallow in all that’s wrong with the world. Instead, my work is an ongoing study in optimism and its cumulative effects on life.

How I live is so basic. I try to see the glass half full. But I’m not so myopic that I can’t see pain and suffering. I try to be very open about my experiences — both good and bad. Many times I feel vulnerable and exposed. But it’s the risk I’m always willing to take if it means it could help someone else.

And as much as I hope to help others, the way I’ve benefited most in my business, is realizing how much they’ve helped me in return.

I was told by my grandmother that I have good features. If we allow for a little airbrushing, do you think I could be the next Sugarluxe model?

Your grandmother sounds like my kind of girl!  And since you clearly exemplify a desirable combination of beauty AND brains, I’d say you’re my perfect muse!

To learn more about Chandra and how she establishes her marketing movement, I highly recommend that you observer her in action on Twitter, Facebook and her blog at www.sugarluxe.com

The Spirituality of Social Media

Sure the social web is filled with rants and quacks, but I’ve also been thinking about how the science and technology of this channel lifts people up, and perhaps even makes us better in a deeper, spiritual way.  Here are a couple of personal observations. I would love to hear what you think!

Spiritual touchpoints

I was feeling kind of bitchy this week and wrote a bitchy blog post to go right along with my mood.  It was supposed to run today.  Then I read Danny Brown‘s post on leadership which reminded me that sometimes we need to think bigger about ourselves and the world.  I decided the universe didn’t need another bitchy blog post and that I could do better.  So I trashed it.

I experience these tiny tugs of hope, optimism and encouragement every day.  Little social strings between me and others, pushing, pulling, inspiring me to do better, to think bigger about my social media community and the world.  I am evolving in positive ways because of it.

Have you surrounded yourself with these spiritual touchpoints too?

The communion of community

Recently a woman in my city lost her 18-year-old son in a tragic and violent drug-related death.   Her pain was exacerbated by questions about how police handled the case, which played out in a public forum.

I really don’t know this woman, but I have children too and the agony that came out on her blog posts touched me and probably thousands of others like me. We were a community of strangers united in grief.  We connected through Twitter, through comments, through prayer for her family.

I’ve seen this same kind of communion of strangers after the Haiti earthquake and the Nashville flood.  People used technology for a higher purpose, to commune with the needy, displaced and heart-broken.  This gives me so much hope.

Igniting Passion

I’ve just read the “Brains on Fire” book (recommended – no affiliation other than profound admiration!).

The agency by the same name preaches that the social web is an opportunity to create not just “conversation,” but movements. Watch this short video they created for Love 146. I dare you not be outraged, shocked and moved.

Love 146 works toward the abolition of child sex trafficking and exploitation.  Brains on Fire created a movement by igniting passion through stories, images, even music and art.  This is work that is measurably changing the lives of forgotten children.  This is the social web — and the human spirit — at its best.

Love one another

There are people I have met on the social web who love and care about me.

That is probably the sappiest thing I have ever written but it is undeniable and true so why not say it?  The Internet now allows you to find your folks wherever they may be, to establish your personal movement.

Does this sound weird to you?  I think it can happen for anybody if you give it a chance.  The social web is spreading love from country to country and server to server, to laptops, smart phones, iPads and people. It’s amazing to think about.  More love in more places around the world gotta be a good thing,  right?

A global heartbeat

I am in daily contact with people who inspire me from Sweden, Malaysia, Jordan, France, Australia, Russia and many other nations.  Perhaps you are too.

Pause for a moment and realize that you and I are experiencing a milestone in human history.  A profound and spiritual milestone, I think. For the first time we have access to free, real-time, global communications.   The ability to make these connections were not available to us just a few years ago.

And this is just the beginning. Sure, Facebook is the home to Farmville and about every other inane concept known to man. But don’t dwell there.  This platform alone is providing an opportunity to unite hundreds of millions of people.  Hundreds … of millions … of people. Doesn’t that take your breath away?

Twitter enabled a revolutionary movement in Iran. It failed … this time.  The power of technology to connect, nurture, and teach will eventually out-run the technology that is trying to control and contain it.  We WILL be connected and then there will be one global heartbeat pulsing through the social web.

Look through the silliness, cut through the drivel, ignore the hate.  There is a core light of hope streaming above it all with the potential to unite us, heal us, and inspire us no matter who or where we are.

Approach the social web with authentic helpfulness and good things happen

I don’t make a habit of putting my life on display on the blog but I wanted to pass along some news that I’m excited about — and it’s a social media success story, too!

In a few weeks I will begin a new stint as an adjunct professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, teaching a course for a newly-developed social media marketing track of their MBA program. This is an add-on to the rest of my schedule — I’ll still keep up with my other commitments to teaching, consulting and of course … blogging!

I’m excited by this opportunity because I’ll be connected to some of the brightest students and faculty members in the country and get to test some of my ideas on social media marketing on a whole new level.

I absolutely love teaching so this is a great new challenge!

And like nearly every other business benefit I’ve accrued over the past two years, this one came courtesy of the social web. Of course I wouldn’t be teaching the class in the first place if I weren’t immersed in the channel myself but the actual opportunity came via my dear Twitter friend Christina “CK” Kerley, (@cksays).

I’ve followed CK on the web for more than a year now and she is one of the outstanding B2B marketing minds in the country.  I hang on her every tweet and post.  As luck would have it, she likes me too and soon we were building a friendship by exchanging ideas, phone calls and even a real life meeting in New York City a few months ago.

When she was asked for ideas of possible instructors for the new Rutgers MBA track, she recommended me. After a series of interviews, I was offered the position and in fact, we will both be teaching at this program, which will be a thrill.

The lesson I have learned over and over again is you just never know what will happen through your social media connections.  If you approach your audience with kindness, meaningful content and authentic helpfulness, good things happen.

The most powerful leadership lesson I’ve learned

In graduate school I took a class on “Leaders and Leadership” that I hoped would give me respite from the grind of finance and economics. It turned out to be one of the most interesting classes I ever attended and it set me on life-long study of leaders.

When I worked for Alcoa, there was one Group President who seemed to personify the best theoretical aspects of a leader. His name was George Bergeron, since retired to Maine and Florida, but there is not a week that goes by that I don’t think about a small sign he had on his desk:

“Leaders Dispense Hope.”

George was not a rah-rah kind of leader. He walked his talk without gimmicks, inspirational posters or “programs.” In fact, other than a few family pictures, that sign was the only adornment on his desk at all.

Those powerful three words sum up so much to me. To be in a position to “dispense hope,” you need to

  • Be trusted
  • Have a vision that others understand and believe in
  • Be an effective communicator
  • Rise above the every day office noise to deliver the signal
  • Be recognized as the authority
  • Have a real plan, not rhetoric
  • Transcend politics
  • Deliver authentic optimism

Like any executive in a  competitive environment, George had his detractors. But he rose above it all with dignity at every opportunity. No matter what was happening in the world, in the company, or with our customers, George dispensed hope.  A lesson in leadership for a world that needs a few lessons in leadership.

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