Goodbye, “free” gift: A better way to build a list of email subscribers

What I’m about to say will sound like heresy to some people.

Okay, to a LOT of people.

But I’ve been pondering this for a long time and I want to put my head on the block and see what you think.

For many years, and like many businesses on the web, I offered a “free” gift to people who were willing to join my subscriber list. It was just what everyone did, and seemed a fair and honorable exchange: I will give you something of value to your business if you’ll give me a try to see what I’m about.

The eBook was called How to Pay Us Less: Tips and Tricks to Pay Less for Web-related Services and if you click that link you can now get a copy of that ebook for the low low price of doing nothing at all (well, except clicking).

Although I’ve never bombarded my list with emails, and people can unsubscribe themselves at any time, I’ve always felt a little strange about the whole practice. If I had a brick-and-mortar storefront, it would be like having little glass case set up at the door full of cupcakes, saying, “I’ll only give you one of these delicious cupcakes if you’ll just drop what you’re doing and come in and talk to me.”

Mmmmm, cupcakes.

Anyway, where was I?  Oh, right.  These kinds of “free gifts” are known by many names (free gift, free ebook, lead magnet, opt-in incentive, freemium, ethical bribe, etc.)  I would guess that 80% of the service provider websites I see offer some variant of it. I did too for a long time.

But not anymore. Know why?

Because Free isn’t free. When I ask for a person’s contact details, I’m asking for their time, their attention, their inbox space. I’m adding to the 677 emails they already have, waiting to be sorted or trashed. I’m adding a task to their morning by forcing them to decide whether to open my emails or not. I’m adding another twining choice point to their day, along with the dozens or hundreds of other choices that will force them to burn calories. I am making them find and click the “unsubscribe” button if they don’t want to keep hearing from me. (George Kao has a great article on Medium about the topic as well.)

I receive a number of emails every day from people whose “free gift” I consumed, and I just stay on the list because I have seventeen things fighting for my attention as I’m perusing my inbox, and I can’t take the time to thoughtfully decide whether I want to stay subscribed or not. So I keep getting them, deleting them, feeling vaguely guilty about the whole thing.

Of the dozens of every-now-and-again subscribed emails I receive, I’d say there are 6 or 7 that are day-changers, even life-changers. They are the emails that I look forward to, that make me smile when they arrive, that I ALWAYS take time to read. These are people I believe in, people I feel kinship with, people who have interesting and valuable things to say. If I don’t have time to read their email right away, I’ll always snooze it with Boomerang until I know I’ll have more quiet.

I am envious of those people, to be perfectly honest. I want to be more like them. I want to build relationships and kinships, rather than entice someone into my circle with a cupcake.

So I’ve decided that I will endeavor to be that instead: Someone that people stay in touch with because I matter to them, and because they look forward to hearing from me. No bribery required. I just want to be among the ones whose useful sharing of valuable stuff makes me a valued part of their far-flung community.

Of course, it would be a lot easier to just keep exchanging some juicy tidbit for someone’s email address. It’s a much bigger task to knuckle down and get into a rhythm of creating/sharing material that’s eye-opening, helpful, stress-reducing, or giggle-inducing. Laser-focusing on the creation of those kinds of things, and taking it as seriously as—more seriously than—the other parts of my work, is so much harder, but so much better.

So that’s my plan. My life—in work and everywhere else—is an exercise in finding more and more ways to operate from a place of integrity. While being interesting, warm, and funny. Picture me creating new content here, with a hot cup of coffee, ambient cafe sounds courtesy of Coffitivity and enjoying a nice warm cupcake. (Sure you don’t want to come by?)

Do you offer a “free gift” in exchange for email signups? How would it be to instead show/tell people the kind of wisdom & help you offer to people who’ve joined your email list, and ask them to give you a try?

Here, I’ll go first:

If you want to follow me for a bit and see how I do, you can click the “Subscribe” link at the top right of the window; as always, you can unsubscribe any time, or if it’s just not your cup of tea. (Or coffee.)

If you still want to offer something for free, then please do. Do it a lot. Be generous, be prolific in creating beautiful things your audience members will use and love and remember. And at the bottom of your content you might gently suggest that—if the thing they’re reading is of value to them, they might consider signing up to have that sort of thing delivered via the occasional email. And give them an easy way to do that.

Love to all!

 

Should you offer a free consultation or exploratory session? Yes. No. Maybe.

I’ve had some good conversations lately about the ups and downs of offering a free introductory session, consultation, or discovery session to potential clients.

In general, get-to-know-you sessions are a fabulous idea. Although they are often seen as a way to “sell” someone who may not yet be sold on you, I’d encourage you to look at it from a different perspective, and adopt a mindset of curiosity and generosity instead.

To illustrate, there’s a statement in several places on my website that says what my own free consultations are about:

I offer a free 30-minute consultation to talk through your business needs, your new work, or your goals, and to help you visualize a path for making them happen. No pushy sales pitch, no adding you to a mailing list, no hidden anything. Please feel free to contact me – I’ll bet I can help.

The “different perspective” I referred to?  I don’t see these words as a sales tactic, and I make that very clear. I get a ton of joy out of meeting people who are working for themselves and bringing their skills and gifts to the world. My consultations are one part gabbing over coffee, one part wide-eyed wonder at learning something new, and one part intuitive assessment: Are the two of us a good fit for one another? Would I be happy and proud to bring their work to a larger audience? Will they find my style comfortable and empowering?

It almost never enters my mind to use this time to coerce or convince. If that makes me a poor businesswoman, well, so be it.

I came to this point of view after a number of chance encounters with certain professionals and wannabe-gurus. I was slow to learn that some people promote free introductions heavily in order to fill spaces on their calendar during dry times. There’s nothing wrong with this—it’s hard to grow a business, and we need to try everything. But it was clear, in my case(s), that their interest in me as a human was very thin, and thus when it came to our appointed time,

  • Some didn’t show up at all.
  • Some were late, sending an email 15 minutes into our allotted time apologizing for their tardiness.
  • One did the consultation when walking in a noisy store, obviously running errands and multitasking. I heard the tinny scrape of clothes hangers in the background.
  • In most cases, the session was followed up with an automated email sales pitch, and I was automatically added to their mailing list and started receiving daily emails.

Sigh.

But I eventually developed a stronger intuition about this, and in the past few years I’ve only experienced sessions with those who operate from a place of integrity and respect and curiosity. Each of the two coaches I now work with treated me with great respect and kindness in their introductory sessions, as an equal, exploring our respective preferences and needs to find out whether I was a good fit for them, and vice-versa.

What does that look like?

I felt respected, heard, and appreciated.

They showed up exactly when and where and how they promised.

They had a clear structure to explore my needs and their offerings and where they might or might not fit each other.

They followed up with an email that proved they were paying attention and cared. This was a personal thank-you note (NOT automated), with thoughts on next steps (or why they didn’t feel the fit was good) and best wishes for my success.

Done right, a free consultation/discovery session/exploration is a lovely idea, a beautiful idea, and it can help you find more of the right people. Here are a few thoughts to help these sessions be the best they can be for both you and clients:

  • Keep them short. Ish. Fifteen to 30 minutes is a good zone that—according to many practitioners—also cuts down on the number of people who may see a free hour with you as too good to pass up.
  • Gather some conversation fodder before the call. Many contact forms and schedulers will allow you to create robust “intake forms,” short questionnaires filled out in advance that help you to know more about the person booking. That way, your time together is as juicy and productive as possible.
  • Be ready with the answers to the common questions about your work. This is especially important if you’ve experienced having to explain just what it is you do. YOU might know what you do inside and out, but most people need a little help visualizing the beautiful intersection between their life and yours. Help them see the tangible, real-life before and after stories that can blossom.
  • Map out and do a follow-up sequence that is personal and respectful and not hinged on outcomes. Give some next steps. If it’s not a good fit, say so, and trust that the space you’re keeping open for the right person will be filled. All of this takes about five minutes of your day, and it means a lot.
  • Stay in integrity. If you want to stay in touch, in your follow-up sequence state HOW you’d like to stay in touch or check back with them, and ask permission to do so. (Not only is it distasteful to start bombarding someone with newsletters and clever emails, it’s illegal.)
  • Stay curious and open-minded, and see your free sessions as a gift to YOU, an opportunity to peer into the life and heart of another good human being and see if you can help elevate one another.

Search yourself. If there’s the slightest down-deep feeling that some sessions are going to be “good” and some “wasted time,” then consider only doing paid sessions. There’s no ick around choosing this route. My experiences with paid assessment sessions, even brief ones, have been 100% on-point, on-time, over-delivering and honest. Sometimes we’re more likely to see the time as productive—without dependence on a certain outcome—when something of value is exchanged.

Free introductory sessions or consults can be a joy. They’re a great way to keep our energies strong positive by sharing them with another soul who’s curious about our work.

Enjoy them!

Keeping your website from getting lost in the crowd, Chapter 2

Yesterday I wrote about the folks in my tribe who claim they don’t have a story to tell, and thus miss out on a key way to stand out in the minds of the people they most want to reach.

Because I know that 99.9% of you are the type who can better visualize things by seeing examples, I wanted to offer you this jumpstart, which takes you to some unfamiliar and unorthodox places to look for your story. I don’t expect they will all be appropriate for everyone; my hope is that they will warm up the Play-Doh of your mind, make it malleable and flexible, so other stories will come to you more easily.

I also offer a bite-sized coaching session on storytelling for your existing website if you think you’d like a sherpa to help you get started. No pressure though—you’ve got this!

Pick any one of the following, and tell us that story. Be open to others that pop into your mind; I call these “opportunistic stories,” the ones that bubble to the surface when you’re working with memories.

The spark of your work: When I was a kid, I had a pattern that played out repeatedly. I wanted to be good at something, and wanted to be needed for it. So I ended up helping my friends with their math, or helping them train their dog, or showing them how to grow plants. I was shy about it, and they usually had to ask more than once, but it was always there. From those memories, I can see the spark that eventually lit the flame of my work. I wanted to help, and be respected for helping. Can you see any sparks from your earlier years that might have given you a clue about the work you’d one day do?

The first person you can remember helping: A friend tells a story about her 20’s, when she’d somehow found the right things to say, and in the right ways, to a girlfriend in trouble. The words took root and gave this girl the courage to leave an abusive relationship and steer into a life in which she navigated solely by her inner voice. I find that most people in helping professions or heart-based businesses have such a story if they find some quiet and look for it. What might yours be?

The first person who helped you (or the one who’s helped you the most) and how. These kinds of stories can be so energizing and powerful. They don’t have to be a coach or mentor or even a teacher. In one of my favorite books, Martha Beck’s The Joy Diet, she shares a story told to her by an acquaintance. When this woman was a child, her father had taken her to his office one day. His secretary had come out and crouched down to her level to speak to her, looking straight into her eyes. The woman said that no one in her dysfunctional family had ever done this. She felt as though she was being seen for the very first time; she felt as though she mattered, and it changed her right then and there. Who played a role in helping you become the person you are today, or helping you do the work you do today?

How did you learn what you know? Pick one skillset or mindset tool you’re proud of, or pleased to have. Follow the thread back in time to where you learned it. Tell us how you walked—or fell—into it. Tell us why it felt important to do, and how it serves you (and the people you help) now.

The “future me, future them” story: With your work, you’re taking two existing stories—yours and your client’s—and twining them together to create something better. For example, it might be a story from a coaching client who’s always carried guilt or fear, but you’re helping them into a new story where those things no longer block the way. It might be a story about finding ways to create your art as a living, right where it meets someone whose day is lit up by hearing or seeing what you’re creating. Their story is better and so is yours.

What stood in your way? All self-employed people or business owners have had obstacles, ranging from inhibiting fears we’ve had to overcome, all the way up to ugly events that made us want to drink warm vodka right out of a shoe at the end of the day. Perseverance stories show your readers/clients what’s important to you, and by association imply that you will also persevere for them.

The magic-wand skill: What’s something that, if your fairy godmother popped you on the head with a sequined star and granted you a wish, you’d love to know or to be? So many of us think that we have to portray ourselves as completely bulletproof and all-knowing in our business communications. But really, you can be human, and it makes you far more memorable. The first time I admitted publicly that I wished I could write a book but didn’t know how, I was surrounded by people offering support, skills, and encouragement—many of them perfect strangers. What’s a skill or shift in perception you would love to have, and which would make you more of an ally to the people you want to serve?

Are you sure your story’s true? (I thank Byron Katie for this one.) Tell us about a story you tell yourself. This one can be a story you’ve lugged around for a long time, but that—on examination—you can’t be sure is 100% true. Example: For many years I avoided teaching because I just knew I was too shy, and that I’d stumble and stammer and make a complete fool of myself. What I found instead was that, while I am an introvert, I am not shy, especially when it comes to teaching people something I’m passionate about. What do you “know” about yourself that might not be so?

A Big Shift story: When it comes to our work with people, over time we start to get a feel for how interactions are going to go, how people will react to us, and so forth. Every once in awhile, I have an experience that knocks me off my axis and forces me to rethink my well-worn path. These can range from a positive event coming from an unexpected angle (such as a client recently commenting she likes being around my energy) to a very NOT positive event (such as public criticism or social media grumps). Have there been any experiences recently that—welcome or not—led to a productive shift in how you work or with whom?

A vulnerability story: Don’t be super(wo)man. We all have less-than-stellar days in our work lives. Something said or done by a person zings right into a place where we feel we’re less-than, we didn’t react “correctly,” or we’re just missing the mark. Dare to be vulnerable and show/tell your readers what part of yourself you’re working on. There’s tremendous power in this kind of empathetic resonance, and they may feel much more comfortable stepping into a conversation with you.

What’s a story your clients or wish-they-were-clients are telling often? Remember from yesterday’s post when I said I hear people say, “I don’t have a story to tell” all the time? If you start listening with your ear tuned for these kinds of things—in conversation, in consultations/sessions, in workshop comments, on social media—you will start to see common threads. Capture those stories. See where those threads match the things you can offer to help, and use them to weave useful blog posts, articles, and even product offerings.

Share a teaching story about doing things better. I wrote a blog post a few days ago about my struggle to stay in a calm, centered, productive “state of being” by using a traffic light metaphor. I loved the personal responses I received. Many business gurus would’ve advised me to keep up the ruse that I’m always in total control and life’s always perfect, 24/7. Nothing to see here, people! (smile) But those kinds of stories create more self-awareness and self-compassion in the world. If there is something you are doing to make yourself better, stronger, happier, tell us that story. We are all human. You may be surprised at how people resonate with you.

You’re in this world, so you have stories.
Sharing them can help “your people” find, know, like, and trust you.
I hope you will.

Keeping your website from getting lost in the crowd, Chapter 1

This past week, I had a conversation with a man who is struggling to build a business around his coaching work. Now, this is a guy who has a heart the size of Jupiter, as well as great skills and a keen intuition. He’s doing fine but is still working on how to make his work stand out in a field that has—to put this gently—a great deal of competition.

I spoke to him about bringing out more storytelling (as I often do). In a situation like his, it’s naturally important to have a good and clear offering. But it’s also important to help people remember you, and to humanize yourself so people feel comfortable giving your services a try. And in terms of helping YOU be the one who stands out when a potential client is looking for the right fit for themselves, a story is going to take you much further than an alphabet soup of credentials or some massive photos of you staring out at them from every page.

He said something that I hear several times every week: “But I don’t have a story. I wouldn’t even know what to say.”

(Note to all of us: When you hear something that often from people, pay attention. That’s an elbow in the ribs from the universe. Dig into it and explore.)

I hear from people who claim they don’t have any stories to tell about their business, their work, or themselves. In response, I often borrow this response from Lauren Lee Anderson of the branding agency Moonshot: “Just because you aren’t actively telling your story doesn’t mean you don’t have one. If you’re in the world, the world has a story about you.”

Think about the second half of that quote: Imagine there’s an omniscient being, one with really nice penmanship, that’s been tracking your path from birth to where you stand right now with your vocation. Not just the mechanics of it (acquiring skills, deciding on a domain name, etc.) but your inner path as well. She’s got a thick volume—the story of You—documenting the choice points that brought you here: the fears, the excitement, the vision of what your life would be life, the stumbles, the getting-back-ups, and a thousand other things.

Now consider the ridiculous opposite: We did not just appear in our office chair one morning through spontaneous generation, fully formed, complete with the vision, skillset and mindset we needed for our work. Right?

The world has a story about you. That story is in your head and your heart, and bringing it out can help you to connect with more people and grow your work.

Some thought-joggers for those who don’t think they have a story:

  • There’s a story behind why you do what you do. Of the thousands of vocations (or art forms, or services, or products) you could’ve chosen, you clicked into this one at some point, with a sound like placing a jigsaw puzzle piece. How? Why?
  • There’s a story behind how you obtained the skills to do what you do, likely peppered with stops and starts, fears and triumphs over fear, self-doubt, and celebrations.
  • There’s a story behind why you gravitate to certain people as customers and clients and mentors and partners, and not others. Your worldview matters.
  • There’s a story behind why you’re working for yourself (or want to) and not on an assembly line churning out endless widgets or memos or someone else’s dreams.
  • …and so much more.

That’s just a brief topline. Tomorrow I’ll share a list of specific ideas that you might want to explore for yourself. Once you gather these bits of story, you can incorporate into all the ways and spaces in which you tell people about what you do. See you then.

For self-employed folks, noticing your mental state can make all the difference

One of my mentors often says, “Your state of being is the most important thing.”

Translation: Think about how you feel right now, this minute, as you read this post. If you had to equate your state with a traffic signal, would you be green (relaxed, content, confident, optimistic) or red (tense, worried, pessimistic, low energy, overworked, etc) or somewhere in between? (yellow)

As much as I’d love to always say I’m in a green state, that’s just not true. Sometimes I’m reaching for something that’s hard for me. Sometimes I’m afraid I’m not doing enough, or I’m doing too much. Sometimes I’m just not sleeping or eating or doing what’s right for my body, and it’s like trying to take a journey in a 1973 Ford Pinto that’s held together with duct tape, baling wire, and Bondo.

Part of my problem — and perhaps you share it — is that I sometimes get so wrapped up in a project or task or situation that I feel as though the only way to honor it, to successfully get through it to the other side, is to keep my face in it for as long as it takes. (Or until I physically can’t do it a minute longer.) The thought of taking a walk, sitting outdoors, or heaven forbid, lying down with my eyes closed for a few minutes, just feels like a dereliction of duty. “It’s just going to take longer to resolve this unless I stay right here and keep working on it until my eyeballs bleed.”

The best thing we can both do for ourselves, my friends, is to stop a few times a day to be aware of what our respective traffic lights are showing. Unless you’re a neurosurgeon, one minute is not going to kill anyone. We can stand up, stretch, go to another room, breathe, and conjure up something simple we can do to move to a better state.

To this day, I can look at the history of my business, look at the pieces of it that have never quite been what I wanted them to be, and I can tell beyond a shadow of a doubt which ones I forced myself to do in a red state. They just reek of it. I feel tense and dissatisfied when I look at them.

The converse is true too. The things I created in a green state, when I felt like I was in flow, channeling the very best parts of my nature, are the things to which people have reacted the most positively, and thus are the things that helped me build a business I love.

Your state matters. It’s not woo-woo. It’s just a fact.

A water break changes my state of beingMy go-to state-changer? Get up, walk to another room, and drink a tall glass of cool, clear, delicious water very slowly. Use your most beautiful glass. Take at least two full minutes to drink it. Close your eyes and feel it moving out into your cells, hydrating them and lubricating them, loosening everything up. Remember to be grateful that you have this magical silver handle in your house that you can turn, and — get this — pure, clean, life-giving water comes out. You didn’t have to spend hours out of your day to fetch it. You don’t have to worry about catching cholera. You didn’t have to pay much (or anything) for it, or stand in line. It just…happens. It’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it?

Other state-changers I employ include very short guided audio meditations like these, having a dog that needs to go outside periodically and bark at the enemies (aka neighbors), five minutes of loud and beautiful music in my headphones to drive out all other thoughts, and using an app or system like https://tomato-timer.com/ to remind me to stop and take note of my state.

(For my clients who just think I’m naturally chill and/or I’m genetically wired to walk around with a calm smile on my face all day, I’m sorry to disappoint.)

And if I don’t believe myself, I can turn to page 156 of Judith Morgan’s swell book, Your Biz Your Way, and hear her voice in my head, saying, “Breathe. And take care of you first, above all else. Relax! You’ve got this.”

There are tons and tons of ways to improve our state, something for literally everyone. For example, I’ve always loved this list from Charlie Gilkey. Maybe there’s something here that will help you get to green today, or at least move toward it: https://www.productiveflourishing.com/12-simple-ways-to-be-present/

Here’s an article by George Kao explaining his view of “green yellow red,” and how he handles his own state of being:

https://www.georgekao.com/blog/greenyellowred

So whaddya say? Let’s get green today. If you want to love your work and grow your business, it really does help.

If I had my way, everyone would have a coach. Here are mine.

If I had my way, I’d hire everybody their own coach. They can give such great perspective. But since I can’t, I’d like you to meet both of mine.

The power of online communities for owners of teeny-tiny businesses

I’ve just checked in with one of my online communities, which was discussing how to create Facebook Live videos. I’m glad I checked in…video is an area I hope to be braver about exploring this year.

We all know about the downsides of the online environment, right? The lack of boundaries or filters. The pervasiveness and addictiveness of bad news. The temptation to put the verbal beatdown on jerks who we know are simply trying to start a fight. And on and on.

But for all the downsides, there are some startlingly wonderful upsides to it as well. For example, in my post about Facebook, I describe how I’ve remodeled it into a key element of my mental health. For every self-centered bit of ugliness, there are many more beautiful jewels ranging from the thought-provoking to the day-maker to the life-changer.

For those of us who are self-employed in some fashion, one of the best things about the web and social media is the existence of online communities. These can be conversation spaces on websites, web-based communities, or social media groups full of people who share our interests.

Especially if you live in a smaller town, as I do, having a place where I can commune with others who are on the same professional learning curve is worth having to spend a few more minutes online each day, even worth having to dodge an internet troll or sales pitch now and then.

I choose my communities based on a few factors:

What would I want out of a community?

Would it be:

  • A good conversation when I need it
  • Communing with other professionals who do what I do, to learn or teach
  • (Gently) getting the word out about what I do, how I can help, in the places where my primary customer types hang out
  • Avoiding the isolation of self-employment; being around other smart people
  • Learning from one another’s mistakes and successes as I evolve my business
  • Moral support on those days when you just want to hang it up
  • Possible fun collaborations with people who have complementary skills

How big is the community I’m checking out?

You can see that, depending on what you chose above, the size of a community does matter. If you’re trying to get visibility for your work, for example, being in a community of 4000 souls would be a challenge. Many of them are also vying for visibility, and your words can get lost in the cascade of posts every day.

Conversely, if you’re looking for a broad spectrum of ideas, trying to avoid isolation, or seeking good one-to-one conversation, then a bigger community may increase your chances of finding someone out of the masses who’s a kindred spirit (if you pay attention, you’ll spot them).

A small, focused group is best if you’re hoping to find a sense of shared purpose, longer-term relationships, collaboration opportunities, and none of the overwhelm of “200 new posts in your group!”

What’s the vibe?

I can almost guarantee that, if a community has words like “diva,” “b*tch,” or “babe” in the name, it’s entirely the wrong vibe for me.

Similarly, industry power-success jargon like “crush it,” “kill it,” “own it,” or “making bank” just isn’t what I’m up for, so the prevailing atmosphere of the site isn’t likely to be MY cup of tea.

Not all of us have the same preferences there, so to each his/her own. Trust your gut. But make sure the energy and spirit of the group match yours. The last thing you need is one more energy drain—we all have enough of those to go around.

How focused is it?

There are some highly focused “niche” communities that serve the needs of people who work in something very, very specific and want to commune with others who use that same skill or technology.

There are others that are slightly broader. One of my groups is focused specifically on the needs of people building their own small businesses, specifically people who are “conscious entrepreneurs” with a bigger vision for their work than just paying the mortgage.

And then there are groups for people who just love pictures of cats.

So, if you want to get maximum benefit from being in these kinds of spaces, think about these two factors:

Very specific = good for targeted learning, connections, solutions, Q&A. Think of it as something like a club, where you all geek out on the same subject matter.

Very general = good for a sense of community/camaraderie, contented browsing, lots of input, feeling part of something larger. Think of THAT like a big block party, where you have at least one common interest to break the ice. (And, for introverts like me, minus the “party” part 🙂

Is it just one big icky sales pitch?

This is hard to describe but easy to recognize. Many groups, on Facebook in particular, are just elaborate marketing tactics to fill the owner’s sales funnel with prospects, without really providing useful, engaging community-building. You’ll know when you find one of these, and you can decide how comfortable you are with it, and whether to stay or to leave the group.

What form does it take?

The smallest sort of community: Your own blog or business page on social media.

This is the option over which you have the most control.

If you have a blog on your website, you can create a conversation space just by opening up your blog posts to comments (which you can approve before they appear). On social media, you can regularly post useful material and invite people’s feedback around it.

In either scenario, post something interesting and engaging, and when you share it with people, treat it as an invitation to start a conversation about your topic. Ask questions. Invite comments and experiences.

Web communities

There are many, many niche groups on the web that serve as a gathering place for people of specific professions, people who all use a certain software product, fans of creative arts, and tons more. There’s Kinaxis (supply chain experts), Radiolopolis (radiologists), Journalverse (journal writers and facilitators), and Barista Exchange (self-explanatory!).

Social media communities
Facebook has over a million public, private, and secret groups, both paid and unpaid. My own short list of groups includes communities who discuss different kinds of conscious business, healthy entrepreneurship, community gardening, WordPress, storytelling, and meditation.

LinkedIn groups “provide a place for professionals in the same industry or with similar interests to share content, find answers, post and view jobs, make business contacts, and establish themselves as industry experts.” They come in all shapes and sizes and degree-of-noisiness. You can join to see what the vibe is, and leave if it isn’t your thing. Find groups to research by using the search feature at the top of your LinkedIn.

Coaching or professional community private groups are usually started by a coach, consultant, or marketing expert to create a conversation space for their own clients. Some are free and open, but the majority are paid and private. Don’t let that necessarily be a dealbreaker; sometimes it’s the only way to keep a group sustainable. For example, the Awarepreneurs community costs $5/month for their online group, group networking calls, support and coaching, and more.

How to find a group to try

Search Facebook groups by logging into your account and looking in the left column for Explore >> Groups, then clicking the Discover tab and using the search box at the top to search for your area of interest. When you join a group, remember to see the Notifications button at the top, where you can dictate which notifications from the group, if any, show up on your page notifications (the globe in the upper right).

To search LinkedIn groups, n the search box at the top of your LinkedIn homepage, type keywords of interest, and click Search. On the search results page, click the Groups tab (it’s under “More” near the top left).

You can also search Google with terms like “online community for veterinarians” or “Facebook groups for women entrepreneurs” or “online discussion group for WordPress beginners.”

. . . . .

Online communities are no substitute for real human contact. But they do come with the crazymagical modern ability to connect with a concentrated group of faraway people who share our specific challenges, who may have answers to the questions keeping us up at night, and who we can help with our own knowledge and experience. That’s something that’s hard to find in all but the biggest cities, IF it can be found at all, and so it’s been well worth it to me. Try it out.

 


 

Thanks for stopping by!

If you have a heart-based business and this message resonated with you, I’d love to have you keep in touch (in times like these, having a community of people who ‘get’ us can make all the difference between a great day and “I’m just going back to bed”). Here are some ways:

  • I send out a monthly email missive with stuff of interest to people like us – from non-geeky tech tips, to new resources for small businesses and freelancers, to feelgood stories of what’s working out there. Give it a try and see if it’s of interest to you.
  • I’m on Facebook at https://facebook.com/websitesforgood and we have some great conversations there. It’s also a great place to see new writings of all kinds.
  • Think about a free 30-minute consultation with me  (completely non-icky, with zero sales pitch at the end) to tell me what you’re up to, talk through new ideas or directions for your work, or talk about how to better tell your story online.

In praise of reverse resolutions: Tracking back, not squinting forward

I’m just SO not a fan of the New Year’s resolution thing, and I know I’m not alone. Most of the people in my circle seem to be reinventing themselves in some way every month, even every week, and so it’s laughable when the rest of the world seizes on January 1 as THE day to change something up and try to stick with it for the rest of the year.

It’s a time of year when I don’t look ahead as much as I look back. I think of it as a “reverse resolution”—looking backward, not peering forward. And it’s not the oft-recommended lists of “all the things I accomplished and am proud of” I’m referring to (though that’s a great list to make). Instead, I’m interested in this scenario:

Thing 1:  What parts of life and business are going exactly right at the moment? What are the parts that are successful, helping me connect with good people, improving the health of my business, and making me feel alive?  What’s going well? First, I list those. Now, the fun part:

Thing 2: For every good thing, there was a time when this was not the case. For each thing on my list, I track back and follow the breadcrumb trail back to its origins: What small thing happened in the past—either with great intent or just out of the blue—that started me in the direction of this thing I’m now so proud of? It could be an event that only lasted a single second, or an hour, or a day. It could’ve been something ridiculous, or a complete accident! But whatever it was, somewhere there was a spark that led to another, to another, to another, and created this new happy outcome. I find it really helpful to catalog what those sparks were.

Why? If I know what they look like, I can optimize my chances of recognizing similar happy happenstances when I stumble across them in the future. So my “resolution” isn’t to promise myself something new that might be had; it’s to pay attention to each present moment for the spark it might already carry.

Here’s just a random example, one that doesn’t happen to be about business:

Spark: I was standing at our local library’s “What’s New” shelf and chose to pick up a book called The DNA Restart. It’s about the relationship between our own personal genome and the paths we all take to try to stay healthy. In particular, it talks about how all the food advice we get might be utterly useless because our individual genetic markers are all different. It’s not one-size-fits-all: Our bodies are individual, and actually need individualized strategies.

Time: 2 minutes to peruse, 1 minute to check the book out

Chain reaction: I ended up reading the book over coffee each morning for a week. (It’s super-interesting.)  It led to me dig up more about genetics and food.
…Which gave me a huge amount of self-knowledge about my own body’s possible genetic makeup and how it reacts to different things I put into it
…Which changed my diet
…Which finally gave me a clue about the connection between What/How I ate yesterday and Why I feel like a failure or can’t seem to get focused today, so I could do the right things instead
…Which made me so energized I started getting up earlier to write and daydream about good things to do
…Which turned me into a juggernaut of positivity, creative experimentation, and connection (which has been either beautiful or annoying to everyone in my tribe…)
…Which is good. And so it is.

Like that.

Some other sparks I tracked back to, and the chain reactions they created:

After the presidential election, I had an overwhelming, almost insane desire to write. I started a private blog with no readers and no fanfare on January 1, with the idea of writing every day (1 hour to set up). I put down all my fears and stressors and then could let it go for the day. I made the choice to stop that particular blog after a few months, but it morphed seamlessly into daily writing on topics that made my heart feel bigger. That is still my habit.

I dropped a shampoo bottle on my foot and suddenly, unreasonably, decided I hated plastic bottles. A lot. I went online and ordered a bar of shampoo instead (3 minutes). No waste, compostable paper wrapper and shipping box, nontoxic ingredients, and lasts as long as a bottle of hair washing chemicals. So there were (are) no more bottles in my shower. Which made me want to have fewer plastic containers everywhere else in my life. Which has — I would guess — saved me from exposure to a ton of carcinogens, in addition to feeling better about the waste stream from our household.

I had a migraine that lasted two days. In a moment of irritation, I decided to stop doing techie, left-brain work in the mornings (a split second to decide, then 10 minutes to re-shape my Google Calendar). Morning is the time when my right (intuitive/creative) brain is strongest. So I do creative work in the morning. Which made my migraine go away. Which means I’m able to more fluidly write and create nice new ideas for my circle of clients. Which has helped me magically attract more of the perfect clients. Which makes me extremely happy every day of my life.

I joined an online mastermind group for the first time in my life (1 hour to study and decide). Even as an introvert, it has provided me with a small, supportive community of super-smart, super-compassionate businesspeople to talk to. Which shows me it’s possible to bring your heart into your business and still be successful. Which gives me a lot of audacious hope that business will continue to shift that way, away from the impersonal and the deceptive.

And so forth.

It’s hard to trace things back to their original spark (if you’ve ever seen James Burke’s BBC series Connections you may find it easier to visualize). The easiest way for me to do this was to take a moment, breathe, and try to bring to mind one thing that’s a reality right now in my life that makes me happy, and that didn’t exist a year ago. And then start tracking backward, breadcrumb by breadcrumb. How did I end up with this good thing in my life…if I follow the thread back, where is the start of it? And is that something I can do again?

Anyway, it’s a lot more fulfilling than calculating how many calories I need to burn between now and December 31, 2018.

Happy new year,
Margaret

 

X-Ray vision: Seeing through online marketing, making peace with it, and doing better

(groovy image by Golan Levin)

I’ve taken a few days off writing this month, and instead have been reading. A few years ago, writer/speaker/creative Charlie Gilkey wrote a blog post called “Create, Connect, and Consume: Balance Them To Get Your Best Work Done.” Well, I’ve been living in the “connect” and “consume” phases of that cycle for a few days, and I’m both a) glad I did, and b) glad to be back. Hi.

My more typical pattern is to spend a few minutes each day trying to ingest other peoples’ wisdom, usually right between checking in with my business circles, and feeding the dog his breakfast. It’s a hurry-up kind of thing, and in those eleven-and-a-half minutes I try to take notes, Boomerang some things back to myself later, and/or convince myself I’m for SURE going to remember what I read this time.

Spending more time reading has a strange effect on me, though, and it’s not always pleasant. In that strange method in which my memories have filed themselves, I keep thinking of a sci-fi film from the 60s called “The Man with the X-Ray Eyes.” In it, Ray Milland plays a scientist who develops a technology that allows him to see through things. At first, it’s fascinating to him, then disturbing, then it drives him insane. Although I don’t plan on going crazy, I have started seeing through things to their core, and it’s a weird feeling.

I’ll explain: I was invited to a ‘free’ online summit this week, in which many luminaries in coaching and creativity would be giving webinars over the course of several months. There was a time when I would have seriously geeked out about this. But rather than just enjoying the thrill of finding it, I saw it for what it was: A learning experience, yes, but mostly it’s a structured opportunity for each of these speakers to build their subscriber lists, by offering their material in exchange for your email address.

Sifting through Facebook, I see why some very good-hearted people and pages ask, “What’s your favorite poet?” or even more directly, “In the comments, post a moving GIF to show me how you’re feeling this morning.” It isn’t that they really care that I love Rumi and I feel overcaffeinated. They know that engagement on Facebook—likes, comments, and shares, especially with pictures and video—gains them brownie points with the FB gods so their deliverability increases.

Even when people send me a contact request on LinkedIn, I find myself wondering whether it’s happened because they’re about to announce a new product or service, and want to widen their audience as much as possible first.

Before you think I’ve become a new age negative nancy, hold the bus. I do see through these things, but they don’t depress me. They just…are. This is how these particular people are choosing to build their businesses and make a living. It is their choice to market this way, and it doesn’t make them bad people. In fact, in many cases it means they are hoping/able to do more good things in the world. It’s okay. It’s a personal choice I have no right or desire to criticize. But there’s a “lost innocence” quality in it for me, now that I see motives rather than just enjoying it all.

On the upside, it makes me super-sensitive to the opposite of these tactics, which is authenticity.

Here’s an example of THAT: I subscribed to Louis Grenier’s mailing list the other day because I wanted the promised free download called “How to stand out: 9 bullshit-free lessons from world-class tech marketers.” The download was fine, but the emails I received made me smile. The first email was just a basic thank-you and download link. Great. But the second one said, “I’ve set this email up to be sent to you 2 days after the last one.” Sounds simple, right? But think about it: How many carefully-crafted automated emails have you received that tried so hard to masquerade as “It’s really me, writing just to you Mrs. Firstname! Please keep opening my emails…” I was surprised and happy with the transparency of “Hey, it’s not really me – but I thought this tool was the best way to get useful stuff to you, and so I’m showing you the innards of it.” The emails continued in that honest, open vibe.

And another: Writer/coach/creator Tad Hargrave has something called an “Are You Sure?” page that he sets up so it pops up AFTER someone clicks a Buy Now button, but BEFORE they pay for the item. It slows them down, explains the program they’re buying, distilling it down to a very clear, crisp description so they can be certain it’s going to be of value. Does that mean that some people might change their minds and not buy? Of course. But if you’re really interested in making sure that people who aren’t a fit for your programs never sign up for your programs—avoiding possible bad feelings for you and for them—it’s the ultimate in openness, bravery, and genius.

On the same day I re-noticed “Are You Sure?,” I saw that Mark Silver of Heart of Business was offering a free (with no signup!)  PDF book about ethical pricing in coaching, “Don’t Buy Now” that I found bracing and cool.  Judith Morgan, one of my favey-fave coaches for small businesses like ours, offers a PWYW (pay what you want) model. Authentic business coach George Kao offers a megaton of gorgeous free content on his website – it would take days to enjoy it all (ask me how I know…)

I mean, this kind of stuff is all around us. All over. Every day, people are coming over from business-as-usual to a place that is more ethical, more transparent, and more authentic. I’m overwhelmed sometimes with the sheer number of people crossing my path who are choosing to ditch the industry-standard sales pitch and come back to something real and human.

So I owe a debt of thanks to more mainstream marketers. Thanks for bringing honest marketing back into focus for me.

How I use Facebook to stay happy, calm, and productive in my small business

I still have many clients who avoid Facebook, even though they know it may have many benefits for their work and their business. They have an impression of it as a squawking coop full of unfettered narcissists, over-sharers, and attention seekers. The land of the angry, the bigoted, and That Guy Who Loves the Sound of His Own Voice.

I’m not here to argue any of that. But since there are some very strong business reasons to use Facebook, and because I’ve managed to make it into a place that actually helps me to stay happy, productive, and connected, I wanted to share how I do it.

In order to have a Facebook business page, you need to have a primary/personal page first. That, more than anything, is the place where things can go off the rails and get very problematic. Consider this post to be a guide to managing that part of things so you can enjoy and benefit from your business presence.

Set it up right to begin with, for maximum security and quiet

So many people jump into the potential bedlam of Facebook and don’t bother changing its default settings. So their world is a pandemonium of “friend” requests, private messages pinging day and night, and other people posting on their own personal space. There are also privacy issues, with all the annoyance and even danger of people sharing what you’ve put up there.

Facebook itself has tools to help you through all the settings you can tweak to control who shows up, who can see your stuff, who can contact you etc. Time magazine also published a useful guide to this last year: http://time.com/4166749/facebook-privacy-settings-guide/

One of the most critical ones for me is not permitting anyone but my closest friends/family to private message me, by the way.

Filter out what makes you crazy with FB Purity

I honestly don’t know what I’d do without FB Purity. It’s a little extension (software thing) that you can install, which then automatically filters out a huge percentage of what makes me insane about Facebook. You get it going, and it does the rest.

Don’t want to see the word “Trump” (pro or con) in your news feed any more? Set it up in a filter and all the rants are gone.

Hate that “Trending” thing in the right column that tempts you down the rabbit hole of mindless clicking? Gone.

Bothered by those oh-so-helpful interjections by Facebook guessing at things I’ll like, memories from ten years ago, games, even some ads? Gone.

A list of all that FB Purity does is here: http://fbpurity.com

I encourage you in no uncertain terms to use this, starting now.

Be ruthless about decluttering your so-called “friends”

I know some people who are collectors of “friends” on Facebook. As a result, they are bombarded day and night with the collective sharing by near-strangers of hundreds of baby pictures, funny dog stories, pithy quotes, gripes about jobs or life in general, off-color jokes, stream-of-consciousness questions, sports teams, and worse.

In what way is this a useful way to spend our life’s minutes?

For those who are considering joining Facebook, and those who are already in the soup, I want to ask you to be ruthless in paring down that number to 150 or (preferably) less. The anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who studies social networks, said that any grouping of people larger than 150 starts to strain the capacity of the human brain. We can’t effectively manage relationships with many hundreds of people—real or digital—and it creates cognitive stress that we may not even be aware of. Hands up: Who out there needs more cognitive stress in this era? Anybody? I didn’t think so.

The idea of being able to keep tabs on endless schoolmates, childhood friends, real-life acquaintances, old next-door neighbors may have sounded nice to begin with. Facebook “sold” the product to us and gave us the tools to build, build, build, convincing us that the more people we “friend,” the better.  But it’s just not helping, and in fact it’s hurting.

Go to your “Friends” list. Scroll down the list. Hide or (preferably) unfriend: The negative, the loudmouths, the insulting, the ones you have to tiptoe around, the ones you haven’t spoken to in years and don’t miss them. Get rid of the ones who frequently have meltdowns, the people you didn’t care to hang out with in school anyway, the ones that – if they showed up in your neighborhood – you WOULDN’T want to go have a cup of coffee with. Be cold. This is your peace of mind and your focus at stake.

Get down to a list of no more than 150 people that:

  • you’ve actually met and love, or with whom you’ve consistently had meaningful and mutually beneficial one-to-one exchanges; AND
  • you know are often positive or optimistic or otherwise good for your peace of mind; AND
  • are good human beings who it makes you happy to have conversations with (those colleagues, clients, and community members who add to your life)

Root out any trace of FOMO (your fear of missing out on news of something happening to someone somewhere) and be merciless in your decluttering. Your real friends will know where to find you.

If you’re already on Facebook and receive lots of postings from news outlets, public figures, and celebrities, purge them accordingly as. You’re making space for what matters. (Get your news somewhere else, by the way…DON’T have it shoved in your face automatically every day/hour/minute. That’s a recipe for extreme agitation and stress, and the world needs you calm and clear-headed.) 

Start building or rebuilding your Facebook page as a positive space

Now that your feed is no longer cluttered with ads, games, rants, selfies, red carpet photos, etc., you can start filling your account with ONLY the positive, the beautiful, the hopeful, the educational. This will vary wildly from individual to individual, but below are some of the things I’ve loaded mine up with, giving me a solid stream of encouragement, love, and good news all day every day (search for them in the search box at the top of your page, or search for “good news”):

Good News Network
Good Good Good/Goodnewspaper
Tiny Buddha
Center for a New American Dream
Greater Good Science Center
Sweatpants and Coffee
DailyOM
Preemptive Love Coalition
The Daily Flame (Inner Pilot Light)
BBC World Hacks
Elephant Journal
The funny local sign whose puns make me groan (right)

There is literally not much room left for the negative news and inflammatory rhetoric to squeeze in, and if it does, I filter it out systematically so it can’t come back. And that’s the whole point: Craft the space to be the world you’d rather be living in: Good, generous, helpful, intelligent people all around us. Many of us actually ARE living in that world.

Become part of communities that help you, and that you can help

The best parts of Facebook are the opportunities that present themselves to be part of a community. There are thousands of groups on Facebook covering every topic from community gardening to graphic design to meditation to … surviving owning your own business!

If a group is active and has more than just a couple of people in it, it’s an absolutely fantastic way to make some new connections in the world with people who “get” you. You’ll meet kindred spirits, learn a ton of new things, have a place to share your knowledge with others, and grow as a person and as a professional.

Look in Facebook’s left column for the word Explore, then Groups. At that page, you can click the word “Discover” at the top to search for something in your areas of interest. I get an enormous amount of benefit from the groups I’m part of. If you aren’t yet part of any groups, I’d encourage you to give one a try…or start your own!

Tend a business page that helps people

There are lots of resources on the web to help set up and properly use a Facebook business page. I can only say that my page has been, for me:

  • A place to write and share things that help the people I care about most
  • A way to reach a wider audience with the things I offer the world
  • A learning experience, as people share what they want and need from me

Once the personal side of Facebook has been tamed and isn’t obtrusive any more, your business page can be a place to really dip into your zone of genius and connect with those you’re most trying to help.

Oh, and turn off all intrusive push notifications. Right now.

Make sure your mobile devices aren’t receiving notifications of every damn thing that happens on your Facebook feed. The only things I get on my mobile are the occasional private messages from friends (who are almost always real-life friends and colleagues) I’ve set to be allowed to do that. If you are addicted to the invitation to distraction, the binging and bonging of constant notifications—”They like me! They really like me!”—call that out and take steps to get it out of your life. There are far too many people who permit themselves to completely shred their limited waking hours in this way, and then wail that “there’s never enough time!” (I was one of those.) Life really is too short for that.


Do you have questions, concerns or fears around using Facebook for your business without going mad or being overwhelmed? Drop me a line and let do this sanely together. I’m far from an expert, but I have experimented with many different ways of using that particular tool, and can share what I know and what has worked.

You might also enjoy my blog post, Social Media for the Sensitive Entrepreneur, which has other helpful tips for using these tools well and wisely.


 

Thanks for stopping by!

If you have a heart-based business and this message resonated with you, I’d love to have you keep in touch (in times like these, having a community of people who ‘get’ us can make all the difference between a great day and “I’m just going back to bed”). Here are some ways:

  • I send out a monthly email missive with stuff of interest to people like us – from non-geeky tech tips, to new resources for small businesses and freelancers, to feelgood stories of what’s working out there. Give it a try and see if it’s of interest to you.
  • I’m on Facebook at https://facebook.com/websitesforgood and we have some great conversations there. It’s also a great place to see new writings of all kinds.
  • Think about a free 30-minute consultation with me to tell me what you’re up to, talk through new ideas or directions, or talk about how to better tell your story online.