Owning Up

Social media technologies can be a powerful tool, but it’s important to know who within your organization should be taking the lead for your social media marketing strategy, which includes responsibility for everything from budgeting to staffing.

It’s commonplace for executives and managers to ask about social media leadership and inquiries stem from the growing desire to get involved with communities of customers, partners, and employees.

However, this question of who within an organization “owns” a specific community isn’t easily answered because it’s really three complex questions that need to be answered first: who interacts with the community; who pays for it; and who champions it?

Who Interacts with the Community?

Organizations have many questions when they get started with social media. They want to know who will write the blog, who will run the forum, who will manage the Wiki. These are all good questions about who you entrust with the responsibility of being your spokesperson to a specific community.

Some companies, such as General Motors, have high visibility bloggers (like GM’s Vice Chairman Bob Lutz). Other companies have a general manager overseeing its community efforts (like Intuit’s Scott Wilder). And other businesses field an team (like Southwest Airline’s Nuts About Southwest blog, which includes contributions from a diverse group of employees including Gordon Guillory, a Structures Mechanic in the Heavy Maintenance Department).

These different approaches show that any employee can interact with communities that they never deal with face-to-face with in their regular work. Community contacts shouldn’t be determined by title or department, but rather, by the mindset and judgment of the person in the job. It must be someone deeply passionate about developing that specific relationship – even if it means challenging long-held corporate culture and standards.

Natural places to look for these individuals are in marketing, public relations, and corporate communications. But don’t overlook customer support, market research, and product management as well.

Who Pays for Community?

The easy answer is that it depends on the goal of the community and who benefits most from the community. For example, a company may form a community for the express purpose of gathering insights into its customers. In this case, market research could work with vendors (such as Networked Insights, Passenger, or Communispace) to create a private community that can be polled and asked questions. These interactions can be used to supplement other sources like surveys and focus groups. In this example, it’s clear that market research should fund the community. However, companies can also allocate back the expense to other departments that also tap into that community for insights.

Communities can also be formed to provide better support. For example, through the use of discussion boards where customers, as well as company representatives, can answer support questions, the customer service department can eventually see decreased costs. In that case, customer service should pay for the community, as well as provide focus and direction.

One circumstance demands additional detail — when the IT organization should pay for (and control) community. IT usually gets involved when there’s a need to have a company-wide adoption of social and collaboration technologies. Historically, this has meant enterprise deployment of collaboration platforms like Sharepoint. In contrast, most social technologies are point solutions, designed for easy adoption by business users and requiring minimal IT involvement. IT typically becomes involved in social technologies when integration is needed into existing corporate systems and databases, where the role IT plays is one of ensuring security and systems maintenance. At some point, there will be enough point solutions where IT may also need to get involved to ensure corporate consistency in identity, data structures, and security, as well as in vendor and platform selection.

In the end, who pays for and thus controls the community should be fairly easy to determine because the formation of the community should be based on concrete goals that benefit the organization. If the goals are unclear, then the question of who pays for the community is the least of your worries.

Who Champions Community?

Deploying social media and creating communities is hard work that often challenges long-held company beliefs and cultures. But social media and community managers typically are younger, and earlier in their career, and thus they don’t always have the skills or the clout to be a change agent within an organization.

What’s needed is the third area of community ownership – executive sponsorship. Take for example Ben and Jerry’s. CEO Walt Freese is deeply involved in social media at the ice cream maker and not because he thinks it’s cool, but rather because he believes social technologies are crucial to deepening relationships with core customers – the lynchpin to increasing customer lifetime value.

Freese’s office title is Chief Euphoria Officer and he is the bearer of the social media torch inside the company, encouraging the integration of social media into all aspects of customer relationships, from marketing to customer service.

And at H&R Block, Paula Drumm, vice president of Interactive Media, has been the executive champion. She’s been educating executives while steering her team to engage with customers in multiple social media channels. Like many companies, H&R Block executives are conservative and come from a generation that’s generally skeptical about social technologies. Drumm’s change management skills have helped the company become a model of how to develop customer relationships with social media.

A key skill of this champion is the ability to understand far and how fast to push. In Naked Conversations by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel, the authors write about the importance of understanding the “corporate membrane” – how to stretch it to accommodate social media but not to the point of breaking.

The hard part of about this particular question is that it’s hard to appoint someone into position — usually, this person volunteers because they see the need and have the passion and energy to lead change within the organization.

Everyone owns Community

It’s a mistake to treat community as a separate, distinct asset because you’re talking about relationships that are core to the form and function of a business. In the end, everything that a company does flows through some sort of process that touches a relationship be it with a customer, partner, or employee. Thus, there’s opportunity for everyone in the company to own a piece of community, if only they are given the chance to do so.

I believe that a company that can spread the wealth of community involvement and ownership widely throughout a company will always be better positioned to win than one that doesn’t. After all, all companies want to be closer to their customers.

So, think hard not only about who will own community today in your organization, but also who is best positioned to open and share that ownership throughout the entire organization. The future health of your company may well depend on it.

Participation Is Not Passive

Elvis has left the building and he took the audience with him.

The only people left are fellow participants. Social media has made everyone an author, creator, director, developer, editor, critic and media outlet. There are millions of voices, but they are all saying the same thing – listen to me.

Participants do not consume passively. They do not sit silently ready to have their eyeballs converted into cash. Participants participate. They create their own original information, entertainment and art. They remix their own version of mainstream pop culture – copyrighted or not. They post their thoughts, publish their fears and fact check faster than any newsroom. They share with their friends to discover the quirky and interesting, making it an instant blockbuster- at least for 15 minutes.

Participants have ideas to be declared. Each of them is a market of one. Collectively they are a trend, a publishing powerhouse and a voice to be heard; a voice that has something to say. Participants have changed the way media is published and interactions are monetized. But more broadly and importantly, they have changed the flow of global information from top down to bottom up. They are changing the tone and tempo of the conversation.

Who’s Listening

While there are so many buzzwords surrounding this topic – social media, Web 2.0, conversation – many are overused, misused and misinterpreted.

The word conversation comes up over and over, but it’s a concept that is as old language itself – maybe even older. It is not a new construct invented by the social media advocates.

And while the medium for conversation has changed and evolved over time, the fundamental human need for conversation remains the same. We want to connect to each other. We want to express ourselves. We want to hear authentic voices engaged in a dialogue with us. Everyone wants to be heard and feel valued.

But who is doing the talking is also important. The conversation between customers and businesses must include people that are empowered by businesses to make decisions. This is not just about your support staff or marketing department interacting with customers. CEO’s, vice presidents, product managers, and other executives must be part of the conversations.

The Art of Conversation

It’s also what is said and how it is said that is key. With social media, you must treat these conversations as you would any face-to-face interaction – act like you would at a dinner party. After all, this is a social setting like any other. You say what you would say in any face-to-face conversation at a dinner party. Respond respectfully to criticism. Escalate the feedback. Act on it. Thank people for compliments. Elevate them. Ask them for more information. Reward them for their efforts. Empower them to spread the word.

That all sounds great, but ultimately for businesses, it’s about the return on investment or quantifying revenue generated by these conversations. At this point, it’s hard to put a specific value on a human connection or word or mouth. But imagine the value if all this “idle chatter” was publicly documented, archived and spread around to thousand of friends and connections. With social media and the web, it is.

The return on investment is nothing short of identifying your weaknesses in a rolling and real-time focus group. It is finding your friends in the marketplace and turning them into evangelists for your product or service. It is the new marketing – one-on-one influence of your market.

More importantly though, it’s beyond influencing your market; It’s about your market influencing you – shaping your product or service. It’s about making your stuff worth having a conversation about.

Getting Started

First, do some homework. Read some books – The Cluetrain Manifesto and Naked Conversations – are a good start. Then move on to Blink and Now is Gone. Then get off the beaten track. Start using the tools and services your market is using – Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Seesmic and FriendFeed, to name just a few.

But having a Facebook profile or a presence is not enough. That’s just like walking into a dinner party. The next step is finding someone interesting to talk to. Participate. Find Facebook groups that matter. Search Twitter for people talking about your company, product, service, industry, competitors and pain points. Respond to them. Listen to them. And respond again. You just had a conversation. A dialogue between two participants where one communicates something, the other digests the information and responds.

It’s not magic, but it is magical. It is basic. It is human. And it works.

Show me the Money

Currently, looking for the money in social media marketing is like asking directions in a foreign land when you don’t speak the language and don’t know how the locals connect and communicate.

Social media is commonly defined as comprising “primarily Internet-based tools for sharing and discussing information among human beings.”

As an online marketer you want to hear about ad copy and conversions. Everyone – your audience, customers, and your employees – wants you to listen, connect, and collaborate. You want to control the conversation so people click. They want you to understand there is so much more – including profits.

Here are three models that are working and speak to business in terms it can understand – cost savings, marketing, advertising, customer service, and lead generation – as well as terms it may not yet understand like passion, heart, transparency, sharing, not controlling, and being there for your customers. These are business models that go beyond mere advertising.

Business Model 1 – Social Product Development

Why hire employees to develop new products when you can have the audience do it with you, and both of you get paid? Even better, what if you could involve all of your audience to share, participate, and spread the word, and get them paid as well?

This is the new world of virtual currency or creating value out of traditional points systems. T-shirt maker Threadless.com allows people to judge, promote, and even get their picture taken wearing a t-shirt, and rewards them with points each step of the way. Points can be redeemed for cash.

While MetaCafe and others have tried to incentivize content creators by paying them a fee based on ads, Threadless.com takes it to a new level where the creators and fans of their T-shirts can help spread the word and generate sales.

How They Do It

Designs are submitted to the community and printed by Threadless, who shares some of the revenue with the creator. Each action is tied to some form of currency; some of it is monetary, yet in social networks much of the social currency is how people view your reviews, your creativity, and support it.

By incentivizing certain actions and maintaining an active community, they unleash the genius of their audience and profi t.

  • Incentivize the product creators: they invite people to submit T-shirt designs. If it is selected, the person can win up to $2500, or maybe even $10,000 if it is selected one of the Best.
  • Pay the slogan creators: submit a slogan and win up to $200, so you don’t have to be able to draw to win.
  • Incentivize consumers to spread the word: Members of this social community can recommend t-shirts via email, or traditional affiliate links, and earn two credits (about $3) per sale. If they get their picture taken with their favorite T-shirt and submit it, they get one credit ($1.50). If the picture is used in the main site for promotion, they get 10 credits ($15.00). Considering t-shirts run $9-$30, that is a significant bounty for a small action.
  • Reward people for taking action: The key to Threadless is the fun community. Just paying people to promote and create is one thing; rewarding them for good behavior and excellence is the new way of product development.

Business Model 2 – Direct Response Media: Ads and Performance Marketing

This is the most common model in use, with businesses basically trying to fit the traditional marketing world onto social media with mixed results. When matched to the right audience, this can be very effective. Still, targeting will almost always decrease the overall size of the audience you are reaching, so numbers are not off the charts.

Direct media is the evolution of traditional direct response media (direct mail, DRTV, etc.) and Internet direct response like pay per click and affiliate programs into the social media space. The goal is to get a sale, and these folks have been posting ads, manipulating search engines, and building links.

How They Do It

  • Use personality to create buzz: Create buzz about product by using audio and video-driven business personalities, driving people from social media portals like Facebook and MySpace to their own sites, and even social networks, to create ongoing business.

Gary Vaynerchuk, WineLibrary.TV: Gary combines a video show about tasting wine with ongoing presence in many social networks. He drives people from these networks to his own Wine social network, Corkd.com (he bought it after being successful) and drives retail sales through WineLibrary.com, among other sites.

Gary’s personality plays against traditional wine snobbery and drives sales. Personality is essential, because in social media, how they remember you is the most important thing”and if they remember you. For retailers,this means driving repeat visits, which the video, social networking and marketing continually generate.

  • Develop new direct response ads: Allow people to interact, watch, and make selections within the advertising itself. Instead of an ad inciting people to click and leave the space they are at, these ads invite people to stay where they are, browse, and buy.

MyWeddingFavors.com has an affiliate program that uses video and a special video widget from Qoof.com. Affiliates place these ads in social media spaces, where videos can be played right on the page.

People can choose, watch, and explore while they are in the middle of their own social media experience. Basically the performance based marketing invites them to engage and interact with the ad, and pulls them away from what they are doing BEFORE sending them to the eventual site to buy the product.

Other tactics include:

Buying low cost advertising ($0.50 – $20 CPM) space on a variety of social media through ad networks. Ad buys are mostly based on straight ROI. Clickthroughs are very low. Branding ads are rarely successful.

Posting consistently to blogs, social bookmarking sites, video sites, and tag these posts with keywords in the title, tags, and description to drive search traffic.

Do performance marketing deals and pay others to promote and pay a bounty for a lead or sale. If the ad does not perform, no one gets paid. Lead generation is dominant here, especially to targeted audiences where it works best; because people are often more open to inquiring than to buying.

Business Model 3 – Customer Relationship Management and Employ Retention Management as Social Support Media

Many smart companies are using social media to better engage with their customers, and some to better engage with their employees. But social media canal so be used to manage customer relationships as well.The social media business model is very simple. Your content is your marketing tool. Sois your contact with people, either directly or watching over the discussions, questions, and interactions around your product, your brand or inside your company.

How They Do It

Zappos empowers its employees through an innovative training program which allows them to go out, via Twitter, and be available to answer questions from people and customers. A whole book could be written about Zappos customer service, and in fact it has, by the employees of Zappos (you can find it on their website). Giving employees technology will not solve your problems; inviting them to be passionate about your business does!

The key issue is trust; good employees find good customers if you teach them. Zappos sees employees as assets and ambassadors, not as a cost of doing business, and it shows. They are not afraid of how powerful their employees can become, and in fact, encourage it.

Many smart companies are improving communication and efficiency within their own company with social media, as a way to improve communication internally. Social media technologies like microblogging enable employees to follow each other for specific projects, and gives management an excellent tool to keep an eye on the growth of the business.

Best Buy claims it has drastically improved employee retention with social media. Technical firms like Cisco and Intel swear by their internal social media initiatives that foster ideas and feedback, while saving money and time. Financial firms like Wells Fargo are seeing better production by employing some social media within the company.

As you can see, there is money in terms of sales, yet also in terms of savings in social media. It is not just an advertising game, and it is one that can change business.

Be Unique

If you want to find the money you have to create your own business model. One that deals with your goals while building a relationship with your audience (and employees) that can reduce expenses and build sales year after year if you manage it right…or better yet, moderate it instead of manage it.

Social media demands a blend of heart and business savvy. You cannot have one without the other; if there’s no business, we should all ignore social media right now (like most of you, right?). If there’s no heart, if no one shows up as customers and employees get bored being employees,nothing really happens. Put the two together and you may find the magic, and profits, you are looking for… because it is the new game and it is happening right now.

Incentivize Your Audience

Budgets are tightening, and advertisers need to boost ROI- fast. The social Web is gaining value not only as a medium that delivers measurable results, but also as a resource for gaining insight a company can use to make all of its advertising (TV, print, online) more effective, to increase ROI across the board.

Social media is known for its wealth of useful information. Using relevant analytics can pinpoint audiences and learn more about them. Need to reach adults who are interested in European travel? How about people in Los Angeles who like spy novels? Done. You can even aggregate more information along the way and optimize your ads as you go, to fine-tune your reach and make your campaigns more effective.

But as important as such targeting is – and it is significant – there’s another valuable aspect to social media: the level of engagement of the consumers with the social “medium” itself (compared with any other medium – TV, radio, print or even traditional online).

People choose to spend time on social sites. They’re not passive observers – they’re active participants. They’re playing games, sending messages, reading blog posts, poking their Facebook friends, commenting on someone else’s photo, and the list goes on. They’re typing, thinking, laughing, and conquering their enemies (only in the games, we hope). They’re engaged.

Use social media to provide access to enough data about demographics, traffic, interests and social actions to pinpoint a target audience and understand them better, and the attention that users give to this medium while they’re engaged.

What you get is the potential to gain unprecedented levels of information about your audiences and your messages by offering people incentives to give some of that attention to you.

The Payoff: Increased ROI

The idea of incentives isn’t new. Most of us have handed over our contact information for the chance to win a trip to Hawaii (or name your destination), or responded to a handful of survey questions to get a free soda with our next meal. The virtual world is no different. In this virtual economy, people still have wants – someone playing a game wants extra points, someone with a virtual pet wants extra gold to buy toys for it, someone in love wants to send a gift of a dozen virtual roses.

The new opportunity for advertisers is to apply the principle of incentives that we’re all familiar with offline to the virtual economy. Offer game points, gold for virtual pets, or a free gift, in exchange for taking a certain action.

It’s in this action where the real gold lies, thanks to the two characteristics of social media mentioned above. No longer are the actions limited to collecting a consumer’s mailing address or surveying for opinions that aren’t tied to any demographics.

The action is to view your ad (banner or video) and answer a few questions about it. The incentive is whatever the publisher is offering as a reward (the points, the gold, the gift, anything).

The payoff to the advertiser is intelligence that will help you increase ROI within all types of advertising.

Your survey can be designed to measure consumer perception:

Awareness – Who has heard of my brand?
Attitudes – How do people feel about my brand?
Favorability – Do people like my brand?
Intent – How likely are people to purchase my products or services?
Preference – Do people prefer my brand or products over others?

The right analytics partner can couple those results with user demographics like age, location and gender, along with interests and social actions. For example, anonymous User A is a 45-year-old woman who lives in St. Paul, reads murder mysteries, plays Scramble on Facebook and says she is “very likely” to see the next James Bond movie.

That is a significant amount of actionable intelligence for any company. In our fictional example, using aggregate (and always anonymous) audience information, the movie studio might discover that while it’s been concentrating ad dollars on reaching the male audience, perhaps there’s value in targeting females that match certain demographics.

Beyond its significant value as an advertising channel in and of itself, the social web is becoming a giant testing ground for companies to discover who their audiences are and how to more effectively reach them – from any medium.

The social space is evolving into a place that offers advertisers an efficient way to understand audience behavior and perception – and to reach people with precision targeting like we’ve never seen before. You couldn’t ask for a better incentive to get social.

Blurring the Lines

Recently, I posed my question to a diverse audience: “At your company, who is in charge of social media marketing? Raise your hand if it’s the marketing group.” A few hands went up. “The public relations team?” A few hands again. “Market research?” Once again, only a smattering of hands was raised. “So I guess most of you aren’t using social media at all?” I suggested. “Must be your lawyers are in charge.” That struck a chord. Laughter all round.

So, who’s in charge of social media marketing at your company? At many companies, no one’s in charge because the legal team is still assessing the risk. The first thing to do is to fi nd an appropriate executive to accept the risk. That tells the legal team that you’ve heard their advice but that you believe the business value of social media outweighs the downside. But who is that appropriate executive?

It’s Marketing

It seems obvious. If it’s social media marketing, shouldn’t you put the marketing folks in charge?

Perhaps, but whether that’s a smart decision depends on what kind of marketing people you have. Traditional brand marketers steeped in television advertising might struggle a bit with social media marketing. Word-of-mouth marketing has migrated online to be christened viral marketing, but most marketers have never lifted a finger to get customers to talk to other customers. Marketers accustomed to paying for advertised messages might be shocked at how much harder it is to foment word of mouth.

Social media marketing depends on your customers wanting to tell other customers something good about your product or service. What you’ve been paying media outlets to say about you won’t cut it. You need a message that is interesting, entertaining, appealing, and just plain hard to keep quiet about.

It’s rare that trained marketers pull this off. As discussed in my last column, Blendtec launched a terrific viral marketing video series, obliterating iPods and other unlikely objects in its blenders. But it was not a marketing plan that started the series – grinding up weird stuff was part of their product testing.

Marketers who’ve grown up screaming, “Act now and get, free, an ice crusher!” doubtless have little chance of getting their messages listened to, much less passed on.

It’s Public Relations

So, if not marketers, then should it be public relations? Or Corporate Communications, as they so often like to be known nowadays? Good reasons exist for such a decision.

PR folks have long faced the problem of enticing others to pass along their messages. PR people have spent their careers talking editors, producers, and reporters into covering their “news” and getting customers to pass along a story seems like a similar challenge.

Moreover, social media requires listening, not just talking, which any good publicist knows how to do. Tracking what’s being said about your company in cyberspace is just as important as in mainstream media. Someone who knows how to respond to a media crisis has valuable skills that can be employed when the blogosphere and message boards light up over some issue.

But PR people have limitations, too. For one thing, they tend to respond to a problematic press story based on how much influence the source possesses. They burn the midnight oil when the New York Times prints something, but don’t break a sweat when it’s the Picayune Press. That approach works fi ne for mainstream media, but it’s harder to judge the effect of a customer’s opinion in the social media space.

A public relations professional might not be the best person to assess its influence.

It’s Market Research

So, who could gauge the importance of a customer’s opinion? Perhaps market researchers, because they have spent their lives understanding customer feedback – divining the importance of opinions based on prevalence.

Market researchers use focus groups, surveys, and other techniques to tease statistical signifi cance from the noise of customer feedback. They collate the information and analyze it so that your company can take action. Surely that’s the right kind of experience, yes?

Well, maybe not. After all, market researchers are great at listening but not terribly experienced with sending messages. They don’t know how to convince an audience, preferring to find out what the audience thinks without contaminating their opinions. Marketing depends on getting customers to buy what you are selling, which requires some persuasive powers.

It Requires Cooperation

So, we’re back to where we started. Social media marketing requires the persuasiveness of a marketer, the media savvy of a PR pro, and the listening ability of a market researcher, all rolled into one. Now, maybe you’ve got someone like that lying around at your company, but I’d call that a long shot. What can you do instead?

Break down the walls. It’s not easy, but social media marketing, like many types of Internet marketing, require that you abandon the traditional barriers that cordon off each profession from one another.

Perhaps you need your market research people to learn to use reputation monitoring technology to listen to the Internet conversation about your company. They can use their well-honed analytics expertise to assess the meaning and importance of what your customers are saying.

Then you need your communications people to step in. Some of that Internet chatter might be coming from blogs – your PR folks can help you treat them like press. But they can also use their experience to concoct the kinds of messages that customers will pass along.

Your marketing team can work with the market researchers to understand what kinds of stories might persuade your target markets, and your PR folks can help design them. In fact, IBM has just reorganized all three teams under the same executive – more companies might take that same approach.

Now, will having your teams work together solve all your social media challenges? Of course not. Even the best teamwork will leave you with normal challenges of crafting appealing social media campaigns. But at least you’ll have every possible person working together to do so.

Social Networking Bailout

Our politicians, along with Wall Street, a few bankers and some mortgage firms may be able to take our money, but they can’t take away our friends. In fact, our friends may be all we have left someday. There’s no doubt that the crisis we face today financially and otherwise will test our mettle as small business owners and brands.

So in tough times what can we do? Well, if you’re like me you turn to quoting Lennon/McCartney and say, “We’ll get by with a little help from our friends.” Once again, the Beatles solve all the world’s problems.Of course, you see where I’m going here,right? Social media will save us, if we use it wisely. Think about it. Social media at its core is simply friends and associates, using media tools to connect with each other in different ways – online.

It’s nothing new. Well, the “Web” part is. But in all actuality, social media always existed, even before the Web. Think about neighborhood watch meetings where everyone in your community came together at someone’s house to discuss crime in your neighborhood. It’s still happening, but today, that kind of thing can be done on Facebook, Myspace, or Ning, virtually as well. What about getting together with your friends at a local coffee shop to chat with each other about your lives, or to recommend an auto mechanic or dentist? That’s still happening, but now it’s also happening on Twitter and Pownce.

Social media extends our interactions and widens the net so we can have even more friends and even more discussions. And that’s a good thing. Especially if you’re wise enough to build a diverse and strong network of people who you can count on in times of trouble.

Here’s how I think social media, and the power of friends can get us through tough times.

Career Advancement

At the time of writing this article, 4,000 jobs were just lost, here, in Cleveland, Ohio due to a bank that is closing down. That puts 4,000people scrambling to find a replacement job,with many looking in the same industry. But there are only a few available jobs in the area and now there are 4,000 more unemployed workers vying for those positions.

In such a competitive job market, I believe those that leverage social media will emerge with a job. For example: let’s says that Joe the Banker and Sarah the Banker are both seeking employment. Joe never bought into the whole social media scene. He never thought it was important to have “friends”online so he ignored building connections.Sarah, however, realized long ago the power of social media. She’s amassed hundreds of Twitter followers, and has just as many Facebook friends and LinkedIn connections.Not to mention her blog where she has a complete resume of her skills and full contact information.

The first day after Joe loses his job; he heads out to grab the morning newspaper and begins to scan the want ads. Maybe he also calls a few friends who might know of something, and he might even call a professional recruiter. His job search has begun.

Sarah, on the other hand, started the job search minutes after she was laid off. She immediately told all of her followers about it on Twitter. Minutes after that, she updated her profile on LinkedIn and notified every contact there that she was available and looking. Then she updated her Facebook status and wrote a blog entry about her experience and what kind of work she was looking for.

So who got the job quicker? Of course, it was Sarah. The power of social media enabled her to sneeze her message out to more people,faster than Joe could. Her associations with”friends” also enabled her to be recommended personally by someone who might have a connection inside a company she is hoping to work for. Joe, on the other hand, is still checking the classified ads.

Sales, Leads & Publicity, Oh My!

Small businesses are feeling the crunch too. Now, more than ever, it’s a challenge to keep your business going strong. Today, the stakes are higher with challenges such as making payroll and providing health benefits for your employees. Oh yeah, and while the same time finding a marketing budget to advertise your business.

The good news is, social media can help with that ad budget and do things for your small business that a billboard can’t. Online footwear retailer Zappos as an example of this. Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, actively uses Twitter to communicate with thousands of customers about his brand. Visit www.twitter.com/zappos to follow him. He also encourages his employees to use Twitter.There are more than 400 Zappos employees on Twitter.

At the time of this writing, Zappos on Twitter has just over 15,000 followers. That means that at any given moment, Zappos can instantly send out an update about their company to 15,000 people who are interested in their business – and it costs nothing. Let’s see, if you wanted to reach 15,000 targeted potential customers on radio or television,what do you think that would cost, and could you even measure it?

About 100 west of Boston there’s an Argentina Steakhouse called Caminito. http://www.caminitosteakhouse.com/ Justin Levy runs the restaurant and realizes the power of social media. “Since we are a small restaurant in Northampton, Mass. we don’t have the ability to spend a lot on traditional print marketing. We allocate some funds to newspaper ads, travel books/guides, etc. but I tend to focus my energy on Internet-based advertising, social media, etc.”

That includes having a blog and actively using Twitter. Plus having a MySpace and Facebook page where they can post events,photos, menu items, specials and videos to let customers feel part of the experience.The results for Justin and his steakhouse(in addition to a lower ad spend) is a 20to 30 percent increase in customers since implementing the social media strategy.

There’s Still Time

I rejected social media when it first exploded onto the scene a few years ago. I was like Joe the Baker in my example above.I already had friends in the real world. I didn’t need more online. I rejected Twitter at first, and refused to setup a Facebook profile. I saw them as distractions.

It wasn’t until six months later I realized the enormous error in my judgment. Being social online using social networking tools is more than just having new friends to chat with. It’s about finding effective ways to build your brand and grow your business or your career through the immense power of friends.

You still have time. Don’t be Joe the banker. You can, in minutes, create many social media profiles and begin to help yourself through tough economic times.

The Changing Digital Landscape

2008 has shaped up to be a crazy year for online advertising – the writers’ strike drove people online and the presidential election and the Olympics are causing advertisers to boost spending in a down market. The timing of these factors has altered media behavior – making the business of online media anything but typical for the year.

How the advertising dollars that moved online in 2008 will be spent is a matter of much debate. Reports indicate that because the digital landscape is changing, advertisers are finding that the tried and true initiatives that performed well a few years ago are now considered passe.

As more and more individuals become their own tastemakers, advertisers need to take into account how users consume information. The days of pushing content have given way to users pulling the content that they want – making it tricky for companies to get a hold of their potential consumers.

At the end of 2007, AdTech and MarketingSherpa surveyed 421 Internet marketers about the tactics they would try out this year and where they plan to spend their budget in 2008.

In terms of the initiatives that marketers plan to increase more than 5 percent of the budget on in 2008, 32 percent of marketers cited PPC, 27 percent of marketers said they’ll increase their spend on behavioral targeting and 26 percent will spend it on rich media.

The survey found that viral marketing and advertising on online video sites, mobile phones and virtual worlds are among the emerging trends that marketers plan to check out this year. Marketers say they are encouraged to try out those tactics for the first time by their agencies.

Ninety-three percent say agencies suggested an increase in spending or begin spending on viral video; 87 percent were urged to spend on viral marketing using networking sites; 60 percent were asked to try wireless ads on mobile networks; and 62 percent said agencies advised advertising in games and virtual worlds.

In March, PQ Media reported that total spending on alternative media – including expenditures on online/mobile, lead generation advertising and consumer-generated media – is predicted to grow 20.2 percent to $88.24 billion in 2008.

Clearly, how companies approach their ad budgeting is going through a major metamorphosis. Of course, online marketing plans and their budgets depend on several factors – including the type of company, product, audience and goals.

The Big Trends

In terms of how advertisers budget their marketing plans, three trends have been shaking up the status quo in 2008 – paid search, social media and ad networks.

The biggest change in the last couple of years is that search ad spending continues to increase – it is expected to rise 32 percent this year to $15.5 billion in the U.S, according to J.P. Morgan Chase.

Some industry watchers call search the greatest advertising medium of all time and many marketers agree. However, Jake Fields, president and creative director of Treeline Interactive, warns that marketers need to be careful because it is easy to waste budgets buying keywords. Fields recommends Spyfu.com, a tool for finding competitors’ keywords.

The rise of social media is one of the dramatic differences between 2007 and 2008. Although a recent Forrester Research report indicates that spending is still relatively small, companies are benefiting from what it offers: consumers contribute brand messaging as opposed to only passively receiving communication from marketers.

There are many ways for new publishers as well as established brands to leverage social media. They could create buzz on a social network before the site launches or do some ad buys on social networks sites, which are cheaper than buys on traditional content like CNN because traditional advertisers are weary of social networks.

The Northern California ski resort, Northstar at Tahoe, has a campaign that encourages customers and staff to post videos and photos with the tags “Northstar, Tahoe” on social media sites such as YouTube and Flickr – with the prospect of being featured on the Northstar site or even the possibility of winning complimentary services. Fields explains that this initiative enabled Northstar at Tahoe to quickly expand its presence within these social media sites from a couple hundred entries to thousands of social media posts that positively represent their brand.

Also gaining traction in 2008 are advertising exchanges, which allow advertisers to bid for impressions on a CPM basis. Cam Balzer, vice president of emerging media at DoubleClick Performics, explains that ad exchanges bring the benefits of search marketing to display advertising – namely, the ability to test a large number of placements (an ad of a particular size on a particular site or even site section) dynamically (no minimum or locked-in budget), to bid more for placements that are driving strong ROI and less for placements that aren’t working.

More and more display inventory of an increasingly high quality is becoming available via advertising exchanges, and this trend should continue as publishers get comfortable with selling inventory in this way.

Balzer says that for a minimal investment, companies can test various approaches to building awareness of their brand. They can secure a large number of impressions at a low CPM to increase reach. If they are also selling advertising on their site, they could sell ad inventory via an exchange to improve the CPM yield of their site.

Regardless of whether companies attempt to leverage one or all of the big online marketing trends for 2008, the ever-evolving interactive space is moving away from cookie cutter campaigns that seem too inflexible to yield results.

To rise above the clutter, companies need to aggressively try the latest tactics like product placement in games and paid ads on networking sites. Mixed approaches are required – recent research finds that when search and display advertising are combined, clicks increase after people see the display ads.

Because there is no silver bullet, marketers need to constantly analyze and optimize their mix. Fields says that campaigns are all a matter of trial and error – it is important to try, pull back, measure, analyze, and then try again.

Lights, Cameras, Action!

Raise your hand if you’ve heard of Blendtec. I bet you are familiar with Blendtec and I bet I know how you first heard of their blenders – from their viral video series called “Will it blend?” That series, showing iPods and other unusual items being reduced to powder by a powerful blender, serves a strong branding message: If it can annihilate an iPod, it will make quick work of your smoothie.

Whatever people conclude, the videos are certainly working. Blendtec’s sales have quintupled since the start of the campaign. Total cost of all this marketing: a few thousand dollars for video equipment plus the cost of the objects destroyed. Every video viewed was the result of people passing them to their friends or finding them through search.

Videos provide the richest way to send a message to your customers, and they might cost less than you expect. Online videos can be targeted at far smaller audiences than TV commercials and cost nothing to distribute, unlike mailed DVDs. Online video is especially important to marketers targeting younger audiences – 42 percent of individuals between 18 and 34 watch video online at least once a week.

So how do you go about making your own online video? Here are five tips for making great online videos.

Keep it short. The shortest videos seem to be the most watched, with the highest viewership for clips between one and three minutes. Some popular video podcasts are five minutes long, and many are ten. Don’t make yours 30. Better to do a weekly 10-minute show than a monthly hour.

Use tight shots. Some people will watch your clips on iPods and other small screens, and even those that watch on their computers generally do it in a small window. So, when you shoot your video, use close-ups with your subjects. And forget widescreen mode – stick with standard mode.

Don’t move. Talking heads work best. Many fast-motion sequences will be lost on an iPod’s small screen.

Write big. When you add on-screen titles to your video, remember that text that looks fine while editing your video on your computer could be unreadable on the tiny iPod screen and small computer windows. Use text judiciously and in a large point size.

Watermark it. If your video is well done, people will share it, which is great. But if you don’t identify the site it’s from, people won’t know where to go for more.

You can’t expect to reach people with online video as easily as you would with a TV commercial. With TV, you merely choose the show that matches your target market, plunk down your cash, and your commercial runs. On the Web, customers usually find your video through search, so search marketing is crucial to getting your message seen.

The best way to do that is to optimize your videos for search. Google’s Universal Search and other blended search result pages have made it more important then ever to optimize your video clips for search.

The good news is that if you know how to optimize Web pages, you already know a lot about optimizing videos, because search engines don’t see the actual video images and can’t hear the audio soundtrack. So the page containing the video carries a lot of weight with search engines.

Place each video on a separate webpage, so that you can optimize that page with the keywords that best match the clip. As always, use those keywords in the title, the description, and the body (especially in headings). Include a short summary of the video’s contents within the body, or, even better, post a transcript of all the words spoken.

But there’s more. You must get the videos themselves indexed by search engines.Some search engines crawl videos, so place all your videos in the same directory, as close to the root directory as possible. If you’re producing a steady stream of videos, set up a Web feed for them, pinging the search engines each time you add a new clip. You can also use a Video Sitemap (sitemap.org) to get the same treatment for your videos that you get for your Web pages.

And don’t stop there. You can improve your search results further by following these four tips:

Use keyword-rich file names. Name your video files to show the search engine what they are about. If it is a demonstration of a product, name the file after that product, such as ipod-nano-demo.mpg. Don’t drone on with keyword after keyword in the name – keep it short, with just a couple of keywords.

Optimize your metadata. Videos can be encoded with metadata keywords within the “properties” of the video file itself, by tools such as Autodesk Cleaner (www.autodesk.com). Video search engines frequently rely on this information when deciding which videos to show in the search results (and in what order).

Submit your videos. Video sharing sites, such as Google’s YouTube (www.youtube.com), allow you to post your videos right on their site. But you should reach farther than YouTube. Use TubeMogul (www.tubemogul.com) to submit your clips to over a dozen sites simultaneously and to track their viewership. Use keyword-rich titles and descriptions on those sites – they’re just as important as on your Web pages-and tag them with keywords, also. Some video sharing sites allow a linkback to your Web site, so take advantage of that, too.

Publicize your video. If your clip is noteworthy, submit it to social bookmarking sites, email people who would be interested, and link to it from your blog or another Web page.

If you follow this advice, you’re sure to improve the visibility of your online videos.

But it’s not enough to optimize your videos for search, however. Just as getting a #1 ranking for a Web page does not get that page clicked, your video must be watched, not just found. How do you get people to watch what you’ve created? Learn to share. Ensure that videos posted, especially to social networking sites, are marked “public” rather than private.

Give your videos “curb appeal.” Some video sharing sites allow you some control over the image selected as its thumbnail image – the picture shown before the video is played. Select an attractive thumbnail. Emphasize what works. Pay attention to viewership metrics, so you can repeat techniques and themes that have succeeded with your customers in the past.

Video has become a force in Internet marketing. If you produce compelling videos, optimize them for search, and get them watched, the force will be with you.

Eastern Promises

Japan’s had it hard. After nearly a decade of stock market doldrums and an economy on the brink of disaster – just as the rest of Asia struggled too – Japan bounced back. Growth happened. Its economy is still a tad slow, but there are many industries looking way up. Online marketing is one of them.

Of Japan’s 130 million people, about 88 million are online. That’s about 68 percent of the population, according to Internet World Stats (Asia), compared with 210 million of the U.S.’s 300 million and 137 million of China’s 1.4 billion residents. Japan’s may seem like small numbers, but the momentum of online marketing and the ever-growing popularity of affiliate marketing in Japan make it a region everyone’s talking about.

Blogging, for example, in Japan is a popular way of getting products in front of the masses. Technorati Japan says that more than 85 percent of Japan’s bloggers write about companies and their products – and that over half of these bloggers have been contacted by companies to extol their wares. Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications says that bloggers totaled about 8 million in that country, making for an in-blog ad market of about $60 million last year.

Expansion on the Way

In the 1990s, the Japanese did not use credit cards much for online purchases, as bank transfers and postal transfers made e-commerce slow and a waiting game. But by 1999, a tech-hungry culture emerged and online spending came with it. Pay-per-performance business models were not far behind.

A leader in this space is online retailer Rakuten and its affiliates – managed through LinkShare Japan, a U.S.-led affiliate company acquired by Rakuten in 2005. Rakuten is the leader in online shopping destinations in Japan, so their penetration made them a default major player. In fact, Rakuten plans to be in about 27 more markets by 2012, according to Atsushi Kunishige, a vice president at Rakuten. He says they will use LinkShare, for example, as a way to "expand our business into the international market. We want to open a full-fledged Internet mall [abroad]."

Rakuten’s 20,000-plus online stores and merchants did about $66 million in operating profit in the second quarter of 2007. With the company traded publicly on the Japanese stock market, that’s a market capitalization of more than $5 billion.

LinkShare Japan has about 68 percent of the top-selling merchants in Japan and is the leader in customer satisfaction, according to a survey by Japan’s Affiliate Marketing Association. Atsuko Umemura, director, corporate planning, of LinkShare Japan, says that their focus on per-sales kinds of merchants has helped make them a leader. "Affiliate marketing has proven to have the best ROI for us," she says.

Late Bloomers

While the U.S. affiliate industry can trace its beginnings to the mid-1990s, the first affiliate providers in Japan didn’t start up until 1999. The U.S. market has had a few years to evolve and grow, whereas the Japanese affiliate space is still considered a "juvenile." There are more than 80 affiliate networks in Japan that cover both Web and mobile platforms. Some of the more high-profile affiliate networks include Adways, Access Trade, LinkShare Japan, Fan Communications (A8), TrafficGate, ValueCommerce and Zanox Japan.

Anthony Torres, president of affiliate marketing program management company MetaFlo Marketing, which is based in Japan, points out that the key difference between the U.S. market and the Japanese market is that the "Japanese affiliate networks can service only Japanese sites. U.S. networks such as Commission Junction operate worldwide due to English being the most popular language for Web content. So, no matter how large the Japanese affiliate industry gets, it will never be as big as the English-speaking networks," Torres says.

He also notes that Japan is still behind the curve in tracking technology and commission sophistication. For example, U.S. advertisers have more choices in how they reward affiliates. Generally, U.S. affiliate networks allow merchants to pay affiliates based on subscription status of digital content and, of course, future sales even if buyer clicks go directly to a merchant store. The U.S. networks also have more payout choices. A small CPA, plus a larger percentage of future sales generated by the lead is a method that hasn’t made it to Japanese network platforms.

Torres notes that the cost of acquisition of a typical online customer is high in Japan. "When you add in customer service and all of the accumulated costs in the sale cycle, you are left with a lower margin per sale," he says. Merchants in Japan are just not used to paying high commissions or lifetime commissions on a customer, he adds. "As the industry matures here and the ability to attract online buyers becomes more challenging, we may see online merchants less reluctant to try more aggressive commission terms." Unique to the Japanese market seems to be the cross-investment of media sites and affiliate networks. In order to increase media coverage, many networks invest in or make their own in-house media sites.

Considered the real pioneer in Japanese affiliate marketing is ValueCommerce (Yahoo Japan took a sizable stake in the company in 2005), started by a New Zealander named Tim Williams. ValueCommerce has more than 50,000 websites and blogs in its network, with about 2,000 advertisers. The company has about $43 million in annual revenue and trades on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Goldman Sachs veteran Brian Nelson is now CEO, having come on in 2000 as COO. Nelson says that "we focused on our strengths, continued to hire great people, and launched new products and services that kept new customers, especially large brand name customers, coming in to work with us."

Consolidation is Coming

Nelson says that a large product database for shopping and their Web 2.0 applications have kept them in the No. 1 spot. It also doesn’t hurt that there is some consolidation going on in the Japan online marketing space now. "I have been telling people in the market for a long time that consolidation is coming " and it is in full swing now," Nelson says. LinkShare’s Umemura says, "It is a very saturated market right now. There is not enough room for everyone to survive."

Online marketing observers in Japan note that there are just too many networks trying to service the same advertisers. With about 1.3 million affiliates registered with the major networks and the majority of transactions driven by a group of search affiliates and "incentive media sites," there are not enough "quality" affiliates to take on all the offers out there. This means the networks are starting to look at new channels for ads.

One of those new channels is mobile, a platform that has performed very well for Japan. Because the Japanese adopted 3G standards fairly early, more than three-quarters of all cell phones in Japan have smooth Internet access. This means delivery of interactive content and ads to about 86 million cell phones (compared with 31 million in the U.S.). There are more than 48 mobile affiliate networks in Japan, with names such as Moba8, Pocket Affiliate and Smart-C. In 2005, the Japanese spent more than $3.8 billion on purchases over cell phones – 57 percent over the previous year. In addition, the CPA-based mobile affiliate provider model does much better in Japan than in the U.S., where CPC or CPM models prevail. It’s been said the culture in Japan plays a role in this since there are so many more commuters in Japan – leaving more travel time for the Japanese to experiment with their cell phones.

And with greater mobile traffic comes the opportunity to serve more Internet phone search advertising. Local search engines like Goo, Nifty and BigGlobe get a share of those eyeballs, but the leaders are Yahoo Japan (with about 63 percent of searches), Google Japan at 23 percent and about 14 percent left to split between MSN and the regional engines. Yahoo Japan is also the biggest local player in Internet auctions, Web email, mobile content and broadband.

Search Challenges

Japanese online marketing agency and search specialist Sozon sees challenges in the search marketing arena. One area in SEO that is unique to Japan culturally speaking, says Andy Radovic, VP of strategy and planning at Sozon, "is its variety in language used. Essentially, there are four methods of writing – kanji, the character system borrowed from China; hiragana, a more simplified form of kanji; katakana, the Japanese expression for foreign words; and romaji, which is the alphabet," he says. "Depending on what you intend to communicate, you may use just one or a combination of these. This greatly impacts the keyword planning stage of your SEO program. Another major difference is Japan’s reliance on Yahoo as the search engine of choice."

Radovic notes that Japanese-run companies are the leaders in services and customized solutions. "There are very few successful, market-leading international companies in the online space," he says. The international companies that operate in Japan tend to do so with a local partner. The exceptions, he says, are technology- dependent products, where some U.S. companies are in the lead, such as in search (Google) and bid management and Web analytics tools (like Omniture). "Some of the Japanese homegrown companies in the mobile, travel and insurance space are getting more sophisticated in their online marketing programs and are tracking to off-line sales," he says.

Scott Neville, COO of Sozon, says that, creatively speaking, ad messages need to really know their audience. "International ad concepts simply will not work most of the time," he says. "Text is definitely king here. More information is better and creative is often very busy with multiple propositions." He says you will need to provide as much detail as possible in your campaigns – that Japanese users will definitely read your privacy policy. He says that text email is the standard and somewhat limiting in terms of email marketing campaigns that may rely on HTML. Flash and graphic-centric sites tend not to work that well at either an advertising or a site-campaign level. He says that Flash campaigns "are not really supported by major portals for media buying and tend to be not that well received." Also, comparison campaigns are not generally used in Japan and "culturally not respectable to run."

While online ad agencies in the U.S. are slowly starting to synergize their off-line traditional ways and the brave new web of interactive display advertising, the Japanese banner ad companies are not doing too well. Two online ad agency leaders, Cyber Communications and D.A. Consortium, actually had negative growth in recent years.

The Network View

Aside from the few U.S. companies acquired or now run by Japanese companies, there are few pure U.S. players in this market and there are not likely to be more anytime soon. Observers note that U.S. networks just don’t have the Japanese-language support. While LinkShare and ValueCommerce have a bilingual platform interface, they are the only two out of dozens. One of the U.S. networks to gain a measurable foothold in Japan is DTI. They host affiliate programs for Japanese adult sites, but since most networks in Japan won’t handle porn ads, DTI has found its niche in this area. Some experts point out that one opportunity for U.S. companies would be to acquire small- to medium-sized networks and re-brand. LinkShare’s Umemura says that in Japan, U.S. companies could have come in at an earlier stage, but that "starting now from scratch would be pretty difficult whether you are a U.S. or European company. There are some smaller U.S. networks that do quite well here."

In terms of what hasn’t been popular in Japan’s affiliate programs are third-party management vendors. Currently, only a handful of the affiliate networks have management services, mainly because they are pushing their own media. However, experts say, tool and service vendors could eventually find a market in Japan. Keywords tools such as Wordtracker, recruiting tools such as Syntryx Executive Solutions and competitive keyword research tools such as the makers of KeyCompete could enter the market fairly easily.

Perhaps the best indicator that the online marketing landscape in Japan is maturing is the formation in May of 2006 of the Japan Affiliate Service Kyokai, an association that started to draw up guidelines, educate the public and monitor ethical behavior in online marketing. The six major networks in Japan founded the association when they felt that "shady affiliates" were starting to encroach on the growth of the business.

A learning curve, however, still applies. Sozon’s Radovic says that "everyone is struggling with how to market in a Web 2.0 environment. The Japanese blog and peer consumer trust are major drivers of consumer purchase. So this is an ongoing challenge." And solutions to the challenge will certainly add up to a better marketing landscape.

Get Inspired

Has this ever happened to you?

It’s late evening and your weekly newsletter, which would normally be queued for delivery on your autoresponder and blog by this time, is still nothing more than the vast white expanse of a blank Word document. Not only haven’t you written a word, you also don’t have the first clue what to write about, or which product you should try to sell.

Although you are usually passionate about your topic – organic vegetable gardening – you begin to wonder what the heck you were thinking when you chose to build a site around a seasonal niche.

Throughout the spring and summer, your income spiked nicely every time you sent out your weekly newsletter. As temperatures started to drop however, so did your subscribers’ interest, sales revenue and the better part of your motivation.

A vision of the repo man coming to get your new truck convinces you to persevere into the wee hours if necessary – but before long, the thought occurs that you simply have nothing to say on the subject and now you’re paralyzed with fear.

Well, fear not. Inability to select a topic, last-minute crisis writing and paralysis are all symptoms of writer’s block; something most writers experience at some time or another. With some strategic planning, you can prevent writer’s block, spark your imagination and earn commissions in any niche – at any time of year.

The first step is to build a “swipe” file that is chock-full of ideas for future articles and which you can access whenever you are in need of inspiration – and contrary to what the name may imply, a swipe file is not for copying other authors’ content to publish later, a.k.a “plagiarizing.” We just want to collect ideas from their work, such as headlines that grab your attention or unique topic ideas, and then create our own work based on the concept.

You can build a swipe file using an Excel spreadsheet with columns named for primary topic categories, suggested article titles, notes, relevant products and proposed publishing dates. If you have a number of sites on different subjects, create a new worksheet within the file for each topic.

Another method is to draft a post on your blog whenever you get an idea for an article. The post may consist of as little as a title and a few bullet points, but each time you log in to your blog’s interface, the draft titles will jog your memory about topics you can develop.

One of my swipe files currently holds 672 entries of both “swiped” titles and a number of fill-in-the-blank title suggestions such as “5 Quick Ways to ________,” “5 Brilliant Strategies for ________” and “How to Conquer _________.” There’s also a long list of emotional trigger words within the workbook. I find both the trigger words and the fill-in-the-blank titles are especially helpful when I already have a topic idea, but need some help crafting a catchy headline.

To start building your own swipe file, consider the following suggestions.

Although organic gardening is used as an example, the suggestions apply to any mainstream niche.

Search article directories

Article directories such as EzineArticles. com, GoArticles.com and ArticleCity. com are idea gold mines. My search for “organic gardening” at EzineArticles.com resulted in 1,540 articles targeted to people of different regions, skill levels and interests. From the results, you could quickly build a list of generic titles such as “Organic Gardening Supplies to Help You Get Started,” “Organic Weed Control” and “How to Grow Organic Tomatoes.”

Visit Amazon

At Earth’s Biggest Bookstore, I dug deeper into the topic and found Mike McGrath’s book, “You Bet Your Tomatoes! Fun Facts, Tall Tales, and a Handful of Useful Gardening Tips” at the top of the search results. Key phrases under the main title included “compost tea,” “sunny windowsill,” “Georgia Streak” and “Tomato Head.” If “Sunny windowsill” sparks an idea for an article about indoor tomato gardening, put it directly into your swipe file along with a link to the book.

Use the “Search Inside” feature to scan tables of contents. Sometimes an interesting chapter title will present a unique perspective on a topic. In this case, the first chapter is titled “Picking Your Tomatoes: Do all of these things have funny, rude, mysterious names?” which prompts an idea for an article about the best types of tomatoes to grow indoors.

While you’re at it, swipe the “Listmania!” title “The Dirt Diva’s Picks: A List of ‘Green’ Books to Save the Earth!” as a reminder to put your own Top 5 or 10 list of recommended books together.

Items such as the AeroGarden Indoor Gardening Kit and Felknor’s Topsy Turvy Upside-Down Tomato Planter can be added to the file as potential products to sell.

Visit relevant forums

Dig up what gardeners are saying right now at forums such as GardenWeb. com and HelpfulGardener. com. The latest posts with the most replies are a good indicator of hot topics.

Set up Google Alerts

To get the latest scoop on tomato hybrids, Google will send you email updates of its latest relevant search results. You can elect to receive Alerts once a day, as it happens or once a week from news sources, the Web, blogs, video or groups; or receive a comprehensive Alert with news from all five sources. Sign up at Google.com/alerts.

Read trade publications

Now you can finally put those stacks of old magazines to really good use! Subscribe to publications to stay current, and don’t forget to check whether your favorite magazine publishes an online version.

Poll your readers

Create a weekly survey and ask your readers what topics they would like you to cover. Regularly invite your readers to leave a comment on your blog by asking a question at the end of your post. Answers to such questions as “What’s your biggest gardening challenge?” will provide you with plenty of grist for the mill. The free Democracy polling plug-in can be downloaded at http://blog.jalenack.com/archives/ democracy/ or use the service at SurveyMonkey.com.

Use merchant resources

Review your merchants’ sites and recent newsletters to find out on which topics and products they are currently focusing. And although I usually advise against using merchant copy – because it is so overused by affiliates that your subscribers will question your credibility as an expert when they see it for the 10th time in your newsletter – in a real pinch, you could check a merchant’s affiliate interface for a well-written advertorial to publish on your blog. Better yet, use it as a basis to write your own product review.

Repurpose your content

If you wrote “Organic Garden To- Do List: March” in 2007, republish the piece in 2008 and incorporate any new tips you’ve picked up during the year.

Share your experience

What’s happening in your garden right now? Get out there, take some pictures, share your news and don’t forget to throw in some emotion! People are far more likely to respond to “Yikes! Giant green-horned caterpillars are eating my tomato plants!” than to yet another “Tomato Pest Management” article.

Those are but a few suggestions to get your swipe file started. Try to add to it frequently so that you always have fresh article ideas at hand.

Ideally, it’s best to create a publishing plan and work at least two to three months in advance. For example, you should be planning for Christmas in September and writing your spring articles in the dead of winter.

Not only does having a swipe file with a plan completely remove the stress of “crisis writing,” but it frees you up to react swiftly when there is breaking news within your industry. Best of all, advance planning and preparation give you the freedom to get out in the garden without looming deadlines to spoil your fun.