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Tricks to Creating Unique (and Beautiful) Imagery for Your Business

The other night, I was in dinner hostess disaster mode.

It was the end of the day, and I was tired and hungry. We had almost no food in the house, I hadn’t had time to go to the grocery store, and on top of everything we had a friend coming over for dinner that night. This dear friend had just returned from an extended trip overseas and I really wanted to make something special and comforting that we could all enjoy together as a welcome home dinner.

And then, in the midst of the chaos, I accidentally discovered a new cooking hack and saved the day. Get ready for this…

I got some sausages cooking in a frying pan and made a bunch of pasta, then pulled out a jar of pasta sauce I had bought a while back. Pasta, sauce, meat; it would be a bit boring but still good. But then as I was heating up the sauce, I thought, “What if I add some cream cheese?” Before I could stop myself or overthink it, I pulled out the cream cheese and added a big dollop to the sauce, then stirred it around while it melted.

Whoa.

Just. Whoa.

The combo of creamy / tangy cream cheese with tomato sauce and pasta was out of this world. It made our sauce look rich (because it was) and a little more pink than red, and it made it taste like really good restaurant food. Even my toddler ate it, and she normally turns up her nose at marinara sauce (she prefers her pasta as butter with a side of pasta).

Come to find out, cream cheese in pasta sauce was already a thing. Some people even call it “Spaghetti a la Philly” (*winces*).

While I’m not crazy about the cheesy name (get it), I am now CRAZY about the flavor combo. Who knew something so simple could be so good?

I steamed some frozen vegetables we had in the freezer to go with the pasta and we ended up having a great meal that night. It was delicious; it was comforting; it was fun; and it was so easy for me to cook. No one had to make a last minute run to Safeway (or Domino’s).

So what does that have to do with content marketing and branding?

Well, what I just described to you – add cream cheese to pasta sauce from a jar to take it from so-so to amazing in 2 seconds – is the perfect example of a “hack” – “a clever solution to a tricky problem” (thanks, Urban Dictionary).

If you Google “content marketing hacks” or “branding hacks” you’re bound to find a lot of Really Good Advice. “Here are 34 amazing content marketing hacks!” or “52 social media hacks that will supercharge your business!” etc etc.

But the thing is, do any of these fit the definition of the term of hack?

I don’t think so. IMHO, and I know I’m adding on to the definition I mentioned above, but go with me, a hack is supposed to be something that actually makes your life easier. It should be something that not many people know about, that’s easy to do IF you know the right trick/technique, that is relatively simple, and that is maybe a little bit weird but will actually work.

If you just get a lot of [admittedly really smart and helpful] advice that is going to take hours upon hours every week to execute, I don’t think that counts as a hack. It’s just more Good Advice. There’s a place for that, for sure, and I’m the first to admit I have a lot to learn from a lot of smart people out there on the Internet. But when you’re a solopreneur trying to make things happen in the margins of your busy day, you need something a little bit sneakier than advice would require you to dedicate all of your time to branding.

So here’s what I want to share with you today: My 6 best hacks for creating beautiful and unique imagery for your business for your brand.

These are hacks because they are easy. Easy to execute, cheap, and won’t take much of your time. And they are hacks because they might be a little bit weird and a little bit counter-intuitive at first.

At the very least, they may not be what you would’ve expected me to say when it comes to building a beautiful brand.

Wait – let me back up a little bit for a minute.

Why am I qualified to tell you about branding hacks?

After all, I’m a content marketer and a blog ghostwriter. What does that have to do with branding and creating beautiful imagery?

Well, above all I am an entrepreneur. Like many of you, my business has gone through many twists and turns as I built it from the ground up beginning almost exactly 4 years ago as of September 2016.

I’ve learned a lot of things the hard way and I’ve had to do a lot myself, including things that I never thought I would have to learn how to do.

And isn’t that just life as an entrepreneur? We wear a lot of hats; but more than that, we’re constantly being pushed out of our comfort zone and learning new things, doing things we probably wouldn’t choose to do if it weren’t necessary as entrepreneurs. In other words, we do things that we don’t like for our own business in order to avoid doing other things we don’t like for someone else’s business. The reality is being able to control my own brand and make the best decisions I can for my business is, for me, one of the most important parts of career freedom.

Maybe we don’t always make perfect choices, but we have the freedom to try to learn from our mistakes and to do better the next time.

And that to me is worth all of the trials and tribulations that come along with entrepreneurship.

I tell you all of this so that you know why I have thought so much about branding and imagery and come to these conclusions that I am about to share with you. Because there have been many times in different seasons as an entrepreneur when I have had to do all of the design myself. And as a self-taught graphic designer, I know how to use Adobe Creative Suite products pretty well now, but that doesn’t mean that I always create things that look good.

And that doesn’t mean that when I create things that look good they actually make my business look good.

And that brings us to our first takeaway – it’s not a hack, but it’s a HUGE lesson: Just because something looks good does not mean it’s going to ultimately contribute to building a beautiful brand for your business.

In fact, you could spend (and I have spent) hours slaving away on a beautiful image for your blog or social media post and ultimately still not contribute anything to your brand. That’s tragic. That’s like me spending all afternoon slaving away on a fancy dish for dinner with my friend, and then when she arrives and takes a bite, it’s dried out and flavorless, or it’s some weird fancy dish that she doesn’t really like and wasn’t expecting to eat at my comfortable house with my family.

In the same way, it’s possible to slip away and spent a lot of time and money on gorgeous designs that ultimately don’t accomplish what we really want.

As a business owner, the first thing that you want with any imagery for your business is to build a beautiful, strong brand. If your imagery and your graphic design don’t work in that direction, they are not accomplishing their purpose.

If you’re ready to cry right now, I’m with you. I look back on the many hours I’ve spent in Photoshop and various apps trying to make things for my business and it just breaks my heart.

I wasted so much time trying to come up with blog post images and social media images that were clever and creative and pretty and unique, but in the end they didn’t really build my brand.

Don’t get me wrong, each image, page, and post might look good on its own.

But they didn’t contribute to building a beautiful brand for Alana Le, the marketing consultant.

So let me share with you some of the hacks that I have learned the hard way in the last 4 years as a solopreneur. These branding hacks are great ways to make sure that your brand imagery is actually beautiful AND that it’s building a brand for you.

My Best 6 Tricks to Creating Unique and Beautiful Imagery for Your Business

Visual branding hack #1: Relentless consistency

Is visual consistency a hack? I’d argue that it is. It’s easy to do, but most people shy away from it for fear of being boring. In fact, the more consistent you are with your brand imagery, the easier it’s going to be to create images for your brand. You don’t have to make any big decisions for each new image. You simply use your template or look at the images you created before and make something that matches those.

This means using the same filter again and again; choosing the same colors over and over; always going with the same fonts, the same font sizes, and the same types of images.

A lot of people are going to think that sounds boring. And yeah, it might feel boring – to create. But it won’t look boring. It will look professional, attractive, and it will look like you know what you’re doing. Here’s how I use consistency and templates to easily create blog post and social media images that go together:

Relentless consistency in branding for Pinterest and Instagram example | Alana Le | Content Marketer + Blog Ghostwriter

Consistency – relentless consistency – is the key to beautiful brand imagery that all fits together in an attractive, seamless way.

Visual branding hack #2: Color overlays

So, consistency is great. But what does that mean practically? What are the actual things that you make consistent? That’s a great question, and consistency includes colors, fonts, font sizes, types of imagery (for example, all images of people or all images of fresh flowers), and image size/dimensions. But I’m going to give you my favorite hack for accomplishing consistency with minimal work: color overlays.

Color overlays are one of the most embarrassingly easiest ways to make your brand consistent. You can take a bunch of different photo with pretty much any content and any brightness level, and use color overlays to make them look like they all belong together.

(You should be able to create a cover color overlay in most photo editing apps but definitely in Photoshop and I recommend learning to use Photoshop if you’re going to be creating a lot of images for your business.)

Color overlays are way to put a transparent colored “screen” over any image.

This does two things really well:

1) It makes different images look like they go well together, so that if someone sees a bunch of your posts together in one place (say, on Pinterest), they will send a consistent, attractive, professional message.

2) It makes it easier to read any text that you put on top of the image. And that’s a big issue. Legibility is huge when it comes to good branding.

A note on the importance of legibility:

If you have a lot of beautiful images but then you clutter them up with unattractive text, too much text, or simply illegible text, it will look busy and will be hard to read the text. So basically you took a great image and then messed it up with too much text and it’s not legible anyway! Ouch.

So here’s what you do instead:

You look at your brand and come up with a set of colors to use for your imagery.

This is especially important when it comes to blog post featured images and social media images.

For example, my logo is plain black. But the accent color on my website is coral. So I use a coral overlay on most of my images.

It’s nothing fancy, and you might feel like “wow, that’s a lot of pink!” But if you know me, you would know that it definitely represents my personality and brand well. And the important thing is not that you find a lot of color everyone will love. All that matters is that you choose a color that people will begin to consistently associate with your brand.

Honestly, it doesn’t really matter what color you choose, as long as it’s not hideously ugly and as long as it’s a color that eventually becomes associated with your brand.

Let’s say you have a website that uses lot of light blues and greens. Choose an even lighter blue or light green shade for your overlay, and every time you make a blog post or social media image, add that color overlay to the image.

How do you do a color overlay?

In Photoshop open up the photo or copy it into your template and select the layer that the photo is on. In the example below, I’ve added the photo to a new layer in my template. As you can see, it’s a gorgeous photo but the template text – the blog post title, my website URL – are pretty much impossible to read.

Color overlay in Photoshop tutorial | Step 1 | Alana Le | Content Marketer + Blog Ghostwriter
Color overlay in Photoshop tutorial | Step 1

Then go to Layer Style, Color Overlay and then you’ll see a little color box.

Color overlay in Photoshop tutorial | Step 2 | Alana Le | Content Marketer + Blog Ghostwriter
Color overlay in Photoshop tutorial | Step 2

Select the little color box in order to choose the color you want. I usually paste in the hex number that’s that #down at the bottom with a six character code. You can copy the that text number from another of your brand related images – anything that has the colors that are typically used on your brands like for example your logo or you can even take a screenshot of your website and then copy the color from one of those.

Color overlay in Photoshop tutorial | Step 3 | Alana Le | Content Marketer + Blog Ghostwriter
Color overlay in Photoshop tutorial | Step 3

Then look at the opacity % and adjust it to something that looks good. You want it to be see-through enough that you can clearly see the photo behind the overlay, but opaque enough that you can see text easily when it’s overlaid on the photo. By the way, you can change that anytime so pick up number – for example, 60-something % – as a starting point and then press Okay.

Color overlay in Photoshop tutorial | Step 4 | Alana Le | Content Marketer + Blog Ghostwriter
Color overlay in Photoshop tutorial | Step 4

And we’re done! The text is visible and clearly legible, and the beautiful image shows up too – without overpowering the text.

Color overlay in Photoshop tutorial | Step 5 | Alana Le | Content Marketer + Blog Ghostwriter
Color overlay in Photoshop tutorial | Step 5

Visual branding hack #3: Styled stock photography

We’ve talked about consistency and we’ve talked about ways of color overlays to achieve it.

But what are you actually trying to be consistent with? What do you actually use those cover color overlays on?

It comes down to imagery, of course. That’s the title of the blog post. But where do you get all these images? And how do you know which ones to choose?

First things first: Try Unsplash. It is an amazing source of beautiful free images, and I don’t know what we all did without Unsplash. There are also other great free sites like Pixabay and others, and you can also pay for stock photography if you have a budget for it at sites like iStockPhoto.

But how do you take it to the next level?

Styled stock photography.

Write it down. Memorize it. Google it. This phrase will change your life.

“Styled stock photography” simply means that a photographer put together a bunch of different objects or maybe just one or two specifically to create photographs with a certain feel that you can use for your business.

If you run a business that has physical products, you probably already have styled photos for your products.

For example, if you make a lavender body scrub you might’ve hired a photographer to take pictures of your body scrub with little bits of fresh lavender on a nice white background to use in your shop images.

But if you don’t run a business with physical products, you probably don’t have images like that already. And if you’re like a lot of people, you probably assumed that service businesses don’t have any need for style photography. You couldn’t be more wrong.

Styled stock photography is simply about creating a super attractive, high-quality picture of your brand.

Let’s be real – if you buy that lavender body scrub, you’re probably not going to find sprigs of fresh lavender in your packaging. It’s not about a literal interpretation of the products and what you’re getting. That really would be boring, and people would scroll right past.

It’s about the feel of the product, of the brand. And that is certainly something that you can do even with the least visual business on the planet.

That said, doing custom styled photography shoots can be really expensive. If you’re trying to do everything yourself, you probably don’t have enough money to pay for your own custom photo shoot yet. After all, if you had that kind of money, you wouldn’t be doing all this yourself, would you?

And that’s where sites like Creative Market will be your best friend. Go to Creative Market, search for styled stock photography, and prepare to be amazed:

Creative Market Styled Stock Photography | Alana Le | Content Marketer + Blog Ghostwriter
Creative Market Styled Stock Photography, click image to visit site

Here are a few of my favorite styled stock photography shops on Creative Market:

White Hart Design Co | Best Styled Stock Photography Shops | Alana Le | Content Marketer + Blog Ghostwriter
White Hart Design Co Shop on Creative Market, click image to visit shop
Miss Ollie | Best Styled Stock Photography Shops | Alana Le | Content Marketer + Blog Ghostwriter
Miss Ollie Shop on Creative Market, click image to visit shop
Kristina and Co | Best Styled Stock Photography Shops | Alana Le | Content Marketer + Blog Ghostwriter
Kristina and Co Shop on Creative Market, click image to visit shop

There are so many beautiful photographs out there that you can buy to use for your brand, often in bundles that cost between $10 and $20 for a bunch of gorgeous photos along a consistent theme.

There’s also Shay Chochrane’s stock shop, which runs a little pricier but is always amazing:

Shay Chochrane Shop | Best Styled Stock Photography Shops | Alana Le | Content Marketer + Blog Ghostwriter
Shay Chochrane Shop, click image to visit shop

And finally, Wonderfelle recently launched her Styled Stock Society, which I am pretty excited about because it also offers some really beautiful options and gives members 30 new styled stock photos per month (!!):

Styled Stock Society | Best Styled Stock Photography Shops | Alana Le | Content Marketer + Blog Ghostwriter
Styled Stock Society, click image to visit shop

You can use them for blog post images, as the main image on your home page, or to share on social media. Of course, this requires you spending a little bit of money but it could be worth it, especially if you have more money than time right now.

But what if you have more time than money? (Been there!)

If you take a look at a lot of the stock style stock photography out there, and if you’re decent with a camera, you might be able to get some of the way there yourself.

Here’s what you do to make your own styled stock photography:

Go to the dollar store and buy a piece of plain white poster board. Go to the grocery store or Target and get a mix of small items that are connected to your brand feel – snacks, flowers, plants, stationary – or just “shop” around your house. Come home and set it all up in an area that receives a lot of natural light but not direct sunlight, to minimize shadows. Preferably set it somewhere out of the way that a toddler or pet won’t be able to reach (good luck with that).

Then play around with the placement of the objects on the poster board and take a bunch of pictures from an overhead angle. Take WAY more pictures than you need, because sometimes you might not realize something looks off until you are editing it in Photoshop or a photo editing app like VSCO.

(If you’d like a more in-depth tutorial, check out this one at PinkPot.)

The DIY method is a great way to get styled photos that are unique to your brand and look really good, but without spending a ton of money. But if you are not artistically inclined AT ALL, and/or if you are pressed for time, you might want to just go the ready-made route. Consider yourself warned. 😉

The moral the story: you need styled photography, whether for your social media or for your blog or website.

The question is just where are you going to get it.

Hire a pro to do a custom styled shoot for your brand, get pre-made photos from a source like Creative Market, or do it yourself. The choice is yours. And have fun with it!

Visual branding hack #4: Lots of white space

We’ve covered images; we’ve covered how to make them consistent; and my primary trick for doing that, which is using the same color overlay or filter every time.

But another trick to making sure your brand imagery always looks good is definitely just that – a trick.

A hack.

It’s ridiculously easy, it’s very counter-intuitive (if you’re not a visual person), and not many people will think to do it on their own; but it will make a massive difference in the visuals on your site and social media.

What’s the trick? White space.

This has got to be the most underutilized design tactic on the Internet.

This is a great way to make sure that the images and colors that you do have pop and look amazing, while making sure that your text is easy to read and clear as well.

Worried that it might feel boring?

That’s the last thing you should be worried about!

If your images look good and they’re consistent, and your copy is both high quality and easily legible, no one’s going to worry that there’s not enough content on the screen. They will be too busy focusing on the content itself, which is what you want.

But on the other hand, if the opposite is true – if your images look bad and there’s too much text and content on the screen at once – it will definitely be noticeable and distracting.

So this “hack” simply means to always err on the side of minimalism and make sure there’s plenty of white space around / in all of your content.

Oh, and if you’re not using a white background, that’s okay; you just need blank space of any muted color. That’s what matters.

Visual branding hack #5: short paragraphs

We’ve talked images; now let’s talk copy.

How can we apply the same principles to make sure that your copy looks good?

Because visual branding isn’t all about imagery.

After all, in today’s content-heavy Internet universe, a lot of what we see on the web is not just images but the text that accompanies them.

You might have to one to three images in a blog post, but 2000 words or more for the actual post.

That means the text itself – the way you present it – will have a huge impact on the visual experience of your content.

Here’s a simple hack that I’m shocked more people don’t use: Short paragraphs and short sentences.

This is the same idea of the “lots of white space” approach. Make your text appear simple, minimalist, and easy to read. Your audience can scan from short paragraph to short paragraph much more easily than they can navigate a solid block of text, and you better believe that will affect your dwell time.

Visual branding hack #6: Pull out quotes

Another great way to break up the copy and to make it more visually appealing and easier to comprehend is to pull out quotes and make them bold or italic, or even a larger size using the quote format that comes with your theme. My personal preference is to make them bold, since it’s easy to read and doesn’t require repeating a sentence.

Sprinkling a few important bold quotes throughout the text will draw that the eye and can make it easier to comprehend the content; but not only that, it will also make the page appear more visually balanced.

This is most important for blog posts. You can’t do this with most social media updates (using all caps for important sentences will come across as tacky most of the time), but you can do this with the images that you share on social media if you’re including text overlayed on the image – just use a different font, size, or weight for the most important word(s) on the image.

I hope these simple (but effective) tips for DIY branding and imagery are helpful to you. They are each concepts I have learned the hard way and wish I had known sooner. I wanted to pass on these lessons because I don’t want anyone else like me spending ages on visual branding only to find that the time was wasted!!

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Why Running Might Be The Key To Content Marketing

I recently wrote that doing content marketing for a small business is like moving a massive mountain one spoonful at a time.

It’s like this:

You start out ranking ridiculously low for the keywords that matter to you.

You’re competing against huge competitors – often time mega brands with significantly more resources, more content, and years of experience dominating search results.

You know you need content your audience loves and quality backlinks to that content in order to improve your search rankings and drive more traffic (and more conversions) on your site.

But how do you get there from zero, especially as a solo entrepreneur with no dedicated marketing team?

As countless successful small businesses will tell you, it IS possible. After all, the Internet is a great equalizer when it comes to enabling small businesses with small budgets to compete with massive corporations.

But while successful content marketing isn’t rocket science, it will take a massive amount of time, energy, creativity, and perseverance to work your way to the top (and stay there).

And when you have a business to run, a family to care for, and oh, I don’t know, a LIFE to live, it can sometimes feel like doing the intense work of content marketing is just too much on top of everything else.

But if you really want lasting small business success, website traffic and conversions are pretty much crucial no matter what type of business you’re in.

So you’re going to need to do content marketing to generate that traffic and do something profitable with it.

Where do you even start?

Well, you can’t learn to swim without getting in the water.

That’s why I liken successful small business content marketing to moving a mountain with a spoon.

You might not want to move that mountain, but it has to be moved eventually if you want to generate business online. If you don’t have access to a bulldozer and some dynamite (like a six figure marketing budget), you’re going to have to tackle it one spoonful at a time.

In this post I’m going to share some of my favorite tips and hacks for making progress moving that content marketing mountain, learned the hard way with some serious blood/sweat/tears.

But first, a story about a girl who hated running:

For most of my life, I have been a mediocre terrible runner.

I love lifting weights, taking cardio classes, going for walks and hikes, and – let’s be honest – doing pretty much any form of physical activity except running.

But when I had a baby, running began to look a lot more interesting, for one simple reason: there are very few activities you can really do while your baby is awake. That includes most of what I used to do for exercise, and since I’d rather not pay for childcare just to get a workout in, I had to start getting creative.

And as I’ve done the research, talked to friends who actually do like running (gasp), and invested the last several months into learning to run myself, I’ve realized something: Becoming a better runner has actually made me a better content marketer.

And isn’t running the perfect analogy for small business content marketing?!

You’ve got slow and gradual increase in mileage, the gritty perseverance required for success, the painfully awkward humble beginnings slowly evolving into a beautiful, enjoyable, and effective stride.

Here are several ways in which learning to run has made me a better content marketer:

Commit to move daily

I’ve learned that the key to making progress in running is not to let inertia build up. If I’ve gone 3 days without running, I’m more likely to go a week; and if I’ve gone a week without running, I’m more likely to go three weeks. So most days I commit to hauling out that big old jogging stroller, loading up my baby and her personal stash of cheerios, and heading out the door. I try to do this even if it looks like it might rain, or we only have time for a 10 minute run, or I’m so tired it’s all I can do to walk a mile or two and then come home.

And it’s actually this breakthrough that inspired my last blog post about 30 minute content marketing projects that you can tackle whenever you have 30 minutes of free time.

I’ve realized that every day doesn’t have to be a blogging marathon in order to make progress, and that it’s more important to make steady progress – even if it’s painfully slow – so that I don’t give up completely and suddenly realize weeks have gone by.

If I commit to doing something – one small thing – every day, I am bound to make progress and avoid the dreaded blogging slump.

Trick yourself into getting started

Along the same lines, I’ve learned a pretty awesome and effective strategy for making progress even when I feel like that is the last thing I want to do.

If I commit to doing something small even when I’m overwhelmed or don’t have time/energy, I find myself getting excited once I get started and often able to do more than I thought. The key is to start in the first place.

I tell myself I’m going for a short walk and I’m not going to run, and then find myself wanting to keep walking longer or start running. And with content marketing, at the end of a very long day I tell myself that all I have to do is write a short outline before going to bed, and before I know it I’ve made serious progress on the first draft of a post.

It’s that first step that’s the hardest, but if you can trick yourself into taking it, the next one is a lot easier.

It’s okay to take walking breaks if helps you improve

I often thought that taking a walking break during a “run” was a sign of weakness. “This is supposed to be a run, not a walk! If I were really mentally and physically tough, I would run the whole time.” (Don’t worry, this mentality did not stop me from taking many guilt-ridden walking breaks anyway.)

But I’ve since realized that it’s okay to take walking breaks if it increases my total steps, allows me to cover a greater distance, or work on improving my speed during a run.

Taking a walking break in the middle of the run might hurt my pride, but if it means I can run an extra mile or train at a higher speed for the rest of the run, isn’t it worth sacrificing pride?

Here’s how I’ve seen this play out in my content marketing: I’ve realized that it’s okay – really – to do things that make your life easier if it means you can ultimately accomplish more.

No more guilt or apologies, please! You can post less frequently, but with greater quality. You can hire a writer for some of your blog content if that means you can increase your quality. You can create all your blog images in batches rather than as you go.

Whatever you need to do to get a bit of help and renewed energy, do it – there’s not going to be a badge for being able to say “I did it all the hard way”!!

What you get out is based on what you put in

Ouch. This one is painful and was hard for me to learn.

Since for most of my life, I’ve hated running, I have only gone on the occasional run. And then when I didn’t see any progress on the next run (a month later), I would shake my head and say, “This is why I don’t like running!”

Well, if all I do is an easy 30 min jog “every once in a while”, I clearly am not going to get much better at running and each time will feel about the same every time.

And unfortunately, it’s the same with content marketing.

If you’re just throwing up the occasional short blog post and social media post without a larger strategy or focusing your efforts strategically, you’re probably not going to move the needle much at all and you won’t see significant, sustainable gains in search engine rankings.

But if you work strategically and consistently, even putting in a small amount of time but doing it regularly and on the right things, you will make real progress over time.

Pace yourself

It’s better to finish faster than to run out of steam halfway through – we all seem to know this instinctively when we’re running, don’t we?

We would much rather run a strong race start to finish than sprint the first half and jog/walk/hobble the rest of the way to the end because we ran out of steam and over-estimated our abilities. That’s somewhat embarrassing and it doesn’t make for a very enjoyable run either.

And as I wrote in the beginning, content marketing for a small business in this crazy, competitive Internet world is like moving a huge mountain with only a spoon.

If you start at a sprint, you’re definitely not going to be able to finish moving the mountain. But if you take it one teeny tiny step at a time, at a pace you can sustainably manage for the next couple of years (years!!) – now that is the route to true success.

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Easy 30 Minute Content Marketing Projects

Is there anything more humbling that searching for your target keywords and discovering that your beautiful website ranks on the 10th page of search results?

How and where do you even begin to tackle this obstacle, especially in a crowded, noisy online world?

How do you claw your way up the rankings when you’re beginning so low, and there is so competition from the start?

What if I told you there is a way to tackle this problem without getting overwhelmed or discouraged, in just 30 minutes a day?

In this post I’m going to share a series of 30 minute content marketing projects you can tackle whenever you have a free half hour.

These projects are quick, NOT stressful, and will slowly and steadily help you to improve your site’s traffic as you tackle them one day at a time.

But first, a peek behind the curtain into something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately:

Control – or rather, the fact that I just don’t have it

There are a lot of things in life that I can’t control.

I can’t control the actions and opinions of others, my own past mistakes, the likelihood of future mistakes and regrets, sickness and suffering and obstacles that come along with everyday life.

But what can I control? I can control what I do right now, in the moment.

Or, more specifically, I can control what I do in the next 30 minutes.

I can’t change the fact that I have insomnia, but I can control what I think about for the next 30 minutes lying awake in bed. 

I can’t go back and undo that mistake, but I can spend the next 30 minutes writing down a list of lessons learned from it. 

I can’t control what other people think of me, but I can spend the next 30 minute working toward my goals and proving them wrong (even if I’m the only one who knows it). 

Sounds like a great self-help book, right? Why am I writing about this on a content marketing blog?!

Because I’ve realized that this concept is so applicable to content marketing.

And it all comes down to this:

The painful, overwhelming feeling that you are so far down in search results and your competitors are so much better equipped/funded that you may as well not even try.

It is so discouraging to know that you have a great business, and incredible value to offer customers, but to be utterly lost in the sea of noise online, even losing business to companies that you know aren’t offering as much value as you offer.

Now time for some tough love. Here’s the truth:

You can’t control what your competitors do, or technical issues that come up with your website, or the many problems and tasks that take time away from your content marketing every day, week, and month.

But that’s just part of the story, because…

You can control what you do right now, in the present.

You can control what you do in the next 30 minutes.

And when you’re facing the seemingly insurmountable challenge of content marketing in a noisy world, just taking it 30 minutes at a time might be the best – and only – way to move forward.

Think about it:

What is going to result in more progress as you tackle a mountain of content marketing that may very well take years to move?

Should you go down the rabbit hole, neglect your business as you blog and promote late into the night until your eyes bleed?

Or should you focus on running your business well, making money and making your customers happy, and breaking off pieces of content marketing one manageable, tasty bite at a time?

Let’s see. The first one is definitely my innate leaning, but it tends to result in burnout, bad decisions, frustration, and no near term sales growth. (Oh, and poor sleep, poor health, poor mood, and grumpiness – fun!)

But the second one, while counter-intuitive (aren’t entrepreneurs supposed to work all the time?) allows me to stay fresh, motivated, relaxed, and removes a ton of pressure from my day to day work.

Oh, and it actually gets results in the long term.

Why’s that?

Because effective, sustainable content marketing depends on two major things:

  1. Creating super high quality, engaging content
  2. Getting backlinks to said content

And the plain truth is, valuable content and valuable relationships simply can’t be wished into being.

You won’t manufacture them with a few all nighters in front of your laptop.

You can’t buckle down and become an authority online within 6 months of starting your business blog.

Content marketing is a marathon, not a sprint; so pace yourself and you’ll have a much better chance of finishing well.

So if all you have is 30 minutes today or this week (or this month), what can you do to advance your content marketing?

Create more content

Brainstorm blog post titles and topics

Sit down in a comfortable chair, open up a notebook or grab a piece of paper and pen, and brainstorm blog post titles. Throw in a blank _____ anytime you are stuck on a specific word or title.

Outline a blog post

You most likely can’t write a full blog post in 30 mins, but if you spend 30 straight minutes writing a killer, thorough outline, you’ll be able to actually write the blog post pretty quickly the next time you sit down to write. So spend 30 mins outlining a single blog post, beginning with your target audience and the ultimate value you want to offer that audience through your blog post. Or you can cheat by downloading some of my pre-made blog post outlines. 🙂

Search for and save links to blog posts other people have written in your niche that you can do better

What are some keywords you want to rank for? (Long tail is always better – for example, go for “affordable event planner in Seattle” instead of “event planner”.) Spend 30 minutes searching for those keywords and saving links to blog posts, articles, and pages other people have written that rank well for those keywords. Later on, when you’re thinking of blog post topics, you can revisit these articles and think of ways you can write a better version. Not copying their content but creating new content that does what their content fails to do – make a hard topic more accessible, or a watered-down topic more meaty, or an outdated topic more current.

Draft a blog post

Again, 30 mins isn’t really enough time to write a full length blog post, BUT you can write a solid draft in 30 mins if you put your mind to it. Here’s my approach: open up Word, turn your font color white so you won’t be tempted to stop and reread your draft, and then write down everything that pops into your head. Do it as quickly as possible without stopping to correct typos or fix weird phrasing. If you get stuck mid-sentence or mid-paragraph and can’t figure out what to say next, just write “…” or hit enter and start a completely new sentence. You’d be amazed at how quickly you can churn out a 1000+ word draft that way. You can always edit later!

Do something else while thinking about a blog post

This might be a little counter-intuitive, but science actually backs this up: sometimes the best way to make progress on your content marketing is to spend 30 minutes NOT doing it. Step back and do something relaxing and physical, like yoga or running. Think about your content, but let your mind wander, and don’t write down anything at all. Procrastination, when wielded properly, can actually be the key to greater creativity and higher quality content.

Promote your existing content

Make a list of blogs to contact

Spend 30 minutes making a list of links in Excel. Search for and save links to blogs that fall in one of these two categories: bloggers that have linked to posts similar to one of your posts, who might be interested in the better/newer/more thorough post you just created (do this by searching for the URL of a similar post in SEMrush); or bloggers who write about related topics and might want to share your post with their audience. If you have time/energy for guest blogging (and some real value to offer!) you can also make a list of blogs to contact to offer to write a guest post.

Send outreach / networking emails

If you have a list of blogs to contact, you can spend 30 minutes sending as many emails as you can to reach out to those bloggers. Use a CRM like Hubspot Sales to keep track of everything, or just use Excel.

Subscribe to / comment on / share content from the bloggers on your lists

Take that list of blogs and spend 30 minutes engaging with them. Subscribe to email lists, reply to a recent newsletter email you’ve gotten, comment on a recent blog post, share their content on your social media pages. If you’re like me (and many non-full time bloggers), you don’t have time to do things like this every day, but even spending 30 minutes on this every once in a while will show these bloggers that you are serious about supporting them and you care enough about their work to share it with other people.

Improve your existing content

Set up + explore Google Analytics

If you haven’t already done this, do it the next time you have a few minutes. It won’t take a full 30 minutes but depending on what website platform and theme you’re using, it might take a bit of time to figure out. If you already have Google Analytics set up and have a few weeks or months worth of data, simply spend 30 minutes poking around and exploring your site’s analytics. What pages do most visitors land on? Where does most of your traffic come from? How long do visitors stay? Where do they tend to go after landing on one of your pages? Take notes on anything that stands out to you.

Set up + explore Google Webmaster Tools

Same deal with this one. Google Analytics tells you a lot, but it doesn’t tell you much about how you’re doing in search results. The important thing to note in Google Webmaster Tools is what position you rank in for different keywords and what your click through rate (CTR) is for that keyword. You may be surprised by how well you rank for one keyword or phrase, and conversely, how poorly you rank for another one. But you can use this to your advantage by creating more and better content for the keywords where you rank poorly, and enhancing content for the keywords where you’re doing well, including creating content upgrades for that content to take better advantage of the traffic you’re already getting. For now, just spend 30 minutes either setting up your Webmaster Tools or exploring the data and taking notes on what stands out.

Add internal links

Spend 30 minutes going back to older posts and adding relevant internal links to new posts you have written or relevant resources you have created.

Refine an older post

Pick a post you have already written and spend 30 minutes making as many improvements as possible. Correct grammar, improve the writing, break up overly long sentences and paragraphs, make it more easily skim-able by pulling out quotes and adding better headlines, etc. If you’re overwhelmed and not sure where to start, look at your analytics and pick one of your posts that receives the most traffic.

Enhance an older post with a new content upgrade

Spend 30 minutes creating a quick PDF download (checklists and worksheets are easy to make quickly) and add it as an opt-in lead magnet to one of your existing posts. Again, pick a post that is already getting more traffic if you aren’t sure where to start. Click here for some tips on how to create printables without design software.

Take it one step at a time

Listen – this is not a checklist.

You don’t have to do all of this (or any of this) to be successful.

If there are aspects of your content marketing that keep you up at night or make you cringe with embarrassment, please stop, take a deep breath, and relax. Content marketing is simply a tool to help you get more and happier customers. It doesn’t have to be perfect to be effective.

You can’t control where you are in your business right now, and you can’t control what your customers think and do or the resources your competitors have to invest in content marketing.

But you can control what you do in the next 30 minutes, so why not start with something on this list?

Content marketing – and successful entrepreneurship in general – is an epic long term play, with no true shortcuts. So consider the next 30 minutes a single step in a long journey with plenty of twists and turns. It doesn’t really matter how many steps you take this week or month, as long as you keep on moving – one single step at a time. 

Get all these 30 minute content marketing projects in a printable list

Keep it by your workspace and look to it whenever you have 30 minutes to spend.

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Content Marketing For The Rest Of Us

There’s a cruel deception lurking in dark corners of the small business marketing world.

It goes something like this:

You can’t do it. You aren’t professional enough. You don’t know enough. Your designs aren’t pretty enough; clever enough; fancy enough.

You won’t make it.

You need to hire someone smarter than you or you’ll never get through this.

In fact, maybe you should just give up now.

As small business owners we are constantly under pressure to “do it all” and to just give up when we can’t take it anymore.

But wait a second – being perfect and doing it all are NOT the goals here!

I started this business 3.5 years ago because I realized that small business owners can do so much more than they realize, and I wanted to help close the gap between what small business owners are doing and what they could be doing with today’s technology. But in the last 3.5 years my passion for closing that gap has only increased. In fact, every time I hear an influential entrepreneur say you have do X or Y if you want to be “successful”, I get mad all over again.

Here’s why: what works for professional bloggers or consultants is not what works for traditional physical businesses.

What works for entrepreneurs who have become professional “influencers” and speakers is not what works for the average solo entrepreneur just starting out.

If your business consists of sitting in front of a computer and work on your content marketing most of the day, I bet there’s a very good reason for that: your primary income stream comes from advertising partners or affiliate links (bloggers) or info products like courses or books (consultants), or you are a speaker or consultant who is able to charge a whole lot of money for a little bit of your time. That’s great – for you.

But here’s where I see a problem: most of the cutting edge content marketing advice out there is coming from those full time marketers, and seems to be primarily for other full time marketers just like them.

But what about the rest of us?

If the bulk of your work day is spent doing things other than marketing – things like making products, or performing services for clients – these marketing strategies just don’t work for you.

As much as you want to be, you aren’t available to reply immediately anytime someone comments on your social media posts, and in fact you aren’t in front of a computer so you can’t be constantly posting about the latest industry news.

You can’t spend all day engaging your community in Facebook groups or sharing live videos on Periscope or posting about your day to day life “behind the scenes” on Instagram.

The way I see it, today’s content marketing world is divided sharply in two categories: the people for whom content marketing is their full time job, and the people for whom content marketing must get done in the narrow margins of their “free time”.

This is a very, very big divide!

Spending 40 hours a week on something and you’re bound to make improvements.

Spend 40 minutes a week on something and you’re definitely going to struggle.

It’s a plain fact that content marketing from those two different groups will not look and feel the same, and I think it’s time we did a better job of acknowledging that.

I don’t have any solutions for you. In fact, since I’m a mom and military spouse and most of my time is spent on client work, I fall into the second camp myself.

But I do want to say that if you feel like you’re always behind and your content marketing is never “good enough”, it’s time to go a little easier on yourself. You are comparing yourself with people for whom content marketing – blogging, posting on social media, etc. – is literally their full time, all day long occupation.

So take a deep breath and relax. You don’t have to be perfect to be successful. Make your customers happy and make money; don’t worry so much about how you look online. You’re going to be fine.

And I also want to say that my business is dedicated to helping small business owners like you and me who fall into the second camp, not the first.

I’m not going to give you tips and recommendations that will require you to work late into the night and fiddle with WordPress until your eyes bleed.

I’m going to do whatever it takes to provide practical, actionable advice and strategies for small business owners who need to get their content marketing done in the margins, not during their entire workday. In other words, I’m all about content marketing for the rest of us.

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How To Create Gorgeous Printables Without Special Design Software

I’ve been a big fan of Adobe’s Creative Suite products for years, at least 6 years. I have used Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop for everything under the sun. I’ve learned too many shortcuts and tricks to count. I’ve often been quite proud of my skill with Adobe CS software because I thought it set me apart as an entrepreneur.

And the other day, I realized that since I’ve started my own business, I have hardly needed them at all. I use Photoshop daily but I haven’t cracked open Illustrator or InDesign in months. But, of course, I’ve been paying for them with a monthly subscription because I just figured that’s what a marketing consultant and entrepreneur should do.

So you know what I did? I downgraded my subscription to Photoshop only, saved $46/month, and I love it. I started using Microsoft Word (yes, MICROSOFT WORD – designers are cringing right now) for any time I would have used InDesign, and I haven’t looked back since.

I took the nominally “unprofessional” path and I ended up getting great results. And that got me thinking about other entrepreneurs. I know there are people who might want to create something special, like an ebook or downloadable worksheet, to offer on their website, but they lack the design tools, skills, or confidence to do it themselves. And because we all seem to expect perfection from ourselves and each other, they are afraid to jump in and give it a try.

The truth is, as I’ve experienced since canceling my Adobe subscription, it is actually very possible to create great looking, professionally polished content for your website without having any special design software or training, but many small business owners aren’t quite sure how to go about that. Simple solution – I’ll tell you how I do it. 🙂

Expect to see more posts on this topic in the future, but for now, I want to share my lessons learned on how to create great printable downloads with Word instead of InDesign, Illustrator, or Photoshop:

How to create beautiful downloadable printables for your website without paying for design software

First, what is a “printable”?

Well, it’s a document that your website visitor can download and print for their own use. Printables are part of a larger umbrella category of “content upgrades” that you can offer to visitors to your website that give them a chance to engage with you more deeply and benefit from your expertise beyond just what is offered on your blog.

This is a big part of content marketing – demonstrating your expertise and commitment to helping other people succeed by “giving away” some of your knowledge and insight.

Worried that you will give away so much they won’t need you anymore? This is of course a delicate balance but in my experience it’s a whole lot easier than most people think.

For example, I offer a free one-page marketing plan to any new business owner who fills out this form. Does it mean these now they don’t need to hire me to write their marketing plan? Sure, maybe; but I’ve found that once they’ve had a taste of what I can offer, they are much more likely to hire me to actually implement their marketing plan or create one that goes even deeper and has more detail.

Giving away helpful insight to potential customers shows that you know what you’re doing, you’re confident in what you can offer, and you are committed to helping, not just selling. These three factors are an important part of small business marketing today.

Printables, in particular, are helpful because they are designed so your reader or website visitor can print them out and mark them up for their own use.

I’ve seen everything from printable family calendars and birthday invitations to printable business planning worksheets and social media action plans offered as content upgrades.

I love this marketing trend because, if done correctly, it allows a small business to provide some serious value for their potential customer, without any additional marginal cost per user.

In other words, you (the small business owner) only need to create your printable once, but a million people could download it and each one would get the same amount of value from it. Everybody wins.

What do you really need to create a great printable download for your website?

A lot of small business owners go so far as to hire designers and create fancy graphics for printables, but unless you are offering something like party decorations or invitations, I don’t think that’s necessary.

In fact, from the customer’s point of view, the less ink and color your printable requires, the better. Remember, the goal with the printable is to build your brand and simultaneously provide value for your website visitor. If you do the first at the expense of the second by create a colorful, logo-packed printable that can’t actually be printed, mission not accomplished.

You can actually create a beautiful and useful printable on your computer without using any fancy design tool – just fire up good ol’ Microsoft Word, as I mentioned above.

Here’s how to create a gorgeous printable download for your website visitors using Microsoft Word:

Outline some truly amazing content

Please don’t overlook this one. I’ve been guilty of that before, and I’ve regretted it. Yes, there are some very popular and successful full time bloggers who offer PDF downloads that are basically useless content regurgitated from their blog, but that really, really isn’t the right way to go about it.

And as a small business owner just getting started with content marketing, you don’t have the SEO pull or the brand recognition to produce silly downloads and still have people like you. Straight talk, people.

So before you get started on actually creating your printable, outline some really good content that your target audience will love.

This content should fit the following guidelines:

  1. Not already available on your blog
  2. Not already available on someone else’s blog
  3. On a topic that requires significant time to reflect on and work through OR will take some significant time if they have to create it themselves. In other words, your printable will save them time, energy, and frustration.

Drawing a blank? Start with one of your most popular blog posts and generate ideas for how to take your audience a little deeper in that subject.

For example, one of my most popular blog posts last month was 5 Ridiculously Easy Branding Tricks For Small Businesses. In that post, I give 5 ideas for small businesses to improve their brand without a ton of extra work.

One of my recommendations was to create a brand alter ego and always make sure to use that alter ego when using social media or creating content. But how do you create a brand alter ego? It’s easy for me but might be confusing for a small business owner who doesn’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about the magic of good marketing.

I could create a printable worksheet to walk small business owners through my typical process for creating a brand alter ego for my clients. This worksheet would contain examples and places for them to write their own alter ego for their business. (Fun fact – I actually already created something like that and it’s available in my free 6 day course “Create Your Own Killer Content Marketing Plan”).

What about you? What is one of your most popular blog posts these days and how can you help readers learn more or apply that topic in their own lives?

Try using that approach to create content for your printable.

Find the RGB for your website or logo accent colors

Now onto design. My personal opinion is that not everything you do needs to have your logo, especially if it’s meant to be printed out, but there are subtle ways you can brand it by using your colors.

The first thing you need to do is make sure you have the RGB numbers for the main colors on your website or logo so you are ready to use them in your template. In my case, my logo is black but the main accent color on my website is coral (R: 240, G: 101, B: 82) so I use that in any printable worksheets or other text documents I create.

I highly recommend picking only one (max two) accent colors, then using a dark, easy-to-read color like black or charcoal grey for most of the font on your printable and a plain white background for everything. Fancy backgrounds and colors might look amazing on your computer but could get funky when your customer prints it out. Remember, your #1 goal is usefulness, not fanciness!

Find attractive fonts that convey your brand

A really important step in creating a gorgeous printable download is going beyond the default fonts you would normally use. I don’t want to see any Calibri, Times New Roman, or Arial in your printable. This might sound like a small thing, but to me using default fonts basically says that you put no effort into making your printable unique and attractive, and if you didn’t do that, how do I know you put any effort into creating good content?

On the other hand, going crazy with “fun” and “quirky” fonts can backfire and make your printable look really unprofessional or unattractive.

I recommend finding a middle ground by choosing just two fonts for your document: one eye-catching font for big headings or special emphasized words/phrases and one simple, professional, easy-to-read font for body text.

But within those guidelines, there is still a lot you can do to make your printable look unique. Instead of going with whatever originally came on your computer, try looking for free fonts on Font Squirrel or DaFont. Just make sure the fonts you pick are ok for commercial use – and that they match your brand. If you’re a financial adviser, you need fonts that are straightforward and polished; if you’re a piano teacher for kids, pick something a little more fun and different.

In my case, I want to convey a brand that matches the quality of tradition with modern polish. I picked an old fashioned serif font called Alegreya for body text and headings and a rustic script called Landliebe for emphasized words and phrases. You can see an example of how that works in the image in the next section.

Use Styles and Formatting to incorporate your special font and colors in Word

Modify the standard styles for heading 1, heading 2, etc. and paragraph text to match your special fonts and colors. If you’ve never done it before, this is easier than you think. Check out this quick tutorial on styles and headings in Word. This will save you a lot of time in the future!

Remember to save your fancy font for only “special” text like emphasized words or top level headings. Too much fancy in your printable template will overpower your content. In my case, I only use my fancy font for special emphasized words, like this – another example from my Killer Content Marketing Plan course:

Printable formatting example | How To Create Gorgeous Printables Without Special Design Software | Alana Le | Content Marketing For The Rest Of Us

 

Add your content

Now take the content you’ve outlined and add it to your Word document, applying your special headings and formatting as appropriate.

Add a footer with your printable title, copyright, link to your site, and page number if applicable. I usually skip the logo because I want things to look as clean and simple as possible and because I always include my name and a link to my website at the bottom anyway. But if you need a logo, by all means add one in now.

Save it as a PDF and upload it to your website

Save your Word doc as a PDF and then make it available to download by uploading it to your website.

Here’s how you do that in WordPress – it’s probably similar with most other similar platforms:

  1. Go to media
  2. Click add new
  3. Upload your PDF file
  4. Click edit once your file is uploaded
  5. Copy the link to the file
  6. Now place that link anywhere you want people to be able to access that file. For example, in the welcome email to new subscribers to your email list.

And that’s how you do it! Got questions or comments? Drop me a line – I’d love to hear from you.

Curious and Want An Example?

Enter your email here to download a printable I created in Word with the approach I mentioned above for my recent post How To Survive A Hard Life Season As An Entrepreneur:

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Free Course: Create Your Own Killer Content Marketing Plan

Free Course: Create Your Own Killer Content Marketing Plan | Alana Le | Content Marketing For The Rest Of Us

If you feel like your content marketing lacks direction, you’re not alone.

Content marketing is an amazing and cost-effective way to market a small business.

But there are so many options and differing strategies out there, it can be exhausting just to figure out where to start. And it’s easy to feel like you’re working really hard but not necessarily doing the right things.

I want to help with that!

I just launched an intensive 6 day course to walk you through my typical process for creating content marketing plans for clients. This course will help you streamline your content marketing and focus on making it as effective as possible.

There will be homework (you’ve been warned) and this course will definitely challenge you to make some hard decisions about your marketing.

But content marketing is like dieting – the best content marketing plan is one you can actually follow. And in this course I’ve incorporated the easiest ways to create a content marketing plan that will be both effective AND practical – something you can really use every day.

Oh, and I’m offering it for free…a labor of love, people. 🙂

Enter your email below to enroll in my free course “Create Your Own Content Marketing Plan”:

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5 Ridiculously Easy Branding Tricks For Small Businesses

5 Ridiculously Easy Branding Tricks For Small Businesses | Alana Le | Content Marketing For The Rest Of Us

Ah, “branding”.

Is it an art? A science? A black magic voodoo dance practiced by highly paid marketing executives at Pepsi?

I think sometimes branding sounds so advanced, somehow both technical and artistic, that most small business owners shy away from it completely. Unless they’re a designer, in which case branding is pretty much their primary focus.

Here’s how I look at it: branding simply means influencing the public perception of your business. And yes, for a multi million dollar CPG brand, branding is a lot of work.

But for the average small business, it’s not rocket science, and it is possible to do it yourself without spending all of your time on it. The key is to remember that ultimately small business customers just have two questions for small business owners:

  1. Can I trust you?
  2. Do I respect you?

Doing a good job with your brand will contribute a lot to answering those two questions. (But if your product or service has quality issues, be warned – no amount of branding can save you.)

Portraying a brand that is organized, professional, consistent, and attractive will show that you are steady and you know what you’re doing – in other words, customers can trust and respect you.

And you can accomplish that much easier than you’d expect with a few little tricks.

Here are 5 ridiculously easy branding tricks small business owners can use today:

Use design templates

Here’s a very easy way to ensure your brand is consistent (and make less work for yourself): use the same template for every blog post image and social media image.

If you’re Photoshop proficient, that’s probably the easiest route. Create a template for blog posts and a template for social media posts, then simply change the text and the background image (if you’re using one) for each post. You can even add the same color overlay or brightness level to all the background images so they have a consistent look.

If you don’t want to go with Photoshop, which is admittedly a little hard to wield at first, you could still do this with pretty much any photo editor out there. Try Canva or iDraw or Microsoft Paint if you’re old school. Just use the same font, color, and location for the text overlay every time you create an image to share, and you’ll have a consistent brand look before you know it.

Share links from brands you want to be like

Are you aspiring to be a high end website or blog? Only share links from other high end websites. Want to be known for your beautiful designs? Only share links to websites that are beautifully designed. Are your target audience intellectuals with graduate degrees? Only share articles from research institutions that they respect and admire. You get the idea.

If you are careful to only associate your brand with other brands that match your approach, your audience will eventually begin to associate those brands with your own.

So sneaky, so easy.

Create a brand alter ego

Often times small business owners have a hard time figuring out what to say in their marketing. They could talk your ear off about their business any day, but when it comes down to figuring out what to actually put in that Facebook post or blog post, they freeze up and draw a blank, or they’re afraid of accidentally saying the wrong thing.

Here’s an easy trick to get around that: create a brand alter ego for your company. Is your brand the peppy cheerleader or the sarcastic best friend? Or maybe the funny frat guy or the tough love boxing coach?

Come up with a set of personality traits and even a fictional person to represent your brand, and whenever you write, imagine that you’re writing as that alter ego. The words will flow a lot easier, and you’ll have a bit more peace knowing that what you write is in line with your brand.

Always reply quickly and with a smile

This is so easy, and so easy to overlook. A customer’s perception of your brand is heavily influenced by his or her experience with interactions with you. If you have great design and marketing but you’re unkind or unresponsive in communication, that’s what will stick with your customer.

So instead of stressing about how you need to hire a better designer or pay for more ads, focus on replying quickly and warmly to every customer or lead who engages with you. It doesn’t cost you anything, but it will help your brand.

Do something unexpectedly awesome

I’ll never forget the day I discovered that Springhill Suites by Marriott offers free freshly baked chocolate cookies and wine every night in the lobby. Actually, I’m not sure if the wine was free, but by that point, it didn’t matter. I hadn’t slept in days because of baby girl’s night wakings and I was exhausted, grumpy, and a little haggard. Walking into the lobby and seeing wine and cookies put a smile on my face that stayed for days. I still smile when I think about it and I’m probably going to try and stay at Springhill Suits in the future, even if it’s not the cheapest option. They won my loyalty with something so small and so easy – why? Because I didn’t expect it, and it was wonderful.

I also remember the way Ruths Chris gave me and my husband free cocktails and free dessert on our 1 year anniversary, and how a donut food truck in Portland offered me a free super fresh donut, and how local coffee shops always remind me of their military discount even when I forget to ask. I bet you can think of a few times a business has pleasantly surprised you too.

When you’re a customer, you’re used to being disappointed and having buyers remorse. So when a business pleasantly surprises you, you remember that feeling, and it goes a long way toward giving you a positive impression of a brand.

Make this work in your favor by surprising your target audience with something special such as giving away some of your expertise for free in an ebook or offering a free class via webinar. Whatever it is, make it a point to regularly surprise and delight your customers, even in very small ways, and your brand will shine. 

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The Simplified Guide To DIY Small Business Marketing

The Simplified Guide To DIY Small Business Marketing | Alana Le | Content Marketing For The Rest Of Us

Every small business owner knows you need to market your business if you’re ever going to get off the ground.

But small business marketing can be really challenging, because it becomes a chicken-and-the-egg kind of problem: you need money to pay for good marketing, but you need customers to make money, and you need good marketing to get customers.

Not everyone can afford to hire a marketing company or pay for a lot of advertising right out of the gate. And the truth is, there is still a lot you can do without paying very much money, but it will definitely take up a lot of your time.

I think the key is to figure out what marketing efforts will be the most effective in helping you reach more of your target customers, and then just ignore everything else you could be doing.

I call this the simplified approach to small business marketing – since 20% of the work most likely gets 80% of your results, just forget about doing the other 80% of the work and make your life a lot easier and simpler.

Here’s my simplified guide to DIY small business marketing:

Logo & brand colors

For your business to look professional and polished, you need some kind of design to start with – and you need to consistently stick with it.

Design your own logo by writing the name of your business in a free font from Font Squirrel. Simple, easy, and will take about 5 minutes of your time.

You can also buy an editable logo from Creative Market, Etsy, or Graphic River, then put your name in yourself using Photoshop or Illustrator, which you can get for a 30 day free trial to create your logo.

Choose colors for your logo that are attractive and go well with other colors. The important thing isn’t that they’re flashy or “unique” but that they look good and are easy for you to use in your marketing later on.

Save your logo in a high resolution version (at least 1000 pixels wide/high) in these formats so you’re ready for future marketing projects:

  • Full color with transparent background (transparent is an option if you choose PNG format)
  • All black with transparent background
  • All white with transparent background

Use the full color version if it is going over a plain white background, the black version if it is going over a light photo background, and the white version on a dark photo background. You’ll see what I mean when you are setting up your website and putting a logo at the top.

Lastly, write down the hex numbers for your logo colors somewhere you can always find them – you’ll need these colors to create designs that go well with your logo.

If you don’t want to create your own logo, you can hire a designer on Envato Studio, Elance, Fiverr, or Upwork to create one for you. Expect to spend at least a few hundred dollars for a good custom logo and make sure that they end the project by giving you editable design files and each of the things I mentioned above (full color, black, and white PNG’s, hex numbers for the colors).

Define your target customers and keywords

Who is the ideal customer for your business? This should be someone who would love your product and can fairly easily afford it. This blog post will walk you through the process of creating a fictional target customer persona. This person should be your target audience for any of the marketing you create going forward. Remember, you can’t target everyone with marketing, so it’s best to start with one segment and focus your marketing on connecting really well with that segment.

Now that you know your target, brainstorm a list of keywords they would use to search if they were looking for more information about your product or the problem that your product could solve. These keywords should be incorporated into your online marketing. If you’re drawing a blank, try Google’s Keyword Planner – you can find out how many people search for various keywords each month.

Write down your brand values and brand personality

This post will walk you through the process of coming up with your brand values and turning them into personality traits.

It’s important to have a clear idea of what your brand stands for and how it should engage with people before you get started, because it would be pretty easy to alienate your target customers if you just said and did whatever came to mind from the start. Your marketing may feel impersonal to you, but to your target audience, it always feels personal.

Set up a website and blog

You can’t rely on social media to engage with your customers. You do need a website, and if you want to improve your search engine ranking over time, you need a blog too. I recommend signing up for hosting on Bluehost and then installing WordPress and creating your site that way, but a lot of people like using Shopify, Wix, Squarespace, or WordPress.com instead. Do whatever works best for your business but make sure you have a blog set up as part of your site.

If you go with WordPress, here are some places to find attractive pre-made themes:

And here are my recommended WordPress plugins:

Good sources of stock photos for your website and blog:

Get WordPress tips and tutorials:

Set up your social media and email marketing accounts

Here’s the simplified marketing combo I recommend to most clients: a blog, a Facebook page (paying for regular boosts), and an email marketing account (Mailchimp is great).

You can skip the email part or replace Facebook with another social media site like Instagram, Twitter, or Periscope if that works better for you. But for the most part if you’re taking the DIY route you want to keep things simple, easy, and effective, and that’s a great way to do it.

Create a marketing calendar

How frequently will you post on social media or your blog?

What kinds of things will you post about?

How frequently will you email your subscribers?

Create an editorial calendar for the next 1-3 months and make sure it is very reasonable based on the other things that will be taking up your time. You should probably plan for each blog post to take around 2 hours, while social media posts just a few minutes per post, and emails around an hour (if you’re using content you already created for your blog).

Set up Google Analytics

Your website might have a built in field to put your tracking code, or you can install a plugin that will give you a place to put it. Get this process started as soon as you can because it often takes a while (between a few hours and a few days) after you input the code before Google Analytics starts tracking data from your site.

Once you’ve set up Google Analytics, set up Google Webmaster Tools. Google Analytics gives you a lot of information about user behavior on your website, but Webmaster Tools will tell you more about your presence in search results, and it lets you submit pages to be indexed by Google, which otherwise could take days, weeks, or months before your new website is indexed.

Promote your website

Share the link to your blog posts or website on your personal social media profiles so your friends and family can take a look (and share the link with their own friends). Pay for a boosted post on Facebook (at least $20). Get in touch with a blogger who has a similar target audience and offer to write an original guest post for their blog.

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Defining Characteristics Of A Great Small Business Marketing Consultant

Defining Characteristics Of A Great Small Business Marketing Consultant | Alana Le | Content Marketing For The Rest Of Us

I’m a marketing consultant. But before I was a marketing consultant with my own business, I worked for a startup and was part of the team that hired and interfaced with several different marketing consulting companies. I’ve also heard a lot from fellow entrepreneurs and clients who have had a bad (or amazing) experience with a marketing company.

If there’s one thing marketing consultants know how to do, it’s market the heck out of their services.

That’s why if you Google “small business marketing” you will be knocked over by a title wave of potential marketing companies that all sound perfect – too perfect.

Of course every small business owner knows that anything that sounds too good to be true probably is.

But how do you separate the wheat from the chaff?

How do you figure out which marketing consultant will actually help you, and which ones will take your money and make you crazy in return?

Here are the qualities I think are must-haves in a marketing consultant for small businesses:

They work (and reply) fast

Here’s the biggest problem with hiring a major marketing company to help your small business: the salesperson who signs you on is not going to be the one working on your project.

Your sales guy might reply to your emails within 5 minutes and call you every day to “see how you’re doing”, but your project manager might be so overwhelmed with other companies’ projects she won’t even reply to a third of your emails. This really happens, people.

A great marketing consultant will work quickly and have great turnaround time because they know small businesses don’t have a lot of margin for messing around. And he or she will reply to you in a timely manner, maybe not within minutes, but quickly; because they’ll actually have the time and mindshare that your project will require.

If you work with a big firm, insist on doing a 1-2 month trial project with the team that will be working with you before going all in. That way you can be sure they work fast and communicate well before you sign your soul away.

They’re very independent

Here’s the ultimate test of a great marketing consultant when it comes to small business: if you never email them again after starting the project, they’ll still do a great job. A great marketing consultant should be so independent – such a self-starter – that they don’t even need the slightest bit of work from you in order to operate. Of course you can (and should) stay in touch regularly with ideas, feedback, and requests. But if you’re suddenly too busy to participate in the project, they shouldn’t need any handholding to continue and produce something amazing.

They actually listen to you

When you request changes, do they happen?

When you explain your vision, is it basically (if not perfectly) carried out?

Marketing consultants usually have a lot of creativity and it’s tough for them to completely submit to a client’s whims. But for the most part, a good marketing consultant will know how to find that balance and make sure that you are getting listened to and getting what you want, without compromising quality.

Their pricing is win-win

Every small business owner I’ve talked to about hiring designers and consultants has at one time or another done a project with a limited number of revisions included, and guess what? It was a disaster. We all think we know what we want, and we think we’ll love whatever happens in the first revision, and revisions two and three are just icing on the cake. And it never, ever, ever turns out this way. Consultants price this way because they know that, and they know you’ll be desperate enough to pay exorbitantly high fees for extra revisions, which was probably their plan from the beginning.

Hire a marketing consultant that won’t limit your revisions but will establish pricing that works for both of you, instead of setting up an adversarial relationship from the start.

They specialize in small businesses the same size as yours

This one is really important. Are you a solo entrepreneur, just starting out? Don’t work with a marketing consultant who will consider you a teeny tiny fish in their huge profitable pond. They may seem slick and have a lot of famous logos on their portfolio page, but you will be their last priority and get their leftovers – their lowest quality work.

Instead, find someone who specializes in businesses exactly your size. You’ll be treated fairly and you won’t end up frustrated and neglected.

They’re hungry

This is a little counter-intuitive, but go with me for a minute. If you hire a marketing company that is already super successful, they’ll probably do a great job with the basics. But when you need a little extra love and attention, you’ll pay an arm and a leg for it. On the other hand, if you go with a younger company that is a little more hungry and really needs your business, you can count on one thing: They’ll give it 100%, because your success is their success.

They’re cutting edge

This last one is a pet peeve of mine. I see so many marketing consultants marketing their services like crazy to small business owners, but when I look at their brand I see something from the early 2000’s instead of the latest marketing, design, and web development trends today. “Old school” and “traditional” is not what you need in today’s economy. You need someone who is growing and learning every year, staying current and making the most of new technology. They don’t need to be the absolute bleeding edge, but at least the middle of the pack.

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How To Be More Strategic In Small Business Marketing

How To Be More Strategic In Small Business Marketing | Alana Le | Content Marketing For The Rest Of Us

Most of the small business owners I know are hoping to be more strategic in their marketing in 2016. They are working on rebranding, or connecting with new customer segments, or blogging more, etc.

But all of the new plans, projects, and tasks in the world won’t make a long term difference in your business without a key component: strategy.

Don’t take on a new marketing method just because your competitors are doing it or because that marketing blog you read said everyone needs to do X, Y, and Z.

Instead, be strategic and say no if you need to. Everything you do has to fit in to the bigger picture of where you want your business to go.

Here are some ways to be more strategic in your marketing in 2016:

Record results

Write down everything – I mean everything. Keep a notebook where you record the results of every marketing campaign, especially the ones that include paid advertising like Facebook boosts.

Pay special attention to these metrics:

  • Cost per view/impression
  • Cost per click
  • New leads that resulted from this campaign such as additions to your email lists or requests for more information

As a small business owner, every last dollar matters – and so does every minute of your time. You can’t afford to waste marketing efforts that aren’t generating results. To be more strategic with your marketing in 2016, be extra vigilant when it comes to measuring and evaluating the results of your marketing.

Be patient

Marketing, especially content marketing and SEO, is a long term play with no magical shortcuts to success. There are amazing, successful entrepreneurs out there with tens of thousands of people on their email list, and they will freely admit that it took a decade of work to build that list.

Keep your eye on your long term vision for your business, and make sure every last task is contributing in some small or large way to making that vision a reality. That’s really all you can do. It takes time for customers to be ready to buy; it takes time to create more high quality, engaging content and build your ranking in search results. Be patient and slowly but steadily work toward your goals in 2016.

Question your own decisions

As entrepreneurs, we often have pretty good intuition and tend to always assume that our gut is right. It might be right often, but it isn’t always. To be more strategic with your marketing, learn to ask yourself the hard questions about the marketing decisions you make. Was that blog post really right for your target audience? Is that monthly newsletter really generating results?

Be willing to admit when you’ve made a mistake and change if you need to. There’s nothing worse than looking around 12 months from now and realizing you’ve been going full steam in the wrong direction.

Make and use templates where possible

So much of modern marketing requires creating unique, original, high quality content – whether it’s for advertisements or content marketing like blog posts and email campaigns. Why do we make our lives so hard and reinvent the wheel every time?

This is a trick that I just started using in the last year and it has been a huge boost to my productivity: use templates.

I have Photoshop templates for social media, blog, and email images; Indesign templates for worksheets and workbooks; Word templates outlining blog posts.

Make little things like images and structure simple so that you can focus on making the content truly amazing. That’s what your target audience will notice anyway.

Don’t rely on a single platform to reach customers

Part of being more strategic with your marketing means making sure you have long-term sustainability and growth built in to your day-to-day operations. Well, let me tell you one thing you can expect in the long term: social media sites like Facebook are making it harder and harder for brand pages to get in their posts in fans’ news feeds, and eventually business owners will have to pay to get a post seen by anyone at all.

It is so important to diversify instead of being at the mercy of any given marketing or social media platform.

You don’t have to be on every single platform (really, don’t!) but you can try to do two without too much work. I recommend a combination of Facebook and blogging or email, or all three if you have time. Here are some tips on creating your own streamlined content marketing plan and how to quickly and easily start building an email list.