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Archive for March, 2010

Family Weekends

Cain spent the past long weekend at the vet, where we boarded him while we traveled out west to visit our son, daughter-in-law and grandson.  He never seems to resist going to the vet, thank goodness, but he’s clearly excited and ready to go when we come to take him home.  This time he nearly jumped through the car window when we pulled into our driveway and within seconds he was through the house and out the back door to his “kingdom” where he overlooks the yard and reigns supreme.

Over the past several years, our immediate family has grown and scattered, driven by love, careers and other economic factors.  Two weddings, multiple job pursuits and a grandson later, our expanded family now finds itself in three different states (after stops in five others), hoping to find some way to close the distance and get us back together again.  In the meantime, we all do our best to visit each other as much as possible, relying on cell phones, video calls, social media, emails and instant messanging to fill the gaps in between.

Weekend trips are, of course, the most realistic and practical option for seeing our kids these days, primarily due to work schedules and the scarcity of valuable vacation days.  And while we dearly cherish these short visits together, they do present some challenges, with time being the most precious.  Trying to balance the need to spend quality time together vs. the risk of smothering each other and disrupting individual freedoms and routines is often difficult.  Squeezing weeks and months of lost family time into a single weekend can be like slugging down a six-pack of Red Bull energy drinks – it gets you pumped up and overly-focused on enjoying each minute until all too soon true reality sets in and you come crashing down with the recognition that it’s time to leave.  Still, we always look forward to our trips to see our kids (or having them come see us).  And all of our visits are wonderful – at least for my wife and I.  This past weekend was another great one.

I think we’d all prefer the more even-keeled pace, frequent drop-ins and level of comfort that would come from living in the same city (or even same state!).  Hopefully we can find a way to make that happen soon – before the Red Bull runs out.

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Looks like the Red Wings will make the playoffs this year after all – we’re not used to having to sweat it out like this! 

Go Spartans – headed for the Final Four!

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It seems that everywhere you look, someone has come up with a “Top Ten List” to provide advice, make us laugh or otherwise spur a new controversy.  David Letterman made Top Ten lists famous and has even ventured into the world of social media with his “Top Ten Signs You Spend Too Much Time on Twitter” earlier this week (including Sign #6:  “You ask yourself, ‘What Would Jesus Tweet?'”).  A quick Google search will provide a “Top 20,200,000” list of social media top ten tips lists, confirming the fact that social media is, if nothing else, social!  Everyone has an opinion or their own expert advice on what works, what doesn’t, proper etiquette, best things about Twitter, worst things about Facebook, favorite sites, etc.  For me, I think it’s most important to stick with the basics and focus on those key things that will make social media tools and networks most effective for businesses; the core elements of a social media marketing approach and strategy that will help businesses grow. 

So, with an emphasis on fundamental success factors, basic common sense, considerable research on the success and failures of companies using social media, and after extensive consultation and observation of my Siberian Husky, Cain, during the past several months of morning walks and social interactions along the way, he and I offer the following tips on How Businesses (and Individuals) Can Be Most Successful Using Social Media:

  1. Be the Best of Your Breed.  Be honest.  Be authentic.  If you’re a Siberian Husky, don’t masquerade as a greyhound.  Communicate your strengths, what value you offer to your customers.  Let them know that you really are man’s best friend.
  2. Don’t Bark At Your Audience.  No one wants to hear you blatantly and incessently trumpet your obnoxious marketing message across the digital airwaves; you’ll only irritate and even scare your neighbors and potential customers.  Go for a more subtle approach; offer something valuable to them, roll over, do some tricks, give them a reason to watch or listen to you.
  3. Don’t Follow Every Scent on the Trail.  Sure, there are millions of places to go online and plenty of opportunities to pursue through social media.  But without a focused strategy or a specific route to follow, you’ll never make it back from your walk around the block.  Do some research and develop the best plan you can that fits your business – then stick to it and give it a chance.  If it doesn’t work after awhile, you can always plan an alternate route.
  4. Be the Alpha-Dog.  Be a leader through your social media interface to the world.  Be interesting.  Be proud.  Create a stir with your content and interactions online.  Stay visible and maintain a strong and ongoing digital presence.  This is not the time to be shy.  Why act like a poodle when you can be Great Dane?
  5. Get Groomed.  Take special care when setting up your social media profiles and websites.  You don’t need literary or artistic masterpieces to describe how amazing your business is; just make it clear, to the point and relevant to who your customers are.  Build and maintain the image that truly reflects who you are and where you want to go. 
  6. Wag Your Tail.  Be friendly.  Be conversational.  Engage your audience and let them know you’re approachable, if not excited to hear from them.  Interact.  Show enthusiasm.  They’ll want to play with you.
  7. Confront Your Threats.  So what if the other dog is bigger or has a deeper growl?  He might turn out to be a friend, partner or ally.  Research your competition online and see what they’re doing with social media.  You’ll learn from them and make your business even stronger. 
  8. Respect Your Master.  Don’t lose sight of who feeds you and your business – your customers.  Listen to them.  Be loyal.  Show them love when you’re with them and especially whenever they return.  Even an alpha-dog can’t survive on its own.
  9. Stay Out of the Mud.  Don’t let your image get tarnished or polluted by others.  Slinging mud or wading into caustic waters online can leave a stain on your business that no shampoo can remove.  Sometimes you just have to turn up your nose and walk away.  And watch out for those skunks that might surprise you during those nighttime walks!
  10. Protect Your Privacy.  You can be open and friendly – but don’t share your dirty laundry (like the pictures of that night at the kennel with the terrier; or the Japanese maple you killed by burying a ham-bone in its roots).  Implement just enough control to keep your company safe, without stifling your message.  No one wants to end up in the doghouse. 

March Madness starts tomorrow!  For the record, my final four is Kansas, Syracuse, Kentucky and West Virginia, with Kentucky beating Kansas for the National Championship.

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Drawing a Crowd

Being a purebred Siberian Husky, Cain has evoked plenty of interest and comments from fellow dogwalkers, friends and random observers (or “randoms”, as my daughter calls them) wherever we go.  When we’ve taken him with us on roadtrips (usually defined as delivering him to or picking him up from my son’s latest place of residence), we’re always hearing comments of praise and admiration from people along the way, usually followed cautiously by “is he friendly?” or “will he bite?”.  While his wolfish appearance might seem threatening at first, I’ve found that school-age kids have the least amount of hesitation or fear in approaching him, followed in increasing order by older men, stay-at-home moms, owners of “kick-me”-type dogs (ie. Shih-Tzus and Yorkies), pre-school children, other dogs, and of course, door-to-door solicitors.  But in every case, he draws attention – because he’s unique, because he’s interesting.

Our recent walks have continued that theme.  This morning was a female jogger, iPod-equipped (as was I), coming up from behind us.  Before I could answer her typical “is he friendly?” greeting, she was crouching down next to Cain, stroking his thick coat and mimicking the baby-talk she’d obviously been practicing at home for years.   Other days it may be “Dave the Neighbor” coming out to say hi, accompanied by his two spaniels that he took in after a shelter rescued them from abuse.  Or on those few days when I was ahead of the bus, the schoolkids on selected corners would excitedly surround Cain with just enough caution to make me grab his harness so he’d keep calm, allowing the kids to relax.  A little intrigue (maybe even a little danger) mixed with an attractive appearance – that’s what makes him unique and interesting.

Relationships with people are often much the same.  We’re attracted to interesting people; people who are entertaining, physically attractive, have a unique point of view, have done different or exciting things, have an engaging personality, or even present some type of mystery about them.  Consider the class clown in school, the Hollywood heartthrob, the mountain climber, or your local CIA agent.  But while the initial attraction may be more artificial (their appearance, job or showmanship), our real relationships develop where there is an enduring interest beyond the first impression.  These relationships come from a sense of caring and trust that brings mutual value to both parties.

Beyond our personal lives, we also need relationships in business to be truly successful and fulfilled.  With the advent of social media and digital marketing, one may think it’s relatively easy to “sell” a product or service by littering the internet with sales pitches and catch-phrases that tout your wares or laud your expertise.  But the truth is, “no one cares what you know until they know that you care.”  One size does not fit all anymore.  People won’t flock to your website and buy your goods without knowing more about you.  Where is the value of what you have to offer to me as a customer?  Why should I have a business relationship with you?  Where is the trust?  Who are you?

Digital marketing can be highly successful using relationship-enabling websites and blogs, combined with effective use of social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Meetup.  But it takes much more than a traditional advertising approach across the digital landscape.  You need to build a base for developing new relationships; share who you are, be interesting, offer something of value, build trust and credibility, engage in other’s online conversations.  Show that you care

By building your personal brand and reputation online, you’ll begin to draw a crowd.  Stay true to your brand and listen to what your customers tell you – their feedback is valuable to improving yourself and your business.  Then get out in the real world and cement these relationships in person.  It may be a digital world, but the care and nurturing of your personal relationships are what will truly drive your business.

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Went to the Red Wings game vs. Calgary on Tuesday, thanks to my good friend Jim Campbell.  If you’re in Livingston County and looking for commerical insurance, drop him an email at JimCampbell@hartlandinsurance.com.

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It’s probably a one-week tease but the shepherds of Spring are finally making an appearance here in southern Michigan.  While 50 degrees and sunshine will take a few days to melt the mounds of snow that still flank the roads and sidewalks, it’s a welcome change.  For my morning walks with Cain, I’ve put away the cleated boot-straps, hopefully until next winter (although I know this is just wishful thinking).  While the early mornings are still fairly cold, I’ve traded the down jacket for a hooded sweatshirt, entrusting the sun to make up for the reduced insulation.  The softer sneakers are a  more comfortable exchange for my walking boots.  And our walking pace has had to slow a little as Cain now finds more grass, mud and scents to explore, all gradually exposed to his nose and paws by the warmer temperatures.  The weather warms, we adapt, and we move forward under slightly different terms. 

And things get better.

This change and adaptation parallels when Cain came back to live with my wife and I last year, after spending two years prior with our son in California.  Soon after the birth of our grandson, there were a couple of incidents when Cain got a little too close to the baby; I’m sure it was just curiousity or paternal instinct with no harm intended.  But to be safe and eliminate apprehension by all family members, we decided to bring Cain back home to Michigan.  We all adapted – my son gave up his dog, but had a greater gift to focus on; I built a fence and adjusted my morning routine; my wife learned to live with two “alpha-dogs” in her life; and after Cain figured out the maze of fences and doggie-doors to get in and out of the house, he seemed to welcome the cooler weather and winter snows of the Midwest.  The environment changed, we adapted, and we moved forward under different terms. 

And things got better.

My professional career at IBM was full of changes.  I was trained on technologies, which in turn were changing constantly.  I’d specialize in a couple and become an expert.  Before long, the technology would change.  I would adapt and move on to learn the next big thing. 

And things got better. 

Later, the next big thing became management; I would learn, I would adapt and move on under new terms.  The business would change; the strategy would adjust; the roles and responsibilities would be new.  I would learn, I would adapt and continue to move forward. 

And things got better.  Success happened.  Life is good. 

But what if I hadn’t adapted?

In today’s business, the pace and magnitude of change is extraordinary.  The difficult economy is squeezing budgets.  Competition is fierce and growing.  Governmental actions are raising doubts and uncertainty.  Technology is changing at light-speed while it opens up new methods and new opportunities for business to get done.  We’ve become interconnected in a digital world.  Social media tools are redefining marketing and relationships while saving money and increasing efficiencies.  The successful companies of the future will be embracing these changes, learning from them, adapting and capitalizing on them, and then moving on under new and different terms.

And things will get better.

Are you prepared to adapt and capitalize on today’s opportunities?

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Yesterday was (finally) a good day for Michigan sports:

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It’s become very evident that more daylight is creeping into our lives here, now that March has arrived.  Whatever sun there is rises slightly earlier each morning, which adds a little more energy to the walks that Cain and I take every day.  I haven’t quite figured out what triggers his internal clock to tell him when it’s time for us to walk.  Is it his sense of the true time of day (I tend to shoot for around 8:00am to avoid the bus stop kids) or does he come looking for me based on how long it’s been daylight?  Or perhaps more likely, does he gauge our walk time by my own habits and movements each morning?  Truth is, I haven’t picked up on any changes from him as of yet due to the greater daylight – maybe our switch to Daylight Savings Time in a week and a half will tell me something.

While our spirits are buoyed by the earlier daylight, Cain and I still share a bit of a risk during these still below-freezing mornings.  Ice patches of various configurations continue to smear the pavement along our route, a result of snow melting the day before.  Some of these patches are jagged with frozen snow and dirty gray ice while others are more treacherous, disguised as thin layers of Michigan “black ice” that cover the road like a coat of paint.  In an attempt to avoid spending the coming Spring confined to a plaster cast on a leg or an arm, I had bought some strap-on boot treads with metal teeth to reduce this risk to me.  While they’ve no doubt kept me on my feet many times, I’ve still had to catch myself periodically when the black ice would suddenly sneak up beneath me and play havoc with my balance. 

Cain could have used his own paw-treads yesterday.  Near the end of our walk, he climbed up a short snowbank lining the side of the street.  Jumping back down to the pavement, he landed squarely on a patch of black ice that sent him flat on his belly, his four legs pointed in each direction of a compass.  Stunned, he sat there for a minute, not knowing how to react, or even if he could.  Slowly and carefully he got back on his feet and I was relieved to see no major damage done.  He had just experienced one new trick that an old dog should not have to endure.

And selfishly, I was glad it wasn’t me.

The Detroit Tigers won their first game in spring training yesterday, 13-1.  So what if it was Florida Southern University.  Bring on the Yankees!

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