Aesop knew what he was talking about

As a child, I remember hearing countless stories, including the fables attributed to Aesop, the ancient Greek writer. In his tales, Aesop used animals to represent various human traits. He'd then end each story with a simple moral -- a life lesson meant to inform and instruct.

One such fable, often credited to Aesop, told the story of an elderly lion, too frail to go hunting anymore. Shrewdly, the lion lured passersby into his den by claiming to be too sick to come out and greet them. When they entered to pay their respects, the lion ate them. One day, a fox happened by, but refused to enter the den. When the lion asked him why, the fox replied, "Because I can only see the tracks going in, but none coming out."

For children, fables like this provide simple illustrations that serve as cautionary tales. In this story, for example, the child might learn to be wary of strangers or of situations that seem too good to be true.

But fables aren't applicable only to kids. We, as businesspeople, can still learn a lot from a well-written fable. Again, looking at the fable retold here, we learn the value of prudence in our dealings with potential vendors, business partners, investors, and more. Careful observation of the warning signs others miss can save us (or our companies) from dangers we might not otherwise recognize.

So as you go about looking for ways to improve your business, don't overlook the power of fables. They're not just "children's stories" after all.

What's your response time?

In today's fast-paced business world full of instant technology, most people expect an answer to their email messages in one day or less. This can become challenging when you consider the volume of email many businesses receive.

If checking your email throughout the day isn't ideal, consider blocking a chunk of time on your calendar each day to respond to email messages. Even if you don't know the answer or need to find additional information, you should acknowledge the email and let the sender know you are working on it. If you plan to be away from the office, remember to use an auto-responder. Include information such as how long you will be away and when you will return messages. Also provide your contact info or an alternate contact for those who need an immediate response.

If you're looking for an even faster way for your customer support team to answer questions and interact with online shoppers, you may want to consider a live chat support service. Visitors who receive quick answers and responses are more likely to stay longer and buy more products. The personalized interaction will also help them develop more confidence in your business.

The speed in which you respond can easily affect a potential buyer's perception of you and your business. Always remember that the sender emailed you for a reason and is expecting your prompt response. Don't give them time to find the answer, or a faster response, elsewhere.

Chocolate candies, red dye, and the power of perception

In marketing, perception is reality. In the mid-1970s, health concerns arose over the use of the dye amaranth, commonly known as FD&C Red #2. Studies linked the popular food coloring with cancer. Mars Inc., makers of M&M's, decided in 1976 to replace red M&M candies with orange ones. Did the candymaker eliminate red M&M's because they contained the dye in question? No. In fact, the candies contained a different (and safe) red dye. Instead, the company decided to remove the red candies to allay the fears of consumers who worried about anything with red dye in it.

Mars understood the power of perception. Although its product was perfectly safe, the company knew that consumers were concerned. Sure, it could have stuck with the red candies and focused its marketing on explaining that the red dye it used was safe. After all, that was the truth, and many people would surely have believed it. But Mars knew that not everyone would feel comfortable with that explanation. The brand might have been hurt by this negative perception. So, even though the truth was on its side, Mars decided to make a fairly significant change. In the process, it generated a lot of goodwill and got the added bonus (and buzz) of introducing a new color to the M&M's fold.

How do people perceive your products, services, and brand? Are there any misconceptions that could be adversely affecting you? If so, what changes can you make to alleviate those concerns and improve your image? And what extra value can you get from making those changes?

There's one final chapter to the red M&M's story worth noting. Eleven years after pulling red M&M's off the market, Mars reintroduced the color in 1987. It proved a popular addition at the time and remains so today.

A coffeehouse state of mind

I've always wondered how fancy coffee shops could charge so much for a product that is worth pennies on the dollar. But I recently had an eye-opening experience that caused my opinion to sway. While feeling slightly impatient waiting for a cup of joe, my attitude was shockingly transformed by the laid-back atmosphere, the enchanting aroma, and the unique boutique-style tables and chairs at my favorite coffee shop. For a moment, I forgot why I was in such a hurry. Time stood still, as I was engrossed in a coffeehouse state of mind.

I now understand that the value of coffee, like many other products we buy, is contingent on how it makes us feel. Sometimes when I close my eyes and smell a fresh cup of coffee, I recall my coffeehouse state of mind... and smile.

While other products might not offer the same memorable feeling as a good cup of joe, we should all strive to offer a memorable experience for the customers who walk through our front door. How can you make customers think of your business and smile?

Affordable and effective beats quick and easy every time

If you want your business to get in the market quickly, there are two quick and easy ways you can go. You can use full-page or even two-page spreads in the yellow pages, or you can spend a bucket-load of money on pay-per-click.

Quick and easy is NOT always the most effective way to go. Sometimes it is, in fact, the least effective. The yellow pages have been destroyed by search engines, and pay-per-click is a great way to waste huge amounts of money if it isn't properly maintained.

If you still think the yellow pages need to be a part of your marketing budget, then put a separate phone number in the ad, so at least you can track what your easy, expensive dollars are getting you.

The fact is, having a good web presence, printing decent marketing materials, and using a marketing calendar to get your message out there in a targeted way provide a far better plan. Yes, that plan isn't quick and easy, but it can be affordable and effective... two very desirable things in marketing.

Is your marketing all about you, or your customer?

I saw this story the other day. I'm not sure if it's true, but either way, it provides a good allegory for marketing.

One day, Karen Hughes, George W. Bush's top communications aide, was walking along a beach. She looked up and saw a small plane towing an advertising banner. It read: "Jill come back. I am miserable without you. Love, Jack." Her first thought: "Bad message, Jack. Too much about you, and not enough about her."

What is your message? Is it all about you? Or is it about your (potential) customer? It's not that having a brochure that tells your customers everything you do is a bad thing, but it's a lot more attractive and desirable if that brochure comes from the point of view of meeting the customer's needs.

Which sounds better? "We build 400 kinds of doors." Or: "We strive to understand your exact door needs, and with 400 types of doors in stock, we can usually find you something quickly and at the right price." Given the choice, I'll take door (pitch) number two every time.

Viral videos, QR codes, and late night connections

As business owners, we're all looking for new and innovative ways to connect with customers. NBC's "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" managed to do just that with a well-placed QR code held up during last Friday's broadcast. On the show, host Jimmy Fallon, guest Stephen Colbert, former "American Idol" Taylor Hicks, and a bevy of others (including house band, The Roots) sang an over-the-top rendition of "Friday," a song which came to fame recently in a viral video by Rebecca Black. Near the end of the performance, a staffer held up a card containing a QR code.

QR (quick response) codes are special barcodes you can print anywhere that "translate" from a simple block pattern to a predetermined website address when photographed (or scanned) and "read" by QR-code-enabled devices, such as many smartphones. They're kind of like a graphic version of a or link.

Anyway, observant viewers, who photographed the QR code on their smartphones, were treated to a video in which Fallon thanked fans for helping raise money for the charity But it didn't end there.

At the beginning of this "hidden" video, Fallon held up a QR code, which he led fans to believe was the same QR code his staffer had held up during the show. However, it wasn't the same code, and those who photographed that second QR code were treated to another video, in which Fallon provided a quick "tour" of the contents of his desk.

A third QR code (held up by Fallon in the second bonus video) led to a final video, again featuring Fallon at his desk. In this video, Fallon offered a sneak preview of some upcoming features on the show and thanked viewers for their loyalty.

So, could you or I recreate this kind of elaborate media campaign for our own brands or companies? Probably not to the same extent Fallon was able to. After all, we don't have the funding of a major media company (NBC) at our disposal. But that doesn't mean we can't find equally innovative ways to use technology to our own advantage. All of the basic tools Fallon used -- QR codes, video, and social media -- are available to us, as well. We just need to find ways to use those tools to reach our own "audience" and grow our brands.

A look back at some April Fool's Day classics

April 1 is traditionally a day for pranks and practical jokes. In recent years, Google has made a habit of making outlandish April Fool's Day announcements. One year, for example, Google announced the addition of mind-reading technology that would make searching a breeze. Another year, the search giant posted job openings for a new research center on the moon.

A quick search for April Fool's Day pranks and hoaxes returns a treasure trove of gems. Here are a few highlights from Wikipedia and the Museum of Hoaxes:

* In 1957, the BBC announced a bumper spaghetti crop in Switzerland. Mild winter weather and the near eradication of the "spaghetti weevil" were credited with the excellent harvest. The BBC report includes images of people harvesting spaghetti strands from trees.

* In 1993, a San Diego DJ told his listeners the Space Shuttle Discovery would be landing at nearby Montgomery Field, due to issues at Edwards Air Force Base. Thousands of people turned out to see the landing... of a space shuttle that wasn't even in space at the time.

* In 1996, Taco Bell announced it had purchased the Liberty Bell and renamed it the "Taco Liberty Bell." In a statement, the company claimed the move was meant "to help the national debt" and that it hoped "other corporations [would] take similar action to do their part to reduce the country's debt." When asked about the hoax, White House press secretary Mike McCurry, playing along, said that the Lincoln Memorial had also been sold and would now be called the Ford Lincoln Mercury Memorial.

* Another fast-food-related April Fool's Day prank happened in 1998, when Burger King introduced the "left-handed Whopper." The new burger contained all of the same ingredients as its namesake, but the condiments were rotated 180 degrees, for the benefit of the 32 million left-handed Americans.

Here's hoping you have a fun April first.

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