Media expert and former journalist Alec Lom draws on his 30 years’ experience in Fleet Street and at the BBC to help businesses harness the power of the media. In this guest blog, he offers Flowbird readers tips and advice on how companies can use their existing resources and databases to develop sales.

Notre-Dame after fire damage - how to grow your business

Photo by Robin Benzrihem on Unsplash

A time for resurrection?

As I sit down to write this blog, church bells are ringing across France to mark the time when the tragic fire broke out at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Television news crews and journalists from around the world have converged on the country to record this tragic event and President Macron is leading efforts for the 850-year-old building’s reconstruction in time for the Summer Olympics in Paris in five years’ time.

That’s odd! What a strange way to begin writing a blog about customer retention, I can hear you thinking.

What on Earth has Notre-Dame got to do with building my business? Where’s the connection to my company’s turnover and future prospects?

Well, being ex-BBC and as a journalist who’s worked in Fleet Street for more than 30 years and sat in newsrooms large and small, the answer is quite clear to me. The strength of any news operation relies heavily on its ability to plan ahead – and follow up.

So, I know that the News Editor, Diary Editor and Forward Planning Editor will have responded, each in their different ways, to the Notre-Dame fire.

The first executive will immediately have dispatched reporters, photographers and TV crews to the scene, while the latter two may have sat back and simply entered the words “Notre-Dame follow-up“ on their story lists for future news coverage.

The Notre-Dame fire is a news item that will demand updates on the blaze, its investigation, honouring the fire-fighters, France’s fundraising efforts, re-construction work progress, etc, for many months to come. Audiences around the world will buy into the story for the next five years, right up until the 2024 Olympics and beyond.

The initial news recorded on the journalists’ ‘database’ will become a rich source of future features and building a business should follow a parallel path.

Once customers are on your database, they should remain on your radar for constant, fruitful follow-ups.

And in the same way that a journalist will work to build up his or her contacts on a story, for example by befriending the Paris fire chief to secure ‘story leads’ over the weeks ahead, so too should you keep in close contact with your previous customers, encouraging them to provide you with future business, helpful feedback and new follow-ups.

In business, as in journalism, it’s all about building relationships. Dedicating time to this will bring you a return on your investment and yet I often find that companies become so focused on generating new leads that they neglect their existing and historic customers, resulting in lost opportunities and poor retention.

Given that there are never enough hours in the day, that your small team is stretched and that resources are limited, what are the most time-effective and productive ways to get results? What’s the best way to ‘squeeze the lemon’?

During my time as a reporter, I was often sent to France on assignments, possibly because my bosses knew I spoke French. I lived for a while in Paris as a student at the Sorbonne University. My editors reckoned I’d probably get best value from my contacts in that country because I spoke their language. In business too, when using media platforms to communicate with your customers, it pays to seek out their language.

By which I mean, if your target clients are very active on Twitter, so should you be. That’s the right place to be reaching out to them. Your competitors are probably doing this already, Twitter being much favoured by the business community. Remember, opening and running a Twitter account is free. Buying a half-page advert in a national newspaper, which appears for just one day, can cost you thousands of pounds.

‘Social media? … We just don’t have time’

Despite the cost effectiveness of social media like Twitter, you’d be surprised by some people’s resistance. “Oh, we just don’t have time. We’re far too busy with the day job.” I usually reply: “Well, your competitors are all getting ahead using social media channels, and so should you be.”

Another view I frequently hear is: “We don’t have anything to say and it takes too long to think up posts.” The answer is to spread the load among your team. A problem shared… Appoint one person as co-ordinator, ask team members to generate one post per week, plan the content on a grid, pre-programme your posts to go out when you want them to, and the problem’s sorted.

A new client once told me: “We use social media a lot. We love Twitter and we tweet regularly.“ (Actually, I had researched their account before the meeting and discovered they’d tweeted just 12 times in the previous 12 months.) “When you say you ‘tweet regularly‘, I’m afraid once a month is not enough,“ I replied. I was met with frowns of disbelief and shaking heads.

If you place your feet into the shoes of your clients and view the world from their perspective, perhaps conduct some additional research, you will understand what things matter to them. Maybe they are about to celebrate an anniversary; or the CEO is due to receive a gong in the New Year’s Honours list; or the client has landed a big new contract. Get alongside them. These are all things you can congratulate them on over Twitter. They’ll notice.

There are countless tips and tricks you can use on all the social media channels to build your relationships with previous and existing clients. Invest time in researching these on the web. There are plenty of illuminating articles out there.

Some companies make the mistake of choosing a senior executive to take charge of social media. Whoever you decide on, make sure they are genuinely passionate and engaged with a wide range of social media channels before you put them in charge of your accounts.

You will have heard and read about the power of video on social media. Research proves that tweets that are ‘words-only’ gain less traction than those with a ‘still picture’ attached. And tweets with a link to a short video clip gain most traction of all. Video footage need not be lengthy, 10 to 15 seconds is more than enough. People are busy. One cost-effective option is to record footage on your mobile phone. Such footage is entirely acceptable and commonplace on social media.

‘Positive endorsements are gold dust’

A company in Kent called Prisma Broadcast makes successful corporate videos for growing UK businesses to use as a marketing tool. Often, their previous clients are happy to record filmed testimonials, another great way to re-engage with your existing client database.

If a client has enjoyed a positive first relationship with you and gone away happy, they should respond warmly to a request for a brief testimonial. If you don’t have time to visit them with a camera or iPhone, you can always record the testimonial on Skype. Present these testimonials on your social media channels and website along with accompanying messages to encourage repeat business. It helps promote your client to new audiences and can convince them (and others) to do business with you again.

One hotelier who was pleased to film a testimonial for Prisma told the camera he’d recouped the cost of his video several times over within the first year. Such endorsements are gold dust and a great example of the sort of content you can circulate widely to all your previous customers. The ‘call to action’ for others to follow suit is persuasive and unmissable.

Writing and publishing blogs is another great way to boost customer retention and reawaken interest in your products and services from previous clients. You can publish blogs on your own website, highlight them on your social media channels, and include them in weekly or monthly newsletters.

Always be sure to pepper your blogs with compliments about your existing customers. You might say what a pleasure it was to work with them, how they’ve gone on to achieve ever-greater things, or flag up their successes. This not only pleases that client, but also serves as a reminder to others reading your blog that you’re a nice company to do business with. They may consider doing so again.

And if you’re looking for an excuse to re-establish contact with a previous client on your database, you could tell them you’re writing a blog on a certain issue or topic that concerns them and ask if they would allow you to quote their CEO in your article. You might even invite them to write a ‘guest blog’ for you. Who wouldn’t want a bit of free publicity? This could give you a perfect opportunity to re-establish your relationship.

When it comes to harnessing the power of traditional media coverage, I always say that the business ‘horse’ must drive the media ‘cart’ and not the other way around. First, sit down with your management team and work out what your business goals or business plan are. Then, and only then, should you start the discussion with a comms company like mine about how a media campaign and strategy can support those objectives.

Your media campaign must be tailor-made to meet your requirements, especially if client retention and repeat clients are among your goals. When a client asks: “Can you get me in The Sunday Times this weekend?!”, we sometimes reply, “Why?“. That’s to say, why a Sunday paper, why a national paper, why a UK publication, why a broadsheet. What are you trying to achieve and is this the right audience to help you achieve it?

Pitching weak stories is a waste of time

Remember that news and business editors are bombarded daily by both freelance journalists and PR companies trying to sell weak stories. The editor’s most common reply is: “So what?”, or far ruder words to that effect! So, make sure the story you offer is of genuine reader interest, ie new, unusual or quirky, and relevant to their audience before you pitch it.

When re-connecting with former clients, it always helps to have a reason for knocking on their door. This might be a new service or opportunity, maybe a special discount you’ve arranged for loyal customers, something available only to them.

One of our favourite clients was the eco-friendly pet products firm Beco Pets, whose team are passionate about protecting the environment. They organised a beach clean-up, removing sack-loads of plastic litter along miles of seafront in their region. Their decision to stage such a topical initiative benefiting the environment is a perfect example of a reason for you to contact previous clients and maybe invite them to participate.

Collaborating with clients to hoover hundreds of discarded plastic bottles from a beach not only gives you time to talk to them in an informal way and build long-term relationships, it also gives both you and them an opportunity for good publicity in the media.

During my career, I spent seven years at the BBC and working with other television companies, mostly in entertainment programming. One of the most popular formats involves individuals or families being “displaced“ and relocated into a different scenario. Couples in the UK swap homes with their counterparts in Australia; children from a school in the Midlands swap classrooms with pupils in the East End of London, you’ll be familiar with such series.

Why not offer clients the opportunity to second an employee to your office for a day, a week, or even longer? Offer training in an area of your expertise as part of their continuing professional development. As a swap, say you’ll loan them one of your team to join and learn more about their business for the same period.

Some spin-off advantages might include: new business, better understanding of each other, opportunities for positive media publicity for both of you, great content for your social media channels, and stories for both your companies’ newsletters.

Everyone enjoys reading about a job swap, and how the individuals got on. Why not get them to record a video diary, perfect for social media content?

The footage may not turn out to be quite as dramatic as the Notre-Dame fire but you never know, you might resurrect some important relationships.