From Personality Cults to Collective Intelligence: The Democratization of Education Online

There’s a major shift occurring in the world of small business education, coaching, and training.

One group of bloggers, content marketers, and educators have gone on to start self-funded software companies. Another group has moved toward building agencies and practices that deliver precise execution and hands-on support.

A third group is saying, “It’s just not working anymore.

Those that say “it’s not working” are largely those who have relied on personality-driven brands and the development of the online course market. This market developed out of a desire for education to be accessible to the masses. Unfortunately, what was envisioned and sold as a democratization of business education has become anything but. The premium personality brands peddle their wares with the help of mobs of fawning affiliates while aspiring personalities aim to get a small piece of the pie.

This third group has employed the “gatekeeper model” — which thrives by sequestering “the good stuff” behind a paywall. The reason they’re experiencing diminishing returns is simple…

The rest of the market has already moved away from gatekeepers and towards the Access Economy.

We have access to people’s spare rooms when we’re on vacation. We have access to restaurant reservations at the touch of a button. We have access to a taxis in our pockets.

We have access to flexible labor that we can contract to do just about anything. We have access to time-saving technology that allows us to do things we only dreamed about 5 years ago. We have access to amazing amounts of data that we can use to learn more about our customers than we thought possible.

And, we have access to unprecedented amounts of information.


In the Greek and Roman Empires, access to information was limited to the town square and local gossip. In the 1400s, the printing press revolutionized people’s ability to access ideas and information — but only for the few who were literate and rich enough to afford books. In the early 1900s, radio and then television brought news, entertainment, and information to the masses.

Of course, the 1990s brought the internet and completely changed the game. With access to IMDB, Genius, Quora, and, of course, Google, you can find the most minute piece of information quickly — and cheat at your local pub trivia night. Even high-value education — Ivy League schools and specialized technology programs — have entered the Access Economy.

The democratization of education is here — and it’s a key part of the Access Economy.

Yet, when it comes to our businesses, we’re still relying on gatekeepers.

The gatekeeper model starts with developing a popular personality brand (and, often, cults of personality), moves on to creating DIY online learning courses, and finally sells them to us for thousands of dollars. Information is delivered in videos, articles, or audios and the “learning” is done in worksheets or small homework assignments with no collaboration or oversight from an instructor or learning community.

This is less education and more information regurgitation.

The gatekeeper model offers the bare minimum in terms of access for the most amount of money. True access to learning — and not mere information — includes access to a dynamic, collaborative learning environment full of people who are invested in helping themselves while they help you. That’s what is so valuable about traditional learning environments like universities.

This is where the small business gatekeeper model fails so miserably. It’s what has let you down time and time again.

So while some will worry this opportunity is crumbling

I believe we’re seeing a much needed rebalancing of what people value and how they invest in what’s useful that happens to be in line with the direction of every other market in today’s consumer economy.

I first felt this rebalancing in early 2016. My team and I were working to create a more immersive experience for a group coaching program we had sold for the last 4 years while at the same time trying to automate it for those who couldn’t invest at a higher level. It did not go well.

First, my heart wasn’t in it. Second, we divided our focus. Third, we didn’t clearly define the value of either option.

It ended up being our best sales campaign to date… but it was also a flop.

That’s when I really started to rethink things. I have been passionate about collaborative learning and coaching since the beginning. Yet, I had started to abandon that approach in favor of what seemed like an easier sell and a more profitable offer.

Not a smart move.

I was at risk of missing a much bigger opportunity.


The gatekeeper model has missed the big opportunity — and left us in the cold.

Look inside the inboxes of most small business owners and you’ll find a myriad of emails all pitching some $2000 course about Facebook ads, project management, social media, selling on webinars, or writing copy. Many of these classes are very good. Some are exceptional. Others are not.

There are many savvy, successful, experienced small business gatekeepers. It’s not that the courses that are priced at a thousand dollars or more aren’t “worth it.”

I’ve bought them, I’ve enjoyed them, I’ve more than gotten my money’s worth.

However, no $2000 course has made growing my business much easier. A course can even out our journeys, level our learning curves a bit, or answer a particular question. What a course can’t do for us is support us in the daily ups and downs that running and growing a small business entails. It can’t help us evaluate ideas, get feedback on something we’ve created, or make a personalized recommendation. It can’t offer truth-telling, constructive encouragement, or even cheerleading.

An expensive course certainly can’t give us that on-demand access that we’ve come to expect from AirBnB, Lyft, and OpenTable.

Ask any successful small business owner (I’ve talked to hundreds over the years) and they’ll tell you that long-term, sustainable success comes not from nailing a particular formula or following a particular set of instructions butsimply having the fortitude to show up every day with the desire to make things more efficient, reach more people, and take action on their strategy.

In other words, the key to business success is access, not learning. Learning happens, yes. But it’s not the truly valuable deliverable, it’s a side effect. We need access to encouragement, honest conversations, real feedback, and — we need access to people who are on a similar journey to ours.

This kind of access allows us to synthesize, integrate, systematize, optimize, and perfect what we do already know. No course — even the best — is made to do that.

The gatekeeper model got the opportunity wrong. The big opportunity isn’t in selling informationThe opportunity is to create, nurture, and sell an environment where real growth can happen. Of course, that’s a much bigger challenge than packaging what you know into an online course. It requires a bigger investment and an intentional approach to culture development.


Imagine a world where access to good information, constructive encouragement, and honest conversations about your business were as accessible as an Uber ride.

If you had a question about how the Facebook algorithm might affect your social media strategy, you’d know exactly where you go for help. If you had a cash flow challenge, you’d know exactly who to talk to for some creative fundraising ideas. If you had a difficult conversation you needed to have with a team member, you’d know exactly the people to lean on for support.

The answers to your questions would always be personalized — instead of the anonymity of a Google search. The creative ideas would always be contextualized — instead of the one-size-fits-all approach of a blog post. The support would be from people who care about you — instead of the faceless detachment of an Instagram meme.

In this world, action is prioritized over more learning.

You do more because you’re not constantly experiencing FOMO at what you should be learning to keep up with everyone else in the personality cult. You ask questions that help you move on to the next task or clarify your action plan instead of learning things that don’t matter for your strategy.

In this world, you call the shots — and ask the questions.

The gatekeeper model relies on control to maintain its position in the market. Those that use it need to be able to influence the questions you ask and the problems you consider worth solving.

Your strategy might not depend on learning how to sell from webinars, build your list from Facebook ads, or sell high-ticket consulting proposals but they will insist it does. They’re not necessarily trying to manipulate you — they’re just very good at casting their nets for prospective customers. When you have access, you have a much bigger chance of staying on track, maintaining your focus, and sticking with your strategy.

Your questions are your own, not a gatekeeper’s.

In this world, you cover all the bases.

Gatekeepers are human, too. They don’t have all the answers and they can’t help with every problem. Sure, they’ll send you to another gatekeeper when they can’t answer your question… but then you’re back at square one.

When you have access to a network of people who have experienced scads of business challenges and successes, as well as have talents and skill sets in a variety of areas, you don’t have to worry about going elsewhere.

You can rely on the distributed expertise of the network instead of the siloed expertise of the gatekeeper.

In this world, you never worry about obsolescence.

New information is always emerging. New techniques, tactics, and strategies make their way to the mainstream. Technology changes fast and the market changes faster. With gatekeepers, you have to worry that what they’re peddling could become obsolete at any moment.

With access, the conversation goes with the flow of information, technology, and the market. When a new idea emerges, the network will evaluate it.


This is the world of collective intelligence.

We believe in a world where you can prioritize action over learning, call your own shots, ask your own questions, cover all the bases, and stay up-to-date.We believe the reason so many in the small business space are worried “it’s not working anymore” is because the gatekeeper model has finally given way to the deep desire to tap into collective intelligence and finally realize the promise of democratized education.

What’s more: we believe building a system for collective intelligence in the small business space is more than possible and that access to it should be a part of every small business owner’s arsenal of tools.

The market isn’t crumbling — it’s just getting started.

The Big Gamble: Do The Work Or Run The Business

“The only way I can earn more is to work more.”

That’s the realization that occurs at some point in the life of every coaching, consulting, writing, teaching, designing, or developing business. Sure, you can continue to raise your rates little by little, break into new markets and serve clients willing to pay more, and hone your skills so you can deliver more valuable outcomes… but at the end of the day, your pay is still based on the hours you put in.

Breaking the time-for-money trap has long been a topic of conversation inside the freelance and small business worlds. The universality of the experience of “topping out” your earning makes it fodder for gatekeepers to try to sell you the key to breaking the cycle, whether that’s developing online courses, blueprinting, or selling retainers.

It’s a problem that seems to be solved by changing your business model. But…

The answer to breaking out of the time-for-money trap isn’t to change your business model, it’s to change your identity.

Until you see yourself as someone new, someone who occupies a different role in your business and does something different to earn your keep, you will never fully break out of trading your precious time for a paycheck.

I used to manage a Borders Books & Music.

It was a fun job where I learned quite a bit about the challenges of running an organization. It was also incredibly stressful, as my tenure there coincided with the waning years of the company.

Ultimately, however, this job wasn’t a great use of my best skills. I’d gone to school for religious studies and music with a big emphasis on writing and communication.

When I became a mother after 5 years in retail management, I started thinking about other ways I could earn a living. My top goal was fulfilling, meaningful work that utilized my capabilities. I’d never had aspirations of earning even a median salary so enjoying my work was plenty.

I researched and researched and discovered the world of blogging, freelancing, and micro business. I’d actually started my first blog back in 2003 (oh, Xanga, I will never forget you) so it was an easy leap to see how earning money blogging would help me utilize my writing skills and create more meaningful work.

Six months into my journey blogging, I was off to the races. First I added a few hundred dollars to the family bottom line each month, then a few thousand. Soon, I was making more than my original full-time salary — and we still weren’t paying for childcare.

It was around this point that I realized I needed to change up my business model if I wanted to earn more.

And, boy, did I want to earn more…

I started teaching, coaching, and consulting.

I loved the creativity of my work and I relished my ability to move others to action with a blog post or an email. My little business earned more and more — and as it did, I realized that my goals were still small in comparison to others. I had so much farther I could go!

Now, the decision had to be made:

Was I going to continue coaching and consulting so that I could do this work that I loved?

Or, was I going to move fully into the role of business owner, manager, and entrepreneur?

This decision felt like a huge gamble.

It was the sure-thing versus a chance at something that could be even better, plus a much bigger payout.

Now, it would be a huge lie of omission to not tell you that this decision actually took years to be made — heck, it took years to fully realize that the decision had presented itself. Yet, it was the key decision I faced on my path forward.

To move on and continue exploring a path I had never dreamed of as a child — that of the entrepreneur & business owner — I needed to choose between work I knew I loved and the potential promise of running a business.

Sure, I’d been running a business all this time. But 90% of my time had been devoted to doing the work of the coach, consultant, educator, and writer. I could continue to grow in those capacities and increase both my revenue and impact — but only incrementally. As Breanne Dyck would say, I was my business instead of owning my business.

If I wanted to reach my increasingly expansive goals, I needed exponential growth and I needed to spend 90% of my time on running the business — not coaching, consulting, and writing.

Would I love running a business? Could I find the same flow, meaning, and fulfillment in becoming a CEO?

I decided I was willing to find out.


You don’t have to make the same choice.

You can continue to love doing the work of a coach, designer, consultant, developer, writer, educator, or practitioner. You can continue to level up your prices, your clients, your outcomes, and — ultimately — your payout little by little. You can even take steps toward more freedom by offering packages, outsourcing some work, or putting clients on retainer.

But your rewards will always be tied to your ability to work and produce results in the capacity others hire you for.

This is the key problem with all the time-for-money trap solutions that exist in the market today. Someone will gladly sell you the framework for scaling your coaching business with online courses but they don’t explain that — in doing so — you trade in your coach’s hat for a CEO’s hat (many of them don’t realize this tradeoff themselves). Someone else will gladly show you how to change your bespoke design offerings into a productized service but they don’t explain that — when you do — you trade in your designer’s hat for a manager’s hat.

Because most of us started small businesses to create more meaningful work for ourselves, our identities tend to be tied to our titles.

I am a coach. I am a designer. I am a developer.

Trading one hat for another can become a virtual existential crisis. Wading through this crisis is the only way to get to the other side — if the other side is where you want to go. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t functionally be both a designer and the founder of a design agency. You can’t functionally be both a coach and the CEO of an emerging training company.

While the work may overlap, your identity can not. You can try to hold the duality in place but you’ll always default to what is known and comfortable. You’ll forget you’re the founder, CEO, owner, manager. You’ll make decisions for yourself and not for the business.

Now, I say it’s virtually an existential crisis because, of course, you can always be a coach, a designer, a developer, a consultant. But, if you choose to truly break out of the time-for-money trap, that will no longer be your role in your business.

If that sounds awful, don’t do it! You can have a meaningful, thriving, lucrative business doing the work you love. You might not make much money in your sleep… but you’ll do just fine and be incredibly happy as long as you define your own success and don’t let the entrepreneurial gatekeepers shape your goals for you.


Are you still with me?

Are you willing to wade through this existential crisis and find a new role in your emerging company?

Kudos! Everything looks different from this side. Your budget, your schedule, your next steps. You’ll find you are comfortable with things that seemed impossible before (hiring help, letting others talk to your clients, divorcing your self from your brand, etc…). At the same time, you’ll find all sorts of old things that are now incredibly uncomfortable — and you’ll be okay with it.

You might even find that you love your new role even more than the old one.


5 Non-Obvious Ways To Put Your Brand & Business In The Spotlight

When you don’t know what works, marketing your business feels like a gamble.

Each new article, email, social media post, podcast episode, or video feels like it could be a home run or it could be just another invisible effort to get your business seen.

To make matters worse, the instinctive response to not knowing what will work seems to be to try everything. You chase every new platform, tactic, or fad that bubbles to the surface.

But by the time you’ve had a chance to try the “hot new thing,” it’s stopped working and you’re back to square one.

Tactics, platforms, and fads don’t make for great marketing.

Instead, great marketing comes from an acute understanding of what makes your brand, your offer, and — yes — even you, the marketer, a standout. Great marketing spotlights your brand not because you’ve executed a particular tactic perfectly but because you’ve tapped into something bigger, deeper, and more meaningful.

When you stumble onto great marketing, it’s because you’ve accessed an inherent capacity for influence that every person has and every brand should have. The “trick” is discovering how to tap into that capacity over and over again so that you can create great marketing more consistently and earn more visibility for your brand.

Marketing is about visibility. Visibility is about power.

In his book, The Power Paradox, Dacher Keltner shines some light on how we can connect our brands and their missions to powerful marketing through the lens of how individuals gain power in groups. He writes that power is really the ability to influence others and make a difference in the world.

Brands need power and influence to woo the right group of people and change their lives (in big ways or small) through their products. In essence, your marketing is an effort to establish power in your community or marketplace. When people are paying attention to your marketing, they’re granting your business the power to influence them.

So, marketing and power go hand-in-hand. Which is why we, as marketers, need to pay attention to what Keltner discovered are the 5 ways to earn more power in any group. While we might assume that there are sneaky methods or coercive tactics at play, power (and visibility) is really the reward granted to those who practice a more subtle art form rooted in authenticity.

He says:

We have a deep cultural intuition that nice guys finish last, that one must step on others to rise in the ranks, and that acquiring power requires the cold-blooded dispensing of rivals and even allies. But nothing could [be] further from the truth.

Visibility and power are found at the intersection of authenticity and strategy.

The 5 non-obvious ways to earn power that Dacher outlines can become a guideline for 5 strategies for crafting marketing that earns visibility through authenticity. Instead of marketing on a whim or eschewing strategic action to just do your own thing, you can combine intention and planning with a truly personal approach.

You and your brand determine what works for you but you create a strategy so it’s no longer a gamble.

Let’s take a look at these 5 non-obvious ways to put your business in the spotlight and how each are being applied by other small business owners:

1. Openness

The first way to earn visibility is remaining open to new perspectives, feedback, and information. It requires genuine curiosity, creativity, and plenty of communication.


Jenn Giles Kemper, the founder of Sacred Ordinary Days, used Openness to fuel the launch of her latest liturgical year planner. She’s created a community around her brand and uses that community to solicit feedback and suggestions for making her line of planners better.

The company had its best day yet when it released its latest iteration. Jenn even received emails from people saying, ‘You really listened!’ They appreciated the honest and curious way that Jenn asked for feedback and responded with an overwhelming number of sales.

At CoCommercial, we invest heavily in Openness too. Unlike other social networks that are algorithm-based, we pride ourselves on being human-powered. Our community managers are paid to invite new members into the network, show them the ropes, and solicit feedback. We could automate more of this process and reduce cost but the human touch means that we’re truly able to remain open to feedback and stay curious about ways to improve the experience for members. In turn, our members reward us by sharing the network with their friends and colleagues — meaning we earn the kind of word-of-mouth marketing that money just can’t buy.

Your turn: What can you do to incorporate curiosity into your brand or product marketing?

2. Perspective

While certainly some brands and media outlets garner attention by riling up a frenzy, sustained visibility and influence comes from offering a sense of calm and a fresh perspective. Instead of syncing up with the latest freakout, your brand can represent a different way of looking at things.

The market rewards brands that don’t react frantically every time there’s a change or new challenge.


Take a look at Productive Flourishing founder Charlie Gilkey. While other business strategists flail around every time there’s a new hiccup in the marketplace, Charlie is calm, focused, and reliable. He consistently creates exceptional content that markets his sane approach to building a business in the 21st century.

In our marketing at CoCommercial, we provide an alternate Perspective by highlighting the real efforts of business owners who have been there, done that, and are still doing it every day. Instead of relying on experts or gurus — and the personality cults they create — we’re focused on distributed expertise.

We know there is no 1 expert who can have all the answers, so we shine a light on how different business owners handle different situations. We do this through the Help Yourself blog here on Medium and in a series of weekly live Help Yourself shows. This has been a great way for our members to find a safe-haven for discussion and alternative approaches to their pressing challenges.

Your turn: What are you willing to say or do that is counter to the current freak out?

3. Kindness

Marketing that utilizes Kindness is cooperative. It draws others in, recognizes their contribution, and lifts them up. When you shine a light on others, your brand also shines.


Tanya Geisler, a women’s leadership coach and impostor complex expert, is one of the kindest people I know. But she’s also one of the kindest marketers I know.

Tanya’s first thought is always to spotlight others. So much so that when she wanted to develop a weekly live podcast, she named it “In The Spotlight With Tanya Geisler.” She talks to both influencers and clients about how they approach life in the spotlight, what holds them back from taking on a bigger role, and how they’re working to fulfill their personal missions. She regularly recognizes and amplifies their brilliance — and, in doing so, amplifies her own.

At CoCommercial, we take a similar approach. In keeping with our value for distributed expertise as I mentioned earlier, we highlight the stories of our members in weekly “I Am The New Economy” Member Features and use these same profiles throughout social media to earn attention from new potential members. We also crowdsource in-depth articles and workshops like this one on how Seth Godin (but really our members) taught me the importance of Constructive Encouragement.

Your turn: How can you shine a light on others?

4. Focus

Focused marketing is imbued with purpose. It is driven by your Why and executed with intention. We respect Focus because it gives us context and a sense of stability. Visibility emerges from Focus slowly but powerfully. Without Focus, earning sustainable attention is nearly impossible.


Communication Rebel founder Dr. Michelle Mazur is extremely focused on her audience. She knows they want to earn more paid speaking gigs and reach bigger audiences with their unique messages. Everything she does to market her business is based on their questions, challenges, and misconceptions about how to do just that.

She hosts a podcast called Rebel Speaker that addresses her audience’s hot topics little bit by little bit. She also does regular Facebook Live videos that take advantage of that same knowledge. Whenever she puts her brand in the spotlight, it’s with the same intense Focus that’s earned her higher and higher coaching fees over the last 3 years and kept her practice full.


Similarly, Budget Nerd founder Mark Butler is so focused that his marketing is almost entirely internal. He doesn’t feel the need to be plastering his message all over social media or even regularly blogging. He knows what his target client needs, what they want, and how to deliver it to them in a way that generates new clients. Word of mouth marketing from his existing clients drives the engine.

It’s easy to think that more, more, more is the answer to all of your marketing questions but Focus allows you to truly focus on less-but-better.

Your turn: What message are you willing to stick with for the long haul?

5. Enthusiasm

Dacher Keltner’s research on power makes one thing clear: enthusiasm is the #1 predictor of who receives influence and power in a group. It’s the same with your business. If you allow your brand to be ecstatically enthusiastic about what it’s all about, people will pay attention.

My husband always says, “I love to listen to anyone geek out about something they love.” Let that be a lesson for the way you market your business. Geek out, go on a rant, rave with excitement, follow an idea down the rabbit hole.

Pay attention to when your Enthusiasm makes you shine. Pay attention to when it makes your brand and business shine. Recreate that light as often as possible.


Sue B. Zimmerman, Instagram expert and social media educator, has an infectious personality. Her enthusiasm for marketing small businesses seems to know no bounds! She seamlessly channels that into Instagram, live video, and live events — and her audience has grown massively because of it.


Amanda Steinberg, founder & CEO of DailyWorth and WorthFM, has a fierce Enthusiasm driven by her mission to help women manage their money better. She’s relentless in her pursuit of learning, transformation, and better ways for engaging women on the topic of money. She’s used her Enthusiasm to find funding, break into the “boys’ club” of the financial world, amass over a million subscribers, and nurture relationships with major influencers.


L’Erin Alta, a spiritual guide for women in transition, has a soulful Enthusiasm. If you watch one of her videos or attend one of her events, you can’t help but be transfixed by her presence. L’Erin is conscious of her own power of Enthusiasm and channels that into soulful writing, a podcast, and videos that show her at her best. Her marketing is a beautiful blend of the authentic and strategic.

We’re enthusiastic at CoCommercial, too. We’re passionate about transforming today’s small business owners into tomorrow’s economic powerhouses. We have a vision for influencing public policy to better support freelancers, small business owners, and the self-employed. I talk about this mission as often as possible — though, possibly, not often enough — and, every time I do, we receive amazing comments, new referrals, and fresh perspectives inside our network.

Your turn: What message makes you shine?

It’s not the platform, the tactic, the frequency, or even the production value of the marketing you use that determines your success. Any “strategy” that starts there is bound to fail.

To put your brand & business in the spotlight, your strategy needs to start with authenticity grounded in openness, kindness, focus, perspective, and enthusiasm. Look back over the 5 questions I posed with each method and allow yourself to get creative about how you or your brand could show up and embody those qualities.

There is no right way to market your business, earn attention for your brand, or find the spotlight for your message.

There is only your way.

How To Market Your Business When Nothing Is Working

I started my entrepreneurial journey when an interesting blog post was enough to get you attention…

…a well-crafted tweet could start a long-term working relationship with a partner, and a podcast — well, people still didn’t quite know what to do with those.

Needless to say, social media, blogging, and podcasting have changed a lot in the last 8 and a half years I’ve been in business.

Email marketing has changed a lot too. Sending weekly email used to feel like a lot but now, if you’re not sending several times a week, your emails are probably getting lost in the sea of other emails your subscribers are getting.

The fact is “what works” has changed.

In fact, for many business owners I know, it seems nothing works anymore.

If you’re feeling like you’re working hard to share your business with people who care but you just aren’t getting anywhere, it can be debilitating. After all, how can you put any effort toward the work you really want to do if you can even get people to pay attention?

After months or years of perceived invisibility, you’re likely to give up altogether.

This summer, I was speaking with Lisa Robbin Young, founder of Ark Entertainment Media, about this and she said, When people say nothing is working, what they’re really talking about is tactics.” I couldn’t agree more.

Tactically, the marketing landscape is going through a sea change.

Power is consolidating among a few key platforms. Those platforms — your distribution channels for marketing — control how content is shared, who you can connect with, and what gets seen. Without a reliable way to spread the word about what you’re putting out into the world, even the media you own has less value to you as a business owner.

It might seem, at this point, that the situation is dire.

It’s not.

There is still a huge opportunity today for independent businesses like yours.People are hungry to buy from companies that represent their values, make them feel things other than rage or fear, and create meaningful or innovative offers.

Yours is one of those companies.

So then how do you reach the people who are so hungry to buy from you?

It’s certainly not by trying to make an end run around the Facebook algorithm, outsmart the bots on Twitter, or plaster your marketing messages all over the latest copy of Snapchat.

Forget looking for the magic marketing tactic that’s going to turn your business around and start getting real about what your marketing needs to do for you.

1.) Market one person at a time.

Maybe you got the idea that social media was going to help you reach hundreds or thousands of people at once. Maybe you thought that you could create “some content” and suddenly the masses would see, like, and share it so that you wouldn’t have to actually talk to anyone about your business.

I’ll admit, there was a time when this was partially true. That time is not now.

Marketing is, and has always been, the pursuit of reaching one person at a time with something they desire or need — be it content, a product, or a conversation.

Forget figuring out how to broadcast to more people (yes, one day your Facebook reach will become zero) and start figuring out how to connect withthe exact right person who needs what you offer next.

You may very well still find them on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter — but you won’t find them by shouting out into the ether.

Next step: make a list.

I have my clients make lists of 10, 20, or 30 people they want to buy what they’re sellingThen they find ways of reaching those people one at a time.They might email, they might message them on Facebook, they might even — perish the thought — pick up the phone.

This genuine, personal attempt at connection almost always results in thousands of dollars in sales, fans for life, and a huge sigh of relief when they realize they never have to “launch” again.

2.) Focus on what you’re most enthusiastic about.

Your level of enthusiasm is a huge indicator in your likelihood of success when it comes to marketing.

Of course, since many business owners tell themselves they hate marketing, this is a big problem. Those folks aren’t going to be very enthusiastic. They’re the ones constantly trying to find that magic marketing tactic and their enthusiasm dips every time the latest fab falls flat.

Luckily for you, you can turn your enthusiasm into an unfair advantage.

Dacher Keltner, author of The Power Paradox, wrote, Groups give us power when we are enthusiastic, speak up, make bold assertions, and express an interest in others. He also says that enthusiasm was the strongest predictor ofsustained social power in the groups he studied. Feel free to substitute“group” with “market” or “community” here.

If you want to build earn attention and power for your business, you’re going to have to show some enthusiasm!

Next step: make another list. This time, list out 10–20 ideas or topics youvehemently disagree with in your market. Then, list out 5–10 aspects or features of your product or service that you’re incredibly passionate about.Finally, list out 5–10 misconceptions your potential customers make and how your offer turns them around.

You now have a huge list of things you can speak or write enthusiastically about. Try creating emails, blog posts, podcast episodes, or videos from this list. Try speaking to local groups about something on the list. Try bringing up list items in your next sales call.

Your enthusiasm will go a long way toward connecting you and your company to the right people.

3.) Show, don’t tell.

Your potential customers are more skeptical than they’ve ever been — and with good reason.

They’re really not interested in reading, hearing, or watching something that explains something they’ve heard a million times before — but never seen results from.

Nor do they want to hear how your product is the best, most innovative, or most fun ever created.

They need to see it. They want a demonstration. They want to be shown what’s on the inside, how it works, and why it works.

If your product is really different, they want to see that difference in fine detail — right alongside the things they’ve tried before.

And yes, “show, don’t tell” applies to service-based businesses as well as product-based businesses.

Next step: Get creative, get transparent, and be willing to put your offer side-by-side with other offers to show off the differences. Create a video, slideshow, infographic, or checklist that actually shows what’s truly unique and special about what you’re offering.

What’s working is nothing new.

The strategy and tactics you’ll need to successfully market your business are not being developed in a posh office in Silicon Valley right now. They’regrassroots, person-to-person, authentic, transparent actions that have always worked to grow businesses.

Those actions–like picking up the phone or speaking in front of a group of local community members–might make your heart race the way posting 10 times a day to Facebook does not but they’re infinitely more effective.

Whether you’re just getting started and wondering how to find your first 100 email subscribers or you have thousands of people in your audience and no clue how to re-engage them in this brave new world, the answer lies in these 3 keys: market one person at a time, focus on what you’re most enthusiastic about, and show don’t tell.

10 Digital Small Business Trends For 2018

The world of small business in the online space is full of rapid change and here-today-gone-tomorrow opportunities.

If you can stay ahead of the trends, you’re more likely to keep yourself focused, build stronger systems into your business, and be more intentional about what you’re creating. It’s not a race — but it is a call for minding what’s going on around you.

Here, I’ve gathered 10 trends for which I see momentum building quickly in the digital small business world. I’ve chosen them based on my observation of hundreds of business owners at CoCommercial — the social network for digital small businesses that I run, over 45 business owner interviews from the past year for my podcast, Profit. Power. Pursuit., and conversations with movers & shakers in this space.

I’m defining digital small business as any small business which is powered (in whole or in part) by digital tools like social media, websites, online learning, video conferencing, etc… This includes coaching, consulting, design, development, online education, wellness, maker businesses, and more.

I stayed away from trends toward specific marketing or sales techniques, technology, or product development and, instead, focused on the structural shifts that are happening in our marketplace. I’ve ordered the trends by how confident I am that we will see them hit the mainstream by the end of 2018 — from most confident to least confident (with the ones I’m least confident in being the ones I’m most hopeful will come about).

The overarching trend — the one that ties all of these trends together — is one that many digital small business owners echoed as I gathered their input:

The market — and necessarily the businesses operating in it — is maturing.

As the market matures, it creates growing pains. Some business owners will realize their all-but-get-rich-quick-style businesses were never built to withstand changing market currents. Some will be forced out of their comfort zone to become much stronger leaders, executives, and managers. Others will close up shop.

These trends reflect the areas maturing business owners will need to contemplate in their year-end review and planning.

1. Transparency

The world of small business online has been a fairly opaque one.

You get someone to sign up for an enticing free gift. You generously provide them with mountains of free content. You take them on a meandering journey that inches them closer and closer to wanting to buy.

Then, pounce! Activate full-throttled sales plan.

There is actually a lot of good in this way of marketing. You create value before you ever ask for a sale. You educate, inspire, and entertain. You answer questions and explore new possibilities.

But we’re starting to see the market diverge into two camps: those who want everything for free and those who just want to know what you’re selling so they can cut to the chase and buy it.

I believe we’re likely to see sophisticated marketers using the best of launch marketing, affiliate marketing, and content marketing to both provide immense value for free and being very clear up front about what they’re selling. We saw glimmers of this over 2017 (i.e. Danielle LaPorte announced that she was promoting Marie Forleo’s B-School course at the beginning of the promotional period and offered her audience a way to opt-out of that promotion while remaining subscribed) but I expect it to really explode in 2018.

Transparency is not just a marketing trend, though. We’re likely to see much more transparency in branding in 2018, as well. Copywriter Hillary Weissputs it like this:

I feel like in some ways Martin Luther reincarnated has posted his grievances to the door of the Church of Marketing and people are nodding their heads.

I foresee a “reformation,” a step away from super opulent branding and shiny “saints” of industry and into more grassroots, in-the-trenches-with-you type of experiences. Less shiny, more transparency.

In order for transparent marketing to be in integrity, brands will have to get real, too.

Live video and the evolution of social platforms (like Instagram Stories) give brands a real opportunity to drop the pristine posts and share more of the behind-the-scenes.

The lack of transparency in this space has often come from an underlying belief that people don’t really want what’s being sold — and so a complicated dance is needed to woo them whether that’s with marketing, branding, or a sales conversation. As digital small business becomes more mainstream, founders need to get clear about the value they’re providing and be able to clearly communicate that to customers. If the customer doesn’t want to buy based on that value, the product is at fault — not the marketing.

Review: Does your potential customer actually know what you’re selling? Do they start paying attention with the intent to solve a problem (and buy your product)? How can your marketing and brand become more straightforward and transparent in 2018?

2. Personalization

Customers are tired of one-size-fits-all solutions. They are actively looking for ways to customize what you’re offering to fit their unique needs.

While they might have valued price and conformity in the past, they are increasingly opting for more adaptable, higher-priced options.

Of course, personalization doesn’t need to be high-priced in 2018. It can be incredibly scaleable and accessible. One place I’m seeing this is in the rise of communities and membership sites. These products put the customer in the driver’s seat and allow them to adapt the experience to suit their needs. They take what they want and leave what they don’t need.

Gina Bianchini and the team at Mighty Networks have created a software platform that allows business owners is to create highly personalized experiences in the form of deep interest networks. At CoCommercial (built on Mighty Networks), our goal is to provide a steady stream of exclusive content, events, and conversations so that members can create a customized experience of the platform. As they do, their own realizations and questions bubble up in the form of member-generated content and conversations (their own posts) and they customize their experience even further.

Online courses and workshops are becoming less about loads of content and more about what students can do with that content. Mastery and application is taking over for learning and understanding.

Review: How could you create a more personalized experience for your customers? What opportunities are there to guide a customized application or experience instead of forcing conformity?

3. High-touch Service

This might just be the year where founders figure out how to utilize the best of digital and the best of real human interactions. While there is a trend toward done-for-you or 1:1 services (more on that in a bit), High-touch Service doesn’t have to mean selling services or service packages.

Business coach Racheal Cook says, “I see a lot of people returning to in-person events and real conversations instead of just information products. People are overwhelmed by information — they want a real human to help them.

You can sell an information product, SaaS app, or membership community and still provide a guide.

You can offer workshops and still provide a personalized experience. You can have an automated welcome sequence and still send personal follow-ups to new customers.

I believe 2018 will be the year where business owners are not just providing High-touch Service — but investing in it. That’s what we’ve done. We’re allocating more of our marketing budget to customer service and member experience so that our retention is higher and word of mouth marketing is stronger.

Similarly, Beautiful You Coaching Academy founder Julie Parker cites investing in her staff, Racheal cites taking the time for personalized welcome videos, copywriter Jamie Jensen cites going deeper and creating more intimate experiences. Each of these examples of High-touch Service require an investment of time, energy, and/or money. Budget for your own High-touch Service on your calendar or in your financial budget for 2018.

Review: How could you allocate a greater portion of your budget to High-touch Service? How can you provide a greater level of guidance while maintaining a light and lean approach? Where do you customers often get stuck and how could High-touch Service keep them moving forward?

4. Consolidation

With digital small business hitting the puberty stage, it’s time to turn gangly limbs and immature frames into mature, adult businesses. This will occur in a number of ways over 2018.

First, we’ll see more and more businesses eschewing the sort of “junk drawer business models” — willing to sell anything and be anything to accommodate their customers — they’ve been using and the insane marketing calendars they’ve been tied to. Content strategist Lacy Boggs says, Less but better in allthings. By this I mean, launching less but doing more with what you do launch; writing fewer articles but making sure they really have an impact; running less advertising but getting super strategic with retargeting, etc…

Instead, they’ll consolidate their offers into a core product and get crystal clear on the key value proposition they offer to their customers.

They’ll better define their boundaries and operate within them to improve their brands, positioning, and profitability. They’ll better understand why people buy and use that to their advantage to create more strategic — and less spray & pray — marketing.

Second, we’ll see more business owners and freelancers coming together in one consolidated company or offer. Charlie Gilkey believes we might even start to see small-scale “acquihires” — where one company buys another with the purpose of acquiring the talent as much as the technology or intellectual property.

I’ve seen this — and even participated in it! — as well in the small business space. There’s a huge opportunity to acquire the services of a subcontractor you work with frequently or a client who loves your mission and brings with them complementary skills. This allows for more hires on the value creation or delivery sides, not just on the administrative or financial sides, which frees you up to truly take the helm on your growing company.

Review: Where has your business gotten overly complicated or convoluted? How can you simplify to become more profitable in 2018? How could you strengthen your company by acquiring the skills of another business owner or freelancer?

5. Conflagration

Unfortunately, 2018 will be the year when a lot of small business owners try to burn it all down. Either they will close up shop or they’ll pivot away from something that’s working because the work becomes optimizing and tweaking instead of designing new things.

There’s growing worry in the digital small business world that the opportunity is over and it’s time to abandon ship.

Of course, this isn’t true.

Anywhere people gather, ask questions, and look for solutions there is an opportunity to do business. The cause of the distress is largely due to businesses being built with little to no foundation under them. They were able to capitalize on a trend or fad but, when faced with the prospect of creating more sustainable systems, they feel stuck and left behind.

Breanne Dyck, founder of MNIB Consulting, says, “those who have built a cash cow with no underlying business structures will be forced to either grow up and start acting like a real business, or face collapse.” Burning everything down is not the only recourse when things stop working the way you’re used to. You can also decide to create a more intentional, mature, and foundational business that can weather whatever storm it faces.

On the other hand, some business owners have built great products, solid systems, and reliable revenue engines. Unfortunately, the next steps can be mind-numbing. Jennifer Kem, a marketing & brand strategist shared:

As a wise mentor has said to me: “Making money is boring. But that’s how you make money.” I’m seeing people abandon sales funnels because they “didn’t work” — when what they need to do is optimize it more and get it back to their core offers.

Denise Duffield-Thomas, founder of Lucky Bitch and a veteran of the internet marketing industry, echoed this sentiment, “I’m definitely seeing a lot of businesses throw the baby out with the bathwater, or ditch awesome programs because they are bored, or because their list is stagnant they think ‘everyone’ has seen it.”

I’d go so far to say that many entrepreneurs — not strictly limited to online small business — create problems for themselves to solve which can amount to sabotaging products, team relationships, sales systems, and marketing engines all in the name of having something new and exciting to work on.

So while Conflagration is definitely a trend for 2018, I hope that, as a community, we look to put out the fires as quickly as possible. There are more options than abandoning a great idea or your baby business. Just because things get more challenging and demand a more mature approach doesn’t mean there isn’t a huge opportunity for you to create value and reap the rewards.

Review: If you’re feeling the need to burn things down, what would make you excited about your business again? What’s your favorite part of running the business (as opposed delivering your product)? What do you find creatively fulfilling about growing your company? When are you most likely to self-sabotage on the way to success?

6. Done For You

One place Conflagration has been valuable, though, is with business owners burning down group programs and online courses they never really loved. They realized that the best results — and most valuable outcomes — for their clients came when there was a personal guide and a well-managed process rather than a half-hearted attempt for customers to do it themselves. These small business owners are opting to go back to the individualized work they love and build out scaleable systems and teams — rather than solutions designed to scale infinitely.

Back in September, I talked with Dr. Michelle Mazur, a speech coach and the founder of Communication Rebel, about her choice to stop offering group programs for her speech coaching services and instead focus on clients who were willing to pay more to work with her now and work with her individually. She said business has never been better!

Laura Roeder, who successfully self-funded social media scheduling startup MeetEdgar after running a profitable training company, predicted that even software companies would get into the Done For You game more often. She said, “we just piloted a complete ‘done for you’ set-up package for MeetEdgar and it was a huge success. People are willing to pay thousands for the entire solution instead of just a piece of it.” Even back in 2015, Nathan Barry’s ConvertKit got me to switch email marketing providers with a Done For You offer.

When you combine the Done For You trend, the Consolidation trend, and the Reorganization (next) trend, you get a big move towards forming specialized agencies that walk clients from start to finish through the messy journey of web design, branding, marketing, and other services. The rise of more sophisticated and mature agencies also benefits from the Personalization and High-touch Service trends, too.

Review: When has a DIY approach really worked for your customers and when has it left them stuck? Where could you or your team be most useful with some hands-on help?

7. Reorganization

As the digital small business industry begins to mature, more founders are going to be looking to make their own organizations more mature as well. Instead of allowing themselves to be the linchpin that desperately holds everything together, they’ll look to hire a team that can truly support them and be devoted to the mission of the company. I wrote about my own experience with this in my end-of-year review.

Look for more businesses investing in full-time teams or part-time employees.

They’ll still be hiring specialists and contractors but only to complete particular projects or get the team up to speed on a new initiative.

With this reorganization comes a real need to spend time on establishing company cultureBusiness strategist Charlie Gilkey says to look for “more discussion of culture, mission, and values as they apply to micro businesses.”

As more small business owners creep towards burnout, the discussion around culture is going to feel less corporate and much more enticing. They’ll be dialing in how they work, how things get done, and how the team works together at a whole new level.

Charlie said in a recent podcast interview with me, “Everyone on our team knows how we work. That’s just how we do things here. … Showing up in the morning and knowing how we do things takes a lot of the meta work out of the process.” While you might feel a negative knee jerk reaction to setting policies and crafting procedures, Charlie knows it makes things easier on everyone. Part of Reorganization in 2018 might be sitting down to get the business intentionally organized for the first time.

Review: How is your company culture defined and communicated to team members? Does everyone on your team know what the unique strengths of your company are? Are policies and procedures clearly defined for recurring tasks?

8. Pop-up Learning

Education has been a huge opportunity for digital small business for at least the last 5 years. Over that time, it’s become more and more slick, polished, and professional. In keeping with the trends of Transparency & Personalization, I believe we’ll see a trend toward “pop-up” education in 2018.

Education and training companies will necessarily become more attune to the in-the-moment needs of their customers and create new ways to accommodate their questions.

Think half-day workshops, live courses, and in-person events designed to quickly immerse the learner in a new subject and give them what they need to move forward.

Plus, instead of lecture-style courses, these learning opportunities will be heavily application-oriented. The curricula will be light and flexible to give students plenty of time to play and experiment with new concepts. These experiences will also be highly interactive — with students either engaging directly with the instructor in smaller groups (think 25 instead 2500) or engaging with each other in an intentional structure (think a mastermind group or class section).

Review: Where do you see an opportunity to help your customers without the expense of developing a full-blown product? What questions have they been coming to you with that you can answer quickly with a hands-on learning session?

9. Inclusion

The past year has been one where many of us realized just how segregated our social and professional circles were both online and offline. Further, we are starting to realize how much the shiny personal brands both men and women have used to get ahead in the digital small business space have tapped into patriarchal norms and conventional white/straight/cis-gendered beauty standards.

While I don’t believe any (or, at least, many) of these brands have intentionally created hostile environments for LGBTQ, minority, or feminist followers nor used structural racism, sexism, or gender norms to their advantage, the reality is that they have.

Luckily, the conversation around true Inclusion is starting to happen in this space and I’ll readily admit that I am no expert or saint on it. But I do believe that every step towards seeing the problem and taking action on it is a step in the right direction.

True Inclusion means, of course, that social media posts of support are not enough.

The privileged of the entrepreneurial class — speaking as a white, straight, cis-gendered small business owner — need to step up and step out of our comfortable social circles and seek out colleagues, interviewees, employees, and mastermind buddies who come from different backgrounds and who look differently than we do. Diversity is an asset, as Desiree Adaway, Ericka Hines, and Jessica Fish would say.

I feel confident that the conversation around Inclusion will continue into 2018 and beyond. But I’m hopeful that a real trend toward doing something about it starts, too. My personal goal is to continue to seek out minority voices and experiences to include in articles, in our community, and in the events we host. I also plan to make a strategy for finding more minority candidates the next time we’re hiring.

Review: Is your own professional network only full of people who look like you? Where do you go to seek out people with different experiences and backgrounds? Is your brand inclusive of different backgrounds? What’s your plan for making people from different backgrounds feel comfortable and valued in your community?

10. Profitability

We’ve been bombarded with monthly income reports, inflated revenue numbers, and ludicrous status symbols for far too long. As digital small businesses mature in 2018, so will their owners’ understanding of the financial matters of their businesses.

Instead of blindly chasing revenue, they’ll get critical about what is profitableinstead. The trend toward Profitability will create even more momentum behind Consolidation, Done For You, High-touch Service, and Reorganization. It’ll probably lead to a fair amount of Conflagration, too.

Amanda M Steinberg, founder of DailyWorth and WorthFM, predicts more business owners will be looking for “less revenue, more margin.” Sure, you can spend $3 to make $4 but there are often far simpler, more profitable ways to make $4 if you’re willing to settle for less top line revenue and more in your personal bank account.

Digital small business has largely been a culture of vanity metrics — likes, followers, email subscribers, members, and revenue — while arguably much more important metrics like profit get the short shrift. The focus has been on whatever makes you look good, not on what means you have a healthy, sustainable, mature business. Brenda Wilkins, a leadership and business consultant, says, “This is my #1 concern with much of online business dialogue — too much talk about revenue, launch numbers, ‘$____figure business’ etc… and no talk about margin, profit, cost of goods sold, debt ratios, etc…”

As the market matures and business owners become more sophisticated, the profile of Profitability will rise. We’ll see less talk of vanity metrics and more talk about what makes a business really work. We’ll see less business owners trying to build platforms with flashy numbers and more concrete value propositions. And if we don’t? We won’t be around long.

Review: Where have you focused on metrics that don’t lead to long-term sustainability? What could change about your business to make it more profitable? Where are you expending more energy than necessary for the returns you’re getting?

Nothing about these trends is new.

The digital small business trends of 2018 reflect natural cycles in the market — a coming and going that all markets and industries experience in one way or another.

This should be heartening for many people. The biggest movement in the industry next year won’t be a particular tactic or formula but, instead, a return to sound business principles.

In short, 2018 trends mean less to “keep up with” but more to wrestle with as your own business matures.

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