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Three Marketing Systems Every Small Business Marketer Needs

Psst – you over there, with the glazed-over peepers.

I know you.

You’re frazzled.

You have trouble “switching off” at night.

You’ve got a nagging sense in the pit of your stomach that you’re on a merry-go-round, and not the fun kind.

You, my friend, are on the verge of burnout, and if you don’t get it together soon, you’re headed for the ranks of former entrepreneur-hood.

I know this, because it happened to me. And it cost me dearly.

And ever since, I’ve made it my mission to understand it – and prevent it.

The solution, I’ve learned, is simple enough to convey in a single word: systems.

Marketing Systems: A Simple Overview

A system (in this context) is simply a routine sequence of tasks or actions that, taken together, produce a consistent result.

Now, I know without a doubt that nothing I’ve just written is news to you. Systems are all the rage in Solopreneur-ville.

But I noticed something kind of strange recently, and that’s this:

For all the talk about systems, nobody seems to be telling any of us how, exactly, we’re supposed to go about creating these awesome things.

So let’s change that, starting now.

While you can build a system for just about any business task, three marketing tasks are commonly at the heart of complaints I hear from my consulting and coaching clients:

  • Content (blog posts, articles, infographics, podcasts, etc.)
  • Social media
  • Email newsletters

Systems for Generating and Publishing Content

To create a workable system for any project or task, start by getting clear on how you already approach those tasks. For content-related tasks, those are generally:

  • Generating and capturing ideas
  • Turning ideas into topics
  • Turning topics into outlines/drafts
  • Scheduling and planning content
  • Formatting content (including text, links, and images)
  • Publishing and promoting content

A system for content management (not to be confused with a “Content Management System“) would optimally involve each of these component tasks.

I use Evernote and its clipping tool to save clips in separate notes, which I then tag (PJP for Pajama Productivity, SPM for my Stage Presence blog, etc.) with a suffix “-BF” (for “blog fodder”).

Then, when I’m ready to work on my editorial calendar for the upcoming month, I search Evernote for the appropriate tag.

For my editorial calendars, I’ve developed a very simple Word document that serves as a template. (You can download that template right here – no opt-in required.)

Or you can use a plain text file, popular Mac software Notebook, Evernote by itself, Scrivener, or any word processing application you favor.

Once you’ve generated ideas, and then turned those ideas into scheduled topics, you can build out your content and schedule it to post automatically, according to whatever schedule you’ve selected.

Systems for Social Media Marketing

Social media marketing is a great place to institute systems, but the trick is that you can’t rely solely on automation, since a large part of your success depends on your engagement with other users.

The better approach is to aim for a system that combines automation with a daily time-chunk (thirty minutes or so) dedicated to engagement activities.

You can easily get an entire month’s worth of content scheduled and set to publish automatically in an afternoon. (It takes me about five hours to come up with a month’s worth of content for Twitter or Facebook, at a rate of four updates a day.)

There are several worthwhile apps around that can help you automate and pre-schedule content “drips” to a number of platforms. Personally, I use and love the premium version of Buffer App for both my own platforms and my work for clients.

Use a clipping tool such as Notebook’s or Evernote’s to keep track of links and sites you’d like to share with your followers, using the tagging system described above.

Other components you could include in a social media marketing system:

  • A specific mix of content type (say, one self-promotional piece for every four curated or created pieces)
  • A set time or times to publish content to various platforms
  • A schedule of regular chats (Twitter) or “open page days” (Facebook)
  • A list of links to sites that can serve as sources for curated content

Systems for Creating and Publishing Email Newsletters

An email newsletter can be a powerful tool for small business marketers, but you have to know how to make an email newsletter that is valuable and that can take a lot of time and effort to do correctly.

To create a newsletter system, start by establishing some ground rules:

  1. How often the newsletter will be published (frequency)
  2. What day and time will result in better open, read, and click stats (publication schedule)
  3. What types of content you’ll be sharing (i.e., your recent blog posts, other articles and blog posts, original content just for newsletter subscribers)
  4. What kind of content mix you’ll be including in each issue (i.e., 20% blog posts, 50% original content, 30% other blogs/resources)

Next, set up a newsletter template that’s text-based and free of extensive HTML code. Most autoresponder services allow you to do this relatively easily. Text-based emails seem to get a stronger level of engagement from recipients than emails with bright, complex designs.

Then outline how you’ll store and retrieve content to share in your newsletters. Just as with your own content, Evernote works very well for this purpose with a unique tag and URL added to the note for later reference.

Set aside a few hours at least one day before each publication date to put your newsletter together. This will give you time to iron out any formatting kinks and test the email before scheduling it to be sent.

Systems Can Save Your Sanity – And Your Business

A lack of marketing systems means that procrastination and overwhelm have free reign to wreak some serious havoc. The results can be fatal to your business. This, I know from bitter personal experience.

But building those systems doesn’t have to mean massive work or an administrative nightmare, if you follow a few simple steps:

  1. Always start by outlining your current approach.
  2. Then (and only then) brainstorm ways you can refine and revise that approach with an eye on reducing duplication of effort and saving time.
  3. Aim to keep each system simple. The fewer steps and tools that are involved in a system, the more stable (and workable) the system is.
  4. Look for ways to give your systems a psychological boost by chunking your time for similar tasks during the same “chunk” of time (i.e., one hour, one afternoon, etc), and by scheduling recurring activities on the same day and at the same time each week. Adding chunks and consistent scheduling help cement the system as a routine; your subconscious mind then helps keep you on track as the system becomes a habit.
  5. Put your revised/refined system in writing. This helps you clarify and refine your system, and also serves as a training tool later if you decide to outsource or delegate these tasks.

Marketing systems don’t have to be complex or burdensome. In fact, they work best when they’re simple, direct, and easy to remember.

Yes, it takes a little effort and time at the outset, but taking that time and expending that effort now means you save a crapload of both later.

About Annie Sisk

Annie Sisk is a writer, code instructor, web developer and marketing consultant with a somewhat pathological love of Jolly Ranchers, Middle Eastern dance, Alice Cooper & classic Star Trek episodes. She writes about getting creative business crap done at Pajama Productivity.

39 comments

  1. I just downloaded your editorial calendar and it’s just awesome! Exactly what I need to help me stay organized when it comes to my blog posts. This has been my waterloo for the longest time. Gonna be trying out what you suggested about Evernote, too.

  2. Perfect. I find myself doing a spiral dance with so much to do and no set plan. Almost makes me feel a little ADD. I’ve set up lists and notes but tend to have them scattered around. I’ve long known that Evernote could be more helpful to me than it is w/ my current usage. This is a post I intend to reread and implement. Thanks.

    1. Evernote will blow. Your. MIND, if you let it and dive in deep, Walker. It’s even got tick-boxes, which were the main reason I initially created my list systems in Notebook. Now, I’m contemplating switching those to Evernote too, which would mean over 90% of my biz systems have Evernote in the prime position. Glad to be of service!

  3. Dear Annie,

    This is some great information. Honestly, I have had problems in the past with procrastination and creating a system has helped me tremendously. I find your information, not only helpful, but vital. I guess you can say, a handbook to anything online and marketing. We can easily “trick” ourselves into working and not only create things simpler. Things like online interaction with others doesn’t need to end up feeling like a task and with the simple approach that you suggest, it can’t get any better. The hardest thing for a person to figure out is when certain online activities become too much. With these easy tips, you can avoid spending all your time on one activity and leaving everything else a business needs on the side. It is easy to become sidetracked with online content/social media and here is the solution. Great article!

    1. Hey Dino! Good to see you here. 🙂 Busy work is the devil, honestly. It’s so seductive, isn’t it? It *feels* like real work. It exhausts you just as fast. But it doesn’t *produce* anything, as you point out. Consistent daily action will always be the best route to goal-achievement, I believe.

  4. At Right Intel we’ve created a system for helping with many of these challenges. Collecting, Curating, Sharing and Collaboration or the basic workflows of inbound marketing or content marketing. Whether in an agency or working as a consultant, it takes a great set of systems to keep everything running smoothly. Please check us out, I think you’ll find our solution in line with Annie Sisk’s advice.

  5. I took a look at your editorial calendar template. I don’t think that would work for me, but it made me realize what might. I just created a simple spreadsheet with four columns: Pub. Date, Status, Blog Name (I have several), and Post Title.

    I had been keeping track of my posts in my Outlook Calendar, but it’s so full that it’s hard to pick out posts for a specific blog. With the new spreadsheet, I’ll be able to sort by blog, then date so I can easily see where the gaps are.

    1. Bethanny, that thrills me! I love it when folks are inspired to do their own thing from something I’ve shared. The bottom line is your systems have to work for *you* – and for better or worse, *you* are therefore the only person who can really create your own systems and tell whether they’re working or not. Rock on!

  6. Annie, this is awesome – thank you! You’re right, there’s not enough information about creating your own systems and making them useful. Really enjoyed the clarity and simplicity of this post.

  7. Thank you for this useful advice. I work systematically so the idea of creating systems for marketing really resonates with me. I am new to marketing and have been voraciously reading books, blogs, and posts; listening to webinars; and trying to find my way. I analyze this and that approach, weed out what doesn’t work for me, and then try something else. For this reason, my efforts have been sporadic.

    I am now poised to create a “simple” system that I can use. Thank you for providing that clarity that was missing.

  8. Document how I do it now?? That would be a big blank page or something like “do some stuff”. Ok, I’m a little better than that 🙂 But you’re totally right, Whenever I actually put a process to paper, even if its as simple as “collect blog post ideas in Evernote” I’m a lot more successful and a lot less stressed than if I just do stuff. I’ve been pilfering ideas from other people for years, putting together a process here, and method there. And always for the good.

    I love, of course, your advice for keeping it simple. I think we hear the word “system” or “process” sometimes and we feel like we need some Microsoft Project-like tool (kill me for all those years I tried using it) and it sounds hard and complicated so we don’t bother. You’ve shared all great tips and best of all simple!

    1. Carol Lynn, I *know* better! You absolutely DO know how you do things — a recent document you shared with me proves that conclusively. 😉 Simple is almost *always* better, you’re right – if for no other reason than the more moving parts any system has, the weaker it is. If one part falls out, the whole thing goes to hell.

    2. You bring up something really interesting for me here, Carol Lynn.

      A lot of the world’s best have “systems” for doing things, but they’ve never consciously looked at them. They’re just natural systems that rock.

      One example is my system for commenting — I did it for years, naturally, until someone asked me I create such high-value comments for other people’s blogs, and then I ended up making a 2-part guest-post (http://www.logallot.com/holy-grail-praise-worthy-comments-1/) to explain it! lol.

      What I’m getting at is, it’s great to sit down and create systems, but it’s also good to recognize that we, and others, all have ‘natural, unconscious systems’ that we use as well.

      1. I love those posts, Jason. (I think I want to hang out with Abadir, too.) And I agree – the unconscious, automatic-pilot systems are every bit as important as the ones we think out and consciously craft. Writing down those natural systems can make them even better, too.

  9. Thanks for the guidance. Systems/being organised doesnt come naturally to me yet reading your post I could see how easy it is for me to become more organised –just by being aware of the different steps invovled in, for example, creating a blog. Makes me appreciate how much more productive I can be simply by being aware of the steps involved in these key areas. Thank you.

    1. You’re entirely welcome! Glad you found something useful here. The thing to keep in mind is that it’s not all or nothing – start small, with one aspect of your business/marketing/blogging that’s bugging you or that you sense isn’t going as smoothly as it could.

  10. Annie… I concur… excellent post chalk full of info. I am just learning some systems as we speak. One question, what e-mail newsletter system do you recommend and or use.. thanks

    1. I use AWeber – it had the best pricing and support info for my needs. But there are several good providers I’ve come across – a lot of folks find MailChimp easier, I hear.

  11. Hi Annie

    Great post. I’m all in favour of systems to make my life easier, and as you say bulk and batch processing of my content management strategy for the month and even up to 3 months ahead. A newsletter template I pre populate weekly and in advance of sending my newsletter.

    Plus planning out the theme for my blog each month so I know what I want to write about. Evernote is great for this as is Pocket for book marking and tagging website URLs I want to refer back to.

    I like your big claim on writing the first productivity book ever written 🙂 I know a few but I’m sure yours will be written just as well as this post – i.e in our language so congrats to you.

    Natalie

    1. Hi Natalie – thanks for the comment! I think a content planning system is probably one of the most important systems to create first for any biz marketer, if for no other reason than it helps you create a thoughtful strategy for your biggest point of contact with your readers and prospects.

      One small point of clarification: I do not claim the PJP Guide is the first productivity book ever written, but rather I *think* it’s the first written specifically for solopreneurs and freelancers. (I’m not entirely sure about that, either, but I haven’t seen one yet.) I’m the first to admit enthusiastically that I have learned *tons* from earlier books on the subject – David Allen’s “Getting Things Done,” Steven Covey’s works – also, believe it or not, a book from dancer/choreographer Twyla Tharp called “The Creative Habit.” I can wholeheartedly recommend all three.

      1. Ahhhh great clarification, I thought I had read it on your sales page. I’m all for big claims though and standing behind what you do. And you strike me as someone who backs it up too. Plus you’re into systems and tools so you’re my kinda gal already 🙂

        I’ve not read the 3rd book you recommend so thanks for a new one to add to my list

  12. The OCD side of me loves all things productivity and systems, so this blog post was a joy to read. : )

    I’ve experimented with all kinds of productivity techniques over the years, and while I’m a big fan of most things digital, I keep coming back to what seems to work best for me, with minimal frustration, and that turns out to be good, old-fashioned, pen & paper. At least for my blog and newsletter ed cal.

    Other things I do digitally, but I like sitting down with pen and paper to brainstorm and schedule out my blog and newsletter topics for each month. I use 2 plain pieces of copy paper, one for the blog and one for the newsletter, divide each sheet into 4 sections with a horizontal line, then write the blog topic for each week of the month on one sheet, and the newsletter topic for each week on the other, then staple them together. It’s completely no-tech, but it works for me!

    Then I have a very plain, small lined black notebook that I carry with me pretty much everywhere that I use to plan and schedule big projects, write down my client work to-dos for each day, and schedule my overall work flow for everything in my life. Boy, was I ever glad I had this when my laptop finally crashed for the last time two weeks ago, never to be revived!

    Lately I’ve been using Google calendar alot, and that seems to make me more productive as well. Now, if there were just some digital overlord who would reach out of the computer and slap me everytime I derail into email-checking and web-surfing that’s not related to client work or high-level biz activities, I’d be all
    set! ; )

    1. Kimberly, watch out – you might end up like me, working/writing in the productivity field full time! I totally squee over productivity stuff — I call it “productivity porn.”

      You raise a *very* important point — there’s a lot to be said for an analog redundancy in your systems, especially with intake points (client tasks, calls, etc.). I also carry a small but thick notebook with me everywhere for the same purpose. That’s my intake system component, then it gets processed and scheduled digitally.

      On email systems, you might find this page on PJP helpful: http://pajamaproductivity.com/category/email-herding/

  13. Annie! Long time, no see! (Back when I was running SpiritSentient)!

    Soooo cool you’re over here, guest-posting on FPM.

    I definitely love what you’re about here, systems dont get nearly enough attention in the small biz arena.

    I’d like to add the best resource I’ve found for creating systems – Sam Carpenter’s “Work The System” method, he’s turned system-creation INTO a system.

    http://www.workthesystem.com/

    I’d also like to ask what you’d do/suggest when Life Destroys All Your Systems, such as in the case of natural disasters, ‘curses’, freak accidents, and other such extreme circumstances?

    1. J-Ryze! LTNS!

      There are a metric crap-ton of products and apps out there that can help create systems – Sam’s WTS is one that looks very promising to me – which is why I wanted to focus more on the “how you build them using *any* tool” aspect for this post. But somewhere in me there’s a monster list post that just might yet see the light of day, one of these days …

      Excellent question about disaster plans. One of the chapters in the book I’m writing is actually all about creating disaster plans – plural. As you note – there can be an ungodly variety of awful crap that can kill your systems dead. You’ve got basically two options, in my view:

      1. Redundant systems (which can be a nightmare – until you need them, and then they’re priceless jewels)

      2. Go low-tech or even analog (a lot of my clients still tell me they prefer actual notebooks to Notebook – personally, copy-and-paste is my best bud but different strokes)

      Or, I guess, #3 – some combination of the above.

      Try this: Set aside the next 30 days for this project, not because it takes that long but because it requires some pretty high-level abstract thinking, and I don’t know about you, but I can’t do that for more than half an hour or so before I get bored out of my skull. So, yeah. One month. And then play War Games, basically —

      Days 1-7: play “worst case scenario” (y’know, that fun little game where you sit down and ask yourself “what’s the very worst thing that could happen to me right this very minute?”). Pick the two or three most likely scenarios.

      Days 8-14: ID your biggest needs in each scenario. Will you need to contact clients? Can you get to their info? Will you need backup content to share ’cause you’re gonna be too busy shooting zombies? Remember what *won’t* be available in this scenario. Make the list.

      Days 15-30: Explore alternative solutions and come up with a simple emergency-basis 3-5 day plan — keeping in mind you’re not trying to steer the whole flippin’ Titanic, you’re just trying to pilot the lifeboat to the Carpathia. (I’ll take maritime history for $200, Alex.) You’ll then be in a better position to either create a redundancy or a low-tech alternative.

      And if anyone’s thinking “that’s just unrealistic” – y’all, I remember Y2K. We got a whole county government prepped for disaster (that thankfully never happened) inside a few months.

      1. Wooooo! Epic, this is like a mini-post addition to your post — I’m so glad I asked!

        🙂

        Your practical exercise sounds great, but I must admit, my question was kind of a devil’s advocate question – I’ve a life that most would consider a ‘nightmare’, with life hammering me from one side or another basically non-stop for years.

        Despite my virgo-esque tendency to auto-systemize and efficiently improve anything I see, that nice little trait pales in comparison to the ‘natural-disaster’ type system-flattening stuff life can dish out.

        I’m reminded of Richard Branson, a man with whom I feel I share many traits, when his house burned down.
        http://www.businessinsider.com/richard-branson-necker-island-fire-photos-2011-8?op=1

        Is Richard someone who doesnt use systems, or doesn’t prepare? Hardly 😉

        Anyway… I’m definitely for systems, and love them, I just wanted to add a caveat, and I adore your article and the extra mile in the comments.

        Much love!

  14. @Annie, I enjoyed your content but thought it’s missing a very important system which is a sales funnel system that actually gets folks to buy the product or service. All the systems you mentioned in my view are need only after a sales funnel has been set up because they will not have as much impact without a sales mechanism in place. Please share your thoughts on this?

    1. Owen, I apologize for the delay getting back to you – but I thought your comment deserved more than just a comment in return. As a matter of fact, it triggered a whole new post. 🙂 Take a look here: http://pajamaproductivity.com/the-sales-funnel-how-to-create-your-most-important-system/ – there’s a downloadable sales funnel template available on that page (no opt-in) which was created by Nicole Fende, aka “The Numbers Whisperer,” who kindly gave me permission to share it.

      1. @Annie you ROCK BALLS! That’s called kicking it up a notch and over delivering. I enjoyed reading your response in the form on a new blog post. Guess who is subscribing to your blog now via Google Reader (<<<— MOI!)

  15. WOW! This was great information. I had to copy it into a document so that I could refer back to it whenever I find myself on the ‘verge of burnout’, which seems to be often.

    I second Nick’s comment…thanks for sharing!

    1. Whoo-hoo, high praise indeed – thank you, Linda! I’m glad you found it useful. Burnout has got to be one of the most contagious diseases in the solopreneur population – sadly, though, unlike many viruses, there seem to be no antibodies produced to fight it off the next time. (Why am I now flashing back to watching “Contagion”?) But simple, workable systems are the next best thing. Rock on!

  16. Systems are literally saving me from going nuts.

    I’d hit a wall with just how productive I could be during the day – I’d meander from task to task until everything on my “to-do” list was complete, then I’d build a new to-do list and the cycle would start all over again.

    With systems, I’ve been able to prioritize my clients’ projects (they don’t always like it, but that’s a skill for another day – expectation management). In any case, it definitely allowed me to be more productive and issue myself some time for my own work, my own site, and the plumber’s house is leaky no more.

    This is great advice, Annie – I really enjoyed reading it. The bit about how to actually BUILD a system is something that isn’t shared very often, it’s rare – and worth knowing. Especially if you’re a creative type!

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks, Nick! So glad you found it useful. Systems don’t have to be big, scary things – they can be as simple as a plain text file or a pocket notebook. The trick is to make sure you get crystal clear from the outset as to what, exactly, the system needs to *do.*

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