Small Business Gets Smart With Graphics

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted September 19, 2007

A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. Michael Turner, CEO of Marketing Max, a nine-month-old marketing outsourcing firm based in Jacksonville, Florida, is a great believer in that, especially when it comes to communicating with his clients.

Turner knew the minute he saw SmartDraw, the template-based business graphics program from SmartDraw.com, that it was exactly what his fledgling firm needed – a huge improvement over Visio, the business graphics module in Microsoft Office that he had been using. And the new version, SmartDraw 2008, released earlier this month, is even better, he said.

Turner worked as the marketing manager at a dot-com for ten years and moonlighted helping young companies develop business plans. By December of last year, he was ready for a change, though, and ready to strike out on his own. He describes Marketing Max, which he launched in January, as “the marketing team down the hall that you’ve always wanted.”

“We’ll do anything from high-level marketing strategy to the design of a single direct mail or e-mail campaign,” Turner said. “We pretty much cover the gamut when it comes to marketing and PR.”

The company aims to fill a gap between big marketing and advertising firms on the one hand, and independent contractors on the other. Independent contractors are just that, he said – too hard to control. And the big firms are outrageously overpriced. 

“You go to a meeting, sit through a presentation that’s nothing more than buzz words and fluff. And then you get a bill for $200,000, and you can’t figure out what it’s for,”  Turner says. One senses he’s speaking here from bitter experience.

Marketing Max, a virtual firm with four employees and a stable of 60 or 70 associates, all working out of home offices, claims to avoid both shortcomings. It’s targeting mainly medium-size and small firms. They range from mom-and-pop lawn care companies to Sage Software, maker of the Act customer relationship management (CRM) product.

Communicating Visually
When Marketing Max communicates with clients, it does something fairly original. Rather than inundating them with long, wordy documents or boring them stiff with PowerPoint presentations – “the whole company is anti-PowerPoint,” Turner said – it sends flow charts showing customers exactly what the firm will do for them.

When a new client comes onboard, the first step is typically a “strategy session,” lasting anywhere up to two-and-a-half hours, in which the Marketing Max consultants learn about the company’s business and objectives. Then they go away and develop a master marketing plan for the client.

“We use SmartDraw to make flow charts that describe the marketing plan,” Turner explained. “[Clients] typically don’t understand the marketing process. So this is a way to visually give them a snapshot of what we’re going to do. ‘This is how the process will work.’”

Flowchart screenshot
SmartDraw's many templates include flowcharts.
(Click for larger image)
.

Even if it’s not developing an entire marketing plan, even if it’s only designing an e-mail campaign, Marketing Max will generate a flow chart to show how it envisions the project progressing. It’s partly a way to communicate with clients, partly a project plan.

With a simple e-mail campaign, the chart will show a box for each step and task in the process, starting perhaps with talking to a designer. It will show all the approval stages, and it will also present what-if scenarios. If the campaign realizes a return of 2 percent, this will happen next, if it bombs, this will happen.

“It’s a visual means of communication,” Turner said. According to him, it works. The flow charts help his clients understand the process more quickly and completely, and that means they call less frequently asking for explanations. Marketing Max is left to get on with the job.

Master Plans
The young firm uses SmartDraw internally as well. When developing a Web site for a client, for example, the team working on the project develops a map of the site and, in effect, the project. It includes boxes representing every element and link and every task related to creating them.

“Those charts end up being huge,” Turner said. “They probably look messy to anybody else – with a lot of boxes and arrows all over them. We print them out on a giant printer and put them up on the wall so everybody knows who does what in the process. It really did change the way we work.”

Flowchart screenshot
In addition to graphcs, you can also use SmartDraw to create business documents such as invoices.
(Click for larger image)
.

Turner uses the color coding features in SmartDraw to identify site elements and tasks according to who is responsible for completing them – green for designers, pink for copy writers, blue for Web programmers. The color coding helps team members understand at a glance the order in which tasks must be completed. Copy writers don’t start preparing text until the designer has designed the page, for example.

“It improves efficiency,” he said. “And it’s better than having Word documents [describing assignments] flying around left and right.”

Better than Visio
Turner started off using Visio to create his charts and mind maps. It’s the program he had used at his previous employer, but it was never really satisfactory.

“It’s hard to explain,” he said. “[Visio] just doesn’t have a business feel to it. It has a very IT, technical, map-out-the-network sort of feel to it. When you have [design and writing] contractors using the tool, it has to be simple and intuitive. It has to be a little less complicated than Visio.”

As soon as he downloaded and tried the SmartDraw demo version, Turner was sold. The program offers scores of customizable templates in 25 broad categories, including decision trees, flow charts, floor plans, Gantt charts, network designs and mind maps.

It automates much of the process of drawing graphics. You choose a template, then a theme – color scheme, text style, etc. – that is automatically applied to all elements in the template, and all elements that you add.

To create an event-driven process chain diagram, for example, you start with a sample diagram. The program presents a library of shapes – boxes, circles, symbols – representing different elements specific to that type of graphic. In this case, they include Event/Result, Function, Organization Unit, Input/output, Supporting System, and so on.

To add a new element, you select it from the library, displayed in a panel to the left of the main work area, then click in the work area where you want it to appear. To add a connector – curved, straight, stepped, etc. – click on the connector tool, select a style from the pull-down menu, then click and drag in the work area to make a line between two elements.

Improved Interface
About the only thing Turner and his team didn’t like about SmartDraw when they started using it earlier in the summer was the user interface. It was slightly eccentric, with basic functions in unexpected places. It included no Windows-standard File menu, for example. It seemed awkward to people who were accustomed to Microsoft-style productivity applications.

Turner even mentioned to SmartDraw that he’d like to see the SmartDraw interface reflect those Microsoft norms. When the new version came out in September, his wish had been granted.

The SmartDraw interface now mimics almost exactly the new Fluent interface Microsoft developed for Office 2007. The Fluent interface replaces menu and tool bars and vertical text menus with a “ribbon” and tabbed panels that drop down and stretch across the screen, graphically depicting groups of functions. SmartDraw 2008 does the same.

While Marketing Max started off with no intention of using SmartDraw for “creative” graphics – the firm employs designers who create custom, from-scratch graphics for clients to use in ads etc. – Turner did discover one opportunity to do so.

Among its many templates, SmartDraw includes basic business forms such as invoices, sales receipts, business cards. Marketing Max now offers very small companies an “identity package” that includes logo, slogans and printed customized versions of the SmartDraw forms. For a lawn care firm, it might be a simple matter of adding a border of grass at the bottom of the form and the firm’s newly-designed logo.

“We never thought of doing this until one of our designers was browsing through the [SmartDraw] templates and suggested it,” Turner said. “I thought it was a fantastic idea. We already have a couple of orders.”

Bottom Line
If a graphics-oriented marketing firm uses SmartDraw for client communications, internal project planning and client services, it’s a good bet this program could help just about any small company create its own business graphics.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s.

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