Everyone wants buzz. But how do you get it when you’re a small business?
Well, imagine being a small business with over 600,000 followers on Facebook. With 31,500 Instagram followers.
How about getting 10x more comments, likes and shares every week than Airbnb? Regular blog posts that cover everything from gin walks to fairies on the hill?
Not to mention your own photography that grabs attention. And that goes onto win big national awards and significant local ones.
Sally Fielding knows exactly what being that business feels like
There’s always something to learn from different industries, and I wanted to know who was doing the most engaging work in the holiday lettings market. We’re likely to have a summer where staycations could be very popular again, so these businesses might be at the forefront.
It didn’t take long for Sally’s name and Sally’s Cottages to come up. So I was delighted that Sally made some time for me to give some insights into how they got to this incredible position. I think there are lessons here for smaller businesses in any kind of industry. Here’s what she had to say.
What was the evolution for your business of a blog and the different social media channels? Where did you start?
Gosh, we’ve been writing blogs for years. If you look on our website, our first one was in September 2008, which was when we got our first website not designed by me. We went live with taking online bookings a few months later. We’ve been on Facebook since July 2010 but didn’t really get into it properly until a few years down the line.
Over 600,000 followers is a massive number. How did that build, and was there a turning point?
Not really, it was a very steady build. I can remember being very excited about our first 1,000 followers. I think because we show up, and we talk to people; then they like being there. There’s no secret.
We did do a joint promotion with Country Puddings where we were doing a cottage giveaway on their site. We pointed our followers to their page, and they gained a massive number of new people from that. So sharing and connecting help too.
What roles do the different channels play for the business?
Facebook is our biggest channel. We have over 600k followers, and the engagement there is incredible. It’s 10x the engagement of national and global brands, and more importantly, it’s really positive engagement.
It really feels as though we have a lovely community of people who we talk to every day who love us and we love them. People ask us all sorts of questions about the cottages that we post up on Facebook, and we also aim to inspire people (and ourselves) with fabulous photos of the Lake District and Cumbria.
We use Twitter more to showcase what events are taking place in the Lake District so that if anyone is coming to stay at one of our holiday cottages, they can see what is happening while they’re here. It’s also our way of saying ‘thank you’ to all the local businesses that are out there doing cool things. They’re working alongside us to provide a great service for all the visitors to Cumbria, but also providing a service for all us locals who live here!
Why do you think your engagement levels are better than many (if not most) of the big players in travel, and certainly most other lettings agencies?
It’s partly because we really care about what we’re doing.
For us it’s about so much more than what your profit is, it’s about doing something great, it’s about having a laugh while you’re doing it. It’s about talking to people; it’s about being flexible to change things if they’re not right.
And it’s about being on the same wavelength as people – quite often when I’m talking to people on Facebook, it feels like I’m talking to my mum, or my friends or my mum’s friends.
As well as caring about what you’re doing, it’s about knowing why you’re doing it and how you want to come across.
In your TEDx talk, you used a great phrase about being there to inspire moments of happiness. How does this extend to your approach to content?
I believe that life is all about moments of happiness – and it’s these little moments that keep everything else going in-between times. It might be something as simple as a nice cup of tea when you’ve walked 10 miles, or it might be something life-changing like a proposal of marriage on bended knee. They only last a moment, but they’re worth it.
I also believe that you’re more likely to take the time to appreciate these moments when you’re away from your everyday routine – for example when you’re staying in one of our holiday cottages.
Hopefully, other people will be inspired by similar moments of happiness and so will feel a part of the content that we post.
I know for many small businesses keeping a blog going is hard work. Why do you prioritise this, and what advice would you give other small business owners?
It’s a good way of showing people that you care about what you do. If our most recent blog was over a year old, then it would give the opposite impression. In fact, showing only out of date blogs would be worse than having no blog at all.Showing only out of date blogs would be worse than having no blog at all. Click To Tweet
I think people find them genuinely useful and interesting. Our most popular blog is our wild swimming post – there’s always somebody reading that one.
It’s really hard work, but it’s good to stop thinking of the day to day things and to dream a bit while writing them. It’s a good way of organising your thoughts and taking a step back to understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
The business has a really clear tone of voice. How do you help whoever is writing to keep the tone consistent?
It helps that all of us writing for Sally’s Cottages know what we want to say and why we want to say it. Everything else follows on from that. We have a mission statement, and we know what our values are. These shared values keep us and everything else going.
We sometimes get a guest blog written by other businesses in Cumbria. When this happens, we talk to them about our values and their values, and may well give some suggestions once it’s been written.
Going back to your TEDx talk, you talked about creativity being one of the three qualities needed to generate buzz. What would you say to people who think they’re not creative? How do you define creative given school tells many people they’re not?
I was rubbish at art. Or I thought I was anyway. Then I got into messing around on Photoshop and realised that I was only rubbish at conventional art. In fact, I could probably be quite good at conventional art if I practised it every day – anyone could be. You just have to do it and then do it every day.
And that’s probably the point.
Creativity is about giving something a go. It’s not about art per se; it’s about developing whatever you’re doing as you go along, it’s about creating new goals, it’s about thinking ‘what if…’Creativity is about giving something a go. Click To Tweet
I do a live video on Facebook most weeks where I show everyone around a cottage. For the first live video, I just did it on a whim. And it was fairly rubbish, but some people seemed to like it. So I then bought a gimble to reduce camera wobble. After that, I brought my mum in to hold the camera and my dad in to play the guitar as I showed people round.
We developed it and, 18 months on, the Facebook live broadcasts have gone from strength to strength with sometimes almost 1,000 people watching live, and then several thousand tuning in afterwards. If I’d had to think of everything beforehand, we’d never have got round to it.
Your photography really stands out. How do you come up with the ideas for the different shots, like the desk on the mountain?
I think it was a moment of boredom!
I was saying to my husband, Rob, let’s do something exciting. We happened to have a photographer staying with us, so the idle discussion became a reality.
It’s a classic example of saying ‘what if…’ and then putting it into reality. There was no real planning. We decided to do it at 9 the night before. I phoned a random farmer I didn’t know who said he’d give us a lift to the top of the mountain.
The quad bike we were going to use broke down pretty much at the bottom of the mountain, so we ended up carrying the desk, computer, chair etc. to the top ourselves. We met the farmer at 4 a,m and we didn’t get up there til 11 am. It was quite full on! Great fun, though!
I love your consistent use of red as a thread through the logo and photography, including what you choose to wear. What’s the story behind that choice?
It’s bizarre, but recently I re-read a book called ‘Lace’ by Shirley Conran which I think was big in the 80s. It’s total easy read bonkbuster – the type of book for reading on a sun lounger while in Ibiza or somewhere.
However, when I re-read it, I realised that pretty much all my brilliant business ideas have come from that book. One of the main characters in the book, Lily, is a worldwide icon and she only wears white in public. Red happens to be my favourite colour!
If a small business owner wanted to do one thing differently with their content, what would you recommend they did?
Before they write anything, think about who they are, what are their values, and how do they want to come across. And to really think about what it is that they are actually selling. It took me several weeks to understand this. The hardest thing in the world is to do it then every day.
What’s the most fun day you’ve had in your business?
So many fun days. I think one of my most ‘character building’ days was the Boxing Day Leap. I was having a family walk on Boxing Day, and I happened to mention to Rob that it would be a great photo opportunity to jump off the jetty because there was snow on the mountains and the sky was blue. As soon I said it I inwardly thought ‘noooooooo’ because I saw his eyes light up and realised that there was no going back.
And it wasn’t so bad. All that panic and it was actually not that much colder in the water as it was out of the water (not hard given it was only 3 degrees outside).
And the warm bath afterwards – definitely a moment of happiness!
Sally also does all of this while also raising 3 small children with her husband. I found her completely inspiring. I’d really recommend her TEDx talk, where she describes the three things you need to generate buzz: integrity, confidence and creativity.
Which one do you need to work on? Check it out.