5 Must-Haves in a Social Media Audit

It’s “strategy season.” You’re either a planner and you’re kicking off your grand plan now, or you are catching up and getting your 2017 plans in place now. For both cases, it’s never a bad idea to take a step back and do a social media audit for your brand. Even if you have solid plans for the next 3 months or even the next 12, it never hurts to take a step back and look at yourself in your own industry and also in the complete social media brand spectrum.

Pictured above are my University of Missouri – St. Louis (UMSL) from Fall 2016. What an excellent group of social and digital marketing minds who are GOING PLACES. All semester we learn about the nuances of each social media channel, look at case studies of brands who have it all together and definitely discuss the social media hall of shame (Kitchen Aid and DiGiorno, I’m looking at you – Google it).

Right at about the time I lose my voice from over lecturing and harping on all things content, we make it to the best part in the semester – the social media audit and strategy of a “real” brand.

The students team up and choose a local or national brand to investigate. They are armed with a grading rubric and the knowledge from all previous lectures. And off they go. I never cease to be amazed with their work.This semester was a local craft brewery, Square One Brewery and Distillery, along with a national grocery we all know and love, Trader Joe’s. The students pick about their existing social media activity, compare to the competition and ultimately use their research to make recommendations for their future social media actions.

Now, back to YOUR 2017 planning. If you are looking for a concise audit you can complete in about a half day or so, the following 5 points are your guide. This is exactly how I grade my class’ efforts. They must hit on each point below, and then show me part of the future strategy for full points. It’s a great starting point for working your way into your first social media strategy.

(#1) Properly introduce us to your brand. The way you introduce someone new to Grandma.
What is your brand?
What is your brand’s mission?
What do they do?
How do they make money or raise awareness?
What is some recent news about your brand?

(#2) What is the goal of your brand’s social media efforts? This is your “why bother” moment of truth.
Improve customer service or customer retention
Increase brand awareness
Drive website traffic
Generate sales/leads/client acquisition
Source qualified job candidates

(#3) Audit Your Current Social Channels. It’s OK if this is painful. Only up from here!
Which social networks are you currently on?
Does your brand have a blog?
How often are you posting?
Who is the audience of each social network?
How many followers on each channel?
What is the engagement like with users today?
What is the purpose of each channel (use goals above)?
What is the ratio of jabs vs. hooks (credit Gary V.)?
Include screenshots of current channels and content
Hint: make a table to concisely display this information to business leaders

(#4) Audit Your Competition’s Social Presence (audit at minimum 2 direct competitors). Find out what the cool kids on the block are doing.
Which social networks are they currently on?
Do the competitors have a blog?
How often are they posting?
Who is the audience of each social network?
How many followers on each channel?
What is the engagement like with users?
What is the purpose of each channel (use goals above)?
What is the ratio of jabs vs. hooks (another credit to GV)?
Include screenshots of channels and content for each competitor
Hint: make a few tables to concisely display this information to business leaders

(#5) Which social networks align with your business and why? There’s a reason all the financial firms are not blowing you up with Snaps (yet).
Pick from: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, Snapchat, Blog… But more importantly, explain your specific reasoning for investing time into each channel.

Whew, you made it. Now, you are ready to make your social strategy recommendations. I look for my class to answer the following:
How does your team recommend the brand move forward?
What should they do more of (give specific examples/screenshots)?
What should they do less of (give specific examples/screenshots)?
How should the brand use social advertising on each channel?
How can the brand improve each channel based on what you’ve learned as best practices this semester?
Which social channels should they add to their strategy, or remove?
Should your brand change its blog strategy or add a blog? Be specific about why.

Then, we actually start to execute on the plan. This is as close to “real life” as it gets kids. Develop a Content Strategy and Sample content Calendar by answering the following:
What types of content should the brand post and promote? Think: Videos, Photos, Ebooks, Webinars, Blog posts, Infographics, Whitepapers and Case studies
How frequently should they be sharing?
Where will the brand promote the specific content?

Create 5 example posts (tell us if jab vs. right hook); 1 example/slide; include at least 2 Canva.com or Inform original images. Remember Google is not a “free” image source. If blogging is part of your brand’s strategy, give 5 blog titles your brand could use immediately.

Finally, don’t forget to define social success. Which metrics will your brand use to define success for your newly planned social media and blogging efforts?

Please don’t fail by failing to set goals or setting weak goals. Or worse, tracking nothing. Reach for the social media stars here. You won’t win the creative game if you don’t miss a few goals at some point. Much more in my innovation post about my thoughts on the major disconnect of metrics and setting business goals, but in a nutshell, you cannot innovate if you fear failure. You will remain status quo until you get over this.

Now go get ’em you social superstars.

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Podcasting 101 with Vernon Ross

Have you ever heard of Serial? It’s an investigative podcast series hosted by Sarah Koenig that tells a true story over the course of a season. Think “Making a Murderer” in radio format. Serial really brought podcasting as a communications channel to the mainstream more than it had ever been before. Currently, 12% of the population is hooked on a podcast.

Vernon Ross, of Ross Public Relations, stopped by my Social Media Marketing class a few weeks ago to teach us about starting our own Podcast. In a few weeks, my students will be embarking on the creation of the first-ever UMSL Business Podcast series. We were so excited to welcome Vernon as he has had his own podcast, “The Social Strategy Podcast,” for over three years. Vernon is also teaching a new Podcasting course for the UMSL Digital Marketing Certificate program in Fall 2016. Thinking about starting your own podcast? Here are my 3 biggest takeaways from Vernon’s Podcasting 101 presentation as you build your launch strategy.

Before you start
Step back and consider if podcasting is truly a fit for your business. Will it increase your lead volume or revenue stream? For example, if you are a makeup artist or photographer, you probably would want to tell your story with video, not audio. Any marketing endeavor takes time and resources, and you should always be cognizant of if the tactic you are trying will accomplish the objective you have identified. Don’t have an objective? Take an even further step back.

Identify your hosting vendor
Listening and hosting vendors include iTunes, TuneIn, Podbean, and Overcast. Vernon recommends using a service over hosting on your own to avoid server downtime in times of high performing podcasts.

Decide on a show format and episode plan
There are many types of podcasts like hosted, co-hosted and sponsored. What makes sense for you based on the people that will be telling your story? Then, come up with 5-10 targeted podcasts on a subject you are an expert in. You could also review 5-10 products, give them away, or tell people how to buy them from you. Reach out to other bloggers and influencers in your space and ask them to be on your podcast to grow your content strategy.

Looking ahead
Vernon left us with some great advice: “In marketing, you must focus on what is next, not what is now.” This is where podcasting is at for many companies. This is still a relatively new medium that you can add to your marketing mix to meet your business goals.

Thanks again to Vernon for sharing your many insights. We are already looking forward to your next #bowtiethursday Instagram post!

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Guest Post: Tips From Your Future Social Media Managers

By: Nicole Atencio, Amy Cabanas, Minji Choi, Matteo Fialdini, Kathrin Hanke, Tira Wilkerson and Jacqueline Williams

We are halfway through our immersion into Social Media Marketing For Business this semester. So far, we have covered content marketing, the impact of blogging on social, Hootsuite as a social manager’s tool, and in-depth discussions of Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and the Emerging Networks (Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Google+) for business use.

Here are our top takeaways from our social studies thus far:

There is a huge difference between “curating” and” creating” content. Curated content is information generated from other sources (like sharing Forbes or Mashable articles), whereas created content is derived from the creators own resources (like infographics, whitepapers, blog posts, shareable art).

Understand Jabs vs. Right Hooks. Is a company trying to sell their product, or just making you aware of information you might be interested in? A “Jab” is content that makes customers laugh, think or play a game, but does not give a strong selling impression. “Right hooks” are content pieces that typically include call-to-actions (CTAs) that lead to actual purchasing.

Use the 4-1-1 Content Rule. This rule states that for every 4 informative content pieces you have, you should have 1 hard and 1 soft sell. The hard-sell provides a strong call-to- action (CTA), and the soft-sell subtly incorporates the brand in the message.

Be attentive. Look for events, causes and shows coming up in order to create content about something other than your business. Be mindful of your account, and make sure you are posting and commenting on a regular schedule. Not having any current activity will lead your followers/customers to believe you are not serious about your business.

Organic reach is estimated to be 2.6% for Facebook pages. With organic reach declining, it is important for businesses to use paid reach. Paid ads are not free, but allow the content to be targeted to non-followers.

Hootsuite is the best social tool you may have never heard of. Hootsuite is a great creation that can assist you in planning and scheduling the posting of your future posts for all your social media channels. Another great free tool is www.canva.com for creating beautiful social media images and graphics.

Align your brand’s social channels. Across the board, you want all your social media channels to incorporate the same logo, descriptions, and messaging, but with the flavor of the channel. The same goes for your personal pages – use the same headshot and handles whenever possible.

All businesses should be on LinkedIn. This social network provides you with credibility, a large network of professionals, sales opportunities, and a marketing platform for your business. There are a multitude of options for ads as well. Sponsored Updates will go to a wider audience than page followers, Dark Posts are ads seen on non-follower newsfeeds (but not in the company timeline) and Sponsored InMails allow you to send a targeted message that appears in a LinkedIn user’s inbox.

Everyone can be a publisher on LinkedIn Pulse. Pulse is a great opportunity to publish relevant articles or blog-like posts without necessarily having to own a separate blog. Pulse can be helpful in increasing LinkedIn followers and inbound site links.

Instagram is key in today’s market. It’s important to remember a few things before posting for your company. Don’t use stock photos – photos should be taken as native because you are going to reach the younger generations who are expecting that. Moreover, use descriptive hashtags in excess as the method to reach the most people looking to discover your brand or business category.

Understand the proper use of pictures. It’s important to make sure that you don’t use pictures from someone else without their permission. It’s best to take or create your own pictures to post on social media than using Google or other search engines.

Use Twitter hashtags. Hashtags tag tweets by topic and make it easier for others with similar interest to find your tweets. Also, hashtags help social media marketers promote and track social campaigns.

What else should we know? What do you wish your entry-level social and content employees were stronger at?

Up next: we’re putting this all together in a social strategy and analyzing for social ROI!

Content Strategy + Amplification

Today, 80% of business decision-makers prefer to get company information in a series of articles vs. an advertisement. The goal of many content strategists is to build thought leadership via producing original, high quality content. Sounds like a great objective, but is your content making outside the guardrails of your owned media sources to gain said thought leadership?

I recently sat in on a presentation by Matt Kamp of Influence & Co. in collaboration with the St. Louis Hubspot User Group regarding “How to get your content published on influential sites.” Following are my main takeaways regarding content strategies, and how one can go about getting original content published on influential sites.

First and foremost, content marketing is all about people. Step back: what are your content objectives?

  • Do you want to build trust?
  • Boost awareness?
  • Enable Marketing and Sales?

Document your content strategy. Not-so-fun fact: only 32% of marketers have a true content strategy, down from 35% in 2015. Think about how you can break large content pieces like white papers into multiple pieces of gated content or blog posts to get as much usage as possible.

Your strategy should include a value proposition, a competitive content analysis, a brand voice, target personas, prospect/client pain points (hint: content topics), mediums of distribution (ALWAYS work backwards) and goals + metrics. A great tip is to document the questions your prospects and clients are asking. Those are great places to start with your content. Answer the questions that are already brewing in your net new external communications.

In Influence & Co’s The State of Contributed Content white paper, 86% of surveyed editors are planning to incrase the amount of contributed content on their sites. And, an overwhelming 92% of editors prefer contributed content from industry experts and leaders over journalists. Editors want content from the people “living in the trenches” that can actually talk-the-talk about the subject.

Choose your goal publication, and research like crazy. Is your message relevant, non-promotional, educational or unique? You may be tempted to shoot for the stars (aka Forbes, Inc), but in this case the quality of your reader > quantity. A tighter target will likely result in a closer tie to your brand proposition. Develop content for ONE publication. If it doesn’t work out, you can court others later, but don’t play the field with your content. Duplication will not go over well if it is picked up simultaneously.

Don’t be skimpy in your content creation. Actually share your expertise and get personal. It is imperative for readers to get direct content and insights from key players in the industry. Content is typically rejected for being overly promotional or using unoriginal insights. Back your points with data, and then PROOF. PROOF. PROOF.

Start reaching out. Find the Editor’s email via contact info on the publication’s website, use social handles or as a last resort, try web contact forms.

You had to ask. What’s the ROI? If at all possible (and not overly promotional) use backlinks in your content to track traffic to your website or unrelated landing pages. Then track associated apps –> sales.

Thanks again MattInfluence & Co. and STL HUG. Can’t wait for the next update.

Social Media for the Recruitment of Rockstars

 

I was recently fortunate to sit in on a keynote presentation by Social Expert, Crystal Washington. By now, you know that social media has caused a shift in the way we communicate with each other. In fact, we are losing the ability to even connect effectively offline. Social media has provided a visible platform for everyone and anyone – no matter how valuable or annoying the comments or critiques your “Friends” may share.

Crystal opened her speech with some eye opening statistics regarding how candidates are finding jobs on social from a Jobvite study:
– 10.2 million found their latest role via LinkedIn
– 8 million found their latest role via Twitter
– 18.4 million found their latest role via Facebook

Did the Facebook statistic shock you? I was floored. If that’s not a testimony for a clean social profile, I don’t know what can convince you.

So, how are you being located by your future employer on social sites like LinkedIn?

People find you on LinkedIn via Keywords. Keywords are the words or terms that you want to be found for. For example, if you want to work in social media, your profile should be full of terms like social media, marketing, Twitter, Facebook, community administrator, social content and social analytics. You must have the keyword in your profile to populate in keyword searches by recruiters.

You are found via your connections. You will show up higher in LinkedIn search results when you have common connections. Moral of the story: ditch the business card rolodex or binder, and start connecting with your peers, former colleagues, alumni and professional group connections. Crystal recommends www.shoeboxed.com to automate going paperless.

 

You are more “searchable” when you join groups. The basic (free!) LinkedIn user can join up to 50 groups. Join as many groups as you can that are relatable to your industry or field (or dream industry/field) so that you are found by recruiters targeting individuals in those groups.

Finally, remember the elements of a strong  personal social brand:
–  Use Keywords related to the job you are looking to get
– Do you have a visible profile picture? “Or are you a stranger in a ski mask?” (Thanks for the laugh on that one, Crystal.)
– Do you consistently post on your social channels and add value, or do you only show up when you want something? Share interesting articles, comment and answer the questions of others to demonstrate that you are engaged.
– When you make contacts or request connections on social, be yourself. Don’t use a form letter, or template. Write from your own head, and you’ll sound much more authentic.

I’ll end the same way Crystal did: What’s your ONE thing you can do immediately from this post?

I’ll be starting with keywords.

Social Content Strategy Session

Creating or finding engaging, valuable content is 99% of managing social media channels. The 1% is actually posting the content, and a 5 year old can probably do that at this point from their own iPhone. As an instructor in this space, I find this the most difficult concept to explain to my students. Facebook posts, blogs, articles and tweets don’t write themselves – social media professionals must be creative and downright crafty to have enough content in their queues to be present on social media today.

Before I get further in the weeds, here are some examples of content your brand can consider creating, then promoting via your social media channels:
– Blog Posts
– Infographics
– White papers
– Testimonials
– Webinars
– Press Releases
– Newsletter Articles
– Event Photos and Videos
– Presentations or SlideShare

Before you feel overwhelmed by that list, or think that you don’t have the resources for any of it, let’s note the difference between created and curated content. Creating is what you as a brand develop, and curating is what you are “borrowing,” or pointing to (i.e. relevant YouTube videos, recent Forbes articles). Your content mix can and should be a mix of both your owned content and the content of others.

A content rule I learned in an MBA blogging course is the 4-1-1 Content Rule by Joe Pulizzi of the Content Marketing Institute. Joe’s rule states that for every 4 value-added and informative content offers your provide, you can have 1 soft-sell offer and 1 hard-sell offer – like a demo/trial, % off sale offer or product spotlight.

If you’ve read Gary Vaynerchuk’s (@garyvee) Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook, you’ll be familiar with the school of thought regarding properly mixing value-add and sell-focused content. “Jabs” are value-added pieces of content that make your viewers laugh, think or even shed a tear. Jabs show you are culturally relevant and paying attention to what is going on outside the world of your brand or store. “Right hooks” are calls to action that directly promote your business, product, service, or brand and include an obvious CTA (call-to-action). Build credibility and an audience with Jabs, then Hook sparingly when the time is right.

If you’re looking for a place to start creating content, I recommend starting a blog or posting long-form articles on your website. Try posting 2 times/month, then gauge the additional traffic generated to your website from the blog posts your promote on social media to determine ROI. Consider outsourcing the posts to a freelance writer or employees in other departments to save time on your marketing team.

Once you have developed your great content, here are three tips regarding the distribution:
#1) Respect each social channel and the devices available to consumers. Content should be tested on all devices and take into account the UX of the specific network. Be native and create channel-specific micro-content as much as your resources allow.

#2) Get organized with a content calendar. Now is the time to be a planner. Planning your content allows you to seize last minute opportunities, since you won’t always feel like you are in the content trenches. Schedule using a tool like Hootsuite, and identify the target social channels and right time to deploy on each network.

#3) Post frequently, but in my opinion, quality>quantity in the world of content. Be native so you do not stand out in the channel for not understanding the users. However, your content should be true to your brand, no matter the channel. Maintain your voice, but fit the channel. This is synonymous with how I am always “Sarah” but there is “work Sarah,” “Professor Sarah,” “Friend Sarah,” etc… Adapt to each channel, but still be yourself.

Some content creation (free!) and management tools I use and endorse are Hootsuite, Infogr.am and Canva.

What are your content development and management best practices?

Are You Being Your Brand?

Why is a clean and updated social profile essential? Your social profile can lead to job and leadership opportunities, build credibility, promote recognitions, give higher perceived value to future employers and facilitate partnerships.

Brianna Smith, owner of Being Your Brand, recently spent some time in my Intro to Social Media course presenting best practices for your personal social brand. Here are my 5 takeaways from her excellent presentation.

1. What would people find if they Goggled you?
We’ve all probably Googled ourselves by now, but did you know that Google indexes your social channels content (i.e. comments)? Just because YOUR profile is private, does not mean your activity from your friend’s profiles is private. What do you want people to see when they Google you? Shoot for the results to connect users to powerful information about what you do in your industry.

2. You can promote a clean social brand to companies.
Are you including your handles and blog in your signature, resume and cover letters? 92% of companies use social media for recruiting, and 45% of Fortune 500s include links to social media on their career page sections. Your social profiles and blog can demonstrate your knowledge of a subject to potential employers before you even interview. Blogging and personal social branding can help set you up to find your dream job, and not just to accept your first offer.

3. Build your brand on where you see yourself.
What are you an “expert” at? What do you find yourself searching for online, or reading about in your free time? Maybe you are not an expert at this point, so think about it more as “what do you rock at?”

If you want to be the guru of tech marketing, you should be writing about it. If you are not in tech right now, you can provide your thoughts on campaigns that tech companies are doing, and point out the best practices they are following (or not following). Your blog can change as your interests evolve, so don’t be bogged down by making this decision. Getting started is more important than being 100% sure. When I started this blog, I wasn’t even in love with the name, but many domains I wanted were taken, and instead I just got going.

Note: Not all your passions are your career or brand. I love running and trying new restaurants, but building my brand on running and eating out is not going to benefit me professionally. There are some lucky folks out there that have an intersection in their personal and professional passions for whom this rule would be an exception.

4. Have a consistent look online.
Keep the same name, profile picture, cover imagery and tone across your social profiles. If possible, match all your handles as close to your actual name as possible. Even if you are not active on all social channels, reserve your handle now.

5. Own a personal website or blog.
Wix and WordPress are user-friendly and economical tools for building your personal following. If you are blogging, blog on a regular basis. Consider setting a goal per month. Use social media to market your online brand and blog posts. Curate and share information that you find relevant to your audience. Brianna recommends checking out www.socialmediatoday.com, www.socialmediaexaminer.com and the Hubspot blogs for curating social and digital themed content on your social channels.

Thanks again to Brianna for stopping by my class and sharing your personal branding expertise! Visit Brianna’ blog to learn more about her best practices and her story.

How I Managed to Embrace the Shift to Digital Marketing

As a 2009 graduate with a degree in Business Administration, a concentration in Marketing and a minor in Communications, I really thought I was ready to take on the marketing world. Or, maybe I had just drank too much of the liberal arts kool-aid (#GoBulldogs).

The first few years of my career were great. I started as a Marketing Analyst, learning the ins-and-outs of the client experience, calculating MANY a cost-per-sale analyses and making recommendations as to which campaigns needed to be accelerated and which needed to be trashed.

As I progressed into marketing generalist roles, all things digital quickly became part of my daily responsibilities. I was creating banners, landing pages and social assets on the fly. Even though YouTube and blogs proved to be fantastic resources for learning more about my new responsibilities, I felt like I had a GAPING hole in my skill set and education in regards to all things digital marketing. Yes, I could brief a designer on how to create an appealing banner, write a clever social post or develop drip email campaigns… but what did this all mean? How did this all work together, and what the heck were we really spending our resources on?

I realized that even graduating in 2009 (wow – less than 7 years ago) was still TOO EARLY to have any formal education on digital strategy. I knew all about consumer behavior, retail marketing and integrated campaigns, but there wasn’t a single digital course or project to speak to from my undergraduate transcript. And not at the fault of my alma mater – this digital takeover just happened so fast.

After a lot of research and networking with the best minds in St. Louis digital, I discovered that Digital Marketing Certificates from universities are starting to be “a thing.” They usually landed in the Professional Studies or Schools of Continuing Education in my research experience. In true Sarah fashion, I jumped right in and decided since I was starting a Digital Certificate, I might as well just complete a full-on MBA in the process since many of the classes could be credit toward an MBA anyway.

This education has completely changed both my skill set and overall confidence in digital tactics. There are still things I don’t know that come up, but I now feel like I have the right base level understanding to attack these issues head-on. Here’s a sample of the coursework I recently completed to acquire my certificate:

-Digital Media Marketing Strategy & Measurement
-Clinical Study in Digital and Social Media Marketing (this was like a mini-internship to help non-profits with their digital strategies)
-Social Media Strategies
-Mobile Marketing
-Blogs to Buzz
-Digital Media Buying

Going back to school or fitting in classes on the weekends is definitely not the answer for everyone. It’s about timing. Here are additional non-school resources I have used to round out this new knowledge:

1. Digital Marketing Conferences | Here’s a sample of ones I attend in St. Louis and one I attended in New York this year. Google what’s happening in your city.
Social Recruiting Summit
Digital Marketing Conference

2. HubSpot.com Blogs | One of my best and most visited friends. Search for anything social or digital, and you’ll find very tactical descriptions and tips.

3. Lynda.com | Did you Lynda.com is now a LinkedIn company? Great (and cost effective) resource to pick up more “formalized” training.

4. Hootsuite University | I cannot say enough about how much Hootsuite makes the lives of social media managers easier. As an added bonus, they now offer an entire suite of classes that teach you not only how to best use their platform, but also how to effectively build, target and deploy social campaigns.

5. Networking | Meet with the best digital talent that will reply to your emails. Is there a local Social Media or Digital Marketing Club? I know St. Louis has several. Admit you’re clueless and talk to the experts about how they “figured it all out” in the city you are in. And, these are awesome connections for later when you “get it.”

Digital and social are not only here, they are speeding away. It’s part of our jobs as effective marketers to keep up.

How do you stay ahead?

The 3 Things I Know For Sure About Getting an MBA

Many of my connections know that I recently completed my MBA. People often ask if the time is worth it, if it means an automatic raise, or if the price tag on the school really matters. I won’t delve into my thoughts on all those topics now, but here are the “3 Things I Know For Sure” after wrapping up my MBA.

#1: Like most endeavors in life, you’ll only get out of your MBA what you put into it.
One can complete an MBA doing the bare minimum, and earn bare minimum performance and benefits. I’ve never been a fan of the saying “even the last person in each medical school class is still a doctor.” Personally, I don’t want the poorest performing medical student operating on my loved ones or me. If you read the assigned Harvard Business Reviews, engage in class discussions and equally contribute to group projects, you’ll take more away from your classes than you would by just checking the boxes. I participated in internships, business school advisory boards and clubs to gain even more academic experience.

#2: Time management is not optional.
It is 150% true that your life will have to be rebalanced if you start an MBA. I took anywhere from 6-9 hours per semester, and I did not take any summers off (to keep the momentum going). Gone were lazy Saturdays, and my workout routine definitely took a backseat to reading textbooks and writing marketing strategies. Do not procrastinate. If you’ve been a career procrastinator, now is the time to break that habit. You never know what’s going to come up at work or home, so it’s always better to be ahead on schoolwork. I found some fantastic coffee shops, and focused on my MBA on weekends to minimize homework time during the workweek.

#3: I’m happy I went to a school I could actually afford.
Did I go to one of the top 10 MBA programs? No, but I did ensure the school I went to had an accreditation by the AACSB (The Association to Advance College Schools of Business), and was ranked in the top 3% of US business schools by The Princeton Review. An AACSB distinction is earned by a small percentage of business schools worldwide. If your company covers your MBA, of course this is a non-issue. Attend the best school you can in your target locale. For me, it was a priority to attend a school that I would not resent for 5-10 years after receiving my diploma.

At the end of the day, I would repeat the past 2.5 years in a heartbeat. My MBA has not only rounded out my business education, but has also put me in contact with some of the greatest folks in business that I have met to this point.

I’d like to end with some thank you’s. Thank you to my family and friends for understanding when I had to study, listening to me complain about group projects (no, they never get better) and celebrating good semesters. Thank you to my professors and classmates for sharing your stories and collaborating.

I’m happy to say that I’ll be stepping to “the other side of the desk” later today, and teaching my first course ever – Intro to Social Media Marketing for undergraduates at the University of Missouri – St. Louis.

If you’re thinking about starting your MBA, 2016 could be your year. The hardest part is often just making the decision to begin. The time will pass either way.

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How I’m Outsourcing Christmas this Year

I don’t know about you, but the mall and general holiday shopping has recently really lost it’s appeal. I don’t know if it’s the uptick in “holiday” emails and ads I’m already seeing prior to Thanksgiving, but it’s really had me thinking about how I can still give THE BEST gifts, but also improve the whole shopping experience for myself at this busy state of my life.

Here are the 5 ways I’m “trimming” back on time, while still trimming the tree in all it’s glory this year:

(1) Etsy | Etsy is an online marketplace for creators and master crafters. This is the perfect place to purchase personalized gifts or handmade jewelry and accessories. Some of my favorite shops are Firedaughter Clothing and FitHappy. You can find ANYTHING monogrammed on Etsy. I completed almost half of my 2015 shopping on Etsy this year. Great items and I love supporting the small businesses selling on the site.

(2) Greetabl | Who doesn’t love receiving packages? It puts a smile on my face even when it’s the 5 impulse buys being delivered that I knowingly ordered myself. Greetabl is an online one-stop-shop for creatively-curated gifts that are personalized, packaged and sent in just a few clicks, and they’re pretty darn affordable. Send your very own box of holiday cheer.

(3) The Gift of an Experience | Have an adventurer in your life? Skip the material things and give them the gift of an event or learning. Ever dabbled? dabble.co is a place to search for unique classes like cooking or makeup application. Groupon has a “things to do” category full of events and classes that special person in your life may enjoy.

(4) Small Business Saturday – November 28, 2015 | I’ve got to hand it to AMEX, “shopping small” is just genius. Is there a local business you can purchase your sister’s new statement necklace from, or grab restaurant gift card from? I’m in St. Louis, MO and some of my favorites to patronize are Big River Running and Onesto. Yes, this is leaving home, but not nearly as large of a production as the mall on Black Friday.

(5) Implement a “no gift” policy | In the past, I’ve exchanged gifts with close coworkers. I think most of us can admit that finding the perfect gift for a coworker can be a real head scratcher, and is often a last minute task. This year, we’ve decided that in lieu of gifts, we’ll be doing a lunch to celebrate the holidays. I think this is even better than a gift because it gets us “out of the cubes” for a bit to reminisce on the past year and enjoy non-cafe food.

What are other unique gift ideas or sites I should be on the lookout for great holiday deals this year?