As a small business owner, you’ve got lots of marketing and promotion choices before resorting to expensive advertising. Which brings you the healthiest return on your investment?
That’s actually a trick question, and impossible to answer without taking a close look at your business and its offerings, audiences, goals and challenges. Some experts advise using a percentage of your sales to fuel marketing, but if you’re just starting, you might need to adjust the formula by taking customer geography, demographics and media consumption into consideration. You’ll also want to try low- and no-cost ways to get the word out.
Set Your Business Goals and Strategy
“‘What needle am I trying to move? Am I just trying to increase my website traffic? Am I trying to increase my conversions? Am I trying to get the phone to ring?’ That would be the lowest-hanging fruit,” says Seattle-based marketing expert and consultant, Robbin Block, who also serves as mentor for the U.S. Small Business Administration’s SCORE program. “There are four Ps to marketing: Product, price, place — which is really distribution — and promotion. You need to analyze all four pieces,” Block says.
Vlad Molchadski, also a SCORE mentor and CEO of BizTraffic.com, a Dallas-based online marketing firm, says the overriding strategy is to be an expert that can serve the needs of your customers. “If you can solve the problems they know they have, you are good. If you can educate them about problems they didn’t realize to have, you’re excellent and you will separate yourself in many ways from the competition,” Molchadski says.
“It really starts with your product or service,” Block adds. “That’s where marketing begins, not with the promotional part, but really having a good understanding of what you have that is so great. Why should they pick you? You always have to understand the consumers’ purchase behavior.”
Build an Online Presence for When They Come
There are few businesses that don’t require an online presence. If your budget is tight, DIY programs can help you produce a decent-looking web page, even if you have no technical experience. Block says that no matter what line of work you’re in, you do need a say in the look, feel, and content on your site.
Of course, you want the site to reflect your business’ brand, and you’ll want to be able to update it yourself without having to pay someone every time you need a small tweak. You’ll also need to learn how to get your website higher up in the results when people search for you by learning some basic SEO (search engine optimization) skills. You can buy Google ads that help concentrate these efforts.
If you’re in a profession that requires portfolios, say, a wedding photographer or ad agency, there are websites where you can showcase your work for a small fee or even free.
Create Quality Expert Content
Most businesses with a limited budget start with content that can be shared on a variety of channels. “Don’t be afraid or greedy of sharing the knowledge and information because that will in term position you as an expert, and much more likely to result in an engagement or a sell,” Molchadski says.
A white paper you create from your own expertise or research, for example, can be turned into a series of blog entries, tweets, Facebook posts, infographics, and a press release to attract media attention to your business. When they’re shared, your customers become ambassadors for your brand.
Beth Fowler, a Pennsylvania SCORE mentor and home-stager, says that she got great results from giving free speakings to community groups and placing stories in local newspapers related to her business — positioning her as an expert without even selling very hard. But when you pitch a story to an editor, make sure you have a good angle that’s relevant and useful to your audience — a piece like “Our 10th Anniversary” is not.
Leverage Your Network
Maintaining and growing your relationships with customers and prospects will always be critical to the success of your business. “What has changed recently, of course, is how we go about executing on that process,” Molchadski says. You don’t have to knock on doors, anymore — you can communicate by email, text, social media, and Skype.
Pretty much every industry has professional associations, and it’s worth calculating the return on the membership fee from new business you’ll generate. Fowler, who prepares homes to be sold, makes sure she’s known in circles rich with real estate agents. She also joined Business Networking International and says that at least 30 percent of her business comes from BNI members and their referrals.
Measure Your Success
Do you know how people find you? Block says that measuring where your website traffic originates from is critical, as well as monitoring sales and feedback on third-party sites like Yelp, Amazon, and OpenTable. There are even tools that can track phone calls, and tie the calls back to how customers found your number in the first place.
Google Analytics, for example, is a free way to see where your customers are coming from, and how they learned about you. Once you’ve gained a understanding of how useful this data is, you can adjust your tactics accordingly and spend more effort on the channels that generate the most business for you.
If You Don’t Know the Answer, Ask Someone
Block recommends identifying the most obvious problem first, and hopefully, there’s a simple fix: Perhaps your website isn’t optimized so it doesn’t come up high searches, or maybe customers have to work too hard to get in touch with you.
It’s also invaluable to learn from others in similar businesses, and your neighborhood can help. Block suggests taking advantage of programs from business councils, professional associations, tech advisement organizations and chambers of commerce. Seek advice from people who have been in the business for many years and know all the pitfalls, and then marry that with what you learn from younger people who understand emerging technology and new consumer behaviors.
“Teaming those people together is a great combination,” Block emphasizes.
Recommended Tools to Start Marketing your Business Today
Block recommends the following tools to her clients looking to market their businesses on a budget:
- Weebly and Squarespace for building user-friendly websites
- Shopify for ecommerce
- Eventbrite for ticketing
- Google Analytics for tracking website visitors. One of their newest tools is “benchmarking,” which shows how you rank against businesses in your industry.
- Google Alerts can immediately show you what people are saying about your business — and your competition.
- Insightly is a new favorite site for contact relationship management and project management.
- MadMimi or MailChimp for email marketing
- Acxiom’s business listing manager for making sure your business listing is visible with up-to-date information.