Friday, January 30, 2015

Positioning for Growth: Some Questions

An interesting question arose for me that came up in a conversation involving two other business owners, one who is eager to flex his muscles and expand the business by offering additional services.  The capacity is there: this business has equipment that isn't fully utilized, and can add personnel to deploy the equipment.  But he was baffled: how, he asked, can he position his marketing to reflect the proposed change?  what kind of business should he think of himself being in?

I cautioned to step back just a bit.  There are two ways to approach this conundrum.  One is the confident, risk-tolerant "just do it" approach.  Define yourself as you imagine yourself to be.  There's a high risk doing this, of course.  The market may not be there, but it is a valid approach.  There are all kinds of business success stories where the wider mindset paid off.

The other approach is for a more conservative business owner.  And that is to take the informed risk.  Assess the marketplace, and if the water is inviting, proceed with the expansion.  In his case this was a simple matter of engaging the well-defined customers in conversations to understand their needs and how they are solving problems (and where new help is welcomed).  The downside here is that sometimes the target customer doesn't know what they want, exactly, and a service or product that excites them can arise from nowhere (think iPad as a classic example.)

I'd recommend the second approach every time if for no better reason than to possess a greater understanding of the potential market.  I think that proceeding with no market intelligence may be gutsy but is also unwise.  My business owner conversationalist would not only be better informed about customer situations, could avoid clear problems with his concept, and might just discover an entirely unexpected opportunity.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Beginning SEO: Several Strategies

I had a fascinating discussion today with a small business person whose web site was, in his words, "invisible".  He wanted to know what he could do to change the equation.  To put his plight in perspective, I found that if I typed the name of his business into a search engine his business web site was listed sixth.  A couple of questions later, I suggested some revisions to his web site strategy that will make a difference soon.  I think they are a fine start for someone beginning their pursuit of a better SEO (search engine optimization)

#1.  The web site itself should include text, and a decent amount of it.  The business owner's entire web site was made of attractive but unindexible graphics.  Web indexing robots look at text.  Hence, talk about your business and services in words, and use key words as much as possible (and that includes your business name.)

#2.  If it's possible to get into the HTML code (and it should be!) pass search terms into a Meta tag up front that will be noticed by the robots.

#3. Talk about your business and your services, products, and expertise in a connected property, such as a blog or in LinkedIn or Twitter, etc.  Regular infusions of material that relate to your business and web site will improve its standing.

#4. Exploit opportunities to have other web sites point to yours.  Comment on blogs or forums.  Form alliances with other businesses.  Or ask other businesses to list you in a "recommended web sites" list.

I do not recommend buying into a service that purports to "move you up the search engine listings to the top".  Much of the traffic that feeds their scheme doesn't help much---if they work at all, and others are bidding for the same space.  Slow and steady progress through your own words will make a difference, using techniques that amplify your good work.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Easy Ways to Calculate Cost of Acquisition

Let's say you are spending money on some form of advertising or promotion.  Are there ways to determine if it's pulling its weight?  Many small businesses employ "hunch" or "feel" in assessing their expenditures, or in a slightly more sophisticated vein comparing total receipts and sales to marketing costs and watching the trend.   Times of good revenues are assumed to relate to quality advertising and promotion; lean times would mean advertising didn't work.  It's crude, but at least it's a start.

The big dogs employ much more sophisticated metrics in an effort to assess what is called the Cost of Acquisition (COA).  In a nutshell, the dollar value associated with each new customer.  Ad and promotion strategies that have a high COA will (or should) be scrapped in favor of lower COA options.  Data from POS and registers (and others) are compared to cost figures and a fairly good picture can be drawn of the strength of various buys.  Small businesses can't hope to work in this space: the staffing, cost and time demands are too great.

But there is hope for a decent set of metrics.  The very easiest approach requires being assiduous in asking customers how they found you.  Ask at whatever stage they approach.  For a service provider that can be done at the point of initial contact.  For a retailer, at the point of sale.  A simple but highly effective spreadsheet can be built with each new customer recorded, their date of contact, their associated revenue, and the means by which they became aware of you.

Let's now say you want to see what a new ad is doing for you.  Filter for all customers who say that ad drew them to, and total up the revenue associated with those customers, and divide by the number of new customers.  The resulting dollar figure is good working COA.  Strategies where the advertising cost more per new customer than the revenue they bring in are probably unproductive.  But you will learn a lot from that calculation!  Done for all of your advertising and promotion you can begin to weed out the less helpful channels and make your marketing more efficient.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Marketing Gimmickry: Does it Really Work?

Yesterday while returning from a Toastmasters Club meeting I drove past a business that had put up a large inflatable duck in front of the business, along the road.  The utter incongruousness of the duck and the business struck me, but I remembered all of the other inflatables, and other gimmicks (e.g. people waving signs while in costume, walking sandwich boards, etc.) I have seen over the years and that's what brought on a frown for the rest of the day.

As with so much in life, there is a point where you can go right over the wall.  Let's take these inflatables, as they are relatively popular.  On the one hand, I can almost see some value in a person hired to, say, wear a Statue of Liberty costume and wave at people to promote a business called "Liberty Tax Preparation".  It's a silly come-on but I did remember the business later and there was some (albeit limited) connection with the brand equity of the business.  But let's say you are a realty office and you decide to put out an inflatable dancing person.  Is this "look at me!!!!" impact overwhelmed by the brand misfit? or the chance it made the realty company look cheesy and "low rent"?  I am a person very sensitive to brand equity and anything that could enhance or damage the same.

Let's put this another way.  The business I passed may have spent a great deal of time and money cultivating a brand that conveyed an image of professionalism, knowledge, and class.  And then one day they put out an inflatable duck.  This guy now suspects the managers of that company of being fools: they certainly thought so little of their target customer that they supposed an inflatable duck would attract new business.

I would urge any small business owner to use gimmicks like this with extreme care.  Be wary of what subconscious message is broadcast that could impair your precious brand.

Monday, January 26, 2015


There are so many styles of advertising, but sometimes the most entertaining are the "Do-It-Yourselves" (DIY), either in print or broadcast formats.  Some of the ones I have seen over the years are clever masterpieces.  Many are, well, less effective.  DIY is a challenge for any businessperson, and should be undertaken with extreme care.  The concern I have is that in an effort to save expenses, there is a risk that the ad will be unsuccessful.  Print ads are of the most concern because basic software tools are out there and many people have a fascination with weird font choices, make design errors, and crowd ad space with too much text and imagery.  But radio (and even TV) can invite an unappealing or unprofessional image for your business.  If possible and it is affordable, turn to professionals who can design advertising that does your business proud.

I love to save money as well.  The obvious compromise is to court editors.  Find friends or contacts who can provide objective assessments and run things by them first.  Take care with the tools and preserve your good image.  Happy advertising!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Millennials, Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, Oh My

More and more we hear of marketing efforts (and almost everything else) to cohort bands, such as the "Baby Boomers", "Gen Xers" and now "Millennials".  These groups are broad bands of consumers united by their birth year.  For example, Boomers are widely held to have been born between 1946 and 1964 (although other definitions exist).

The cohort logic is that there are predominant characteristics of these groups.  While an individual person may or may not share those characteristics with others of near birth years, get enough together and you'll perceive the majority tendency.  Hence we have known for some time through polling, demographic research, and pop culture that Gen Xers (1965-1980?) are relatively more individualistic, risk-accepting, and more skeptical.  The and coming Millennials (1981-2001?), we think, are relatively more communitarian and less materialistic.

Human Resources people have been keenly interested in these cohort effects for some time as they impact the workplace.  And marketers are getting in the game as well.  How do we think about cohorts as small business people?

Cohorts are important as we look at our target market.  Some products and services resonate better with some age bands than others.  But more to the point, how we position the advertising message will change depending on the cohort.  Take something as well understood as clothing.  I'll pitch image to a Boomer, price to a Gen Xer and fashion to a Millennial.  Same product, different perception.

Bottom line: keep cohorts in mind as you identify your target market.  Then think about how affected cohorts will respond to various marketing strategies.

We'll discuss these more in future posts.  Stay tuned!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The 30 Second Commercial

As a member of leads groups, I am privileged to hear the great variety of "30 second commercials" given by other business owners.  They range enormously in effectiveness, from the mumbled mash to the piece of art.  I can't say I am a master of the craft of making a 30 second spot, but I know what I like and have worked on extemporaneous and compact speaking through Toastmasters International, so I feel competent to make suggestions on what makes a good "spot", or not.

* Speak clearly, speak deliberately, and speak a little louder than you think you should.
* At least look like you are having fun! smile!  Enjoy the chance to sell your expertise.
* Mention your name and your business name at the beginning and at the end.
* Ask for the listener's business, or describe a good lead to make the commercial actionable.
* Consider adding a useful piece of information, something free for listening, or...
* Mention (without using names) cases where you helped someone and solved a problem, or...
* Specifically point out how you can solve a specific problem.
* Practice one or more versions of your commercial at home.  Use a timer!
* Feel free to use your business slogan, if you have one.  Your ad should reflect your brand!
* Don't bad mouth competitors, or say in general they do poorer work.  Don't be vulgar, either.
* Use jokes with extreme caution.
* Generally speaking, avoid talking about prices and affordability.
* Emphasize your competitive advantage.  In what do you specialize? do best?
* Link your service to your audience's needs.  What can you say to get their attention?
* Speak only when you get in position.  Don't start sitting down if you are not done speaking.
* Try to make eye contact with listeners.
* Most of all, reflect your passion for what you do!

Have a great commercial!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Concerning Car Magnets and Wraps

Over the years I have seen "mobile advertising" come and go. I am seeing an increasing number of car ads and wraps, most often in the form of magnetic-backed panels.  Are these worth the money?

Yes, but in very limited cases.  Let's consider: the time when the ad most gets seen is when the viewer is driving their own vehicle.  There may be an initial "how interesting!" but it's lost by the time said viewer is able to record or recall the information.  Unless that viewer sees your vehicle regularly we don't get much traction on the TOMA (Top of Mind Awareness) needed.  Same holds for car parks.  It might work, but by that point the ad is usually screened by parallel vehicles.

Certain occupations, seen in the right context, may help.  Seeing a crafts ad on a vehicle parked at a nearby home may catch a homeowners' eye and add credibility (i.e. the neighbor approved the service provider). Or, a service provider vehicle ad may be just outside the physical location and provide a bit more signage.

Probably the best argument for mobile advertising is that it bolsters the small business owner's self-image.  She or he is proud of their work and wants that extra public identification.  So, sure, it's like a logo cap or a branded whoosiwatsit.  It may be marginally helpful as a marketing tool but it is better at making your day happier---and probably more productive.  It's just not a significant tool in building market share for most businesses.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The New Look Yellow Pages

It's been rather a staple of wisdom in the marketing trade that the old-fashioned "yellow pages" directories are no longer a good way for businesses to advertise.  Telephone directory use has plummeted and the ads are only seen by a tiny fraction of consumers.

But what about the "New Look" versions of these dinosaur directories?  At least one of the better known properties has a webpage that performs like a search engine and includes promotional and social media-type add-ons.  Of course, there is advertising for enhanced placement.

That's all well and good, and it is nice to see the directory company moving resolutely into the new era.  But at the end of the day, what I see is a derivative application.  Google, Yahoo, Bing and others got there first and have vastly better Top-of-Mind-Awareness.  To really make the ad spend worth the while the new directory application needs much more innovation.

For the small business seeking promotional gains from the Internet, I counsel care, and adherence to a tool that is already recognized.  I'm not persuaded that the ROI is there for a player like Google, but it is certainly superior to other search engines.  And that includes the new look yellow pages.  As with all of these thinks, a careful decision is in order.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Which Demographics Really Matter?

As I talk about defining the Target customer, the usual starting point is demographics.  That's really just a fancy word for "what do people look like" although it goes farther into behavior.  That said, the insightful marketer understands that some demographics matter, and some definitely do not.  And in this day and age, we graze uncomfortably close to what is often called "profiling"--the idea that we can make broad assumptions about categories of people.  So what to do?

We know that some demographics matter.  We have extensive consumer data showing that there are very clear differences, in general, on the basis of age, income and gender.  And we know that most members of these categories behave similarly.  And depending on the product or service we can find a few more that stick out.  Sometimes ethnicity matters: think specialty food markets.  Sometimes ideology matters: think opinion magazines.  Sometimes body shape and size matters: ("Bob's Big Men Store")  and so on.

The more narrowly we position ourselves, the more important demographics become.  A grocer will be a lot less sensitive to demographics than someone who sells handbags.  The small business person needs to sit down and list the attributes of the sorts of people who are expected to be customers (something that should be in their business plan).  Add also the attributes of customers actually acquired and those of close competitors.  Finally, ask yourself what doesn't really matter.  Is there really, say, a gender difference?  or an income difference?  Make sure to keep a realistic focus and ask hard questions based on both reason and observation.  An observed difference may be "unreal" (i.e. some "demographics" may be missing).

Marketing can then be applied.  Niche customers can be attracted with the right approach.  But it all starts with getting a handle on the demographics.  The right ones.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Leverage the Power of Video

One of the side benefits of the Internet is providing new avenues of expression previously impossible for the small business owner.  Surely the biggest of these is reach: potential customers can learn about your business anywhere in the world at virtually no cost to you.  And riding on that reach is the ability to put your own face and voice on your work.  I refer, of course, to video.  More and more business owners are using video to boost their message, and they're wise to do so.

A video can be attached to a web site, social media page, or email that can talk to a product, service, location, or idea.  Consider the possibilities!  Some of my network contacts use video to show off their facilities, demonstrate their own skills and personalities, and to show off products.  It is so easy these days to record a video with inexpensive equipment and upload it to Youtube.  Want a more polished look?  I know, and I am sure you also can find outstanding videographers who can create video work that rivals the high end advertisements of the big guys.

No one can make the case for your products and services better than you.  With the power of video on the Internet, you can make that case literally 24/7 anywhere in the world.  Share your passion!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Charity Marketing

One of the businesses I recently consulted told me that part of their marketing plan included what I can only describe as "charity" spending: specifically, sponsorship of a softball team.  What was agonizing for the business was that members and families of the team didn't patronize the business.  They were left hoping that other people might see the sponsorship and become patrons. Unfortunately, that's very wishful thinking.

There are plenty of other forms of charity marketing.  Other examples include advertising in school yearbooks, ads in community theater playbills, event sponsorships, and auction donations.  Such promotional spending simply doesn't build customer activity.  It's not well targeted and there are relatively few people looking at the business name or message.

If you identify with the charity or requesting organization and want to provide those sponsorship dollars, that's fine.  There is always something to be said for goodwill and community involvement.  But understand that at best you're supporting your brand and making a friend or two.  These forms of promotion are not helping you attract customers, clients or patrons.  If you do this, set a budget and stick to it.  Spend your real marketing dollars on more productive strategies.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Dinosaurs: Advertising in Newspapers

There was a time when a business would frequently, reflexively, and even automatically advertise in a newspaper.  Most newspapers got their start two or so centuries ago as vehicles for commercial notices -- before the "news" and "opinion" matter got going.  But in the 21st century, I'm convinced that newsprint and small business are incompatible.  I can say this as an old newspaper guy, one who saw the practical consequences to advertisers.

First, newspapers are broad-spectrum tools by nature, and there's no real way to target one's ads.  And believe me, placement of an ad is not going to happen---the newspaper picks the page.  And it may be a poor position!  Second, ads get lost.  The small business ads are almost always lumped together in one place, making it a chore to differentiate -- something harder to do when one has one color (black) to work with.  And third, readership has declined significantly in the past three decades, a trend that is accelerating.  I'm of the view that newspapers are essentially in the same position as a yellow pages for a small business.  Finally, ads only work at all if they are repeated in the same position, a very expensive proposition indeed.

When crafting your marketing plan, I recommend leaving newsprint out.  There are more effective ways to spend your limited marketing dollars.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Discounting: Proceed With Caution

One of the most vexing decisions a small business faces is whether to inject discounting into its marketing plan.  Discounts and coupons can attract new customers, and who doesn't like to obtain something at a lower price?  Estimates are that nearly nine in ten shoppers use coupons. Unfortunately discounting can have a terrible downside.  Businesses that coupon generously can easily be locked into a discounting expectation.  Consumers learn quickly that they can wait for coupons and that a business is always "on a sale".  And even regulars can back off to cheaper products when they might well have paid the asking price.  Major retailers like JCPenney have learned to their horror that they have discounted themselves into a corner.

I wouldn't discourage a small business from offering coupons.  The tool is powerful.  What I would advise is to offer coupons carefully.  Do not offer deals frequently, nor on cyclic dates (such as every holiday or every June 1st, say)  Don't give prospects or customers a sense that they can wait for a lower price.  You may want to tie the coupon to a "buy one, get X" deal as opposed to offering a flat "X percent off."  Tie coupons to new products and services to inspire trying out the new offering, but beware overdoing it with existing lines.  Always think hard about the need to discount: is it done to make up for a marketing shortfall elsewhere?

Coupons can be your friend when used with care.

Friday, January 9, 2015

QR Codes Make Sense

As a collector of business cards, flyers and the like, I am struck by the infrequency of little things that can improve the connection between a business and consumer.  Take the QR code, for example.  Too many small businesses don't use them, and yet with so many consumers out there who view the world through a mobile device, the opportunity may be lost to make a connection.  Let's face it, no one types in web addresses unless they're especially motivated.  And even fewer will search for what they remember of a web address or business name.  While statistics are divided on whether consumers are more or less moved to make a purchase after scanning a QR code, the long and short of it is that they don't cost very much to use and a doorway is closed if the code isn't there.  Consider adding a QR to an ad, or a business card, or brochure, or whatever you use.  The results could surprise you.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Think About the Target Customer

As I have spoken and consulted with business owners, I find that a widespread challenge is identifying the target customer.  So much of a marketing plan hinges on knowing who one's target customer is, yet surprisingly few have a handle on such a basic element.  Good business plans include a discussion of the target, but even there many business plans cast the net too widely.

Some of the big mistakes?  Target customers are not "everyone who lives within x miles", or "everyone who likes gyros", or worse, some variation of "people who like live music, or who like a quiet place to enjoy continental cuisine, or who need someplace to take the kids".  We business owners get into trouble when we don't focus.  It may be that our clientele includes some very different people, but our target must be rather more narrow.  We only have limited marketing resources: we need to strike for those who are the best prospects.  Be brave!

There is no time like the present to step back and clearly envision your true target customer.  Ask yourself what types of people are best served by your business?  who is best represented among your customer base? what do your most profitable 20% look like?  Ask for insights from your mentors and trustworthy observers.  Do some simple market research.  If you are still a little too fuzzy, keep asking questions.

Once you identify the true target customer, your marketing plan will be more productive and you will have more direction on how to serve your public.  Clarity is such a blessing!

So who is your target customer?

Monday, January 5, 2015

Direct Mail as a TOMA Tool

In my last post I pointed out how direct mail is increasingly a fine option for a small business getting noticed in special situations, such as the roll out of new products and services, or as a thank you to your best customers.

Small business owners should also look at direct mail as one of the techniques that can really help drive TOMA (Top of Mind Awareness).  Here's how.  Realistically direct mail will not be a fantastic sales tool.  Long experience shows us that direct mail has a LOW <1% return on a particular asking.  That's wonderful if you have a big list and a decent postage budget.  But if you look at direct mail in a slightly different way, you can beef up your longer-term ROI.  Direct mail's tangible nature (i.e. unlike email you can physically hold the document) gives it a fighting chance to be held, displayed or filed by a customer.  And that suggests adding some useful aspect to the direct mail piece that keeps it visible to your prospect or customer, or to someone they can refer.  Can you add a useful fact? a calendar? an announcement?  there are many possibilities. Always seek to add something that the person can use in their own lives.  And your logo will not be far away...

Regular direct mail can serve as that repeat reminder you are out there to help them.  One mailing roughly every quarter could greatly enhance your TOMA.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Direct Mail is Coming Back

Is direct mail dead as a marketing tool?  We like to think that direct mail was consigned to the rubbish heap in the Tsunami of "junk mail", but as many major marketers shifted attention to email, social media and other techniques, there's less mail to compete with.  It is possible to grab attention with old-fashioned methods.

Statistics I've seen suggest that direct mail is most noticed by the youngest consumers and that most people prefer mail to other advertising techniques.  And calculations show impressive return on investment for this media these days.  We can't not afford to consider direct mail as part of our mix.  But in so doing, keep your mind on some important details.

* Personalization is critical.  Find ways to personalize where possible.  Perhaps use handwritten notes to your very best customers.  Jot a quick note on each letter.  And send only certain people specific appeals customized to their needs.

* Use direct mail sparingly.  Direct mail is great for newsletters and for special promotions.  You just don't want to mail heavily and regularly if you want your material noticed.

* Brand the envelopes!  Use your logo and color if possible.  Even a specially produced return address label can make a big difference.

Think about a direct mail application this year.  Are you planning to roll out a new product or service?  Can you use mail to thank your best customers?  How about a newsletter that gives customers some value added?  Direct mail can be your new best friend!