Friday, February 27, 2015

Striking the Right Balance on a Marketing Budget

Small business owners are universally confronted with the formidable challenge of deciding how much to budget for advertising and promotion.  There are many opinions but there is a general consensus that one size does not fit all.

I'm of the school of thought that 5-10% of sales revenue is a good target for a marketing budget.  The figure can be reduced if there is already great word-of-mouth and very respectable customer traffic, but we all know that is an uncommon reality!

Is more worth it?  There are good reasons to consider exceeding 10% if the business is aggressively building brand, top-of-mind awareness, or promoting an important new product or service.  BUT (yes, in all caps) I never advise throwing money at the marketing.  Expenses should be thoughtful: does the channel deliver promise of good ROI, low cost-per-thousand, or some other measure of effectiveness?  Does the channel typically make sense for a small business?

Can the business tighten up and save money?  Absolutely.  BUT (again, all caps) a strong effort must be made to get the business name out in front with the best tools available, such as strong networking, B2B, social media, and the like.  But keep in mind that you get what you pay for.  If the small business is too parsimonious customer growth could suffer greviously.

What's the strategy?  Set a budget target and then work from there, adjusting up or down depending on realistic assessments of current efforts and prospects, and experience.  Make seasonal variations as necessary.  Above all, think carefully about every dollar.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Newsletters Can Add a Dimension

A few of the small businesses I follow or patronize employ newsletters as part of their marketing strategy, and I am surprised it is so few.  A newsletter (which can be printed or distributed as a PDF) can add an exciting dimension to a small business.

A newsletter can be a means to provide "value added" in the form of information, advice, or statistics of which customers may be unaware.  And in so doing you command more respect and awareness of your knowledge and experience.

A newsletter can be used as a chatty leave-behind in any number of places.  It is a great way to introduce yourself to prospects or referrals.

A newsletter can give you means of explaining how you solved other customers' problems and challenges.

And, if embedded in a web site, newsletters can add to searchable text about your business and boost your SEO (search engine optimization score).

The work to write and publish a newsletter doesn't need to be excessive.  Even on a quarterly basis the tool can more than justify that expense.  Consider adding one to your arsenal!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Craigslist Dilemma

There is no denying that one of the hottest portals on the web is Craiglist.  I suspect I get at least an exposure a day to this property without exerting myself.  It's considered a great place to place a listing, seek a situation, and more.  It also comes with challenges.  Foremost among these is a disproportionate volume of shady characters.

There is danger on both sides of the equation for a small business.  Scammers can fool a business into performing work that leads to no payment, or to engage in any one of the many other flimflams I hear so much about.  And for potential customers? More sensitive ones may bypass your listing out of concern for illegitimate "offers".

The best advice for those using Craigslist as a marketing tool is to take reasonable precautions.  Provide links to your legitimate web properties, provide a searchable phone number, and be willing to meet with a prospect.  Also, before accepting an engagement or sale be insistent on meeting the person in person.  I strongly advise only doing business with someone locally (as Craigslist itself advises).  Taking proper precautions can't hurt and can potentially save a lot of heartache!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Watch the Language!

As a speaker, I am increasingly aware of both the power of the spoken word but also the dangers.  That is to say, a badly delivered message can be harmful to one's brand.  You hear it said often (and correctly) that a job candidate benefits from a better vocabulary and proper English.  What is not often said is how this same effect can ruin advertising.

I have seen and read far too many ads that pitch the ball too low.  The language is sloppy.  There's too much vernacular, or lazy contractions, or phony voice tones.  I suppose the advertiser imagines that all sounds "folksy" or is how their customers speak.  Well, maybe.  But it also sends a message that the advertiser is not playing their best game and may even connote that they have a low opinion of the viewer/listener/reader.  I will be upfront is saying that ads that have "poor speaking" disconnect me from the advertiser: I am less likely to give them my custom.

It all comes back to the brand.  What do you want your brand to be? and how do you want to be perceived by the customer?  Only after giving this hard thought should the ad be cut.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Social Media: Meetups

The Internet has made possible so many new ways to do just about everything in life, and I am constantly amazed by innovations that improve life.  And business.  One of these innovations, I am convinced, is Meetup.  This social media tool, launched in 2002, is steadily gaining acceptance in the marketplace and boasts over 125,000 meetup groups in nearly 200 countries.  In my networking circles Meetup is regularly used for all kinds of purposes.

Is it a true marketing tool? Absolutely.  A small business owner can create a meetup group as a passive tool: perhaps a workshop or information session on a topic or purpose closely aligned to the business.  It is important to keep the hard sell to a minimum.  The meetup group can attract potential customers, demonstrate the business owner's expertise, and build a network.  Sales come from that.  Furthermore, by participating in other meetup groups, a business owner can gain visibility and interest as well.

Like all tools, Meetup can be abused.  But appropriate and thoughtful use can be a huge boon.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Strategies for Dealing With a Highly Competitive Market

More than a few of the small business owners in my network entered a highly competitive marketplace.  Among them are financial planners, insurance agencies, pizza bakeries, and life coaches: a mixed bag.  I watch their marketing with great interest because they have the task of establishing their own credibility where there are already very successful entrants.

Frankly, too many adopt a doomed strategy in promoting themselves.  This one can be illustrated by a slogan that seems to be on every pizza delivery box in America: "You've tried the rest, now try the best".  Consumers' tastes are varied enough that such a claim is ridiculous on its face.  Trying to tell the marketplace that your business is "the best" looks like a hollow boast.

There are two ways to compete effectively in a market full of seemingly identical players.  And they both involve establishing a competitive advantage.  One depends on the first wave of customers and clients passing on the word that your business is superior on the basis of product, service, price (or combinations thereof).  That's up to you: be a superior provider every minute of every day.

The other is putting together a marketing campaign that calls attention to meaningful competitive differences.  This does not involve claims of better products, better service, and better price.  Trust me, you won't be believed (look at that pizza box again!).  Do you offer a product or service that you're especially good at or which is not as well represented in the market?  Do you have an expertise serving particular types of consumers?  Do you have certifications or credentials that make you stand out?  Stumped for ideas? don't hesitate to ask existing clients and customers what they like best about your offerings.

For example, a financial planner I know has a significant proportion of clients who are owners of small businesses.  He can make a point of positioning himself as an expert meeting the specific needs of entrepreneurs.  None of his competitors of which I am aware "own" this space.  It's an opportunity!

It is possible to win in a tight market.  But it requires thoughtful marketing work.  You can do it!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The E-mail Conundrum

It is a widely known fact of marketing that in study after study consumers tell us that they most prefer to be contacted by email, in contrast to mailers, phone calls, texts, or other channels.  Which would be wonderful for us in marketing because this channel is so inexpensive!  Except that consumers also complain loudly that they receive too many emails.  And we know what that means: many emails are deleted, filtered into folders-that-are-ignored, or simply ignored.

What do we make of this conundrum?  and how can we respond?

I believe we can use email to advantage.  When we are told there is too much email, we know that no one means certain kinds of emails---do you complain about too many messages from friends and family?  coupon codes from your favorite vendors?  Of course not!.

Our marketing messages by way of email need to be crafted carefully so that they become impactful and welcomed.  Here are some guidelines that may help convert "spam" into "bacon":

1. Keep it simple.  Be parsimonious with text and graphics.  Get to the point quickly and try to keep your appeal to a few sentences.  This email should be quickly digested.  If you have more to day, invite people to click links to your website and/or blog instead of reprinting the whole thing.

2. Watch the frequency.  I think the worst thing we can do is send a cascade of emails every week.  I receive some that sent multiple emails each day.  Good grief!  I would recommend visiting your customer once a week at most and at a predictable time.

3. Stick to benefits for the customer.  Concentrate on a special deal of the week, or a particularly valuable announcement.  Or point to the newest issue of your newsletter.

4. And most of all, select an irresistible subject line.  Entice the reader to click the email and discover the goodies.  Is there a big sale?  something free?  Something they need to know now that will change their day?  Use a complete sentence with a verb.

You can cut through the clutter and make your email message welcomed.  I can help!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Small Events as a Marketing Device

In this metro area it is not hard to find events (seminars, workshops, talks) providing solutions to various business or personal challenges by entrepreneurs.  It's a fair bit more common a practice among professional speakers, but it's hardly their game alone.  This is a fantastic idea for small business owners, especially in the service sector.

One reason I like this approach is that prospective customers can try out the presenter on a low- or no-cost basis.  It's a no-brainer!  Spend a little money to better observe a presenter's knowledge, experience, and ideas.  It's also a good marketing device because the promotion itself, as well as leads generated by attendees, get the presenter's identity and message out to a wider public.  These events are easily located at co-working centers, libraries, chambers of commerce, and other places.

Not crazy about doing one yourself?  Consider teaming up with other business owners in allied professions to expand the topic range, or even friendly competitors eager to grow business in certain specialties.

Events are fun, relaxed ways to introduce yourself to new parts of the market.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Mailbox Marketing - Shotgun Targeting

Today's mail collection led to the discovery of one of those flyers affixed to the exterior of the mailbox.  We get them every so often.  What is remarkable to me is not so much the wide diversity of advertisers -- today's was a a martial arts studio.  I am amazed that the business is using such an inefficient method of promoting themselves.

We have talked about identifying and targeting the right customer.  It's rare in small business to be successful by "shotgunning" entire neighborhoods.  We do see that with the big marketers but for them the marginal cost of the extra mailer is so small that they can afford to broadcast widely.  Keep in mind also that for them a neighborhood can be a well-focused appeal (typically using "psychodemographic" and "geodemographic" cues.  However, for small business this every-door method is usually wasteful.  I can almost see it for a restaurant or a landscaper.  For most of the rest, not so much.

This is expensive:  Add to the printing costs the expense of driving all over everywhere and the opportunity cost of putting labor out on the street instead of something else.

When tempted by mailbox marketing, think about the return on investment and how that would compare with another method.  Turn to this methodology with care.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Millennials, Yes. "GenZ", Not So Much.

There is a great deal of ink being devoted to the marketing challenge of so-called Generations "Y" and "Z".  (I find it amusing that other, older generational cohorts -- namely the Baby Boomers and the "Gen-Xers" seem to have been cast aside as marketing targets!)  I think there is also a good deal of confusion about these latest waves and that it is unnecessary.  Because I don't see Y and Z as separate entities.  Here's why:

The concept of a generational cohort suggests that there are influences on a wave of people born in a period of years that differ from influences on other waves.  The most compelling of these, to my mind, are those of nurture.  Parenting (and "village" standards, if you wish) differ over time, but there are only a few basic models.  Compare the relatively loose, hands-off and even hostile approach to children in the 1970s to the soccer-mom-scrutinized children of more recent years.  If we project back far enough and study the culture we see distinct patterns that seem to change ever 20-25 years or so.  The "GI" generation and the current "Millennials" had relatively doting and obsessive parents, in general.  Other cycles saw "parents-as-friends" and other societal norms.

Things have not changed greatly since the paradigm shift in the early 1980s when we started seeing all of the "Baby on Board" signs.  Parents were extremely protective and observant in the period that produced the Millennials (~1982 to 2001??) There are some initial signs that the nurture model is shifting a bit more the over-protective and dominating type but for our purposes there was no clear change in nurture for over twenty years.

Yet, some commentators think there are important differences between the children born in the 1980s, 1990s and since 2000.  One I read this week suggested technology and diversity made the difference.  Well, maybe.  I don't see this myself.  The Millennials are predominantly communitarian, hubristic, and nonmaterialistic.  That is consistent for a broad birth period.

I am perfectly willing to accept and expect a new cohort to be forming now, one that would be predicted to have started between 2001 and 2011, but one for which we don't have enough data.  As far as the Y-and-Z division, marketers should stick to the broad fundamentals and watch the relatively low discretionary spending pattern (outside technology) and the cohort values noted above.  And don't let yourself be confused!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Business Card Basics

As a small business owner I have been accumulating the business cards of the people I meet through networking.  And I marvel at the diversity of presentations.  It is wonderful to see how different perspectives speak to the entrepreneur's vision and brand.  Not all of them are effective presentations (though most, I think, are)  and some even lack critical pieces of information.  These little pieces of paperstock are a critical piece of our marketing.  They need to sing!

I have some suggested guidelines for someone planning to create their own cards. (Note, professionals are out there and most all will do a superior job creating business cards.  I do advise using one if at all possible.  But reality is that we do what we can afford.)

1. Most importantly, include all of the critical information.  Your company name, your name, your phone number, email address(es), web site, and address, as well as any thing that will help someone find you and resume the connection.  Believe it or not, some cards lack some of these data!

2. Don't go wild, unless that's intrinsic to your brand.  Conservative designs, color choices and fonts will serve you well.  When selecting templates, if they are offered, opt for the calmer choices and beware of unnecessary graphics.  And do adhere to your brand: colors, logos, etc. should be related.

3. I'm agnostic about including your photo.  Feel free to include it if it is likely to support your appeal.  But it is probably unnecessary.  I'm also agnostic about using both sides of the card.  Using both sides can spread information and reduce the "busy-ness" of the design.

4. Use the best printing you can afford, including good grades of paper.  Make sure your business card is as high-quality as you are in person.

5. I recommend having enough space, either on front or back, to be able to handwrite custom information when needed (for example, the date and location of a special event.)

6. Finally, make sure everything is readable!  Shrinking font sizes may give you more room, but it will give you fewer "readers" and fewer customers.

Good luck as you create, or re-create business cards!  Enjoy this powerful marketing tool and give it as much power as it deserves.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Super Ads: A Teachable Moment

Let's overlook the cute puppies, the goofy situations, heartwarming horses, and all that comes with Super Bowl advertising.   Let's also forget that these are television ads.  The "Super Ad Show" every year presents us with perhaps the most distorted advertising scheme imaginable.  And it is one we can learn from.

The advertising on Super Bowl Sunday is arguably created for one purpose, and that is one-ups-manship.  These advertisers, usually, are well known.  They are spending ridiculous rates for the sheer hope of being most talked about.  Lost in the shuffle are product or service value and even brand reinforcement.  And then there are the few advertisers who throw 90% percent of their ad budget at this one event in one dramatic splash.  Both of these strategies are crazy!

We should be advertising, when we do, to give our products and services time in front of the consumer, and explaining how those products and services improve the consumers' life.  And we should do so in deliberate exposures so that we bolster our brand equity.  When we use advertising to attempt to outdo the next person, we have lost our way.

Watching these Super ads can be fun, or unsettling as the case may be.  But these are strategies that are actually quite frivolous and may work against the advertiser.