Attracting customers takes a lot more than physical space; it requires marketing. In fact, it requires smart marketing. Build your new business with a solid strategy for selling it to the world around you.
By Jennifer Lawler
If you’re starting a small business or seeking to grow your customer base, marketing can be a powerful tool to help you realize your goals. Marketing is defined by Merriam-Webster as "the process or technique of promoting, selling, and distributing a product or service." To enact a productive marketing strategy, a business must first create a thorough marketing plan. Fortunately, creating an effective marketing plan can be as easy as asking yourself five simple questions.
1. Whom do I Intend to Serve?
According to Sandra Beckwith, a small business advisor and author of Streetwise Complete Publicity Plans: How to Create Publicity that Will Spark Media Exposure and Excitement, a successful marketing plan begins with identifying your target market. If you’re a bridal salon owner, for instance, you should ask yourself, “Where are the brides? Who are they?”
Small business owners often market too broadly, says Beckwith, who suggests thinking in terms of niches. “What do you do better than anyone else?” she asks. The owner of a bridal salon might decide to be a source for discounted dresses or the go-to place for second-time brides or a clearinghouse for high-fashion dresses. The bottom line, says Beckwith, “You can’t be all things to all people.”
2. How Can I Make Customers Aware of My Products and Services?
It is crucial that you identify ways to reach the customers who are interested in your particular niche, says Ned Barnett of Barnett Marketing Communications, who writes his own blog about how to successfully market and promote a business.
For example, Barnett says that if you’re situated in a retail location, chances are your customers come from within a 3- to 5-mile radius, so there’s no need to advertise on television or radio in order to reach those customers. In fact, it would probably be wasteful. Instead, he says, “You need to find ways to market to people right around you. If you’re in an area that has become largely Hispanic, then you need to market in Spanish. Or if you’re in an area that’s become upscale, you can’t be the dollar store any more.”
Reaching customers means understanding what influences their buying decisions, says Kevin McLaughlin, principal of Resound Marketing. “This can range from consumer press and trade journals to business peers and industry organizations to friends and family. Understanding what influences those buying decisions can help you gauge the effectiveness of the tools you should use.”
3. What am I Capable of?
According to Barnett, your marketing plan should be based on your own abilities. “You figure out what you can do and what your area of competence is and you start by doing that,” he says. “If you don’t know anything about radio, but think you should advertise on the radio, you can end up dissatisfied with the results.”
“You cannot turn marketing on and off like a faucet,” McLaughlin says, “so small business owners must formulate a marketing plan that they can sustain.” He points out that many business owners make the mistake of only spending money on marketing when they’ve had a good month or when they notice a downturn in business. “Once you get on the radar, you don’t want to fall off by going silent,” he says. “You must be committed to your marketing program to see results, and you’ll benefit in the long run.”
Relying on your strengths and understanding your limitations—and not getting hung up on things you can’t do—will help to create a marketing plan that produces results.
4. What Are My Marketing Goals?
Marketing and PR consultant Kemi Chavez, owner of Elizabeth, Colo.-based In Demand Books, says your strategy should be based on your objectives. In other words, what do you hope to accomplish with your marketing plan? “It could be increasing annual sales or increasing your company’s name recognition [among your customers],” she says. “Identifying your objectives allows you to reflect on the goals you want to achieve.”
Beckwith recommends that you create a “big” statement—even if you’re small—to guide marketing decisions. Your statement might promise, for instance, that you’ll pursue budget-minded and cost-effective marketing opportunities that yield multiple hits with your audience. “That umbrella thinking helps you prevent waste,” Beckwith says.
You also need to determine what your marketing message is. “Clear, concise and, most importantly, consistent messaging is key to capturing and keeping your customers’ attention,” McLaughlin says. “Essentially, you want to pull out the key elements of your elevator pitch, and be sure to convey them through your marketing tools.”
Remember to look at your marketing efforts from your competitors’ perspective, too. “Ask, ‘How are they treating the market?’” Barnett says. “If they’ve been there a while, they know what they’re doing. McDonald’s used to spend a lot of money finding the best locations for its stores. It invested heavily and effectively in that. So, Burger King’s effective—and cheap—strategy was just to locate their stores near McDonald’s.”
5. How Will I Market?
Your marketing tactics should ensure direct or indirect payback, Barnett says. This means that marketing becomes an investment, so that you’re getting back more than you put in, rather than an expense, such as electricity. “If you can’t see how it will help your business, then skip it,” he says. “Some bad investments are to be expected, but that’s not the same as thinking of marketing as just an expense you have to live with. Find what works for you and your [customers].
Some effective marketing tactics that you can use, according to Beckwith, are:
- A Web site. Many people use the Internet to identify sources of products and services they need.
- Advertising. Depending on your market, this may include expensive radio, television, newspapers, magazines (local, regional, national, trade and consumer) and phone directories.
- Direct mail. You can reach a more tightly defined audience with fewer dollars than you can with expensive radio or television advertising.
- E-mail. You can use special offers and e-newsletters to stay in touch with customers.
- Networking. Word-of-mouth can bring in scores of new customers.
- Public speaking. Talking to groups interested in your product or service can yield big returns.
- Publicity. Sending tip sheets and news releases to local media can mean more exposure and more traffic for your business.