One of the questions I'm asked most frequently is, "When is the best time to market?" The answer is simple: The best time to market is now and every day hereafter. In fact, marketing should be a year-round process. Even seasonal businesses must continually reach out to customers or risk having to rebuild their sales every year.

Since 1991, when I began coaching small businesses on marketing, I've had requests from countless entrepreneurs who never marketed, but were facing bankruptcy if they didn't bring in customers immediately. Sadly, these business owners might have built highly successful companies if only they'd put marketing programs in place. But they had to struggle to bring in customers without prospect databases, marketing tools or materials, often with little or no name recognition in the marketplace.

If this story seems a bit too familiar, it's time to take charge of your company's marketing and become proactive. Or if you're just starting your business, consider this a cautionary tale and begin marketing your company today.

Your first step is to identify what your marketing message should be. It's critical to create a benefit-oriented message that'll resonate with your prospects and then carry it through all your new tools, from your company brochure to advertising and PR.

Start by answering these three fundamental questions:

1. What are you really marketing?
Chances are there's a big difference between what you think you're selling and what your customers or clients want to buy. Suppose you own a porcelain refinishing business. You might think you're selling a two-stage, long-lasting finish for unsightly bathtubs. But while those might be important features of your service, what customers really look for are the benefits those features deliver. In this case, that would be a beautiful bathroom that sparkles like new.

Features are the characteristics of your product or service, while benefits tell customers what they'll get because of those features. As you build your new marketing message, lead with the benefits and explain them with features. For example, the porcelain refinisher might promise a beautiful bathtub that sparkles like new, thanks to a two-stage, long-lasting finish.

2. Who wants to buy what you market?
It's always easier for a marketer to fill a need than to create one. So for the shortest route to success, identify prospects who already want to buy what you sell and write a simple one or two-sentence target audience profile that describes them. You can look at your best, most profitable customers or at the customer base of your chief competitors, or draw at least preliminary conclusions from trends in the marketplace to identify a qualified target group.

This target audience profile will be valuable as you move forward with your marketing campaign. You'll use it to select the best-targeted media, from newspapers and magazines to radio, TV and websites. If you're marketing to consumers, describe them demographically, including their ages, genders and any other important characteristics, such as household income. And if you're marketing to business prospects, be sure to identify them based on all relevant criteria, including the types of businesses in which they work and their job titles.

3. Why will people want to buy from you?
Prospects who need what you market will be shopping--and probably buying--with your competitors. So to succeed, you must take market share away from someone else. What can you do or provide that'll add sufficient value to make buying from you more attractive than purchasing elsewhere? Whatever that something may be, embrace it and turn it into your competitive advantage. This may require a bit of creativity, such as bundling a group of features or products together to create a compelling package. Or if you're a retailer, you might need to change your hours of operation to make shopping more convenient. Or a small restaurant could add takeout services.

Take time today to answer these three important questions and formulate a core message that'll resonate with your best prospects. Then develop a family of materials and select media tactics that'll help you reach your prospects on an ongoing basis. Since it takes multiple contacts in most industries to move prospects through the sales cycle, be patient and persevere. You'll find that proactively building your business keeps it on a more economically even keel.