From the September 2000 issue of Entrepreneur

Remember when you bought your last car? You probably didn't make the decision overnight. First, you started paying more attention to car commercials and ads, and then you looked at a few different models. Perhaps you did some research on the Internet and visited dealerships to check prices. When you were ready to buy, you completed the sale.

Your own business prospects move through the buying cycle in much the same way. At first, they know virtually nothing about your company, but over time, they become familiar with the benefits of your product or service-and eventually, they're ready to buy.

Every business owner needs a marketing program that involves customers from when they first start "kicking the tires" to when they offer their closing handshakes. And for most businesses, the sales cycle requires eight or more contacts with a prospect before a sale is closed. So to create a successful program, your sales cycle must be supported by continuous marketing efforts that reach out to prospects in three stages: cold, warm and hot.

Cold prospects: These are either members of your particular target audience or companies you have placed on a list of prospects who know nothing about you.

Warm prospects: These most likely make up the bulk of the prospects that are in your company database. They are businesses or individuals who've been exposed to your marketing message but aren't completely ready to close.

Hot prospects: These are the prospects you've successfully moved through your sales cycle-cultivating them through multiple marketing contacts and sales efforts-or who have come to you as referrals with an expressed need for what your company offers. Personal selling in some form, whether face-to-face, on the phone or even via e-mail, is often all that's necessary to add the final heat to close the deal.


Feel The Heat

Marketing tactics also come in various temperatures, too, and you should use a range of them to draw prospects in and move them closer to a buying decision. An integrated marketing approach draws upon a variety of media and tactics to convey one central message or branding theme. But avoid adopting just a single tactic-such as relying solely on direct mail to warm prospects or exclusively on PR to reach cold ones-while completely neglecting the tactics that have the po-tential to motivate prospects who are in other stages of your sales cycle. Combine your marketing program with some kind of interpersonal interaction, such as one-on-one sales contacts, for a well-rounded approach.

Case in point: Let's say your company manufactures hand-dipped chocolates that you sell wholesale to gift and gourmet stores and via retail on your company Web site. To reach cold prospects, you participate in gift and fancy food trade shows, where the theme of your booth is carried through into all your marketing handouts as well as the advertising in the show programs. An ongoing ad campaign in the trade magazines that reach your audience carries the same message. Following the shows, your staff makes "warm" calls to follow up all the leads gathered. The names of your warm prospects are added to your database, and those retailers receive catalogs by mail followed by mailings about every six weeks that continue to move them through the sales cycle. To turn warm prospects into hot ones and close sales, you send broadcast faxes with special pricing and promotions to create immediacy, and your staff follows up the faxes with telephone calls to close. Hot retail prospects who've purchased from your Web site receive special reminders via e-mail of birthdays or upcoming occasions to stimulate repeat sales.

Do you have a well-rounded marketing program like the one described above? To turn up the heat and increase the year-round success of your growing business, set up an ongoing integrated marketing program that does an effective job of reaching out to cold, warm and hot prospects. And don't be afraid to mix it up a little bit-choose from advertising, PR, direct mail, special promotions, broadcast faxes and Web marketing. Combined with your company's ongoing sales efforts, you're sure to find the winning formula that's right for your business.