From the October 2000 issue of Entrepreneur

Your company is bound to evolve over time-and so should your marketing campaign. Services are altered; product lines are adopted or dropped; personnel and even ownership might change. Such changes can turn that once-successful marketing strategy into an ineffective one.

The evolution doesn't have to be drastic-even small changes can alter the benefits your clients or customers expect to enjoy when using your business. As your firm expands, it's imperative that you fine-tune its core message in order to stay on target, expand your market reach and stay competitive.

To ensure your business is sending the correct message, answer these four major questions dealing with competitors, prospects and your business:

1. Who are your best customers? As your business grows, your target audience might change, and your business will need to evolve to take on new or expanded targets. A change in your company's focus means you'll need to completely retool your marketing message to address the specific needs of your new prospects.

Imagine, for example, you own a 5-year-old company that designs kitchens. During your first three years in business, you targeted custom home-builders. Then, in your fourth year, you started getting work directly from homeowners who wanted to upgrade their existing kitchens, and you began earning markups by selling high-end appliances and subcontracting installation. Now, in your fifth year, it's time to re-evaluate: Because working directly with homeowners is more profitable, you rightly decide to make them your new primary target audience. The next step is to devise a full-scale marketing program to reach them.

2. What do your top prospects want? A new target group will have unique needs and desires. And even if, after several years, your prospects' demographics have not changed, their buying attitudes and habits probably have. So before you alter your message and your slick marketing campaign, you must figure out what your audience wants most. An indispensable tool for determining probable reactions to the new message is primary research, which includes both surveys and focus groups. Search back issues of trade and consumer publications on the Internet for published articles and statistical data on your prospects, their buying habits and information about your principal competitors. Continue to fine-tune your core message through evaluation and research as your company grows.

3. What do your competitors promise? Imagine that you're the president of a value-added reseller of phone systems for small and midsized businesses. As increasingly sophisticated systems become available at lower prices, more small businesses are candidates for technologically advanced phone systems. The result: an increase in the number of competitors offering a diverse group of advanced and complex products.

No matter what you're selling, to stay abreast of encroaching competition, you'll have to regularly analyze your competitors' marketing materials. Examine their ads, brochures and Web sites to evaluate how they communicate with your target prospects. Pay closest attention to the benefits competitors promise, as this will reveal the expectations of your target audience and the types of media and materials they use.

4. What can your company deliver? With your competitors' marketing materials in hand-and a clear idea of who your best prospects are and what they might need from you-you're in a terrific position to fine-tune your company message to have the greatest appeal to your target audience. Make a list of your company's unique benefits. Go beyond the basics, such as quality service and products, and list the bottom-line benefits that answer the prospects' question, "What's in it for me?" Your list should include the benefits your company delivers that make you stand out from the competition and help you position yourself effectively against them. As a final step, string your list of unique benefits together into a "benefit statement" that will be the central theme of your advertising, PR and collateral material messages.

Repeat these steps continually as your company grows, and your messages will be sure to hit the target every time.