Q: I won't say our sales were down this year, but they were little more than flat. We've just begun planning our marketing program for 2004. What can we do to really build sales?

A: To make this new year your best ever, it's vital to steer clear of the typical bad habits and critical mistakes that plague entrepreneurs nationwide. Here's a look at three marketing mistakes that can torpedo your success and tips on the best ways to avoid them.

  • A pinch of this, a pinch of that. This mistake is often made by entrepreneurs with big appetites and small budgets. They want to try a little bit of everything--advertising in multiple magazines and newspapers, online ads on a variety of sites and a list of special events--but with limited budgets, they end up with a tiny presence in each. As a result, ads and promotions get minor attention and their entire marketing budgets are wasted.

When it comes to advertising, bigger is usually better. Large, four-color magazine ads generally produce better results than small, black-and-white ads. And on the Web, skyscrapers and large rectangular ads routinely outperform small banners. To maximize results from your marketing program, narrow your media choices and consistently run larger ads with enough frequency to get noticed.

Similar advice holds true for special events. Instead of taking a small, obscure booth in a half-dozen community events, purchase one or two major sponsorships per year to ensure that everyone who attends the events will be exposed to your message.

  • Tossing out the rule book. If you think most rules were made to be broken, you may want to think again. Sometimes thinking outside the box can produce surprisingly positive results, but generally not at the expense of tried-and-true rules for effective marketing. Case in point: Recently, an e-mail marketer got dismal results from a mailing to a previously well-proven list. What went wrong? The solicitation was 500 words long, had a nebulous subject line and offered only a dull white paper. Next time, this entrepreneur will do well to play by the rules--with a 250-word maximum, a clear subject line that lets recipients know what the e-mail is all about and a more compelling offer.

Thanks to the billions of dollars businesses invest in advertising every year, all aspects of it have been studied. For instance, we know that in magazine ads, one central photo or image works better than several small ones, while in newspaper ads (particularly those that feature product sales), several photos work well to capture the attention of readers. Often, marketing is not a do-it-yourself job. If you're unsure about the rules for each medium, it's a good idea to hire experienced professionals.

  • Focusing only on what's happening inside your business. Some entrepreneurs get so inner-focused that they lose sight of all else, while others are constantly listening, looking and learning from the changing marketing environment outside their own companies. For example, a client of mine, whose company markets videotapes and equipment, foresees a time when the VHS tape will go the way of the 8-track, and sales will plummet due to new technology. As a result, she has begun forming strategic marketing partnerships with other businesses to more heavily promote equipment sales.

Entrepreneurs who are too inner-focused often become complacent. They may stay with an old marketing tactic long after it stops working, or they may sit back and wait for business to come in instead of taking aggressive steps to target plum accounts. If this sounds all too familiar, it's time to shake things up. Stop focusing strictly on the work that's due today and decide what you'd like to make happen for your company in the future. Look outside your business for industry trends and stay abreast of all changes that affect your target audiences. Formalize the process you use to get feedback from customers--whether it's through phone calls, meetings, surveys or online message boards. And be prepared to act swiftly on what you learn.