In a competitive marketplace, effective marketing is essential to a business' success. But marketing that makes an impact means more than just advertising your company name and service: It's about meeting the needs and expectations of your customers through targeted, personalized communications. By leveraging technology to help you do that, you can make the most out of a tight marketing budget while still creating highly-effective marketing materials.

Personalization in marketing efforts is a trend any small business can easily adopt. Ensuring that your customers feel their personal preferences and needs are being taken into account creates an effective approach that's hard to beat. Technology is one way of gaining greater access to and knowledge of your customers. In fact, various software, such as publishing tools, exist to help you create inexpensive, personalized and professional marketing materials with the ability to create a consistent company image on your own.

Trevor Thirsk, a top real estate agent in Washington with John L. Scott Real Estate, uses Microsoft Office Publisher 2003 to quickly and easily create marketing materials such as property fliers and customer postcards. Thirsk can also create a document once and publish it multiple times, saving him the time and effort of creating the same or similar materials from scratch.

"I use the predesigned templates for my marketing materials, so there's a consistent, professional look," Thirsk says. "I save $100 to $200 per month doing it myself. I can now create a street-box flier with photos, graphics and text, e-mail it to my new client, and get approval without having to interrupt their dinner or waste time getting linked up. It's a simple thing, but it's less hassle for the client and saves me one to two hours."

The following tips and examples will help you improve your customer communications:

  • Get to know your customers. Start by understanding their geographic location, demographics and purchasing history using your own computer, database management tools or the Internet. Pay attention to customer trends, purchasing patterns and needs. Solicit feedback, and ask your customers to share information about themselves to help you in this process. Ensure that your communications use their language and speak to them in a meaningful way. This one-on-one attention builds loyalty and helps position your business in their minds as a company that cares.
  • Build your brand. Guarantee that your materials are visually consistent by creating your own letterhead, business cards, forms and more using customizable templates available online or within popular software applications. Be creative: Add visuals such as a scanned company logo, or make use of the free clip art or photos many online sites offer. A consistent brand strategy is the core of all sales efforts, customer service and communications. It's a powerful way to help set your business apart from your competitors and add substance to your advertising messages. It also helps customers develop loyalty to your company and the products or services it provides.
  • Create a company newsletter. Newsletters can be a powerful communications tool to help your company stand out with your customers. You can inform customers about sales, offer promos to them, or showcase customer success stories or quotes to highlight real-life examples of what your business can do for your clients. Newsletters can foster closer relationships, in the same way magazine readers come to identify with their favorite periodical. Newsletters should reflect the tone and personality of your business; find the voice that best fits the character and style you want to project. Use the built-in color and font schemes and layout guides many software applications offer to create a newsletter that's timely, topical and addresses your customers' expressed interests.
  • Distribute a catalog or company brochure. A simple catalog or brochure can keep your current customers informed of the products and services you offer, while showcasing new offerings to help boost sales. Today's software offers easy-to-use templates and guides to create professional-looking materials. By merging text and pictures from a specified computer file, such as a spreadsheet or database, you can create a publication that's easy to update when content in the file changes.

Nigel Burton is the general manager of the U.S. Small and Midmarket Solutions & Partners group at Microsoft and is responsible for developing the strategy and programs that drive Microsoft's marketing efforts to small- and midsized businesses.