When you start your business, get ready for certain unavoidable expenditures. From renting office space and leasing equipment to purchasing pens, paper and computer disks, smart entrepreneurs carefully map out both fixed and variable expenses. But the primary difference between successful business owners and those who close their doors within a few months or years is their dedication to an appropriate and consistent marketing effort.
Marketing isn't an optional expense. Although it's often the first budget line to be sliced and diced when cash flow is low, it's important to remember marketing your business is often the activity that turns tough times around. Abiding by the following ten commandments of marketing can help you avoid the pitfalls of many start-up marketers and guide you in getting the good word out about your product or service.
I. Know your audience
Ask some entrepreneurs who their customers are, and they'll reply with an enthusiastic "EVERYONE!" Although some markets are broader than others, no company in the world markets to "everyone." You need to be aware of whom, specifically, you expect your customers to be. Begin listing their characteristics: Are they from a certain area? Are they affluent or do they make an average income? Are they married? The customers you want to attract should fit the profile of your "ideal" customer--those people making purchases at levels that are most profitable to, or best serviced by, your business. As you group your target audience members into categories, you'll start to see the types of marketing vehicles that work best to reach them.
II. Know your competition
If you think you won't have any competition, you're fooling yourself. There's always someone, somewhere, who provides the same or similar products and services. Businesses that take too much comfort in being the only game in town run into big trouble very quickly. The key to success? Keeping an edge by providing customers with better, faster or less expensive products and services than other businesses.
Take a look at your key competitors. Objectively compare your ideas for running your business to the way they run theirs. Are there things they do better than others? How are they promoting themselves? Does it seem to be working? Watch them closely--you might learn from their trials and errors.
III. Know yourself
Examine the set of skills it'll take to market your business. We all have strengths and weaknesses, so it's important to recognize what you can realistically do in-house. You may be a great writer, but if you can't squeeze out enough time to write your ad copy, brochures or press releases, you'll need some help to keep your marketing efforts consistent.
A healthy amount of research and legwork is necessary before you can successfully market your business. Before you hire help in the form of either an employee or a marketing firm, it's important to have a good understanding of the marketing vehicles available to you, as well as their costs, strengths and weaknesses. With a thorough understanding of marketing tactics, you can then monitor the progress of the person or firm handling your marketing efforts.
Just as a good football team doesn't run onto the field without a game plan, so should a good marketer not hit the streets before putting a solid marketing strategy and plan in place. Need some help? The acronym RACE stands for a formula that marketing professionals have been using for decades: Research, Action plan, Communication, Evaluation.
The first step in any good marketing plan is to do a bit of research, including gathering information about your competition, target audience, and the marketing vehicles available to you. Next, create an action plan with an accompanying time line and budget to organize your efforts and maintain consistency. The communication phase is when you carry out your action plan and, finally, evaluate how your plan is working for you and make adjustments where necessary.
V. Be consistent
The key to success in any marketing effort is consistency. You need to communicate your key messages to your audience segments on a regular basis in order to get their attention and create a lasting impression. Try different frequencies in advertising, direct mail or other external promotion methods to find the best mix for your business. Creating awareness takes time, so be patient.
VI. Be carefully creative
In the cluttered world of marketing, it's important that your materials be creative--but never at the expense of communicating your key messages. When you create ads, brochures or other forms of communication for your audience, make sure the benefits of who you are and what you do are clear. For example, putting important copy in 6-point type, no matter how fabulous the graphic concept, is one quick way to ensure your key messages won't get read. When developing concepts, always keep your key audiences in mind so your marketing pieces clearly communicate to the people you need to reach.
VII. Diversify your efforts
When you're marketing a product or service, don't put all your eggs in one basket. Instead of blowing your entire marketing budget on an insert in a newspaper or trade magazine, for instance, plan for smaller, more consistent ads over the course of the year, especially if your budget is limited. Use the powers of publicity and cross-promotions to stretch your marketing budget. Keep a mailing list of your key customers, and regularly send them information.
VIII. Budget your time and your money
Marketing programs need to be tempered by two kinds of budgets: time and money. If either or both are limited, you need to carefully examine the strategies and tactics you'll employ to accomplish your goals. Generally, the more time you can devote to your marketing efforts, the more money you save. If, for instance, you can write your own ad copy or send out your own press releases, you won't have to hire someone to do those things. On the other hand, if you're the only person going on sales calls or you need to manage operations and don't have the time it takes to create good marketing materials, it's wise to hire someone to help.
IX. Measure your results
If you spend your money on marketing without measuring the results, you could end up wasting big bucks. Many simple tracking mechanisms can tell you which efforts are working--and which should be scrapped. If you use coupons in your advertisements, have small codes printed on them so you can track rates of return from different media. In broadcast advertising, offer a discount if customers mention where they heard your ad. Ask all customers where they heard about you. Use contests or surveys to learn which media vehicles your customers are choosing for information and entertainment--and begin incorporating those media into your advertising and public relations efforts.
X. Be flexible
You may start your marketing efforts thinking that advertising in the local newspaper or sending a direct-mail piece to everyone in the area may be the best marketing strategy for you. And perhaps it will be. However, if you're not reaching your goals or the results aren't supporting your hunch, try modifying your efforts to produce better results.
By putting some thought into your promotional efforts before you spend your money, you can achieve far more effective results than with a shoot-from-the-hip approach.
If your budget is tight but you need some assistance, here are some resources that can help:
- The SBA has a number of programs that assist start-up marketers. The Small Business Development Center counseling program assigns a consultant to meet with you on a regular basis to monitor your progress in any area from marketing to human resources. Find the nearest center by calling (800) 827-5722 or going online at http://www.asbdc-us.orgCost: Free.
- The Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) is a group of retired executives with various areas of expertise. The organization offers free counseling to start-up as well as established business owners. Request someone with a marketing background to help you with your marketing efforts. Call (800) 634-0245 or visit http://www.score.orgCost: Free.
- If you have the time to execute your marketing efforts but need some professional help with strategy, try hiring a marketing professional or small firm to assist you with the plan development phase or to support only specific portions of the plan (i.e., they create the ads and the media plan, you place the ads and save the media commission). Ask around your business community for recommendations. Cost: Varies, but this can potentially save you thousands of dollars.
- See whether the marketing professor at a local or state college will assign the development of your marketing plan to one of the department's marketing classes, or find out if there's a marketing or related business club on campus that would handle the project. Cost: Free.
- If you can't get a group of marketing students to help, try just one. Advertise in the student newspaper for a marketing student to help you write and execute your marketing plan in exchange for the experience or a small stipend. Call the marketing departments of community colleges in your area or a state college for student recommendations. Cost: Free or a small fee.
Not sure where to start? Here are four quick and easy ways to jump-start almost any marketing effort. Remember to keep specific goals in mind when creating any promotion or campaign.
1. Hold a contest. Generate excitement by creating a time-sensitive contest related to your business. For instance, if you own a pet store, hold a search for the cutest dog or cat. Sub shop? Try a submarine sandwich eating contest. Announce the contest with press releases and/or advertisements, as well as in-store signage or mailings to your key customers. Be sure to record names and addresses from the increased traffic to include in future mailing lists.
2. Sponsor a survey or poll. What do mothers want most for Mother's Day? What is the favorite car color of car buyers in your area? If you can conduct a survey or poll and find out the answers, it could be news. Just pick an interesting question that relates to your business and survey your customers. Issue your findings in a press release--the media often love this light view of human nature.
3. Create a great giveaway. Come up with a must-have T-shirt or a fantastic gift-with-purchase. Choose something that's useful to your customer base--for instance, a construction company may have tape measures printed with its logo. Promote it through press releases, ads or mailings.
4. Helpful hints. Create tip sheets or how-to instructions for your clients. Own a housecleaning business? Share your 10 best stain-removing "secrets" with your customers. Stationery store? Try a one-page fact sheet on becoming a better business writer. Sharing useful information that relates to your business can build goodwill--and keep your business in the front of your customers' minds.