Marketing Bootcamp

4 Harsh Marketing Lessons From 4 Small-Business Owners

4 Harsh Marketing Lessons From 4 Small-Business Owners
Image credit: Shutterstock

Join us for a free, live webinar and learn how to drive revenue with content marketing. Tune in 8/4 at 10:30 a.m. PT. Register Now »

Made a big mistake? Screwed up? Lost money on your marketing? Welcome to my world. This is what it’s like to run a small business.

We don’t have the time or the resources to carefully think through everything. So we do a lot of things by our gut. Sometimes things turn out OK. Sometimes, well -- it's not so good, especially when it comes to marketing.

But don’t worry. You’re not alone. I hand-picked four of the many winners of a recent marketing contest called the Spark Plug campaign, sponsored by Capital One Bank (a client of my company, but I am not being compensated to write this), that provided Spark Business Bank customers an opportunity to receive customized marketing ads utilizing their own marketing dollars. I asked each winner about a big marketing mistake each made.

Related: Marketing: You're Doing it All Wrong

Now, remember, these are winners -- just not all the time, apparently.

1. Don't let failure stop you.

Lisa McKenzie is the founder and CEO of Ooh La Bra, a company that bears the motto “we lift you up.” I’m going to let you figure out that out. McKenzie learned that, in marketing, failure can lead to success.

“My company was one of 15 companies who got the opportunity to be in front of hundreds of people for an entrepreneur week competition with the chance of winning $50,000,” she says. “I had heard that there was a bet that our company would be one of the top three finalists. But when the votes were cast, I think we ended up in last place.”

You’d think that a disappointment like that would have gotten her down, and it did. But then Lisa picked herself back up.

“From that moment on, a fire was lit so deep within me that my resolve was completely altered," she says. "That moment of disparagement turned out to be the catalyst that resulted in a new program Ooh La Bra created to empower breast cancer survivors.”

The lesson from McKenzie is this: When marketing, failure can lead to success. Time heals all wounds, and you never know what is around the corner. Stay true to your resolve and keep trying.

2. Stick to what you know, and outsource what you don't.

Scott M. Burke, the president of Loop Linen Service, Incorporated, a linen supply and uniform-service company that serves parts of Louisiana and Mississippi, learned that finding the right marketing partner is crucial in today’s specialized world.

For years, the company had succeeded with print advertising, but needed to adapt to the Internet. It tried several local web-development and search-engine-optimization services and, according to Burke, “wasted money on ideas from salespeople whose number-one priority was their commission check.”

But then, by luck, Burke was introduced to a company that specialized in online marketing, particularly in his company's industry.

“Their team had a background in our business. They understood our challenges and what we were trying to achieve," he says. "After seeing the return on investment from their referral service, we expanded our relationship with them, which included digital advertising, social media, lead generation and other agency related projects. We have worked with different advertising and marketing agencies and I have learned that it’s critical to work with people who have a deep understanding of what we do.”

Burke is a laundry guy, not a marketing wizard. Marketing is a specialty. Don’t make the mistake of trying to do it on your own.

Related: Why Every Business Needs to at Least Consider Google Targeted Ads

3. Social media may be the key.

Other than a few online ads, Michelle Kozlak of Arts on the Horizon found that she was not using the Internet enough for her marketing efforts. As the producing artistic director and founder of this small, nonprofit theatre company geared towards kids, Kozlak was printing out flyers and distributing them to area preschools each time it offered a class or camp.

“It was time-consuming to drive around distributing flyers, and of course, it was expensive to place both the online and print ads -- and quite frankly ticket sales and registrations were pretty much on par with the previous season. We didn’t see an increase in either area,” she says.

After a frustrating period, she decided to step up her company’s online focus.

“We began bolstering our social-media efforts (Facebook and Twitter specifically), focusing our efforts on posting our information on parent listservs in the area and on a number of parent websites that list activities for children to make sure we were included on their calendars," she says. "We invited mom bloggers to come and attend performances and write about their experience on their blog. What we found out was that this was not only a more cost-effective and efficient way to promote our activities, but that it was yielding better results. Ticket sales went up this season, as did camp registrations.”

Ignoring the Internet for many small businesses can be a serious error.

4. A past success does not guarantee future results.

In marketing, the past definitely does not equal the future. That’s what Sierra Georgia, who runs a food truck business in Washington D.C. called Dolci Gelati Truck, found out.

She had a great marketing experience doing a food-truck event and loved the organizers. But the next time? Not so good, she tells me.

“The first event went so well, the organizers charged more for the next event. They changed the venue, tripled the number of trucks and did not provide any places for people to sit down and eat," Georgia says. "I didn’t do proper research on the venue’s new location and layout given the new changes and I just assumed the investment would be worth it because of the first event’s success. I invested more money and was so disappointed! We didn’t even break even! 

"The event was a total flop and I regretted investing the money and ignoring the red flags," she continues. "If I did more research and paid more attention to the changes I would have seen it coming, asked more questions and went into the event more informed.”

In marketing, you can never rest. Just because something worked before, it doesn’t mean it’ll work again. Do your research and don’t let down your guard.

See? These are smart people and successful business owners, as well as winners! Yet, they’ve made their mistakes, just like the rest of us.

Related: 10 Ways You Can Gain Trust Online