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Q: I've been in business for several years and have been able to maintain a steady stream of customers through word-of-mouth. However, I am interested in increasing my customer base. How can I use marketing and advertising to promote my business and draw in new customers?
A: If your business has decreased because of reasons outside your control (such as the economy), advertising alone may not remedy your situation. But if your in-store or Web site traffic has slowed down because prospective customers need more information about your products or need an incentive to buy, you may want to promote your business through several efficient and cost-effective methods.
Loyalty programs are one of the best ways to reward customers for their patronage and acknowledge frequency. For example, Worldwide Gift & Loyalty in Oxnard, California, offers a program based on smart cards that enables small and midsized businesses to issue and redeem electronic gift and loyalty cards, with programs tailored to an individual merchant's needs. Merchants can increase customer loyalty and build store traffic by offering frequency points, points for purchases and rebates on purchases, all of which can be implemented and tracked through the program. Here are some other ideas:
- Coupons generate traffic and reward a customer visit.
- On-hold phone messages educate and inform prospects and customers about your products and services while they wait to speak to a representative.
- Articles and press releases about your business submitted to magazines, newspapers, business journals, chambers of commerce and so on can be great ways to broaden your exposure.
- Networking through leads groups, local chambers of commerce, Rotary clubs and so on help promote your business in your local community.
- Event sponsorship can get your business's name in front of your local community and enhance your reputation as a concerned and caring neighbor.
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- Promotional items (such as pens, pencils, coffee cups and mouse pads) printed with your company logo can help customers and prospects remember who you are and what you offer.
- Free link exchanges with other Web sites bring visitors from other Web sites to yours.
- Search engines can get your Web site at the top of a user search. Register with Google, AltaVista and other successful search engines to place your business first.
Plan Your Campaign
If you employ these marketing efforts and determine that your business still needs the boost of paid advertising, consider the following steps to plan your campaign:
- Clearly identify your target audience. Categorize your customer database and prospects demographically; determine age, sex, marital status, profession, geographic region and so on. Who are you trying to reach? Where are they? Why is your product or service right for them?
- Define your message to reach your audience most effectively. Use your customer demographics to target your message. Keep in mind that a "tastes great" message appeals to one type of audience, while "less filling" strikes a chord with another. Focus your message.
- Calculate your advertising budget. Many companies allocate 10 to 25 percent of their gross revenues for advertising, which includes ad design, production and media placement. Determine what you want to accomplish first, then set the right budget that works for your business.
- Select your best medium. Once you define your audience, create your message and calculate your budget, you need to select the right medium, which can include: print (newspapers, magazines or the Yellow Pages), broadcast (radio and television), online (Internet, Web sites and search engines), direct mail (brochures, postcards or anything mailed to customers and prospects) and outdoor (billboards and transit). Often, a combination of media will serve your purposes best.
- Measure your results. After you begin to advertise, you should get a sense of its effectiveness. Does your in-store or online traffic increase after your ads run? Do your customers bring in copies of your ads and request the merchandise pictured? Ask your customers where and how they heard about you. This will help you evaluate what you advertised, as well as the effectiveness of your messages, your media selections and your expenditures.
Once you decide you want to advertise, consider what media are available and how they can benefit your business:
- Online advertising includes banner ads, pay-per-click search engines, as well as online classified and standard ads. Online advertising is most effective when your ad appears on Internet Web sites that are compatible with your products and services and reach the same audience you want to reach.
- Newspapers, particularly local and regional publications with smaller circulations, can be an affordable and effective advertising medium. If you want to reach the largest audience, Sundays offer increased circulation, but that day will probably cost more. And if you sell a food or grocery product, you might select the day the paper publishes its food section.
- Yellow Pages advertising is particularly effective when a prospect in your community looks for a business in your category. Appearing in the Yellow Pages can put you top-of-mind with a prospect.
- Magazine advertising can provide a very targeted audience. Where newspapers provide general information, magazines can be more focused. (Sports, fashion, electronics and the like all have dedicated magazines.)
- Direct mail-brochures, postcards and mailers-can be very effective if you target your audience and mail your brochures or postcards frequently. Lists are available by demographics and geographic locations from professional list brokers. If you open a small retail establishment, you may want to send a mailer with dollars-off coupons to all households within a 2 mile radius of your store. You can easily measure the effectiveness of the mailer when customers come in to redeem their coupons.
- Radio lets your message reach a larger, more general audience. You might want to buy several radio spots and group them together to ensure that the listener retains your message and name. Radio stations can also help you produce a spot.
- TV reaches a larger audience than any other medium and is usually the most costly. For small businesses, network television advertising can often be prohibitive. However, small businesses can reach a targeted market by advertising on local cable channels. Just remember that repetition is the key. You want your TV spot to run at least five to seven times, but preferably more. And since producing a TV spot can be very expensive, cable systems usually have production capabilities and can offer small businesses the advantage of a professionally produced spot at an affordable cost.
Promoting your business is not just about advertising. Marketing the right product at the right price to the right market segment at the right time, in addition to public relations, are both important elements to your overall business mix. Conduct your advertising research first and then set a realistic budget. Make certain your media choices reach your target markets, meet your business objectives and fit your budget. Get the message to your customers that you have products and services that will meet their needs. Communicate that you want their business. The most effective methods and media depend upon your products, your target customers and your creativity.
Cardservice International Senior Vice President of Sales John Burtzloff is in charge of sales strategy and execution and thus is responsible for managing all aspects of the company's marketing, communications, telesales, check guarantee, new accounts and sales support activities.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.