I get it, as an entrepreneur you are always looking for insight and information on how to grow your business. If you are like me, when I was young and foolish, you are digging through magazines like Inc. and Fast Company to see what “industry leaders” do. Maybe you listen to TED Talks from eccentric marketing pros or those trendy podcasts that interview famous executives. They are all stuffed full of pithy sayings and philosophical advice… but you might also be starting to realize: Most of it doesn’t help.
In the world of science, scientists have learned that the “laws of physics” don’t work at the quantum level (smaller than an atom) the same way they do in our easily observable day-to-day reality. Like physics, marketing has a similar problem: The best practices of marketing, established by industry leaders in large companies, don’t work the same for small businesses. Since only the most visible and celebrity-status marketing execs get to proliferate their ideas to the world, practical advice for start-ups and SMBs is hard to find.
You’re Not Apple, “Trendy” Won’t Help You
Large-scale organizations can mobilize their marketing and ad budget to battle over who is cooler, but chances are that you are just fighting for people to know who you are in the first place. Anyone who spent time in high school knows: sometimes the cool kids get away with things the rest of us don’t. Established brands can play with fads and trends, but small business has to prove they are relevant and useful.
SMB Branding is About Success Stories, not Logos
As someone who has grown their career in marketing, it never ceases to amaze me how many organizations grow year-over-year with ugly websites and unattractive logos. Usually, by the time they update their look, it isn’t because they think it will help as much as they feel they deserve an upgrade. These organizations have grown through happy customers and lots of referrals.
I still believe that having a website and logo that actually looks professional is still essential, but I also know that what matters most is if you have great customers stories to put on that website. Word of mouth referrals and credible customer stories are the lifeblood of small business growth. If you are going to spend a lot on marketing, start there.
Small businesses should focus on motivating current customers to refer them three more, rather than going out and looking for three new customers.
Consumers Don’t Value Values of Small Brands
Once companies start getting big, the market (and regulators) begin to care how virtuous your organization is. But for small businesses, it isn’t much of a factor. This for two reasons: 1. You’re perceived to be too small to make a real difference. 2. Consumers are skeptical that your espoused virtues are an excuse to deliver an overpriced uncompetitive product.
Consumers care most about the inherent virtue of a product AFTER they have bought it. We care that Google or Amazon are “good” because they are an established part of our lives, and we identify with them. If you are a small business trying to win customers, trying to get an edge with virtue signaling like “locally owned” or “fair trade” won’t gain you much ground in market share, with the exception of fostering pride among your own workforce.
Convenience is King
Most of my peers will tell you that, in marketing, “content is king.” Well, it’s still important, but more like a prince or jester. The real king is convenience. The greatest shift in the modern consumer is the dependence on their smartphones and expectations for all transactions to be “app friendly.”
I have seen sales double when a local deli finally released an easy-to-use order-for-pickup section on their website. Contractors that offer mobile project-tracking tend to win over peers at the negotiating table. Professional service firms that package and price their services online convert more leads than business who keep all their offerings behind the “contact us” wall.
Innovating ways to make doing business with you more convenient than doing business with someone else is second only to doing good work.
All Politics is Local; So is Business
When you have an ad budget of $500K a year or more, yes you can think about “messaging to the masses” around the nation. When you have an ad budget of $10K, you have to spend that money very differently. Raw adverting takes a “firehose” approach to work, where consumers hear or see an ad multiple times from many different sources. With $10K, you are lucky to get someone to hear you at all.
Small businesses can learn from successful small politicians: go door-to-door and count the votes. You should make lists of all your potential local customers and reach out to each of them individually. Seriously, knock on doors and introduce yourself if possible. Go to networking and local events your customers are likely to be. Don’t have the time? Spend that $10K paying someone you trust to do it for you.
Small business customers aren’t a faceless “mass market” they are your neighbors and peers in the community. You don’t have to sell or advertise to them; you need to let them know you are there and ask how you can help.
Quantum Marketing Works Backwards
The easiest way to sell a million dollars of goods is to start with two million. Don’t laugh; businesses do it all the time. Most of the ad campaigns you see and think of as great “creative advertising” are actually loss-leaders. Companies often spend more on a campaign than they make, directly, to penetrate a market or gain a following. They know if they succeed, they will recover their money in retaining that market as time goes on.
Chances are, you don’t have a million dollars to throw away on the future promise of profit. So don’t keep trying imitate big brands. Think small, count your customers, cherish referrals, be persistent, and most of all keep your eye on the ball of consistently delivering exceptional value and reminding people when they can rely on you.