Small businesses might not have the unlimited marketing budgets their bigger competitors have, but their very nature as a small business puts them closer to the customers they serve and the communities where they do business—which I’m convinced is their biggest advantage. So when it comes to how best to market their products and services, my advice to every small business is to always, always, always start with the customer. What’s their need? How does your solution fit that need? The best marketing is compelling storytelling that threads the needle between their need and your solution, so starting with the customer will help your business leverage a small budget into big marketing results.
How does it work? Fortunately, there are a number of low cost-high return ways small businesses can leverage their advantages to powerfully tell their story ― to help win new business as well as keep the loyalty of their existing business:
1) Make it personal: Start by keeping the customers you have happy; and don’t forget to ask your happy customers to recommend your business to their friends. This is a big advantage for small businesses because people generally like doing business with people they know—with people they like. What’s more, creating friendly relationships with your customers isn’t really that complicated. It’s often as simple as remembering a name or a favorite dish. It doesn’t matter if your business is a drycleaner or a local restaurant; every customer wants to feel like his or her business is appreciated and valued. A great place to start is to remember who they are and greet them by name when you see them. When was the last time someone in one of your favorite stores called you by name?
2) Don’t hide in plain sight: Your customers are likely online searching for the type of product or service you offer now; so at a minimum it’s really important customers and potential customers can find you with a listing like Google Places, and paying attention to your Yelp! and other online reviews should be an important part of your online strategy. Even if your business doesn’t sell online, don’t assume you don’t need to be there. A plumber or electrician, for example might not have anything to “sell” online, but could offer scheduling services there to make it easier for customers. If you don’t have the online expertise in house, there are a lot of contractors available to offer design, content, and support to make sure your website, for example, can be seen and searched.
3) Build your online following: You can use social media if you are a national business and if you are a local or regional business. Newsletters and your website are also great places for outreach. By including clickable social media icons, you can introduce your subscribers and web visitors to your social media presence and build followers. And did you know you could advertise on Facebook using a tool called Power Editor? This allows you to advertise to your Facebook community in a more targeted way than a traditional timeline boost gives you. You can target potential customers by demographic, interests, behaviors, location, or any combination. You can start small too, for $10 or $20 so it won’t break the bank. And you can upload your subscriber data to target that way, too.
4) Leverage your offline interactions: If you own a restaurant, a boutique, anything with a storefront, you can potentially post your daily specials or deals outside your store (as long as it’s permitted) along with the icons and social page names to encourage customer engagement. Include a clever hashtag if your business is known for something special. You should also post any specials or deals on social with a picture and hashtag. Consider enticing customers with a discount if they post a picture to Twitter or Instagram and tag your business. Their followers are just as valuable as your own.
5) Always be networking: Small businesses are an important part of a healthy community. The Chamber of Commerce and other community groups offer great opportunities to get involved. If you expect the local community to support your business, you just can’t afford not to get involved yourself. Networking gives you a chance to get to know other businesses in your neighborhood and enables you to start thinking in terms of how you can support each other. Complementary businesses that share some of the same customers can create opportunities to offer things like special combined products or services that deliver extra value to your customers. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box to discover what will work in your community. Many communities, for example, have stores that collectively create shopping promotions during pre-peak season times to generate business.
Finally, remember that time can be as powerful as money. As I talk to small business owners, one of the main things I hear is that they have a lot of marketing ideas but just don’t have the time to execute them. I actually don’t think that’s the real issue. I think it’s that small businesses have felt that in the past it’s been hard to justify spending their time on marketing because it wasn’t always clear what the return would be. But in this day and age, that doesn’t have to be true, and the examples above all contain straightforward ways of measuring impact.
Effectively marketing your small business requires a little strategic thinking, learning and experimenting with the tactics that will work with your customers, and then executing your marketing plan. All of these things are important, but it starts with putting the customer first.