Small Business Marketing: Grow Your Business the Easy Way -- Engage!

It's National Small Business Week, May 20 - 26 in the United States. Why celebrate small business? It's our economic engine. Small businesses create over two-thirds of net new jobs, and more than half of all working Americans either own or work for a small business. Small Business Week celebrates small business owners and their successes and highlights their challenges, which include growing their businesses in the face of rapid change, from national and state regulations to you guessed it -- marketing!

The inspiration for my new book, Engagement Marketing: How Small Business Wins in a Socially Connected World, came about from years of watching, learning from and listening to small business owners. The conversations would go something like this:

Gail: "What's your marketing goal?"

Business owner: "More business and new customers."

Gail: "Where does the majority of your revenue come from today? How much is repeat sales?"

Business Owner: "Around 90 percent of our monthly revenue is repeat sales; roughly 10 percent is new business."

Gail: "Ten percent new business is outstanding! How much of that comes from customer referrals or word-of-mouth?"

Business owner: "Hmm, I'd guess roughly 90% of our new customers come from customer referrals."

Then I'd ask the big question: "So how much of your marketing time and dollars are focused on growing repeat sales and referrals?"

People would look at me as if I'd spouted two heads! Repeat sales and referrals just happen, they would inform me. They were doing nothing to grow that part of the business. That's what Engagement Marketing is all about.

Engagement Marketing is based on a simple but powerful idea: Socially visible customer engagement will increases sales by driving more repeat sales and more word-of-mouth referrals.

It's much easier, less expensive and infinitely more fun to interact with people you already know -- your existing customers. Doing so drives repeat business. But engaging them has a second benefit as well.

When customers engage with you, their friends and networks see the Likes, shares, +1s, comments, and endorsements -- and give them far more credibility than any marketing message you could ever deliver. This engagement gives you surprisingly targeted reach because your customers' networks are filled with people just like them - people who are also great prospects for you.

The Engagement Marketing Cycle is comprised of three steps: Experience, Entice, Engage.

Step one: Provide customers with a WOW! experience that is memorable and authentic

I finally decided to upgrade my kitchen knives. One day I walked into this fantastic local kitchen store and became a little overwhelmed at the number of options. German? Japanese? And which styles did I need? The owner proceeded to explain the choices, ask me about my cooking style and then let me try various knives by chopping carrots right there on the counter. Sold! And WOW!

Even better, every time my husband and I have people over for dinner, I tell them my knife story, rave about how sharp they are, and about this great local store.

It's this desire to share our experiences that begins the first step in the Engagement Marketing Cycle: Give your customers a memorable experience that will make them willing to connect with you and, if you are really lucky, post about it on their social networks.

Tip: Make your experiences authentic. Look at how prospects and customers interact with your business (whether it's on the phone, in-person or online) and then find your opportunities to rise about the ordinary. A consulting firm, for example, could reach out mid-project to make sure everything is going well. A specialty wine store could help customers pair wines with foods for dinner parties.

Step two: Entice customers to stay in touch by asking for permission to engage with them.

True story: Constant Contact hired a branding agency years ago. They did great work! But, the agency never kept in touch with me -- so I forgot their name. Now I can't refer others to them even though I would willingly. Moral: Out of sight is literally out of mind.

To extend the WOW! you've created with your customers or clients -- and to make sure they don't forget about you -- you have to ask if it's okay to engage with them via email lists and social networks.

Tip: Offer something in return for the "ask." For Facebook Likes, a retail business could offer discounts or special sales notices to followers only. A B2B company can offer a meaty whitepaper or report.

Step three: Engage with people by giving them content they'll want to share with their friends and networks.

When I view my own Facebook newsfeed, I look for those posts that have some engagement -- or ask me to engage. Jumping in on a conversation is fun -- as is reading other people's comments.

Although engagement is what drives social media (and those repeat sales and endorsements), many marketers are still focused on amassing followers versus working to engage those followers. Engagement is not a one-way street. If all your audience does is listen to you, then you're falling down on the job. The goal is to drive participation.

Tip: Post content geared toward each social media platform. Writing one post and using an automation tool to send it out to each platform is lazy. Put your creative chops to work and create custom content that takes into consideration how each platform works. Twitter is great for short, smart blasts. Facebook and G+ give you room to expand plus let you include images and video. Then, invite people to participate in the conversation!

Socially visible engagement drives trust.

In addition to driving repeat sales and new business, Engagement Marketing has another huge impact on your business. Someone who views your customers engaging on Facebook, reads the comments on your blog, or sees you responding to mentions on Twitter knows immediately you're a business that listens to its customers.

This positive engagement is the social proof people need to do business with you, especially if someone they know is engaging with you, too. This social proof helps build trust -- something you just cannot buy with advertising or other forms of marketing.

If you're in the United States and you work for or own a small business, how will you be celebrating National Small Business Week? Share your story in the comments!