It's Time to Dust Off 'Marketing 101'

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That giant sucking sound you hear may be your marketing budget heading south.

The Internet boom is over - at least temporarily. Professionals involved in hi-tech direct marketing must dust off "Marketing 101" and remember what they did back in the early '90s.

Build your business, not your brand. With all due respect to its many proponents, branding is a luxury you cannot afford. For all the dot-coms that spent millions creating a brand (a certain sock puppet comes to mind), there are hundreds more using cost-effective marketing strategies to generate new business from people who have never heard of them. Branding may be a worthy goal for Coke or Nike, but with your budget, forget it.

The best way to generate awareness is to sell product. You need bang for the buck. That means programs that generate tangible results, including phone calls, Web hits and qualified sales leads.

Test, test, test. Unsure of your message? Can't decide whether to target Web developers or chief financial officers? No focus group is good enough to merit betting your budget. Instead, test. Launch an e-mail campaign and pit your two strongest messages head-to-head as subject lines. Split your direct mail campaign in two, target two audiences at once and see which generates the higher response.

Not only will you minimize the risk, but you also will learn enough to improve the response from subsequent campaigns.

Make every lead count. Sales representatives will never change, and that means they will chase short-term opportunities and leave the rest to the competition. (One recent industry study showed that more than 50 percent of qualified leads make their purchases more than 12 months after the initial contact.)

You no longer can afford to generate new, hot leads every month. Build a communications strategy that nurtures every lead you generate until that person is ready to buy. The first priority is an opt-in e-mail newsletter that keeps your name in front of prospects at a far lower cost than direct mail.

Hire specialists. No one agency does everything well. There are thousands of independent consultants, freelancers and small boutique agencies that specialize in Web design, public relations, events, direct response, you name it. And they have a lot less overhead than the big guys do. Choose one with specific experience and proven results in your market.

Don't limit your market. It is generally true that the more targeted a campaign, the more successful. But many companies, particularly start-ups with new products or services, make the mistake of narrowing their audience too prohibitively - to certain industries or geographies, for example.

The challenges of finding a critical mass of names in such a narrow audience may force compromises in other areas. In direct mail, it may eliminate some lists entirely, or you may need to expand to other job titles in order to meet list minimums. Broaden your target market - within reason - and you will achieve a better economy of scale, expand your media options and perhaps even uncover areas of opportunity you had not considered otherwise.

Remember the offer. No matter how compelling your e-mail copy or how innovative your banner design, a good offer is what drives prospects to respond. Do not expend valuable marketing dollars on a more expensive campaign only to shortchange the offer. Write a white paper. Produce a CD-ROM. Chances are you will generate more leads with a stronger offer, even if it means scaling back your campaign in other areas.

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