Small Business Marketing 101

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10 ways small business owners can get their marketing strategies off the ground.

Is Your Small Business Friends with Facebook?
Is Your Small Business Friends with Facebook?

Last week, I wrote a blog about my mom's journey to launching her own small business. She's experienced a lot of highs since opening her boutique two months ago, including making her first $600 sale this past weekend. But she's also faced a lot of challenges—mainly, delving into online marketing and just figuring out where to start.

It turns out that my mom isn't the only one frazzled by the array of marketing options. A new survey by online marketing company Constant Contact shows that 35% of small businesses don't know how to measure success across channels and 32% say getting everything done across platforms is too time consuming. Furthermore, 48% of small businesses find learning how to use different interfaces to be a hassle and 46% struggle with maintaining a consistent look and feel across channels, according to the data.

So in honor of Small Business Week, I interviewed Drew Tonsmeire, area director for Kennesaw State University's Small Business Development Center, on where new small businesses owners should begin when it comes to marketing. Here are 10 of his starter points:

1) Find out who your customers are: Before small business owners can market to potential customers, they have to know who they are. Owners must pinpoint if their customers are local, regional, or strictly online, Tonsmeire says, and then market to them through corresponding channels.

After identifying where customers reside, Tonsmeire advises small businesses to break down their target audience, such as by age, gender, and whether they have children. Talking to stock suppliers and other small business owners can be an effective way to obtain this information, he adds. Of course, asking actual customers about their preferences, such as whether they're more sensitive to price or brand name, is another valuable source.

“The goal is not to market to everybody,” Tonsmeire says. “The goal is to market to 20% of the segment where 80% of your customers can be found.”

2) Make a budget for money and time: While it's important to keep track of dollars and cents, monitoring how much time small businesses spend on marketing is also crucial, Tonsmeire says. Creating a marketing budget can be an effective way to do both. He suggests starting with a calendar and creating one column for the amount of money small businesses expect to spend and one column for how much time they expect to devote to marketing.

“It's a direct relationship to effort,” Tonsmeire says. “That effort is a function of time and money.”

3) Identify how you want your customers to engage: Many small businesses have websites; however, it's what businesses want customers to do with their online information that's truly important, Tonsmeire says. For instance, if the goal of the website is to drive customers into a business's shop, the owner should include its address on a prominent page or on every page, he notes. Similarly, if an owner wants customers to place orders by phone, he or she should feature the store's phone number in a place where they don't have to search for it, he says. Google Analytics can be a solid tool for identifying who is visiting a business's site, what pages are customers engaging with, and for how long, Tonsmeire notes.

4) Remember, old-fashioned marketing works best: With so many online avenues, it can be easy for small business owners to lose sight of time-honored marketing practices. And there's no better form of marketing, Tonsmeire says, than the classic referral.

“Word of mouth is still most important,” he says. “It's just that, nowadays, word of mouth can go from traditional—people talking to each other—to now sharing online.”

5) Ensure that your business card makes a statement: Business cards are one of the most common and most widely distributed forms of marketing, Tonsmeire says. Like a website, a business card should tell customers what they should do next. Again, if a business owner is trying to drive traffic into his store, he should include the store's address—or even a map—on the card, Tonsmeire says. Turning business cards into formal invitations or coupons are also effective ways to induce people into trying products or stores, he adds.

6) Don't forget the local paper: “The smaller the community, the more important the local media is,” Tonsmeire says. So he suggests that small businesses reach out to local newspapers and magazines for editorial or advertising opportunities. But if owners go the advertising route, they must make their ads creative and run them in a series to stand out from the crowd and stick in customers' minds.

“It's not an event,” Tonsmeire says. “It's a process.”

7) Get to know your community: Sponsorships can be an excellent way to become affiliated with local organizations, Tonsmeire says. So whether it's sponsoring the church bulletin or the little league team, small business owners can find numerous ways to impact their community, as well as their bottom line.

8) Visit a trade show: Trade shows can be an effective way for regional businesses to find people within their target market. Tonsmeire advises small business owners to attend a trade show before exhibiting to determine whether it would be worth their time and money.

9) Use social as an avenue for conversation: Social media allows small business owners to engage in dialogues with its customers, such as by having customers post pictures of them using a business's product. However, if businesses can't devote time to holding conversations with its customers through social, then the channel might not be worth their time, Tonsmeire says.

“What you want to try to do is get more people talking with [you rather] than just listening to you. That's what a website is for,” Tonsmeire says. “A website is a one-way communication that says, ‘We're going to tell you about us.' Social media is about, ‘We're going to exchange ideas.'”

10) Keep your four Ps in mind: Crossing your T's and dotting your I's is always important. However, marketers need to look over their four P's—product, place, price, and promotion—as well.

Product: When promoting a product, small businesses should focus less on what the product is and more on why it's applicable to customers, Tonsmeire says.

“People do not buy the features of a product,” he notes. “They buy the benefits of a product.... It's the why that people want, not the what.”

Place: Small businesses need to know the market their businesses are in—local, regional, or online—and where their customers can be found, Tonsmeire says.

Price: Pricing strategies tell customers a lot about a business, Tonsmeire says. While providing the lowest price may seem like the best way to get customers in the door, it doesn't always radiate a sense of high quality.

“If I were a plastic surgeon, I probably don't want to be known as a plastic surgeon,” he notes.

Instead, Tonsmeire advises small businesses to stick to whole pricing if they're a quality producer and odd-end pricing if they're more of a discount store.

Promotion: There are a number of ways to promote a business, including time-of-sale displays, media, and direct marketing. Tonsmeire encourages small businesses to engage in one-to-one marketing as much as possible.

“One-on-one contact gives you a better opportunity to connect to your customers,” he says. “Marketing is a whole lot more than just an ad. It's thinking through the process.”

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