White-in-article-portrait.jpgby Reed Richardson.


It’s an age-old predicament for entrepreneurs: Sure, you may have built a fabulous new product or developed the next killer app, but if you don’t also do a good job of marketing it to customers, your business can still end up failing. So, how can small, local businesses, a majority of which spend less than $2,500 a year on marketing according to a recent Merchant Circle survey, overcome this problem? The first step, say many marketing experts, begins with a change of mindset.


Put Marketing First in Your Mind

“For most small business owners, marketing is viewed at best as a nice add-on or at worst as some kind of foreign science whose secrets are locked away in an ivory tower somewhere, writes John Jantsch in his popular book Duct Tape Marketing. “Small business marketers need a totally different definition of marketing—one that’s honest, relevant, and more like real life.”


To get a sense of how this new definition plays out, Jantsch has developed a handy graphic about the purchasing process, something he calls the Marketing Hourglass. In a recent blog post about his Marketing Hourglass’s seven steps, Jantsch notes that “the most fundamental shift of all in marketing is the need to logically and systematically move prospects along the path of know, like, trust, try, buy, repeat, and refer—this is the entire game these days.” He adds that “any business that fills each of these seven touchpoints will be well on its way to finding and keeping customers.”


Pull-Quote.jpgProfile Your Target Customer

One common mistake among inexperienced marketers involves rushing ahead without a clear idea of which customers your small business is trying to reach in the first place. “Often, my small business students try to begin with tactical decisions, like whether they should put an ad in a newspaper,” explains Glynns Thomas, a small business marketing instructor who teaches an online course entitled “Small Business Marketing on a Shoestring.” “Instead, I try to pull them back a bit and get them to define their target market. By thinking about their strategic foundation first, that will then feed what kind of tactics to use later.”


Skipping this crucial step, Thomas adds, means a small business is likely to end up with a scattershot marketing plan—a Yellow Pages ad here, an email campaign there—that doesn’t tie together and nets little in the way of return on investment. “Small businesses really have to paint the picture of who their ideal customer is, where they can be found, and how they behave, and get really specific about it,” she explains. “If you try to market too broadly to, say, 1,000 people, you may only get 10 sales, whereas if you focus on 100 really well-matched potential customers, you may actually net 50 sales. It’s kind of counterintuitive, but by going smaller, you can actually get more in the long run.”


One low-cost tactic that Thomas favors involves marketing partnerships. As an example, she cites the experience of one of her students, the owner of a Greek restaurant located in a shopping mall’s food court. To expand beyond the primary customer base of mall foot traffic, Thomas suggested that the restaurant—whose menu focuses heavily on freshly prepared ingredients—partner with a nearby gym that has a similar, health-conscious clientele. In return for offering an initial discount to the gym’s members, the restaurant gained the ability to run a free ad in the gym’s monthly member newsletter, giving it hundreds of exposures to a like-minded audience. “It’s all about finding other businesses that are complementary to your mission without being competitive.”


Match Message to Market and Don’t Forget to “Sell the Hole”

Once you’ve identified your business’s key customer constituencies, then it’s time to craft a marketing message that fits your market and also speaks to its needs. This doesn’t have to be a complicated or expensive process, says small business marketing consultant Bob Wiltse, but if you don’t address both the former and the latter in your pitch, you’ll likely get little bang for your buck.


“A big mistake I see from a lot of small businesses is that they need to stop selling their product and start selling what their product can do for their customers,” explains Wiltse, who also writes a small business marketing blog called 390 Main Street. “For example, if your business is manufacturing power drills, don’t sell customers on the drill, sell them on the hole it makes. After all, that’s what the customers really want to use the drill for anyway. Likewise, if your company website just offers me a list of products without telling me why they’re better than your competitors, you’ve just commoditized yourself and left me little choice but to compare your products to others based on the only other piece of data I have, which is price.”


To boost your marketing profile and draw in more potential customers to your company website, you should consider a number of best practices, like adding embedded videos—for things like product demonstrations—and search engine optimizing (SEO) your website’s text content. If done right, these steps can be a very effective way of drawing people in through online search sites like Google, Yahoo, and Bing and then keeping them there once they arrive. What’s more, these steps are not so complicated that, given some time and dedication, a small business owner can’t handle it by him or herself. (For a more detailed look at SEO, check out our article on the topic.) Even better, free tools like Google Analytics can track this search traffic and see who is visiting your website, where they’re coming from, and what they’re looking at once they get there. This data can then be used to refine your target market even more and further hone your sales message.


New marketing tools like these are increasingly popular, but not universally known, Wiltse says, and so he says he often sees frustrated small business customers come into his office saying the same thing: “Everything I used to do isn’t working anymore.” For example, he points out that buying a costly, static ad in a Yellow Pages directory may have a diminishing return in an increasingly digital world and that many small companies would be better off establishing an online presence on local business search sites like Yelp, Yahoo Local, and Google Places. (In a perhaps telling move, the Yellow Pages Association recently changed its name to the Local Search Association.)


These local search sites typically charge nothing for their basic listing service. What’s more, they offer a much more dynamic and interactive platform, allowing businesses to provide more detail about their products and services while letting customers share reviews about their purchasing experience. And as smartphones and mobile tablets become increasingly popular conduits for finding businesses, having a robust local search presence online will become even more important. (For a good first step in checking your business’s current local search status, Wiltse recommends using the listing consolidator getlisted.org.)


Use Social Media to Keep ’Em Coming Back (and Bring Their Friends)

Once you’ve sold a customer, enticing them to repeat their business and refer your business to others becomes the final step in the marketing process. And when it comes to maintaining and strengthening your existing customer relationships, social media has proven to be a revolutionary platform. “Social media makes it so much easier to stay in contact with customers and keep your business top of mind,” Thomas notes, adding that its interconnected nature and “share” features makes asking for customer referrals much easier (and less uncomfortable). But, she cautions, building out your business’s social media presence should still be done with due diligence.


“I always recommend to small business owners that they start off small, with one or maybe two social media platforms, like starting a Facebook fan page and maybe a Twitter account for their business. And even before you formally set them up, I suggest they use the sites for a few months to get a sense of how they work and what people’s expectations are,” Thomas explains. During this trial period, she suggests that entrepreneurs create a list of several dozen sample Facebook posts or tweets that would be both appropriate and interesting. These will be the templates for future posts once their business social media is up and running.


“Often, I get small business owners who’ve already started with social media coming to me saying ‘I have no idea what to post,’” Thomas says. “That can lead to trouble because the whole idea of small businesses using social media is to engage with your customers, not just to tell them, ‘Buy my stuff!’” This kind of hard selling can be a turnoff, no matter what the media platform or message and it runs counter to the whole point of effective, shoestring marketing, Thomas notes. “When your target market and message are defined well, they meet the right person at the right time, and when that happens, marketing is no longer intrusive or annoying, it’s helpful, and that’s exactly what you want.”