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Steve-Strauss--in-article-Medium.pngThe dirty little secret about entrepreneurship is that most people who start a business had no idea what they were doing when they began – myself included. Oh sure, they may have read some books and articles, gone to seminars, or maybe have even written a business plan. But actually knowing what to expect, what slings and arrows would come their way – no.


The good news about that, as one intrepid entrepreneur once told me, is that you don’t know what you don’t know. That is – you don’t know enough to be scared or timid. The bad news is that there inevitably will be a steep learning curve as mistakes are made.


One mistake I see often has to do with marketing. People usually start a business because they find something they love and want to do that every day, for example a gardener buying a nursery. But because someone knows how to grow orchids does not mean that they know how to grow a business.

Click here to read more articles from small business expert Steve Strauss.

Indeed, most small businesses discover one or two marketing ideas, use them, then beat them to death, and wonder why they are not getting any new customers. The reason it doesn’t work is simple: By doing the same old thing again and again, the same people see your business. If you mix it up and try something new, different people will discover you are out there and your business will grow. Here are some inexpensive and easy ways to implement marketing ideas that you can use. Let me suggest that you test several (maybe four or five) and then roll out two or three of the most promising:

1. Email marketing: The idea is not to send out spam, but rather, individualized email offers to targeted individuals. Email marketing is the 21st century equivalent of direct mail. Create a list via a search or other means, create a snappy email offer and send it out. Maybe you will send it to members of your local chamber of commerce, or all the lawyers in town. It doesn't matter; what matters is that you can get in front of new potential customers at almost no cost.


2. Create an e-newsletter: If you don’t have an e-newsletter, then it’s time to hop on the bandwagon. E-newsletters are popular for a reason – they work. By offering interesting content (and a few specials) you can get people to agree to let you regularly contact them. Best of all, it costs nothing but your time.


3. E-newsletter advertising: What about this cool, affordable trick – find some e-newsletters that you like, and think would appeal to your type of customer, and advertise in them. It won’t cost much because the circulation numbers, especially in comparison to traditional advertising, will be small, but it will be highly targeted to your target market. Even better, as with any e-newsletter, the recipients want to receive the periodical.


4. Pay-per-click: As with e-newsletter advertising, the beauty of PPC ads is that you only pay for qualified leads – people who like your ad enough to click on it. Use PPC on Google, Facebook, Yahoo, MSN, etc.


5. Search Engine Optimization: Why even pay for a click when you can get one for free? SEO is the way. Yes, SEO takes a bit of time to learn, but it pays enormous dividends.


6. Overnight radio: Drive-time radio spots on a big station can cost upwards of $500 a minute. However, if you advertise on that same station overnight, while the numbers are of course much smaller, the costs are likely to be significantly less, potentially as low as $10 a spot.


7. Co-op advertising: My dad used to have a giant billboard on the San Diego freeway in Los Angeles that said “Carpet World . . . Elegance Underfoot.” In the corner it also said “featuring Ban-Lon Carpets.” Ban-Lon paid for about 80 percent of that advertisement. This is a perfect example of co-op advertising. If you have a wholesaler or distributor with whom you work, see if they offer co-op funds. Mention their product in your advertisement (online, in print, or over the air) and they will pick up a good portion of the costs.


8. Social media: Engaging in social media, if done right, can create new relationships and extend your brand and again, requires little of your time.


Okay, you get the idea. By expanding your options and marketing more with inexpensive, shoestring options, you can grow your business in any economy. If you want to learn even more about different ways to market your small business, you can watch this video.




About Steve Strauss

Steve Strauss is one of the world’s leading small business experts. The senior small business columnist for USA Today, his Ask an Expert column is one of the most highly-syndicated business columns in the country. Steve is also the author of the Small Business Bible and his latest book is Get Your Business Funded: Creative Methods for Getting the Money You Need. A popular media guest, Steve is a regular contributor to ABC News Now and frequently appears on television and radio. His business, The Strauss Group, creates unique, actionable, entertaining, and informative multi-media small business content. You can read more articles from Steve Strauss by clicking here.

Staying-on-message.pngby Sherron Lumley.


Who, exactly, are you? Amidst a veritable sea of sales pitches that consumers must navigate daily, that’s the essential question they are trying to answer when it comes to your small business. But if your company’s message is muddied or constantly shifting, connecting with potential customers in a way that reinforces trust and credibility becomes difficult, if not impossible.


“The world has changed,” says Sander Flaum, former chairman of Euro RSCG, one of the world’s largest advertising firms. “The whole concept has to be a unified one, because you look like an idiot otherwise. The marketing message has to be consistent. You can’t have one message for one channel and a different message for another channel.”


Pull-Quote.pngStaying on message means articulating a single passion or vision across all of the different platforms that your small business uses to advertise or promote itself—everything from Facebook to the phone book, from the graphics on your homepage to the signage on your front door. Keeping the content and appearance of your message consistent builds awareness, reinforces credibility, and fosters customer loyalty, while enabling you to reach multiple target audiences through the medium and style that they each prefer.


Many digital channels, one human voice.


Photographer and small business owner David Lutz, of Portland, Oregon, recently started promoting his events on Facebook. As one of the top commercial photographers in the Northwest, he understands the value of local marketing, but he also wants to position his business at the cutting edge and push it into larger markets. “Large companies have the resources,” he says, “but how does a smaller business do it?”


According to a recent social media survey from Social Strategy1 and Office Arrow, nearly nine out of 10 small business owners recognize social media does or will impact their ventures, yet half still say there’s too much social media to manage. Additionally, 44 percent of small business owners are concerned that social media can feed an “information overload,” and negatively impact a business’s image. While these fears aren’t completely unfounded, social media remains a powerful way to bundle and multiply the effectiveness of a small business’s integrated marketing strategy.


To marshal his marketing forces and keep his message consistent, Lutz’s company website, blog, and Facebook pages are all linked. He also has the ability to simultaneously post to Twitter and LinkedIn, making communicating that single message via all of these channels as simple as posting to one.

And as social media giants like LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook have struck deals and formed partnerships, communication between the different applications and platforms has gotten even easier for users.  (For a quick and easy how-to, check out Mashable’s articles on syncing social media, such as this one: “Twitter to Facebook, Five Ways to Post to Both.”)


Whereas Lutz’s previous methods of reaching customers mostly included art shows, galleries, and direct mailing, he says his new marketing focus is mostly digital, with an emphasis on his website, online store, and PDF versions of his catalog. “My goal with all of the social media is to drive people to my website home page, from where I get business,” he says. And while his Facebook page lets him showcase frequent photo updates, his business’s website is more content-rich, with consistent images.


Match your message to your market


“Your marketing and PR is meant to be the beginning of a relationship with buyers, and to drive action such as generating sales leads,” says market strategist David Scott. Here’s the rule: “When you write, start with your buyers, not with your product.”


Ernie Valdez, of Ernie’s Paint and Body Shop, in San Marcos, Texas, says with a wide range of customers from ages 16 to 80, his company’s slogan, “Just take it to Ernie’s,” works well because it solves a problem. Rather than selling any particular product or service, Valdez likes the idea of giving the customer a simple, reassuring answer to an age-old question: “How will I get my car fixed?”


For years Ernie’s advertising has included occasional TV commercials, billboards at the nearby college stadium, and local little league sponsorships. Now, with an increasingly saturated market, Ernie’s is expanding its marketing channels by adding an online component, highlighting its 25-year history and expertise on the company website, while also positioning the company as a trusted cornerstone of the community.


This tactic of sharing with the world your business’s expertise and developing messages that your buyers want to hear is a wise move, says Scott. Small businesses gain credibility and loyalty with buyers through content, he adds, so smart marketers will deliver messages targeted directly at their audience.  When the message and image are consistent, such as with Ernie’s, the reward is a loyal customer base.


In marketing, it pays to sweat the small stuff


Consistent marketing also involves choosing psychographic symbols that trigger a repetitive recognition in the customer. These brand standards can encompass something as small as an email signature or as broad as a musical melody (think Intel’s distinctive “bum-bum, bum-BUM”). The four most important elements are: logo placement and sizing, consistent graphic symbols and shapes, specific font styles, and, finally, color, which is perhaps most important because of its link to memory retrieval and emotions (think red for Coca-Cola and brown for UPS.) A good starting point for finding a cohesive color palette is Color Scheme Designer, a free online tool used by graphic design professionals.


Once the brand standards and marketing message are set, some companies stand by them forever, but they don’t have to be etched in stone. “When a company begins to lose market share, this is when it’s time to change the message,” says Flaum. As a cautionary tale of strategy and marketing gone awry, Flaum cites one of the world’s top brands: Ford. After losing market share and dropping from the 30th to 41st most valuable brand in 2007, he notes that Ford acted quickly to refocus its operations and simplify its image—killing off its underperforming mid-range brand Mercury and selling off its expensive, luxury marques Range Rover and Jaguar.


Nowadays, a small business may reach its customers through a retail store, a website, social media, direct mail, email, or even text message and online chat, making it possible to tap multiple market segments and socio-economic groups of consumers. However, to build the trust and loyalty essential to strong customer relationships and long-term success, all of those various marketing channels must speak with a unified voice, so the customer can answer that key question “Who are you?”

White-in-article-portrait.jpgby Iris Dorbian.


It’s the first lesson of Business 101: If you want your company or product to be a success, you must know your target audience, and more specifically, your customer demographics. Too often a business can struggle and even fail because its corresponding marketing efforts didn’t understand the who, what, when, where, why, and how of their customers make their buying decisions.


Ask Important Questions

Four years ago, when Derek Christian bought My Maid Service, a small independent cleaning service based in Cincinnati, his immediate goal was to grow the existing customer base. Christian, who previously worked as an account executive for Proctor & Gamble’s commercial products group, decided a good way of defining his target audience was to ask the company’s existing customers several questions. Some of these were fairly intuitive, like “Why were they hiring a cleaning service?” but others might seem pretty far afield, such as “What were they looking for in life?” and “Where do they shop?”


Pull-Quote.pngThe answers Christian received not only gave him keen insight into his clients’ psychographic profile, they helped him recognize three specific demographics within his customer base: new parents, pet owners, and young urban apartment dwellers. Once these three groups were clearly defined, My Maid Service, which currently has 50 employees, began a campaign push to market to them.


“For example, new parents care deeply about not only having spotless floors, but also what chemicals we are using to clean those floors because their baby is crawling on it and putting their hands and feet in his or her mouth,” explains Christian. “We make sure our people know child safety laws and we make sure we don’t arrive at nap times. It’s not just about cleaning.” As a result of targeting these three specific groups, Christian was able to grow the company’s annual revenue from $250,000 to $2,000,000—quite a coup for a small business during a recession.


Zeroing In

Now that you know identifying and understanding your customer demo can play a big role in improving your business, how do you go about it?


Try asking yourself the following questions:


  • Who is your best current customer?
  • What is their age range?
  • How about their income level? Or education level?
  • Where do they live?
  • How do they spend their money? Are they frugal, extravagant, or in-between spenders?

This type of additional detail is essential if you want to flesh out the customer profile of your company or product’s target. “The objective is to close in that person,” says Lou Rubin, a seasoned marketing and advertising professional whose career includes an 11-year stint as an executive director at ad agency Doremus. “Once you know everything about how they interact with you, you can seek similar customers.”


Mine for more data

Other tips:


  • Utilize your local Chamber of Commerce and state Commerce Department to find additional statistics, like census data, on a subgroup you’d like to target within your community. Be insatiable in your appetite to learn all you need to know about the customers you want to attract.
  • Leverage resources such as Experian, a credit-reporting agency that provides information on consumer online purchases, to your benefit. Doing so will give you a clear-cut idea on your demo’s purchasing behavior as well as the history of any interactions they may have with your brand.
  • Get first-hand information directly from customers. One good way is through detailed, one-on-one interviews. Your marketing or research department, if you have one, can do this using a customer database. Or if you have the budget, hire an outside firm that specializes in gathering this data for companies. If your marketing is more the shoestring variety, you can do exactly what Derek Christian did after taking over the reins of My Maid Service: Simply ask your target customers a few questions. Offering a discount on a future purchase is usually enough of an incentive to get people to participate in a short marketing survey. (To get started, check out the questions at this free customer survey library.)
  • Another best practice—examine the competition. How are they engaging with your audience? Are they using old-fashioned direct mail, e-mail, or SEO marketing? Or are they engaging with your shared customer base via word-of-mouth? What innovative solutions are they offering your customers that you are not doing? What are their aggregate strengths and weaknesses? Are they leveraging social media to their advantage or not?
  • And speaking of social media, how is your business using it further its brand and heighten audience engagement? Have you set up Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn accounts? In this dizzying 24/7 digital age, it behooves you to do so. The give-and-take of customer interaction on these sites will not only help you promote your message, but act as a catalyst in gaining insight into what makes your target audience tick.
  • Also, go to events or conferences that cater to your target audience(s). For instance, because Christian’s My Maid Service targets new parents, the company frequently participates at trade expos aimed at new parents. If they’re not going to come to you, then you go to them.


Remember information is power and knowing your demo is critical to maximizing your chances of realizing your goals and achieving success. 

Steve-Strauss--in-article-Medium.pngWhat is it that separates those small businesses that are very successful with their social media efforts with those that are not? Let me suggest a one word answer:




The phrase is not “Content is prince” or “Content is duke.” No, they say, “Content is king” for a reason. Because it is. Offer your folks great content and they will pay attention to you. Don’t and they won’t.


So what is great content and how do you create or offer it?


The first thing to understand about social media content is that it has to be far more about your audience and much less about you. Your job is to become added value to their day – you do that by posting content that your targeted audience finds interesting and useful. On the other hand, if all you do is post what you have on sale that day or “company news,” you will not go far.


Click here to read more articles from small business expert Steve Strauss.



A study by the technology company Roost looked at how small businesses can best engage their social media audience. The survey found that the following types of content offer maximum social media value:


  • Photos: Publishing photos on your Facebook page generates 50 percent more impressions than any other type of post. Photos are great because they are friendly, engaging and easy to upload. Pictures of your business, your products and your employees would all work.
  • Questions: Posting a question on Twitter, Facebook or your LinkedIn page is an excellent way to engage people and start a dialogue. The survey found that questions generate almost two times as many comments as any other type of post. Added bonus: Questions that foster discussions equal comments full of keywords that can boosts search engine optimization (SEO).
  • Quotes: The study found that quotes drive an average of 54 percent more retweets than any other type of tweet.


This is just for starters. Other things to post: Articles of interest, free e-books, resources, links and contests.


Let’s drill down and take Facebook as an example since that is the social media site most small businesses use. One of the easiest ways to get more people to “like” your page and engage with you is simply to update your status consistently. Share tips, ideas, post pictures and hold contests.


Another way to make your Facebook site valuable is to offer specials. But the secret here is not to offer just any old special, but a special that is only available to your Facebook friends. This serves two purposes.


  • First, it is a way to reward them for liking your page.
  • Second, it is a very specific way to measure the success of your page and plans. One challenge with social media is that it is often difficult to quantify the return on investment of your social media efforts. By creating and offering a unique special only for your Facebook fans, you can very specifically quantify the success (or failure) of your page. You can measure how many people respond to the promotion and how much money it makes you.


Additionally, remember that on Facebook, your content should be light, breezy even. Videos especially are a great way to engage this audience. Now, why is that? Well, think about Facebook for a moment. Most people who go there are going to connect with friends, see what is going on, that sort of thing. It is a casual place, a friendly place. So you have to be casual and friendly there too if you don’t want to be ignored. As such, videos and other easy-to-digest content fit the bill; they dovetail with the tone of Facebook.


Of course it also works to post articles that you think your audience will find interesting, funny, useful or otherwise worthwhile. Posting those things you find on the Web that you think people will like makes you a valuable resource.


Finally, a blog or articles written by you in your authentic style is another, and important, way to get your voice heard. Don’t think you have to be some type of wordsmith to succeed – you don’t. All you need to do is share your knowledge and passion in a friendly way and before you know it, viola! You have created great social media content. How do you go about creating social media content? What have you found that works well? Or, what doesn’t work so great? Share your thoughts with the SBOC community below.




About Steve Strauss

Steve Strauss is one of the world’s leading small business experts. The senior small business columnist for USA Today, his Ask an Expert column is one of the most highly-syndicated business columns in the country. Steve is also the author of the Small Business Bible and his latest book is Get Your Business Funded: Creative Methods for Getting the Money You Need. A popular media guest, Steve is a regular contributor to ABC News Now and frequently appears on television and radio. His business, The Strauss Group, creates unique, actionable, entertaining, and informative multi-media small business content.You can read more articles from Steve Strauss by clicking here.

White-in-article.pngMany small businesses forego formal annual employee evaluations. But, you should think twice.


By Sherron Lumley.


For many small business owners, employee reviews rarely get a second thought, and when they do they all too often fall into one of two versions—“Way to go!” or “What were you thinking?” For some, their reticence to formal reviews involves the time required. For others, it’s the potential for confrontation and an uncomfortable employer-employee relationship. And then some believe they’ve already identified their top-quality and sub-standard performers, so why bother? However, the reasons for doing a formal year-end evaluation outweigh the drawbacks.


Performance management is the way a small business owner takes his or her goals from strategy to reality by communicating with employees. One of the most important elements of this is the annual employee evaluation. It’s a vital opportunity for feedback that promotes better teamwork by motivating and encouraging employees and offers insight for improving the business. Put simply, it aligns your day-to-day operations with the larger goals your company aims to achieve.

“Employees always want to know what management thinks of their performance,” says Harvey Baron, founder of Remantech, a custom manufacturing technology company in the Pacific Northwest. “It also lets the employer know why some departments are doing well and why others are not.” 

Callout3.pngHere is a look at three of the key objectives of the formal year-end review process:  better outcomes through two-way feedback, increased employee satisfaction and retention, and documentation of employee performance and achievements to support compensation decisions and for legal purposes.

Improving employee performance through two-way communication

“If the criticism, if any, is constructive there should be a marked improvement in the employee’s attitude and work,” says Baron. “Sometimes an employee doesn’t even know everything that’s expected of them,” he says, noting that employee evaluations are valuable because they establish measurable goals for the employees and provide an opportunity to review the job description.

And to really make the most of it, Baron recommends thinking of the review process as a two-way street.  “When I allowed my folks to also evaluate their immediate supervisor, I was able to get a more complete picture of the employees’ performance,” he says. 

Today, the big trends in evaluating employees involve comprehensive performance management and two-way communication, building commitment, and enthusiasm. It’s a way to decrease turnover, motivate self-improvement and develop trust, says Barry Silverstein in his best practices book, Evaluating Performance.


Increasing employee satisfaction and retention

BayView Building Maintenance employs over 80 part-time and full-time employees who provide janitorial and building services to high security commercial office and medical facilities in Oregon and Washington. The company’s high rate of employee retention is a selling feature to their security-sensitive clients, who count on seeing the same familiar service staff year-round. The employee performance evaluation process contributes to Bay View’s success by promoting a positive and rewarding environment where attractive compensation is directly linked to better performance.


According to founder Denise Coy, listening to the employees is important for several reasons. Not only does it tell us how they feel about their job and if they are happy, but it also lets us know if they have any questions,” she says. “It tells us if they are right for the job and if they can advance,” she adds.


Creating a paper trail

Discount Fabrics in San Francisco is a family-owned business founded in 1967. “For several years, things were very comfortable and business was easy,” says owner Linda Blake. “Because the stores were run by either family or people that had been with us so long they were treated like family, most employees were long-term and there were not evaluations or written schedules and very little was put into writing.”


But now that Discount Fabrics has grown to include three stores, many more people are working for the company and it experiences higher employee turnover. Consequently, the three-generation family business has begun conducting written performance reviews. Documented schedules, time cards, evaluations, and write-ups became a necessity.


“Truly I feel the written evaluations are much more helpful to management than to the individual employee,” says Blake, who says it is an important part of a comprehensive employee file, serving as a record of an employee’s performance and history with the company to support management decisions. The year-end review establishes a paper trail for legal purposes and is also used by Discount Fabrics to fairly determine employee bonuses, benefit eligibility, and compensation.



Free employee evaluation resources:

Microsoft Office Employee Evaluation template.

Microsoft Office (short) Employee Evaluation form.

Inc’s (long) Employee Review template.

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