Small business advice: Major league marketing on a minor league budget

Marketing is an uncomfortable topic for many start-ups and small companies. Without the budget to engage the titans of advertising — public relations and campaign automation — many small business owners default to a very passive approach, spending everything on a Web site and waiting for something good to happen.

But could you do more?

Realistically, what could a business do if it only had $1,000 dollars to spend on marketing? What if it was only $100? Can you really achieve anything with that investment?

The short answer is yes. Even with just $100, the most important thing you can do, especially in today’s consumer-driven economy, is get closer to your customer. It doesn’t take a lot of money to start a conversation and begin building a community.

Related: Avoid these five crippling branding mistakes

In fact, spending every cent of that $100 on sandwiches and coffee may get you further than $1,000 spent on emails, ads and promotions.

Here’s a breakdown of what I mean:

1. Get closer to your audience.

Unfortunately, many entrepreneurs spend a lot of time and effort trying to automate and digitize their marketing efforts. This ends up separating them from the very prospects they hope to turn into customers.

And while there is nothing wrong with Google Adwords or Facebook ads, there is no substitute for seeking out customers, prospects and early adopters and asking for their advice directly.

In fact, you may learn that some of the tried-and-true marketing efforts aren’t even appropriate for the customers you are trying to reach, saving you the effort and dollars before they are even spent.

2. Start a conversation.

The best marketing campaigns are interactive at heart – they offer consumers an opportunity to engage with a brand. Gone are the days of one-way marketing messages that “convince” a customer to purchase a product or service.

Strive to first understand and establish relationships with your customers before you even discuss the products or changes you are considering. If you can speak to the deeper unmet needs of your customer, you can create a vision that drives your business.

You will learn through your conversations how to develop compelling human stories that make your brand relatable, shareable and interesting.

3. Build a community.

Be prepared to sustain the relationships you create through meetings and interactions. Now that your prospects have been heard and understood, they have a vested interest in the outcome.

Report on your progress, tout new offerings that align with their feedback and plan follow-up interactions to cement their status as foundational customers. Don’t be afraid to show them your ideas before they are completely done.

This is one of the best ways to get feedback and make your customers feel like they are part of what has been created. This early tribe of customers becomes the nucleus to help you spread your message and move your company forward.

A recommendation from this type of customer is worth far more than the dollars you can spend on any marketing campaign.

In the end, a successful marketing campaign depends less on how much money you spend than on how smartly you spend whatever money you have. That’s good news for small businesses who are committed to connecting with customers the right way.

Eric Holtzclaw is the founder and CEO of Laddering Works and author of Laddering: Unlocking the Potential of Consumer Behavior.

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