After pouring your mind, body, and soul into crafting the perfect product or service, worrying about how to brainstorm and execute a small business marketing plan is the last thing you want to do.
Let’s be honest about it, though. Maybe part of this feeling is because you just can’t add this “necessary evil” as one more thing to do. Or the more likely option is you’re overwhelmed by the complexity of all the different small business marketing tactics you see out in the wild.
Here’s some good news, marketing for your business CAN be complex but it makes more sense to start simple and work your way up. For one, it’s cheaper. For two, it allows you to better understand what works in your marketing strategy before investing in shiny new things to automate unproven results.
The truth is marketing is the lifeblood for your business. And we all know what happens when you have no blood…
Besides, if you have an offer that’s going to help a lot of people, don’t you think you owe it to the world to make sure that offer gets seen by as many people as possible? You know, for the greater good, which coincidentally puts money in your pocket. Win-win.
This post is going to answer the nagging question,”how do I market a small business?” by showing you not only what you need to do but some quick, easy-to-digest examples of how to execute, including the right time to look at marketing automation software (and which tools you should look at when that time comes).
The most critical step in any small business marketing strategy (and the most frequently overlooked)
Marketing messages are much like the conversations you have in everyday life. The downside is just like in everyday life, too many marketers speak first and listen second.
So what do you say when marketing your business?
If you want to find messages that resonate with your audience, you need to understand how they talk and the grievances they’re airing. In other words, you need to listen. You do this via research.
Customer research (often referred to as voice of the customer or VOC) helps you get the words exactly right for your marketing messages. An added bonus is your may uncover ideas for product or service enhancements you didn’t consider yet (or maybe you just underestimated the importance to your target customers).
Here’s a simple way to get started with you research. Go to Google and type in “problem + group/forum/community” where problem represents what you think your business solves for and group/forum/community are interchangeable to try to find where you customers get together on the web.
Alternatively, you can search Facebook groups, Reddit, and LinkedIn and listen in on the activity there to make sure your business is on the right track to address customer pain and describe how you do address that pain in a meaningful way.
Bonus tip: If you sell a physical product and competing products sell on Amazon, you can also mine Amazon reviews by looking for pains that haven’t been solved by others and incorporate the exact language of those reviews into your marketing messages.
How to eavesdrop for inspiration for your marketing messages (with no ethical or legal implication)
Once you understand your target market, do a scan of what your competitors are doing so you have an idea of what type of small business marketing (i.e. how their messages are structured) is already working for the people you want to reach.
Brace yourself for how to execute on this. You sitting down? Ok – you execute by paying more attention. It may sound stupidly simple but stay with me here.
Start noticing which sponsored posts related to your market consistently show up in your feed over time and click them to see how they’re constructed.
Look at what direct mail offers continue to show up in your actual mailbox and take note of the headlines and the offers.
Businesses pay real money to reach people with those advertisements so if you see them over and over again, you can reasonably assume they’re getting decent results.
If you don’t believe me on the power of paying more attention, there’s science to back this up. There’s a famous test on selective attention conducted in 1999. Go here to check it out before reading on.
That test is most often referred to as the invisible gorilla test for obvious reasons. The first time I did this was in a room full of ~50 people and NOBODY saw the gorilla cruising through the video the first time through it (I did get the number of passes right, though, for whatever that’s worth).
All that is to say you find much more when you’re actively looking for it.
Let’s make sure we make one thing clear on this – do not plagiarize someone else’s words under any circumstance while observing how they construct their marketing material. One, it’s not cool. And two, it’s illegal.
Knowing what to say in your marketing is one thing but figuring out where to say it is critical too, so let’s look at where you should anchor your small business marketing.
The surprising reason your website should anchor your small business marketing plan
Most businesses treat their website as some sort of digital placeholder they’ve planted their flag in as one giant leap for mankind. At best, it’s a product catalog. This might work when you’re Apple or Walmart with global recognition but not so much for your little business that could.
Small business owners who take either of those two approaches are letting customers slip through their fingers when some minor tweaks to the site would help their bottom line.
First, let’s talk about the about page. Lead with the benefit you provide for customers so they know they’re in the right place. Talk about yourself secondary, as support for why you’re qualified. Close it out with a call-to-action provide their email via a form so they know exactly what to do once they’re done reading.
You might wonder why ask for their email instead of asking them to buy something and I’ll turn it back on you with a question:
What do you think is the easiest way to get your message to a target customer? a) hope someone stumbles across your website b) pay for traffic or c) send them an email?
The answer is c (and it’s not even close). Having the email address gives you multiple chances to convert in the event that the prospective customer wasn’t quite ready to buy when they landed on your site.
And while sending emails is related to the website, the next piece of your small business marketing strategy is so important it deserves its own section.
Anyone who tells you email marketing is dead is a liar
When you talk about measuring marketing performance you need to clarify your objective. If your objective is putting more dollars in your bank account (and it should be) then email is the top marketing option. Optin Monster’s research calculated the delta as 3:1 on sales conversion for email compared to social media.
Think about it. People go on social to engage with other people (and maybe with brands). I’ll talk about social media more later, but know this – email is where you want to be when it’s money time.
How to get customers lining up to fork over their email addresses
First, let’s get the automation part out of the way. To do email the right way (i.e. in compliance with spam laws), you need to sign up for an email service provider (ESP). You might also hear them referred to as autoresponders.
Mailchimp has a good free option for beginners and you can also consider other options like ConvertKit, Aweber, or Drip. I started with Mailchimp and moved to Convertkit (affiliate link) based on price/feature combination.
Pricing will vary based on your email list size and features you want. There’s a lot of overlap but enough difference that you’ll want to spend a little time figuring which makes the most sense for your business.
To have people lining up to hand over their emails, you’ll need to make them an offer they can’t refuse. You’ll want to decide the offer (aka lead magnet) you make to get customer emails based on the type of business you’re in.
For information or service businesses, you may want to offer a free report or cheatsheet related to your business, one you could sell if you wanted to because it’s packed with so many knowledge bombs.
Physical product businesses may want to give a discount to anyone who signs up. They can sweeten that deal by offering their email list access to new products before release to the general public.
Your customer research will come in handy in determining which offer can best maximize email sign-ups.
How to craft an email that engages your prospects (and gets them buying from you)
Once you have the email address, you have to decide what type of messages to send. Some options you can consider are writing your own content summarizing relevant information complementary to whatever you sell.
You can also send out promotional pricing offers but have to be strategic about when you use this so your buyers don’t get trained to wait for a discount (see: car industry annual friends and family sales).
Getting the sale is great but shouldn’t but don’t let the sales receipt be the last email you send to your customer.
How to overdeliver on customer experience with follow-up emails that grow your business
After you make the sale, you can follow-up with training material or an offer to help to make sure your customer gets the full benefit they bought. Your email service provider can automatically trigger this email once you pre-write the emails and set the rules for how many days to wait after purchase until the email goes out.
If your business has multiple products, you may want to segment the list to pitch your next level product to paying customers, even if the only thing you change is the purchase link from the email you send to the non-buyers.
Your most qualified leads are the ones who already bought from you and had experience exceeding their expectations, so excelling at helping your customers realize the value they were looking for benefits your customer and your bank account.
Everything that follows is about diversifying techniques to get people on your email list.
Why your small business marketing strategy needs to include giveaways
You ever heard the saying “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” Well, if the milk is delicious and you can only get it once, odds are you’ll be more inclined to buy. I know I’m not the only one making spontaneous purchases while walking around Costco scarfing down samples at lunch time.
Hands-on demos are one of the most effective ways to sell a physical good (did I mention how effective samples are for edible goods?) but that limits you to local customers. Who’d want to do that when you have the whole interwebs at your fingertips?
If you have something with a national or global demand, shooting detailed video tutorials is the next best thing and could make the difference with your potential buyer who needs a little push to go ahead and slide you their credit card details.
What if you sell a digital product?
The same concept still applies but requires a slightly different execution. For software as a service (SAAS) product or an educational product, giving away a free trial can make a huge impact on your business.
Many businesses offer money-back-guarantees instead of a free trial but the fact is people don’t trust them. It only takes one time being burned – by a business requiring a handwritten note, signed in goat’s blood (sorry, PETA), to be delivered by carrier pigeon in order for you to get a refund – to create distrust of all companies.
If there’s any doubt, these prospective customers won’t buy… from you or anyone else. Don’t underestimate inaction as a competitor to buying your product. It may be the fiercest competitor you face.
One way to overcome that trust hurdle is to have someone else vouch for you.
How to use human nature to drive high-quality leads right to your doorstep (digital or physical)
We know certain things about humans to be true.
People love to feel smart, like they make great decisions.
People prefer to make purchases based on a recommendation of someone they trust.
Absent a personal recommendation, people would rather trust strangers or a mass of strangers over having no information at all. (Think about how you make you make Amazon purchase decisions or use Yelp to decide what new restaurant you want to try.)
Referral marketing aka word-of-mouth ties all three of these human natures together. There are three main types of referral marketing you can try out with your email list.
First, there are the referrals people make simply because you ask them to and they love what you do. The best things about this type of referral marketing are a) it’s free and b) it can scale as long as you continue to deliver a great customer experience. You can make referral requests part of your automatic emails you send to your email list or as a call-to-action on emails you’re sending out in real-time.
Second, you can offer incentives for people on your email list to get other people on your email list. This type of referral marketing typically has tiers. For example, consider the following example 3-tier structure:
- 5 successful list referrals = branded stickers
- 25 successful list referrals = branded t-shirt
- 100 referrals = branded hoodie
Notice the added benefit of the swag offers being other forms of marketing if people are wearing your branded apparel.
The last type of referral is where you offer a payment for each referral that makes a purchase. The benefit of this referral strategy is you only pay when you have a confirmed new customer, instead of paying for clicks which may or may not become a customer (e.g. Facebook ads).
There are a number marketing automation solutions in the market, and which will work best for you depends on how big your business is and how you want to structure the referral program. You can start by looking into softwares like Referral Candy, Friendbuy, or Ambassador to get a feel for the options.
The thing you also have to remember is people talk just as passionately about products they hate, if not more. So never lose focus on maintaining your ability to overdeliver.
Referral marketing is the original social media marketing, except better.
Unpopular opinion: free social media marketing is a waste of time (except for one current feature)
By selling ads to businesses.
You wouldn’t need ads if your message reached all of your target people all the time.
And when you use your business pages, that’s exactly what doesn’t happen, even for the people who voluntarily like your page.
If you like shouting into a vacuum, continue posting on your FB page, but there is a better way… Facebook groups. If you control the group, you control the message and so far algorithms don’t apply to groups when it comes to reaching your target recipients.
What’s even better is FB groups default to members receiving a notification for each new post!
A couple of exceptions here using a group instead of a page: if you already have hundreds of thousands of fans, managing a group becomes a full-time job. Once groups become spammy, it ruins the experience for the people you actually want to reach and they’ll stop showing up or leave the group altogether.
Also, if you’re in entertainment (think: meme maker extraordinaire or comedian) it may make sense to focus your efforts on the main page and rely on the viral nature of your content.
Automation tip: you can use tools like Buffer or Hootsuite to automatically have content post to your FB page at optimal times to improve engagement, remain active, and build up an archive of content.
You don’t have to be on every social media platform at once. Pick one where your target customers resides most often and focus on that first. Timebox the window you spend on it and move on to the rest of the day to make sure you don’t get sucked into the social media vortex with no memory of how your last 2.5 hours evaporated into thin air.
Your sudden increase in productivity will thank you.
The sad truth about paid social media marketing for small business
It has everything to do with sniper-like targeting. The better you know your market, the better you can target using the frighteningly precise targeting options that exist in Facebook and Linkedin.
Similar to when you’re doing your customer research, where you advertise (first) depends on where your target audience is most active. Facebook has 2.3B monthly active users but if your ideal customer spends more time on Linkedin, Linkedin may be where you want to start.
I say “first” because having your business reliant on the whim of a single third-party platform puts your business in a dangerous situation. When times are good, it’s great but if you mistakenly run afoul of the real asset owner (e.g. Facebook), your business can literally starve overnight.
Legendary marketer Dan Kennedy refers to this as “the rule of one”. (Another reason emails are so valuable. Even if you upset the email gods, regularly downloading your contacts positions you to quickly pivot in the unlikely event you’re forced to make a change of service provider.)
Whether its other paid ads or one of the other channels noted in this post, you want to have an eye toward diversifying your marketing, even if it’s only part of your roadmap for the distant future. This way, you’ll never fall victim to the rule of one.
When you start advertising you’ll want the link in the ad to direct your prospects to a page with only one option, the exact action you want them to take. These pages are called landing pages and can connect directly with your email service provider to continue building your relationship with these contacts. I recommend Leadpages for getting started (you can create a landing page within minutes).
No matter what tool you choose or the initial words you craft for you ads, the most important thing to remember on your ads is to test. Start with $1/day or $5/day budget to see if the ad converts before launching at normal scale and investing precious dollars you hope to see again one day.
If you’re getting lots of clicks on the ad but not getting the sign ups, you probably want to have another look at the words on your landing page (aka copy).
All sorts of books exist about copywriting (the art and science of selling with your words), so I won’t have nearly enough space to cover that here. How to Write Copy That Sells (affiliate link) by Ray Edwards, however, is a good place to start if you need some inspiration on how to write a landing page.
Knowing this truth about paid social media ads doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do social media marketing. It means you have to change how you think about social media marketing. The truth is using paid social ads is actually closer to advertising on Google, with the exception of one major difference.
The biggest marketing advantage Google ads has over any social media platform
The difference between social media and Google is user intent when they’re in either of those places. On social people are there to stalk their exes and co-workers and reshare funny cat memes, not to solve a problem. If you happen to grab their attention, maybe they’ll click your ad to learn more.
On Google, users are literally searching for a solution. If you catch their attention there, they’re more likely to be in a ready-to-buy mindset. As with social media ads, you can test whether an offer to buy or a different free offer on the landing page works best before ramping up.
Note: Google has its own labyrinth of rules and regulations that can get you unexpectedly banned so keep Dan Kennedy’s rule of one in mind.
Lastly, if the paid advertising route doesn’t feel right, you can always just get another business owner to do your marketing for you. I’m totally serious.
How to get another business owner to do your dirty work for you
You might hesitate at first but what if my list was 10x yours? 100x yours?
Obviously, people can pay attention to multiple businesses and sign up for information from multiple sources.
That being said, for every person on my list that’s not on yours, the decision you have to make in this hypothetical situation is a more practical one.
Do you want 100% of nothing or do you want 50% of a much bigger number than you currently have access to?
That type of arrangement is known as affiliate marketing and works best if your affiliate’s audience complements yours instead of something totally unrelated.
Bonus tip: you can also do affiliate marketing offers of someone else’s product to your contacts and bring in some additional income if the offer makes sense for your audience.
From a technology standpoint, you might think this looks a little like referral marketing. Given the affiliates are smaller volume, you can handle this with a simpler approach by creating unique links to the checkout page, track how many sold for each, for how much, do a little math based on however you structured those affiliate marketing partnerships, and write the check.
How do you find such complementary offers? Google your product or keyword, and see what pops up. If something looks interesting and you see a potential pairing with what you offer, sign up for their email list and see what they’re marketing and how. This will also give you a quick way to reply back with a pitch for your partnership idea.
Remember: if you do this, focus on the customer first and then the possible affiliate’s potential financial upside.
While most everything in this post is geared toward internet marketing and promoting to your email list, there are still some effective old school techniques that work.
How to find and attend conferences that provide immediate spikes in your marketing ROI
It’s the same concept as where you should look for customers online but let me give you an example to make this real.
Let’s assume you’re a bookkeeper/accountant and you only have enough budget to go to one conference this year. Your goal is to get in front of potential customers and have them join your email list.
You can choose to go to a conference like the one put on by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants with a number of educational sessions to choose from on industry updates and other technical skills.
Or you can choose to go to a conference geared toward small business owners, who tend to struggle with bookkeeping.
Based on your goal, hopefully it’s obvious you need to go with the second option. The key is demonstrating you understand their struggle before talking about going into your offer or its features. It’s poor form and, more importantly, will squander many sales.
Bonus tip: have a business card with a link/QR code to a special offer unique to the conference instead of going to the homepage to measure how many contacts came from the conference. Tell people it’s a special offer and the exclusivity combined with you being in the right place at the right time should be enough to get them to take a look.
Why you can’t forget about the old fashioned mailbox (especially if you’re looking for local marketing ideas)
So if you’re a local business, you want to use that to your advantage. Imagine being a new pizza parlor trying to get people to come in. You can literally go door-to-door (saving yourself postage) leaving a coupon for something free that you know will need another purchase. Offering a free drink probably isn’t going to get it done, but a free slice? People will come in, probably buy a slice, and a drink too. And if it’s good, you just got yourself a new customer.
The technique works for other businesses too. I just received a book that was offered at a discount price that contained an offer for the next tier product. It didn’t cost any extra to slip in another small sheet of paper to make that offer either.
Bonus tip: This notion of marketing where you have less competition is the same reason you should consider printing business cards still in this digital age. Think about when you come home and empty your pockets. There’s your phone with all your contacts you’ve ever known and then there’s a business card. Which has the better chance of standing out?
The most underrated branch of your marketing team
At its core, marketing is about your customer. That’s why this post began with customer research and will end with customer service.
Let’s face it. Good customer service is tough to come by. Doing it well may or may not separate you from your competition but doing it poorly will 100% cost you customers.
Brian Kurtz provides a great lesson on this in his book, Overdeliver.
It’s time to put some of these small business marketing strategies into action
Now you’ve done enough reading about small business marketing, it’s time to make some marketing moves in your business. The key to fighting off the overwhelm is to start with some simple changes now and ALWAYS measure your results.
The more you exercise your marketing muscle, the more marketing will become an integrated part of your business instead of just another thing to do and the more you’ll see your business grow.
Once you get a taste of how your newfound marketing skills translate to your bank account, you’ll never go back.