10 Ways for Small Businesses to Improve Their Marketing
First, let’s be clear. What we mean by “marketing” in this case isn’t a department or a division, or an agency that’s hired. It’s how companies promote and project their brand, and products and services to customers. To paraphrase the great Regis McKenna, who we quoted in our recent article on a similar topic, “marketing is everything and everything is marketing.” So, when we address the issue at hand, the goal isn’t to throw the various departments or any marketing agency under the bus. It’s more to look at marketing holistically as a larger part of what every company needs to do.
If you asked those that work for or with smaller businesses in some sort of marketing capacity, “What would you do to improve your marketing today?” – you’d likely get 20 different answers, or no answer at all. That’s because there’s no one way to do it when it comes to small or midsize businesses. We often say, successful marketing is very case-dependent and a number of factors have to align to do it well, many of which have often nothing to do with the actual “marketing” function if there is one. For example, any successful marketing will depend on the following:
- The strength of the product or service
- The industry (B2B or B2C)
- The length of the buyer journey
- The existing brand identity and awareness of the company and “the story” of who they are
- The quality of the messaging/copy
- The quality of the content
- The use of compelling media
- The audience targeting and focus
- The campaign promotion and distribution channels chosen
- The landing page and conversion/ecommerce experience in desktop and mobile
- The timing of the campaigns
- The quality of your sales team (if B2B)
- The budgets you set
- The goal horizon of your CEO or leadership
- The data you collect and the analysis you do on the data
- The optimizations you chose to make or not make
- The implementation of little things that matter (calls to action etc.) along the way to encourage people to take the next step toward purchase.
- Luck. That’s right, getting in front of the right people at the right time who might influence your product or service to others is often coincidence.
That said, assuming there is a viable product or service and a capable sales team (in the case of a B2B company), there are certainly marketing fundamentals that we see that are often not put in place by businesses that could help boost their long-term sales. Here are our suggestions for ways improve” what happens today in the field.
Have a plan.
Certainly, this is the no. 1 thing that we see with both small and large businesses. Just “doing” marketing without a plan is equivalent to lining up for offense or defense in football without plays. A plan helps you center your marketing and provides you a strategy for how all your marketing activities work together. If you need help, you can download our free guide, How to Develop a Modern-Day Marketing Plan.
Set the right goals for each marketing activity.
This comes as part of your plan above but it’s worth repeating here. Many small businesses, which are often under-capitalized, can’t spend money they don’t have. So, any marketing they attempt is a risk, with the expectation is that it generates a return immediately. That’s not unreasonable in some cases, such as impulse-related purchases. But in others, that immediate conversion goal can be unrealistic if the company sells products or services that have a longer buyer journey.
How to adjust:
- Be clear on the marketing activities you’re doing and what the goal of each is. Oftentimes, the goal of a particular marketing activity won’t be conversion, but may be awareness and engagement. That doesn’t mean the activity is bad. It just means it’s part of a process for warming up potential buyers.
- On the flip side, don’t waste money on advertising to “Buy Now” or “Purchase Now” if the buyer doesn’t know your company and the purchase isn’t simply impulse-based.
- Try to identify where buyers are in their purchase or conversion journey and align the right channels activities to focus on those who will likely convert. This is known as figuring out “buyer intent.”
Market in all parts of the funnel.
Related to no. 2, the mistake we often see small companies (and midsize businesses) make in particular, is applying this “buy now” mentality to all the promotions. To grow long-term, we’d suggest balance. Promotions need to go beyond only those at the bottom of the funnel (“purchase now”). Indeed, some marketing proponents might suggest moving all marketing to the top-of-the-funnel awareness. But that too is unrealistic, unless you’re well capitalized and have a longer-term time horizon.
How to adjust:
- Identify marketing activities in different areas – some that focus on awareness, others on engagement and acquisition, and finally others on “conversion.” This balance will help you sustain revenue today and set you up for more purchases down the road from those who are just getting to know you.
Use more content.
If you’re like most small businesses, you probably don’t have budget for a Super Bowl ad anytime soon. Developing content is often the best alternative for you to get your brand out there in a cost-effective way. Yes, if you or your employees are not good at creating content, you might have to hire for this. But if you are an owner of a small business where you or your employees have some talent in this area, why not take advantage of it? Content for the top of the funnel helps in few ways:
- It’s another touch point that keeps your company top-of-mind.
- It’s easy to promote it in social. When you do, you’re not only reminding your friends and your network about your company, but you’re also spreading the word for their connections as well in many cases.
- It’s great for SEO, assuming you’ve done the work to look at key audience topic areas.
- If you end up doing it yourself, it’s pretty inexpensive and just takes a little elbow grease. Here are some suggestions for you to produce more content at scale.
Rethink marketing as an investment and adjust your goal horizon.
When you think about, say, an IT purchase, your mindset primarily revolves around the fact that it’s an investment. Yes, there are costs but the payoffs down the road in terms of efficiency or other benefits have been deemed to be worth it. But marketing, for whatever reason, is simply looked at by many small businesses as some onerous cost – and one that has to payoff almost immediately in many cases in order for it to be viable. We’d suggest that’s the wrong way to look at it. That’s not because, as mentioned above, marketing can’t drive immediate term revenue. Certainly, it can. But great marketing is about driving long-term value, not just today but also tomorrow. After all, it’s one thing to survive this year. But what about next year? And the year after? To build any sustainable marketing effort, there has to be balance in all parts of the funnel, as we stated above. Willing to take on that additional risk to grow your audience is a critical part of what you need to consider. Looking at such costs as “investments” in the future will help you adjust your mindset and get more comfortable.
Hire a marketing agency that fits your needs or a specialist that knows what they’re doing.
For many small businesses, their first foray into marketing comes with the realization that if they hire anyone full-time on staff, it’s a.) A bit expensive; and b.) If that person doesn’t know well the specialty they were hired to do, it’s often not a fast learning curve and results may fail to live up to expectations in the immediate term. That’s a reason many small businesses might hire an agency first, though that’s not always as straight-forward as you might think. When we talk to clients, we will often hear their stories of agencies that have done something for them in the past, but “it didn’t work out.” What we’ve tended to see is that, many times, the agency specialty didn’t align well with what the client actually needed. So, it ended up to be a mismatch in many ways. For sure, no agency should ever overstate what it can do. But as a small business, you should also think about a few things as you consider hiring an outside agency:
- What exactly do you need in terms of services? Do you already know? Are there things you haven’t thought about that the agency may be proposing? Do they make sense to you? On the flip side, what evidence do you have that the agency can help you with those areas? Do they have past successes?
- Does the agency help you in a wholistic sense? In other words, just because they work in, say, social media, are they pushing you in a broader way to consider related areas such as content or landing pages? If they’re not showing you how all the marketing pieces fit together, it may be time to think about another relationship.
- Does the agency help teach you things you didn’t know before? Part of what we do here at Marketing Nice Guys is to help train small businesses and individuals in marketing so you can succeed in it, regardless of whether you use us for those services.
Update your website. (And get it off that custom-built platform.)
We’ve seen a lot of small businesses that have legacy sites, many of them custom-built. There are two big issues with that. First, many of the owners can’t update anything on the site themselves, but need a developer to do it. Second, the sites look outdated in terms of the user experience. It’s not that they don’t function alright in many cases, but it would be the equivalent of having a storefront that features old or a dusty look in its shop window. These days, customers are often turned off by sites that don’t have a modern look and feel, thinking how good can the company be if the owners don’t want to invest in keeping up the website? A few things to recommend here:
- Move away from a custom-built site to one with more modern, easily accessible templates such as WordPress or Squarespace. Both of those platforms can handle the bulk of what small businesses need to do, including e-commerce transactions, lead generation or other functions. They are also more easily customizable both in terms of content and functionality.
- Before you redesign, check out our 7 UX Rules for Small Business Websites – that can help guide you as you go.
- If you still need help, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll be to talk to you about the services we provide in this area.
Stop thinking all ads drive your immediate-term revenue.
Similar to what we say above, many small businesses expect that any ad they do – whether it’s in search, display, video, or even the newspaper – will drive revenue today. That misconception not only fuels a number of bad executions of ad campaigns, it also leaves small businesses feeling letdown by the ad performance, when it may have actually performed well by the goals that should’ve been set.
The truth is – many forms of advertising aren’t ideal for driving direct revenue, but more aimed at boosting awareness and brand recognition. This is especially true of ad platforms for display, native, and video, in particular. The one exception here would be search, where, depending on the business, you can do a better job of targeting in-market buyers because you can decipher a bit more of their “intent” from the search term. What can you do? Learn a bit more about the various types of ads you can and should run. Here are some additional pieces on digital ads that might help:
- The importance of thinking longer-term with branding and awareness ads
- 5 reasons you’re not getting results from social media efforts
- 4 tips to improve the ROI of your paid search campaigns
Learn more about your audience and start incorporating regular optimizations.
We often say that marketers should never sit still. What we mean by that is there’s always a way to do something a bit better and the goal of any marketing effort should be to continuously improve on your results. A campaign not working the way you want? What have you done to adjust the copy? The images? The audience targeting? People reading some of your content but not other pieces? What made the good pieces work? And how can you produce more of those? The important aspect here is data, being able to collect it on customer behavior, and analyze it so you can use it to improve. But it doesn’t just stop at your marketing. Why not use data to improve your products and services, incorporating customer feedback for the next iteration? That’ll make your marketing a lot easier. Start talking to your customers and asking their opinion of you, of a product, of a service. Have them take a survey to better understand their challenges and psychographics. They might have new ideas for you, which is great. But even if they don’t, getting their feedback helps you get better in all ways as a company, and improves your overall relationship with them.
Tell a better story.
There’s an old saying in marketing that people buy from who they know. But what makes them get to know you? That’s where your story comes in. As our friends at The Narrative Playbook can attest, having a great narrative that attracts people is the first step in getting them to eventually buy from you. It doesn’t matter if it’s you as an individual or your company, a lot of your success depends on individuals understanding and relating to your authentic story. A few ideas here to get started:
- Begin with your purpose. What do you believe in and what makes up how you personally approach things as business.
- If necessary, rethink your brand and mission. For example, how are you currently projecting who you are out there. Is an accurate reflection of you and your business or story? If not, how can you be more consistent and more compelling in terms of who/what you represent?
- After that, think about your positioning. This is kind of a “why you” type of approach vis a vis your competitors. What makes you unique?
- Acknowledge those customer challenges and issues. Part of telling a great story involves how you fit culturally with what you know are the audiences are looking for and what challenges and issues they face.
There’s obviously a lot more involved with this, but just those few exercises can help get you started. If you need more guidance with building a better story, we can certainly help, as can our friends at the Narrative Playbook.
Like we often say in marketing, there’s no silver bullet and there are so many additional areas we didn’t cover here that we could’ve! But we tried to keep it manageable at ten items. Our goal, as always, is to simply help you excel in digital marketing. We hope this has been helpful in that regard. Contact us if you need support for any of our agency consulting or training services.