Marketing Is Not Optional
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The odds that your small business will survive — and thrive — may ultimately depend on your commitment to marketing


As a small business owner, your daily to-do list is undoubtedly lengthy — and expands some days by the half-hour. You have employees to supervise, finances to track, and suppliers to manage. Meanwhile, you need to maintain top quality for your products and services, and your customers’ ongoing satisfaction remains paramount.

When you’re coping with so many things, marketing may fall to the bottom of the list. But to ignore marketing tempts fate, no matter the size of your business.

“From the newest startup to the largest Fortune 10 companies, sales are the lifeblood of absolutely every company — and in order to get sales, marketing and branding is essential,” says Doug White, a partner with small business advisory firm Whitestone Partners Inc.

“Yet one thing we see time and time again with younger companies is that they do some marketing, make some sales, and get busy filling those orders,” he says. “The marketing falls off, the company reaches the end of the current work, and they find that the sales funnel is empty.”

Getting started

At its core, marketing comprises the connective tissue between your company’s products or services and its customers. Traditionally, marketing decisions have been driven by the four P’s: product, price, place (distribution), and promotion.

Given the evolution of the marketplace, however, it’s not enough to market on the four P’s. It has become essential to define your ideal customers — knowing their buying personas, where you will find them, and the best ways to connect with them.

“You’ve got to follow the money — customers are everywhere, but you have to figure out how to reach them,” says Gene Marks, president of customer relationship management consulting firm The Marks Group and a small business advisor. “There’s no magic potion.”

Step one for a small business is to connect personally with customers. One-on-one conversations with people who buy your product or service — despite your modest track record — will provide invaluable insight about what makes your company special.

“Early on, wowing customers is very doable,” says Mike Michalowicz, a small business consultant, author, and lecturer. “Not only because you offer great services or have a great product, but also because you have time to connect with people individually and develop raving fans.”

Additionally, Marks suggests that exceptional customer service — even beyond the customer service you already provide — for existing clients is a smart and cost-effective way to build upon your initial customer base. When you look out for your clients’ best interests, referrals usually follow.

“[Client referrals] are the No. 1 source of leads,” Marks says. “If, at first, you don’t have enough money to be marketing but you’re awesome at doing what you do and provide good service, trust me, word will get around.”

Time for a plan

As your business expands, the power of personal connections and word-of-mouth marketing may diminish. Your sales are flat, and there’s no buzz around your product. It’s time to develop a marketing plan.

At a minimum, your initial marketing plan should provide answers to the following:

  • Your target market: What is the ideal audience for your goods or services?
  • Your competitive advantage: What about your offerings, location, or market conditions give you a leg up on the competition?
  • A sales plan: How will you sell your goods or services, and what are the logistics behind your sales plan?
  • Your marketing and sales goals: What measureable results should you aim for?
  • Your marketing action plan: What are the tactics you’ll employ in implementing your plan?
  • A marketing budget: How much money and effort will you allocate to each tactic?

Without a marketing plan, you’ll be taking a trip with no vehicle, no map, and no idea of where you’re going.

“It’s going to be difficult to develop a message and determine the best place to reach a focused audience if you don’t know why a prospective customer should purchase your service or product from you instead of a competitor; who values your product or service enough to purchase it at your price; and whether that audience is large enough to support your business,” says Polly White, who is married to Doug White and is a partner with Whitestone Partners Inc.

Taking it to the streets

You’ll be ready to develop messaging after developing a marketing plan. To stay out of the weeds when developing a marketing message, Polly White says: Don’t get so wrapped up in describing your product or service that you forget to stress your offering’s value.

“Too often with smaller companies, they want to say how fantastic their product or service is with all the details,” White says. “But frankly, the client doesn’t care. That’s not what’s important to them. You need to focus on what’s important to the person you’re pitching.”

As for the best way to deliver your message, it will vary from one enterprise to another but will likely involve more than a single medium. For instance, a retail enterprise may best benefit from a combination of store promotions, social media, direct mail, and community outreach. A B2B service firm is more likely to see positive results from targeted email and direct mail, according to Doug White. Marks works with a residential landscape company that has seen great results from Facebook advertising and posts of videos and photos. Polly White says that consumer-focused companies generally find search engine optimization valuable.

Consider any approach in the spirit of trial and error, all the while tracking the time, energy, and money in relation to the number of new customers gained through the effort. Marks recommends that you give a campaign about 30 days — if it gains traction, keep it going; if it falls short, modify or toss it.

“People expect a blanket answer, but to all of the different marketing ideas, the answer is always ‘maybe,’” Michalowicz says. “You need to figure out your conversion cost to measure what’s working and then amplify what is.”

An outside job?

One reason that marketing often falls to the bottom of small business priorities is that it can be time consuming. Given the ever-changing appetites and whims of the market, effective long-term marketing can’t be achieved without ongoing customer research and insights, new marketing tactics, and measurement.

Moving past the do-everything demands of early phase businesses, Michalowicz says that most small business owners are great at either sales, marketing, or operations. Assess your strengths honestly, and if you don’t have the marketing chops, he advises outsourcing the role.

Marks goes a step further: He suggests small business owners hand off marketing entirely — whether that means a contractor or a full-time employee — as soon as you can afford it.

Do not, however, keep pushing it to the bottom of your task list, waiting for a slow day around the office.

“Always make sure that you’re giving that marketing function to someone or an entity that can really market well because marketing feeds the sales funnel,” Michalowicz says. “And if the funnel isn’t being fed, it’s only a matter of time before you run out of opportunities.”

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