In addition to more traditional activities like print advertising and press releases, successful marketing in today’s economy requires a multipronged approach using digital media, content marketing, and a nimble approach to public relations.
By Joy Jordan
While most business owners would agree that acquiring more customers is a positive outcome, the path to get there is less appealing. Marketing a product or service can be challenging for those not experienced at the task, or those who would prefer to focus on the basics of their business.
The reality is that marketing your business is crucial to its success – today, and in the future. Establishing your company as the leader in its industry will help you retain current customers, attract new ones, and remain top of mind in your field.
While the ‘why’ is pretty obvious, the ‘how’ is much more daunting. Particularly in today’s marketplace, where it is no longer sufficient to simply place an ad in a newspaper or mail out a flyer, it is critical that business owners utilize the variety of marketing tools at their disposal.
“Marketing plays a more important role than it ever has,” says Nicole Joy Hales, Senior Account Manager with PR First. “And there are an ever-increasing number of marketing opportunities available. It’s easy for people to become overwhelmed when thinking about business marketing. In addition to traditional marketing tools that many people feel comfortable with (especially advertising), new advances in social media can make any business owner feel like they’re devoting more time on figuring out what to post where than actually thinking more comprehensively about the message they want to convey about their business and the audience they want to convey it to.”
In addition, Hales notes that PR should not be discounted as a powrful tool for positioning a business for success. “Public relations is a critical component of a successful marketing campaign, although often overlooked,” notes Hales. “The marketing that a company gains from public relations is earned, rather than bought (like advertising) or owned (like a company website). Effective public relations strategies encourage respected media outlets to highlight the achievements and news of a business, and for readers or viewers who see this company mentioned by that media outlet, a sense of credibility is immediately built.”
The multifaceted nature of marketing is both a benefit and a challenge. Coordinating the various aspects can be difficult, but it allows for wider, more diverse access. “Marketing’s role is like the conductor of an orchestra,” says April Merrill, Partner at Coastal Mountain Creative. “A conductor uses all their senses to evaluate every aspect of the performance and can adjust one musician or an entire section to keep everyone in tune and on tempo as needed. Marketing sees everything that’s happening both internally and in the marketplace and can adjust specific activities and messages to respond to the feedback and needs of customers, sales teams and more. Add extra emphasis here, tweak that message there and juggle the increasing number of communications channels. With an overall strategy in hand, marketing designs the creative, executes the communications and audits the results to keep the company performing in harmony!”
With the economy in an upturn in recent years, many business owners have taken a step back from marketing because they are simply too busy to get to it. This is a huge mistake, says Michelle Flynn, Owner of Socially Yours Marketing. “Marketing needs to play a strong role in your business no matter how well your company is doing,” adds Flynn. “At your busiest, you need to market like you are extremely slow. Continued growth is what will keep you in business and marketing will help you to achieve continued growth. In this case, a business owner must hire a marketing professional to take over their marketing so that they can focus on running their successful business.”
Steve Dubin, President of PR Works, confirms this approach. “Marketing remains at the front end of the conveyor belt. Compelling marketing messages still bring customers across the threshold and allow small business to deliver on the promise of a great product or service.”
It is important that you ensure that your marketing efforts are creating the desired results. That could be in actual sales figures, branding response, industry placement, and more. “There was a time when branding efforts like new logos, taglines, and perhaps ad copy were acceptable substitutes for marketing strategy – no longer,” says John Garvey, President of GCAi Digital Marketing. “The recession changed just about everything and now ‘look’ is very much subservient to results. Marketing must show results and they have to tie into sales.”
In the end, much of the work of marketing is about creating, developing and strengthening relationships – with customers, potential customers, associates and other key players in the general marketplace. “More than ever before, the role of marketing is taking a focused approach to satisfying your clients’ needs,” says Brad Schiff, President of Pierce-Coté Advertising. “While it must create awareness and persuade about why a company’s product or service is a better alternative than the competition, marketing must take on a different tact. It cannot speak at the target audience, it must engage with the target audience to create a relationship and make a connection between the product and the buyer.”
There is no one way to connect with consumers today, which is why Schiff espouses that all businesses must have an integrated marketing plan across many different media.
“In today’s economy, marketing is about relationships,” says Kate Sheehan, Founder and Owner of Telltale Media. “It’s about forming authentic connections and delivering value, not just a sales pitch. Successful businesses are engaging with their customers every day.”
Is social media for everyone?
There is a common presumption that all businesses need to be using social media to market themselves. While there is a kernel of truth there, in that most need at least some sort of social media presence, the actual level and depth of involvement will vary across businesses and industries.
“In almost all businesses, some form of social media makes sense, but many times not all forms of social media are applicable to a particular business,” says Hales. “It’s important for a business to first determine who their target audience/market is, and then determine what social media platforms make sense. For example, if a business is more of a B2B operation, LinkedIn will offer more valuable opportunities, while for businesses with a consumer base, Facebook makes a lot more sense. Twitter can be very valuable for sharing relevant information about a company or offering an opinion about some current event as it relates to the business, and Pinterest and Instagram are great for companies who rely on visuals (for example, pictures of retail products or travel destinations).”
The marketing experts we talked to for this article all believe that social media has some role to play for every business – the specifics will vary, however, and knowing your audience is the key to determining that. “Social media must be a vital part of every organization’s marketing plan,” says Schiff. “This is for several reasons. We live in a sound bite world, where the piece of information must be fast and concise. Social media such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram gives a company the opportunity to focus and filter upon those groups of customers that provide the greatest opportunity for building your business on a demographic and psychographic basis. Social media also helps galvanize the greatest marketing the world has ever known: by having your target share the content with others and their friends. It ensures that ‘word of mouth’ is still viable in today’s economy.”
To put it in perspective, 73 percent of U.S. citizens are on at least one social media platform. The goal is to find out where the majority of your customers and prospects are, and join that platform, notes Merrill. “You can poll your email list, send out a survey through a free tool like Survey Monkey, or even post a simple questionnaire at registers to ask people which platforms they’re on (or would be most likely to engage with YOU on),” she suggests. “Then join that platform and repeat the same process, only this time thank them for their input and ask them to engage with you. Then use every opportunity you can to mention you’re now on that platform – the last 10 seconds of your radio ad, bottom right corner of your print ad, header of your email blast, homepage of your website, icon on your business cards, window clings at your business, etc.”
Garvey recommends forgetting everything you know about social media for business. “The rules of the road have changed and what was known as social media is pretty much dead,” he says. “Social media marketing is incredibly important to small businesses today because of the new and powerful dissemination and targeting tools available through paid promotion.”
Businesses should start with the channels where most of their customers are, post consistently, and provide value-added information. “I highly recommend a social media shapeup class for those who don’t feel comfortable yet,” says Sheehan. “Almost every business should be on Instagram – it’s a great way to make a visual connection with your customer and help them to literally see you through the lens you choose. On the Cape and Islands/South Coast, Facebook is a necessity.”
The key, of course, is to use social media effectively, and as noted, that often comes down to finding the proper avenue. “Many business owners will waste time using a platform that their target audience is not using,” says Flynn. “The most important thing is to determine your target audience and which platforms they are using.”
Specifically, the consensus is that typically Facebook is best for B2C products and LinkedIn is more targeted to B2B markets. In addition, with the purchase of two major credit card databases, Facebook advertising is now a powerful tool. LinkedIn ‘publishing’ and discussion groups offer significant reach for businesses. “Repurposing marketing messages – from news releases to case studies to niche service web pages – should be incorporated into your marketing plan,” adds Dubin. “You take one message and tweak it for many channels to expand reach and frequency.”
For many, the real value of social media lies in the ability to create and maintain conversations with customers and potential customers. “Social enables a two-way conversation and gives small businesses the opportunity to stay in front of customers on a very frequent basis, so it is a very important channel,” says Heather Jackson, Constant Contact’s regional director for New England. “That said, given the rate at which posts flow through most newsfeeds, I believe email is still the best way to get your message seen, engage with your customers and stay top of mind.”
The good news is that you can do both together with relative ease – there are many ways to easily and automatically integrate your email programs with social media. The long and short answer to how much social media a business should use is “it depends,” according to Marilois Snowman, President of Mediastruction. “A social media strategy is not a one-size fits all approach,” she cautions.
“Facebook has essentially eliminated organic reach, creating a pay-to-play environment. And businesses need a committed content infrastructure to continually push interesting social content. I’d recommend thinking through how you anticipate social to complement your business. It could be as simple as Instagram photos if you’re a gift retailer or a LinkedIn blog if you’re a B2B provider.”
What will yield the best results?
Once you have determined which marketing channels to participate in, how can you then decide the specific tools to use? There are a variety of options, from coupons to flyers to email and advertising. The best way to focus your efforts will become clear once you review the results of what you are already doing.
Successful strategies will vary by industry, notes Jim Farrell, President of PR First. “Direct mail coupons may yield outstanding results for a fast food restaurant (buy one, get one free). But if you are a manufacturer who has ‘built a better mousetrap’ and want the world to know, then a PR campaign is better suited for your needs. First, look at what you have done with a critical eye. Is it working? What parts of your marketing effort work, and what parts do not? Adjust accordingly. Look at what your competitors do. Ask your trusted clients and customers how they arrive at their purchasing decisions and see what valuable information comes from that discussion. Ask everyone who contacts you for services or products how they heard of you. Consider engaging a marketing consultant for a few hours of his/her time to evaluate your business and make recommendations. For most companies, the right marketing plan is a variety of components – direct mail, email, PR, advertising, social media, networking and much more.”
For many businesses, the best approach is to first define the brand. Schiff suggests examining who it appeals to, and what the brand’s value proposition is that makes the product distinctive versus the competition. “And speaking about competition, look at how the most successful brands in your area reach their customers and use that in consideration of your marketing mix,” he recommends. “Of course, budget will always play a key role in your options as to what medium can be used in any promotional plans. Testing different strategies is the best way to determine which are the best.”
Information will be the key in your decision-making process – knowing your customers, knowing what works to reach them, and knowing what results you are working toward. “It’s a no-brainer – focus on results,” says Garvey. “Here’s the thing – you have to know a lot about your customers. That information is going to tell you where your prospects are. Once you have that information, the world is your oyster. You now should know what your customers like and need, and how to target prospects to get results. Then picking the right channels is easy.”
Sheehan adds that it is important to articulate your critical business goals and identify a small number of marketing initiatives to support them, balancing traditional and new media. “Within those, include some tried-and-true and some that are new to your business; it’s important to experiment and be willing to fail,” she says. “Your choices will depend a bit on the size, stage and type of business. Track results, both with metrics and anecdotal evidence. Check in every quarter and course correct as needed.”
These challenges are not only for small businesses, of course. The determination of marketing channels is a tough question even for large corporations spending hundreds of millions in ad dollars. “We like to think about reverse engineering success,” says Snowman. “The first question is ‘What do I want to happen?’ Then think through designing a marketing/communication plan against that goal. Get to know your target consumer. Test, learn, optimize.”
Tracking is essential, according to Dubin. “Special phone numbers, phone extensions, email addresses, contact person should be assigned to every message,” he says. “Response is your road map for future focus.”
A worthwhile investment
Marketing is an activity that will cost a business, both in terms of actual dollars and in other resources such as manpower and time. However, it is critical that businesses engage in some forms of marketing if there is to be sustained growth over time. Marketing is an investment in the business that, if done properly, will increase success.
“In today’s stronger economy, many businesses are realizing that in order to stand out from their competition they need to be more than just seen in the marketplace,” says Hales. “They turn to a public relations campaign to position their company as a leader in the field, and use strategies like expert articles, op-eds, and blog posts to highlight their expertise, and then reinforce these discussions and placements, and highlight their relevance, through social media.”
It’s important to remember that marketing efforts should be consistent over time to have the greatest impact. Just as one single ad will generally not position your brand in the marketplace, neither will one solitary Facebook post. A well-conceived and regularly maintained presence in the market will create a brand that remains top-of-mind to customers.
“Successful marketing takes a commitment to consistency and patience,” adds Hales. “Press releases may not be the most glamorous thing a company can produce, but their ability to attract the casual attention of media readers, as well as reporters and editors, subconsciously builds the idea that this company is always in the news for its ability to grow and remain relevant. Updating blog posts on a regular basis with substantive information builds a knowledge trove that visitors to your website can constantly rely on and refer back to, building loyalty. Doing the smaller things right can give a company a strong base which will make them more likely to receive more expansive coverage. And if some negative news should befall a company, having a previously built foundation of positive news can help to lessen the impact of the unwanted publicity.”
Top insider tips for successful marketing
“A picture tells and sells the story. Adding a photo to a post on Facebook or LinkedIn will help you to stand out and get noticed. It will also add value to your press release for local newspapers and online postings. Keep your content brief – people are inundated with information, so your blog or posting is best received if you stay with one point.” Colleen Cimini, PR first
“Don’t neglect your email list because you’ve found success on social media. You don’t own your social media platforms but you do own your email list. Use social media to grow your list so you’re always guaranteed a cost effective way to communicate with your audience. “
“Take time to integrate all your marketing before you execute. Too many businesses have one person or vendor do their print ads for instance, and another do their social media, and they don’t collaborate. You’re spending all this time and money on these activities, get every bang you can for your buck and make your marketing work harder for you. “
“Use Facebook’s lookalike feature to find new fans that mimic the demographics and interests of your existing customers. I’ve had great success using this tool for retailers, hotels, restaurants and niche services.” April Merrill, Coastal Mountain Creative
“Successful marketing is more than just putting together marketing strategies and tactics. The only way that a plan can be successful is when you sell it to all parts of your organization and that the business is fully on board with living up to the promises of your brand on how your product best satisfies consumer needs.” Brad Schiff, Pierce-Coté Advertising
“My current favorite is ‘Content is king, but dissemination is queen and she wears the pants.’ What that means is that you not only have to create content that is valued by your customers and prospects, you have to find ways to put it into their hands regularly. It goes back to knowing your customer and what their needs and likes are, then providing them and your prospects with useful information. Content marketing is not only for big brands – small businesses can do it too and it is as easy as sharing tips, tactics, hours, menus, recipes, images, etc., through social media marketing, email marketing and, of course, on your website.” John Garvey, GCAi Digital Marketing
“Think creatively, be consistent and don’t fall for quick fixes. Good marketing doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, particularly if you leverage partnerships, create brand ambassadors who can tell your story for you willingly, and connect authentically with your customers.” Kate Sheehan, Telltale Media
“I’d say the most efficient place to start marketing is search engine marketing. There is very little waste with a pay-per-click model. I’ve also heard a lot of good things about the power of inbound marketing, with vendors like HubSpot, as a way to nurture leads.”Marilois Snowman, Mediastruction
“Determine your business goals, target market and create a marketing plan. Do not keep switching your marketing direction. This will confuse your audience. Stick with it, social media ROI takes time. Be sure to have the correct image sizes for all of your cover photos and have them contain a call to action. Keep your brand consistent throughout all of your social platforms. Follow what is trending to stay current. Stay active, don’t let your businesses social become dormant.” Michelle Flynn, Socially Yours Marketing
“Be different, be better. Stand out from the crowd. Get attention. Deliver delightful products and ruthlessly efficient service. Happy customers will bring others who look just like them.” Steve Dubin, PR Works
“The most common mistake small businesses make, and it’s an understandable one, is to focus their messaging solely on their own products and services. After all, it is natural to want to promote what it is you sell or offer so that you can grow your business. But that’s not necessarily what is going to capture your customers’ and potential customers’ interest. Remember, people do business with people that they know, like and trust. The nature of social media is so powerful because you can efficiently help so many more people know you better, like you more and trust you more. The key is to provide content and messaging that is valuable to the end user thereby showing them that you are authentic, likeable and trustworthy. So providing tips, answers to frequent questions, insights into changes in your industry and how they will affect your customers is a good place to start. I like to think about it this way: if the content you are offering will help your customers live their lives a little more easily today, you improve the likelihood that your audience will open your email and engage with your posts because they will find it valuable. They will also get to know, like and trust you.” Heather Jackson, Constant Contact