Smart Marketing for the Small Business Owner

Nov 30, 2009

There are a handful of smart, inexpensive strategies that small business owners can easily and successfully employ to reach their local marketplace without spending a bundle. Some of them don’t cost a thing accept a bit of time and creative thinking.

Every small business owner must create a handful of effective, low-cost, easy-to-measure marketing strategies that are ready to pull out and personalize according to individual style and business needs. This month, we hear from a number of smart, experienced professionals from across the industry to get their perspective on their favorite “bread and butter” small-business marketing strategies. If you’re a small business owner, you probably have your favorites, too. Here are our top ten, with some creative twists you may not have thought of before.

1. Send News Releases to the Local Newspaper Regularly

“Public Relations is very important, and offers some of the best marketing ROI available,” said Mark McFann, Director of Marketing & Corporate Communications, Royal Purple. “It is crucial to keep your company name top-of-mind with your local media, so they can help you tell your story to the community.”

Remember to keep your local media informed about anything new that is happening at your location by sending a news release to the Business or Community Events editor of your local newspapers. If you plan to open a new location, introduce a new product line, host an open house, offer an educational class, sponsor a local baseball team, host a visit from a local racer, or another newsworthy bit, let your community know.

If you’re not sure where to begin, call the general number for your local newspaper and ask to speak with the Business Editor. When you get to the editor, introduce yourself as a local business owner, and tell them you’d like to send them a news release. Confirm that they are the right person to send it to, and then ask if there is another editor on staff that should also receive it. Check to make sure that you can send it via email, and ask them if they will need a digital image or company logo along with the news release. Verify the word count that they prefer. Ask if they would like the release as a document attached to the email, or if they prefer that you send the text in the body of the email. Before you hang up, give them an ETA on when they should expect to receive this information, and then confirm what issue of the paper they are working on and what their deadline date is. Once the information has been sent, follow up with a phone call to make sure that they have received it, and to see if there is anything else they need from you. See if you can confirm that they will feature the release, and if so, what issue of the paper you will find it in.

To measure your success, be sure to ask each person who calls or comes in how they heard about you. This should already be a habit, but if not, make it one now. Make sure that every member of your team asks this question and keeps a record that everyone can refer to.

2. Connect With The Local Community

As a speed shop, service technician, or installer, you are a local service provider. That means your neighbors are your best source for new business. Research shows that most people prefer to use a service provider that is within five miles of their home or office. Use this to your advantage by expanding your community involvement.

What opportunities are available for your shop to sponsor a local racer, event, baseball team, school program, or food drive? What charitable organization can you support? Do you have a local Chamber of Commerce that you can join and become involved in? How can you partner with a non-competitive member of the Chamber in a mutually beneficial way? Are you a member of the Better Business Bureau? What is the big annual event in your area that is part of the flow of the community calendar? How can you tie one of those seasonal events into a promotion at your location by riding the coattails of that event with a time-limited, related promotion, discount, coupon or bonus program?

Brainstorm with your team and get their input. Find out what they are passionate about. Now that you’ve generated a pile of ideas, pick at least one and get started. Delegate the logistics among your team, and give them a goal-date. Then, start figuring out how to maximize it. Participate in a more visible way in the community, and then promote it through word-of-mouth advertising with your customers. Every positive effort to connect with the local community helps you establish relationships and grow your customer base.

3. Connect With The Online Community

Online communities provide a unique opportunity to connect with a group of people that are challenging to reach through other marketing mediums. Identifying those communities and forums that are unique to the enthusiast base specific to the products and services you offer can reap measurable benefits in terms of awareness and product sales. It doesn’t cost a thing but a little time and effort, and it can be accomplished around your other duties at the shop.

“If you are selling online, the most low-cost way to drive business into your online shop is to get involved online by utilizing the web forums,” said Sean Crawford, Marketing Specialist, JE Pistons. “Take the time to get online and identify what online communities and forums are specific to the market you serve, and the product lines you offer. Read what the enthusiasts are talking about. This helps you identify what the trends are in your area and around the country. It gives you what I call the ‘Big Picture View’ to your marketplace. It also provides an opportunity to connect with your prospective buyer in a personal way, helping to establish a relationship and move them to your web site to order product.”

If you’ve got an online ordering system, make sure it’s quick, easy, intuitive, and secure. Your site doesn’t have to be fancy, but it does have to be easy to use. Otherwise, all the effort you’ve invested in getting the customer to the site is lost the moment they get frustrated and bail.

To measure success, contact your web designer or site host and put some tracking mechanisms in place. These affordable tools should allow you to distill your site activity data into meaningful reports. Exit-page metrics, for example, can reveal an online ordering process that leaks customers and sales because they don’t make it through the checkout process. An email for site feedback can also be a great way to gather information about suggestions for improving the site, or problems that the site user has experienced.

4. Create and Maintain a Customer Database and Use It

There are many things that you can use your customer database information to achieve. Maintained accurately and with detail, this information should be able to tell you at a glance when each customer has visited your location, and why. What products and services have they invested in? What are the complementary products and services that immediately come to mind that the customer should be aware of based upon their history? How can you follow up with that customer to let them know about special promotions on the related products and services that may be of interest to them? Which customers have not visited your location for some time?

Your goal is to keep your customers coming back. Knowing their history provides opportunities for you to contact them and extend a personal invitation to visit your location with a special coupon or discount. Recent studies show that it costs seven to nine times more to cultivate a new customer than it is to keep the one you’ve got. That cost is measured in time, energy and dollars, each of which must be spent wisely.

“People do business with people”, said John Bennett, National Business Media. “If there is a disconnect in the business relationship, then the marketplace becomes all about price. We all know that price point is not the only thing that people consider before they buy. However, if you take the relationship part out of the equation, it quickly becomes all about price. If you’re constantly reaching out to your customer base to keep them coming back, you’re way ahead of the competitor up the road whose focus is on getting people in the door and selling them the least expensive product.”

5. Consider Countless Opportunities for Direct Mail

If you are very diligent about maintaining your customer database, (and you should be) then, targeted direct mail is a logical, effective, inexpensive and measurable marketing strategy that is easy to employ. Direct mail delivered to your customer base can be directed to the whole group, or to a specific segment of the group. Sending something to your customers that has not been advertised to the general public lets your customers know that they are important to you and this makes them feel good.

Local print shops, and many online business printers, offer design and printing of direct mail postcards at a very reasonable rate. Many offer the value added service of mailing it for you. You can save money by bundling services and taking advantage of their discounted postage rates.

A direct mail postcard can also be used to remind your customers about recommended regular maintenance, provide information on a new product line or manufacturer that you’ve added, extend an invitation to a special event, provide special “customer only” discounts, and so much more. This marketing medium allows you to be very creative. The postcard can serve as the coupon that the customer is required to bring into the shop at the time of service in order to get the service at a discount.

Direct mail gives you a built-in tracking mechanism. Just collect that postcard from the customer upon their visit, keep a record of how many are collected, and record the sale for each customer. While you’re at it, collect the contact information for the customer. Later, this can be added to your customer database along with detailed information about what that customer invested in.

6. Investigate Local Radio and Newspaper Advertising

Local radio offers an excellent marketing medium that targets the local community throughout the day, every day. Radio allows you to select a specified time period as well as a broadcast schedule for your advertising.

“I always recommend that folks use local radio in conjunction with local newspaper advertising for several weeks prior to the sale or special event, and also during the days or weeks of the event for greatest audience response,” said Zan Martin, President of Martin & Company Advertising. “For example, your top manufacturer is offering prizes to the shop with the highest overall product sales between October 1st and October 31st. Your team really wants to be the top sellers because the grand prize is a trip for two to some exotic beach destination. You also want to grow your relationship with the manufacturer and show them what your shop is capable of. So, to maximize your sales during this time period, you can use local radio advertising to reach the greatest number of the potential buyers in your area for several weeks before and during the incentive period.”

Newspaper advertising is pretty straightforward. The local sales rep for the area newspaper can provide all the information needed regarding ad size, placement, and investment levels based upon frequency and placement.

In order to select the right radio station, start with the information you’ve already got on the demographic of your most likely buyer. What is their age range, gender, average income, vehicles owned, etc.?

Armed with this information, you are ready to begin creating a list of options. Start with those stations that appeal to a wide audience, like your local “mix” stations. Include the stations your team listens to at work, and get their input on what they know about the most popular local stations your customers listen to. You can even contact a sample of your customer base and ask for their input here. Let this research dictate the top three stations to contact, and then call them to gather basic demographic information about their listenership. Compare this information to what you already know about your most likely buyers, and partner with the station reaching the greatest number of listeners in your prospective buyer segment. Start with something small but consistent.

“Once you’ve selected your radio-advertising partner, you also have the option to book a well-known radio personality from their team to broadcast live from your location for a specified time period during the promotion or event period,” continued Martin. “We have found this to be very successful in the past. Investment levels will vary depending upon the popularity of the personality, the demands of their schedule, the time slot you want, and the broadcast reach of the station, but this can be a great way to get folks in the door.”

To measure success, maintain a record of sales by product category and get a baseline on each targeted product prior to the promotion. Keep careful track of the sales during the promotional period. At the end of the promotion, compare the two sales levels in order to evaluate your success. To measure your ROI, simply subtract your total marketing investment from your total sales income during the promotional period.

7. Become an Expert

Each member of your team should strive to become an expert in the products and services you offer, focusing on your top-tier manufacturers and your bread-and-butter product lines first. The process of becoming an expert should start with the information you can easily gather from the manufacturer. The manufacturer provides information about the product including steps for proper installation, troubleshooting, tech support, features, benefits, manufacturer location, warranties, and return policies. Each member of the team should be well versed in this information.

“One thing we try hard to do with our retailers is to meet with them personally and provide supplemental training that is specific to our product category,” said McFann. “That has to be the first step in the sales process, really.”

The Performance Warehouse Association [PWA] has recently introduced another way to help everyone along the supply channel achieve expert status. Officially launched in June, 2007, PWA University provides a unique online learning environment that provides PWA-Member manufacturers with the ability to create specialized material and related quizzes specific to their products from a password-protected secure location at www.pwauniversity.com.

“We know that one of the biggest challenges our member manufacturers face is making sure that their WD’s, dealers and installers are educated about their unique products,” said John Towle, Executive Director, PWA. “By providing one centralized online location, we hope to reduce the time, energy and cost associated with the education process for all of our members down the supply chain.”

“You are supposed to be the expert,” said Crawford. “By educating your customer about the features and benefits of the product and how it works, you’ll establish yourself as a trusted, knowlegable professional. As you provide information, the next step is to expand the conversation to include other related products and accessories that fit together, enhance the customer investment, enhance results, and create the best possible solution. This accomplishes the goals of building trust, and increasing the opportunities to up-sell the customer.”

“Once we’ve accomplished the education process with our retailers and installers, we can work with them to get to know their marketing program and see where we fit in, and how we can successfully pair our product with a specific portion of their marketing program,” said McFann. “For example, winter is on the way, and it’s time for folks to get their vehicles into the shop for regular maintenance. Part of that is getting an oil change. This is the perfect time to share information with the customer about the difference between regular motor oil and synthetic oil, and the features and benefits of each, so they can learn about our product and make an informed choice.”

Education consistently offers a win-win all around. Success is measured through customer retention and referrals, as well as employee retention.

8. Offer a Free Workshop

To expand the educational and relationship building opportunities for staff and customers, many shop owners have begun to offer free workshops. Again, this can be offered to the community, to your customer base, or to a portion of your customer base depending upon what you want to accomplish. A workshop can be offered at your location, or at an alternate location like a library or community meeting space. Workshop content should be focused on your products and services.

For example, a workshop on “How to Choose the Right Performance Exhaust System” can cover everything from an overview of the products you carry in this category, to the different material grades available in performance exhaust systems and why they are significant. By offering a free workshop on this popular topic, you are positioning yourself as an expert and acting as a trusted advisor in the selection process in a no-pressure environment.

A simple Q&A with attendees will provide valuable information regarding the vehicle they own, what they use it for, and what they hope to achieve with a performance exhaust. Armed with the answers to these diagnostic questions, you can determine what kind of system, manufacturer and material grade to recommend. By doing so, you’ve simultaneously expanded your relationship in the community, provided help, positioned yourself as an expert, and increased your opportunities to make the sale.

To measure success, simply hand out an attendee-only discount coupon at the end of the workshop that must be brought in at the time of service. This is a great way to thank those that attended, invites them to visit your shop, and provides a simple, easy way to track success.

9. Host an Open House

If there’s one thing that is guaranteed to please everyone all the time, it’s free food. An Open House is the perfect no-pressure way to bring folks in the door so they can find you, see your location, meet your team, and see what kinds of cool stuff you do there.

Plan your Open House for a few hours during an evening or Saturday. Once the event is planned, implement any number of the marketing strategies outlined previously to promote your event, including getting a news release to the Community Events editor of the paper so you can get some free advertising via a mention in the “community calendar” or similar. Start your promotional efforts at least a month in advance.

Plan for a spread that includes great food and non-alcoholic beverages. A great way to do this on a budget is to barter services with a local restaurant. For example, they agree to provide the food, and you agree to provide a discounted or free service for their team. There are lots of creative ways this can be done so that this is an equitable barter, and is mutually beneficial for each business owner. This also simultaneously helps you accomplish the goal of expanding your relationships in the community. Partnering with a local vendor like this also opens up opportunities for you to put together some advertising for the event, and then share the cost.

The day of the Open House, make sure someone is there to greet the guests and thank them for coming. Introduce yourself, and ask how they heard about the event. (Write this down, especially if you are using more than one marketing or advertising medium!) Prepare some type of a “gift bag” that you can give away during the Open House. Show folks where the food is laid out, and make sure they get their “gift bag”. Inside the “gift bag”, make sure you include all your contact information and something that makes them want to come and see you again real soon – a time-limited coupon on a product or service, or a free pass to your next event or workshop, etc. Make it something you can track and measure that is related to the event.

It’s also a good idea to enter each attendee in a drawing to win some sort of fun prize as a thank-you for stopping by. Most folks have a great response to things like a pack of tickets to the minor league baseball game, gift cards for gas or groceries, or a gift certificate for a popular restaurant. (It’s hard to miss when you choose food, fun, or fuel!) This gives you another reason for collecting contact information that you can then enter in your customer database. To expand this idea, simply make it an annual event.

10. Do Something To Make a Difference

As a small business owner, devote yourself to something that doesn’t have anything to do with anything but helping others. What are you passionate about? Bring a little of your philanthropic enthusiasm to work, and ask others to get involved, too.

Talk to your team. What is meaningful to everyone? What can your team become involved in that allows you to make a contribution? Can you volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, mentor children through a local literacy program, help out at the next adopt-a-thon at your local Humane Society, volunteer to coach a special needs baseball team, or get together and help local flood victims with clean up efforts? Many hands make light work, as the old saying goes.

When you find the right group, charity, or cause and invest yourselves as a team in making a contribution, a whole lot of wonderful things are going to happen. You’ll do some good, and doing good is good for business. People will talk about your business and your team. They will tell your story because they want to. They will feel good about sharing their neighborhood and community with you. Because of this, they will want to patronize and support your business. Doing good is great for your corporate identity. Success can be measured in terms of customer retention, employee retention, referrals and perception.