Learning small business marketing is hard. In fact, running a small business, in general, is hard. Oftentimes it takes years of hard work and dedication before you even seen a dime in profit. You’re constantly learning new skills. With rapid learning comes discomfort, especially in areas we know little about. For many people, marketing is the worst. It doesn’t have to be.
“Isn’t it enough to simply create beautiful products and provide delightful services?” Regrettably, the answer to that is no. This is where marketing comes in: it includes everything that makes people care about you and your business.
Marketing covers a wide variety of activities that convince people to buy your products or use your services. More poetically, marketing is an ongoing process that breathes life into everything you do as a small business owner. It begins from the moment you conceive an idea, carries you through manufacturing, and continues with sales and fulfillment.
I think about marketing, especially small business marketing, a lot. I’ve graduated with my MBA, I’m a published researcher in the subject of online viral marketing. I even created and continue to run a blog about the board gaming business (especially for first-timers). Yet I still learn something new every day. Marketing is a big discipline and I’m always looking to expand my knowledge.
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We have a lot of ground to cover. So let’s take this piece by piece. Here is an outline of today’s post:
Why should I care about small business marketing?
- The Objectives of Small Business Marketing
- Customer Satisfaction
- Demand Generation
- Profit Generation
- Market Share Growth
- Branding and Public Image
What goes into small business marketing?
- AIDA: Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action
- Product-Market Fit (PMF)
- Niche (or Place)
- Process & Logistics
- Core Concepts of Promotion
- Product Reviews
Why should I care about small business marketing?
The Objectives of Small Business Marketing
When you see marketing as merely a synonym for words like “advertising” or “promotion”, you miss the forest for the trees. Marketing can help us achieve many objectives through the use of many more tools. Some of the objectives we’ll discuss below include satisfying customers, generating demand, generating profit, growing market share, and managing your brand or public image. Everything that we’ll cover on this blog will ultimately seek to achieve one or more of these or similar objectives.
Ultimately, as a marketer, you create experiences for people. As a good marketer, you make sure you create the right kinds of experiences for the right kinds of people. You create products and provide services to make people feel a certain way. The entire process is seamless – from fulfillment, to the post-purchase experience, to customer service. Even the way you share the knowledge of your existence – basic outreach – is part of the experience.
When these experiences match up with your customers’ truest desires, then they are satisfied and you’re likely to have a repeat customer. Good job! That is why the most proficient small business marketers start here – satisfying customers by creating the right experiences for the right people.
You can make the most perfect product in the world, but if no one sees it, you’re out of business. If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, hire a new marketing analyst. If you have a beautifully created product or service that is truly perfect for its intended audience, you still need to draw attention and pique interest. You’ll often hear this concept referred to as lead generation.
Everybody likes money, right? Once you’ve made a great product or started providing a great service and have started generating leads, you need to close the sale! Smart marketing techniques can help us to generate profit by generating more leads, or – better yet – convincing more leads to convert to sales.
Market Share Growth
In the infant stage of the life of a business, you don’t really have to think about market share. You have to think about making great products, generating leads, and your ability to generate profit. As time goes on, though, you will find yourself wanting or needing a bigger piece of the market’s pie. At this point, you need to change your marketing techniques so that you grow at a faster rate than your competition.
Branding and Public Image
Marketing is ultimately about the experiences people have with us and the ideas that we spread. There is no place where this is more visible than branding and the maintenance of public image. Early on, branding and public image are about signaling to early adopters that your business is worth their trust and sales. As time passes and your business grows, your brand becomes more important even than your product or service. People don’t just think of what your business does, but rather your business itself. When that time comes, you want to leave them with the right impressions!
What goes into small business marketing?
There is no perfect product. There is no perfect audience. Making something for everyone is the surest way to make something for no one.
Because beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder, this has two major impacts on your business. First and foremost, you have to make a product for a specific community. It doesn’t matter which industry you’re in – it’s not a hive mind. Your industry – whether it be soft drinks, board games, or insurance – is made up of a whole bunch of tiny communities with interests that roughly line up.
The purpose of marketing ultimately boils down to making money by sharing your message. When you’re the little guy, though, you have to have something to offer that the big guys don’t. You need to scratch a very specific itch. Everything about your product needs to be made to appeal to a very, very specific audience. That includes the way you use it, the font on the box, and the way you convince people to try it.
Don’t broadcast. Narrowcast instead.
AIDA: Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action
If you took a marketing class in college, you’re probably familiar with the acronym AIDA. It stands for Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action. You might also hear the term sales funnel used to describe the implementation of the AIDA concept in real life.
It goes a little something like this. Before you can sell your product or service, people need to know you exist – so you get their Attention. In order to continue the interaction, you need to pique their Interest, or else they’ll get bored and leave. Once you have someone’s attention and interest, congratulations – you’ve generated a lead! If you’ve got a great product or service to begin with, one of the hardest marketing tasks remaining is generating leads.
In order for somebody to spend money on your products or services, they have to want it. They have to Desire what you have to offer. Once you have their attention, interest, and desire, you need them to take Action. At this point, you want to take it to the next step. This could be buying something, booking an appointment, signing up for your mailing list, or something else.
Here is an example of AIDA at work on the board game development blog I run:
- Attention: create keyword rich content to pull in readers from Google. I also gain traffic through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and a Discord chat server that I run for board game developers.
- Interest: create compelling content that makes people want to read more. This took a lot of practice!
- Desire: each of my posts, as well as the index pages, contain contrasting blue sections. They say, “Need help on your board game? Join my community of over 1200 game developers, artists, and passionate creators.” People want to be a part of the community and they want to take the next step.
- Action: in order to gain access to the community, I require an email address. People then click the bright red button and fill out the form.
While the Action here is simply to gain email signups, the same concept can be applied to sales, subscribers, Facebook group members, and just about anything else you want people to do.
Very nearly any product you can imagine exists. There are luxury doghouses, $500 board games, sprays for your toilet with beautifully intricate bottle labels, and vintage T-shirts emblazoned with a phrase Speaker of the House Mitch McConnell said about Senator Elizabeth Warren. Say what you will about our economy at large, but it’s exceptionally good at making products for every kind of person you can think of.
Don’t lose sight of the importance of creating a valuable product in small business marketing. There is a truly head-spinning amount of different products out there, as well as equally unbelievable services. The ones that stay in business do so by knowing exactly who they’re trying to serve, figuring out how to do so, and by implementing that plan.
Learn how to describe your product and see who it appeals to. Read the social media posts, forum threads, and product reviews of the people who purchase products or services in your industry. Know how they talk and what to say to them. This will help you narrow down your niche, identify a need, and then create a product.
Product-Market Fit (PMF)
Here’s the rub: your product actually needs to address a need or want. Very rarely will someone buy things they don’t need or want. The exception, perhaps, is when buying gifts but even then gifts are intended to address someone else’s needs or wants.
Because value is so subjective, it ultimately comes down to your product, your target market, and how well they line up. This is product-market fit, or PMF. You will read these two phrases on this blog so often that your spouse will say to you next morning “I am worried about you because you kept saying ‘PMF’ in your sleep.”
The First Law of Business is to create something with good product-market fit. You really cannot escape this. This will take a lot of research and development, trial and error, and a constant feedback loop between you and your customers.
Niche (or Place)
Achieving product-market fit is substantial on its own, but if you want to take off like a rocket ship, you need to achieve better product-market fit than anyone else in your area. When you do that, you’ve found your niche. When you’ve got a working sales funnel powered by the AIDA concept, that’s how you turn a niche into cash.
On that note, for businesses that have a brick and mortar location, there is another element to this: place. If you do business in a physical location, the part of town you’re in and the space you occupy are a large part of how you market yourself too. If you don’t believe me try an H&R Block in the nice part of town and an H&R Block in the not-so-nice part of town.
There is a delightful Thai restaurant in beautiful Chattanooga, Tennessee where I reside. Do Thai restaurants that I would like more exist in this world? Yes – but they’re not the best in Chattanooga. Thus the restaurant ten minutes from my home has a niche that works.
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One could write an entire book on how exactly pricing works. Actually, a cursory search of Amazon reveals that somebody already has. I’ll cover the specifics in a later post, but there are three really important considerations you need to make whenever you set a price.
First, consider demand elasticity. That’s an MBA way of saying “know how many people will leave you if you raise the price by $1.”
Second, consider what price says about your product’s value. Low prices can signal low-quality products and high prices can signal high-quality products. There are also certain “magic numbers” that change the way people view a product entirely, and these are different in every industry. As an example, in board games, anything under $20 is generally considered to be “lightweight” or an “impulse buy.” And anything $100 or more is considered “heavyweight” or “for serious gamers only.”
Third, look at what your competitors are doing. People will inevitably compare your prices to your competitors. People make decisions based on a number of cognitive biases. One of the most prevalent cognitive biases is anchoring. It happens when people fixate on the first number they see and assume that’s “normal.” If the first runner you see is a marathoner, you’d think my 10-mile run was lackluster. If the first home you saw on Zillow was $500,000, you’d (at least briefly) think the one down the street for $430,000 was a steal – whether it was or wasn’t.
Process & Logistics
How you get your product or service to people is a part of marketing, too. After all, marketing is about crafting the right experiences for the right people. That experience includes the timeliness of your shipping, the demeanor of your sales representative, the usability of your website, and much more. Eventually, all these little elements will add up and people will begin to associate their experiences with your brand.
Four Processes that Influence Customer Perception
That raises the question of “how does a business control people’s perceptions of the brand?” That’s done through four specific processes*:
- The sales process. Everything about how you approach people affects your brand. From the language you use, the venues you reach out to people through, and the entire process by which you persuade people to buy your product falls under the sales process.
- The buying or pre-order process. The website or offline sales channels you use to facilitate buying or pre-ordering affect how people see you. You want purchasing to be as seamless as possible so you appear professional.
- The fulfillment process. You need to fulfill [orders] as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. You want people to think of you as someone who keeps their promises.
- The returns process. If people decide they don’t like your [product], you need to have a seamless return process. People who return your [prodcuts] but have a good experience returning the [product] will have a more positive view of your brand. They might choose to buy from you later.
Your business processes and logistics may seem unrelated to marketing. They aren’t though, because value is subjective and determined by your customers based on how they experience your brand and its products and services. In short, marketing is the product.
Core Concepts of Promotion
Promotion is an umbrella term that covers every method of communication that marketers use to inform people about their product. It is how you spread the word about your business. Naturally, when you’re starting your small business, promotion is critical to your success. You need to be able to draw attention and garner interest in order to generate enough leads to stay in business. Promotion is pivotal to small business marketing.
Promotion covers a lot of different concepts, including outreach, product reviews, crowdfunding, advertising, and much more. The most valuable promotional tool for your business depends heavily on your industry, and you will probably need to experiment until you find one that works. Remember: the goal of promotion is to generate demand. We’re already assuming you can satisfy customers, because if you can’t do that, no amount of promotion will save your business.
Promotion is often time-consuming and/or expensive. Once you experiment and find techniques that work for your business, you can quickly optimize and improve your promotional processes, but even still, you’ll need to spend at least time or money on promotion. Leads are life in business, and you need to generate them.
Let’s assume your product is truly fantastic. You may see the word begin to spread automatically as customers recruit other customers on your behalf. That takes time, and you almost always have to make the first move before you reach this point.
There are innumerable different outreach techniques you can use to find people to care about your business and its products and services. Outreach is how you find your target market, tell them about your product, and slowly carve out a niche when your product fits the market.
You can use social media, go to offline networking events such as conventions and seminars, write email newsletters, start online communities, advertise, or even blog like yours very truly. Some methods are more effective than others, and naturally, your industry will largely determine which method of outreach is most effective. For now, simply pick one or two forms of outreach that you like and stick to it. If it works, that’s fantastic – optimize your processes and keep going! If it doesn’t, that’s okay – keep what works, scrap what doesn’t, and pivot. Experimentation is what makes small business marketing fun!
No matter how you choose to reach out to customers, you can be sure that outreach rewards creativity and hard work. Always start with your target audience in mind. Go where they are, speak to them how they wish to be spoken to, stay organized and systematic, and change your approach as you learn more.
A Brief Note on Social Media
I mentioned social media a moment ago, so let’s cover that a little more in depth. Social media includes Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, Periscope, Twitch, YouTube, and other websites that probably popped up while I was writing this article. Social media has been hot for the last decade and people tend to see it as a panacea for many marketing ills. It’s not and mastering social media is time-consuming. I personally see social media sites as useful for market research, lead generation, advertising, and community building. I don’t necessarily see them as the best sales tools.
There are two types of reviews – the ones you request and the ones you don’t. When you send your product to a popular reviewer in exchange for a fair and honest review**, this is a form of outreach. You convince them to use their existing channel(s) to showcase your product. Even if you receive a bad review, you might still generate some leads in the process. You can use social media as well as sites like Reddit and industry-specific online communities to find reviewers to reach out to. People often want to see the opinion of an impartial third party before they spend their hard-earned cash.
The reviews you don’t request are the most interesting. Ultimately, all you can do to influence these reviews is make a great product or service while making sure the overall experience is great. Sometimes you can respond to bad reviews online with a professional response, but that depends on the social norms of your industry.
I cannot stress enough how much the overall experience affects how your business is perceived. People don’t make decisions on a strictly rational basis. They make them at least partly on how they feel. If your artisanal kombucha gives me a stomachache, but you were nice to me, I might assume that something else gave me the stomachache or that it was a fluke. Then I won’t slam you on Amazon or Yelp with a one-star review.
Crowdfunding allows large amounts of people to send small amounts of money to businesses to help them bring their ideas to life. In 2009, Kickstarter went live and got the crowdfunding ball rolling. Now, 10 years in the future, multiple sites operate on the same basic model of crowdfunding. Some simple examples include Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, and Patreon. This is no mere flash in the pan either: Kickstarter keeps growing and large quantities of small donations may even push political candidates into office in the near future.
Crowdfunding can be seen as the Action part of AIDA. It’s not a magic money machine – you still have to get people to pay attention and you still have to earn their interest and desire. That said, sites like Kickstarter have active communities and if you started a good campaign there, perhaps 30 or 40% of your funding could come from people who found you through Kickstarter. In that sense, it’s another form of outreach.
The Hidden Benefit of Crowdfunding
Crowdfunding sites are great research tools and great market testing tools. You can look at campaigns – both failed and successful – and see what works and what doesn’t in your industry. If you look enough, you will get a sense of what people are willing to pay for. Once you’ve got a product or service in mind that you’d like to bring to life, crowdfunding can help you with certain start-up costs like manufacturing and it can help you estimate demand more accurately. If you fail? That’s okay – crowdfunding makes it a little safer to fail.
People have complicated feelings about the idea of advertising for a number of reasons. Our culture is oversaturated with a mix of annoying and interruptive advertisements and creepily targeted ones. Additionally, small business owners often recoil at the idea of spending money on something intangible like advertising. As if that weren’t enough, it’s also super easy to get burned on advertising by doing it poorly.
Don’t dismiss ads. They can save you a ton of time and money. They can generate attention and interest easily, and online ads have built-in calls to action too. You can push people through your entire sales funnel with a well-designed ad.
When in doubt, start with Facebook. Their ad system is the best I’ve ever seen for small business marketing. Even better, the analytics are robust and useful and you can start with a really small amount of money like $5.
The Advertising Mindset
Approach advertising like a scientist, especially when working with the tight budget constraints associated with small business marketing. Come up with a well-defined target market, use a sharp image or video, and some compelling copywriting to grab attention. Make sure you direct people to the right page – whether it be your shopping site or an opt-in form for your mailing list. You need people to both interact with your ad and with the page you send people to. Start with your end goal in mind and work backward. Tweak until your advertising is delivering a lot of value for your money.
Learning small business marketing for the first time can be very tricky. This article was created so that you, a small business owner, can understand the many concepts and tasks associated with marketing. By providing a high-level overview, my hope is that you’ll be more able to share your ideas with the world.
Use this guide to ask more questions, run more tests, and get started. If you have any questions or comments about small business marketing, I encourage you to comment below 🙂
* I’ve taken this verbatim from an old post on the board game development blog that inspired this one.
** Read up on sponsorship and disclosure. You want to behave ethically when your product is reviewed.