Imagine two online retailers. One makes custom greeting cards by hand using a mixture of woodcuts, watercolor, and calligraphy. Their prices are remarkably fair for what they offer, and their customers adore their work. However, this retailer has no marketing plan and relies on word of mouth to let people know about their cards. The second seller buys premade cards in bulk and sells them at a 50% markup on eBay. There is no personalization, and the price is relatively high compared to similar generic cards on the market. However, this second seller has gone all-in on their marketing efforts, using digital marketing tools, social media posts, and an email list to reach potential customers for their cards. Which business do you imagine makes more sales?
Many small businesses either thrive or perish based on their ability to attract attention. A business with an excellent product but no marketing plan could flop, while a rival with a mediocre product could hang on due to exemplary marketing efforts.
What is small business marketing?
No matter how big or small your business, the core principles of marketing are the same. Of course, a small business tends to have fewer resources and smaller budgets than a corporate behemoth.
A small business marketing plan can include any and all of the following components:
- Brand strategy. This answers the questions: What is your company’s identity, who does it exist for, and what makes it different from competitors? This is the foundation of all marketing efforts, as it defines your company relative to the market.
- Content. This is what your company wants to say about itself, its products, and perhaps the world. Content can take many forms: from an Instagram post to a blog post to a billboard.
- Advertising. This is one of the ways you get your brand and your content out into the world. It could include bidding on strategic keywords in a search engine marketing strategy, promoting social media posts to reach new audiences, or paying for a pre-roll ad slot on a podcast.
- Social selling. Small business owners can build a network and a trusting relationship among an existing or prospective customer base by using social selling techniques. Rather than pushing products to customers, you focus on building a trusting relationship with your customers, which may eventually lead to sales. You do this primarily by facilitating discussions and interactions with you (and by extension, your brand) over social media or through casual social gatherings.
- Public relations campaigns. This is an effort to get your company or product mentioned in the media. You might send a press release to hopefully inspire a news outlet to cover your business and perhaps conduct an interview with you or members of your team. News interest in your brand can come from a variety of sources beyond a press release, however, such as a campaign going viral, for example.
- Customer acquisition. Customer acquisition is the bottom of the marketing funnel—you know who your customers are, they’re interested in you, and you just have to get them over the finish line to make a purchase. For an ecommerce business, you can optimize your product page for sales, making sure the important purchasing information is clearly visible with clear images and a prominent purchasing button. You could use A/B testing, where you give two sets of customers two different page designs or messages to see which performs better. You can make sure your checkout flow is easy, seamless, and safe—customers have multiple options for payment, including things like Shop Pay or Apple Pay, so customers don’t have to input their credit card information.
- Customer retention. Once you have your customer, retention is the act of keeping them as customers—by having them ideally buy your product or service again and again. Marketers use reengagement efforts, like an email newsletter or push notifications. These act as reminders to customers that your company exists and often include a call to action, such as acting on a current sale. You can also improve the interactions your customers have with your company by improving your customer service—reducing response times to queries or ensuring that customers get to speak with a human and not a robot. The ultimate goal of a small business’s marketing efforts is gaining new customers—ideally customers who will remain loyal for many years.
How to effectively market your small business
When you’re ready to launch a marketing campaign for your small business, it will help to orient your efforts around six main tasks:
- Describe your goods and services in your own terms. Begin your marketing efforts by writing up descriptions of the products or services that you offer. Think about what value they bring to your target audience or what problems they solve. Brainstorm what makes your offerings so great, and write about them earnestly. This will provide a framework for how you will market your product to the public.
- Assess the competition. Unless you have invented a product from scratch, there’s a good chance you’ll have competitors. Take note of how they market their goods. Are they mostly using digital marketing tools? Have they dug into social media marketing? Do they engage in influencer marketing, where a famous online celebrity endorses their products? What language do they use to describe their products? Pay equal attention to what they’re selling and how they’re selling it.
- Determine your unique sales proposition. A unique sales proposition, or USP, is the trait that your business has that makes it stand out from the pack. Now that you know your competition, decide how you will differentiate yourself in the eyes of your target audience. Perhaps you will beat your competitors on price, or on product quality.
- Set your marketing budget. Lay out all of the expenses associated with your marketing plan, and consider how to best allocate your dollars across them. You’ll likely need people and tools, plus an advertising budget. You might also want to allocate free products for influencers, or budget to have a presence at a live event.
- Plan and begin your campaigns. Having established a budget and marketing plan, it’s time for you to plan and launch your campaigns. Depending on your budget, you can make these campaigns diverse, with a mix of paid digital advertising (web-based ads, paid social media posts, influencer marketing), traditional advertising (radio, TV, print ads, billboards), social selling (person-to-person engagement on social media platforms), and content marketing (blog posts, podcasts, explainer videos).
- Track results and make adjustments. Not every marketing effort succeeds. Stand at the ready as you see which marketing messages land—and which don’t—and which channels work best. Marketing is not a “set it and forget it” proposition. It requires continual monitoring and adjustments as you learn more about your target audience, its media consumption, and its spending habits.
4 strategies for small business marketing
Small business marketers face challenges that do not apply to big businesses. Use these four strategies to navigate the unique waters of a small business marketing campaign.
- Offer incentives for reviews. A recent report from Testimonial Engine revealed that 72% of potential customers will not make a purchase until they’ve read reviews of a product or service. Reviews can be tricky for small businesses. It’s particularly hard to get initial reviews when you’re just getting started. A good strategy is trading bonus services for a review. For instance, if you’re a caterer trying to get the first reviews for your business, consider offering clients a bonus—a few extra platings, for instance—if they agree to write you a review on Yelp, Google, and elsewhere.
- Use content marketing to build organic web traffic. Content marketing requires a lot of work up front, but once you invest in creating a great piece of content, it can live on forever. You can build up a following on YouTube by creating genuinely useful videos about your product or industry that would interest your target audience. Blog posts that answer questions people are searching on Google can bring organic inbound traffic to your website.
- Word of mouth is your friend. When you’re starting out and don’t have a lot of customers, call on your loved ones to get the word out about what you do. Word of mouth marketing relies on organic conversations and engagement with or about your company, such as those that happen on social media (likely your main driver of word of mouth) or those that happen in real-life interactions. According to Nielson, 92% of consumers trust recommendations from friends and family, so you can take advantage of this by building your social media presence, starting a hashtag campaign around your brand, or having friends act as ambassadors for your company.
- Create a unified image for your brand. Even if you don’t have the budget to hire a professional brand consultant, you can still use your internal resources to create a unified look for your company. This includes a logo, a color scheme, a font set, a slogan, and a fixed description for your offerings. In addition to creating an aura of professionalism, this process will help you with integrated marketing efforts, where the goal is to have a consistent look and message across all of your marketing channels.