It’s no secret that the marketing and advertising budgets of some large-capitalization companies could seed the launch of a private college and perhaps rival the GDP of a few developing economies. Â This is clearly not the case for most smaller, independent (non-publicly traded) businesses. However, this disparity in dollars-allocated doesn’t mean that small- to mid-sized businesses and professional practices cannot apply some of the same marketing and growth-promoting principles that larger entities employ.
As we bid a farewell (or “good riddance,” from my own personal perspective) to 2012, small businesses face a potentially bumpy 2013 ahead. Ramped-up levels of uncertainty overall, a still-sluggish U.S. economy, a growing tax burden, and regulations that have grown in number and complexity are all ingredients contributing to the extraordinary challenges the business sector faces.
At the same time, there are ways closely held businesses and professional practices can plan for growth and increased profitability in the coming year. Primarily, these entities can apply the same marketing and growth-inducing principles and tactics that their larger counterparts use to increase sales and grow the business.
1. Using social media outlets is no longer optional. In order to “borrow” marketing principles and tactics from the Big Boys, as a small-business owner you must first discard any doubt in your mind regarding the efficacy of using social media outlets to market your business. It’s no longer optional, but rather mandatory.
Talking frankly with my own clients recently has helped reveal a somewhat common stumbling block on this issue: Many smaller-business owners believe that social media outlets — because they are so broad and big in scope and reach — are incongruous with the goals of a smaller, more localized business. This is a common misconception. Think of it this way: You can still target smaller, more defined client segments, geographical areas or a narrowly described prospect profile through these sites. Just because the site itself boasts a global reach doesn’t mean your business has to do the same. You can “use” these sites to reach as small, narrowly defined or predesignated audience as you wish.
The anemic economy does offer a related opportunity: many qualified, experienced social-media experts are either un- or under-employed right now, and some are willing to provide their services on a consulting basis at reasonable rates. Find an expert if you are daunted by or unsure about how to use social media to grow your business — it will be worth it in the long run.
2. Niche marketing works. Believe it or not, larger corporations engage in “niche” marketing frequently. It doesn’t appear to be niche marketing, however, because the segments they target within the consumer population are usually comprised of millions of potential buyers. But that doesn’t make it any less of a niche-marketing effort.
Niche marketing is nothing more than identifying a specific segment of the general marketplace of consumers that is likely to find your service/product appealing. How? You can either a) make that determination based on experience (you have stumbled upon a few similarly situated customers/clients who rave about your offerings) or b) decide that you want to infiltrate and target a customer base that remains out of reach. Either way, the defining moment lies, well, in defining that client segment. Examples include “households within this zipcode with at least two children under the age of six,” or “single men, 22-29 years of age, who rent but don’t own a residence,” and so on.
Then, you need a solution unique to that segment, and a special expertise to provide (give credence to) that solution. Let’s take the first example above: local households with Â at least two children under the age of six, assuming you own a retail establishment that provide tangible products. Special solutions for this niche might include operating during evening hours, demonstrating your understanding that many households with kids of a young age need more flexibility around shopping. Another “solution” might be to offer a playspace within your store so parents can shop. Providing credence to this approach might be to have your advertising feature an actual parent from your staff, or executive team. The message you convey is: We understand your needs, because we’re just like you.
Once you get this far, you need to choose the appropriate channels through which to get the message out that a) you are uniquely qualified to serve this niche market and b) you are better at understanding these consumers’ needs than any competitor.
Keep in mind, too, that you can build a solid stream of revenue from a single niche. I know of one financial advisory practice in the Midwest which accomplished this nicely. One of the principals of the firm has a brother-in-law who works for a large retail company based in Minnesota. Rather than simply engage the brother-in-law as a client, the advisor decided to custom-design a seminar on investing for brother-in-law and his associates at the company. The seminar emphasized the need for corporate professionals to plan “holistically” rather than simply taking advantage of company-sponsored benefits. It was clear that even with the plethora of attractive wealth-building benefits the company offered (stock options, deferred comp, 401(k) match, etc.), some of the employees using these benefits lacked an overall financial plan that incorporated them to address financial goals that are likely to change over time.
Then, the advisor built on the fact that this particular retailer is very big on philanthropic efforts. The financial advisory firm offered to provide a free 30-minute, on-site seminar on investing to the employees who contributed the most to a specific charity drive at the company. Within a few months, this financial advisory firm ended up gaining 33 new clients who invested anywhere from $35,000 to over $1 million with the firm–not bad for an effort that is based largely on common sense and listening. What’s more, the basis for referrals continues to grow, and the advisory firm continues to build and expand offerings, on-site educational seminars and good-will activities in tandem with or in partnership with this larger, corporate entity.
3. Realize the advantage of being small(er). No, your firm doesn’t have the millions of dollars to allocate to marketing like Coca Cola and Target do. But likely, your firm also doesn’t suffer from bureaucracy that can stifle real innovation, flexibility and speed.Â You can move faster on an idea, and change your mind on a dime, if something isn’t working as you’d hoped. Larger corporations typically cannot boast the same ability.
That said, you still need a plan. Remaining agile and flexible does not mean flying by the seat of your pants when it comes to marketing your business or practice. You must at least outline your goals (“to build clientele within the newly employed segment of younger professionals,” etc.), decide on the exact tactics you’ll use to pursue those goals (“offer three free seminars for the New Lawyers Division of the State Bar Association on financial planning,” etc.), and then track and evaluate the success of these tactics (“we added four new clients based on three free seminars, so something is amiss”) and so on.
4. Make it a partnership/team effort. Have you noticed that you can typically get great deals on air travel if you book a flight with a credit card co-offered by the airline itself? This larger-enterprise marketing tactic can work for a smaller, local business or practice.
Tap into potential collaborators, and team up to offer clients a greater benefit than if you go it alone. For example, a financial advisory firm could team up with a local charity, and co-sponsor fundraising drives. The events will provide exposure for the FAs at the firm, and possibly lead to referrals. The charity gets a new supporter (the FA firm), and perhaps a free financial assessment could be offered to select donors who contribute on a regular basis. This type of effort can be done on a local basis, with “local” meaning whatever you want it to mean–a specific county, zip code, geographic region or clientele that may be based nationwide.
You can market your smaller business as if you had a larger budget, especially if you reward innovation and foster an environment of ownership among your employees and principals. And most of all, when you hit an obstacle or problem that seems insurmountable, always, always, always view it as an opportunity for growth.