Tuesday, April 12, 2005

A marketing campaign might seem like a luxury to many small-business owners who don’t have budgets for consultants or publicists. But marketing can be relatively simple and inexpensive for many small companies.

Your first step, according to marketing consultant Barbara Findlay Schenck, is to determine to whom do you need to market — are you looking for a specific number of clients, for example? If so, maybe you don’t need a marketing campaign; maybe you just need to do some networking .

“Focus on what you’re trying to accomplish and everything else gets more affordable and efficient,” said Miss Schenck, author of “Small Business Marketing for Dummies.”

There are many avenues of marketing available — including advertising and seeking publicity in the news media — but to save money, you should be sure you are using methods appropriate for your business and goals. Miss Schenck noted that it makes no sense to use the Internet if your prospective customers are likely to be computer illiterate.

But let’s say you are trying to make up for a deficit in sales or for lost customers. In that case, you’ve got other, more critical work to do before you begin marketing — you need to see if you’ve got a problem that’s costing you revenue.

“New ads or promotions when you have a product in need of repair only puts a spotlight on the problem,” Miss Schenck said.

If your company is in this situation, you can use market-research techniques to see what’s gone wrong. Miss Schenck suggested speaking to several clients or customers who left and asking them what made them unhappy.

Then, before you start marketing, “make sure your product is in top condition,” she said.

Many small-business owners think first about advertising, but that can often be the most expensive method and not necessarily the most effective. Marketing experts say you might be better off trying to get publicity for your company.

To do that, you need to give the news media a reason to give you newspaper or Web space or airtime. Just because you have a product or service you love won’t be enough. Remember, you must have something that’s likely to help a local TV station get higher ratings, or a newspaper sell more copies or a Web site sell online ads.

If your business is the kind that can offer advice to help consumers solve financial or personal problems, that’s likely to help you get publicity, said Rick Frishman, president of Planned Television Arts, a division of the public relations firm Ruder-Finn Inc. in New York. “Teach people how to send their kids to college for free, buy a car, get a mortgage,” he said.

But you also need to have a message that’s succinct — think in terms of sound bites, rather than press releases that run on for several pages.

Marketing doesn’t have to be about promoting yourself to the news media — in fact, there are ways to market yourself that are more immediate and likely to be more effective. Mr. Frishman noted that a dry cleaner that gives away free coffee when people drop off their clothes is engaging in marketing that’s likely to bring in more business as customers start talking to their friends.

Or let’s say you run a restaurant or diner: Offer customers a free beverage for the road. The idea is to get your customers to believe you are giving them something extra for their money.

“It’s something that doesn’t cost you much, but that has perceived value and makes you different from everyone else,” he said.

Businesses can also offer discounts to customers who refer friends or relatives.

Marketing should be an ongoing part of your business. Miss Schenck noted that it doesn’t apply only to getting new customers — it also will help you keep the ones you have. She reminded owners that it’s much more expensive to go out and find new business than to maintain the business you already have.

Mr. Frishman said simple things, like knowing your customers’ names, or sending thank-you notes, will go a long way toward creating good will. He also recalled going to a restaurant where good service was clearly a priority, and where the staff focused on even the smallest details. That’s the kind of attention customers want.

“People want to be cared about,” he said.


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