Want your marketing to work? Answer these questions first.

You know you need some marketing.  But where do you start?

For small-but-fast-growing companies in the B2B space – which is mostly where I work these days – marketing is often a leap of faith. You know you need some kind of marketing, because you have to ‘get the word out there’ and your website looks like it was designed in 1992. But how can you prevent that smooth-talking marketing consultant from leaving you with a dysfunctional (but so sexy!) website, empty pockets, and zero incremental revenue?

Well, despite what the Big Data guys will tell you, it’s always going to be tough to draw a straight line from $1 spent on marketing to $1 earned in sales.

But the best way to get the most out of your marketing investment – and avoid costly marketing mistakes – is to know as much as you can about your business and where you want it to go in the next couple of years. Saying “We want to sell more stuff!” and then hoping for a marketing strategy that will magically make that happen won’t work.

Here are the 11 questions you should ask before you spend any money on marketing.

The 11 answers you need if you expect your marketing to work

1.  What are your top 3 business goals for the next 12 months?

All marketing initiatives need to be tied to specific business goals – with specific revenue numbers.  There’s no point in increasing retail sales if what you really need is to increase sales via sales brokers.  Answering this question will also help you arrive at a realistic marketing budget.

2.  Where do you see the business in 3-5 years?

While the answers to #1 should be highly specific (“Increase revenue on X product by X%”), the answers to this should be more ‘visioning’, like “We’d like to be the leading provider of X in X area”).  However, it’s important to keep this realistic:  If you’re currently the #10 player in a saturated market, know that 3 years probably isn’t long enough to get to the #1 spot.

3.  What are your top 3 most pressing business issues?

Are you suffering from a lack of awareness?  Not being considered in the competitive solution set?  Not being able to communicate with customers?  Operational delays?  Confused employees?  Marketing and communications can help with all of these – and sometimes it’s more effective to spend marketing dollars training and educating employees than to build a fancier website.

4.  Which of your products/services is currently making you the most money right now?

The product/service with the best margin may be the best place to start spending marketing dollars, because you’ll get more bang for your buck.  Once you’ve tested the market, you can invest in other products/services.

5.  What are your top 3 barriers to sale/sales objections right now?

Are your salespeople having trouble getting meetings?  Are they having trouble closing them?  Are potential clients having a hard time finding you, or are they worried about your credibility in the marketplace?  Do you have a great sales team but a confusing message?  Before you start undertaking television advertising, it might be best to focus on sales materials or a more coherent brand identity.

6.  What are your 3 most lucrative target markets?

Small businesses always want to sell to ‘everyone’, but a limited marketing budget just won’t let you reach 22-year-old urban dwellers and 60-year-old senior executives. Identify the 3 target groups that buy the most, and sell to them first.

7.  Do you have a ‘brand story’?

Do you know what you sell, why it’s different or better, and how it will make the lives of your customers and clients better?  In my experience, most small-but-growing businesses do have a compelling story – they wouldn’t have made it this far if they didn’t – but it’s not being clearly and consistently articulated.  Sometimes this is where an outside marketing consultant can help the most.

8.  What are your current communications assets (website, infosheets, social media, etc.)?

‘Marketing’ really includes everything that your business uses to communicate with stakeholders: This includes the big stuff like the website or online advertising, but it also includes stuff like infosheets and promo items, RFP templates and graphics, conference materials and even reports and email footers – all of these things have a role to play in building your brand and communicating who you are to clients, employees and other stakeholders, and they all count as part of your overall marketing mix.

9.  What are your customers/employees/other stakeholders saying about the way you’re communicating with them right now?

Employees who are on the front lines, talking to your customers and each other every day, probably have a more accurate picture of your customers than you realize. Ask them what they’re hearing – and don’t dismiss the answers.

10.  What does business success look like?

Business success can be reducing the sales cycle, attracting investors, recruiting better talent – there are plenty of factors that contribute to the bottom line that go beyond “sell more stuff”.

11.  What does marketing success look like?

Marketing can’t be successful if you don’t know exactly what you want it to do for you – and again, “sell more stuff” isn’t specific enough. Do you want reduced customer acquisition spend, increased customer retention, more brand awareness, more cross-selling opportunities…? Marketing can help you with all of these, but only if you know what you want when you start.

Write it down.

I know you think you have better things to do. But I promise, if you take a couple of hours to codify (i.e. articulate, then write down) the answers to these 11 questions, your marketing efforts will be exponentially more successful than if you don’t.

 

One of your target groups is better than the others. Market to it.

Not all target markets are created equal

Do you really know who your best customers are?

Not all target markets are created equal

Okay, so the other week I talked about how it’s crucial for small businesses to get specific with their marketing goals. And last month I talked about how small businesses need to answer some very detailed questions about their business before they spend any money at all on marketing.

Look how theme-y I’m getting! Pretty soon I’ll be doing the 12 days of blogmas or something.

Just in case you haven’t spotted the theme yet, here it is: When small businesses start throwing money at marketing without doing their homework or getting very specific with their goals, they often always spend more than they need to for less than they hoped. And probably start saying things like “marketing is useless” or “marketing consultants are idiots”. (Only the second of these is sometimes true.)

Narrowing down target markets is the worst part of my job

Most of the time, when I tell clients that it’s important to articulate clear business goals so they can tie their marketing efforts and results to them, they’re totally on board. It’s easy to understand that you can’t reach goals if you don’t set them.

It’s when we get to identifying the target market(s) that we always run into trouble: “We have no ideal client!” the businesses say. “We want to sell to everyone!”

Except even McDonald’s isn’t selling to everyone – or at least they’re not trying to sell everything, all the time, to everyone. That’s why Happy Meal ads feature kids, while McCafe ads feature mildly hipster-type 30-somethings: They have different target markets.

So I can assure you, with some confidence, that your commercial office moving service, or your financial planning consultancy, or your large-scale aquarium maintenance business should also not be trying to market to ‘everyone’.

I get it. If you’ve spent the past few years of your life pouring all your time and energy into your business, the thought of losing even one potential customer makes you feel a bit sick to your stomach. But if you’ve spent all that time building your business, you’ve probably learned that chasing the wrong clients is futile: The cost of acquiring them is too high, they keep you up at night because they’re never satisfied anyway – they just don’t deliver a good ROI.

(And as so many Canadian companies saw with the Target debacle, even if you do, once in a while, land one of these unicorn clients, they can still be the kind of nightmare that demands 90-day payment terms and then skips town.)

Marketing is the same: Chasing long-shot target markets will cost you more money, time and resources than you can afford. So while I know it’s painful, you’ve got to define one or two ideal customers and then spend most of your time marketing to them. A year or two from now, when the cash is rolling in, then go ahead and broaden your scope – you’ll be able to afford it.

How to start defining your ideal client: 5 steps

If you want to get more out of your marketing dollars, you have to make decisions based on actual facts. Here’s how to determine your ideal client:

  1. Stop relying on anecdotal information. It’s easy to get sidetracked by compelling anecdotes about unexpected, easy, or huge sales wins. But repeating an anecdote at every sales and marketing meeting for 2 years doesn’t turn it into ‘data’.
  2. Pull a list of your clients from the past 12-24 months. 99% of the time, you’re going to find that your most profitable clients aren’t actually who you thought they were.
  3. Segment your client list by industry/vertical. When they actually sit down and do the numbers, most B2B SMBs discover that they’re making 85% of their revenue from a shortlist of 3 or 4 key industries. That’s where you should be spending your marketing dollars – until you’ve saturated those or have a specific business mandate to expand to other verticals.
  4. Ensure senior leadership – including the sales department – is on board. One of the biggest hurdles to marketing success for SMBs is when the CEO, the VP Sales and the VP Marketing can’t agree on which target market(s) should get the most marketing support. It dilutes the marketing message – and the marketing budget. Don’t spend any money on marketing until everyone’s on the same page.
  5. Create a profile of the individual decision maker(s). In B2B marketing, companies often don’t think about demographics/psychographics: They get focused on marketing to an industry or organization, and forget that, just like in B2C marketing, there’s an actual person who has to make the final purchasing decision. Knowing exactly what that person looks like, and what motivates them, will help you focus your marketing efforts more effectively. (And don’t forget to create profiles for the decision influencers, too!

 

“Sell more stuff” isn’t a marketing strategy – and won’t get the results you want

when marketing goals are hazy, results can't happen

when marketing goals are hazy, results can't happen

Marketing can’t deliver results if you don’t know what those results should be

The other day I had a conversation with a new client. He wants to grow his business aggressively (from $1.5 million to $5 million in revenue) in the next couple of years, and knows he needs marketing support to do it. But he hasn’t done a lot of marketing so far, and while he’s an expert in his field, he hasn’t had much experience in sales and marketing.

Here is part of our exchange:

ME: “Can you tell me a little more about your sales goals for the next 6-12 months?”

HIM: “I told you. I want to grow the business.”

ME: “Yes, but as we’ve discussed you’ve got a wide range of products and services. Which ones do you want to focus on?

HIM: “All of them. We need to sell more of everything.”

ME: “What does your business plan look like? Where do you see the bulk of your revenue coming from in the next 6-12 months?”

HIM: “We need to double our revenue by next year.”

ME: “Where do you see the incremental revenue coming from? What’s making you the most money right now?”

HIM: “Everything. We need to sell more of everything.”

ME: “But you said you didn’t want to spend more than $2500 a month, right?”

 

It’s hard to achieve goals if no one knows what they are

Many – maybe most – small businesses are afraid to get too specific with their sales and revenue goals: “If we concentrate too much on one area,” they fear, “we’ll miss opportunities in other areas.”

And it’s true that the nimbleness of small businesses – their ability to respond to changes in the marketplace and adapt their service offerings accordingly – can be a tremendous advantage.

However, when it comes to marketing, this strategy usually just results in chaos, overspending, and an inability to judge whether a particular marketing initiative has been effective.

Marketing isn’t like accounting. But you have to at least try to make the columns add up.

Look, I’ll be the first to admit that marketing is often more art than science – and even the science bit is often alchemy. It’s tough to draw a straight line from $1 spent on marketing to $5 in revenue.

Big-data types can talk all they want about profiles and predictive modeling and one-to-one targeting, but until they figure out that I don’t actually live in Ottawa and that I am not interested in hiring a painting contractor in Virginia and that I am definitely not buying anything from Zulily, I am going to continue to believe that successful marketing consists of gathering all the information you can, then making some choices.

6 steps to setting marketing goals that are more likely to get results

1. Pull your actual sales data so you know exactly what you sold. Anecdotal sales stories about that one time you sold a whole bunch of random stuff to that healthcare center in Boston aren’t good enough. Most of the time, your sales data will tell you that, in fact, your best, easiest sales are of your top 3-4 product/services.

2. Figure out what’s driving customer acquisition. This is, in my experience, the biggest unknown for small businesses – and yet it can be the greatest source of information for marketing purposes. If 90% of your customers are referrals from other customers, then you should probably use marketing to encourage more referrals, instead of spending a zillion dollars on a fancy website that no one visits anyway.

3. Segment your customers. Again, stop relying on anecdotal information and look at the list of people/businesses who’ve actually bought stuff from you in the past 12-24 months. You’ll almost always discover that 85% (or more) of them fall into 2-3 easily identifiable categories (same industry, same function, same location, etc.).

4. Identify your high-margin products/services. It’s (usually) more profitable to sell $50k worth of stuff at a 50% margin than $200k of stuff at a 5% margin. So why focus marketing efforts on both?

5. Articulate the business goals – and be specific. Yeah, okay, you want to sell more stuff. But why? And what? Maybe you want to drive gross revenue because you’re looking at an exit strategy; maybe you want big profits because you want to give your employees a raise; maybe you want to push a monthly service because you want to stabilize cashflow; maybe you want to build the brand to attract investors. The more you know about your business goals, the better you’ll be able to determine what your marketing should focus on, how much to spend – and what marketing tactics will get you there.

6. Go after the low-hanging fruit first. Seems obvious, right?  Except, like I said, most small business owners fear that if they focus on the obvious, they’ll miss out on the mystical unicorns of untapped customers. But here’s the thing: I promise that if you spend 12 months focusing on the low-hanging fruit, the mystical unicorns will magically appear. Business is funny that way: The more successful you are selling your core products and services to your core target markets, the more likely it is that you’ll start selling to everyone else, too. Plus, you’ll be so profitable that you won’t have to go chasing unicorns any more!

 

I know, I know – all this talk of business analysis and goal setting means I’m taking all the fun out of marketing, which is supposed to be about Big Ideas and cool websites and getting a YouTube celebrity to endorse your product. It can be like that – as long as you’ve done your homework first.

 

7 practical reasons your SMB should be on Twitter

Sarah Welstead Twitter for small business

Yes, Twitter is probably a good idea as part of your marketing strategy.

First, my Twitter bona fides: I have been managing Twitter accounts for clients (yes, for money) since 2009 and I have had my own Twitter account since 2010.  These days, I’m running 15-20 Twitter accounts for various clients at any given time, and most of those clients are small-to-mid-sized B2B businesses which run the gamut from professional services, IT and finance, to retail, hospitality and even building trades. I have about 6800 followers of my own; each of my clients has between 1000-9000 – and those followers are rated 95% real, not just spammy #teamfollowback types.

In other words, I’ve had to be serious about Twitter for quite a while now (6 years practically qualifies me as an eminence grise in social media terms) and I’ve had to do it for a lot of different types of businesses.

7 pragmatic reasons your small/midsized business should be on Twitter

If you follow me on social media or know me in real life, you’ve probably heard me say, dryly, that some days I’m convinced that 85% of all non-1Direction-related tweets are generated by me and about 11 other social media managers, diligently tweeting away at each other. (The other 15% are a combination of Chris Brown defenders, mommy bloggers, and whatever spambot operation that JabberDuck company got to promote them on Twitter.)

There is a lot of noise and nonsense on Twitter.

However.

Twitter won’t instantly generate a zillion sales for an SMB company, especially in the B2B space. But here’s what it can do as part of the marketing strategy for almost any SMB:

1. Help boost your SEO: Google (and other search engines) indexes Twitter. Because tweets are updated (ideally) daily, they look current to search engines, which means they give them a decent ranking score. What’s more, they increase the sheer volume of content attached to your URL or business name, which makes Google think your company is more relevant than companies mentioned less frequently.

 

2.  Helps keep your other social media channels looking current: By automatically feeding your tweets from Twitter to your Facebook page or LinkedIn profile or other social media, you can keep those channels looking up-to-date without actually having to create additional content.

 

3.  Keep your website from looking dormant:  Many SMBs don’t have the time, resources or inclination to update their website very often, so it can start to look a little cobwebby. Setting up an automatic feed from Twitter sends visitors the message that you’re very much an active, going concern.

 

4.  Raise your profile among your target market, vendors, supplies, competitive set and prospective employees:  Sure, people who aren’t on Twitter aren’t on Twitter. But I guarantee you that plenty of your stakeholders are paying attention, and a consistent Twitter account does drive awareness.  And don’t underestimate the role of people like me: I may be ‘just’ a ghost-tweeter, but my clients depend on me to identify the key players and trends in their space, and I notice who’s doing what.  Yes, it’s hard to measure ‘awareness’ and ‘profile’ – but they do matter and Twitter can make a difference.

 

5. Support your content strategy. How the heck are you going to promote your new blog post or media release if you haven’t built an audience on Twitter?  I promise that almost no one is just going to accidentally stumble on it by going to your website directly, and only 323 people like your Facebook page.  Twitter gives you access to an audience you just can’t get elsewhere without spending a lot of money.

 

6.  Improve the thought-leadership profile of your CEO (or equivalent): In my experience, most CEOs (or presidents, founders, etc.) of SMBs actively look for speaking engagements or opportunities to expand their sphere of influence by networking.  I can’t tell you how many small-business leaders I’ve seen get tapped for speaking engagements or keynote addresses because someone has noticed their Twitter/social media presence.

 

7.  It keeps you on top of your game: Twitter, for all its faults, has the advantage of immediacy. Finding articles or information to tweet about forces you to keep up with what’s going on in your industry, and following the right people means your Twitter feed gets filled up with hot topics that are relevant to you. Both of these things mean you’re better informed and better able to spot trends in your industry earlier than you would otherwise.

 

Yes, there are certain SMBs for whom Twitter doesn’t make sense – but in the past 6 years the only times I’ve recommended against Twitter for SMBs was for companies in the B2B space who sold a highly-specialized product/service with a very limited target market, whose resources would be better spent marketing directly to those targets on an individual basis.

Now, go find your Twitter password.

 

 

Are your suppliers ruining your brand?

StayAwake marketing

Using different suppliers might be saving you money, but costing you brand equity.

 

Small business owners are kind of screwed when it comes to marketing: They need marketing/communications stuff, but they can’t afford a full-time marketing person, and they’re usually on a super-tight budget. So they shop around for (what seems like) the best price – but that leaves them with different suppliers for their website, business cards, collateral materials, content strategy, social media…

And then this happens:

Bad graphic for Learning RX

learning rx graphic

 

Example of bad branding from Learning RX

Marketing materials with all kinds of different visuals, fonts, colours, messages – even the logos aren’t consistent.

At best, you’re not getting any cumulative value from your marketing efforts, because none of this is working together to create a cohesive whole; at worst, you end up losing business because potential customers don’t really understand what you’re selling or they think you’re an unprofessional organization.

Why does this matter?

Because the first step to making a sale – and the key to generating repeated sales – is building a relationship with potential customers. ‘Branding’ is just a way to facilitate that relationship, by providing visual and textual cues that trigger feelings of recognition, familiarity and trust.  When your brand identity is all over the place, those cues misfire; you can’t build recognition and familiarity, let alone trust. Relationships take longer to create, if they happen at all – which means you end up spending more money on marketing just to stay in the same place.

In the case of LearningRX, above, this creates two problems:  LearningRX headquarters doesn’t get the cumulative benefit of their various branches’ advertising, because it all looks and feels so different, and individual franchise owners don’t get the cumulative benefit of all this LearningRX advertising because the audience isn’t connecting it all together.  So the audience never thinks “Wow, I keep seeing this LearningRX company everywhere – maybe I should check them out.”

How can you protect your brand, even if you’re not a marketing expert?

I tend to think that even small businesses are best served by engaging some kind of brand steward who can coordinate all marketing efforts and make sure it’s all working together. But I know this isn’t always possible, so in the meantime, here’s what you can do:

  • When you first get your logo done (or updated), make sure the designer provides you with source files. This should include high-res AI or PSD files including your logo and fonts
  • Make a note of your official colours (PMS/Pantone/HEX)
  • Make sure you know your official fonts (the ones in your logo, printed materials and website)
  • Tell anyone who touches your brand – web designers, print shops, event coordinators, etc. – that you expect them to use your official logo, iconography, colours and fonts exclusively. If your colour palette is purple and green, they shouldn’t be injecting red headlines into anything
  • Keep track of your images. If you have used a particular photo as the background to your homepage, that’s what should be on your printed materials, too
  • Make sure you get source files for all your marketing materials, every time. That way you don’t have to worry if your designer moves to Bali next year and won’t return your calls.

Keep your source files and notes on your fonts and colours in a safe place that you won’t forget about it.  The #1 cause of inconsistency, in my experience, is when a client can’t find their source files (or the person who did them in the first place) and subsequent suppliers are forced to recreate or approximate a design.

Remember:  If you’ve done your due diligence and provided the supplier with the source materials and documentation, and they come back with something that doesn’t look consistent with previous materials, it’s okay to say “Hey, this doesn’t match what we’ve done before.  Are you sure you’ve used the correct fonts/colours/images?” or even “Dude, what the heck?  Why did you stick a huge orange headline in there when you know our colours are purple and green?”