As a small business owner, you probably know that promoting your business is every bit as important as offering quality products or services.
But you’re probably also painfully aware that there is a lot of competition for the public’s attention. Whether you have a storefront, an online business, or both, you know there’s a lot of “noise” out there.
How do you get your “signal” out to the people who matter? Huge multinational corporations can afford splashy, flashy advertising and publicity campaigns, but your resources are considerably more limited than theirs.
Never fear; you don’t have to be a billionaire to make your company unforgettable. To get and keep your business in the public eye, you need to provide as much value as possible – not only by offering great products and customer service, but also by becoming an indispensable resource and, most importantly, engaging your customers.
Regarding the latter two points, marketing and promotion involve more than simply telling the public, “Hey, look at these widgets I’m selling,” or, “I’ve got the best Armenian-Thai-fusion restaurant in the tri-state area.”
You should also strive to become someone to whom people turn for information and feedback regarding your areas of expertise. And you should never stop thinking of creative ways to engage your present and future customers.
As the authors of the gonzo business book The Cluetrain Manifesto said more than twelve years ago, “Markets are conversations.” This is true today more than ever.
Here are eight tips to help you become a part of the “conversation” – and make yourself stand out in the marketplace – in cost-effective ways:
1. Tell your story, and make it compelling (but credible)
You’ve probably heard that if you want to make your marketing (and your company) memorable, you should tell a story.
Taken literally, this can be your own story, the chronicles of a recurring fictional character in your promotional campaigns, or simply a compelling statement about what you and your company stand for.
But when talking about storytelling and marketing, we’re referring to more than just a single tale. Your “story,” whatever it is, should infuse all of your marketing and promotional efforts.
This will help you stand out and make people remember you. Just be sure that if you’re actually using your own life story as a hook, you keep it credible. Don’t make up things about your past, for example, because sooner or later you’ll be busted.
The main point, as this thoughtful blog post about marketing and storytelling indicates (Marketing & the art of storytelling), is that all of your marketing and promotional content should reflect you and what you can do for your customer.
And the good news is that you don’t have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to tell your story in unforgettable ways.
All you need are a healthy dose of creativity and a deep belief in the uniqueness – and value – of your business.
2. Take advantage of social media
No doubt you’ve heard this one before too, and if you’re already tweeting and Facebooking, good for you! But if you have yet to get your feet wet in the social media pond, do it. Now.
Linkedin (www.linkedin.com) is more for professional networking, but Facebook (www.facebook.com) and Twitter (www.twitter.com) enable you to promote your business directly to your customers and carry on a vibrant public conversation.
The best news: They’re free to use, and you have the potential of reaching hundreds or thousands of potential clients. In addition, since virtually everyone in the mainstream media is now on Facebook and Twitter, you have a new channel for reaching out to producers and reporters.
And did we mention that these services are absolutely free? True, you can also purchase priority links or professional upgrades, but you can get plenty of mileage from the totally free versions if you use them wisely. (Hint: Don’t use your business pages merely to socialize, and for gosh sakes, don’t use them to get into fights with people with whom you disagree. Remember: the purpose of all of this social networking is to enhance your company image.)
3. Blog, blog, blog
There are thousands of bad, silly, and virtually useless blogs on the Internet, and thousands of compelling ones as well. You can make your company blog both compelling and useful to your customers, potential customers, and colleagues by sharing tips you have learned in your business, and inviting others to share their experiences as well.
Promote your blog via email, and put links to new posts on Twitter, Facebook, and Linkedin. You can also mention your blog in your correspondence with others, and request reciprocal links from other bloggers in your field.
One caveat: If you allow comments, which you’re probably going to want to do, be sure you moderate your blog to eliminate SPAM and “trolls.” WordPress (http://wordpress.com) offers free blogging on an SEO (Search Engine Optimization) friendly platform.
Blogger (https://www.blogger.com/) also offers free blogging. Both have a variety of attractive, customizable templates.
Don’t have time to blog? Hire a “ghostblogger” or “guestblogger,” or use someone in your company who has good writing skills. Just be sure you monitor the content; after all, it is a reflection on your company, and you.
4. Be a video star.
You don’t have to pay thousands for TV ads. If you’re ready to get into video, establish a channel on YouTube. Yes, it’s free. If you’re not handy with a video cam and editing software, take lessons. Or hire an expert – they’re not all outrageously expensive – to create low-cost but classy trailers or ongoing “webisodes” to promote your company.
Again, make sure that everything you upload is professionally executed and reflects well on you and your company. Who knows, your webisode or humorous trailer might be the next video to go “viral.”
5. Explore the wealth of other free tools available.
Not ready to spring for Photoshop? Try the free graphics editor GIMP (http://www.gimp.org). For other great freeware options that can help you in your marketing, check CNET.com (http://www.cnet.com).
6. Send out a regular e-newsletter.
If you blog and use social media, this might seem redundant, but an e-newsletter can reach customers and potential customers who aren’t frequenting the social media sites. Though some consider e-mail to be passe, it is still an effective means of reaching a lot of people, simply and inexpensively. While most of the free e-mail servers such as Hotmail, Gmail, and AOL don’t allow mass mailouts, most Internet Service Providers offer listserv features that allow you to generate a huge mailout using only a single address. Most listservs are offered either free or for a minimal additional charge.
7. Send press releases
But choose your distribution service with care.
Free press release distribution services have the advantage of being…well…free, but they also have the disadvantage of being what more than one marketing expert has described as dumping grounds for mediocre releases.
Either target your release to a few reporters in your specific industry (and/or a few local media people), or use a reputable newswire service for your distribution.
Just make sure your press releases are compelling and offer something newsworthy. Media people and their audiences don’t necessarily give a flip that you have a new product or that you’re offering discounts for your premium service this month. Instead, they care about how your product or service fits into the big picture and what sort of impact it might have on their readers or viewers.
And by the way, do your best to develop good relationships with the media.
You’ll endear yourself to producers and editors if you continually give them what they want. With your media contacts, start locally and expand globally as appropriate.
8. Join professional industry forums and groups.
Part of becoming an indispensable resource – and, yes, remaining in the big “conversation” – is to participate in some of the more “traditional” groups and forums. Online professional forums and discussion groups have pretty well replaced the old Usenet newsgroups where like-minded people gathered, and it should be easy for you to find a group where your expertise or products would be a good fit.
The one cardinal rule you’ll need to follow is to “lurk” for a little while after you join, in order to get a feel for the group’s atmosphere before jumping in.
Once you are familiar with the group (and have identified its predominant members), you can begin to establish yourself. Jump in too quickly, and you might end up making a gaffe that will alienate your fellow members.
Post interesting and well-timed remarks, and people will follow your links to find out what else you have to offer.
And now here’s a bonus tip involving the “nitty-gritty” of marketing and promoting.
Sometimes it really is to your advantage to resort to good old-fashioned print or broadcast advertising. If you can’t afford a lot of ad space or air time yourself, see if you can form a consortium or co-op with other small business owners, and negotiate a lower price.
There may come a time when you need – and can afford – a marketing consultant, a publicist, an ad agency, or any combination of the above. But until that day comes, you might be amazed at the results that a little creativity and a lot of passion can deliver for your business.