A reader asks: I am looking for current information on the effectiveness of various forms of promotion for a professional service firm (we sell software development services). Such as – are referrals the most effective, or email campaigns, or direct mail (letter or postcard), direct print advertising, radio advertising, cold calls and pay/click, etc. Any insight would be helpful.
Before I answer your question, let me stress:
- all promotional materials can be effective if used properly
- there is no magical formula or quick fix that will open the flood gates, sending streams of clients your way
One of the biggest small business marketing mistakes firms make is trying something once. When they don’t see immediate results, they stop doing it and try something else. They may try mailing out postcards once. If that doesn’t work, they may try advertising or giving away a free guide. If they start collecting a database of names and fail to see any immediate results, they stop that and try something different. The cycle continues until they throw their hands up in the air and declare that marketing doesn’t work.
Small business marketing tools are best used in combination with one another, so you might use postcards to offer a free case study, tip sheet, or software demo that people can download from your website. At your website, you might offer a free information kit by mail that interested parties can request as well as joining your newsletter. You might send out a monthly e-newsletter to keep in touch with prospects until they call you up. And you might take along brochures and other sales literature to the consultation. In each example, the marketing tactic has a distinct purpose in getting prospects to take the next step.
Notice how small business marketing has become a process where you use a number of tactics to reach prospects and follow up on a consistent basis? Each piece plays a role in educating your client and nudging them a step closer to contacting you for help.
A 4-Step Marketing Strategy
Now, how do you go about choosing the right small business marketing tactics? How effective your marketing will be depends on four factors:
- your target audience
- your marketing message
- your objectives
- your offer
Step #1 – Choose A Target Audience
You mention your firm does software development, so you might work primarily with IT managers. However, there might also be other executives that have a stake in decision making, such as Managing Directors, the CFO, or even the CEO of the company. Getting buy-in might involve several different departments – and each person will have different criteria for what they consider a “problem.” The IT manager will be most concerned with the technical side, while the CFO and the CEO won’t care too much about that techie stuff. They want to know how it’s going to benefit them – save time, better integrate them with partners, cut costs over 5 years, grow their business, etc.
The first stage of your small business marketing strategy should involve understanding who makes the decisions to purchase a solution like yours and what kinds of things motivate them to take action. In any complex sale, there are usually a number of decision makers, so it’s your job to understand how each views the problem, whether they even consider it a problem, and what would motivate them to fix the problem.
Remember, that problem may be clear as day to you, but it might not be to your prospects. Maybe it was something that got put on the back burner. Maybe it is something that’s somewhat annoying, but they can live with it now. Or maybe they have no idea there are better, more efficient ways to do their jobs. Your task is to understand how each decision maker sees this problem and craft your marketing message around that.
Step #2 – Develop Your Marketing Message
Your marketing message is what you are promoting. If it’s not relative to your target audience, none of your promotions will be effective.
What makes for a failed small business marketing message? Brochures and materials that focus on your company and your services. Take a look at your website and marketing materials. How many times do you use the word “we” or “our firm”? Now, how many times do you speak to your reader, using “you” and “your company”? If you have more of the latter, you’re on the right track.
The best small business marketing materials educate your readers about their specific problems, why those problems should be a top concern, and what kinds of solutions are available. Notice, I said educate readers about their specific problem, not “build your brand” or “create awareness” about your services. If your materials aren’t about your prospects, they won’t pay much attention.
When prospects realize they might have a problem, the first thing they do is gather research. They’ll probably look on the internet (which is where search engine marketing comes into play), look at trade magazines (which is why inserts and ads in industry magazines can be effective), and they’re more likely to notice direct mail that relates to their problem. They are looking at anything that might be relevant and help them understand the magnitude of their problem and whether it is worth pursuing a solution.
In this stage, you can play a big role in influencing decision criteria while showing then that you are an expert in this area and have helped a number of companies just like them. Here is where you build rapport and demonstrate your expertise.
Step #3 – Determine Your Marketing Objectives
Your ultimate goal is to close sales, but you can’t force prospects to close with you. They make the decision on their own time, when they’ve convinced others in their company that this is a good idea and they have a time frame and budget set aside. As much as you’d like your ad asking them to “call for a free consultation” to motivate them to call you, in all likelihood, it won’t.
Instead of thinking one small business marketing tool should net a bunch of consultations with people ready to buy, you should be thinking, what’s the first thing my target audience thinks about when evaluating this type of purchase and what information can I offer them to help. In exchange for this information, like a white paper or tip sheet, you ask for their contact information.
Now, they’ve self selected themselves as mildly interested in what you offer and provided a way for you to keep in touch with them. Your task is to think about what objections or fears they might have with buying a solution. Remember, any change from the present stage is a risk on their part – they are risking the status quo to potentially make their life easier. But there’s always a concern for failure – they might cost their company lots of money and worse, they look like a failure to their boss and co-workers.
Prospects must sell themselves on a new solution before they move forward. And they must be able to explain why this is a good idea to other decision influencers.
Step #4 – Craft Your Offer
Once you have a good understanding for what types of information prospects need to make the decision, you can offer it to them in bite-sized chunks. Giving them too much off the bat just overwhelms them. It’s better to offer them something initially, and then keep in touch, offering more information over time.
If they are seriously considering a solution, they will be happy to receive more information from you about their problem. Remember, if they already had enough information, they’d have already made the purchase. Each item you offer should be something of value, designed to help educate them, allay their fears, and ultimately call you when they start to select vendors.
It’s your offer that counts – are you offering them something that is relative to their current concerns? Have you made it easy to get? When people are in the information gathering stage, they fear sales pitches and try to avoid them at all cost. They aren’t ready to hear one, and from your perspective, they aren’t yet a qualified lead so you may just be wasting your time as well. Give them an easy way for them to receive this information – via an e-newsletter, a download from your website, or by calling your office.
How To Create Your Small Business Marketing Strategy
Once you understand each of the four elements listed above, you can devise a small business marketing strategy that delivers such offers to your target audience. The best marketing strategies are automated – meaning you have certain tactics you use to get prospects to contact you (your prospecting system) and certain tactics you use to follow up and keep in touch (your nurturing system).
How do you know which small business marketing tactics to use? Get to know your target audience and how they search for information. Will postcards get through the mail room filter or secretary? What about letters? Do they search for information through Google or Yahoo search? If so, what types of search terms do they use to find the answers they need? Do they read industry magazines? If so, which ones? And so on.
Your initial prospecting system will have to incorporate a number of techniques to reach them, so simply advertising in their favorite industry magazine probably won’t be enough. Keep in mind, when you’re choosing a tactic, always start with “will my prospect read/hear/see this?” If they don’t read the publication or your mailing will be labeled “junk mail” before it reaches their desk, look for a better tactic.
Finally, one last note about small business referrals. Everyone wants them. Most people get a bulk of their new clients from them, so yes, many times they are extremely effective. Why? Because these prospects usually are pretty far into their information gathering stage and have heard about what you’ve done for someone else, so they already have a good impression of you.