This post was originally published on Small Biz Trends on September 10, 2014 with the title "5 Keys to a Great Small Business Marketing Strategy."
What’s the difference between the confident entrepreneurs who lead growing businesses and owners who can’t get out of survival mode? It all comes down to this: All successful businesses have a clear marketing strategy that makes everything they do more effective. Unfortunately, many busy small business owners get so caught up in tactical daily marketing execution like building a website, sending email, tweeting, advertising, optimizing a landing page, blogging, and so on, that they are not taking the time to work on the decisions that’ll improve the performance of their tactics. Strategy is simply the decisions you need to make so your tactics work better. Your marketing strategy is the foundation for creating awareness, generating interest, closing new sales and continuing customer engagement. Your marketing strategy guides your company culture, your products and services mix and your pricing. There are many things to consider when crafting a successful strategy, but there are five key decisions that over the years I have seen help hundreds of small business owners grow their sales and create sanity in their businesses.
The 5 Keys of marketing strategy
- Who is your narrowly defined target customer?
- In which category does your business exist?
- What is your unique benefit?
- Who is your real competition?
- How are you clearly different from your competitors?
To make your tactics work better, to grow your business and bring sanity to your world, you have to decide on the single, simple answer to each of these questions and commit to not changing it for a year or two. This is focus and focus is almost always the difference between a business that grows profitably and one that never seems to gain any momentum. You can continue to hope that “next time that email is going to work better,” or you can develop a clear focus and a realistic strategy.
Who is your target customer?
The first decision in any marketing strategy is to define your target customer. “Who do you serve?” always needs to be answered clearly before you can execute any tactic effectively. This means you have to say “no” to other potential customers who might buy from you but who are clearly bad fits for your narrow focus. This takes time to develop the discipline, but you can’t do effective marketing without it. Focusing on a well-defined target may make you uncomfortable at first, but stay the course and follow through. An accountant friend of mine changed his business from “doing taxes for anyone in Phoenix” to “a CPA who does taxes and investments only for physicians”—his best customers who have special needs. He made this change over a period of two years and tripled his business, narrowed his service offerings and strengthened his pitch. If you are spending time and money on marketing but your efforts are not driving enough sales, the problem is almost always that you haven’t narrowed your target market definition enough to be effective. The narrower you define your market so you can focus on those that you can best serve and those that can best service you, the more effective your entire business will be.
What is your category?
Your category is simply the short description of what business you are in. What few words would someone say to describe your business? Starbucks is “high-quality coffee” Chipotle is “fresh Mexican burritos.” My friend’s tax business is simply “tax accounting for physicians in Phoenix.” Most business owners can’t resist over-complicating their company descriptions. This leaves people unsure of what you actually do, which weakens your marketing effectiveness. Here’s a simple rule: If someone can’t clearly remember your category description a month after you meet them, they were never clear about what you do in the first place. Clearly defining your category helps amplify your marketing and sales efforts. Think of what it would take to be the best—the leader—in your category. You’re not the leader? Then narrow your category definition (or your target market focus) until you are the leader. A focused laser can melt steel at a distance, but the same light undirected has no effect. Be laser-like in your focus.
What is your unique benefit?
Your unique benefit should highlight the one (or two) main things your product or service actually delivers (benefits) that your target customer really wants, not a long list of all the things your product does (features). At Infusionsoft, we know our customers don’t just want our software: They want to grow sales and save time. We don’t describe everything our software does or the hundreds of benefits, we keep our focus on those three key benefits in everything we do. And the simpler we describe it, the better our marketing works.
Who is your competition?
When someone is looking to buy a solution to a problem, they will quickly make sense of the alternatives to compare against—your competition. However, most entrepreneurs haven’t specifically defined who their real competition is and don’t focus their messages to create clear differentiation for their buyers. This frustrates the buying decision process and makes your marketing efforts weaker. You need to be clear in your own mind about what your biggest competition is. If you are a tax accountant, is your competition really the other tax accountants in town? Other CPAs or financial planners? DIY tax software? Doing taxes manually? National tax accounting chains? Each competitor type would create different comparisons, so you need to narrow it down to one or two main competitor types.
Why are you different and better for your target customer?
Once you have defined your competition, make a list of all the things you do differently and better. Then rank each of them by how important these factors are to your target customer. Pick the top one or two and put them on your homepage and include them in your elevator pitch. Don’t overcomplicate this. People just want to know one or two things to move their decision along. Is it cheaper? Do you have faster delivery? Best personalized service? Are you the only accountant who exclusively serves physicians in Phoenix?
What does your marketing strategy statement look like?
When you put the five key decisions of marketing strategy in a sentence form, it looks like this fill-in-the-blank statement: Your company name is the leading category for target customers that provides unique benefit. Unlike competitors, your company does unique differentiator. Our growth rate doubled when we focused and committed to this clear and simple marketing strategy. Try it for yourself: Fill in the blanks to create the marketing strategy statement for your own business. Get some perspective from employees, friends and best customers. List all the possibilities and then make some decisions. Say it out loud a few times. You should feel clarity and power coming through. It will also show you a few things you could stop doing in your business that would create more focus. Can you see why it makes no sense to Tweet, to send a broadcast email or build a new website if you are not clear about your marketing strategy that has laser-like focus? Doing these tactics without a road map—your marketing strategy—will not deliver the right customers and will give you fewer sales than if you had invested the time to implement a focused marketing strategy. Here’s the real secret that successful companies practice with extreme discipline: Creating a clear marketing strategy is not what companies do after they get big, it’s what small companies do to grow and get bigger in the first place.