Small business development experts agree that marketing is a key ingredient — maybe even more important than the business itself — to ensuring small business success.
“Marketing is so vital because the marketplace is extremely fierce and competitive,” said John Brandon of Mississippi Development Authority’s existing industry and business division. “Regardless of the kind of business you’re in, customers want the same basic thing: to be known, respected and truly down deep, loved. You don’t get that when you call the cable company and they ask for your account number. You get it from a small business.”
Mike Vanderlip, associate state director of Oxford-based Mississippi Small Business Development Center, said small business owners should first understand several marketing myths.
“That ‘field of dreams’ marketing myth … ‘if I build it, they will come’ … no, they won’t,” he said. “In fact, the overwhelming majority of consumers in any market will stay away unless you give them a reason to do business with you.”
Small business owners that believe the myths “I have no competition” and “Everyone loves my product or service” are doomed to fail, said Vanderlip.
“Simply because there is no one in that line of business should send a message, true enough, but it does not mean customers will change buying habits,” he said. “The majority will continue to find replacement goods and services just as they did prior to your market entry. And people who love your product or service may love it now, but when you actually start charging full price, only then will you know whether they love it or not.”
Fundamentally, there are only two ways to build sales: sell more goods or services to existing customers, or sell goods and services to new customers.
“The second one is difficult and expensive since you must try to get new customers to do business with you, and this involves changing consumer behavior and purchasing habits,” said Vanderlip. “The first one is much quicker and less costly.”
If small business owners are having difficulty with either option, they should re-focus — on the customer, not the business, said Brandon.
“If the small business owner starts focusing on what the customer is willing and able to buy, then all of a sudden, the business changes,” he said. “Know your customer intimately so you can know about his buying patterns and build a closer relationship. That’s an advantage small businesses have, made easier with the advent of technology.”
For example, a jewelry storeowner should keep up with customers’ important birthdays and anniversaries, send reminders, give recommendations and “generally make it easy for the customer to buy,” said Brandon.
“I expect the guy who peddles my insurance to know me by name, to know how old my kids are, to prepare me for the insurance bill when my teenagers start driving so I won’t go ballistic,” said Brandon. “He can prepare me for that. That’s why I go to him, and others like him and don’t fuss about price.”
Brandon and Vanderlip recommend reading Jay Conrad Levinson’s books on guerrilla marketing.
“If you haven’t read about guerrilla marketing,” said Vanderlip, “then shame, shame.”
Since Levinson began writing about guerrilla marketing in the early 1980s, the concept has grown into a phenomenon, noted Brandon.
“I think Levinson now has 21 books,” he said. “I’ve seen 18. I own six. After the sixth one, I began hearing the same message presented a little differently. But the whole philosophy is very smart. If I don’t have a big army, what pocket do I try to hit?”
Once a small business owner truly knows his customer, he must integrate the knowledge into his daily business action plan.
“I worked with a sporting goods store in South Mississippi a few weeks ago, and they were upset because everybody seemed to be going to the nearby Wal-Mart,” said Brandon. “In the course of the conversation, I found out they were not using the information about area baseball and softball leagues they’d been gathering for five years. For example, they should have known everyone in the seven-year-old league who was moving up to the next league, and should’ve had available the necessary batting helmets, new gloves, super-powered baseballs and even the $150 bats because parents are willing to buy what they believe their children need. Once we started talking, you could see the wheels spinning. Now they can start planning spring leagues in the fall, and notifying parents about high-ticket items for holiday gift lists.”
Small business owners must allocate operating capital to reach their customers.
“If you have no budget, then you have a recipe for disaster,” said Scott Vitell, chairman of the marketing department at the University of Mississippi. “One of the biggest problems of many small businesses is the lack of proper financing. Then there is little or no money for things like advertising and marketing.”
Don’t rule out ad agencies, said Brandon.
“If you know your customer, your product and your business, the one thing you need to marry up is a creative talent to help tell your story,” he said. “We’re way past the guy trying to do his own commercial, screaming a monster sell on the radio, or putting 50 things in a newspaper ad. We have to be more sophisticated. For the most part, customers are demanding it because of competition. Money invested to hire professionals is money well spent.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.