Small Business Marketing in a Recovering Economy

Unemployment and tight credit still pose significant challenges to many individuals and businesses, but all signs are that we’re making a slow ascent out of perhaps the greatest economic downturn of our time. “Cautiously optimistic” is the buzz phrase of the day.

If the leading economic indicators are the guideposts of tomorrow that we’ve always known them to be, then now is a good time for business owners to position themselves to take advantage of an upturn. As the economy improves, one or both of two things will happen depending on the exact nature of your business and whether or not you play your cards right. New customers for your products and/or services will enter the marketplace, and/or the demand for your products/services will grow.

Your challenge? How to ensure your company is the one consumers choose to meet their particular need for a good or service when the time comes.

That’s where smart and aggressive marketing comes in.

The Marketing Riddle

When times are tough, the first thing businesses do is cut costs. No surprise. If you’re not making it, you can’t spend it. Unfortunately, the first cuts are often made to the marketing budget. Big companies in particular often take this route. It may seem counter-intuitive, but this is not a winning strategy.

Small businesses, in particular, need to market themselves most aggressively when consumers are pulling in their belts. In fact, some would argue there’s no better time to get your message across than when the clutter created by large companies pushing their products and services is reduced. Smaller voices become stronger when the crowd thins out.

The most successful business owners know that when the economy is down, there’s no better time to pick up market share. The good news is that marketing in a very targeted and affordable way has never been easier thanks to current technologies. At the same time, history has taught us that there’s still a place in any marketing plan for doing things the old fashioned way.

Effective Marketing Strategies in Any Economy

When the budget is lean, that’s when you need to get smart. Here are some marketing approaches that every good business owner should consider implementing, no matter what the state of the economy. Many of them are surprisingly affordable and very easy to sustain. Keep in mind that there are now hundreds, if not thousands of companies who cater to the marketing needs of small business owners just like you. Don’t hesitate to seek them out, pick their brains, get estimates and get referrals.

By giving some thought to how some of the following options can be sifted into your small business marketing plan, you can ensure your company is poised to do great things as the economy improves. Remember, constant customer contact is critical.

Online Strategies

Thanks to the computer, more marketing options for small businesses are available than ever before, and some of them don’t cost a whole lot when you consider the return on investment. Here are just a few you might want to consider:

  • Blogs (short for weblogs) are a fairly inexpensive way to call attention to your company, position you and/or your company as an expert(s) in the field and drive traffic to your website. They’re quickly becoming a business staple, and they’re easy to launch.
  • Timed and well conceived email campaigns are also a very inexpensive way to reach customers with announcements, special offers and incentive programs. In addition, you can keep yourself top-of-mind with your customers by putting out a regular “Ask the Expert” email, or just including them in an online newsletter distribution effort. Your loyal customers are your bread and butter when times are tough. Email is a very inexpensive and reliable way to reach them.
  • Online advertising, especially video streams and display ads can be a bit pricey, but they have terrific impact.
  • Search engine marketing (SEM) companies can work with you, often quite affordably, to make it easier for consumers to find you online.
  • Customer surveys are a great way to get information about your potential customer base that will enable you to market to them more effectively. Think about how you can provide incentives to potential consumers to participate.

Mobile Technology Strategies

Cell and smart phone technology is evolving so quickly that it’s hard to keep up with the additional marketing opportunities they provide with each passing year. Text messaging of special offers and new product announcements is one way to keep your customers engaged and up-to-date. In addition, Twitter has become an incredible forum for keeping in touch with consumers and inviting them to take advantage of special offers and promotions and to attend special events, classes or other promos.

Facebook and Twitter are very quickly becoming not only outlets for socializing and catching up with old friends, but they’re terrific forums for talking about and promoting your business. In fact, using them to reach potential customers has garnered a name of its very own…social network marketing. Having a presence in these arenas can help you drive word-of-mouth referrals and create a “buzz” around your company and what you are up to.

Customer Service Strategies

Having a policy in place whereby you and all of your employees constantly strive to exceed customer expectations may sound old hat, but it works! Make sure your expectations when it comes to customer service are clear among all of your staff, and put incentives in place to ensure they are met.

Incentives/Special Offers

You can drive a tremendous amount of traffic by offering incentives for referrals and creating special offers. Give some serious thought to what it would take to get new customers to buy your product/service and what it would take to generate repeat customers. Chances are the strategies to reach each audience will be different, in terms of not only the message, but the vehicle to reach them as well. Loyalty/rewards programs are particularly effective, especially when consumers are feeling the pinch.

Image Enhancement

  • Small businesses are part of a larger community. They need to see and be seen! Remember, every person you meet represents an opportunity you have to create an image of you and your business. Remember names and follow up whenever and however you can because lasting and good impressions are very important.
  • Get involved in the community by volunteering, sponsoring a team/organization or having a booth at a community festival or other event. Visibility is the key.
  • Speak whenever you have the opportunity at events, to professional associations or even in schools. Find a way to become a recognized expert in your field, and then make yourself available when you can.

Traditional Outreach Strategies

  • As an entrepreneur, you’re passionate and very knowledgeable about all areas of your business. Use that to your advantage by writing as an expert however and whenever you can. Smaller newspapers are oftentimes interested in fresh editorial. Or, try your hand at writing a letter to the editor about an issue that you have an expert opinion about that relates to your business.
  • Press releases to the print and broadcast media outlets in your area can be a very good means of getting your company name out there. But it’s important that you really have something to say that’s of import to the public. Perhaps you’re offering your services pro bono for the benefit of the community somewhere…the media will want to now about that! Keep in mind that you can always find a way to create a newsworthy event with your name attached to it…use your imagination!
  • Local reporters have a complete stable of experts that they can call on when they’re doing a story related to that person’s area of expertise. Position yourself as an expert in your community on the state of small business or how to thrive in an economic downturn. In addition, on a slow news day, reporters are very interested in covering any new products or services you might be making available locally that perhaps haven’t been offered before. Or, perhaps you’ve created a product or service that’s holiday-specific or tied to a local event of some kind. The point is to think about what might be newsworthy, and find a way to become part of the story.
  • Trade shows are one of the most reliable and effective means of networking with potential customers and creating awareness about your products/services.
  • Direct mail can be expensive, but when it’s targeted correctly and the offer is a good one, it’s still a viable option and oftentimes very successful.

No matter what strategies you choose to employ, it’s important to have a plan, one that you stick with and that is mapped out over a specific time period. By sitting down and committing to a few key steps over the next 6 to 12-month period, you will see results. After all, the financial forecast may be working in your favor for a change.