Put on a blindfold. Pick up a dart. Now throw that dart in the general vicinity of a target. Pray you don’t accidentally hit the cat, who will no doubt exact her revenge by peeing in your favorite pair of Manolo Blahnik pumps.
That’s basically what it’s like trying to market your business without a strategy. When it comes to reaching customers and selling products/services, many small businesses rely primarily on gut instinct. Place a print ad here. Send out some emails there. Occasionally throw some money at Google AdWords, then wait — often in vain — for the clicks and calls to come. What’s missing in this scenario? A strategy.
What It Is. And Isn’t.
Without a well thought-out marketing strategy in place, you’re pretty much just tossing darts in the dark, hoping at least one lands. Sans strategy, you may very well be using the wrong darts. Heck, you may be aiming for the wrong dart board altogether. And all the time, effort, and money you spend on trying to reach and attract customers? Don’t expect to see much bang for your buck.
To see any results, a marketing strategy is a must. But before you can build one, it helps to know what a marketing strategy is. Many businesses mistake marketing plans and tactics for strategy. Marketing strategies are more about the big picture, while plans and tactics are more about the details and deliverables.
Your marketing strategy examines where you are and where you want to be. Marketing plans map out the specific campaigns and tactics (print ads, digital banners, social media, direct mail, public relations, and so forth) that get you there. Without the strategy, your plan and tactics have no clear direction and can end up going willy-nilly, in circles, or nowhere at all.
So What Makes a Strategy?
No two business’s marketing strategies will follow the exact same format, but there are some general nuggets of information and insights you’ll want to include.
Lay of the Land
Your strategy should include an overview of your market, including its size, value, and growth over recent years. Yes, this will involve having to do some research. But set aside the time, fire up the Internet, and get ready to Google. Here are some free online tools you can use for market research.
Articulate your business goals. Want to increase sales of a particular offering? Ok, by how much? Looking to introduce a new product or service? Is there a particular type of customer you want to do a better job reaching? Planning to open more locations? Want to launch an online store? Identifying your goals is key to creating a strategy to reach them.
Calling All Customers
Spend some time identifying and analyzing your customer base. This includes your current customers as well as customers you’re not yet reaching but would like to. Include everything you know about your customers, such as:
- their demographics and psychographics
- brand loyalties — other brands they use and like
- what they want and need from a business like yours
- what their pain-points are and how you help solve them
- what they do with their time and where they spend it
You’ll also want to figure out the best way to reach them. We’re not talking about specific marketing tactics like ads or emails here, but channels. Are your customers online? Do they frequent social media, and if so, which platforms? Are they mostly walk-ins or referrals? Are they in their cars a lot? Do they watch TV, and if so, which shows?
Most likely, your customers will fall into different segments or categories, each with varying needs and wants. For instance, a catering company may be marketing to wedding couples, corporate customers, party planners, and venues — each with different decision dynamics. Make sure you call out your customer segments and what distinguishes them.
Now comes the hard part. Take a good, long look at yourself and make a brutally honest assessment of what you’re doing right, what you’re doing wrong, and what you could do better. Are you connecting with your customers effectively? Do you have a clearly articulated brand or message? Are you responding to customer requests quickly enough? Knowing your strengths allows you to capitalize on them. Knowing your weaknesses allows you to address and fix them.
Know Thy Competition
While assessing yourself, be sure to assess your primary competitors as well. And be just as honest in this assessment. Make note of what your competition is doing better than you, as well as what you’re doing better than them. Articulate where you differ from your competitors, and whether you’ve been doing a good enough job communicating this differentiation to your customers. If they’re outselling you, or have bigger name recognition than you, figure out why. And what you can do about it.
Threats and Opportunities
Identify any opportunities you’d like to capture in your market and/or with your customers. Could be an emerging trend with your customer base, a shift in market dynamics, or an untapped need you’re able to meet. For example, we do lots of work with a senior living community. When a retirement community in a nearby city was shut down due to violations, our client reached out to the residents living there and offered to cover their moving costs to move to their community. Their strategy worked, attracting a number of new residents.
Also take some time to acknowledge any threats to your business. Maybe a competitor moved right across the street. Could be there’s market saturation. Perhaps someone overseas is making your product for much cheaper. Or you’re dealing with negative press about the service you provide. Understanding these threats will help you create a strategy to counter or nullify them.
Here's a perfect example: One of our clients had built their 65-year-old business on cleaning carpets. As more and more houses shifted from carpet to hardwood floors, they began losing customers left and right. Acknowledging this threat to their business, they began offering and advertising hardwood cleaning services. By adapting their strategy to address the threat, they were able to recapture their lost customer base.
Many businesses use the ol’ SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) model when developing their marketing strategy. It may seem like an outdated business cliché, but the SWOT approach is a pretty effective tool and worthwhile exercise. Give it a go. You’ll find a selection of handy SWOT worksheets and samples here.
Chances are, you’re not Apple or Nike with limitless money to spend on marketing your brand. So strategize accordingly. When developing your marketing strategy, it’s a good idea to know what your budget is, as well as what on-hand resources you have vs. what resources you’ll need to bring in. This will help you create a strategy that maximizes what you have while keeping you from over-extending yourself.
Flexibility Is Your Friend
Marketing strategies are not written in stone. They should be living, breathing documents that respond and adapt to changes in the market, your business, and/or customer base. We recommend updating your marketing strategy on a yearly basis — perhaps even more frequently if your market is especially dynamic. Gauge how effective your strategy has been in helping you reach your goals, and adjust accordingly.
Get Professional Help
So hopefully we’ve convinced you that having a marketing strategy is a must. But we also know finding the time to create that strategy isn’t always so easy. If you find yourself putting off your strategy development week after week, month after month (or say it ain’t so, year after year), then you may want to consider bringing in a professional to get it done.
Look for someone with experience creating marketing strategies for other businesses. Ask how those strategies were implemented, and what results came from the process. Yes, you’ll be paying for their time and expertise. But you’ll end up seeing a much greater return from your marketing efforts and investment. If you’d like to talk strategy, we’d be happy to lend you our ears. And our expertise.