June 27, 2016

5 Keys to a Great Small Business Marketing Strategy


idea couch

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

  1. Who is your narrowly defined target customer?
  2. In which category does your business exist?
  3. What is your unique benefit?
  4. Who is your real competition?
  5. 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.

Strategy Photo via Shutterstock

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Greg Head


Greg Head Greg brings 25 years of software industry experience to Infusionsoft, where he oversees the company’s marketing strategy, communications and partner programs. He also launched a successful consulting company targeted at emerging software and technology service companies, which provides him a first-hand perspective on the unique needs of the small business market.

56 Reactions

  1. Great article Greg! Formulating a marketing strategy should be one of the top priorities of a business, especially if yours have a small/mid sized business. Heading with a loose end will not take you anywhere. However, I would like to mention one thing that online marketing is needed as well and the same thing goes there too. Believe me, it also helps cover a much larger audience.

    • Greg Head

      Great comment, Jay. This strategy foundation works with online or offline marketing. As the tactics of marketing continue to expand (now social media, now mobile, now video…), it’s even more important to have focus to make sure all those work well and are consistent.

  2. All good advice in here. I really liked the unique benefits vs. features idea, helps the core idea not get mixed up and lost.

    The real difficult thing, in my experience at least, is the human resources to run and maintain a marketing campaign. It’s hard to get someone to split their time between running the marketing side of things and their other commitments, and even harder to find the time to discuss and develop strategy with other employees.

    • Greg Head

      Totally agree Josh. Small business owners are so busy getting through the day or the week that most never get to the thinking needed to focus their sales and marketing efforts to be more effective. It is surely a trap, but being intentional and focused is best way to building a life and a business that thrive.

  3. Amazing article to show what it needs to strategize marketing plan for efficient running of the business. Since it very important to know who is the targeted customer, basis on which steps needs to be taken to build a strong business plan for implementation purpose.

  4. I think the most important here is the unique benefit. You really have to learn how to stand out from the competition. Without it, people have no reason to choose you over other types of businesses.

    • Greg Head

      That’s right, but I find that most entrepreneurs jump to the benefits before doing the work to focus on a clear target and a clear competitive alternative. Doing a little work to clarify your target market and then committing to it (despite other “easy” business that pays a few bills) makes all the other decisions much easier. It’s one of the hardest things for small business owners, especially if they are struggling.

  5. Hi Greg,
    Great article 🙂 I especially like your points about being laser focused. I see this often where companies are concerned about turning away customers, rather than focusing on one of two target customers. Here is my question to you – do you pick who your companies target customers already are or can you make a push to target customers you do not already have? For example your friend – did he begin to announce that he was for physicians only before he only had physicians? Again, great article.
    Thanks,
    Adam

    • Greg Head

      Great question. A good strategy creates simplicity and power, but it’s much harder to create and refine than it looks. It takes time and a little change in mindset to get out of the urgent daily grind and develop a new discipline. I find that most up-and-running businesses have obvious subsets of their customer base that are clearly their best customers. This is what happened with my accountant friend. The simple strategy recommendation for most businesses is to “find more customers like your best customers and stop selling to customers that aren’t in that group.” It’s hard to make big changes quickly (and turn down a sale) when you are putting food on the table and making payroll, so a gradual approach gets the ball rolling and shows the way to a better future. You don’t have a focus until you can say “No, I won’t sell to someone who isn’t in my target.”

  6. The trick is taking the Marketing Strategy forward into action. It’s very important to plan and strategize, especially in light of the fact that your business is doing multiple selling actions at a time. However, getting a good, consistent message out to your targeted audience and not overwhelming the same contacts with too much information – yet showing that the products & services you want to sell are exactly what they need right now. That’s the trick to successful marketing.

    • Greg Head

      Absolutely, Danielle. Strategy is only to help create great execution that works. I find these 5 questions behind all the tactical questions. The answer to “What should I write in this headline?” depends on the answers to the marketing strategy questions. If you don’t aren’t consistent with you strategy with every tactical decision, then you are just MSU (“making stuff up”) with only a vague end in mind.

  7. Martin Lindeskog

    Could you mention some companies that have been good at developing a marketing strategy?

    • Greg Head

      Good question. Generally any larger company whose brands you recognized and identify with have done this work with extreme discipline, by definition. Great examples include Apple, Starbucks, Chipotle, Whole Foods and the like. You can look at any bigger brand like that and derive who they are targeting, what their category is, etc. from their marketing even though they are not using those specific strategy words in what you see.

      When you feel a strong attraction or attachment to a smaller brand, like your favorite pizza place in town or your beloved car wash, the same strategy elements are “underneath” and can be see there too.

      Really everything has this story – every person, every product, every political idea, every school, every city/state/country, every musician/band. The things that stick in our minds (that we attach to) declare their focus, have a clear story and are great relative to everything else.

  8. Joel Libava

    Thanks for these great tips, Greg.

    I like to focus on my unique qualities and solutions. Differentiation is the key in this 24/7 marketing-blast world of ours.

    The Franchise King®

  9. Great article Greg. Nailed the 5 points on understanding who you are as a company, discovering your voice, and paying attention to how the market see’s you.

    • Greg Head

      Thanks Ron. I know it’s what anyone who has done enough marketing execution has discovered, but I find most business owners don’t see these strategy elements yet. It’s actually one of the main responsibilities of a business owner – to answer these questions and stay focused on them so their execution will be great.

  10. Great Article! Having strategy in business can lead you to success. Eventhough you have a small business, someday it can evolve to a bigger one if you have this patience and techniques to manage your business.

  11. Great article. It seems that the two greatest failures for small to medium business is either 1.) not having a well thought out marketing strategy or 2.) not following the well thought out marketing strategy.

    • Greg Head

      Well, it depends. Small businesses are much more tactical and time-limited than marketers in medium sized businesses. Small business owners are stretched thin, so it’s very hard to stop working frenetically IN THE BUSINESS and spend time ON THE BUSINESS to make decisions that make the execution work better. Creating focus in your strategy and messaging can be counterintuitive for small business owners who have survived “selling to everyone” and never saying no to a bad fit client.

      Bigger companies have more execution capability, marketing leadership, tools and resources than small companies, so it could be strategy or it could be execution.

  12. Greg agree with all points except for point 1(Who is your narrowly defined target customer?), 4(Who is your real competition?) and that doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with those points.

    Let me explain, in my personal experience when it comes to target customers, and you want to identify your target customers I believe you need to start with “Others Like You (your business)”.

    I could have used “competitors” instead of others like you, but I didn’t on purpose, it is quite clear that “competitors” encompass not only businesses like yours but the “best of the industry” and that creates two big problems.

    First problem is of “Overnight”, when you focus on your competitors, your focus is mostly on best in your industry, the big brands, you want to be like them, you want to beat them and thus you try everything. You fail to realize that these big brands have been going through years of hard work, testing and retesting, effective utilization of resources, taking baby steps, having persistent and consistent approaches and after decades of hard work they became what they now are “The big brands” and you want to achieve all of that “overnight”, which is not gonna happen, never!

    I mean it all started in a dorm room for facebook, it took over a century for coca-cola to become coca-cola, Apple became Apple after decades of hard work, efforts ….

    Second problem is “Overload” you overload your business to achieve, to beat the big brands, to be like the big brands, you fail to realize that you simply don’t have the capacity to do it, thus you are simply overloading yourself and your business, business resources and such overloading would wreck havoc at your business efficiency taking you further away from your goals, aims etc

    So you need to focus on other business similar to your in almost all angles, you need to win small battles to win the war (beat the best of your industry through persistency and consistency).

    And the reason to start from “Others like You” to identify your target market is, people buy from big brands for some reasons that you lack and due to those “reasons” those aren’t the customers you need to target rather you need to identify the type of customers that are entertained by “others like you”

  13. I have been trying to comment and it took me over half an hour to leave my comment something wrong with your website, the moment i get to middle of comment it refreshes and honestly if this website was some tangible item i would have kicked it a million times for doing that :s

  14. Just been reading a whole lot of Jay Abraham materials. And the emphasis is also on being strategic more than tactical. Just going out and asking questions or observing what questions are being asked by your potential target market or just conducting a focus group can help to clarify the customer avatar. It’s time consuming but the focal point seems important given you have to create all marketing collateral with the customer avatar in mind. See if the strategy is generating results and test and tweak as you see the numbers come in.

    • Greg Head

      Thanks for your comment. I’m not familiar with the specifics on Jay Abraham’s, but we’re circling around the same thing. Strategy is simply the decisions that make your tactics work better. It’s always worth your time to spend some time on the strategy side, because it saves even more time and money that doesn’t get wasted on tactics. All marketers learn this from experience, but it’s a huge challenge for busy entrepreneurs to stop for a minute and start making decisions that focus their efforts in better ways. Works every time!

  15. Greg, great article — thank you for sharing these important keys to every business’ marketing strategy. You’re right…having a strategy and defined tactics create the roadmap for our business this year. If we don’t have a roadmap we are NOT going to get to our destination….a successful business!

  16. Greg, thanks for your excellent article for this important subject. I wish I read it earlier.

    Recently, I had chance to discuss marketing issues with a large number of business owners. I sensed most of them did not understand the importance of strategic marketing. For a few savvy owners, most of them believe all they need to do are “setting up a website with SEO tuned”, “starting an ADWORD campaign”, or “encouraging existing customers to write positive reviews”. Although all of these produce positive business results, none of them is likely to make businesses thriving.

    I also observed that most business owners will have to overcome tremendous obstacles in seeking and executing business strategies even they want to. I summarize 3 major ones:
    1. lack of expertise to craft effective strategies, including producing necessary artifacts for executions
    2. lack of resource (financial and personal, e.g. time/know-how) to retain professional services for the purpose
    3. uncertainty of outcomes

    Before these issues are addressed, small businesses will continue to use word-of-mouth and other techniques and tools to survive. Strategies, to them, will remain only on paper.

    Thanks again for the article

    John Zhu

  17. Thanks Greg for this great post. It is a simple straight forward guide for any who wants to succeed in business.

  18. I just wanted to say thanks. The article was very informative and I will reevaluate my own marketing strategy. I thought I had this all covered but after adding new products and services in the last year my marketing strategy statement has been diluted.

  19. Really, Understanding how the market works and what role our business plays in that market is crucial to developing foolproof strategies to further our businesses agenda and success.
    When trying to uncover trendy marketing strategies that we can apply to our business model we need to look at our target audience online, and offline. There are several clever ways to get our business brand.

    Thanks for excellent article with good Insight

    Regards
    SSM

  20. I believe that the simple strategy any small investors should focus on is Positioning, Targeting and segmentation of its products.

  21. i will highly appreciate your help i helping me to grow my business of cleaning & construction,it is registered under the name Billconstruction and cleaning services.
    how to market it ?
    how to manage it?
    how to calculate the cash flow?

  22. Always define your customer. If you can, have a detailed description so that it will be easy to market to them.

  23. Small business owners also need to think on technology development. I myself implemented software Apptivo, which in turn increased my business productivity.

  24. This level of marketing strategy will stand the test of time. It will apply to any type of technology and marketing channel. Working with small business I know only to well how the fundamentals of marketing aren’t so fundamental. So I dedicated a podcast to just that. The development of small business marketing strategy!

  25. A great piece, I’ve learnt quite a great deal.

  26. Great…! Very clear and super informative. I’ve been scratching my head trying to understand why my video & photography business has hit a plateau. I can see clearly now! Thanks.

  27. I agree with the keys listed here. It all begins with your target market and getting to know your USP and competition. This is how you determine how you can best market your product or service.

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