Obvious but Hard Lessons in Small Business Advertising

small business advertisingThere are two kinds of small businesses:

1)  Those with a very specific niche, but a nation-wide target market (e.g. taxidermy services for exotic animals).

2)  Those with a broad enough scope, but a geographically limited market (e.g. an upscale bistro).

As someone who has marketed businesses in each of these categories, the lessons in this piece apply far better to the latter category then the former.

1.  Limit Advertising Efforts Geographically

No matter how tempting it is to include a few extra zip codes when sending out flyers or to increase the geographic radius of a Google Adwords campaign, to me it’s never been a wise idea. Whenever designing an advertising campaign, as a small business owner, I have to constantly remind myself the real reason I am advertising is to maximize revenue and not to maximize reach.

It is far easier to maximize revenue by targeting the same 4,000 to 5,000 households in my neighborhood on a monthly basis then blowing an entire year’s advertising budget by sending out flyers to nearly 200,000 households in my hometown. One approach I like to take is as follows:

  1. Establish a target revenue goal.
  2. Assuming 1% follow-through on my advertising efforts and average invoice value, establish the number of households I need to reach.
  3. Using Canada Posts’ Precision Targeter Tool, figure out the radius which has enough households to reach the goals set in step 1.
  4. Reduce the radius by 50% and send-out the flyers twice a month instead of once a month.

This approach has historically yielded as much as a 40% increase in the number people who responded to my advertising.

2.  Network With Other Small Businesses

For every 5,000 households in a neighborhood, there are 50 to 100 small businesses which cater to them. It’s a lot easier to touch base with the 50 to 100 small business owners & managers twice a quarter then trying to reach 5,000 to 10,000 households.

If anyone can understand your troubles and appreciate the hard work that goes into being a small business; it is another small business owner. The idea is not just to get the owner to give you business; but to get them to give out your referrals to his/her existing client base.

The referring business already has a trusted relationship with the customer. When that customer gets referred to you, almost all the goodwill and trust is already established and little effort is needed to win over the customer. Think of each small business in your neighborhood as a single node and each node has already made the effort of attracting the customers. Now all they have to do is make quick and non-aggressive referrals and some of those customers will get passed on to you.

One of the more successful campaigns I ran from my auto-shop was with a local gym. For every oil change, the customer received a no obligation 30 day trial (instead of the regular 15 day trial). However, do not expect more than 2 to 3 referrals per quarter from any small business.

Obvious but Hard Lessons in Small Business Advertising

3.  Measure All Advertising Efforts

The thing about marketing and advertising is that you can blow 100% of your budget and have no idea how effective it was. Therefore, it is imperative that all advertising efforts are measured. Online advertising is easy enough to measure as long as an analytics package is installed on the website. There are a number of free analytics packages including Google Analytics; although my personal preference is for Clicky Analytics, given its ease of use and heatmaps.

For offline advertising, when possible, have coupons, flyers and all advertising material printed with unique codes. If you are dropping business cards or coupons in 5 different local shops, then have a unique identifier on each of the 5 sets. This will tell you two critical things:

1) Which type of local businesses are most affective at getting you new customers.

2) Helps you narrow down your ideal target market.

Always have expiration dates on all your special offers and coupons. Not because you may be unwilling to gain a new customer with a coupon, but rather to tie in when the advertising for the special was done and how many customers responded to that advertising.

4.  It’s Easier to Retain Customers Then Get New Ones

Advertising is far more effective when you reach existing customers rather then trying to draw in new ones. This may not sound like much, but it could be one of the most powerful insights during “slow” periods. You already have all the insights for your existing customers (e.g. their age, interests, how receptive they are to your product). Best of all, you can advertise to your existing customers with next to zero cost by simply reaching them over the phone.

When you send out coupons to your existing customers, even if they don’t need it, they will likely pass them along to friends and family. This principle is especially true, if you have ever advertised on Facebook, where “sponsored stories” have a 5 to 10 times higher click through rate (i.e. the number of people that click on your add) compared to an old fashioned add.

5.  Don’t Market or Advertise to Friends and Family

One of the lessons I really wish I had learned in a classroom was to never advertise or sell your product to friends and family. For two reasons:

1) Friends and family meet you for a number of reasons but none of them include soliciting your business to them. Essentially, when you start making your interactions with friends and family about your business, you have taken away any reason for them to meet you.

2) No matter how big your circle of friends and family is, it is always very limited. So why spend this time and effort on such a small subset, when you could be meeting and greeting an entire neighborhood of 4000+ households at your business sponsored summer BBQ?

StrategyKey Insights
Limit Advertising Efforts Geographically- Target a specific, local audience to maximize revenue. Set clear revenue goals and calculate required reach. Use precision targeting tools to determine optimal household radius. Increase frequency of advertising to the same audience for better results.
Network With Other Small Businesses- Leverage relationships with local small businesses for mutual growth. Small business owners can appreciate your challenges and become referral sources. Referred customers often have trust established, making conversions easier. Collaborate with neighboring businesses for successful campaigns.
Measure All Advertising Efforts- Measurement is essential to understand advertising effectiveness. Use analytics tools for online campaigns to track performance. Assign unique codes to offline materials for tracking. Identify which local businesses are most effective in generating new customers. Set expiration dates on offers to tie response to specific advertising efforts.
It's Easier to Retain Customers Than Acquire- Focus on retaining existing customers for cost-effective advertising. Existing customer data provides valuable insights for targeted campaigns. Utilize phone outreach and special offers for customer retention. Encourage existing customers to share offers with friends and family for word-of-mouth marketing.
Don’t Market or Advertise to Friends/Family- Avoid promoting products or services to friends and family. Maintain personal relationships separate from business interactions. Dedicate efforts to reach a broader local audience for business growth.

Obvious but Hard Lessons in Small Business Advertising

Leveraging Digital Marketing for Local Business Growth

In today’s digital age, small local businesses have powerful tools at their disposal to expand their reach and engage with their communities. Here are some strategies to harness the potential of digital marketing for local business growth:

  • Local SEO Optimization:
    • Ensure your business appears in local search results by optimizing your website for local SEO.
    • Include location-specific keywords, create a Google My Business profile, and encourage customer reviews.
    • Local SEO helps you reach customers in your immediate vicinity who are actively searching for your products or services.
  • Social Media Engagement:
    • Use social media platforms to connect with your local audience.
    • Share community news, promotions, and behind-the-scenes glimpses of your business.
    • Engage with followers through comments, messages, and user-generated content to foster a sense of community.
  • Email Marketing Campaigns:
    • Build and maintain an email list of local customers who have shown interest in your business.
    • Send out newsletters with updates, special offers, and local event promotions.
    • Email marketing keeps your brand in front of customers and encourages repeat business.
  • Online Advertising:
    • Invest in targeted online advertising campaigns, such as Google Ads or Facebook Ads.
    • Use geotargeting to focus your ads on specific local areas.
    • Paid advertising can quickly increase your visibility among local audiences.
  • Local Partnerships and Collaborations:
    • Collaborate with other local businesses to cross-promote each other.
    • Partner on events, giveaways, or joint marketing campaigns.
    • Building relationships with neighboring businesses can expand your reach within the community.
  • Online Directories and Review Sites:
    • Ensure your business is listed accurately on online directories and review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor.
    • Monitor and respond to customer reviews, both positive and negative.
    • Positive online reviews can significantly impact local customer trust and loyalty.
  • Community-Centric Content:
    • Create content that resonates with your local audience.
    • Highlight local success stories, feature local events, and showcase community involvement.
    • Your digital content should reflect your commitment to the local community.
  • Mobile-Friendly Website:
    • Optimize your website for mobile devices since many local searches happen on smartphones.
    • Ensure fast loading times and easy navigation.
    • A mobile-friendly site improves the user experience and encourages local customers to engage with your business.
Digital Marketing StrategyKey Tactics and Benefits
Local SEO Optimization- Use location-specific keywords for website optimization. - Create a Google My Business profile. - Encourage customer reviews. - Reach local customers actively searching for your products or services.
Social Media Engagement- Connect with the local audience on social media platforms. - Share community news, promotions, and behind-the-scenes content. - Engage with followers through comments, messages, and user-generated content. - Foster a sense of community.
Email Marketing Campaigns- Build and maintain an email list of local customers. - Send newsletters with updates, special offers, and local event promotions. - Keep your brand in front of customers and encourage repeat business.
Online Advertising- Invest in targeted online advertising campaigns (e.g., Google Ads, Facebook Ads). - Use geotargeting to focus on specific local areas. - Quickly increase visibility among local audiences.
Local Partnerships and Collaborations- Collaborate with other local businesses for cross-promotion. - Partner on events, giveaways, or joint marketing campaigns. - Expand your reach within the community through relationships with neighboring businesses.
Online Directories and Review Sites- Ensure accurate business listings on online directories and review sites (e.g., Yelp, TripAdvisor). - Monitor and respond to customer reviews. - Positive reviews boost local customer trust and loyalty.
Community-Centric Content- Create content that resonates with the local audience. - Highlight local success stories, events, and community involvement. - Showcase your commitment to the local community.
Mobile-Friendly Website- Optimize your website for mobile devices. - Ensure fast loading times and easy navigation. - Improve the user experience for local customers conducting mobile searches.

Obvious but Hard Lessons in Small Business Advertising

The Power of Community Involvement

Engaging with your local community can be a game-changer for small businesses. Beyond marketing strategies, active participation in local events and causes can build trust, loyalty, and brand recognition. Here’s how community involvement can benefit your business:

  • Builds Trust and Credibility:
    • When your business actively participates in community events, sponsors local initiatives, or supports charitable causes, it showcases your commitment to the well-being of the community.
    • This commitment helps build trust and credibility among local customers who see you as a business that cares.
  • Enhances Brand Recognition:
    • Associating your business with community events and causes can significantly enhance your brand recognition.
    • People are more likely to remember and choose a business that they’ve seen involved in local activities or contributing to community betterment.
  • Creates Word-of-Mouth Marketing:
    • Positive community involvement generates organic word-of-mouth marketing.
    • Satisfied customers who appreciate your community efforts are more likely to recommend your business to friends and family.
  • Strengthens Customer Loyalty:
    • Customers often feel a sense of loyalty to businesses that actively support their local community.
    • Loyalty can translate into repeat business and a willingness to support your business, even if it faces competition.
  • Boosts Employee Morale:
    • Involving your employees in community service or events can boost their morale and job satisfaction.
    • When employees feel proud of their employer’s community contributions, it can lead to a more motivated and dedicated workforce.
  • Networking Opportunities:
    • Community involvement provides ample networking opportunities.
    • You can connect with other local business owners, community leaders, and potential customers through events and initiatives.
  • Inspires Innovation:
    • Engaging with your community can inspire innovative ideas for your business.
    • You may discover new products, services, or marketing strategies based on community feedback and needs.
  • Fosters a Positive Business Environment:
    • A thriving local community is often conducive to a positive business environment.
    • As a local business owner, your active involvement can contribute to the overall health and vitality of the community, which, in turn, can benefit your business.

Obvious but Hard Lessons in Small Business Advertising


Succeeding as a small business owner involves a multi-faceted approach that goes beyond merely offering a product or service. To thrive in today’s competitive landscape, you must employ a combination of effective marketing strategies, customer-focused initiatives, and community engagement. This comprehensive guide has provided valuable insights and actionable tips to help you navigate the challenges and opportunities of small business marketing and growth.

From understanding the importance of defining your target audience to leveraging the latest digital marketing trends, you have learned how to create a strong online presence and connect with your ideal customers. Effective branding strategies, including crafting a compelling brand story and maintaining consistency across all touchpoints, are essential for building a recognizable and trustworthy brand.

Moreover, this guide has emphasized the significance of customer-centric practices, such as providing exceptional customer service, seeking and valuing customer feedback, and capitalizing on the power of customer reviews and referrals. By prioritizing the needs and preferences of your customers, you can foster loyalty and long-term relationships that drive repeat business and positive word-of-mouth marketing.

Additionally, you’ve explored the benefits of community involvement, which can elevate your brand’s reputation, enhance customer loyalty, and provide networking opportunities that extend beyond traditional marketing channels.

Lastly, measuring and analyzing your marketing efforts is crucial for making informed decisions and optimizing your strategies. Utilizing tools like analytics software and tracking customer data empowers you to adapt and refine your marketing campaigns for maximum impact.

As a small business owner, remember that success is a journey that requires dedication, adaptability, and a commitment to continuous improvement. By implementing the strategies and principles outlined in this guide, you are better equipped to navigate the ever-evolving landscape of small business marketing, drive growth, and build a thriving business that stands out in your community and industry. So, take these insights, apply them to your unique business situation, and embark on your path to sustainable success.

Easy Way Hard Way Photo via Shutterstock

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Saad Ahmed Saad is a successful serial entrepreneur, with business ventures including an outdoor power equipment import & sales business, a custom cable manufacturing company, CustomCable.ca, and most recently, a Franchise location, Mister Transmission.