Effective Marketing Means More Than Advertising
by Sharon Berman
I recall once speaking with the owner of a computer consulting firm whose business was gaining momentum through word-of-mouth referrals. Now, she said, her company needed some marketing. The question she asked: Where should we begin?
It was clear that the woman's company had been marketing itself all along, although she didn't realize it. Unfortunately, many businesspeople think of marketing as something you pay for such as brochures, direct mail and advertising. They need to expand their understanding of what constitutes marketing. Let's take a look at what marketing encompasses.
By providing such outstanding service that existing clients recommended the woman's firm to others, her company had been engaged in marketing. She had also educated clients on the broad range of services her firm could provide another key aspect of marketing. Many people simply don't know all the services that companies they deal with offer. Unless you take steps to educate them on a consistent basis, you are likely to lose out on a lot of potential business.
That's because customers tend to categorize their vendors in boxes. Say your company does property valuations and an investment banking firm brings you in to evaluate a healthcare facility. The bankers are likely to think of you only in terms of healthcare so when they need someone to perform a valuation of a manufacturing facility, they'll turn to someone else. Educate them, and reinforce the message as many times as you can.
Getting your tools in order
Where should a company begin in carrying out what is more traditionally viewed as marketing? Think of marketing as a circle with a center; begin at the center and work outward. At the heart of your circle are the tools you need to carry out a marketing campaign.
To move outward from the center, answer the following questions:
-What are your customers' values and decision-making criteria?
-How well do you meet their requirements and wishes?
-Who are your competitors and what are their strengths and weaknesses?
-What are the trends in the marketplace? Are your operations in sync with what people want?
-What are the main points you want to get across in your communications? List the three most important points.
-Don't worry about writing beautiful prose; just hammer out the essential elements and incorporate them into every aspect of your marketing.
One fundamental tool is your company's database. Before you do anything else, ask yourself if your database is clean and up-to-date. When was the last time anyone reviewed it? If someone hasn't done so recently, it's time. Make sure you have complete contact information for everyone you do business with and everyone whose business you would like to have current and former clients, prospects, referral sources, vendors and so forth. Be sure to include e-mail addresses.
Is your database held in a flexible software program that allows you to categorize and sort your contacts, add notes and specify calendar follow-ups? If it's in a static spreadsheet, you need to convert to a more flexible system.
Since it's easier to sell to those who already know us current or former clients, for example and since meeting a prospect via referral is the warmest way to go, think about how you might mine additional business from your existing clients.
Perhaps you've spoken with clients about other services or products they might need, and this is the time to follow up. Or maybe they've mentioned a colleague to whom they've given your name; ask your client if they would mind if you contact the referral directly.
Give thought to your referral sources. Have you been diligent about maintaining relationships with them and finding ways to reciprocate? Have you been taking it for granted that you'll automatically receive their referrals? Most likely, your competitors have their eye on your referral sources, so take them for granted at your own peril.
Your marketing materials are another essential element. While materials such as a brochure won't get you business by themselves, they are tools for you to use in the selling process. For instance, having bullet points in your marketing materials can help reinforce points you make verbally. Also, what you leave behind can remind clients and prospective clients about you, which can be vital in helping your business grow.
Among possible marketing vehicles, you'll first want to consider advertising, direct mail and (spamless) e-mail. Depending on how and where these vehicles are used, they can generate business faster than other methods. This is not to say that media relations and public relations are unimportant, they are critical. But they don't always lead directly to immediate sales. While essential, they are strategies for the long term.
The question of budget always arises. What percentage of sales should you be spending on your marketing efforts That depends on you, your business, your industry, what you're trying to achieve and how focused you are on it.
It also depends on how you view marketing as a worthwhile investment or an onerous expense. In my view, marketing is a worthwhile investment that should have a profitable return.
Sharon Berman is principal of Berbay Corp., a San Fernando Valley-based marketing consultancy. She can be reached at Berman@Berbay.com.
Entrepreneur's Notebook is a regular column contributed by EC2, The Annenberg Incubator Project, a center for multimedia and electronic communications at the University of Southern California. Contact James Klein at (213) 743-1759 with feedback and topic suggestions.
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