Small businesses and startups face many challenges when advertising their products and services. Small businesses and startups have minimal brand recognition, are often located in geographic or demographic areas that limit their marketing options, and most have small (or nonexistent) marketing budgets. Some marketing experts advise small businesses and startups to research and create strategic marketing plans, especially as part of an initial business plan.
Such plans can help, and strategy is important. But strategic marketing plans take time, resources and money. Few young companies can afford this cost. Other marketing professionals advise small businesses and startups to create a website or optimize their existing website, develop email lists, start blogging and develop newsletters. These tactics can be important and may work for some, but they also require time, resources and money. The reality is that for the vast majority of small businesses and startups, marketing consists of handing out a business card.
Of course this is not enough.
Marketing and advertising typically require an investment of significant amounts of money and time. The ads we see on the google search, for example, have been developed by agencies and consultants who have evaluated past campaigns, developed concepts and hypotheses about advertising topics, conducted a market research/focus group testing, created storyboards, developed scripts (for commercials), and more. It's not a surprise, the cost of publishing the ad itself is often less than the cost to produce that ad or marketing piece. The truth is that most advertising and marketing doesn't work.
Yet products and services rarely sell themselves: small businesses and startups must find ways to let their potential customers know about those products and services. First, some background information for those unfamiliar with lean startup principles. "Lean Startup" reflects a set of key principles used by some entrepreneurs to develop new products and services quickly and economically. Lean startup principles promote the creation of rapid prototypes of your products and services designed to test your assumptions in the market and then rely on customer feedback to improve those products and services. There is strong support for the lean startup movement in the market, including from investors. What can small businesses and startups learn from lean startup principles? We take three key elements of lean startup principles: rapid, inexpensive prototypes that test market assumptions, feedback from real customers and learn fast, don't fail fast, and apply these elements to small business strategies and startup marketing.
Many small business owners and entrepreneurs think that choosing the right marketing channel will solve all their problems. But there is no one marketing channel that is right for all businesses. Some products and services sell better using one channel, while others sell better using different marketing strategies and tactics. By trying different tactics, you'll have a better idea of where your customers are, how they respond to your marketing messages, and how they value your products and services. Once you start ruling out the things that aren't working after a period of testing, you can focus more energy and budget on the marketing channels that are effective for your business.
Instead of starting with big strategic marketing plans and investing huge portions of your marketing budget on one or two initiatives, break your budget down into smaller chunks that you can use to test various marketing ideas. For example, you could set aside some funds to experiment with offline and online promotions, online small business directory sites, referral programs, deal of the day sites, print ads in local newspapers or mailers, online classifieds, local Facebook hyper-advertising, Twitter participation or Google ads. Decide on a small budget for each effort, set a reasonable time frame (we typically experiment marketing initiatives for 2-4 weeks - but there are exceptions), then monitor and evaluate the results, though be careful to focus on the important information. Make sure you maintain a consistent brand identity across all of your marketing channels. Otherwise, you run the risk of confusing your customers if they can't associate your identity with your business name or don't recognize your company logo. A word of warning : many small businesses and startups assume that good marketing can outperform poor products and services. Ben Malbon, Director of Strategy at Google Creative Lab, reflects the view of all seasoned marketers: "You can't polish a turd." David Armano, Senior Vice President of Edelman Digital: "The best product = the best (and cheapest) marketing" and also by Elizabeth McCaffrey, author and Chief Creative Officer, EAM Creates: "Do one thing, do it well."
Perhaps the most important lean startup lesson for small businesses and startups is the need to increase the frequency of contact with real customers. Marketing is often directed at a faceless, voiceless audience and you rarely, if ever, hear from that audience. It's the equivalent of standing on top of a tall building with a megaphone and talking loudly about your company. How likely is it that such a strategy will work? Small businesses and startups don't have big budgets to cover the world with their marketing messages. So what can they do? Edward Boches, former Chief Innovation Officer at Mullen, advises small businesses and startups to "maximize social media. Build a community, support them, leverage them." This is a good advice and is in contrast to the way most companies make marketing. Companies rarely engage in dialogue with their customers and, as a result, miss opportunities to learn and improve their products and services.
Many people fear failure. For most, this fear is healthy because not all failure is a learning experience. But the key to lean marketing for small businesses and startups is to focus on learning, not failure.
This is a mistake that some people make. They spend so much time wondering how to start a business that they never actually start one. The goal is to learn as much as you can about your marketing options and spend as little money and energy as possible acquiring that knowledge. While many of your marketing tests may fail ( 99% of the marketing programs we try don't work), you'll be able to adjust, refocus, and find marketing channels that work. And, most importantly, by applying lean marketing principles and focusing on small, iterative initiatives and feedback from your customers, you'll test your theories and hypotheses within weeks or months, while your competitors will wait years to see if their big bet marketing initiative succeeds or fails.