Here’s a sobering fact: Your new business is not necessarily unique. In 2016, approximately 550,000 new businesses opened every month in the United States. That’s a lot of competition for customers and, without a consistent and deliberate effort to spread the word, your new enterprise could easily get lost in the herd. Small business promotion can take many forms, but before you shell out precious dollars for any one of them, determine how best to publicize your venture and earmark the necessary funds.
First impressions do count, and you have only one chance to make the right one by branding your business in a way that communicates to the public at large exactly who you are and what you have to offer.
Build your firm’s identity on the foundation of a solid, professionally rendered logo. Keep in mind that your logo will appear on everything — business cards, letterhead, website, signage, boxes, bags, receipts, advertising — so it must be clean and well-executed. This is no time to cut corners. Pass on your artistic cousin’s offer to create “your look” for free, and hire a skilled professional instead.
WHAT Some products and services just naturally “beg” to be advertised year-round because they have overwhelming customer appeal; others lend themselves to promotion only during specific seasons. Give extra emphasis to new products and expanded departments, and take advantage of co-op advertising programs that allow you to split advertising costs with the manufacturer.
WHEN The most effective advertising offers customers what they want, when they want it. Determine a launch date for each advertising campaign, then work backward from that date to coordinate the arrival of adequate stock and the preparation/placement of ads and in-house display materials.
WHERE Options for placing your ads fall into two broad categories: (1) traditional media, which includes print (newspapers and magazines), broadcast (television and radio) and other (direct mail, outdoor and giveaways); and (2) digital media, which covers any and all electronic promotion. Knowing where to best invest your advertising dollars is a tough but crucial decision. See “Media Selection” page for guidance in making wise choices.
HOW Use a combination of sales and promotional vehicles: paid advertising, public relations, social media, personal sales, telemarketing, etc. And keep in mind that frequency and continuity are more important than the size/length of the ad or the amount you pay for it.
HOW MUCH An easy way to create your advertising budget is to simply set aside a percentage of estimated annual sales — as low as 2% if your business is well-established with a loyal customer base or as high as 10% if you are just getting started and eager to spread the word. Keep in mind that this percentage may vary from month to month depending on cash flow, actual sales, promotional opportunities, special events and changing market conditions.
Making Smart Media Choices
Unless you have money to burn, you can’t possibly use all of the advertising options available today. So as a rule of thumb, select only those that will reach your target market in a cost-effective way, then narrow your choices by evaluating the options from your customer’s perspective rather than your own. You may not read the daily newspaper, listen to NPR or follow anyone on Twitter or Facebook, but your target market might. Put your message where your customers are most likely to see or hear it.
One final caution: Beware of spreading yourself too thin. A successful ad campaign relies on consistent exposure and frequent repetition. Twelve small ads, placed once a month in a single magazine, are more effective than one 60-second TV commercial airing just twice in a week.
Newspapers Options include large and small circulation daily newspapers, weeklies and shoppers; select only those that will best reach your target market.
Magazines More targeted than newspapers in subject matter and audience, but also more costly. Narrow your choices, then study circulation numbers and reader demographics to ensure that you will reach your target market.
Television Provides the opportunity to promote products/services both visually and audibly, but cost-per-thousand-potential-customers-reached can be steep.
Radio Less expensive than TV, but with many similar benefits: captive audience (many listen while driving), targeted audience (format/programming varies by station), local market appeal. Drawbacks: short life span and sometimes low audience comprehension (people tune in, but don’t pay strict attention).
Direct Mail Includes brochures, fliers, newsletters, postcards and coupons sent by “snail mail” directly to existing and/or potential customers; mailing lists are key — compile your own or rent one from a company specializing in direct mail.
Outdoor Advertising Includes billboards, transit advertising and signs on site; exposure time is short, so these vehicles must be attractive, readable and to the point.
Specialty Advertising Includes giveaways such as pens, mugs, caps and T-shirts with your company name/logo with a dual function: free “gifts” for customers and advertisements for your business. For best effect, make them useful, reflective of your business and inexpensive but not cheesy.
Company Websites The face of your business and where potential customers often go first to learn about the products/services you offer; may include a mechanism for customers to shop online, if applicable. Use an experienced website designer to be sure your site is both computer and mobile friendly.
Email Marketing Allows for quick distribution of promotions, newsletters, and coupons. Just remember to abide by the CAN-SPAM Act; failure to do so can result in hefty fines. Be sure that every person on your distribution list has given permission to be on the list and has the ability to easily unsubscribe if desired. Email marketing services can provide templates, maintain your list and connect to your social media sites, thus freeing you for other management tasks.
Social Media Successful utilization of sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and YouTube may build a fan base for your firm and create a personal desire to respond to every comment or query. To avoid wasting precious time that could be better spent on more lucrative business-related activities, set a limit on your social media involvement and stick to it. Better yet, designate a staff member to be your social media “specialist.”
Review Sites A website that gathers customer reviews about businesses, products or services, and location information can be your best friend if you offer quality merchandise and exceptional service — or your worst enemy if you don’t. Restaurants, hotels, retail shops and businesses providing personal services may find review sites like Google Plus/Local, Yahoo Yext, Yelp and Angie’s List useful. Consider adding links to your website and/or Facebook business page. Include a physical address and phone number; add photos and a directional map if possible.
Advertising can be costly, and as a prudent business owner, you should want to know if your money has been wisely spent. Determine an acceptable return on investment as part of your promotional plan and put methods in place up front to track the role of advertising in reaching desired goals. Ask customers how they learned about your product/services to determine which promotional vehicles were most effective. Do take advantage of online metrics (such as Google Analytics), but don’t neglect the value of printed questionnaires or a friendly face-to-face chat with customers. You may be amazed at what you learn!
One of the most effective forms of advertising, what people call word-of-mouth, doesn’t cost a dime, but it can easily backfire. Satisfied customers typically share their positive experience verbally with 3 to 5 friends and, increasingly, to a wider audience on Facebook. Dissatisfied customers are generally more vocal, telling 9 or 10 friends directly about their unhappy experience, then airing their complaints on Facebook and/or posting them to a review site for hundreds more to see. And while you can’t control what people might say to one another about your business, you can shift the chatter in your favor. Simply strive to provide the best possible products and services at all times so there will be no reason for customers to complain.
In addition to paid advertising, consider the value of public relations: press releases, feature articles, white papers, fact sheets, speeches and public service announcements.
As a promotional device, public relations is similar to advertising, but without the guarantees. With advertising, you provide content to fill the particular space or time slot you have paid for. With public relations, you submit a story or press release to a media outlet and hope it will be used in a timely manner.
So why bother with PR? Two reasons: preparing a public relations message costs less than creating/placing an ad, and public relations activities carry a built-in credibility ads do not. Everyone knows an advertising message was bought and paid for; a story in the editorial column of a newspaper, on the other hand, is thought to be unbiased and more credible.