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Low cost marketing strategy

Marketing your business need not cost the Earth.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to come up with a good business marketing strategy, and it needn’t cost that much either.

At its simplest, a marketing strategy is all about improving your chances of making sales – usually by making more potential purchasers aware of your products or services, or by making them aware of its desirable qualities (perhaps including its price). In any case it makes sense to optimise your budget. Given the choice between big-bang and little-but-often, good business marketing is less about getting big bangs and more about producing smaller amounts very regularly.

The impact of your marketing will also be improved greatly if you can use multiple channels.

Prospects in particular are more likely to become buyers if they read about your business in their newspaper, see your ads, find your website, enter your competition, take home a brochure, hear you speak at a seminar, and learn what a great company you are from a third party.

So you should spread your activity. You should also maintain the momentum: Business marketing is a long-term activity. You don’t however need to spend big; most of the ideas in your marketing strategy are likely to involve moderate costs.

But it will require quite a lot of time and effort from you on a regular basis.

Most (but not all) take advantage of the fact that you have a computer and an internet connection.

Do public relations. The editorial content in newspapers and magazines carries a lot more weight with readers than the advertising.

Send out regular press releases, try to identify individual journalists to cultivate, offer your services to publications as an expert commentator, propose that you’ll write a free series of useful (and short) articles, sponsor newsworthy local events.

Letters to the editor are a surprisingly powerful marketing tool, though its effectiveness may take time to become effective. If you have a local market, you probably read the same local newspaper as your target audience – and both of you probably read the letters page.

React to news items with letters to the editor: comment on new government policies and legislation, local issues (traffic and the environment are good candidates for a business’s viewpoint). Your letter can apply a spin that reflects your business’s concerns, and make sure your business’s name is part of your signature.

Build a mailing list. Collecting the names is the hard part, so give your prospects a reason for them to provide you with their name and address – competitions, an emailed newsletter, the promise of advance information and discounts, maybe even a loyalty card. Work at keeping your list accurate and up to date. Try to get hold of email addresses as well as (or even in preference to) landmail contact details: email is cheaper and more versatile than postage, and it can be integrated more efficiently with other aspects of your marketing – notably your website.

If your database of names has been gathered in the normal course of business, you might not have to register under the Data Protection Act. This is a complicated area, however, and you should check the situation with the Information Commissioner (www.informationcommissioner.gov.uk). Once you have your list, use it. Concentrate on customers more than prospects: they will be more valuable to you, both for repeat business and because they’ll act as a reference.

So be personal. Remember birthdays and anniversaries. Say “thank you” when they buy (if only by email). Offer them the chance to comment and criticise. Give them special offers not available to anyone else. Make sure they know that your Christmas ‘thank you’ gift is going to a selected few, and they’re in the group.

Ask them to check out new products or services: they appreciate being treated as special, and the risk is lower because they’re more likely to buy. Look at their past purchase history if possible, and tailor special promotions to them.

Find out whether they prefer Christian names or a more formal mode of address, and make sure all your mailings and other communications use the appropriate salutation.

Money-off coupons can be a good way to bump up sales volume, but they can also send a message about your business. It could be customer care (distribute them to favoured clients only) but coupons work better as a value-for-money flag. Distribute coupons in print advertising (cut here), by direct mail, by hand (on the street corner? At trade shows?), and even by email or on the web –”quote this reference to get your discount”. You can also include ‘next purchase’ coupons with customer orders.

Because the selling point is (usually) price, the coupon itself can be a simple quick-n-dirty production in terms of design and print.

Postcards are cheap and easy to produce, especially if you use colour on one side only. They can be mailed to prospects and stacked in help-yourself dispensers. And you can use them for a variety of marketing messages – see our new product, gasp at our new prices or our short-term cut-price promotion, enter the competition or the free prize draw (and get two entries if you give us a friend’s name and address).

A reply-paid licence makes it simple for someone to return the card; these are easy and economical to set up with the Post Office.

Run competitions. People love them, even if someone else is the winner. They are an excellent way to garner mailing list names while sending branding messages: the kind of contest your run implies the kind of company you are. Contests can also make for good PR, especially if there’s a fun element that will attract media coverage. Give them something for free. People like to get gifts, even if they have to pay a premium price for a more expensive item to qualify for the freebie – a free makeup purse with purchases, wine and fruit in your room if you book the weekend break, a CD of business tips with every seminar booking, a pizza with every DVD film rented.

The aim here is both to boost sales and to tell the world that you’re a generous, value-conscious supplier. It also improves your competitive sell, since it becomes more difficult to compare like with like. Start a loyalty programme. The customer gets a good deal, you get a keen customer (and their contact details). A simple approach is to give customers a card that is marked after each purchase and results in a free or reduced-price offering after a specified number of regular-priced purchases.

Easier to operate is a loyalty card scheme where regular customers get a discount on purchases on presentation of the card.

Start a club. You can extend the programme into a full-blown club – newsletters, exclusive special offers (great for shifting slow-moving stock), discounts on related products or services (it’s generally easy to find other suppliers willing to give your club members a 10 or 20 percent discount in return for capturing the buyer’s details for their own database), seminars and other get-togethers.

Work on your 20 second elevator pitch so that you can recite it in your sleep but not seem as though you’re delivering a canned presentation. When people say “So, what do you do?” the question they’re really asking is “How do you make money” – but actually saying that is regarded as impolite. So your elevator pitch should answer the unspoken question, but in such a way that (a) identifies the problems you solve or the benefits you can offer: and (b) implies that your business is very successful because it’s so good at those problems and benefits.

Make a fun screensaver (try Xara Screenmaker 3D, from http://www.xara.com/products/screenmaker3d/) and give it away to customers, prospects, anyone who visits your website … anyone at all. All those PCs suddenly become advertising billboards for your business. Screenmaker is recommended because it’s cheap, very easy to use, and good fun; it also produces pretty good screensavers from your text and/or images (logos, photographs, drawings).

Make a mini CD. Instead of handing out a parcel of brochures and your business card, give your prospects and customers all they need on a single disc. And it doesn’t have to be a conventional CD-ROM; you can get neat half-size mini-discs, and ‘business card’ CDs which are rectangular but still fit into a standard CD drive. Both have enough storage space to fit at least 30MB of content, which is probably quite enough for your whole website and/or lots of product information.

Work on your website. Search engine marketing has become a specialisation that commands fairly high prices and cannot guarantee success. SE ‘optimisation’ involves tweaking your website so that it’s more likely to appear early on in the list of results when someone enters a relevant keyword, but that’s as far as it goes. In fact most websites (especially B2B) get a minority of visitors from search engines and directories. Rather than spending time and money on a programme of promoting to them and buying keywords, you might be better to concentrate on your own mailing list and making sure that any other marketing materials reference your website – sign-written vans, business cards, promotional flyers, Christmas cards, promotional gifts and so on. In any case, there’s quite a lot that you (or your webmaster) can do without calling in the expensive pros. Here’s the shortlist:

  • Use the META tags – for keywords, title and description. All these should emphasise three or four key concepts using words that you also repeat in the text and the headings on the page.
  • Make sure you’re listed in all the relevant free directories. The operative word is ‘relevant’ – don’t submit your website to every free directory, or you’ll be bombarded with junk mail and solicitations to buy further services. Once you’ve identified the best ones, you might think it’s worth taking the inevitable offer of paid-for fast-tracking to get your listing in there sooner.
  • Most visitors go to commercial websites for information, not for entertainment. Good web design starts with (a) easy, obvious navigation and (b) relevant, easy-to-use content. Avoid jarring colours and idiosyncratic typefaces, avoid over-elaborate grammar and any humour unless it’s been thoroughly tested, include ‘click for more information’ rather than over-long pages scrolling down to infinity.
  • Refresh your website regularly. Give the punters a reason for returning: more information, new products, downloadable freebies, competitions. Redesign it thoroughly once a year. And tell everyone on your mailing list about all major updates (and most minor ones too).
  • Choose the right names for your website. That’s right – more than one name, with the separate domains all redirecting visitors to your main site. Many businesses will have a slogan or catchphrase: many will he known by contractions, abbreviations or initials: most are prone to at least some misspelling. Get domain names for as many of the possibilities as you can – domain names registration is so cheap right now that you might as well cover all the bases. For each name, set up a separate page that almost immediately takes your visitor to your main website. With judicious use of the right keywords in the web page’s test and its HTML META tags, this will greatly improve your chances of appearing on Google and other search engines when someone enters the relevant search-for term. Why? Because Google gives a lot of weight to ‘site popularity’, the number of web pages that link to yours. The more links to your site, the higher you’ll be in the results list.

Work on your references. Marketing should major on benefits rather than features, meaning what you can do for your customer rather than how you do it. So use case studies and testimonials to prove your point. Ideally you need real clients – use a photograph and direct quotes to prove they exist – but a start-up could get by with some hypothetical situations (but make it clear that this is just an artist’s impression).   Customer stories are good B2B website material; use clickable links for specifications and other non-chatty material. You can also produce them as single-sheet case studies and include them in brochures – but make sure they’re both relevant and up-to-date.

Keep up with your email. People who use email expect a speedy response, and providing one is a simple marketing technique that supports lots of good messages – we’re alert, responsive, aware of customer concerns, professional, up-to-date and so on. If you can’t reply to incoming email within an hour or so, use an automated system to provide an instant response of some kind. This could be a simple “Thanks, we’ll get back to you as soon as possible”. But if you’ve organized your email addresses correctly, a more targeted response should be possible: so incoming mail addressed to products@yourcompany.co.uk could elicit an automated response that includes a PDF document containing product details or an appropriate website link. You can do quite a lot with Outlook rules, or check out some of the autoresponder packages on offer.

Always use email signatures, a couple of lines at the bottom of message which will identify you and your company. Make sure every email carries one (including replies to incoming message) and make sure everyone in your organisation uses the same signature format. The signature shouldn’t be too long, but it should give two or three alternative ways to contact you and your company: and it could include a marketing message of some kind – “Sale now on” or “Winner of the Best Company Prize 2004″.

Email marketing is among the simplest and least expensive options in budget marketing. An email doesn’t carry the materials and overhead costs of a paper mailshot. You (probably) don’t need the expensive and risky element of visual design. You know almost immediately whether the address is ‘live’ – still active, spelled correctly – and you can ask for a read receipt to indicate whether your target has received the message. And you stand a good chance of getting an immediate response, since the easiest time to click on Reply or a link to a web page is while you’re actually reading the mail. This doesn’t mean that all email marketing is inherently good, however:

  • For a start it is indelibly associated with spam – unwanted and unrequested junk mail. Make sure that the people on your list actually want (and preferably are expecting) the material you’re sending them. There are laws about this now, though they are depressingly feeble.
  • The “From” and “Subject” lines are crucial in e-mail marketing. The recipient must recognize the sender – company name or brand are good options if your own name will mean nothing. And the Subject is what will persuade them to read on, so put real effort into finding the right words.
  • People don’t read emails, they skim them. You still need good copywriting in an e-newsletter or a sales letter, but if possible you should also clickable links or buttons for instant access to key online areas.
  • Always include an Unsubscribe option in your message, but you may as well make sure that people know what they’re missing when they do unsubscribe. Clicking the Unsubscribe button should take them to a web page which asks them to confirm their decision. Anyhow, they might not want to unsubscribe from everything — they might want your occasional product updates but not the regular newsletter.

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