Most business owners understand the importance of marketing—in theory, at least. Usually, however, marketing ends up being an afterthought to a business owner's already-full schedule. With this challenge in mind, this guide will walk you through planning a minimalist, iterative marketing strategy that works with the turbulent, unpredictable ride that goes with running a small business.
The Obstacles to Small Business Marketing
While marketing is an essential element of business, there are a few reasons why small business owners have a difficult time making it a priority:
1. Lack of Time
One key obstacle that prevents entrepreneurs from planning and executing their marketing tasks is that they are often strapped for time. According to Sage North America's survey of 6 million SMEs in the United States, 47% of small business owners are working more hours per week than they were five years ago, with the majority of them working longer days and most weekends. Since business owners are working more than ever, it's getting harder for them to squeeze in tasks that are outside their day to day operations—and this includes marketing.
2. Limited Budgets
Small business owners don't just lack time for marketing, they usually can't commit the funds either. A survey from office supply chain Staples shows that one third of small businesses don't have a marketing budget, while those that do average at around $2,000 per month. While this amount can cover some basic marketing materials and tools, it's not enough for hiring additional help dedicated to marketing.
3. DIY Marketing Can Be Difficult
The above challenges often force entrepreneurs to do all the marketing tasks themselves. Often, they can't afford to hire extra help to focus on marketing tasks alone.
Companies with five or more employees are the most likely to outsource marketing tasks, according to a survey by Infusionsoft. But even when businesses get big enough to have more than ten employees, it's still usually the owner who takes the helm for marketing responsibilities.
4. Lack of Interest
The same survey from Infusionsoft reports that small business owners prefer to do customer service or product development more than they care to do marketing, advertising, or sales. This makes sense. Entrepreneurs often launch a business because they are passionate about the product or service they are trying to sell. This makes marketing seem more like grunt work rather than a rewarding task in itself.
If these obstacles sound familiar, know that you're not alone. Many small businesses owners are working against these same problems, but there is a clear path forward.
Guiding Principles to Lean Small Business Marketing
Given this many obstacles that you might face when running a small business, it's important to adopt a lean or minimalist approach to your marketing plan. Here are the principles to keep in mind before you get started:
1. Invest Only in What Matters Most
It's tempting to say "Yes" to any and every marketing channel or tactic that comes your way. But no matter how skilled you are, you can't fit everything in. Whenever you're adding a marketing task to your to-do list, consider carefully whether your efforts and resources could be better spent on other opportunities that could bring in better results.
2. Master the Art of "Little Bets"
According to entrepreneur and author Peter Sims, who popularized the idea, a "little bet" is "a low-risk action taken to discover, develop, and test an idea." Rather than focusing on big wins or huge returns, it's better to conduct low-cost and low-effort tests to see if a channel or tactic will work.
For example, instead of spending days brainstorming and writing ten new articles for your company blog, you can list a few topics you want to cover, and send the list to your readers via email or social media. Ask them to choose which ones they want to read about first. This helps you make the right choice for topics before you spend time on writing.
3. Be Quick to Drop Things That Don't Work
Whenever small business owners have to spent so much time, money, or energy on a strategy that doesn't work, loss aversion can sometimes kick in. This leads us to keep investing in a bad decision even if it's better to cut our losses, because we're worried about wasting the resources we've already invested. So even if no one seems to be "liking" or sharing your company Facebook posts, loss aversion can keep you hanging on to your inactive Facebook page just because you've had it for two years.
Remember that when you eliminate a strategy that doesn't work—whether it's blogging, social media, or sending out flyers—you also eliminate hundreds of hours, tasks, and decisions that aren't going to bring you any tangible results. More importantly, you can divert these scarce resources into strategies that will actually pay off.
Following these principles can help you move forward with your marketing despite the limitations on your time, money, and interest. Understanding these ideas is simple, but how can we turn them into action when it comes to planning our marketing activities?
How to Write a Marketing Plan
There are many different ways to create marketing plans intended for investors, employees, and other people or organizations that you'll have a business relationship with. The goal of a lean marketing plan, however, is to help new business owners who are trying to grow their business. If that's sounds like you, then let's dig in!
This plan is designed for action and real-world testing rather than meeting formal business guidelines. Because of this, it's best to keep your lean marketing plan on a single page and just adapt it over time as you test your results.
Here's what you should include in your plan:
1. Your Target Customer
Describe your target customers and be as specific as possible. Include their demographics, location, and the industry they are in (if any). This information will come in handy as you choose the marketing strategies that will fit well with your audience.
2. Customer Goals and Problems
As a reminder for the marketing messages you're going to create, write down your target customers' main goals and problems. What are the goals your company is helping them accomplish? What problems are you solving for them? Writing these items into your marketing plan can provide you with a reference you can use when planning your messaging. Here is an article that will help you with client targeting:
3. Focused Marketing Channels
After you reacquaint yourself with your target customers and their needs, go straight to selecting one or two marketing channels that you will use to reach out to them.
Remember that most of them are likely to be irrelevant or unimportant to you, so don't be afraid of throwing out some of these ideas. You need to get targeted with your approach.
Only one or two of the channels on this list have potential to give good returns on your invested time and money. You want to focus your resources on those high return channels.
Pick just one or two channels to start working on. Below is a list of marketing channels to choose from:
Via Social Media Networks
One network is equal to one channel:
One site is one channel:
From Your Own Website
Each method below counts as a single channel:
- Case Studies
Here are a couple of helpful tutorials to on writing case studies and white papers:
- Case StudyHow to Write a Case Study That Attracts ClientsCeline Roque
- MarketingGetting Started with White Paper MarketingTara Hornor
Other Online Channels
- Guest posting
- Email marketing
- Cold emails
Here are tutorials to help you write successful email pitches and land guest posts:
- Email MarketingHow to Write an Effective Email Sales PitchAllen Taylor
- MarketingHow to Pitch a Guest Post (Email Template Included)David Masters
Other Offline Channels
- Cold calls
- Newspaper classified ads
- Phonebook classfied ads
- Local TV ads
- Local radio ads
- Direct mail
- Public speaking
Again, keep in mind to select just one or two channels for now and focus on them exclusively. Once you've found success and can afford to spend on other tactics, that's when you broaden your strategy—one more channel and strategy at a time.
But with this long list of marketing channels, which should you test first? Here are some questions to consider:
Which Channels Are You Most Likely to Reach Target Audience?
Focus first on the channels where your customers are most likely to receive your messages. When marketing to people in a specific location, flyers and posters might work well if they're placed in areas your target customers are most likely to see. If you're choosing between different social media sites, familiarize yourself with their diverse user demographics to see where your audience fits in.
Pew Research Center published an analysis of different social media users and Sprout Social collected data from Pew and other sources to create infographics displaying the demographic details for each of the major social networks. For example, we learn from this data that LinkedIn users tend to be at least college graduates. Another report from Business Insider shows that most Snapchat users tend to be between 18 to 24 years old. It shows that when targeting educated professionals, LinkedIn is the way to go, while Snapchat is aimed at a younger audience.
Which Channels Have a Low Barrier to Entry for You?
These are the channels that you are already familiar with and because of this, they will require the least amount of time or money to get started. You don't need to be an expert in these channels, but at the very least, some existing knowledge will give you an idea of where you can look for additional information and tutorials as you go along.
But what if you're not familiar with most of these channels? Then it might help to talk to your employees, a marketing professional, or anyone else who has been helping or advising you with your business. They can tell you if they have some competence on some of these channels and can help you get off the ground, at least while you get more comfortable with the tools.
4. A Specific Marketing Strategy for Each Channel
For each channel you choose to test as part of your marketing plan, you should lay out a simple strategy that is easy to execute and can help you make quick decisions. This strategy should be so specific that at the end of the month, you should be able to look at it and unequivocally say whether you've been successful or not. Here are the points you should include:
- Marketing Channel. Pick a marketing channel given the list and questions in the section above. You don't have to stick to the list, but it would be ideal to pick a channel that fits your audience.
- Strategy. Have a specific, measurable goal, a deadline for the goal, and the method you'll use for achieving it.
- Tests. What are the "little bets" you'll take along the way that can make it easier for you to accomplish your strategy with minimum effort and cost? These are the small wins that will help point you in the right direction.
- Activities and Tasks. What are all the tasks involved? Which ones are recurring? If you have other people helping you out, it will also help to determine who is responsible for each task.
- Priorities. Take another look at the task list above. Which of these tasks should you avoid doing because they won't bring in returns? Which of the tasks are must-haves that directly affect your goal? Knowing your priorities in advance can help you make quick decisions when you're pressed for time and funds.
- Costs. It's also important to include how much money your strategy will cost, if any, and how much time per day or week you can allot for your marketing tasks. This can help you be more mindful about whether you're investing more time than you initially bargained for. If you find that both the financial and time invested into this strategy ends up being more than what you're willing to pay, you can quickly make concrete decisions about what to do next.
- Backup Plan. What will you do in case you don't meet your goal? Whether you'll be testing a new goal, trying a completely different channel altogether, or focusing your energies on another aspect of your business, it's important to be specific about what the next step is. Otherwise, you risk getting caught in a loop of reinvesting in strategies that don't work.
A Lean Marketing Plan in Action
Here's an example of a detailed lean marketing plan:
Acme Dog Groomers, Inc.
Dog owners, aged 25 to 40, living within a 20-mile radius of the shop. Their dogs primarily have long coats. These dog owners are at least middle class, are employed professionals, and spend at least $50 per month on accessories, toys, and other non-essential products and services for their dogs.
Goals and Problems:
They want their dogs to maintain a clean, beautiful coat—but they don't have the time to do it themselves regularly. They want their dogs to have a calm, relaxing experience at the groomers and don't want them to be agitated while grooming. They also want a safe, friendly space for their pet to stay in whenever they need to go out of town.
Marketing Channel #1:
Have an updated, accurate Yelp profile that's at least 4.5 stars in two months.
If the first five customers we ask don't leave a review within 1 week of their last visit, consider asking them why the next time they come in and then tweak our approach accordingly.
Activities and Tasks:
Claim our Yelp listing, update details on our profile, add good quality photos, write an enticing description, respond to all reviews (positive or negative), export the reviews to a spreadsheet for later analysis, analyze all existing reviews and look for opportunities to improve, encourage our existing satisfied customers to review us on Yelp.
Claiming our Yelp listing and updating our profile, encourage our existing satisfied customers to review us after their next visit. Search for existing high-quality photos of the shop and upload at least two. Reply to all existing reviews one-by-one, though there's no rush to reply to them all in one sitting. The other tasks are optional.
2 hours total for updating our profile and photos, and 1 hour a week for responding to reviews.
If we don't reach 4.5 stars in two months from the satisfied customers, see the concerns of those with low reviews and address these problems in the business.
Marketing Channel #2:
Distribute flyers near vet clinics within a 20-mile radius of the shop. Have at least 20 new walk-in clients within 90 days as a result of the flyers. Track the success of the flyers by including a discount coupon in each flyer.
In one location, see which coupon people will respond more to: 10% off their first grooming or a "buy 1 take 1 deal". The winning coupon will be printed on the rest of the flyers for all the locations.
Activities and Tasks:
Research flyer printing service prices, design flyers, design the "10% off" coupon, design the "buy 1 take 1 coupon", assign staffer to distribute test flyers.
Search for existing elegant business flyer templates and coupon templates online (to minimize design time), design the coupons. Avoid spending too much time on customizing the design or on picking a printing service.
$200 budget maximum, 2 hours total for customizing the flyer and coupons, 30 minutes maximum for searching for an affordable flyer printer online.
If the goal isn't met, try direct mail instead.
Refining Your Lean Marketing Plan
As you act on your lean marketing plan, you'll be learning new things that will help you set better goals and pick the channels that give you the best returns. This action-oriented process means that you'll make some mistakes and have failures along the way—and that's fine.
As long as you keep making little bets, keep testing your marketing materials, and quickly drop the channels that don't work, you'll be on the right path. All this means that each new iteration of your marketing plan will be more effective and more accurate than the last one.