In today’s business climate, money is tight and competition is fierce. The Internet and 24-hour news cycle flood our brains with information and advertising. But how much of it sticks?
The midmarket business owner needs to spend advertising money wisely to make the maximum impact-that’s obvious. But what about Web 2.0 technologies such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn? How do you build an online community and keep it from falling into neglect? In an age where communication is everywhere, how do you best extract feedback from your clients? It’s a big, bad, branded world out there, but here are some tips that won’t break your budget and build a brand that puts you ahead of the pack.
1. It’s Not (All) About Money
Enterprise companies across the globe spend money on advertising at a rate that suggests saturation is the key to visibility. But is it? To those of us who can’t walk through Tokyo, London or New York without seeing Golden Arches and Nike Swooshes, the answer might seem “Well, duh.” But for many, if not most, SMBs don’t have the advertising budgets to erect Blade Runner-scale neon billboards. The SMB owner must look to innovative marketing opportunities in order to build the brand without breaking the budget.
“I’m in the process of launching a new business of my own,” says BL Ochman, a Web and blog marketing and branding consultant who runs What’s Next Blog. “It’s about creating a community and letting people know who you are and asking for input. That’s just not going to cost any money to do.”
Build an audience by engaging people, Ochman suggests. The more you do that the less you need to spend on advertising. Unless that audience is in place, however, a marketing budget is indispensable. “Unless you have people already engaged, you better think about how you’re going to drive traffic to the site, and unless you already have an audience you cannot do this without money,” she says. “An overnight success still takes 11 years.”
2. Web 2.0 Is Your Oyster
If you give customers and potential clients an interactive forum, your company’s name (and logo) is at the top of their minds. Ochman suggests setting up a blog and offering fresh content in an interactive environment. Keep in mind, however, that there must be a reason for an online community to grow — it’s not something that can be forced. SMBs can easily make the mistake of thinking, “If you build it, they will come.” Keep content and conversation original, and foster an ongoing dialogue by raising questions and proposing solutions in an informal setting. “You need to concentrate on your niche,” she says. “There’s a difference between buckshot and a targeted approach.” Ochman says the top three most important online networking tools are Twitter, LinkedIn and the blog community. “You cannot succeed in any business if you’re not in that [blog] community,” she says. “They’re much more influential than social media, frankly.”
Michael Alter, president of Glenview, Ill.-based SurePayroll and architect of the recent survey, “Small Businesses Harnessing the Power of Social Networking for Business,” says SMBs need to choose the social media that best fits their market. “Go out and hire yourself somebody who’s between 22 and 35, ask them how they communicate and let them communicate your brand for you online,” he says.
3. Harvest Feedback from Your Clients. Directly
The Internet has made expression of opinion easier than ever. This can be a good and bad development. Many company Web sites now come equipped with blogs where visitors can leave comments and other forms of feedback. However, there’s a big difference between allowing a customer to punch in an opinion and taking some time to speak — yes, speak — to the client directly. While the Web essentially comes with an integrated feedback loop, a phone call or an office meeting is your personal extension of the brand. And no matter how you cultivate feedback, Ochman says it’s absolutely critical, even if the feedback is negative. “Companies are afraid: What if they say something bad?” she says. “You should be so lucky that someone tells you what they don’t like, because most of the time they walk out the door and they never come back.”
Alter agrees using social networks to solicit feedback is crucial. “Social networking is not so much about advertising as it is about feedback,” he says. “If you can start to do that now, the advantage you have as a small business owner is that most of your competitors are not.” Alter says if your business provides good service, you will get comments on your site that will drive more traffic than anything the company would post. “If you use [social media] to reach out to your existing customers, you can start to create a web from that,” he says.
Project Confidence and Leadership
4. Project Confidence and Leadership
The ability to project confidence and professionalism is intrinsic concept in understanding the importance of effective branding. The less money you can budget toward brand-building, for example, the more you need to consider how your brand can help position the company as the current (or future) market leader. While a good brand isn’t built in a day, the combination of confidence and consistency lead to a powerful brand presence. Having a consistent strategy is a helpful way to do that (see next tip).
Offering a unique perspective to your client’s problem also builds that brand awareness through leadership. If you think about every potential sale as a customer success story, then they become the best proof of why you’re the right business to choose. “In the world of traditional ad media, you really want to be polished and buttoned-up,” Alter says. “They want to see professional-grade collateral. In the social networking space, professional looking doesn’t necessary mean polished. People are looking for accurate, straightforward information.” Conveying information in an honest sense will become increasingly prevalent, he predicts. “I think what you’re going to see on these social networking sites are advertisements that are going to be faster to market but less professionally edited,” Alter says. “In the social networking world, substance trumps form every time.”
5. Present a Unified Front
From the name of the company down to the corners of its logo, every element of marketing and promotion should tie directly into your core branding strategy. In essence, be articulate. Marketing slogans, sales pitches and the look and feel of your website should all dovetail with your brand strategy. A logos or catchy name is only a small part of that strategy. Giving your business a high-tech name with lots of X’s and Z’s may be a striking visual image, but does it tell the customer anything about how you will get the job done? By building a complete brand strategy, you cultivate an immersive client experience that fosters a professional relationship and most importantly, builds word-of-mouth-something Ochman says no amount of money can buy.
6. Go Bold, but Know the Risks
There is a time and a place for everything, and your business grows, so should the effort behind brand building. Today, risk-takers who post an outrageous YouTube video, or receive a glowing mention on a trendy tech Web site can catapult heretofore-unknown companies into the stratosphere. It might be tempting to embark on a risky but potentially rewarding marketing push. However, buying a booth in a trade show might be equally effective. Garnering laughs on YouTube doesn’t always translate into gathering business. As the saying goes, fortune favors the bold, but be sure you scale your efforts in accordance with growth.
“When you’re dealing with social networking, you have to realize that you are not in control,” Alter says. “You better deliver on what you say, because if you do, you’ll be fine. If you are trying to push yourself in a place you can’t support, that’s where you can get burned.” Ochman agrees, and stresses the strength of your community is critical as well. “Bolder is always better if you can back it,” Ochman says. “This is a long-term commitment. You can’t build your brand with one stunt. Before you get bold, you better build up your community so that somebody’s listening.”