How to build a basic marketing strategy for small businesses

How to build a basic marketing strategy for small businesses

The basics of marketing are available to us all, no matter the size of the business.

If Aliens landed on planet earth and walked into a marketing conference, they would be forgiven for thinking the only companies who engaged in marketing activity were Apple, Patagonia, Nike and the overlord of our profession was Ryan Reynolds.

Now, I’m not saying the world wouldn’t be a better place with Ryan Reynolds in charge. He is a handsome and talented man. And undeniably these companies smash it in their own ways. But it’s a misnomer to believe we should all be following their example.

Imagine two friends, Mary and Timmy, standing next to each other by the waterside.

As the sun sets, Timmy starts throwing pebbles into the lake, seeing the ripples spread slowly and calmly across the surface of the water.

Mary isn’t like that though. Mary summons her inner hulk and grabs a boulder, catapulting it into the water nearby. The ensuing waves engulf Timmy’s efforts making him sad inside.

Paul Dyson’s now famous study into the factors that impact ad effectiveness place ‘brand size’ squarely at the top (i.e. if you’re famous – you’re going to land with more impact). According to YouGov, 99% of the UK’s businesses are SMEs. While imprecise as a measure, broadly this speaks to the idea that most of us are playing with pebbles, not boulders. Put another way – being a world famous movie actor is not hugely replicable.

This goal setting step is important and should involve as much of the team as possible (especially senior management).

Anacdotally this rings true: most marketers I chat to at The Marketing Meetup are sat alone, or in a small team on an industrial estate outside Newmarket (other market towns are available) with single glazing and a boss who sees marketing as either the selling department or crayon team. A far stride from the steel and glass of the Nikes of the world.

So – what is at our disposal?

Well, for the most part while the temptation is to want to chat sophisticated mass marketing and The Long and the Short of it, just getting the fundamentals of marketing right puts us at an advantage over most of our competitors in an industry where most of us (including me at the beginning of my career) spent time pinging between tactics.

In essence, what most marketers lack is a proper strategy. But for those with minimal resources, how do we create something that allows us to create a realistic strategy that is actionable and likely to be actually used and not sit in a document? Well, hopefully this helps…

Agree the goals

First, a common understanding of what strategy means is needed. Scott Galloway defines strategy as ‘leveraging your strengths to do something that is really hard, ideally impossible for others’. Michael Porter lends the quote that ‘strategy is choosing what not to do’. And Mark Ritson contributes that a strategy in essence answers the questions: who are we going to target? What is our position? And what is my objective to those people?

However you choose to define it – in most smaller companies a solid strategy will move you from a place of feeling lost, underdelivering and being unsure what the next move is, into a place of purpose, clarity, clear goals and with a framework for decision making and prioritisation.

Ritson has been most useful in encapsulating the full version for me and deserves much credit for how he’s moved our industry forward. His diagnosis, strategy and tactics framework speaks to getting a genuine understanding of the customer, knowing who you want to reach, with what message, and what you’re hoping to achieve, then applying the 4Ps in their proper place.

Ritson’s 10 marketing hacks to help small businesses go big

In a world where there is no sense of strategy, budgets are tight or non-existent, the product is fixed and the team doesn’t ‘get it’, a stripped back version I find is useful as a first step. This is far from the be-all, end-all, but a basic strategy that ignores a bunch of nuance and good work by clever people can be created on a page that looks like this:

To speak to each section, first we need to know what we’re trying to achieve. It’s important here to note that in larger businesses, marketing and business goals aren’t the same. In the hierarchy of goals that are important, we’re here to serve the larger business. However in smaller businesses, marketing and business goals are often the same thing – so I feel comfortable using the terms interchangeably here.

The problem I see most small businesses make is stating their goals as a version of ‘we want to get ourselves out there’ or ‘sell more tickets’. SMART goals are a solution here which give direction and clarity. ‘We want to get ourselves out there’ becomes ‘from our current place of 100 visits a day, move this number to 1,000 per day by 17 November’. Or ‘sell more tickets’ becomes ‘increase conversion rates on our website from 1% to 2% by June 2023’.

The important thing to note here is that neither of those goals is revenue tied. Of course you want more sales, but when catching the train from Cambridge to Edinburgh, the first step isn’t stepping out on the platform, it’s buying a ticket. We need to know what we need to do before getting to the eventual sale.

This goal setting step is important and should involve as much of the team as possible (especially senior management) because there is nothing worse than building a strategy to reach a goal that only you believe or care about. Sit down with everyone who matters and listen to what they want to achieve for the next 12 months – commit to as few goals as possible to maintain focus. And make sure to ask regularly – Is this reeeeeeeeeeally what you want?

Marketing’s role

Business goal established and agreed on – this is the thing you’ll report on to senior management (or yourself). Now we need to know how marketing will help us get there. Enter your strategic elements: the problem you’re solving, who you’re solving it for, and your position to them.

I boil marketing (incorrectly) down to the equation their problem + your solution + communication = marketing. That’s an overly simplistic way of saying that we have to start with the customer, and particularly their jobs to be done (JTBD), as popularised by Clayton Christensen. JTBD acknowledges that folks are buying the proverbial ‘hole’, rather than the ‘drill’ when buying your product or service. Whether it’s functional, emotional, social, contextual, the removal of obstacles, or more, your product or service helps others do something that improves their existence. Inspect what people want from you regularly and answer the question ‘what are people thinking when they buy from you?’. We’re optimising for salience here, but that’s a that concept goes beyond the brief of this bit of writing.

Positioning

Once we know who we’re helping and what we have to offer it’s all about positioning. Paraphrasing (badly) Chris Anderson of TED organising fame, “a great talk builds an idea in the mind of the audience”. Marketing does a similar thing. The equation I look to solve is donated by Louis Grenier with the framework of ‘we are the only brand in [category] to solve [needs] for [segment] that [alternatives] do not’.

The thing we’re aiming for with all of this is consistency – a brand turns up as itself (distinctiveness) time and time again in a different shape to its competitors (differentiation). You need both. The good news, particularly for small businesses, is there is an amazing opportunity when you know who you are and what you stand for to lace micro moments of positioning throughout everything you do. Rory Sutherland would call this magic. Jay Baer calls them ‘talk triggers’ – small moments that get customers to tell other people about your product or service. It’s inescapable that word of mouth referrals remain the strongest form of marketing we have but are ultimately out of our control.

Tactics

Once we know what we’re trying to achieve, who we want to reach, and the idea we want to build in their brain – we can finally start talking communication tactics: the SEO, PPC, TikTok and career pigeons of the world (and also the thing your MD will be asking you about all the time). This is where most marketers start. That’s a mistake because without the ground work – it’s easy to ping pong between communication tactics without purpose. Do the ground work – know why you’re doing something, then begin to communicate.

The best way I’ve found to structure my communication channels is through a good old funnel – splitting your activity into awareness, consideration, purchase, retention and advocacy. Place your tactics across the funnel – for example, TikTok for awareness, with the goal of likes. Or TikTok for consideration, with the goal of increased demo requests. The key thing here is you’re giving purpose to your tactics by saying why you’re going to use them, and providing a metric for success.

This article is really the basis for you to explore more within the sections discussed above, but also as ground zero for everything you’ll learn about marketing going forwards. Most of us don’t have the luxury of boulders, but making sure our pebbles are consistent gives us the best chance of them landing with a splash. Good luck.

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