Traditional tactics yield results, but so do the web and social media.
By Marc Hequet
Recession’s rough seas haven’t changed Jeri Perillo’s marketing approach: word of mouth is her best marketing tool—that and her website.
Business is changing, but tried-and-true marketing tactics still work. “We’ve pretty much stuck to our plan and we’re doing pretty good,” says Perillo, president of Custom Canvas of Charleston Inc. in Charleston, S.C.
Yet even as old tactics continue to produce results, high-tech techniques, like social media, are blending with the old.
You’ve heard the marketing basics: Word of mouth is invaluable. Web presence is a must. Get your name, phone number and logo out there. Network. Build relations.
So let this be a kind of advanced primer, to remind you of those basics, and then point you to some good working ideas.
The situation nowadays is fluid. Be flexible. The best expert on your own business is still you, of course—and that includes being open to new ideas.
Know your customer’s needs
Let’s go back to basics for a moment. Sue Clement, a marketing consultant in Vancouver, British Columbia, says small businesses too often make the mistake of not identifying their target markets and key decision makers.
Boat owners? Of course, but what size and type of boat? And how does the owner use the vessel? And under what circumstances might that owner come to you? Once you get clear on such points, you’ve taken a key step.
It’s not rocket science. Darren Arthur, MFC, owner of Nautilux Custom Canvas LLC in Hazlet, N.J., attends an annual seminar for deep-sea fishing enthusiasts—boat owners. He may not sell anything there, but he builds relationships, swaps cards and has good talks with exactly the right people.
It allows him to go one-on-one with them about a key issue. In the canvas business, Arthur says, customers must come to know how well particular products work under different conditions. “Based on that conversation,” Arthur says, “you can develop very quickly a rapport with someone.”
Here’s another basic: patience. “They’re not ready right now?” says Arthur. “I’ll give them a call in a year—and I will make a note of that.”
A year later, when he makes contact, Arthur prefers phone to e-mail in order to continue the real-time context in which he met his prospects.
This, says Clement, is the kind of targeting any small business must do. “If you begin to get into the mindset of clients in terms of who they are, it makes it easier to create your marketing message,” she says.
So explore that mindset and find the hot buttons. What are your customers’ and prospects’ priorities? Their most pressing needs? What is it they really want? “Most business owners are happy to get anybody who pays,” says Clement, but when it comes to good, targeted marketing, looking for just anybody who pays leaves you “rudderless.”
Throw yourselfs at prospects
Going straight to prospects is another good basic principle. Dan Ene, president of Enewhere Custom Canvas LLC of Brooklyn, N.Y., throws himself at them. When he’s out on a job, Ene may toss a printout of his services onto adjacent boats—in a Ziploc bag so the paper won’t get wet, and with a fishing-gear sinker enclosed so the bag won’t blow away.
The last time he tossed 50 of these packages, he got four or five responses—a decent return on a minimal investment. Meanwhile, his business phone number is on his truck, on labels marking his work and on employee T-shirts, sweat shirts and jackets. Custom Canvas of Charleston has its logo on docks and cards in marina offices.
Here’s another old-fashioned principle: once you get a job, it’s all about quality and hustle. Business may include boats staying in port only a day or two. “If you say you’re going to show up at a specific time,” says Jeri Perillo, “you need to be there.”
Being small isn’t a drawback. Big businesses can’t always manage such small touches. Small businesses can groom personal relationships. “Large companies just can’t know all their customers,” Jim Perillo says.
Defining your customers and their hot buttons lets you focus on what you do best, and even charge a premium. But beware of cutting prices and trying to make up for it in volume during bad times, warns Jim Perillo. Quality counts. Good work and good personal relations with existing customers mean good word of mouth and free marketing.
Good service at the Perillos’ shop means referring customers to competitors if the Custom Canvas price is too steep. “Sometimes these jobs can be done cheaper or faster by someone else,” Jim Perillo says. “If I was having work done on my boat, that would be the type of info I would want.”
All this old-fashioned stuff notwithstanding, however, the benefits of using the web are undeniable. Jim Perillo says his websites have done the most business for us in the past few months. Adds his wife, Jeri Perillo, “Most people now, if they don’t find out about you by word of mouth from another boat owner or the marina owner, find out about you on the internet.”
So the Perillos make sure their company’s web presence blooms with photos of their best work. “That is probably our largest marketing tool,” Jeri Perillo says. “We include lots of photos.” Because of his website, Ene has received orders from Brazil, Egypt and France.
Marketing professionals are going further, talking up social media, such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, as ways to market products and services. The claim is that social media involve recipients to a greater extent than printed brochures or e-mail. Recipients may be more likely to respond. Then you can do what has become known as “inbound marketing” after you have a lead on a new prospect.
Not everyone is convinced, however. Facebook? “Haven’t tried it,” Jeri Perillo says. “We’ve kept busy enough.”
Ene is sufficiently interested that his wife is setting up a page on Facebook. “I still don’t know how it works,” he adds, “a lot of my customers are not there yet.”
Still, you might want to keep an eye on it. For one thing, that old standby, word of mouth, may become more significant in cyberspace. Search-engine optimization may soon include recommendations from people’s online contacts.
Someone seeking a good marine fabricator may be pointed to you by a Google search. But the prospect’s online friend may suggest a competitor. Maybe you should make a few friends out there to chirp your virtues.
So never say never. For example, Nautilux’s Arthur didn’t use mass e-mails but when his firm moved a few minutes down the road this year to Hazlet, N.J., he sent out his first-ever e-mail blast. Existing customers heard about the new location—with an offer of a 10-percent discount to encourage them to come by and see the new place. “We obviously want our existing clients to know we moved,” Arthur says.
In short, stay flexible. Checking online and listening to peers at conferences and other settings is always a good idea. You may be able to find a free online marketing seminar to follow as you eat lunch at your desk. Or a local college or other organization may offer such a course for little to no cost.
Of course, you know that presenters at free events are probably consultants angling for business—but isn’t that just good marketing? Getting out there and showing prospects what you can do?
Your task will be balancing tried-and-true marketing tactics with the new and untried. You don’t know yet whether any new approach will work, but exploring is the only way to find out. Every small-business owner has been in uncharted waters before, and the opportunities outweigh the risks. The result is more business for your shop.