Build your brand in 2017 with these five free marketing tactics

A New Year means a fresh start so why not kick off The Year of the Rooster with a little shake-up for your business?

I’m a huge fan of practical business planning because it helps time-strapped business owners develop a strategy to guide them through the trials and tribulations of owning a budding enterprise. But if you’re a fly by the seat of your pants type, there are plenty of things you can do to get your business noticed in 2017 without having to spend too much time, or a dime, on strategy. Here are my favorite tactics:

1. Become an ambassador.

When I was first starting out, I looked for bigger businesses and opportunities that I could leverage to help me get the word out about my brand. Because I do marketing and PR for small businesses, I found a global brand that was looking for ambassadors to promote an event that spoke directly to my target market. By volunteering my time and energy, I got to meet all the local businesses in the area and introduce them to my business, all while giving them an opportunity to participate in an event that would boost their sales for free.  If I am being honest with myself, I know that I’ll never have the advertising power or reach that this mega brand does, but through my partnership with them, I got a little slice of their brand-building pie for my own business.

The bottom line: Look for opportunities that align your business with bigger players in the market and ride off the back of their marketing power. Opening a fitness shop? Offer the runners participating in the local 10K a free assessment.  Have a new restaurant? Organize a “restaurant week” promotion with other local, better known and more frequented hot spots. Jump on board with the established players and ride the wave. If there’s nothing that currently exists to piggyback off of, don’t be afraid to get out there and create your own somethin’ somethin’ to get attention.

2. Donate (and it doesn’t have to be dollars).

In my area, there is a non-profit that helps high school kids get ready for the working world with a specific focus on business ownership. I don’t know about you, but my high school somehow skipped practical business life lessons, like how credit cards really work and what an interest rate is. Through this non-profit, I volunteer my time to teach young people about basic marketing and PR, which I absolutely love and feel great about doing. On the flip side, being involved in the organization also gives me access to a network of potential clients through the school system, which, for someone without kids, probably wouldn’t be an avenue I would normally explore. There are great non-profits and charities that rely on businesses for help, and a lot of the time, expertise is more valuable to them than money.  So get involved.

The bottom line:  Find a charity, non-profit or community organization that aligns with your business and get involved. Have a dance studio? Support the local theater district by offering free classes to members. Own a nursery? Approach the local schools to teach kids the importance of growing their own food. By putting yourself in the center of your target audience, you’ll have the opportunity to speak directly to them in a way that traditional marketing can’t – with expertise and sincerity.

3. Get in with the media.

I’ve been doing public relations since I was 17 years old and while it’s not the easiest way to make a name for your business, it can be one of the cheapest. One of my favorite PR tactics is pitching a column to the local newspaper. I did this for my dad a few years ago, and he still considers it to be a changing point in his business. He is a remodeling contractor who, while having 30 years of experience and an excellent reputation in our hometown, was finding it hard to stand out amongst a growing sea of competitors. We pitched the local newspaper on an idea for a weekly column, highlighting home improvement Q&A’s from local readers. All of a sudden my dad’s name and face had a page of its own every week, directly opposite to the cluttered page of three-inch ads from the 25 other remodelers in town. There isn’t a day that goes by when he doesn’t get a call from a potential customer who is ringing because of that column. It has continued to build his reputation as a trusted expert in the area, which is the kind of recognition that no advertisement could buy, regardless of the cost.

The bottom line: Use your expertise to be a voice in the community. Sure, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to get a column in the local newspaper, but luckily there are plenty of ways to find an audience. Medium is a publishing platform that lets you submit your articles for free and helps you build an audience using keywords that pertain to your content. Not a writer? Podcasts and video publishing platforms let you share your ideas and brand experiences with the world through audio and video. So find your niche and get talking.

4. Offer cheap workshops and classes.

One of the biggest mistakes new business owners make is not valuing their own expertise. I used to work with a large group of financial planners who I had to constantly remind of the uniqueness of their skill – an expertise in money – the one thing that people are most confused about and fearful of.  As a business owner, you have to recognize your expertise, and instead of thinking of yourself in the sense of a profession, start thinking of yourself as an expert. If you’re a financial planner, offer a low-cost seminar unveiling your top 10 tips to retire by the time you’re 45. If you’re a florist, create an architectural arrangements class for brides-to-be. The point is, get creative and get yourself out there. With online platforms such as Meetup and Eventbrite, organizing and marketing a get-together can be a breeze, and by using free event spaces such as a library or a park, your investment can be minimal.

The bottom line: Remember, meeting 10 new people is better than meeting none. Just don’t forget to think about your hook and how to introduce your business in an organic way to keep people coming back for more. It’s great to offer something on the cheap, but always remember the long-term goal - to generate new business.

5. Use the power of social

If you’re not using the power of social media yet, I suggest you get on it. I run a marketing and PR consultancy for small businesses, and I like to use a mix of curated and unique content which is a fancy way of saying that I like to share articles that I think small business owners would find interesting, plus I write a fair few of my own.  Make yourself relevant to your audience in both the content that you share and the platforms that you use. As an example, if you have an activewear company, offer your expert advice and opinions about at-home workouts, healthy recipes and ways to keep fit on the go. If you’re an accountant, don’t focus all your efforts on building a Pinterest board because let’s be honest, it’s going to be tough to inspire people to use your services by posting pictures. Rather, use a writing-focused platform to publish long-form articles on topics such as how small businesses can keep their incomings and outgoings organized, and then use social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to get the word out.  Whatever you decide to talk about and whatever you use to do it, never ever bombard followers with sales pitches.  Give them news they can use that has an appropriate connection to your business. Otherwise, they’ll get bored and give you the flick.

The bottom line: People get overwhelmed with social media and the pressure to have a million followers from day one. In my opinion, having 100 followers who are interested in what you have to say and interact with your content is better than having 1,000 who do nada. There is nothing wrong with building slowly, cultivating your base and creating a community of loyal, followers. In fact, in my book that’s the best kind of audience.

For more tips, tricks and marketing inspiration, follow me on LinkedIn or Instagram or subscribe to the Journey newsletter.

 

Get a Plan, Stan

Operating a small business is exciting, terrifying and overwhelming all at the same time. As the owner, you’re trying to be everything to everyone – the sales manager, the accountant, the problem solver and the face of your brand. If you’re like most entrepreneurs, you’re probably so busy juggling balls that you’ve sidelined the one thing that’s most important to you, your business and its future. You've forgotten about the plan.

Recently, I sat down with a group of a dozen small business owners who I was working with to establish their business plans. Some were start-ups and others had been operating for 10 plus years, but every one of them was at the session because they realized that they lacked a solid strategy to get them from where they were to where they wanted to be.

Just like any program, admitting you have a problem is the first step, and, in my opinion, not having a business plan is pretty big problem. But the solutions available to entrepreneurs don’t make it any easier. In my experience, the templates you find online are intimidating and ask for information you’ll probably never need, and will spend ages trying to figure out. The financial questions can be confusing, and the demand to have a perfect, concise yet comprehensive vision for your business can be completely overwhelming. Then, if you actually complete the plan (or pay someone else to do it), it ends up sitting in a desk drawer collecting dust because it’s so full of assumptions and high level nonsense that it becomes redundant and all together useless. So why bother?

There is only one reason to write a business plan, and that is to give you, the owner, a roadmap and direction for the future of your business. There are other kinds of business plans, like the ones written for investors that will make or break you depending on if “the money” likes what they see. But the business plan I am talking about is the one written by you for you, where you lay out your vision and the “who, what, when, where, why and how” that will take to get your business to where you want it to be. This kind of business planning isn’t easy, but it shouldn’t be daunting either. It should be exciting, inspiring and it should take you less than a day to complete. 

So where do you start? First, forget about everyone else and start thinking about you as the owner and your vision for your business. If you could write one sentence about where you want to be in three to five years, what would it say? Mine would say that I want to have a marketing company that helps small business owners by providing tools and solutions to help them learn, grow, and ultimately kick butt. How about you?

Your vision doesn’t have to be complicated, but it should touch on why you have chosen the entrepreneurial road less traveled for yourself. Do you want to provide a solution that makes people’s lives easier? Do you want to disrupt the market with something new and innovative? Do you want to spend the rest of your days earning a living by doing something that you love? Whatever it is that sits in your gut and makes you get out of bed every morning; that should be your vision. It should be the reason you made the choice to become a business owner instead of just getting a job.

Once you have your vision, it’s time to hunker down on the financial, internal and people outcomes you need to build on that vision. If the vision is the why, the outcomes are the what. They lay the foundation for your business and what you want to achieve, whether that’s to make $50 million dollars, or create a staff culture that loves your brand with as much passion as you do. The outcomes are the definition of your vision.

Of course, just like any small business owner, you can’t do it all. So once you have solidified your outcomes, you need to pick a few priorities to concentrate on. Once you have a focus, you can start to define some strategies to help you deliver on the outcomes you've prioritized for yourself. A great business plan will also be a practical one, so your strategies should be followed by an action plan that will get you focused on what you need to do to make your long-term vision and short-term goals a reality. 

Just like any big picture planning, sitting down and defining the future for your business can be intimidating. But don’t let fear take the wind out of your sails. Everything you need is already in your head; you just need the right direction, a little bit of focus and a whole lot of passion. 

If you’d like more information about business strategy and our half-day practical planning sessions, get in touch

Starting Up on the Cheap

One of the most terrifying things about launching a start-up (and there are many) is the amount of capital needed to get off the ground. Most entrepreneurs assume they won’t be able to get a proper paycheck for at least a couple of years, so with lots of bills and no income, how can anyone afford to start a business?

If your idea involves the manufacturing and distribution of a product, there is no getting around the need for initial capital. But if you’re in a service-based industry and your product is essentially you, your brain and your brawn, there are ways to get going with a little bit of cash, a whole lot of motivation and some smart marketing strategies.

Make It Real

If you want to build a business, no matter if it’s a lemonade stand, a real estate start-up or a fashion label, you’re going to need a place where people can go to get information about you. The easiest way to do that is a website, or at the very least, a standout Facebook page. Your website your shop front and it’s the first thing people see when they start to do research about the services you provide. A good website has lots of great imagery and enough content to explain who you are and what you do without being overwhelming or complicated. It’s a good idea to make sure your website answers the 5W’s of your company (who, what, when, where and why) and most importantly, “how” – as in how you can help your potential customers. If you don’t know the first thing about building a website, there are plenty of solutions at your fingertips. If you’re patient and have a bit of creative flair, platforms such as Squarespace and Wix provide all the tools you need to get something simple up and running in a day.  Websites on Squarespace cost as little as $12 a month and getting a domain name is usually around $10 per year, so it’s not going to break the bank.

Get Social

Once you have your website sorted, it’s a good idea to take advantage of the free megaphone that is social media.  Create separate business accounts for Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram and any other platforms you like to use and make sure that the content you’re posting is relevant to your business and audience.  I run a marketing and PR consultancy for small businesses, and I like to use a mix of curated and unique content which is a fancy way of saying that I like to share articles that I think small business owners would find interesting, plus I write a fair few of my own.  Make yourself relevant to your audience in both the content that you share and the platforms that you use. As an example, if you’re a personal trainer, offer your expert advice and opinions about at-home workouts, healthy recipes and ways to keep fit on the go. If you’re an accountant, don’t focus all your efforts on building a Pinterest board because let’s be honest, it’s going to be tough to inspire people to use your services by posting pictures. Rather, use a writing focused platform like Medium, where you can publish long-form articles on topics such as how small businesses can keep their incomings and outgoings organized.  Whatever you decide to talk about and whatever you use to do it, never ever bombard followers with sales pitches.  Give them news they can use that has an appropriate connection to your business. Otherwise, they’ll get bored and give you the flick.

It’s Not What You Know…

With your web presence locked and loaded and your content trickling through, it’s time to start shouting about your business from the rooftops. The best brand advocates are often family, friends, and people who, well, like you. If you’re just starting out, contact your internal network and let them know a little bit about your venture with a quick and friendly “about us”. Introduce them to your new business’s social media profiles and pages, and invite them to like and follow you. The beauty of social media is that it can be wide reaching with just a few shares, and you never know who you might be loosely connected with that is in need of your services. When you first set up your profiles, it’s tempting to jump right to this step before deciding on your content strategy. My advice is to hold off until you have at least a few posts up and live. Not even your mom is going to recommend something with a whole lot of nothing in it.

Marketing Magic

After you’ve covered your bases on the home front, it’s time to start getting out there and into the real world. I am a huge fan of free marketing and there are a number of great ways to get the word out about your business without spending a fortune.  Here are my four favorites:

1. Become an advocate.

When I was first starting out, I looked for bigger businesses and opportunities that I could leverage to help me get the word out about my brand. Because I do marketing and PR for small businesses, I found a global brand that was looking for ambassadors to promote an event that spoke directly to my target market. By volunteering my time and energy, I got to meet all the local businesses in the area and introduce them to my business, all while giving them an opportunity to participate in an event that would boost their sales for free.  If I am being honest with myself, I know that I’ll never have the advertising power or reach that this mega brand does, but through my partnership with them, I got a little slice of their pie for my own business.

2. Donate (and it doesn’t have to be dollars).

In my area there is a non-profit that helps high school kids get ready for the working world with a specific focus on business ownership. I don’t know about you, but my high school somehow skipped practical business life lessons, like how credit cards really work and what an interest rate is. Through this non-profit, I volunteer my time to teach young people about basic marketing and PR, which I absolutely love and feel great about doing. On the flip side, being involved in the organization also gives me access to a network of potential clients through the school system, which for someone without kids, probably wouldn’t be an avenue I would normally explore. There are great non-profits and charities that rely on businesses for help, and a lot of the time, expertise is more valuable to them than money.  So get involved.

3. Get in with the media

I’ve been doing public relations since I was 17 years old and while it’s not the easiest way to make a name for your business, it can be one of the cheapest. One of my favorite PR tactics is pitching a column to the local newspaper. I did this for my dad a few years ago, and he still considers it to be a changing point in his business. He is a remodeling contractor who, while having 30 years experience and an excellent reputation in our hometown, was finding it hard to stand out amongst a growing sea of competitors. We pitched the local newspaper on the idea for a weekly column, highlighting home improvement Q&A’s from local readers. All of a sudden my dad’s name and face had a page of its own every week, directly opposite to the cluttered page of three-inch ads from the 25 other remodelers in town. There isn’t a day that goes by when he doesn’t get a call from a potential customer who is ringing because of that column. It has continued to build his reputation as a trusted expert in the area, which is the kind of recognition that no advertisement could buy, regardless of the cost.

4. Offer free (or cheap) workshops and classes.

One of the biggest mistakes new business owners make is not valuing their own expertise. I used to work with a large group of financial planners who I had to constantly remind of the uniqueness of their skill – an expertise in money – the one thing that people are most confused about and fearful of.  As a business owner, you have to recognize your expertise, and instead of thinking of yourself in the sense of a profession, start thinking of yourself as an expert. If you’re a financial planner (or money guru as I like to call it), offer a low-cost seminar unveiling your top 10 tips to retire by the time you’re 45. If you’re a personal trainer, promote a free butt blaster class for new moms. If you’re a florist, create an architectural arrangements class for brides-to-be. The point is, get creative and get yourself out there. With online platforms such as Meetup and Eventbrite, organizing and marketing a get-together can be a breeze, and by using free event spaces such as a library or a park, your investment can be minimal. Remember, meeting 10 new people is better than meeting none. Just don’t forget to think about your hook and how to introduce your business in an organic way to keep people coming back for more. It’s great to offer something on the cheap but always remember the long-term goal - to generate new business.

If You Spend, Spend Wisely

I religiously trial a minimum of six marketing activities per month and at least half of them cost me nothing. But there are a few things I’ll foot the bill for, which helps me to stay relevant and on top of potential clients minds.  One thing I love to do is good old-fashioned mailings, which take some time but in my experience are well worth the cost. If you are above the age of 30, you’ll remember a time when you’d get more snail mail than e-mail. My how times have changed! Nowadays, a personal letter is a rarity, and, ironically, a point of difference in this digitally driven world. Each piece of mail I send out, which includes a branded letter talking about my and a business card, plus labels, envelopes and postage cost $1.34 per piece. I send out about 100 per month, and then follow them up by connecting with the recipients on social media, giving them a call on the phone or popping into their business or office to introduce myself. It’s a silly little tactic and by no means groundbreaking, but in a time when marketing revolves around the smartphone, a good old-fashioned letter can go a long way.

Final Thoughts

For my business, I base my marketing budget on approximately 15 percent of my revenue, which of course doesn’t account for the things I do to build my business for free. What I make sure to do is acknowledge the time it takes to execute what I call active marketing, which while free is also much more time consuming than simply dropping an ad onto Facebook and waiting by the phone. I have built this time into my business plan and you should too because as they say, “time is money” and just like anything else, it should be accounted for.

If you can’t get the idea of starting a business out of your head, but are frozen by a lack of funds available to get going, change your thinking. There are thousands of great resources available to start-ups, and with some research and the right attitude, anything can be possible.

The Common Pitfalls of Starting a Business

A lot of people start businesses for the wrong reasons. They are fed up with the boss and think they can do better on their own. They want the flexibility of running their own show and don’t want to be chained to a desk. They see the people who make millions on one big idea and think “Hey, I can do that!”  Regardless of the reason, if you’re starting up a business you must be prepared to be accountable for any outcome.

A business owner expecting a handout, waiting for a contribution, or hoping for the next big deal is going to have a tough time getting ahead. But a business owner who operates on passion, smarts and a can-do attitude is one that will ultimately win. In the beginning, business pitfalls are common and there are four which are likely to plague any business that’s starting from the ground up. If you can avoid or overcome these, you’ll be setting yourself up for success.

1.     Underestimating the length of time and money required to get your business going

Do your homework, talk to an advisor, and constantly factor in the “worst case scenario”.  If you build a business plan based on everything going exactly the way it should, you’re more than likely setting yourself up for failure. It might not be the most optimistic mentality, but it’s the most realistic.

2.     Risking everything without having adequate protection if things turned for the worse

Starting a business is exciting, and it’s easy to lose sight of what might happen if things don’t work out exactly as planned. Make sure you have the proper insurance in place, and consider putting some money aside that will support you in the event that the business folds.

3.     Jumping the gun and getting locked into expensive assets

The greatest expense for a business is usually the lease on a premise. But jumping into a multi-year commitment on an office or retail space before the business has taken off can be a real risk. Don’t get lured into leasing a fancy office or buying bulk stock at a discount rate until you’re sure your business is both stable and profitable.  The last thing you want is to be stuck with assets you can’t use.

4.     Thinking too small and effectively “buying a job”

It’s all too common for people to invest their hard earned dollars into starting a business and then getting stuck paying bills, chasing invoices, and doing admin. As a business owner, you have to stick to the plan and make sure you have someone there to challenge you and ask the tough questions.

This advice might seem harsh, but it’s a merely a snapshot of the perils that nearly every small business owner faces. Having a business means you have to be thick skinned, have realistic expectations, and be ready to take some hits when the going gets tough. If there is one thing I have learned as a business builder it’s that there is no such thing as a free ride, or an easy one for that matter. That’s why there is nothing more valuable than having an advisor who has been through it before and can offer advice when big decisions are on the line.  Being a business owner can be immensely rewarding, so long as you’re practical in your planning, dedicated to the success of your business and willing to put in the hard yards in order to see the tough times through If you have that on lock, you’re already well on your way.