Marketing your business: A primer for entrepreneurs
Marketing is key to a business’s success. It can also be a daunting task: with tonnes of jargon, technology becoming ever more important and measures of success that will vary from business to business.
Below is a primer on marketing—from branding and defining your ideal client, to understanding your customer journey and using social media to boost sales. We break down the basics and lay out the actions you can take to create a successful marketing strategy.
What is marketing?
Marketing is the process of getting potential clients interested in your products or services. To be successful at marketing, companies need to have a clear purpose that meets a customer need. Defining that purpose will help you create a vision and mission statement, identify target clients and craft a value proposition.
Marketing helps you ensure the promotion of your products or services and creates a demand for them in the market. This is typically done with the help of a marketing plan. Your marketing plan outlines your overall positioning, as well as the specific tactics you intend to pursue over the coming period (usually 12 months).
Your brand: One of the building blocks of successful marketing
A brand is many things:
- It’s the experience your business offers to customers.
- It’s the relationship customers build with your company and your products or services.
- It’s the perception that people have of your business.
At the core of your brand lies your vision statement (where you want to go) and your mission statement (what you do and what makes you different). Together, these outline your company’s purpose, direction and culture. Being consistent with your purpose, in the way you come across, the messages you put out and the actions you take, is key to building a strong brand.
Your positioning, customer service, website, signage and all other marketing materials must be aligned to project the same image and message.
Since your brand will evolve over time, you’ll need to reflect on and review it to keep it fresh.
Identify your customers
Since the purpose of a business is to attract and keep customers, understanding those customers should be a top priority for any business. One way to do that is by putting together personas.
Personas are portraits of ideal customers and will help you:
- visualize the customers you are targeting, and develop brand messages and marketing to resonate with those potential customers
- stand out from competitors, by offering customers what they want
- innovate, by creating new offerings based on what customers desire
To create personas, think about your current customers and try to paint a picture of them using different perspectives.
Geographic—Where are they located? This can help target your marketing and seek out new customers in the same area.
Demographic—Who are they? What’s their gender? How old are they? How much education do they have? How much do they earn?
Psychographic—Seek to understand customers’ “soft” characteristics, namely their values, attitudes, interests and lifestyle.
Transactional—How do they like to do business with you? Online or face to face? How much do they spend? What kinds of products do they buy?
Interest-based—Why is this potential customer interested in your product or service? In what way can it resolve a problem they are currently facing?
We advise clients to create a minimum of three personas: it brings more diversity and better representation.
Naming them helps. For example, Iron Mike is someone who likes to work out, with Leafy Laura being the outdoorsy type.
Build your customer profiles
Jobs describe the things your customers are trying to get done in their work or in their lives. A customer job could be the tasks they are trying to solve or the needs they are trying to satisfy.
Use the following trigger questions to help you think of different potential customer jobs:
- What is the one thing that your customers couldn’t live without accomplishing?
- What functional problems are your customers trying to solve?
- Are there problems that you think your customers have that they may not be aware of?
- What jobs, if completed, would give the customer a sense of self-satisfaction?
- How does your customer want to be perceived by others?
Pains describe anything that annoys your customers before, during and after trying to get a job done or simply prevents them from getting a job done. Pains also describe risks, that is, potential bad outcomes related to getting a job done badly or not at all.
Use the following trigger questions to help you think of different potential customer pains:
- How do your customers define too costly? Is it something that takes a lot of time, costs too much money or requires substantial effort?
- What are your customers’ frustrations, annoyances, or things that give them a headache?
- What are the main difficulties and challenges your customers encounter?
- What risks do your customers fear? Are they afraid of financial, social or technical risks?
- What barriers are keeping your customers from adopting a value proposition? Investments costs? Steep learning curve?
Gains describe the outcomes and benefits your customers want. Some gains are required, expected or desired by customers, and some would surprise them. Gains include functional utility, social gains, positive emotions and cost savings.
Use the following trigger questions to help you think of different potential customer gains:
- Which savings would make your customers happy? Savings in time, money or effort?
- What would make your customers’ lives or jobs easier?
- What positive social consequences do your customers desire?
- What are customers looking for most? Are they searching for good design, guarantees, more features?
- How do your customers measure success or failure?
What gains or benefits might arise for this persona from completing the identified tasks
Identify your competitive advantages
Your position within your industry depends on your ability to find a competitive edge, one that is distinctive and sustainable. To differentiate your company, you’ll need to know what other businesses operating at the same level are up to.
You might identify your lower prices as a distinctive feature. However, if your competition has the same low prices, it’s no longer an advantage.
Complete a competitive analysis
Many entrepreneurs hold preconceived ideas about their competitors and market landscape. A competitive analysis will help you in a more systematic way to see where your advantages lie, as well as identify potential barriers to growth.
Understanding your competition is an important part of marketing research.
- Make a list of your competitors and their differences in terms of service, selection, location, quality.
- Map out your differences in those same areas, as well as in marketing, expertise and any other factors related to your industry.
- Consider where you and your competition stand on such things as marketing and expertise.
- Reflect on how you can stand out from the competition.
It can be helpful to perform a SWOT analysis on your business and that of your competition. This is an exercise to understand your strengths weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and can help in countering their strong points.
Example of a competitive analysis table
Use competitive intelligence
Competitive intelligence is the collecting, analyzing and using of public information to help increase your competitive edge. This can help you to avoid being overtaken by the competition, identify some of their strengths and weaknesses, and give you a better understanding of consumer needs and behaviours.
Doing this on a regular basis allows you to forecast competitors’ activities and develop effective strategies for your own business—and is especially important if you consider today’s fiercely competitive environment.
Here are some points to consider about each competitor:
- Have you explored their website?
- Has anyone on your team been following them on Facebook or joined their email list?
- Do you have copies of their sales materials?
- Has anything been written on them in industry trade publications?
- Have you “secret-shopped” them, or bought one of their products or services to test and assess, and compare with your offerings?
- Have you participated in networking events, trade shows and business meetings where you may have seen what they say publicly?
- What do you know about their results?
Your value proposition and the questions you need to ask
A value proposition is what you promise your customers your product or service will give them. To come up with a value proposition, ask the following:
- What makes your product or service different?
- How is your product or service relevant in today’s market?
- What do your customers want?
- What problems do your customers need to solve?
- How does your product or service meet what your customers want, need and value?
Example of a value proposition
Happy Wanderer Travel Agency
We have a diverse customer base, many of whom don't speak English or French. We have agents who speak six different languages and are available at all times of the day. They speak Spanish, German, Mandarin, Japanese, Hindi and Arabic. No other agency does that.
Define your unique selling proposition (USP)
In order to stand out from your competitors, you’ll need to define your unique selling proposition (USP). It helps differentiate your products and services, and explain what your company does best.
- lowest price
- highest quality
- fastest delivery
- unique location
- innovative products or services
- long-term aftersales services
Creating your USP involves asking yourself key questions:
- How do customers use your products?
- What are the fundamental values of your business?
- What are your brand’s strengths?
- What makes you better than the competition?
Map your customer journey
A customer journey illustrates the steps taken to make a purchase and helps to tailor your marketing plan.
The key is to understand customers’ expectations of your business. By referring back to your customer personas, you should clarify what marketing activities are necessary for creating a loyal customer at each step of the journey.
The first step in a customer’s purchasing journey is the awareness that your product or service exists. After that, consumers will usually explore further, researching the company website, reading reviews, or talking to friends or colleagues. After gathering the relevant information, a customer will usually weigh the available options and then make a purchase decision.
Customer journey marketing tips
- Think about the questions your customers will ask themselves about your product and services.
- Have a consistent message in all your marketing efforts.
- Gather information on customer
- demographics, such as age, gender, income and job
- goals, challenges and needs
- online and offline media use
It’s important to understand how your customers become aware of, find, evaluate and purchase your products or services. Map your customers’ purchase journey and use it for developing your final marketing action plan.
Aligning your marketing action plan with the customer journey will ensure that you’re covering all the marketing activities that will drive, convert and hold on to your customers. It will also help you maximize the return on your marketing efforts.
The customer journey
Create your action plan
Having defined your business and its market, you are now ready to bring it all together, by planning the marketing tactics you will use to attract and keep customers. Do your best to prioritize tactics that will resonate with your target customers, while keeping to your budget.
1. Marketing budget
To determine your budget, first look at what your competitors are spending. You can then look at specific marketing goals, what kind of budget you’ll need to fulfill those goals and what you’re comfortable spending.
A marketing budget should be the equivalent of about 2% to 5% of your revenue for B2B industries and 5% to 10% for B2C industries.
A 2019 BDC survey of more than 1,400 Canadian businesses found that Canadian small businesses spent just over $30,000 a year on marketing, while those with 20 to 49 employees spent twice that amount. Companies with 50 or more employees tend to have marketing budgets in excess of $100,000.
When preparing your marketing budget, you should account for all related expenses, including:
- websites and email campaigns, including design, content and hosting
- online advertising, such as social media and search-engine ads
- traditional advertising, such as radio, television and print
- trade shows and training
- brochures and banners
- human resources (i.e., salaries and fees)
2. Marketing team
Putting together a marketing team is a priority when growing a business. They’re the ones who help the public find out about your new product or service.
If you’re starting small, find a marketing generalist and web specialist. The team, whether it’s just those two or a much bigger group, will need to develop a marketing strategy, set up market research, help with product development, promote your product or service, and plan events.
With online dominating commerce, your marketing team will need to possess digital skills, namely:
- data analysis
- web writing
- search engine optimization (SEO)
- social media
If your business can invest more in marketing, these are essential marketing roles:
- Chief marketing officer
- Marketing director or marketing manager
- Marketing specialist
- Data analyst
- Content writer
- Visual designer
- Tech expert
- Marketing project manager
- Public relations officer
3. Pricing strategy
Pricing is one of the most important and visible aspects of your market strategy.
To choose the right price within your customers’ acceptable range, consider the main factors that affect price:
- operating costs
- inventory scarcity or overstock
- shipping costs
- fluctuations in demand
- competitive advantage
- price perception
4. Distribution strategy
Here are steps to take to find the best and most cost-effective ways to distribute your products:
Identify the needs of your customers and your business
- Does your product need to be installed?
- Do customers typically require your goods urgently?
- Are you using the best distributors to sell your products?
- Do you need specialty equipment for the transportation and storage of your products?
Determine key components of your distribution network
- Do customers buy your goods directly, or through an intermediary (e.g., wholesaler)?
- Would it be best if you sold your products yourself or found a distributor?
- Will you need a blend of direct and indirect distribution?
Think early about distribution
Take a close look at your product as it’s being developed. Think about its characteristics, its market and how it fits the buying needs of your target customers.
Consider starting with smaller distributors. Once you’ve established some credibility you can then approach a larger distributor.
Build a comprehensive online sales and marketing strategy
Entrepreneurs can access marketing tools to compete with much larger businesses.
5. Website development
A website is your business’s 24-hour storefront. Even if you don’t sell online, potential clients may still look for your site or social media page to check out your products or find your address. And if they find it confusing or unappealing, they may think twice about buying from you
Luckily, free and low-cost website creation tools allow businesses to design and update a website quickly. If you’ve got a bigger budget or limited time, you can also hire a website designer to create a site.
The key is to get started.
The basics of online design
It’s important for your website and social media pages to reflect your company’s goals and image. Here are some design basics that are critical to a good visitor experience.
- Prominently feature a clear, succinct description of your business, including what makes it stand out from the competition.
- Use powerful graphics that have visual impact but aren’t overly busy or distracting.
- Be sure your contact information, social media pages and logo are prominently displayed.
- Feature a clear call to action that pushes visitors toward your goals— for example, “Shop Now” or “Sign Up for Our Newsletter.”
- Consider what information visitors will want to find quickly. Keep content concise and to the point.
- Ensure the navigation is simple and consistent throughout the site. A rule of thumb is that visitors should be able to access any page with no more than three clicks from the home page. If your site has an e-commerce store, it should be easy for a customer to create and sign into an account, browse through your catalogue and make a purchase.
- Group information in searchable sections such as About Us, Our Services and Our Products.
- Avoid using music or video that automatically plays when a visitor arrives. These can be irritating and may make your site inaccessible to visitors with limited bandwidth.
- Be sure your website can be viewed on a smartphone or tablet. Test your site on various types of mobile devices.
Attracting customers to your site
Search engine optimization (SEO)
If people can’t easily find your business on the Internet, you may be missing out on important opportunities.
The art of improving your search rankings is called search engine optimization. It’s a complex subject, but there are a few simple strategies you can put in place to make your site easier to find.
Build your pages around relevant keywords
People search online by asking questions; search engines strive to answer with the best pages. So, your best strategy for getting to the top of search results is to build your website around a single theme. You should then build out additional content that targets specific keywords or answers key questions that your potential customers are asking.
Create meaningful links
Getting links from another website can make a huge difference in traffic since search engines see this as a sign that your content is valuable, but make sure that you receive links from high-calibre websites. One chamber of commerce or university website link will be more effective than multiple links from obscure sites.
Make full use of social media
Many people use social media platforms as their search engines, which makes keeping up an active social media profile that much more important.
Be careful not to spread yourself too thin on social media. Choose platforms that will be most used for your company and likely seen by your typical customer.
Request referrals and reviews
Positive customer recommendations can increase traffic. Don’t hesitate to ask for referrals or testimonials and provide people who have liked your product or service with links to online review platforms.
Answer questions from your clients
Address your customers’ posts on blogs or forums such as Reddit and Quora. A professional answer with a link can result in a fair amount of traffic to your site.
Tell your story
People connect to businesses with stories that touch them. Whether it’s your hardscrabble origins or a social commitment to the community, customers will connect to an honest, heartfelt story.
Boost local searches with Google Business Profile
Authenticating your business with Google Business Profile is one of the best ways to boost your local search results—the ones that appear for users in your area.
Regularly emailing your customers can help drive website traffic, especially with the free and low-cost email marketing software currently available.
You can email customers and potential clients tips and information on your products or services, speaking to these customers as individuals and bringing a personal touch to your correspondence.
To build your email list, collect business cards at tradeshows or networking events or put a sign-up button on your site. You’ll need consent from customers to obtain their email addresses. Over time, these email relationships can translate into new opportunities, sales or partnerships.
Creating a social media strategy will provide you with a roadmap on social media spending. It will also provide guidelines your employees can follow.
Your strategy should include the five following elements:
1. Goals—With the help of employees, determine the main business objectives of your social media presence. Will they do any of the following?
- Increase sales
- Boost customer loyalty
- Find new customers
- Increase brand awareness and engagement
- Improve customer service
Your goals will determine your metrics and how you define success. For example, if your goal is to increase brand engagement, then you’ll want to measure how many comments your social media posts are getting.
2. Audience—Define your target audience. This will allow you to identify the best social media platform(s) to reach them. Identifying your audience will also be key to developing relevant content that speaks to their interests.
3. Key messages and content—When thinking about what to share, start by asking these questions:
- What content and key messages are core to my brand?
- What messages and content are relevant to my audience?
- What are my goals and which channels will I use to achieve them?
Frame your content around key messages aligned with your marketing strategy and overall business plan.
How do you develop your key messages? Use your market knowledge and research, organize a focus group or seek out professional advice.
4. Social media action plan—It should answer the following questions:
- Who will do what?
- What material will be shared and when will it be shared?
- How will you monitor results and adapt your actions accordingly?
- What existing material can I reuse on social media?
- What new material can I create and tailor to social media?
5. Monitor—Use web and social analytics tools to measure the effectiveness of your strategy.
It’s also important to monitor conversations about your company, brand and industry. These will provide you with valuable market insights, as well as opportunities to see what other companies are doing.
5 questions to answer when building a content strategy
- Why am I doing this? (What is my business objective?)
- Who are my customers and what makes them tick?
- What do my customers want? (What problem can I help them solve?)
- What distribution platform will I use?
- How will I measure success?
Buying digital ads for your company can be a cost-effective way to garner more Internet traffic for your online properties and boost sales.
A key advantage of digital ads is the immediate data on their effectiveness. You can use this to optimize the ads and improve your results on a real-time basis.
Due to the technical nature of digital advertising campaigns, it’s good to get help from an experienced consultant.
You can purchase pay-per-click advertising or search engine marketing (SEM) through Google and other search engine companies. The paid service gets your message and website link to show up when Internet users search for certain terms relevant to your business.
Search ads are based on keywords: you bid on keywords potential customers are likely to search for if they are looking to purchase your product or service. You pay only when someone clicks on your ad.
Once you’re familiar with the basics of pay-per-click advertising, you can adjust when ads appear and the costs.
By monitoring your ad performance, you can fine-tune keywords, ads and website to increase your campaigns’ effectiveness.
Programmatic advertising, also known as display ads, are managed by ad networks that place digital ads on websites where your target customers might be browsing or as a more generic mass media awareness play.
The cost and scale of these networks doesn’t make sense for every business. For companies who use them, success often depends on understanding your goals and analyzing the results.
Social media ads
Buying space on social media platforms permit targeted advertising based on user demographics and geographic location.
Social media ads are part of a wider strategy to find customers and should be well thought out. Simply promoting your website may not give you a good return on investment. Instead, think about promoting contests, webinars or guides to create a relationship with potential clients.
Take time to find out which platform is right for you: compare prices and decide how much you’re willing to spend. Make sure to measure and analyze your results before investing too much in a particular campaign.
Monitor, measure and improve your results
Measurement is where the true power of modern marketing lies. It tells you whether your new website redesign is paying off or whether you’re wasting your time with all those Facebook posts.
Businesses not getting results from online efforts are likely failing to both measure the impact of their efforts and act on this critical feedback.
Use this information to optimize your strategy and tactics. Start small and focus on incremental improvements. Here are a few steps to get started with monitoring and improvements.
Determine what you want to track
What you measure should be linked to what you want to achieve.
If you want to increase sales, then you may want to measure the number of leads or sales on your website; if you want more potential leads, then you may want measure how many new email sign-ups you can get; and if you want to increase your reputation online, then you’ll want to track the number of customer reviews you receive for your products or services.
Your objectives should both challenge you and be attainable, as well as measurable. Without objectives, you can’t plan a marketing strategy, a budget or measure your performance.
Measure your results
Measuring your results doesn’t have to be complicated. This is especially true of digital marketing. Free and low-cost analytics tools allow you to measure your website’s traffic volume, how long visitors stay, where they’re coming from and what kind of device they’re using.
Information is also available on how visitors buy something on your website. This information allows you to continuously tweak your site design, content and marketing campaigns, based on what’s working best.
You can get similar data on your social media efforts by using free analytics tools available on most social networking and blogging sites.
Once your analytics are set up, you should look at them regularly with your team to identify where you’re on track and where you’re not.
Use what you’ve learned to refine your marketing as part of a continuous cycle of improvement. It’s best to start small and focus on simple, incremental changes.
BDC is here to help
A well-implemented marketing strategy can propel your business to a new level by helping you find more customers and do a better job serving the ones you already have. Still, it’s often challenging for busy entrepreneurs to devise and implement the right marketing game plan and finance their investments.
Don’t hesitate to contact us if you think you may need additional advice and financing to get your marketing plan off the ground.