Big corporations spend millions of dollars to launch new products and keep their name in front of potential customers. Self-employed individuals and small businesses have the same need, but not the same budget.
Fortunately there are many inexpensive ways to make customers aware of your products and services. In fact, all it takes to find effective, low-cost marketing opportunities for homebased and small businesses is a little ingenuity and a lot of persistence. Here are some ideas to get you started.
Let everybody know you're in business
Most home-based and very small businesses find the best source of business are people they know. When you are starting out, contact family, neighbors and friends and let them know you are in business. Ask them for names of their friends you might call, too. As long as the business provides a needed or desirable product or service most people will be happy to pass on any suggestions they can to help you get started.
Get out into the community and spread the word, too. "Go where clients are," says Jack Slick, a CPA who's built a successful practice in Hagerstown, MD.
"See them, talk to them, let them know about you and your business. Chamber of Commerce mixers, business meetings, country club events, social functions all are good places to meet business people. Try to hook up with a good lawyer or insurance agent and do cross referrals with them. Also develop clients from within by asking your current clients to refer you to others."
If you've left another company to start your own competing business, look for discrete ways to let business contacts you made at that company know you've gone out on your own. Don't copy the company's client list and take it with you - that could get you sued. But do call the contacts you made. Or, tell them in person when you see them at conferences or business network meetings. If you signed a noncompete agreement at your former employer, get advice from your attorney before starting the business or soliciting clients.
Avoid marketing to the wrong prospects
A common mistake startup businesses make is to assume products or services will sell because they seem like something many people need.
For instance, many people starting computer consulting businesses expect to build a good business by selling their service to homebased and small businesses. They assume these businesses will need and will pay for consulting services since they can't afford to keep a computer programmer on staff.
Although that line of reasoning seems logical, it isn't. Most low-budget businesses are not a good source of business. Instead of hiring consultants, they look for free advice in books and magazine articles, from sales people, and by asking computer savvy friends or relatives for help.
To avoid making the wrong assumptions about the desirability of products or services, talk to your potential customers before you start a business or introduce a new product. Besides asking prospects if they can use what you plan to sell, ask what they'd pay for it and where they would go to buy it. If the responses you get don't match your original expectations, either research a different market or look for a different product or service to sell.
Target businesses that can afford your services
If you do sell to home and small businesses, focus your efforts on high-income professionals who have been in business for a year or more. Emphasize your experience, professionalism and ability to deliver quality products and services on time. To close sales, remind top earners that, based on their hourly billing rate, it's cheaper to hire you than to do the work themselves.
Don't go for broke
If your marketing funds are limited, don't gamble them all on one big ad or one mass mailing. Most one-shot marketing efforts don't work.
Instead, use these and other low-cost marketing techniques to gradually establish a client base and positive cash flow. Wait to spend the big marketing bucks until you have your business infrastructure in place, have tested your marketing ideas on a small scale and have a cushion of profits and satisfied customers on which you can rely for steady profits.
Understand what you are selling and market accordingly
What you sell isn't necessarily what your customers are buying. For example, Ellyn and Norm Ingalls of North Haverhill, NH, sell specialty foods. Although their company, Poole-Brook Farms, sells relishes and condiments, they don't consider themselves to be in the food business. As Ellyn explains, "We are not marketing food. We are marketing gifts and rewards. If we could produce it incredibly inexpensively and wanted to mass market through supermarket chains, then it would probably be food."
Get customers to ask for your product by name
The Ingalls sell their products predominately to wholesalers, but they drum up interest in the product by doing taste testings and selling them at country fairs, craft shows and trade fairs.The fairs generate name recognition among people who are likely to want homemade products when they are ready to give a gift or treat themselves to a luxury. They also find new wholesale buyers for their products this way.
"When you have a brand new product, and it sits on a store shelf, no one knows what it is. Few are brave enough to buy it," says Ellyn. "We do shows to let people sample our products and educate them on the 'story' of the product. Then they go into the stores looking for our products. It is much easier to sell this way."
Get referrals from competitors
Don't shy away from bigger competitors in your field. They could be the source of new business. Many established businesses will refer customers to a competitor when they don't have time to do the customer's job themselves, or when the customer is too small for them to service profitably. You can get that business often just by staying on a friendly basis with your competitors.
Give as many referrals as you hope to get
Referral networks are two-way streets. To keep referrals flowing, make it a point to refer jobs to other businesses whenever appropriate. An added benefit: the customer will be pleased that you care enough to refer them to someone who can solve their problem and may return the favor by referring their friends and acquaintances to your business.
Reprinted from Janet Attard's Business Know-How: An Operational Guide For Homebased and Micro-sized Businesses with Limited Budgets
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