Back to basics: what is marketing?

Marketing is a dirty word for many in the small business world. It’s something you know you ought to be doing but it’s confusing, a bit distasteful somehow and difficult to find time for when you’re sooooo busy with clients and the demands of your business.

I’m sure that some of the confusion springs from the blurry definitions of marketing bandied around by some experts and MBA courses. Definitions that include phrases like ‘maximising value’ and ‘mutually satisfying exchanges’ are downright unhelpful to your average small business.

All of this bluster contributes to the dangerously pervasive small business Ostrich Syndrome:

Stick your head in the sand, do nothing and hope for the best!

It’s only when things get tricky, when referrals dry up and the sales cupboard looks bare that the ‘I must do marketing!’ monster comes back to bite you. Time to get your head out of that pile of sand, fast.

This article is an attempt to demystify marketing for the small business community; a practical ‘Janet and John’ guide to help get you started, no jargon guaranteed.

What is marketing?

“I wasn’t that into marketing, but I was into communication, and hanging out with customers, and answering questions, and making the product work better for them. It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that all that stuff was marketing.”

This quote is from Sonia Simone, author of the brilliant ‘Remarkable Communication’ blog. She’s so right. At its simplest, marketing is the process of keeping in touch with customers and contacts, motivating them to buy your services or refer you on.

Here’s another nice practical definition from John Jantsch, the down-to-earth author of Duct Tape Marketing:

“Marketing is getting people who have a specific need or problem to know you, like you and trust you.”

That’s it for me. Marketing is just communicating to get people who have a need you can fulfill to know, like and trust you. I’d add that it’s also a way of getting them to remember you so they think of you when an opportunity arises: regular communication to keep you in their field of vision.

Why is marketing so important? In a nutshell, it makes the process of selling so much easier. It will help you generate a consistent stream of new leads and warm up old ones, bringing in repeat business and those all important referrals: more clients, more quickly.

What’s the difference between marketing and sales?

The sales versus marketing dilemma is another point of contention that muddies the waters. “Aren’t marketing and sales the same thing?” I hear people ask: “Where does sales start and marketing stop?”

These are good questions. Sales and marketing are evidently intrinsically linked; they can be carried out by the same person, but they are separate activities with different objectives. It’s important to be clear on the difference:

  • Sales activity starts when someone wants to explore working with you: when they pick up the phone to you or agree to meet you to discuss a real opportunity. Sales begins when you have a lead to follow up.
  • Marketing is everything you do to warm your contacts up before that point. Marketing, as John Jantsch states, is about getting people to know you, like you and trust you enough to explore the possibility of engaging your services to help them.

Marketing generates leads: sales turns leads into business

A 4-step marketing action plan to get you started

Now we’ve got the definitions clear, here is a simple 4 step action plan to get your marketing started and help you generate more sales:

A. Define your target contacts

Work out who you want to do business with. Your contacts can include companies you want to approach, past clients, past prospects – companies where you have pitched before and been unsuccessful, people you’ve met through networking (off and online), contacts likely to refer you on.

Make a list of these contacts.

(NB: Marketing is a process so a good system helps. Find a way to record your contacts and your interactions with them, and track your results: a decent Excel spreadsheet or Outlook-based system will do; Highrise by 37signals is a fantastic contact management tool for small companies – simple to use and it doesn’t cost the earth.)

B. Work out the problems you solve for your buyers

Think niche: why do your customers come to you? What expertise do they buy? What specific issues do they want to solve by using your services? Ask them.

Match this with the expertise you provide them: what do your clients get from you? What benefit do you deliver?

Use all this information to develop your marketing message.

C. Decide on a plan – how will you make contact?

Make a plan: how will you keep your contacts in the loop? Decide how you’ll communicate your message and reach your target contacts. What communications methods will you use? Options open to you are many and varied, including:

  • Case studies that show them how others have benefitted from your services
  • Informative articles and whitepapers that demonstrate thought leadership and show them how to solve their most pressing problems
  • Useful resources: related research, presentations, books etc.
  • Events in their/your field of interest
  • Regular newsletters including a combination of the above
  • Social media

How will you put your expertise on display in a way that you’re comfortable with and your customers find most useful?

D. Take Action – start communicating

Once you’ve worked out who you are targeting, the problems you solve for them, and how you will approach them, start to communicate. Develop valuable content and materials and get this in front of your contacts: by email, by post, via social networks. The attitude should be not ‘Look how great we are!’ but ‘Look how useful we are – we have the answer to your problem’.

Don’t wait for the perfect strategy – take action. As my wisest client often says:

‘A good decision taken quickly beats a brilliant decision implemented slowly.’

Take these 4 easy steps and start communicating to build some relationships. Don’t be an ostrich: get your head out of the sand and start marketing.

What stops you from getting going with your marketing efforts? Are you confused about what marketing is really all about for small businesses? Does this help? I’d love to know.

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  1. Marketing Donut

    An excellent blog post! The exciting thing about marketing is the range of options available to small businesses.

    Of course this can look daunting but if broken down into manageable areas and with the right advice it soon becomes an exciting business practice and not a must do chore.

    With your 4 step action plan, businesses can see where they have come from with their marketing and where they need to go to get focus on the task in hand.

  2. K. Howard

    I think partly what holds a small business back from developing its marketing is taking on every job that comes its way, not wanting to turn anything down.

    You then are so busy you don’t have time to think about the long-term and develop a strategy.

    Many small businesses also think that marketing isn’t relevant to them and rely on word of mouth to keep going or see it as an unnecessary expense with no tangible return, which in the current climate is understandable (ie extra financial outlay) yet short-sighted. As per the article, there are ways to develop marketing without a large budget.

  3. sonja

    Thanks for that Kate – I totally agree with you.

    Maybe it’s the word ‘marketing’ that puts them off. It has some funny connotations.

    I think the word ‘marketing’ should be changed to ‘communication’: all businesses need to communicate with their customers – marketing is just that!

    This is a great article from the down-to-earth blogger Sonia Simone: 5 ways to make marketing feel less overwhelming

    As she says: ‘Don’t think of it as marketing; think of it as communication’.

  4. Nicky Parker

    Great article Sonja.

    I also like to think of marketing as maintaining that relationship so that a one time customer becomes a committed customer/fan. Part of that stretches to customer service, and just as importantly customer experience. So you could say marketing touches every aspect of the business!

  5. Sonja Jefferson

    Good point. Thank you Nicky. You are right – it certainly shouldn’t stop at the sale. Building and maintaining relationships through continually sharing information they value is what good marketing is all about. Thank you for the comment.


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