This may sound like a bad way to approach business, but our company as a whole has always had a single goal in mind: that our clients benefit from working with us. For this to happen, they have to make more money than they spend on us. For us to knowingly take on a client that we know will never make their money back would be pretty darn unethical. Would you start something that you knew was doomed to fail, and hurt people in the process?

We most frequently turn customers away when what they need is something that they can easily accomplish on their own in just a few hours–they just don’t know it. We feel that it’s important to educate the people everyone that we work with. And sometimes, that means saying, “We could do that for you. But honestly, you could do it for yourself… for free.” And then we give them some guidance as to what to do, and how to do it. Read on for a brief overview of what we tell those business owners…

There are a few things that any business owner can do on their own just fine, and that don’t justify the cost of hiring an outside firm. Start with local citations.

Too many marketing companies lead off with, “We’ll get your business on Google!” Actually, that’s pretty easy. In fact, it’s so easy, we described in detail how to do it in our blog last week. So if you’re unsure how to add a business listing to Google (so that people can find you on Google Maps), take a look at “How to Fix Your Business’s Address in Google Maps.” Once you’ve built a basic Google Plus page for your business, now set up business listings on some other key websites:

  • Facebook
  • Yelp
  • Foursquare
  • SuperPages

There are the basics, and account for about 70% of all the directory listings you’ll ever need (depending on what industry you’re in). This can be time-consuming, but it’s worthwhile. That’s why we do this for our clients, and that’s why we did it for our own business. And it absolutely isn’t worthwhile to hire somebody just to do this stuff.

Develop your company’s identity. Build upon this by figuring out what your business’s message is, who the message is for, and what content you need to get their attention.

When we first start working with a new client, we’ll spend hours picking their brains. We do this because we have to understand our clients, their business, their market, and the needs and behaviors of their customers. Only once we know all of these things can we begin to develop a strategy that uses the fewest possible resources (time/money) while maximizing returns.

But really, rather than paying somebody to sit down and figure this out for you, this is something that any small company can do for itself long before it becomes financially sensible to hire an outside firm. And really, these are things that you should have an understanding of long before you launch your company.

Developing an identity for your brand will define what your brand will look like (on business cards, advertising, websites, billboards–anything!), who your customers are, and where and how you’ll approach them. This needs to be a written plan long before you consider hiring an outside advertising agency. If nothing else, you’ll save time and money by preparing a game plan ahead of time.

Coca-Cola is an excellent example of a company that built its identity, and then targeted its customers accordingly.

Coca-Cola has long defined itself as a means for people to connect with their friends and families–a common taste that transcends borders, divisions, and tensions. That was the whole purpose of the ridiculously successful “Buy the World a Coke” commercial back in 1971. In 1993, they resurrected a long-neglected character, the Coca-Cola polar bear, in order to depict Coca-Cola as an intrinsic part of the Christmas holidays. Last year, they further expanded upon this ‘Coke as connection’ concept with the “Share a Coke” campaign. Millions upon millions of Cokes have been sold to people who didn’t actually have a craving for Coke, but instead purchased it as a silly little “thinking of you” gift for a classmate, coworker, or family member. Coke hasn’t depicted itself as a cool, independent product (like that young, hip, rebellious beverage Pepsi), but instead, as a communal, familial beverage. And it worked for them.

Once you know what your identity is, then you can figure out who your customers are. Coke branded itself as a friendly social drink. So instead of chasing after 13-year-olds or trendsetters or the disenfranchised, they directed their marketing efforts at average, middle class adults ranging in age from their late teens up to 50 or so. Share a Coke targeted people who are the right age to be casually comfortable with their coworkers. The Coke polar bears were for parents raising young children, and who thus felt the compulsion to buy their kids a cute cuddly Coke polar bear as a stocking stuffer when they stumbled across it in an endcap at a grocery store (and for convenience’s sake, also grabbed a couple cases of Coke for upcoming Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties). The “Buy the World a Coke” commercials went after young adults who had come of age during the era of free love and social activism, and thus felt a great deal of nostalgia for the 60s when they saw a TV ad that depicted people of all classes, colors, religions, and nationalities all joining together in harmony.

Notice that this is quite contrary to what many online media experts have espoused for the least few years: that the only way to connect with modern consumers is by allowing the consumers to define the identities of the companies they do business with. The problem with this mindset is, can you see yourself doing a good job of running a business that has an identity and a consumer base that you don’t identify with? You need to be 100% sold on your business and its value in order for you to have the passion and the genuine enthusiasm necessary to convince others of your business’s value. For that to be possible, your business needs to feel like an extension of yourself. So worry about yourself first, and then figure out who your customers should be.

Once you understand your audience, then you know what (if any) social media sites you should focus on to build brand awareness.

Many business owners quickly become overwhelmed by social media. They run out of energy and find themselves asking, “How on earth do you keep up with Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and emails and blogging?!” The easy to overlook answer to that question is: You don’t. You don’t try and do everything. If you try and do everything, you won’t have the time or energy to do a good job on any aspect of your online marketing. Instead, figure out where your prospective customers tend to hang out online. Chances are, there are one or two key targets that you should focus on.

If you sell aftermarket parts for sport bikes, then find out what the most popular online social groups are for people who like and work on sport bikes. Given that discussions about cars and bikes tend to involve a lot of back and forth and would be too chaotic for Twitter, you’re more likely to find relevant groups on Facebook. You’re even more likely to find such groups on other, relatively low-exposure–but highly relevant–discussion boards like the dedicated forum sites for Car Talk or Edmunds. If you’re selling a product that appeals to people in their teens or early 20s, and is the sort of thing people will take pictures of and share with their friends, then you’ll probably want to take a look at Snapchat or Instagram.

And in some cases, social media won’t do you much good at all. If you cater to the senior/elderly market, then your best bet may well be to consider print advertisements in niche publications like the Penny Press crossword and word search puzzle magazines. What it all boils down to is, don’t worry about what all the other businesses are doing. Worry about what your customers are doing.

This should give you a basic idea of where to start with your business’s online marketing without hiring outside help. Next week, we’ll talk about how to know when it’s time to hire an outside firm to handle your online marketing.

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