The plight of the small business is nothing new. However, in the last few years— a global pandemic, supply chain difficulties, recession, evolving technology, and social media changes— we’ve seen SMB owners face a growing list of challenges.
On the technology and social media side, there’s a lot that someone who owns a small business needs to sift through. Much of the problem is too much content, too many voices, and insufficient time.
Where I work, we help SMBs grow smarter, which means thinking strategically and making decisions with purpose.
The best part of this philosophy? Coming to epiphanies like only some businesses out there need every new tool available.
Of course, the question is: Where should you focus when marketing a small business?
The answer, a common phrase in marketing, is that it depends. It’s not a simple answer. It depends because the answer should be tailored to your brand, prospects, and goals.
This is a quick note to start and set you up for success: Make sure you have a website.
In this modern era where digital rules, you are missing out if you don’t have a website where your prospects can find and learn about you. And no, you probably shouldn’t build a business solely on social media.* When a giant like Facebook changes the rules, and you lose out on your reach, you’ll pull your hair out, trying to keep up. So make sure you have a website.
*Yes, plenty of folks have built brands via social platforms. It’s not an either/or situation. But with social media platforms constantly changing, owning your own real estate on the internet is important.
Now, let’s explore ways you can build your small business marketing machine. Remember that these are all suggestions you should test but not necessarily jump into all at once.
How do I Market my Small Business Today?
1: Tap into Local Media
Some of the most powerful sources of information for local audiences remain traditional, local media outlets. Your local TV news station, the local newspaper (even if they only print once per week and live primarily online), and local radio still hold a lot of power.
While the days of popping an ad on these local outlets and getting a run on new customers may be gone, partnering with them for brand awareness and PR can help your business.
Your business may offer some unique event over the summer where a local crowd can gather. For example, an interview on a morning TV or radio show could drum up interest. Then, when the media outlet puts the interview online, you’ll see the digital benefit of a link to your website and social media exposure.
I’ve personally seen this work well with local nonprofits. For example, I once helped run a local Honor Flight hub, flying WWII and Korean War veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit their memorials. We would promote the flight itself and the community connection by welcoming veterans home and fundraisers with interviews with our local media partners. This exposure was one tactic of many that helped us bring hundreds of people together (about 2,500 each time) for events and raise more than $1,000,000 over three years of my time with the organization.
2: Use Social Media Locally
If your small business relies on local customers or clients, could you connect with your local audience on social media? Maybe it’s a city-focused hashtag. On the other hand, it could be a local social media group (how many small towns now have Facebook “menu” groups because of the pandemic?). However, as it looks in your community, finding local people on social media to connect with will help build your audience.
Picture having a restaurant where you’re closed every Sunday. What would happen if you opened up one Sunday each month for brunch with a jazz quartet? You could find local music fans, community members who love jazz, or people near you who share posts about brunch. Putting paid Facebook ads to work could get you in front of these prospects, so they see your event, bringing a new audience to your restaurant.
Also, when residents share their experiences with your business, make sure you’re thanking them with likes, favorites, reshares, and other social media interactions.
Finally, simply connecting and networking as a business owner can go a long way for your small business. People do business with those they get to know, like, and trust. The old-fashioned networking strategy of making friends with your community online can be powerful.
Pro tip: Don’t connect and then spam people. Be authentic, be social. Share and comment with a genuine interest in your local social media community. If that’s not in your wheelhouse, grow beyond your comfort zone, find help, or skip this step. You don’t want to be spammy and constantly talk about your business. And for the love of everything… don’t tag people to get their attention or to gain access to their audience. That’s just tacky.
3: Local Networking
Local networking still holds power, whether it’s a Chamber of Commerce event, your local Rotary, or a BNI group. Face-to-face interactions beat digital communications in most cases.
Marketing doesn’t have to be an advertisement or a campaign. It can simply be getting people to know, like, and trust you.
Or you could sponsor or host a local networking event. That leads to the next tip.
4: Sponsor Local Events
Beyond sponsoring networking events, consider sponsoring local festivals, events, shows, and other opportunities to get your small business in front of your own community.
Of course, please ensure the event aligns with your brand, mission, and intended audience. For example, you may not want to sponsor an art night downtown if artists and fans of art have no reason to know who you are.
If your small business has ties to your local community, be there. If your business goes beyond local and reaches regional or beyond or has a specific niche audience, find those events to sponsor and take part in as a business.
Consider looking for an opportunity as a sponsor beyond just giving money in exchange for logo placement. Ask about speaking opportunities, placing information or gifts in bags if they have them, and other ways to reach event attendees.
5: Partner With a Nonprofit (That Makes Sense)
Finding nonprofits aligning with your mission is a great way to show community support.
Maybe your progressive hotel hosts weddings, and a Pride Month event is coming up. You could have a booth there with support for LGBTQ+ couples getting married.
Perhaps your business hires veterans. You could partner with a VFW or American Legion to host Bike Night or a horseshoe tournament.
If your brand aligns with pet shelters, can you donate a portion of every sale to a different shelter each month?
I personally love the example of a local ice cream shop that takes tips each month and splits them between the employees and a local nonprofit. It’s a great way to spur conversation and new partnerships and build community.
6: Keep Your Google Business Listing Up to Date
This one isn’t as shiny as nonprofit partnerships or as cool as a viral social media post. But this “boring” marketing tactic is critical. Your Google Business listing will drive traffic, contact points, and even social sharing for your brand.
The Google listing is that result that pops up on the right side of Google when someone searches for your business. It also comes up for results like “pizza near me” or similar searches. So if you want to be found for that local search, this is for you.
You need to sign up for a Google account to tell the world’s largest search engine about your business. After you’ve logged into the platform, it’s easy to add your site to Google by building your online profile.
Make sure you have your hours of operation, your contact information, your website linked, and your address all there.
Whether you call it your Talk Trigger, your Pink Goldfish, your Purple Cow, or simply your unique differentiator, turning that thing that sets your business apart into a word-of-mouth gem is vital to today’s marketing.
Allowing your happy customers to share your story starts with your website. Do you know if they can find you? Having social media accounts helps, too. If you’re able to monitor your profiles, at least have simple, recognizable social media handles so that customers can easily tag you.
Make your differentiator easy to remember and share. Maybe it’s an overabundance of fries like Five Guys. Maybe it’s a stock-market-like feel to prices and market crashes like the Kalamazoo Beer Exchange. Whatever your unique thing is, it has to be memorable and shareable.
When you empower those happy people to share and tell their friends about you, you’ll have word-of-mouth marketing that sets you apart in this modern marketing age.
8: Try Something Traditional
Okay, we’ve covered some great new-world marketing tactics and strategies here. Some of them simply new twists on old ideas.
But here’s the thing: Not everything old is dead. Just because we’ve done something in the past doesn’t mean it’s terrible. (It doesn’t mean it’s great, either.) “We’ve always done it this way” should cause you to investigate the tactic. I know it can seem confusing. I’m just saying that traditional marketing deserves a look.
For instance, I’m personally not a fan of outdoor advertising. But electronic billboards can offer a new way of looking at a traditional tactic. Or using a local billboard that hasn’t changed in years as a short-term test that will probably stick around long after your contract is up could bring you long-term benefits.
For local cafes, maybe placemats still work for advertising other local businesses. Even traditional handouts or tri-folds from a brochure maker might work.
You won’t know unless you test and measure.
Don’t be afraid to mix what’s worked in the past with something new.
BONUS 8 1/2:
I couldn’t stop at just the fun tips. We had to go back to basics with a bonus tip.
Know your audience.
As small business owners, it’s critical to define your personas. When you know them personally and in a general community sense, you can go where they are, support what they support, and stay top of mind. It makes no sense to support a local high school lacrosse team if your buyer personas aren’t parents. Start with your audience.