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What we've learned from local business owners: part three

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As we enter week three of our first annual marketing clinic series (Giving Back to Our Community: Free Marketing Guidance for Local Small Business), we're continually amazed by the positive attitude our visiting businesses hold toward the New Year. However, though many small entrepreneurs often know where they want to take their businesses in 2013, they aren't always sure how best to get there, or aren't familiar with the tools. To that end, we've put together few helpful tips for any business to create a successful marketing strategy.

Determine your budget and goals. When deciding how much to spend on marketing in the upcoming year, take into account your industry, and the size and age of your business. Then, find the most cost-effective ways to utilize that money: decide which marketing channels will be most effective in meeting your goals, and how much to allocate to each. Remember to be honest about what you can afford, and realistic about the type of return you can reasonably expect.

Be aware of the competition. Find your direct competitors, then take a look at your brand and see how it compares. How do your competitors distinguish themselves in their field? What do customers think about them? Identify your competitors' goals, strategies and purpose, and use them to objectively evaluate your own strengths and weaknesses.

Review your marketing collateral. Take a look at your existing sales media, both print and digital (including your website). Are they cohesive? To build a strong image, all the pieces should relate to one another, and should convey a consistent message and attitude about your company. Do they portray your brand identity in the best light? Everything you present to the public reflects your brand, so be sure to put your best foot forward.

Evaluate your logo. First impressions are important, and an attractive, memorable image goes a long way in building customer recognition. Is your logo well designed? Does it speak to what your business is about? Does it have a unique, catchy tagline? A professionally designed logo may cost a little more, but makes a greater impact in the long run.

Reconsider your advertising spread. Think about when, where, and how your audience will best see your brand. Online search engines are the new phone book, so if you place ads in the yellow pages, consider making an equal investment (or a larger one) on Google, Yahoo! and Bing. If you advertise in newspapers or other periodicals, do some research on readership and circulation, especially for seasonal products.

Learn to appreciate online marketing. The majority of your marketing should be digital. If you haven't already, develop a mobile website, create social media pages and build a strong SEO platform. For preferred customers, consider email marketing with updates, calls to action or special promotions. Sharing useful and optimized content will engage consumer interest, generate leads and encourage conversions.

Capitalize on social media. To be successful in the digital era, your brand should have a social media presence. Engaging consumers through interaction on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other sites will help drive traffic to your website and attract new business.

Blog. Does your brand have a voice? How often do you provide your readers with new, engaging and optimized content? Do you also participate in other industry blogs and forums? Getting involved in the blogging community is a great way to build links to your website and to let potential customers know about your brand.

Plot the course. Jump into the New Year with a full grasp of where you wish to be next December. Then, once you've set concrete goals with realistic expectations, lay out a plan of action to help you get there. Decide which specific tactics and tools are most accessible to your company and which will help you reach your objectives.

Measure your success. Whatever your course of action, remember to review the performance of all your efforts. Measuring every activity allows you to make the best use of your dollars and generate the most business possible for your investment. Keep track of how customers find you - surveys can help - whether or not they return and how much money you spent attracting them. Analytics programs are a great way to monitor website and social media traffic. And finally, as you assess the ups and downs of your plan, don't be afraid to fine-tune weak spots.

A well-defined marketing strategy is the first step toward achieving business goals and one of the most powerful components of any business plan. A little research and some careful planning can lay the groundwork for a successful 2013!

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