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In almost every aspect of their business, small business owners are asked to make careful, prudent decisions about the allocation of their often limited funds – tracking precisely the Cost of Goods Sold (CoGS) against Sales to ensure profitability. Every dollar spent is tracked and accounted for, either as an essential cost of doing business (rent, employees, etc…) or as a cost of inventory that will result directly in profit.

By contrast, when it comes to marketing, small business owners have historically been asked to take a leap of faith – to spend their money without any clear sense of how much positive impact it will have. In essence, these traditional attempts at small business marketing have escaped any clearly definable Return on Investment (ROI) analysis. It’s for this reason that so many small business owners declare their sole reliance on “word-of-mouth” for marketing.

A lot has changed, however, in recent times. Sophisticated, yet affordable technology now exists that can track a customer relationship from a simple online ad placed on Google right through to a successful sale – offering small business owners a unique chance to be entirely data-driven in their marketing approach. Every single aspect of your small business can be tweaked and optimized to ensure that you are enticing customers, upselling where possible, and encouraging people to spread the word about your business.

The Early Bird Gets the Customer

There really is no second chance at a first impression, so when it comes to spreading the word about your new small business, it’s almost impossible to get started “too soon”.

Before you even open your doors you should be attending local flea and farmers’ markets to give customers a sneak peek of your product (and gather feedback). While there, you should start collecting customer emails so you can let the local community know when your actual store opens.

Take the time early on to get set up on one or two social media networks and start driving people there to stay up-to-date on your latest news. Start sharing the narrative of your new store everywhere you can – this is your opportunity to promote your mission statement early on and get feedback. People want to know what makes you special, so tell them why your store or restaurant will be different to everything currently available. By sharing pictures of that new fancy espresso machine or “sneak peeks” of your new store interior, you can gain buy-in to your central message and build some anticipation of your opening.

Once you have your space secured, you should get some nice pictures up on the windows that illustrate what’s to come. Put up leaflets that people can take away with them. You can even hang a clipboard and pen on the front door where people can sign up to hear more about your business. Once you have this list, why not stage a launch party and invite the local community (and local journalists). The first step for any business is always getting people to try out your product!

It’s no accident that some of the best marketers in the tech startup industry are known as “growth hackers”. Think about your target demographic (e.g. students, local mothers, teenagers) and find any way you can to get the word out to them. Email the “Mommy bloggers”, hand out free samples at the local college, or hand-write your website on all the napkins you hand out with your food. There is no substitute for action.

If You’re Not Online, You Don’t Exist

If you speak to some experienced local business owners, they’ll decry the existence of online review sites like Yelp.com and Google Local. They’ll tell you about the added time and pressure they now face to maintain social media profiles for their businesses. And a lot of local entrepreneurs will share their bad experiences with online “daily deal” websites. But all that complaining doesn’t change one immutable fact: The web isn’t going anywhere.

It’s true that these sites do exert a lot of power over the success and failure of small businesses, but if you look at them another way, they also offer an invaluable opportunity for you to reach potential customers at a scale that has never previously been possible. It’s up to you to embrace this opportunity with open arms.

The right first step online for most stores and restaurants is creating a Google Local Business ListingGoogle accounts for about 70% of all search traffic and more and more of that traffic is coming from mobile devices.  Chances are, your customers are using Google to find you, so you’ll want to make sure your opening hours, description, contact details, address, images, etc are all accurate.

Edit: 06/11/2014: Google have announced a new hub online where businesses can ‘Get on Google’.  It’s called Google My Business and promises to provide a one-stop shop for all the services you would want from Google as a small business owner.

According to a survey of 645 brick and mortar retail businesses we recently carried out, 53% said they planned to embrace “DIY” Marketing by shifting their attention and marketing spend to channels they “own”, such as email campaigns and social media. 54% said they plan to invest in a new website or e-commerce presence. Small business owners are starting to join the digital revolution and reaping the rewards in terms of increased customer loyalty, growing word-of-mouth, and most importantly, increased sales.

David Slayed Goliath For a Reason: Sometimes Smaller is Better

As a small business owner you can either look at your marketing budget alongside the Walmarts of this world and wave the white flag or you can choose to change your perspective and realize that being small brings distinct advantages in the modern economy.

Firstly, more and more consumers are rebelling against the generic offerings of big box retailers and seeking out the unique, personal touch offered by small, local business. You can leverage this message by weaving yourself into the fabric of your community. Canadian yoga apparel retailer lululemon has enjoyed explosive growth thanks to their ability to do just this. According to their website, “A lululemon store is so much more than a place to shop. It’s an education centre, a yoga studio and a meeting place. It’s a local hub for educators, ambassadors and guests gather to learn, sweat and connect. It’s our lifeline to our communities and the soul of our company.” Lululemon uses free events to make people feel they have a sense of local “ownership” of the brand and you can do the same thing! Getting people through your door is 90% of the battle and event marketing definitely can bring in crowds.

Secondly, your size allows you to laser-focus your attention on the right audience. Walmart wants to sell everything to everyone. Maybe you can just focus on selling colorful earmuffs to children in the Mission district in San Francisco. This kind of clarity allows you to compete for search rankings on Google, key positions on Yelp and other business recommendation engines, and for space on social media.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, your size should make you lean. Every single aspect of your store or restaurant can be tweaked and optimized to ensure more and more customers are coming through the door. As you experiment with strategies on Facebook or Twitter, introduce a new email marketing initiative, or simply erect new signage outside your store, you have the chance to measure your success and react quickly to failure.

Read: Are You Smoke Testing Your Business?

The Bottom Line

Success as a small, local business will necessarily be a function of how many bodies you can get through the door on a daily basis. The good news is that while there is an incredible amount of competition out there for consumer attention, your size can provide distinct advantages by making you targeted, lean, and original.

Get started early, embrace the technologies available, and you will have a better chance of putting your best foot forward, both online and off.

Small Business Guide to Social Media

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