Marketing For Small Businesses Or How Not To Waste Money: Common Mistakes And Best Practices

Online Reputation Management
by Daniel Burstein
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— Please, give a brief intro about yourself. In some way, mention how long you have been working with small and medium businesses.

I am the Senior Director of Content & Marketing at MECLABS Institute.

I oversee all content and marketing coming from the MarketingExperiments and MarketingSherpa brands while helping to shape the marketing direction for MECLABS Institute — digging for actionable discoveries while serving as an advocate for the audience. I am also a speaker and moderator at live events and on webinars.

Previously, I was the main writer powering MarketingExperiments publishing engine. Earlier — Vice President of MindPulse Communications, a boutique communications consultancy specializing in IT clients such as IBM, VMware, and BEA Systems.

I have 19 years of experience in copywriting, editing, internal communications, sales enablement and field marketing communications. Well, that's since I graduated from college. But I had an internship as the main copywriter for a 4-person ad agency called MediaWorks in Florida after my sophomore year in college, so I've been working with small and medium businesses for over two decades :-)

— Name the top-3 most frequent mistakes small business owners make (from your experience). What should SMB owners do to stop themselves from falling into such traps? What should our readers do if they already find themselves in such a situation?

Small and medium business owners are so passionate about and close to their products, they can lack perspective. Really, that is the biggest mistake they make overall. So find a way to make sure you bring the customer's viewpoint to the table.

That can be by hiring (full-time or as consultants) people who can challenge you and advocate for the customer. You should do customer research whether that is talking to customers, surveys, A/B testing, a whole host of tactics.

We've even created a thought tool to help business owners and marketers take a more customer-first perspective. It's called the MECLABS Conversion Heuristic and it includes the elements that affect the probability of conversion. Many marketers and business owners post it on their cubicle or office wall, and use it as a customer-first gut check.

The next two mistakes are subsets of the first.

One is communicating without credibility.

When we have a value proposition workshop, there is sometimes frustration from the owners or marketers of, "But I'm saying all of these things on my website and in my marketing and it's not working."

It's not enough to make a claim forecefully and emphatically. Customers won't believe it. State more facts and have less opinions. More nouns and less adjectives. More clarity and less rhetoric.

A great example was a small business we were working with that bragged on its website about how quick their product was to set up. They had specific statements that their product only took X minutes to set up while their competitor's product took X hours.

I (and probably most customers) thought, "Yeah right. If I go to the competitor's site, it probably says the same thing but in reverse." It turns out that data was from a respected third-party organization, but they didn't mention it on their website.

Clearly adding the source can help increase credibility and therefore conversion.

Here are some elements companies can use to communicate credibly:

The other mistake is overlooking hidden value.

The only value that affects customers' purchase decisions is the value they perceive. While small companies make bold-faced claims they don't communicate credibly and oversell themselves, they also overlook hidden value and undersell themselves.

In that same example above, one of the reasons the company's product had a quicker installation was because they pre-configured it before it left the factory. The competitor had customers pre-configure it at home. But they never mentioned the pre-configuration on their website!

So it was hidden value. Value they were creating, but value that the customer was unaware of so it had no impact on conversion.

— With what services or activities are SMB owners usually too controlling – be it time or money – but shouldn't be?

They are too controlling of the value proposition. They think they can dictate to the organization what the value proposition is.

It you want to get the most value out to your customer and find your organization's hidden value, you need to go on a journey with your team to discover that value prop. Doing so will also get your team aligned around that value proposition to better communicate and deliver it to the company.

For that reason, a value proposition workshop is a great company- building workshop and a great team- building workshop at the same time.

Here's an example of a how a tech startup used a value prop workshop:

— On what unnecessary services or activities do SMB owners usually waste their efforts?

It varies based on the individual.

For example, if the SMB owner has a big company background, sometimes they try to replicate the big company structure in a small company. There is too much reporting, internal communication strategy, meetings, HR-type career paths, approval processes, strategy sessions, etc.

A small company isn't a smaller version of a big company. It's a different thing entirely. Because of that, it is far easier to bring humanity and an understanding of individual employees and their strengths and weakness to bear in leadership and management. It's far easier to cut through red tape and keep structure to a minimum, and in so doing, empower employees to think like entrepreneurs and take ownership.

One challenge a small business can have is recruiting, especially against large enterprises. But if you have an open, transparent, ownership-driven culture, you're going to attract creatives that would struggle in the bureaucracy of a large corporation.

But this is only one piece of the puzzle, called corporate creativity.
Close more deals with quick and easy customer interaction!

— Taking the activities you mentioned in the previous question. How should they measure success? What indicators should they track? How can they understand that everything is effective if you are not a professional analyst?

It is going to vary by the company's goals. For someone looking to build a sustainable business, profit is going to be a key performance indicator ("Small Giants" by Bo Burlingham is a great book on this).

If the goal is getting to an exit strategy by being acquired or event going public, revenue, install base, or audience size might be more important metrics.

If your company necessitates having inventory on hand that you sell, cashflow is going to be extremely important. Successful companies can go out of business just because they don't have or can't get access to cash quickly enough.

If the product isn't launched yet, clearly mapping out what it takes to getting to a "Minimum Awesome Product" (along with cash burn rate along the way) is crucial.

— Big companies have their elaborate branding strategies, advertising campaigns and a special voice & tone for client communication… Are these things necessary for small businesses? If yes, how can they be transferred to the SMB sector?

Big companies try to replicate human-to-human communication and humanity with the things you're talking about.

Again, this is where small companies can make a mistake of being a smaller version of big companies.

Use your small size to your advantage.
You can't out-budget the big companies.
But you can out-humanize them.
Use your founder as a key spokesperson.
Create content marketing that helps serve your niche.
Actually have email conversations with your email list.
When people subscribe to email from our brands – MECLABS Institute, MarketingSherpa, and MarketingExperiments – one thing that surprises them is that we send our email newsletters from real people. And if they reply to those newsletters, we reply back and help them.
Have a real human-to-human conversation.

We use some of those conversations to power content in a series we call "Ask MarketingSherpa" (and here is some more info about no-replay emails.)

— When should businesses research who their clients are? Should it be a recurring process?

Always. It is recurring. Well put.

Before you launch, make sure you have a customer base to launch to. And make sure you understand them.

And then keep learning from them. Are they satisfied with your products? With your marketing? What should you change? What should you double down on? And are customers changing?

They don't stay static. Everything from market and economic conditions, changing competitors, evolving technology, and just the passage of time (ie they are getting older) can change customer perception of your product?.

Here's some data that shows the better companies understand customers, the more satisfied they will be:
How customer understanding impacts satisfaction (
How customer understanding impacts satisfaction (

— How do SMB owners find who their clients are? What methods are the most common? Are they always reasonable? Please, arrange them from the cheapest to the most expensive ones. What are their pros and cons? Are there any myths about any method?

Cheapest to most profitable…

Gut (yours and your employees)

Pros: Especially if you're experienced in your industry, or were a customer yourself (two reasons many people start companies), you likely already know a lot.

Cons: You are likely heavily biased and have major gaps in your thinking.

Publicly available Third-party data

Pros: Search around on the internet. There's already a lot of information out there.

For example, here's data about how customers find local businesses:

Q. When you are searching for a local business, product or service, how likely would you be to consult the following information sources? (​
Q. When you are searching for a local business, product or service, how likely would you be to consult the following information sources? (
Cons: This is just general information. How accurate is it for your specific customers?

Reviewing analytics and data

Pros: You can see how customers are behaving.

Cons: Small data sets don't always scale linearly. Also, it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy in some ways because you are monitoring the people you've easily been able to attract and can be overlook a large possible customer segment that you have been ignoring.

Social media and forums

Pros: Customers have always had water cooler conversations and talked to their neighbor over a fence. Now you can listen in.

Cons: You may only be listening to the most vocal customers which really only represent a small proportion of your universe and customers. Also, you only may be listening only to the most social media and savvy. Can be time consuming.

A/B testing and marketing experimentation

Pros: Can measure actual, real-world customer behavior.

Cons: You may not have enough traffic to run a valid test.

Surveys, interviews, focus groups, etc.

Pros: You can learn directly from customers by asking them. But make sure to prepare the questions for interviews thoroughly.

Cons: Unless you're a skilled interviewer, you can prime them (unintentionally lead them to answer the way you want). Even if you are skilled, they may just tell you what you want to hear.

Also, customers don't alsways consciously understand why they buy. They are telling you an opinion, and measuring real behavior is always more effective.

— If you had to give just one marketing tip to an SMB owner at the beginning of their business, what would it be?

We are all like Dr. Frankenstein in some ways. We are all obsessed with our own creation. Be aware of that.

Try to get a real understanding of the market place and determine if it has a real value proposition compared to the competition. Realize that customers don't care about your product. They care about themselves.

So with everything else out there, all the other choices, why should your product be chosen? What is in it for the customer?

With Amazon and Chinese competition and Wal-Mart, you likely can't win on price anymore. So make sure you are able to win with a better value proposition.

— Please, name 5-10 independent online sources a small business owner should follow.

Well, I would start with our own websites.




I also write guest articles for Target Marketing magazine, and they are good as well:

Then, find publications dedicated to your unique niche and industry. Since I'm in marketing, I read and subscribe to:

Ad Age,

And general business publications are good as well to make sure you have an macro-understanding of the market. I read and subscribe to:

The Wall Street Journal,
By Daniel Burstein

Daniel is Senior Director, Content and Marketing at MarketingSherpa and MECLABS Institute – "The World's Largest Research Institute Dedicated to Discovering How People Make Choices," according to the company's motto.
This is a guest post. Want to feature in our blog? We'll love to hear from you at [email protected]

Originally published Oct 4, 2019 10:00:00 AM

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