If you work for a small-to-medium-sized company (SMB) and are in a marketing role, you are no doubt strapped for resources in the form of people, money, or time. This is especially true when it comes to research for understanding customers, prospects, and how to best message and market your product or service. The day-to-day challenges of managing your business can easily get in the way of thinking and planning about ways to grow or expand.
A “plan” does not scream out for immediate attention. Plans assume that conditions are stable and predictable — but in the new era of COVID-19, conditions are far from ordinary. As a colleague of mine recently said, “If you see lots of umbrellas, you can conclude that it’s raining, but it doesn’t tell you when it will rain next.” Or if there is a hurricane coming. The obvious challenge we are ALL facing now is how to meet future customer needs given the restrictions imposed by COVID-19, and a future that is far from certain.
What kind of planning can you do right now? Certainly, long-term planning will be challenging, but let’s start with some simple rules — what I call the “three T’s” of SMB marketing.
Targeting: involves identifying your target audience, the best way to reach your target, and the best way to communicate your story (messaging).
Work hard to make sure your user target is right. Begin to dimensionalize it by using readily available data sources. A great place to start is the US Census (business and county data patterns), and companies that sell secondary research (e.g., “pre-packaged” reports on various categories, from companies like Statista or Packaged Facts).
Ask yourself: what problem are you solving? How is your solution better than the competition? Use custom research to better define your target and refine your USP. Common descriptors are “market studies”, “positioning research”, and “market segmentation ” to understand and size your market. In some cases you can link survey data with shopper data (which can be appended to your surveys) to understand who you should target. Some of this can be done subjectively based on your own knowledge, but back up your opinions with some hard facts.
If you are in a fast moving consumer goods category (FMCG), or any category where customers have multiple buying opportunities during the year, consider targeting loyal customers or loyal competitors. They are unlikely to be consuming all of their category volume solely from either you or the other guy. This is sometimes called a “share of requirements” strategy — i.e., the share your brand has of total category consumption.
As another close-in strategy, find non-buyers who fit the profile (demographically, attitudinally) of loyal customers, as this is likely to reap rewards. Initially, maximize your reach (i.e., the total number of people exposed to your message), but do not over-emphasize it. If launching a product, it is initially a numbers game. Not every consumer or prospect is equally valuable/profitable, but you have to start somewhere.
If you are lucky enough to have a marketing or media budget, now is the time to re-examine all of the possible ways to target customers… via social media (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn), advanced and addressable TV (read more from media expert Bill Harvey here), and linear (live) and local TV. But more importantly, is your messaging on-strategy?
Testing: test different messages, selling points, products, or features in each channel you advertise, to educate and communicate. Test, test, test!
Testing is an iterative, tactical process that also feeds your business strategy. The more you learn, the more your strategy will adapt. You must continuously test to find that winning message, product, or formulation for your target (or targets). Give special consideration to testing among loyal customers (if you have them) or best case prospects. As noted, loyal customers are an ideal research audience, and can provide significant insight, as they are already pre-disposed to you behaviorally and attitudinally.
Pay special attention to testing your creative. Experts in media attribution assign about 80% to the impact of creative (i.e., the combined impact of the raw information about your brand’s story, combined with words, images and sound) on conversion. Put another way, if your message resonates, the teacher will give you an automatic ‘B’! The rest depends on the delivery mechanism and overall customer journey. With so much fertile ground in the creative itself, focus your initial efforts here.
Many platforms allow you to A/B test different offers in real time (i.e., pricing, flavors, colors, products), messaging (different creative executions), and delivery schedules (i.e., continuous advertising, vs. flights). Testing resources here include Central Control or independent platforms like One Count. Don’t get distracted with the more sophisticated attribution modeling companies (e.g., C3 Metrics, Sequent Partners) – as an SMB, you’re just not ready for them yet.
Occasionally, when I talk about doing survey research, SMB clients think I have three heads, but do not discount the power of survey research to provide insight into what consumers are looking for, or to help narrow down options for your retail store or e-commerce site. Get a free SurveyMonkey account, or use forms-based tools like Constant Contact, Google Forms, or Office 365 Forms to gather feedback. Some of these tools are basic, and you may need to graduate to a more sophisticated platform as your testing needs grow, but their basic feature set is excellent.
Here’s another idea: leave your office, go out into the world (mask on, of course), and visit some real stores! Woo-hoo! Yes, lots of commerce is done via the web, but the vast majority is still brick and mortar, and the retail environment is closest to the end customer. If you already have distribution, go visit stores where your product is on-shelf. Note what is working, and what is not. While you are there, check out your competitors, or hire a mystery shopping firm to see if there are problems in finding your product. Are competitors better or worse than you? In what ways? How can you improve?
Tracking: once you have identified your target, and you have tested and identified messages for your target, monitor how well you are doing.
If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. Develop forms of continuous reporting, i.e., sales x channel x region x segment; or customer reviews; or other forms of objective feedback. Build monitoring systems using dashboards and visualizations to know whether refinements or adjustments are needed. Consider an ongoing advisory panel comprised of customers or clients, or a heavy user panel, to give you regular feedback on your product or service. Gather ideas from distributors/resellers to learn about issues that you might be unaware of. Talk to competitors if you can. Smartly designed research can yield significant insights.
Most of all, just listen. Keep your ear close to the ground and gather feedback like a sponge. Review each customer rating through an objective lens and see how it can enhance or improve your business. Don’t have a thin skin when it comes to feedback of any kind. Customers can be especially sharp: the internet lets people hide and in turn ‘permission’ to be nasty. Take the high road.
Last, this doesn’t have to be expensive. Well-designed research and good judgment can go a long way to help your business thrive and grow. As your business becomes more successful and more sophisticated, the need for feedback on individual aspects of your business will increase (i.e., individual products, or new customer targets).
As your needs grow, consider working with an expert to help identify problem areas and to refine your overall marketing plan. After all, if your marketing problems were that easy to solve, you would’ve figured them out by now. It will be money well spent.