10 common marketing mistakes small businesses make all the time

Most people don’t go into business for themselves because they like marketing. But if you want to stay in business, you need to develop a competency at it. Here are some of the most common mistakes I see as small businesses go to market.

  1. Sending the wrong message: You can go broke trying to saturate the market with messages about what you want to sell. You make money by offering what the target market wants to buy. It’s not always the same thing. For instance, you may think you’re selling commercial snowplowing service, but is that what your customers want? Or are they buying liability protection and legal compliance? Thinking about it that way might change the way you describe your service.
  2. Doing just one thing: In an environment saturated with marketing messages, you’ll rarely succeed by looking for the one technique that works like magic. Such silver bullets are rare. Instead, good marketing means doing some of everything – advertising, social media, promotion, community relations, etc. – and then optimizing these activities over time to deliver the results you need without overspending time or money.
  3. Not budgeting: If you wait until you have the money for marketing, you may never get there. Businesses need to market all the time. By building a reasonable marketing expense into your budget, you’ll know how much you can afford to spend and you’ll have a good basis for measuring results and fine-tuning your activities over time.
  4. Skimping on design: I’ve seen people try to save a couple hundred dollars on a $10,000 advertising program by having a friend or relative put together the creative. If your logo, ad, website or direct mailer looks amateurish or misses the mark, the only thing a large budget will do is make you look bad to a lot more people.
  5. Mixing business and pleasure: Your company Facebook page is an extension of your business. It should be separate from your personal page. And if employees feel it’s OK to use the company page to post pet pictures or – heaven forbid – their political opinions, you are losing customers already. Business strategy should govern what gets posted to your social media feeds, and direct access to those feeds should be limited to one or two people who clearly understand your vision.
  6. Impatience and inconsistency: Any given activity needs to be cultivated and given time to work. Your target market needs to be trained to look for your communications and respond to them, and this takes time. If a marketing activity isn’t working, you need to replace it. But pulling the plug too soon wastes time and money. When you start a program, get some expert input to decide on some realistic objectives and a reasonable time frame to meet them. Then see it through.
  7. Copying the competition: If your marketing consists of doing whatever you see competitors doing, the best you can hope for is to do a little worse than them. It’s good to have healthy respect for other businesses like yours and pay attention to how they market. But nobody ever looks comfortable in someone else’s clothes. So if you aspire to your own success, develop and stick to a game plan that’s right for you, rather than the people you compete against.
  8. Competing on price: There is only room for one lowest-price provider. Unless you’re willing to take the thinnest profit margin while serving the most difficult customers, communicate some other reason people should buy from you. Then it’s enough that they know your prices are competitive.
  9. Going without a website: No matter what business you’re in, a website is as important as a phone number. It’s the difference, for example, between being a gutter specialist or just some guy with a ladder. Many people won’t even do business with a company unless they can preview it online. Even a simple, low-cost website makes you easier to find and says you’re fully invested in the business.
  10. Making a big splash rather than a steady drip: You can spend your entire budget in a day. But what about all the people who were home sick? Or traveling? Or just too busy to tune in to your message? Small businesses generally don’t have the cash flow for a giant media blitz, but they can afford to reach a well-targeted audience day in and day out. Such a campaign has the side benefit of delivering a few customers at a time, rather than bringing in more than you can handle all on the same day.

Image courtesy of  Scott Chan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net  

Mowing down price objections in advertising sales

conflict_ jesadaphorn_freedigitalphotosYou won’t close many advertising deals without being asked to cut your price. But doing so takes away from revenue, sales commission and profitability – and that’s the best case.

More likely, it will make the deal harder to close – creating more obstacles and potentially sending your prospect into the arms of the competition.

That’s because most price objections aren’t really about price; they’re about uncertainty. It’s similar to when someone says he’s too busy to meet with you. It’s not that he doesn’t have time; it’s that your meeting isn’t important enough for him to push something else – work, lunch or leisure – off the to-do list. If you want to get that meeting, you can do it by being a pest (in which case the meeting will go badly) or by making it your job to show why the meeting would be worthwhile.

When someone says the price is too high, that really means, “I don’t understand why I would pay that much for what you offer.” Lowering your rate is the “be a pest” solution; you may as well say, “You’re right – even I think it’s too expensive. So would you pay this much?” The lower you go, the less value your product has in the mind of the prospect.

What good can ever come from a relationship built this way?

Or you can make it your job to help him see why your product is worth the price. This is harder. Prospects don’t always put much thought into why they’re uncomfortable; they just know they aren’t at “yes” and price is the easiest way to express it.

So you need to bring along the prospect on an examination of the value of advertising and specifically your product. It’s real work, but when done well, it results in a higher closing percentage, higher rates and better customer relationships.

Discuss price early

A salesperson’s instinct is to hold off on price conversations until the end of the sales process. But price negotiations are, by definition, adversarial: One side’s gain is the other side’s loss. So this strategy sets up the very last moment of the deal – when everyone should be feeling warm and fuzzy – to be its most contentious.

Putting price on the table early makes the rest of the conversation more comfortable.

I have a specific way of doing this, saying something like: “Businesses in your category generally go with a quarter-page ad, which costs $210 a month – or just over $2,500 a year – if you follow the best practice of running every month.”

Each part of that statement has a purpose:

  1. Suggesting an appropriate ad format establishes familiarity and expertise in working with your prospect’s peers. Be realistic; don’t suggest a large ad for a business that ought to be running a small one.
  2. Providing both a monthly and annual number creates a realistic benchmark of what a reasonable advertising program costs while letting your prospect digest the impact on cash flow.
  3. Asserting the need for frequency starts negotiations with an ad program that’s most likely to really work.

This early in the sales process, a prospect will usually withhold any meaningful reaction to the number – but it allows time for him to process any initial sticker shock.

If a prospect does push back you can address it directly by saying: “Without getting too far ahead of ourselves, do you have a specific number in mind for what this is worth?” (If you are a student of sales tactics, this is not intended as a trial close; this probing and should not lead to a protracted discussion of price at this time.)

Your prospect has three possible answers – any of which will provide useful insight:

  1. An unreasonable response. “Give it to me for a dollar and I’ll sign right now.” You’ve learned you aren’t being taken seriously yet. You have to spend time building trust and educating – probably over several interactions – before you’re likely to close a deal.
  2. A specific response. “I was thinking more like $160.” This is a sign the prospect is educated, has a budget in mind, and is sincere about wanting to buy – from you or someone else. You’ll want to emphasize the value of your publication and the professionalism you bring to the transaction – all while trying to find out where else he’s looking and leaning. (Don’t assume your competition is necessarily another publication like yours; it could cable TV, card packs, Angie’s List or some other media.)
  3. No response. If the prospect admits he doesn’t really know how much your service is worth, then the initial price objection is probably either a reflexive response to sticker shock or a sign he really doesn’t have enough money. Engage in conversation to find out more about his level of experience with advertising.

Once you’ve gotten through this part, you can set price aside and proceed with the usual steps of the sales process:

  • Understand the client’s desires/motivation for advertising
  • Educate about your product
  • Create a direct connection between his desires and your product

Understanding the objection

When it’s really time to close, the prospect may again push back on price. This still probably means something other than “I won’t buy unless you cut the price.” You’ll need to probe to figure it out. Some possibilities:

I don’t believe in your product: There might be a disconnect between what you’ve told him and what he already believes. Perhaps he doesn’t see people reading it around town, or has heard others complain about lack of results.

I don’t understand it: The prospect might be unfamiliar or uncomfortable with how his spending is going to deliver a meaningful return.

My competitors don’t seem to advertise in your product: This is difficult to overcome and is one of the few occasions I’ll offer a judicious price discount, saying something like: “I know we’re perfect for Realtors but I need a real market leader to show them the way. If you have the courage to be the first, I might be able to arrange some kind of discount as long as you commit to a full year.”

Only an idiot pays retail for advertising: The people who are most responsible for this attitude are the people who sell ads. The prospect assumes that you’re like every other ad rep he’s dealt with: Afraid to lose the deal, not very knowledgeable about your own business, and more interested in getting his money than delivering on his objectives.

So prove you’re different: Explain why your published rates are worth paying, and let the prospect think about it by “closing” him on a promise to talk to you the next time you’re in the area. Then leave. Nothing will give this prospect more respect for you than a demonstration that you believe in yourself and your product enough to walk away for now.

One publication is as good as the next: Nobody expects a Mercedes Benz to cost the same as a Ford. When someone insists you meet the lowest price of some other advertising outlet, he is overlooking all the engineering that’s gone into making your publication successful. Respond by educating him about what makes your publication better for advertisers.

I want to make sure I’m not overpaying: Sometimes, the prospect merely wants to make sure he’s not paying more than necessary. You can provide all the reassurance he needs by saying, unapologetically, “For the program you want, this is the best price I can offer.”

Explaining why your rates aren’t flexible

The most useful tool in dealing with price objections is the sincere knowledge that your rates are correct. If you have any doubt about this, you’ll find some way to broadcast it.

Armed with that confidence, here are some constructive responses to persistent price objections:

  • Our rates are based on our cost of doing business, and they are competitive. I can’t cut them further.
  • Holding all customers to our published rates gives you confidence that you’re getting a fair deal. There are no secrets or magic words to get a better price. Nobody gets a better deal than I’m offering you.
  • Our customer list is no secret; we publish it every month and place 9,600 copies of it around the community. Why don’t you call some of them and ask if they are paying the published rate.
  • The more ads you buy, the lower your rate will be, and the better your program will work. It’s that simple.
  • Our best rate is reserved for our best customers, and I’ll tell you exactly how you can get it: Buy a 24x program and pay your bills on time. I guarantee you will have the lowest rate anyone ever pays – and an ad program people will notice.

Finally, for the hard case

Some people simply won’t budge until they’ve seen you bleed. If you’re really confident that’s what is happening, don’t just reduce your rate. Instead, insist on a deal where you both get something you want. Like: “I’m not able to do anything on the rate for a 6x package. But if you agree to buy 9, I might be able to get permission to slide you down to our 12x rate. If I can do that, do we have a deal?”

And yes, that is a trial close: Don’t give away anything until the prospect promises it will be enough to seal the deal.

Image courtesy of Jesadaphorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net


5 good projects for your holiday-season lull

new year_ambro_freedigitalphotosFor many of us, business is going to slow down at some point in the next few weeks of the holiday season. A lot of people will use it to clean their desks, or maybe even take some time off.

It’s also a good time to set up your marketing efforts for more impact in the New Year.

Here are 5 projects that are perfect to undertake during the holiday slow-down – whenever it begins for your business. If you pick just one or two, it will make you a more effective marketer next year.

1. Update your website

Every website needs attention now and then – both from a perspective of content and technology. Content: Over time, the language you use to describe your business has probably changed. Visit every page on your site and update the language as needed. Technology: Website platforms and content management systems (e.g. WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, etc.) get updated regularly, as do the many applications, plugins and accessories that may be built into your site. These should all be updated at least once a year. If you get too far behind in updates, your website’s speed, functionality and stability can suffer.

Always back up your database before starting. And if you’re not very comfortable doing this work, ask your website developer/technician how much it would cost to do this work; it shouldn’t be more than a a few hundred dollars. If you do it yourself, at least alert him/her to be ready in case your site crashes.

2. Clean up your social media pages/profiles

LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and all the others are constantly updating functionality and your business is constantly evolving. As with your website, year-end is a good time to go through each of your social media channels to make sure they contain only your current information and that you’re utilizing all of the new gizmos that offer value to your business.

3. Power-up your e-mail list

Is your e-mail list on a service like Constant Contact or MailChimp? If so, you can go through the list and segment it by major customer categories for more targeted messages in the year ahead.

If you don’t use such a service, consider using this time to start; they’re easy to use and generally free (unless you have a really large list). Maintaining your own e-mail list is a hassle and comes with risk – the biggest of which is that you can be branded a serial spammer and blocked from delivering any message to major e-mail domains like aol.com and sbcglobal.net. The e-mail services are designed specifically to assure you comply with anti-spam regulations, but they also offer powerful tools and analysis to boost the impact of your communications.

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MarketFarm email sign-up

Don’t have a list? For many small businesses, this is their most valuable marketing asset. Use this time to get one started by signing up with one of the e-mail services. Then, put a registration button on your website, Facebook page, etc., put a QR code in your place of business and printed materials, and offer incentives for customers to sign up.

How important is an e-mail list? One local retailer just sent a direct-mail promotion offering a $20 gift card just for signing up.

4. Freshen your e-mail newsletter

If you send out regular communications to your e-mail list, consider whether your template should be refreshed. Sometimes, an old degraded template is deterrent enough to keep you from sending business-building messages.

Does yours force you to fill more pigeonholes than you have content for? Does it look dated? If your practice is to paste new content into copies of older newsletters, a lot of the original design elements – font size, spacing, separators, etc. – have probably been corrupted over time.

5. Add a new social media outlet to your capacity

Are you using Facebook and Twitter effectively? Add another.  If your products or services are highly visual, you may lean toward Pinterest. If you sell to businesses, LinkedIn is probably best bet – though it can be extremely frustrating to use. Consider Instagram, Vine, Tumblr and Stumbleupon. Google+ is too big to ignore, though most people I know struggle to figure out what it’s good for.

Whatever project(s) you choose to improve next year’s marketing, I hope you have a safe and happy holiday season.

Image courtesy of Ambro/Freedigitalphotos.net




The Goldilocks theory of contact information

I recently found myself working with the owner of a service business whose marketing materials send business calls to his home phone – which he only checks at night. He doesn’t use e-mail, and his mobile phone is set up to not take messages.

He apparently doesn’t like to be bothered.

On the other extreme, I recently encountered a small-business owner who’s e-mail signature reads like the Congressional Directory; it provides 3 phone numbers, fax, 2 e-mail addresses, Twitter, Facebook and, of course, mailing address.

It left me wondering how I should reach him. Does he actually check all of these contact points several times a day? Should I send messages through several of these, or just one? And which one?

People who provide so many possible points of contact are trying to be considerate. They may hope to create convenience, or convey that they’re accessible and deeply interested in hearing from you. Unintentionally, they create uncertainty.

So how much contact information is just right?


Providing an e-mail address is mandatory – even if you hate computers.

But for small companies, one address is always enough: People expect a timely response to e-mails – not an immediate one. So it’s more important to give confidence that their message is going to the right place and will be handled promptly.

Providing multiple addresses puts the burden on the customer or prospect to figure out the right one for their specific message. Most likely, they’ll just send it to both – meaning you end up dealing with it twice.

Because nobody can know how any given organization will actually route an e-mail message once it arrives, the best way to provide certainty is to offer a single address and take responsibility through internal processes for making sure it gets to the correct location.


Phone numbers are a little different. When someone makes a phone call, they usually hope to reach someone immediately. But in this age, we’re all realistic: If you provide a single phone number, people aren’t surprised – and are usually tolerant – if they have to leave a message and wait for you to return the call.

But if you provide two or more  phone numbers, it tells people they can expect to reach a real person – and that they should keep dialing until they do. The more numbers you offer, the more frustrating the exercise becomes. So it’s OK to offer multiple phone numbers – but only if one of them is actually going to lead to direct human contact (in which case, why not give people that number first?).

Social media

Social media is a disaster waiting to happen.

If you provide your Twitter handle as part of your contact information, you are implying that you’ll receive, read and respond to direct messages sent via Twitter. There are people out there who really do communicate this way. Most businesses are not prepared to actually do this; they’re just trying to get more Twitter followers, and don’t even know how to check for direct Twitter messages – let alone do it 3 or 4 times a day.

It’s the same with Facebook. If you provide the address of your Facebook page in the context of contact information, people will use it to engage you for issues that deserve immediate attention. Rather than call or e-mail with a complaint they’ll place it for all to see on your company’s Facebook page. I’ve seen serious complaints sit on company Facebook pages for weeks at a time without ever being addressed.

If you want to use social media for day-to-day contact with customers, that’s wonderful – as long as someone in your organization is responsible for checking and responding frequently.

But if the point of promoting your social media pages is to build a following, then don’t make this part of your customer service and contact information. Give it a separate location in your marketing materials and use words that set the right expectation, such as “Follow us on Facebook.”

All of this may sound intuitive, but I see multiple examples every day of businesses that harm themselves in the way they present contact information on websites, brochures, business cards and e-mail signatures.

Take a look at yours. Are you offering too little, too much or is it just right?

First they tell you to swipe your credit card…

First they tell you to swipe your credit card.

Then they tell you to push cancel.

Then they tell you to push credit.

I wish they’d make up their mind.

Basic logo files you need to own

Many of my dealings with small businesses involve the passing back and forth of logos and such for use in advertisements, large banners, websites, Powerpoint presentations, etc. Often as not, the digital copies of these art elements are less than optimal for the intended job. The result is fuzzy reproduction or compromised design in order to minimize the appearance of  a logo that doesn’t quite work.

A JPG with severe memory loss

Graphic design jargon and technology may seem confusing, but you really only need to know the purpose of 4 different file types to handle most situations. A description of those (and a few more) follows, but first, here’s what you need to know most:

If a graphic designer ever does work for you

For logos, icons and other art elements you’ll use repeatedly, ask the designer in advance to deliver a package of 3 different file types of the final artwork:

  • EPS file: It’s a format you won’t be able to open or use yourself, but it is the master file from which all other file types are created; a graphic designer will know what to do with it. You don’t actually have full ownership of the art element unless you have the EPS file in your immediate control. Technically, what you need is a vector-file, and EPS is a standard format for storing such files; other file types will work, but keep it simple – ask for the EPS.
  • JPG file: It’s the most familiar file-type for supplying your art elements to others who may need them – for ads, sponsorships, co-marketing ventures, etc. There are serious drawbacks to JPG technology, which are the cause of about 90% of the logo problems I run into, but it’s a standard that you’ll use again and again.
  • TIFF file: It’s used the same way as a JPG, and while it’s less familiar to laymen, it has one major advantage over a JPG: It doesn’t degrade as it gets moved from one computer to another. You should send a TIFF file to anyone who needs your logo unless they specifically say their system can’t handle it.

Those white boxes aren’t on purpose; the white background couldn’t be removed because of the file type

If you don’t have an EPS for existing logos, go back to the original designer and ask to get them. Do it now, before he/she gets hit by a bus or something. Depending on your original agreement, you may not actually own the right to the EPS file; copyright law favors the designer in this. But if the designer balks at sending you the file, be insistent – even if it means paying a reasonable fee to get it into your hands. (Personally, I think a designer should be willing to turn over everything to you for one price; then again, if you’re one of those clients who wheedles and needles the designer after working him/her down on price 3 times, you may not deserve it.)

For advertisements, flyers, printed newsletters and other pieces of art that are composed of multiple elements, it’s probably enough to get a high-resolution PDF and JPG. (If you own a full version of Adobe Acrobat, you only need one of these, as you can make your own PDFs from JPGs and vice versa.) These graphic creations are essentially single-use, so having the native file – often Photoshop, Illustrator or InDesign – isn’t going to be of much help. But know that if you want to resize or otherwise adapt this file for any other use, you’re still captive to the designer who holds the original file.

If you really want complete control, specify in advance that you want a copy of the native file along with the PDF and/or JPG. That allows you to send the original work to any designer for subsequent use. Again, the designer may charge extra to give up control of the native file – though most will provide it as a courtesy if you ask; it’s fair, as long as you know in advance. You’ll decide if the price is worthwhile.

Important file types

Now, here’s a basic overview of the file types and what each is used for:

JPG or JPEG – Joint Photographic Expert Group: The first issue with a JPG is that it’s a photo of your logo. You can enlarge or stretch it, and apply special effects across the whole thing, but you can’t change its fundamental appearance. If the type is rendered in black, you can’t magically make it some other color; if the logo background is white, you can’t make it transparent.

The most important thing to know about JPGs is that they lose information (i.e. resolution) when passed back and forth by phones and e-mail clients that automatically compress files to speed transmission. That’s why a 2 MB photo e-mailed from your hard drive may arrive as a marginal 900 kb. The lower the kb number, the smaller the image has to be before it looks sharp. Passed back and forth a few times, you’ll end up with a 24kb that looks fuzzy no matter what.

The compression technology used is described as “lossy” – once compressed, the detail cannot be recovered. This explains why a JPG scraped from a website can’t be used for print. Your computer screen shows resolution of 72 dpi (dots per inch); by default, websites don’t bother storing anything higher. But a printing press requires at least 300 dpi – information that’s simply not there in a photo taken off a website.

Don’t pass the same JPG back and forth. File your original high-resolution JPGs carefully and always send from those. And figure out how to set your e-mail preferences to avoid automatic file compression.

TIFF – Tagged Image File Format: It’s less familiar than JPG, because point-and-shoot cameras and smart phones typically don’t save as TIFFs. But it’s the preferred technology for storing and sharing photos, logos and other art elements because it uses “lossless” compression: An image can be compressed and decompressed without losing detail. Mainstream design and desktop publishing software, such as MS Office and Apple Pages, recognize TIFF files as well as JPGs.

PDF – Portable Document Format: It’s built for taking complex files with multiple elements and locking them into a single file that looks the same no matter how it’s opened or used. It’s like a collage; all the individual elements are blended into a single piece of art that can’t be unwoven. For that reason, it’s a poor format for managing logos and single art elements; each element loses its own identity. If you send someone a PDF of your logo for use in some other project – or worse, a PDF of your ad with instructions to pull the logo off of that – they’ll have to cut out the logo, convert it to a JPG and figure out what to do with the fuzzy blob that results.

EPS – Encapsulated PostScript: It’s the mother file – where art elements are rendered as smooth lines rather than bits and pixels. You won’t be able to do anything with this file type; programs like Word and MS Publisher aren’t designed to handle them. But it’s what a graphic designer needs to manipulate details within the art element – such as changing the background color, or removing an element, etc. Further, they are compressed using “lossless” technology – meaning that no detail or resolution is lost when these files are moved back and forth over time.

EPS files typically aren’t used to store large composite files like ads. They’re for individual art elements like logos, that get lots of use and adaptation. Think of an EPS file as the archival copy of your artwork.

GIF – Graphic Interchange Format: Web-friendly and peripheral for your needs. They are small files that allow transparent backgrounds and lend themselves to animation. But they only support 256 colors using the RGB (Red Blue Green) color technology of older computer screens. They cannot be used for printing because they don’t support the CMYK color technology (Cyan Magenta Yellow Black) required for paper.

PNG – Portable Network Graphics: An improvement over GIF and JPG technology online because it uses “lossless” compression. But it doesn’t support CMYK color technology, so like GIF and unlike JPG, it’s web-0nly.

There are dozens of other relevant file types, but these cover most of what you run across.



Best practices in e-mail marketing

The simple unsubscribe function comes with a surprising number of variations. While federal anti-spam regulation requires an unsubscribe opportunity in all e-mail marketing messages, the law doesn’t say you have to make it easy. And many marketers don’t. Where is it all headed? Here’s one possibility.



Optimizing the local, independent business

In my community in Cleveland’s inner-ring eastern suburbs, Walmart just abandoned its old location and moved less than a mile away to a newer, gianter, superer Walmart. It has increased the size of its food section – making no secret of an ambition to take yet more business from the two independent grocers that still thrive here.

The character of my community is defined in large part by the independent merchants who operate here. Many of these small-business owners have made an art out of surviving the onslaught from big boxes and national chains. But that job requires constant vigilance and change.

The non-profit FutureHeights exists here in part to support a business environment that’s friendly to local businesses. On its website, it lists 10 reasons why people should shop local first.

That list can also be turned around and used by local, independent merchants as a game plan for competing against the bigger and blander chains.

Here it is, with my own annotations on how local businesses can optimize themselves:

1. Keep the money in the neighborhood: For every $100 spent at a locally owned business, $68 goes back into the community, strengthening the tax base. For every $100 spent at a chain store, only $43 comes back. [Source: Institute for Local Self-Reliance]
For businesses: Broadcast your involvement; allow local events to be posted in your windows; discuss local issues (in a positive, upbeat way) on your company’s Facebook page and other communications. You and your business will come to be seen as part of very fabric of the community.

2. Embrace what makes the community different: One-of-a-kind independent businesses are part of what gives Cleveland Heights and University Heights their attractive character. But competition from well funded national chains can be very aggressive, and our local merchants can’t survive without our business. If we wanted to live and shop in a cookie-cutter suburb, we wouldn’t be here.

For businesses: Be aggressively unique and promote that individuality in everything you do. Some people just want low prices and 100,000 square feet of selection and there is nothing you can do to keep such customers. So focus on thrilling the customers who value the different and willingly pay a little bit extra to get it.

3. Get better service: Local businesses often hire people who have a better understanding of the products and services they’re selling, and who take more time to get to know customers and their neighborhoods.

For businesses: Train your staff well, and maximize your time with customers to serve them as only the owner can.

4. Buy what you want, not what the national headquarters wants to sell you: Locally focused small businesses can be much more responsive to local needs than a national chain. Together, a network of local independent businesses guarantees a more diverse selection that is better aligned with the home community.

For businesses: The local grocers mentioned at the beginning of this post are great at this; they carry specialty items that customers have been buying for years, and which Walmart won’t stock. If as customer is looking for something they don’t have, they’ll offer to order it and find some small space on the shelves to keep it in stock.

On another note, you know how your products differ from those of national chains, and you know the games that big boxes play. If their Chinese-made goods are flimsier than yours, or if their special packaging actually offers a higher per-unit cost, help to educate your customers; they want to understand why your goods really aren’t more expensive than the big chains.

5. Create more good jobs: Taken together, small local businesses employ more residents than national chains. Local business owners are more loyal to their employees, and vice versa.

For businesses: Make a special effort to employ locals. Their friends will do business with you; the quality of life of their entire network is based on your profitability. That’s a lot of people pushing for your success.

6. Help the environment: Independent local businesses locate in our traditional commercial districts, a short drive away or even within walking distance of our homes. National chains build on the suburban fringe, leading to more sprawl, traffic congestion, habitat loss, and pollution.

For businesses: Embrace sustainable practices and local sourcing when possible. Can you think of ways to reward such practices among your customers?

7. Support community groups: Non-profits receive an average of 350% more support from local business owners than they do from non-locally owned businesses.

For businesses: Embrace the stream of people who come to your business seeking contributions. Can you allocate $500 a year to local causes and dole it out in $25 increments? Doing so would support 20 community causes – walkathons, school plays, soccer teams and the like. It’s OK to set guidelines, such as: The cause must be truly local; it must be apolitical; it must provide some kind of signage, advertisement or other visible recognition for your business; etc. For every cause you support, you create loyalty and preference among dozens of families involved. You want to be known as the easiest “yes” in town. That doesn’t make you a sucker; it makes you a caring neighbor.

8. Invest in the community: Local businesses are owned by people who live here, work here, and are more invested in the future of this community.

For  businesses: See above.

9. Put your taxes to better use: Local businesses in traditional shopping districts need comparatively less infrastructure investment and make more efficient use of public services as compared to nationally owned chain store, which consume a disproportionate share of space, utility and transportation infrastructure, and public resources.

For businesses: Get together with other businesses in your district and look for ways to save money for yourself and the community. Is it possible to share dumpster service or sidewalk clearance? Can you work together to communicate with City Hall on issues of safety and regulation? FutureHeights printed small point-of-sale postcards that contain this list of reasons to shop local, and makes them available to merchants who want to distribute them. You and a few merchants could get together and split the nominal cost of doing the same.

10. Be a model for Ohio and the nation: In an increasingly homogenized and wasteful society, neighborhoods built around small-scale commercial districts and unique local businesses pose a more attractive and sustainable alternative to characterless sprawl–not only making for better quality of life, but freeing up resources for improved future growth.

For businesses: Decorate your windows; put festival lighting outside the store; do your part to make your business district warm and attractive. Since the first shopping malls were built in the 1950s, real estate developers have been trying to recreate the look and feel of Main Street. If you occupy the real thing, emphasize it. And let customers know that every dollar they spend is a vote for the kind of shopping they want to do. Thank them when they vote for the kind of shopping you offer.




The oppression of the wrong quadrants

This is so simple, so obvious, it probably doesn’t need to be stated. Except that I first heard it a couple decades ago and have used it every day since. So maybe a brief mention:

The Productivity Matrix is a simple tool that helps you make sure you’re doing the right work at the right time.

Stephen Covey had a matrix like this in his iconic book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. That may be where I first saw it, though his is organized a little differently than the one here. But the point is the same: Everything you do fits somewhere within this matrix.

Items in Quadrant 1 are tasks that are not urgent and not important. It’s amazing how many of these come in each day by e-mail – and how easy it is become indentured to them. Working in Q1 is “Productive Procrastination.” You can tell yourself you’re getting something accomplished, but it’s never anything that matters.

Items in Quadrant 2 are urgent and not important. These are often other people’s emergencies – their failures to do the right thing at the right time. Regardless of origin, Q2 work is toxic – stressful yet pointless.

Items in Quadrant 3 are both urgent and important. Some Q3 work is an integral part of daily business – seating lunchtime customers at a restaurant, or doing the end-of-the-month billing. You can’t get ahead on this stuff.

But some Q3 activity exists because it simply didn’t get done sooner – like planning holiday sales promotions in mid-October. The work would have been more fruitful if it had been done in August. This kind of Q3 work can be tough on profits; it often results in extra expenses like expedited shipping and paid overtime. When big businesses undertake “process optimization” what they are really doing is figuring out how to reduce the number of tasks that end up in Q3.

Items in Quadrant 4 are the source of all things good in business and life. These not urgent  but important activities are things that matter – things to be pondered, polished and perfected. It is in Quadrant 4 that businesses are transformed, partnerships are sealed, successes are made, happiness is achieved.

It’s easy to get so wrapped up in stuff from the other quadrants that you can go days or weeks without ever touching Q4 work. But if you can schedule time every day – even a little –  to work in Quadrant 4 activities, you’ll find yourself spending more time on the things that matter and bring you joy. And as time passes, you’ll find that more of what you do works out well.



3 local marketing best practices: Be seen, be known, be remembered

Success in marketing isn’t about finding the one thing that works; it’s about cultivating a range of activities that, cumulatively, bring in the customers you need. Some of the best activities cost little and exploit your own interests.

Here are examples from 3 Cleveland Heights businesses that do a good job at making themselves seen, known and remembered:

Community involvement: Every year on New Year’s Day, Tommy’s Restaurant hosts a fundraiser for HeightsArts. Owner Tommy Fello donates the food and the entire facility, and a handful of his key staffers donate their time to cook. But that’s just the most visible of many local causes the restaurant supports – usually by providing the food. The result: Samples of his food showing up all over town, an immense amount of goodwill and 40 years in business.

You can’t give away goods and services to everyone who asks, but if you pick good causes and make sure to get reasonable recognition for your support, you’ll work your way into the hearts of the people in the community – the very people your business exists to serve.

Leverage small partnerships: Not quite 2 years old, The Winespot has quickly evolved into more than a store. Through a partnership with the Cleveland Institute of Art, its walls showcase (and sell) student art. It hosts a couple “openings” a year to introduce the next round of artists. It also has a small seating area and a location appropriate for small music combos to perform.

Launching from that, owners Adam and Susan Fleisher have focused on extending the store’s productive hours by establishing it as a venue for special events – and offering corkage to allow customers to enjoy wine and beer purchases on premises.

Now they’ve added dinner to the mix; the store keeps menus on-hand from 5 nearby restaurants. You can buy a bottle of wine or beer, pay a corkage fee and call in a food order. The restaurants will bring the meal to you – no surcharge.

It’s not likely to be the most important source of business for anyone involved. But it’s clever, cheap and just different enough to bring in some incremental business for everyone.

Exploit undermarketed venues: Before opening Sweetie Fry’s storefront location, owner Keith Logan sold his craft-made ice cream from a portable food cart. Last fall – looking to keep the food cart busy – he tried to swing a deal to sell ice cream at Heights High football games.

While that proved unworkable, he and the school created a sponsorship program that brought in money for the athletic department and promoted Sweetie Fry during games. Several times throughout each home game, the PA announcer would ask a local trivia question. The prize? A certificate for free Sweetie Fry ice cream.

The contests were a hit. Sweetie Fry’s name became unforgettable among those in attendance. And a small business quickly earned and outsized reputation.

Each of these companies could serve as the source for more such examples, because all of them layer their marketing through multiple activities.

There’s bound to be something your business can do too that doesn’t cost much money, plays off your strengths and interests, delivers positive results and can be replicated for success. The trick is to find it.