How to market your small business during a downturn

Blogs 23 Jan 2023

It can be tempting to cut back on marketing spend when times get tough, but smart businesses can maintain their efforts by working smart. From CRM systems to understanding metrics, here are top tips for marketing your small business.

Business owner making notes in studio

This article was first published in First Voice. Written by Christian Doherty. 

As someone who knew what it took to build a successful enterprise, Henry Ford’s business wisdom could probably fill a whole book. So when he said, ‘Stopping advertising to save money is like stopping your watch to save time’, it’s probably worth listening.

Karen Howell runs Zebroid Marketing, working with growing businesses to develop a broader client base and drive sales through a whole range of marketing tools and channels. She says failing to fully understand what effective marketing looks like – and how it can benefit your business – is a common mistake for younger businesses, especially when times are tough. “Real marketing doesn’t support the business, it leads it,” she says. “Marketing is the key strategic element that identifies the direction that any business should take.”

However, getting the most bang for your buck relies on working smart: Karen says any business trying to market itself to everyone will struggle. “The world is a big place, so you have to understand your chosen segment,” she says. “Where smaller companies sometimes fail to market well is when it becomes a random process – let’s try that, or this, and they flit from one thing to another.”

One way to figure out where to start is to ask where you want to end up. “Start with who you want to target; then think about what you want to say to them, and then work on the end-goal of what action you want them to take,” says Gus Bhandal, owner of The Marketing Guru, which helps business owners develop their own in-house marketing skills through training. He suggests asking a simple question: “Where are your ideal clients, and what do you want them to do? If you can speak to them directly then you’re in a good position.”

But how do you know if it’s working? “I see lots of businesses that don’t measure the effectiveness of their marketing, and it’s bizarre,” says Karen. “If you don’t know what’s working, how can you continue? You need to know where your customers are coming from. So trial, test, review, evaluate. And importantly, that’s an ongoing process.”

Made to measure

Karen says that, while the emergence of so many new online marketing tools makes measurement so much easier, understanding which metrics are meaningful takes time.

“Over time you’ve got to develop distinct marketing KPIs: so, for instance, how many leads are generated, what’s my conversion from lead to order to sale, how many conversions do I get, what’s the click-through rate on my emails, what’s the cost per lead?

“All those metrics are useful and the best thing about modern marketing is the ability to track all of that. Digital marketing makes it so much easier to measure your marketing – the challenge is to know which ones to measure and what they’re telling you.”

Gus says that ‘paid for’ marketing – Facebook ads for instance – come with built-in measurement but organic marketing, especially social media, is harder to measure. “I have clients who might want 10,000 followers, for instance, but the most important number is your bank balance. If that’s going up then your marketing is working.”

In the absence of real metrics, he suggests simply asking your customers: “‘How did you hear about us?’ It’s a one-line question but a lot of businesses forget to ask, and instead focus on making the sale,” he says. “But if you find out where they found you, then you can spend more money and time on directing people to that channel.”

Not all good marketing costs money. “People underestimate the importance of PR, and think it’s just the domain of larger businesses,” says Abbi Head, of Little PR Rock Marketing. “But there are lots of free ways to increase your business’s profile.” Having recently given a PR talk to FSB members, she knows only too well the value of face-to-face, free marketing that positions her as an expert in the field.

“It might be face-to-face or written – so instead of writing a blog for your own website, what about creating something to appear on someone else’s website with a higher domain authority? When you start off, decide how much you can invest and then look at ways you can supplement that with your own efforts.”

The most important thing in marketing is consistency, says Gus. “You have to keep doing it,” he says. “Businesses tend to think short term, but when you think about a long-term strategy, marketing has to be a part of that. You have to stay in people’s sight whatever the economic situation – you need them to think of you.”

Good information

Of course, consistency relies on good systems, and if customers aren’t properly managed then developing a relationship that could bring further revenues is that much harder. Previously the domain of larger firms with many customers, in recent years customer relationship management (CRM) systems have become accessible to smaller businesses as the costs have come down.

Dan Jenkins is Head of Client Services at marketing agency Wagada. He says there are two main benefits of setting up a CRM: “Externally, it improves the experience that the customer gets; and internally, it supports the day-to-day efficiency of how you run your business. Essentially, it’s a system to ensure that the business has the data and the resources to enhance the experience of current and potential customers.”

Dan's advice to those looking to use a CRM system for the first time is to work on understanding their key objectives. “Is it to help you send more regular tailored emails to prospective customers? Is it to improve how you’re following up post-sales with existing customers? Asking what you want to get out of it will help it work better for you.”

If the initial focus is on handling completely new prospects and customers, then Dan suggests putting data capture tools in place. “That’s really important because in a downturn, owning your data has never been more valuable,” he points out. “It gives you the chance to make every lead count, and you can build marketing collateral and communications, as well as things like downloadable guides and resources.”

That means that, as soon as someone accesses your website, they’re in the system – whether that’s their business name or their interests. “At that moment they fall through a sales funnel into your business, and they can be a sales lead, and maybe a converted customer and then a current customer that you want to re-engage with,” Dan explains. “The whole point is that the CRM helps you become more efficient, as well as managing your customers’ journey with you.”

Finally, timing is critical, says Karen. “My key piece of advice is to implement a CRM as soon as you can, as it’s a lot easier to do that when you’re small rather than trying to do it later, which can turn into a big project. The sooner you can do that with a small dataset, the easier it is to embed that into your business as a whole.

“You do that to ensure everyone knows why it’s important and to use and update it constantly – because the most frustrating thing is to implement a CRM system and it’s not updated, making the whole thing a waste of time.”

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