How I Learned to Love Small Business Marketing

When I started my current business, I thought I had a clear picture of who my audience was, where to find them and what they needed. As soon as I went to market, I learned I was dead wrong.

I failed to be specific enough about who I wanted to reach. I didn’t understand how they saw the problem I was trying to solve. And I tried to find them in places where there was more noise than signal.

When I started my current business, I thought I had a clear picture of who my audience was and how I should do my small business marketing. Boy, was I wrong. This article is all about how I learned to love small business marketing - by Lex Roman

I was stunned by how off I was, but I quickly got to work revising and testing how I sold my services. Over the last year of running this business, I’ve come a long way in how I talk to my potential customers. I learned how to test my audiences, messages, channels and offers. Learn from my mistakes and use my Marketing Recipes framework when you’re building awareness for your new business.

Where I Started with Small Business Marketing

Part of the reason I started my business was to do more work locally. I figured after a global pandemic when so many small businesses weren’t prepared, shop owners would already be interested in selling and growing online. I thought there might be some businesses who still weren’t online or who wanted to grow their business online but didn’t have a great local digital marketer.

My starting assumptions about my customer were as follows:

  • Audiences: Brick and mortar small business owners (restaurants, coffee shops, indie retail, automotive) and independent professionals who need websites  
  • Messages: Easy websites, easy marketing coaching, all inclusive digital help, on demand marketing help
  • Channels: Door to door, cold calling, cold emailing, local markets, Chamber of Commerces, direct mail postcards, Instagram

Since I was creating digital marketing from scratch, I knew that for them to be my customer, they likely weren’t online much. Anyone who already had a website and robust social media presence probably didn’t need me. So I hit the streets, the phones and the mailboxes to get in touch with these business owners. 

I knew I’d have to refine “brick and mortar small business owners” but I wasn’t sure in which direction so I left that open early on. I also created a service offering that was somewhat generic as I thought business owners might want an all-in-one digital marketing solution. Staying broad early felt right at the time but it did not help me reach prospective customers. By targeting everyone, I was targeting no one.

Testing My Market Assumptions

One of the best decisions I made was to get to market fast. I knew from my days in Silicon Valley that the longer you work with assumptions you haven’t tested, the more you invest in the wrong solutions. Entrepreneurs are often wrong about a lot when they launch. Getting to profitability requires testing and iteration. I spent about a month preparing my offers, packing and online channels and then, I began putting it out there!

My first test: I ordered 100 postcards and I hand wrote messages to businesses I wanted to work with who either didn’t have an online presence or they weren’t maintaining it. I heard nothing back from any of them.

My most memorable test: I walked into a coffee shop and offered the owner what I thought was a fantastic deal. Truly a bargain for the value. She said to me “nothing is cheaper than me doing it myself.” It really verbalized what I was learning going door to door. Many businesses didn’t see the value in growing online and they weren’t responding to my offer. 

My most hilarious test: I was particularly interested in working with pizzerias as I love pizza culture and I know a lot of pizza shops that have a larger-than-their-product brand. I thought some of them may have bigger goals for their business. I took out an ad in a magazine called “Pizza Today” and offered a pizzeria specific website creation deal. The problem was a company called Slice beat me to it. They managed to sign up the bulk of pizza shops for digital ordering. I found that pizzeria owners weren’t interested in more than that and didn’t get even one lead.

My most labor-intensive test: I got a booth at the local farmers market. Then I created a special time limited deal. I set up a raffle, brought a portfolio book and made stickers, magnets and postcards to give away. I knew it was a longshot but boy was it! A few people stopped by but after trying the farmers market and a craft market, no one even got to a lead stage afterwards. I love working with neighbors and really wanted this to work but I couldn’t justify the level of effort for the return.

My most successful test: I was lucky that some of my friends were my earliest clients and supporters. I created a formal Affiliate Program early on that several people joined. Referrals remain my most successful channel. Creating a formal program has helped me keep everyone up to date with what I offer and it’s encouraged affiliates to recommend me as they get a small fee for every sale.

I spent a lot of time in the early days assuming my target audience was sold on needing a solution for digital marketing, but they weren’t. Brick and mortar businesses that I approached were still not that interested in the money they could make online. Whether they needed my solution or not was irrelevant because they weren’t looking to solve the problem.

Developing a Small Business Marketing Framework

In my past life, I was a growth practitioner in Silicon Valley. Companies would bring me or my team in to help them get through a blocker to growth. I led many an effort to identify what was going wrong in their product or service that was preventing people from buying or sticking around. So when I hit a similar roadblock myself, I turned to my growth toolkit.

I set up a big foam board in my office and I put the following columns on it:

  • Audience
  • Messaging
  • Channel
  • Offer
  • Price

Under each of these columns, I listed the things I had tried or wanted to try on post-it notes. Each post-it note was one discrete assumption. For example:

  • Audience: New brick and mortar entrepreneurs starting their first business
  • Messaging: Unsure where to turn for help with your online presence? Get support spinning up your website, social media and search engine presence anytime you need it.
  • Channel: Direct mail postcards
  • Offer: Anytime you need it digital helpdesk for all things web, social and search
  • Price: $75/mo

Each post-it was an option to experiment around. Ingredients of a recipe if you will. When I tried the above recipe, if it didn’t work, I could keep some of the ingredients the same and change one or more of them. Maybe I had the right message and offer but I was wrong about the audience. This allowed me to identify the one ingredient that was working and ditch ingredients that weren’t drawing my audience in. It also helped me generate a ton of ideas on how to refine my audience persona and how to reach them with a compelling offer.

Learn From My Mistakes

If you are hitting roadblocks marketing your small business, learn from my lessons! Try these tips to get unstuck:

  1. Start your experiment board first: Create a list of audiences, messages, channels, offers and prices. Isolate them as ingredients and remix them into different recipes. I have a free Marketing Recipes worksheet you can use to get started. 
  2. Focus on *really* understanding your audience: A lot of entrepreneurs (myself included!) gloss over this step thinking people will be as excited about your business as you are. Spend the time to talk with potential customers. Ask open ended questions. Listen more than you talk. Learn what’s top of mind for them and see if what you’re solving or offering is important to them. Reflect on whether you are solving the right problem or whether they may not be your best audience.
  3. Invest in highly targeted channels early: When you’re just getting going, you don’t want to cast a broad net because you’ll spend money and time reaching people who will never buy from you. Focus in on the most likely channels where you’ll find just your customers (or mostly your customers). These include word of mouth/referrals, conferences, events, podcasts, media, partnership webinars, forums/networking groups and industry targeted ads.

It’s really easy to think search and social will solve all your business awareness problems, but for small business owners, that’s rarely true. Both search and social take a ton of effort due to the fact that you’re competing with many businesses who have bigger budgets and bigger teams. They are not quick wins for marketing your business early on. They are longer plays that might be worth investing in, but you won’t see that return for a while.

I learned this the hard way with my own business. It wasn’t until I started breaking down my marketing experiments that I could really see where I should spend my marketing time and dollars. It wasn’t on Instagram. It was in building out an affiliate program. It wasn’t on TikTok. It was in guesting on highly targeted podcasts.

Ignore what you think everyone else is doing and instead, pay attention to the channels that yield value for you early. Double down on those to build your business in the early days and once you’ve got a pipeline of leads, add in more long play marketing efforts like content creation or search engine marketing. 

Entrepreneurs who keep iterating and improving are the ones who create sustainable businesses. Experiment often and find your ideal marketing recipes. We’re all wrong about some of our business assumptions in the beginning. The real secret to success is learning fast, ditching what’s wasting your time, and investing in what brings results.

What lessons have you learned when it comes to your small business?

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