It’s tempting for business owners to hibernate during, this, the winter of our economic discontent. Everyone wants to freeze their marketing budgets, and hunker down until warmer economic climates arrive. We’re all feeling the effects of these trying times, especially small business owners, who must crunch their finances and try to make the marketing dollars stretch.

Luckily, it doesn’t cost you hardly anything to market anymore. Thanks to the internet, creativity and knowledge are the new currencies. Adhere to these simple promotional tools and you’ll get that extra publicity boost you need to take your business to the next level.

Advertising Vs Public Relations

Before you begin promoting your business, you need to ask yourself the following question: What’s the difference between advertising and public relations? It may sound like a no-brainer, but many business owners use these terms interchangeably. They’re different, and here’s how:

  • Advertising: This is the term for a paid public promotion of a product or service (i.e. newspaper ad or online ad banner)
  • Public Relations: This is an unpaid promotion intended to create goodwill for a person, product or company (i.e. press conference or press release).

Now that you know the difference between advertising and publicity, it’s time to consider including some “public relations” initiatives into your marketing plan. Here are some can’t-miss actions you should take:

Create news-worthy press releases:

Not all news necessarily warrants its own press release, so exercise a bit of caution, here. Before you send out a press release, consider if it’s a topic that would interest the local media (or national media – depending on the scope/region of your business).  It’s really quality over quantity, here. If you are a food supplier, get to know your local community groups so you may contact them to break your news. If you’re a restaurant, send press releases to your local newspapers, internet groups, and advertise, advertise, advertise on many social media outlets. There are many places to post your press release online, and make sure to check your press release for errors and mistakes before you send it out.

Websites, blogs and social networking sites:

These are free publicity tools (a website is more expensive, but it’s an essential long-term investment) are readily available at anybody’s fingertips. If you haven’t developed a website or created a blog, then you are missing out on crucial promotional opportunities. Social networking sites such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Industry Blender are tools of connectivity and promotion that you simply cannot live without. They generate potential leads and customers, and can reach many more people than traditional advertising at a fraction of the cost

Organize free or low-cost special events:

Utilize your company’s conference room or restaurant for an after-hours or off-hours event that will help you meet new people and generate buzz for your business. It’s important to thank your customers and clients in this way because the gesture makes them feel appreciated. Even if it’s only an inexpensive morning coffee event, it’s important to put a “face” in front of your clients and customers. In this age of the email, text messaging, and voicemail, business owners sometimes forget that people buy from people, and that physical meetings will only enhance your transparency and “realness” that people seek when they’re buying in person and online. Free or low-cost special events put you right in front of your clients again.

Become involved in your community:

Even if you can’t afford to make a monetary donation, your volunteer time is just as important both for promotional purposes and to help worthy causes. Involvement allows you to give back to your community and provides a great networking opportunity. You can also give in-kind donations for auctions (both products and services), which is another great way to promote your business (and are tax write-offs). Pick a charitable organization that has personal meaning for you, and become a good steward within your community. You will meet other business owners and possibly land new clients and prospects.

Attend events that really target your audience/target market:

Before you take on every networking event or trade show, ask yourself a few questions: Is this event going to help my business? How many people are attending? What’s my return on investment? Is it free or is there cost involved? How many leads/contacts do I hope to land as a result of this event? Don’t get into the bad habit of saying “yes” to every event because you THINK you need to attend them all. Pick and choose the best networking events that you think will provide the most benefit.

21st century business owners market smarter, not harder. Try out some of these cost- effective tips and you’ll boost your reputation, become more visible to your customers, and improve sales more than you ever thought possible.

It’s amazing how many parallels can be drawn between the Web 2.0 revolution and food. First, let’s look at how food got to be so popular. Here’s some Web 2.0 for thought:

Our interest in food has increased dramatically in the last 20 years and now receives a level of attention normally reserved for celebrities and musicians. We can identify television cooking shows and the internet as catalysts for this shift, delivering new ideas and trends in food production to the mainstream.

Our consciousness about health and wellness has put food right under the public’s noses. Most mass-produced food contains chemicals added either during the production process, manufacturing process, or both. With cancer rates on the rise, food recalls receiving more press than shark attacks, and obesity an epidemic issue, consumers are fighting back against the supposedly “regulated” products that government agencies and their producers have deemed fit for consumption.

And most importantly, we want the truth, and unlike with television or newspaper articles, the internet is a medium where we can be immediately heard, and have, in effect, become a vocal driver in how businesses operate.

Consumers want accountability and transparency from the companies with which they do business. Big corporations have been attached with horrible stigmas for years, and with social media the opportunity for unflattering news to spread has never been stronger. Smart companies realize this, so they’re going right to the source for their validation: their customers. The customer is either your most valuable asset or a force of complete destruction. Word travels fast (bad news many times faster than good) so reputation management is becoming just as important as the actual product produced.

Our evolved obsession with food came about because food has a tremendous amount of “trend-worthiness.” Every good trend requires a high-volume interest base, prolific players within the activity or idea, and a level of accessibility.

The first proof of this is to consider the simple fact that everybody eats. Who wouldn’t take an interest in food? But food can be looked at from a necessity and interest standpoint. Yes, we all have to eat, but we also need constant hydration without just drinking water all the time. Gatorade, juice and soda all provide a little spice and variety to the experience. And it’s the same reason people still eat out at restaurants despite the fact it’s discretionary spending. Eating at home is uninspiring at best, unless you live with a professional chef. There’s only so much the average person can do in the kitchen, so they need restaurants to satisfy their needs for elevated taste experiences.

As a culture, we’re very keen on keeping up with celebrities. I think professional chefs make the perfect celebrities because they’re very enigmatic, charismatic, and often have unique personalities. They’re a lot like artists; they express food in extraordinary ways which can take your breath away. The fact that the best chefs in the world just do it better than most everyone else means that people are going to find them interesting, follow them, and thus the best ones are exceedingly popular.

The final reason food is ripe to be a lasting trend is that it can be prepared by anyone. Only the fortunate few ever become celebrities from cooking, but the ones that have made it are constantly in our consciousness, selling products, starring in television shows, releasing cookbooks, and opening restaurants. And people love them. I can’t think of a single celebrity chef that isn’t positively embraced (or, at least, not hated), but I can think of countless athletes, businessmen, actors and generic celebrities that are less than desired by the public. All in all, it’s great to be a celebrity chef, and if you have a stove, some ingredients and a few good ideas, you can impress your date, serve high-rollers, and maybe one day get a cooking show of your own.

Stephen Mutch, a business management, operations and client services professional from Napa, California says this about great customer service: “At the most basic element, great customer service  is (all about) fulfilling promises.  Failure to do that leads to loss of credibility and trust in your company and organizations which have fatal and long-term ramifications.”

Marketing and promotions can be accomplished in many forms and from a number of different mediums.  Some strategies are designed to reach a great number of people, while others focus on targeting and reaching a specific customer demographic.

Regardless, fostering great relationships with your customers are of utmost importance.  It’s often a  challenging task as consumer needs are constantly evolving and must be frequently monitored so as to make the necessary adjustments.  This is why a number of companies are employing “reputation managers” who constantly monitor blogs, social networks and other information sources on the internet to keep up with what people are saying about their brands.

It’s been said here many times before, but the best way to get the information you need to be successful is to establish many contact points with your customers.  And how else to do this effectively, inexpensively and efficiently but through social media!

So this week’s tip:  Take charge of your customer service!

Seattle-based Decho group, a technology development firm, doesn’t wait for customers to contact them with questions, comments or concerns – they seek them out directly by using social media tools.

ITBusiness.ca reports on their strategy: “‘Increasingly, they are choosing to reach out to the online community and ask questions about our products, rather than contact us directly,’ said Dave Robinson, vice-president of marketing at Decho.”

Amazon.com demonstrates pure mastery on this front.  They were featured on the cover of Business Week Magazine earlier this month because of their ability to turn potentially bad publicity into an opportunity to brand themselves as a caring company.  Here’s an exerpt from the article:

“For the most part, Amazon has earned a reputation for strong service by letting customers get what they want without ever talking to an employee. Sales clerks are nonexistent. Orders ship with a few mouse clicks. Packages arrive on doorsteps quickly. It all happens with monotonous regularity even as the number of customers has doubled in the past five years to 88 million. But when things go wrong at Amazon—and they occasionally do—the company’s employees get involved. That may be where Amazon stands out most markedly from other companies, and helps explain how the company earned the No. 1 spot on Business Week’s customer service ranking this year.”

When a business reaches out to their customers and does everything in their power to make them happy, they remember it, sign the company’s praises in their blogs, and tell all their friends.  A gesture which may cost $20 to fix could result in $2000 worth of business from valuable viral word of mouth.  A failure to pony up that same $20 in the event of a mistake could cost $2000 the other way.

Promote your Expertise

March 9, 2009

The internet has afforded people the luxury of having a voice, and what better way to use that platform than to share your expertise with the world for the benefit of your readers and business.  Writing and posting articles on blogs, social media sites and other professional outlets is a lot cheaper and more detailed than saying what you or your business does in a 3-line newspaper or Yellow Pages advertisement.

Use any opportunity you can to promote your knowledge to the people who will respond to it the most.  Supplement your services by offering tips, strategies, and other jewels of wisdom you’ve learned and allow others to benefit from your insight and experience.  This can be done on your website, through a blog, or via collaborative efforts with colleagues.

Newsletters are a great way to disseminate this information, so don’t be shy about sharing a little insight with your loyal fan base.  It’s a great marketing technique – possibly the most effective bang for your buck.  Speaking of bucks, maybe if you give away your famous carrot cake recipe, your lawyer and accountant may return the favour.

Build an Online Presence

February 26, 2009

If you’re a restaurant or supplier, chances are you have a few tech-savvy employees who are quite versed in the ways of the world wide web.  These individuals are online a lot, participate in social networking and probably do a lot of shopping and other business on the internet.

They understand how important the internet is in their daily lives, so they’re perfect for spreading the word about your business to the whole world in cyberspace.

Pay your employee or employees to spend a few hours a week managing your online affairs, including frequently updating your website, joining online business communities and creating and joining groups on their social networking channels.

The idea of getting paid to do what they do everyday will really get them excited, and they’ll feel like they play a very important role in the business.  This PR and exposure is money well spent.  It’s the best and most inexpensive way to market yourself, and will prove to be a crucial component of future business success into the 21st century.