Small Business Expert
Essential hints, tips & business advice for startups & entrepreneurs.
Want to increase your small business’ sales, expand market share and boost your year-end profits? Consider doubling down on custom marketing programs and online solutions. Thanks to the magic of high-tech, from unique value-adds to creative contests, giveaways and online deals, a variety of novel campaigns can quickly be assembled to match any budget. Looking to give your enterprise the gift of record growth? The following expert online marketing guide – complete with hints, tips and strategies for entrepreneurs, startups and local neighborhood stores – can help you bolster your balance sheet without breaking the bank.
Social and Affiliate Programs – Given word of mouth’s growing influence on today’s household purchasing decisions, it pays to turn fans of your business into evangelists. The best way to recruit them: Incentivize conversation by providing eye-catching offers and savings, and compensate those that generate direct leads with exclusive discounts, gifts and cash rewards. Using software tools such as those offered by providers like Extole, DirectTrack and ReferralCandy, you can create customized referral programs for almost any industry. (Refer a pal, get $20! Click here to send Facebook friends a code for 60% off!) Distributable via social networks, widgets, apps and email, white-label solutions not only offer wide flexibility across devices, platforms and promotions. They also make it easy to track ads from click to purchase, and conscript an army of credible sales associates working on a strictly commission basis.
Mobile and Location-Based Marketing – Over 420 million smartphones were expected to sell in 2011 alone according to IMS Research, many containing built-in GPS devices that actively monitor users’ locations. Letting you speak to customers at the right time and place when they’re in a shopping mood, mobile and location-based marketing services like Geotoko, Placecast and Xtify can potentially help close more deals. Providing users with discounts, giveaways and specials via text message, pop-up alert or email, you can also integrate marketing with services like Foursquare and GoWalla to tie campaigns to specific stores or locations. From unique apps that send notifications even when closed to search engines that serve up special offers based on zip code, choices continue to grow. Letting you reach customers right when they’re weighing their options, location-based services can help you steal a sale right out from under a competitor’s feet.
QR Codes – Another handy feature many smartphones and tablets with built-in cameras such as the iPhone and iPad enjoy: The ability to scan Quick Response (QR) codes. These high-tech symbols, which operate similar to retail barcodes, can beam over instant savings or provide access to useful online information. Add them to signs, print ads, business cards and brochures, and customers can quickly access coupons, download menus on-demand or even see how low your prices compare to rivals’. Simple bonuses they offer might include providing free seasonal recipes to go with every dining set, complementary festive music downloads for that new stereo or videos showing products you’re selling in action. Letting you offer everything from suggestions on complementary accessories to go with that scarf to driving directions, potential applications are endless. Just be sure each offers customers meaningful rewards and tie a call-to-action to programs (take our survey to win a beach vacation!) to maximize performance.
Discounts and Deals – With value still paramount for millions of households, many entrepreneurs are increasingly coupling door-busting offers with regular distribution through daily deal services. Providers like Groupon, Living Social, Amazon Local and Google Offers can potentially put savings in front of millions for a slice of each purchase. Letting customers register to receive arresting bargains on spas, restaurants, movie theaters and more via email, all offer opportunities to help marketing programs connect with households trying to stretch every dollar. You can even set minimum purchase quantities required before discounts activate. Likewise, savvy marketers are also leveraging bargain-hunting services like FatWallet, RetailMeNot and DealsPl.us to reach today’s most price-sensitive buyers. Providing discount coupon codes, printable vouchers and unique presents for gift shoppers themselves (free holiday sampler with purchase) can help entice cost-conscious customers back into the fold.
Custom Content and Publications – Resourceful entrepreneurs can also give shoppers the gift of more precious moments to spend with friends and family by providing time-saving hints and advice. Email marketing services ConstantContact, iContact and MadMimi let you send custom digital newsletters (and even expert online marketing guides – how meta!) straight to shoppers’ inboxes for a fraction of the cost of print mailers, and enable content sharing through social networks. Popular service MailChimp even allows gorgeous, customized mailings to be sent free in small quantities, while upgrades allow you to track viewers’ social media profiles and send targeted emails via Facebook, Twitter, Flickr or LinkedIn. Couple with links to bargains, storefronts and online videos (free to upload and host on providers like YouTube, Vimeo and Metacafe, then embed on your own site) to enhance SEO and user engagement. Beyond highlighting your expertise, all can enhance your reach, keep holiday bargains top of mind and help alleviate shoppers’ stress while building brand awareness.
For many businesses and startups today, less can actually be more. Credit the increasing popularity of minimum viable product (MVP) theory, a business strategy which advocates shipping smaller and more polished, yet less expansive and robust products more rapidly. Using its principles, businesses are able to rightsize products or services, bring them to market faster and more quickly generate stable income that can be reinvested into new iterations. Unlike crowdfunding (a popular form of online investment), MVP theory doesn’t ask consumers for funds; it does, however, provide considerable opportunity to solicit feedback and generate excitement among smaller target groups, letting you build better businesses and products.
According to advocates, it’s far preferable to produce a less complex product that’s built around a few artfully-realized features versus spending time and money on a far-reaching venture that tries to be all things to all people. By doing so, proponents say, you’re able to produce sharper results on tighter turnaround, offer more timely responses to market developments, and bring cash in the door faster, allowing for healthier, more organic growth. Moreover, once on the market, initial products can be used as an interactive focus test unto themselves, providing the chance to source consumer feedback that can be directly incorporated into future iterations.
Here are a few hints, tips and strategies for designing a product around this philosophy.
- Plan Extensively Up-Front and Keep Production Cycles Manageable — When scoping out a product and plotting a production calendar, by all means strive to innovate and push boundaries. However, a lot of companies undeniably kill their products through over-ambitious designs – a problem more commonly known as “feature creep,” or trying to cram in too much. One product can’t hope to please everyone though, and focus produces enhanced results. It’s far better to serve a niche with a brisk, but polished product with a handful of innovations than it is to produce an incredibly complex product that does many things poorly. Before entering active production, make certain to trim every bit of fat from concepts and designs, and allot extra time for building and testing prototypes that offer a vertical slice, or working sample, of the end product. This will allow you to quickly get a sense of how well concepts are coming together, create a working demo that’s ready to wow onlookers, and ultimately produce a clean, polished product that makes consumers happy and gets them talking. Be sure to source customer feedback as you go too, so that you can make adjustments to product designs and craft marketing strategies accordingly.
- Release in Parts Versus One Big Whole — Spending upwards of 12 months to develop a grand-scale product means that you’re taking a huge gamble. The virtual equivalent of reading tea leaves and hoping you’ll correctly divine where the market’s headed months hence, you might as well throw darts at a board and hope they’ll land on the correct guesstimate. Stakes are higher than ever today for those speculating on cultural zeitgeists as well. Fail to accurately interpret market forecasts, and your product effectively exists in limbo burning overhead for no good reason, only to flop when it’s eventually released. Instead of attempting to project so far out with ambitious designs, consider releasing more limited versions of your product in waves over the course of the same time period. That way, consumers can have access to the product sooner rather than later. This allows you to discern if a project’s connecting out of the gate at less expense, start the process of brand building and bring in revenue streams more rapidly that can help fund future projects. Moreover, a more piecemeal release schedule makes it far easier to respond to breaking developments in the marketplace, and tailor future versions of your product around direct fan feedback. Too many entrepreneurs spend millions up-front creating lavish websites, apps and services that hinge on consumers pressing a single button or answering a specific call to action. As MVP strategies illustrate, perhaps it’s wiser to see if you can cause any action whatsoever first before committing to thousands of man-hours of production, or piling more expensive functionality on the back-end.
- Expand Only as Progress Dictates — It’s important to get a polished, functional version of your product into the public eye as quickly as possible. But from there, you should also make a point of growing organically according to actual cash flow, and criticism and compliments from consumers. Expanding too fast or launching a huge product with a “bang” can potentially overwhelm your financial wherewithal or overwhelm the customer. Instead, it’s often smarter to grow at a slow and steady pace so you don’t needlessly inflate head count or monthly burn, and give a product the chance to evolve and find its core audience. Too many companies start with an overambitious plan which they’re pre-committed to adhere to, or push too far too fast in the hope of growing rapidly to meet investors’ expectations. The wiser goal: Work to build a small, loyal fanbase and stable recurring revenues, then reinvest in expanding your product and company. Once stability’s been established, you can see what’s working and adjust strategic roadmaps and plans for expansion or acquisition accordingly. Military theorist Carl von Clausewitz once observed that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” As battle-hardened executive generals leading their troops to war well know, being flexible and able to turn on a dime is crucial to survival, today moreso than ever.
“Crowdfunding” is a grassroots means of financing projects. Essentially, people who believe in a particular movement and/or product gather in one spot to offer money and support in hopes of seeing the creator’s ideas get off the ground. Typically, monetary donations are regarded as a pledge, and the donor is rewarded according to his or her level of contribution with one of a kind experiences, merchandise or physical goods. (Not equity in the venture, though the recent passage of the JOBS act will soon change this.) The Internet’s best crowdfunding websites inform interested parties about the project at hand, details the rewards offered, and are updated with new information as the project progresses.
Ideas that are commonly crowdfunded and brought to life through the magic of crowdsourcing include self-published books, independent video games, independent movies and music CD albums, and even community projects, like urban gardens. Even though the idea behind crowdfunding isn’t new, its popularity has exploded thanks to the recent multimillion-dollar successes such as Double Fine Adventure and the Pebble: E-Paper Watch have come via the Internet herding humanity together into one space. If you have a dream but you lack the cash to make it soar, crowdfunding might be your best option.
Need a platform? Here are five of the Internet’s best crowdfunding websites:
KickStarter – Arguably the biggest name in crowdfunding platforms, KickStarter’s support for video pitches goes a long way to make project seem more personal. Artists and game designers are especially drawn to Kickstarter, as the platform makes it easy to offer incentives for people who pledge. Kickstarter does operate on a deadline system: if the target amount isn’t reached by a certain date, the funding falls through and nobody’s credit card is charged.
IndieGoGo – IndieGoGo is a user-friendly site that appeals to artists, designers, and movie-makers. Unlike Kickstarter, IndieGoGo allows project organizers to close a project before the target amount of funding is reached, but transaction fees go up from 4% to 9%.
RocketHub – Like Kickstarter and IndieGogo, RocketHub is one of the most popular platforms for crowdsourcing and crowdfunding new projects and businesses. Billing itself as “the world’s funding machine,” it provides a ready vehicle for raising money for not only entrepreneurs, but also artists, scientists, bedroom hackers and neighborhood inventors. Interestingly, some submissions can quality given LaunchPad Opportunities, or promotional programs that add more visibility, in the real world, e.g. a showing of your artwork in a popular gallery.
DonorsChoose – DonorsChoose is ideal for teachers that are looking to fund needs in classrooms and schools. It’s definitely a welcome idea, given how cash-strapped most schools are these days. Over 7,000 donors have reached over 45,000 kids.
33needs – 33needs is another service that’s tailored to small entrepreneurs. It’s a web-based application that connects hopefuls to interested investors. Projects are divided into several categories, including “The Planet,” “Education,” “Community,” etc.
For more information on crowdfunding and available platforms, visit:
[Image source: Venturebeat]