Monday, November 19, 2007

Marketing & Promotion - An Ongoing Process

Here is another in my series of classic "Self Employment" posts. In one sense, this one is the most dated piece I have reprinted. Over the nearly three years since I originally posted this, nothing has changed more in business than marketing and promotion. The rise of "new media" has meant several obvious things--Craig's list has largely replaced the classified section of your local hip weekly, and Google ad words has grabbed a huge share of grass roots advertising action.

This piece still has some very good advice about promoting any small business. I emphasize the importance of creating an ongoing marketing and promotion plan that works for you, it is key to keep putting the word out if you are serious about making a living in self employment!

Make the Phone Ring

Okay, you work for yourself providing a product or service. You need the phone to ring. You need queries about your product or service in your email in box. You need a clientele.

Cover your Bets.

I started my T-Shirt printing service in Oakland in the spring of ’87. For seven out of the next ten years, I maintained a part time job to insure that I could make ends meet. It took time to build a clientele that could support me. Chances are, you are jumping into self employment with minimal capitalization, so it’s incumbent upon you to insure some level of income.

Marketing plans & scams

It has been my experience that intuition supplies one with plenty of ideas about how to attract potential customers. When I started freelancing t-shirt printing as an undergraduate, I simply copied up flyers a couple hundred at a time and papered the bulletin boards of the University of Massachusetts campus with them (and the phone poles, and just about any other surface I could drive a staple into). It was cheap and it worked. I lived for years off of my staple gun. I mean staple guns; actually wore a few out. I took care to design flyers that communicated my message in clear simple terms, including the command “Call Steve for a quote”.

A few years back I gave up the flyer method for a couple reasons. First, there were fewer places to hang flyers. As flyers became a more popular marketing technique, they caused more trash everywhere. Cities, universities and what not became smart about eliminating places where lots of messy handbills could be posted. When I started the biz in Oakland in the spring of ’87, I was the only screen printer posting flyers on the UC Berkeley campus. It brought me a ton of business from dorms, frats, clubs, sororities and the like. Within a year, five or six screen printers started a literal wall papering of campus with flyers like mine. I had to hang twice as many to get half the jobs, and it became a lowball market. Who wants to work cheap? Not me! I’ll also mention that it had become a pain in the ass to truck all over town hanging handbills. It just ain’t that much fun. Occasionally, someone would give me a hard time for trashing up their neighborhood, and who can blame them?

From the very start, I also used what has been my number one selling tool, direct mail postcards. Again, I’ve always taken care to craft a postcard that delivers a clear message: “I do high quality custom T printing at reasonable rates, call me up right now for a quote” was the gist of it. I have usually generated my own mailing lists from local weekly newspapers (go after the advertisers and event listers), the local business to business yellow pages, the regular yellow pages, directories from this industry or that. Collect address of companies or organizations who you would like to do business with. I’ve also bought mailing lists from data base compilers… my experience is that these lists don’t produce calls or email queries as well as lists you produce yourself.

Therefore I recommend crafting a postcard that hammers you message home, creating a mailing list and sending those suckers out. Wait two or three weeks and mail it again. Do another version of the card and mail that to the same list a few times. Advertising is a process, not an event. You have to repeat it. Keep your message consistent and it will sink in.

You can target lists at specific industries or categories. You can offer special prices at your slow times. Hone your message and drive it home. It works. Be patient.

Another marketing tool I’ve used from the start is advertising in weekly or university newspapers. You can do a classified or small display ad. It’s expensive and slow to work, so be realistic in your expectations for response. I still do small display ads in a local tabloid. The response is not great, but it keeps my name and logo consistently in front of a focused audience. With newspaper ads (and print ads in general), be sure to budget enough to run the ad at least five or six times. Again, advertising is a process, not an event. I’m investing 3-4% of my profits consistently into advertising and marketing expenses. Often higher. Do remember to continue marketing when you are busy and flush with success. You don’t want to find yourself low on cash, with no work and no prospects one fine day, only to realize you’ve done no marketing for 21 months.

Your intuition will inform you of methods to reach your potential clientele. I’m a 47 year old cartoonist who has always been in love with print media. I naturally think of marketing solutions that involve print in one form or another. In this era of digital media, a 21 or 22 year old entrepreneur is going to think of digital based, web based, or maybe blog based ways of communicating their message. Without working too much at digital marketing, I’d say that half my business communication is via email in any case, that’s just the norm in today’s climate of commerce.

There is no right way or wrong way to get the word out about the wonderful gift you are ready to offer for a fee, there is simply the truth that you need to consistently put your message across. If something doesn’t work, dump it and move on.

By the way, as usual, I’ll tell you I’m no huge expert on this. Just sharing what works for me, and a bit of the thinking behind it. I might even recommend looking into some of those books on guerilla marketing. Do a web search or something. No doubt here are a million people on the web selling marketing schemes. Look out for snake oil salesmen!

Finally, I’ll mention that from time to time I’ve done a campaign of ads, mailers or whatnot that utterly failed to garner even one phone call. Hey, at least it was tax deductable!

Final Caveat

I’ve been running the current version of my business for almost eighteen years. With all the marketing that I do, at least two thirds of new accounts come from recommendations. So the moral of the story is do quality work, be friendly and deliver a solid value. Oh yeah, one more thing… NEVER GIVE UP!

Copyright 2007 Steve Lafler, all rights reserved

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