Lynn Gordon has been riding a 20-year wave of word-of-mouth marketing. When her "Woman's Bread" was mentioned last year in a health segment on the Good Morning America television show, it was one more instance of national exposure she received from a low-cost, grassroots marketing effort she began years ago.
Back in 1985, Lynn Gordon began the Minneapolis-based French Meadow Bakery with little more than a bread recipe. At that time, her marketing efforts consisted of hand delivering sample loaves to local health food co-ops.
The company's first moment of national exposure also led to some celebrity word of mouth. Good Morning America's host, Diane Sawyer, discovered Gordon's bread in 1988 while doing a story for 60 Minutes on a Minneapolis organization that loaned money to women entrepreneurs, including Gordon.
Sawyer's discovery also led to Gordon distributing her breads nationally. According to Gordon, Sawyer wanted to be able to keep eating French Meadow's bread and pistachio dip in New York, so Sawyer asked the specialty markets Balducci's, Dean & DeLuca, and Zabar's to start carrying Gordon's products. Gordon said that Sawyer even put her in touch with a buyer at Balducci's.
The steady grassroots efforts French Meadow Bakery has employed over the last two decades have helped it grow into a company with 125 employees and over $10 million in revenue. Her company could have grown faster with more risks and more aggressive marketing, Gordon says, but she made the tough choice to go with more conservative tactics that matched the personality of the company.
Every business faces tough decisions when it comes to marketing its products and services. When you're on your own, it becomes even more daunting. But there are a number of strategies available to get the word out. Used by themselves or in combination, the strategies noted below can offer a small or solo business owner big bang for few, or even no, bucks.
Jay Conrad Levinson, the father of "Guerilla Marketing" says developing credibility is key for every entrepreneur. One way to grow into a person of influence is to volunteer to speak at civic and community events. "[Spend] just thirty minutes as a lunch time speaker. Charge nothing. Don't try to sell anything. You've got to give people information of value," Levinson says. At the end of the talk, offer a brochure or mention a Web address. "You'll be establishing a lot of credibility and it will cost you hardly anything," he adds.
Writing a column in the local newspaper or building a niche website that people turn to for specialized news also can help you establish credibility. Sales consultant Jeffrey Gitomer persuaded editors at the Charlotte Business Journal to print occasional columns written by him. It eventually turned into a regular paid arrangement, which became a syndicated column published in 95 business journals worldwide. He's now a widely recognized sales expert, with a long list of books, CDs, and tapes on selling smarter to his credit.
Michele Miller, a partner in the Austin-based Wizard of Ads marketing firm, believes in the power of teaming up with other businesses to increase word of mouth. She described a "smile program" developed by a photographer and a dentist, which has worked wonders for the two businesses involved.
The way the program works is that the dentist offers customers who receive cosmetic dentistry services a free portrait of their new smiles. The dentist hangs a copy of the portrait in the office to market his cosmetic services. The photographer, who takes the photos, receives orders from the dentist's clients, who generally purchase several portraits in addition to the freebies they receive from the dentist.
The photographer also makes a practice of giving every customer something extra. He gives away wallet-size pictures or miniature portrait books to the customers, further marketing his expertise and helping establish a lasting impression of his business.
For instance, a restaurant on a budget simply could send out e-mails to customers when it has a new menu. The e-mail is a better vehicle for spreading the word than, say, a brochure, because the recipient simply can forward it along to as many people as he or she feels would be interested.
For companies just e-mailing a few people, e-mail programs like Outlook or Outlook Express work fine. For companies ready to make a small investment and save the half hour a week spent managing a mailing list, Nussey suggests a service like Constant Contact that provides a Web-based system that offers list management, newsletter templates, and tracking, beginning at $15 a month for lists of up to 500 names.
Nussey cautions against buying consumer mailing lists, however. They can be expensive and be perceived as spam. And he advocates making it easy for people to unsubscribe. "It is so wrong to get wrapped up in how big. The question is how responsive is the list?" Nussey says.
A responsive list comes from giving people a chance to opt-in and then offering them something of value. The restaurant can have a sign-up book at the entrance in which people can opt-in to receive restaurant updates via e-mail. A florist might put a printed card on the counter that customers can take with them, which offers a Web address for signing up for its newsletter. "High touch strategies work extremely well," Nussey says.
It is possible to turn a small business website into a regular destination with a weblog. John Jantsch of Duct Tape Marketing says that the strategic use of weblogs for small businesses is "still a wide open field."
His own experience as a one-person shop is one example. Without any advertising, the Duct Tape Marketing weblog has given Jantsch national recognition, through word of mouth, awards, and press coverage. His visibility led to a contract for a book to be released this fall.
However, consistently coming up with valuable content can be challenging for one person. Jantsch recommends working collaboratively. An insurance agent might work with a financial planner, attorney, and/or accountant to build a financial weblog. The team effort would generate valuable and varied content, and the contributors become an informal referral network for one another.
With more formal networking efforts, guerilla marketer Levinson says, measure success by the number of business cards collected not the number given away. He suggests joining clubs and attending the functions of civic and professional organizations, though not of peers, but of potential customers. And rather than talking about your business, ask people questions about the problems their businesses face.
If someone has a problem your business might be able to solve, Levinson says, "Go as far as taking notes, so that you can quote something they said when you get in touch with them." That sort of effort and specificity gets attention. "This is very personal marketing."
Whether you're spending the big bucks or marketing on a shoestring, there are two things that are consistent: Entrepreneurs must be patient and persistent. Just because you're marketing on a budget doesn't mean it won't eventually work. "The biggest mistake that new [entrepreneurs] make is they expect marketing to perform miracles," Levinson says. "It will, but it takes quite a while." Many good marketing efforts go to waste because entrepreneurs jump to another strategy when they don't get immediate results. "If you run something two or three or four times, that's not commitment."
Furthermore, more money doesn't always equal better marketing. Jantsch has seen big marketing budgets hold companies back. "It is real easy to waste a lot of money and get zero results for it," he says. Jantsch tells entrepreneurs to focus on effective, and not necessarily expensive, marketing techniques. "Companies that don't have that budget, typically end up doing things that are more effective, because they have to."