1. Introduction: It’s All about Visibility

It’s a familiar conundrum in business: everyone needs to sell, and no one wants to be sold to. Companies are most successful at closing the divide between those perspectives; and closing more sales in the process; when they master the art of customer-focused promotion.

The rules of engagement are simple. They begin with listening to the information customers offer; in conversation, in response to requests for input, and through their buying habits. This creates a base for an ongoing conversation that conveys value to customers on their terms. Sell the benefits, rather than the features, of your products or services, and focus promotions on customers’ needs. In that way, you’ll establish relationships built on loyalty to the company (as opposed to discounts, sales, and price promotions), so you can deliver the value that leads to recurring business.

It’s also essential to remember that successful promotion is bigger than any of its individual components. “You need to look at promotion as a totally integrated practice,” says John Jantsch, founder of Duct Tape Marketing. Promotion is not just store signage, direct mail, interaction on social media, and other marketing vehicles. It’s expressed in every point of contact.

“The key here is thinking about what drives people to talk and share,” says Jonah Berger, professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On (Simon & Schuster, 2013). Promotion can be something as simple as packaging restaurant deliveries in a distinctive, colorful bag that grabs people’s attention and serves as a kind of visual word-of-mouth. Stores that place merchandise in reusable bags achieve similar promotion when customers are seen toting the store’s logo long after they’ve brought their purchases home. “The easier it is for people to see that others are doing something, the more likely they’ll be to do it themselves.”

Visibility comes into play in other ways, too. Any small business with a storefront must make sure its signage is easy to see and understand. It should also incorporate graphic elements that direct customers to the company’s website and social media pages. Place print promotions where they’ll be most useful to customers: weekly circulars, sale and discount offers, and new product/service information at the entrance; mailing list sign-ups, social media invitations, and customer satisfaction surveys at the point of purchase. Make sure every employee understands your promotion objectives and keeps the focus on serving the customer when collecting data.

2. Profit from Rewarding Relationships

Another effective onsite strategy is use of loyalty rewards. “They can be very powerful. There are also ways in which they can be enhanced,” says Phil Barden, managing director of Decode Marketing and author of Decoded: The Science Behind Why We Buy (Wiley, 2013).

The book offers the example of a car wash that experimented with the way its loyalty cards were structured. One loyalty card offered a free car wash after eight paid visits. Another offered a free car wash after ten paid visits, but customers who received that card were given two free stamps at the outset; so the difference was purely psychological: customers in both groups had to get the card stamped eight times to qualify for the free wash.

“Objectively, the second was identical to the first, because you only had to buy another eight washes to get a free one. The dramatic thing was that the card that had the two stamps already stamped on it got a 70 percent sales increase versus the other group,” Barden says. “Not only that, but the people returned to the car wash more often over a longer period of time and rated the car wash as better than the other group. That cost the car wash nothing; there was no extra marketing effort, no extra promotional effort involved.”

Loyalty programs work not only when the payoff is discounts and freebies, but also when they offer anything that conveys a sense of privilege or preferred customer status. Depending on the business, that can mean private sales, advance notice of new products, access to a priority service hotline, or free white paper downloads. Whatever the benefit delivered, it should convey the message, “I will do the right thing by you because you are a loyal customer,” says Beth Smith, CEO and co-founder of Smith Browning Direct, Inc. and educational director for the Direct Marketing Association’s Direct Marketing Institute.

3. Don’t Promote--Engage

The status element has tremendous psychological appeal and can be used to a small company’s advantage in cultivating relationships with the greatest profit potential. “Not all customers are created equal. What do your best customers today look like? How would we find more of them? We’ve got to look at where your revenue comes from,” Smith says. Zeroing in on what’s most important to your best customers can help you build a base of similar customers who value how much you deliver, not how little you charge. “I love the concept of more value for money. If the best thing you can say about your product or service is that it’s on sale, you haven’t said a lot. Come up with an enticement that will motivate them to have an ongoing dialog with you.”

“People don’t really buy price. They buy the relationship, and they’re thrilled that they get the discount on top of it,” says Kevin Hogan, Psy.D, author of Invisible Influence: The Power to Persuade Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere (Wiley, 2013). “That’s the real approach. You want to be more valuable to the marketplace than anybody else. And it’s not just that you’re trying to be valuable. It’s that you actually care about the people you do business with. Keeping a customer is no more complicated than being a great relationship partner.”

Once you’ve determined which promotional messages are best at capturing your company’s strengths and resonating with its target audience, you can experiment with additional strategies for delivering your message. Promotions delivered via text, email, or social media are inexpensive and can help you refine your promotion details and language by providing you with instant response rate data. “You can test headlines. You can test calls to action,” Jantsch says. That gives you the opportunity to “throw out the clunkers” before you translate the campaign to printed collaterals, which positions those materials to deliver a higher rate of return.

Online communication tools create new opportunities not just for message delivery, but also for customer engagement and interaction. Mark Rivard, who creates original and limited-edition skateboard art and teaches art education programs in schools, promotes Rivard Art and Rivard Art Education through websites, blog posts, and email. The combination gives him an interactive platform that includes a portfolio of his designs, news about his latest projects, and videos that give fans a stronger sense of connection to the artist and his work. On the social media side, his presence has evolved along with skateboarders’ preferences, starting with MySpace and moving on to Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram as they gained popularity. Although Rivard Art remains a small business strongly rooted in its Minneapolis origins, this approach has helped his work gain an international following.

4. Personalization: Online and on Target

To be effective, however, electronic and online promotions must be managed well. Those that are managed poorly can work against the company’s interests and generate ill will among the targets they were intended to attract. 

The smart, strategic approach begins with finding out what kinds of promotions your customers and clients want (and don’t want) to receive; how often they want to hear from you; and whether they prefer email, texts, or updates on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

It’s also important to know which device they use to read your messages so you can configure and optimize your website and other content to be read on computers, tablets, or smart phones in accordance with customer preferences.

Solicit customer input on these points so you can craft personalized messages that hit the bulls-eye in addressing their needs. “Personalization is a piece that’s still really missing,” Jantsch says. “There’s so much information out there that we all go searching for. Finding something that we participated in the creation of has a really strong pull.”

Finally, it’s essential to adhere to CAN-SPAM email regulations, which include making sure your distribution lists include only people who have opted in; responding promptly to requests for removal; and using subject lines that are not deceptive. For full details, refer to the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection Business Center’s CAN-SPAM Act: A Compliance Guide for Business.

 5. For Power Promotion, Think Print

Although communications seem to have gone completely electronic, there are times when print still offers a stronger promotion vehicle. Customers in some demographics may prefer browsing a print catalog to reviewing product information online. (Think beyond older customers here. For example, a company that sells children’s merchandise may find that parents prefer print catalogs that they can browse with their children to get time together away from the computer.) High-end and luxury items can show to better advantage when given an upscale print presentation. Clothing manufacturers often find print photography more reliably true to color that online images can be.

“I happen to be a firm believer in the use of print and direct mail,” Jantsch says. He points out that because people are deluged with email all day but get a smaller volume of mail than they used to, printed pieces can have a stronger chance of capturing and holding the reader’s attention. As a result, printed direct mail pieces offer “an opportunity that we haven’t seen for a long time: you actually have a place where you can stand out again in the mailbox.”

As with electronic messages, make sure your customers or clients opt in to receiving print materials so your mailings are well targeted and likely to generate the highest return on investment. And then once they’ve given you permission to contact them, make sure you provide information that they want and need. Maintaining that standard requires nothing more than keeping the lines of communication open, inviting their input, listening to what they have to say, and responding in accordance with what they value.

“Information makes you brilliant,” Smith says. “No matter what else you do in your job, have a genuine curiosity about your customers and figure out where you provide value to them. We get sparks of magic that come out of that. The more you’re interested in them and genuinely interested in their success, the more successful you’ll be.”

6. Put on Your Game Face

That’s why any integrated promotion strategy must incorporate in-person contact. Whether at local Chamber of Commerce meetings, charity fundraisers, or in conversations with customers, every face-to-face interaction is a form of promotion. This component gives your company the opportunity to infuse its messages with an extra dash of personality and engage your customers in ways they didn’t anticipate; which again encourages positive word of mouth. “It’s about going above and beyond the call of duty in a surprising and delightful way that breaks the monotony of the expected experience,” Berger says.

Gail and Stacey Rogers achieve this by parking a creatively decorated 1956 Ford F100 pickup truck in front of their Chester, New Jersey shop, Toys with Love. The eye-catching vehicle looks like a toy and sends an immediate visual signal that communicates fun. Inside the store, employees keep that vibe going by using the toys and engaging customers to join them in play. Single-day sales got a nice bounce recently when employees stationed themselves beside the cash registers; prime real estate for impulse purchases; and spent the day inflating a new line of colorful balls.

“Sometimes, a great promotion just makes people go, ‘Oh; that’s clever,’ or ‘that’s fun,’ or ‘that surprised me,’ because those are really personality traits of the brand,” Jantsch says. “Everything that you do in promotion ought to speak from the voice of the brand.” By communicating promotions in that voice, you reinforce your company’s commitment to delivering the products and services your customers value most.