In the decade or so that I've been writing about sales and marketing, I've interviewed hundreds of entrepreneurs inside small and medium-sized companies.

I've also watched to see which companies grow, and which companies falter and fail. After a while, it's impossible not to see a pattern of what works and what doesn't–particularly when it comes to sales and marketing.

Here are seven marketing mistakes that I see cropping up over and over again.

1. Too Much Strategy

Contrary to popular belief, marketing is not strategic. Marketing is (or, rather, should be) a tactical function whose primary responsibilities are:

  • providing qualified sales leads
  • making it easier for customers to buy

Once you've decided the overall strategy for doing those things, marketing is mostly grunt work.  It's all about tactical execution, at which point discussions of "market strategy" are a pointless waste of time.

2. Jargon & Biz-Blab

In my experience, 95% of the marketing and sales messages from small to medium companies suffer from the kind of rampant buzzwordery that's common inside enterprise-level corporate bureaucracies.  It's almost as if entrepreneurs think that they won't be taken seriously if they don't use all right clichés.

Ironically, the opposite is true. Nothing makes a message break through the noise better than plain and simple language–if only because it's rare.

3. Wrong Priorities

Entrepreneurs sometimes assume good marketing can gloss over or fix product problems. They can't. In fact, effective marketing paired with a lousy product can actually make the product look worse, by calling attention to the discrepancy between the marketing message and the actual deliverable.

If your product isn't the best in its segment, the best in its region, or unusual enough to differentiate itself from everyone else, you should be spending 100% of your energy into fixing the product–not marketing the substandard product you've already got.

4. Wrong Measures of Success

It's easy to think of marketing as a type of activity and then measure it on deliverables resulting from that work: brochures, videos, ads, trade shows, sales tools, etc.  Unfortunately, this type of metric tends to disconnect marketing activity from its true purpose, which is to generate qualified sales leads.

The only sensible way to measure marketing activity, regardless of company size, is on the conversion rate (and ultimate profitability) of the sales leads that directly result from each marketing activity. Which brings us to ...

5. Failure to Define Qualified Leads

Marketing can't possibly generate qualified sales leads (i.e. leads that convert easily into customers) unless there is a clear definition of what constitutes a qualified lead.  Ambiguity inevitably results in wasted effort and the high sales cost of pursuing leads that will never pan out.

Worse, if you're big enough to have separate sales and marketing people, they'll indulge in pointless finger-pointing, each blaming each other for the lower-than-expected revenue.

6. Overspending on Collateral

Entrepreneurs often assume that fancy brochures and elaborate Web pages make a small business appear more professional. Unfortunately, few customers are impressed by a firm's ability to look like everyone else.

What might impress them, though, is a simple WordPress blog providing advice and perspective on how your customers can use your products or services to drive more business from their customers. Such an approach will generate far more leads than typical marketing materials.

7. No Sales Process

Selling without a process is like flying without a flight plan: You'll end up somewhere, but it probably won't be where you want to go.

Even one-person operations benefit when they develop and follow a sales process.  First, it allows you to monitor what's working (and what's not), from demand creation to product delivery.  Second, a sales process makes your company more scalable as you become more successful.

This doesn't mean, by the way, that you need to get all elaborate about it.  But you do need to identify activities and milestones, and measure what happens at each step.

A footnote: Many of these mistakes crop up in big companies, too, along with a bunch of other mistakes that don't show up in smaller firms.  However, big companies typically have more leeway to spend unwisely. Entrepreneurs don't have this option–which is why these errors must be swiftly corrected.

If you're interested in learning how to avoid these errors, keep checking this column.  A good way to do this is to sign up for the weekly Sales Source newsletter.