Why small business marketing is a mess and how to fix it.

Twenty years ago the equivalent of SEO was calling your business AAAA+ Towing so your listing was first in the yellow pages. To achieve a similar result online, you now need a dizzying combination of content ninjas, social media wizards, SEO dark lords, and ritual sacrifice to appease the Google Gods. This is just one small example of how complex marketing has become for businesses of all sizes.

If you’re not a major corporation, you make sacrifices. In some companies, they overwork their employees. In others, they make tough decisions about what marketing tactics to focus on. Usually what we see happen is a series of missteps leading to what we call “random acts of marketing.”

Random acts of marketing usually start with an overworked CEO / Founder or their equivalent head of sales or marketing. It’s likely the business started with some referrals from friends and families and grew steadily over time. At a certain point, the business ran out of “low hanging fruit” so it started to get serious about its brand image, and marketing itself.

Perhaps the company dusted off its new logo and spent a bunch of money on a new one. But the world didn’t suddenly beat down a path to their door when they retired the tired old square and went with a circle. Next, the website needed an overhaul. But again, aside from some vanity metrics, sales really didn’t improve.

“We need to do social media, so people come to the site!” The new Facebook page got lots of likes on the posts. But people rarely clicked through to the site, and if they did, they still were not buying anything. Frustrated, they decide to pay for some Facebook ads, but that got a big spike in likes, but landlords don’t take likes to pay the rent, sadly.

“Let’s get our google ranking higher, we need an SEO dark knight!” they said next. An expensive consultant came in and tore apart their on-page and off-page SEO strategies. “We need backlink building, content strategy around these 500 words, and social media posts galore. It will take 6 months before we see any results and it will be expensive but we’ll get you ahead of all the competition.”

The company makes a huge investment. Lots of content is produced. The site rises through the rankings, and winds up first for an obscure term no one actually searches for, but allows the SEO dark knight to claim they’ve fulfilled their obligation of “number one ranking in Google.” More traffic is coming to the site now because of the higher rankings in relevant words that people do search for. But it’s still not converting, likely because the website refresh was cosmetic and didn’t focus on conversion rate optimization.

The list of “well that didn’t work” keeps growing. The company decides “we need to stop relying on outside consultants and bring this in house.” They hire an internal SEO person. But the reality is, if you’re a great SEO person, you’re probably not going to need to work for a small, struggling business.

The missing ingredient in all of this is a strategic vision. Sadly, most small businesses market this ways with different rates of success or failure, but none of them are doing as well as they could if they had a true strategic marketing plan and go-to-market strategy.

Embarking on marketing campaigns without a real plan based on data is like hiring a plumber, electrician, dry wall and roofer to build you a house without having an architect and not telling them how big the house is. If you ask five people to draw you a house, everyone will come up with something very different. If your marketing team isn’t on the same page about who you’re targeting, and most important, how all the pieces integrate together, then you’re going to build something that is bound to collapse sooner than later.

Questions like “What do we know about our customer?” “What is their pain point and how do we solve it for them?” “Where do they go look for a solution when they decide to act on it?” “Why should they believe we’re the answer to their problem?” are just the first questions of a long list that helps inform a proper marketing strategy.

Small businesses often have a couple of options or a combination of all of these for executing their marketing:

The random team of freelancers / niche agencies

PRO:

Only used when needed, have specific expertise in their niche. Not committed to full time salary.

CON:

Have other clients and can get overwhelmed easy — it’s not a big deal to lose one business as a client, there are plenty more. Has no vested interest in the company or motivation to do more than the bare minimum to get paid. Not driven by a strategic vision or willing to work with other freelancers to integrate tactics.

The bored in-house team

PRO:

They’re always available to work on whatever random act of marketing is the CEO’s new priority.

CON:

They’re always available to receive their paycheck every week. Marketers who work at one business through no fault of their own often become myopic. Without a number of different businesses to work on, they may not be exposed to new tactics that can bring the business to the next level. In small companies, their resources are stretched thin and fatigue sets in.

 

The full service agency

PRO:

They bring a true strategic vision and every possible service you could need. They’re in fancy offices in a big city that has a fantastic view.

CON:

The strategic vision took 6 months before a campaign was launched. They have every possible service and they bill for all of them whether they’re needed or not. A few months into the relationship all the senior people that were promised to work on the account have quietly appeared while enthusiastic interns who google “SEO best practices” and put them into presentations for weekly calls have taken over. That amazing view? Included in their fees, of course. Agencies are not motivated to innovate, because once they’ve signed a contract, they get the money whether or not they continue to improve.

The marketing collective

PRO:

Managed by senior marketers who are cross-trained and lead a strategic vision supplemented by freelance talent specific to client needs. This talent is located all over the world, meaning not paying for expensive offices and salaries. Because collectives don’t get bogged down with full time employees, they’re more flexible on contract terms. Their freelancers are working on multiple clients, so if they’re not bringing their A game, they lose a lot more than just one client. And the collective itself is motivated by working on shorter term contracts.

CON:

Agencies will often provide a lot of free work as part of a pitch process because they have full time staff with extra unbilled time, while for a collective they would have to pay their freelancers. Therefore, collectives can take a more “take it or leave it” approach with proposals and expect compensation much earlier in the process. Like all businesses relying on freelancers, the talent can come and go quicker than in an agency that can better incentivize long term loyalty.

Marketing General Contractors is the collective I founded a few years ago because in my 20 year career which has spanned being a graphic designer, creative director, writer, strategist and analytics expert, I’ve seen the abuses of expensive and slow agencies. I’ve been the unmotivated and unreliable freelancer torn between multiple clients. I’ve worked in house in myopic department focused on the boss’ vanity metrics instead of the one metric that matters: sales.

I left New York City and found the vibrant college town of Gainesville, Florida where I built a worldwide network of talent by rebooting the social network I founded for advertising professionals back in 2004 called Adholes as a Slack community where I can tap into a who’s who of industry talent whenever I need someone.

The collective is passionate about empowering its members to have the flexibility to live, work and play wherever they are most inspired instead of coming to a dreary flourescent-lit hellhole filled with politics and forced culture.

I’ve spent my whole career obsessing over how to improve the ad agency model. The marketing collective is far from perfect, but I believe it offers superior benefits to other options for small business.

Fixing the marketing mess

So your marketing is a mess. It might also be fast asleep. Let’s wake it up. Here are the steps needed to fix it:

Marketing audit

Your analytics should tell you where your spend is working or not. But many clients who come to us either don’t have analytics in the first place, or there are key mistakes in how they are set up that’s not allowing them to see the whole story. In this audit, you’ll find the taxes you’re paying for inefficiencies in your plan. Saving this money opens up budget to try new things.

Question everything!

Marketing has been infiltrated by a lot of “shoulds.”

“We should do at least one social media post a day.”

“We should do one blog post a week.”

“We should do Facebook and Google ads.”

I have some shocking news to all the small business owners reading this:

YOU ARE NOT THE NEW YORK TIMES!

No one ever says “You know, I’m really shocked that Greater Louisville Fencing Equipment and Bar Supply didn’t post that it’s National Macaroni day. And it’s like, been two whole weeks since they wrote a blog! Are they ok?”

If it’s too tedious to do, and it’s not doing anything for you, then stop. I’ll tell you a dirty little secret: My company hasn’t posted on social media in over a year. And I’m only writing this blog post to advertise it so you’ll think about hiring my company. There’s no “this is the blog post of the week.” This might be the only blog we write all year. It’s better to write one amazing blog than several crappy ones.

If you’re still reading this far, I’ll assume I’ve done a good job.

Facebook and Google are two other “shoulds” that drive me crazy.

When both platforms launched, they created a self-serve model targeting small business that went something like this:
“Hey it doesn’t matter if you only have $1 to spend on advertising. We’ll take it! BUT DON’T EVER CALL US OR TRY TO TALK TO US!”

For years, before widespread adoption grew, it was amazing for small biz. Cheap customers, laser focused targeting options. Just set it and forget it. But over the years, adoption grew. And Facebook and Google got big ad agencies and huge corporations to dump millions into the auction-based platform. Prices went up and small businesses suffered. They had to hire expensive consultants to optimize their ads. And that worked for another few years.

But those days are pretty much over. They are simply expensive.

And what’s the solution? For us, it’s programmatic media. It’s a big agency tool that’s become affordable for smaller clients. And we’re one of the few companies we know who offer it. There’s way creepier targeting options for way cheaper.

In fact, it’s very likely you found this blog because of one of our programmatic ads and our creepy targeting means you feel the pain points we’ve outlined here.

If you happen to think it’s a good time to explore a change, I’d love to hear from you.