Marketing best practices for micro and small businesses

Strategy Sep 21, 2021

Marketing is not just about posting pretty pictures on Instagram. It’s about positioning your company in a market, understanding the audience, matching your offers to their needs, and all other goodies that come way before you post your first dancing TikTok video.

What is marketing, really?

It’s your business idea’s twin that should develop and mature alongside it. Marketing is the bridge that closes the gap between what you want to sell, and who you want to sell it to. It’s the feedback loop that helps you improve your core offers, to match the changes in demand.

As such, marketing plays a pivotal role in any business of any growth stage, yet, there’s a lot of skepticism and misunderstanding around it. The role of marketing could, but doesn’t have to be to sell your product. It also could, but doesn’t have to involve any advertising or social media.

Simply put, proper marketing is offering the right product or service to the right people, in a fitting way, through correct channels of communications.
gif man clapping hands saying easy

Good marketing will help you:

  • Generate the right kind of audience for your products or services
  • Convince that same audience to take action (i.e., buy something)
  • Nurture that same audience to come back again (or even bring a friend)
  • Position you in the market and give you a competitive advantage

Bad marketing will:

  • Cost a lot of money with no results (yikes)
  • Push people away from your brand, or turn them off from buying
  • Become a bottomless pit of failed tests, that will eventually implode your business
  • Leave people indifferent about your brand

In the next 7 minutes, we’ll learn how to build a strong marketing base that generates actual results. And if we unlearn some bad habits along the way - well, happy day!

Let’s just get one tiny elephant out of the way.

Marketing does NOT equal promotion and advertising. I had one too many conversations with small business owners and entrepreneurs who, at the drop of the word marketing, switched to thinking about ads, promotion, PR, and other more popular terms.

Equating advertising and marketing is a common, yet big mistake that could cost you a lot of money. So, let’s save you a small fortune.

If you invest in promotion of any kind before you take time to research and build a marketing strategy, you might as well throw your money in the air in a random street. Yes, people might react for a few minutes, but as soon as the money stops flowing - they’re gone.

Here’s how a marketer sees a business that paid for social media ads without a strategy:

gif baby throwing money out of the window

The marketing best practices you want to remember

Unless you have money to burn, here are the core principles that will keep your marketing engine running, regardless of your size, growth stage, industry, or location.

  1. Do market research and do it often
  2. Document everything
  3. Create (and keep improving) a marketing plan
  4. Consider niching down
  5. Keep your eye on the competition
  6. Create regular reports
  7. Test, analyze, optimize, and repeat

Do market research, and do it often

Googling is SO underrated.

Market research is one of the most important things you can do for your business. Many think that you need some fancy tools to do any kind of research, and that’s just not true. Yes, there are some amazing tools out there that could save you time, and give you deeper insight than anything you can find on your own, but these usually come with a hefty price tag.

So instead of throwing your budget into these tools, try just googling the information. Magic.

Here are some of my favorite places to get some in-depth information, when I do any kind of research:

  • Think With Google: millions of searches, conveniently bundled together
  • PwC Global: both global and local research and insights across many industries
  • Facebook IQ: info and foresight spreading wider than just Facebook and Instagram

Document everything

As you do your research and start drawing conclusions, it’s important to document your thinking process, any opinions, ideas, and takeaways so you can revisit them at a later date. Just scrapping notes together is a great start, but what you need is to organize your market research and create documentation grouped into something like this:

  • Audience research (that you can turn into audience personas)
  • Industry research (which can but doesn’t have to be localized)
  • Competitor research (which will show you opportunities, and give you a strong benchmark)
  • Examples (doesn’t have to be competition, could be something completely unrelated to your business)

Two quick tips:

  • Keep the documentation simple: create a single folder, and keep separate research on separate docs within that one folder
  • Keep the docs short: don’t create mammoth documents that will just sit in a folder collecting pixel-dust

Create (and keep improving) your marketing plan

A marketing plan should be more than just another file with seven different version names in a long-lost folder. When done right, it will serve as a framework for all future marketing tactics, and help you achieve your goals.

Marketing plans need to remain agile, allowing you to adjust them according to discoveries, test results, or changes in business goals. You can have some three-to-five-year numbers to aspire to, but make sure they don’t control you.  

Your plan should include most of the below:

  • Organized market research data for reference
  • Target market(s) description
  • A well-defined buyer persona (B2C / D2C) or ideal customer overview (B2B)
  • Your product or service description and explanation of why the market needs it (over time you’ll derive messaging out of this)
  • Competitive analysis, with opportunities and threats (we’ll get into this in a bit)
  • Unique selling proposition and mission statement (the who and the why behind your business)
  • A go-to-market strategy that includes some marketing, promotional, and pricing tactics
  • Timelines and objectives, including business goals you want to achieve (e.g., generating x revenue by x date)

A solid marketing plan will prevent this from happening:

lego train falling down

I have a blog in the pipeline that covers building a marketing plan in more detail, so make sure you subscribe 👉 Sign up here

Consider niching down

The word niche in marketing refers to a market segment that is particularly appropriate for someone or something. This means that a niche product matches the needs of a particular audience much better than it would the general population. In today’s heterogeneous and competitive market, businesses that managed to niche down have a higher likelihood of succeeding than those that are trying to be everything for everyone.

The reason is simple: our needs as a society are becoming more specific, and while the general needs are often satisfied by giants that have had their presence in the market for decades, these niche needs give the opportunity for new players to enter the market.

I no longer want just a snack. I want a sustainable, sugar-free, low-calorie bar.

Imagine this from a buyer's perspective. Let’s say you’re buying shoes. You’re going into a store and you’re faced with walls stacked with different shapes, sizes, and purposes. The likelihood is, you’re not just shoes-shopping without a reason. In this hypothetical scenario, you’re looking for waterproof hiking shoes. Nike doesn’t have them, nor does Adidas. In fact, this store doesn’t hold them at all! So what do you do with your specialist needs? You go to a specialist store. The end.

There are two ways you can do this:

  1. Niching down your offer, to match it to specific needs of a single group
  2. Creating separate messaging  / promotion for each niche within your targeted audience

The first option will likely suit you better if you’re just starting out, and as you grow, the second option will eventually become more important. Niching down helps you target your messaging and hit specific triggers far more accurately than if you tried to speak to everyone at the same time, saving you a lot of marketing dollars in the process.

awkward marketing pronouncing nitch or neesh for niche
Credit: Rachel Kay Alberts, Awkward Marketing

*I pronounce it neeeeesh.

Keep one eye on the competition

Your competitors are your best frenemies. Despite that crippling pain in our stomachs that happens anytime someone says their name, competition is a very healthy thing.

Competition proves that the market exists, and can be a rich source of information about your audiences, pricing, and even future prognostics. A more established company that serves the same niche can give you an idea of the audience's core needs by the services they’re offering, or products that they’re launching.

If you’re in the consumer market, a competitor running a tasting booth, or a giveaway campaign, can give you a clear picture of what audience they’re trying to get next, and possibly which offers they’re about to pull from the market.

Their trials and errors can inform your decisions, helping you avoid the same mistakes, or finding a competitive advantage that will set you clearly apart.

"No competition" is not necessarily good news. While it sounds amazing to have this beautiful green pasture all to yourself, a lack of competition could indicate that the need isn’t there. In the best-case scenario, you’d just need to invest more in marketing and operate in red for a longer period. Worst case scenario, you go back to the drawing board and make edits to your offer.

Now, here’s the tricky part.

Don’t obsess over the competition.

It’s easy to become consumed with the competitors' offers, reading too much into their decisions, messaging, even hiring. Competition should inform but never dictate your decisions. Just because that other kid got his teeth knocked out falling from a bike, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn how to ride one. But, it should teach you that a helmet is a must, and also to stay away from that particular tricky curb.

Learn from them, but don’t strive to be like them. Aim to create as much of a gap between your offers as possible, and use that gap to market to a segment with more specific needs.

We’re living in a giant global market, and there is room for everyone.

woman saying I'm wise

Create regular reports

Regardless if you’re a one-person show, if you partner with or report to someone, reports are there to help you understand if you’re on the right track. They are not just useful to understand the current state but are a great way to document all your past efforts, too.

To create valuable reports, you need:

  • Some kind of analytics in place
  • A few key performance indicators (KPIs) chosen
  • A chosen rhythm that works best for your situation

It’s 2021, and there is no excuse in the world to justify not having at least Google Analytics installed on your website. To make smart decisions, we need data. And where does that data come from? Yup - from analytics. You don’t have to be an expert to understand at least the basics, so ensuring you have a data feed should really be first on your reporting list.

When it comes to KPIs, I’m a big fan of the less-is-more approach. Picking three to five right KPIs will prove to be much more valuable than picking 20 and losing yourself in trying to connect the dots. The KPIs need to be valuable for your business. Just because someone says social media followers are important for them, doesn’t mean you need to be chasing the same numbers.

Here are a few KPIs you want to include:

  • Something that tells you if you’re attracting the right audience to whatever you’re using as your storefront (e.g., website traffic, affiliate links, social media followers, emails collected)
  • Something that tells you if you’re getting a return on your investment (e.g., ideally, you want whatever you’re spending to be 3x lower than what you earn, and you need to track your progress to get you there)
  • Something that tells you if you have the right product-market fit (e.g., click-through rates, conversions, retention, returning visitors, etc.)

Reporting is a habit that might take a while to create. At first, your reports will be skinny, but over time, they will plump up into valuable data sets.

Personally, I love moderate-size monthly reports, and bigger, in-depth reports each quarter. But, for brand-new businesses, I would advise weekly reporting, to make sure all those valuable marketing dollars are spent in the right place.

Test, analyze, optimize, and repeat

Last but certainly not the least.

Testing is an essential part of marketing. Without tests, you only have guesswork and assumptions. What works for one industry or a company doesn’t mean it will work for another. There are way too many variables in marketing to leave anything for chance.

After you’ve done all the work, got your plan together, figured out the audiences, go ahead and set a small budget aside, and run some tests. Know what your desired outcomes are but don’t tie yourself to any goals - there’s plenty of time for chasing the goals later.

When running a test, you want to understand:

  • Is the channel picked working in a way you predicted
  • Is the time or budget invested enough to get the desired results
  • Should audiences be tighter or wider
  • Is there any response from the market (comments, messages, etc.)

Collect the initial results, analyze them and pinpoint where you can do better. Maybe you’ll need to expand the audience or increase the budget. Or maybe your approach isn’t generating any interest and you need to completely rework the funnel. Either way, be objective, set all personal feelings aside, and be brutally honest.

And then, you guessed it. Repeat.

Before you go…

Remember. Marketing is more than advertising, and even if you have bottomless pockets, throwing money at it doesn’t solve core issues.

Pay extra attention to your target audience and revisit your research regularly. Set a reminder in your calendar and do reality checks every quarter or at least once every 6 months, on top of your regular reports.

Until next time 💜


Tamara Ceman

Director of marketing, strategic advisor, and educator. Coffee drinker, and a Monday lover. Connect with me on LinkedIn:

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