In this series, we’ll talk about marketing for small business. We’ll touch on website planning, search engine marketing, social media, email marketing, and other topics in the small business marketing toolkit.
But first let’s talk about momentum.
If there’s one thing that separates small business from big business, it’s momentum. Large businesses have it, while small ones create it every single day. Marketing for small business is the search for momentum.
Big businesses enjoy brand recognition, large customer bases, backlogs, and healthy receivables. These assets impart a sense of momentum. If you work in big business, this momentum carries you along.
After all, you have coworkers. You don’t have to know everything. You don’t have to do everything. You can work with others, combining your talents to achieve something together. The business has momentum.
It’s different in small business. Owners and employees wear many hats. They’re marketers, accountants, salespeople, mechanics, IT specialists, counselors, and clerks. If you do all these things in your small business, pat yourself on the back. It’s a big job.
One thing is certain, however. The need for marketing is paramount. Whether you acquire new customers or upsell existing ones, marketing is going to demand a lot of your attention. You might as well learn something about it.
Whether you do your own marketing or engage another firm to do it for you, you’ll be better off if you understand marketing, at least a little bit.
You don’t have to be an expert, but you can’t be ignorant of the topic either. Marketing is central to small business. Strangely enough, it can also contribute to your happiness, as we’ll see in a moment.
What Is Marketing?
Before we go any further, let’s explore a definition of marketing. We’re going to need a fairly broad definition, and as you’ll see along the way, it will be helpful to make our definition as generous as possible. Small business is hard work, and its tests your fortitude every single day. We can use generosity to reinforce our spirit.
It might even be good for business.
When most people think of marketing, the first thing that comes to mind is promotion. That’s understandable. We live in a commercial culture, with promotional messages swimming into view every few seconds. In the apps we use. The magazines we read. The billboards we pass. Our podcasts and TV shows. New media, old media, it’s all saturated with promotion.
But marketers take a more expansive view of their work. They start with the assumption that people only exchange money for value when that value is clear. That makes sense, doesn’t it? Few of us give our money away for nothing. No one makes a purchase simply because you tell them to. The business owner’s first job is to create something valuable.
Helping Others Is a Small Business Marketing Strategy
The marketer Seth Godin views marketing as an extended exercise in value creation. Its core task is to solve other people’s problems. Writing in This Is Marketing: You Can’t Be Seen Until You Learn to See, Godin speaks of marketing as a quest to make things better, to change the world, to spread your ideas by transforming the culture. For Godin, the key question is: Who can you help?
Godin calls marketing “the generous act of helping others become who they seek to become.” He breaks this generous act down into five steps, which I’ll paraphrase here:
- Invent something worthwhile.
- Design and build that thing so it will help people. Just a few people are enough.
- Tell a story about your invention that resonates with the people you want to help.
- Spread the word about your invention. This is the promotion part we are all so familiar with.
- Lead the people you want to help to create the change you want to see.
Godin’s five-step process is an act of creation. It starts with a void and leads to fulfillment, both for the business owner and the people she serves.
Godin also shrewdly focuses on the experience of the creative act, rather than the literal object produced. He quotes the Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt, who said “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill bit. They want a quarter-inch hole.” Except, as Godin notes, people don’t even want that quarter-inch hole for its own sake. What they really want is the thing the hole provides: a place to hang a bookshelf. But this formula also falls short, because what people really want is not the bookshelf itself, but a place to display their books and the feeling of pride and satisfaction that comes with building a bookshelf. Showing off the books you read and the shelf you built spark feelings of pride and accomplishment.
Godin takes a longer view of business than most. He considers the impact of economic activity not only on those who are directly involved in it, but also on society itself. This view leads him to a praise song for capitalism itself: “The purpose of our culture isn’t to enable capitalism, even capitalism that pays your bills. The purpose of capitalism is to build our culture.”
I don’t quite agree with this pronouncement. I don’t think many capitalists believe their primary task is to build culture. But I do agree that capitalism has a profound influence on culture. This effect is especially plain in the consumerism that has flourished in the past century.
Still, I like Godin’s emphasis on value creation. It moves marketing out of the narrow lane of pure promotion and puts it in the mainstream of business, where the main purpose is to make something useful.
In the next several posts, I’ll explore marketing tactics for small business, considering the potential for value creation in search engine marketing, social media marketing, video marketing, and other tactics. Every post will start and end with this question: How can we use marketing to create value, not just for ourselves, but for others?
But before we turn our attention to specific marketing practices, I want to take one more look at Godin’s book and consider how I practice marketing outside of my day job. It turns out that Godin’s emphasis on value creation has unexpected relevance to my passion projects.
More about that in Marketing and Value Creation.