A Crash Course in Setting Up Small Business Social Media

For businesses big and small, customers expect businesses to have a social media presence. In fact, 63% of customers expect customer service through social media. An online presence has gone from being the frontier to being the norm in a little over a decade. As such, small businesses, in order to compete, need to have a social media presence.

Setting up social media, in some ways, is very easy. Meeting the bare minimum requirements of being online and posting every once in a while is not hard. But how can a small business truly take advantage of the benefits social media has to offer? That is what we are going to discuss in this week’s article.

First time marketing your small business?
Join our online community of small business owners.

How Social Media Can Help Your Small Business

In our current time, the statement that “businesses should use social media” has been fully accepted by society at large as truth. Indeed, we largely agree with the statement. Nevertheless, it’s important to ask exactly why social media is beneficial for businesses.

As it turns out, there is no shortage of benefits that businesses can reap through using social media. Social media can increase brand awareness and bring in traffic. It’s good for SEO. It improves conversion rate, customer satisfaction, and brand loyalty. It’s pretty cheap to run too.

Mistaken Beliefs About Social Media for Small Business

Of course, social media is certainly not perfect. It’s no silver bullet for your marketing plan. There are many disadvantages as well, many of which stem from mistaken beliefs.

Many business owners think of social media marketing is free. It’s not. It takes time to create, and that means paying in labor and time. Not to mention, advertisements, which are a very important part of social media marketing, are not free in any sense of the word!

Friends, followers, and likes also don’t matter as much as many think. Sure, 21 likes on an Instagram photo, all things equal, is better than 20 likes on an Instagram photo. But the real goals are engagement and, ultimately, sales. Don’t forget that!

Social media marketing is also not a fad. Elderly people use social media. Small children use social media. People use social media in the US, Europe, Canada, Australia, India, China, and nearly anywhere else you can name.

Pitfalls of Social Media for Small Business

For all the benefits social media has brought us – ease of connection and rapid access to information – it’s also brought a lot of irritating problems into the world, too. It’s very much like Pandora’s Box.

So what pitfalls are small businesses likely to encounter when using social media? We can think of several.

First of all, you have to spend a lot of time and often money to do it correctly. Updating Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and so on…this all takes dedicated time. Even if you use time-saving tools like Buffer to plan content in advance. Creating content takes time. Responding to comments and messages takes time.

There’s a learning curve to social media for business, too. Don’t rely on your Gen Z nephew to manage social media for you. Don’t pass off the responsibility on an intern. As we are going to discuss in this article, social media marketing is not necessarily hard, but there are a lot of moving parts and there is a lot of strategy to it.

Then there the many disadvantages of having a very public presence online. Problems are more obvious. Competitors can watch you. Trolls will hassle you. Privacy and security become issues.

Last but not least, some people even say that social media has a low ROI. I don’t know if I personally buy that, because it depends on how you define “return” and “investment.” The fact still stands that many businesses do not pull in revenue from social media and are online merely because it is expected.

Setting up Social Media: Before You Begin

Do not take social media lightly. It’s time-consuming and you have to put in real emotional effort. The majority of brands that I see online make the same mistakes. They have a mediocre, bland presence on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. This is a shame since a truly excellent presence, even in the dullest industry, would take just a bit more strategic thinking.

Don’t let this scare you, though. You don’t have to be a social media pro to run your small business social media. You just need to come across as professional. As I said in an old, similar post on another blog of mine, “professionalism isn’t about the size of your team or your number of followers. It’s about clarity of purpose, attention to detail, and consistency.”

Commit to having a clear purpose, consistent branding, and a focus on customers. If you can honor these three commitments, you will eventually master social media.

12 Steps to Setting Up Social Media for Your Small Business

With all of the above in mind, we are now going to go over twelve evergreen steps that you can use to run any social media account. These will help you define your small business social media strategy so that when you’re done reading, all you have to worry about are the small, ever-changing details of different social media channels’ quirks. That is, the difference between a tweet and a pin, the size of images displayed as previews in the Facebook feed, and so on.

1. Figure out your intentions and set realistic expectations.

Stephen Covey said it best in his 1989 self-help book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Begin with the end in mind.

Ask yourself what your real goals are with social media. Do you just want to establish a presence so you can check boxes and not really worry too much about it? That’s fine. Spend two hours a week scheduling content on Buffer to automatically post to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Monitor the comments every once in a while. Boom, done!

If that describes you, don’t sweat how many followers or likes you have. Your goal is just to have a bare minimum online presence. That is often a perfectly acceptable approach to social media.

However, if you want to cast yourself, say, as a “very online” luxury brand, then your strategy will be different. You’ll want to invest in gorgeous photography and videography. You need to be online a lot more and respond to more comments. Additionally, you may want to spend money on advertising so that you can grow your social media channels quickly and extend your brand reach.

In another example, if your goal is revenue, you may not care how visible your brand is or how many followers you have. Rather, you may just care about having a presence that looks respectable while you boost highly effective ads that push people to dedicated landing pages on your website.

All of these examples, which are by no mean exhaustive, are perfectly fine approaches to social media. In each case, a different variable is optimized and expectations are set appropriately. In the first example, raw time-efficiency is most important and follower count and engagement don’t have to be great. The second example prioritizes sheer visibility, but at the cost of time and money. Finally, the third example uses social media as a lead generator at the expense of money and time spent community-building.

2. Know what you have to offer.

Before you start seriously using social media, you need to have a strong sense of what makes your business different from others. It is virtually impossible to engage your audience in a meaningful way without understanding what makes your brand unique.

If you haven’t already done so, take some time defining your niche and creating products or services that are perfect for your audience. This will help you understand what you have to offer. Unless you are meeting a need for your customers, they have no reason to read or watch your content, let alone respond to it or make a purchasing decision because of it.

3. Define your audience.

Once you know what you ultimately want to do and what you have to offer, it only makes sense to think about who you want to reach out to. Odds are, your target audience for social media will be the same as your target audience for your business as a whole. As such, when defining your audience, you to ask questions such as:

  • What are they interested in?
  • What media outlets do they read, watch, or listen to?
  • Which social media networks are they on?
  • How do they make decisions?
  • Are you selling to consumers or to businesses?

The act of asking these questions gives you insight into what your customers care about. This can then be used to create content that they want to interact with and to identify which social media networks they are already using.

First time marketing your small business?
Join our online community of small business owners.
4. Come up with core branding and messaging rules.

On social media, you need to be very cognizant of certain branding best practices such as:

  • Make sure your brand matches what people say about your brand.
  • Ensure that your brand is meaningful to your target audience.
  • Focus on your customers’ needs and how you can solve them.
  • Use your logos and colors as consistently as possible.
  • Define a certain tone of voice for each social media channel and stick to it.
  • Be clear and consistent.
5. Choose your platforms and learn them.

You can’t have a good presence on every single social media channel unless you have a very large organization. Ideally, you need to have at least a Facebook page and then pick 2-3 other social networks that are appropriate for your industry. Pay attention to what works for your industry by researching brands like yours and choose wisely.

6. Each platform has a different “language.” Learn to speak it.

To help you get started, though, let’s talk about 9 really common social media networks and how each one fills a different niche online. Descriptions below are largely borrowed from Tufts Unviersity.

  • Facebook: The de facto water cooler of the internet and one of the most versatile social networking sites. Facebook has one of the most effective advertising systems and also owns Instagram. Users create a personal profile, add other users as friends, and exchange messages, including status updates. Brands create pages and Facebook users can “like” brands’ pages.
  • YouTube: A video watching and hosting website. Very popular with Generation Z and Millennial age groups.
  • Instagram: A free photo and video sharing app that allows users to apply digital filters, frames and special effects to their photos and then share them on a variety of social networking sites. Owned by Facebook.
  • Twitter: A social networking/micro-blogging platform that allows groups and individuals to stay connected through the exchange of short status messages, 280 character limit.
  • Reddit: A website consisting of millions of communities known as subreddits, each of which covers a different topic.
  • Pinterest: A social networking site that lets users organize and share ideas with others in the form of “boards” (collections of content) and “pins” (the content itself).
  • LinkedIn: The default social networking site for professional contacts and job searching.
  • Snapchat: A mobile app that lets users send photos and videos to friends or to their “story.” Snaps disappear after viewing or after 24 hours
  • TikTok: A short-form, video-sharing app that allows users to create and share 15 or 60-second videos on any topic.
7. Build a backlog of content.

Once you have selected a handful of social media networks and have done the basic setup, just start posting. Do this for a couple of weeks and don’t worry about anything else. Don’t worry about finding followers, running ads, or closing sales. Just start posting.

8. Start talking to others.

Once you’ve been posting on your chosen social media sites for a couple of weeks, it’s time to start talking to people. How you do this specifically differs by platform, but you basically need to do two things:

  1. Be seen.
  2. Make someone’s life better.

You can do this by following people with similar interests or by commenting on posts. If you’re feeling especially bold, you might even send a direct message. The point is to start having real conversations with people in some way. Not just “check out my page” but real, meaningful conversations.

9. Schedule and outsource.

Keeping up with social media all the time can be a huge chore. One of the easiest ways you can manage social media while still keeping your sanity is to start scheduling.

I mean that in two senses of the word. Schedule content ahead of time for social media using tools such as Buffer, which automatically posts content that you make ahead of time on your behalf. You should also schedule dedicated times each day to check your social media so that you aren’t constantly monitoring it. Big companies can afford to constantly monitor social media. Small businesses can’t. Left unchecked, social media will drain you.

Next, once you have a feel for what your social media should look like, you may choose to outsource part or all of the responsibility associated with it. You may do this by passing the responsibility to a freelancer or an agency. This can free up lots of time, but do so with caution because it’s expensive and whoever has your social media passwords is the face of your brand. They need to be qualified.

10. Gather data.

Nearly every social media outlet creates detailed analytics for social media business users. Periodically go through the data and see which behaviors are leading to the desired effects and which ones are not. You’d be surprised what you can find out with some digging.

11. Tweak your messaging.

Use the data you gather and change your approach. Do more of what’s working and less of what’s not. Remember: data-driven tweaking isn’t always about optimizing the number of likes or retweets. You want to refer back to your goals and make sure the posts that you make help you achieve those goals.

12. Push people down the sales funnel.

Social media is quite possibly the greatest time sink ever created. You can waste a phenomenal amount of time on it, and many businesses fall into this trap just as individuals do.

You’re on a mission to make money. Don’t forget that. You need to close sales even if you run a purpose-driven organization. Social media may be a very new kind of tool, but it is a marketing tool nonetheless. Forgetting this means leaving money on the table.

If people are watching you, give them a reason to be interested. Once people are interested in you, give them a reason to want your products or services. When they show you that they want their products, give them a reason to buy today.

Final Thoughts

Social media can be extraordinarily useful in small business when handled correctly. At your fingertips, you have a way to connect with seemingly anyone in the world. Reach out to people, have real conversations, and give them a reason to care!

First time marketing your small business?
Join our online community of small business owners.

How to Build a Mailing List for Your Small Business

Email is one of the most effective marketing tools you have at your disposal. Many find this to be surprising at first, but the value of building a mailing list to grow your small business cannot be understated.

In this article, we are going to talk about how you can use email to spread the word of your business, keep customers interested in you, and – when the time is right – convince them to buy.

Please note this post is heavily inspired by How to Build a Mailing List and Send Newsletters as a Board Game Dev. It’s a post I wrote for board game creators in April 2018. Parts of this article are borrowed from that original post. The actual setup of MailChimp itself is almost unchanged.

First time marketing your small business?
Join our online community of small business owners.

Why should I build a mailing list in the first place?

My colleague Pierson wrote a wonderful short article addressing this question just a few short days ago. I’ll summarize the key points here for your convenience, though.

For every $1 spent on email marketing, $44 are made in return. For that reason, email marketing is known for giving you an excellent return on your investment.

Why does this work? Email marketing helps you to keep your customers’ attention and interest. That means customers will be more likely to remember your brand over others, building an air of authority. What’s more, at key moments, you can use email to push people to buy what you’re selling.

What do all these numbers mean?

Before we teach you how to set up a mailing list, we’re going to review a few common metrics that you will see. These metrics will tell you how well your emails are performing and whether you need to correct course.

Here are a few to get us started:

  • Open Rate – the percentage of your mailing list that opens your email.
  • Click Rate – the percentage of your mailing list that clicks on at least one link in your email.
  • Hard Bounce – happens when you send to an invalid email address.
  • Soft Bounce – happens when your email is sent to a valid email address, but they don’t receive the email.
  • Subscribes – the number of people who join your mailing list.
  • Unsubscribes – the number of people who leave your mailing list.

That’s a lot of numbers. Do they all matter?

All of these metrics are important to some degree, but if you had to narrow your focus down to three metrics, I would pick open rate, click rate, and unsubscribes.

As a rule of thumb, you want an open rate of 25% or greater. If you cannot manage that, clean your mailing list to remove people who are not reading your emails or segment it to send more relevant emails. Unopened emails drive costs up and customers nuts.

Next, always include at least one business link for customers to click on. It could be a sale, a blog post, or something else. It doesn’t really matter what – just pick an action you want customers to take and make a link that entices them to take that action. You want click rate to be generally higher than 2%. If it’s lower than that, your customers generally are not interested in what you’re offering.

Lastly, watch your unsubscribe rate and try to keep it to 1% or lower. Too many unsubscribes means that your email content is either really uninteresting or, much worse, you’re gathering emails from people who don’t care about what you’re saying.

How to Set up a Mailing List on MailChimp

There are a lot of wonderful email tools out there. MailChimp is the easiest to learn, though, so that’s what I will teach you to use today. Go to their website and click Sign Up Free. Provide an email, username, and password.

Once you’re logged in, create a list. Click Audiences and then click the Create Audience button. Enter the following:

  • Audience Name – I use Pangea Marketing Agency.
  • Default From Email Address – I set up one on my web server called no.reply@pangeamarketingagency.com.
  • Default From Name – I use Brandon Rollins. More personal that way.
  • Remind people how they signed up for your list – I use:
    • Thank you for signing up for our mailing list! You will soon be receiving updates from Pangea Marketing Agency.
  • Contact Information – We use the Pangea Marketing Agency P.O. Box.
  • Enable double opt-in – This asks people to confirm that they want to receive emails from you before you start sending them. We believe that checking this is best practice.
  • Enable GDPR fields – Definitely check this. GDPR fields help you gather consent that holds up to the legal standards of the GDPR, which determines how you can use European residents’ data for marketing purposes.
  • Notifications – I leave all of them unchecked. They’re annoying.

Click Save. Then click Settings and click List fields and *|MERGE|* tags. Merge tags pull information from your sign-up form and they associate it with each email. For example, when I sign up for a MailChimp campaign, I might see Email Address, First Name, and Last Name. Naturally, I’d enter brandon@pangeamarketingagency.com, Brandon, and Rollins respectively. That info is all stored in a database.

Each bit of information is associated with a merge tag.

  • *|EMAIL|* is brandon@pangeamarketingagency.com
  • *|FNAME|* is Brandon
  • *|LNAME|* is Rollins

Someone can then write a newsletter that starts out as “Hey *|FNAME|*!” and it will show up as “Hey Brandon!” For my colleague Pierson, it’d be “Hey Pierson!” You get the idea.

This lets you personalize your emails with anything your users provide.

First time marketing your small business?
Join our online community of small business owners.

How to Create a Landing Page That Works

One of the qualities about MailChimp that I really like is that it gives you the ability to easily create landing pages. You are able to create forms hosted by MailChimp, and you can also get HTML code which you can insert on your own website. I’ve used both, but for simplicity, we’ll stick with MailChimp’s basic forms since the custom ones require you to know HTML. (You can learn HTML on W3Schools for free, if you’re interested in learning more about that.)

Click Signup forms. Click Select next to General forms. You can customize a whole bunch of forms, but we’re just going to talk about the Signup form itself since that’s the one you want to get absolutely right. This form will double as your landing page unless you decide to make a custom one and use MailChimp’s HTML code on your own website.

Customize Your Landing Page

With a little bit of effort, you can take MailChimp’s bland default landing pages and turn them into something much better. To do so, think about the data you want to gather on your landing page. You’ll definitely need an email address to start. We also recommend gathering first names and marketing permissions as well.

Everything you ask for beyond there is a bit risky. On the one hand, you’ll have more data to work with, which can be helpful. On the other, every additional question you ask increases the odds that they’ll drop off your page and not sign up.

Click on any fields you need to delete, rename, or relabel – you’ll have options on the right. Click on Add a field and then a button below to add a field asking for more information.

Once you’ve added and removed fields to your taste, click Design it. You can change the colors, fonts, and spacing of every part of your landing page – the page, the body, and the form itself. Click around in there and experiment to your taste. When you’re done, copy the Signup form URL that’s near the top in the screenshot above. That’s your landing page’s address. Share that address anywhere you need to such as your social media or your website.

How to Create a Template That Works

Click Templates then Create a template. I personally recommend that you pick one of MailChimp’s featured templates and modify it to your tastes. On the right side, click on the Design button – you’ll see items including Page, Header, Body, Footer, Mobile Styles, and Monkey Rewards.

You’ll be given lots of options on how to customize the page, such as colors, font sizes, line spacing, and more. I personally recommend staying pretty close to the original design, but swap out the colors for sure.

Once you’re happy with the basic colors, fonts, and spacing of your template, click on the Content button to see all the things you can put into your mailer. What you see in the screenshot below can be dragged and dropped right onto your template.

Drag all the elements you like into your template. If you don’t want something in your template, hover over the item and then click on the trash can symbol on the top right. Once you get all your content items in the right locations, click on each one on the left. Then edit the details on the right.

Details can be editing an image, updating text, changing where a button goes, and so on. Make sure to click Save & Close any time you make a change on the right side! When think you’ve got a good template, Preview and Test in the top right corner and then Enter preview mode.

Create a Template that Resembles Others

Now the whole time you’re doing this, you need to be looking at newsletters that you like and imitating their style. Pay particularly close attention to their “calls to action” – any articles they want you to read or buttons they want you to click. When you’re sending out your own mailer, you want to have one very clear call to action somewhere on the mailer. If you don’t, it’s pointless to send out in the first place. I personally put three calls to action in each blog email – one text link to an article and two image/text links to an article at the bottom – I’ve highlighted mine in yellow.

When you’re done with your template, click Save and Exit and give it a name you’ll remember. When you’re sending out email campaigns, you’ll be using your template. You can then swap out text and images and keep a consistent look and feel between all your emails. Go ahead and sign up for your email list and send out a sample campaign to yourself while you’re the only one on it. Make sure everything looks okay and go back and edit your template if it doesn’t.

An example of a typical email from my other website, Brandon the Game Dev. Note that links are highlighted in yellow.

How to Generate Leads for Your Mailing List

It’s wonderful to have a mailing list set up. However, it won’t do your business much good if the emails go to only a handful of inboxes. For that reason, you need to be able to generate leads for your mailing list. There are several ways you can do this, but we’re going to focus on just seven.

1. Create an opt-in incentive.

First and foremost, I’m not giving you my email without a reason. People need a reason to give you their email because doing so requires trust. The way you gain that trust is often by giving something valuable away in exchange for the email.

You can create how-to-guides and eBooks, which are downloadable opt-in incentives. Alternatively, you can give people a chance to win something in a giveaway. Lastly, you can build an online community and request that people provide their email to join.

The specific opt-in incentive will vary by business, but the principles are the same. Create something that’s so valuable that people are willing to give you their email and receive marketing messages in exchange for it.

2. Link your landing page to your website and social media and create strong calls to action.

Because your mailing list is one of your most valuable marketing tools, you want to promote it as often as you can. For that, you need strong calls to action on your website and ideally on pinned social media posts, too.

A favorite call-to-action of mine comes from my other website, Brandon the Game Dev. The call to action is “Learn to make board games. Join over 2,000 game devs, artists, and passionate creators. Click to get started!”

In those three sentences, I tell people what the site is for, offer them a chance to network with like-minded people, and give them a clear action (click here). This has been a remarkably effective and simple way to build a mailing list for years now.

3. Send direct messages on social media.

If you are truly trying to make something out of nothing, fancy opt-in incentives and call-to-action buttons won’t get the job done. If you already have attention online, then sure, they’ll work well.

But what if all you have are a few hundred followers on Twitter or Instagram? If that’s the case, you can send out personalized direct messages to each of your followers. It’s simple and here’s a basic template:

Hi (Name), I saw that you’re interested in (something). I’m offering (opt-in incentive). Is this something you’d be interested in?

If they say yes, then send them the link and tell them what they need to do next. That’s all you need to do! For even better results, personalize those sentences based on information they have publicly shared on social media to show that you took the time to get to know them first

4. Create content for others.

You can send the best direct messages in the world, but you will eventually run out of social media followers to contact for the first time. For this reason, you need to make content that gets people to pay attention to you, whether you’re blogging or simply creating something worthwhile on social media.

Now that makes a strong case for content marketing, but there’s another element to this. You want to create content for others. Ask people in your niche if you can write guest posts for them. Try to get interviewed for a podcast. Find ways to get your business’s name out there, and that will help draw people not only to your mailing list, but your brand as a whole.

5. Attend in-person events.

Conventions and trade shows provide wonderful networking opportunities. These kinds of events are fantastic for all kinds of purposes, but one digital marketing benefit is that you can create a simple sign-up sheet and start collecting emails. At a busy trade show, you can sometimes gather emails by the hundreds or thousands.

6. Give away prizes.

At Pangea, we’re huge fans of giving away prizes as a marketing technique. This is, by far, the fastest way I personally know of for building mailing lists. Offer something valuable in exchange for an email sign up. You can use tools like Gleam.io to help you get started. I recommend taking out $50-100 in targeted Facebook ads per giveaway for best results.

7. Advertise.

One of the best ways to easily grow a mailing list is by advertising. The downside, of course, is that it costs money, and sometimes a lot. The upside is that you can very quickly target people by interest on channels such as Facebook and Instagram.

Ideally, try to spend less than $2 per high-quality email address that you receive. I personally aim for $1 or less per high-quality email address.

Final Thoughts

Because email is such a powerful and effective tool for marketing your business, it only makes sense to use it to its fullest potential. As we have shown today, setting up a mailing list isn’t hard and there are a lot of effective ways you can grow your list.

Have you had any luck with email marketing? Share your experiences in the comments below – we’d love to hear them!

First time marketing your small business?
Join our online community of small business owners.

How to Build an Online Community Around Your Small Business in 7 Steps

Many businesses are beginning to understand the power of creating online communities. The Holy Grail of all marketing is to make it where customers really like and trust your business and they buy everything that you make. But that kind of success must be earned, and it takes a lot of work!

First things first: I will be drawing heavily from a post I wrote about a year ago on my board game development blog. The linked post is also about building an online community, and the principles discussed there can apply to nearly any industry.

First time marketing your small business?
Join our online community of small business owners.

What is an online community?

Before we go any further, though, let’s define what exactly an online community is. I’ll use the definition from the game dev blog here since it’s a good one.

As I see it, an online community is any place that people are actively engaged in conversation on the Internet. Actively engaged meaning that people check in regularly and talk to one another. It’s a simple definition, but you’ll notice that it specifically excludes online platforms where nobody ever engages. Engagement is key here.

Why build an online community?

There a number of benefits to building an online community for your small business. They can be neatly summarized in four points:

  1. Building a community of engaged, friendly, passionate people is simply great branding. It gives you a chance to have your company’s name seen in a positive light.
  2. When you have an actively engaged online community, it’s very easy to ask market research questions simply by starting a conversation.
  3. Communities are great sources for both product/service ideas and content to share online.
  4. When it’s time to launch new products or services, you will have a built-in audience. This makes it much easier to succeed.

With all this in mind, let’s talk about seven steps you can follow to build your online community.

1. Choose the Right Gathering Place for Your Online Community

Think about where your customers like to hang out online. This is very important because online communities cannot be separated from the places they are built.

You have a lot of potential gathering places. Facebook groups are one example, as are Slack and Discord servers, subreddits, other social media, and forums. Each type of community has ups and downs. Your best bet? Pick a gathering place that your customers are already using.

For example, I use Discord – a popular chat software made by gamers for gamers – as a gathering place for board game developers. Similarly, I use a Facebook group as a gathering place for entrepreneurs.

2. Establish a theme and ground rules to ensure positive discussion.

Early on in the creation of your community, you need to make sure its purpose is well understood. There are two pieces to this: theme and ground rules.

For a theme, figure out what you want people to talk about. Do you want people to swap recipes? Would you prefer for them to talk about their favorite video games? Are you making a place for real estate agents to talk shop? Pick a simple theme and come up with a punchy community name that succinctly conveys that. (For example, the Facebook group for this blog is Small Businesses Unite).

Next, you want to set a few ground rules and find a few people who will moderate your community. Keep the ground rules simple. As an example, here are the ones I use for the Pangea Games Facebook group:

  1. Be excellent to each other.
  2. Don’t discriminate.
  3. Be classy about self-promotion.
  4. Don’t spam.
  5. Help others out any way you can.
  6. Invite whoever you want, as long as they’re chill.
  7. Don’t do or coordinate anything illegal here.

I’ll once more borrow directly from the post on the game dev blog to explain why I use these seven rules.

I start with a positive rule. “Thou shalt nots” will only get you so far. Rules 2, 4, and 7 are obvious ones – don’t be any kind of -ist or -phobic, don’t tell me how you made $87,122 working from home, and don’t talk about your illegal gambling den. Numbers 5 and 6 reiterate the positive rules, with 6 doubling as encouragement to invite.

The trickiest rule here is 3. Decide how you’re going to handle self-promotion. You can police it heavily by banning self-promotion or limiting it to a certain amount per week. Alternatively, you can allow it all (within reason) and let Facebook’s algorithm do the sorting. (Bad ideas get buried in active communities, so I don’t sweat it). No matter what you choose, be explicit about how you handle self-promotion.

First time marketing your small business?
Join our online community of small business owners.

3. Invite about 20 of your friends so the room’s not empty.

Online communities are dreadfully boring at first. Without bringing people you know into the community, you will probably need a few hundred strangers before you see conversations actually take place.

But if you start the community with a few friends? It becomes so much easier. Strangers will see that you and your friends are already talking, and they’ll join in, too.

4. Establish norms.

Very few people will read your rules. They’re important to have, but just remember that few people are going to look.

Rules are really just a way of encouraging certain norms. If you want people to engage, you need to ask questions until people start habitually answering. If you want people to help one another, you (and your friends) need to go out of your way to help new members. People mimic the behavior they see!

When you see behavior that you like, encourage it by liking and commenting on it. If you see a behavior you don’t like, ignore the small stuff and let the algorithm sort it out. For egregious misbehavior, tell the offender to stop.

Once your norms are baked in, new members who want to fit in will conform. You want to get this right before you spend a whole lot of time and energy promoting your online community.

5. Give people a reason to join your online community.

Once your online community has been established, you will want to draw people to it. A month or two of good engagement is usually enough to make people likely to join. However, they still need to find you in the first place!

Ideally, you want to give people some kind of incentive to join your community. The community itself is valuable, but if you really want to draw attention fast, give something away for free. When attracting board gamers to a Facebook group, for example, I give away a board game and people come in droves for the free stuff and stay for the conversation!

6. Push to 1,000 members.

Once your community is established and people have a reason to join, you need to push as hard as you can to 1,000 members. I will now reference the game dev blog post once more because the reasoning is sound and can apply to any business.

Early on with the Pangea Games Discord server, I hand messaged nearly 10,000 people on Twitter and Instagram. It took about 100 hours over weeks of effort. When I was done, I had just shy of 1,000 members in the community and it was actively engaged. It has remained active without sustained effort.

I don’t know what it is about 1,000 members specifically, but this seems to be the point at which communities are self-sustaining. There have been entire weeks where I’ve dropped out of Discord and barely been on Facebook, and the communities are still running. This should be your goal.

“Brandon, I don’t have thousands of followers or the time to message all of them.” Hey, that’s fair – there are many other options. For example, I use the blog – which pulls traffic primarily from search engines – to pull in new members to the Discord server. I use regularly scheduled giveaways of popular board games to encourage engagement on the Facebook group, as well as other related channels.

7. Listen to feedback to keep your online community healthy.

Online communities need to be monitored even after they are established. While your community may be self-sustaining, bad things can still happen. People will spam you. Some individuals will be needlessly mean. You’ll be criticized for your administration of the community. Sometimes you’ll want to roll out new features.

The point here is to stay engaged after you build the community. Constantly tweak and improve based on feedback. A little bit of care goes a long way.

Final Thoughts

Building an online community is not difficult. By following the seven steps above, you can reap many of the rewards of having an engaged community.

Online communities are great for your branding and are a constant source of ideas. Once established, you’ll never struggle to find customers willing to answer your questions and you’ll never have to launch a product or service with no audience.

And of course, building communities around your interests is just plain fun 🙂

First time marketing your small business?
Join our online community of small business owners.

15 Ways to Use Market Research to Grow Your Small Business

We’ve had market research on the brain lately! A few weeks ago, we wrote about what market research is. Shortly thereafter, we wrote about how you can do market research cheaply and made a long list of questions you can ask your customers.

Now we’re going to talk about all the ways you can use market research to grow your small business! It’s time to put all the information you’ve painstakingly gathered to good use.

First time marketing your small business?
Join our online community of small business owners.

1. Research demand for new products or services before starting.

You know the easiest way to screw up in small business? Make something that nobody wants.

I know this sounds incredibly simplistic, but the truth is that it’s such an easy error to make. Market research lets you identify which opportunities you shouldn’t pursue so that you can focus on the ones that you should.

By conducting market research, you can get a sense of market demand before you waste time. You can identify products that are ideal for your target market, or that have, in other words, a good product-market fit.

2. Identify customers’ goals to see if there are needs not yet met.

Good marketing strategy has two major parts to it:

  1. Identify customers’ needs and meet them.
  2. Tell potential customers that you can meet their needs.

Consumer behavior is driven by needs, but not just basic needs like the need for food, water, and sleep. People have a need to feel confident, to feel intelligent, to feel like they have achieved something with their life, and so on.

This may seem heady and abstract, but when you actually ask customers questions through market research, you often find they have unmet needs. When this happens, you have the chance to make good products or services before your competition catches on!

3. Identify more niches in your industry.

One of the ways that market research can help you grow your business is by identifying needs that are not yet met. When your business finds a way to meet those unmet needs in a way that few others are doing, then you have found a new potential niche.

This is really valuable. Finding a unique niche helps you narrow down your business’s focus so you can do what you do best.

4. Create more compelling marketing materials.

Some businesses are phenomenal at creating products or providing services. However, their marketing messaging is lackluster, and thus, people either walk away without buying or simply never find them. It’s a shame!

Market research can help you identify which kinds of ads people respond to. It can help you polish your brand so that your business looks like what others expect, thus signaling your ability to meet potential customers’ needs. In short, using market research to figure out what others like or expect helps you play the part when it comes time to brand and promote your business.

“Got to keep an eye on the competition!”

5. Watch your competition and understanding their marketing strategies.

It’s no big secret that paying attention to your competition can make you richer. Often in the course of market research, you find out a lot about what your competition is doing.

You can learn about what they offer and their unique selling points. You can get a sense of how their business is positioned. Lastly, you can often figure out their marketing strategies just through simple observation. Knowing what your competition is doing allows you to respond in kind.

6. Watch your competition and understand their weaknesses.

Similar to the point above, you can figure out what your competition is not doing as well. This can often be as insightful if not more so than figuring out what they are doing.

Are their products expensive? Is their branding lackluster? Are they failing to engage their audience? Are they leaving important meets unmet? Market research helps provide answers to these questions.

7. Reduce risk of bad marketing plans.

It’s easier for customers to remember bad marketing campaigns than to remember good ones. Just think of the Quiznos ads that came out around 2004. (Though in their defense, “they got a pepper bar.”)

Above, we said that marketing basically has two goals:

  1. Identify customers’ needs and meet them.
  2. Tell potential customers that you can meet their needs.

That means a bad marketing plan either doesn’t meet needs or doesn’t effectively signal that a business can meet customers’ needs. In my personal experience, market research with customers helps you avoid the first error while observation of competition keeps you from repeating their expensive mistakes and making the second error.

8. Fix problems in your product or service before it’s too late.

Reviewing what customers say about you is a form of market research. For nearly any business, there is a place where online reviews can be found – social media, Yelp, Trustpilot, Google, Shopify, Rate My Professor…you get the idea.

The point is: read the reviews every once in a while. Keep doing what works, of course, but pay extra attention to the negative reviews. You might find out that some of your staff is rude. Perhaps your slow responses to emails are alienating clients. Whatever issues you find, take steps to address them.

First time marketing your small business?
Join our online community of small business owners.

9. Test products or services before release.

Remember how we said that the most egregious error a small business can make is to create a product or service that people don’t want? Oftentimes, this can happen not because the idea was poorly conceived, but rather just poorly executed.

One form of market research involves creating focus groups. This kind of market research provides you an excellent opportunity to test products or services before releasing them to the general public. That way, if there are issues, you can correct them before it’s too late.

10. Test branding and advertising on a small scale.

Similarly to the way that product and services can be testing, so can branding and advertising. You can do this by running advertisements or branding decisions across a group of people online or in-person.

In the case of digital marketing, you can also take out ads on a small scale or set up simple A/B testing. This lets you see how people will react to changes on a small scale before spending a lot of money.

11. Make improvements based on survey data.

One of the most popular forms of market research is collecting survey data. When you send out surveys to either current customers or potential ones, you can ask nearly any question you want. This means if you have specific questions you want to be answered, you can read real responses from people that you can take to heart. You can also ask open-ended questions if you want unprompted, unfiltered responses.

In both cases, you can aggregate survey data and find trends. When you spot a trend, you can start implementing the survey feedback.

12. Improve the effectiveness of social media.

Basically every social media channel creates an enormous amount of data that you can review. Facebook and Instagram both have Insights. Twitter has Analytics. The list goes on.

One of my favorite goals for social media is simply engagement, more so even than growth in many cases. Engagement includes comments as well as likes, views, clicks, and so on. To improve engagement, you can review your social media history and create more posts like the ones that performed the best.

13. Improve effectiveness of website.

Using market research as well as data from tools like Google Analytics, you can figure out how to improve the effectiveness of your website. If people are adding items to their cart but abandoning them without purchasing, you can use market research to figure out why that is and discourage that behavior.

Similarly, you can figure out where to place calls to action to get more sales or email signups. Market research can also help you figure out how to layout your website, which pages are most likely to get attention, and how to optimize for search engines.

This is particularly notable when you run an eCommerce business. Often small tweaks can turn a 2% conversion rate into a 3% conversion rate, which if you’re already established, is like putting money right into your pocket.

14. Catch on to industry trends early.

The act of market research alone forces you to get out of your shell and observe the outside world. Just through the simple act of researching alone, you become a lot more aware of industry trends in the making. This allows you to respond appropriately early on.

15. Improve customer retention.

Once your business is established, one of the easiest ways to improve your profitability is to improve customer retention. This could mean upselling, implementing a subscription-based model, or launching new but related products or services. It could also mean, as we mentioned earlier, finding breakdowns and fixing them so you don’t lose potential repeat customers.

Market research helps you identify both the weaknesses you need to correct and the opportunities you need to pursue. This makes it a lot easier to keep customers coming back for more.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, market research is not merely a bookish exercise. It has many practical applications! Market research data, like oil or timber, is a natural resource upon which you can build larger marketing strategies.

Used correctly, market research will allow you to identify needs, make sure your meeting them, and make you’re communicating value. The goals are simple but the benefits of applying market research well are profound.

First time marketing your small business?
Join our online community of small business owners.

23 Excellent Questions to Ask Your Customers

Want to know what your customers really think of you? Sometimes, the easiest way to find out is to just ask! In many cases, market research is really that simple, though it helps to go in with a list of questions to ask your customers.

Over the last two weeks, we’ve focused heavily on market research for small business. Our first article provides a crash course in market research and our second provides a list of ways for you to inexpensively get started.

In both articles, we extol the virtues of asking your customers for their opinions. For that reason, we’ve made a list of 23 questions that you can ask your customers. You can use these questions for one-on-one interviews and surveys alike!

First time marketing your small business?
Join our online community of small business owners.

1. What are your most important goals?

Whether you’re selling a product or a service, you need to fill a need for your customer. For that reason, it helps to know what their goals are. There’s always at least one thing they need help with, otherwise they wouldn’t need your product or service at all.

If it helps, you can also break this question into two questions. You can ask about both short-term and long-term goals.

2. What are your desired outcomes?

Sometimes customers will freeze up when you ask them directly about their goals. That’s fine, since many customers don’t necessary think of meeting their needs and meeting their goals as being one and the same.

So how can you figure out what your customers are trying do in that case? Ask about outcomes instead! What do they want to happen when they buy your product or service (or one like it)?

3. How can we improve?

Often the most straightforward, open-ended questions will receive the most meaningful feedback. By asking this question, you open the door to all kinds of constructive criticism which you can use to make your business better.

This is the kind of question that often results in a lot of answers, so be sure to take notes. You will then want to review your notes later and see what the underlying themes are.

4. Was our staff friendly and helpful?

This is an especially important question if you’re selling a service. A bad customer service experience can turn customers away forever. If you are having problems with staff – poor training, a rude employee, etc. – this question will help you find the root of the problem so you can address it.

5. How satisfied are you with our products (or services?)

If you’re asking questions on a survey, I recommend that you ask customers to rate your products (or services) on a scale of 1 to 10 or 1 to 5. There is a benefit to asking this question in a way that requires a quantitative response. If you’re looking for positive feedback, you can filter surveys where the answer to this question is 8 of 10 (4 of 5) or better. Otherwise, if you’re looking for constructive criticism, you can filter reviews in the opposite way.

6. Did we meet your expectations?

Your customers’ experiences are inevitably filtered through their expectations. You can do phenomenal work and still fall short of expectations that are too high to be met. By asking your customers what they expect, you can do a few things:

  1. If customers routinely expect too much, you can find better ways to set expectations from the start.
  2. You can find unexpected ways to delight your customers by giving them things that exceed their expectations (but don’t cost much extra).
  3. You can modify your products or services to better meet their expectations in general.
On purpose or not, customers compare what they get to what they expect. Therefore, it’s very important to take their expectations into account!

7. How could we have exceeded your expectations?

This question is similar to the last but is worded in such a way where you are more likely to receive direct, actionable feedback.

8. Was it easy to purchase?

One of the most important lessons from the field of user experience sounds simple: don’t make me think!

If your website is complicated, your store has a confusing layout, or your pricing is unclear, you will lose business. It is really that simple.

By asking your existing customers if it was easy to purchase, you can identify any roadblocks that keep people from buying from you. Correcting them may help you turn otherwise lost leads into conversions.

9. How likely are you to purchase again?

Steady revenue is the lifeblood of a business. By asking your customers if they are likely to purchase again, you can better forecast revenues. Perhaps more importantly, if the answer is no, it gives you a chance to ask why and figure out what to improve.

10. What is the reason you purchased from us?

If you want to draw more customers to your business, sometimes it helps to ask your customers why they reached out to you in the first place. Your customers’ answers to this question may reveal a pattern and help you find (or refine) your niche!

11. What was the most memorable thing from your experience with us?

No matter how good or bad your customer’s experience was, the memory will eventually fade. The details will slip away and only a handful of things will remain. Asking your customers what the most memorable experience they had with your company will give you insight into how people will see you a year, two years, or five years down the road.

12. What are your biggest challenges?

This is very similar to the “goals” question above, but by focusing on challenges instead of goals or outcomes, you will find out what is annoying or worrying your customers. When you find that out, you’ve identified a need. If you can adequately address that need, then people will be more likely to work with your business in the future.

In essence, by asking about challenges, you can figure out their goals (i.e. “eliminating the challenge”).

What do your customers want to accomplish? Asking them about their challenges can help you figure out their goals (even when they don’t know what their goals are).
First time marketing your small business?
Join our online community of small business owners.

13. What features could you not live without?

Whether you’re providing a product or a service, certain basic needs will have to be met. They might be what makes your company’s offerings unique, but they might not be. Sometimes they’re just basic qualities that you have to provide.

14. Which features could you live without?

This is the negative version of the above question. It can help you identify what is not worth spending money on. While it is tempting to make products or provide services with all the bells and whistles, it’s often expensive and distracts from what’s really important. Knowing what you can stop focusing on will make your life a lot easier!

15. Would you rather cut costs or increase productivity?

This is a variant of a question I found in a HubSpot article. This question doesn’t apply to every business, but it’s good for B2B businesses. By asking whether costs or productivity is more important, you can focus more on what matters most to your client. Plus, this question will give you a sense of how your company’s performance will be evaluated in a B2B relationship.

16. Why did you choose us over the competition?

In order to find your niche, you need to do at least one thing better than your competition for a given market. For those who choose to do business with you, asking them why they chose your business is very insightful. This allows you to identify your strengths so you can market them.

17. What would you say about your experience?

This open-ended question gives customers a chance to talk about their experiences – both positive and negative. Like asking “how can we improve,” this gives customers a chance to say what they really think without prompting.

18. What is your favorite thing about our (product or service)?

Asking your customers directly about what they like the most about your service gives you a sense of what your unique value proposition is. Much like “why did you choose us over the competition,” this is a question that can help you find your niche or tweak your messaging if you find your actual strengths are not what you’ve been advertising the most.

Finding out what your customers love about your business helps you find your unique value proposition!

19. What is your least favorite thing about our (product or service)?

On the flip side, asking customers what they do not like about your business gives you a chance to identify issues that are either stopping people from purchasing or causing them not to purchase again.

20. Where do you look for information about our industry?

If you want to promote your business more effectively, you need to figure out how to be seen by more people. One of the best ways to do this is to ask your current customers how they are doing their research. This lets you identify where people with intent to purchase are already looking. You can then direct your efforts toward being featured on those websites (or social media channels, trade publications, and so on).

21. How did you find us?

Similar to the previous question, asking customers how they found you (as opposed to where they do their research) will help you find specific places that people are using to find your business. This can help you figure out how to spend your marketing budget or which channels you need to be featured on.

22. What were you using before you found us?

There are basically two possible responses to this question. The first is “I wasn’t using anything” and the second is “I was using someone else’s product or service.” Knowing the answer to this question will help you identify whether you are pulling people into your market for the first time or whether you are pulling people away from your competition.

23. How likely would you be to recommend this business to a friend?

This is another question that goes great on a survey on a scale of 1 to 10 or 1 to 5. If customers rate your business 8 or higher (4 or higher), then they are very likely to recommend your business to a friend. By pleasing customers to this degree, you are likely to benefit from word-of-mouth – the cheapest, hardest-to-fake, and one of the most effective marketing types of all!

Final Thoughts on Questions to Ask Your Customers

Your customers have a wealth of information to share with you. By asking for their opinion, you can find opportunities to improve and issues to resolve. From then, you can rapidly improve, grow your business, and meet even more customers’ needs!

First time marketing your small business?
Join our online community of small business owners.

14 Cheap Ways to Do Market Research for Your Small Business

Conducting quality market research is one of the best ways to ensure the long-term growth of your business. Just last week we talked about exactly what market research is and how it can help your business grow. From crafting perfect products to finding new audiences, the benefits are clear!

But let’s be real for a minute. Not everybody can just throw a bunch of money at market research and hope for the best. Spending time or money on anything that doesn’t directly lead to gaining revenues or cutting expenses is, at best, tough to justify.

So how can you reap the benefits of marketing research without wasting a bunch of money? Turns out, there are a lot of things you can do, and we’re going to name fourteen of them in this article!

First time marketing your small business?
Join our online community of small business owners.

1. Gather info at industry events. 

Industry events, whether they’re trade shows, expos, social mixers usually are not free. In many cases, they cost a lot of money to attend, and even more when setting up a booth and arranging travel. Nevertheless, many businesses make a habit out of going to them already, even without any marketing intentions beyond the abstract notion of “networking.”

And you know what? This is actually good. Industry events are tremendous for getting your name out there and helping you meet people who care about what you do.

If you’ve already decided to go to an industry event, why not go in with a few marketing questions you want to answer? Through asking your industry peers or by simply observing others’ behavior, you can answer many of your most pressing marketing questions at no extra cost!

2. Check the news headlines.

News organizations and bloggers alike put an enormous amount of thought into headlines. Whether online, on TV, or in print, headlines serve one purpose: get the attention of interested people by telling them things that pique their interest.

Try checking out the headlines for your industry. Google your competitors’ names. Look up the name of your products and services. Without even clicking on the articles, go through 10 or 12 pages of headlines. This exercise alone can help you understand what market demand looks like.

3. Look for market data through resources such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Small Business Administration.

The US government puts an enormous amount of money and effort into gathering useful information. This is a good thing since this data is publicly available and small business owners can use this information to their advantage.

Here are a few links to get you started:

4. Read trade journals.

Trade journals are a great place to look for industry-specific, detailed market research data. The data provided in trade journals has a few advantages over what we’ve mentioned before.

Industry events are often hectic, networking-focused events. You can perform market research at them, but not at your own pace as you can with trade journals. You just go there, experience what you experience, and takes notes as fast as possible. In many cases, this is good enough! But if you’re looking to do really nuanced, careful research, it might not be.

Similarly, searching for headlines will tell you a lot about your industry, but it only scratches the surface. Headlines will tell you what’s trending, but they won’t tell you why.

Government data does the same basic thing, but more empirically. It can tell you what is happening in your industry, often backing up their data with great detail. Yet it doesn’t answer why.

Trade journals allow you to research at your own pace, in great detail, with context provided by experts in your industry.

5. Perform text analysis on social media mentions or survey data.

Collecting data from industry events and trade journals is useful because you hear from people in your industry. Similarly, headlines and government data can give you a sense of larger trends in the market.

But what about your customers? What do they have to say? Sometimes you cannot ask customers directly, but you can read what they voluntarily say online. Social media is wonderful for that.

We won’t get into the specifics of how text mining works, but suffice it to say, there are tools that will help you see which words pop up in correlation with others. You can even gauge the sentiment of the data being mined.

6. Read competitors’ websites.

This almost seems like a no-brainer, but it’s such a valuable research technique. If you want to understand your industry or potential industry’s norms, look at your competition! What do their websites look like? What are they doing on social media?

By looking at your competitors’ websites, you can answer a few of the following questions:

7. Ask questions on social media.

One of my favorite methods of marketing research costs nothing. If you have a reasonably large following online, you can just…ask people questions. Seriously, it’s that easy. Just ask people what they like, what can be improved, where they shop, and so on.

Even if you don’t have a big following online, you can often do this in popular Facebook groups or on websites like Reddit. However, please take care when posting in other communities not to come across as a sleazy marketer. You either want to come across as genuinely curious or you want to be straightforward about what you’re doing. That is, say you’re running a business and want to make great products or services!

First time marketing your small business?
Join our online community of small business owners.

8. Require customers to answer questions to receive a prize.

Running contests is not free. However, it’s often not as expensive as you might expect and I have personally had fantastic results with giving away $50 items.

If you’re already giving away items, that’s great! You’re ahead of the curve. Why not take it one step further and incentivize your users to answer questions to increase their odds of winning a prize? Popular contest software, such as Gleam.io, makes this a lot easier to do!

9. Perform A/B testing on your website, ads, or emails.

Subtle differences in the way you present your company can make a big difference. For example, a good email title has a much greater chance of being opened than a bad email title. Similarly, well-crafted advertisements often get 10 or 20 times the return of badly-crafted ones, at least in my experience.

Knowing the difference between good and bad choices, though? That’s tricky, particularly as the “good” and “bad” are entirely based on what your customers want in the first place!

In a future article, we will be sure to talk about how to perform A/B testing. In the meantime, here is a great article to help you get started!

10. Send out surveys by email.

A client of mine came to me one day saying, “how can we improve our service?” My immediate instinct was to tell them to ask their customers when they next see them and then write down their suggestions.

Then I realized we were sitting on a mailing list with hundreds of active clients!

I then spent the next 45 minutes crafting a simple survey on Google forms. Then I spent another 45 minutes putting together a very simple email on MailChimp. We sent it out and a surprising 15% of people took time out of their day to respond to the survey!

We were then able to use the survey results, implement many of the things customers wanted, and they’ve been thrilled with the improvements!

11. Save all feedback from customers.

On that same note, you don’t always have the luxury of sending a survey out to all your customers. However, you can always save your emails, case notes, phone call transcripts, and more. You can then review them later and see what suggestions you can run with from there.

12. Interview individual customers.

If you want really nuanced, human information, asking your customers is a great start! Many customers are happy to spend a few moments of their day answering questions, particularly if they believe it will help improve a product or service they use a lot.

Whether by phone or face-to-face, you can actively respond to what they say. You’re not forced to rely on responses from surveys. You can ask follow-up questions and seek clarifications when it’s useful.

13. Review the data in your CRM system.

CRM is short for customer relationship management. This includes software such as Salesforce or HubSpot. CRMs are great to have and commonly found in businesses because it makes it a lot easier to track your customers and their interests.

What many people fail to consider is that CRMs are wonderful for market research. Best of all, if you already have one implemented, it doesn’t cost you anything to query the data that is already there.

By asking smart questions and spending some time creating relevant reports, you can figure out what your customer base likes and dislikes about your products or services. You can then focus on giving them the improvements that they seek!

14. Talk to suppliers, distributors, and retailers.

Last but not least, often the people who have the greatest insight into your industry are not customers or even your peers. No, many times, the gatekeepers – distributors and retailers – are the ones who can tell you what really matters. Other times, it’s the people who provide the raw materials – suppliers – who can catch trends in their infancy.

In addition to the obvious benefits of good business relationships with suppliers, distributors, and retailers; there is a marketing rationale to listen to them. By merit of their jobs, they are exposed to a lot of information. Not to mention, they have a vested interest in seeing your business succeed. Suppliers want to sell more suppliers and distributors want to move more products!

Final Thoughts

Market research is not just for marketing agencies and Fortune 500 companies. Even if you run a business all by yourself, you have the tools at your disposal to figure out what customers want so you can give it to them. Many of the best techniques are cheap, or even free!

First time marketing your small business?
Join our online community of small business owners.

A Crash Course in Market Research for Your Small Business

Building a small business for the first time is really difficult! You have to create a product or a service that’s perfect for your audience. Then you have to tell people you exist. These two tasks are the essence of marketing. While they sound simple, anyone who’s tried them knows how tricky and nuanced it can be.

First time marketing your small business?
Join our online community of small business owners.

Enter market research. It’s a straightforward concept: you gather data about people and companies and figure out what people want and need. Do it well and you’re well on your way to crafting the perfect products and services.

In this article, we’ll talk about what market research is and what tools you have available. Then we’re going to give you 9 specific steps you can use right now to grow your business!

Market research – what is it and why does it matter?

What is market research, anyway?

My favorite definition of market research comes from Shopify.

Market research consists of systematically gathering data about people or companies – a market – and then analyzing it to better understand what that group of people needs. The results of market research…are then used to help business owners make more informed decisions about the company’s strategies, operations, and potential customer base.

In short, you use all the information available to you to figure out what people want and how (or if) they’re able to get it.

Why bother with market research?

There are a lot of reasons to spend time on market research. In fact, if your business is still just an idea, you should focus heavily on market research at the beginning.

This fantastic article by Oberlo contains some reasons to perform market research, the best of which I’ll list here for you:

  • Determine the feasibility of new businesses. In short, you can see if people even care about what you want to make before you spend time and money making it.
  • Identify and develop potential new markets. Sometimes, you can watch new trends being born before businesses are able to act. Market research helps you find demand for products or services that don’t exist yet.
  • Test the demand of new products of features. This can be a real life-saver. Market research lets you check for product-market fit before you make a whole bunch of a product that no one wants.
  • Boost the success of promotional campaigns. When you pay attention to what people are saying online, you can tweak your messaging. Even our own company is working on doing this!
What are your marketing objectives and how does market research help?

Before you start a big research project, stop and think about what you want to come out of it. There are a few different reasons why you would initiate a market research project:

  1. Starting a business and seeing if it’s viable.
  2. Looking at related products or services that you want to start selling soon.
  3. Testing products or services that aren’t ready to be released to the public.
  4. Improving the ROI of current marketing efforts such as ads.
  5. Getting in touch with customers and seeing if you’re really meeting their needs.
  6. Keeping an eye on competition.
  7. Gauging the size of your current market and other markets.

This is just scratching the surface, too. The point is: think about what you want to get out of market research first.

Primary research vs. secondary research

As you might imagine, there are different kinds of market research. You can broadly categorize them into two types, though: primary research and secondary research.

Primary research

Sometimes if you want to get good information, you need to go right to the source. By that, we mean the customers!

Marketers over the years have come up with all kinds of ingenious ways to get customers to talk about what they want. Sometimes it’s as simple as informally asking questions. Other times, you want something more rigorous such as a well-made survey.

In any case, a few examples of primary research include focus groups, surveys, and interviews. Note that most primary research methods can be done in-person, on the phone, or online. It really depends on what you and your customers are comfortable with!

There are two basic ways that primary research can be used: exploratory research and specific research.

Exploratory research is where you have open-ended interviews or surveys. You never know what you’re going to hear from your customers, and that’s the beauty of it! Exploratory research is great when you don’t have specific questions you need answered.

But let’s say you do have specific questions that need to be answered. That’s where specific research comes in. With specific research, you ask detailed questions intended to receive precise responses to narrowly-defined questions.

Both kinds of research have their place. Think back to your objectives and really consider whether exploratory or specific research is more useful for you.

Secondary research

The problem with primary research is that it’s subjective. It’s very, very human and that has its ups and downs. Secondary research is more focused on quantitative data. You know the sort – trend reports, statistics, industry data, and more.

Secondary research is better in two cases. The first is if you need hard, empirical data instead of the softer, more human data gathered in primary research. The second case is when you need to analyze your competition.

Where do you turn when gathering secondary research? There are several places you can go:

  • Government statistics relevant to your industry
  • U.S. Census data
  • Bureau of Labor & Statistics data
  • Commercial sources such as Pew or McKinsey
  • Your own internal data sources (Google Analytics, social media metrics, sales figures, etc.)
First time marketing your small business?
Join our online community of small business owners.

How do I do marketing research? (9 Steps)

Everything we’ve said up until this point is useful for understanding why market research is valuable. But let’s say you’re ready to just dive in and do it. That’s great!

If this describes you, we’ve come up with 9 steps you can follow. These steps will carry you through just about any market research project you can come up with!

1. Understand the basic purposes for market research

We spent most of the first part of this article covering it, but it bears repeating. Market research is best done with specific objectives in mind. You must understand the purpose of the research prior to conducting it for the best results.

If you want another point of view on this, check out this article on The Balance.

2. Know the tools you have available

We touched on this earlier when talking about the difference between primary and secondary research tools. Let’s now get into more depth. You have a lot of research tools at your disposal. Here are just a few:

  1. Surveys. Whether you use open-ended questions to collect varying responses or specific questions to collect neat, easy-to-classify responses, surveys are an excellent tool for learning about your customers. You can do them online, in-person, and over the phone.
  2. Focus groups. Sometimes the best way to understand what your customers like is to get 10 of them in a room. Send one person in the room to ask questions and another to take notes.
  3. Observations. If you have a physical product, give some customers the product and see how they interact with it. The same principle can be applied online by watching how users interact with your website.
  4. Interviews. One-on-one interviews are also a great way to understand how your customers think. In doing them, you can ask specific questions and see how they responses.
  5. Industry associations and trade groups.
  6. Trade journals.
  7. Government data. As we mentioned before, the Census and BLS typically provide great high-level data for business owners to review.
  8. Industry experts.
  9. Websites in general. When in doubt, Google it!
  10. Competitor websites. Nothing can tell you what competitors are up to quite like reading their website and social media channels.
  11. Your own web analytics. By paying attention to the pages your customers are accessing and staying on, you can figure out what kind of products or services are likely to go over well in the future.
  12. Your own email and social media analytics. By looking at your email and social media data, you can see which messages you’re sending that customers are responding to. That can tell you a lot about what they are interested in.
3. Define your target audience

No amount of market research can save you if you don’t know who you are selling to. Think long and hard about the kind of people who are likely to buy products or services from your business. Ask yourself some key questions such as:

  • What are my customers interested in?
  • Where do they live?
  • What kind of media do they consume?
  • How much money do they have?

The more specific your answer those questions and others like it are, the better able you will be to create products that meet their needs. After all, customers only choose to buy when they determine that your business is meeting a need!

4. Find your niche

If you really want to succeed in business, you need to find a niche. People have a finite amount of attention and a seemingly endless amount of options available to them. That means you need to laser-focus on a super-specific target audience and create a product that fits them so well and so uniquely that no one else can compare.

If you don’t know your niche, market research – particularly exploratory research – can help you find it. If you do know your niche, you can narrow down your more specific questions to be extremely relevant to the people you’re talking to.

5. Imagine your buyer as a real person (because they are)

Nothing makes companies feel out of touch like speaking about people in groups. You know what I’m talking about.

“Generation Z likes that, but Millenials like this!”

Get out of here with that! You need to think about your buyers as real, breathing individuals – because they are. Some companies such as HubSpot even recommend creating buyer personas. That is, creating a character – like in a novel, movie, or D&D game – and imagining them with certain characteristics. Those includes:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Location
  • Job title(s)
  • Family size
  • Income
  • Major challenges

You don’t necessarily have to go through a formal “buyer persona” process, but the message here is clear. When coming up with questions for market research to answer, think of individuals and not groups.

6. Reach out to participants

It’s kind of a no-brainer, but you need to get in touch with people if you want to do primary market research. Here are a few ways you can do that:

  • Reach out to people who recently bought your product.
  • Send an email to regular clients.
  • Cold contact people on social media.
  • Use incentives such as free items or even money. (We use this when running contests for which one of the entry conditions is “ask a marketing question”).
7. Prepare your questions

Before you send a survey, set up a focus group, or call somebody for an interview, take a moment to write down some questions. When in doubt, stick with open-ended ones. Tailor them based around your market research objectives.

Here are a few generic examples to get you started:

  • What are your personal job responsibilities?
  • Tell me about your goals.
  • What has been your biggest challenge in the past year?
  • How familiar are with different options on the market?
  • Where do you go to look for more information?
8. Analyze your competition

Once you gather enough information, you will start to have a clearer idea of what customers want. Take a moment at this time to review your own website and your competitors’ websites. How does your company compare to others? Is your competition adequately addressing the needs which you have observed today?

9. Review the results

At long last, after the arduous process of collecting data from different sources – primary and secondary – you have enough to proceed. Take your time and organize your thoughts. Perhaps put together a brief summary report of your findings.

You can do all the market research in the world, but if you never take the time to properly review it, you’ll see limited benefits from it.

If possible and appropriate, take your research and come up with goals for the near future. Perhaps you will launch a new product or start using a new social media channel! The right moves depend entirely on your research.

Final Thoughts

To spend time on market research is to spend time well. Properly conducted, market research lets you understand your customers more completely as human beings. Your business can then adapt. You can come up with new ways to address your customers’ needs or even simply find new ways to reach out to them.

Either way, the benefits are clear. Schedule some time in the next month to conduct some market research. You’ll be glad you did!

First time marketing your small business?
Join our online community of small business owners.

Don’t Be Evil: Ethical Marketing for Small Businesses

Ethical marketing may seem like a paradox. The whole reason for marketing, after all, is to sell more products. It’s easy to cast aside the very real problems that marketing can create. Marketing deals with the intangible emotions of other people, pushing their buttons to make them take certain actions.

marketing ethics snake
“Thisssssssss used car is in great condition!”

Just because you can be evil, though, doesn’t mean you have to be. Let’s talk about how to market effectively without being a snake.

First time marketing your small business?
Join our online community of small business owners.

Ethical Marketing for Small Businesses

  1. Is marketing evil?
  2. The Externality Problem
  3. Dirty Marketing Strategies
  4. Shady Marketing Research
  5. Going After (or Scaring Off) Vulnerable Audiences
  6. Sketchy Pricing: Fixing and Wars
  7. Lies and Sleaziness in Advertising
  8. Shilling and Astroturfing: Self-Promotion Gone Horribly Wrong
  9. Hacking the Human Brain with Neuromarketing
  10. Guidelines for Ethical Marketing

Ethical Marketing for Small Businesses

Is marketing evil?

First, let’s tackle the big question head-on. Is ethical marketing even possible? Some people believe that marketing is inherently evil. The argument is that marketing has to do at least one of the following:

  1. Damage personal autonomy.
  2. Harm competitors.
  3. Manipulate social values.

At Marketing is the Product, we believe this is flawed. This is obviously not going to come as a surprise to you, so let’s make the case.

Obviously, harming competitors is wrong. Competition that is fair and meritocratic is, broadly speaking, not a problem. Price fixing, lying to customers or regulators to get ahead, corporate espionage, and so on are obviously very morally wrong.

Manipulating social values can be bad, too. The world is entirely too consumerist. We waste perfectly good products and we burn too many fossil fuels. In a rush to buy cheap products, we passively accept many horrible things. This is also true and tragic. Yet you can also manipulate social values to encourage healthier behavior (anti-smoking) or make fuel-efficient cars look attractive (ameliorating climate change).

It’s that first argument that we really push back on, though. Does marketing truly damage personal autonomy? Perhaps, especially in cases, where marketers lie or intend to deceive. Yet we say over and over again that it’s necessary to create a product with good product-market fit. Yes, you can sell people garbage if you have the upper hand – that’s why I’m still with Verizon – but most businesses cannot. Very, very few people are capable of selling something completely unwanted by the audience. For all the evils of consumer capitalism, leaving people without the autonomy to make choices is not among them.

The Externality Problem

In economics, an externality happens when someone completed unrelated to your transaction gains a benefit or pays a price. Some externalities are nice, like when restaurants open near your home and the property value appreciates. Other externalities are terrible, like a coal plant filling the air you breathe with billowing, black plumes of smoke. In those cases, the party affected by the externality does have their autonomy harmed.

A lot of the ethical marketing issues you’ll see below either deal with externalities or outright disregard for the consumer. We posit that the root problem is not the discipline of marketing, but rather power differentials between the businesses and individual members of society. With this in mind, we propose three golden rules for ethical marketing:

  1. Avoid harmful externalities.
  2. Be aware of power differentials and the harm they can cause.
  3. Refrain from crass misbehavior such as lying or cheating.
Dirty Marketing Strategies

We’ve discussed the root cause of evils in marketing, so let’s talk about some marketing strategies that are fundamentally evil.

Anti-competitive business practices seek to reduce or eliminate competition entirely. At its core, capitalism – regardless of how you feel about the system at large – only really functions when companies compete. When a company accumulates too much power, it can toy with prices, tie products together, absorb competitors, lobby governments, and misuse intellectual property rights. As a small business, you’re not likely to be able to use anti-competitive practices, but perhaps certain other Amazons in the industry will.

Bait-and-switch involves advertising one thing and selling another. It’s simple, anyone can do it, and it’s ugly. It’s also illegal.

Planned obsolescence is by its very nature a dirty tactic. Everything breaks. Making things that break in order to sell more of them is wasteful and it costs both consumers and society at large.

Pyramid schemes and multi-level marketingIf your business model involves recruiting people, promising money to them, and never actually delivering a product; then congratulations – you’ve invented a pyramid scheme. Just like Bernie Madoff.

Subliminal marketingBy subtly exposing people to certain brands, such as through product placement, you can make people a little more likely to buy said brand. It’s not extremely effective, but it’s still dirty because it robs people of the chance to consciously make a choice.

Spam and SEO hijinks. In the early days of the internet, you could load web pages with all kinds of irrelevant information to boost your rank in Google. It doesn’t work so well anymore, but when it did, completely useless pages could outrank legitimately useful ones, wasting everybody’s time and potentially enabling more fraudulent practices.

Guns and Drugs – Marketing Ethics in Dicey Industries

Some industries are minefields for ethical marketing. In particular, the pharmaceutical and weapons industries come to mind. We certainly don’t want to live in a world without pharmaceuticals. A world without weapons – even just for self-defense – would not be considered desirable to most people. Yet to market a weapon requires glamorizing it or making it readily available, which could cause innocent people to be harmed. To market a pharmaceutical is to sway a doctor’s decision-making process, which can be evil as well.

Shady Marketing Research

At Marketing is the Product, we are big fans of marketing research. Performing marketing research, after all, can enable you to better understand the needs of your audience so that you may meet them to the best of your ability. Yet there are ways that marketing research can go horribly wrong.

As part of performing marketing research, you will likely come across very personal information. That includes age, gender, race, household income, browsing history, and much more. If you don’t come by that information honestly, ethical marketing becomes borderline impossible from the get-go.

Modern marketing, especially online, is particularly bad about invading consumers’ privacy. Facebook, for example, while being a great advertising system, has not historically been very open about how ads are being used. This can be used for grotesque purposes, such as when Russia bought ads on Facebook with the intention of sewing political turmoil in the US.

First time marketing your small business?
Join our online community of small business owners.
Going After (or Scaring Off) Vulnerable Audiences

Of the many Bond villain behaviors that marketing professionals can display, there is nothing quite as sinister as marketing to vulnerable audiences. For example, fast food companies can market their products to children, who see delicious food, but not potential health problems. Similarly, robocalls tend to go after the elderly, who are more likely to fall for the scam.

“So I won’t market my products to children or the elderly. Problem solved.” It’s not quite that simple. Vulnerability isn’t just about the cognitive abilities of your audience. Let’s return to the idea of power differentials. Loan sharks can take advantage of otherwise highly intelligent people because of their economic status. Perfectly logical people can make awful decisions when provided with nothing but misinformation.

It is also possible to denigrate audiences and make them vulnerable for business purposes. Some clothing stores refuse to make plus-size clothes, excluding an entire audience to make their brand seem more prestigious. The same principle can apply to ethnic minorities to – just look at this Wikipedia page called “shopping while black.” In some health systems, people with high expenses can be discouraged (but not outright turned away).

Sketchy Pricing: Fixing and Wars

Price is crucial to marketing – it is, after all, one of the 4 Ps. In a functional market, price is supposed to indicate the costs associated with creating and maintaining a product or providing a service. The buyer gets a great deal and the seller pockets enough money to make the enterprise worthwhile. It’s the glorious double thank-you of capitalism at its finest.

Until it breaks. Price fixing is a great example of an ethical marketing dilemma. When a small group of sellers controls an entire market, they can work together to set a fixed price. As long as everybody agrees not to drop below a certain price, the sellers can make money hand over fist at the expense of the consumer.

What about when the sellers are not cooperating? Pricing can still be used as a weapon by sellers, but instead of using it against consumers, it can be used against other sellers. For example, if an extremely large company wanted to establish market dominance early, they could sell their product at a loss, push everybody out, then raise the price. Large companies can even engage in price wars against each other, like Amazon and Walmart.

Lies and Sleaziness in Advertising

Advertising is what most people think of when they think of marketing. That’s unfortunate because the number of ways that advertising can go horribly wrong is incredible. Famously, old cigarette advertisements recommend smoking for health benefits.

Outright lying and fraud occur, but often the sleaziness is more subtle. For one, we can unnecessarily shoehorn sex into ads. One good example is Carl’s Jr., whose ads for breakfast food have been so racy that we won’t even link one here. These sorts of ads can be so overt in their sex appeal that it becomes a form of sexual harassment.

There are some products which are difficult to advertise no matter what. Tampons and condoms are good examples. They are necessary products but the mere act of advertising them can come across as tasteless.

Sometimes the most effective way to advertise is to denigrate your opponents. This is especially popular in the political arena. In fact, here is a tremendous but deeply upsetting example from the 1964 presidential election.

Shilling and Astroturfing: Self-Promotion Gone Horribly Wrong

In the age of the Internet, there has been an alarming uptick in shills, astroturfing, and native advertising. Shills pretend to be independent supporters of the marketer while actually being paid to comply. Astroturfing involves faking a grassroots movement until it begins to take a life of its own.

A lot of times, shills and astroturfing will show up as simple fake reviews on Amazon or similar sites. The basic idea behind these approaches is that pretending to have massive support will make customers more likely to purchase in order to fit in. It is disingenuous.

Hacking the Human Brain with Neuromarketing

Neuromarketing is a new discipline in marketing. It relies on clinical information about how the brain works in a consumer behavioral context. In short, neuromarketing means studying the brain so you know exactly how to sell to it.

In and of itself, neuromarketing is not necessarily evil. However, because we are finally starting to gain empirical insight into people’s biological responses to marketing materials, it could add further complexity to already ethically fraught situations. At its worst, it can be used to further invade privacy and manipulate others. At best, it gives us a few more tools to continue what we were already doing in marketing. Instead of looking at open/click rates on emails, we start looking at MRI scan data.

Guidelines for Ethical Marketing

Higher up in the text, we proposed three golden rules for ethical marketing:

  1. Avoid harmful externalities.
  2. Be aware of power differentials and the harm they can cause.
  3. Refrain from crass misbehavior such as lying or cheating.

Now that we’ve covered the rest of the article, we’ll add seven more rules to make it a nice, even 10.

  1. Accept that marketing can be used for evil.
  2. Recognize evil marketing strategies when you see them.
  3. Conduct research with permission and good intent.
  4. Don’t go after vulnerable audiences.
  5. Set prices fairly.
  6. Don’t misrepresent your products or services.
  7. Don’t pretend to be more popular than you are.

Niccolo Machiavelli reportedly said, “I’d like to teach them the way to hell so they can steer clear of it.” Evil marketing exists, but so does ethical marketing. Small businesses can apply our simple principles to stay competitive without becoming monsters.

First time marketing your small business?
Join our online community of small business owners.

How Small Businesses Can Craft Perfect Products and Services

Every small business wants to sell big. The desire to earn a lot of customers is deeply ingrained into business culture. However, to do so, you need to create products and services that people are really enthusiastic about. Dedicated readers of this blog know that we refer to this as product-market fit. What we have not yet talked about is exactly how you can do that.

The art of creating perfect products or perfect services is not merely a question of manufacturing or finding the right employees. It’s not even just about understanding your customers’ needs deeply, although that’s a very important part! Fundamentally, creating the perfect product requires following a rigorous, repeatable process to inch your way toward perfection using iteration and observation. In short, it’s a science.

With that in mind, here is a brief outline of the article you’re about to peruse:

First time marketing your small business?
Join our online community of small business owners.

6 Steps to Crafting the Perfect Products and Services

  1. Identify Your Target Customer
  2. Know Your Customers Better Than They Know Themselves
  3. Assess Your Capabilities
  4. Make Imperfect Products to Make the Perfect Products (Minimum Viable Products)
  5. Test Your Prototype
  6. Collect Real Data & Analyze it With Clear Eyes

6 Steps to Crafting the Perfect Products and Services

Identify Your Target Customer

Deep down, all businesses must be built to address a need. To convince someone to spend their hard-earned money requires a sufficiently strong incentive, and only addressing needs can provide that. Even when money is no object, you still need to move people from a default state of “no action” to a state of “taking action.” This is not always easy to do, and it’s why we keep saying to focus on product-market fit!

As we had discussed in Consumer Behavior 101, needs are not always what you think they are. Needs are often emotional. They are very heavily dependent upon the nature of your audience. Some people have very basic needs at the moment you come into contact with them – food, water, sleep. Other times, people have far more abstract needs such as a chance to express their creativity or to find love and belonging.

This is where we circle back to finding the right audience. Once you identify an audience your business would like to serve, you can figure out their needs. Upon figuring out their needs, you can find a way to meet those needs. When you’re able to meet those needs, you can find a way to signal your ability to meet those needs in your marketing materials. This is what compels people to make the decision to go with your company. It must happen in that order!

Know Your Customers Better Than They Know Themselves

Great marketers are great listeners. Great listeners don’t just listen to what is said, though. They also listen to what is not said. Listeners pay attention to online behavior and body language. I would argue that in our strange century, great data analysts and researchers are among the greatest listeners of all.

Once you identify an unaddressed or under-addressed need that your target audience has, think deeply about the nature of the need. One way you can do this is to map the need to its place on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This hierarchy is an old psychological concept that has stuck around for a while because it allows us to understand complicated emotional experiences in a simpler way. This allows you to say things like “their need for more Twitter followers is actually a desire for self-esteem.” Alternatively, you may say “our friendly customer service fills a need for friendship, at least for a little while.”

Once you’ve thought about the nature of the need you’ve found in the market, consider another question. Can you meet this need in a way people have not yet described? Henry Ford supposedly (but probably never) said, “[i]f I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Whether he said this sentence or not, the moral of the story is simple: people aren’t always best at describing ways to solve their problems. That’s where you come in.

At this point, you’ll want to determine whether it is better to innovate with a new process or continue along a well-established path. Neither answer is necessarily wrong in the abstract. Yet you must look at your business environment and make a determination for yourself. This is how you find your unique value proposition. Once you do that, you can think about how best to pitch your products or services to your intended audience.

Assess Your Capabilities

Naturally, before you promise customers certain products or services, you want to make sure that you are able to provide them. This is especially true when you’re aiming to create perfect products or services. Remember that your ability here is not gauged simply in operational competency. Your ability to meet customer needs is ultimately judged by the customers. Your customers’ perceptions are your reality.

Before you commit to meeting needs in any one way or another, consider performing a SWOT analysis. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. These analyses allow you to weigh both internal and external factors that could help or hinder your ability to please your customers.

Take off the rose-colored glasses and be very, very honest about what you can and can’t do. This is critical!

First time marketing your small business?
Join our online community of small business owners.
Make Imperfect Products to Make the Perfect Products (Minimum Viable Products)

In the early 2000s, a new term arose from Silicon Valley: minimum viable product. No matter what industry you’re in, including service industries, this concept is immensely useful. The core concept couldn’t be simpler. You make the simplest, most straightforward, perhaps even stripped-down version of a product. The idea is to quickly, inexpensively create something that you can show to your target audience.

Removing the stress of focusing on perfection is immensely freeing. Feedback from early adopters is likely to send you off into all sorts of directions you could not have predicted. That’s not a bad thing, either. You should actively encourage people to correct your course!

There is an important caveat here, though. While it’s usually appropriate to create a minimum viable product, it’s not always appropriate to release one to the public. Sometimes, it’s very difficult to overcome bad first impressions that come with a slipshod product. If you’re in an industry where this rule applies, you should keep your minimum viable product within the confines of focus groups and other tight-knit communities. This will keep from sullying your name before you’re able to show people what you are truly capable of.

Test Your Prototype

Once you have created a minimum viable product, it’s time to test. You’re testing for functionality, yes, but for the purposes of this blog, let’s focus on marketing. Before you ever begin a test, you want to have a clear idea of which emotions you are trying to encourage in your audience. When it’s time to test your prototype, you want to see if your product truly works on that level.

A lot of techies know that when you’re testing software, you need test scripts. The purpose of these test scripts is to push you to use the system in ways with the intention of breaking it. You perform all the usual and unusual transactions in the hope that nothing goes wrong.

In marketing, you don’t hand test scripts to your potential customers. Nobody’s stopping you, but it’s certainly not expected behavior. What you do instead is let people use your product and service with the specific intention of watching how certain scenarios play out. Here is what that could look like:

  • Do customers have any trouble finding the place?
  • How do customers act when they walk in the door?
  • Are customers satisfied with the product?
  • Are customers bringing friends over to see the product?
  • Do any particular aspects of the product cause customers trouble?

The specific scenarios are heavily dependent upon the nature of your product or service. No matter what you plan to sell, though, you should have some questions in mind that you’d like answered before you start testing and before you start gathering real data. This is, after all, the scientific method.

Collect Real Data & Analyze it With Clear Eyes

One of the most important things to do during testing is to collect data. In the heat of the moment, you cannot possibly capture and analyze everything you see and hear. That’s why you record it for future use. But what should you record in the first place?

First, realize the limits of gathering data. Marketing deals with the complex and intangible thoughts and emotions of unpredictable human beings. For that reason, most of the data that you will gather as part of the market testing process will be qualitative. One way you can gather qualitative data through open-ended / essay questions on surveys. Another way you can gather qualitative data is through behavioral observations and simply listening to what people say.

It’s folly to focus purely on qualitative data, though. You need to make sure you’re gathering hard numbers, too. You can do this by surveys with numeric or categorical questions. Another way to gather qualitative data is through web traffic, email sign-ups, advertising performance, social media sentiment analysis, and more. Quantitative data gathering in marketing could be an entirely separate blog post!

You need qualitative and quantitative marketing data to tell you the whole truth. The ultimate goal should be to create products that serve people’s needs. A product can seem fantastic in person, but when put on an e-commerce site, that means nothing if sales consistently underperform. Similarly, everything can look great on paper, but if you see no smiles, no enthusiasm, no passion, you’re probably missing a key ingredient in your product or service. No calculator or computer yet devised is smart enough to catch that.

Final Thoughts

Creating perfect products and services is well within the grasp of any small business. It will take trial and error to achieve perfection, but this six-step method serves as a great guideline.

Once again, to summarize, the steps are:

  1. Identify Your Target Customer
  2. Know Your Customers Better Than They Know Themselves
  3. Assess Your Capabilities
  4. Make Imperfect Products to Make the Perfect Products (Minimum Viable Products)
  5. Test Your Prototype
  6. Collect Real Data & Analyze it With Clear Eyes

Are you pursuing perfection with your products or services? Let me know in the comments below, I’d love hear from you 🙂

First time marketing your small business?
Join our online community of small business owners.
dartboard

Why Marketing to Businesses is So Different from Marketing to Consumers

On this blog, we’ve talked almost exclusively about business-to-consumer marketing so far, also known as B2C marketing. This doesn’t reflect the whole truth, though, because business-to-business (B2B) is a significantly bigger market than B2C.  As you’ll soon come to see over the course of this post, marketing to businesses is an entirely different animal than marketing to consumers.

dartboard

When marketing to consumers, you need to have a very good grasp of the basic concepts behind small business marketing. You also need to understand consumer behavior, decision-making processes, and decision-making styles. From these building blocks, you can determine what kind of products have good product-market fit. This allows you to find a profitable niche.

First time marketing your small business?
Join our online community of small business owners.

But what happens when systematically designed business processes curtail the worst excesses of irrational consumer behavior? What happens when committees and requirement meetings thwart your attempts to make an emotional appeal to individual consumers? How do you find a niche then? We’ll be talking about all that and more below.

Here is an outline:

Business-to-Consumer (B2C) Marketing

  1. Marketing to Consumers – An Overview
  2. Consumer Behavior
  3. Decision-Making
  4. Niches

Business-to-Business (B2B) Marketing

  1. Marketing to Businesses – An Overview
  2. Consumer Behavior
  3. Decision-Making
  4. Niches

Business-to-Consumer (B2C) Marketing

Marketing to Consumers – An Overview

On a fundamental level, B2C transactions differ from B2B transactions. When you’re selling directly to consumers, the decision maker will almost always be either the consumer or someone close to the consumer. The decision-making process is not cold and clinical, but rather emotional. A rational need for a certain product is not what drives consumer behavior in B2C transactions.

shoppers with bags

This is not to imply that people are total fools when it comes to making purchasing decisions. Our minds can be thought of in terms of System 1 and System 2. To simplify greatly, System 2 makes slow, deliberate, careful decisions and System 1 makes quick decisions that are imperfect. A lot of times, people use System 1 to make shopping decisions so they can go about their normal lives and not agonize over every minute detail of a purchasing decision.

Consumer Behavior

The System 1 / System 2 dichotomy that we reference so often on this blog is what drives some of the strange and seemingly irrational consumer behavior that we see. Consumers, after all, take mental shortcuts simply so they can go about their lives. The purchase decision-making process is improvised and not choreographed most of the time.

sales all over the grocery store

Even if consumers were to engage in a systematic review of all their purchases before making them, there are two fundamental truths that make my needs different than yours. Value is subjective and often situational. The kind of car I need is different than the kind of car you need because we don’t drive the same commutes.

Because value is subjective, we have different needs for which different products or services must be created. A product only becomes attractive if it meets our needs. For us to make decisions, you have to have product-market fit.

Decision-Making

In B2C transactions, decisions are made based on subjective value, yes, but also on two other factors. These factors are: decision-making roles and the search for information.

The decision-making process in B2C transactions is often informal, but a careful observation shows that certain roles are apparent if you’re paying close attention.

  • Initiators suggest a brand or product.
  • Influencers recommend a brand or product.
  • Deciders choose to make the purchase.
  • Purchasers actually make the purchase.
  • Users use the purchase.

In B2C transactions, people are likely to embody one or more of these roles at once. In B2B transactions, there is usually a division of labor that breaks these roles apart. I choose to buy shampoo entirely out of my own volition – initiating, deciding, purchasing, and using the product. The buying process would be different for something such as, say, complicated software implementation.

Consumer decision journey
By Nick Nijhuis. CC BY-SA 4.0. Source.

Likewise, the information search process in B2C is often pretty simple. You or a small group of people think about brands and maybe do a little bit of light internet research. Unless you’re buying something really big, you won’t come across everything in the graph above.

The one way in which B2C purchases may be vastly more complicated than their B2B counterparts are the number of decision-making styles that people can take. With B2C purchases, image-consciousness, frugality, a desire for novelty, and impulse buying all play a much bigger role than they would in B2B.

First time marketing your small business?
Join our online community of small business owners.
Niches

The upshot of all of this is that B2C products tend to focus on emotional needs. These emotional needs then, in turn, play a big factor in how information is sought out and how decisions are made. There are no complex processes or internal reviews. B2C sales are made by pleasing one person or a very small group of people. B2C products are deeply personal.

making clay pottery

Business-to-Business (B2B) Marketing

Marketing to Businesses – An Overview

Put simply, the difference between B2C marketing and B2B marketing is very simple: the former buy for themselves, the latter buy for companies. The difference in practice, though, is profound. B2B transactions tend to be bigger. They are often approved by meetings across different departments. A lot of personnel can be involved and the transaction can take a much longer time.

making decisions in a group

With such a profound difference in buying behavior, you might find it odd that we spent a good deal of time reviewing how B2C transactions work before talking about B2B transactions. However, it’s necessary to start there. All B2B buyers started out as B2C buyers. Every individual involved in the B2B purchasing process, which is a team effort, has modeled their understanding of buyer-seller relationships on B2C transactions.

I will even take this a step further and say there are only two factors that truly separate B2C purchases from B2B purchases. First is the number of people involved. Second is the amount of time it takes. The former discourages personal biases from entering into the decision-making process (unless you’re the one in charge). The latter tempers impulse purchases, which is one of the intended goals of well-designed bureaucracy.

Consumer Behavior

Value remains subjective even in B2B transactions, but it’s not as often based on emotional needs. More frequently, B2B transactions are based on performing a very specific service for the company. That could range from the hiring of an employee to manage social media to the implementation of CRM software to help with sales. It could be anything in between.

marketing to businesses is different - they require harder facts

Often value is so subjective in B2B transactions that it becomes difficult for people inside the company to describe why the purchase is valuable to anyone outside the company! Because value remains subjective, product-market fit remains essential. That often includes the ability to answer really industry-specific questions and appear professional.

Consumers may take mental shortcuts when acting alone in small groups via B2C transactions. This isn’t as prevalent in B2B transactions. Try to make an impulse purchase when you have to go through meetings to justify it!

This is not to say that businesses always act rationally, though. Anyone who has ever had a job in any kind of company knows this is not the case. Even the best-designed decision-making process can fall prey to groupthink. Sometimes a business buys the wrong product or service because no one wishes to speak up about its flaws. This could be because of reasons like fear or insecurity, but also the aggregate result of individual employees – very rationally – not wanting to make the boss mad.

Decision-Making

In a B2B transaction, the same decision-making roles are still relevant. Initiators suggest brands, products, or services. Influencers sway the decision one way or another. Deciders actually make the go-no go decision. Purchasers allocate financial resources to make it happen. Ultimately, users are the ones affected by the purchase.

making decisions based on data

In B2B transactions, the process moves a lot slower. As we said earlier, this has the effect of tempering the unconscious factors that motivate individual buying decisions, making them more carefully considered. Done well, B2B transactions are a lot more rational than their B2C counterparts. Done poorly, you may see a large disconnect between decision-makers and users.

Additionally, the information search is often more thorough than in B2C transactions, which leads to more informed decisions (in the ideal world). There are meetings to identify the problem. They often entail gathering requirements and estimating the scope of implementing a product. The process of seeking information can involve multiple decision-makers watching demos or research analysts working full-time to find data. There is a good deal of conversation around evaluating alternatives and lot of different parties get involved. Leaders make decisions, sometimes unilaterally and sometimes by committee. Then there is often a process in place to formally review how well the product or service has worked out. Even if there isn’t, people will disclose their opinion.

The steps in this process are complex and often spelled out to various degrees depending on the product. This nudges B2B transactions toward one of three decision-making styles:

  • The Perfectionist – “We considered all the options, and yours is the best.”
  • The Loyal – “We already go with you and it’s not worth it to switch.”
  • The Confused – “Just…keep it simple. We don’t have time for this.”

Compare that to B2C transactions and you can see a world of difference.

Niches

Because of the complexities of the B2B decision-making process, only a handful of decision-making styles ultimately prevail. It’s harder to make an organizational change than it is to make personal change. Therefore, successful niches tend to revolve around providing one of three things:

  1. Operational efficiency
  2. Return on investment
  3. Simplicity
business architect

Let’s focus on each of these three categories of niches:

Operational efficiency can involve a product or service that makes it easier to do day-to-day functions. It can also involve convincing a company to outsource part of their processes so they can focus on what they do well. Either one ultimately hinges on the idea of specialization and trade being good for companies – cornerstone beliefs of traditional economics.

Alternatively, you can appeal to return on investment. You may not be able to complete a task more efficiently, but you might be able to do it better. This is essentially a promise to make a business more money instead of saving them money.

Finally, businesses do not necessarily always make decisions based on expedient economic decisions. Sometimes, it’s better to have someone take care of you not to save money or to make more money, but to free up time and streamline processes. While not as tangible, the promise of simplifying business is often attractive to leaders who make B2B purchasing decisions.


Marketing to businesses is different than marketing to consumers. The reasons for this are myriad, but ultimately come down to two things: the number of decision-makers and the time spent making the decision. The impacts of this are profound. You must understand how these minor differences cause rippling effects in consumer behavior, decision-making processes, and viable niches. Once you do, selling B2B will be as natural as selling B2C 🙂

First time marketing your small business?
Join our online community of small business owners.