Word-of-mouth lead generation and sales are great. They are the bread and butter lead sources for many small and mid-size local businesses.
A business provides great service, customers or clients talk and abracadabra! The phone rings. An inquiry pops up in your inbox, or you get a new client while in line for coffee at the local Starbucks.
What happens, though, when your word-of-mouth lead generation starts to run dry? What if you’re ready to take your business from respected, local pillar of the community to a regional or coastal player in your industry? What if you’re no longer the only player in your market space and serious competition is popping up all around you?
Here’s the painful truth: At certain stages of a businesses’ lifecycle, over-reliance on word-of-mouth generated leads and sales becomes risky.
In today’s hyper-competitive business world, passive marketing can take an enterprise only so far. Business owners need to engage in intentional marketing to stay relevant, to keep growing, and to complement business generated from well-earned, strong reputations in local markets.
Here are a few tips for businesses that want to mitigate word-of-mouth risk while taking steps toward smart, steady growth and increased market share:
Start small and do it yourself
We can already hear business owners and marketing directors yawping: “Does this mean we have to spend thousands and thousands of dollars a year? We’re doing just fine without a marketing plan and budget.”
That might be so, but that’s the shortsighted view. If you want your business to move beyond meeting payroll and into profitability, you’ll eventually have to spend money to make money -- but you don’t have to right off the bat.
There are many low-cost, do-it-yourself ways to market your business without engaging a marketing agency or doling out thousands of dollars.
Here are a few tips for taking baby steps toward a more formal marketing program:
- Re-engage with the local Chamber of Commerce.
Like every business in your area, you joined the Chamber because you’re supposed to do this, and (initially) you attended Chamber events and business card exchanges. Once you became somewhat established, your participation decreased and today you don’t participate at all. Get re-engaged ASAP. This is a low-cost, consistent opportunity to network and get in front of people that could become new clients or referral sources. If you’re an owner, select a member of your staff with people skills to shadow you and then hand this task off to them. While Chamber activities are a small step away from word-of-mouth marketing, it’s a step nonetheless and worth the time to re-engage.
- Start an advisory board.
Every business has an area of expertise. Leverage this expertise to create a group or panel that meets regularly to solve problems. This could also be called establishing a “think tank.” This is an outstanding, low-cost method for establishing thought leadership while networking with other organizations that can help you generate new business. Once established, you can take the advisory board on tour to amplify your brand positioning and expand your influence.
- Make speaking engagements a regular thing. Instead of randomly accepting speaking opportunities that are thrown at you or your team, deliberately and intentionally seek out opportunities that will benefit the business. Heck, you might even get paid to do this.
Speaking engagements establish thought leadership, put you in front of a captive audience, and enhance your brand. Now, be aware that no reputable conference or institution will allow you to stand on stage and “hawk your goods”. (You should never do this even if they allow it.) This is an indirect sales opportunity and a branding venue for your business.
- Join boards and be active in the wider community.
This is something you and other team leaders might have done in the past, but perhaps has fallen to the wayside. Again, re-engage! Joining non-profit boards or regional action committees and getting you and your team involved with the community is not only a demonstration of civic duty, but it also generates great public relations and visibility.
So, stop yawping about spending money!
You don’t have to at this point. You simply need to re-engage in activities that have fallen off and participate in new activities that you have not tried before.
While the above suggestions are not leaps and bounds from word-of-mouth marketing, they are certainly more intentional and will get you started in the right direction.
Remember, a referral from someone you engaged at an advisory board meeting is starkly different than someone that calls your office randomly looking for help. The difference here is intent — You creating and attending the advisory board was purposeful to create referrals. The random phone call, though driven by your overall strong reputation, was more accidental in nature and impossible to control, repeat, and, often times, to measure.
Write it down and be accountable
At a certain stage in your businesses’ evolution, you and your team need to document your process and hold individuals accountable for completing tasks. If you and your leadership team are all in for doing community service, securing speaking engagements and joining or creating boards, that’s great. However, until these plans become intentional rather than accidental and measurable instead of transient, your enthusiasm will only go so far.
Lock everyone in a room. Discuss what you want to do and what is realistic to accomplish. Consider the budget. And then…
Write. It. Down.
Create a formal, intentional (yes, we are repeating this word intentionally) plan. We won’t call this a marketing plan, per say, but rather an action plan that you can use to document completed tasks and participation.
Remember, many of the DIY activities mentioned earlier might generate leads, but they could be more difficult to track then, say, an e-blast or direct mail campaign, where you can clearly correlate a lead to a given effort.
That said, by creating documentation, gathering consensus on actions and then building in accountability checkpoints, you’re moving away from the unpredictability of word-of-mouth and a step closer to a formal marketing program that is repeatable and adjustable.
Outsource when you know you’re ready
So, let’s say you effectively formalized some do-it-yourself, low-cost marketing activities. Your team is engaged and your organization still reaps the benefits of word-of-mouth lead generation. What's different now? Your business has added new leads due to the intentional marketing efforts you’ve made across the last few years. A stronger economy and product improvements and expansion have helped you as well.
And it's worked. You’re hiring at a break-neck pace. You’ve grown your market share. You business is on the verge of something you’ve always envisioned, and it’s turning a profit for the first time.
Becoming something more is right in front of you.
Now, at some point, your team will no longer be able to handle the DIY marketing efforts. They'll have too much client work to miss two days moderating an advisory board session out-of-state. That community service project — it'll have to wait. Speaking engagements — not a priority any longer.
You’ve reached a tipping point where engaging an experienced marketing partner makes sense. In order to take things to the next level, your team needs to be free to do what they do best, whether that’s selling, programming, project managing, or whatever.
If you hesitate to get help once this tipping point arrives, things can start to devolve quickly with overwhelmed key team members, and, consequently, the business suffers and staff morale plummets.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell when this point arrives, but if you find your do-it-yourself marketing efforts falling into a black hole, that’s a good sign.
And naturally, the larger your business gets and the wider your market grows, the stronger and more diverse your marketing program needs to become — e-mail, website, e-commerce, social media, blogs … These all must become part of the mix to compete and win in the larger, more intensely competitive market that you’ve entered.
Remember, baby steps.
And when you, your team, and your business are ready for the big leap, contact us. We’ve got everything you need to keep your businesses competitive and growing.