I am not a marketing expert, guru, superhero – or other nonsense word you see batted around the industry. I’m someone who spent years studying small businesses and marketing. I’m someone that has carved a career in the world of marketing for small IT and tech companies. I’m someone that has been afforded the freedom to try and test different marketing tactics at will and determine the best way to help each company transition from startup to small business.
The following is my take on what you need to consider when generating brand awareness and building a pipeline that helps you to scale.
In the beginning you have nothing
As a startup, you probably have a great idea, but with little traction in the market, and limited resources you’re a teeny tiny fish in a large ocean. But that’s ok, because even the smallest fish can still be noticed…
Brand is everything
You might have the most amazing product/service in the world, but people are only going to buy from you if you make them feel good about themselves.
When you build a strong brand, you become easier to spot in the market because you stand out – and I don’t mean because you chose lime green as your corporate colour when everyone else is blue. Branding encompasses every experience your audience has with you.
From a content perspective, think about your corporate values and the things you do (and don’t!) stand for. Think about what you want to be remembered for. Think about who your target audience aspires to be, and how you help them to achieve that. Think about the value you add…
Create a detailed messaging framework that sets out your words and tone of voice to ensure the consistent execution of your brand across every ‘touch point’.
But while a brand is a great investment, you need to generate pipeline if you’re to survive…
Build conversations on an individual level
Once upon a time, marketers (myself included) would purchase data and execute elaborate campaigns to ‘warm’ them up. It was really hard work, and often, the results were disappointing because the audience was sceptical about people they’d never heard from before and they knew you were playing the numbers game – blasting out 1,000 emails in the hope a handful would respond.
As a successful startup, you want to establish the right tone for the relationship by making your prospect feel good about themselves. They don’t want to be a number, they want to feel like you see them as an individual, you care enough to want to help solve their specific challenge and have something of value to offer.
Account-based marketing is a far more fruitful exercise, and although it takes a lot more effort than blasting emails to cold data, in the long-run, it generates a quality pipeline.
With account-based marketing, you select the companies you really want to work with, based on certain criteria…
For example, in my own business, I’m looking for:
- Small businesses, ideally 10-15 people because they’re most in need but can’t necessarily afford to hire a dedicated person.
- Operating in the IT and tech sector, because I specialise in translating technical details into business terms for more exec audiences.
- Their content requirements are based around blogging and thought leadership white papers, guides and reports, as this is where I spend most of my efforts refining my skills.
- Based within the Thames Valley so I can drive to them within about 30-minutes and take them delicious homemade cake.
When you engage your ‘ideal’ target audience, not only do you create pipeline, you create brand advocates – people who will rave about you to their own networks, recommending and introducing you to others. As Seth Godin articulates perfectly in his book ‘Tribes’, you don’t need an audience of millions, just a few good people who see the value you deliver and spread your message out into the world for you.
Once you’ve identified ideal targets, you need to get on their radar. I find the best way to do this is through being personal, honest – and a little bit quirky.
Anyone who makes it onto my list is pretty special and I will have invested a lot of time and effort to qualify them to the point where I feel I can help them – I want them to feel that. So I ‘say hello!’ with a letter. To make sure they feel like it’s personal to them, I write each letter by hand. I’m upfront about wanting to get on their radar, and how I feel I could add value today. And I try to make myself memorable by using beautiful purple stationery or posting something unexpected, like chocolates, biscuits or cake – all things that are ‘on brand’ for me.
I’m not advocating you replicate this exactly, but think about what would work best for your audience, and be in line with your brand that would successfully catch their attention…
Things I’ve tried with other businesses that have worked well include:
- Emailing white papers to a select audience.
- Hosting hospitality events with a range of customers and prospects.
- Targeting specific people on social media.
The objective is to start a conversation and gain their permission to share more and become a part of their world.
Focus on building your tribe
Over time, some of this pipeline will start to convert in to sales, while others might sit for a while longer. The important thing is to make sure nothing ‘withers of the vine’ because even if someone’s not ready to purchase from you today, they can still recommend you to someone else in their network.
Think about how you can make this easier for someone to do…
In the first instance, creating a clear brand proposition will position you as the ‘go-to’ person for your particular offering. Then if anyone in your network spots an opportunity, it’s easy for them to name drop you.
Content is another great way of getting exposure within their network. When you create high-value pieces, which are useful/interesting/relevant to the audience rather than being self-promotional, your people are going to like, comment and share it, which gains you exposure to their connections.
And when you secure customers, get those case studies and testimonials rolling in. Someone new discovering your brand for the first time is far more likely to be receptive to your product/service when it’s told through the eyes of someone who’s just like them – your customer.
Things start to get painful
In time, your business starts to grow – you have a solid client base, healthy pipeline, you’ve hired some new people…
And things start to get painful.
Until now, you’ve been focused on getting the company on its feet, which means wearing multiple hats – not only are you setting the vision for the company, you’re developing the offering, then out promoting and selling, perhaps even trying to raise funding. As you grow, these demands only increase as you struggle to balance everything, so you start looking at more strategic hires.
Rather than the technical specialists you’ve probably hired to date, you start to think about appointing people into sales and marketing roles. By taking responsibility for continuing to grow the business, it frees you up to focus on running the company and ensuring your tech is the best it can possibly be.
Develop an advocacy programme
The easiest way to sell yourself to others is by getting someone else to do it. And if you’re doing a great job, your customers will be more than happy to pass your name on to someone else in their network, if for no other reason than it makes them look good.
While in the startup phase we discussed the importance of making it easy for people to name drop you and share your content. As a more established small business, you need to create a more structured programme that is ticking away in the background so it brings regular and predictable opportunities into your pipeline.
An effective way to do this is for your sales and marketing people to host events, such as hospitality, roundtables or user groups, where you can invite some of your customers along to speak with some of your prospects. In simply facilitating the discussion your clients will effectively do the selling for you.
Also, embedding feedback within your processes and setting expectations around when you’re going to ask customers for their help will make it part of business-as-usual. One of the biggest pains that marketers face is not having enough case studies/testimonials/references and getting sales to approach their customers and ask for help is always tough.
But, establish from the outset that you’re allowed to use their logo on your website, that they’ll be asked for a testimonial after the first phase of the project is complete and a case study once it’s all delivered and everyone’s happy…
I’ve even seen it work well where sales is allowed to offer discounts on the grounds that the client agrees to provide a case study. This has the added bonus of removing friction with the delivery team because it switches the dynamic from the customer receiving more product/service for their money, to the client needing to do something to earn a discount – a subtle but very effective switch in mindset.
Establish your thought leadership
Obviously I’m going to advocate making content a big part of your efforts – but for good reason. Knowing what you want to be known for, and then aligning your content to this specialism, will instantly boost your credibility since you’re seen to be practicing what you preach.
For example, if you want to specialise in cloud migration strategies to enable digital transformation, write some in-depth white papers that explore what these strategies might be, how effective they are using case study examples and then stating the use case that they best align to.
Creating this sort of content:
- Demonstrates your skills, knowledge and experience in action.
- Aligns your brand with what you want to be known for.
- Shows you have something important to say that creates value to the audience.
Of course, once you’ve created this juicy marketing asset, you can then re-spin it into other formats to extract more value from it, for example, elaborating on the key themes through a series of blogs, sending an email to your prospects to drive traffic to the asset, highlighting the key points on social media…
Now you have a much larger marketing campaign to build momentum behind. And because it’s all derived from one central piece, the messaging is consistent, the positioning is consistent, the call-to-action is consistent – and it’s this consistency that creates and reinforces a strong brand.
Make it personal
You’d think more companies would be taking advantage of this by now. It’s cliché, but people really do buy from people. And just as we explored in the startup phase, when you stop treating people as a number and start treating them as the lovely, special person they are, they’re more likely to become an advocate of your brand.
But making it personal isn’t about switching “Hello,” to “Hi Chris,” in your emails…
Making it personal is a mindset. So when you write a blog, you write it as if you’re talking to one person, rather than every member of your target audience. When you’re on social media, you’re having a conversation with each individual, rather than broadcast your sales messages. When you create your web copy you’re thinking about the user journey and what they want to see next, rather than what you want to show them.
The moment you switch your thinking to personal-mode, it actually changes how you approach your audience. When you’re engaging 1-to-1, the corporate façade is instantly dropped and you talk to the individual, you start asking questions to spark a conversation, so start engaging on a deeper level about the things that matter to them.
When the rest of your market is pitching features and benefits and trying to outperform eachother on reliability, flexibility, agility…
Play in a different space. Say hello! Talk to the person behind the job role. Make a connection. Make a friend.
Set up for success
The wonderful thing about marketing as a small business is that you have the freedom to try something new because you’re not tied up in red tape and endless approvals. There’s nothing quite like the excitement of coming up with a new idea, testing it and seeing what happens.
But if there’s anything that I’ve learned from the endless experiments I’ve performed over the last 14 years, it’s that while you can do all sorts of crazy, weird and wonderful things in marketing, nothing beats making the personal connection.
Build your brand on the things that make your company you, and you can never be copied, and your success never replicated…
Talk to people as individuals and they’ll feel how special they are to you, and why you want them to be a part of your world…
Keep your content focussed on the things they will find useful/interesting/relevant and you’ll have them coming back again and again…
As a small and growing business, the best thing you can be is yourself.
Why not say hello!