No matter what anyone says, customer awareness, the type that genuinely converts to an 'urgent', active curiosity about you, followed by timely engagement and actual sales orders, does not happen overnight.
Being visible and selling more isn't easy
It's hard to get started. Many startups and small businesses grapple with the frustrating knowledge that if they were just better known, or more widely advertised, or had a bit more resource to market better, they'd get lots more sales.
As the excellent 2015 report by MadeSimple confirms (alongside more successfully and cost-effectively managing financial and legal anxieties), selling more is the biggest priority for small businesses.
'...With the number of new companies forming annually rising by more than 50% in just five years, and the vast choice available to consumers thanks to the growth of online business, the battle to attract customers has never been so intense.'
But few of us can afford billboard advertising or eye-wateringly large adwords and pay-per-click budgets. According to the UK's Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) in 2015, the average spend per SME on marketing was £24,000 per year. That figure has no doubt increased by 2017.
To put this into context, there are 5.4m SMEs (businesses with 0-49 employees) in the UK. According to Made Simple, micro-businesses’, employing 10 people or less, make up 95% of all businesses in the UK (accounting for 33% of employment and 18% of turnover).
£24k is a prohibitive fee for most micro-businesses. It's likely to be a hefty challenge for many SMEs too.
So how can you get your business rapidly noticed and sell more?
Beware quick fixes, delegated sales efforts, over-reliance on intermediaries
Of course, there are some quick fixes to getting volume orders and rapid brand profile, but, as the Guardian's linked article below adeptly illustrates, they may be short term in benefit and ultimately, potentially damaging, reputationally and economically.
Eggs all in one basket
Deal web-sites have been one of the enticingly affordable options for those of us that can't and need to spread the word in order to scale - or even to survive. From cupcake manufacturers to workshop providers, craft suppliers and restaurant owners, the Guardian's article sympathetically explores the ups and downs for small businesses who have significantly relied on them and had their fair degree of successes and challenges.
Deal web-sites and online marketplaces clearly have their place and their benefits. For example, in addition to helping you to generate brand awareness quickly and affordably, they can potentially be a great source of data on customer purchasing behaviour and your competitive landscape.
With deal web-sites especially (and with many aggregation and filter/quote sites), an over-reliance on them as a stable and enduring distribution channel is something to be avoided. Having your most important eggs all in basket can be a dangerous distribution strategy, especially in these times, as customer purchasing behaviour and methods of attracting their attention are constantly changing.
And of course your control over your continued prominence on these sites as well as the type of customers responding to them (who may be wholly unsuitable for your business model, your reputation and economic position, or your aspirations) is very limited.
So if your plan is to use them, or you're already using them, keep a close eye on how your sales are performing and the impact of this on your business and its longer term sustainability.
Dilution of what makes you special to your current and target customers
It's not just deal web-sites that you should bear in mind though.
Beware also any sales approach that involves an intermediary and dilutes your message to your end customer and your control over how they experience what you can really offer.
This is an especial risk where the intermediary is not exclusively representing your business and also represents your rivals, who may not just be your product or service competitors. Rivals are anyone who is competing for the same share of wallet from your target customer base.
For example, if your target customers have a limited budget to spend on e.g. IT solutions, or a limited amount of shelf-space to dedicate to e.g. gifts or life-style products, your rivals will be everyone competing for that chunk of budget or shelf-space, not just those who make or do the same thing as you.
If your customer can't really connect with you, they don't feel the type of loyalty that you need them to feel, in the face of competing offers to yours.
You always can't spot the signs that your popularity and appeal is under challenge, or fading, until it may be too late. This is an especially high risk with deal sites, aggregators and crowded on-line marketplaces, particularly where the data reports that you may receive on your product performance are infrequent and insubstantial.
If you're using intermediaries of any description, always be very clear on the terms of the deal that you strike, ensure you understand who else the intermediary may be representing and what are the intermediary's sales and business objectives. Do your best to get data reports and performance insights on a very regular basis.
You may not have the bargaining power to change sales terms with an intermediary, but always ensure your eyes are wide open about what to expect and what could challenge you later on.
Missing consumer feedback and valuable data insights
All of the above risks may lead to you forming inaccurate views about who your target customers really are, what they want and how you can meet and improve your offers to keep them buying from you.
I've also flagged already that you may additionally be missing out on invaluable data insights about their behaviour, feedback and other purchasing preferences that might well be more readily available to you if you are firmly in control of the sales relationship and your marketing messages.
This information is important as it enables you to be more flexible in your approach to planning, designing and of course selling and marketing what you do. It ensures that you have the optimum chance to stay relevant and prominent in the face of market and buyer behavioural changes or new competitive challenges.
Instead, be you - visibly, authentically and on your own terms
It's often best to play a longer game.
Develop and communicate an authentic, personal and individual voice for your business. Your story, what you stand for, how you work, who you are - as the person or people behind the offer, and most importantly, how you make them feel, is what your customers invariably buy into. And it's what keeps them buying from you, even when rival offers lurk in the background.
Deal web-sites and online market-places aren't all bad for small businesses. Neither are intermediaries. Just choose them with real care, however, and with the expectation that not all your sales should be coming from them. Be prepared also that if demand suddenly outstrips your ability to instantly supply, you have a sensible contingency plan in place.
And always ensure to the greatest extent possible, that how anyone else sells and markets your business is as close as possible to how you sell and market what you do.
To be your own salesperson and promoter is an initially scarier and harder path perhaps and as the author in the linked article points out, some times more costly. But it needn't be.
I've personally found the following approaches very helpful:
1.) good social media activity that is content-driven
2.) using a reliable customer relationship system that enables well-run and targeted email marketing campaigns
3.) collaborating with others to reach new audiences and piggy-backing on their brand strengths (I particularly love Fever-Tree's story as a really good example of this, as well as some of the additional innovative tactics they used, like negotiating deals to include a label on bottles of leading brand gins, recommending Fever-Tree's tonic water range as the perfect accompaniment)
4.) partnering with those who influence your target customers so that you can become a preferred or endorsed provider,
these can all be very inexpensive, manageable and successful means to drive brand awareness of your business.
You could consider signing up to the JournoLink smart DIY PR solution too. As a brand awareness generation tool, it's not only very easy to use and very affordable for small businesses, it's also highly effective at connecting you with the right journalists to showcase your business and make you more visible, just like those businesses covered by the Guardian in the linked piece.
Guaranteeing an excellent customer experience, understanding your customers and building that brand story is exactly what Maria Heckel, marketing director of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, insists small business owners would be wise to focus on .....– particularly if they have found themselves over reliant on business from discount marketing channels. “These websites can bring new people, but they don’t become customers. It’s a one-time transaction [and] actually the websites’ focus on price tends to devalue, rather than add value to your business. “… Look at building your brand, building value and building loyalty. What is it you want your brand to stand for? There’s a real opportunity for small businesses to tell their story and attract customers, who are probably prepared to pay a little bit more because they value what you’re offering.”