Sheila Hibbard Shares Her Top Tips and Marketing Advice for Small Businesses

As a seasoned marketer from the agency and corporate worlds, Sheila Hibbard has witnessed many marketing transformations and sees the current social media trend as one of best equalizers for small business.  She started The Marketing Bit to help small business owners understand how to capitalize and use social media effectively to grow their companies.  She is putting the finishing touches on a comprehensive social media marketing training course that will be available sometime in March, 2012. 

Not that long ago I was browsing the internet and stumbled across Sheila’s blog, which made me dive a little deeper. She has such great insight for small businesses that I think you’ll find valuable. Below is the interview.

Q1.  What are the top three things small businesses should consider when marketing their products or services? 

I see a lot of wasted efforts because there is no strategy driving the marketing.  The three ingredients of effective marketing are:

  1. Defining the audience – Often small business owners incorrectly assume casting a wide net will yield more sales when the reality is successful marketing happens when the focus is highly targeted to a small and very receptive audience.
  2. Understanding the emotional payoff(s) of their product/service – There is an old saying: Customers don’t buy the drill; they buy the really nice round hole the drill creates.  The message is to sell the “hole” and not the “drill”. By understanding the customer’s end goal, the emotional payoff, small business owners can be far more effective in their marketing.
  3. Knowing and claiming a USP (unique selling proposition) – The world doesn’t really need another coffee shop or e-course, etc.  So the challenge is to identify what separate their business from their competitors.  A USP answers the question:  Why buy yours instead of others?  It gives buyers a logical reason to prefer one resource, product over others.

Q2. What types of marketing tasks can small businesses take on themselves without straining their resources? 

I assume the “resources” you’re referring to are time and money.  As a small business owner, there never is enough of either.  This often means marketing gets pushed to the back burner, which is not good.

My bias is that marketing needs to be the top priority.  Without marketing, sales don’t happen or certainly not at an optimal level. If that continues for long, then there is no business to worry about.

One way to make marketing a top priority is to embed it into the everydayness of business.  I encourage small business owners to craft a 3 or 6 month plan and then chip away at it for at least 30-45 minutes every work day.  This bite size approach is very doable and the incremental steps have a cumulative effect that creates marketing traction. Another added benefit is the business owner gets into the habit of devoting at least some of his/her day to marketing.

There is also the perception that ‘marketing’ is ‘expensive’ when the reality is there are a lot of very effective no/low cost online and offline marketing efforts.  I prefer to start with the no/low cost options and get them in place before moving into more costly efforts.

What are some types of bite sized, no/low cost marketing tasks?

  • Capture email addresses and cell phones as part of the check out or prospecting process for email and mobile marketing efforts
  • Create press releases for upcoming events, industry awards, staff promotions/additions, or promotional tie-ins for the local area publications as well as online press distribution channels, where appropriate.
  • Craft a regular e-newsletter.
  • Promote customer reviews on Yelp or Google.
  • Update online business listings on Google, Bing, Yahoo monthly.
  • Create YouTube videos and post to business listings, site, distribute to email subscribers, and social media channels.
  • Write a blog piece several times a week.
  • Create strategic alliances online and offline with non-competitive companies and leverage each others skills, talents, resources and customers.

The list goes on, but I think you get the point.  None of these individual tasks require that much time.  The tricks are to make the marketing process a methodical part of one’s business day and to leverage everything.

Q3.  Should a small business invest in SEO, social media or email? 

Rather than a choice, I tend to think in terms of priorities because each option can assist small businesses.

My top priority would be email. It is a no brainer and is something small business owners can do themselves.  It is as direct as you can get to the people who already know, like and trust you.  And this list can be leveraged in building social media channels.  True, open rates are often low, but tweaks can improve those rates and just seeing the email in one’s inbox is as, if not more, valuable than seeing an ad in a local newspaper and a lot less expensive.

Social media is my next priority, but with a focus.  If one of the goals is to leverage followers and fans into online promoters, (and it should be), then it makes sense to focus on those social media channels where current customers hang out. Anything else is a waste.

SEO isn’t one of my strengths, but I recognize its value in getting found and in social media. But it is a tricky and time consuming beast for the small business owner, particularly for a local business. I suggest developing a simplified list of primary and secondary keywords (including local geographical terms) for consistent use throughout the web with an annual update and avoid complicated SEO techniques.  Leave the rest to the geeky masters.

Q4. With all of the social media changes to Facebook recently, do you think it is still a good place for small businesses to invest their time? 

Change is constant, so one has to adapt. If one can find their audience on Facebook, then it is a good investment.  With an audience of 800+ million it is difficult to imagine they can’t, but Facebook isn’t for everyone. Small B2B companies may have far better results through Linkedin than Facebook. Google+ may be better for other audiences.  The bottom line is to go where the audience is.

I also would encourage small businesses to diversify and integrate their marketing efforts.  Social media can be great for small business, but it has to be tied to a bigger plan and each media needs to have a clearly defined goal.

Facebook’s recent changes may impact engagement, but then that’s why they have Insights and anyone with a page should be monitoring these data and testing strategies to adapt.  One strategy may be FB advertising, which is still the best micro-targeting tool out there.  Or it may be identifying key engagers and getting them more actively involved.  The point is to monitor and adapt.

Q5.  What’s the best way for small businesses to attract an audience to their products or services? 

We’ve already discussed strategy and the need to set one apart from the competition in a unique way (USP), but getting your audience’s attention is always the hard part.

You have to offer something of value that relates to your product while minimizing the risk.  These include freebies (e.g. e-books, trials, samplings, etc.), money back guarantees, promotions (e.g. contests, tie-ins with popular causes, etc.), or product demonstrations and the like.  Notice I didn’t say “price off” of discounts, which I believe have more negative consequences than good.

Customer testimonials can help to move the audience to take some initial action.

I would also encourage small businesses to “go bold”. Don’t be afraid to be a little outlandish in order to get the attention of your audience.  Boldness will help cut through all of the noise and clutter in the online and offline marketplace.

Q6.  As a marketer, what are some of the key mistakes small businesses make with marketing? 

The number one mistake is they avoid marketing.  Small business owners claim they don’t have the time, but often I believe they don’t understand how all of the marketing elements work together, so they avoid it.  If the owners aren’t willing to invest the time into marketing, who will?

Second biggest mistake is they assume all of their customers are alike and don’t understand the value of segmenting and defining their audience(s) into different groups for tailored messages and tailored media.

Another is a tendency to think the act of marketing means they have to be ‘creative’ or like cheesy used car dealers.  The reality is they simply have to be willing to stand up and present their company/product/service as a viable alternative and to do so in an interesting way.

I also see a lot of small businesses giving up too early.  It’s as if they assume one post, one status update a month, one direct mail, should generate waves of response.  When it doesn’t, they stop before the marketing has a chance to work.  Marketing is not like flipping a light switch.  It requires consistent and continuous effort to build momentum.  They need to think in terms of ongoing campaigns and not sporadic one-shot efforts.

Q7.  What are your top 3 web resources for small business? 

That depends on what the small business owner needs.  There are so many really good sites, it’s difficult to narrow it to only three.  Of course, I’d like to think sites like The Marketing Bit and Social Strand Media help small business owners in their marketing efforts.  But here are some sites that have much larger libraries of resources.

Overall Info: Small Biz Trends or Open Forum, sponsored by AMEX

For Social Media:  Social Media Examiner or Hubspot

(Aw, we’re grateful for the shout out). To further connect with Sheila, you can find her on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook.

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About Tracy Sestili

Tracy Sestili is CEO and Chief blogger at Social Strand Media. She is also the author of Taking Your Brand from the Bench to the Playing Field -- Social Media Fundamentals for Business.