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Bootstrapping a small business from an idea into a multimillion dollar company is the very definition of the word “challenging.” Believe me, I know. Not only have my team and I helped dozens of start-ups dramatically exponentially increase their website traffic, leads, and sales, in what is arguably one of the worst economic environments in history, but we’ve also taken Blue Corona from nothing, zippy, zero and turned it into one of the top award-winning online marketing companies in the U.S. (#174 on the 2012 Inc. 500 list).
Being pretty isn’t easy and being easy isn’t pretty; and growing a small business is neither of those things. But I think it’s safe to say—and I’ll bet most of our clients would agree—that the rewards and satisfaction derived from building something from scratch make all the hardships, weekends spent working, trips through the Taco Bell drive-thru, and sleepless nights worth it. One of the most satisfying elements of growing a bootstrapped business is the topic of this blog post—giving the well-funded big companies in your industry a run for their money.
The Underdog Advantage Online
When “traditional” advertising and marketing strategies worked (things like billboards, direct mail, print, radio, TV, and yellow pages), big companies had a seemingly insurmountable advantage over small bootstrapped companies—money. Virtually all of these old school, “outbound” advertising channels are owned by a handful of large, media companies—Clear Channel, Comcast, AT&T, etc.
If you want to promote your product or service to their audience, you essentially have to rent attention (via air time, ad space, etc.) from them. Of course, every media company thinks their product/audience/delivery mechanism is better than the next. They all charge a premium and, historically, have offered little in the way of accountability. Don’t like our offer? Too bad, there’s another sucker company waiting in line right behind you that is ready to buy.
Online things are different.
Online, the playing field has been (temporarily) leveled. Small companies can compete with—and even beat—their much larger rivals. In this blog post, I’m going to share with you a few strategies you can use to beat the Goliaths in your neck of the woods (but know that for each one I share, there are dozens of others).
Accurately Track Everything and Make Data-Driven Decisions
Very few companies—even large ones—accurately track and analyze the performance of their various marketing initiatives. As a result, thousands (maybe millions) of companies WAY over invest in some forms of advertising and WAY under value others. A great example of this is with yellow page print advertising. DrinkMore Water was one of the first companies I’m aware of that made it a point to invest in accurately tracking every single print yellow page ad they ran (they were accurately tracking their YP ads as far back as 2001).
In 2004, print yellow page advertising was DrinkMore’s number one source of new business—after referrals and word of mouth—but by 2005 and 2006, the cost per lead had risen above the maximum threshold DrinkMore was willing to pay (see Figure 1 and 2 at left).
So, in 2006, DrinkMore either negotiated new rates or canceled the ads altogether.
Some of the money saved was invested to test a series new marketing initiatives. DrinkMore Water built dozens of mini websites to promote some of their ancillary lines of business. They set up several PPC advertising campaigns, and they began to invest SEO.
The results were nothing short of amazing. Leads and sales sky rocketed as some of the new online marketing tests were implemented, and the cost per lead dropped as the over-priced and under-performing YP print ads were canceled.
Meanwhile, their chief competitors—including several multinational, “super conglomerates”—were still running the same yellow page ads as the year prior, often with their main, untracked phone line prominently displayed in the ad. While DrinkMore Water was “all-in” with SEO and PPC—getting some of the lowest cost-per-sale numbers in the history of the company—some of their competitors weren’t aware of its existence.
On the Web, everything can and should be tracked.
Better data allows you to make better decisions by highlighting various instances of “advertising imbalances.” Examples of advertising imbalances can range from companies WAY overpaying to have their PPC ads appear on Google AdWords for certain generic keywords to companies failing to test new forms of advertising like LinkedIn Direct Ads. I’ve seen companies argue internally about whether to pay $2,500 for a new microsite while dozens of sophisticated companies built as many micro-sites as humanly possible for twice the price—recognizing that even at $6,000, each site could generate an enormous ROI.
Create Content and Act Fast
Right now, we’re in the midst of a content marketing revolution. The most successful small business owners and marketers recognize that creating, optimizing, and promoting compelling Web content is by far, and without question, the most cost-effective form of advertising available today. Savvy small companies—from B2B software manufacturers to your average local flooring, hvac, plumbing, or roofing contractor—are cranking out and publishing content at an explosive rate.
In the process, some of these small companies are building what may ultimately become an insurmountable lead on their (often much larger) rivals. While big companies typically have far more content marketing resources than small companies, they are also saddled with something alien to most small firms—bureaucracy and red tape.
In the time it takes the attorneys to expense one of their many $1,000 lunches used to debate the issues surrounding their large clients’ social media marketing policies, companies like Bonobos are using social media sites like Facebook and Twitter as a combination help desk, customer feedback engine, PR newswire, and marketing channel—and generating massive amounts of attention and sales in the process.
Large companies are notoriously long on money, but you don’t need gobs of money to build a massive audience through content marketing, SEO, and social media. All you need is a little bit of time and a bunch of creativity—two things small companies tend to have in spades.
There’s never been a more exciting time in the history of small business marketing than right now. In the traditional, outbound marketing world, the companies with the most money (read: mostly larger companies) had a significant advantage over everyone else. They could afford to “rent” the attention of various audiences. Today, with the evolution of advanced marketing analytics, content marketing, and the consumers preference of inbound vs. outbound marketing, small, nimble companies actually have a significant number of advantages on the big boys.
If you’re a smart small business owner (and you must be if you’re reading this blog), you need to maximize the opportunity sitting right in front of you. The big companies in your neck of the woods won’t stay asleep forever. And when they wake up, things are going to get uglier than Walmart on Black Friday.
About The Author: Ben Landers is the President and CEO of Blue Corona, a data-driven, inbound internet marketing company. Submit an inquiry to book Ben to speak at your next conference or event.
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