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Small Business Advertising: Simplify to Amplify

New and recurring revenue can be the difference between a small business feeling great at the end of each day, or, being completely dissatisfied. When we start a business, especially when we invest our lives and livelihoods into it, we want it to succeed. To succeed, attracting and retaining clients is a must, and a major key for that must is to have an effective and affordable advertising and marketing strategy.

While some small business owners are guarded, jaded, or even "traumatized" by past experiences with advertising, if that's you I'm asking you to NOT be that way for a few moments. I'd like to invite you to a few concepts which can help you feel better and do better with your business, and with your overall advertising plan, decisions, and outcomes. "But I'm a small one man shop" or "But what about the economy?" - Yes, this is for you too, maybe even especially for you, because if you don't act on some of these things you may be stuck where you're at forever in the perpetual loop of "struggle." Following these 3 principles will make your weekends, evenings, and days feel so much better, and it doesn't have to be complicated at all. You already overcame the fear and "what ifs" of starting your business, so let's set our focus on what's real and what works so you can prosper.

Advertising seems complicated sometimes, often because people love to sound smart and feel like the more jargon they use in their meetings the better their product or service must be. CPL, CTR, CTA, ROI, IOUs, BYOBs - whatever! It really doesn't matter at the end of the day, what matters is that your business is thriving. The right approach to advertising can help you thrive with only 3 basic understandings, AND you don't need to spend much time or energy tracking things or thinking or worrying about it. This is not to say those things don't matter, or don't have a place somewhere in the advertising world, but what I'm talking about here is the powerful concept of simplifying something complex so you can amplify your results. And by the way, tracking the entire impact of an ad is impossible anyways, that's just something we pretend "works" so we can try and protect ourselves from potential bad decisions and fear of loss (money). More on this later. And while this article is written specifically with local community and regionally driven businesses in mind, it's essence is applicable to most any type of business. So if you're a local flooring company, cleaning service, realtor, financial advisor or similar, strap in, and if not, you may find something juicy inside as well.

Ok smart guy writing this article, what's this simple amazing plan then? Great question. In fact, let's start with questions, because questions actually help us think a little (a lost art?). Take a moment, and ask yourself the following 3 questions. "Who do I want to reach?" "How do I reach them?" "How much should I spend to reach them?" I'm going to break these down a little bit more below, because there are details which are different than how most business owners have begun to think about these things in the digital age, for example: demographic stats are actually useless for 90% plus of local and regional businesses. Are you selling super yachts? If so, then focus on demographics, but if you're a local dentist or auto repair shop or other local business, proceed to learn why your demographics and ROI measurements might just be a waste of your time.

Who do I want to reach? Gender, age, occupation, those categories don't account for a majority of great events which are a result of your marketing or advertising. For example, I saw an ad in a newspaper in the community where I live, La Jolla, CA. The median age is 60, I'm 36 right now so if a business owner were saying "most of the people there are 60" they would be completely missing the fact that I am a GREAT person to advertise to, and I'll show you why. I took a photo of the ad, it was for a holistic health office in town. Then I sent it to a friend in a whole different part of San Diego where the newspaper doesn't reach, and the person I shared it with proceeded to share it within their network, and now this business has at least 3 new clients as a result. I took a photo of the ad and texted do you track that?! I had been staring at the ad over and over and over for months. I already love the business (yeah I'm already a client), and then one day the ad - which I don't even know if it has a "CTA" (call to action on it) - was there at the right time and I acted on it.

This is one of the many reasons why tracking advertising is not actually possible by the way, because guess what happened when the new customers went to the business? You know that little box that says "how did you hear about us?" Well I would bet money "the newspaper ad" got ZERO 0 ZILCH NADA credit for it, in fact I know in one case for certain it got no credit (another person did as a "referral"), and who knows what else got credit... "I heard about you from a friend," "I checked out your website" (after receiving the text?) "I drive by you all the time" or insert any other "response" to "how did you hear about us." Let's call this a false positive for tracking advertising. In fact, if you currently ask a question like that either inconsistently at the front desk or in some type of form, you might as well throw it out altogether, or at least change it.

How about this for a better version of the question, "what are some of the ways you might have heard about us or places you've seen us?" That would at least help you get some more accurate answers, but you're still a long shot from 100% accuracy. Literally everything BUT the newspaper ad could have gotten credit. Insane? Nope, pretty common with advertising tracking whether it's a physical or digital element. All forms of advertising play off of each other and work together with and for your business. This is why the biggest businesses in the world lean into sponsorship and branding, why spent $1B putting their name on an arena, or (insert company name here) has their logo at the golf tournament, ice hockey game, futebol/soccer match, or inside the octagon - they know and deeply understand they just need to be seen, over and over and over again. Over $65B was spent in the United States alone in 2018 on sponsorships, but you don't have to be a big business to act like one, you can do it around town no problem.

Here's another question for you, how confident do you feel about your tracking methods now? Maybe rethinking some things? I hope so, because this is only ONE example of the many ways that business owners unknowingly fail in local advertising. Think big and act small (in small simple steps), ye ole' staring at the trees while missing the forest concept is real. I have many many more examples but this isn't a book so I'll save them for another time.

Now ask yourself again, who do you want to reach? Because we have thrown out most minuscule demographics, the answer is simple: "people who might be able to afford my services or that know people who might." Aka, if they might not be a customer do they have friends who could? If the answer is yes, you're on the right track, because we live in a society where we share in texts, snaps, stories, photos on our phones and we share everything from the trip to the flooring store to pick out tile to our post-hot-yoga sweaty selfie in the WhatsApp group, and, even if you specifically don't, remember that others do, so quit getting stuck on what "you" like as a business owner and think about the bigger broader picture - what do some, others, or most people like?

Time for question 2. "How much value does this have?" Or, another way to ask is, "Do I understand that people will see my ad in _____ form of marketing or advertising?"

2. Can I see how this might "work?" Notice the question isn't, "Will everybody see this?" or "is this perfect?" Nothing in advertising or marketing can say "Yes" to those questions so get off the perfection train and get on the effective train. The question is, "will some or enough people see my ad/logo/business?" And "enough" is a very loose term, because sometimes it just takes that one person to see it and share it like I did with the newspaper ad via texting. This question of "might work" is simple but not always easy to accept, especially when it comes to investing money into something, however it is a key component of making an effective advertising decision. So let's look at some more examples.

Big successful businesses spend billions and billions of dollars per year putting their logo places. Billboards, stadiums and arenas, highway road signs (adopt-a-highway in California), sponsoring events, teams and jerseys, and the list goes on. Small businesses do this too, just not consistently or nearly enough because of ridiculous questions like "but what's my ROI of little Timmy wearing my logo on his sleeve?" or "How many people are going to call me?" Most people don't even call their grandma enough so they're probably not calling you because you put your phone number in an ad somewhere, it's your brand, logo, and name that matters when it comes to advertising. People are going to visit your website, drive by a couple of times maybe, ask their friend even if they're don't really care what the friend says, and then contact you in some way shape or form, so remember all we are trying to accomplish here is an increase in awareness and familiarity, really an emotional bond, through consistent presence within a group of people.

The psychological impact of repetition has been studied for decades. Regularly seeing something, in this case your brand/business, increases trust and familiarity, enhances connection, and produces psychological safety... so put your logo freaking everywhere!! Think impact, think "renting space in their head," think embedding yourself into the hearts and really the subconscious of people in your community and in some cases beyond.

Here's another example. One of the reasons some online coffee businesses have become household names over the last several years without ever being present in a grocery store is because of branding. They started in their early phases sending out stickers, offering apparel with their logo on it online, emailing even if it's annoying sometimes, just so people could see their name again and again. This has a psychological affect, and if you want to geek out, the psychological term for it is "The Familiarity Principle of Attraction." The studies were originally done regarding relationships and people, although they have the same affect when it comes to advertising and branding. Simply put - people are more attracted to what's familiar to them. And you can become familiar by consistently putting your brand and your business in front of them over and over and over and over and over and over again. And you don't need to spend a million dollars to do this, especially if you're a small business.

Start small, grow what you're doing as your business grows, but DO IT, do something. Do it and trust that exposing yourself to people again and again, especially in a positive manner, will generate great attraction to your business - even when you don't see "results" immediately or may have a little bit of doubt that it's "working." It works. It's freaking science. Expose your business to others as much as is financially feasible, AND, this is CRITICAL - BE CONSISTENT.

Once upon a time 4-6 exposures of an ad was "enough" for most businesses, but this is not 1960, it's 2022. People forget what they had for breakfast, where they parked their car 45 minutes ago, sometimes what they said or did yesterday or 5 minutes ago. This means you need to be present consistently and repeatedly to be remembered. An effective ad doesn't need much - your logo, maybe a photo of something cool, put it somewhere and do it more and more, and never stop until you are a household name in your community. "But that sounds expensive?!" Which leads us to our last question, "How much do I spend?" Glad you asked!! Let's talk cash, because it doesn't have to be.

3. "How much do I invest?" has two answers for the purpose of this article. One is what the "experts" say, and the other is "it depends on where you're at." It's a common teaching in business that about 8-12% of your annual revenue is for marketing and advertising. The U.S. Small Business Administration (say what you want about the U.S. government but every once in a while they get something kind of sort of right), recommends for businesses under $5M in annual gross revenue to spend between 7% and 8% on marketing and advertising, and you'll see many businesses over $5M spend 11% plus. Also, for perspective, when you buy a franchise, for example an Orange Theory Fitness, it's written in the franchising agreement that you must spend a minimum 3% of projected gross annual revenue on some form of advertising. And, in some business circles the philosophy is to spend "everything you have" and sometimes even what you don't have on marketing and advertising, "reinvest in your business." So how much should you spend is philosophical in nature, while more is often merrier in terms of advertising, here's an easy way to answer it below.

It's better to do something than it is to do nothing. Marketing and advertising is an investment, and like any investment, now is the best time to start because it simply has more time to grow. "Well if it's an investment why did you tell me not to think about ROI?" For the same reason we don't sit down and put all the benefits of exercising in a ledger (ok maybe some of you do). Most of the benefits of exercising we never physically see or can measure, but it's there, in our relationships, our energy, our sleep, and our general wellbeing, effective advertising is similar in some regards. So once you agree that marketing and advertising is an investment and that some or many benefits may go unseen in the immediate time space continuum, but will pan out in the long run, now you can start to make a financial plan around it.

Start by just picking something you can do consistently that connects with a group of people. Next, figure out what a monthly investment is that's doable for you as a long-term strategy, maybe it even stretches you a little bit because it's ok to bend - but don't break, and now you are on the right track, you've already captured 2 major pieces of a great advertising strategy. Don't get overly concerned about "Am I spending enough," because you can always increase it later. Maybe that monthly number is $2,000 right now or maybe it's $200, but do something. And while $2,000 might seem like a lot for you, or for some of you $10,000 is already on the books, there's nothing wrong with $200 per month either. $200 is the equivalent of going on a walk instead of hiking the Himalayas - there are still benefits to it. Can you be more specific, how much do I write the check for? The reality is the larger your business and the more you desire growth, the more you'll probably spend across a variety of places. Start where you're at. The key is to: Just. Do. Something.

So let's wrap this up. Whether you're a world class advertiser and leap small cities in a single bound, or, you're just getting your sea legs under you, putting your business, your brand, your name, in front of people, these concepts are important for the longevity and prosperity of your business. Remember, you just want to reach people who arguably have some purchasing power, or at least people who have some social influence within the community or the area (if you MUST have a demographic because it's plaguing your mind, just go with "homeowners" as they reasonably have both purchasing power and social influence), and remember, the number one group of people you get benefits from advertising to are existing customers.

They help spread word of mouth when you remind them that you exist, and help increase your repeat business. Also, don't always rely on them 100% too, in any given community about 70% of the population turns over across a 7-10 year time span, so never get too comfortable thinking "everybody here or there already knows me," continue to advertise consistently because it'll only compound over time. The moment you stop is the moment they start to forget about you.

3 concepts, massive results. Pick a group of people. Find a way to reach them consistently in a positive manner. And, invest for the long term. Don't day trade your advertising, jumping around from one thing to the next. This is a winning strategy.

Did this article help spark a new idea or confirm something you figured out along the way through the trials and tribulations of running your business? Share it with a friend and leave a comment below letting me know what you think!


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