Sometimes job titles become so commonplace and broad that they lose their effectiveness for identifying the exact nature of the position. The term “marketing consultant” has definitely reached this level of ubiquity.
Anyone can call themselves a marketing consultant. There are no educational requirements, governing boards, professional designations, or other bonafide prerequisites that must be met to hang out a shingle and start advising people. And perhaps this is perfectly fine. After all, there are plenty of professions that have such requirements and oversight that are filled with incompetent practitioners. At the same time, there are a lot of fantastic painters, handymen, babysitters, graphic designers, CEO’s and, yes, even marketing consultants that learned their craft through real-world experience and may have never been willing or able to pursue it had there been significant barriers to entry.
So if you are a business owner looking for help with marketing strategy, how do you go about identifying someone qualified and able to successfully diagnose your challenges and provide effective solutions?
The obvious answer would be to do a thorough review of the candidate’s qualifications and experience. How long have they been doing this? What clients have they worked with? What is their track record of success? And while these are all important issues that should be addressed, there is actually another critical question that should be asked before any other: What are they selling?
You see, in many industries “marketing consultant” is thinly veiled code for “salesperson.” Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. For one thing, marketing consultants have to sell their product just like everyone else. And there’s also nothing wrong with a salesperson positioning himself as a marketing consultant; the good ones really do try to provide helpful information. But if you are a business owner looking for quality, unbiased advice about how to grow your business, you should understand that if a marketing consultant’s compensation is in any way tied to the sale of a particular advertising product, you are at risk of receiving tainted information.
No matter how altruistic the intent, a “marketing consultant” paid via commissions on the sale of billboards is always going to strongly encourage solutions involving billboards. The same thing goes for newspaper ads, search marketing, radio ads, cable TV ads, SEO programs or any other advertising vehicles represented by salespeople. If the person you are talking to earns their pay through the sale of an advertising medium, you are talking to someone that is incentivized to give you recommendations utilizing that medium.
The advantage of hiring a marketing consultant that is un-tethered to a specific product or service is that they are free to advise you based on what the best solution is rather than the one that will generate a sales commission for themselves.
True marketing consultants should be paid for their knowledge and experience. This could mean that they receive an ongoing monthly retainer, hourly fee, or a flat fee for a particular project. It could also mean that they generate income from the training and seminars they conduct or educational products they produce. There are myriad ways that experts can be fairly compensated for their services. The important thing for you as a business owner to determine is if your prospective marketing consultant is absolutely free to recommend any valid solution or if they are directing you towards specific advertising products or vehicles they have a financial interest in selling.
Some products are designed to be bought on impulse – chewing gum, magazines, and keychain flashlights for instance. But unless your product or service is an inexpensive commodity available at the checkout counter of your local convenience store, your customer’s buying process is probably a little more complex.
Most people do some research before they buy. They look on the internet, read product reviews, scan catalogs or brochures, and ask friends, family, and co-workers for recommendations. Depending on the price and complexity of the product, they may drag this process out over weeks, months, or even longer. By the time they call or come in to your store for the first time, they’re probably 90% sure of what they want and whom they plan on buying it from. At this point in the process, the negotiation will be centered on price and there will be very little that you can do to influence the buyer’s decision.
Although most business owners are aware of this process, many continue to focus the bulk of their marketing efforts on the last stage, where the costs are highest and the success rate is lowest.
Why not approach things differently and direct 90% of your marketing efforts towards customers that haven’t already made up their minds? Why not become part of the buying process instead of hoping that the process leads to you?
“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”
Marketing a business is not about tactics. If you simply look around at what your competitors are doing and then try to do the same things, only better, you’re going to keep struggling. Chances are, most of your competitors are doing the same thing you are – looking around the marketplace trying to find the right combination of tactics and messaging that will make a difference. The ads all look and sound the same. Everybody talks about their great customer service, or discounted prices, or their years and years of experience. All the while, no one is able to track what they are doing or tell you what kind of return they are receiving. They just keep writing checks each month and hoping for the best.
There are, of course, some businesses that do not operate this way. Your doctor’s office is probably one of them. Have you ever received a direct mail piece from your doctor soliciting exams for sick patients? And when is the last time your doctor called you in the middle of dinner to offer you a special, one-time discount on treatment for sinus infections?
The reason your family doctor doesn’t actively solicit you is because they don’t have to. When you get sick, you find them. They already have your trust and when you are sick, that’s who you call. The medical profession has been very successful at positioning themselves as gurus. They don’t come to you – you come to them.
What if your business operated that way? Instead of salespeople spending countless hours making cold calls trying to set appointments with people that do not want to see them, they could spend their time in front of interested prospects with real problems and a sense of urgency to solve them. Wouldn’t it be nice if customers found you instead of you trying to interrupt them constantly with expensive ads that generate little or no response?
The businesses that succeed in today’s environment are those that draw customers in because they are the perceived experts in their field. They know how to position themselves in such a way that it is impossible to make a direct price comparison between them and their competitors. They know exactly how much revenue they generate for each dollar they spend on marketing and advertising. They know that cold calling for new business is a waste of precious time and resources. And they know that trying to compete by running pricey ads that do nothing more than list features, benefits, and price promotions is best left to inexperienced competitors.
You can change your businesses dramatically – starting today- by making the decision to become the obvious expert in your niche. Here’s how:
- Write education-based articles, tutorials, and other content that your customers would value and consult when making a buying decision.
- Create special reports or whitepapers that highlight your expertise.
- Develop workshops or seminars to train and educate your customers.
- Collect short testimonial videos from your best customers and assemble them into a DVD that all new prospects receive.
- Start a subscription newsletter.
- Create an online forum where customers and prospects can exchange ideas, best practices, support tips etc.
- Start a blog. Today.
- Start cultivating relationships with local publications, trade journals, and news outlets – offer to provide tips, quotes, articles, or any other help they need.
- Team up with complimentary service providers and start a referral program.
- Create a detailed follow-up plan that happens automatically whenever a lead is generated.
- Advertise your content, not your product features and benefits.
- Provide value. Stop peddling your wares.
You have a choice. You can keep running the same ads, in the same places, writing the same checks to same sales reps, and receiving the same results. Or, you can start out on a new path. Are you afraid of change? Is it any scarier than doing nothing?
The difference between successful marketing campaigns and those that fail often comes down to how comprehensive the strategy is. If you tend to think solely in terms of tactics, it’s easy to fall short on execution. Marketing is a process that builds and reinforces relationships over time. Much of the disappointment business owners endure trying to generate a return on marketing investments comes from an over-emphasis on finding that one magic thing that will “take them to the next level.”
Having the power to buy qualified search engine traffic and direct it to your website is addicting. Even more intoxicating is the idea of generating free traffic by ranking organically for high priority keywords. But to actually make a profit from the traffic that comes to your website, you need a process in place to capture leads as well as a follow up system to nurture leads that are not quite ready to buy. This is the area where 99% of most small business marketers fall short.
Search Engine Marketing provides small business marketers with revolutionary opportunities that simply did not exist a decade ago. At the same time, it’s also one of the top distractions that can get a business owner off-track with her marketing program. The pitfall comes when generating traffic takes priority over all else.
Traffic for the sake of traffic is useless. If you have a static, brochure-style website that does little more than let people know you are in business, a #1 ranking in Google isn’t going to mean much. On the other hand, if you have a content-rich website that provides value to interested customers and encourages them to interact, you can literally blow the doors off higher-ranked competitors that are using the same tired techniques everyone else is using.
So how can you start implementing a conversion process on your website? One of the easiest and most effective ways to convert traffic into leads is by offering something of value to your prospects in exchange for their contact information. Not too long ago we discussed some ideas to develop that content here.
The idea is that instead of simply expecting people to land on your website and call immediately to buy something, you assume the role of a purchasing consultant that helps prospects make an educated decision. By doing so you not only provide a helpful service, but you also position yourself as the obvious expert in your field. Once you’ve succeeded in establishing that kind of credibility, it makes price comparisons between you and your competitors difficult and largely irrelevant.
One last thing to keep in mind is that a large percentage of the prospects that respond to your lead capture process are not going to buy right away. This is where a well thought-out lead nurturing sequence comes into play. We’ll discuss that in the near future.
The Internet LOVES content. The only thing the Internet loves more than content is relevant and timely content that is updated frequently. Businesses that win in the age of online marketing will embrace that fact that they need to evolve into content factories.
Of course it’s not as if producing content is new for marketing people. We do it all the time. The difference in the online era is that content is now A) free or nearly free to produce in digital form and B) free or nearly free to distribute to the world. This is a significant departure from the days when options were limited to broadcast television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and billboards as the primary means of delivering marketing messages. If you spend thousands (or millions) of dollars to produce an ad and then have to spend 10x that to actually run it there is going to be a very finite limit to the frequency with which you can update your messaging. And once the budget runs out the message, for all practical purposes, goes away.
Marketing on the Internet is different. Producing digital content can be as easy and inexpensive as typing a blog entry. You can do it as often as you want and the incremental cost is essentially free. Sending out 10,000 direct mail pieces costs thousands of dollars. Sending a digital newsletter to 10,000 subscribers via email is nearly free. Same thing with online video. With a video camera that costs less than dinner at a nice steakhouse you can shoot and edit video that can then be uploaded to YouTube for free and distributed worldwide. Blendtec has done a brilliant job of leveraging this concept.
When you feed the content-loving Internet with frequently updated, relevant content about your business the foundation of a powerful online presence is built. Just having a website is not enough. You want to have a presence. The good news is that there are very few barriers to creating all this stuff. The bad news is that many businesses aren’t doing it yet.
If you have been slow to start an ongoing content creation and distribution strategy for the Internet, start one now. Add value to your website on a continuous basis. Your customers want to know more about who you are, what you do, and why you do it. Publish information regularly so that each time your customers come back there is something new to engage them. Give them plenty of ways to join the conversation and then listen to the feedback you get.
Asking people where they heard about your business is not a tracking strategy. The data that you get from this kind of informal polling just isn’t that accurate or useful. Decades of mass-media advertising has led to the evolution of powerful defense mechanisms that enable consumers to tune-out most of the ad impressions delivered to them. In other words, they are ignoring your ads. At least they are trying to. It’s a survival instinct. If everyone paid attention to every bit of information flying at them each day, nothing would ever get done. As a result, if you ask a customer “how did you hear about us?” chances are that you will get a random or made-up answer.
Just because the informal polling method doesn’t work does not mean that you cannot effectively track your advertising. One of the easiest ways is to embed campaign-specific offers into your ad content. If you run a special financing deal exclusively on cable TV you can keep track of how many customers ask for it. Online is even easier. By creating a campaign-specific landing page you can measure results by monitoring the traffic to that page. Text messaging is another simple way to track response. It’s now very easy to have your customers send a text message to a specific number to get a coupon or subscribe to a mailing list.
If you do not already, start making embedded tracking mechanisms a part of every campaign you run. The examples above are just a few of the many ways you can do this. It can be a little uncomfortable in the beginning because it will highlight failure as well as it identifies success but the benefits are countless.
Advertising used to be about finding large groups of people congregating and then interrupting them with a message. Kind of like walking into the mall with a megaphone or the town crier standing on a box on Main Street. Many businesses still approach it that way and wonder why their ROI is dwindling. Things have changed.
From this point forward stop thinking about finding your customers and start thinking about making something worth finding. Your customers are already searching for your products. Make sure that your resources are being adequately allocated towards giving them something they will be thrilled with when they find it. Working this way turns your customers into your sales force. Your job is to be sales support. Give them something great to sell and they will not only find new customers for you, they will also do it in ways that are infinitely more efficient than anything you could accomplish with a ‘traditional’ advertising campaign.
Once you wrap your head around this concept it will become mush easier to figure out how to approach ‘new media’ such as blogs, social networks, and online communities. As an added benefit, you’ll also start to see new ways to incorporate traditional media to amplify your efforts.
There is no “magic bullet” in advertising. Despite reports to the contrary, social media tools are not the exception to this rule. While we’re at it – television, search marketing, radio, outdoor, bus benches, bathroom stall posters, sky writing, giant inflatable guerrillas, and tissue packs don’t qualify either. If you current marketing strategies are not producing results, moving them around to different media will not make a difference.
It’s true that social media and digital content are revolutionary forces that are literally unraveling traditional advertising models. You do need to know about Twitter, Facebook, UStream, WordPress, Typepad, Friendfeed, Flickr, Slideshare, RSS and all the other emerging platforms. But the most important thing to remember is that if your product or service is not remarkable and relevant to a well-defined niche there is no amount of friends, followers, viewers, subscribers or fans that will make up for it.
I realize that the whole “create something remarkable and relevant” thing is a little overdone these days so here’s a specific shortcut: Educate Your Customers – otherwise known as information marketing. Information marketing is the act of creating educational content about your product or service and marketing it (giving it away for free) to interested customers. Executed well, it’s probably the closest thing you’ll find to a “Magic Bullet” for marketing. There are numerous advantages to this strategy including:
- The content is inexpensive or free to produce
- You are offering something of value instead of trying to sell
- It gives you an opportunity to provide much more information than you can with traditional ads
- Provides a database-building opportunity
- Can enhance SEO efforts
- Differentiates your business from most competitors
- Takes the focus off price
- Trackable ROI
- Great way to leverage social and other digital platforms
Looking for ways to get started? Start a blog, write an ebook, record an audio presentation, make a handbook or users guide, produce a “how-to” video, create a survey, or publish an interview with an expert in your industry. Don’t do them all, pick one or two and knock it out of the park. Don’t look for shortcuts – create it yourself. Take your time, do your research, make it valuable and stick with it. We’ll talk about what to do with all this stuff in future posts.
The simplest way to explain it is this: Advertising Agencies create ads. Marketing consultants help you determine what and how to advertise in the first place.
They also help you with other marketing issues such as pricing strategy, sales training, customer retention, referral programs, joint ventures, product development, database strategy and everything else involved in selling products to customers.
Many people instinctively believe that advertising agencies are adequately prepared to provide strategic marketing guidance in addition to making the actual “stuff”.” In some cases this is true but in our experience it is the exception, not the rule. And to be clear, this is not a slam on advertising agencies. They play a critical role in the marketing process and can be wonderful strategic partners. But you have to understand that most advertising agencies are built around art directors, graphic designers, copywriters and other creative types. Analytics, research, testing and tracking results just isn’t their thing.
For marketing consultants, advertising is just one of many tools used to execute a business-building strategy. A good marketing consultant will not just develop advertising campaigns, they will help you track them and optimize them for maximum effectiveness. They are more concerned with generating a positive return on investment than they are with winning advertising industry awards for the creative work. Marketing consultants spend lots of time monitoring the key metrics of your business (daily foot traffic, average sale, incoming calls/leads, conversion ratios, web traffic, customer acquisition costs, profit margins etc.) and looking for ways to improve them.
So how do you decide between hiring a marketing consultant and an advertising agency?
The first thing you need to do is to honestly assess the needs of your business. Are you attracting enough leads? Are you effectively converting leads to sales? Are you building and nurturing your customer database? Are you able to accurately track the results of your advertising campaigns? Are your profit margins where you need them to be? These are the types of issues that a competent marketing consultant can help you with.
On the other hand, if you have a good handle on the fundamentals, an advertising agency may be just the thing you need to polish up your image, enhance your brand and differentiate your business through exceptional ads and marketing materials. Advertising agencies are also good at coming up with clever positioning strategies for certain types of businesses – usually in highly commoditized industries – where unique advertisements are the primary differentiating element between brands. Examples include soda, alcohol, fashion etc.
Prior to the Internet, money was the throttle that governed an advertiser’s ability to dominate a market. More money meant larger ads in the paper, more ads on TV, and more billboards around town. The goal was to spend as much as you could, sell more stuff, and then reinvest in more advertising. Scarcity kept the system in balance. There were a limited number of providers that could deliver an audience and there were limited dollars to spend.
The Internet gives anyone a broadcasting platform. YouTube videos often generate larger audiences than TV programs. Many blogs routinely attract more readers than the local newspaper. This doesn’t make traditional media obsolete but it does make it possible for businesses that cannot afford traditional media to achieve equal footing by substituting time for money.
In the online world content, not money, is king. It costs nothing to write useful blog posts, create a LinkedIn profile, or to use Twitter – but it does take time. In addition to time it takes patience. Social marketing has more to do with building relationships than selling. The results don’t come right away. You have to provide value for an extended period of time before you can expect a return. The good news is that it will not drain your bank account while you’re waiting.