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By Karen E. Klein

First-Class Marketing on a Coach Budget
A health-claims auditing startup needs to make up for its lack of money with ingenuity

Q: My start-up company does health-claims auditing for self-insured employers. Like many start-ups, we bypassed venture capital because we didn't want outsiders dictating to us. The result is we have no marketing budget. How can we reach the decision-makers in Fortune 1000-type businesses cost effectively? — K.B.

A: Sounds like your first and most important project will be to create a great database of contacts in those companies. This isn't capital-intensive, but it's going to take a lot of time. Think of it as your personal gold vault, and don't skimp on doing it right. Targeting the right people is extremely important to all your future marketing efforts.

You can purchase lists of Fortune 1000 companies from direct-mail houses or find published lists. You will need to identify the employee — or at least the job description of the employee — who makes decisions about outsourcing health-claims auditing at each of the firms. Just sending out mailers blindly to large companies is pointless, says Sharon Berman, of the Berbay Corp., a marketing-strategy and implementation firm in Tarzana, Calif. Some questions to think about: Are health-care claims overseen by a human resources staffer or by a financial person at a given company? "You may need to just roll up your sleeves and start calling companies to qualify leads," Berman says.

Once you have your contact database going, telemarketing is the most economical and effective way to let your potential customers know you're out there, says Cindy Malouin, a health-care marketing expert based in Redondo Beach, Calif. "Direct mail and taking out ads in trade publications are both going to be quite expensive," Malouin says. "You or your sales reps could also swing through various regions, setting up appointments — even 10 minutes at a time is worthwhile — so you can get the word out about your company."

Another tactic is to build relationships with the health-insurance brokers who handle accounts for employers and see if you can get them to refer your service to their clients. Get involved in the professional groups where your customers are members. Look for publicity opportunities through trade-association journals or newsletters, some of which solicit submissions, Malouin says. Perhaps you could write articles about errors on claims payments and how much money they cost companies every year, discretely plugging your firm's services. Just don't be too heavy-handed, or you'll turn people off.

Create a top-notch Web site, which you should refer to in all your other marketing. And make sure your materials are high quality. "You are targeting high-end clients who may be reluctant to go with a startup in the first place. "You certainly don't want to look rinky-dink," says Malouin.

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