---- J.Z., Fremont, Calif.
A: Marketing is one of the areas where small businesses often fall short, experts say. Entrepreneurs often lack the funds to hire professionals, nor do they have the time to draw up a well-researched marketing and promotions plan. So they take a haphazard approach -- and then wonder why their efforts are not very successful.
Rather than spending money on "bargain" advertising and promotions, or scattering your marketing funds far and wide in the vain hope that something will take, reserve some time to analyze your marketing efforts. If you have a staff, ask them to brainstorm with you. List your current marketing efforts and assess how successful they have been, then draw up a list of your current customers and try to pinpoint what type of marketing brought them to your outfit. Was it word of mouth? A referral from your Web site? A direct-mail piece? Seeing what has worked so far -- and how much it has cost you -- will help to produce a marketing plan going forward.
SHARP FOCUS. Some additional items to discuss: What kinds of customers do you want? From what industries? How large or small are the projects they bring your outfit? Do they fit into categories? What messages can your firm send out that will attract their business? What channels will be most effective in carrying those messages?
Consider all the options -- print ads, seminars and training sessions, trade shows or professional meetings you might attend, direct mail, Internet marketing, even radio ads or television spots on your a local cable channel. Remember to narrow down the message that you believe will best appeal to each category of potential clients, then decide which channels are most likely to reach them. Devise a budget and put the money into the top three or four most promising options, then revisit the plan after six weeks or so to evaluate how it is working.
Assuming most of your target clients are businesses or professionals who are online, you can implement an Internet-based marketing campaign for very little expense. Send out a helpful newsletter -- remember, keep it short -- that includes consulting advice. Ask for customer feedback and referrals from your established clients, says Craig Volding, an Internet marketing expert with WonderWebUSA.com, who recommends combining traditional marketing efforts with a well-planned e-mail campaign.
THEY'VE GOT MAIL. "Running weekly or monthly 'Web site-only' specials announced via e-mail will get customers back to your virtual site or brick-and-mortar location," says Volding, who also warns against three common mistakes by Internet marketers:
-- Never use your e-mail program's CC option. You don't want to look like you're sending out a chain letter. Use an e-mail program that can perform individual merged e-mail.
-- Never use purchased e-mail lists. Many people are turned off by unsolicited e-mail from "spammers" and simply delete something that is unfamiliar.
-- Make sure and e-mails you send contain information of value to those who receive them.