I've run my own small business since 1994. Fortunately, through the years, I've had plenty of work to keep me busy. But there have been dips along the way—at least one of them prolonged and downright scary.
Remember that little recession of 2008-2009? The one from which we're still recovering? My writing and marketing business took its biggest hit to date then, slowing to a worrisome level in September 2009 and not bouncing back until April 2010. Needless to say, it was a highly stressful seven months.
I learned a lot from that painful period and vowed to be better prepared when business slowed again (which it inevitably has a few times, but nowhere nearly as bad).
10 Marketing Tips and Tech to Boost Business
Here are 10 marketing strategies I've developed to turn up the volume when business goes too quiet, along with the technology I use to make it happen.
1. Develop a detailed marketing plan before the next slowdown
When you're busy, marketing often takes a back seat to getting the work done. A business slowdown, then, is the ideal time to promote your business.
But what goals should you choose? What's the best way to attract your target customers' attention? What steps will you take to get the word out about your business? It's hard to think about this clearly when you're stressed out about your slow business.
That's why it's essential to build a step-by-step business development and marketing plan before the phone stops ringing. You won't waste time figuring out what to do. Also, in my experience, taking action is a terrific antidote to the stress of becoming unexpectedly idle.
2. Optimize your LinkedIn profile
LinkedIn is a must-use social media network for business. But you should also consider it a search engine. Many people look for businesses to work with and talent to hire directly on LinkedIn.
As a result, put important, descriptive keywords in your LinkedIn headline to help people find you in searches. (Your headline is positioned directly under your name in your LinkedIn profile.)
For instance, let's say you're the CEO of your own social media firm called Peanut Butter & Guava Jelly (one of my favorite sandwiches, incidentally). Instead of making your LinkedIn headline CEO of Peanut Butter & Guava Jelly, use keywords like Social Media Consultant - Twitter Strategy - Facebook Page Development.
In other words, describe what you do in your headline using keywords people are likely to use when they search. Put your title and company name in your background summary. Make sure to repeat your headline keywords once or twice in the body of your profile, too.
Also, post a good-quality LinkedIn photo of yourself. Surprisingly, some people use no photo at all. Or they post a photo of themselves wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap. Remember that your LinkedIn photo may be the first impression you make on a potential client or customer.
You don't need to hire a professional photographer. A career coach I know recommends having your photo taken outside, with some kind of natural setting in the background. Such photos convey energy and action, as opposed to, say, a darkly lighted photo of someone in an office chair.
While you're at it, post recommendations for people in your LinkedIn circle who deserve them. Chances are they'll reciprocate. Endorsements are easy to get; you just click on someone's skill. But a recommendation takes more time and thought and, thus, they're more valuable to telling your story.
Share LinkedIn status updates that show your knowledge and expertise, too. If there's a useful business-related article published by, say, The Wall Street Journal, share a link to it on LinkedIn and add your two cents. This helps keep your name and what you do fresh among your LinkedIn network. Plus, you're being helpful to people who might become customers, which is an important part of any marketing or business development plan.
3. Check out what your LinkedIn contacts are doing
Spend a few minutes every day looking at the profiles of your LinkedIn contacts. You may discover that someone has a new position or has moved to a new company. Might they now be in a position to use your services or buy your products? Find out by sending them a personalized note of congratulations on LinkedIn. Use the opportunity to tell them what you've been up to lately, work-wise.
You'll be surprised what can come from this. During a recent slowdown, for instance, I sent a former work colleague a note on LinkedIn congratulating her on her work anniversary at a major software company. I mentioned that I really enjoyed working with her (at her previous job) and would love to collaborate again in the future. She concurred and said she'd keep me in mind.
About a month later, she connected me with her boss—who was looking for someone with my qualifications. This has happened to me many times, which is why I stay active on LinkedIn all the time, not just when business slows.
4. Google yourself, or your company's name
When you pitch yourself to new clients or go after new business, assume people are going to Google you. Why wouldn't they? The real question is, what will they find? Will it be positive? Negative? Neutral? Will you even show up on the first page of results?
When you Google yourself, keep in mind Google is serving you personalized results based on what it knows about you—your browser history, your geographic location, and so on. As a result, your search results will probably look different from mine. It's important, then, to get the least personalized results, so you'll have some idea of what others will see.
One way to do this is to sign out of your Google account before searching. Another option is to use Google Chrome's incognito mode (go to File > New Incognito Window). Your Google search will still incorporate some personalized info, such as your location, but much of the personalization is removed.
5. Don't like your Google results? Get social
Usually, an easy way to counteract negative or non-existent search results for your name is through social media. LinkedIn, Google+, Facebook, Twitter, SlideShare, Pinterest, and Quora all have authority with Google, meaning that publicly shared content on those sites can rank well in search results—especially if you've optimized the content with relevant keywords, and the competition for your target keywords isn't huge.
For example, I just did a Google search on my name (James A. Martin) using Chrome's incognito mode. Seven of the first page's 10 results were about me. The number-one result was my LinkedIn profile, followed by my personal website, personal blog, author page on CIO.com, Twitter profile, Google+ profile, and Facebook profile. Despite having a fairly generic name—can you imagine how many James A. Martins there are?—I had taken the time to optimize each of my social networks for my name. For instance, my name is part of the URLs for my Twitter, Google+, and Facebook profiles.
What if something negative has been written about you or your business, such as a nasty Yelp review? In general, the best strategy is to post a polite response to the negative review on the site where it exists. Tactfully explain your side of the story. Encourage the reviewer to try your service or product again for free or at a discounted rate. Having other content you control show up in your Google search results, such as your Google+ page, can at least help you balance the negative content with something positive.
6. Don't have a website? A slowdown is a good time to create one.
Some businesses have only a LinkedIn profile, Facebook page, or a Tumblr blog to get their name out there. But there's nothing better to promote your business than a dedicated website that explains who you are, what you do, the services or products you offer, and the customers you've worked with, along with testimonials from happy customers and easy-to-find contact information.
You could hire a website designer, of course. But if during your slowdown you have more time than money and you enjoy a challenge, build the site yourself. It's not that difficult to do. With no website design experience, I created my own small business website in about a day using a WordPress template. One reason I took it on was at that time, I couldn't afford a designer. Another reason: As an online marketer, it made sense to me to have some experience building a website.
You can follow the steps I outlined in How to Build a Small Business Website With WordPress. Though the article is nearly three years old, little has changed in the steps described. I still highly recommend Bluhost, an inexpensive ($5/month) and easy-to-use Web hosting service that plays well with WordPress, and DIYthemes Thesis, a WordPress template that's easy to customize.
7. Host a Google+ Hangout on Air
Google+ Hangouts on Air are like Skype video chats in which you invite the world to join. Politicians, celebs, business executives, musicians and others have held Hangouts on Air. It's like giving a webinar, but it's more interactive, and it can help you show off your expertise while being helpful to potential clients.
Also, you can record Google Hangouts on Air and post them to YouTube. Add your keywords in the YouTube video title, and you'll likely increase your Google search results presence, too. Google posts a schedule of upcoming Hangouts on Air; it's a good place to get topic ideas. Participate in at least one public Hangout before trying it yourself, and read Google's getting started page for hosting a Hangouts On Air.
8. Host a webinar
Another way to share your expertise—and perhaps attract new customers in the process—is by hosting a free webinar on a compelling topic. The key is to address important questions that your potential customers have, and then offer solutions to their problems. It's OK to mention your business in the webinar, but the soft sell is the best approach. Convince&Convert has a helpful guide to getting started, 14 Steps to Hosting a Successful Webinar.
9. Write an ebook
Before you object, consider this: An ebook doesn't have to be a tome. It could be, say, 10-20 pages full of tips, best practices or other useful information that showcases your experience and knowledge. If your goal is to get as many ebooks downloaded as possible, offer it for free.
If nothing else, an ebook can give you an extra touch of authority. Keep in mind you'll probably need to hire people to create the cover art and to proofread your book. Publishers Weekly, the book-publishing industry journal, offers a helpful guide, DIY: How to Self-Publish an E-book.
10. Don't forget "analog" networking
In this digital era, we sometimes forget about networking the old-fashioned way—picking up the phone and calling someone, having coffee or lunch with a colleague, going to industry events, and so on. But face time with people in a position to buy your product or use your services is still the best form of networking.
As always, use the soft approach. Don't explain that business is slow right now, and you could use some help. Instead, talk about what you do, and why you're passionate about it; maybe mention a recent success you've had. If you do it correctly, you'll have your potential customer's attention—and perhaps his business.
Writer James A. Martin specializes in SEO, content marketing and social media for small, medium, and large companies. Follow him on Twitter, @james_a_martin.
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