Published on www.smh.com.au on January 28th, 2014 - 10:00AM and written by Christopher Niesche.
Getting close to your customers is more important than ever - and SMEs should use all the tools available to stay ahead of the rest.
First impressions count - and nowhere is that more true that in business.
So make 2014 the year you sharpen up your marketing efforts and ensure that the first contact you have with your customers makes a good impression. Show them that you have the solutions to their problems and that you're the sort of business they want to deal with.
"It doesn't matter what size company you are, you can still present your brand in the way it needs to be presented to engage and connect with clients and customers," says Mellissah Smith, founder of specialist SME agency Marketing Eye.
Looking good doesn't have to be expensive. Well-built websites that allow SMEs to update their own content start at about $1000 and professional logos can be commissioned on freelance websites for a few hundred dollars, says Smith.
Michael Halligan, founder of Engage Marketing, says SMEs should do a quick marketing audit to discover which methods work best for their business.
"Where are the customers that I'm only going to have to spend only 20 minutes working on to get a sale, rather than an hour or two?"
Michael Halligan, founder, Engage Marketing
"As a small business owner you've got a limited amount of time so one of the most important things is to work out how to best spend your marketing time," he says. "One of the things that I'd really recommend is working out where the easiest customers to convert will come from, so where are the customers that I'm only going to have to spend only 20 minutes working on to get a sale, rather than an hour or two?"
Keep records of how your customers came to you over a month - through web searches, direct advertising, social media or word of mouth and networking. Note down how many questions each asked, how long you spent dealing with them and, finally, how many converted to sales and the value of the sales.
That way you'll start to build up a picture of your most effective marketing strategies and your cost per sale, and can work out where you should best spend your time and budget.
"People from a particular channel might be spending less than another channel or they might be more work to close on a sale," Halligan says.
Tools such as Local Measure and Google Analytics can also help SMEs measure the effectiveness of their online marketing and social media.
Of course, the importance of having a strong online and social media presence will only increase in 2014 and it's not something any business can afford to ignore.
"People stick their head in the sand around social media... But like it or lump it that's where your customers are."
Michelle Gamble, founder, Marketing Angels
"People stick their head in the sand around social media," says Michelle Gamble, founder of agency Marketing Angels. "But like it or lump it that's where your customers are so I think you need to have a solution for having some kind of social media presence and a really strong online presence to stand out."
Developing a social media profile need not be a complicated exercise. For consumer-oriented businesses, for instance, it can be as simple as setting up a Twitter account to let people know what's going on in your business and about special offers and so on. Facebook pages can also show off the business and engage with customers. For business-to-business SMEs, LinkedIn is still the premier social media site.
Recent changes to the way Google presents search results mean that content like blogs and how-to guides are more important for winning good search-engine ratings, and Gamble says video is set to emerge as a significant marketing tool in 2014.
"Small business is really well placed to tap into that trend, because they can't access television advertising, but they can easily, quickly and cheaply create short videos," she says.
Even videos shot on smartphones can be effective, as long as the content is interesting and useful enough for consumers.
For instance, an IT support business might make some how-to videos addressing some of its customers' most common computer problems.
But before SME owners charge headlong into the world of social media, they need to think about what their business stands for - something they often overlook. "People just get a logo done and get going without sitting back and really thinking strategically, what do I want people to think when they see my brand, how do I want them to feel?" Gamble says.
"Marketing is so much about emotion these days - it's about personality and engaging with people - and if you don't sit down and understand what your brand stands for, what difference you make to people's lives and what your brand personality is it's very hard to stand out against the sea of mediocrity that's out there."
And with so much business conducted online these days, it's easy to lose the human touch. But customers still want to know who they're doing business with and who's behind the products they're buying, says Christo Hall, co-founder of specialist small business marketing agency Basic Bananas.
"You need to create personality and share the people behind the business," he says.
Hall says he did an experiment with the staff profiles on the Basic Bananas website. He did one set of standard dry staff profiles and another set showing off more of the individual workers' personalities. The personality pieces got four times the number of click-throughs than the standard profile page.
Marketing Eye's Mellissah Smith says the internet makes it easy to research what competitors are doing and how they're presenting themselves.
"Make sure that you're more in touch with your customers than ever before, because you have to be."
Mellissah Smith, founder, Marketing Eye
Also, have a close look at what your target audience is looking at on the internet on their Twitter, Pintrest, Facebook and LinkedIn accounts. "Really have a look at their behaviours and what they're used to seeing and experiencing and touching and feeling, and develop your marketing around that," Smith says. "Make sure that you're more in touch with your customers than ever before, because you have to be."
How social media helped a small business compete with the big boys.
"It's really changed my business."
Jason Smith doesn't use social media much in his personal life, but it's been a boon for his seven-person finance business.
Smith says sales at Sydney-based CashFlow Advantage more than doubled last year thanks to his strategy of promoting the business through blogging, YouTube videos and social media sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Google .
"I'm really surprised. It's really changed my business," he says. "This is my way of competing with the big boys, and refreshingly for me, the larger companies just aren't doing it. I don't think they're nimble enough to do it."
The business, which was founded in 2008, had been using traditional marketing methods such as brochures, leaflet drops and direct mail, but Smith says its message wasn't getting out. "We had no brand awareness and footprint," he says.
A web-savvy staff member told him he needed to start producing fresh content to boost his website's search engine optimisation.
Smith began by making a commitment to write a weekly blog, CashFlow Advantage Weekly Wisdom, which he emails out to more than 7000 clients and potential clients and also promotes on social media.
"It creates that top-of-mind awareness, where something pops into their inbox or they happen to look on LinkedIn and they think, yes, CashFlow Advantage - those guys are positioning themselves where they're easy to deal with. I wonder if they could handle this," he says.
"Some read it, some don't, but we get a very good click-through rate - we get people visiting our website to finish reading the article and staying on the website and moving around pages."
Smith plans to ensure the company puts something on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn every day this year to keep up the momentum from last year's success. "The end result was that we had a very profitable year and revenue doubled," he says.