Back to Basics in a Twitter Era

I recently met with a small industrial business here in Baltimore to discuss how it could build its market share. It’s a strong company with a few major clients, and it’s been driven by the recession to diversify its client base so it’s not dependent on a few cash cows. Even though it makes an industrial product for a niche, the company isn’t all that different from anyone in the marketing and advertising business: Times are tough, and there’s a need for more customers.

But how? And (more apropos of this column), how can companies use online marketing to build business? If you read the business press (ClickZ included), it’s easy to get caught up in the super cool and cutting-edge tactics pioneered by either Internet-based tech companies or big consumer-oriented companies with huge budgets. There’s been probably terabytes of copy written over the past few years about marketers looking to social media, widgets, or other flavor-of-the-month tactics to market themselves online. It seems like you’re a total loser if you’re not Twittering, cranking out advergames, or distributing Facebook widgets by the dozens.

The reality is, 95 percent of all businesses in the United States have fewer than 500 employees and marketing budgets to match. If most small businesses have an annual revenue of $2 million and a 20 percent profit margin ($400,000) and devote 20 percent of their profit to marketing, that means most of these businesses have — on the outside — $80,000 or less to spend on marketing per year. Considering that the 20 percent has to cover a lot — trade shows, business development salaries, etc. — that means that there’s not a lot of money out there to do marketing.

What’s a small business to do?

Considering the state of the economy and considering that most of us probably have lots of these small businesses as our clients, it’s not a minor question. What do we tell these clients — these hordes of small, niche, and unglamorous businesses — that turn to us to help them build sales, grow awareness, and (these days especially) gain more customers so that they can stay in business? Do we tell them that they should be using the same high-end tactics as the big guys or risk falling behind? Do we counsel them to put all their marketing eggs in the what-happens-to-be-cool-this-month basket and hope for the best? Do we take their budgets and tell them that Twitter or Facebook is going to solve all their problems?

Maybe some of us do. And that’s a shame. Because while a lot of the more cutting-edge stuff is pretty cool and might work for high-profile tech companies that make their living on the Internet, most of the businesses in the U.S. must concentrate on getting the basics of marketing down first — the surprisingly easy stuff — before branching out into the tactics that make the news and get bloggers and tech columnists all fired up. The basics might not be exciting, but they actually seem to work.

A recent study by GlobalSpec, an online aggregator of industrial supplier catalogs, entitled “Trends in Industrial Marketing 2009: How Manufacturers are Marketing Today,” provides an interesting and abject lesson in the getting-back-to-basics strategy. Sure, it doesn’t sound very glamorous, but that’s the point. Even if you don’t have a bunch of manufacturers or industrial companies in your client portfolio, looking at this sector — often considered by those in the ad biz to be “boring” — is a good way to see just what works for almost any small business with a small budget.

This study found that the top methods these companies are using to generate leads include using online directories and Web sites, e-mailing to in-house lists, search engine optimization, newsletter sponsorships, banner ads, and paid search marketing. While they’re spending more money online to drive leads, they’re pulling back from two of their most traditional marketing channels. Thirty percent are reducing their tradeshow spending, and 28 percent are reducing the amount they’re spending on print.

Sure, none of this sounds all that surprising. And it shouldn’t. It works.

Tough times should be no excuse for shying away from innovation. But tough times also mean that all of us need to stretch our clients’ — or our own — marketing dollars as far as possible. And even if you’re not doing advertising for those in the manufacturing sector, you’re probably still doing a lot of marketing for small businesses that need to watch their dollars pretty closely. So while you keep your eye on the next big thing and figure out how to make more cutting-edge tactics part of your marketing mix, let’s not forget that it’s the tried-and-true — and admittedly somewhat boring — stuff that must form the core of what we do. When a new exciting technology comes along, we should first ask, “Why should I use this?” and “What’s the strategy?” before jumping on to the ever-moving bandwagon.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.