To Get Through the Downturn, Get Aggressive about Marketing

By Michael Masterson and MaryEllen Tribby

The land of opportunity seems pretty, well, barren these days. As big-time companies bite the dust or merge with other big-time companies in a desperate effort to keep the doors open, America is awash in anxious businesspeople. Leaders of many companies—both large corporations and small mom & pops—are likely wondering whether they can survive the downturned economy (to say nothing of thriving). But if companies want to make it through the economic slump, they'll have to resist the fear-driven urge to chop their marketing budgets down to the bone.

The marketing budget is often the first thing to get the ax when it's time to cut costs. But in reality, companies should be marketing far and wide during a downturn. There are still motivated, financially capable consumers out there who are prepared to buy, but you must make sure they know about your products or services. The best way to do that is by aggressively reaching out to them through many different marketing channels. And you can do it with a depleted marketing budget if you have to.

The trick? Multichannel marketing—combining new concepts, such as search engine marketing and social media, with tried and true methods such as direct space advertising and public relations—to reach a wider customer base, build customer loyalty, and increase sales. Many of the channels that have opened up are cheap and easy to test so that a company can quickly see which marketing messages and channels are working for them and which aren't. These channels allow businesses to market more without spending more money. Unfortunately, many businesses just aren't taking advantage of all of the marketing channels that have opened up for them, which is an especially deadly mistake in a slow economy.

Here are a few strategies marketers can use right now to cultivate both new and old business:

Direct mail is still a viable marketing channel. In the Internet age, some business owners might turn up their noses at using a direct mail campaign to market their business. After all, direct e-mail is much easier and cheaper to use, so why not just use that? Well, the problem is that anti-spamming laws mean people have to agree to receive your e-mails, which limits you to people you've already had contact with. Direct mail, on the other hand, can be completely unsolicited, allowing you to reach out to people who may not already be familiar with your product or business. And because you can easily test which direct mail pieces are successful and which ones aren't, it is an especially safe and fast way to market a business or product in a slow economy.

Go for the low-hanging fruit. Always market most often and most strongly to your loyal customers—those who buy almost any product your company offers them. Direct e-mail, well written and based on compelling offers, is easy to use, and it is so cheap that your company can engage in almost unlimited communication with customers. It is also easy to test offers, see what's working, and quickly make changes to generate more sales. And it allows your marketing copywriters to create messages that are as timely as possible: if a major news event takes place, it can be incorporated into a sales message that same day.

Essentially, direct e-mail is a two-step process. First, develop a list of people who will accept the advertising. This list is built through the use of banner ads, insert ads, and by simply asking customers for an e-mail address when they make a purchase, whether it's in one of your stores or online. Next, send them direct response promotions. These are usually longer pieces, similar to direct mail sales letters. It is useful to think of these two functions separately, and even to designate them as separate marketing processes within the company.

Some forms of marketing don't cost a dime. A company can create online buzz about a product or service through social media advertising. This can take many forms: online forums, message boards, blogs, video-, photo-, and music-sharing sites, social networks, and comment sections on Websites. You can stimulate online conversation about your company or its products by publishing special reports or covering news or sending out surveys or questionnaires.

The trick is making sure that the information that ends up online about your company is positive. What not to do: get into a situation like the one that involved Whole Foods CEO John Mackey. Mackey was caught posting negative comments about a competitor on Yahoo Finance message boards. He used a pseudonym during an eight-year run of trash talk. Many believe his goal was to drive down the stock price of the competitor so that Whole Foods could easily take it over. That allegation was enough to get the SEC involved. The moral? If you're negative or shady in your social media efforts, you will eventually be exposed and it won't be good for your company.

Find customers through search engine marketing (SEM). Any company that is able to catapult its website to the top of the results page on one of the major search engines will attract customers already interested in what it has to offer. These visitors are likely to sign up for a company's e-newsletter, buy its products, and keep coming back for more. SEM is an inexpensive (sometimes even free) way for companies to find their ideal customers, helping you narrow down a pool of millions and millions of Web surfers to the select few who are already interested.

Get to know the media. Public relations is a terrific marketing channel because it’s nearly free. Your only cost is the miniscule amount it takes to mail or e-mail out press releases. And, when it works, it can work like wildfire, going from local to regional to national—and even to international—audiences faster than it takes to write up a marketing plan for a conventional advertising campaign. Create your press releases specifically for the publications and media outlets whose customers you want to reach. Rather than sending out 1,000 releases about a story that has general appeal, it's much more effective to send out a dozen or so focused press releases about stories that are exactly right for the intended audiences. And always make sure your releases include one of two elements: either news about subjects the publication's readers are already interested in or some captivating and/or curious tidbits.

Don't go it alone. Ever considered a joint venture? Many companies balk at the idea because they don't like the idea of splitting revenues. This sort of thinking misses the mark. When a joint venture is executed properly, it doesn't subtract from a business, it adds to it. The best JV opportunities are those that pair up businesses with asymmetrical resources and skills. The idea is to develop joint venture relationships that are easy to maintain, financially profitable, intellectually rewarding, and long lasting.

Agora Inc. is a great example of what joint ventures can do for a business. When the company started out, it was very good at direct mail marketing, but its employees had very little investment expertise. Rather than attempt to develop financial gurus in-house, Agora went out into the media marketplace and found investment writers who had newsletters with few subscribers. Agora's proposal to them was as follows: They would form a joint venture, with both sides as 50% partners. The investment writer would continue to own his subscribers and his editorial product, would continue to have all the fulfillment obligations, and would hire Agora to act as his newsletter's marketing agent. Agora would take all the risk with the marketing efforts and keep the revenue stream. The partner would get the new subscribers risk-free. For a financial writer with limited marketing resources, it was a no-risk, all-reward proposition. For Agora, it was an efficient way to attract first-rate writing talent—some with established reputations and great track records in making stock tips. In that time, the company saw revenues climb from $1 million to more than $60 million.

Learn the art of the pay-per-click ad. Pay-per-click ads are typically small. On Google, they are usually limited to four lines of text—a headline, two lines of body copy, and your URL. The trick is to make the copy both crisp and compelling. Generally speaking, it's a good idea to create a URL that describes the product being sold. That way, if people type the URL directly into their browser, they have an idea of what to expect. The body of the PPC ad should offer an enticing and, if possible, immediate benefit to the reader. So, if your site is DiscountedDishes.com, the body of your ad might read, "Millions of discontinued plates." The headline should grab the prospective customers' attention. Unusual or newsworthy headlines can do that. A headline like "Designer China Rip-offs" can convince a prospect to click on one company's ad rather than another one that has a more ordinary headline.

Save big bucks on print and radio ads: take the leftovers. Whenever possible, try to purchase remnant ad space (also called remainder or last-minute advertising space). This is ad space that has not been sold to advertisers in time for deadline in print media or air-time in radio. Here's how it works: find out the media outlet's deadline, then call right before that deadline and start your negotiations.

For example, about five years ago, we bought a full-page ad in USA Today for the discounted price of $1,500. We were advertising a $24 book on investing and would need only 63 orders to break even. Because the newspaper's circulation was nearly 2 million at the time, getting 63 orders, which was a .00315 percent response, seemed like a very reasonable expectation. We ended up with 217 book orders. That's an ROI of 347% on the $1,500 investment, but had we paid the rate-card price for the ad, we would have lost almost $10,000!

Test, test, test. In multichannel marketing, thinking means nothing; it's what a company knows that counts. To determine if prospective customers will buy what you're selling, your marketers should test the waters.

We used PPC ads to determine the title of our book. We had five potentially good titles, so we put all five in Google PPC ads to determine which one would really resonate with people who needed the kind of information we’re providing. Based on the results of those ads, Changing the Channel won hands down. And it is a title that neither of us authors came up with; it came from someone on the Early to Rise staff.

The best thing about multichannel marketing is that it's trial-and-error friendly. Whether you're employed in the marketing department of a huge corporation, a marketing manager at a mid-size company, or a small business owner, you can implement these methods cheaply, quickly, and easily. This is great news for anxious businesspeople who can't afford to make any mistakes in the current slow economy. So, get started now! Put up a couple of PPC ads...start growing your customer list and send out a few e-mails...identify some companies that might make great joint venture partners. It's the best way to keep bringing in profits in a downturned economy.

Author Bios:

Michael Masterson helped launch EarlytoRise.com, an Internet-based training company, in 1999. He is also a consultant to Agora Inc., a Baltimore-based publisher of information products with offices in Europe, South Africa, and Australia.

His nonfiction books include Ready, Fire, Aim: Zero to $100 Million in No Time Flat; Seven Years to Seven Figures: The Fast-Track Plan to Becoming a Millionaire; Automatic Wealth for Grads...and Anyone Else Just Starting Out; Automatic Wealth: The Six Steps to Financial Independence;Power and Persuasion: How to Command Success in Business and Your Personal Life; and Confessions of a Self-Made Multi-Millionaire.

He is coauthor, with MaryEllen Tribby, of Changing the Channel: 12 Easy Ways to Make Millions for Your Business (Wiley, 2008).

MaryEllen Tribby is publisher and CEO of Early to Rise. She has over 20 years of publishing and business experience, most notably in direct marketing.

She often speaks on expert panels at industry specific events. Changing the Channel: 12 Easy Ways to Make Millions for Your Business (Wiley, October 2008), coauthored by Michael Masterson, is her first book.


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