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Gail Goodman

CEO, Constant Contact

Small businesses tend to think of marketing as optional, but it really isn’t. You need a customer engine to feed your business.

After gaining experience at several software startups, Gail Goodman T’87 launched her own in 1999. As CEO of the online marketing company Constant Contact, Goodman has helped more than a half-million and counting small-business customers navigate a rapidly evolving industry. “Small businesses tend to think of marketing as optional, but it really isn’t. You need a customer engine to feed your business,” she says. “The great news is that your customers are online and your ability to reach them has never been better.” Below are her tips for how small businesses can use online marketing tools.

With modern tools, marketing becomes unbelievably easy, inexpensive, effective, and trackable. When I find small businesses not marketing, they run through the same litany of reasons but there is absolutely no excuse. Think you don’t have the time? It’s quick. Think you don’t have the money? It’s inexpensive or even free. Think you don’t have the know-how? There are lots of tools and resources to help you learn.

Small businesses actually have huge marketing advantages. Not only are they face-to-face, talking with their customers every day, but their customers care. There’s a real connection and small businesses are better at speaking in their own voices with sincerity. When it comes to email marketing, for example, small businesses get higher open and click-through rates.

With your marketing, start small and grow. It’s a mistake to try to do 10 things at once. Instead, do one thing, master it, then do the next. Everyone should start with email—it’s your best marketing tool and the No. 1 thing people open on their mobile devices.

Then, you can begin to add social media marketing. What social channel is right for your business varies widely. If you’re business-to-business, it’s more likely to be LinkedIn and Twitter. If you’re business-to-consumer, it’s more likely to be Facebook leading to Pinterest and Instagram and others. Figure out where your customers are by chatting with or surveying them.

Benchmark yourself against yourself. It sounds very simple, but make each marketing campaign better than the last one. As you come up with your annual calendar of reasons to reach out, track how each of last year’s pushes went and vow to be 10 percent better every time this year.

Only spend marketing money when you’re actually ready. Every small business today gets sales calls from online marketing companies who offer to draw online traffic if you hire them. But what’s the point if you don’t know how to convert online traffic into real customers? The key is to “start from the heart.” Start from your customers and build outward. Create that “wow” experience for your current customers, capture their contact information so you can stay in touch with them, and start this virtuous cycle. I wrote about this in my how-to book, “Engagement Marketing: How Small Business Wins in a Socially Connected World.”

If you need marketing help, ask for it. There are lots of resources, like the American Express Open Forum, the U.S. Small Business Administration, or the nonprofit SCORE. My company, Constant Contact, has a great blog, does free local seminars, and offers a free trial of our services with a real-life coach. I’d also recommend talking to your neighboring businesses as well as attending chamber of commerce and local networking meetings. In the small business community, people are very generous with their time and expertise so just ask.

Whatever your business, marketing can’t overcome weaknesses in your customer experience. Before you spend a dollar on marketing, make sure that if you pull someone into your business, you’re going to create a raving fan who tells their friends. If you start with that, every marketing dollar you actually spend is going to be multiplied.

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