Once-thriving businesses are struggling to survive in today’s slow economy. Many are making spending decisions based on “What can I afford?” rather than “Where can I invest my money to make my business grow?” When payroll and other expenses take priority, the advertising and marketing budget is the first to go. Lacking the resources of large corporations, small and medium-sized businesses find it particularly challenging to keep their heads above water. In addition, they are struggling with lower-than-average sales, difficulty getting loans, rising interest rates, and the ever-present threat of increased taxes and government regulation.
Most business owners know that the key to success in any economy, good or bad, is the ability to connect with customers. Businesses that are firmly established in the community will be in a good position to weather economic storms and will excel when the economy recovers. To be among the leaders, you have to get your name out there.
So how do you attract attention, get new customers, and maintain customer loyalty with a limited advertising and marketing budget?
Take stock of what you have to offer your customers and come up with a plan to stand out from the crowd. Customers are expecting more from their hard-earned cash and will find it easier to spend money where they are getting the best customer service. The owner of Hotwire Online Coffeehouse has set up a system that helps her and her employees remember their regular customers' names. Customers appreciate the exceptional service and feel welcome and at home in the coffee shop. The GONE Art Gallery and Frame Shop attracts customers by hosting art shows featuring local artists. They get the word out for the show through local advertising and through their email newsletters. The kick-off for each show is a party open to the public and includes live music and hors d'oeuvres.
Offering coupons as incentives is a tried-and-true way to get people in your door spending money. The coupon industry is exploding because consumers are actively looking for ways to save money. A recent survey conducted by Harris Interactive (2009) found that a growing number of consumers will not make a purchase without a coupon.
However, many small businesses simply do not have the budget for the printing and distribution of coupons.
Instead of going the traditional route, use companies that specialize in doing the hard work for you. These “coupon” companies specialize in creating and managing coupon campaigns for other businesses, at little or no cost, and with surprisingly fast results. By providing your information and the details of your special offer, these organizations will generate a “coupon campaign” for you, and allow users online to search via zip code, product, company, or service to find your deal.
Establish Your Online Presence
Businesses that don't already have a Website need to get one. It's a sign of credibility today—even if your site doesn't attract much attention, you'll lose business if you don't have one. Many, if not most people will choose a business with a Website over one without. Websites don't cost thousands of dollars anymore and there are many tools available to people who want to create a Website themselves. Yet, many small businesses are still daunted by the perceived costs and difficulties associated with having a Website. Using a free open-source Content Management System (CMS) like Wordpress, Joomla, or Drupal, it's easy to create excellent sites and there are many free templates and online support for these systems. Professional Website templates, including sites that support Flash and other advanced features, are available for as little as $60 and can be hosted for around $5 a month, sometimes even less. Companies like HostGator.com and GoDaddy.com have very competitive hosting prices and offer good products that will get you up and running very quickly.
You can check online for other companies and packages to make Website creation simple—even if you have little or no experience.
Savvy business owners take advantage of online social media marketing. Accounts on sites such as Facebook and Twitter are free and easy to set up, and can yield big dividends through increased exposure. The New England Dance Conservatory in Massachusetts bartered with one of their students: free dance lessons in exchange for a Website and the establishment and maintenance of profiles on Facebook and Twitter. The owner and artistic director, Shelley Ziebel, said she has already seen an increase in the number of students who have enrolled as a direct result of the online presence. The company also put a blog on the site, which encourages users to upload videos and pictures of the dancers. This is helping to create a community of loyal customers.
Organize a Fund Raiser
It is difficult for many people to give to charity in this slumping economy. When the community sees businesses participating in fundraising events and helping the needy, it leaves a lasting positive impression. Even simple things like putting a sign in front of your store telling the community that you are collecting canned goods for the local food bank can positively impact your organization. Or join with other businesses in your community to organize something bigger. Local newspapers and media outlets may be willing to publicize worthy events in the community. The Noah's Ark Animal Hospital has organized an event where people can bring their pets to be professionally photographed. The firm puts fliers all over town. Because all proceeds are being donated to a local children's hospital, they are getting a lot of attention.
These are just a few ideas on how to survive and even thrive in a slow economy. Be creative. Offer exceptional customer service. Give your customers incentives. Actively post content on social media sites such as Facebook.com and Twitter.com. Be involved in the community. Get your name out there and you will be in a great position when the economy recovers.