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Find Your Niche Market

thmb_blue_cool_lightbulb_idea_energy_amBe a Pioneer

Let’s face it; if you own a small or mid-sized company, you can’t compete with, say, Hudson’s Bay, Magna, Wal-Mart or Microsoft.

But you might find a niche those big corporations are ignoring and exploit it. The key to success for many companies is coming up with a specialized product or service aimed at a specific group of consumers. For example:

Position Your Niche

After deciding on a niche, you need to promote it.

Position the product or service as unique or a distinctive alternative to the competition. Of course, promotion strategies generally depend on the type of business and your marketing budget.

Nevertheless, there are some common elements in marketing strategies:

1. Identify customer needs and be responsive to them.

2. Offer reliable and competent service.

3. Know the competition and be on the lookout for new competitors.

4. Know the break-even point and set prices that recover the cost while still attracting customers.

5. Spend as much as you can on a regular basis to promote the niche.

6. Highlight the features that distinguish your product or service from the competition.

  • One grocery store in Vancouver caters to specific customer tastes by offering nearly 40 varieties of hot sauces.
  • A Saskatchewan business sells gourmet chocolates filled with Saskatoon berries.
  • An Ontario man started a business that searches for reliable suppliers and quotes for individuals and businesses, He got the idea when he bought aluminum siding after getting only three quotes and wondered how many others purchase big-ticket items based on only a couple of quotes.

Even if you’ve been in business for 20 years, you may still come across a niche that can add to your company’s success, offer a new career or just allow you to follow a dream.

For example, cattle farmers could focus on serving a demanding consumer market by raising certified organic beef, natural beef or certified hormone-free beef. That’s assuming the niche idea is good, they’ve done research and come up with a good marketing strategy.

Niche ideas come from many sources: a skill or hobby; a new way of doing something; or frustration when searching for a product or service and realizing others are probably going through the same thing.

Here are some steps that can help you come up with ideas and evaluate their potential:

Make a list. Include hobbies, skills and interests, as well as things you hear people complain about. Ever hear someone say: “I wish someone would think of a way…? Brainstorm with employees, colleagues, friends and family for potential niche candidates.

Devise keywords. To get a rough idea of demand, turn your ideas into keywords. Then go to Internet search engines and type in “Overture Search Term Suggestion Tool”. Enter one of your keywords into the tool and in about 30 seconds, you will get a list of how many searches were made in one month on that keyword and variations. For example, a search for espresso maker found a total of 7,995 searches in one month. Of course this shows only the number of Internet searches, but it can help get a sense of potential demand.

Research seriously. When examining a market, answer these questions, among others:

1. What is the demand for the product?
2. Who are the consumers, where do they live and how do they shop?
3. How extensive is the market?
4. How much of the market can you expect to capture?
5. Is it a growth area?
6. How will your product or service fit in?
7. What does the competition look like?

Interview potential customers, talk to other entrepreneurs and use resources such as the local chamber of commerce, hobby and trade magazines, Industry Canada, Statistics Canada, as well as other government agencies and industry associations.

Databases can help determine buying habits in specific areas. For example, do shoppers in Ontario tend to buy high price, high quality products? Or do shoppers in Alberta tend to look for a good deal?

As you develop a niche, try to find the optimal mix of product, demand, services, price and marketing strategy (see right-hand box above for a few marketing tips). You don’t want a $3,000 product if you can only sell a few each year.

Have Fun: In any business, it helps to enjoy what you’re doing. Passion for your business can make the difference between success and failure.

Blog Your Way to Sales and Customer Loyalty

thmb_laptop_technology_screen_bzUp Front and Personal

A while back, Internet aficionados started keeping diaries online, often just personal commentaries, about what was going on around them. The journals were called weblogs.

That was in the late 1990s, pretty much the Stone Age in Web time. Since then, the term has been shortened to “blog,” the writers are called bloggers, the action is blogging, the universe is the blogosphere, and companies are joining in left and right.

Blogging Guidelines

The casual nature of blogging can result in employees inadvertently giving out confidential information, breaking the law, or embarrassing your company. To help avoid problems, set up guidelines on appropriate content. Here are some tips:

  • Employee behaviour that is inappropriate in other situations and is included in your employee manual should be banned from a blog. If employees have questions about content, they should consult with their managers.
  • Employees should identify themselves in blogs and make it clear they speak for themselves, not for the company.
  • Bloggers should get permission to use company trademarks and reproduce company material.
  • Avoid ethnic slurs, personal insults, profanity and vulgarity, as well as sensitive topics such as politics and religion.
  • Bloggers must respect the company’s confidentiality, as well as proprietary and financial information, customers, partners, suppliers and competitors.
  • Bloggers should accept the fact that occasionally the company might bar certain topics for confidentiality or legal reasons.

Consult with your legal counsel to ensure that your guidelines don’t violate laws.

Blogging Mistakes

Blogging has protocols. Here’s a list of mistakes to avoid:

No RSS feed. Many readers access blogs through RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds rather than actually visiting the blog. This is standard procedure and is important in picking up more regular readers.

Comment space. If you don’t let readers leave comments, you send the message that you aren’t interested in their opinions.

Infrequent updating. This not only keeps the search engines away, it can bore readers and cause them not to come back.

No links. Blogging is about sharing and communicating. Linking shows you are involved in the community and gives your readers a chance to read content you like.

No contact information. Readers may not want to leave a comment on your blog, but they may want to contact you. Leave an e-mail address or set up a contact page.

Businesses are drawn to blogging because it’s a quick and inexpensive way to reach new customers, expand mature markets, and build loyalty.

Canada’s business blogosphere includes, but is not limited to, bankruptcy, investing, taxation, finance, personal finance, entrepreneurship and real estate. The blogs are written by consultants, lawyers, accountants, bankruptcy trustees, real estate brokers and others.

Companies maintain blogs for various reasons, including:

Visibility – Search engines target blogs because they are updated frequently and search engines always need new information. Your blog could wind up on Google or Yahoo in a matter of hours and be listed among the top results. This increased visibility can drive traffic to your Web site and translate into sales.

Alternative Media – You can bypass traditional media and present your side of a story or issue.

Broader Reach – Your company can potentially reach more people with a blog than with traditional marketing and public relations techniques. More people are likely to read a blog than will hear your speech at an industry gathering or meeting. And you can reach people who might not be in the habit of scanning business pages or trade magazines.

Customer Loyalty – Starting two-way, online chats with customers and others can generate buzz, build brand loyalty, and even generate ideas for your business.

Competition – If your competitors are blogging, you risk losing customers because the competition is reaching them faster and more efficiently.

If you are considering joining the corporate blogosphere, be prepared. Know what you want to achieve, particularly if you plan to invite comments and the blog is written by rank-and-file employees. Which employees have the talent to write in a casual, personal style? Blogs that sound like dull, dry press releases won’t win readers.

Here are eight other tips that can help your business be successful at blogging:

1. Check the facts. If you send out inaccurate information and readers accept it at face value, they may in turn blog the data on their own sites. Before you know it, thousands of people have taken inaccurate information as truth and it can be traced back to your company blog. This is what happened when one blogger erroneously wrote that a major technology company was planning to buy a phone company.

2. Be honest. Readers want frankness and if they find you have been less than straightforward, they will likely let other bloggers know. That can hurt your credibility.

3. Show sincerity. Blogs are meant to show transparency, so don’t post entries that are simply press releases. That tactic will backfire. That’s not to say you can’t get suggestions from your PR professional or let them edit your blogs lightly. But be sure that the words and thoughts belong to you or whoever is actually writing the entries.

4. Deliver high-value content. Include information about your company, its products or services, the latest efforts, your expertise, or your thoughts on an industry development. The key is to provide information that goes beyond what readers already know.

5. Accept criticism. You must be willing to cope with some negative comments. Criticism can help shift your business’s perceptions of its customers and your responses to it can help change public perception of your company. Comments should generally not be edited other than to remove profanity or personal attacks.

6. Respond to comments. You may lose customers if you ignore their questions and comments. Giving them answers lets them know you care, help build community and loyalty, and makes the blog more dynamic.

7. Update often. Stale blogs drive readers away and give the impression no one is paying attention at your company. Fans may check in every day looking for fresh information. This brings up a problem: Writing new blog entries, finding links, and responding to reader comments can be time-consuming. Don’t commit to blogging unless you are willing to put in the time to maintain and manage a blog that will add lustre to your company’s reputation.

8. Watch comments. Bloggers may unwittingly violate trademark, and copyright law, break securities regulations, leak proprietary secrets or libel employees, customers or competitors. Even if you post a disclaimer, it may not hold up in court. If you plan to have rank-and-file employees add to your blog, or they set up personal blogs related to the company, establish guidelines that help prevent legal liability and protect rights.

Harness Your Company’s Public Relations

thmb_ink_pen_writing_paper_amKeep the Message Consistent

If your company is planning an acquisition, merger, sale, corporate restructuring or a major management change, you may want the public to be informed and you want to control the flow of the information.

Once you announced the news publicly, your company is likely to be in the limelight for quite some time, so it’s important that you develop a plan to cover all the bases. Here are some areas to prepare for when planning a communications strategy:

 Influencing Expectations

 If your company is making a material acquisition or sale, the way you present the message can influence the expectations of shareholders and the market over the long and short term.

Among the questions that you should consider answering:

  • Did the company get a good deal?
  • With a purchase, how long will it take to integrate the new asset and how much is that going to cost?
  • How is the company financing the purchase?
  • If a sale is involved, how will you replace the lost revenue? What do you plan to do with the money from the sale of the asset? Pay down debt? Invest in expansion or new plant and equipment?
  • Does the transaction accurately reflect the company’s long-term growth strategy or does it indicate a new direction?

Craft your message – This is the starting point and it must reflect your overall corporate strategy. Although you will probably tailor the message to different audiences, such as employees, the media, stockholders and analysts, the overall message should be consistent.

Highlight the benefits – When explaining the transaction, include the business or financial rationale, how the deal fits into your short and long-term strategy and what your company expects to gain from the transaction, such as a boost in sales or earnings or an expansion of your market.

Clear a path – Outline the process from beginning to end. Determine a timetable for disseminating information fairly and in a timely manner. Keep in mind any disclosure requirements. Be prepared for the unexpected.

Pick the right people – Name the individuals who will act as your company’s spokespersons, both to the public and internally to staff members. Line up people who will put your plan into effect, report on its status, and sign off on all intermediate transactions.

Brief and rehearse – Key players need to know the facts and be prepared for interviews or news conferences. Draft answers for the most difficult questions and for those you don’t want to answer for competitive or regulatory reasons. Prepare news releases. Be ready to offer timetables, quotes from top executives, and the company’s long-term outlook. Include phone numbers and e-mail addresses to contact individuals for interviews.

Take a Stand and Get Valuable Publicity

thmb_tuxedo_suit_fashion_formal_clothes_MB“If You Want an Audience, Start a Fight.” Irish Proverb

The saying goes there’s no such thing as bad publicity. And one of the ways you can keep your company’s name in view is to take a controversial stand on a controversial topic and stick to it. The public will remember you and the best part is it’s free.

But controversy is just one form of publicity and cost is just one of its advantages. Public relations also:

How Not to Win Over an Editor

Here are five ways to likely be ignored:

1. Send an e-mail press release with a subject line that simply says “News Release.” Instead, use that line to explain what the release is about.

2. Complain that your competitors have been written about but you haven’t.

3. Insist the media outlet owes you coverage because your company spends a lot on advertising.

4. Send a press release without a contact name and telephone number.

5. Demand to read an article before it’s printed.

Helps overcome ad fatigue. Face it, consumers are becoming more cynical and don’t put a lot of faith in advertisements. They tend to tune out when they see hype.

Bolsters your credibility by getting a positive article written by an objective, third party observer. In other words, a publication is giving space to your story — you aren’t paying for it.

Places you in a public forum where people pay attention rather than trying to tune out, and

Provides opportunities to explain your side of the story in the event of a crisis, such as a product recall or a financial setback.

In a nutshell, publicity gets your company noticed and, by finding something newsworthy, helps you stand out from the crowd.

With that in mind, sit down with your managers and brainstorm ways you can generate newsworthy publicity. Here are ten suggestions to get you started:

1. How has your company handled a crisis, such as the threat of terrorism, the plight of the homeless, mad-cow disease or a sluggish economy?

2. What are your opinions on issues in the latest local or federal election? How do you feel about a tax proposal or proposed budget cuts? Write a letter to the editor of a newspaper or trade journal elaborating on your opinions and work in some aspects of your company. Tell the reader, or the interviewer, why a candidate’s position on issues is important to your business or industry.

3. Make yourself an expert by contacting television and radio stations, as well as magazines, newspapers and trade journals, to let them know you are available to be interviewed on particular topics.

4. Take a poll or a survey of your industry and publish the results.

5. Write about a unique marketing approach your company successfully used.

6. Sponsor a local sports team, or offer your services to help raise money for a worthy cause you are interested in.

7. Give speeches on issues related to your business or industry, on a particular topic that is making headlines, or on an issue you feel strongly about.

8. Stage events such as seminars for the media or sponsor awards for media coverage of an industry or an issue, or offer your facilities as a site for TV programs, movies or commercials.

9. Describe a customer’s success story and your role in helping the person achieve goals. Just be sure you don’t sound too self-serving.

10. Create a list of tips related to accomplishing goals in your business.

The control issue: The one thing about publicity, however, is that you can’t really control it the way you can an advertisement and its placement and timing. What happens to your message once you’ve put it out depends a great deal on whether the media finds it newsworthy or whether war breaks out and your story is put on semi-permanent hold.

It is, however, free. And for both large and small companies, publicity is a solid way to communicate directly to a target audience and to complement your advertising efforts.

Consumers Are Aggressive When It Comes to Privacy

thmb_sepia_security_lock_padlock_bzThe Mot du Jour: Consensual Marketing

Despite a growing number of privacy protection laws, consumers are increasingly taking the issue into their own hands with actions that signal it may be time to alter your marketing efforts.

Despite a growing number of privacy protection laws, consumers are increasingly taking the issue into their own hands with actions that signal it may be time to alter your marketing efforts.

At least that is the case in the U.S., according to a survey that shows a 30 per cent increase in the number of individuals taking privacy-assertive actions.

Canadian companies should take heart, however.Another survey of corporate attitudes about privacy showed that Canadian companies care more about privacy than their American counterparts: 61 per cent of surveyed Canadian companies linked “good privacy practices” to customer trust and brand loyalty, compared to only 17 per cent of U.S. companies.

The U.S. study of consumer concerns about private data does offer valuable insights for businesses. Among the findings:

At Issue



Asked company to remove name and address from marketing lists 87% 58%
Refused to give data because it was too personal or not necessary 83% 78%
Asked company not to sell or provide name and address to another company 81% 53%
Didn’t use a company because they were unclear how the data is used 60% 54%
Asked to see the information about them in company records. 15% 18%

The message from these figures is that smart companies are altering their privacy policies to make them more meaningful to their customers and are switching their marketing to consensual programs from consumer targeting.

But to get a fuller sense of your customer’s attitudes, it is wise to survey them to get a handle on how they feel about your current privacy policies, marketing efforts and any new information-collection and marketing campaigns you are considering.

“Getting to Know all About You”

When it comes to marketing, you can take the shotgun approach and mail  everything, or you can offer your customers an a la carte selection. The latter choice is consensual marketing.

Take a hint from American Express of Canada. The company asked its cardholders to select either, mailings that interested them, no mailings at all, or all mailings.

From those who responded, the company learned what products and services they were most interested in and effectively received consent to send solicitations in those categories.

The idea is that the cardholders are then more receptive to the mailings, actually read them, and consequently, are more likely to respond.

However, don’t worry. As a Canadian company, chances are you’re doing pretty well already. The survey comparing Canadian and U.S. companies, which was commissioned by the Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner, found that:

  • Privacy preferences of customers are captured by 79 per cent of Canadian companies, compared to 53 per cent of U.S. companies;
  • Eighty-two percent of Canadian companies have privacy-training programs and 71 per cent have privacy-awareness activities for new employees, compared to just 50 per cent and 43 per cent in the U.S.;
  • About three-quarters of Canadian companies assigned a senior executive as their privacy officer, and those individuals were twice as likely to be assigned on a full-time basis. In the U.S. only half the companies have a privacy officer;
  • Nearly 70 per cent of Canadian companies have a policy regarding surveillance and computer monitoring in the workplace, compared with just 13 per cent of U.S. companies. U.S. businesses, however, are more likely to give their employees a say in how their data is collected, and
  • Canadian companies are more likely to let consumers “opt out” over the secondary use and sharing of their personal information.

The bottom line: Canadian companies appear to view privacy programs as a way to improve relations with customers while American companies view them as a way to comply with the law and avoid litigation.