Advertising Small Business: Adventures in Overwhelm (Part 1)
Near the bottom of my résumé is a two-year job for a now-defunct community online service, NYC NET. The truth is, I worked at it for much longer, overlapping with my copywriter job at a large advertising agency. I’ve found however that most employers don’t like fuzzy math. If they never worked in a startup, they often look at entrepreneurship as a curiosity. They don’t get the sweat and maturity that goes into it — nor the rush from doing it.
Moonlighting and multi-tasking is how many ideas become businesses. NYC NET was the idea of my friend Todd, whose day job was in I.T. at The New York Public Library. The business started as a scrappy, local gay bulletin board service (if you’re under 30, I can’t explain this idea) paid for by a few thousand subscribers who craved internet access, homo-friendly chat rooms and message boards, and would pay a monthly fee for the novelty. The brand of NYC NET was campy, social and local with a friendly tagline: “We’re Family.” During the day, the three partners and I each had our own full-time jobs and sneakily worked from our offices to get it off the ground. At night, we met up at our tiny office in Manhattan’s Flower District, subletted from a magazine.
Deal-making. Bartering. And just a little whoring. In exchange for a monthly stipend and company shares, I was the marketing and communications director. My limited experience as a copywriter and at a student-run agency in college didn’t prepare me for the real deal of communications planning, ad buying or sales. Over three sleepless years, I learned how to deploy a marketing budget —a whopping $2,000 monthly — to satisfy a subscriber quota (average 300 a month) to keep us all afloat. I didn’t just learn about testing different media because John Caples or David Ogilvy had taught me it in books; I learned it because I had to, and owner Todd was brave and curious of what would work. We tried print ads in The New York Press and Village Voice, cable show sponsorships bartered for website design, drag queen spokesperson contracts for shout outs during club performances, late night (illegal) wheat posting around town, shrink-wrapping our disks around magazines (stole that idea from AOL), PR to magazines and newspapers, tables at Pride marches and expos, parties at the big nightclubs, and in-person appearances at gay professional and social organizations such as the gay bankers, gay accountants, gay communicators — not to mention the S&M group and The Bears. I can’t even describe the exact scene but I will tell you sales those nights were superb. Yes, I had to hustle. We had to make it.
Taking on Goliath. Taking on AOL and its huge gay subscriber base (really, they had one), NYC NET eventually accomplished a modest degree of success as a profitable, full-service internet provider with a quirky, community flavor. We invented “virtual Christopher Street,” providing the very first web presences and email addresses for more than 50 businesses, publications and organizations. We formed a partnership with a west coast service, added two full-time staff and hired a PR firm. All those chat rooms and member events, we also helped spark thousands of relationships — from one-night stands (not to mention one-hour stands) to longer-lasting ones. But we waited too long to sell out and faded away during the dotcom bust in 2000.
How do very small businesses nowadays do marketing? Now thinking of the product we sold in the late 1990s— digital community and web access — I think how ironic it was that we had mostly traditional media channels among which to choose. Although an online service, we didn’t have the full Internet. Which got me to wondering: How do businesses today tackle sales goals? What do they spend on advertising? In a world of Google, Yahoo!, FourSquare, Twitter, LinkedIn — and still The Village Voice and New York Press — how do they decide where to spend time and money? What would I do?
This is the first in a series on businesses of under 10 employees. I am focusing on very small businesses because I think they need to be most nimble and deserve the most help. Plus, they’re fun, I’m jealous — and mine failed.
The plan is to feature the approaches of small business owners and how they tap the new and traditional tools to find customers. They’ll try new things and report back how it goes and why. You and I can live vicariously through them. In my (new) TFT Advertising Bubble LinkedIn Group, there are discussions too. Share your questions — or better yet, your answers and ideas. And if you know of a small business under 10 employees worth featuring or talking to, let me know.
In addition to links like Inc’s recent guide to your first ad buy, I’ll seek out expert help, especially ones I know since that’s easier — and easier is a trademark of entrepreneurship. Todd Herman, for example, runs Traffic Bakery, specialists in search engine and internet marketing for small business (Transparency: I also know Todd from Search for The World’s Greatest Salesperson). Todd built his own personal performance and coaching business and realized others wanted to learned what he did about online marketing. When I asked him what he sees people doing wrong, he said too many small businesses focus too much on the latest trendy tactics (e.g. FourSquare or Facebook) rather than on a proper marketing strategy focused where their customers are. He and I both agreed that new ventures probably spend too much effort on their branding than on their message. For different reasons, we both agree that logos matter (him for equity; me for prettiness) but in the very very beginning, you don’t have a brand, so you best spend more time on your plan.
I asked Todd for tips for acquiring customers — the most important topic I think for your first months out of the gate. He focused in on three things:
1. Speak to large groups (“an unbelievably fast way to build your business”). Take video of your engagements and repurpose it for online, he suggested.
2. Use education-based marketing. For example, “How-to” videos posted on YouTube or presentations on Slideshare, which — titled correctly — can be search friendly. “Don’t worry about giving your information away for free,” he said. “Have an abundance mindset.”
3. Look for joint ventures. Who can you partner with? These are ripe places to find valuable databases of existing prospects instead of starting from scratch.
To me, it’s about leads. I’m a social media fanatic, but I’m worried too many small business owners spend too many hours on your Facebook page when you should:
1. Get listed in the business listings of the major search engines — the modern day Yellow Pages, available through Google Places, Yahoo! Local and Bing. There’s also YellowBook itself, which I know little about but a new campaign just broke.
2. Develop content for a blog to which you can get Backlinks, driving up organic search. And if you don’t want to commit to a blog, create content you can distribute on YouTube, Slideshare and other free platforms that people find and appreciate — and also help bump up your organic search results.
4. Work on an ongoing PR plan since (yes, I’m biased) op-eds, news releases and events are the most cost effective way to attract customers — if you can only get over your fear and laziness about writing.
So hope you look forward to the series and participate in the LinkedIn group. The small business series will appear periodically and there are certainly other advertising topics and news to cover. Send any ideas for this topic or others to me at email@example.com.
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