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Small Business Marketing Challenges
The Agents of Change

There are many challenges that a small business will face today. How you overcome, improvise or jump those hurdles will say a lot about the direction your business is headed in.

Learning to prioritize, plan for long term growth, utilize the strengths of your entire team, and knowing when to hire out certain tasks, are four of the top strategies that every small business should be thinking about and implementing. When we learn to “rise above the noise”, we can then be creative and unique in how we move forward.







Rich: Lou Zambello has over 3 decades of experience in successfully growing and transforming a range of businesses – from start-ups to billion dollar enterprises – either as an operating executive, a board member, or a consultant. His expertise includes strategic business planning, marketing strategy and planning, multi-channel media strategies, and brand and creative development.

He focuses his time now on assisting small businesses and working with entrepreneurs. Lou’s passion is the outdoors and he is a professional fly fishing guide, established author, and columnist. He earned a double major in psychology and economics from Cornell University, and holds an MBA from Harvard Business School. Lou, welcome to the show.

Lou: Thanks, great to be here.

Rich: Lou was also a great speaker at last year’s – or this year’s – Agents of Change Conference. Alright, so tell me a little about how you got here working with small businesses to help them grow. What’s your background that wasn’t in your bio?

Lou: Well after working for a big business, LL Bean, I went out to Silicon Valley during the first internet boom in 1999 and worked with a start-up and got involved with a lot of smaller and rapidly growing businesses, and I found that that was quite exhilarating and I’ve stayed in that space ever since.

Rich: Nice. Now you claim that almost all small businesses are under marketed. What do you mean by that?

Lou: That I think many small businesses – particularly those that have been in communities for a while – have an overinflated idea of how many people know about them. And in fact I find that over and over again that when you actually survey their customers you find out that they’re not nearly as well-known as they think they are.

Rich: I’ve had that experience myself. I was sitting down with a friend a couple years ago for a beer and we started talking about search engine optimization and he goes, “Oh, do you do that?” I’m like, “We’ve been friends for 10 years, all I do is talk about my business, how could you not know that?”  And he said, “I don’t think you ever mentioned that before.”

Lou: But people today have so much going on in their lives, both professionally and personally, it seems like every year you’re running a thousand miles an hour faster. Even people that drive by your building every day on the way to work, it just doesn’t register, the brain is on a bunch of things. So it’s hard to rise above the noise today and have people remember you and what you do.

Rich: I know that sometimes I feel – and this happens with the Agents of Change Conference sometimes – people say they’ve never heard of that conference. I’m like, “You live in greater Portland, you’re a social media marketer, how could you not have heard of this?” We get sick of our own message, maybe. Is there a way to know that have we marketed only to ourselves, or is their new ways to get some of the messaging out there? Or do we just have to realize that we’re going to get sick of our own message before most people even hear?

Lou: I think it’s exactly what you said at the end. People get sick of their own messages well before anybody else. When I was at LL Bean we used to have copywriters that would plead to change the copy of ads saying we’d been running the same copy for 20 years and everybody knows. And yet you would go out and survey customers and they don’t. We always get sick of our own messages because we live it day to day. But our customers might only attend on this particular message when it is relevant to them, and that might be 10 minutes a year.   

Rich: Right, that makes sense. So what would you say are some of the biggest challenges that small business marketers face today?

Lou: What we’ve just been talking about, with so much competition in local and national and digital making all the noise out there, and with our current political situation, and people being busier and busier, it’s just hard to get people to concentrate on you and your message for any length of time at all. And because of all the options now for marketers, everything from the relatively new digital marketing options, to all the same old traditional marketing that’s still out there, how does a small marketer have time to address the 20 or 30 different marketing options that are in front of them.

Rich: Alright, so does it come down to just priorities then, when it comes to marketing?

Lou: Well certainly priority is important, because you can’t afford to market all the different channels and all the different markets that are out there. So prioritization is important, but I think it’s more than that, it’s to really understand what’s unique to your business and which specific marketing approaches will work for you.

Too many marketers are “me too” and they think they need to be on Twitter and they need to be updating their Facebook page every day, either because somebody says that or somebody else is doing it they feel they need to do it. And nowadays every business is different and unique, so they need to develop unique approaches for them.

Rich: That sounds great, but how do we actually do anything that’s unique these days? How do we know what makes our business unique, in the same way that we’re tired of hearing our messages, are we really in touch with what other people might think about as a unique value proposition for our own businesses?

Lou: I’m a real firm believer that companies spend so much time executing that they don’t take enough time to get away from the day to day stuff and really have a brain storming session when they include their customers as part of it and really think about their businesses and think about how to be unique. Have creative sessions where the role is to think out of the box and include not just the same folks in the company, but their customers and their prospects as well. And you stay at it until you come up with something that you feel is unique and then you test it. Most of the time it doesn’t work so you try something else, you test it and you try something else until you test it and you come up with a special sauce that really works for you.

Rich: Can you anchor that for us? Can you give us an example – you don’t have to mention client names – but somebody who was struggling with what made them unique and maybe a process that they can go through, and something specific that they tried, do you have an example like that?

Lou: I have a lot of examples. We don’t have enough time but I’ll try to pick some here quickly. It can be as simple as an approach that nobody else is trying. So a high end furniture store wants to get people to come to the store so they want to have a special event. So they think about a number of things and they come up with they are going to bring in 500 little dollhouses with miniature furniture and they’re going to invite everybody and their kids to come see these incredible dollhouses. Well that’s something that they can now own because nobody else has done it, and year after year through word of mouth it builds and builds.

It could be as simple as if you’re a tree removal service after a big ice storm you hire a whole bunch of teenagers to literally walk down the street and every time they see a downed tree you put a business card or a flyer that says, “Look at our website”, or “Call us”. It doesn’t have to be complicated, sometimes it can be getting back to basics.

Rich: Ok. Now obviously small businesses don’t always have a big marketing department. Their might be just one marketing person, maybe there is a marketing manager and a marketing director, maybe it’s somebody that wears many hats and is also in charge of marketing. Does this person need to know everything about marketing, or how can they survive if they don’t know every last element of modern marketing?

Lou: That’s a great question, because that’s been a real change recently in business. I think if you go back 10-15 years you expected the marketing person to be the marketing expert in that company. Now with technology changing so fast there’s no way one person can keep up with all of the latest and greatest science in marketing. So today’s marketing manager is less the subject matter expert and more a person who sort of acts as orchestra leader and knows how to go out to find the experts and manage a bullpen of experts that he can call in depending on the topic. So it’s much more about finding the resources, knowing how to reach them, and how to manage them.

Rich: Ok. Now many of us – if we don’t have a marketing department but we do have a staff – some people just don’t’ feel comfortable marketing the company, but on some level almost everybody has to be a marketer in the company. How do you get your team to start thinking like marketers?

Lou: There’s a saying, I can’t remember who said it, it says, “Now brand and marketing is too important to entrust to just the marketing department.” And I think that the reality today is everybody has to market. Somebody that’s just a customer service person needs to get good reviews so they can be posted. Or if somebody has no customer and they’re a retail clerk, they might have an hour they can write a blog. So really the only way small businesses today can generate the amount of marketing they need to generate is to enlist everybody in the organization to help out.

And you’re absolutely right, a lot of people feel uncomfortable with that. How do you get people to embrace it? I guess I have two answers to that. Sometimes you can’t and you have to hire people that are more comfortable doing that. Millennials today, a lot of them have their own blogs, they have their own Facebook pages, they have some little business on the side. So sometimes you have to re-hire people that are sort of more comfortable doing that.

Or, you have to encourage people to try things. Quick story, I did some consulting with a small seed company and we wanted to have videos of their test gardens. Initially the guy that drive the tractor that weeded all the gardens didn’t want anything to do with it, didn’t want to be on video. We pleaded, we cajoled, we got him to try it. Two years later you can’t get him off camera. That’s all he wants to do is be on camera. So you can teach old dogs new tricks, but sometimes you have to hire new people. 

Rich: You mentioned once or twice before – and we might have touched on this already – but you talk about “rising above the noise”, what does that mean to you? Because it sounds like it could be either expensive or time consuming, two things that small businesses don’t have a lot of.

Lou: I think that today, and I think it’s continuing to get worse, because of so many distractions out there. You have to make a concerted effort to either a specific group of customers, or a specific geography, or a specific time of year, where you combine different elements of marketing all together and sort of pulse together. So that even though you might have a huge budget for that day or that region or that set of customers, you can do enough marketing so that people recognize that you’re out there. 

Just putting a Facebook page out and updating it once in a while, or log every other month, or maybe there’s a newspaper ad, if you spread your efforts out so it’s sporadic and too wide, you can’t create enough of an impact to get this viral buzz that you really need. So today small businesses need to hit their spots and be very concentrated in what they do. So maybe by combining digital advertising and newspaper advertising – maybe something in the mail or a special event – to a particular group of customers or at a particular time of year, you can create enough energy around it to create a viral buzz for that group for that time, and you hope it carries through.

Rich: So you mentioned the dollhouses in the high-end furniture store, and I’d like for you to share with us a story I’ve heard you tell before about a Halloween-themed political marketing technique. Share that story for us.

Lou: Sure. So again, creativity is so important. In this particular example there was a new person running for state office and his competitor had been there a long time and had lots more money, had great name recognition. So what did this person do to try to change the game? This person happened to live next to a farmer who grew small pumpkins. I don’t know how many people know this but when pumpkins are first starting to grow, if you take a sharp instrument and put somebody’s name, when it grows up that name will stay on there. So he paid the farmer – it didn’t take much money – to write on every pumpkin, “Vote Smith”.

And so of course elections are in November, its pumpkin season, he took 2,000 pumpkins that said “Vote Smith” and he went to all the constituents in his district and put a pumpkin on every doorstep. And everybody thought that was the greatest thing, they took it in and put it on their kitchen table so their entire family could see it, and he won the election. He got tremendous name recognition because he changed the rules of the game. He didn’t do the usual TV ads or newspaper ads, he thought about something different and that’s a great example.

Rich: So we’ve got the pumpkin story, we’ve got the dollhouse story, it’s not quite the same but we’ve got the ice storm story with the trees. It feels to me that, independent, what we’re really talking about is finding some creative way of separating yourself from the pack. And then to use your words, almost to use a “surge” of marketing – whether it’s digital, social, print, traditional advertising – to kind of thrust that up and to make it more visible even more so. Is that the secret sauces then?

Lou: I think it is. But you also have to include with that continuous good execution and continuing to build on an idea every year. For those of us in Maine we see the Maine hunting shoe car driving around advertising LL Bean. Well they stuck with that same shtick for 80 years and it just builds every year. So it’s not enough to do a pumpkin thing once or do the dollhouse thing once, if you get traction on something you have to continue to execute with it and stay consistent year after year after year.

Rich: So the LL Boot is a really interesting example because if you live in Maine chances are you’ve seen it. In fact, I pulled up next to it at a gas station once. Of course in this day and age I of course took a picture and I put it on Instagram, which they much absolutely love.

But then other ideas like if I’m the guy who does tree removal and I do that one year, my competitors will be idiots if they don’t steal my idea for the next ice storm. I’m guessing that maybe more than one politician the next season came around and did the pumpkin trick. So some things like the dollhouse I can see building on, but others seem like they could be easily stolen. How do you continue to be creative or do you just go bigger on the next version like the sequel to a movie?

Lou: I think there’s two things. Number one, I wouldn’t assume that your competition is going to leap on you every opportunity, because they’re probably not. And again, its diligence year after year after year, and they’re probably going to not realize what’s going on for quite some time.

The other thing is, every year that you do it, you learn things that worked and you learn things that didn’t work. And so each year you get better and that’s knowledge that’s intrinsic to you that your competition can’t necessarily duplicate. Particularly if every year you’re doing better or differently and adding more innovation, and they’re always playing catch-up. And you’ve already staked out that ground even if they do the same thing. People will go, “Oh, you’re imitating so and so.” It doesn’t work for them.

Rich: Ok. Now I spend almost all my time in the digital realm, I can’t remember the last time we did anything outside of that. And of course this podcast is all about how to reach more of your ideal customers through search, social, and mobile. Is there still value for small businesses to invest in TV, radio, newspapers, direct mail, and any of these other traditional things, or are they just too cost prohibitive and maybe not right for small businesses anymore?

Lou: I would say it’s just the opposite to a degree, that small businesses are abandoning traditional marketing and putting all their efforts on digital. It leaves wide open space for companies that understand that if you’re trying to create a pulse of marketing where you get high visibility, it really helps to reach people’s brains different ways. If they happen to get something in the mail or maybe they hear something on the radio and then they are interested, or they search and find you on the internet. When they see things form different sources you tend to get increased credibility.

The other thing I would say, too, is different parts of marketing have to work together. So sure if you have a website and people can search on it and you come out above the fold and people find you, that’s great. But what about the people that aren’t necessarily searching for that?

So in my house right now I have wood floors that really need to be refinished. Someday I’ll have the time and I’ll sit down and I’ll start searching to see who would be good to refinish my floors. But I guarantee if something came in the mail or I heard something that said, “Hey, we’re having a sale on floor refinishing. If you call right now…”, or if somebody called me on the phone and asked if I needed a floor refinisher, I might leap right on that. Because you don’t always know what you need until somebody reminds you. 

Rich: If we have any wood floor refinishers listening to the show, just email me and I’ll get you Lou’s contact information, don’t sweat it.

Lou: I want a discount. Let me give you one other example. So there’s a car dealership that would like to get emails for perspective car buyers. So they’re going to be sending you ads in the mail for a free car sweepstakes for anybody that sends in their name and email address. They’re going to get to use that traditional digital marketing for the next 3 years. But they couldn’t have reached some of those folks digitally so they’re reaching them in another way and then transforming them into a digital information asset that they then can market to traditionally.

Rich: That makes a lot of sense. Now we’ve talked about a number of things about rising above the noise as about being creative and using this pulse of marketing to push our message. And we talked about the problems that small businesses have and that they are just chronically under marketing themselves. Are there other common problems that small businesses have when it comes to marketing, what are some of the mistakes? I mean, you go into businesses and you see the problems that they’re having. What are some of the mistakes that you are regularly seeing that small businesses may not even realize they’re doing?

Lou: The number one mistake is not understanding their customer. Today with Survey Monkey and other things, there’s no reason why you can’t survey the customer and learn a lot more about what makes them tick and why they’re choosing certain services or certain companies, and why they’re not. So under surveying and not knowing their customers is the number one thing.

And the number two thing is trying to do too much marketing so they do it all mediocrely. They have to have a blog but then nobody does it and it’s late, and so better to do several things well than a number of things in a mediocre way. That’s probably the second biggest mistake they make.

And the third biggest mistake they make is knowing when they need a Cadillac and when they need a Volkswagen. And what I mean by that is the degree they’re outsourcing parts of their marketing. Know when you need the best in the business and you need an established firm that’s going to cost you more, but also know sometimes when you really don’t need that and you can find a college kid that has some experience and some aspect of the marketing or a freelance layout artist and you can get the job done for a lot less money. So don’t pay for a Cadillac when all you need is a Volkswagen. But don’t pay for a Volkswagen when you need a Cadillac. Mismatching the needs with the resources is probably the other thing.

Rich: So let’s just touch case on that Survey Monkey thing – and there’s a lot of tools out there like Survey Monkey these days – but what kind of questions? We’re coming into the New Year and I want to get a better sense of what the people who attend Agents of Change need, or the current clients of flyte new media, what kind of questions should I be asking and should I incentivize people to answer? Like should I have a $100 drawing if you answer these questions or does that completely skew everything that I’m trying to accomplish?

Lou: Those are great questions and maybe another podcast to get into that in detail. But I’d say first of all when you start this process you often don’t know what you don’t know. So it helps if you make your initial questions very general, open ended where they can write comments as opposed to you trying to anticipate what the right question is and try to make it a very specific true/false or A/B/C kind of thing.

Start your surveys almost like a focus group, very general questions. Then as you get that information it will help you frame more specific questions so you can start to prioritize or quantify the opportunity. So I think you learn over time when you start general and broad and get more specific.

In terms of whether you need to incent your people to respond, my experience is usually do not. You certainly don’t start there. It’s amazing today that people feel like a nameless number, so you can say to people, “I really appreciate your feedback, I’m a small business persona and this is really going to help me make my business better.” You’d be surprised how many people with a personal request like that will respond.

Rich: Well I’ll say a couple times throughout the years I have sent out surveys and when the subject line is something along the lines of, “I need your help”, or “I’d like your help”, those are some of my best open rates. And some of the responses have just been insane the number of people that took time. Sometimes people spend what appeared to be at least an hour responding to a series of questions, as well. People do want to have their voice heard and I think they want to help, too.

Lou: The other interesting thing that’s been proven many, many times, if you can get a customer to respond to your survey or a prospective customer – even if they never purchased from you – that is highly predictive of future business. It’s almost like, “I invested some of my time to give them feedback, I now feel invested in that company.”

I was working with a restaurant and they did a local survey and the people that responded to the survey, most of them came into the restaurant in the next few weeks, “Hey, I filled out that survey”, so you get some business out of it, too.

Rich: That sounds good. Lou, this has been great. I’m sure a lot of people have some more questions, where can we find you online?

Lou: You can find me, I work for Opus Consulting Group, we’re right on Congress Street in Portland, Maine, so lou@opuscg.com. Or you can look me up on Google but you might get my fly fishing website as well. But one way or another you can reach me.

Rich: And of people are fly fisher people, then they should totally be checking out your book. You have a few books on fly fishing.

Lou: Yes.

Rich: So you definitely want to check those out as well. Lou, thank you very much for your time today.

Lou: You’re welcome, anytime.

Show Notes:

Lou Zambello has dedicated the last 30+ years to helping small businesses achieve growth and success. Head on over to his website if you’d like to find out more about him and his own consulting business (or if you’re an avid fly fisherman!)

Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine. He knows a thing or two about helping businesses grow by reaching their ideal customers, and to prove that, he puts on a yearly conference to inspire small businesses to achieve big success. You can also head on over to Twitter to check him out, and he just added “author” to his resume with his brand new book!