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Guest Editorial

Taking Your Business to the Next Level of Success

Why is it that when traveling on a vacation or business trip, we eagerly seek directions and recommendations, study route maps in advance, or preprogram our GPS units? The answer is simple: We’ve got a limited amount of time and want to make the most of it.

The same calculated travel-planning practice can be applied to your business in the form of a strategic marketing plan. Just as you would read a roadmap before traveling or consult a blueprint before building a house, you need to start with a plan that is complete with destination goals and challenging action steps to navigate the shifting economic landscape that is in front of you.

Stick to the Plan

Many businesses think that having a marketing plan is launching a Web site, buying advertising, or holding product promotions. While these activities are important, they are action steps that need to be supported by a strategy that includes measurable goals, an ideal-customer profile, response tracking, and a timeline.

Your strategy needs to be relevant and timely. You need to understand who your customer is because, for example, a baby boomer makes decisions quite differently than does a generation-X or -Y customer, who is more often tethered to the Web via phone or laptop.

You need to set priorities and back them up with both time and financial investments. If you don’t have a Web site yet, then getting your business online would be an imperative 2010 goal and action that could be measured in terms of Web-site visits and phone calls. To be without a business Web site makes you invisible to online shoppers who are searching for hearth/patio products. It’s a missed opportunity that could be costing sales or, at worst, your future business.

If you do have a Web site, but have neglected to update it with navigation tools, product images, relevant news, and live links, then it’s time to make this Web-site upgrade a priority.

Many small-business owners get overwhelmed, or describe themselves as too busy to stop and make a conscious decision to develop and implement a marketing plan. In today’s challenging retail climate, you can’t afford to hope for the best. You need to take a close look at your business model and make results-oriented decisions that are time bound.

By defining your ideal customers and understanding their buying habits, you will be in a better position to engage these future buyers. You can easily find out whether they prefer email to mail; you’ll know whether they use Google, use Twitter, and read a newspaper online or in print. All of this information determines strategic marketing action steps.

Identify Opportunities

In too many cases, asking, “How much does it cost?” becomes an obstacle rather than an opportunity. Whatever marketing dollars and resources you do have need to be allocated thoughtfully, based on a strategy. Advertising spending that has proved effective makes it into the plan; decisions on all other advertising purchases are based on goal criteria and ideal-customer profiles. Take advantage of all available cooperative-advertising programs and marketing assistance offered by key vendors.

You need to tap into your team’s creative talents when delegating promotional-action steps. While one person is great with customers and might be able to host a promotional event, another might be your online connector. Social-networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook allow you to connect with fans, friends, their friends, and beyond, at no cost. Online press-release services such as prlog.org allow you to announce new product lines, team promotions, newly hired staff, and events, at no cost. Google Maps links to your Web site, posts customer reviews, and directs future customers right to your door, at no cost.

Tell Your Story

You’ve also got to step up and toot your own horn—loudly. It’s essential that you position your company and team as the local hearth/patio experts. Telling your own business-success story and publicly discussing industry advances shows confidence and educates important referring partners and consumers. Skipping over public relations because you’re a regular advertiser is missing an opportunity to reinforce your advertising message and leverage your relationship with the publication.

Making a commitment to incorporate public relations into your strategy—through new referral alliance efforts and through articles about your business in local newspapers and in civic, networking-group, and volunteer newsletters—goes a long way. Short messages and announcements can spur name recognition and increase referrals; a story in the local newspaper or in a televised report confirms that you are, indeed, a business leader.

Another important marketing step that is often overlooked is in-store image. Stop and look around you. Do the design and layout of your store represent your new forward-thinking marketing plan? Have you supported your advertising messages with visuals? If you’re short of space, then look up or out; hanging mobiles and vehicle wraps—or even billboards, in the right location—are great alternatives to standing displays.

Dress your team for success as well. Apparel generates conversation, both inside your store and around town, and it creates a unified team image. Be careful, however, when it comes to saving a dime at the cost of quality.

Everything you do, say, and display represents your brand image. If the brand message is on something that looks cheap, you’re putting your company at an unnecessary risk of being perceived as cheap. This is an amateur error that can have costly long-term implications.

When it comes to growing your business, there is no silver bullet. You’ve got to use all the tools in the marketing armory to communicate effectively the unique benefits of your products, services, team, and mission. You’ve worked really hard to build a viable hearth/patio enterprise. It’s time for you to stop, stretch your marketing imagination, and chart your course.

While the paths are many (as are the challenges), your experience and strategic vision will steer you in the right direction—if you have a plan. 

Craig Shankster is president of Morsø USA (Portland, Tennessee), manufacturer of energy-efficient wood stoves.

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