What No One Wants to Tell You About Marketing a Small Business

When it comes to marketing your brand, the sexiest answers – like running ads – aren’t often the best answers. And though you may claim to have “tried them all,” my guess you’ve been thinking about some things incorrectly.

All of this gets to an interesting question I’ve been getting recently:

How did all the clients in your book reach their niche audience? I can’t see how they went from small clients to huge, dream clients? Did they do a lot of online ads? How did they go from networking with the wrong people to attracting the exact person they want to work with?

I don’t address marketing strategies in my book because I’ve always assumed people were marketing before rebranding. Whenever it’s come up, my answer has typically been, “Just keep doing what you’ve been doing. If your brand message is clearer, whatever you’ve been doing will get you better results.” I mean, how else were you getting clients if you weren’t doing something?

But, clearly, that answer isn’t enough anymore. Even if you continue to do some of the things you were already doing and you’re still not getting the clients you want, you need to rethink your efforts and recommit to some different strategies. Let’s unpack this monster question piece by piece.

Getting Better Clients in Your Niche

Working within a niche is more about going from lame clients to ideal clients rather than “going from small clients to huge clients.” If you’ve been working with large clients with little profit to show for it, smaller ones might be more ideal (this is the shift we made with huge results).

If you are trying to get bigger clients, it will take time, partly because you might not be ready for them. When we started, our one-day Brandup was $3,000. Now, we charge $15,000. In the early days, we didn’t have the expertise or skills to work with a client who was willing to pay $15,000. It was only after continually building our expertise and skills that we got to that point, but it took years.

If you have done successful projects for ideal clients in the past, but you’re not landing those projects now, you’re not communicating your value effectively in your brand message, or you’re not demonstrating it through your marketing efforts. This means you’ll need to invest in brand building activities that position you as an expert in your field by only speaking to your niche.

Write blog posts that show your unique thinking or how you approach your work. You may already have a blog you’ve been writing for years, but if your article topics are about sniffing out deals when you’re aiming for high-end clients who want quality, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. Similarly, if you’re looking for high-end clients who would never DIY their project, don’t write DIY tips on your site. Every post should focus on your niche’s needs.

You can also publicly answer the questions you get most often (like I’m doing now), which will demonstrate your expertise instead of just saying you’re an expert. You might want to speak at events, host workshops, or make videos too.

Create Dual Purpose Content

If you want to build your brand’s reputation and attract clients in the long-term, you will need to create content that will grow exponentially. It’s not that sexy now, but is totally sexy once you start seeing clients roll in, excited to hire you before you’ve even spoken to them.

This is the work that enhances your skill set, demonstrates your expertise, and strongly positions you in your niche (i.e., building your brand). And it’s a double whammy; these efforts help you become better at communicating your expertise in person too.

You don’t need to do everything (blogging, social media, videos, youtube, speaking at events, workshops, networking groups. etc.), and certainly not all at once, so choose one or two that make sense for your industry or your talents. Then, put all your effort into doing them well. If you have no desire to get over your stage fright by speaking, then blogging might be the best option for you. If you’ve always been a bit of a ham, consider vlogging!

We are going for ideal clients, so these efforts need to be aimed directly at them and NO ONE ELSE. But remember, too, that these activities are a slow burn, so commit for the long haul. Think of it like going to the gym: it’s not the action that yields results, it’s the commitment to doing it consistently.

The Magical Allure Of Online Ads

Despite requests to do so, I’m not going to preach that you can turn a five dollar Facebook ad into a client. In fact, I’m not going to suggest you pay for advertising at all – not right now, anyway. Not because it doesn’t work (clearly it does, or it wouldn’t be a 72 billion dollar industry), but because ads shouldn’t be the first or even second strategy you consider. Why? Because ads aren’t the quick fix they seem to be.

Take Facebook, for instance. It takes a lot of time and effort to master Facebook ads to make them profitable. Without a lot of dedication and money, they simply won’t work as well as you want them to. I know because I’ve done it. My ads didn’t work right away, so I had to keep spending money to test them until they did. And spending money without seeing results is painful. If you’re not willing to burn through money for the sake of experimenting, steer clear. Other platforms like Google AdWords or LinkedIn are even more expensive.

The hard truth is that most of the 1-3 person service businesses we work with don’t have the money or time to invest in a strategy like this. Without either of these things, you’ll get frustrated, and become one of those annoying people who say things like, “Marketing doesn’t work.”

In short, Facebook ads are great once you (1) are already successfully working with your ideal clients (2) are making more money than you need, so you have money to test ads (3) you have time to invest in testing these efforts and (4) you already have a brand message that resonates with your ideal clients.

Don’t Network, Educate

Networking, unlike expensive ads, can help you score some new clients quickly, but you’ll need to change your thinking about how it works. It’s not about schmoozing so you can keep track of how many “contacts” you made. It is about cultivating solid relationships with people who will understand your offerings and remember your brand.  If you go to one great location and have a memorable conversation with the right person, that’s a hundred times better than giving your business card out to 20 people at a mixer. Quality, not quantity.

Early on, you can attend small events and breakfast meetings, but these shouldn’t be a part of your long-term strategy. In fact, that’s bottom of the barrel. Anything with the word “networking” should be seen as step one. Get your feet wet and get comfortable sharing your new, target message, then start to seek out more specific places where your ideal clients or referral partners would be.

This could mean joining business development groups, attending classes, or hosting workshops, or attending industry conferences. Unlike general breakfasts and happy hours, you’ll get to know people in a deeper way than shoving cards into each other’s hands.

You’ll also want to re-educate your existing network. Think about all the people you’ve met previously, then get on the phone with them. These aren’t sales calls; they’re re-education calls. Tell them something like, “Hey, I want to let you know I’m doing this new thing now. It’s very focused. If you happen to know this specific kind of person, I think they’d like to know about me.”

I knew a woman, once, who specialized in PR for pet products (how specific is that?!). When I came in contact with someone who owned a pet product design business, I was able to pass the PR woman’s name along because she was easy to remember. Assuming you’ve done all the things I’ve taught you about BA’ing your brand, it’s critical people know what you’re doing now so they can refer you to the right people. If she just “did PR,” I would never have made that introduction.

Building Your Foundation

When you’re running a business, there are things you simply have to do to keep the lights on. Eventually, you should stop networking (if your branding is good enough, you will), but marketing is a never-ending game.

Marketing feels like a slog when you first start because you won’t see results right away. This is where networking can fill the short-term client gap. But if you commit for the long haul, and you keep your message tightly focused towards your ideal clients, marketing will pay off exponentially in the form of more and more ideal clients.

You can hire other people to make videos, write content, or run ads – the bulk of your marketing efforts, but not until you fight through and learn how to do some of these things yourself. It’s hard to hire someone for a job you don’t fully understand, so the ideas and the value you add to client work has to come from your mind first, not someone else's. Without you, your brand loses its potency. Eventually, believe it or not, marketing will become something you’ll actually enjoy. Trust the process, if you’re someone who can stay committed you’re guaranteed success.

By Pia Silva