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Shawn O’Connor, in July 2013’s Forbes magazine, said marketing comprises audience, content and offer, with these aspects tied to a target marketing analysis of demographic, sociographic, psychographic, geographic and behavioral qualities, and that marketing should be very strategic, especially early in the game, as a less-than-fruitful marketing endeavor can be quite costly to an entrepreneurial business.

Relax. We’re not going there, although I must submit that O’Connor, with a Harvard MBA and Doctorate cum laude from Harvard Law School, surely borders on the edge of genius; however, few small business operators have the time or money to follow Harvard-type marketing models. They’d rather get to work searching out new clients. Therefore, in place of marketing complexity, let’s look at a workable small business approach, one that doesn’t require big marketing budgets and conference room meetings, but, instead, a blueprint for producing sales. It begins with my favorite planning system, i.e., handwritten notes on the back of an envelope (although a yellow legal pad works better). You can transfer your notes and research data to Excel later, but allow me to add that my visits to several product developer labs have always found planning notes stuck to large walls, so the planners can see and rearrange the development process as it broadens.

I became stuck on small business marketing concepts while walking the 2018 Intl. Sign Assn. Sign Expo tradeshow back in March. With more than 600 vendors present, the product offerings on show were mindboggling. The ISA recap said 81 sellers offered numerous digital print machines, but what caught my attention were the various products such machines could produce – from building-sized murals to bicycle stickers. Further, these devices offered the promise of either the start of a new digital print profit center, or a way to expand or improve an existing one. Imagine, for example, adding one of Roland’s TrueVIS eco-solvent printer cutters that produces bright prints and, in the process, cuts them to shape. Retail graphics? Museum displays? Manufacturing labels? There’s more, for example, Mimaki exhibited its various lines that allow signshops to expand into a broader manufacturing mode; EFI presented its efficacious large-format machines and HP’s line of latex-ink printers offered many applications. In addition, Zund exhibited its dual-beam flatbed cutters and Ricoh presented various methods for incorporating business print services. Visitors also saw that print media development is at a new level. By my guess, more than 150 manufacturers were present, with those such as 3M, Arlon, Avery Dennison and others developing new vinyl colors, hues and textures, plus media that eases all installation processes. 




Two great comments often revisit me, one heard while waiting to pay for my thermos coffee at a Flying J truck stop where one truck driver said to another, “Rich guys? Oh, I like rich guys. No poor guy ever gave me a job.” The other comment came from a digital printer who, at a tradeshow, responded to my comment on the high price of a digital printer. He said, “Darek, I don’t give a damn about the price. What I want to know is how soon it will pay for itself.” ISA’s Orlando show featured multiple exhibitors that presented at least a trillion profit-making ideas and products to sign and digital print makers – if those sign and digital print makers had the buyers who would help those machines pay for themselves. Marketing is how you find buyers, especially if you begin by seriously researching for them.


I telephoned Ryan Mathews and explained that I was writing about small businesses, those that are regularly staffed by blue-collar workers, and asked him this question: “Should small business people take marketing seriously?” Mathews, co-author of The Myth of Excellence, The Deviant’s Advantage, and What’s Your Story?, all books concerned with marketing, said “Absolutely,” and added, “I think one of the problems small businesses face is they are obviously cash-constrained, at least in the beginning. They are also research-constrained in terms of talent. And, they tend to think of things like marketing as stuff that only big companies can afford, or that they need to hire an MBA from Wharton.” Mathews said that in today’s world, one where competition has increased exponentially, especially in terms of e-commerce, marketing is more important than ever. He added that small business owners must find ways to create differentiated offerings, to break through the clutter and better target potential customers. “It’s more critical than ever,” he said.


Next, I asked the all-important question: “Are there any proven marketing methods for small shops, such as sign-shops or digital print shops?” I was hoping for a magic cure-all, a miraculous, Staples-like “Easy” button. Mathews said small business owners should first research their own resources. “Obviously, they’re not going to hire McKenzie [a high-flying marketing firm] but they can do it themselves.” Initially, he said, small shop owners should make a list of their direct competitors – the other shops in town plus any online competitors and then separate these into ones that are physical and digital, i.e., both direct and online competitors. He said to sort these competitors into those that offer the same services as you, which gives you a list of your genuine competitors. Next is the hard part, he said, because you must now seriously evaluate your shop’s clients and divide this list into those which you can and cannot truly offer benefits. Such a list provides your firm’s existing market size and can be written on yellow, legal-pad paper, within just an hour or so. At this point, you have

  • A list of your genuine competitors, those that offer the same services as your shop;
  • A list of your clients, what they buy from you and what other benefits you could offer;
  • A list of what you sell that has value to both your and your competitors’ clients;
  • A list (the leftovers) of clients that you may not want (more on this in a minute).

We all know that the most critical business point is to have revenue sources – sales – and to constantly develop new ones, to both grow the business and replace any clients you lose. An evident first marketing step is to properly equip your sales staff with effective sales information, which means they should carry and distribute a list of your shop’s benefits, especially those surpassing those offered by your competitors. 


Next, I suggest you analyze your business base. If you’re costing your outgoing products, you’ll have a ready source to do the following:

  • Define (meaning write paragraphs that describe) your shop’s most profitable products;
  • Make a list of your least profitable products;
  • Make a list of your shop values, e.g., design expertise, expanded color gamut, warranties, service, engineering, permitting, installation, etc., that will equal or exceed the benefits offered by your competitors. Make this list look pretty because you’ll want the sales staff to hand it to clients. 

Now, on your yellow sheet, you have a list of what products you should promote and those that you should study for cost cutting or dropping from your list. You also have a list of your shop’s benefits, those that, in your clients’ view, will position you above your competition. You also have another treasure, in that you have a list – and description – of your clients that buy your most profitable products; thus, you have a beginning model upon which to base your marketing. 

  • Using this client list, make a list that describes the types of businesses that buy your most profitable products. (Hint: if you don’t know what clients do, read the “About” paragraphs on your present client websites and use pieces of it to Google search similar businesses). 

The potential client list gives you the research data needed to find new print buyers. For example, suppose you make good profits from printing four-color posters and have learned that your client, a local auto dealer, likes to decorate his showroom with travel-type posters that match the season. Obviously, your takeaway is to research other auto dealers, learn who the decision makers are and prepare a marketing report that demonstrates how posters inspire visitors. Do more research; try to find a friend who knows that dealership’s decision makers. Membership in the local chamber of commerce will help you develop these business relationships.


The penultimate step is to use your client descriptions to create profiles of possible buyers and then search for similar businesses to contact. Again, Google research can help. It also helps to research the size and activities of such businesses and then divide them into three categories of possible clients: ready, possible and maybe. Obviously, you’ll go for the “readies” first. The final step is to consolidate what you have learned into concise, but easy-to-read marketing data, accompanied by potential new client lists and then develop specific advertising information that will appear on your website, social media and distributed flyers.



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