Why We Buy

Question:  My father runs a small local shop back home, and since I’ve been in college I’ve been helping him run it each summer to build my experience and my resume. This past summer, we started looking at his advertising and marketing strategy, and we both realized we don’t know a ton about how that stuff works. I don’t think my father has done much on his own in the time since I’ve been back on campus, and I’d love to come back next summer with some ideas on how he could improve his marketing strategy. What can the experts tell me about how marketing works and what sorts of strategies work for small businesses?

Answer: Marketing is key for businesses of all sizes–and the proof is all around us. We’re being marketed to constantly, though we don’t always know it. It’s easy to recognize the television advertisements and billboards that small businesses and big companies alike rely on to reach consumers, but marketing works in more subtle ways. “Guerilla marketing” uses nontraditional methods to grab our attention. Breweries, restaurants, and pop culture franchises convince us to pay for the privilege of wearing their advertising on our clothing. And have you ever seen a stack of stickers at the counter of a small shop? Marketers say die cut stickers offer valuable exposure for businesses when customers stick them on everything from their own property to surfaces in public spaces.

And it doesn’t stop there. Marketing goes on even within stores themselves. The designers at Megawall make specialty fixtures for product displays, so they’ll be the first to tell you that presentation matters. Grocery stores know that the “end caps”–displays at the end of aisles–are the most valuable real estate in the store and can boost sales by nearly a third. And big box stores track the movement of customers and develop methods for shuttling us from display to display, ensuring that we’re always being marketed to–even when we’re already in the store!

Your father’s small business may not have the resources that big companies do. Target or Walmart can try different ads in different regions, lay out different stores in different ways, or pay for two totally different online marketing plans–all just to determine which ones work best for the future. Smaller businesses can’t do all of that, but they can rely on outsourced marketing services that can replicate some of the scale advantages of big businesses.

Small businesses are following in big business’ footsteps in other ways, too. Big companies have been at war for real estate on the search engine results pages of Google and its competitors for some time now. But with the rise of mobile devices and local searches–nearly 60% of Google searches are performed on a mobile device, and Google prioritizes local results for relevant mobile searches–search engine optimization (“SEO”) has become increasingly important for small businesses, too.

Modernizing a marketing strategy for a small business in this day and age involves a lot of online work, and SEO is perhaps the single biggest game changer. Other key ideas include a website that’s optimized for mobile viewing and a visible social media presence. Your father’s small business may not be able to market to its customers in all of the ways that big businesses can, but with a great web presence, it can market to its customers wherever they are.

“Business has only two functions–marketing and innovation.” — Milan Kundera