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The Falcone Center for Entrepreneurship at Syracuse University

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Creative Marketing for Start-ups

When I first started my business, I used to think that if I could just afford a big advertising campaign, all my problems would be solved. People would flock to my store, and we would be an instant success. We were completely undercapitalized, but as funds became available we started experimenting with radio, television and print ads. I was surprised to find out that you can get into any of these mediums fairly inexpensively. I was more surprised to discover that the results were often disappointing – sometimes we didn’t even break even.

Periodically sales reps would try to talk us into another yet another ad campaign. I would politely tell them that we weren’t interested. Their response would invariably be that the problem was that I was advertising with the wrong station or paper, and that if I advertised with theirs that I would have an INCREDIBLE response. In case you were wondering, reps will always tell you that their station or publication is the one you should advertise with. The real truth is that some businesses can do well with traditional advertising, but the key is repetition and consistency. Professionals suggest a 3 month to one year commitment. But how many new businesses can commit thousands of dollars every month in their first year or two? And if you can commit the funds, how much do you need to sell to break even? For company with a minimal budget, it just didn’t seem to make sense. For the first few years of my business, I felt compelled to throw my money away on unsuccessful ad campaigns, though I think I’ve finally broken myself of that habit.

What does work for us is a series of smaller, targeted, less expensive marketing methods. None of these on their own is enough to effectively get our name out, but when used together over a period of time they create critical mass. The comment that we hear over and over is that our name is the one that keeps popping up. This is what you strive for as a business owner.

* PRESS RELEASES – One of the most important basic skills you can learn is how to write an effective press release. Any marketing book will give you examples and guidelines. The flip side is that you need to be doing things that are newsworthy – so you can send out press releases publicizing it!

You can send out press releases on awards you’ve received, promotions, and charitable events you are hosting. You can tie into larger, national issues. For example, for national Bring your Daughter to work day you could publicize what your company is doing to observe the day. Editors are always looking for timely articles. Keep in mind that consumers are pretty savvy to the fact that if you are paying for an ad, you can say anything you want to. Editorial content instantly commands more respect.

Letters to the editor can also be useful. Comment on current events and articles and be sure to include your name and your business name. It’s especially good if the issue directly pertains to your business and you can work in a line about what your business does.

Have you ever thought about writing for your local paper or a trade magazine? It’s not as hard as you think. After the first WISE conference, it occurred to me that the business section of the Post Standard didn’t have a regular column addressing the huge local interest in entrepreneurship. I also knew that when you start a new business you don’t necessarily know where to get advice from. I called the business editor and pitched the idea of having local business owners answer questions that new entrepreneurs might ask. She agreed, and it’s been running for almost 2 years now. It was that simple. I’m always astonished at the number of people who read it and comment on it. Aside from relocating our business, the regular press coverage that we’ve received has brought us more new customers than anything else we’ve done.

Maintaining a data base is something any business can do. We keep one with our current customers and one for the people who receive our gifts. Our goal this year is to stay in better touch with both groups. I’m a big fan of postcards – they’re cheap, and they don’t have to be opened. We have used color postcards and plain cardstock and gotten good results from both. A terrific source for color postcards is Modern Postcard – they charge about $100 for 500 cards and they’re even cheaper if you order more. You can visit www.modernpostcard.com for more information.

  • Publicity Kits

You should always have these on hand. A publicity kit is a folder with your company name and logo on it that you can customize depending on who will be receiving it. Your kit can include any or all of the following:
  • Headshot of you

  • Photo of your product

  • List of client references

  • Testimonials

  • Press coverage that you’ve received

  • Press releases

These kits are not sent out to everyone, because it’s a more expensive piece. We identify contacts in companies who are probably already sending client gifts out in one form or another. They are then added into our data base and we’ll follow up with postcards and other promotional materials.

* Sign your Work
If you produce a tangible product, be sure to sign your work. What better way to reach a potential customer? They already have a sample of your work in their hands. Have you ever found a great product and been unable to figure out how to get more? I’m always amazed at how many products are lacking contact information on the packaging. When we send a gift out, we affix a label with our name and number, and the enclosure card has our contact information on the back as well as a business card magnet enclosed. This serves 2 purposes – if the recipient has a question or problem, they can see exactly how to contact us, but we also want to make it easy for them to order from us. One of the pharmaceutical sales reps who orders from us commented that he see our magnets in every Doctor’s office that he calls on. That’s a lot of exposure for about $.20 each.


The single best thing that we’ve done to increase our visibility was to relocate our business. Our first commercial location was in Hanover Square. We initially picked up a lot of downtown clients, but it really started to level off after a year or so. Parking is tough under the best of circumstances, and we endured a 2 year construction project to boot. Even people who knew us and knew where to find us were getting frustrated and not coming in.

Since ours isn’t a traditional retail business, I had mistakenly assumed that our location wasn’t crucial to our success. We started tracking how our customers were ordering and discovered that even clients located a block away were ordering by phone or email. We made the move to Teall Avenue, which is one of the busiest corridors in Syracuse. The increase in sales was almost immediate, and our rent stayed about the same. The lesson? Even your business doesn’t depend on walk-in traffic, you can still benefit by being in a very visible location.

Every business is different, and what works for us may not work for you. You will need to experiment to find the right mix of marketing tactics for your business, but you can avoid a lot of expensive trial and error by concentrating on methods that require time and creativity rather than a fat advertising budget.


Anonymous Mitch Mitchell said...

Wonderful and helpful article; thanks for sharing it.

3:15 PM  

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