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Small business owners cannot succeed by relying on the quality of their products or services alone. All the work you put in to perfecting your business model and serving your customers means nothing if you don’t know how to market these products or services as well.

Marketing is one of the most challenging aspects of running a small business, if not the most challenging. There’s so many strategies and tools to choose from, and pouring too much time and money into the wrong choice could spell your business’s demise. While specific services can be outsourced, all small business owners must at least become experts in the fundamentals of marketing for their industries. After all, no one knows your business better than you.

If this sounds overwhelming, you’re right. But plenty of entrepreneurs with no marketing backgrounds were able to effectively show their target customers that they have exactly what they need, even if they didn’t know they needed it.

Many entrepreneurs did this by adhering to a clear set of guidelines when designing their promotional materials. It’s like putting together the pieces of a puzzle, only you have to make the pieces yourself.

In this guide, we’ll go over the primary components of a successful marketing initiative, which includes the foundation of the content you’re presenting and the resources for presenting that content to the right people.

What Is Marketing Itself?

Before we name the first component, let’s make sure we understand our ultimate goal. What is the purpose of marketing, anyway?

To answer this complex question, think of the difference between marketing and selling. The act of selling just means convincing someone to buy your product or service. The act of marketing on the other hand, refers to making that product or service seem highly desirable for a certain type of person. When you market something, you portray it in a way that explains the problems it solves and how it solves them.

In summary, marketing requires you to know the type of person who will benefit from your product or service, how you can deliver these benefits, and what these benefits will do for them. Solidifying this information allows you to achieve the aforementioned purpose of marketing: convincing someone that buying from you is a logical and possibly necessary decision. Marketing presents the most important reasons to buy from you, not someone else.

How To Market A Product Or Service: Choose Your Target Market

The first step to developing any marketing strategy is to consider your target customer, or target market. This is the type of person who will benefit most from your product or service, i.e. the type of person you had in mind when you initially determined what would make your business unique. Your target market is the building block that all of your marketing materials will be based on. Successful businesses prove that they can serve their target market’s needs better than anyone else.

Not sure who your target market is? You might have a vague idea of your target market, but such an integral element of your general strategy must be crystal clear.

Let’s start this process by figuring out how to identify your target market:

Finding Your Target Market

Ideally, your target market should be large enough to support your business, but small enough to stand out from the general public. This is called a niche market, and many entrepreneurs would likely say that you shouldn’t start a business without one.

But niche markets come in various sizes, and the more you learn about your target customer base, the more unique they will become. The key word in that sentence is “learn.” You must never assume that you already know your target market’s needs or preferences. There’s just too much information to base on assumptions. For example, while you might have a good idea of what your target market wants, do you also know how these needs or preferences developed?

To better understand your customer base, think about the type of person who will benefit most from your products or services. Don’t just focus on the characteristics that make this person unique. Instead, focus on which characteristics they absolutely must possess in order to reap the most benefits. Does your target customer have to live in a certain type of location, like a specific city, or anywhere that gets very cold during the winter? Does your target customer have to partake in a certain hobby like playing the guitar or jogging outdoors?

Answering these questions will eliminate specific sets of people who would have no reason to purchase your product or service. Odds are, you will come up with at least two characteristics. Possible examples include people who own dogs and like to dress them up, or musicians who live in New York City.

Researching Your Target Market

Before settling on your idea of your target market, it’s crucial to support your inferences with data. Thankfully, you can obtain this information from a number of free or fairly inexpensive resources. The Pew Research Center, for instance, conducts massive studies about the habits of the general public. You can use Pew to see how often your target market exercises or how much time they spend shopping on their smartphones each day.

For data on more specific demographics, look into the US Census Bureau’s American FactFinder. Compared to Pew, American FactFinder offers more data on people who work in certain industries, live in certain cities, and more. There’s even a Guided Search feature that explains how to access the data you have in mind.

Arguably the greatest source of free data, however, is the treasure trove of online publications centered around specific markets. There’s publications geared towards lovers of technology, the outdoors, film, and of course, marketing tips. Online articles can provide helpful data in two ways. First, they often cite recent studies or personal observations about different markets. Secondly, you can see which publications or articles related to your target market gained the most traction. Which articles have garnered lots of comments or shares on social media?

The sheer amount of articles out there makes it much easier to draw meaningful conclusions about their subjects. Forbes, Inc., and Entrepreneur are full of articles written by entrepreneurs who serve a variety of markets. Plenty of these entrepreneurs likely cater to the same age group as you, or work in the same industry. Their content often discusses what they’ve learned about their target market, based on the strategies that have succeeded or failed.

Modify Your Product Or Service

Now that you know your target market’s unique needs or preferences, you can implement this information into your products or services. How can you refine your offerings to better serve your target market and provide more significant benefits? How can you surpass your competitors’ capacity to change this particular aspect of your target market’s life?

As you ponder these questions, think about why you chose to develop this specific offering above anything else. Unique offerings are designed to solve unique problems. Well, what makes this problem unique, and how do your offerings present the perfect solution?

Data will play a major role in this stage of the process as well. If you’re not sure about the specific changes you should make to your offerings, get input from your target market. You’re going to be hearing a lot of opinions throughout this process, so it’s crucial to distinguish the opinions that matter from those that do not. And your target market’s opinion matters more than anyone else’s (even your own).

Several tools can solicit feedback from customers. With Lookback, you can video chat with customers as they browse products on your website. They can tell you what they like/dislike, and provide suggestions for making the product seem more appealing for their preferences. Tools like Lookback are highly recommended because they focus on the minute details of your products or website. It’s hard to gauge this level of detail from a study.

How To Market A Product Or Service: Branding

At this point, we have established what makes your customers and offerings unique. The next step is to determine how to portray your offerings in a way that reflects your business’s goals, values, and personality. This is known as branding.

Are there any products that you have a special connection with? Products you continue to seek out for reasons other than quality or price? Those reasons are elements of that business’s brand identity. If you continue to seek these products out of habit, well, you developed that habit for a reason.

Branding requires you to go below what you see on the surface, like a business’s logo, color scheme, or textual voice. What thoughts or feelings do these things evoke? Your business’s brand identity is largely based on the thoughts and feelings that arise when your target market imagines your business.

Since branding involves a lot of thought, it’s best to start small. A brand positioning statement uses just a few sentences to communicate the value your business provides, how you provide this value, and the type of people who share your values. In other words, this is the central message you’re striving to convey through your brand identity.

Your statement should begin by stating your company’s name and the type of company it is. Then, simply state what you provide (your unique product or service), who you provide it to (your unique target market), and what makes your offerings a better choice than your competitors. Lastly, state how your offerings provide these benefits.

When your statement is complete, someone who reads it should be able to easily understand the core elements of your brand. Is your brand especially quirky, reliable, bold, etc.?

Determine Your Product Placement

Think of the role location plays in the success of a brick-and-mortar business. The business must be located in an area that is not only generally visible, but also particularly appealing to its target market. The same concept applies to marketing individual products.

Remember, most target markets do not willingly seek out new options. It’s your job to present your offerings to them as they go about their lives, and do to that, you’ve got to find the right product placement. This refers to deciding where to sell your product based on where you are most likely to find your target market.

Determining product placement is actually fairly similar to determining your target market in general. You’re going to consider your target market’s preferences, look at data and other helpful online content, and speak to your target market directly. Odds are, you won’t get one, definitive answer. It might be abundantly clear that you need to place your product in multiple locations, all of which seem equally promising at this early stage.

Many startups place their products in both foreign and domestic locations. This is mostly because the costs of advertising and product placement in certain countries can be significantly lower than the US. If you’ve ever watched Shark Tank, you might know that the key to foreign product placement is establishing a partnership with someone who already does business in your desired location.

One of the greatest examples of strategic product placement is Hershey’s decision to place their products at supermarket cash registers. Deep analysis of customer behavior suggested that people would most likely buy their products on impulse, with no time to re-think their decision.

Choosing Your Strategy And Tools

The final stage of the marketing process is promotion, and it has two components. First, there’s the messaging of your promotional materials. Once you figure out how to get your message across, you can move on to choosing the right channels for your target market.

How To Market A Product Or Service: Messaging

Regardless of your target market, one rule of messaging holds true for virtually all businesses. Your messaging strategy must be centered around the needs of your target market, or the problem your offerings solve. The biggest mistake you can make is centering your messaging around how great your business is.

So, when composing promotional materials, don’t start out by talking about yourself. Instead, imagine you are on a date with your target customer. Would this person want to hear you talk about yourself the whole time? This naturally drives people away, even if you’re the most interesting person on the planet.

What doesn’t drive people away, on the other hand, is asking about their lives. For this reason, your promotional materials should also start out by talking about the customer’s needs. Someone who has the problem your offerings solve will immediately be intrigued by your messaging. Effective promotional materials portray their offerings as a solution, or an answer. If you don’t highlight the customer’s needs from the get-go, your offerings’ benefits won’t seem important to them.

Also, remember to focus on the personal benefits of your offerings, as opposed to simply describing their features or how they work. Every feature must be connected with an outcome. How will your offerings improve your customers’ lives? These improvements could be emotional, financial, physical, etc.

Messaging requires you to re-visit the definition of marketing, or the difference between marketing and selling. The goal is to unearth and emphasize benefits that people won’t notice on the surface.

Using The Right Language For Your Target Market

Despite the plethora of customer data available online, many big companies still use focus groups when developing marketing strategies. Why are focus groups so helpful? Speaking to your target market in-person allows you to hear their reactions to your offerings. Focus group participants are often asked to say the first words that come to mind when the offering is presented, or how they would describe it to a friend.

During these exercises, the researcher listens carefully to the words the participants use. People trust referrals from friends or relatives over any other form of marketing. Thus, the information yielded in focus groups can show you how to address your target market as if you belonged to this very market. Wouldn’t you be more likely to trust a business that seems to be run by people just like you?

How To Market A Product Or Service: Choose Your Channels

After solidifying the content of your messages, you must determine which marketing channel will most effectively capture the interest of your target market. Examples of marketing channels include email marketing, Google ads, media coverage, social media, and print advertisements.

As a new business, you must accept that people probably won’t purchase your offerings after discovering them for the first time. For this reason, you should concentrate on spreading brand awareness, as opposed to trying to generate leads or sales.

To determine which channels to use, think about how your target market learns about similar offerings. People who like trendy clothing and accessories, for example, typically comb social media for the latest releases. Businesses that offer services like copywriting, project management or web development, on the other hand, are more likely to be discovered through email campaigns.

As you can see, choosing the right channel requires even more research into your target market. But you should also use what you already know about their lifestyle and other interests. Does your target market spend more time on Facebook or Instagram? Do they prefer to read blog posts or watch YouTube videos about similar offerings?

Though your competitors’ strategies should certainly be taken into account, your research might point you in a slightly different direction. And that’s okay. Don’t be afraid to use a channel that your competitors have barely touched. That’s one of the most fascinating (and frustrating) aspects of marketing: What does nothing for one business could do wonders for a direct competitor.

How To Market A Product Or Service: Research Is Key

Two common themes of this guide are research and seeking advice from your competitors and target market. No steps of the marketing process should be completed entirely on your own, even if you’re a solopreneur. At the end of each step, make sure your conclusion is supported by sufficient data.

Your research may point you towards an unfamiliar or complicated channel, like Google AdWords. In this case, give yourself a reality check in terms of what you can and cannot accomplish on your own. Choosing to outsource your most important marketing channel could be a critical decision in your business’s development. But no one knows your business better than you. Hence, you’ll have a direct role in every marketing strategy your business launches, regardless of the resources involved.

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