It’s tough out there for small and growing businesses. Not only do you have to juggle multiple hats to meet your organization’s operational needs, you have to do so while facing the fact that customer expectations have never been higher.
According to data gathered by HelpScout:
- 78% of consumers have bailed on a transaction or not made an intended purchase because of a poor service experience.
- News of bad customer service reaches more than twice as many ears as praise for a good service experience.
- It takes 12 positive experiences to make up for one unresolved negative experience.
Fail to meet these expectations, and you can be sure your competitors are waiting – ready to claim customers that should be yours.
Preserving your share of the market comes down to many things. It’s making sure your business strategy differentiates your company from competitors. It’s taking care of your buyers by investing in customer success. And – perhaps most importantly – it’s about building the marketing, branding and community building campaigns that make it possible to out-market any competitor.
Here’s how to put all of these different pieces into practice, whether you’re starting from ground zero or you’re an established company trying to claim your piece of the pie.
Before you can make a plan to out-market your competition, you need to know who your competitors are and how they differ from you in terms of your offerings, branding, marketing and positioning.
After all, if you aren’t confident that your business strategy creates some compelling competitive advantage, all the marketing in the world won’t help you get ahead.
Understand Your Brand’s Market Position
Begin by asking the following questions:
- Is your brand new or established?
- What makes your company different?
- Are you making this difference clear to consumers?
Your answer to the first question above will determine whether you’re competing for market share (in the case of an established company, in an established industry) or whether you’re competing for recognition (in the case of a new company, industry or concept).
According to Annie Pilon at Small Biz Trends:
“Ian Small, General Manager at Audiobooks.com said in an email interview with Small Business Trends, ‘You have to ask yourself if you are attempting to take market share from a larger competitor, or if you’re attempting to take a percent of ‘new business’ while expanding the market?’”
No matter where you fall on this spectrum, your answer should inform the marketing strategies you eventually implement.
Treat Your Nimbleness as an Advantage
That said, it’s also important to recognize that one advantage of being small or being a startup is that you’re more nimble than larger competitors. This aspect of your business strategy can – and should – play a major role in the way you market yourself to potential customers.
I like the way this ThriveHive article puts it:
“Your small business might not have the bandwidth for massive new ideas, but it does have the advantage of executing and iterating quickly—which is the key to getting the results you want. With less red tape to cut through and a more centralized location to brainstorm, plan, and execute, your small business can actually use innovation for its competitive edge over big businesses.”
Because you’re small, you already have a built-in competitive advantage: you can go after opportunities that are too small for large companies.
My company, Pick, is a perfect example. Although we’ve been around for a few years, we’re small, and our marketing budget is basically elbow grease. But we’re participating in Quora discussions. I’m reaching out to my network. We’re doing the kinds of one-to-one things our competitors would never do, because they don’t move the needle for them.
But for us, it adds another 10, 15 or even 50 customers a month. We’ll use these strategies until we have a large enough market share that we can actually compete using the more scalable strategies of our competitors.
Adopt this nimbleness mindset as you read the rest of the advice in this article. No matter how exactly you wind up implementing it, training yourself to see the opportunities that are only available to your company will help you choose the right marketing, branding and community-building approach.
Marketing + Branding
Once you’ve nailed down who your company is and where you fit into your market, it’s time to invest in some quality marketing and branding.
The following are my favorite strategies, but this certainly isn’t a comprehensive list. Use them as inspiration for your own marketing initiatives, but expand as needed, based on your unique company, customers and market.
Drill Down on Your Customer Personas
A ton has already been written on customer personas, so I won’t repeat that here. I will, however, emphasize that you have to know who your customers are if you want to market to them better than your competitors.
One way to do that is to go beyond standard customer personas by drilling down into sub-personas. At Mailshake, for example, we have three different personas, as well as nine different use cases that exist within those three.
Knowing who these customers are and how they’re using our product makes it possible for us to create content that speaks directly to them.
As an example, one of our customer personas is “marketers.” Marketers use Mailshake for a number of things, including:
- Link building
- Content promotion
- Influencer marketing
But as we started talking to our customers (more on this in the Customer Success section later on), we realized that there was a whole other audience that was using Mailshake that we hadn’t accounted for: PR people.
Marketers use Mailshake for PR to a small degree, but we found that we were also attracting PR professionals – who are a huge category on their own. So I started going out and talking to PR people to learn what their needs are so that we can create content tailored specifically to them.
It’s very small and super specific, but all I’m doing is solving their problems. I’m focusing on being helpful and providing value, which is opening doors to this market. We may only ever reach 50 people this way, but they’ll love us because we solved their problems. Maybe they’ll turn into advocates that sell us to others down the road.
Invest in Content Marketing and Branding
Once you know who you’re trying to reach and what their needs/use cases are, invest heavily in content marketing and branding.
A brand is something no one can take away from you. It’s not necessarily tangible – and that can make it hard to measure. But it’s something that can be built with content marketing and pay dividends over the years.
That said, “investing” in content marketing doesn’t have to mean putting up a new 10X piece of content every day. You don’t have to have the best content to win at content marketing and branding. You just have to help people and be consistent. When you focus on educating your market, you become the “go-to” brand attached to your industry. And given how competitive many markets are these days, that can be huge.
Look at the resources available to you. Maybe you aren’t the best writer, but you can use Canva or Venngage to make great graphics to support decent content. Maybe you have a background in video and can use that to engage with customers and answer questions on camera.
You have to be consistent with these investments, because it takes time to build a brand. It’s not necessarily something that you go out and get tomorrow. Branding and content marketing take time to be effective.
The end results are worth it, though. At my company Pick.co, we have a ton of competitors. We don’t win on features. We win because people have heard of the brand we’ve built. The people who sign up with us heard about us from a friend or saw us featured in an article. They aren’t going out and shopping around. They’re choosing us from the start because they know who we are.
That’s all thanks to our long-term investment in content marketing and branding.
Create a Free, Useful Resource
One way to make a splash quickly when it comes to branding through marketing is with a free resource people can actually use.
Your free resource can be anything: a tool, a book, a checklist, etc. But the key is that it has to be useful. Slapping a shitty ebook on your site and calling it a “lead magnet” isn’t going to do you any favors.
As an example, let’s say you’re targeting marketers. There are so many great marketing events happening during the year, so what Kristi Hines did was to create an events calendar of all the conferences in the industry (check it out here). It’s this huge, helpful resource that people can come back to all year. Now, when I think of great marketers, I think of Kristi because her calendar has been so helpful for me.
There’s also Hubspot’s Website Grader. For the last decade, this free-to-use tool has generated tons of traffic for them – all for the one-time cost of developing it.
We took a page out of their “free microtool” book when we launched what would become Mailshake. At first, we started off with a tool called Connector that helped facilitate email outreach for content promotion. We made it free to use as a way to get top-of-funnel awareness and drive market share by helping people do something they were already trying to do.
Launching Connector was really the turning point for what’s now called Mailshake (as well as the fact that we’re now able to charge for it). Even though it was a beta product, people were asking us if they could pay us to add features to the tool. It was never meant to drive revenue itself, but it got us the market share we needed to launch a successful paid product.
And all it cost us was the development time.
Leverage Trends and Trending Topics
One mistake I see marketers making is thinking that their content has to be about the product they sell or the problem they solve. But there’s a huge world out there, and responding to emerging trends helps build the perceived authority of your brand – even if they aren’t directly related to your company.
As an example, last year, I noticed that interest in chatbots was growing. So even though my agency didn’t offer a chatbot service, we created a video on the topic that got about 15,000 views. We actually got a few people reaching out to us because no other agencies were covering the topic.
The same thing happened with the 10X content piece on Customer Advocacy we published on the Web Profits blog. Customer advocacy isn’t one of our agency’s core offerings, but it’s definitely something people were talking about. Its something we all think about that’s a part of marketing – even if it’s not specifically a service we offer.
The best part about this is that trending topics are easy to spot. I use Google Trends and other keyword research tools to find things that are emerging, but just being an active member of your customer communities can clue you into upcoming trends. Getting into the habit of responding quickly can have a major impact on your brand’s perceived authority.
Even though modern content marketing and branding practices are less intrusive than traditional outbound advertising, you’re still pushing your message out and hoping it resonates with someone.
There’s a lot of value to that, but there’s another way to take the guesswork out of whether or not people will connect with your message: building your own community.
When you create a tribe or community around your brand, an interesting thing happens. As long as you prove your value to your community, you can immediately take people from the awareness/consideration stage of the purchase decision-making process to the advocacy stage – even if they don’t buy from you.
In that way, community building helps you out-market your competition because you’re forming relationships with your prospects that they aren’t. Often, it takes the sales process out of your hands entirely. Once your community is growing, advocates and customers within it will help others get across the finish line of purchasing – whether or not you’re actually involved in the process.
Look at Nike’s athletic communities. Look at Red Bull’s participation in extreme sports. Look at the way Apple fans line up early for new releases and connect with each other in the company’s forums.
When you have a community of loyal followers, whatever you’re selling doesn’t just get consumed. It gets amplified. And it doesn’t have to be complicated to do. It can be as simple as a Facebook Group where you talk to your community. It can work with 50 people or 500,000 – and it can work with no budget, or unlimited resources.
Even better, you don’t have to build your own community outright. A lot of people think it’s about possession of these relationships, but you never really own a community. You’re just the leader.
So if you can’t build your own community, try to sponsor one that already exists. For example, maybe you can’t afford to sponsor a conference, but you can get people who are going to the event to attend a free networking event or a party.
I do this every single time I travel, whether I’m attending a conference or speaking at an event. I’ll research the people I want to meet ahead of time – a lot of the time, it’s the speakers, but maybe it’s people in the area, other attendees or friends from the internet.
Then, I’ll put together a small dinner or get-together and invite these people. When I went to SaaSter in 2016 and 2017, I put on a meet-and-greet breakfast for VPs, marketers and others to talk about a single topic (growth, activation, etc.). We all just went around the table and shared our problems. Those conversations alone led to dozens of opportunities, hundreds of customers and co-marketing opportunities with attendees.
If you’re going to do something like this, go to the conference organizers and tell them that you want to sponsor an event or build a community from the attendees. When I did this at SaaStr for the first time, I was afraid they’d think I was over-stepping. But they actually promoted it, which ended up getting me more exposure.
They get a value-added event, and I made great connections. It’s a win-win for both of us, as far as I’m concerned.
The final strategic element to be considered when attempting to out-market your competition is the investment you put into customer success.
Not everyone is doing this. Most of the big guys out there aren’t doing this. I can’t imagine why – everything you invest into customer success comes back to you in the form of happier customers, more referrals, decreased churn and higher average lifetime values.
Here are three strategies that have been particularly successful for my companies:
1. Add Live Chat to Your Website
You might need more traffic, but realistically, a really effective way to get people through the door is to engage with them and have a personalized conversation.
Adding live chat to your website doesn’t require much budget, though it can take a little time to figure out the optimal placement on your pages, the language you’ll empower your automated chat features to use (if any) and when hand-offs should occur between chatbots and live representatives.
However, what you’ll find – once your live chat system is in place – is that your conversion rates will go up, your retention rates will go up, and you’ll get people to that all-important “a-ha” moment faster.
2. Engage on Social Media
The same way you’re connecting with prospects and customers via live chat, you should be doing on social media as well.
You don’t need some fancy strategy or editorial calendar to make social media work. You just have to be helpful. If you do that, you’re effectively penetrating the market in a one-to-one, hand-to-hand combat way. It’s not scalable, and it won’t do much as you grow. But it’s usually something the big guys are ignoring – and that makes it an opportunity for you.
Participate in Twitter chats. Answer questions on Quora. Join forums and community sites in your industry. Be a regular presence in private Facebook Groups. You won’t own these communities, but engaging with them still works.
Test Concierge Onboarding
Concierge onboarding means a lot of different things to different people, but think of it as helping customers get to value as quickly as possible.
At Narrow.io, we use concierge onboarding to overcome the fact that setting up accounts with our system isn’t fully intuitive. When you build a profile, you have to put your keywords in before the platform can begin generating suggestions. That takes a few weeks, and if you’ve put in the wrong keywords, it won’t be effective.
So what we’ll do is, after someone signs up, we’ll reach out to them directly, offering to take a look at their account personally and give them a couple of suggestions. The more help we can provide, the more our average time to value goes down. Happier customers = customers that are likely to stay on longer.
Ultimately, there are so many different value propositions associated with happier customers. But your big competitors can’t do this, because implementing something like this at scale doesn’t make sense. You can, and you’ll benefit significantly by doing so.
3. Admit When You’ve Messed Up
I hate to end this article on a negative note, but it’s worth mentioning that even mistakes made on your part can be marketing opportunities in disguise.
In a piece for Forbes, Larry Myler describes how significantly negative experiences can impact customer satisfaction with your brand:
“Customers equate experience with brands. If they have even one bad experience that remains unresolved, they will write off the brand. And negative feedback spreads like wildfire through social media and word of mouth.”
What I’d add to this, though, is that the way you respond to a negative situation can transform negative feedback into raving reviews. When we were first launching Narrow.io, we had a huge outage that took out service for 30% of our customers. It was a huge disruption, but while we could have kept our customers in the dark about the extent of the impact, we decided to be as transparent as we could about taking blame.
We shared updates in real time as we worked to resolve the outage. We offered customers free months of service, since the issue was our mistake – not theirs. We made it as easy as possible for people to cancel if they wanted.
A funny thing happened. Instead of bailing in droves as we’d expected, our customers stuck around – even going so far as offering to launch a crowdfunding campaign to help us expand our server capacity (which we ultimately declined).
Sure, we lost some people who needed service right away. But as we got back up and running, we found that the customers who stayed on became advocates for our brand. To this day, we can trace new customers we gained after the outage to those who appreciated the way we handled the issue.
It’s possible to turn problems like these into opportunities – but only if you take full responsibility and do everything you can to make the situation right. It’s frustrating in the moment to deal with major issues like outages, but the way you support your customers throughout the problem can have a huge impact on their success – and on your growth as a business.
Getting Ahead in Crowded Markets
Competitive markets are the new reality for most businesses. Competition isn’t going away any time soon, so it’s to your advantage now to learn how the unique opportunities you have as a small or growing business can help you out-market others in your space.
Use the recommendations above as a starting point – not a comprehensive guide. There are as many opportunities to provide individualized attention to customers as there are businesses in the world. Find yours, and find your path to success.
How are you out-marketing your competition? Leave me a note below with your thoughts and suggestions: