For many small-business owners, marketing is a necessary evil, something they’d rather avoid if they could get away with it. But for Mike Michalowicz, a prolific author on small business topics who’s built and sold multiple multimillion-dollar businesses, it’s an obligation of another kind. Michalowicz has dedicated his career to researching the most effective ways to build healthy businesses. And one of his primary discoveries is that marketing is a responsibility of a good business, a vital part of the service it provides to its market.
When Michalowicz asks small-business owners about their primary source of business, the most common answer is word-of-mouth referrals. That’s great. A healthy referral pipeline demonstrates a high level of client satisfaction. But there’s a problem if you depend on clients to provide all your new business. If that source of leads—which you don’t control—goes away, then your business fails.
To get business owners thinking about the merits of expanding their marketing beyond word-of-mouth referrals, Michalowicz asks a simple question: Do you believe your service is superior to your competition in some capacity? If the answer is yes, then he argues that you have a responsibility to market yourself beyond referrals. If you’re truly better than the competition, if you provide something of value to your market, then you’re doing a disservice to people by not marketing to them and making yourself available.
“No one knows how good your business is until they do business with you,” Michalowicz says. “The only experience they will have prior to that is with your marketing.”
For effective marketing, Michalowicz advances a framework that he refers to by the acronym DAD: differentiate, attract, direct.
DIFFERENTIATE. To differentiate yourself, do something that others aren’t doing. This doesn’t mean being outrageous; just be the photographer who’s doing the unexpected. Michalowicz explains that our brains have a reticular formation, a makeup of multiple functions that works like a network to determine what passes into our consciousness for consideration. It’s sort of like a gatekeeper that helps us focus on the immediate, important stimuli and ignore the irrelevant or unimportant. This functionality almost always lets in stimuli that fall into three categories: threats, opportunities, and the unexpected.
The third category is where Michalowicz focuses when talking to entrepreneurs about differentiation. When something that we’ve never experienced before presents itself, our brain is wired to consider it. “So, in marketing we want to be original and unexpected, and force people to take notice,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be a unique idea in the history of humanity. It just has to be new to your audience. And then you can serve it up again and again until the rest of the industry catches on.”
Stumped about how to stand out from the crowd? Michalowicz suggests doing a little R&D, which in this case stands for “rip off and duplicate,” he says. Look outside your industry to see what works well in other industries, then duplicate it for your audience. Remember, your marketing idea just needs to be new to your audience.
The process of differentiation often means shunning established best practices, at least for your industry. “The established best practice for an industry has become habituated and is therefore irrelevant,” says Michalowicz. “When it comes to marketing, I encourage people not to follow best practices.”
ATTRACT. Whatever the message is, it must speak to the needs of the recipient. There has to be a compelling reason for the person receiving the info to stay engaged with it.
To be attractive, simply speak the language of the community you’re going after. Understand your community, their needs, their desires. If you don’t know, ask them. Talk to your best clients and find out what they find appealing about you. Then accentuate those elements in your marketing.
So much marketing misses the mark because it doesn't give the audience specific directions about what you want them to do.
Attracting clients means tempering the outrageous side of your differentiation with language, appearance, and behavior that’s appropriate for your target market. Think of a defense attorney who appears in a TV ad wearing an expensive, somewhat flashy suit. That’s appropriate. It speaks to their success, with a little bit of drama associated with the profession, but it’s not over the top. If that same attorney appeared in a clown outfit, well, they’ve certainly differentiated themselves, but did they attract their target market? Likely not. Instead of projecting a successful, confident persona, they appear frivolous and untrustworthy. Bottom line: When marketing, you want people to take notice without wondering, Who is this clown?
DIRECT. Give your audience specific directions about what you want them to do. This is where so much marketing misses the mark. Think about a TV ad that lists all the attributes of a product and ends without a vital call to action. Or a sign that features a product name with no other information. People see those kinds of promotions and wonder what they’re supposed to do. It’s vital to direct your audience: Now that you’ve seen this, here’s what you need to do.
A degree of brand awareness is relevant in your marketing. When we see something with enough frequency, we’re more likely to trust it. Therefore, brand awareness minus direction builds trust, but it requires a lot of exposure to the target audience. Small-business people rarely have the resources to create the level of exposure that’s effective. By contrast, when you direct people, your promotion could work the first time.
The direct needs to be reasonable. For example, if you visited a used car lot and a salesperson asked you for $100,000 to find you a good used car, you’d be outraged. But if they asked for your cell phone number so they could contact you when the perfect car hits the lot, you’d find it reasonable.
The direct also needs to move the transaction forward. Often, people are afraid of asking for too much, so they make their call to action neutral. Michalowicz uses the example of “learn more” buttons on a website. “You’re already there to learn more,” he says. “That button doesn’t advance anything.”
How do you find the balance between directs that might be too soft or too aggressive? Test and ask, suggests Michalowicz. Run different ads and analyze the results. You can also ask clients what worked for them, and it’s even more valuable to talk to prospects who did not buy from you. Let them know you’re not trying to sell anything, just looking for advice to improve your business.
The DAD model happens in milliseconds. The reticular formation considers whether something is safe and relevant in the blink of an eye. Then, if your marketing message has managed to gain someone’s attention, you have another few milliseconds to retain it by attracting then directing them to take action in a clear, concise way.
It’s a fast process. That’s why Michalowicz cautions people against overexplaining themselves in their marketing. You have a short window of time available, so the longer you go on, the more likely you are to lose people. It’s critical to move the process along quickly.
That said, consider what you’re marketing when determining how much detail to provide. If it’s a small-dollar purchase, like a few prints, it can be short and direct. If it’s a high-dollar purchase, like a $15,000 wedding contract, people want more information and more stages in the process to justify the transaction.
When it comes to marketing, many people don’t want to stand out because they fear they’ll be seen as strange and may be ostracized. We want to stand out without standing out too much.
“We have to get past that fear, and the way to do that is to understand that we have a responsibility to market ourselves,” says Michalowicz. “Remember, if you’re doing something better than your competition, or if you’re offering something of real value to your market, then your market needs you. Don’t be shy about sharing what you have to offer.”
Jeff Kent is editor-at-large.