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Every day, you see it across your Facebook newsfeed or Twitter timeline—another blog post, image, or marketing video gone viral, launching a humble small business like yours into a whole new level of notoriety (and resulting sales).
Other days, it might be the slow and steady brand that catches your eye. Over time, you watch them slowly gain more and more followers, more facebook likes, more blog shares—and then the humblebragging tweet: they’ve completely sold out their new product line. In two days. Again.
“What’s the secret?” you ask yourself. “What do these brands have that we don’t?”
Unfortunately, there’s no clear formula that makes SMB marketing plans win, lose, or go viral. Sure, there are best practices you can follow—but some of it just comes down to hard work, creativity, and a little luck!
That said, let’s take a look at a couple of the most awesome SMB marketing plans out there. Then, we’ll pull out some common themes you can apply for your own business.
Only a few years ago years ago, Emily Ley was Florida-based stationery and paper goods designer with an Etsy shop and a tiny blog and social media following. She invested just $2,000 on the first printing of her now famous Simplified Planner—a paper calendar for the modern mom that continues to sell out within days of its launch each and every year.
Unlike a few other brands on our list, Emily Ley’s growth has been decidedly slow and steady. Having never taken on investments or a business loan, her team knew they couldn’t keep up with the demand that a viral marketing campaign would create. Instead, they built something even more valuable—an unwavering, committed army of brand loyalists that reacts to each and every new product launch with equal fervor and enthusiasm.
Ley’s marketing plan has been all content- and social media-based—mostly on Instagram, along with Facebook and her own blog—and has grown organically, one picture and emoji-filled caption at a time.
She earns attention for her products—and even sponsored posts for other brands—by interspersing adorable baby pictures and authentic stories from the thick of raising three kids as a working mom. To her target audience, Emily feels like a friend—one they’re eager to do business with.
Frustrated by the dearth of women in her field and inspired by an “Idea Brunch” with enterprising friends, GoldieBlox CEO and inventor Debbie Sterling imagined a line of engineering-related books and toys for girls.
“In a world where men largely outnumber women in science, technology, engineering, and math,” Sterling explains, “girls lose interest in these subjects as early as age 8. Construction toys develop an early interest in these subjects, but for over a hundred years, they’ve been considered ‘boys’ toys.’ GoldieBlox is determined to change the equation. We aim to disrupt the pink aisle and inspire the future generation of female engineers.”
Sterling received some investments from friends and family, then launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2012. The campaign was featured by Upworthy and completely funded in just five days. Within 6 months, the products were available in Toys R Us stores nationwide.
In addition to her training as an engineer, Sterling had been director of marketing for a jewelry company and spent several years as a brand strategist for a design agency, both of which gave Sterling the experience and the contacts she needed to create a successful video marketing campaign.
But the company’s biggest hit came from a now-renowned viral video, which eventually became a winning Super Bowl ad. After seeing band OK Go’s music video “This Too Shall Pass” featuring a Rube Goldberg machine, Sterling recruited Brett Doar (who designed much of OK Go’s machine) to help create an ad. In the video, called “The Princess Machine,” a group of young girls engineer their own Rube Goldberg–inspired invention from their scorned, stereotypically “female” toys.
The video, originally featuring a version of The Beastie Boys’ song “Girls,” with spunky revised lyrics sung by a chorus of little girls) quickly went viral.
Since then, GoldieBlox has continued its tradition of strong content marketing with a blog covering both STEM subjects and feminism.
“Good razors cost too much… So we fixed it.”
Jeff Raider and Andy Katz-Mayfield, co-founders and co-CEOs of online shaving products retailer Harry’s, are dedicated to keeping quality high and prices low by cutting out the middle man. “By selling directly to you online, we’re able to shave away the excess and offer a great shave at a price accessible to every Tom, Dick and… (Sorry, we couldn’t help ourselves),” reads the cheeky copy on their website. In addition to reasonably priced sets of razors and shaving cream, the company offers a razor blade refill subscription service.
In a blog post at 4 Hour Work Week, Jeff Raider explains the process behind the company’s pre-launch campaign to generate buzz—and a customer base. Harry’s incentivized brand ambassadorship by rewarding referrals with free products. Several tiers of referrals meant that the more friends individual customers referred, the bigger their reward.
Harry’s made referrals as convenient and simple as possible by providing social sharing buttons for various platforms, which then pre-populated a message complete with referral code. Approximately 3000 people claimed free product—more than 200 of whom reached the top tier (50 referrals).
Each person on the small team also committed to sending personalized emails to their contacts, sharing the campaign to their social networks, and interacting with Harry’s brand-new profiles on Facebook and Twitter. By the end of the week-long pre-launch campaign, the company had collected almost 100,000 emails for its mailing list.
Less than a year after its launch, Harry’s was successful enough to actually purchase the German factory they had been purchasing custom razor blades from. They’ve continued their phenomenal success with a brick-and-mortar barber shop and retail store in NYC as well as a online magazine called Five O’Clock.
Hello Flo offers a menstrual products subscription service (with items shipped specifically to coincide with each individual customer’s cycle) and specialized “kits for your lady bits” (themed care packages ranging from first period to “New Mom Survival Kit”).
Similarly to GoldieBlox, Hello Flo’s big break came with a humorous, and unapologetically girl-power, viral video. The company’s media attention was limited for the first few months after launch…until hitting the big time with its summer 2013 ad “The Camp Gyno.”
The young protagonist is the first girl at summer camp to start her period: “the red badge of courage!” she says, with pride. She becomes the self-proclaimed—and somewhat tyrannical—“Camp Gyno,” distributing menstrual products and information to fellow campers as they follow suit. That is, until she’s put out of business by a trend of campers’ parents sending first period care packages to their daughters.
Within 24 hours of going online, the video was named “Ad of the Day” by Adweek. All in all, ‘The Camp Gyno’ attracted close to 6 million views in its first month online, causing a huge surge in sales. All from a video with a reported production budget of just $6,000!
Lauren Luke was a single mom working evenings as a taxi dispatcher in Tyneside, England. She grew tired of the job and its demanding hours, so she quit, and began selling makeup on eBay in 2007.
To promote sales, Luke created a YouTube series of makeup tutorials and product reviews. She walked viewers step-by-step through how-tos ranging from everyday makeup application to more high-fashion looks inspired by celebrities’ styles in music videos, movies, and television.
Due to the huge popularity of her tutorials, Luke was featured in several BBC documentary programs and morning shows. From 2009 to 2010, Luke was a guest beauty columnist for The Guardian. Word spread to American beauty magazines and websites like Allure and Oprah.com.
In 2009 Luke introduced her own line of makeup palettes and cosmetic tools, which were sold on her website as well as distributed by cosmetics superstore Sephora. In 2010, her book Lauren Luke Looks: 25 Celebrity and Everyday Makeup Tutorials, was published. Luke had a cameo of sorts in the 2014 feature film Laggies, in which characters watch one of her tutorials. She even inspired a 2009 Nintendo DS game called Supermodel Makeover By Lauren Luke.
Luke has since stepped out of the spotlight due to health reasons, but her amazing self-starter story remains an inspirational example of the potential available in a bootstrapped small business marketing effort.
British car insurance company Lancaster Insurance, established in 1984, specializes in insuring classic cars. Despite Lancaster’s love of the classic (and classy), the company is very forward-thinking: the business was an early adopter of the online insurance quote model.
Lancaster keeps a very active blog with posts that are relevant and interesting to their target audience: some recent posts include “10 Vintage Car Adverts,” available on YouTube, and a guide on how to navigate “Tax for Classic Car Owners.” In a brilliant stroke of customer-generated content marketing, testimonials on their website include a photo of the customers’ beloved classic automobiles—which are, naturally, insured by Lancaster.
But perhaps the company’s smartest—and quirkiest—marketing move was their successful attempt at setting the Guinness World Record for largest parade of classic MG cars in April 2015. Lancaster organized nearly 150 owners of the rare classic car for a few laps around the race track at Rockingham Circuit in Corby, England. How many companies can say they’ve set a world record?
As you learn the backstories behind each of these winning SMB marketing plans, you might be wondering: ”How can we make our marketing this awesome?!”
Of course, great marketing is all about standing out—so there is no winning formula. Each of these campaigns had a unique plan and each company a distinct trajectory. That said, here are a few takeaways to be gained from the common themes among these winning SMB marketing plans:
More often than not, small business also means small marketing budget. Most business owners simply don’t have the budget for big ad buys, giant billboards, and high-gloss video productions.
We all joke about production quality on the TV commercial for the car dealership down the street—but the reality is that old school marketing campaigns are just plain too expensive for small business to do well.
That’s why you’ll notice that these awesome SMB marketing plans all share a laser focus on social media and content marketing. These mediums level the playing field for small businesses, letting you earn attention for your brand through creativity and sweat equity, even if you can’t afford a big spend on advertising.
Of course, the problem with the great democracy that is content marketing is that anyone can do it. As a result, we’re seeing more and more and more brands blogging, vlogging, pinning, posting, sharing, and tweeting every single day.
Your possibilities are endless. But if you want to stand out from the crowd, you’ll have to earn it by thinking outside the box.
What’s clear from the marketing plans above is that not one of them achieved their success by copying the competitor down the street. They didn’t read a couple of articles on social media best practices and recreate them for their own brand. Each one took a unique, creative approach to their marketing strategy—learning from and applying best practices while also trying things that had never been done before.
So, how do you think outside the box? This is the part that no blog post, tutorial, or how-to guide can help you with. Creativity strikes a chord with audiences exactly because there’s no formula for it. You either find it or you don’t!
That said, these next few common themes could help you to get in the zone, or even set off that perfect creative spark.
Before you panic about coming up with the SMB marketing plan to stand out among all the brands in the whole world, stop and ask yourself: how many of the awesome brands had you heard of before reading this post? Every reader’s answer will be different, and the brands you recognize will be different based on your personal demographic.
If you don’t have a daughter (or niece or granddaughter), GoldieBlox doesn’t really need your attention. If you don’t have facial hair, you aren’t Harry’s first priority. These brands didn’t need the best marketing campaigns ever in history. What they needed, and what you really need, is the right campaign that will resonate most with your particular audience.
To target your audience, you have to know who your audience is. What is your demographic? Get specific, find people that match that type, and ask a ton of questions. What are their outside interests? What makes them laugh? What makes them cry? What are their favorite brands, and why?
The more you learn about your target audience, the better you’ll be able to tailor a message that will hit home specifically with your prospective customers.
A common theme among these brands, even as they seek to think outside the box, is that they don’t take themselves too seriously. Each brand seeks to create a playful relationship with its audience, leading to more genuine connections.
Now, your first instinct here may sound something like, “But my brand isn’t like those brands. We have a serious product that should be taken seriously! There is no room for shenanigans here!”
But before you immediately discount the power of playfulness, look back at HelloFlo. Would a hilarious and adorable viral video be your first instinct for marketing menstrual products? Probably not! But HelloFlo knew that to get customers talking about something that no one really talks about, they would have to make it fun.
No matter how much you try to appeal to your target audience and be a little playful, your best SMB marketing plan will still fall short if it’s not authentically you. Millennials in particular can smell a pretentious marketing plan a mile away, and they will immediately dismiss anything that seems fake or contrived.
The good news here, though, is that if you’re willing to be vulnerable and transparent, authenticity is easy! You already know who you are and what you care about, so bring those things to the forefront, and you’ll have the winning formula for your own SMB marketing plan.
Of course, there are two things we can’t discount when evaluating the success of our favorite SMB marketing plans. First, they all had a great product or service. Without that, no marketing plan can make it through the long haul.
But sometimes great marketing comes down to a little bit of luck. You can do all the work, conduct all the surveys, and brainstorm all the creative ideas in the world—but at some point, the only option is to put your marketing plan out into the world and just see what happens. If you’re lucky, you’ll find that winning marketing plan that launches your small business beyond what you ever imagined.