When you investigate how to market a product or service, you’ll see that there’s a lot of ground to cover. And as the owner of a small business, the process might feel overwhelming, especially if you’re new to entrepreneurship. Thankfully, small business marketing isn’t as complex as it may seem, especially as broken down by the three industry experts we’ve interviewed.
To organize this expert marketing advice, we’ll use a model called the marketing mix. We won’t touch on every component in this model, but with the help of our marketing gurus, we’ll explore all the essentials, so you’ll know how to promote a product in no time.
As we touched upon above, the marketing mix is a set of considerations that marketers take into account when designing a promotion strategy.
The first step in the marketing mix requires that you zero in on your target market, which is another name for your primary customer base. The next elements are known as the Four Ps of Marketing: Product, Placement, Promotion, and Price. It can be helpful to use a model like the one below to visualize the marketing mix:
Photo credit: marketmix.co.uk
Keep these tenets in mind as we run through expert opinions on how to market a product.
Before you decide on a promotion strategy, let’s start with the basics: What does it actually mean to market something?
To answer this question, we asked the first of our experts, Lauren Collalto-Rieske, who has worked in brand management for monoliths like Johnson & Johnson, The Hershey Company, and Constellation Brands. She currently serves as chief marketing officer for Contap Social, a mobile application company that specializes in networking and event organization. She describes marketing as follows:
“Marketing is selling something, but it’s not forcing your product on someone. It’s about meeting the people you want to buy your product where they’re at. Anything that you think of as marketing—advertising, sales, public relations—it’s a very broad umbrella. But at its most basic level, it’s about convincing someone to buy your product because you think it will benefit them in some way. You need to ask yourself first and foremost: What is the problem I’m trying to solve, and who am I trying to solve it for?”
In other words, how to market a product involves determining who needs your product, where it’s needed, why it’s needed—and then using that information to convince the appropriate customers that they simply can’t live without the item you have to offer.
Our experts agree that the first step in any marketing endeavor is to define your target market.
Annie Grunwell, a content marketing specialist for an instructional software and insights company called Frontline Education, emphasizes the importance of this process:
“Always, always, always start by understanding your target audience: who they are, what they want, why they want what they want. Actually listen and be open to what you learn about them. Never assume you know what they want, or that you know better than they do. That’s a guaranteed path to failure.”
How does one begin to hone their target customer base? Ask yourself who is likely to gain the most from your product or service. You don’t want to create a niche market that’s too narrow, but you can’t sell to the entire world either. Find an audience that’s somewhere in the middle and that has distinguishing characteristics.
Collalto-Rieske elaborates on this line of thinking, using an example where the product is a pair of gloves that allows the use of your smartphone without removing them:
“[Your target customer] needs to be someone who uses this type of phone, and they need to live somewhere it’s cold enough a certain portion of the year that they’ll benefit from these gloves. So you’ll eliminate certain parts of the country where it doesn’t get very cold in the winter, and then you’ll eliminate a specific set of people who don’t use smartphones outdoors. That’s how you come up with your target audience. Sometimes you don’t need a lot of research. All you need to do is to think it through.”
While it’s wise to start with logical deduction, our experts suggest that you back up your conclusions with research. Here are some free or low-cost resources, suggested by our gurus, to assist with your target market analysis:
Our third marketing expert, Laura Manies, has consulted for Accenture and Wells Fargo, and for the last 11 years, she’s run her own firm that focuses on product development for the web. Manies suggests some additional techniques to define your target market:
“In figuring out who your client is, create [buyer] personas or [market] segments that you think will be interested in your product. Then reach out and start talking to everyone you know to get feedback on your concept.”
Once you’ve identified your target audience, it’s much easier to complete the next step, where you cement the details of your offerings.
Next, you’ll need to nail down not only what your product is, but how it can serve your target audience. Remember, how to market a product isn’t solely about pushing your offering on your customers; it’s about showing them how it can change their lives (or one aspect of their lives), and why they should choose your company over your competitors.
As Collalto-Rieske explains,
“Start by defining the problem and how you’re going to solve it. Think very carefully about why you’ve come up with the product in the first place. Ask what is specific and unique about this problem that I’m trying to solve, and why does my product or service do that better than someone else’s? We live in a country where the market is very mature, and there’s a lot of products out there nowadays. That’s why it’s so important to make sure your product is distinct and that you stand out.”
Our marketing gurus also suggest that you seek consumer feedback as you develop your product or service. Otherwise, you might get sidetracked by the opinions of those who don’t matter. “It’s not always about if the buyer at the large grocery store chain does or doesn’t like your product,” Collalto-Rieske says. “What’s more important is that the key audience for your product likes it. It’s also not just about what you think of the product, but what your audience thinks about the product.”
It’s a good idea to seek client input early in development. “The more customer feedback you get early on in the process, the better your first version of the product will be,” Manies says. “Plus, changing something once it’s built out entirely is a lot more expensive.”
There are loads of ways to solicit customer input as you develop your product or service. For example, Manies uses an internet product called Lookback to generate user feedback regarding digital products. A marketer can share computer screens and even web cameras with any consumer anywhere in the world, and observe their actions and reactions as they navigate a new offering online.
Now that you’ve honed your product or service based on the needs of your target audience and taken into account their opinions, it’s time to brand your offerings. But what exactly does it mean to brand a small business?
As Collalto-Rieske clarifies, branding is different from hawking a product:
“Branding is about creating a connection with your audience, and communicating on an emotional level what makes your product or service unique. That’s what’s going to cause someone to choose your product over another. If you ask someone why they’re buying Coke or Pepsi, they’re going to tell you it tastes better, but the reason they think it tastes better isn’t just about the way it tastes. It’s also about this connection that they’ve developed with that particular product.”
How does one create this branding connection? To start, Collalto-Rieske suggests that you write a brand brief to ensure that your message is consistent across all marketing materials. Here are some elements to include in your brief:
Collalto-Rieske further outlines the purpose of such branding exercises:
“Companies spend tons of time and money to create a specific positive association in your mind with that product. Coke’s would be happiness; Toyota’s would be reliability. That’s what you’re looking to do when you’re coming up with these branding elements. You want people to reach for your product or service over someone else’s. It’s not easy to measure, but it is that intangible aspect that will make you stand out and ensures that it’s obvious what you stand for.”
As Grunwell explains, branding is an essential aspect of marketing, and it should be one of the primary steps in your promotion efforts: “Your brand has to come first, because if your tone, visuals, etc. are all over the place when you start marketing your product, potential customers are just going to be confused, and confused people don’t buy.”
Keep your branding clear and consistent, and you’re well on your way to knowing exactly how to market a product.
Placement involves a series of decisions about where to sell your product or service, another key element of marketing. Collalto-Rieske’s mantra in this arena is to “find people where they are.” Go to them, because they’re unlikely to come to you.
Discerning where to find your customer involves a similar process to honing your target market. Do some research, examine relevant data, talk with potential clients, and ask questions. You may find that your research leads you to place your product in more than one location.
“Think about why a company like Hershey might want to sell their candy bars at the checkout line. The reason is that they know that people will buy them on impulse. Does that mean that Hershey isn’t also going to sell them online? No. It just means that you’re meeting different types of people who might buy your product where they’re at. We know that people like to buy candy on impulse, so we have it in the checkout line, and we also know that people might want to buy it online in big bags because they might be baking and it might easier to have it shipped to the house for that purpose.”
Manies suggests that you consider international markets as well as domestic ones when determining placement. Many startup costs, including marketing, can be far lower in other countries. Be sure to find someone local to shepherd you through the process, however, as culture and customs vary widely from country to country.
Now we come to the final aspect of your marketing endeavors: promotion. This is the component of the mix most commonly associated with marketing, though as we have seen, there are additional elements that are equally essential.
Messaging refers to the manner in which you convey the value of your product or service to your target market. Grunwell offers some advice about messaging:
“Get the messaging right from the beginning. Marketing is like dating: If you only talk about yourself, no matter how great you are, people lose interest. You need to make the customer the hero of the story. It’s all about them and what they’re trying to accomplish. And stick with that philosophy. When you’re writing a landing page, an email, or a post for social media, don’t start sentences with ‘We,’ ‘Our,’ or the name of your product. Put the customer first.”
Collalto-Rieske picks up where Grunwell leaves off, and adds some specifics about the philosophy behind effective messaging:
“The one thing you always have to remember whenever you’re marketing anything is that you’re not selling features, you’re selling benefits. You could have the best product with the best features, but if they’re not providing some sort of emotional benefit, no one is going to understand why your product is important. That’s where the convincing comes in. Marketing isn’t just about developing a product that people will want to use—it’s also about helping them understand why it’s relevant to their lives.”
Manies finds that her customer feedback process assists with proper messaging:
“One of the best things about customer research is that you hear the language that customers use. At the end of any research session, I always ask the customer how they would explain the product to their spouse, friend, or someone else in their life. Listening to the words they use is amazingly helpful, and often helps create the basis for how you communicate the value of the product.”
Once you’ve established the tone and content of your messaging, it’s time to determine which channels will convey that message to your target market. To do so, settle on the primary goal of your marketing efforts, and then determine the methodologies necessary to achieve that goal.
While the objectives behind your marketing endeavors may vary, Manies suggests that generating awareness should remain the primary intention for a new product or service. “Early entrepreneurs can get confused between awareness marketing and conversion marketing. Don’t expect that the first time a customer hears about your product, they’re going to buy it.”
So, before expecting to find paying customers, you want your customers to be aware of your product, and for its message to resonate. But how do you decide where to promote that message? Here are some possible venues to consider:
To determine which avenue might best reach your target market, consider the following questions:
As Collalto-Rieske says, “You’re not going to sell a bulldozer using a lifestyle blogger on Instagram. If you were selling gloves to people who want to be stylish, then you would use a lifestyle blogger.”
The same resources and research methods discussed in previous sections should also prove valuable here. And remember that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to marketing. What’s right for one product or service might be completely different from what works for another, and you might decide to promote your product using both online and traditional techniques.
The final component of the marketing mix is price. Fortunately, we recently posted the ultimate guide to pricing your product or service, which should provide all the guidance you need in this area.
And now that you’ve honed your marketing strategy in all five arenas (Target Market, Product, Placement, Promotion, and Price), you might put pen to paper and create an official marketing plan, which will help you keep track of the insights gained through this process and the goals you’ve set for yourself in this area.
At each stage of the marketing mix, it’s important to be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses. Determine what you can realistically accomplish on your own, and where you need to bring in professional advice or contract out some of the work involved. There are times when it’s worth the money to hire an expert.
And remember: You don’t need to go through this process alone. In fact, you’re likely to achieve better results if you seek the advice and opinions of others. Whether with trusted advisors from your personal networks or with a hired gun whom you’ve thoroughly vetted, collaboration can be the key to success in many business endeavors. Marketing is merely one of them.
Elizabeth is a marketing and communications consultant who specializes in expansion, strategy, and branding. With a background in ecommerce, tech, and lifestyle, she’s written and managed digital media campaigns for websites and corporations including Glamour and Amazon. You can follow her on LinkedIn.