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The 7 Biggest Marketing Mistakes Made By Startups and SMEs?

The 7 Biggest Marketing Mistakes Made By Startups and SMBs?

This post is based on a HARO request for help with an article about marketing mistakes made by startups and small to medium sized businesses (SMBs). I sent the journalist a seven-paragraph outline and I recently heard they might run a single sentence quote from me. So I think it’s only fair I now take advantage of my own work. After all, it took 30 years of experience working with such businesses on their marketing to write it!


Marketing mistake #1 – Not starting with the end in mind

Confession time: I used to be guilty of this mistake until my old friend and business coach Graeme Crosbie made me see the light. In my callow youth (my 20s and 30s) I started businesses and marketing initiatives with little clue about how I wanted them to end. Yes, I had a vague idea of what success was but nothing I could quantify, nothing SMART and defiantly no KPIs to measure where I was on the my road to success.

One of the ‘blinding flashes of the obvious’ I learned from Graeme was to align my personal and business goals. It stops that feeling of being torn between work and family life and, more importantly, helps you to visualize what you want your future life to look like.

Some questions to ask yourself:

  • What results are you looking to achieve via your marketing?
  • How do these compare with where you are now?
  • Can you visualize how these results will be achieved?
  • Can you make it happen without burning out you and your team?
  • How are you going to balance these goals with the rest of your life?


Marketing mistake #2 – No marketing plan, no budget

I estimate 90% of all startups and SMBs ‘fly by the seat of their pants’ with no marketing plan and no budget. They end up jumping from one initiative to another without any strategy or planning. Author of Watertight Marketing, Bryony Thomas, explains why this ‘yo-yo marketing’ is so damaging to a business and exhausting for everyone involved. If this sounds familiar to you, I recommend you read Bryony’s book. Start by setting yourself a 12-month marketing budget and some SMART goals. Then create a more detailed activity plan for the first 90 days to keep you on track. Measure what you do but don’t be afraid to change something it if isn’t working. There’s no point is slavishly sticking to a failing plan!


Marketing mistake #3 – Concentrating on only one marketing channel or activity

Back in the mid 90s I worked for a startup B2B publishing company. We had one marketing channel that worked, and that was direct mail. But sending sales letters by post around the world was slow and expensive, and even in the short time the business had been operating, the return on spend was falling. Fortunately the business owners were young, smart and ambitious. I designed and built their first website and we started to email our prospects to drive traffic to the website. We also experimented with SEO. The business grew rapidly and soon attracted the attention of larger competitors. The owners sold up and ‘retired’ to the South of France, rich and still in their early 30s!

The point of the story is whatever ‘killer’ marketing channel or activity you are using now, I can guarantee you that your results will fall over time. Your marketing has to be a mix of activities that you constantly experiment and measure. Prolonged ‘mono-marketing’ will weaken your business over time, ultimately affecting both its profitability and ability to compete in the market.


Marketing mistake #4 – Not knowing your competition

If you don’t do any initial or ongoing competitor research it’s likely you will either fail to gain traction in the market or lose market share due to an uncompetitive offering.

In 2004 I had a great idea for a new kind of online file sharing solution. At the time I was working with clients in the accountancy and print sectors. Printers were having issues getting designers to use their archaic FTP system while accountancy practices wanted to share documents and Sage backup files with clients securely online.

I teamed up with a former co-worker and ‘tech wizard’ Adam Deacon. We formed a company and created a hosted solution called SecureOffice. In our naïve enthusiasm and haste to create something I failed to research the market properly. We had a good start with our beta testers who already knew us and appreciated what we had created for them. But with time it became obvious that we couldn’t compete on pricing or features with the VC funded startups like Box.net. We eventually sold it (sort of) in 2008. The story of the sale is worthy of a F*ckUp Night, if I can ever bring myself to tell it.

As an aside, that market space is now crowded with free and low cost file hosting and synching solutions as well as specialist integrated solutions for every major sector. And in the last few years many have closed down because they can no longer compete.

Learn from my mistakes. Look out for a future blog post on how to do online competitor research and analysis. I’ll add the link here once it’s published.


Marketing mistake #5 – DIY marketing

Trying to do all your marketing yourself? Good luck with that. An example of this that springs to mind is Pay Per Click advertising. I have lost count of the number of business owners I have seen who throw money at Google AdWords without a clue what they are doing.

Google has earned billions of dollars from business owners running poorly performing campaigns in-house because they were sent some ‘free money’ towards their first ad spend. As we know, Google employs some of the brightest people in the world. And I believe it hasn’t escaped their notice that these vouchers do not create long-term customers. So it’s no surprise that Google seems to have changed tactics, and now sends coupons to its agencies to use with new client accounts.

Having been both a startup and small business owner I know that you need to spend your marketing dollars, euros or even pounds (while they are still worth something) wisely. The smartest thing to do is to actually hire an expert rather than trying to do it all yourself. If you are the business owner or marketing manager in a startup or SMB your should think of yourself as a conductor of a ‘marketing orchestra’ comprised of experts.


Marketing mistake #6 – The ‘Field of Dreams’ website

In the 1989 movie, Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella is an Iowa farmer who builds a baseball diamond in one of his cornfields under the illusion that “if you build it, people will come”. Nearly 30 years later and many business owners are still laboring under that same illusion with their websites.

In my previous UK web design and marketing business I used to recommend clients dedicate just half their initial site budget to the build and the other half to marketing rather than spending their entire budget on the site alone. Nowadays I would recommend spending even less on the site and even more on the marketing. That said, don’t let anyone build your website unless they really understand User Experience (UX) and SEO.

Look at your website as a capital item that you will need to replace every 3 or 4 years, and budget accordingly. Whether this comes out of your marketing budget (you do have one, right?) or somewhere else is between you and your accountant. But don’t forget you will also need to spend money maintaining and enhancing it over its lifetime.

I cannot think of any business where a website is not the hub of its marketing. And while websites have never been as easy and low cost to produce as they are now, marketing your site and business needs to be an ongoing investment.


Marketing mistake #7 – Not measuring your marketing

Last and definitely not least, the conundrum that is marketing measurement.

To paraphrase John Wanamaker, it is almost certain that at least half the money you spend on marketing is being wasted. Why? Because attribution (working out which marketing activity is responsible for which outcome) is still messy and imperfect even today, nearly a century after Wanamaker’s death. But it is getting easier and it’s for this reason that most businesses have shifted (and are continuing to shift) so much of their marketing budget to the more measurable digital techniques and channels.

I started my marketing career in the 1980s working on direct mail and press advertising campaigns. And many of the principles in use in digital marketing today originated there too. The difference today is that you can test so many more offers, creatives and distribution channels than previously possible, and in a fraction of the time and cost. This allows you to measure and optimize every aspect of your marketing like never before. There’s no excuse!

So what should you be measuring? It would be impossible for me to say what marketing metrics would be right for your specific business. But in principle I would try and avoid vanity metrics like the number of visits to your website, clicks on your ads or likes for your tweets. Instead focus on behaviourial outcomes such as the number of goals completed in Google Analytics or conversions made in pay per click ads. Remember, ‘clicks are vanity, conversions are sanity’.

Finally, on the flip side of measuring too little there is measuring too much. I have seen marketing dashboards that wouldn’t look out of place in NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. How many Key Performing Indicators (KPIs) do you really need? The answer is in the name: only the key ones and as few as possible.


Are there bigger startup and SMB marketing mistakes?

Obviously these are just my personal views. So what are the biggest marketing mistakes you have seen or even been responsible for? Let me know in the comments below.


Founder & CEO

Paul is Founder & CEO of 47 Insights. He has been helping software and publishing subscription companies with growth strategies since 1995.

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