As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, small businesses need to be looking at ways of reaching out to more customers. However, given the massive hit most businesses have taken due to pandemic-related restrictions, they may not have the budget for an expensive marketing campaign.
That being said, small businesses can utilize word-of-mouth and partnership marketing as effective and inexpensive strategies to not only build relationships, but increase business, as well.
“It's important that people know that you're still in business, how you're pivoting,” says small business marketing expert Melissa Forziat in a recent webinar. “Make sure you're building your community through this time, because your community is what's going to see you to the other side of this pandemic—and I think the businesses that are doing the best right now are the ones who never stopped checking in with [their] community.”
One way businesses can expand their marketing and reach new markets is by partnering with other businesses.
The first step is to identify businesses you can partner with, and Forziat provides four criteria:
“Let's say I make shoes and you make shoe laces,” Forziat gives as an example. “There’s a lot of ways that we can work together, even at the production level.”
Even if you have different business models or products and services, you can still partner with them if you have the same target demographic.
“If I reach mothers of two-year-olds, and you reach mothers of two-year-olds, we can help each other reach mothers of two-year-olds,” says Forziat. “We may have people in our respective audiences that the other person has not reached, and that's great because you just reached some new people in your audience or in your target market.”
However, even if you and your partner reach the same audience, it’s still beneficial because they are “validating the customer at every step along the way, by supporting each other and being vocal about it.”
The definition of “hyper-local” differs depending on what kind of business you have. For online businesses, that could mean simply searching for geographic regions that pop up the most in your search engine optimization. But for brick-and-mortar, that could literally mean the storefront across the street from you.
Forziat gives an example of a local comedy theater that she used to work at. One time, a celebrity couple came to town, asked about things to do and were recommended a visit to the theater. However, they took a wrong turn but luckily were redirected to the theater when they entered a local sandwich shop. It became a news sensation that this celebrity couple showed up, and the comedy theater generated a considerable amount of buzz and attention from it.
“Why not know for sure that the businesses around you are going to refer you? You better believe since that time, that comedy theater has hosted Chamber of Commerce events, they have gifted a couple free tickets to the employees of all of the shops around them,” says Forziat. “So that when somebody comes in and [asks what to do] in this town…whether they're an A-list celebrity or not, they're going to get a referral to go to this theater, because they built those relationships and they made sure people knew who they are.”
When it comes to the competition, Forziat doesn’t necessarily recommend partnering directly with them, but she says they can be a great way to gain ideas.
“COVID has really opened some people's eyes up to what your competitors can do because I've seen a lot of competitors reaching across the aisle to say what is happening in our industry and how do we save it?” she says. “Even if you've got an industry that has a lot of competitors, could you form a little mini alliance with a couple so that you are really carving out a piece of that market for yourselves?”
Once you’ve identified who you want to partner with, now you’ve got to think about what that partnership will look like.
Forziat says to ask yourself, “Are you looking to grow your business in some way? Categorically, can you help each other with that? If the answer is yes, now you get to a tactical conversation to find what kind of support would be beneficial.”
Partnerships can be as simple as keeping each other informed of events that are coming up on the calendar and helping to promote each other via social media, to more complex partnerships like hosting a co-branded event or joint offering.
“So the real message I want to get across to you is [with] any type of marketing, you could probably do it better with a friend,” Forziat believes. “Can you layer somebody else in and get more reach for the things that you're doing? That's the question to ask, because at the end of the day, you want to help your community to help you.”
Although word-of-mouth marketing is a powerful tool to a business’s success, it comes with its own risks, says Forziat. The first thing businesses need to be cognizant of is how other people talk about what they do. Sometimes people describe it accurately, sometimes they get it slightly wrong, and other times they get it really wrong. In order to avoid those inaccuracies, which can create uncomfortable situations, Forziat encourages business owners to be proactive about it and utilize controlled messaging.
“Word-of-mouth seems like a great thing, but is it accurate? And the only way that you can control that to any degree is to start planting the message you want circulating,” explains Forziat, “which means be simple and concise in what you're planting with other people. Give them your business name, and then give them maximum four to seven keywords.”
For example, Forziat says that her “elevator pitch” would be, “I help small businesses market on a budget.” Whatever your chosen keywords are for your business, she says it’s imperative to keep “peppering in” those words when talking with others so they are ingrained in people’s minds.
“[Just] make sure it's a phrase that's kind of a sentence,” Forziat advises. “You want to give them something that they can really hook together.”
“Now, the second key is being the catalyst—actually do something with this message,” states Forziat. “So what I would recommend doing is taking an inventory of the people you know, especially if you're early in your business [or] you're pivoting. Let's see who could potentially be a part of your process.”
To start, Forziat suggests by reclassifying your contacts based off of how well you know them and then tailoring your messaging to fit your needs. Whether they are business contacts or people you knew from school, they could all become an important part of your marketing network.
“I'm not likely to say the same exact message to everybody in the same place,” she explains. “I'm going to give more information to the people I know really well. I'm going to give less information to the people who are just acquaintances that I don't talk to very often.”
If one of your contacts does result in a business lead, it’s important to follow up with the person who connected you.
“There's nothing more awkward than just dropping that contact and then not being sure what to say to the person who originally made the referral,” Forziat says. “So have a plan for how you will connect with the person that has been introduced to you, so that you can just execute it instead of having to think about it.”
Loop them back into the conversation, or simply follow up with them to let the referrer know what happened. “If it's really valuable to you to have those referrals in your business, I even would have a gifting plan in my business—like I will give a gift and often get another referral right on the back of it,” she adds.