Technology has changed things, but customer relationships are still paramount.
Not long ago, business managers realized that the Internet would change everything, especially marketing. With the click of a mouse, millions of potential customers could be reached. Although that revolution has come to pass and online platforms have matured, the takeaway for business owners is this: The more marketing has changed, the more it’s stayed the same.
While business owners have embraced digital marketing, to varying degrees, there is plenty of evidence that long-standing traditional methods of reaching customers and prospects are still working. Relationship building is still important. Connecting face-to-face
still reaps rewards. And one satisfied customer still leads to others.
What’s changed is that getting to that personal touch can be expedited and enhanced by cyber methods. For example, Colin Touhey, co-founder and CEO of Pvilion Inc., a Brooklyn, N.Y., firm that designs and manufactures flexible PV solar structures and products, mines information online to more quickly and easily find the people he wants to reach.
“It’s amazingly easy to get contact information through the computer these days,” Touhey says. “Why circuitously place an ad with the intent of the right people seeing it? I’d rather find those people directly, get their phone numbers and email addresses, and end up in front of them at their offices. I want people to see me, not an ad.”
Having a presence at conventions and conferences is a common practice for business-to-business operations, but Pvilion eschews that practice as well, Touhey says.
“We think it’s better to invite people to our office, where they can see the solar panels, where they can touch them,” he explains. “But we never want it to feel like a sales meeting. It’s more about ‘let’s work together on something when the time is right.’”
Michael Woody, CEO of Trans-Tex LLC in Cranston, R.I., a provider of narrow web printing services and products (such as lanyards), agrees with Touhey that “It’s all about developing personal relationships.” But he forges those relationships in a slightly different way.
Woody is chairman of IFAI’s Narrow Fabrics Institute, a position he says “raises our visibility with companies that are both customers and suppliers, and are also referral sources for Trans-Tex. That volunteer involvement is probably our major marketing effort.”
SHADE Industries® of Phoenix, Ariz., which designs, fabricates and installs shade structures, mainly for the commercial market, also “thrives on relationships,” according to president Conrad Masterson, who says he develops them through “warm” calling.
“We’ll see a set of plans someone has with a shade sail on it, and if we have some reason to believe the people involved might have an interest in our product, we’ll try to introduce ourselves,” Masterson explains.
“We’re trying to get that job,” he adds, “but what we’re really trying to do is build a relationship with that individual, with the hope of being in the process earlier when the next project comes up.”
THE ONLINE IMPERATIVE
At the same time, these business owners say they know that in this day and age, they can’t ignore online marketing tools, if for no other reason than a company can be conspicuous by its absence. Customers and prospects expect to find a company’s website or social media account when they Google a business. In addition, they say, business will come in through the Web, directly or indirectly, even if it is not a company’s main marketing tool.
“Pvilion has a website, and we do social media,” Touhey says, “but the only reason we have a social presence is to say we have one, rather than for it to have a legitimate impact on sales. It’s more about brand building than anything else.”
On the other hand, he adds, because what Pvilion does lends itself well to visuals, photos of the company’s work often show up on clients’ Pinterest boards, which Touhey sees as another way to build its brand. “We like it because it’s organic,” he says, “and because it’s not on an account we operate, it doesn’t feel like an ad.”
Trans-Tex’s website is important because there are not many companies that focus exclusively on narrow web dye sublimation printing, Woody says. “If you do an online search for anything related to what we do, you’ll find Trans-Tex pretty quickly, and that does help generate prospects.”
But Trans-Tex does not do social media, Woody says. “We are typically part of a supply chain, so we’re hesitant to put ourselves out front,” he explains. “Many narrow web manufacturers who use our printing as a service may not want their customers knowing we’re doing the printing.”
SHADE Industries also gains some business through its website, Masterson says, because like Trans-Tex, it is high in search engine listings for its particular market, custom-installed shade sails.
SHADE engages in social media, Masterson says, but its Facebook page, for example, is not a high priority when it comes time to rank marketing efforts. There’s a straightforward explanation for that, according to Masterson: “Social media keeps us in front of people, but I don’t know that Facebook has ever brought us any business.”
When looking for a company that has embraced all things digital, a good example might be Aztec Tents, which manufactures tents, canopies and semi-permanent fabric structures in Torrance, Calif. The reason, simply, is that marketing online allows the company to quantify the results of its efforts, says Aztec vice president Alex Kouzmanoff.
“Whether it’s with our quarterly newsletters or the digital advertising we do through trade publications or social media, we’re able to much better gauge what succeeds and what doesn’t,” he says.
Although it’s more difficult to establish a return on investment from advertising in print publications, Aztec still very much maintains a presence in that market. “It’s important for us in terms of establishing our brand and conveying our brand messages,” Kouzmanoff says. Even in the digital age, he notes, “a lot of people still read print magazines.”
It’s a mistake, however, to assume that Aztec does all its marketing work online or in print. Kouzmanoff says the company’s “number one marketing asset” is the sales and service staff at its California headquarters and around the country. “They are the quintessential piece of what we profess to do—service and support, and attention to detail,” he says. “It’s such an important piece of our business. They really are the leading edge of our marketing front.”
Whatever the marketing tool used, Kouzmanoff says, the goal at Aztec is always to “create an intimate feel between our company and the people who are buying our products.” Even in today’s high-tech world, these business managers agree: the relationships that make that happen take more than the click of a mouse.
Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer from Minneapolis, Minn.
Charlene Clark had a 23-year career as a marketer in the corporate world before joining her husband, Chandler Clark, in opening Signature CanvasMakers, a full-service marine canvas shop in Hampton, Va. The trick to marketing her own company, Clark quickly learned, was figuring out how to do more with less.
“As a small business, with five full-time employees, our marketing budget is extremely limited, and for some shops, it’s almost nonexistent,” Clark says. “I knew when we started that I needed to find creative and inexpensive ways to get the word out about our business.”
She started out by taking advantage of every free marketing opportunity she could find. “I did listings on Google Places, Yahoo and AOL Local and Yelp,” she says. “I started a Facebook page for the business and invited as many people as I possibly could to ‘like’ our page.”
She knew the company needed a website as well, Clark says, but without a budget to hire someone to build it, she did it herself using a templated format.
Clark did commit dollars to a modest Google AdWords program, starting with a cost-per-click of $5 per day. The key, she explains, was finding a tool that allowed her to use keywords and target a specific geographic area and customer interests. “We still don’t do much paid advertising except for AdWords,” Clark says. “But I’ve been able to tweak and fine-tune the program over the years to really maximize our exposure.”
Offline “grassroots” marketing is important to Signature as well, according to Clark. “We conduct seminars on canvas care and materials at local yacht clubs, which really helps build credibility and trust with prospective and existing customers,” she says. The company also sponsors local and regional boating events and regattas.
Small fabricators who do their marketing in-house, Clark says, need to keep their efforts simple. “Know your market and who you want to target,” she says. “Spend time figuring out what results you want to achieve based on your budget. When budgets are small, you have to maximize the return on your investment.”
With online marketing, Clark says, there is no need to commit to long or expensive advertising or marketing programs. “You can test short-term ads and change and update your messages to keep the conversation relevant and engaging. You can see what works and what doesn’t in close to real-time. You can see the immediate ROI impact.”
A decision that faces most businesses that do marketing—and what business doesn’t?—is whether to rely on outside assistance or to employ in-house expertise.
Aztec Tents of Torrance, Calif., uses the first approach and Fabric Images Inc. of Elgin, Ill., the second, but both have found success doing marketing their own ways.
Aztec, a company that boasts 120 employees, relies extensively on an outside agency for public relations and marketing functions. However, that agency works closely with Aztec staff, according to vice president Alex Kouzmanoff.
“We view our agency as a think tank,” Kouzmanoff says, “churning the butter a little bit, providing new ideas and new concepts. It’s really about helping us with creative direction.”
The key to success in working with outside help, Kouzmanoff says, is the quality of the relationship between the client and the agency. “We have had a long-term relationship with our agency,” he says, “so we really think of each other as an extension of our own companies. We know them, and they know us. The expectations are clear.”
An internal marketing work group at Aztec works with the agency on strategies, with most of the execution, such as ad production and website and social media updates, being done by in-house staff, Kouzmanoff says.
Fabric Images, a provider of printed and non-printed tensioned fabric architecture, has approximately 115 U.S. employees. The company takes a different marketing approach from Aztec, employing a two-person in-house team and no agency, according to Allison Pocewicz, marketing coordinator.
Pocewicz’s group is responsible for providing content and collateral to Fabric Images’ sales staff, as well as maintaining an active presence on a wide variety of social media forums.
Pocewicz works with annual and quarterly marketing plans. These plans may be adjusted as necessary throughout the year, but they provide a level of organization necessary to stay on top of content planning and generation and seven social media accounts. “Everything is scheduled so that we don’t miss anything, and it helps us keep our messages consistent,” she says.
A clear strategic direction is critical when trying to do so much with a small team, Pocewicz says. “Looking at things strategically is very helpful,” she says. “It lets us be purposeful in what we’re doing, and provides a better return for our investment.”