Marketing Methods Are Low-Cost, High-Tech
People do not clean the way they did 50 years ago, and although distributors have updated their product offerings to address technological advances (microfiber mops and touch-free dispensers, for example), many of them haven’t been as quick to adapt their marketing campaigns to the modern era. Overlooking the benefits of the Internet and e-mail, however, could be a costly mistake.
Marketing is one of the most important aspects of building and sustaining a successful jan/san distribution business. In today’s high-tech marketplace, the Internet and e-mail are some of the best tools available for advertising. In fact, savvy use of these low-cost electronic media can give small businesses a leg up.
“Technology is good for all businesses, small and large,” says Cathy Veri, principal of Marketecture (www.marketecture.biz), a marketing consultancy based in Canton, Mich. “It enables small companies to do more with less people and gives them the impression of being professional and quite possibly larger than they really are.”
High-tech marketing is not a panacea. When used to augment other traditional methods, however, it has proven highly effective for many innovative distributors.
“Although we’re relatively new to electronic marketing tools we are very excited with the results,” says Eric Peabody, executive vice president of Clark National Inc., Elk Grove Village, Ill.
Clark National turned to the Internet and e-mail for marketing two years ago. It now has an online customer assistance program, publishes e-newsletters for internal and external customers, and tracks its sales incentive programs using online registrations. “At this point, most of our marketing on a corporate level is either totally electronic or in some way enabled electronically,” Peabody says.
Even if a distributor is not ready or able to convert all of its marketing to high-tech methods, there are many ways it can augment its current efforts using the Internet and e-mail.
Spin A Marketing Web
Modern customers expect a business to have a Web site — it’s as common these days as a phone or fax.
“Having a Web site has become almost as crucial as having a business card. It tells prospects that you’re in the game, and it and sends a subtle message that you’re technologically savvy,” says Roberta Guise of Guise Marketing & PR in San Francisco.
Before rushing to join the 21st century, however, it’s important to take baby steps and focus on professionalism when creating a Web site. The first step is to register a domain name, which can be done online or with the help of a professional.
The next step is to design the site, which is always best left to a pro. True, a novice Internet user can create a rudimentary Web page, but an unrefined Web site is really no better than not having a site at all. For maximum impact, a distributor’s site should include online ordering, which is a complicated function to create.
“Find a professional who knows marketing, who will walk you through the thinking steps and processes for developing your site,” Guise says. “Don’t waste money on hiring a relative or friend to design your site, unless they are in the Web site development business. I have yet to see a Web site developed for free by a family member last more than a year or two. That’s about how long it takes to realize that your site doesn’t work for you, and that you need to start over.”
Think you can continue to thrive without a Web site? Maybe so, but that’s probably a shortsighted plan. Just as your products are changing, so too are your customers. Younger generations are more comfortable with the Web and many actually prefer it to face-to-face interaction.
“There are some customers who want to order online and use the Internet and that’s why we have this feature,” says Mike Sulkin, president of LBH Chemical & Industrial Supply Inc., Ft. Wayne, Ind. “We were able to secure a large customer by having the ability to order online. It saves them time calling a sales rep and waiting for a call back.”
In fact, Clark National, which partners with a professional marketing firm, landed several major new accounts specifically because of its online customer service program, www.clarkhelps.com.
Be sure your Web site functions as more than just an electronic brochure. Create an “Ask-The-Expert” section, provide links to valuable resources, or post articles you’ve written about products or cleaning methods.
“The Web provides countless opportunities to provide value,” Guise says. “Your Web site can be a generous hub of information.”
In addition to a Web site, businesses should also explore other Internet marketing opportunities. Posting in chat rooms or at online forums allows a distributor to be seen as an expert in his industry. Also, the Web offers a wealth of market data that can be used to create more effective advertising or to reach a more targeted audience.
Create A Virtual In-Box
To most people, the idea of writing a letter longhand, attaching a stamp, and sticking it in a mailbox seems as archaic as the crank phone. Thanks to e-mail, communication is instant.
“How can you survive without e-mail?” asks Veri. “E-mail is vital to all information exchange and should be a large part of every distributor’s day, whether it’s internal communications or external with customers.”
When it comes to advertising, e-mail offers the most cost-effective way to reach customers. An e-mail message eliminates the printing and postage expenses associated with traditional direct mail pieces. E-mail is also extremely flexible, allowing for promotion of last-minute sales or for creating personalized messages or promotions for particular customers.
How do you get started with e-mail marketing? The first step is to generate a list of e-mail addresses. Have salespeople get the information from current customers and “capture” addresses each time a new customer makes a purchase (be sure to include a place for the information on your Web ordering form). To get e-mail addresses for potential customers, ask for the information during sales calls and at trade shows.
Be sure your list is voluntary. Inform everyone who provides an e-mail address about how you plan to use it. Include an opt-out link on each email you send, and be sure to remove people who select this option from your list immediately. Gaining permission to use a person’s e-mail address is beneficial because it means the people you are contacting want to hear your message and they are more likely to respond favorably.
Don’t overuse your list or you’ll run the risk of your e-mails being dismissed as spam. Send no more than one e-mail a week; one e-mail a month is probably sufficient. And be sure your e-mails offer something of value. For example, create an e-newsletter that discusses emerging trends in the industry. Or, send coupons that can be used for online purchases.
“We use e-mail to communicate to our customers, but most people we deal with get annoyed when they receive marketing e-mails,” Sulkin says.
Finally, be sure to track the results of your electronic marketing efforts. Use a software program to keep notes on which offers went to which customer and who made purchases. This simple system will help you evaluate the success of each e-mail and will allow you to make tweaks to future efforts where necessary.
Join The Future Now
Marketing experts agree that businesses of the future must tap into the power of the Internet and e-mail if they are to succeed. They also agree, however, that these electronic methods alone are not enough.
“Internet and e-mail are effective when they are carried out as part of a clear-cut marketing plan,” Guise says. “Use technology as your primary keep-in-touch marketing tool, but be careful not to let it displace the one-on-one personal contacts with customers and prospects that are vital for developing and deepening relationships.”
LBH Chemical & Industrial Supply learned that lesson the hard way when it spent too much time and money developing a sophisticated online ordering system that is used by only 5 percent of its customers. Although the company needs the system, Sulkin says in retrospect, the company should have dedicated fewer resources to its creation.
“This is still a people-to-people business,” Sulkin says. “We have a sales force that calls on customers and potential customers. We concentrate on helping customers solve cleaning problems as well as training. We find that nothing beats personal service.”
Old-fashioned one-on-one service may still trump all other marketing efforts, but that shouldn’t scare distributors away from high-tech methods. After all, in this industry, Veri says, “You cannot do things the way you used to do them forever.”
Becky Mollenkamp is a Des Moines, Iowa-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to SM.
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