Marketing a small business or entrepreneurial effort can seem overwhelming, but doing nothing could be the demise of a business altogether.

I often meet business owners who tell me they know they need to market themselves, but have no idea even where to begin. “Do I need a website, or  a brochure?”, “Who do I market to, and how?”, “What’s the best way to showcase my work”, “Marketing is expensive and I just don’t have the money right now.” These are some of the most common questions and concerns I hear from business owners. My most consistent response is, “No matter what, do something, and start now.”

When economic times are good, putting marketing efforts on the back burner is a common practice. After all, if business is good, why market? Prospects seem to just fall in your lap. Voila! The downside is that when potential customers and clients stop falling out of thin air, your problem is two-fold; you have no business coming in, and no prospects in “the pipeline” (which means no income) AND you have no tools or strategy to hit the ground running and drum up more business. Everyone stumbles into this pitfall at one point or another, the key is to only make the mistake once.

The upside to marketing when the economy is terrible, is that when the market bounces back, you’re business is top of mind with potential buyers who now have the ability to purchase. You might not see immediate results, but the potential payoff down the line could be significant. The upside to marketing consistently, is that you have an established system in place, with a supporting toolkit, that allows you to (almost) effortlessly continue getting the message out about your business on a daily, weekly, or monthly cycle, which increases your visibility and keeps you fresh in people’s minds. When they need what you have, you are the first person they think to call.

The top three things every business should have

1. A Unique Identity

A unique identity is NOT a stock logo that you buy for $25 or $50 from the online printer. Even though it seems unlikely, given all the choices they offer, that another business in your area, or worse, in your industry, might have chosen that exact same stock logo — the odds are actually very good that it will happen. (I’ve personally seen this happen at least five times, just in the city of Denver.) It will be embarrassing to you when it happens, and could damage your reputability. A unique identity is NOT what you throw together on your computer with Photoshop Lite or Corel Draw and some clip art (note: “clip-art” is a four letter word in the world of art and design). Even if you have a great idea for a logo, and happen to have some quality tools like Adobe Illustrator at your disposal, execution and file format are critical. Poor quality stands out like a sore thumb and is a reflection of how your business is perceived, like it or not.

Ask around in your networking and friend circles. By my estimate, there are 2 degrees of separation between anyone and a designer. At the very least, a good designer can execute your idea properly for an affordable fee (not for free). A good designer will also be up front with you about how effective your idea will be in representing and promoting your business. (Don’t take it personally. It’s a designer’s job to help you represent your company in the best possible light.) So, maybe you don’t have $1,500 or more to spend on an identity and branding package. Don’t panic… and please step away from the stock logo. Take a little time to ask around and find a quality designer to work with who fits your budget, (or give me a call).

2. Business Cards

Business cards are a must, and these days you can get just about any kind of business card for a reasonable amount of money. Two-sided, non-standard shape, smaller, larger, die-cut, letterpress, 2-color, 4-color… the list goes on. Granted, the more bells and whistles you desire, the more it will cost, but if you can live without all the bells and whistles for a while, an affordable business card is within reach. Again, quality and execution matter, and while I’ve seen some impressive homemade business cards, usually “homemade” screams “HOMEMADE” and detracts from the positive message you want to send about your business.

3. Web Presence

A web presence is something most businesses should have. There might be some obscure industries whose customers don’t use the internet, but I haven’t found one yet. You do your business a grave disservice by not having at least a basic business website with your contact information and a description of your product or service. It’s an extension of your business card and a selling tool to help people decide to buy whatever it is you have to offer. Many hosting companies offer “site builders” that allow you to do-it yourself and build a basic website with text and images. I know I sound like a broken record by now, but again I stress the importance of quality and execution. We’ve all been to “that website” that either screams “I DID IT MYSELF!” or “Who designed this terrible website that I can’t find what I need on, and that doesn’t work properly.”

Don’t be “that business”. In this day and age, there is no excuse for a bad website. Newer software and technologies make it possible to build stunning (and functional) websites that don’t cost a fortune, but having someone who knows about that technology and how to implement it effectively will make all the difference to customers and potential customers who visit your site. Your website is often the first impression you will make on a potential client, and we all know you don’t get a second chance to make one of those. Depending on what your essential, immediate needs are, a designer can help you evaluate what you need now and what can wait to be added later, and many designers will work with you on pricing and/or a payment schedule that suits your immediate needs.

Social media (LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) and a business blog can help you increase your visibility on the web and promote your expertise. If you find yourself saying “I don’t have the time or the patience to learn about social media or implement it”, first, you should know that you can set up a social media strategy that allows you to minimize the time you put into it, while maximizing the potential benefit to your business. Second, you should know there are consultants who specialize in Social Media Management services.

They will get you set up with a strategy and a schedule, and can even manage your online presence, so you are freed up to run your business, but still regularly interacting in online communities and making important connections. I use social media and I have a business blog, but it is not my area of expertise. My favorite SMM consultant is Debi Davis of 3D Communications. She is by far the most knowledgeable and insightful person I know – and my go-to guru – when it comes to Social Media. She offers social media management for almost any size company, free initial evaluations, and she offers a wide range of pricing packages to suit any business budget.

These are just the foundational materials every business should have. As you get up and running, there are a multitude of other tools at your disposal that a design consultant can recommend and implement for you. We eat, sleep and breathe how to help people market themselves better because that’s what we love doing. We know where to go to get the latest information, software, technology, trends, helpful hints and useful free stuff. You don’t have to have a million dollars to have a quality business presence, you just have to know where to go and who to ask. ✻

p.s. You can always ask me.

Image: Self-Promotional Packet © 2011 cg design house.