In the game of small business, it's all about getting customers, keeping customers and making money. That's the "what" of building a successful small business. But the "how" of getting and keeping customers has been changing so quickly and dramatically that millions of small businesses haven't been able to keep up.

Is Your Sales and Marketing Strategy Stuck in 1979?

If you are still pushing your product or service on customers, or to put it differently, if you are having difficulty selling because you or your salespeople feel like you have to persuade, convince and convert someone to be a customer (almost against their will), you may be confused, frustrated and simply exhausted. WHAT is going on? Why is it so doggone hard to get and keep customers so that you can pay everyone and keep your business afloat?

It's not you per se. It's that everything around us hasn't just shifted, it's transformed how we shop, research, choose and experience products and services.

The days of simply showing and explaining a product or service are long gone. Today's consumer has two things that didn't exist in 1979: a serious case of cynicism and the internet.

Content Strategy Cuts Through Rampant Cynicism

Cynicism has been brewing for decades. Our level of trust in institutions and businesses has taken a tremendous tumble. The 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer tells the sorry tale. The degree to which your customers (and people overall) trust your company impacts what they do and what they say. Beloved companies bask in the kind of adulation and referrals that create ongoing demand and excitement, while untrusted companies are literally swimming upstream of their marketing investments because they have negative momentum working against them.

Content is the sword that slays the beast of cynicism. When you take a moment to think about it, you can see how a solid content strategy will feed your customer's insatiable need for information about your product or service.

The good news for you is that content doesn't have to be a blog post. Content comes in many shapes and sizes, such as videos, e-books, slide presentations, webinars and even social media posts.

The way to eliminate your customer's overwhelming sense of cynicism is to focus your attention on your customer instead of your product or service. Anticipate their questions and concerns, and then educate them on how to make the best choice for them. Leave the pushy sales talk behind and simply focus on helping your customer.

Use Content to Educate, Inform and Set Yourself Apart

The internet has given everyone, including your customers, unfettered access to nearly perfect information: All producers and consumers have access to price, utility and process. And in a world of perfect information, your customer is going to pick the solution with the lowest price. So, if your customers are complaining about price, they have no idea why they should choose you.

This is another area in which highly specialized content can not only save the day, but make your business the ideal choice for your target customer. But before you get to enjoy these results, you'll have to do quite a bit of solid thinking and analysis.

First, you must clearly identify a specific customer to whom you'll be speaking. If you write content for everyone, no one will see themselves in it and you will get nothing.

Identify the person who struggles to do what you do well. Think about the kind of person who wants to be successful, but would rather not deal with the kind of work you do all day long. For example, if you are a certified public accountant (CPA), you could target artists who sell on Etsy instead of small business owners.

Imagine all of the questions, challenges and issues that artists who sell online might run into. This is your opportunity to differentiate yourself from other accountants and become the obvious choice for an audience who will value your insights and services.

Pinpoint, Track and Optimize Your Marketing Message for Pennies

In the past, if you wanted to reach your target audience, you would have to pay tens of thousands of dollars for print advertising or direct mail. Not only was this expensive, but it was extremely difficult to measure and to make adjustments and improvements to your message in a timely manner. The whole process was a lot like playing the slot machines: You throw money at advertising and it gives you nothing.

When you run a content strategy for your small business, you have the ability to target an extremely specific group of people based not only on their demographics and geography, but on their specific likes, affiliations and past behavior. Before the age of Facebook and Google Ads, this kind of strategy was completely out of reach for most small business owners.

While a content strategy is far from free — it still requires investments of time, effort, writing, illustration and advertising — even the most cash-strapped small business owner can leverage the power of targeting and a solid message and generate a flood of ideal customers for just pennies per lead.

This is where creating a content strategy and plan becomes critical to getting the most from your limited marketing budget and time. Map out your customer's buying journey, what questions they have, what resources they will need to make a solid buying decision and when they need to see each of those pieces of content. Use social media with intention. The prevailing wisdom used to be to engage and help your followers at a ratio of 4 to 1. This means that you should have four friendly and helpful messages for every one promotional message. This ratio has increased due to more activity on social media and changes in social media algorithms that focus on paid postings. Consider engaging with your customers organically, having more conversations and answering more questions at a rate of 7 to 1.

Harness the Power of Relationships and Conversations Worldwide

Today's customers aren't just interested in what you are selling; they are interested in who you are and what you stand for. They aren't just looking for a widget or a random service; they are focused on an experience that makes it easy for them to find you, get in touch with you, test and experience your product and service and then continue a relationship with you.

Great content enrolls your prospects into a relationship with you. When you help your customers make sense of their world and your role in helping them, they will connect with you, count on you and, most importantly, recommend you to their friends and family.

As you craft your content strategy, you should look for ways to open up spaces for conversations. You can start by creating a Facebook group and inviting your customers to participate, ask questions and even help each other and share their experiences with your product or service.

You should also consider hosting regular webinars for your customers where you can share tips, tricks and tools to help them accomplish their goals. While these webinars are often instructional, you can use them to preview upcoming product and service updates. You can even use them as an opportunity to ask your customers what challenges they are having and what additional features or services would help them.

Increased Demand for Stories and Storytellers

Content that reaches out and brings loyal customers to you requires a story behind the brand and the business. And for that, you don't just need skilled marketers; you need marketers who are storytellers.

If you're not a natural storyteller, you can get help by looking for people who have a journalism background. This may seem odd if you're trying to find someone to create sales and marketing content, but it's actually a logical choice in the new world of content strategy.

Journalists are not only skilled writers: They are skilled researchers, question askers and storytellers. Your customers are looking for the story behind your business. What journey are you on? What is your mission? Who are the main characters and heroes in the journey, and what obstacles do they face? How do they overcome the obstacles, and what lessons do they have to share?

Many small business owners feel uncomfortable with this approach, but content is a necessity. Engaging content gets results, and today's customers are attracted to great storytelling.

You Need Content Strategy and Content Marketing

"You've got to be very careful if you don't know where you are going because you might not get there." — Yogi Berra

There is a subtle and important difference between content marketing and content strategy. Content marketing is the process of using content to engage, educate and move your audience through a buying process, and ultimately get them to choose you and buy from you. Content strategy, on the other hand, is focused on the creation and management of useful content.

Robert Rose, chief strategy officer for the Content Marketing Institute, puts it this way: "The content marketer addresses the 'whys,' the content strategist addresses the 'hows,' and together they work out the 'whats' and 'wheres.'"

How to Get Your Business Back to the Future

Content strategy and content marketing isn't new. Benjamin Franklin didn't have to deal with the internet and perfect information or customers complaining about price, but he knew that he had to get the word out about his printing company. And he used a content strategy to do exactly that. "Poor Richard's Almanack" (published from 1732 to 1758) was so popular that it sold 10,000 copies per year!

The game of business has never changed: It's all about getting and keeping profitable customers. As you can see, while the "hows" of this process have evolved, the fundamentals are still the same. If you understand the "why" behind your business, focus on a specific customer, and use your unique mix of online and offline content to help your ideal customer down the path of solving their problem, they will choose you.

Tags: Small Business. Big Influence Marketing Campaigns customer loyalty Customer Relationships