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Spotlight on Walden // May 15, 2014

Building Buzz: From Best-Kept Secret to Successful Small Business

Editor’s note: With more than 24 years of business experience, Dr. Bruce Huang specializes in general management, product strategy, and strategic marketing. He is a former IBM executive who has also started several of his own successful businesses. As a core faculty member in the School of Management’s Master of Business Administration (MBA) program, he has been providing his expertise to students for more than a decade. In recognition of National Small Business Week, Dr. Huang shares his ideas about building buzz.

You came up with an idea, developed a plan, and finally started your own small business. Now, you have a great new product or service. But as a small business, your resources are likely limited, so how can you make potential customers aware of what your company has to offer and “build buzz” to attract even more?

This is a common dilemma for small businesses, whether they’re brand-new or more mature after building on early success. As someone who’s started businesses in the software and education sectors, I’ve experienced it myself. However, today’s technological advancements, combined with some smart marketing and an understanding of your own strengths, can help you be efficient and effective in spreading the word about your business. Here are a few ideas to get started:

Sharpen your focus on who is your customer. As a small business owner, you need to know how to target and segment your market, understand the need your product or service addresses, and develop messaging about your company’s value proposition. A class, workshop, or degree in marketing can help you hone your skills.

Use the Web and social media strategically. Social media may seem like the most obvious place to build awareness. There’s no cost involved, and nearly everyone uses Facebook, Twitter, and similar sites these days. But being able to access everyone provides no real advantage to a small business in search of customers in a specific market. Simply put, thousands of “likes” on Facebook are unlikely to translate into even a dollar more in sales or revenue.

Every small business needs a Web presence, and your website provides a way to use social media strategically. Create a page with customer feedback, including positive Yelp and Facebook comments and links to these reviews. Not many small businesses “double dip” like this, but it’s a good strategy to increase awareness and build buzz.

When you use social media, choose the right one for your needs. Facebook is best to push out information, while Yelp helps to pull in people looking for a particular business type or industry. If you offer a professional service, LinkedIn can be an effective place to network.

Know when to seek outside expertise. Understand what you do well, and then use your time and money wisely. Hire someone else to build your website if you lack the expertise or experience to do it yourself. You can find low-cost freelance workers on websites such as oDesk and Elance, but take care to hire only high-quality, credible people. For example, it may be tempting to choose someone who promises a large number of positive comments for your company, but a fabricated claim like this could lead to Google blacklisting your website.

Consider the customer king. When you develop positive relationships with customers and provide a product or service they value, they become your best marketing agents. Word-of-mouth recommendations help generate business, so 100 satisfied customers have far more impact than 1,000 “likes” on Facebook.

Leverage your community. No small business owner is truly alone. Regardless of your company’s size, you’re part of an ecosystem of professional relationships that includes your customers, bankers, and other community members. Getting involved in local activities and professional associations, whether online or in person, increases awareness of your small business. Participating in a community program with a social mission allows you to do something meaningful and also creates a positive image for your company. As a member of the Walden community, you’re part of another ecosystem. After you take a class, stay in touch with faculty and classmates. When time and resources are limited, success depends on leveraging all of your relationships.

How will you know when you’ve accomplished your goal? The easiest measure is revenue, but it’s also the value customers see in your company’s product or service. Customers who want to return indicate that you’ve established a great foundation for future success, even if your business is still new or small.