When Word-of-Mouth Is No Longer Enough

“There are four ways, and only four ways, in which we have contact with the world. We are evaluated and classified by these four contacts: what we do, how we look, what we say, and how we say it.” – Dale Carnegie

You’ve been lucky. Most of your customers or clients have come to you through word-of-mouth. Aside from occasionally handing out your tri-fold brochure (which is probably outdated by now), you’ve never had to do anything to promote your product or services.

But the phone isn’t ringing quite as much as it used to – and you suspect you’re going to have to do something a little more proactive (see Word to the Wise, below) pretty soon. But what?

There are so many marketing tools that it can be overwhelming to decide which to use and in what order. Should you do a mass mailing? Take out an ad in the newspaper? Put up a website (even though most of your business is local)?

Here, in a nutshell, are the three most effective and cost-efficient marketing tools and tactics for anyone who is self-promoting their product or service:

1. Expand your universe with networking.

There are tons of networking events to attend – too many, actually. Too many ways to meet people you’ll never see again. Too many opportunities to accumulate a stack of business cards you’ll never look at again.

But networking isn’t a contest to see how many names you can collect. The purpose of networking is to get to know a variety of people over time, and continue to nurture those relationships. Because you never know when or how one of them will be important to you.

So make it your goal to get involved with one or two organizations where your prospects tend to gather, and let them get to know you. Extend your hand and introduce yourself. Contribute to your community. Join the board of your local library or volunteer to organize a bake sale at a local school. Be visible.

2. Keep in touch.

The best way to stay in touch with everyone who’s expressed interest in your product or service is with a regular marketing vehicle – what I call a “loop.” This is something you do the same way, like clockwork, quarterly or even monthly. So you don’t have to keep reinventing the marketing wheel.

Sending out a simple e-mail newsletter is the easiest and least expensive loop around. (Don’t worry. This isn’t about spam.) It’s a great way to keep in touch with – and keep your name in front of – those with whom you have (or would like to have) a working relationship. This includes past, current, and possibly future customers, as well as vendors and colleagues, even friends and family.

An e-mail newsletter accomplishes many things at once. It’s the ideal medium to showcase what you do, share your knowledge, and build credibility. At the same time, you spread the word about whatever it is that you’re selling and distinguish yourself from your competition. An e-mail newsletter also drives traffic to your website in a much more reliable and controllable way than search engines. And, best of all, e-mail serves as a prompt for your recipients. When they get a message from you, it reminds them of a need they have that you can take care of for them.

If e-mail marketing doesn’t appeal to you, there are other loops. For example, you can send a monthly direct-mail newsletter or postcard to everyone on your list. Peleg Top of Top Design (www.topdesign.com) has been sending out a monthly calendar for 10 years. Here’s why he keeps doing it: “Sending monthly calendars has proven to be one of the best self-promotion efforts we’ve ever done. It keeps us in front of clients and prospects on a regular basis in a very subtle way. By now, people expect to get them and always call when their mail is late. Definitely the best return on my marketing efforts.”

Whichever loop you choose, the trick is to use it regularly. Everyone in your network will look forward to hearing from you. And since you don’t have to start from scratch with a new marketing effort every month or quarter (which is a lot of work), chances are you’ll keep doing it.

3. Launch a website.

In 2005, it’s just plain unprofessional to say, “I don’t have a website.” It’s almost like saying you don’t have a telephone. There’s really no excuse. Having a presence on the Web goes a long way toward legitimizing your business to the world. Even customers looking for local services go to the Web to check out what’s available before they pick up the phone.

At the very least, you should have a one-page site with a blurb about your services or products and contact information. You can develop a more complex site later – with examples of your work, descriptions of the various services you offer, and glowing testimonials from clients. You can also create a resource-rich site – with links to related sites and articles – to position yourself as an authority in your field and make your site more popular in Google’s eyes.

Once your site is up, make sure you haven’t forgotten the most important element – the one thing without which you might as well not have a site at all. I’m talking about a way to capture the contact information of visitors to your site – prospects who find you when they are in need of the kind of thing you’re offering. You might, for example, do this with a box where they can enter their e-mail address in exchange for receiving a free report or your regular (or occasional) e-mail newsletter.

This relates directly back to suggestion #2 – regularly keeping in touch. Because you can’t keep in touch with customers and qualified prospects if you don’t have their contact information. In fact, if you don’t offer them a “bait piece” (and the best is free information), you’ll never know who visited your site and you’ll never be able to tell them more about why they should spend their money with you.

[Ed. Note: Ilise Benun, author of “Self Promotion Online” and “Designing Websites For Every Audience,” is the founder of Marketing Mentor, a 6-month one-on-one coaching program through which the self-employed learn how to promote their talents and services. Sign up for her free e-mail tips at www.marketing-mentor.com.]