One of the biggest challenges a small business faces is allocating marketing dollars. And that becomes an even greater challenge when considering marketing a small business online.

Often the game is about cash flow. And with that comes risk. The way you avert the risk is to track performance of marketing efforts back to sales.

Unfortunately you can’t always track dollars spent on marketing back to sales. As much as people will want to tell you that… it isn’t actually true. That is because marketing involves a lot of activities that are way “up front.”

You can track advertising dollars back to sales… but that is just one aspect of marketing, and it is back –end marketing , meaning that you have to have done the right marketing to have something to advertise.

I think that one of the biggest discrepancies small business owners make is when they do not distinguish between marketing, sales, and advertising. And that is why they wind up either not spending money on marketing, under spending money, or wasting money with their marketing.

Marketing is a discipline. It needs to be a way of doing business. It is a constant conversation with the customer base, potential customer base, and stakeholder network that makes your business work.

A conversation requires the following…

The Four I’s of The Marketing Conversation

Intent – Marketing, like a conversation, involves a decision to engage. Even “overhearing” a conversation or “listening in” on a conversation that you were not necessarily invited into requires a decision. Conversations will happen with or without you, and your customers continue with or without you… the idea is to make sure that you are engaged in the right conversations. Are you entering the marketing conversation to grow your business or are you honestly just trying to maintain your business?

Interest – You can read this as a vested interest where you have something you want to say, or a genuine interest in which you want to know what someone else has to say. In the context of the small business you need to have both. But is must start with a genuine interest. You must want to know what you customer has to say.

Information – In the context of both marketing and conversations the “information” represents what you bring that is of value and is relevant to the market, your customers, or the conversation. And, just as in conversations, if you have nothing to respond with – nothing relevant or of value – it is best to follow the old proverb, “If you don’t have anything good to say, it is best to say nothing at all.” Of course, for our purposes of marketing and driving our business, we need to stay in the conversation until we have something to say. Some people call it market research… because you have to search again, and again, and again until you find something.

Interaction – Too many “marketing” strategies and conversations fail in this area. Interaction requires that you listen and respond. It is a two-way process. Advertising is one way. And if you stop marketing you end your end of the conversation… which, by the way is your responsibility.

What do the I’s mean to a small business?

Even if you do not have the resources for a marketing department, you have to have a marketing strategy. You have to have a strategy for the conversation.

The first thing you need to ask yourself… and there is no right or wrong answer… is do you want to grow your business or maintain your business?

It is perfectly fine to realize that the cost of growth may be too much or require too much investment of time or money in your situation. It is perfectly fine to make the conscious decision to say, “I just want to make sure my business doesn’t shrink, at least right now.” That decision will guide the marketing efforts. Because you can’t stop the conversation.

Maintaining your business still requires activity. Just different activity.

If you decide that the answer is that you want to grow your business then you have to just realize that there are marketing activities that you need to be engaged in in order to do that sustainably.

What things are you doing in the areas of Intent, Interest, Information, or Interaction to either maintain or grow your business?

Are you constantly revisiting the design of your website? Are you making sure that your content is using the “language of the day?” Are you building cooperative relationships? Are you networking? Are you sharing information that interests? And here is the big question… are your customer interacting with you?

Will you choose to join the conversation? Fill out the Marketing Snap Shot here to begin the process of developing a great marketing strategy.