Using leverage is an essential principle to doing almost anything in life efficiently. As a person of many hobbies and goals, I intentionally spend time thinking about how best to optimize my life. Personal fitness has always been a priority for me as much as spending time with a significant other, friends, enjoying nature and working on creative projects. I found that one of the best ways for me to use my time in such a way that would allow me to experience all of these things is to go hiking.
When I lived out West, I would often create small hiking groups and was invited to participate in some larger group outdoor activities. Sometimes, I would be lucky enough to meet a woman that enjoyed the outdoors and would use hiking as a casual way to get to know each other. Regardless of the dynamics, hiking built camaraderie between me and the people I hiked with. Meanwhile, I got to experience nature which is also a spiritual experience for me. I also would bring my pup along, so we both got exercise. What’s better? I love photography, especially landscape photography. So, hiking allowed me to experience all of those benefits in one outing. That is time well spent. That is how I think when it comes to marketing for small businesses.
Challenges and Potential Benefits to Marketing Small Businesses
I touched on some of the unique challenges to marketing small businesses with small budgets in my blog post, “SEM versus SEO. Or, SEM AND SEO: Marketing stories.” Small business owners and their marketers know the goal and drill. “You want to achieve growth?” “Yes.” “Do you have a marketing budget?” “Not much of one, if any.” I have been in some situations where my salary was the marketing budget, and experience has taught me that the only way to achieve what often seems like the impossible is by using leverage and creative thinking.
Determining what can be and should be leveraged to help a small business grow on a shoe-string budget requires advanced critical and creative thinking skills. Between all of the nuances from company culture, flexibility, industry, competition, options and resources, a problem solver has to find a window of opportunity to do something unique with what is available. That makes it almost impossible to write a how-to guide on using leverage to grow a small business. So, it felt better to write a blog post including some examples throughout my career where I and the stakeholders for each business had to put on our thinking caps to come up with creative marketing solutions in order to meet business objectives.
Before I share a few of these examples, I want to point out some of the advantages small business owners and marketers have over trying to move a giant ship of a medium to large sized business. The fact that small businesses employ fewer people means that there is less bureaucracy. If a small business has a lot of bureaucracy, that may need to be addressed, because fewer layers can mean efficiency and congruence among other potential advantages to running a small business. Bureaucracy can kill that advantage.
Another important aspect to consider in small business is the additional value that generalists can offer over specialists. Generalists make a lot of sense both in leadership of larger companies and small businesses. I myself am a generalist, and there is a great book out there called, Range, that I was ever so happy to come across as it makes the case for the generalist in the context of many different professions. Range is a “#1 New York Times best seller” written by David Epstein who is also the author of the highly acclaimed book, The Sports Gene.
The marketing generalist is typically versed and effective in multiple disciplines, which gives you more options in one person. This prevents business owners from paying multiple salaries for specialists that focus on specific disciplines. A keyword there is “effective.” While generalists may not have Google certs in every or any category of digital marketing for example, they often offer a different perspective that is invaluable. I am living proof that a generalist can outproduce campaigns that were previously run by “experts” and have examples to prove this much. If that is not enough to convince you, feel free to search for material on how important it is to get a Google certification. There is plenty of material that supports the notion that a digital marketer doesn’t have to be specialized in order to be good at a specific discipline. Or in the case of the generalist, a handful of disciplines.
A marketing generalist should be proficient across multiple disciplines. Their versatility helps them to understand the pros and cons of each marketing tactic and equips them well enough to advise stakeholders on what marketing tactics to begin with and how to leverage internal or external resources to produce the greatest possible return on investment. They should be able to help create and share the vision of the stakeholders and ensure that vision is the guideline for everything they do across their marketing efforts. Having fewer people involved in these efforts not only ensures efficiency in lieu of bureaucracy and a larger team, it also creates less room for inconsistency in style and frequency.
One might think, “Why don’t I hire a specialist to do one thing, instead of a generalist?” Well, a specialist isn’t going to help you put together a well-informed plan for what to do next, once a return on investment occurs. A specialist in PPC for example, might not be able to manage your website in an effort to boost conversion rates of the traffic that the PPC campaigns generate. They may not possess the creativity to produce good social media content or to manage an email list. They may not have project management or sales experience. A generalist will find additional ways to add value beyond the specific marketing tactics. That is a perfect segue into some examples from my career as a marketing generalist where using leverage played a major role in the success of my efforts.
Examples of Using Leverage throughout My Career to Achieve Business Goals
Leveraging Memberships to Create New Opportunities
I worked with a global pool membership company that had about 700 members and hundreds of vendors. The organization itself had fewer than 30 full-time employees. This talented group is among the most innovative professionals that I have worked with. They constantly come up with new ways to leverage dynamics to create multiple win-wins between their members, their vendors, and their organization.
Through generating an enormous member base, they were able to create buying power and drive down the costs of vendor services for their members. In return, their vendors experienced a substantial increase in business, which they would have otherwise had to invest a large amount of money to obtain. I soon learned about this model when I began working for them.
My role as a contractor was to serve as their subject matter expert (SME) in digital marketing. When I arrived, I soon learned that they had also made previous efforts to create an in-house ad agency, but they were unsuccessful. I immediately pushed back on that idea with the notion that just because an idea was not successful, doesn’t mean it is a bad idea. If a good idea fails, that is often due to execution. I had a proven model for quickly scaling an in-house agency that would generate additional revenue and support for their member base. My belief was that it made sense to employ a seasoned marketing professional to oversee the quality of marketing for their vendors–resulting in more revenue for everyone as the organization was member owned.
Unfortunately for me, there were some political battles going on that prevented me from continuing with that organization after fulfilling several other projects that stemmed well beyond my contract. It was a great experience for me. They paid very well. I worked on several interesting projects. I got to travel a little bit. I learned new technology, and I landed a client that stayed with me for years. Regardless of what they decided to do with their in-house agency, I am 100% confident it was a good idea. If they ever came back to me for help with their efforts, I would gladly take on that project.
Using Leverage to turn Revenue into Capital
This organization provides yet another example of using leverage that is worth sharing, and I am confident they did continue down this path. They employed an investment guru who created an investment portfolio for the organization that generated additional revenue streams for their members. The most creative aspect to this idea was that they did not ask for additional investment capital in order to fund these investments. Instead, they leveraged existing membership fees as investment capital before taking out the operational costs for the board and staff that kept the organization growing in the right direction. Ultimately, this created an immense amount of value to the membership and additional revenue for their members, without costing an extra penny.
Leveraging Market Places to Create Revenue Streams
I worked for a recruiting software company as their Business Development Manager where I got a crash course in the recruiting industry and learned a great deal about the company, Bullhorn. Bullhorn, and other companies alike, create “marketplaces” out of vendors that want to sell services to their subscribers and generate additional revenue in the form of marketplace membership fees. They create a tedious process for becoming a member of their marketplaces and use their brands as a stamp of approval for vendors who sell to their subscribers. Bullhorn actually takes a cut of their member’s sales revenue as well.
Leveraging Employees or Agent Bases to Increase Brand Awareness and Revenue
I have mentioned a real estate brokerage I used to be the Director of Marketing and Creative Services for. I had the honor to work for some of the most respected minds and brands in real estate. From ownership to leadership and their agent base, this company is 1st class.
The Founder of this organization is a genius at leveraging his reputation and his agents to sustain a unique business model that increases value for those that work for him. My initial thinking as their Marketing Director was that they should leverage their local reputation to build more local brand awareness in an effort to increase their market share which would have included more luxury real estate sales. Most brokerages lean on corporate for their branding while real estate teams often focus on entity level branding. There are few brokerages that invest heavily in entity level branding.
We shared a similar vision when it came to his overall goals, but my initial approach would have been much more expensive as it would have included an aggressive outbound marketing campaign including commercials, display advertising, billboards and more. As he began to talk me out of my approach, he shared his desire to implement a geo-farming program and asked for my assistance in vetting all of the possibilities for achieving his goal. After collaborating with him and his leadership team, vetting a plethora of technologies and speaking with corporate consultants, we actually decided on a first-of-its-kind geo-farming direct mail program. I know direct mail is hardly new and typically expensive, but let me explain why this idea was so innovative and successful and how using leverage was instrumental in coming up with this program that is apparently still used to this date.
The foundation for this program was based on leveraging a handful of aspects unique to our situation. Such aspects include relationships with data providers, a talented leadership team with specific skill sets, a large agent body, payment options and a lull in real estate broker use of direct mail for many years. Sure, there were some real estate teams that were beginning to use direct mail again, but they were few and far in between and nowhere near as aggressive as this campaign was intended to be.
The process for creating this program included leveraging my technical and creative skill sets. Part of my role in this project was guiding the direct mail provider’s programmers on understanding where to pull specific data from and where to print that data. I was also responsible for establishing triggers that would send out pieces automatically. Then I created a campaign and design templates with input from a board of agents and the Leadership Team. We leveraged their VP of Analysis to utilize his data skills to create one of the data sources which was composed of a “high-propensity-to-buy” list of individuals that these pieces would be sent to based on specific criteria.
The next goal was to leverage the agent body to collectively enroll in this program and drive the cost per piece down considerably. Once the entire program was designed and ready to pitch, we leveraged the support of Corporate to join us in a 3 day presentation to over 200 agents where they, the owner, the VPs and I all pitched the program to the agents.
We only needed 40 agents to enroll in the program in order for it to be worth implementing, but the presentations were so successful that we enrolled 100 agents. They absolutely loved the idea of the broker managing their direct mail efforts. They loved the idea that their pieces would be sent as a part of a well planned, branded campaign as opposed to one-off pieces that they would send randomly without any consistency in branding. They also loved the idea that they would get all of these benefits for a fraction of the price.
Following the initial phase, we leveraged the Senior VP’s clout and leadership as he worked between the owner and the agents to ensure enrollment and navigate the difficult task of choosing which agents would be assigned to specific neighborhoods. We also leveraged the direct mail provider’s net 60 payment option which allowed us time to gather payments in advance and avoid having to come out of pocket as a brokerage.
The program is genius. It generates thousands of targeted, branded touches per month. It establishes relationships with specific agents that might not otherwise have existed. It drives recipients online where the agents can capture more information and obtain additional metrics that indicate their level of engagement and intention. It generates revenue.
Leveraging Technology & Reputations to Grow a Small Business
I have a multitude of other examples of how I have used leverage to achieve marketing objectives with little to no advertising budget. I could talk about the time I worked in behavioral health and leveraged the copyrights we had over an entire library to produce blog posts that would help us to achieve national rankings. I could write about training interns to perform operational work that heavily contributed to successful marketing efforts. I could also write at length about how I have leveraged technology and data-backed success stories to fill up lead boards using a semi-automated sales and marketing campaign. There are other examples, but I am going to go back to a different role I had in real estate where I worked for a small real estate tech company as the Director of Sales & Marketing. We were able to grow that company’s contracts by 40% across the United States and into Canada in just over a year simply using email marketing and sales calls.
The irony behind this particular story is that the Owner is the same gentleman that owns the real estate brokerage that I previously discussed. So, there is no surprise that leverage was a key factor in our achievements with this real estate technology company. That would also make it less surprising that we did not have an advertising budget.
Using leverage started with the technology we were selling. Among a robust list of features, the software encompassed many aspects of real estate broker and agent marketing. When I first began working for this company, we determined we needed to up our game with a fresh website. It just so happened that part of what we did for our customers was build websites using our team and technology. With my design skills and their technological capabilities, that project was a slam dunk.
The software we used also allowed me to manage our blog and send out email marketing pieces. While we were experts in SEO, there still were not many keyword phrases that specifically described this SaaS solution. Considering this along with the fact that there was no advertising budget, SEO and SEM did not make sense for us.
So, we decided to utilize the email marketing feature of this software to reach prospects. That is where using leverage really came into play.
As I mentioned before, the owner of this company and the real estate brokerage has an impeccable reputation. The co-owner and CEO handed me a book with a list of all of the brokers in our franchise with their contact information. After scraping the book of contact information, we decided we would contact these brokers on behalf of the broker/owner. While it is not best practice to send blind emails without a subscription, we knew that a broker to broker email coming from a reputable source would be accepted. The incredibly low opt out rate proved us to be right.
We began sending emails to our curated list of real estate brokers and enjoyed the fruits of our labor. We even practiced the art of using leverage within our campaigns. Every time a new contract was signed, we would share that news with all of the other brokerages. Business owners want to know what others in their industry are doing–especially in real estate. Ultimately, our campaigns caught fire.
I was able to monitor who engaged with our pieces the most and used that data to prioritize my targets for outbound calls. Meanwhile, we received a healthy amount of in-bound leads as well. It was a lot of fun explaining to these brokers that we were using the very same technology that we were selling in order to reach them.
Leveraging Convention Attendees to Conduct a Side Event
There were a number of other examples of using leverage within that same company. The last I will share is an example of where we piggybacked off of a convention and bypassed the expenses of a booth meanwhile creating our own hyper-focused event.
Instead of paying thousands for a booth, we sent out emails to a select list of existing and potential customers including invites to our own event held in between the contention’s day and evening agendas. We rented a suite in a casino for a few hundred dollars and offered hors d’oeuvres, cocktails, a socializing/networking period and concluded the event with a live demo of our latest release.
The event was a success as multiple companies enrolled over the following months, and we achieved all of this with some creative thinking and a shoestring budget.
From business models, to marketing tactics, to events and beyond, leverage has proven to be essential for the growth of small businesses. This principle is most likely applicable to medium and large businesses as well. In a world where automation and AI makes it abundantly clear that efficiency is a priority to businesses, it is important to follow suit and come up with solutions that a computer could not.
Luckily, I have had the privilege of working with some of the best minds in their industries that have helped me to see the light and prove my own creative thinking skills among others. My hope is that this blog post will get your creative juices flowing as well and that it helps you solve some of your own unique challenges in today’s world of business and marketing.