Market Smart in Slow Times

Yep. Those freewheeling days when business fell into our laps are gone. But let's face it, gone, too, are those clients who demanded everything-a great product, great pricing, great service, and turnaround expectations that compromised all of the above. That's the good news.

The bad news is we're back into serious selling mode. Forget the dot-com implosion, industry consolidation over the past several years has made survival an ongoing challenge. Not only are we facing competition from big players with deeper pockets, we're also having to deal with small competitors who slash prices to get business, regardless of cost. A case in point is the rising tide of print brokers who shop price over all else.

Lest you think manufacturers are alone in this plight, you're not. Every industry is facing the same challenge. Growing unemployment in all business sectors has given rise to a flood of independent contractors selling their services at cut-rate prices. From online stock brokers selling their fast-earned expertise to computer programmers offering quick IT fixes, inexpensive freelancers abound. Even laid off dot-com marketers have become instant expert consultants.

It's a happy situation for owners and HR department heads. For the first time in many years, there's ready access to a pool of talented and skilled workers. However, established companies must prove their services have greater value than competitors; more so now than ever before.

Competition is Nipping at Our Heels.

So competition is fierce and sales are slow. What to do?

First and foremost, don't stop marketing. Now is not the time fall off customers' and prospects' radar screens. It'll take four times more effort and dollars to woo them back from a competitor's embrace when the economy turns around. Indeed, more frequent communication with your markets is required.

I recently attended a seminar sponsored by the Northern California affiliate of PIA on the topic business management in a recession. One speaker discussed employment issues, the other talked about nuts and bolts financial strategies, like cash flow management, cost controls, invoicing strategies, etc. I was surprised when the latter speaker handed out an article by Robert Wilson entitled "Recession Marketing: A Survival Guide." Here was a bean-counter, usually the toughest to persuade of the importance of marketing, urging the printers in the room to market, insisting that brand recognition should be considered an ongoing investment. In Wilson's words: "The moment marketing stops, [your brand] begins to lose power immediately and future sales are jeopardized." Enough said.

The key to "recession marketing" is to be even more selective in the marketing programs you undertake. Forego expensive image-building advertising in favor of e/mail direct marketing and publicity programs.

Stress Value.

Focus on promoting why you're better than the competition. And be specific. Everyone promotes great service. If yours is really special, prove it with customer case studies. Everyone promotes good quality. If you believe your printing is really superior, show them off in a direct mail campaign, including testimonials from happy customers known in your marketplace for high quality expectations.

Wilson gives another piece of advice on the competitive pricing front: "Another temptation during a recession is to lower prices, but a better solution, so you don't have to raise them back later, is to offer special deals." While I agree we shouldn't lower prices, I'm disinclined to go with the "specials" strategy in most cases. In many buyers' minds, such offers cheapen a high-quality brand, and raise the issue of price when it's often not the reason they buy from you in the first place. But if you've done your requisite marketing and brand audits, you'll have a good sense of how such offers will play with your customers.

Use Email and Personalize When Possible.

If you've heeded my nagging advice, you've been building your marketing database, complete with email addresses, and segmented by SIC code. You've been entering purchasing information, and now can pull profitability and product reports. Though there are specific opt-in protocols you must follow, an email campaign may be the perfect marketing vehicle in a down economy. It's inexpensive and response can be instantly monitored, making it easy to adjust programs on the fly.

Again, think value when conducting these campaigns. People don't want ads about your company. They want information that'll help them do their jobs better and faster. If your customers are primarily designers, you might think about graphical emails showing unusual design projects you've produced. If your customers are direct marketing pros, build a campaign around designing for postal rate discounts. If you want to target marcom customers, collect articles, marketing studies, and white papers, and send email "teasers" announcing you've posted the pieces on your website. There are many ways email can be used effectively, both by sales and management. Sales can add personal notes at the end of campaign messages. And management can tailor emails to speak directly to senior decision-makers in an organization. The possibilities are endless.

Don't Forget Your Website.

Everyone has one, but are we using it for marketing? If you've been paying attention to these columns (nag, nag), your database now interfaces with your website, you have at least rudimentary ordering functionality. If so, your website can be your best friend in a recession.

Even if you don't have a robust e-commerce site, you can still develop your website into a valuable resource for customers and prospects. We just completed a site for a box manufacturer (www.fibrecontainers.com) that did just that. After researching competitors' sites, we decided to build a portal site, on which customers can find everything they need to know about corrugated and folding cartons. Complete with folding diagrams, substrate illustrations, a glossary, and portfolio section, the site also has become a primary educational tool for use by the company's sales team.

Your website can also tie all your marketing communications together: Direct mailers can be sent out announcing new postings. Email messages can be broadcast with a live link to your website, where visitors will find this month's "Big News!" bulletin. If you decide to offer specials, your website is the perfect vehicle to conduct the campaign, enabling you to collect prospects' data and begin marketing to them.

Monitor and Measure.

A few weeks back, I was paying bills while listening to the TV news. A segment caught my attention with a report on companies that were thriving despite the slow economy. Leading the list was a direct marketing firm, the CEO of which attributed success to the fact that it was able to quantify results of its programs.

I was immediately reminded of our client, RED direct, the company I mentioned in earlier columns. The company conducts direct response Strategic Executive Marketing (SEM) programs for high-tech companies that are specifically targeted to C-level (CEO, COO, CFO, etc.) executives. Database-driven, the typical program involves a direct mail letter with an offer, usually a free book, of particular interest to the exec being targeted. In exchange for the free book, the exec supplies the name and contact information of the decision-maker in the organization responsible for purchasing the service of the RED client. Working with a proprietary database, the company enters responses and compiles response rate data specific to job function and offer.

The advantages are obvious: Clients are able to immediately see results and the ROI on their marketing dollars. Doors are opened for an ongoing dialogue with decision-makers who are responsive to a higher level value-selling proposition. And they get the added prize of a highly refined, segmented database that's rich with information about customers and prospects.

While these programs are quite expensive, the principles can be applied on a more modest scale. Using Web-based tools and compelling messaging, you'll be able to gauge results-whether email-to-website click-throughs or actual orders-immediately.


Charlotte Mills Seligman is president of Traversant Marketing Communications. The firm specializes in planning and executing integrated marketing programs for printing and allied graphic arts companies, with nearly two decades of expertise in the industry. Previous columns and issues of the company's Ti Monthly e-newsletter are posted on http://www.traversant.com. Inquiries should be directed to (415) 357-2929 or charlotte @traversant.com.

© 2001 Charlotte Mills Seligman

October 2001
Print & Graphics
Col#31, 10/01
Printing Journal
Col#31, 10/01
Recession Marketing
By Charlotte Mills Seligman

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