bCentral Home
Your Online Business Center

Exploding the myth

Small business marketing expert Ben Harris returns to first principles

We hear the term "marketing" all the time. But what does it actually mean? Here's how your business could benefit from a fresh look at the basics.

Ask the academics to define the subject and we'll be here all day. My practical experiences lead me to define marketing as this: its purpose is to create the opportunity to sell. It is not about making the sale; it's simply about underpinning the sales process, by providing the tools necessary to allow the "conversation" with your prospective clients to begin. "Marketing" is the all-encompassing term for these tools, which include activities such as branding, websites, advertising, direct mail and PR.

Marketing supports the sales process

If the purpose of marketing is to support the sales process, it makes the planning of a campaign much simpler. All you need to do is to map out the sales process relevant to your business. One of the basic principles good marketers employ to do this is the concept of the "customer buying decision process". This is the path a potential customer takes from "discovering" a company or product, through to actually making a "purchase" decision. Defining this path will provide a structure for you to select which marketing tools to use, and at which stage of the process to use them.

Marketing supports the sales process

The marketing options

Research and planning of marketing activities is - of course - crucial to success, but it's important to understand the end goal too. That is, to find out which marketing methods are worth using. I've listed some of the available tools below. For convenience I’ve divided these elements loosely into four main sections, but they could easily be split in other ways:




�Search Engine Optimisation�
�Pay per Click
�Online banners
�Email marketing
�SMS messaging
�Viral marketing


�Newspaper & magazine�
�Radio & television
�Direct mail
�Door drops & inserts

Public relations

�PR campaign
�Press releases
�Publication search
�Forward feature search
�Publicity stunts

Now we've seen what can constitute "marketing" in practical terms. So what about the theory?

Strike a balance

There are two types of marketing communications: the "reactive" - also known as collateral - are the tools that don't necessarily generate the business, but are the elements without which business is much harder to generate. These could include a corporate image or logo, a business card, a sign, or perhaps a brochure.

The "proactive" tools are those that go into the written or spoken word. They seek to communicate what it is you do, with a view to generating customers, wanting to find out more information or to actually buy your product or service.

The tip here is that many new businesses do not differentiate between the two when they are planning which marketing tools to use. Too much is often spent on the reactive and not enough on the proactive. Don't fall into this trap; be sure that you achieve a good balance between the two.

Pretend to be a customer

The following serves as a simple illustration of how to apply marketing tools to different stages of the sales process. Ask yourself who your average customer is and you can attract their attention. Put yourself in their shoes and live their life for a moment. Take yourself through their average day and imagine what processes they might go through when they decide to buy something. If you understand them, you can start to see which communications might have an effect and which might not.

A completed customer buying decision model may look like this:

Customer buying decision model

The number of stages depends on the value of what's on offer. Obviously the process to buy an ice cream requires the customer to make fewer decisions than when considering a new luxury car – although they both probably involve the same amount of guilt!

The first communication

A common mistake made by many new businesses is to bypass the progressive sales process, in an attempt to make the sale in the first communication. It is unlikely that someone would commit to a purchase after simply reading one marketing message. And if that's the case, we're actually not selling much if anything, in the first communication. The aim should be to explain what their problem is and how we can solve it. Then, if they're interested, we can point them in the direction to discover more information.

From a marketer's perspective, we are moving the prospect to the second stage of the journey. By use of promotions and incentives we can be more aggressive, but essentially we’re trying to achieve the same thing ... to start the sales conversation that will stimulate interest and result in a sale later on.

Avoid overload

On this basis, it is surprising that so many companies try to incorporate their entire sales information into their brochure or a website, without considering what exactly a prospective customer really needs to know at the time that they read it.

Providing too much information, too soon, indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the marketing and sales process, and will do a business more harm than good.

Marketers need to understand and predict the stages of this journey. Successful marketing campaigns follow this path by providing suitable communications with appropriate messages at each step. These messages are designed to drive prospective customers further along the path towards the purchase decision.

What next?

Find out more about your customers with our guide to customer and market research.

Get a good enough reputation, and your customers will spread word of it for you.

Sign into Microsoft Small Business+ for free web-based training and software support.

sign in

About Ben Harris

Ben Harris is founder and managing director of New Brand Vision and its offshoot, new2marketing.com. At 30 years old he is already a recognised expert in the industry. With experience gained at Ogilvy and other high profile operators, Ben is now a commentator on marketing issues. He is on expert panels for both the BBC and ITV, and won Business Startup Entrepreneur of 2004.

Security information

Find a local Microsoft Small Business Specialist to help with your IT needs

Microsoft Small Business SpecialistMore info >

What do you want your PC to help you with?

What do you want your PC to help you with?

Free business newsletters - subscribe now

Our free newsletters are packed full of business advice and ideas - plus all the latest news

Security information

Get the latest bulletins and updates direct from Microsoft