Introduction: Flexibility Is Key
For business owners, the launch of a company isn’t the culmination of entrepreneurial vision and ambition. It’s the jumping-off point. Anyone who achieves sustained success in running a business sees the company not just as it is today, but as it could grow to be under the right industry or market conditions.
The “what if” scenarios and their potential payoffs are tantalizing. What would it take to capture a larger share of your existing clients’ business? How would launching new product or service lines support your targets for expanding that customer base and perhaps even the vertical markets you serve?
But one question sometimes gets neglected amid all those projections: what if the “what if” scenarios actually materialize?
When that industry, market, or geographic opening presents itself, you have to be ready to lead your company’s move into expansion mode. Unless your marketing plan has the elasticity and scalability necessary to respond quickly and effectively as new prospects emerge, you’ll face obstacles in converting those opportunities into drivers of long-term growth.
2. Perfect the Process, Not the Plan
Of course, you can’t anticipate, much less create, a roadmap for navigating every possibility that your business may encounter. There’s no perfect plan--no way to create a master document that will always have every answer your business needs, says John Jantsch, founder of Duct Tape Marketing and author of Duct Tape Selling: Think Like a Marketer--Sell Like a Superstar (Portfolio, 2014).
But there is what he calls an essential planning mentality that equips you to keep tabs on the market, stay very close to customers, and remain informed about their needs and concerns. “It’s not a marketing plan, but marketing planning, that actually allows elasticity. It’s a culture of planning continually. People get really married to this plan, this event, and then they put it in a drawer, and that’s the end of it. And it’s really more about the process involved in the culture of planning than about creating adoption.”
In other words, genuine agility in seizing marketing opportunities comes not from a document, but from the thought processes that went into creating that document. “Your mindset needs to be different,” says Iain Ellwood, founding partner at the London management consulting firm Senate and author of Marketing for Growth: The Role of Marketers in Driving Revenues and Profits (The Economist, 2014). “It’s about living the marketing plan rather than the process of getting to a living marketing plan.”
3. Create a “Market Expansion” Toolkit
Mindset encompasses not only the ability, but also the will, to pivot when that’s what you should be doing to advance the company’s growth. That plays into your dexterity at assessing risks and rewards, knowing when to push past roadblocks, and recognizing when it’s time to change course.
But while mindset helps to establish the company’s direction, you also need a strong toolset to set your plans in motion productively. That’s where scalable components of a well-developed and well-equipped marketing plan deliver their value and support your vision. For example, your direct marketing platforms--e-mail lists, social media networks, and mailing lists for print communications--are essential tools in promoting a new product or service launch, expansion to a new region, or entry into new vertical markets.
“Anything in the direct marketing space is always going to be highly scalable,” says Elea McDonnell Feit, PhD, executive director of the Wharton Customer Analytics Initiative and a lecturer in marketing at The Wharton School. “For a very small business operating in one town, the only way you really have to get e-mail addresses and add customers to your mailing list is by asking the people who walk through your door. But as you get to be a bigger business, you can actually start to partner with other companies, add names to your mailing list, and cultivate new customers.”
4. The Relationship Factor
To reach that point, you need to approach direct marketing platforms in terms of how they can be used to share information and build relationships, not just to sell products and services. Jantsch points out that establishing “a track record of credibility” with your existing customer base “can be the most potent way to grow a business” because they trust you and value the quality of service you provide. And that opens the door to drawing on your network to help you research emerging opportunities. Your vendors, suppliers, and strategic alliance partners can provide support not just in introducing you to prospective clients, but in offering you intelligence about new industries or new regions that you plan to serve.
“There are so many opportunities when you build a strategic network,” he says. “In many cases, those strategic partners may be in a vertical market that you’re not in, or have products or services that would be complementary to the product or service you’ve targeted for expansion. They not only can be a great resource, but they may actually help motivate you to move in that direction and identify opportunities you can actually go after together.” Develop a roadmap for integrating your services with those of your partners to optimize your competitive potential.
Another resource when you’re in market research mode is what Jantsch calls one of his “favorite secret weapons”--the media. “Magazines, radio, television--all the various units out there that want to sell you advertising--have a tremendous amount of research on the very markets that you’re trying to go into. And in many cases, they will provide you with that information readily and freely, because it’s how they sell advertising to folks in those markets. There are sales people who will tell you how the competition is doing in the market. So, that’s certainly one that you want to make sure you put on your list.”
When you evaluate targets for expansion, Ellwood advises thinking about who would be served by the end result of your products or services rather than who is likely to buy the product or service itself. It’s a twist on the “sell the benefits, not the features” adage. “People really want a one-inch hole. They don’t want a one-inch drill,” he says. “Understand that you’re in the one-inch-hole business and therefore have expert capability in making holes, not drills. Then say, well, who else needs holes? We need holes on the road, holes in an aircraft, holes in doors, holes in bags. If you reframe the way you view your business, you can start to unlock multiple effective routes.”
5. Review Your Resources
As you’re identifying viable opportunities for expansion, take a look at your internal resources, and think about how you’ll need to deploy them to manage your growth goals. “You should really treat each new market that you enter as a new business case, but not as if you’re building the business from scratch,” Feit says. “It’s, ‘What are the additional costs to my existing business to leverage into this new business?’”
Consider your financial, organizational, and human capital needs. Budget is one consideration: do you have the resources necessary to finance an accelerated or expanded marketing campaign? But don’t neglect the other kinds of capital required to execute your strategy successfully. Think about your staff and its current responsibilities. Is it big enough to handle the increased marketing burden without neglecting current customers, products, and services? Do you have all the in-house expertise you need to market in new territories or to prospects in new industries? If you need to add expertise, does it make sense to hire additional employees immediately, or should you outsource in the short-term until you have a better grasp of your long-term staffing needs? How can you complement your in-house capabilities with external support from vendors, suppliers, and strategic alliance partners?
When plotting the next steps for your marketing strategy, be sure to take into account all the resources available that will help position your organization for success in its moves toward expansion. If resources are constrained, consider the option of limiting your initial launch to a beta market or region where you can test your potential for growth in a controlled--and cost-controlled--manner.
Feit, who teaches a class on designing smart business experiments, offers one note of caution: companies can learn by using this approach only if they establish target benchmark standards. “You have to design those kinds of tests to think ahead,” she says. “What am I going to find out by doing this, and how am I going to act on that? You have to have some clear stake in the ground regarding why you’re doing it and what you hope to learn.”
6. Keep Your Message on Target
As your company’s reputation and name recognition grow, you’ll need to make sure that your marketing message keeps pace and reflects the attributes that your loyal customers value most. After husband-and-wife team Jeff Otto and Laura Kimball started a bee farm in 2004, they made their first sales of honey and beeswax products at local farmers’ markets. As they expanded, they changed their name and revamped their brand to reflect their growing enterprise while still maintaining the artisanal feel that had attracted customers in the first place. Today, their company, TruBee Honey, distributes its products to vendors in approximately 30 states and serves additional customers via online sales.
One challenge they faced in managing business expansion of that magnitude was preserving the core characteristics that attracted their earliest customers and helped them to build a loyal following. The couple didn’t want their growth to come at the cost of losing two areas of focus that had always defined the company: educating people about gourmet honey and incorporating a personal touch in sales. The relationships that evolved from that approach helped Otto and Kimball to solicit and remain responsive to customer preferences even as their market expanded.
Have you articulated what distinguishes you from your competitors in the vertical markets or regions that you’ve targeted for market entry? Start by making sure you know what really attracts and retains the repeat customers you’ve already cultivated. When plotting your company’s roadmap for expansion, “let your customers do the research,” Jantsch says. Their perspectives and insights will help you to gauge how well your current marketing messages capture your company’s story.
“You start to hear these incredible themes that typically aren’t showing up on the website and aren’t showing up in your marketing brochures--the real reasons that the customers buy from you and stay with you,” he says. “It doesn’t mean that that message will translate exactly to the next market, but I think that what you have to appreciate as a company is how you’re truly different.” And that information can help you to refine the way you position your message against industry- or region-specific concerns and priorities. “Your best success is going to come from attracting more customers who appreciate that same difference. Until you understand it and are able to communicate it, you’re basically sitting around just guessing.”
7. From Vision to Validation
Gaining that depth of understanding can even contribute to developing a strategy for integrating your company into the interests and activities of local communities, whether you participate independently or in collaboration with your strategic partners. And that brings your message to life in a way that is meaningful to, and creates stronger connections with, the new customers you’re cultivating.
Each of these elements has a role to play in ensuring that your marketing strategies scale successfully to your business growth objectives--that you have the tools you need to convert your expansion vision to reality. They won’t, in and of themselves, create market expansion, but they’ll put you in the strongest position possible to make it happen in accordance with your long-term strategies for your company’s success.
By evaluating promising new areas of expansion, creating a strategy for reaching them, applying metrics to track and reinvest in your most successful marketing vehicles, and testing messaging to determine what resonates most with your clients and prospects, your company can maximize its potential for sustained growth.
Introduction: Flexibility Is Key