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Blueprint for Successful Marketing - Continued

If after all this you need still more leads, consider a direct-mail campaign targeted at specific types of clients, like architects. Though this approach is expensive and may not offer as big a bang as some of the other tactics, it can be effective. Expect a well-designed mailing to generate between 1 percent and 3 percent in returns.

Building Name Recognition and Partnerships

There are important differences between activities intended to make the phone ring and those designed to create top-of-mind awareness. The Goodyear blimp was never intended to make people respond by immediately running out and purchasing tires. The value of this category of marketing is that it creates credibility, which in the end will make your other marketing activities more effective.

Name Recognition Equals Credibility

Broad advertising campaigns, articles about your company or its projects, local sponsorships, charity ventures, job-site signs, and vehicle branding are all examples of ways to keep your company name in the public eye. If you succeed in these efforts, prospects will be more likely to respond favorably to lead-generating tactics because they'll think, "Oh, I've seen that company before."

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Don't make the mistake of evaluating marketing activities designed to build name recognition by counting the number of leads or jobs they produce. That's not their role in a marketing program. Large companies measure their success in this area by doing market research and testing randomly selected groups of people over time. For small businesses, the method is much less scientific. Simply ask yourself, "Does it seem like it's working?" Keeping your name in front of your prospects in any way possible is critical to an effective marketing program.

Create Strategic Alliances

Look below, above, and beside you in the supply chain. Do your services "bundle" well with others? Who can or should be referring prospects to you? Finding and befriending these companies works to the benefit of both parties — I call this kind of partnership a strategic alliance. A simple, inexpensive, yet often overlooked element of a good marketing program, developing formal or informal strategic alliances can pay big dividends in the long run.

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Remodelers and builders might work with vendors, suppliers, architects, and any other companies that would benefit from these win-win relationships. The key is to approach the other players in a systematic way, perhaps by simply scheduling lunch meetings together. Or, the relationship can be more formal, such as a partnership with a manufacturer in which you use "comp" materials for a model home.

Building-materials manufacturers will often hold press briefings with the local (and sometimes national) press to announce a new product, color, or style. They usually do this via a conference call, and they almost always have a builder on hand (or available for reporters to call later on) to offer a "builder's perspective." So consider approaching manufacturers and offering yourself as a resource.

Make a list of 10 possible or current strategic alliances and make meaningful personal contact with them all at least once every two months for a year and watch what happens. It will be the smallest line item in your marketing budget, but will make a big difference in your marketing program.

Turning Leads Into Sales

Once you've generated a lead, you'll need to engage the prospect in the sales process. Sales tools — Web sites, sales brochures, presentation folders, capabilities brochures, article reprints — are generally developed by the marketing team, but are used during the sales process. They help prospects understand your company and your products and services, and provide proof that you are trustworthy and reputable.

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Again, these marketing tools rarely generate leads on their own. Many contractors, for example, have complained to me over the years that they haven't gotten quality leads from their Web sites. But that's not the point of a Web site; cows don't fly very well, either, but they're an excellent source of milk.

A well-done company Web site serves as an excellent sales tool. A no-pressure company tour without a salesperson hovering nearby will help turn prospects into clients. To better evaluate the value of sales tools, I look to the lead close rate: How often is your sales team converting leads into actual projects?

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Build a Budget and Measure Results

I've described how to generate interest in your company and create sales opportunities, but the real key is in correctly managing the process. Marketing without at least a little planning at the front end and some kind of evaluation at the back end is just plain silly.

In my experience, the most important part of building an effective marketing program is what you learn during the process. If at the beginning of each year you create a simple spreadsheet with all your planned activities, dates, and projected costs, you may find that initially you're not very good at ballparking costs. Either you'll go over budget or you won't do everything you'd planned. So don't get too complicated and develop a 20-page marketing plan — a simple two-page spreadsheet will give you all the information you need to have a working understanding of what it costs to run an effective marketing campaign.

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At the same time, it's critical to measure the results of your marketing efforts. I like to see leads tracked by their source and by how many became signed contracts. If you track those results, you'll find that you get very few leads from some sources, lots of leads and few jobs from others, and lots of work from still others. Markets are different in different locations and in different years, and you need a way to help you judge the results and steer the ship.

One way to streamline tracking is by using an internal lead sheet. This is a form your front-line staff can refer to when answering your phones and gathering information about prospects. By making sure that the right questions are asked, you can both better qualify prospects and systematically gather the data you want to measure for your marketing campaign.

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Create a Process

Finally, you need to develop a process to help you run the marketing marathon (note my choice of words — it's not a sprint). A consistent challenge for small- and medium-sized businesses is to keep marketing — which always seems to be less urgent than sales and production issues — on the radar.

To that end, develop a marketing team, have regular meetings with a simple agenda, and designate a marketing administrator (usually not the owner of the company). In a small company, this meeting might involve the owner and an administrative person and occur once a month. With larger companies, the gathering may include more people and occur more often, even weekly.

During these meetings, you should develop a standard agenda that covers new, old, and ongoing marketing projects and includes a review of budgets and leads reports. The key is to keep doing marketing activities, learning something, and doing some more — month after month, year after year.

Greg Stineis a marketing executive in Portland, Ore. To download some of the documents discussed in this article or for more information, visit his company Web site at www.polaris-inc.com.