Gary Newborough is one of our experienced business advisors, who has helped to support business of all shapes and sizes on multifarious issues, including strategy, personnel development and marketing.
Over the course of his storied career, he’s worked as head of management development for BT, head of the Kent Chamber of Commerce, restaurateur and an independent business consultant.
In this guide, we pick Gary’s brains on the most common marketing pitfalls faced by SMEs and why it’s vital for businesses to have a long-term strategy that underpins all their marketing efforts.
Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat
What are the most common marketing problems that businesses come to you with?
While businesses may come to see me about a specific problem, I often find that lack of strategy is often the root cause of the issue at hand.
Generally, you've got a business that is set up because somebody has a vision. They want to do something that hasn't been done before. Founders are very passionate about that vision, they are very passionate about their product.
As a company grows and that vision trickles further down an organisation, it tends to get diluted. So it's very important that the founder or the visionary, the chief exec, or the MD at the top of the business not only has a view of the big picture, but also has the ability to articulate that vision to the people within their organisation and get them to help him or her to articulate that vision to the outside world.
Once you've got that picture and got it articulated within that organisation, then what you need is a strategy to get it out to the world. It’s often obvious to those within the business how good a product is and the need it serves, but getting that message across to their target audience is another matter.
It’s all about identifying a need or actually persuading your audience that they have a need - or that a particular product or service is of value to them or is a threat to them. If it's not a value, or it’s not a threat - it’s irrelevant.
The scattergun approach
Do businesses in this situation tend to approach their marketing quite tactically?
Tactically is the polite way of saying it. They tend to take a scattergun approach. They'll focus on something because somebody has the the idea that it’s going to work and they do that for a few weeks and when it doesn’t quite deliver -they do something else. They're constantly bouncing around from one thing to the next.
The solution starts with a strategy. And that's about first of all defining ‘who's our target market?’ So identifying target markets is very important. And then, within that strategy, deciding on the best means of actually accessing that target market.
One of the issues I find when coaching people on marketing is that 10 years ago, you'd need to convince a business owner that digital marketing was important. Today, it’s more an issue with discouraging them from allowing digital to become a distraction. If used in the wrong way, digital can become a liability - soaking up time and money while the business goes to pot.
It can be exciting to sit and talk about your product on any one of the number of platforms, but you need to go back to the fundamentals of marketing. Pick the right channels that give you access to your target audience and the right messages to communicate to them.
One way to keep your eye on the ball is to engage an agency or consultant to do that for you, but the drawback there is they won’t necessarily share the vision or passion you have about your business. It can be quite a challenge for a business owner to distill that message into an external agency - so it’s important to pick an outfit with experience and knowledge of working within your sector.
The same rules apply to digital marketing as apply to traditional - it’s just that the means to the end is different.
Quick wins and slow burns
How do you strike a balance between a long-term marketing strategy and quick wins that deliver sales and keep the lights on?
That's a perennial question. I think striking that balance is different for each business and where the business is in its lifecycle determines how important the quick wins are. Now, getting a business to recognise where it is in its lifecycle is a completely different challenge.
Part of the work my colleagues at The Skills Company and I do is working on in small groups with business owners and managers to help identify where they are in that lifecycle and where the balance currently lies for their company.
Having a fresh pair of eyes that’s external - that plugs in for a short time, then plugs out can be of immensely insightful. It’s completely different than asking a question of your own marketing director, and many of the chief executives I’ve worked with have found it highly beneficial.
It gives them the opportunity to speak to someone in complete confidence. Quite often, being a chief exec or a manager is a very lonely place. You’ve got your hopes and fears - stuff you don’t particularly want to share with your own senior management team.
Having that external pair of eyes to come into an organisation to have a periodic review of what the balance is for you in terms of strategy and tactics can help you determine what you need to do tomorrow and where you want to be within five years. And of course, the other important part of that equation is where you are now.
Do companies feel more pressure to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ when it comes to marketing in the digital era?
Yes and quite often, without any logic behind it. The competitor may well have a good reason for doing whatever they're doing and there is this tendency to say ‘so and so's doing that - so we should do that’.
I think most of the organisations that I come across tend to get energised by the latest flavour of the month. And where do they get that? They get that mainly from competition.
I work mostly with SMEs, so often, they've not got the clout or ability to go out there and gather their own marketing data through expensive market research. It’s easier than ever to gather information about your customer base in the digital era, but many companies still aren’t very well focused on meaningful measurement.
There's no history and tradition of small and medium-sized companies getting hold of that data and doing something with it. It's now readily available, so really there needs to be some form of encouragement to make an investment in interpretation.
The information is readily available, but not everything that can be measured matters and senior-level time needs to spent picking out salient points and thinking ‘well what does this mean for us?’
I also think things these days can change very quickly - you only have to look at the uncertainty around Brexit for example. SMEs have got huge challenges to cope with, but their size and structure can often give them an advantage in agility when compared to their larger counterparts.
Changing things in a larger company is like turning an oil tanker round - it’s going to take a long while and you’ve got to navigate many layers of bureaucracy. For SMEs, I think that agility and responsiveness is a great strength.
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