That’s how Lisa Schmidt, principal of local strategic marketing firm Marketing Matters, summed up the current state of affairs in strategic communication, which she defined as a marketing message that “directly solves some business problem.”
In boom years, according to Schmidt, many companies took a “we’ll try this and see if it works” approach to marketing. Now, she said, current economic conditions have made businesses and organizations more cautious with their communication dollars.
“They can’t afford mistakes,” said Schmidt. “There’s less room for error.”
Don Elliott, president of Elliott Design Inc., put it another way.
“Companies used to scatter seed wherever and hope something grew,” said Elliott. “Now they’re using less seed, but focusing on making things grow.”
Entek Corp., a Longview-based firm specializing in HVAC services, has learned this the hard way.
“You can dump money in the wrong places really fast,” said Entek’s sales and engineering director, Matt Todd. “It used to be easier – just sprinkle it around. But now we’ve had to become more strategic.”
Todd said his firm’s strategic communications efforts have included beefing up their web presence, developing a consistent marketing statement and holistically involving more people in the communication process.
Betsy Henning, CEO of Vancouver-based marketing firm, AHA!, said the same was true of larger businesses as well.
“They are continuing to market, even in bad times,” said Henning. “But they are being much more careful with expenditures.”
The good news for firms such as Schmidt’s and Henning’s is that companies are realizing they need help with such efforts, and are beginning to loosen the purse strings a little bit in terms of their communications budgets.
Debbie Deane, co-owner of Dean’s Graphics Inc., said in the last two to three years she has seen companies cut their advertising budgets by as much as 50 to 60 percent – so much so that her own firm had to cut back to four-day weeks with temporary layoffs. As of late, however, Deane said, “clients are stepping up and doing more.”
One reason for this increase in activity, speculated Schmidt, is that companies have realized zero communication with existing and prospective customers doesn’t work.
“We’ve seen the results [of that approach],” said Schmidt “[The result was] companies closing operations and experiencing more setbacks.”
Now, according to Elliott, companies are leveraging their resources to the maximum potential. For example, he said, one client laid off a project manager, gave the remaining two managers $5,000 bonuses and then spent the rest of the saved money ($35,000) on a strategic marketing campaign.
Henning said companies are focusing more on product and services, and less on branding. In addition, Deane said companies are strategizing their communication and maximizing their return on investment by focusing on targeted audiences – people they know they’ll get a response from.
For example, Suzy Taylor, general manager of the Grant House restaurant, said she has experienced “phenomenal” success using Groupon.
“We were featured in December as a deal,” said Taylor, “and we sold 1,158 Groupons!”
She said typical recent daily volume, partially attributable to the Groupon activity, is up 50 percent over last year’s daily data.
Nonprofits, too, can benefit from strategically targeting their audience. For example, according to executive director Ginger Metcalf, Identity Clark County (an advocacy group of regional business leaders) is targeting their “Land Here, Live Here” message specifically to site selectors (firms that specialize in helping other companies find good locations) and decision makers in those businesses that are starting up, relocating or expanding.
Social media can also help companies connect with people who are already looking for a specific product or service.
“There’s been a huge shift into the social media market because it provides metrics that are calculable,” Elliott explained, adding that it has less impact on cash flow than other communication methods, such as printed materials.
“When I first heard about it [social media marketing],” said Taylor, “I was almost angry – who has time for that?” But, she said, with some innovation, she has significantly increased her restaurant’s visibility on Facebook.
Taylor’s employees can use the front-desk laptop to check their own Facebook activity, but in return they must post something work-related, as well. For example, they might post “Just had a yummy sandwich at the Grant House – wish you were here to share it!” or “We’re having a fantastic wine tasting at the Grant House today at 3:00 p.m.”
“It’s one less thing I have to do and the employees are pretty excited about it,” she said.
According to Henning, part of targeting strategic messages is choosing the right language. For example, terms like “affluent” and “intellectual” have described a desirable audience in the past. That audience is still desirable, but the connotation of such words has changed due to a new sensibility in the marketplace. Henning said her firm is helping clients develop a new “language palette” that reflects those shifts.
Henning said strategic communication, especially in tough economic times, is “really about understanding the value proposition of your product or service, identifying a target market and finding a channel that will hit that target.”
Four steps to successful strategic communication
Katlin Smith, principal of UrbanWords Group, a Vancouver-based marketing firm, offers a four-step plan for strategic communication campaigns that is equally applicable to large and small companies.
1.Research. Look at your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. What are your issues? How can communication solve them? Who is your audience and what do they need? How will you test the effectiveness of your message? How are you already perceived in the community?
2.Plan. Prioritize audiences. Set objectives. Choose tactics and communication channels. Decide on a budget. Assign responsibility.
3.Implement. Get the message out on the chosen channels.
4.Evaluate. How well was the message received? Inexpensive methods of evaluation include online surveys such as SurveyMonkey.com, focus groups and one-on-one interviews.
“The biggest mistake companies make,” said Smith, “is to skip research and jump right into tactics.”