Have you ever seen the Sixth Sense? The movie where the only person who could see Bruce Willis was the little kid? No matter how hard Bruce tried, no one else heard or saw him. (Almost) No one knew he existed.

The truth is, a lot of small businesses are in the same position. Especially if they’re a business without a retail storefront. No one knows they exist. Maybe not literally no one, but an exceedingly small number of people know about the business.

I’ll even go so far as to say this is one of the single biggest marketing problems small businesses face. A lack of awareness that they exist.

And the consequences of that are pretty serious. If virtually no one knows you exist, then virtually no one is going to buy from you. And if no one buys…well, you won’t have a business for very long.

Here’s a real world story about what a lack of awareness looks like.

I’ve worked with a company that manufactures and sells wheelchairs. In the US, people spend about $2 billion every year on wheelchairs. About 2 million people need a wheelchair for the first time every year. That doesn’t even count anyone buying a replacement chair.

I can also say that the chairs my client makes are higher quality and more comfortable than a large majority of what’s available in the market. And they’re not some super expensive luxury product. They’re priced competitively with other brands.

With a market that huge and a product that good, you’d expect that my client was raking in millions in sales, right? Nope.

In a good year, he sells about 300 chairs. And that’s only because he’s done a lot of work over the last 2 years to make his company more visible. It used to be less than 200 per year. That works out to less than 0.2% of the market.

His story is not unusual. So many small businesses toil away in near total anonymity. And that means they have to expend huge amounts of time actively looking for new customers. If people don’t know you exist, they aren’t going to be calling you.

So let’s talk about awareness. 

It’s the critical first step in any buyer’s journey. If they don’t know you exist, they’ll never consider you. If they never consider you, they’ll never buy from you.

And, as I said, it’s perhaps the biggest marketing challenge small businesses face.

Building awareness is important for all businesses. But it’s particularly important for businesses who sell expensive or complicated services.

The lack of awareness problem is two-fold. 

  • If people don’t know you exist, you’re never getting the call about possible work. That's pretty self-explanatory.
  • If they find you or get referred to you, they still know nothing about you. That means you have a very steep hill to climb to win that work. That’s because no familiarity equals no trust. And no trust equals no sale.

So what can you do to increase awareness of your business? 

Luckily. A lot. 

Here are three big things.

1

Be more visible in the places where your target market hangs out.

In the modern world, that often means being more visible on social media.

Becoming someone your market regularly encounters online by demonstrating your understanding of their problems and providing valuable information to them is an effective way to build the know, like, and trust factor with potential customers. You can do this by publishing useful content that’s relevant to your target market and that helps them get to know you.

This strategy works because it helps you become a familiar face and a known source of useful information. The reality is, especially for expensive or complicated things, a person will start researching long before they ever get to the point of being ready for the sale. If it’s your content they are consuming while doing the research, you are building trust and educating them that you are the best solution to the problem. 

And when they’re ready to buy, who do you think they’re going to call?

2

Get involved in groups your market belongs to.

Is there a trade association that your B2B customers belong to? If so, try to speak at their conferences. Write for the Association publications. Sponsor events. Get involved in the association’s board. Become the person everyone knows.

This is an excellent way to get the people in your market to know, like, and trust you. And only when they know, like, and trust you, will they do business with you.

3

Get more reach with paid media.

The third thing you can do is advertise. In fact, paid advertising can work exceptionally well in conjunction with organic social media. On many social platforms, adding a paid component to your content can greatly increase your reach.

This works because the only way to reach beyond existing connections and followers on social platforms is to pay for it. Sure, you could slowly build up an organic following and avoid paying for traffic. But that takes time.

Think of it this way. Growing your reach organically is like filling up a swimming pool by dumping one bucket of water at a time into it. Growing your reach with paid traffic is like filling up the pool by opening a fire hydrant.

I've tried ads - they don't work!

You may be one of those people who tried paid ads and didn’t have much success with them. What that emphatically doesn’t mean is that ads don’t work. What it means is that the way you tried to run the ads didn’t work.

When you create an ad campaign, there are a million moving parts. Get any one of them wrong, and your campaign will not perform.

For example, the offer you made may not have been appealing to the market. Or you didn’t target the ads correctly. Or the ad budget you spent wasn’t big enough. Or a million other things.

Even if you did all of that other stuff right, there’s one more thing that could doom your campaign to failure.

A brief history lesson

Before I get there, let me talk about the history of advertising for a minute. Back in the 1960’s and 70’s - the Mad Men Days - it was all about brand advertising. Ads tried to build up a mystique around companies and products with slick images and catchy slogans. The goal was for that jingle to replay in your head when you saw the product on the shelf. And, the theory went, that would make you put it in your cart. Essentially, this was all about awareness and familiarity.

Then in the 90’s and 2000’s, as the Internet grew and more and more data was available to marketers, it became all about ROI. Companies started to use a lot of complicated statistics to predict who would buy and to figure out which headline or color would result in more sales. The primary focus became “how many dollars in sales will I make for every dollar I spend on marketing?” and “How do I make that number bigger?” So the explicit goal of advertising became making a sale. This is what is called “direct response” in the marketing world.

How to do ads right

Most likely, when you tried to run ads, you wanted a return on your ad spend as fast as possible. So you went straight to the “buy my stuff” ads. And the loud and clear answer you got from the market was “I have no idea who you are. There’s no way I’m giving you my money.”

Like I said a few minutes ago, going straight from “who are you?” to “take my money” is a very steep climb.

The reality is you need both. You need the awareness “mad men” advertising to introduce yourself and get people to know, like, and trust you. Then you need the direct response advertising to make the sale. 

So, what are you going to do to raise your visibility with your market?

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