Marketing Buzz: Marketing on a shoestring

Meg Matt, Contributing Editor

While attending an industry conference recently, I met a man who works for a rural electric cooperative. He mentioned that the reason he came to the conference was to learn how to do marketing “on the cheap.” Having just been given the marketing function, he was eager to pick up some ideas that he could take back and implement. There was just one problem. His resources were limited. And, I mean really limited.

If this situation sounds familiar, take heart. There are many low-cost, no-cost ways you can get your marketing messages out to your customers and other key stakeholders. All it takes is a little preparation and planning to ensure you are getting the most out of your marketing dollars.

Do your homework

A crucial part of any marketing plan is to perform a SWOT analysis. This examination of your organization’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) is time well worth spent. It’s also an exercise that should not be done in a vacuum. Ask your company’s key executives, managers and several staff members to contribute to the analysis. Their insights will help you zero in on what the company does best, where it wants to improve, etc.

One way to make the SWOT a relatively painless exercise is to develop a form that can be either filled out and returned to you, or used as a guideline in a facilitated session. In addition to including the obvious questions on what they believe are the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, include other questions designed to dig a little deeper. These can include:

“- If our largest customers were asked to describe our company’s value proposition, what would they say?
“- If we could do one thing to improve our customer service, it would be (fill in the blank).
“- If I was asked to produce two TV commercials about our company, what would I want to highlight about our company?

Talk to your customers

Once you have gained an understanding of your company’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, do something really scary. Ask your customers the same thing. It’s important to conduct some basic customer research to see what, if any gaps exist between the company and its customers.

Develop a questionnaire that asks some of the same type of questions from the SWOT analysis including:

“- What would you say your utility’s major strengths are when it comes to customer service, rates, helping you save energy, etc.?
“- What are some ways your utility can improve its service?

If you are conducting research with your key accounts, be sure to ask questions that will help you assess their beliefs, such as:

“- How often do you see your key account representative?
“- Does your rep understand your business and its challenges?
“- If you can, talk with customers in each of your segments using questionnaires designed to understand their particular concerns and needs.

Make your mistakes in private

Once you’ve completed your interviews, conduct a gap analysis to find out where you and your customers are in synch and where you have areas of disagreement. A gap analysis can be a humbling experience, but it’s also one of the most valuable things you can do before launching a marketing campaign. Say, for example, your company thinks it does a superior job in outage management and wants to highlight this fact in its marketing messages, but your research shows your customers think otherwise. That’s a marketing mistake better made in private than in public.

Who conducts the research?

While the internal SWOT analysis and external customer research can be executed using internal resources, it might be more effective to get some help from an outside resource. It’s been my experience that employees will open up more to an external facilitator than to a co-worker.

Additionally, having a third-party speak with your customers, particularly key accounts, gives them the opportunity to speak frankly about their experiences with your company.

If you do decide to outsource to an independent consultant or research firm, ask your industry colleagues or trade associations who they would recommend. Look for someone who can work within your budget. For example, perhaps you just want support with one or two parts of the project. Many consultants can guide you through the process without doing every element.

Putting it all together

You’ve finished the research, and you now have an understanding of your company’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. You’ve talked with your customers and have plotted their feedback against the internal findings. You now know what areas you need to address to increase customer satisfaction. You know which products and services need to be promoted more to increase customer awareness. You’ve even gained some knowledge about your company’s brand position. Next month, we’ll talk about cost-effective ways to get your message into the marketplace.

Matt is founder and principal of The Matt Group, an integrated marketing communications firm specializing in the energy industry. She has more than 25 years of internal and external communications experience, including brand strategy, competitive assessments and marketing. She began her energy career at Arizona Public Service, where she provided communications planning and support to virtually every stakeholder group of the investor-owned utility. She can be reached at 480-704-0897 or at

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