My friend Josh owns a small, successful rock and roll Irish bar in Santa Maria, California called O’Sullivan’s Pub. When people ask him what he does for a living, he sometimes jokes that he’s a janitor.

A large part of his day is spent performing unglamorous tasks such as taking the recycling out and fixing toilets. For unknown reasons, his customers are unusually hard on the bathrooms.

These duties are essential, but they prevent him from dedicating time to his marketing efforts. Since he has live entertainment most nights, he needs to keep customers up on who’s performing. To do so, he hangs show posters up around town, posts them on Instagram and runs the occasional Facebook ad.

He wants to do more marketing to help his business grow faster. However, he just doesn’t feel like he has the time. If you’re a small business owner, you can probably relate.

Stop wasting time

Business owners tend to be relatively disciplined with their time out of necessity. But here’s some real talk. Even if you’re busy at work, you’re likely wasting hours somewhere. The Center for the Digital Future studied how much time the average American spends online. It’s a shocking 23.6 hours per week.

Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, says, “If you service low-impact activities, you’re taking away time you could be spending on higher-impact activities.” Marketing is a higher-impact activity because it drives people into your business. So, make time for it. Look for a few things in your day that aren’t serving your needs and cut them out.

The next step is to capture ideas and goals. Set aside 30 minutes with a notebook and just brainstorm. After you have some decent ideas, set measurable goals (e.g., 10% more guests at lunch). Earmark 15 minutes a week to go over your plan and update it based on what’s working.

This small investment of time will create a to-do list. Determine what the most important items on that list are and devote some time to it each day. Start small at first. Some marketing is better than no marketing.

Set your budget

Josh’s biggest marketing hurdle is time, but he’s also unsure how much money he should be spending on it. The U.S. Small Business Administration recommends, “small businesses with revenues less than $5 million should allocate 7-8% of their revenues to marketing.” This is a good ballpark figure to start with.

If you’re really short on time, consider using some funds to purchase tools that help automate marketing functions. Look for something that fits. If you’re not tech-savvy, an expensive product designed for enterprise level businesses isn’t going to cut it. On the other hand, if you want to do higher-level analytics or integrate the platform with other tools, something too basic might hold you back.

If you’re overwhelmed, consider looking to your staff for help. A smart employee with an interest in social media might be just the right person to help with marketing. Start with a couple of extra hours a week at their regular pay and bump the time up if they’re successful. If they crush it, consider offering a raise and some new responsibilities. 

This is exactly how my own marketing career began. I worked for a grass-fed meat shop back when social media had its first business marketing boom. The owners knew I liked writing and technology, so they asked me if I wanted to build a social media marketing program. It worked out great for everyone.

Knowing what you have to spend will help you you to calculate ROI on time saving technologies and decide if hiring help is the way to go. Without a budget you’ll have a hard time planning as you expand your marketing efforts.

Tell your story

Marketing doesn’t need to be an endlessly complex, technology-driven slog. The stories you tell are more important than almost anything else. Start with what makes you unique. Talk about that, with consistency, on social media. Words are great, pictures are even better.

Take a look at Turkey and the Wolf’s Instagram page. This New Orleans sandwich shop was named America’s Best Restaurant by Bon Appétit Magazine in 2017. The food is undeniably excellent and the staff is made up of dedicated cooks who know how to party. They’ve had some help with their branding, but the way they use social media to market their spot is fairly simple.

They showcase plenty of photos of great food and people having a good time. Their sandwiches and cocktails have bizarrely-delicious ingredients and funky names. They proudly feature local ingredients. It’s over the top, which makes the excitement easy to capture on social media.

If there’s something unusually interesting about your business, start posting about it, and see what people respond to. Seth Godin, one of the brightest marketing minds around, says, “Marketing is no longer about the stuff that you make, but about the stories you tell.” So start telling stories.

Marketing is important

In an early episode of Mad Men, Don Draper describes creative marketing as “the least important, most important thing there is.” It might not seem as important as an overflowing toilet or servicing a three-deep crowd, but it shouldn’t be put on the back burner forever. You need to reach new customers and remind the ones you have to keep coming back.

Have goals, know your budget and set aside a small amount of time for marketing. Build on your small successes and devote more resources to them when they work. The good news is even a little bit of marketing can go a long way. You just have to make time for it.


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