The Small Market Dilemma

Tyler MacLeod

VP, Client Services, m5 Halifax

Six tips for marketing professionals in smaller markets who want to compete with the best.

What a time to be a marketing professional. And by “marketing professional” I don’t just mean someone who has a job in marketing – I mean someone who lives, eats and breathes marketing. A marketing professional is plugged into the latest trends and, right now, it’s a lot to process. Debates about media effectiveness. Debates about awareness versus engagement. Debates about whether advertising is dead (it’s not). Or perhaps all of marketing is dead (nope).

As marketing professionals we want to be fluent in the latest theories, tactics and technologies in marketing. But if you work in a smaller market you know it’s a challenge to put those best practices into… well… practice. I hear you: there’s no such thing as a small market you say. Even a small business in Mushaboom, NS can find customers all over the world. That’s true. But many marketing professionals do have limitations imposed on the size of their target market. Perhaps you’re the regional marketing manager in a small territory. Or perhaps you work for in a province or state with a small population. In either case, your audience (and probably your budget) is only so big. But you’re a marketing professional, dammit, and you want to play the same game as the global marketers. That’s the spirit! Let’s look at some of the most common small market challenges and what you can do about it.

Small budgets and big ideas

A small budget isn’t a problem by itself – your budget is likely appropriate for your market size. Where it becomes a challenge is when you need to decide how much money to put into your bread and butter tactics and how much to experiment with. Today we see many great marketing feats that blur the lines between advertising, PR stunts, and social content. These are the highly awarded initiatives that marketers and consumers like to talk about. See: Fearless Girl. While these tactics get the attention, they often represent a small percentage of the advertiser’s overall marketing budget. It you’re a small advertiser though, that same percentage might only equate to a handful of dollars in absolute terms. Do you take a risk and sink a huge portion of your marketing budget into a tactic with the potential to go big or go bust? Or do you emulate these tactics on a shoestring? No matter how creative you are, it’s hard to make an impact on popular culture with a couple bucks. But it’s not impossible.

Tip 1: Build trusted partnerships

You almost always need partners to pull off a great idea. Necessary partners might include an agency or a video production house (or both). When you’ve got a great idea the right agency or production partner will see the opportunity and want to take part as well – they’ll “come to the table” or “lean in” or even straight-up “invest” so they can be a part of it. But that over-and-above collaboration happens chiefly when you’ve built up a strong relationship over time with your agency or production partner. Sure, you can treat every project as an opportunity to try out a new partner. But if you stay true to a few trusted partners instead, you can expect them to be there – ready to “play ball” – when you need to go big… on a budget.

Tip 2: Keep it simple

It’s often said that the best ideas are the simplest ones. That goes double when you need to execute an idea on a budget. With our audiences consuming more and more video content, we’re finding some of the most engaging content is of the unscripted variety. You know the ones: the reactions of real people to an advertiser’s created situation. Advertisers like WestJet and Heineken have shown the approach can be beautiful and effective. For every touching, humorous or amazing moment captured in these videos, we can rest assured there were many more moments that didn’t measure up. And the behind-the-scenes logistics for these scenarios can be daunting. So if you’re on a budget, you can’t afford complicated set-ups and days of shooting in hopes of finding your unicorn moment.

Your goal has to be to keep the idea and the execution simple. If you have a great insight, you should be able to strip away unnecessary complications to get to the core idea. If not, keep looking for a better insight. What makes people engage is not the fancy execution but the truth it’s built on – as Dove has consistently reminded us.

Keeping up with a fragmented media scene

The fragmented media landscape is probably the most discussed aspect of marketing in the past ten years. The emergence of digital and social media and their effects on traditional media have been well documented. All marketers are now debating where to spend their media dollars. But for smaller marketers, the investment in paid media is often not actually a lot more than the investment required to create the content and manage the channels. How can smaller marketers avoid investing a disproportionate amount in the administration and management of their programs – funds that could otherwise go into developing and distributing great content?

Tip 3: Looks for digital efficiencies

Now that we’re largely at peace with the fact that social platforms are making us pay for access to the audiences we worked to build, as marketers we still appreciate the relative cost effectiveness of paid social media. A little money goes a long way to promote content, especially if your market is relatively small. Where this becomes challenging for smaller marketers is managing the ratio of investment in production to investment in media spend. It still costs money to produce great content. Part of the solution is simply getting comfortable with production-to-media ratios that look much different than they did years ago and that look different compared to larger market peers. But an active step marketers can take is to insist on efficiency in producing content, developing an asset or assets that can be used across channels in several formats. So if you’re producing a long format video, be prepared to capture a :15 sec version as well. And a :06 version. And still photography. It takes a little more planning but the net result will be more content for less.

Tip 4: Programmatic is for everyone

Every marketer wants to know that his or her online campaign is being tended to post-launch. The ability to track performance in terms of clicks or conversions or some other metric means we’re not doing our jobs if we’re not taking advantage. Until recently, it was a time-consuming affair to do it properly and could add a cost disproportionate to the size of the media buy.

Enter programmatic. Programmatic online advertising is now comfortably in the mainstream and automates many of the monitoring and optimization activities. Agencies should have relationships in place with a variety of demand side platforms (DSP’s) such that there can be a fit for almost any client. If your online media buy doesn’t include a significant programmatic component, you may be spending too much on digital management fees and administration.

Tip 5: Social media is contracting as it expands

As marketers, we spend a lot of time discussing emerging platforms and developing action plans to get our brand on those platforms. We spend less time talking about when it’s time to throw in the towel on a platform. It’s even more critical to have this conversation as a small marketer with limited resources. Sometimes the decision is made for us – such as when a Vine folds. But that’s rarely the case. Usually a platform is only obviously obsolete when it’s firmly in the rearview mirror. With all due respect to Myspace and Second Life for continuing the fight, these are no longer the platforms brands – or people – are rushing to join. With that in mind, it’s important to remember there are platforms that are embraced by brands today that will soon join the ranks of the aforementioned MySpace and Second Life.

With limited resources, smaller marketers should be more ruthless in identifying whether they need to be on a platform. And if you already are spending on a platform, consider whether it can be dropped to focus on fewer but more effective channels. In our evaluations of clients’ media, digital and social strategies, we often uncover a disproportionate effort being made in channels with limited or declining reach. Don’t be afraid to do less.

Access to Talent

It’s often said that good ideas can come from anywhere. Remember the intern who came up with Diamond Shreddies? Good ideas can also come from anywhere geographically-speaking as well. But these are the exceptions to the rule. Generally speaking, the most well-known marketing campaigns come from the capital cities of advertising – New York, London, Toronto, etc. – chiefly because this is where there’s a concentration of talent and experience. Being a marketer in a smaller city or region presents the challenge of accessing top talent. Marketing agencies near you may have limited experience and narrower skill sets. Fortunately it’s easier than ever to work with a partner anywhere in the world.

Tip #6: Choose an Agency Partner who Understands Your Market

If you’re looking abroad, there’s nothing stopping you from doing business with the biggest names in the marketing and advertising game. But just because you can work with anyone doesn’t mean you should.

As a regional marketer your budget is likely to be among the smaller accounts at a large, multinational agency. This often results in the most junior members of the team being assigned to your business or otherwise receiving lesser priority. You also have distinct challenges that large agencies are unfamiliar with, resulting in proposed marketing solutions that may be impractical for you, your market or your budget.

Instead, consider agency partners who are intimately familiar with operating at your scale and within your parameters. Many secondary cities are home to agencies who, like m5, have deep experience working with national clients as well as regional and local clients. At m5, our team draws on experience working with major advertisers – such as General Motors and Subway – in creating tailored solutions that respect the unique situations of our regional and local clients.

It’s not easy to compete – and win – in a smaller market using the same strategies and tactics deployed by your bigger market peers. You certainly can’t outspend them. But by acknowledging the challenges and outthinking the competition you can find ways to make it happen. And winning is all that much more rewarding as a result.

Tyler MacLeod
VP, Client Services
m5 Halifax
[email protected]