Indications are that small business owners are in for a tough and competitive holiday season. According to a study from Pitney Bowes and ORC International, 84 percent of consumers plan to spend the same or less than they did during 2011.
Worse, big box stores and national retailers are doing a more effective job of marketing to consumers than local businesses.
Luckily, there are things that entrepreneurs can do to stay competitive. Here are five tips gleaned from a panel of small business experts at the inaugural Customer Magnet Series, an event recently presented by Pitney Bowes and Google.
Build the List
"First off, build the list. The list is the heartbeat of your marketing effort," recommended Pitney Bowes' Jeff Crouse, vice president and general manager of small and medium businesses.
In this case, "the list" comprises your customers' vital details (name, address, email, etc.). If you don't have a neatly compiled record, database or CRM, he advised small business owners to carve out a little time and make the effort to go through invoices if necessary.
Fun? Probably not. But Crouse couldn't stress the list's importance enough and reminded the small business owners in attendance that, "your best resource is customers that have already purchased your product."
Start Holiday Prep Now
Time magically evaporates, and this year's holiday season can be unforgiving for small businesses caught unawares. If you're not ready, get ready, and fast.
Crouse urged small business owners to take action before the long Thanksgiving weekend becomes another memory. "Get ready now with the three or four holiday coupons," he said. "Now is the time to put those emails in the can."
If direct mailings are more your speed, Misty Young, owner of the popular Squeeze In diner in Reno, had just one piece of advice. "Get your mailing out by December 1st," she stressed. If you wait much later than that, you risk missing out on holiday shoppers.
Get Up to Speed on Mobile
"Increasingly, we're seeing more and more traffic coming from mobile devices," said Tim Freeth, head of Industry at Google. Considering his employer and its massive Web stats operation, he would know.
How important is having a mobile-friendly website? It's essential, according to Melinda Emerson, small business expert and publisher. Citing research that shows a dramatic increase in mobile Internet use from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, Emerson said, "You have to go mobile in order to stay relevant."
Freeth suggested visiting howtogomo.com, Google's online resource center for helping businesses mobilize their websites. And as it turns out, you don't have to venture past Small Business Computing to find some handy small business mobile marketing tips and insights.
One of the smartest things small business owners can do is add metrics tools to their shopping cart, said Emerson. "You want to know if there's a significant abandonment rate in your shopping cart," which can help shops tune their small business marketing strategies, she added.
In terms of Web analytics, Freeth suggested keeping a close eye on your site's bounce rate. A high bounce rate can be an indicator of visits from "folks that thought they were going to find something but didn't."
Build Goodwill on Social Media
"Promote yourself with care," advised Emerson. That means relentless self-promotion is out and good, honest engagement is in.
You may even have to shine the spotlight on others or venture off-topic. "If you want followers, share other people's content," added Emerson.
"People just love photos," said Misty Young. A photo of firefighters that dined at her establishment (on the house) became one of the most "liked" and commented Facebook posts. While it had little to do with food, it sure helped her business' image in the wake of harrowing fire storms that affected the area.