What I Wish Every Small Business Owner Knew About Marketing

“Marketing” is a giant catch-all term.

When we’re doing “marketing,” what are we really doing?

You’ve probably come to associate “marketing” with activities like posting on social media, writing emails or articles, and maybe offering free downloads or workshops. You may also associate marketing with an endless list of to-dos, FOMO about platforms or tactics that you really should be trying, and frustration when things don’t work the way you’d like them to.

The good news? Marketing isn’t what you post on social media, how much time you sink into list-building, or the trendy new place to hang out online.

Marketing is actually so much simpler than all of that.

That’s what I wish every single small business owner knew about marketing.

When you understand the simplicity at the core of any marketing strategy, you can direct your time, energy, and resources in more effective ways—so you can drive real results for your business.

As the crush of marketing advice has become harder and harder to bear, I’ve talked with business owners about these ideas over and over again. In the last few weeks, it’s come up at least 10 times. So I finally decided to put it all down on digital paper.

I’m going to break down how the idea of marketing has gotten so complicated, where marketers most often go wrong in executing a marketing plan, and offer a framework—including 3 key questions—for constructing a sustainable marketing plan that works.

It’s a lot to take in—fair warning. But I’d bet money that it changes the way you think about marketing your business.

As always, this isn’t an article that’s going to tell you what to do. Instead, you can use this article as a tool for figuring out what’s going on in your business and how you’d like to address it in the right way for you.

First, let’s define marketing.

Marketing is how a business connects with potential buyers, earns their attention, introduces its offer, and helps potential buyers evaluate whether its offer is right for them.

There are loads of possible ways to do this, and social media marketing or webinars are only 2 of them.

Think of marketing as encompassing 3 different objectives: discovery, nurturing, and conversion.

Each marketing objective represents a different need for the business.

The marketing designed for discovery fulfills the need to connect with new potential buyers so that there’s a steady stream of new people who might be interested in what your business offers. This kind of marketing tends to be accessible—as in, it’ll catch the eye of the right people whether they’ve heard of your brand or not—and highly shareable.

The marketing designed for nurturing fulfills the need to earn the attention and trust of potential buyers who have connected with your brand but are still figuring out whether your business can really help them. This kind of marketing tends to highlight a brand’s unique perspective and provide insight the potential buyer is lacking.

Finally, the marketing designed for conversion fulfills the need to start sales conversations. This kind of marketing tends to be direct and aimed at creating a response.

We use different messages, media, and distribution channels to accomplish the objective we’re trying to achieve and fulfill the needs of the business—more on that in a bit.

Unfortunately, the first things that come to mind when we think of marketing today aren’t these 3 simple objectives. Instead, the idea of marketing a small business triggers questions about how many hashtags to use or how to post to as many social media platforms at once or how many emails to send during a sales campaign.

Fixating on tactics & tricks takes the focus away from the simple truth.

Effective, sustainable marketing starts with determining how you’re going to connect with the right people, build a relationship with them, and introduce your offer to them.

Stop for a moment and consider: can you definitively say how you’re accomplishing each of those objectives?

Or, are you trying to figure out the right way to post on Instagram or write emails or host webinars and hoping that these objectives get met in the process?

If it’s the latter, you are certainly not alone! The whole digital marketing industry revolves around amplifying your fear of missing out on the tactic that’s going to get your business results fast.

It’s not actually interested in teaching how to build a sustainable marketing strategy.

The more you obsess on marketing tactics, the less effective your marketing actually becomes.

Now, of course, how you execute your marketing strategy (the tactics, platforms, media, messages, etc…) does matter. But relentlessly executing without making sure you’re covering your marketing bases? That’s a recipe for marketing burnout.

Instead, when your primary focus is achieving the 3 key marketing objectives, you can build a sustainable marketing ecosystem to achieve your goals.

I’ll get into how I define a sustainable marketing ecosystem, plus a framework for creating yours, in a bit. First, let’s dig into these 3 marketing objectives and how we often gum up the works.

As we continue, I’m going to assume that you know who your customer is, what they’re looking for, and what motivates them. But if you don’t know those things, start there.

Focusing on tactics first creates a redundant marketing plan.

When we’re focused on marketing tactics first, we tend to gravitate to tactics that play to our strengths. Sounds good, right? Well… what I’ve noticed is that those strengths typically align with just one of the 3 marketing objectives.

One marketer is really gifted at building an audience and connecting with potential buyers.

Another marketer is really gifted at nurturing potential buyers with in-depth content or inspiring media.

And yet another marketer is really gifted at presenting their offers and helping buyers decide whether that offer is for them or not.

Now, what happens when we’re really good at something? When it comes naturally and effortlessly to us? When we really enjoy it (or at least, don’t dread it)?

We do it a lot.

The marketer who is gifted at building an audience is going to crank out the kind of content that brings in new followers at a staggering rate. They’re going to jump on every audience-building platform they can and create content people want to like & share.

The marketer who is gifted at nurturing potential buyers is going to double-down on content designed to wow the people who are already paying attention. They’re going to have a fabulous newsletter, a compelling podcast, and run a really valuable free Facebook group.

And the marketer who is gifted at presenting offers is going to focus on, well, making offers! They’re going to have powerful automated sales funnels, effective ads, and a website designed to sell.

We end up duplicating our effort in one area and neglect the others.

If you don’t consciously construct a strategy for hitting all 3 objectives, you end up sinking tons of time, effort, and frustration into a wholly unbalanced marketing plan.

When your marketing plan is unbalanced, it creates predictable problems.

If you’re gifted at discovery (i.e. building an audience), you probably don’t convert nearly as many buyers as you could. You have to work really hard for each sale—and even then, it feels like a crapshoot as to whether people are going to buy or not.

If you’re gifted at nurturing (i.e. wowing your existing followers), you probably don’t see a lot of audience growth. That means that every offer you make starts to peter out after a few sales cycles because you’ve exhausted the people who are going to buy.

If you’re gifted at conversion (i.e. starting sales conversations), you probably interact with a lot of people who just aren’t the right fit or you’re constantly having to make new offers to sell to the same people.

My guess is that, if you’ve gotten this far, you see yourself in one of these problems. Maybe in a couple of them.

So what does this mean for how you market your small business?

You might be thinking that this discovery, nurturing, conversion thing sounds like a sales funnel. And you’re right: it does.

Each objective is often portrayed as a portion of an effective sales funnel.

But I don’t like to think in sales funnels, I like to think in marketing ecosystems.

It’s not that I think there’s something inherently wrong with sales funnels—although they’re often taught in harmful & exploitative ways. It’s just that designing them always feels a little suffocating to me as a writer or producer.

So I take a more holistic approach.

A marketing ecosystem is how the media and messaging you put out into the world work together to attract the right people, earn their attention and lead them toward your offer.

It’s not a linear path like a sales funnel, nor is a marketing ecosystem designed to squeeze out people who aren’t continuing to move closer to buying.

A marketing ecosystem has the power to be nurturing and valuable for folks who may always remain non-buyers. It makes them feel as welcome at the table as your business’s paying customers. Plus, it makes the most of your resources by encouraging everything you do to be interconnected with other parts of your strategy.

Now, the nice thing about a sales funnel is that it gives you direction as a marketer for the kind of messaging or content you create. And I think that’s one reason formulaic sales funnels have gotten so popular over the last 8 years.

If you’re not actively thinking “first this, then that, and then in with the pitch!” like you do in a linear sales funnel, it can feel like your marketing efforts are haphazard or slapdash.

And, just like focusing on tactics first, it can create a lot of redundancy in your marketing.

However, you can bring this same direction and purpose to a marketing ecosystem—you just need to put intention behind the content or messaging you create.

This leads me to the only 3 marketing questions you may ever need.

  • What am I doing to regularly put our business and the value we create in front of new people?
  • What am I doing to build a stronger relationship with the people who are already paying attention?
  • What am I doing to share what we have to offer with people who are ready to buy?

I can (and do) answer these questions in all sorts of ways!

And, I want to feel like my activity is appropriately balanced between all 3 objectives.

So in my own marketing ecosystem, I need to create content that’s good for getting in front of new potential buyers, other content that’s good for nurturing the people who are already paying attention, and still other content that’s good for presenting my offers to people who are ready to buy.

I package that content in different ways. I distribute that content in different ways. And I use different messages depending on my objective. And most pieces of content can be repackaged, redistributed, and re-messaged to serve different functions.

I’ll share how the marketing ecosystem at What Works is working right now in a bit. But first…

Let’s look at the process of cultivating a marketing ecosystem.

A sustainable marketing ecosystem is the interconnection of the people you’re trying to reach, the messages you’re sharing, and the concrete action you’re taking. It is more effective as a whole than the simple sum of its parts.

Each part of your marketing ecosystem helps make every other part work better. And a well-balanced marketing ecosystem is built on a simple foundation of the 3 marketing objectives: discovery, nurturing, and conversion.

To cultivate a sustainable marketing ecosystem, we have to start with taking stock of what we’re doing now.

First, identify your strengths and weaknesses as a marketer when it comes to discovery, nurturing, and conversion. What comes easily to you? What objective are you likely to neglect and how does that impact your business?

Then, map out your existing marketing activities (social media, podcast, email, live streams, etc…). Does a particular activity fall more into discovery, nurturing, or conversion? For instance, does the way you use social media help you build an audience, stay connected to existing followers, or set up a sales conversation?

Next, compare your marketing activities to their objective. Do they match? For instance, if you’ve started a podcast to build an audience, you’re barking up the wrong tree.

Going further, look for places with significant overlap. Are you leaning heavily into one intent of marketing and neglecting the others? Are you, perhaps, using Instagram, email, blogging, and your YouTube channel to nurture your existing audience without having a reliable means of adding to that audience?

Finally, figure out how you can re-balance your marketing activities across all 3 objectives of marketing.

To do that, consider your objective, message, medium, and distribution channel together—all in relation to who you are trying to reach.

Remember that the marketing objective is the business need you’re trying to fill: connecting with new people, nurturing the people who are already paying attention or starting a sales conversation.

Your message is why people are engaging with a piece of your content in the first place. Your message will change depending on your marketing objective. Someone who is totally new to your business might need to hear or see something quite different from someone who has been pay attention for years.

The medium is how the marketing is being packaged up. Is it a podcast? An article? A slide deck? A video? The marketing objective & message will impact how you package the content. Someone who has come across your brand is extremely unlikely to queue up your podcast episode at random. Whereas a YouTube video that’s designed to be searchable might be the perfect way to discover your brand.

Finally, the distribution channel is how you’re delivering the content to people. That is usually a platform (i.e. Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, podcast apps, email). But it can also be word-of-mouth or social sharing (publicly or privately) more generally. Often, a particular medium can be delivered in multiple ways; a solid piece of writing could be a blog post on your website, an email, an article on Medium, and a caption on Instagram.

Ready to see this in action?

Before I share my own example, I want to note that What Works is a content-driven business and I love writing & podcasting. Spending quite a bit of time on these things is literally my job.

But at YellowHouse.Media, the business is not driven by content and our marketing ecosystem looks entirely different. What Works is a good example here because it shows what really investing in marketing looks like—but there’s a very, very good chance that your business would be better served with something simpler and less intensive.

Here’s how I’ve been cultivating my own marketing ecosystem.

It’s easiest for me to create content that’s designed to nurture people who are already paying attention (preaching to the choir, if you will). We’re already on the same page about so many things—which means I can really predict what you need to hear and how I can share that with you in ways that make you think.

The What Works podcast and the What Works Weekly newsletter are the primary ways I create content that’s designed to nurture. The distribution channel for these media are literally things you have to “subscribe” to. So I know you’re in when you’re listening to an episode or reading a newsletter.

As such, I create these media with you in mind. I make a lot of assumptions about what you already know about me, what I do, and how I think. I take for granted that we’re on the same page with our values. That all allows me to go deep fast—or bring you really unexpected ideas.

Our marketing ecosystem is most likely to have ineffective redundancy around the objective for nurturing. You might think of it as a marketing monoculture when you really want a marketing polyculture.

Luckily, I know there’s (almost) always a way to take the content that I create to nurture and rework it so that it works for discovery, too.

When I do that, I’m trying to imagine why someone who has never heard of me or What Works would engage with that content. Because, ultimately, I’m hoping that someone who is “in the know” (that’s you) will share it with their friends and colleagues—who have no existing relationship with me or my business. This helps me figure out the message I want to use.

To be clear, this does not mean I come up with new ways to promote my other content.

I spend very little time “promoting” anything and, instead, a bunch more time distributing my content in different ways.

Think about it: when you are “promoting” the content you’ve distributed elsewhere, that just isn’t going to lead to new people finding your work. It creates low-engagement media that’s only ever going to get shown to people who are already paying attention.

Promoting your content isn’t bad but it’s probably not helping at all!

Instead, when you find a new way to distribute that content so that it’s engaging to people who don’t know you or your brand, you have a great chance of getting in front of new potential buyers—whether it’s via shares, the algorithm, partnerships, earned media, or shout-outs.

That’s how you grow your audience.

Redistributing content for a different objective probably requires some reworking.

For instance, in order to create content that’s designed to engage new-to-me people, I take the ideas that went into a podcast episode or article and wrap them in a slightly different message. My goal is to find a message that would pique the interest of someone who’s never come across What Works before.

Take last week’s podcast episode on creating sustainable systems with Anna Wolf.

In the episode itself, I launch right into talking about core competencies and operations. The people who listen to the podcast love that stuff. And regardless, subscribers are going to get that episode downloaded to their device and most will listen regardless of the topic because they know they always learn something from What Works.

But if I tried talking about core competencies and operations to someone who isn’t already into what we do? Snoozefest.

So I have to find a different way in. Same content—different messaging.

On Instagram, I created a visual essay (that’s a very fancy term I’ve borrowed for the little slide decks I’ve been making for the last 6 months or so) that did talk about core competencies and operations. But I started with a surprising statement that runs counter to conventional wisdom and is highly shareable.

“Many of the most successful business owners I know spend very little effort on marketing and, instead, spend most of their effort on systems & operations.”

Would this have gotten your attention if a friend shared it with you and you had no idea who I was? Probably!

And it was certainly shared around quite a bit, too! Which, on Instagram, is always a big victory—given how difficult that can be.

If you flip through the deck, you can see that I just morphed the content from my episode intro into slides that help explain the core idea of the episode. To make it more accessible (both for the visually impaired and for different types of learners), I also wrote out & further explained that same content in the caption.

I didn’t “dumb it down,” as some folks worry about when they’re trying to reach new-to-them people. I just gave people a different reason to care.

I did the same thing with last week’s article for What Works Weekly.

In the newsletter and article, I started with “a confession” and a personal anecdote about learning how to draw.

On Instagram, I included the same story—but I didn’t lead with it. Instead, I led with the question, “When was the last time you gave yourself permission to be something really, truly, embarrassingly bad at something?

That question appears in the original piece—but in the last few lines.

By leading with that question, though, I have a chance to make a connection with someone new. A personal anecdote is a good lead for someone who already has a relationship with me—a reason to care. But a provocative question is a good lead for anyone.

Now, you might be thinking, “Well, Tara, why don’t you just create everything with strangers in mind? Wouldn’t that appeal to people in the know, too?”

First, I don’t want to. Which is a good enough reason for me not to do it.

And second, it’s good marketing to make things for people who are already in the know.

Consider Apple’s WWDC events—when they announce new products and upgrades. Sure, they’re press events. But much more than that, they’re a sort of party for Apple’s most loyal, most engaged fans. By looping those people in with splashy events (even if you only catch coverage of it after-the-fact), they create a flywheel of buzz that extends to less engaged potential buyers eventually.

This is the execution of our marketing strategy that I’m testing now:

We’re building our audience (objective) and putting the work we do at What Works in front of new people by testing if Instagram (distribution channel) would work for that purpose. We’re also using Facebook ads to amplify this content.

Then, I considered how I would re-package my content to facilitate that. I chose visual essays and slide decks because I know they get shared a lot and I like to play in Canva and I thought I could effectively translate my ideas to that medium.

Finally, I thought about my message. On a granular level, this varies post by post. But on the aggregate, my message is designed to push back on “pop business advice.”

Case in point: this article.

My message explodes what other small business influencers would like you to think is the “conventional wisdom” and shows what is really going on in a way you can immediately put to use. My work helps people build a stronger business by ignoring the things they’ve come to internalize as “shoulds” and “supposed-tos.”

And I know that’s not only shareable messaging—but it’s something that appeals to all of the right people, whether they know me or What Works or not.

As I (finally) start to wrap up here…

I want to point out that none of this mentioned hashtags or hot new platforms or algorithms.

Am I interested in ways to amplify all of the work I put into the content marketing I create? Yes, I sure am.

But there’s nothing to amplify if the marketing I’m working on isn’t doing its job first.

Adding 20 hashtags to an Instagram post that doesn’t help our business fill its needs isn’t going to do a damn thing. Joining Clubhouse to talk to people I already talk to on my podcast and in my newsletter is just going to double-up on work I’m already doing twice over!

Nor is building a marketing ecosystem about “promoting my content.” I’m not interested in promoting my content—I’m interested in people consuming and using my content (thank you!). Posting to social media to promote my content will never help build my audience. But posting my content to social media can.

That’s not to say that I never promote content or events or offers—of course, I do. But promotion is never the main objective behind why I use any distribution channel or medium.

As I mentioned at the very beginning, this article isn’t designed as a how-to—although it’s possible to use it that way. Instead, I hope that you have a new framework for analyzing your own marketing efforts, why it’s producing the results you’re currently experiencing, and constructing your own sustainable marketing ecosystem in a way that works for you and your small business.

In case you’re wondering, yes, this is the kind of thing we talk about at The What Works Network all the time.

I share this kind of stuff in our Q&As and hot seat coaching sessions. It’s embedded into the templates we offer in the Stronger Business Playbook. And we dive deep into this kind of topic in the Monthly Deep Dive.

We’ll be opening the doors to new members soon. If you want to be notified when we do, sign up on the guestlist on this page.

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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