What I learned from working with small businesses, nonprofits, and personal brands
I’ve been in branding and marketing for the past 10 years, but I learn new things every year. That’s because marketing is always changing, and what’s relevant and effective is different of each organization.
This year, I’ve worked with small businesses, nonprofits, and individual freelancers. In many cases, I’ve been embedded enough where I know how their internal staff and day-to-day office work runs. I also have a few brands and side businesses of my own that I’ve learned from.
In this past year, I’ve noticed some things that seem common across most organizations. Here are 20 lessons that I’ve learned in my experience from this past year alone, and how you can use them to grow your own brand in 2020.
Lessons About Digital Marketing
1. Use social media yourself
There are too many social media managers, including myself, that get so entrenched with using social media for business but not personal. We forget what normal people actually like and engage with. The audience you’re reaching on social media are individual users. Use social media for fun and enjoy it. Post personal stuff and see what gets interactions. Take note of the content you engage with. You’ll get insight into what’s actually interesting to normal people.
2. Know your goals and your reasons
I’ve worked with a lot of clients who want to change stuff just to change stuff. They want to change the design or content of something, and the reasoning is that they just want to “change it up,” or they “think this will be more successful.” When I let them have their way, we usually get worse results. If you change something, have a reason for it and a measurable goal you want to accomplish from that change. Make the change, test it, then keep it or change it back depending on the results.
3. Post with intention
In the digital content space, there can be an overwhelming anxiety to just keep up. Whether it’s blog posts, videos, social media, or emails, there’s so much content everyone is pumping out that you feel the pressure to keep producing. While consistency is important, so is quality. Don’t make crap. It’ll hurt you more than if you did nothing at all. If it’s too much, scale back your content calendar so you can make less stuff, and make it with more intention and higher quality.
4. Make things simpler
There’s a temptation to add more flashy stuff because we think it’s more effective. So we add more words, more graphics, and more features. But that only creates more options and confusion for your audience. Whether it’s on your website, emails, or print marketing, keep it clear and concise. Ask if an element needs to be there, and how it helps the customer make a decision.
5. Repurpose and recycle
For myself and my clients, it’s exhausting creating fresh content for multiple platforms. There’s blogs, videos, podcasts, and all the different social media platforms. When I didn’t have the time, I would just scale back on a particular platform. An easy way to create less content, but still keep up with the publishing demands of each platform is to repurpose a single piece of content in multiple formats and to recycle it throughout the year. I go a little more in-depth about how to repurpose content here.
Lessons About Branding & Messaging
6. Talk to your ideal audience, not your current audience
I work with some brands that have one audience demographic, but they’re really after a different or new audience demographic. They need to make this shift in order to be successful in the future. But when we develop messaging that’s different and targets their ideal audience, they get worried about alienating their current audience. So they try to find a happy middle ground and appeal to both groups, but end up not resonating with either. Speak to who you ideally want to reach. It may hurt now as you lose some of your current audience, but it’ll pay off when you connect with the customers you want.
7. People buy solutions, not features
I talk to brands who think they have a great product, and many times they do, but aren’t seeing the sales they would expect despite all their marketing. It’s often because they’re not connecting with their customers’ problems. Whenever someone buys something, they’re trying to solve a problem. There are brands who talk about how great their product is, but don’t convert on sales because they don’t address how the product will solve their customers’ problems. Don’t present a product; present a solution.
8. People buy feelings, not things
Brands that have trouble making sales also struggle with this similar mistake. Even though they have a great product and great solution, customers have a lot of choices. They will choose a brand not based on what they get, but on how they will feel. People make purchase decisions based on how it affects their emotions and how it shapes their identity. Make people feel good and proud to use your brand.
9. Talk to your customer, not about yourself
When auditing email or website content, I notice a lot of clients talking about themselves. They’ll say “WE do this” or “OUR product is this.” People won’t be interested in you unless you’re interested in them. Switch your messaging language to talk directly to your customers about your customers.
10. Messaging matters more than fonts and colors
It’s surprising how often I will go back and forth with clients on minor details. I understand that the brands are often protective of their design image. But when they’ve hit a plateau and struggle with growth, small design tweaks won’t make a difference. What matters more is the narrative that gets communicated to your customers.
Lessons About Productivity & Organization
11. Most meetings are pointless
I’ve sat in on a good share of meetings. The majority of them are a waste of time. They are usually weekly meetings that average an hour and a half to two hours. They start with about 15 minutes of non-work chatter. The leader of the meeting, usually the manager or boss, will give an update for about 10-15 minutes. Then they cycle through everyone in the meeting, each giving an update on their work. Occasionally, there is back-and-forth discussion between 2-3 people on a specific item, and everyone else who has no involvement in it just sits and listens. The meeting usually goes overtime, with unfinished discussions to resume the following week or in smaller groups. Almost all the info could be disseminated in an email. Don’t meet to share info. Have smaller meetings to solve problems, only include people who need to be there, and notify them ahead of time what they are expected to contribute. I wrote this article with action steps on how to prepare and run effective meetings.
12. Theme your workdays by task type, not project
In my work, I handle multiple projects and multiple brands, and there is a wide range of marketing tasks. For most of my career, I’ve worked in project chunks, jumping between different types of tasks within the same project. But as I got more organized this year, I found it more productive to group types of tasks together. So for example, I’ll do all my writing on one day, whether it’s for blogs or emails or websites, across multiple projects and brands. Then another day I’ll do only graphic design. I find that if my brain is already locked into a certain type of work, it’s easier to get that work done even if it’s in different projects, rather than jumping between types of work and forcing my brain to make the switch to different contexts.
13. Your time is a bento box, not a buffet plate
When projects come up, we often add them to our task lists without allotting the proper time to it. I get this from clients I work with and do it to myself as well. As a result, existing projects get delayed and put on the back burner. Tasks take time. Your time is not a buffet plate in which you can pile on tasks. Your time is a bento box that has limited space for what can fit in. If you add more tasks, you have to ask what other tasks will be delayed or removed as a result.
14. Automate and delegate
With small organizations or individual business owners, people tend to wear multiple hats and do whatever is needed. But as they grow, that habit sticks and they continue doing minor repetitive tasks that shouldn’t be occupying their time. As soon as you’re able to, find software and systems that can automate a portion of your tasks, and delegate your work to other people.
15. Get ahead
Tending to the urgent prevents future growth. Yet that’s what a lot of organizations do. They do things day-to-day and week-to-week, getting them done just in time. But it doesn’t allow time to evaluate effectiveness or create better plans. Even if it means you have to pause some of your marketing schedule, plan ahead and get things done ahead of time. You’ll have a lot more freedom.
Lessons About Growth & Impact
16. Low prices, high volume, and recurring payments
I work with freelancers who rely on high end clients and with nonprofits who rely on big donors. Though it’s great to have those large influxes of revenue, it’s problematic when you lose one of them. You take big hits in your income and the inconsistency can take up time and cause anxiety. If it fits your business model, aim to have a wider base of clients, customers, or donors with smaller payments. If you have 100 people paying $1 each, losing a few won’t be as detrimental as having 10 people pay you $10 each. If you can find a way to create a monthly or annual recurring payment system, it will help establish a more consistent and reliable revenue stream.
17. Hiring someone is the best investment for growth
Labor is usually the biggest cost of any organization, and so managers and freelancers alike try to to keep it slim by doing all the work themselves. But the time they invest in doing that work keeps them away from more important work that could actually help grow the business. As soon as you’re able to, hire staff or contractors to offload work that doesn’t need to be done by you personally, so that you can actually work on higher level things that impact the future of your business.
18. Always think about scaling
Small organizations and freelancers get accustomed to doing things a certain way, and they can be extremely inefficient. But they don’t realize this because they’re still small, so the low volume allows them to continue this way. It can be the process of manufacturing and distributing, customer relationships, or even just office tasks. But they would never be able to keep up pace if they were to scale, and that’s often what prevents them from scaling. Take a look at some of your most time-intensive tasks and ask yourself if it would be feasible if you had 10 times the number of customers. Find ways to make things more efficient so that you are able to more easily scale your business.
19. Budget for money to disappear on risks
Nobody likes to waste money. Successful organizations will ensure that whatever they spend will get some kind of a return. Even things that seem more frivolous like perks for staff are done for employee morale, with the hopes of increased productivity. Risk is a part of any investment, but some brands are so risk-averse that it prevents them from taking the actions necessary to grow. What often helps is for businesses to budget and save a specific amount just for risks, and not expect to get any return. This will free them up to take bolder actions. It could be in purchasing new equipment, spending on advertising, or trying out a new software. It’s whatever you feel could potentially grow your business, but aren’t completely sure. A “risk” budget gives you the confidence to move forward.
20. Pay attention to trends, not fads
Working with multiple clients in many different aspects of marketing, I try to stay up on what’s current, what’s new, and what’s working. I’ll adapt strategies as I see success in certain areas, but will ignore others. I’ve been in marketing long enough that most of the time, I can spot the things that will last. However, some of my clients will get focused on flashy things. They will see fads, sometimes from a long time ago, and insist on doing those things because it looked successful for the other brands. They don’t realize that it’s often a one-off, or a lot of money was spent with little ROI, or it was a hyped-up occurrence for a short window of time. Trends, however, are the movements in marketing that will last several years or more. They are worth following and testing, and could be very beneficial if you jump on at the right time. Be watchful of what is a long-term trend and what is just a short-term fad, and be willing to adapt and change quickly.