To celebrate Small Business Saturday, we’re having conversations with business owners and experts. Their experience, tips, and tricks may be useful to you as a small business owner. Doug and Polly are the principals at Whitestone Partners, a management consulting firm specializing in small business. Speakers, consultants, angel investors and writers, Doug and Polly specialize in educating entrepreneurs. Together they have a broad skill set and more than 60 years of business experience.

Q. What are some of the benefits of being “small” that a business owner can leverage to beat out the “big” guys?

A. We know small – we are small. We are a three-person team: Doug, Polly and TJ, our marketing assistant. Being small can be tough, but you can eke out some advantages if you are clever. For instance, we sell our size as an advantage to our clients. They know exactly what they are getting. When they hire Doug and Polly, they get Doug and Polly, not Fred or Jill. They are hiring our expertise and they get it. We are not just overseeing junior associates; we are doing the work.

As you grow, smaller companies can win by creating a great culture. Great cultures are easier to grow and maintain in smaller organizations. A great culture can give a small company an edge in attracting talent despite not having some of the bells and whistles that often come with working for large organizations. We all know that companies are only as good as their employees. If you have an outstanding team, your customers will love you. Growing and maintaining that great culture can help you to attract and retain a winning team.

Q. Is there a common place where you see many small business owners go wrong when they start to market online?

A. They ask for the sale too quickly. As with any relationship, you have to establish trust. To have trust, you must feel that you know the person or the business with which you are dealing. You would never say, “I don’t really know much about Doug and Polly, but I am sure I can trust them.” Instead, you would say, “I feel like I know Doug and Polly. I feel that I can trust them.” Establish yourself as an expert. This means putting out consistent, real, valuable information. Let people get to know you. Be sincere. After you have established yourself as a trustworthy source, you can make your “ask.”

Q. We all know those emails or websites that “look” like spam, but what are some strategies you’ve seen business owners do to demonstrate their credibility?

A.  Be consistent with your messaging and timing. If you are a real estate firm, talk about housing prices and how to stage a home. If you are a mechanical firm, talk about the value of clean ductwork and not overloading your electrical panel. Do it every week on the same day at the same time. Posting consistently will add to your organic SEO.

Get testimonials. People want to know that others have trusted you and had a good result. If you have a happy customer, ask them to give you a short review. Put it on your website.

Offer guarantees. When possible, let people know that they can get their money back if they are not satisfied. Make the process easy. People are much more likely to buy from you if they believe they have recourse if unhappy.

Q. With so many places for business owners to turn for online advice, how do you recommend they cut through the noise in order to make an impact?

A. To cut through the noise you have to get attention. To gain attention not just once, but to get attention consistently, you must build a brand.

It takes time and effort to build a brand. If you are small, you probably have a small marketing and PR budget to match. This usually means you will have to be willing to put in the work yourself.

We started by building a local brand. We attended hundreds of networking events, joined our local and regional Chambers of Commerce, and got involved in these organizations and our community. We built a local list from the business cards we collected and started writing a newsletter. We decided to write a book and interviewed more than 100 small business owners as research. We gave dozens of speeches about our book to local Rotary, Kiwanis and Lions clubs, BNI groups and various associations. Most often, our days started before 7:00 a.m. and finished after 9:00 p.m.

We wrote our newsletter for two years before our local paper, the Richmond Time-Dispatch, asked us to write a weekly small business column for their new online daily. After writing this column for two more years, came knocking. We started building a Twitter following and posted our articles in tweets. To date, we have written more than 300 articles that have appeared in hundreds of publications, sent more than 20,000 tweets to our 165,000 Twitter followers, written two books, and spoken to thousands through speeches, radio and television interviews.

Building a brand as a thought-leader and/or expert in your area takes time and effort and you probably won’t get there with one tactic or technique. You have to pound the rock. You need hundreds of small activities to chip away at the boulder. It is Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. More importantly, you have to have a real passion that shows in your work. Our passion is educating entrepreneurs. Without a true passion, you won’t be able to sustain.

Q. When working with new business owners, what are some tools or steps you use to come up with a digital strategy unique to their business?

A. We use our three questions:

1. Why should a potential customer/client choose your product/service over that of a competitor?

2. Is there a segment of the market that would appreciate what differentiates your product/service package and is the segment big enough to support your business? 

3. What is the best way/s to get your message to your market?

Taking our clients through an in-depth process of answering these questions leads to a marketing plan/strategy. Often, the marketing plan includes digital, but not always.

You need to know how to reach your audience in the most cost effective way. People are always saying that social media is free, but it really isn’t. There is a huge time component involved, and time is money. Also, to be really successful, you often need professional help. Professional help usually has a price tag pinned to it.

Online marketing can be very helpful, but it isn’t the only, or always the best answer. Do your homework before diving in. As we wrote in one of our articles, digital marketing can be a black hole into which you throw your hard-earned money. Make sure you answer the questions, before determining your path.

Q. Can people expect to get results from purely organic campaigns these days or is it pretty much required that they have an ad budget for a campaign?

A. To date, we have had strictly organic SEO and traffic. First, we have a well-built website. We strongly suggest finding good developers. Then, when you add all of our writing and our large twitter following, we have been fortunate. Again, it is about consistency of message, timing and delivery.

That said, we think we are an exception these days. In fact, we are about to try some paid ads in the next few weeks. We will probably have a new perspective and insights after testing and learning. You can expect to see an article or two about our experiences.

Q. What tool/strategy do you think will make the biggest impact in 2017?

A. We think that the Facebook Live; paid ads in Facebook; LinkedIn and Twitter, depending on your audience, and Instagram are hot.

Q. Who are some of the influencers who have made a large impact on how you think about online marketing?

A. Polly loves watching and listening to Gary Vaynerchuk. He is inspirational and certainly has his finger on the pulse of what is trending in new media.

To get more information on Small Business Saturday and to read more conversations with business owners and experts, visit our Small Business Saturday Guide.