I happened to spend a few days with a friend lately, as I was attending a conference in his neck of the woods. Gary is a great guy, and I enjoy hanging out with him, except for one little thing. He flat out refuses to take my suggestions about his marketing and lacks any semblance of a marketing plan.

Last week he said to me, “John, I have been marketing my ass off, and my lead generation sucks.” I asked him to explain. “I’ve spent thousands of dollars these past two months trying to generate some quality diners to fix my sagging revenue, and nothing works. I’ve blown my marketing budget clear out of the water.

After a long look into what he was spending all his money and time on, I came away with what I believe to be an all too common malady with solopreneurs.

There was no attempt at creating a clear marketing plan or a set of coordinated tactics. “I keep it in my head.” He tried to justify and defended himself, but my experience has taught me if you can’t measure it, you aren’t marketing it. Plus, no one gets to their desired location without a really good map.

According to Gary, there were four things he and his team attempted that not only didn’t generate qualified leads, but stole time, and exploded his marketing spend. Recovering money after being spent takes months to recover, assuming you give up the bad practices that lead to the loss.

Many of the attempted tactics are unworthy of mention here, but four significant ones are:


Operating with Knee-Jerk Marketing – By this, I mean, there was no plan of any kind. Sure, he might have had some vague thoughts floating around in his noggin, but he never took the time to lay out a written plan of how he was going to reach his goals (least of all have some defined goals in the first place). This what I refer to as “the idea of the week style of management.” To many SMB owners come up with an idea, dive head-first into making it happen without regard to the actual cost to yield an unknown revenue or customer conversion or acquisition rate. Gary was the cat chasing a laser light spot on the floor, jumping from idea to idea. On a whim, something new would make it into his marketing with no regard to cost, effectiveness, or message congruency.


Marketing and ads were not target specific – Gary is the owner of a fine dining restaurant that features a comprehensive wine list, completely organic cuisine, locally harvested fresh fish and crustaceans, produce, and herbs. But, his marketing and advertising didn’t tout anything that set him apart from every other restaurant in town. There was nothing in the ads and posts to express the uniqueness that sets them apart from all the competition.
Diners with a sophisticated palette for fine wines and lusciously prepared and served food reside in a small part of his city. Yet, his ads were generic, not targeted to the upper echelons of society, nor was there a call to action. It was little more than an expression of what they offer and their hours of operation.

And to top that, he incorporated a discount coupon offering Two-for-One dining without limit in the advertising. His restaurant was superb, but his messaging said: “We are desperate.”

Media outlets utilized without rational thought – Gary never took the time to research and understand who his ideal customer is. Personas are crucial to determining marketing strategy, and this leads to improperly targeting the messaging and the channels to share that message. Gary invested large sums of money on social media ads, without regard to whether or not his target audience would see his ads (or if the ads spoke to the right audience in the first place). When that tactic didn’t provide an instant response, he shifted to spending on pay-per-click advertising spend to spread the word, again with diminished results.


Lack of publicity outreach – One thing that I did discover was that over two months, Gary’s restaurant was the location for three different charity groups for meetings and parties. Gary could have reached out to the media in advance to cover these events, possibly and potentially gain free publicity for his restaurant and the charity as well.

Press releases for special events tied to a charitable organization is a solid way to obtain free press by announcing a special event that a portion of the proceeds could go to support the cause. By coordinating with the organization to co-market the event to their mailing list, he could boost the attendance from both efforts, his and the charity. He could have provided every attendee with a “bounce-back” and garnered repeat business from them individually.


Ineffective use of direct mail – I have to give Gary a bit of credit for attempting to perform a direct mail campaign, even though ineffective and costly. Direct mail could have been an excellent way to gain new customers (or motivating past ones) by creating a special night and featuring a special menu. Valentine’s day comes to mind as I am writing this on February 14th, but Jazz night, surf-and-turf night or a special wine collection tasting night are all sound ideas where many restaurant clients find success.

But they have to invite the right people! A targeted direct mail campaign, perhaps monthly, could reach the right audience, build interest, and spark a decision to dine there instead of the other numerous dining options.

Too many SMB owners don’t know how direct mail is useful because they don’t test, lack a defined list, or don’t provide the appropriate package, message or visual. I have heard too many claims of SMB’s attempting a direct mail campaign that didn’t deliver an expectation (possibly unrealistic), and thus leading to a belief that direct mail is dead. It works exceptionally well, done with knowledge and training. And a lot of testing.

And don’t forget about Email. Clever marketers evolve the new customers derived from print advertising and direct mail over to email. It’s less costly and can provide personalization and automation. Encourage customers to stay abreast of new happenings or special events by becoming a member of your community. Take the money saved and reallocate it to a different channel, an expanded direct mail list, or use it to offset the costs for that free dessert on their birthday. Direct mail to email is a natural progression and given that 76% of subscribers make purchase decisions from an email marketing message. But the messaging has to be relevant, as 66% unsubscribe from emails because the message isn’t relevant to them (recent US Consumer study data).

Gary is a great guy, and his restaurant is superb (and a favorite ), but it’s shameful his bouncing ball approach to marketing (plus the lack of a marketing plan) has impeded its growth. Small business owners must wear many hats (I know, I am one!) but it is crucial to step back and work on the business and not merely in the business. The right planning and implementation take a lot of stress out of operating a small business, and although there will never be enough time marketing planning must be a be priority. It is oxygen to the life of any small business.

Getting started is simple. Consider what you want to accomplish over a reasonable period. What is your definition of does? Define it. Quantify it. With the end in mind, you can work backward and construct the tactical steps to carve the path to that result. And always make these actionable items SMART (see graphic below). And always routinely review and assess them.

The “if this is the goal, what will it take to get there?” mindset is important. It will help generate a strategic and tactical plan, and a financial budget you can measure and grow using.

SMART Acronym