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There's a refrain that is common to all small businesses, particularly those in the start-up mode: "How do I get my company and my product seen?" The answer is very simple, self-promotion. 

Along with new business solicitation, product development and hiring of personnel, promotion is one of the most vital elements of your growth plan. But it's a state of mind, an attitude. You must be fanatical about it. In fact, you can't stop promoting for a moment. Why? Because self-promotion only works as it gathers critical mass. It's the cumulative effect of your promotion and publicity effects that results in critical mass, which, in turn, leads to credibility for your company and your product. Ultimately, if your promotional program works, it will enable you to become highly recognized and accepted, which will help you get through the buyer's door and gain acceptance as a legitimate player. 

There are a number of tactical elements that, if executed correctly, will guarantee increased awareness for your company. The keys, though, are determination, discipline and commitment. An effective promotional program is like a marathon whose payoff comes at the end of a long, grueling effort. There is no room in an effective promotional plan for short wind sprints, which are an ineffective way to spend your marketing dollars. 

You must be willing to spend-- to invest in your promotional effect. It can't be done for nothing. Assign a line-item budget at the beginning of the year and support that budget with a simple plan that outlines goals, objectives, strategies, responsibilities and timing. If possible, hire a public relations counselor or firm that  can guide you in this process. Incidentally, retainer costs for public relations counsel can run in the range of $1,500 to $5,000 a month for a small business. 

You should be willing to take pro bono assignments. Work on boards and committees that will provide you and your firm with high visibility. It's a wonderful opportunity to rub shoulders with the movers and shakers. However, once you're on the committee or board, don't be pushy. And don't aggressively solicit business. Instead, just do good work and let nature take its course. 

Join trade associations. By joining your local trade associations, you'll have the opportunity to work on task forces and  committees where you will gain both visibility and confidence. Surprisingly, sometimes the best source of business can be referral from your own competitors--after they've seen you at work and after they've learned to trust you. 

Donate your product. Sometimes you have to donate or discount your product in order to get it seen and used; particularly if it's new. But don't go overboard. Offer your products and services only in those environments where you know there will be a reward in terms of visibility. 

Get ink. Submit stories and press releases incessantly. You never know when an editor will decide to run your piece. Obviously, concentrate on publications that are specific to your industry. And give it time. Develop a data base of press sources and submit releases on a continuing basis (minimum: one a month). It's a process of water torture, but eventually you may get ink. 

The cardinal rule, though, is to treat the press as you would expect to be treated yourself. Don't lie, exaggerate or engage in unnecessary chest-thumping. See it through their eyes--they need stories and material, but it has to be of interest to their readers. 

Try to be an expect source within your particular industry. They'll need behind-the-scenes advice and the occasional expert's quote. 

Enter industry award programs. Remember, these programs get you noticed and generate news. They  also support the notion that your work is a cut above the rest and that your firm is a leader within the industry. 

o Hit the speech circuit. Be willing to talk to trade, industry and community groups---anywhere prospects and customers congregate. If you're not giving a minimum of two speeches a month, you're not being serious. Don't ignore local civic groups like Rotary and Kiwanis. That's where your customers congregate. 

o Conduct seminars. Learn from the financial planners and the accountants who have mastered the art of giving seminars. If promoted in the right fashion, you'll always attract prospects who will come to a seminar program if they believe that they can get the information they need. And it's a great opportunity to establish a qualified lead that, if handled correctly, will culminate in a sale. 

o Don't forget direct response. A quarterly direct-mail program  ( supplemented by outbound telemarketing) serves the purpose of reminding your key prospects who you are and what you do. Be willing to mail newsletters and press clippings-- any brief, informative piece, even a postcard, that will keep your company's name in front of the prospect. 

Finally, remember that awareness takes time to build. Self-promotion is a discipline that will only start to pay off two to three years down the road. But you must stay with it and have faith that it will work. 

You must also have a definite plan in mind with goals, objectives, strategies, action plans, costs, timing and professional support, either internally ( a staff member) or externally (public relations counselor), if you can afford it. 

Don't be afraid of telling the world how good you are. There's no room for false modesty. Too many young companies and new products have failed because nobody knew who they were. 

This article came from the Small Business Monthly publication, Oct. 1995.
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