5 Common Marketing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
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Marketing mistakes, such as failing to understand your audience, being out of touch with the times or not tracking results can cost your small business money. They could lead to lost sales, and at worst, force you to face a massive public relations fiasco. Expert advice can help you craft well-researched marketing ideas, execute them successfully and avoid marketing mishaps others have made.
5 common marketing mistakes that small businesses make
Maybe you moved too quickly and didn’t take the time to double-check an email list, or you mistakenly trusted your intern to write tweets. Perhaps you wanted to capitalize on a trend and it didn’t go over well, or your business didn’t thoroughly research what your customers really want.
Small marketing errors usually cause little disruption to business, but a full-scale marketing disaster can be devastating, damaging trust in your brand and significantly hurting your sales.
1. Poor research
It’s critical to understand your prospective and current customers, and failing to thoroughly research who they are is a recipe for failure. Many small business owners think they know their companies, their business and their product better than anyone else and don’t need to do the research, but this is a mistake.
TIP: Perform a marketing audit.
While some small businesses conduct marketing and competitor research, their research efforts often fall short, said Andrea Arco, CEO of a St. Louis-based marketing communications agency. Try a marketing audit instead. “We actually have conversations with current clients, past clients, prospects you just won and prospects you just lost,” she said. These four groups are asked about:
- What the company offers
- How they’d describe the company
With Arco’s most successful clients, the results of the interviews exactly match the companies’ brand messaging. “Then there are some I’ve encountered that are completely off; the public perception is completely different” than what the business owners expect, said Arco. This indicates that these small businesses need to make a marketing strategy course correction.
Marketing blunder example: Inappropriate language
In 2016, a mattress store in Texas had to close its doors after an off-color joke went viral. It ran a “Twin Tower Sale” ad that parodied 9/11 — an infamous day in American history. Public backlash forced the store to close.
What to do instead
Consider the pros and cons before running a risqué advertising campaign. “Ensure that you have a good sense of what the likely reactions are, and only then implement if you’re truly comfortable with the possible result and ramifications from all sides,” said business strategist Athan Slotkin.
2. Poor planning
Once you have a better sense of who your customers are and how they perceive your brand, you have to effectively plan on how to communicate with them. A common mistake some small businesses make is not setting aside enough money or time to properly reach customers.
TIP: Design a marketing plan
Before launching any campaign, make sure you have a detailed marketing plan in place that is based on your research and findings. It should outline your mission, goals and budget, and set up a road map for your offline and online marketing efforts. These efforts could include social media, press releases, email marketing, media or ad buys, direct mail and any other tactics. Marketing doesn’t necessarily need to be expensive — here are 12 free ideas.
Marketing blunders examples
A common marketing mistake that results from poor planning is jumping on a trend without understanding it. There are even such marketing mistakes by big companies: In 2014, DiGiorno Pizza chimed in using the trending hashtag #WhyIStayed. It jokingly wrote, “You had pizza,” not realizing that the hashtag was a campaign for domestic abuse survivors to share their stories.
More tone-deaf language
Mistakes can creep into email marketing, too. In 2017, Adidas sent an email to those who finished the Boston Marathon with the subject line: “Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!” Nobody at the company paused to realize that this could be deeply hurtful, given that three people died and hundreds were injured after a bombing at the 2013 Boston Marathon.
It’s also all too common to hear about brands that made inadvertently racist ads in tone-deaf marketing campaigns.
What to do instead
Select a small group of loyal customers who can act as your sounding board. Or, for potentially sensitive or controversial campaigns, select a focus group that includes non-customers for feedback. “You don’t just want the people who are really happy with you, because they’ll say, ‘Yeah, that’s great,’” Arco said. “You want the people who maybe didn’t go with you for your latest proposal to weigh in.”
Otherwise, you’ll be issuing a very public apology for such marketing bloopers like DiGiorno and Adidas had to do.
3. Failing to take action
In hard times like the coronavirus crisis, a business owner may feel unsure how to communicate with their audience or if they even should at all.
“Action is better than inaction and communication is better than noncommunication, and right now, people need to be communicating with their target audience,” Arco said. “Yes [small business owners] need to have [messaging] vetted by a professional so it’s not insensitive in any way — we don’t want to be super salesy right now. But you can’t just go silent, even if you may be feeling paralyzed as a business owner.”
4. Careless errors
When you’re in a hurry or understaffed, it’s easy to make the biggest marketing mistakes. This could be inserting the wrong link in an email, putting the wrong price in an ad or making a spelling error in a social media post. Some of these missteps are minor and easy to fix, while others can be more damaging and embarrassing.
TIP: Have marketing checks and balances
It helps to have a system in place to make sure everything is checked by multiple people for errors and concerns. If you’re the person who sends out marketing emails, send test versions of the email to a few designated employees first to check for broken links and typos. If you’re working on a marketing campaign, send the proof to a colleague or two before it’s finalized to check for any marketing faux pas that should be changed.
Countless brands have gotten into trouble for not paying close enough attention. An email with “insert link here” accidentally left in looks bad, but it can be so much worse.
Marketing blunder example: Letting things slide through the cracks
Snap (through its social media service Snapchat) came under fire in 2018 for mistakenly approving a third-party ad that asked users whether they’d rather “slap Rihanna” or “punch Chris Brown” (Brown had physically assaulted Rihanna, his former girlfriend, in 2009). Though it was removed, it went viral and Snap was roundly criticized.
What to do instead
Double-check the smallest details, down to where a stock photo came from, for example. A political ad showed what were allegedly migrants crossing the Mexican border, but it turns out the footage was actually taken in Morocco. Do your research and make sure your guidelines are being followed by all employees.
5. Not tracking results
The entire point of social media campaigns, email marketing, even billboards or magazine ads is to get results for your small business. And in modern-day marketing, there’s no excuse to not track your results. Email marketing, for example, is rich in metrics, and paying close attention to how customers interact with your emails, content or social media posts can give you insight into what does and doesn’t work for your customer base.
You can then shape your content and marketing accordingly to improve results. Failing to pay attention is one of the biggest marketing blunders.
TIP: Pick the right marketing channel for your small business
Many small businesses spend too much time and effort on marketing channels that aren’t effective, Slotkin said. “There is a balance between diversification and truly focusing and putting more resources into what’s working.” If you’re not tracking marketing results in order to determine what is and isn’t working, you’re potentially wasting time and money.
Marketing blunder example: PR stunts
PR gimmicks, for example, can be a poor use of your marketing dollars. A San Francisco taqueria offered free lunch for life to people who got the restaurant’s logo as a tattoo. The owner didn’t think anyone would actually do it, until people got inked and demanded free food. The restaurant’s owners quickly realized if too many people took them up on the offer, they could lose millions, and they didn’t have the marketing budget for that.
What to do instead
Before trying any PR stunts or marketing gimmicks, make sure you can actually handle the demands and costs. “The lesson is to design for the worst-case scenario — and all scenarios — before launching possible spin-based campaigns,” Slotkin said.
What to do if you made a marketing mistake
If you’ve discovered your business has inadvertently waded into company marketing mistakes or advertising blunders, take a deep breath and assess what happened so you know how to respond. Arco said the type and tenor of the response should depend on the level of the impact of the mistake you’ve made. It helps to tackle marketing mistakes as you would a triage situation so you can diagnose the severity and how customer care should be handled.
Step 1: Determine the level of the mistake you made
In the case of a marketing email, “If it’s a message that doesn’t resonate with that audience, OK, maybe it won’t translate into [lost] sales. Not a huge deal,” Arco said. With something minor and inoffensive, there’s no need to address it. “Just be at peace with the fact that it might not produce results, and pivot.”
The more public and visible the mistake, however, the more proactive you should be at addressing it. If you are dealing with a higher level marketing error, you need to move quickly to stem the tide.
Step 2: Create a customized plan and execute on it
If the marketing communication was inappropriate to send to that audience, Arco said, and is more of a level two or three on your small business’s triage scale, it needs to be acknowledged or addressed.
“You need to decide: Does it need to just be addressed to the audience the mistake was visible to, or does it need to be addressed to the general public because it went out and got viral,” said Arco.
Consider if you need to make a public apology, or if it’s something you can simply email affected customers with an apology for the error and a thank them for being a customer. “People appreciate honesty and authenticity, but you have to look at the levels of the mistake,” she said.
The level of error you made will largely determine what kind of customized plan you’ll need to put into place. It will also determine the resources you might need to allocate to make it right. In some cases, you might need to hire outside help to manage damage control for a major marketing mistake. In other cases, you might be able to solve the issue by offering a coupon or free gift with the next purchase.
Step 3: Determine how to avoid similar mistakes in the future
With careful research, planning and processes in place, marketing mistakes can often be avoided. And just in case, always have a plan in place for what to do if a blunder slips through.