Growing numbers of Canadian twentysomethings have become familiar with Smoke's Poutinerie, a cross-Canada poutine restaurant that opened its first location in Toronto in 2009. While its popularity is growing – 30 stores that serve variations of the French fry, cheese curd and gravy concoction have opened in the past three years – founder Ryan Smolkin has barely spent a dime on advertising.
Most of his marketing push was done online, through social media. "Every night I'd come home, put on my pyjamas and, one at a time, I'd invite people to be my friend on Facebook," he says. "It wasn't easy."
He also plastered Toronto with little stickers of his store's mascot – a face of a man wearing glasses, with big 1980s-style hair. The stickers, he says, cost pennies to make; he just had to pay someone $10 an hour to put them up across the city. "That's what really put us on the map," he says. "People started recognizing the face."
When it comes to small business marketing, Mr. Smolkin clearly knows what he's doing. Smoke's Facebook page has nearly 11,500 likes and the company's World poutine Eating Championship – another inexpensive marketing ploy devised by Mr. Smolkin – gets a plethora of press every year.
Small business marketing has never been this simple, says Mr. Smolkin, who admits there would be no way he'd be this successful in the era before the Internet. With a little creativity and a few dollars, entrepreneurs can now easily get the word out about their company to the masses.
Spencer Saunders, president and founder of Toronto-based marketing company Art &Science, agrees that business owners have more advertising options available to them than before. Social media and online advertising, such as Google Adwords, are effective modern-day marketing tools. But traditional methods, such as direct mail, still work, too.
Before jumping into any marketing campaign, though, Mr. Saunders says business owners need to figure out who they're targeting. "It always comes down to the customer," he says. "Who are they, what are they doing and how does your product fit into their life?"
Owners must also decide if they want to go local, regional or national. A lot of people think they should go national when they should really target a smaller area, he says.
Gail Walker, principal at the Atticus Management consulting company in Toronto, adds that business owners also need to think about demographics, income levels and even where the target customer lives. "Am I looking to service dual-income earners? Or condo dwellers, or homeowners?" she says. "Define your target audience." Once you know who you're targeting, it will be easier to figure out which of the many marketing methods you should use.
Many small-business owners are now turning to social media to get the word out about their company. While that's worked for Mr. Smolkin, he says it took months before anyone paid attention to his Facebook page. Mr. Saunders isn't surprised by how long it took Smoke's to build up a social media presence. A lot of people think a few posts is all it takes, but, in reality, entrepreneurs need to build an audience. "It's a long and slow path," he says. Expect it to take six months before any results show.
Google Adwords is worth trying, Mr. Saunders advises. Advertisers buy some keywords and, when a potential customer searches those words, their website link will appear at the top, in the paid search box. Advertisers only pay if someone clicks on the link. He likes it because owners can easily see what words people used to find your site and what pages searchers went to after finding your website.
Ms. Walker also suggests using old-fashioned direct mail. It's a good way to drive traffic to a website. "People don't just go on a website to see who's new in business," she says. "They need something to trigger it."
Kurt Hibchen, owner of Montreal-based museum exhibition design company Toboggan Design Inc., mostly uses social media to advertise his business. But what has been most successful, he says, is the same thing that works for small business all over the world: "It's all about relationships," he says.
He'll meet people at trade shows, on business trips and at other museums. He also makes sure he's friendly, that he calls back clients and that he helps anyone who has a problem. "Every single thing you do as a company is marketing, from how you treat people to how you answer the phone," he says.
Doing good work is the ultimate marketing tool. He recently got a job in Oklahoma City, Okla., after people saw the work his company did at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa.
For Smoke's, it, too, comes down to the product – its poutine has topped numerous food lists – but the stickers and Facebook posts continue to bring people into his stores.
Mr. Smolkin occasionally spends money on other marketing gimmicks – he once plastered the construction equipment that was being used to build one of his stores with Smoke's banners – but he has no plans to launch a full-scale marketing campaign. He also says he'll never use traditional media to advertise his brand. "I work on a small scale that doesn't include any print, radio or TV," he says. "I can't afford it."