The Local Marketing Stack

Operations & Customer Service

HOW TO USE THIS GRAPHIC
Generally speaking, you should read the graphic from left-to-right and bottom-to-top. Points lower and to the left are more fundamental to the overall success of your business than points higher and to the right in the sequence.

THE STOPS
A suggested timeline of steps to build your Operations and Customer Service Stack follows below.

Name Address & Phone

Zone 1 • Difficulty: • Free Options Available

Your Name, Address and Phone are foundational to your identity as a business, and they’re not something you should change frequently, if ever.  If you’re just starting up, there are some less-than-obvious things to keep in mind—it’s harder than you might think.

Considerations:
  • When possible, your name should be descriptive, unique, and memorable.
    Sure, there’s moderate SEO benefit to using keywords in your name, but it’s easy to go overboard and that’s a short-term strategy. Before you settle on a name, consider looking at namechk to make sure there are acceptable social media profiles and usernames available, as well as the TESS portal of the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. Even if you’re not planning to file a trademark application it’s a good idea to know whether there’s a high risk of brand confusion.
  • If you’re a local business (as opposed to e-commerce), your location should be in the city from which you intend to draw most of your customers.
    Locating in a suburb or surrounding town will make it much more difficult to draw customers from a population center. A home office is just fine but consider whether you’re OK with people knowing it about it in your marketing materials. Keep in mind that a P.O. Box will not be eligible for a listing by many major online business portals including Google My Business.
  • Should I get a local phone number or a toll-free 800 number?
    While 800 numbers may work well for ecommerce, if you’re a local business, area code phone numbers have actually been found to increase your conversion rate by as much as 100% in digital advertising case studies.
Recommended Vendors:

Launchaco

Launchaco aggregates domain name, social media, and font face searches to help you identify the best available name (and brand) for your business. And it’s free!

Cost: free+

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Namechk

Namechk is a little more domain-focused than LaunchaCo, and is targeted at a little more technical audience. Its differentiators are the option to make offers on domain names that are currently registered but might be available, and a wider range of social sites across which it checks name availability.

Cost: free+

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Domain Name

Zone 1 • Difficulty: • Initial Cost: $9+

Your domain name is your business’s address on the web, and it’s fundamental to the permanent identity of your business.

Many of the best domain names have either been reserved by other businesses or are cost-prohibitive, so it might require a little creativity to find a great one.

Before settling on your choice, here are a few tips:

  • .Com is still the most credible extension, but consider acquiring the .org and .net versions as well.
    It’ll only cost you a few extra dollars per year, and you’ll want to make sure that a spammer doesn’t acquire them for nefarious purposes.
  • Keywords in your domain name will help you with SEO.
    It’s easy to get carried away with keywords, though, and it’s much better to keep at least part of your domain unique, for both SEO and branding purposes.
  • Just because a domain name is unavailable doesn’t mean you can’t acquire it.
    Plenty of names that are “taken” may actually be available from their current owners. With the help of an experienced negotiator, you may be able to acquire just the name you’re looking for, albeit at a premium.
  • Say your domain name out loud.
    You’re going to want to tell people offline where they can find you online. If you choose a name like “Portland dash oregon dash florist dot com” just because it’s available…think about the impression that conveys to your customers and how memorable it is for them. Maybe “Northwest floral dot com” is a better option once you say it out loud.

The company with whom you reserve your domain is called your “registrar,”and while many of them provide further operational and marketing components beyond domain names, it’s not essential (or recommended) to use the same company for all of these items. Just get started by reserving your domain name, ignore up-sells from your registrar, and do your research about the best companies for each subsequent component.

Recommended Vendors:

Namecheap

Of the hundreds (thousands?) of domain registrars, Namecheap is the least-annoying and most reasonably-priced. They also offer a number of associated products, including SSL certificates.

Cost: $9+

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Trademark

Zone 1 • Difficulty: • Initial Cost: $1000+

While it’s probably true that not every new business needs to file a trademark, we firmly believe that every new business should speak with a lawyer for at least an initial consultation before settling on a name.  The last thing you want to do is build a successful company only to find out you’ve infringed on someone’s trademark and be forced into years of legal battles or the headache of changing your name and branding later on.

A free tool from the federal government
The US Patent and Trademark Office maintains a public search engine that can be useful for a high-level overview of how crowded your prospective namespace is, but it’s no substitute for speaking with an expert.

Recommended Vendors:

McCoy Russell LLP

Tidings has worked with Anna McCoy of McCoy Russell LLP on numerous trademarks, both for Tidings and other companies. Her firm is diligent, communicative, effective, and reasonably-priced.

Cost: $100+

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Productivity

Zone 1 • Difficulty: • Sugg. Monthly Budget: $5+

Productivity is such a 90’s word, but we’re not sure what else to call the concept of “digital things your business will probably need,” like:

  • Email addresses at your domain name
  • A work calendar
  • Basic software like documents, spreadsheets, and presentations

An integrated suite saves time and reduces complexity
Plenty of companies provide each of these components separately, but you’ll probably save yourself headaches down the road if you choose an integrated suite of tools.

Should be one-click to setup
Setting them up typically requires manipulating a few settings at your registrar, but many of the larger productivity providers (such as GSuite) have one-click integrations that take care of this for you automatically.

Recommended Vendors:

G Suite by Google

G Suite (formerly Google Apps) is the easiest to set up and most easily-integrated productivity suite for small businesses. Despite trying numerous competitive replacements for our own use, this suite remains the best option.

Cost: $5+

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Accounting & Bookkeeping

Zone 1 • Difficulty: • Free Options Available

Unless you’re an accountant, accounting is probably not the most appealing part of running your own business. But at the end of the day, all businesses need a way to keep track of their income and expenses, and as long as there’s an Internal Revenue Service, a record to show in case of an audit.

Why your accounting software is part of a marketing stack
Your accounting software is also an important repository of customer data that other software can leverage for marketing and re-marketing.

Three key considerations:

  • How easy is it for you to use?
    You don’t want to waste hours on a system that is too confusing for you or requires unnecessary data entry or analysis.
  • How easy is it for your accountant to use?
    When tax season runs around, you don’t want to rack up a huge bill with your accountant because they can’t figure out what your numbers mean or where to report them to the IRS.
  • How much does it cost?
    Keeping in mind that time is a cost as well as money, does it fit your budget?
Recommended Vendors:

Wave Apps

Everyone will probably tell you to use Quickbooks, and it’s a perfectly fine product. But it’s expensive, and Intuit’s long track record of gouging its customers for updates and additional features make us leery of recommending it. Wave Apps is a newer entrant with a simple interface and all the features you need. And it’s free.

Cost: free+

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Payments & POS

Zone 1 • Difficulty: • Free Options Available

Choosing your payments or point-of-sale provider may not seem like it has anything to do with your marketing stack, but it’s one of the most important decisions you have to make as a small business owner.

The data that your POS collects can (and should) form the basis for a whole host of future marketing activities. So as you consider which system to select, think about the following criteria:

  • RELIABILITY
    Obviously. Your payment system is how you actually make money as a business. It can’t be flaky and it can’t have outages, or else you can’t get paid.
  • EASE OF USE FOR CUSTOMER
    Does the system minimize friction for people who want to purchase from you? Every additional hurdle on a checkout page or at the cash register makes the experience just a little more frustrating and may impact a customer’s willingness to purchase from you in the future (if not in the moment itself).
  • EASE OF USE FOR YOU
    You’re going to have to use this thing a lot, whether it’s to manage inventory, add coupons, track sales, etc. Your payment processor should be a product you truly enjoy using.
  • COST
    The best payment processors are free, and only charge a nominal transaction fee for each purchase. There shouldn’t be exorbitant setup costs or minimums involved.
  • INTEGRATION WITH ACCOUNTING SOFTWARE
    Some point of sale or payment systems are natively integrated with accounting software (such as Quickbooks Payments). But if these don’t work for you, make sure that your system “plays nicely” with your accounting software of choice.
  • EXTENSION TO MARKETING
    The most cutting-edge point-of-sale systems either offer best-in-class marketing solutions that build on their native features (Square), or integrate so easily with third-party solutions (Stripe) that the marketing offering may as well be their own.
Recommended Vendors:

Square

Not only is Square used and loved by many of your target customers; its add-on marketing toolsets are the gold standard in the industry. Using Square as your point-of-sale and customer data collector makes many future marketing initiatives much, much easier (and more effective).

Cost: free+

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Stripe

If you’re a retail store, Square works great. But for online businesses, Stripe is hands-down the best payment gateway and payment processor. It’s extremely well-integrated by third-party plugins and not that difficult to set up, even if you’re non-technical. Oh, and its processing fees are among the lowest in the industry.

Cost: free+

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Customer Data

Zone 1 • Difficulty: • Sugg. Monthly Budget: $5+

Customer data can refer to a whole range of attributes, but at a minimum, every business should collect an email address from every customer (and prospect, if appropriate), and maintain a spreadsheet or database of each customer’s purchase history.

Useful even if you don’t have the time to use it
Even if you as a business owner never have the time to look at this data (a common situation!), software products are springing up left and right that can ingest this data, augment it with data from third-party sources, and analyze it for you with a keystroke. Over time, once your database gets large enough, you’ll be able to make smarter decisions about how and where to spend your marketing budget, and in some cases have software execute those campaigns for you automatically based on the data from your existing customers.

A big long-term payoff
These campaigns will both lower your marketing costs and make your marketing more effective, but it all starts with having an intentional plan to gather the data initially.

 

 

Recommended Vendors:

G Suite by Google

G Suite (formerly Google Apps) is the easiest to set up and most easily-integrated productivity suite for small businesses. Despite trying numerous competitive replacements for our own use, this suite remains the best option.

Cost: $5+

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Square

Not only is Square used and loved by many of your target customers; its add-on marketing toolsets are the gold standard in the industry. Using Square as your point-of-sale and customer data collector makes many future marketing initiatives much, much easier (and more effective).

Cost: free+

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SSL Certificate

Zone 2 • Difficulty: • Initial Cost: $9+

An SSL certificate enhances the security of your website by confirming for visitors that you are who you say you are. It then encrypts information that they enter so that your website is the only entity that can read it.

Essential for eCommerce
Most businesses don’t need an SSL certificate (although Google has indicated that sites that use them may receive a teeny tiny ranking boost), but if you’re doing any kind of eCommerce or accepting personal information from your customers online, it’s absolutely essential.

Your hosting company should install for you
SSL certificates aren’t that expensive, and if you use our recommended hosting vendor (Flywheel), they’ll handle proper installation on your website for you.

Recommended Vendors:

Namecheap

Of the hundreds (thousands?) of domain registrars, Namecheap is the least-annoying and most reasonably-priced. They also offer a number of associated products, including SSL certificates.

Cost: $9+

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Hosting

Zone 2 • Difficulty: • Sugg. Monthly Budget: $10+

If your domain name is your address on the web, then think of hosting as the foundation of your house at that address, and your website as the house.  A host provides space on a server—just a big computer, really—where all of the files for your website are stored.

Pointing customers in the right direction
When a customer types in your address, the company with whom you’ve registered your domain points them in the direction of your hosting company. When the customer arrives at your address, the hosting company serves up your website (house) for them to interact with and explore.

The most important things to consider in a hosting company are:

  • Speed
    A host has to build and rebuild your website every time someone arrives at your address. Obviously you don’t want your visitors to wait every time they arrive, so the faster the host the better.
  • Security
    As the media is finally reporting, there are a lot of bad people (and bad robots) online. A good host makes sure they can’t get into your website and is constantly vigilant against these threats.
  • Reliability
    Occasionally a host will need to perform maintenance to repair cracks in the foundation or install a new security system. But you don’t want your website to blow over every time there’s a windstorm or become flooded every time there’s a little rain. Hosting should be something you can set-and-forget.
  • Backup-ability
    In the event of a disaster, what’s your insurance plan? Most small businesses–let alone some web developers–are not going to back up their website on their own, so make sure your host keeps copies of everything in case disaster strikes.
Recommended Vendors:

Flywheel

Tidings founder David Mihm has used Flywheel to host numerous (former) consulting clients. Their security, automatic backup service and email support is stellar, at a very reasonable price. Flywheel also migrates and sets up WordPress installations for free, making them a great option for non-technical customers.

Cost: $10+

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Website (CMS)

Zone 2 • Difficulty: • Sugg. Monthly Budget: $200+

When thinking about their website, most small businesses understandably go right to its design. But in reality, designs can be updated relatively cheaply and easily at any future date–as long as you don’t shoot yourself in the foot with this component.

The choice of Content Management System (CMS) — the platform on which your website is built — is far more consequential and has far longer-lasting consequences than does the initial look-and-feel you choose for your website.

Too many small businesses are lured by slick radio ads or ridiculous marketing promises and don’t take a step back to think critically about the strengths and weaknesses of the platform they’re about to select.

Here are the most important considerations:

  • How well does the CMS integrate with other marketing products?
    While your website remains the central piece of your marketing infrastructure, these days more and more consumer activities are happening on other platforms. So it’s essential that your website “talk” to other platforms.For example, are there widgets that collect email addresses for a Mailchimp or Constant Contact campaign? Can you easily publish customer reviews as testimonials? Can you pull in a feed of your Instagram photos? These are just a few of the basic integrations that your CMS should offer.
  • How well-supported is it?
    If something goes wrong–and it will inevitably go wrong, no matter how good the platform is–how easy will it be to find someone who can fix your site? What about if you want to add bells-and-whistles? Can you hire a freelancer or an agency to change or add at low cost?Just because a CMS is cheap to set up or maintain does not mean it won’t be a costly long-term solution.
  • How easy is it for you (or someone non-technical) to update content?
    You shouldn’t be on the hook to hire a designer or developer every time you want to change a headline or add a new page.  The back end of the CMS should be easy enough that anyone who’s digitally savvy enough how to send an email can update a website.
  • How search-engine-friendly is it?
    This is a harder question to evaluate if it’s a new or niche-industry CMS. As a general rule, though, there’s a clear winner on search engine friendliness: WordPress.

If you go with WordPress, there are plenty of free themes you can use to get started, but typically to involve a web developer will put you in the neighborhood of $1,500 – $3,000 annually. It may be just as easy to use Kick Point’s Squarespace service.

Other CMS platforms have monthly subscription services ranging from $20 – $200/month (which may end up costing you roughly the same as WordPress).

Recommended Vendors:

WordPress

Used on more than 60 million websites worldwide, WordPress is hands-down the best content management system on which to build your small business website. Third-party developers have created over 50,000 plugins and countless themes to customize its features and look-and-feel. It’s great for SEO and if for some reason you ever need to migrate to a different platform, exports are a snap.

Cost: free+

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Clyde

If you need something simple and easy without a lot of customization, the new Clyde App is your best bet. It’s got SEO best-practices baked-in, takes seconds to set up, zero time to maintain, and is affordable for every budget.

Cost: $19+

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Squarespace

If you need something in-between Clyde’s simplicity and WordPress’s customization, Squarespace is your best bet. It’s got a lot of room for improvement in terms of SEO, but its sites are sure beautiful on every device. And if you need help getting set up, check out Kick Point’s Squarespace service.

Cost: $12+

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Shopify

Shopify is the best eCommerce platform, and its growing suite of marketing tools holds a lot of promise as well.

Cost: $29+

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eCommerce

Zone 2 • Difficulty: • Sugg. Monthly Budget: $29+

The concept of eCommerce is pretty straightforward: you want to sell products online, so you need a way for people to order them online. Your eCommerce platform sits between your Content Management System and your payment processor (or, in some cases, is both your CMS and payment processor).

Most widely-adopted eCommerce software platforms offer comparable features, but there are a couple of considerations:

  • Are the platform’s default product variations customizable for your business?
    If you sell widgets at a fixed price per widget, any eCommerce platform will work. But if sizes, colors, and quantities all affect the price per item, or if you frequently ship items from the same order to multiple locations, or if customers customize their orders before checkout, there may be limitations you’d want to be aware of before selecting a platform.
  • Is the platform search-engine friendly?
    This is harder for non-marketers to determine, since they all say they are search-engine friendly. (See our recommendations for which platforms are friendliest.)
  • Does the platform integrate with email and/or CRM solutions?
    Your eCommerce platform should be a natural starting point for cross-selling, upselling, remarketing, and attracting lookalike audiences. A modern platform will offer one-click integrations with email service providers and/or CRMs to propel you down this path.
  • Are there a number of third-party plugins to enhance the platform’s basic functions?
    Beyond email and CRM there are a number of features you may want to build on top of eCommerce. Your platform should offer an integrations directory like this one to extend its functionality.
  • Is there a critical mass of developers who can help you customize the platform beyond its default settings?
    Unless you choose a well-supported platform, you might have to search far and wide (or pay an arm and a leg) for a credible developer who can help you maintain your website or make changes for you.

The WooCommerce WordPress plugin is free; services like Shopify start around $29/month.

Recommended Vendors:

Squarespace

If you need something in-between Clyde’s simplicity and WordPress’s customization, Squarespace is your best bet. It’s got a lot of room for improvement in terms of SEO, but its sites are sure beautiful on every device. And if you need help getting set up, check out Kick Point’s Squarespace service.

Cost: $12+

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Shopify

Shopify is the best eCommerce platform, and its growing suite of marketing tools holds a lot of promise as well.

Cost: $29+

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Woocommerce

Woocommerce is more complicated and less intuitive than Shopify, and lacks many of the marketing extensions offered by Shopify. But if you’re already familiar with WordPress, it’s a great option.

Cost: free+

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Scheduling & Booking

Zone 2 • Difficulty: • Sugg. Monthly Budget: $30+

If you run a high-volume service business like a salon, HVAC company, or landscaping company, for example, online booking is a win-win for you as a business owner and for your customers.

Reduced friction = more customers
Online booking services reduce the friction for customers to schedule an appointment with you and in many cases, the convenience factor might be the decision-making criterion for your prospects, particularly if they skew under-40.

Additional benefits
For you the business owner, booking services can help you reduce no-shows via automated reminders, collect key information about your customers such as email address and social media profiles, help with accounting and payroll, and more.

Exposure beyond your own website
And on top of that, many booking service providers have integrations with major platforms like Google, Facebook, and Amazon, which can extend the reach of your business to these platforms (which may not be possible in some cases without online booking.)

Recommended Vendors:

Square

Not only is Square used and loved by many of your target customers; its add-on marketing toolsets are the gold standard in the industry. Using Square as your point-of-sale and customer data collector makes many future marketing initiatives much, much easier (and more effective).

Cost: free+

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GenBook

Genbook is a great option for service professionals, with the key differentiator of native integration with top consumer portals like Google, Facebook, and Bing.

Cost: $30+

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PocketSuite

The lightest-weight booking and scheduling platform for service professionals. A great mobile interface at a very low price.

Cost: $10+

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Customer Feedback

Zone 2 • Difficulty: • Sugg. Monthly Budget: $30+

Many small business owners are unnecessarily fearful of asking their customers for feedback on their product or service.  But beyond the obvious marketing value of positive reviews and testimonials, customer feedback helps you run a better business!

Using the concept of Net Promoter Score, you can

  • Identify your happiest customers and encourage them to share their experiences with friends, family, and through reviews.
  • Learn what creates “passive” experiences for your customers and how you can turn them into “active” promoters.
  • Capture “detractors” before they share a negative opinion with others, and give you the opportunity to save the relationship–not to mention correcting the problems and ensuring that future customers don’t experience the same thing.

Automate the process
Whether or not you decide to use Net Promoter Score per se, we strongly recommend implementing an automatic feedback collection mechanism that gives you a sense of how you’re doing with your target customers.

Recommended Vendors:

GatherUp

GatherUp helps you easily acquire customer feedback & encourage online word-of-mouth with your customers, with great analytics around who’s reviewing you and what they’re saying.

Cost: $29+

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GrooveHQ

Tidings uses Groove for its online customer support, and we’ve found it well worth the $9/month price point, given how easy it is to set up and how it helps us respond to our customers quickly and seamlessly. We also love its numerous third-party integrations.

Cost: $9+

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Grade.us

If you’re looking for a more robust marketer’s toolset to acquire reviews, Grade.us puts the whole package together for you, with complete creative control.

Cost: $29+

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Local Profiles

Zone 2 • Difficulty: • Sugg. Monthly Budget: $10+

Local Profiles (in particular Google My Business and Yelp) are the foundation of any local business’s search engine presence.

Your primary digital channel
We are moving into an era in which searchers or social media visitors may interact with your business entirely on your local profile, whether that’s placing a call, getting driving directions, knowing when you’re open (or busy), reading reviews, booking an appointment viewing photos of your business, or learning about your service offerings.

Don’t stop with Name, Address, and Phone number
Claiming these profiles, keeping them up-to-date with accurate information, adding rich business attributes like photos, menus, and certifications–all of these are essential to convert people who are looking for your business into customers, and may even help you attract customers who don’t yet know you by name.

Paid services can augment your basic listings — to a point
You can extend your local profile presence using paid services, but be wary of services that tout the breadth of sites to which they distribute your data–if you haven’t even heard of those sites, let alone use them yourself, chances are they’re not all that valuable.

Recommended Vendors:

Google My Business

For many small businesses, Google My Business is the digital marketing starting line. Make sure you’re giving customers correct information and great photos of your business at a minimum by claiming your free profile. GMB also provides remarkably easy to understand insights about how customers are finding and interacting with your business on Google properties.

Cost: free+

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Apple Maps Connect

Apple is the most widely-used mobile mapping application after Google Maps, with about a 25% overall market share. Make sure iOS users can find your business by claiming your free profile.

Cost: free+

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Yelp for Business

Don’t ever waste money on ads from Yelp. Under no circumstances should you trust any of their dashboard analytics about how many leads they’re sending you. And prepare to be hounded to no end by their salespeople. Despite all of that, it’s important to put your best foot forward to Yelpers by claiming your business profile there.

Cost: free+

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Moz Local

While we recommend directly claiming your Google My Business, Facebook, Yelp, and Apple profiles directly, Moz Local takes over from there, helping you manage your local profiles on the important directories and data aggregators in the local search ecosystem.

Cost: $8+

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Reviews & Testimonials

Zone 3 • Difficulty: • Sugg. Monthly Budget: $30+

Reviews and testimonials are some of your most compelling content. 88% of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations, and they’re one of the most authentic ways you can convey what it’s like to work with you or purchase from you.

Essential in many industries
Reviews and testimonials are great for SEO — and in many industries such as hospitality, personal care, and food/beverage, they’re essential.  You often need a baseline number of reviews just to rank in the first place, and the keyword associations consumers use naturally when describing your business helps you rank for those keywords.

Big impact on conversion
Even more important than the positive impact reviews and testimonials have on rankings is their impact on conversion.  The difference between 3 stars and 5 stars on Google is a full 25% increase in clickthrough rate, and displaying reviews and testimonials on your site increases the chance someone clicks to purchase, picks up the phone to call you, or drives to your business.

Institute an acquisition routine
The bottom line is that asking your customers if they had a good experience at your business should be part of your everyday routine. The vendors listed here can help you implement that routine.

Recommended Vendors:

GatherUp

GatherUp helps you easily acquire customer feedback & encourage online word-of-mouth with your customers, with great analytics around who’s reviewing you and what they’re saying.

Cost: $29+

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Grade.us

If you’re looking for a more robust marketer’s toolset to acquire reviews, Grade.us puts the whole package together for you, with complete creative control.

Cost: $29+

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SMS & Messaging

Zone 4 • Difficulty: • Sugg. Monthly Budget: $20+

SMS is one of the highest-engagement marketing channels, with open rates regularly exceeding 90%, and clickthrough rates exceeding 6%.  SMS marketing is extremely low-cost and can be very high-return.

A double-edged sword
But the intimacy of SMS that creates that engagement is a double-edged sword: your messages need to be compelling and timed appropriately in order not to lose the privilege of the channel (or the customer altogether).

Often integrated with other marketing components
Booking and scheduling tools, loyalty programs, and even review acquisition products all leverage (or should leverage) SMS as a primary communication channel. Apart from these services, you may be able to roll your own programs with a dedicated SMS marketing product.

Recommended Vendors:

SlickText

Simple setup, a free low-volume plan, and loads of features make SlickText our sole recommendation for SMS marketing.

Cost: free+

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CRM

Zone 5 • Difficulty: • Sugg. Monthly Budget: $10+

CRM stands for Customer Relationship Management. R is the most important letter of the acronym: Relationship.

A giant data collector
The intent behind CRM software is to give you actionable insight around which marketing activities to perform based on the status of your relationship with a given customer.  The best CRM software is a giant data collector of every interaction a customer has with your business, allowing you to build a complete profile of the person, and identify in which stage of the sales funnel (or sales pretzel, if you prefer) they are.

The more you know
Armed with that knowledge, you can better segment your customer base, close more business (including upsells and cross-sells), encourage more referrals, and attract future customers that closely resemble your existing ones.

Sometimes integrated with marketing automation software
CRM software is often sold as part-and-parcel of marketing automation, but there are plenty of valuable, low-cost CRM solutions in the market that do not include an automation component, which tends to increase cost and complexity.

Recommended Vendors:

Square

Not only is Square used and loved by many of your target customers; its add-on marketing toolsets are the gold standard in the industry. Using Square as your point-of-sale and customer data collector makes many future marketing initiatives much, much easier (and more effective).

Cost: free+

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CustomerLobby

CustomerLobby offers a complete customer retention solution, that includes reputation management, email, SMS, and direct mail outreach. Integrates with basically every accounting and point-of-sale solution on the planet.

Cost: $199+

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Kit

If you’re an ecommerce company on the Shopify platform, you should definitely be using Kit. It’s the easiest CRM tool we’ve ever seen, at an incredibly low price.

Cost: $10+

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ProsperWorks

If you use G Suite (formerly Google Apps), ProsperWorks is a natural choice for CRM. Its features naturally extend into the G Suite products you already use (like GMail and Sheets) and vice versa.

Cost: $19+

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Nutshell

Nutshell is a CRM truly designed for small businesses, unlike bloated, overcomplicated Enterprise platforms like Salesforce that try to sell downmarket. It’s particularly useful for companies with multi-person sales teams.

Cost: $20+

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Mailshake

Mailshake helps you keep track of your PR outreach, and can also be used as a proto-CRM tool. It integrates directly with G Suite (formerly Google Apps).

Cost: $9+

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Loyalty Programs

Zone 5 • Difficulty: • Sugg. Monthly Budget: $150+

Depending on the study you look at, it costs between five and seven times as much to acquire a new customer as it does to retain an existing one. And one of the best ways to retain existing customers–and keep them coming back to your store or using your service–is through a loyalty program.

Taking the punchcard digital
Lots of businesses have traditional punch cards or VIP clubs, but making those programs digital can have considerable benefits.

Integrated with your point-of-sale system
The best loyalty programs integrate with your point-of-sale system, learn the buying patterns of particular customers, and nudge them with offers related to the products or services they’ve ordered from you in the past. They typically require a little bit of work on the front-end and become largely automated on the back-end.

Plays nicely with other marketing programs
Loyalty programs and brand marketing complement each other perfectly.  A number of Tidings customers have implemented a loyalty program for personalized transactional marketing and a newsletter for brand marketing to stay top-of-mind with their customers and prospects.

Recommended Vendors:

Square

Not only is Square used and loved by many of your target customers; its add-on marketing toolsets are the gold standard in the industry. Using Square as your point-of-sale and customer data collector makes many future marketing initiatives much, much easier (and more effective).

Cost: free+

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FiveStars

A robust loyalty offering for companies not using Square Point-of-Sale or unsatisfied by Thanx.

Cost: $199+

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Thanx

One of the simplest, most compelling loyalty programs available–and one that can live independently of your existing point-of-sale system. Newer features focus on marketing automation as well.

Cost: $500+

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Chatbots

Zone 6 • Difficulty: • Sugg. Monthly Budget: $50+

Chatbots are digital robots that use artificial intelligence to have conversations with humans. You can think of Siri as a kind of chatbot, albeit one who communicates with you through voice as opposed to a messaging app.

The ultimate time-saver?
The idea behind chatbots is great — to automate responses to common customer service questions, freeing you up to focus on other less mundane areas of your business, and potentially to provide the customer with a little faster response than they might get in talking to a human being.

Conversations are valuable, though
But as a small business, one of your biggest differentiators is your customer service. If your customers want a robot, they’ll probably just talk to Google or Amazon. And if you’re not present in the conversation, you miss the opportunity to make the personal connection to them that breeds loyalty and word-of-mouth referrals.

Relatively low consumer adoption
Besides that, many customers don’t even know about chatbots, let alone use them. A number of larger brands have already released them on Facebook Messenger, with limited success.

Maybe not the best use of your time or energy
So if you decide to give chatbots a go, just know that they’re a largely unproven technology with a pretty small audience, and probably not the highest and best use of your time or energy as a small business owner.

Recommended Vendors:

Chatfuel

If you find yourself answering the same customer questions over and over again, Chatfuel can help you automate those responses relatively easily. And it’s free.

Cost: free+

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