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Seven Strategies for Grassroots Marketing

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When Karissa Williams opened a tuxedo shop in Bellevue, Neb., she was sure it would be a success. She had a detailed business plan, the experience of working at her mother’s bridal store for years, and the mid-sized market home to 53,000 residents who didn’t have a tuxedo shop in town.

Yet, for some reason, nobody was coming into her store.

And that’s when her friend recommended Williams should market her business at the city’s local chamber of commerce.

“It’s like a gym membership: If you don’t get out there and get involved with the community, you’ll never get anywhere. It’s a waste of money,” Williams says. “So I really took that to heart, and more and more, I got out and started networking and building relationships with other people.”

Williams began to see effects of her grassroots marketing efforts. People were slowly pouring into the store. She hired more employees and concentrated on networking, building a website and studying search engine optimization. One year in, and she was winning local business awards.

Before long, the folks at nearby Offutt Collision Repair noticed Williams’ tact for marketing and tapped her for their open marketing director position. In love with the prospect of making marketing her full-time job, Williams decided to take on the collision industry. And now, two years into her new job, she has developed a seven-point system that any shop could mimic to spread its reach.

1. Know Your Community

When Williams worked at her tuxedo shop, she realized she couldn’t just market to men in need of a new tux— she needed to appeal to Bellevue’s overall values and personality.

“When I realized how important it is to grassroots market, I decided to immerse myself in the community,” she says. “I attended local festivals and events and really just engaged with people. Even though I grew up here, it felt like the first time I was learning about the people in the community.”

Determining your core demographic helps you to know what organizations and groups to target. Survey each customer and how they found out about your shop.

Through her research, Williams says she discovered families were Offutt’s best customers, with people in the 27–50 age range bringing in the most business. The city is home to many churches and schools, and it’s a growing community for new families.

Churches, baseball teams, schools, and arts programs are Williams’ biggest breadwinners for appealing to families. Keep connections within those entities to keep up with their events.

2. Be the Face of Your Company

At the beginning and end of each day, Williams sits down and checks her emails, which all represent the relationships she’s built over the years.

“Instead of calling the shop to set up an estimate, people will email me directly,” she says. “I’m the face of the company and they’re going directly to me because they trust me.”

Williams has made grassroots marketing a full-time endeavor, typically spending at least half of her day within the community, which she says is difficult for a busy shop owner to pull off. She advises shops with 10 or more employees to consider a marketing director if the owner cannot be in the community several times per week. By consistently appearing at community events, you’re more likely to be on a customer’s mind when he or she gets into an accident.

“If a shop was going to hire a marketing person, he or she needs to be outgoing,” she says. “I am not afraid to walk into a room with 100 people and trip and fall—now I’m the one people remember.”

3. Practice the ‘Soft Sell’

Williams is a fan of the “soft sell” approach. When engaging with people in the community, she says it’s more important to have an honest conversation and ask questions about them first and foremost, and then mention your business and its services organically.

“I really try and build my personal relationship before I sell the business,” she says. “Being part of that local network of businesses has been a boon for us.”

For Williams, it’s all about the personal relat ionships—people will initially choose your business because they like and trust you. Then it’s in your shop’s hands to perform good work and ensure referrals and future business.

She also says it’s important to read people. Some people actually want to hear more about your business, while others just want to talk about the weather. Either way, the conversation itself is grassroots marketing at work.

“If I visit a local business and they haven’t seen anyone all day, all they want to do is talk and chit chat,” she says. “But then there are other people that I can tell are really busy, and I’m sure to make it really quick. You don’t want to take too much time of their day, because then you’re a nuisance.”

Williams says the soft sell has worked wonders in obtaining local fleets. She seeks out area HVAC and plumbing companies with 40-plus vehicles, and makes regular visits to the local police and fire departments.

4. Visit the Chamber of Commerce

Perhaps the easiest way to connect with community members is through your local Chamber of Commerce. When she started, Williams immediately began promoting Offutt at local chamber meetings and establishing connections that carried beyond the walls of the chamber.

Offutt Collision is active in three different chambers: two in surrounding counties and the one locally. Bellevue is growing at a rapid pace, Williams says, and she usually schedules herself for two chamber events per day, including ribbon cuttings, meet and greets, and local dinner events and galas. She also sits on several local boards and committees that occasionally take up her nights.

“Exposure is key,” she says. “People only need your services every seven years or so, so it’s important to stay relevant and on people’s minds.”

5. Promote Other Businesses

Utilize various chamber groups for networking with local businesses. Again, Williams says to avoid the “hard sell.” By being personable and kind, other business owners will buy into your shop’s mission to help people in the community.

Williams furthers that trust by giving back to other businesses. Have a conversation with a business owner and understand what he or she is passionate about, and then promote that business throughout town.

“If I was talking to you and you said you needed a realtor, I’d refer you to someone in my circle,” she says. “That realtor hears that I recommended him or her, and then it would work vice-versa for me.”

Members of these groups do not last if you’re not willing to give. Williamssays she gives out over 100 contacts per month, which gets back to the businesses she’s helping out.

“People always say, ‘Karissa is amazing. She sends us everything,’” she says. “So the minute they refer someone who gets in an accident, they’re doing my job for me. They are my marketing people, because I can’t be everywhere.”

6. Get Creative Feedback

Be an out-of-the-box thinker and bring some fun and creative ways of marketing the business. Williams prints out colorful flyers to hang throughout town, sponsors various area sports teams, and has even appeared on the local news to promote recycling child safety seats.

But you can’t come up with everything on your own. If you can’t form a team within your own shop to offer feedback on your more creative endeavors, then utilize your business circles to forge a local unit.

Williams started a marketing team with five select local businesses. The group is comprised of an artist, a content creator, another marketing director, and a small business owner that’s very tech savvy.

“We all meet up monthly, assign homework, have brainstorming sessions and give feedback on our projects,” she says.

7. Spend Where It Counts

The toughest part of Williams’ job is not having an official budget. And while you should take advantage of as many free local events as possible, she says paid sponsorships present the opportunity of wider exposure.

Williams isn’t afraid to spend anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 during the city’s busiest summer months when various festivals present sponsorship opportunities. If the event is hosting many local families, Williams says your shop should get a few extra jobs and make the money back easily.

“I can even justify spending $10,000 on a golf event because those are also the customers that will spend a lot of money at your shop,” she says.

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