Back Story: I was invited this week to appear as a guest presenter to a class of third-year pharmacy students at Lipscomb University in Nashville.  The plan: to hopefully give the class a little inspiration for their group project involving developing a marketing plan.

If you watch the news and quickly need to pull yourself out of a downward slump of pessimism, I suggest being a fly on the wall in the facility where I met 70 of these up-and-comer pharmacists.

Sure, the dozens of published research studies tacked on the hallway walls (behind glass), with the names of Lipscomb students highlighted as featured researchers and contributors is a large part of that optimistic feeling.

Lipscomb's College of PharmacyBut even listening to a group of a half-dozen chemical compound padawans gathered in an area outside their classroom, challenging each other on chemical reactions of iron — and… more things that I don’t remember now — would instill a little, “The World’s future might be alright after all” feeling in most anyone.  I might have very well been standing in the midst of the future founder of an Ebola vaccine. Time will tell.

During Q&A, I met Spencer.

Spencer sounded like he had a vision laid out for his future – like he was truly off to Jedi training, to later return to a smaller pharmacy and continue to lead and develop the business into the century.

His question was something like, “Say you’re about to join a smaller pharmacy … in a smaller community. Considering there are differences in how big corporate entities might do things, what would you recommend?

[“…for a smaller entity to be successful,” “… to build a tribe,” “…to build a loyal customer base.”]

Great Question

How would you think a marketer might answer?

  • How larger, more-corporate businesses will have a bigger marketing budget, and therefore be more successful, because they can do more?
  • Do you think the answer lies in social media — that the smaller firms must post more often, and promote, promote, promote!
  • Do you think the answer is all about consistently launching quality content?
  • What about video? After all, we’re video evangelists. That’s it; the answer must go down that road, right?
  • Maybe, “Get a Pinterest account and immediately start posting inspirational cat posters and old year book photos.”
  • Or do you think it was “all the above?” — where it’s all about increasing engagement or the awareness of one’s brand?

All the above is good.  Even cat posters option (assuming some appropriate engagement is destined to come out of it). But… that’s not where I’d take it. (especially in the short final minutes of a presentation).

What I’d recommend…

Focus on the Relationship.

(and by the way, that’s my answer for places, both big and small)

There can be many not-so-obvious-at-first advantages with a business within a small community.   But the reality is this:

No one (in this particular context) will ever be your customer if there isn’t some sort of relationship – usually human contact (again, considering this industry).

Even in models (e.g. ecommerce) where it is possible to grow conversions and customers without any human interaction, it’s likely that support and assistance is inevitable – which means real people need to be available!

It’s a concept many forget: all of those various strategies listed above (i.e. blogging, video, social) are just a means to an end.  The end, as with any business, is to make sales (if you’re the average joe/consumer reading this, you must know at some point, a business must make sales or it will cease to exist to serve anyone).  Businesses that don’t make profits – at least for sustenance – are called hobbies, and no pharmacy student is interested in a hobby that doesn’t help pay down their hundreds of thousands of dollars of loans! [Josh Kaufman, author of “Personal MBA” spells this out, look at no. 3]

But in order to sustain for the long term – and hopefully grow to offer or serve more – a tribe of advocates and loyalists must be built with whom you have a relationship.  These people rely on you to continue to provide them with value.

Easy? No.

Easier through using some of the means listed above? Sure.

Limited to the various means listed above? Not at all.

In fact, in many ways, a smaller, and often more rural entity, may have it easier than a larger one that can often be perceived as more impersonable, and considered unreasonable to deliver the desired caliber of attention to all its customers.

Also, because the word of mouth is so powerful.

I’d venture to say a business in a smaller community can focus much more on the business and rely more heavily on word-of-mouth referrals (which are free).  Everyone knows each other. People talk. Business grows (if your reputation is good).

So ask yourself:

Where does the relationship begin?

Or in other words: “Considering all the different mechanisms you’re currently using in your marketing efforts, at what point does the relationship begin?”

Some ideas:

  • Through a phone call. One of the most common. If this is so crucial, keep it in mind for the calls to action on your materials, especially if the materials’ purpose is to move the reader onto that next step in the process.
  • Through a community event, where your friendly reps are out meeting people face to face.
  • Through video.  I know what you might be thinking: “You just preached about human connection. That can’t happen with video?”  Yes, watching a video is a one-way street, but once a prospect sees and hears someone from your business in a video, they will often have that, “I’ve already met you” feeling once they actually do come in contact. Think of it like a relationship catalyst.

Let’s Sum Things Up

What I’m saying:

Every piece of marketing material needs to be created with asking the question, “Where does our relationship begin?” before it’s created.

What I’m NOT saying:

Every piece of marketing material within your campaign should move someone immediately to the relationship-starts-with-a-sale phase, unless you like turning people off.

What I’m saying:

Relationships have many different levels based on background experiences.

Each and every piece of marketing and communication will have to have some thought poured into it.

Who is this for? (At which point in the relationship timeline does the person consuming this stand?)

  • The ones who have never heard of us?
  • The ones who might have some knowledge of our services, but not specifically us?
  • The ones who have come across an ad via [various message broadcasted medium] and are showing more and more interest in services we provide… or specifically, our organization providing those services?
  • The ones who are already using our services?
  • The ones who have been a patient/customer, but now aren’t?

What I’m NOT saying:

That it’s only about the relationship.

Nope. It’s not.  It’s got to be about several things. Bar none, you’ve got to provide value to people’s lives – and hopefully, defined what that value is.

Have you ever had a friend who did some kind of favor for you… that you thought they were good at… and they weren’t… at all… and you felt awkward from then on when they asked about that [whatever they helped you install, build, filled cavity, repaired car thing, etc].  Your relationship was great! (at least until that point). But when it came time to perform, the execution was off.

Big or small, any business’s days are numbered if they do not provide value to others, regardless of relationship.

And last one: what I’m saying:

There are various types (and levels) of relationships.

There’s student/teacher, patient/doctor, pharmacist/customer, husband/wife, mother/son… and on and on.  BUT when you value your customers or patients through your services, you’re fulfilling basic human needs (that everyone has –no escaping it).

In fact, according to notorious behavioral psychologist, Abraham Maslow, you’re fulfilling the needs right at the middle of his pyramid (the ones where we all can realistically begin to accommodate).  That’s powerful marketing, just right there: Begin to fulfill people’s mid-hierarchical needs, making them feel valued, accepted, listened to and belonging.

..and what I’m NOT saying:

Social media = relationship.

I admit, the area has gotten a bit gray in the last 10 years, so your organization will need to put some energy into defining the specific instances where you get to read, learn about and communicate with someone on one of the social channels you’re using.  Just define it and make plans on how to keep the relationship developing.

What do you think? What do you think might be some of the ways large and small business entities do things differently [to achieve success and growth]? Nothing different (just different scales?)

How about this: Define relationship?  Is it when one person first makes contact with another? or is there some gray area here, and it depends on the industry or medium of the message?

(Thank you to Ronda Bryant for the invitation as well as Tim and team at Werkshop Branding for holding the regular free-to-attend events where I got to meet some of the leaders at Lipscomb)

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