The year’s major discovery: Your current customers are your most important marketing asset

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This is one of the quietest New Years’ Eve celebrations — a sip of champagne with Vivian in our home with the TV tuned to Times Square. For me, of course, this is ideal. No crowds, but plenty of love.

The near 2019 marked the end of maintaining this blog daily, largely because of our launch of the daily Ontario Construction News. I needed to put aside pontificating about marketing to real-life marketing of a new regional publication with demanding production and editorial requirements.

The year also marked the resolution of a business restructuring to remove virtually all debt, as I set my life course for “retirement” — without retiring. I think the right word is “achieving financial independence” where work (yes, paid) is for satisfaction rather than necessity. In practice, my work income coupled with government pensions (the Canadian equivalent of Social Security) and some freelance revenue has pushed me to a financially comfortable level where I sometimes choose to pay discounted business class fares for personal travel — and we’re doing a lot of it.

What about marketing, and Construction Marketing Ideas, then?

There’s a common principle of marketing, differentiation, and that need for distinctiveness has shaped my business/marketing priorities this year.

In contradiction, we need to recognize that most businesses (and consumers) don’t like to change too much, or too often. Even if the service/value we receive is imperfect, we’ll stay the course, unless some jarring blunder (or brilliant marketing) causes us to change.

So, consider the marketing story that has dominated my life this year. In launching Ontario Construction News in May, we broke a more than three-decade legal monopoly from another publisher for mandatory legal notice ads. And in our first month, we sold 12 ads, compared to the former monopolist’s 972. (And our prices were about 50 per cent lower for exactly the same notices.)

We set out to build alliances, developed direct mail and Google Ads campaigns and started to gain traction. by August we were selling 73 notices, compared to 1,018 by the competitor. If you can prove anything from these numbers, you can see that people don’t rush to change suppliers just because they can save some money (but many of our clients were businesses that needed to publish a disproportionately great number of these legal ads, and so were saving tens of thousands of dollars each year).

Then, in November, we had a sinking experience. A group of construction associations banded together to set up their own competing product/publication. Now the fight was a three-way race, and the associations had a massive list of members, and a price even lower than ours.

How could we deal with this problem?

We took immediate measures to modify our offering, and set out to improve our information technology tools to match the competitors. And we remembered the fact that customers, if treated fairly, will generally not move once they have found a comfortable place.

By years end, our new competitor had gained good traction — gaining about 10 per cent market share. But we also have our 10 per cent. The incumbent (former monopoly) still has close to 80 per cent of the market. We haven’t lost any business to the new competitor.

In other words, despite intense price competition and serious price discounting, the original publisher still owns most of the market. If there is any lesson about the value of incumbency and retained customers, this provides the proof.

I’m not complaining. We’re making good profits despite the competition and relatively low market share, so I can afford my frequent overseas vacations. We’ll push forward and see if we can reach 15 to 20 per cent market share next year with a combination of marketing and client retention strategies.

How can you apply these lessons for your own business?

First, realize that your greatest marketing strength is within your existing clients. Treat them well. Serve them honourably. If you do, you’ll retain most of them over time, even if you lose your obvious marketing advantages (like a legal monopoly).

Second, appreciate that marketing is important. We needed to find our market and break a monopoly. If we didn’t tell the people who mattered we wouldn’t even have the tiny sales volume recorded at the beginning of our experience.

Third, realize that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all marketing approach that is right for your business. In our case, direct mail (postal) to contractors has proven to be most effective, followed (distantly) by Google Ads, email marketing and association/affinity marketing. My guess is that your marketing focus will be different — and you will need to determine which tool(s) work best for you.

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