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Ask the Experts: How Do I Advertise More Aggressively Without Seeming Crass?

Ask the Experts is an ongoing series, where we feature business owners facing problems they don't know how to solve. Want advice on your own dilemma? Email us: ownersonly(at)bnet(dot)com.
By Harper Willis
The Business: Renee Wood is the CEO of The Comfort Company, a Geneva, Illinois-based business that makes and sells gifts for the bereaved. She founded it in 2002 and now employs four permanent employees.

Annual Revenue: $700,000

Problem: Before launching her business, Renee Wood was a social worker who specialized in grief-work.

In 2002, when her sister-in-law was mourning the death of a loved one, Wood sculpted a piece of her child's Play-Doh into a pendant and asked a local jeweler to cast it in silver and string it on a necklace. She wrote a short verse to accompany it, expressing her sympathy, and sent it to her sister in-law. "I couldn't find an appropriate gift online, so I made it myself. I never intended to start a business," says Wood.

When neighbors and friends saw her homemade gift, Wood started getting requests to make more -- too many for her to handle by herself. She hired a manufacturer to make 25 more, then 75 more. Eight years later, she has 800 products for sale, four employees salaries to pay and monthly rent on an office.

At first she got by on customer referrals and word of mouth, but now the sympathy gift market has expanded and she's facing competition from larger companies with aggressive marketing campaigns. "My business was never about getting rich, but now I have bills to pay and employees that count on me," says Wood.

Wood faces an ethical dilemma: She knows she needs to improve her marketing for her company to survive, but she feels uncomfortable using the methods the competition relies on to expand her reach. She doesn't want to pursue grief-stricken customers with pay-per-click ads, flyers posted at funeral homes, or cheesy online memorial sites. "I don't want to be an ambulance chaser," says Wood. "I don't want to chase down customers when they are at their most vulnerable. Marketing a sympathy gift like new type of soda pop doesn't feel right."

She's already taken some steps to increase her marketing efforts, like attaching a note to each of her gifts with the company's history and contact information. But Wood wants to know if there are alternative ways to market her products and make sure she doesn't lose ground to competitors.

She is also open to the possibility that she is approaching the ethical question in the wrong way. "Maybe I'm thinking about this all wrong. But I'd need someone to help me reframe my dilemma if that's the case, because at this point I just don't feel right using traditional methods to market my product."

What the experts said:
Use social media: Renee, try using social media sites to bolster your marketing. Facebook is an excellent business-visibility and marketing tool. A good Facebook page is one that consistently offers fresh and interesting content. You can make your page a "go-to" site by including links to relevant news articles, industry events, and the like. You should, of course, post company updates. Keeping your "friends" involved and informed will attract positive attention and build your profile with your target audience.

Does social media negate traditional marketing? No. Consider cause-related marketing, which would mean aligning your business with a charity. There are multiple goals to this effort, including generating additional business opportunities while assisting the charity. You gain exposure to a potential pool of new customers while building positive feelings toward your business. Choose a charity carefully and do a pilot program with them before fully committing. Consider sponsoring an event or donating a portion of sales of a particular item to the cause. Be truly involved in the relationship and, in time, it will pay off for both parties.

--Jennefer Witter, President, The Boreland Group public relations agency

Change your attitude: You're thinking about this the wrong way. By expanding your marketing, you will be giving those who want to express their condolences in a genuine and authentic way -- but don't know how -- the ability to do just that. You should use the tools open to you on the Web -- search engine marketing, advertising on Facebook -- and target NOT the immediately bereaved, but those in their social graph who are looking for a means of communication. Make it clear in your marketing that you're donating a portion of every purchase to nonprofits that support those in the grieving process, and make that known on your website as well. You should also use testimonials both from the people who send the gifts -- and from the recipients -- to communicate the meaningful emotional support they represent. And you should make yourself a visible part of the brand as well.

Just because there are unethical people in an industry doesn't mean that someone with ethics and values should avoid it. On the contrary, that level of virtue is needed. By running your business in the right way, you will define yourself against the competition in a compelling fashion and potential consumers will know the difference -- and spread the difference

--Adam Hanft, CEO, Hanft Projects brand strategy

Readers, what's your advice?