Having founded three companies that help entrepreneurs market themselves and their products, Bobbie Carlton knows a thing or two about building a brand.
Carlton runs Boston-based firm Carlton PR & Marketing, and also founded Mass Innovation Nights, a monthly event that takes place in and around the Boston metro area that helps founders launch products, in addition to Innovation Women, a web platform that connects women experts with event planners looking to diversify their conference and event panels.
"Getting on stage, you get the opportunity to tell your story, and when you tell your story you're connecting with opportunity," Carlton said, explaining her decision to focus on speaking engagements as Innovation Women's core business.
The platform, launched in 2015, is subscription-based: Speakers pay $100 a year for a basic account. Between speakers and event planners, there are 4,500 users on the platform.
"It's really hard to break into what we think of as the speaking circuit," Carlton said. "It's being in with the people who are making those decisions, who are picking up the phone and making the phone call. If they don't know you, they're not calling you."
Another key to building a brand? Defining a business' goals and channeling them into its marketing strategy.
For Carlton, having up-to-date and engaging social media accounts for her businesses is vital.
"[It] keeps us in the public eye, and it helps other event managers find our speakers," she said. "If we aren't active on social media, someone will be active for us. Someone else will be talking about us and our speaker, and I want to set the tone."
Prioritize your marketing goals
A small business owner usually doesn't have a big budget for marketing and branding, so where should you spend those scant dollars?
For starters, consider branding. Experts say your logo, tagline and website should clearly tell your business' story to your customers.
"You want to create a brand that is easy to remember, to associate with, to recognize, so that people keep coming back to the product," said marketing and branding consultant Arthur Gallego, who has advised companies including Vita Coco, Bulletproof 360 and Ugly Drinks.
Consider "what your actual takeaway message is, what you want consumers to associate with you the very first time they encounter you," Gallego said.
Just as important, he added, is listening to customers about what they want from your product. One of the biggest mistakes he sees young companies make: ignoring what the market tells them.
"They don't do enough separation of what they want in the market versus what the market actually needs," Gallego said. "It's more analysis -- for example, does the market need a better coffee maker? Just because you have a fabulous idea doesn't mean that it's filling any kind of gap in the marketplace."
To that end, make sure to thoroughly evaluate your competition, including their brand stories, packaging and marketing. How is your business different?
Be mindful of your social channels
When it comes to social media accounts, emphasize quality over quantity, experts advise. If you can manage one or two accounts for the business, posting consistently and interacting with customers, that trumps having five accounts that are rarely updated.
"For a small business, it's harder to keep on trend in digital [media] and execute strategies to achieve the end goal," said Jillian Ryan, a senior analysts at eMarketer.
But with a well-thought-out website, "You have a digital touchpoint," she said. A local small business can make a difference with a personal touch by updating content and interacting with online with consumers.
A recent RIPL/eMarketer survey found that 98 percent of small business owners communicate with customers via Facebook, while 48 percent do so over Twitter. The survey also found that while a third of small business owners post to their social feeds daily, nearly half post just once per week.
"There needs to be a very deliberate strategy and a clear understanding of what the goal is," Ryan said. "The (small business owners) may not be putting ad dollars behind social media...if someone posts on your photo or asks a question, responding to that in a timely manner is important."