Small businesses have more marketing resources than ever but there are still challenges.
There is more noise.
There is more fragmentation as people move across multiple social media platforms, listen to and watch streaming networks, and consume podcasts, videos, and articles on the internet.
It’s also easier for people to avoid what they aren’t interested in.
In today’s world, if you want to continue to compete, you need to let go of the old marketing ideas of blasting ads and hoping they will hit the audience you need.
You need to meet people where they are at which is why you need to focus on Integrated Marketing Communication.
It’s the present and the future.
What is Integrated Marketing Communication?
For years I searched for a good definition only to fall short. Most were either aspirational or vague so I created my own.
Integrated marketing communication (IMC) is the unification of the messaging you do over multiple channels to reach your desired audience.
The channels break down into four categories:
- Owned Media
- Earned Media
- Social Media
- Paid Media
Owned media is your website and email list.
Earned media, also known as media relations, is when you work with the media to publish a story.
I’m sure you know what social media is but it’s the platforms you use to communicate and share information such as TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.
Paid media is ads.
All of these channels can be used independently of one another but it’s only when you use all four together to unify your messaging that you are practicing IMC.
The Importance of IMC for Small Businesses
In the past, most companies focused heavily on ads and maybe some media coverage.
Your ad options were limited. It was either going to be television, radio, newspapers, or magazines.
Some companies might do direct mail but they weren’t the companies that most people trusted.
The closest thing you saw to owned media in those days was a catalog and it was likely that the main way to get it was by mail.
And of course, there was no such thing as social media.
Today, because of the internet, you have many more options but it comes at a cost.
The cost is fragmentation.
Think of how you watch television. It’s not necessarily cable or the channels you can get over the air. With an internet connection, you can watch Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, Paramount+, HBOMax, Tubi, Showtime, Starz, Pluto, and many more.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember the last time I actively watched a show on NBC, ABC, CBS, or Fox on the night it aired. Outside of a handful of shows, I don’t even know what’s on these channels other than the news.
Jump back to the 90s and if you wanted to watch Seinfeld, Friends, ER, The X-Files, Party of Five, or anything else, you had to tune in on the night it was showing. If you were going to miss it and didn’t remember to tape it, you wouldn’t have a chance to see it again until it was re-run.
Today, you watch most shows on demand at the time and place you want to see them.
It’s not just television.
Print such as newspapers and magazines might still put out a physical product to read but you can also access them online or in app. There are some that are internet only.
There are multiple social media platforms. I listed several earlier and that wasn’t a complete list.
It becomes a challenge to reach your audience because they likely aren’t all in one place. They are everywhere and they are consuming what they want.
While most people are only now becoming aware of AI tools such as ChatGPT, the truth is AI has been here for years powering algorithms for the social media networks that impact what people see.
Even paid media has been impacted. You now run ads on social media, on search engines, on mobile, in apps, on websites with banner ads, and with native advertising.
All these things are challenges for businesses big or small as the question becomes, with all these options, where should you be?
If your only marketing channel is a Facebook page, it’s going to be tough.
As a small business, you need to be able to reach people. You need to be visible. You need the right message to hit at the right time but you don’t get to pick the time. Your customers will.
There is an old marketing adage that says that people are exposed to a message at least seven times before they take action.
This isn’t a hard fast rule. It could be more than seven times or could be fewer but the chances of it one be one or even twice would likely be the same as being struck by lightning. It can happen but it’s rare.
The point is that people will need to see you several times before taking action and having a presence in the categories I mentioned at the top of this article (owned, earned, social, and paid) will help you reach them.
Twenty years ago, most marketing would have started and even ended with ads but that’s not necessarily the case anymore.
People expect more. You could certainly start off by running an ad but depending on what you sell, it’s likely it will spur people to look for you in other places.
This could be your website. It could be your social media account or it could be both.
Maybe your company works with the media to earn a story. This could prompt people to visit your website, follow you on social media, and be more open when they see your ads.
Think of your own behavior. What is prompting you to take action and what are you doing?
It’s likely not the same every time but it is likely that you are engaging in more than one channel. It’s also likely that you take one action but you it then takes more exposure before you take additional action.
It’s the same for your potential customers.
Let me give you an example from my own life.
About a year ago I started following Molly McPherson who specializes in crisis communication.
My first exposure to her came from a Twitter Spaces group that was meeting every week. After several sessions and hearing her spek, I started following her on Twitter.
After reading her posts on Twitter for a few months I finally decided to follow a link to her TikTok. I watched a bunch of her videos before I finally went to her website. I read a couple of articles but I saw she had a podcast as well so I started listening to the podcast.
A month later I bought her book.
This was a months journey that ran across two social media platforms, a website (owned media), and a podcast before I made a purchase.
I’ve had similar journeys with other people and brands. So have you as has the people to whom you sell your products and services.
They are seeing messaging on multiple channels that prompt them to take one step, another, and then another. They will go back and forth in the marketing funnel until they finally see enough information that makes them comfortable to make a purchase.
Many will reveal themselves at some point as they go through this process but some won’t.
It will feel like they dropped out of the sky but they haven’t. They’ve been watching you and taking in your messages in multiple places.
Of course, it’s not always like that.
If you’re not using IMC, you will be invisible to many people or you simply won’t have reached them enough for your message to resonate with them.
Messaging is important but what’s more important to you and what IMC can help with is consistency.
Consistency in Messaging
What do I mean when I refer to messaging?
It’s how you talk about your company, its values, its products/services, and its industry.
Your messaging needs to be consistent across all the channels your using.
What does this mean?
There are a couple of pieces to this.
The first is that you are speaking with the same voice across all channels.
This is something you need to identify either during your marketing planning or through an exercise to determine what the voice of your brand is.
I just introduced some new ideas into the conversation so let me back up and define what I’m talking about.
Your brand is how people see your company.
Let’s look at an example.
Apple has a reputation for being easy to use. That’s its brand, or at least, part of it.
My dad got his very first smartphone last year, he got an iPhone. Why? Because it’s easy to use.
He had played with an Android but found it confusing. That wasn’t the case with the iPhone.
Voice includes the tone. It’s how your speaking to people.
Is the voice playful? Serious? Casual?
Maybe it’s a mix. Professional but casual. You want to come off as being well-versed on a topic but you don’t want to speak in a technical way.
Whatever voice you choose, you need it to be consistent across all your marketing channels.
Imagine that somebody is visiting your website and it’s technical. They then go to one of your social media accounts and it’s snarky. Finally, when they go to your YouTube page and watch some videos it’s casual.
The voice is inconsistent and it’s going to create confusion.
People like consistency.
It creates a seamless experience for them.
Here is an example.
I’m a chocoholic and one of my favorite candy bars is Milky Way. It has been as long as I can remember and I still recall the message that I saw in commercials for Milky Way candy bars when I was a kid.
Watch these two videos and then we’ll talk about them.
These are two different people. The construction worker and the student. They are doing very different things but the messaging is the same.
They are both working hard. They take a break to rest and eat a Milky Way. There is a description of the product which is exactly the same in both videos. Finally, you see them doing an activity that’s fun. The construction worker is bowling while the student is playing football and in the outro you hear, “A Milky Way today helps you work, rest, and play.”
While the health benefits are questionable, to this day, whenever I see a Milky Way, guess what goes through my mind? “A Milky Way today helps you work, rest, and play.”
Back in the mid-80s when these ran, there were fewer marketing channels. Milky way didn’t have owned or social media. They may have hired a public relations to do some media relations but I don’t have any memory of it.
In a way, because there weren’t as many channels, they had it somewhat easier.
The challenge now is being consistent over the multiple channels you need to be on.
You want to stay top of mind and being consistent with your messaging will help do this.
If Milky Way had a different message every time I encountered their advertising they would have gotten lost in the shuffle. When my parents asked what kind of candy bar I wanted they wouldn’t have been top of mind.
IMC Improves Brand Recognition
And this is why you do marketing. You want people to recognize your brand.
It’s not just recognition for the sake of it either. It’s when they have a problem that you can solve, they’re thinking of you.
You want to be top of mind.
Who do you think of when you want a new cell phone?
Who do you think of when you want a hamburger?
Who do you think of when you need an oil change?
Who do you think of when you need a new computer?
There are brands that you thought of when I asked those questions. It may have been more than one but the point is, there are certain brands that are dominant in your mind.
At the end of the day, that’s the goal of your marketing.
You want people to think of you when they have a problem you can solve.
If they don’t know you exist you won’t be considered.
That’s what IMC is working to solve. It’s using multiple channels to get your brand and message in front of the right people.
If you’re still reading you’re likely mulling this all over in your head. You might be thinking, “This sounds interesting but as a small business owner, I don’t know if I can afford to invest in this integrated marketing communication thing.”
I get it.
It’s a little intimidating. Especially if you haven’t been marketing in all four categories or even if you have but haven’t unified the messaging across them.
This is a binary choice. You either take the step and embrace IMC or you don’t.
Keep this in mind. Not embracing it doesn’t change the environment that you live in.
The challenges will remain: fragmentation and noise making it hard to reach and be visible to your ideal customers.
IMC isn’t the easy way out. It’s the only way out because it is the present and the future.