Depending on who you ask, marketing is either very simple or incredibly complex. But marketing for a small niche that is shrinking rather than growing? That’s a tough job, plain and simple.
Consider this post a sort of case study of one such company and its marketing efforts – a stationary company, to be more specific. While the company is no Dunder Mifflin, Inc., Paper Concierge does deal primarily in a sort of endangered medium. Meanwhile, in efforts to be more eco-friendly, mobile, and tech-laden, consumers are ditching paperbacks and newspapers and paperweights – I could go on, but I won’t – for decidedly un-papered electronics.
So – how do you successfully market (on and offline) for a company that sells paper products?
Paper Concierge’s Unique Challenges
Before we get started, here’s what we’re working with.
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Paper Concierge is a small company with a focus on personalized stationary. Unlike the ever-popular Moleskine, though, this company has built out its product line to include cases for digital readers, mobile devices, mugs, and a variety of other customizable merchandise.
Oh, and you can also go all Betty Draper and host a paper party featuring the company’s products. But we’ll skip that for now.
At its core, Paper Concierge sells personalized products. Their stationary makes for a thoughtful gift or a way to treat yourself to a small luxury. But with the still-increasing focus on technology and digital communication, is there really a market for niche stationary companies?
Marketing in a difficult niche need not be too difficult. Below, some ideas for small businesses like this one.
Figure out your Thing – and make it even better.
One of the first things a small company should do to be more successful: figure out what you’re selling, and stick to it.
Quality beats quantity. This is especially important for smaller businesses. If you have fewer products or services, you’ll be able to spend more time and attention developing those – which means those offerings will be better. Unlike a car dealership that also does auto body work, you don’t want to be a jack of all trades: you want to be the best at what you do.
Paper Concierge creates readymade products of all sorts, but their focus is on customization. While the company offers a ton of products, their made-to-order designs are their signature – and it’s what pulls customers in. Those other products probably increase profits, but they’re not what people go looking for – instead, they’re what people buy after they’ve already clicked around the site for a while.
Keep it simple. The more direct you are with the customer, the better. If you know what you’re selling, your customer should know too.
Paper Concierge could probably use some streamlining – their homepage is currently dominated by a colorful coupon and a long sidebar product list. The homepage picture features an appealing, colorful spread of monogrammed picture frames, sunglasses cases, and myriad other things upon which you might possibly want your initials stamped.
The average internet-surfer will probably see that Paper Concierge specializes in bright, customized products. On the other hand, the company has so many products as to be overwhelming and a tad confusing. If Paper Concierge focused more on its customized stationary products – in its sidebar as well as its homepage images – the customer would have a better understanding of the company and its products.
Identify your target customer and sell to them.
No matter how great your product is, it will be difficult to sell if you’re not targeting the right people. The good news: there’s almost always a market, even for the most out-of-the-box products.
Do your research. Finding your customer “match” can be intimidating, and you might need to take a trial-and-error approach. There are more comprehensive guides to consumer research out there, but we’ll stick to the basics. Analyze your existing customer base for age, gender, location, education, etc. Asking your customers to fill out a survey could help round out your data. Then think about who you’re currently trying to sell to – is it your existing customer, your target customer, or neither of the above?
Match your price to your customers. Paper Concierge has lots of female, college- to middle-aged customers who are financially stable and pay attention to aesthetics. Although they’re buying customized stationary, these customers are probably not the same crowd as Mont Blanc buyers. But they’re also choosing a boutique stationary company over superstore brands. Paper Concierge’s prices reflect these parameters.
Besides affordability, your prices communicate how much you value your own products and services. Don’t underprice, because you’ll look cheap and unreliable. But don’t overprice, either, as you’ll come off as dishonest or condescending to the customer.
Ask questions. It bears repeating: get feedback from your customers. What do they want more of? Less of? Customer feedback is one of the most valuable research tools available out there – and it’s incredibly easy to implement.
Paper Concierge does a good job of marketing to its target customers: the site is very feminine, and the site hosts sales regularly. The customizable products even let the customer use Greek characters – more than a nod to the sorority members that favor monogrammed accessories.
Determine your competitive advantage – then get creative.
If you have competition, that’s good – that usually means you’re in a sustainable, marketable niche. But it also means you need to have something – anything – that will make customers choose you over your competitors.
So here’s a useful question: what do you do that no one else does, or does as well as you? Perhaps your restaurant makes the best grilled cheese west of the Mississippi. Or maybe your boutique marketing firm has developed a unique success formula for small businesses. Just give it a good mull-over: more likely than not, there’s something that you already do that other businesses don’t.
It doesn’t have to be outrageous. Simply standing out for one small aspect is enough to get a potential customer’s attention.
Here’s what Paper Concierge says on its “About” page:
More than ever, the art of the handwritten letter or a well-selected gift still holds a key place in our increasingly impersonal, technology filled lives. That no matter how modern we may become, we must always mind our manners. We provide the tools to maintain these simple societal practices while allowing etiquette to merge with individual expression.
The company utilizes nostalgia for propriety and manners to market to a very contemporary customer base. And it works – sort of. More marketable still would be an emphasis on their signature treatment: customization. They might not have the 100+-years-old reputation of Moleskine notebooks, but they do have the design-it-yourself feature that contemporary consumers want. People will always pay for something that feels special.
Beware of overused phrases. There are a few phrases that many businesses use as crutches. Every car dealership/auto body shop is known for its “excellent customer service,” right? Convenient location, low prices, and expert staff – these are all great things to feature in your marketing, but none of them should be your top competitive advantages.
A competitive advantage should be part of your initial business plan – not an afterthought. So if this step seems especially difficult, you might need to do some hard-core evaluation.
Do business – and do it well.
Once you’ve narrowed down your product and services offerings, honed in on your target customers, and enticed new customers with your unique advantages…you’re not quite done. That’s the name of the game with running a business, though, right?
You’ve got to constantly think ahead and accommodate your customers. A final example from our paper-chasing company: Oklahoma-based Paper Concierge teamed up with a local designer to help fundraise after the May 2013 tornadoes. They designed a phone case that, with every purchase, would donate money to the Red Cross for disaster relief.
Participating in and interacting with your community and giving customers something that makes them feel good – these are essential pieces of a successful marketing campaign in a difficult niche.
Really, marketing for a difficult niche is all about honing in on the right people and speaking directly to them. It’s about doing your job – and doing it well. And that’s downright doable.