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(Part 1 of 2: 5 Ways to Shore Up Your Position)

If you want to find the silver lining in the current economic calamity, you don't have to look far.

Nature provides an unlimited supply of models for how complex systems are recycled. Like a wildfire burning through an overgrown forest, every system has a rinse cycle.

It usually looks like destruction to us, but it's always followed by rebirth.

In a system, chaos and disorder are necessary precursors to reorganization and growth, and they signal significant opportunity for anyone smart enough to recognize the cycle.

Disorder functions to uncover the components of the system that have foundational strength—the fundamentals. But if you already know the fundamentals, you can find new footing quickly while your competitors remain distracted by the chaos.

Happily, for anyone responsible for a budget, pursuing the fundamentals doesn't require cash as much as it requires wit and persistence.

Part one of this two-part series includes five low- or no-cost initiatives you can pursue to shore up your marketing organization. Part two includes five initiatives to prepare for rebirth.

The core fundamentals should be readily apparent—communication, intelligence, action—but if one concept sums it up: it's all about building and maintaining relationships.

1. Adjust your business network
As the economy dries up, so do the business networks. The resources businesses once relied upon to keep pace with their markets—the conferences, magazines, press tours and analyst events—whither as the flow of patronage dies. Without these prefab market connections most businesses become isolated from their prospects, partners, competitors and customers, often without even realizing it.

Now, instead of just networking the best parties at the industry tradeshow, marketers have to become their own power brokers and forge connections among people that matter in their industries.

While it does take a lot of energy, it doesn't take a lot of money. The fundamentals are the same as ever—it's all about communicating with your market. Some suggestions: 

  • Don't rely on a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) initiative to know your customers. Take a customer out to lunch, at minimum once a month. They know the strengths and weaknesses of your offering. They know the market. They know their own needs. If you're like most businesses, your customers are an untapped source of market intelligence. 
  • Similarly, don't hide from your channel when sales collapse. Channel partners are typically highly reactive sales-driven organizations. Even in the best of times they aren't the leading advocates for strong marketing. But when sales dry up, they need all the support they can get. If you can get beyond sales numbers and start sharing market intelligence, you may find co-marketing initiatives—a new white paper or a seminar—that benefit you both. 
  • Spark your prospects. Pick a company and an executive you want to reach and find something relevant that you can send to them directly—maybe a relevant article or a white paper. Do it once a month consistently, and use it as an opportunity to start a dialog.

2. Build relationships with the media
Good editors have their finger on the pulse of your market as well as any analyst, and they're always looking for resources on the front lines. But you don't need an expensive public relations consultant to make connections with the media. All you need is enough cash to take an editor out to lunch, and enough market intelligence to offer as much value to the editor as you seek in return.

So how do you provide valuable insight to an editor? Tap the expertise in your own company.

From your engineers to your finance team, you have access to many viewpoints on the market. Explore them. Find out from your engineers what technologies are pushing innovation, and what problems are creating obstacles.

Find out from your sales and management teams what trends they see in the marketplace beyond the latest industry headlines. Which competitors do they admire, fear, dismiss, and why?

As you build an intelligence network inside your company, two things will happen.

First, you'll have a lot more intelligence to share with an editor.

Second, you'll start identifying people within your company that can serve as quotable experts for the editor when needed. Beyond establishing yourself as an expert, nothing will improve your stature with the media more than being a conduit for other experts.

3. Maintain your house list
Your house list—your list of prospects and customers—should be your most valuable marketing asset. But in a rocky economy, your list will get outdated quickly.

During the six months between April and October of 2001, a list we maintain for the telecom market lost more than 50 percent of its accuracy. If you do any marketing at all, those inaccuracies add up to a lot of wasted cash that could be spent on the acquisition of new names.

If you're like most businesses, there's likely to be a stash of names and contacts in various places on your network: An excel spreadsheet with booth visitors from last quarter's tradeshow, a list of leads that were dropped or never called on by the sales team.

You don't need a professional marketing firm to consolidate your list, you just need someone with a little database experience—and you can't throw a rock out of the window without hitting one on the head.

4. Use your house list
The only way to keep your house list fresh is to keep in contact with the people on it. If you have email addresses you can send out a monthly newsletter, which will help you track bounced emails and “undeliverables.”

If you segment your list to track your sales pipeline (which you should) you can prioritize your prospects for different levels of contact and tracking.

But by far the most powerful use of your list comes from sharing it. Chances are a number of companies in your value chain would love to have access to your list. You can exchange access by collaborating on a low-cost marketing effort, such as a Webinar, directed at a shared market.

You retain complete control of your list, either by delivering your partner's message to your own list while they return the favor, or by turning both lists over to an independent 3rd party to conduct the campaign.

5. Create a (real) email newsletter.
We see a lot of corporate email newsletters, and while we're great advocates of the medium, most of the newsletters aren't worth the time to even glance at. Far too many newsletters are nothing more than a recap of puffed up news releases and horn blowing.

Ask yourself: who of your recipients are waiting every month to read an email filled with your latest business success?

A good newsletter offers value to the reader, and it's your job to figure out what that value is—which is an enormously important exercise. Ideally it's information they won't find elsewhere, something more than the headlines they see in their daily news portal.

Some examples: expert advice from one of the in-house gurus you identified for building media relations; best practices related to your product environment which you've gleaned from customers; a schematic model of an operational process related to your product deployment; case studies from a high profile customer. There are literally endless possibilities—just ask your customers what they want to hear.

You can still put in a blurb about your latest sale, or a new discount. Just don't make it the headline. You want to build your brand on the value you represent to your customer, not the value they represent to you.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christopher Kenton Mr. Kenton is president and senior strategist at Cymbic, a full service marketing agency and consultancy (www.cymbic.com). Cymbic specializes in positioning and marketing technology products and businesses. He can be reached at ckenton@cymbic.com.