Reprinted with permission from The Business Ledger July 13, 2009.

By now everyone in business has heard the term “guerrilla” marketing. It was first used by Jay Conrad Levinson in 1984 in his book of the same name. He suggested that small business owners and entrepreneurs needed marketing—just like the bigger guys.  However, they didn’t have the budgets so they were advised to use their time, energy and imagination (and the hundreds of tips in the book) to compete instead. Now, a quarter century later, there is even a formal definition: “a body of unconventional ways of pursuing conventional goals. It is a proven method of achieving profits with minimum money.”  The “Guerrilla” imprimatur subsequently has appeared on dozens of books and has been translated into languages around the world. It is arguably the most successful franchise in the history of business publishing.

Just two years later (1986) Al Ries and Jack Trout authored Marketing Warfare. They used von Clausewitz’s military principles as a marketing strategy framework. In this rubric there are dominant companies (Leaders) whose primary objective is to defend what they have. There are a few other large entities (Followers), who must attack the leaders, but at narrowly defined points of weakness. There are several significant firms that can outmaneuver both Leaders and Followers (Flankers) and attack in unthought-of ways.

And there are many, smaller Guerrillas, who must zig when everyone else is zagging. Because they have many fewer resources, Guerrillas can never fight on turf defined by others in their market. Their analysis also suggests that guerrilla warfare should characterize the great majority of business activity in the US because of the 5 million plus companies in the US only a handful are Leaders, Followers or Flankers. The majority—over 90% in fact, have to be Guerrillas to survive. 

So whether you use Levinson’s definition or that of Trout and Ries, if you’re reading this, chances are pretty good that you are (or should be) a guerrilla marketer. As for advice to Guerrillas in the current business climate, the best tip I can give is to stay close to current customers. This is akin to dancing with the girl who invited you to the party.  Formally called “retention” marketing, wooing current customers is often an afterthought vs. the always more exciting pursuit of new customers (“acquisition” marketing). It shouldn’t be. Not only is keeping current customers Job #1, but expanding business with them is Job #2 and obtaining referrals from them is Job #3. These are the easiest marketing moves to make and they are the least expensive moves to make as well.  

And the best way to stay close to current customers is via marketing research. There are so many inexpensive yet powerful ways to do this I wrote a book about it. MORE Guerrilla Marketing Research, with co-authors Robert J. Kaden and Jay Conrad Levinson, is due this fall from Kogan Page.  

Here are just a few examples derived from it:  

·         Conduct a dozen or so 20 minute telephone interviews with customers. Ask them how things are going and how you can best help them in these times. They’ll certainly appreciate the call and they’ll also give you lots of ideas about what to do. Do not make this a sales call; genuinely ask for their input. Have a pre-prepared series of questions available and ask them of every person contacted. This is a qualitative exercise so don’t worry about tabulating the results, but do take good notes about the answers.

·         Shop the competition. When was the last time you personally shopped the competition, tried their product(s), called their help line, visited their web sites and looked at every page? Do this for your key competitors and you’ll be able to look at what you’re doing with fresh eyes—the eyes of your customers. This is what the market looks like to them.

·         Utilize the enormous capabilities of the Internet to conduct an analysis of your industry using secondary sources. You should do this every year; why not right now? If you haven’t got the time or Internet skills, hire a student.

·         Conduct a survey among your employees. The goal is to discover how you can do a better job in satisfying current customers. Employees are an often overlooked source of valuable information; tap into this resource.

 These are just a few examples of how marketing research can help Guerrillas. The premise is simplicity itself. If you are wondering what course of action to follow, just ask your customers or prospects or the customers of your competitor(s) (depending on the marketing issue). They’ll tell you! And you’ll make a better decision than if you tried going it alone.