Marketing Strategies for Solar Businesses

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marketing-strategy

In this post, Pamela Cargill advises small solar firms on various ways that they can develop a successful forward-looking marketing strategy and move beyond the trap of reactive marketing that drowns so many small businesses in a continuous struggle to keep up.

by Pamela Cargill, Principal, Chaolysti. Follow Pamela on Twitter: @chaolyst. Connect with Pamela on Linkedin. Connect with Pamela on Facebook.

In our last post, we discussed some tips for successful inbound marketing tactics in the niche residential solar market. How about this for a New Year’s Resolution: Let’s take a look at putting our inbound marketing tactics into a year-long, forward-looking marketing strategy.

Effective marketing doesn’t “just happen.”
You can take out a bunch of ads when magazine executives call you, respond to a last minute energy fair expo invitation, and hurriedly put together an end-of-the-year holiday mailer but what will the results be? Reactive marketing happens when you are constantly trying to catch up with the deadlines in front of you to the point where you can’t look down the line 1, 3, or even 6 months, let alone a year. Many small and quickly-growing companies have a lot of trouble getting out of reactive mode and into proactive planning mode. This is usually because small companies are understaffed for marketing or put very little emphasis on the importance of marketing. Or, even worse, don’t know how to evaluate marketing opportunities that are offered and when to say “no thanks.”

Stop Everything You Are Doing.
Instead of always responding to marketing opportunities that come to you, stop for a moment and evaluate what is actually working for you. While a certain amount of pure brand-building marketing is important, the goal of all marketing activities is to generate leads that will result in closed deals. Don’t know how to start evaluating past marketing opportunities? Kill two birds with one stone here. Start by conducting some market research of your own customers. Design an online survey using a tool like SurveyMonkey.com or Zoomerang. In fact, if you are literate with Google Apps, I would suggest just making a Google Form. Developing a customer survey could be an entire post unto itself and is quite the art form. The most important piece of information you want out of this exercise out how your customers found out about you. If you ping your entire past customer base with this information, you might also have a second chance at offering new products and services to them, too, as a follow-up.

If It Has Never Worked, Stop Doing it.
Many small installers I have met go to the same green fairs year after year even though the event never brings them any good leads or sales because it’s the event “everyone else is going to.” Stop wasting time with marketing activities that aren’t bringing you the right people. Depending on your market, the local home show might be a great place to go or a complete waste of time. Only through market research and planning ahead will you know and save your precious time and money to spend on more effective marketing. Resist the “ego/feel good” marketing where you think you are doing the right thing because you see you company’s ad somewhere. If it’s not generating leads, it doesn’t matter where you ad is. In a niche industry like residential solar it’s not about broadcast impressions, it’s about targeting the right people.

Know Your Market’s Sales Cycle
In many markets, there is a natural sales cycle when consumers are more or less likely to be looking for your services. Your marketing efforts should stay ahead of that curve by at least a month. In the Northeast, for instance, very little contractor-based activity happens in the winter, especially any outdoor work. But when April 15th comes around and many folks know what their income tax refund is going to be, they start shopping around for how to spend it. Your ads, press pieces, blogs, and other marketing content should already be live well-before that and with a relevant and timely message. Developing campaigns that happen at distinct times of the year, a tactic commonly used in retail, can help you capitalize on these natural sales cycles. And, of course, build a way you can tag responses to the specific campaign you
are running.

Set Your Calendar, Set Budgets
Set up your 12 month marketing calendar so you can keep ahead of the game. Allow at least two or sometimes three months of planning so your project or campaigns can be launched to allow enough time to lead before the season. Think of these marketing activities just as you would a customer project. We all know it takes many details and a few months for residential solar projects to come together. Well-conceived and effective marketing campaigns work the same way. Also add to your calendar recurring events, fairs, festivals, and seminars that you have chosen to attend or put on yourself. When you look at these plans over a course of 12 months, you can also more effectively map out when spending happens on marketing and how much can be allotted to each campaign. Even if you are giving away content for free online, it still takes time (and often, money) to conceive and produce the final product.

Leave Room for Last-Minute Campaigns
A lot of marketing, even with much advance planning, is still thinking on your toes. If a special bill is signed in your state promoting renewables, rebate incentive levels are about to change, or a similar event impacting residential solar is about to happen react like the car dealers when “Cash for Clunkers” was announced. Have stock ads, e-news blasts, or blog content ready to go with space for you to fill in the special message of the last minute campaign.

Target your Messages
And since you have already sent out surveys to your customers to start the process of your market research, you should have a customer database ready to send to. Consider targeting your database based on aspects of the prospective customer’s profile: are they lukewarm but never agreed to a site visit, did they already have a site visit, have they looked at a number of quotes and delayed, or were they disqualified but now able to qualify due to a new incentive available? Outbound marketing to specific customers who are in delayed phases of the sales cycle when certain “get it now while the getting is good” messages are available is a great time to try to get more stale deals to close or to revive lost interest.

Track Your Results
Perhaps the biggest downfall of a small company’s marketing is the lack of tracking effectiveness of marketing activities. Just like we have to create a file for each customer we serve so we can track their project throughout the process, each marketing activity should be treated similarly. How much was spent? How many leads were generated? How many turned in to sales? What was the average time between beginning of campaign and close of sale? Get in the habit of finding out how your potential customers heard about you in creative and non-invasive ways.

Originally published at RenewableEnergyWorld.com


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© 2011, Pamela Cargill. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Pamela Cargill (1 Articles)

Pamela Cargill, Principal, Chaolysti, grew a mom and pop solar contracting company from a three-person basement office into a $1M 8-person operation with warehousing and continued to help it grow through various roles over two mergers and acquisitions into a major regional player posting almost $60M in sales. She proudly boasts 10+ years as a solar energy and sustainability advocate. She has designed both on and off grid solar electric and solar thermal systems for residential and small commercial customers as well as developed sharp marketing materials, executed advertising and consumer-focused event strategies, and managed public relations and corporate websites. Ms. Cargill has spoken at workforce development conferences and events advising job seekers on how to work toward landing their dream job in the growing green economy. She has also advised curriculum and workshop development for solar energy-related programs. She is active at national solar industry conferences speaking about marketing and operations best practices for small solar energy companies. Ms. Cargill’s background is as a writer both creative and technical and an inquisitive scientist. She holds a B.A. from Hampshire College where she developed her own program of study in solar energy system design. Follow Pamela on Twitter: @chaolyst. Connect with Pamela on Linkedin. Connect with Pamela on Facebook.