The Pitfalls and Triumphs of Online Marketing for a Uniquely Seasonal Business

Not all seasonal businesses are created alike. Snow cone stands and ski resorts make a killing in one season and completely empty out in the off-season (and Stephen King goes to town). However, there’s something to be said for a seasonal business whose product is based in necessity rather than nostalgia. Seasonal business that sell very important products – tire chain manufacturers, storm shelters, even HVAC companies to some extent – find themselves in a slightly different situation than entertainment-focused, novelty businesses.

One common thread among these diverse companies: their customers are knowledgeable and aware of the products’ or services’ necessity. They know it would be wise to invest before storm/blizzard/heat wave season hits, but most of them wait until right before – or during – to actually call up the company.  So, a question that small business everywhere must answer at some point: how do you get customers to stick with you (or simply pay attention to you) during the off-season?

We’ll feature examples from several companies that are making great strides in seasonal marketing strategies.

Clouds Gathering: Pre-Season Strategies

We’ll begin at the beginning. You’ll want to begin implementing good marketing practices before the season actually hits. And that means you’ll need to do some planning.

Thunderground Storm Shelters, based in tornado alley, was founded in late 2012 and they began promoting the business a good 6 to 7 months prior to storm season, trying to muster up interest with both customers and investors.

Here are some ways to prep for success pre-season:

  • Build a website.  Not just any site, mind you: go for a site that is clear about what products/services you offer.
    • Make sure your contact information is easy to find and up-to-date.
    • Include plenty of calls-to-action – let the customer know how they can learn more about your product. Some good ideas, if you’ve got the time: encourage customers to subscribe to an email list or your blog. Inbound marketing expert Brianne Shelley advises, “Some ideal places for these CTAs are your blog, your homepage, your product/service pages, your resource center, and in your social profiles.”
    • Also, high-quality pictures are a must.
    • Once you’ve gotten the website set up, claim your social media accounts. Facebook is a big one for small business, and Google+ and Twitter can’t hurt, either. Make sure you’re listed in directories like Yelp and Angie’s List, while you’re at it.
    • Consider offering some early-bird discounts or specials: if Denny’s can do it, so can you. You’ll drive interest and be able to focus on those customers you get before the in-season rush begins.

Thunderground got its website and social media accounts set up quickly. Their team updates the Facebook page daily, which really boosts customer engagement. Still, enticing people to buy a few months before storm season proved difficult. So they got smart: they thought about how to be the most efficient during the coming storm season – a luxury they probably wouldn’t have when their schedule was completely full. Their idea was to run a storm shelter giveaway to engage in a conversation with their customers and keep their interest.

The Pitfalls and Triumphs of Online Marketing for a Uniquely Seasonal Business image thunder 300x274The Pitfalls and Triumphs of Online Marketing for a Uniquely Seasonal Business

Don’t Steal the Locals’ Thunder: Consistent Marketing throughout the Season

Your season is here, you have plenty of customers, business is booming – you’re good to go, right? Not so fast. Even when you’re operating in-season, you’ve got to be as attentive as ever toward your customers.

Many seasonal businesses get an extra boost from out-of-towners. Guerneville, California-based restaurant and grocery Big Bottom Market opened its doors in the summer of 2011 to healthy profits and plenty of interest. When the tourists finally flew south (or east) for the winter in November, profits dropped by almost 80% and the team had to figure out how to engage with the locals – quickly.

After a few months of trying new techniques to bring locals into the restaurant, Big Bottom Market made itself a real presence in town. Now, Big Bottom Market caters to both locals and tourists in its on-season.  The eatery has also made itself a warm, friendly presence on Facebook – which further helps the business interact with locals.

Here are some small but effective steps you can take to insulate your business, so to speak, when business is booming.

  • Expand your database. Now is the time to gather information about your client base – including past customers and people who have expressed interest in your business.  Even when business is busy, make an effort to remember your customers and interact with them frequently. The nature of Big Bottom Market’s business is to chat with and get to know customers from in town and elsewhere.
  • Get some feedback. Try to get feedback from customers as soon as possible – you want the memory to be clear so their input is accurate and fair. Remember that positive and negative responses are equally helpful to you: you’ll know what you’re doing right and what could use some work in the off-season. Big Bottom Market diners and customers are very active and vocal on the company’s Facebook page, and the company’s updates almost always get likes and comments.

The Pitfalls and Triumphs of Online Marketing for a Uniquely Seasonal Business image bbmarket 222x300The Pitfalls and Triumphs of Online Marketing for a Uniquely Seasonal Business

  • Give locals a reason to visit. It’s important to make locals feel some ownership in your business – which can be difficult to navigate when your place is full of tourists most of the time. Target locals however you can: Big Bottom Market occasionally offers early bird discounts – which are great deals for the locals going about their daily lives while out-of-towners are still resting.

There’s a lot to do during the on-season – but make sure you emphasize customer service at all times. Think of your time spent with customers as you would any other investment: it might seem like a lot of work up-front; but engaged, close-to-home customers will keep you in business in the off-season.

Clear Skies for Miles: Staying Engaged with Off-Season Marketing

Once the action dies down, relax for a bit – and then get to work!  The off-season might seem like the hardest part of owning a seasonal business. In some ways, that’s true. But think about this: in the off-season, you have time to innovate and get creative. You have time to experiment. You have time, really, to do whatever you think you need to do. (And yes, this includes a vacation.)

What if your product is only available in-season? Small farms, for example, have to be strategic about their planting in order to grow crops year-round. And many small farms have joined forces with local markets, which can help boost profits in the off-season. The SFC (Sustainable Food Center) of Austin, TX is a non-profit that might be best known for its farmers’ markets. But the organization coordinates and hosts a wide variety of programs throughout the city of Austin all year long – from developing a nationally recognized cooking and nutrition education program to teaching kids how to plant sustainable food gardens.

By engaging and working for the community year-round, the SFC helps farmers stay in business year-round. The organization regularly updates its blog and engages with community members via social networks. And while it’s not a typical small business, the SFC can provide some good tips. Here’s how to retain customers directly following your season:

  • Stay engaged online. You’ve invested time in your social media accounts and website – don’t stop now! Even if you’re just posting pictures of cute kittens, regular updates will remind your customers of your existence, and vice-versa – and let them know you want to maintain your relationships. (Don’t do the kitten thing too regularly, though.)
  • Carry on with your content. If you regularly updated your blog, continue to do so. Feel free to get creative, though – not every post has to be an advertisement for your business. The SFC posts about all sorts of relevant community events as well as sustainability studies. There’s value in those posts: they make you look like an expert and show that you’re passionate about your business and your community.
  • Stick to a budget. Plan for the decreased income so that you’re not broke by the end of the off-season. This is easier said than done, of course, but there are a few ways to keep funds trickling in and decreasing that gap.
  • Offer off-season discounts to your local customer base. Even if it’s only 15% off, a price cut helps pull in those customers who are reluctant to spend their money.
  • Make friends – with other businesses, that is. A great idea for all seasonal business: team up with other organizations to offer a cross-promotion. Again, creativity is key: remember that sometimes, building relationships with other companies is just as important as making a profit.

Once you remove the stress from the off-season, you’ll see that you’ve got a lot to work with – and plenty of resources.

There’s always something else you can do to boost business – even if it seems like an insignificant move. Really, it’s all about doing real-life marketing: figuring out your competitive advantage, talking to people, and listening to customer feedback. That’s an all-season recipe for success.

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