If my calendar is right, this is a new year. Again. And again it brings out the best and worst in us.

The best of us approach the new year with great promise, as evidenced by written goals, a plan for their attainment and announcement of same to trusted advisors. Enthusiasm reigns and is contagious.

The worst of us say, “Another year? So what? Nothing changes and nothing ever will.”

Then there are those who are somewhere in between. They set goals but run out of gas before they’re accomplished. Experts say that most resolutions dissolve entirely by Jan. 21. But we’re not going to let that happen, are we? (Shake your head solemnly and repeat after me: “No, we’re not.”)

At the top of your resolution list, please write “Plan my marketing.” You’ll reap the benefits all year long if you do and you’ll pay every day if you don’t. It’s not nearly as complicated — or as expensive — as some would have you believe.

I joined a contractor client in a meeting in the plush offices of an ad agency. Before we arrived, here’s what he’d already told me: 

“I just want my marketing done. We’ve done a lot of things in this company that are quite good. Good training. We have honest and polite people. Customers like and refer us. But we don’t have any idea what we’re doing, marketing-wise.”

So what had they done in marketing? Let’s see, it’s a fairly exhaustive list beginning with the Yellow Pages and then goes all the way down to include the Yellow Pages. Yep, that was it. In spite of this, they were bringing in multimillions in revenue.

Yet with all the success this 103-year-old company had, it could hear the hoof beats of new competitors and new changes ahead:

1. An aging market.Older residents knew the company well, but new homeowners and new move-ins didn’t have a clue. Demographics were shifting away from the firm. The owner wanted them back.

2. Bloodthirsty competition.One-truck dudes in Twisted Sister T-shirts were marking up their work using some bankruptcy-inducing formula that made them feel rich when they pulled in $100. My client needed to make a “quality” distinction.

3. Confusing name recognition.Too many similarly named companies left consumers scratching their heads as to “who was who.”

4. Customer retention.What had been passively regarded due to high natural re-use was now seen as the “golden path” to a much richer future. Why? Every factor in society, every factor on this list and every factor in your own decision-making virtually dictates a firm stance to proactive retention. “Passive retention” is a thing of the past, as will be the companies who subscribe to it.

5. Sick of the Yellow Pages.The company’s investment here was grossly beyond sanity, as it is for about 70% of contractors. I’m not anti-Yellow Pages, but it should not be the one-stop solution for anyone’s marketing attack.


Advertising in the media

So, back to the meeting. The client wanted to take the nice stack of ads we’d created, hand them to the ad agency and have them placed strategically in the media throughout the year. 

This is good business for an ad agency, since it gets a cut out of almost every ad it places. I’m not big on the temptation of earning money simply by spending someone else’s, so we don’t “buy” media for contractors. But I was interested in listening to those who do and here’s what I heard. But first, please fasten your seatbelt. 

“That’ll take 50 hours at $150 per hour.”

Oh gosh. Had I fallen asleep? Was this that dream where I was in the dentist’s chair about to get 12 successive root canals? Nope. It was real. And it went something like this.

“In order to assess your market and your customers, then figure out their needs and align that with the best media to use, we’ll need you to fill out this form,” says the well-respected agency principal. “Then we’ll research those numbers and come up with the best methodologies to do what’s best for you.”

Uh oh. Whenever I hear the words “methodologies” and “what’s best for you,” I usually staple my wallet shut and sprint through the nearest wall. But this day, I sat in stunned silence, frozen when the fateful sentence was uttered:

“This will take us about 50 hours, at $150 per hour. Then we’ll decide what to do about running a good campaign.”

I shot a glance across the room at my client. He looks back. It’s not my party nor my money, so I say nothing. Ad Exec senses no dissent, which is part of the problem. He’d also not sensed that this contractor had been in business 103 years, nor that the ads in front of him addressed the target market, nor that spending $7,500 on duplicative nonsense was about as welcome as a health inspector at a Taco Bell.

And here we are, me and you. No wonder most contractors don’t have a marketing plan. No wonder most attempt to create ads themselves. And — sorry to say this — no wonder the rare plans and commonly poor ads fail miserably. (Hey, I’d have the same success rate if you wanted me to fix your garbage disposal.) This is why contractors are often painted in the promotional corner by over-zealous YP reps, generally snooze-worthy co-op programs, or both.

This is largely fantastic news … if you want a change, that is.

That’s because, comparatively speaking, any contractor who does a mildly decent job looks like some kind of marketing genius.

And, it is a new year. A time for change. A time to wake up, shake up and take up a new way of marketing your business. Don’t look now, but every living soul in your market needs you. The only thing you need to do is make them want you.

You ask, “So how do we do this, Mr. Marketing Person?”

The exact same way our contractor friend did. He saw the “scary” stuff first, shown below, but there are three things you must know:

• Threats. Not nearly as threatening as they sound. You just need to keep an eye on the changes around you. Bad news: If you don’t change, the market leaves you standing there looking kind of lonely.

• Targets. Split among two and only two groups: The market you have and the one you want. Assess the first group in terms of age, income, zip code and age of home. Then see what they buy from you. Choose the second group based on what you like or don’t like about the first group and what they should buy from you. Rich opportunities are available in both groups but too many contractors sit and wait for the phone to ring, passively. Proactive promotion makes them call by using …

• Tactics. This includes budget, media, timing and, most importantly, the “message,” which are your ads.


Needs vs. wants

Any contractor who feels a customer’s “needs and wants” are limited to plumbing is in crowded, muddy water with floundering single-digit net contractors who most definitely do not “get it.” What customers want is comfort, convenience, confidence and continued contact. Needs are generally cheaper than wants, which is why a Malibu is less than a Ferrari. Plan your year to focus on marketing “wants” way better and more expensively than your confused competition is offering “needs” and see what happens.

So what happened with my contractor friend? The meeting concluded, $7,500 still intact, along with our dignity and desire to attack the market of choice with a well-crafted message. And it took less than 100 hours. In fact, it took 1 hour and 20 minutes to:

1. Create a budget, per message, per media, based on his goals and risk tolerance.

2. Schedule a new Yellow Pages ad. Less money, more effective.

3. Pick a New Year’s card to send his customers to thank them and clean the list.

4. Schedule his 12 months of “ad messages,” in each media readied in advance. (These were the ads he’d already gotten from us.) Seasonal fluctuations were factored in since he knew them in his sleep. You probably do, too.

5. Twice-annual newsletter program scheduled.

OK, now what to do with the remaining 98 hours and 40 minutes? I guess brush up on those other resolutions.

Planning helps you prepare for the unknown. It also helps you prepare for the known. And as a contractor, you know plenty. You know you, your customers and, most importantly, what they need.  Put that knowledge in a plan and have the best year yet.