I'm fortunate to be surrounded by exceptionally talented and brave people that don't just think up great ideas, but execute on them.  Each of my entrepreneurial friends has a special set of talents that makes them effective experts in their chosen field.  I am always happy when asked for advice on things outside their area of expertise.

The most common conversation I have with my entrepreneurial friends involves how to market their products and services.  If you Google "small business marketing" or "startup marketing" there will be so many conflicting opinions on how to approach small or growth-business marketing.  I am often contacted by my friends to validate what the last vendor they talked to told them.

As an entrepreneur, I'm sure it's not lost on you that there are vendors of everything you can imagine from buying links on "link farms" - (don't do it), yellow pages, guaranteed lead programs and on and on.  Knowing when you need a service or technology and how to leverage it is my area of expertise.

The easiest way to sort out what to do to effectively reach your audience is to do a bit of discovery on yourself, your audience and your competitors.

- Who is your audience?

In order to figure this out, examine your best customers.  Where did you find them - or did they find you?  What does their online footprint look like, or are they online at all?  Are they traditional media consumers or do they live in the social cloud?  Are there additional audiences or markets you can reach that look like your ideal customers?  I like to do this exercise on a white board or giant piece of paper.

If you don't have customers (an audience) yet, stay tuned for an upcoming post on getting your first clients.

- What are your competitors doing?

I am amazed that many entrepreneurs are unaware of their competition.  It's never a good idea to take a knife to a gun-fight so spending time getting to know your competitors is always a worthwhile exercise and can help you position your company more effectively.

If you are being outspent from a marketing perspective and you can't compete with deep pockets, find the place you can compete.  For example, position yourself as an expert and share expertise to build your following.  If your competitor is hard to work with or their pricing model is inflexible, be the vendor that is easy to work with and flexible.  If your competitor has a wildly popular offering, find out what segments of the market they are not serving and see if you have a fit for that audience.

Once you understand what your competition is doing and who your best customers are, it's much easier to strip away unnecessary marketing activities and focus your attention in the area where it will make the most impact on driving revenue.  Yes, revenue.

- On Message

I'm often asked about building a brand and how much emphasis is needed on that.  It is critical to develop understandable messaging and be consistent with it.  People are only confused if "who you are" changes constantly.  You have to give your messaging enough time to gel, and sometimes your best clients will end up repositioning you anyway.

For example, someone I respect greatly started a very nice fashion blog and styling service and her customers insisted that she extend her services into room styling.  If she had stubbornly held on to her original brand idea, she would not be able to exercise her considerable sense of style outside clothing, shoes and accessories.  http://feliciabiggins.wordpress.com/author/feliciabiggins/  This is how you grow a business, she's not off-message at all, just extending her talent into related areas.  (Smart lady.)

So, my advice is position yourself and message very clearly, but don't be so married to your brand that you're inflexible.  With respect to your brand, it's actually your "brand promise" that's the most important aspect of your messaging.

For a great example of messaging a brand promise, check out www.koreyhowell.com.  Korey is an amazing business headshot photographer in a sea of photographers, but she has so finely crafted and executed her brand promise of a great business headshot, that she has a steady stream of business.  What are people most concerned about when getting a photo taken?  Of course, it's that the photo won't turn out well and it will be a stressful experience.  Korey is so good at what she does, she can guarantee you'll get a shot you love.  Brand promise.  I can only imagine how much of her business comes from referrals.  I've probably told at least 50 people how great she is.  Combine referrals with a well-placed Groupon, social media, support for charities that she loves and a light outreach to the local corporate community, and her marketing is done.

- Cost

I'm the type of marketing person that actually tries to talk people out of spending money.  I am constantly talking startups out of spending money on yellow pages ads, paid search and other techniques that can quickly drain their reserves.  The next few posts will be around leveraging the low cost channels at your disposal and how to achieve the big company results you want on a shoestring budget.  Generally, my only exception to startup frugality is when you have VC money, a game-changing product, a small window of opportunity and the need to build massive market share quickly.  That situation requires a different strategy.  Do your homework and spend smart.