Empires are not built overnight. They grow slowly, brick-by-brick and town-by-town, over the course of many years. Each new territory gained is the result of hard work and sacrifice. If you have business dreams of conquering the world — or maybe just a tri-state area — you’ll need to master the art of moving into a new town.
Expanding into new markets is not easy. No matter how successful you’ve been in the past, in a new town you’re starting from close to zero. The credits you’ve earned as a trusted member of your home community are non-transferrable. You’re like a student switching to a new school mid-semester: You’re gonna need to make new friends.
Of course, you’ll probably want to do some advertising in your new community, just to get your name out there. You’ll likely want to send out a press release and host a grand opening event at some point (once you’ve worked out the kinks and are ready for the spotlight). These are the obvious tactics most businesses use because they’re effective and reach a wide audience.
But depending on the market, you may also want to do some grassroots outreach to build your local network as quickly as possible. After all, people do business with people they like. Here are some of the tactics we’ve found to be effective for clients moving into new areas.
Knock Knock: Giving Your Introduction
Moving into a new neighborhood means getting to know the neighbors. Start by visiting nearby businesses to introduce yourself and your product or service. Leave flyers or coupons for your business with them and inquire about any major events in the area. Think about everyone who might be invested in your success: your banker, landlord, vendors and service providers. Make sure they have materials they can share with the local community on your behalf.
Getting to know these businesses will help you plug into the local community, as will joining groups like the area’s chamber of commerce. By demonstrating your commitment to involvement in the community, you’ll find new groups and contacts who can help with word-of-mouth referrals and other great opportunities for visibility. You might even consider forming alliances or working with complementary/adjacent businesses to advance a common cause or offer greater benefits to customers.
Local government and elected officials should also be on your radar. They have a vested interest in the economic success of their town and will be interested to learn more about you and your business. Make appointments to meet with your city councilperson, the mayor and local congressional or state legislators — including local economic development representatives.
Share your goals and challenges and talk to them about what assistance they might be able to provide. This could be anything from help with resolving a municipal permitting issue or identifying worthy causes in the community in need of support.
Economic development and small business offices can also be helpful by pointing to resources or events of interest: local hiring fairs, trade shows, grant programs or professional development opportunities. And don’t forget to invite the people you meet in these early days to attend your grand opening or try out your product/service.
Oh, the Humanity: Leveraging Local Charities
One of the best ways to earn goodwill with a new community is to be a supporter of worthy local charities and nonprofit organizations. When choosing a group or initiative to support, there are two general approaches: personal or strategic. On one hand, picking a cause you or your staff have a personal connection to will provide extra motivation and make your effort more meaningful.
On the other hand, that particular cause might not be the best for connecting with your target audience. That’s why you should also consider choosing a charitable organization with an obvious connection to your business or whose supporters would be ideal customers. For example, if your customers are concerned with fitness and health, then a charity like Girls on the Run might be a great fit for both you and your audience.
Of course, it’s not an either/or situation; you can work with a variety of local groups. And there are many different ways to help: you can donate supplies, host events at your business, participate in a food or clothing drive, sponsor a team or provide prizes for raffles and other fundraisers. Even serving as a board member can be an effective way to make new connections in the local community.
Everyone’s a Critic
BBR Partner and Chief Relationship Officer Cherie Hebert recommends another approach that can turn skeptics into ambassadors. While there will always be those who seek out the new and novel, many people are risk-averse when it comes to new businesses or brands. One way to overcome this natural reluctance is to reduce the cost associated with taking a risk. You can do this by offering free samples, free trials, no-hassle returns and other customer-friendly offers.
But Cherie recommends taking this a step further:
“Invite new customers to try out your product or service in exchange for their feedback and opinions. Use them as a focus group to better understand local tastes and then tailor your offerings accordingly.”
You’ll get valuable intel about what your customers want, and they will be invested in your future success. If you can delight these early-adopters, you’ll have permanent fans that will be excited to tell their friends and neighbors about you.
Insider Trading (No, not THAT kind.)
You’d be surprised by how much interest and goodwill can be generated simply by sharing your time and expertise. By offering a free/affordable educational opportunity — whether that’s a hands-on workshop or just speaking to a group — you position yourself as a knowledgeable expert who cares about the community. It’s a great way to overcome your “outsider” image.
Don’t think you’re qualified to teach? There are actually many ways to provide useful information that will help people succeed, from helping seniors save money to talking to students about running a small business. You can partner with other local businesses or charities, volunteer with nonprofits or even create a helpful written guide on a subject. You can also approach local radio and tv stations about sharing your expertise with their audience.
Get Those Subscribes
Finally, while you’re working hard getting to know the community, don’t forget to keep track of the people you meet. An opt-in email list will allow you to track your customers and provide them with updated information, offers and special deals. You’ll be able to learn a great deal about their preferences, interests and how you can better serve them.
Sometimes it can help to offer a one-time discount for signing up, but many people will want to hear about special events and new products from you. As long as your emails provide value to them in some way, either through useful information or great deals, they will be happy to receive them.
Welcome to the Neighborhood
Opening a location of an established business in a new geographic area is bound to be a challenge. There’s definitely going to be a learning curve as you, your staff and your new customers get to know each other. If you’ve got the money, advertising is a great way to quickly increase your brand recognition across a large audience.
Whether it’s TV, billboards or social media advertising, you can always pay to reach potential customers and let them know you exist. But if your budget is tight or you have a niche audience, using some of the grassroots techniques discussed here may be an even better option. It’s all about getting to know the locals, and often the best way to do that is knocking on a door and meeting them one-on-one. It probably wouldn’t hurt to bring a casserole, either.
All the images above are from “The Simpsons” television show, owned by the fantastic and hopefully non-litigious Walt Disney Co.