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Monday, February 7, 2011

Creating High Barriers to Entry

from Brian Horakh





If your business is a "me too" entrant into any market niche, even the smallest success will soon attract competitors that will sap some degree of your potential growth. In the past 200 years, niche retailers were geographically bound due to the relatively high capital costs of establishing and operating a niche business and developing repeat clientele. Today with the Internet and the advent of virtual/drop-ship inventory, anybody can start up a niche retailer with minimal capital. That means unless you happen to stumble upon a magic lamp and use one of your three wishes, you're eventually going to end up scrapping it out with several competitors.

It's been consistently demonstrated that the key to holding the coveted top dog position in a niche is to focus resources on a long term sustainable advantage rather than a more traditional focus on short term sales targets. This is never more true than with the Internet, where competitors are only a few keystrokes away. To establish yourself as the dominant "go to" site for any niche, you will need to provide a barrier to entry for your competitors, which can be achieved by following these tips:

First – in niche segments, actions speak louder than words. If you intend to be a leader, then behave like a leader in all of your marketing materials. Avoid using pre-built generic templates. Have professional, custom graphics for your communications so they stand out. Make sure everything looks polished. Beware of emotional investment in your own ideas/designs and avoid incorporating feedback from people who have a biased opinion (family, friends, employees) because they won't necessarily tell you that your idea "sucks."

Second – understand your strengths and weaknesses. If you have fewer products than your competitors, then only select/carry the best products. If you have a more diverse offering than other companies, then have the largest selection. Understand your value proposition and own it. Inform your clients of the role you intend to play in the niche market you serve. Beware of trying to be all things to all clients; the further you move out of your niche the harder it will be to create customer loyalty.

Third – be true to your customers. No matter how tempted you are, never adopt big box retailer marketing tactics. All communications should be written in vernacular and a tone that is geared toward your clients. Each industry has its own jargon – embrace it! Big box retailers wish they could be as nimble and edgy as you – so never forget that. Beware of trying to copy your competition – you'll never get out in front of somebody you're following too closely.

Fourth – communicate often. Use automation to consistently follow-up post sale. Design your loyalty and rewards programs for the industry in which you reside. Announce regular discounts and new products. If you serve a younger crowd, incorporate social media (Facebook/Twitter). If you service an older crowd, don't hesitate to send thank you postcards (with coupons) after a sale. Beware of companies / solutions that use terms like "viral" or make unrealistic ROI claims. Pursue unproven marketing techniques only after you've mastered the core marketing tactics. If you can't do this, find somebody who can.

Fifth – ask for referrals. Every successful communication/loyalty program in a niche should encourage referrals from clients. Niche marketing is one of the most expensive and difficult, so leverage each opportunity to be introduced to new clients. Don't be afraid to get creative and brainstorm with your marketing team. Beware of "off the shelf" loyalty and referral programs – changing a loyalty program after it's been launched can lead to alienating the customers you've worked hard to acquire.

Lastly – create or sponsor forums, host or publish blogs, and create content that provides a tangible and useful benefit to the niche you serve. Resist the temptation to immediately commercialize these communities and try to make them generate ROI. Hosting industry content and discussions are your ways of giving back and ensuring a healthy future to the niche market on which your business depends.

As long as you understand who your customers are and why they purchase from you, you'll develop a very loyal following that your competitors will envy. Remember – becoming the top dog at niche marketing is long distance endurance race, not a sprint!

Brian Horakh is founder, CEO, and chief architect of Zoovy, a leading provider of e-commerce tools and services for online businesses. Zoovy's Web-based Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) e-commerce platform offers online merchants cross-channel integration, cutting-edge features and a unique approach to problem solving. Brian can be reached at brian@zoovy.com.


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