Qualified businesses are the life blood of any business incubator. The best programs, training and culture means nothing without a constant flow of committed business owners willing to utilize those resources and turn them into positive business growth. But much like the businesses we serve, entrepreneurial support organizations can often struggle with the marketing needed to attract those qualified candidates.
Most incubators rely on word of mouth, workshops or strategic partnerships to bring the best and the brightest to their door. Restricted by limited budgets and further constrained by a laundry list of programmatic responsibilities, marketing and communication are usually tasks that fall to the wayside. Even programs that do focus their time and effort on marketing find it to be time consuming and struggle with marketing the unique nature of their program resulting in low ROI. As a result, many programs see marketing as an activity that drains resources away from other critical activities like finding funding sources and working directly with clients. The reality is the number of qualified businesses you can attract and enroll in your programs is the single largest determinate of your ability to go from a program that is barely sustaining to a thriving community asset.
Most marketers talk about using more tools to reach more people, which usually translates to more money. Business incubators shy away from marketers because marketing strategies that attract MORE clients just means MORE work to sort through instead of focusing on bringing in the RIGHT candidate.
In this two part series we will go over ways business incubators can break the marketing cycle and elevate their programs through simple communication strategies that don’t break your budget.
Part One: Strategy
Everyday we preach the importance of a MARKETING strategy to our clients. All of us have seen brilliant business ideas wither on the vine because the business was not able to get traction in their marketing. Like anyone in the consulting field will tell you, it is often hard to take your own advice. Translating business marketing principles to business incubators can be challenging. Business incubators are often mission driven, have to communicate to multiple stakeholders and promote 5 different events and programs at one time. The best way to see the opportunities you may be missing is to look at the common pitfalls in your industry. We have taken those common pitfalls and boiled them down into our top three pieces of wisdom.
Stop describing yourself as a business incubator.
Image one of your clients got up to give a pitch and described themselves as a “technology” or a “marketing services” company and stopped there, assuming everyone in the audience knew exactly what they meant. That is what most entrepreneurial programs do. We assume that everyone knows what a business incubator is, how it is unique from the other resources available and most importantly we assume business owners have VALUE for how a business incubator will help them.
Most business incubators only exacerbate the problem by then listing the industries they specialize in. The following phrase “we are a high tech business incubator focusing on healthcare, software and XYZ” is a really fast way to lose the attention of several businesses. Many businesses owners simply do not identify with those terms, or have been pitched that description by so many organizations that you simply fall into the background.
It is industry jargon … and we all use it.
Instead, define the problem that you solve for businesses and what the client gets as a result (again, sound familiar).
You might, “help innovators create prototypes and develop business strategies to move that prototype to market” or “work with engineers and professional industries to transition to business ownerships”.
The point is to stand out and engage with people in a language they understand. Once you have their attention you can describe all the wonderful ways your programs can help.
Define the strengths of your program to develop a unique value proposition. Talk to your clients and don’t stop at universal feedback like you have a “great culture”. Keep digging and compare your program to other resources to really define what makes it unique to your target audience.
Defining your unique value and integrating it into your marketing means you stop attracting the entrepreneurial groupies (people who look for workshops and incubators with limited intention to start or scale a business) and you start speaking directly to someone who has put enough research or thought into the process to be able to identify with the challenges you describe.
Create an engagement funnel.
We all have workshops, co-horts, co-working spaces, mentoring, etc. etc. and usually these programs are occurring at the same time. Entrepreneurs are busy, especially the qualified ones. You work hard to develop all of programs and offerings so it is easy to feel like we need to market everything to everyone on every interaction. The solutions to this challenge is NOT telling busy entrepreneurs to check out your website.
Develop a clear first call to action that starts to build a value based relationship. Don’t make your potential clients figure out how to work with you.
You need to develop trust and show value before asking someone to sign up for a 9 month program. Even if the program is free of charge a savvy business owners is a zealot protector of their most precious resource, their time. Think about how to move prospects along with multiple communications that don’t require every interaction to be face to face. Think about how you can passively communicate your value and prove your effectiveness. As the pool of entrepreneurial resources grows, many mature business will have at least one really negative experience with a similar support provider.
Overcome common objections and ensure you not wasting all of your budget on lead generation by creating a clear engagement funnel that keeps communicating your value over and over again.
Diversify the demographics of your candidate pool.
In order to attract the most qualified candidates you need to pull from the entire entrepreneurial population. Make sure that you are not cutting out large sections of the demographic population by ignoring women and minorities. Women and minorities represent the fastest growing segments of entrepreneurs in the country. Traditional incubator marketing doesn’t just ignore these populations, it can in fact push away potential qualified candidates.
A study, “Creating Inclusive Incubators and Accelerators”, conducted by the ICIC researched the diversity challenge in business incubators. They found that the usual “word of mouth” marketing techniques used by most incubators unintentionally contributed to the lack of diversity in business incubators.
Incubators do not exist in a vacuum. They are formed and created through communication which is always colored by the culture in which we exist. The reality is that our culture still contains many gender and racial biases that affect the way people define entrepreneurship and the resources that support it. Those stereotypes affect the way large portions of the most qualified candidates view your marketing.
Review your marketing strategy through the eyes of someone who does not fit the popular media profile of an entrepreneur. Is your marketing giving subtle support of the cultural message that they do not belong at your incubator? Does it support the “bro-grammer” stereotype? Don’t eliminate large portions of your candidate pool and significantly diminish your marketing ROI by marketing to one demographic.
It is tempting to define your marketing strategy as the proper tools to use (and we will go into marketing tools in part two) but until you develop a clear strategy that avoids common pit-falls you will rarely get the ROI needed to continue your efforts. When working with limited resources like money and time, effectiveness is the foundation for success. An effective, customized marketing strategy will help you increase the flow of qualified candidates into your program. Giving you the time to focus your efforts on other critical functions that only you can execute.
Practice what you preach, get support and develop a marketing strategy that will ensure your program is around to develop the best and the brightest entrepreneurs in your community.