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Eight tips for powerhouse, cost-effective marketing

by Corinne Colbert

June 2007

You know all the reasons why you should be marketing your incubation program. First and foremost, good marketing can help keep your incubator full, and maintaining a full incubator is the linchpin of a sustainable program. “Success depends on keeping a steady flow of viable clients into the incubator,” says Charles D’Agostino, executive director of the Louisiana Business & Technology Center in Baton Rouge, La.

Even when your incubator is full and you have a waiting list, though, you still need to market the program. Marketing isn’t just about clients. It’s about distinguishing your incubation program from your competition, whether that competition comes from other incubators or from other economic development initiatives or commercial landlords. (Remember, you’re competing not only for clients, but also for funding and other forms of support.) Marketing is how you establish and maintain your program’s reputation within the community. Through marketing, you attract not only new clients, but also partners and sponsors who can support and sustain your incubation program.

The big question, though, is how to do it? What’s the best way to keep your program in the public eye without adding a staff member or breaking the budget?

In the course of researching and writing A Practical Guide to Business Incubator Marketing, NBIA Publications’ new book on the subject, I was constantly amazed by the many tricks NBIA members use to market their programs – and impressed by their resourcefulness. Here are some excerpts from the book; see for yourself.

Do your homework

The more you know about your market, the better you can allocate your marketing resources. Whether you take on a major market survey or just ask around, what you learn may surprise you – and is sure to help you make more informed marketing decisions.

“Shotgun marketing is mistake I see a lot, where there’s no proper identification of [who] the audience is,” says Evan Jones, director of the @Wales Digital Media Initiative in Cardiff, Wales. “It’s nice to see your ad in papers or hear about your incubator on the radio, but [you have] to say, ‘How many potential entrepreneurs are going to hear this? How many are in digital media? How many are going to read our ad or listen to it while turning right at a busy junction?’”

The way you learn about your audience is market research. Don’t be afraid; market research doesn’t have to be a big deal. “There is a broad spectrum of [ways] you can handle research,” says Carol Kraus Lauffer, principal in Business Cluster Development, an incubator consulting firm in Palo Alto, Calif. “It doesn’t have to be an onerous task. You can make it simple.”

For many incubators, market research can be as simple as asking community leaders a few questions. “Even when you run into people at events, ask them who they work with and what their challenges are,” Lauffer says. “If you’re out there in the community talking about the incubator, you should be getting feedback on the market as well.”

That’s a strategy employed by Mark S. Long, president & CEO of the Indiana University Emerging Technologies Center in Indianapolis. Whenever he speaks to a community or professional organization, Long makes sure he has time to chat with those in attendance. “You can do a ton of networking and ask, ‘What’s your real opinion?’” he says. It’s not an idle question, either: “I take a pad and pencil and I write it all down,” he says.

Make a plan

A marketing plan, whether it’s two pages or 20, is a good investment of your time. It will give you a list of goals you hope to accomplish and a checklist of activities to accomplish them, as well as a way to measure whether what you’re doing is working.

“[A marketing plan] is an engine that drives you toward the realization of your business plan’s goals,” says Lisa Smith, vice president of marketing for ANGLE Technology Group in Vienna, Va., which develops and operates incubators.

As with market research, the complexity of your plan is up to you. Incubator marketing plans I looked at for A Practical Guide ranged from a one- or two-page checklist to 20-page documents packed with charts and tables. It’s not important how long or how detailed your plan is; what matters is that you have a usable document that outlines your marketing goals.

For example, Jasper Welch’s marketing plan for the San Juan College Enterprise Center in Farmington, N.M., mainly comprises a list of 15 marketing strategies, all in support of the incubator’s overall marketing goals: to “educate the business, college and San Juan County communities about the benefits and goals of the business incubation program at the Enterprise Center” and “attract viable start-up companies and quality emerging companies to the Enterprise Center.”

It makes for a short plan, Welch says, but it’s enough for his needs – and to set an example for clients. “When companies come in and act all brain-dead about marketing, I can whip this out and say, ‘At least do this,’” he says. “It’s kind of hard for us to preach the need to have a marketing plan if we don’t have one. Even if it’s on a shoestring, at least we have a plan.”

Once you have a plan, implement it. “If you write a plan and put it in a drawer, that’s the kind of marketing success you’re going to have,” Smith says.

Go for the quid pro quo

Partners, sponsors and other stakeholders can help you keep marketing costs down. One tactic is to invite a marketing specialist, graphic designer or commercial printer to join your board. They’ll bring a unique perspective to incubator operations, and chances are you’ll get inexpensive or free work as a result.

When he wanted to start an e-mail newsletter for the Business Technology Center of Los Angeles County in Altadena, Calif., Administrator Mark Lieberman invited the owner of an e-mail service (similar to Constant Contact) to serve on the incubator’s advisory board. “I offered him access to our companies,” Lieberman says. “He’s providing free e-mail marketing in exchange. We write the e-mails; he has the engine behind it. And he gets to say he’s working with Los Angeles County.”

Cooperative marketing also has worked for Julie Gustafson, executive director of the Amoskeag Business Incubator in Manchester, N.H., who reaches potential clients and sponsors tied to the state’s software and Internet industries through a partnership with the Software Association of New Hampshire. The association holds meetings and workshops at her incubator free of charge; in return, it promotes the incubator via its listserv and has given Gustafson a free booth at its yearly exposition. “I know this relationship has helped us broaden public awareness and in promoting the incubator to software companies,” Gustafson says.

If your incubator is affiliated with a larger institution, such as a university, take advantage of that institution’s public relations arm. D’Agostino issues a press release about LBTC or its clients nearly every day, and as a result, either his program or his clients appear in the local media every week. D’Agostino usually drafts the press releases himself, and then sends them to the public relations department at Louisiana State University, which sponsors the incubator. They format the press release according to university style and send it out. “We used to put out our own press releases, but that’s not what I get paid to do,” D’Agostino says. “Since university PR is willing to do that, we ship it out to them.”

Don’t be afraid to ask for a discount

Service providers such as designers, advertising agencies, or public relations and marketing firms often may be willing to reduce their prices (or even waive them) because they want to support the incubator’s mission of nurturing new businesses. They also may see the incubator as a gateway to those businesses, which eventually may be in the market for the provider’s goods or services.

Karl LaPan, president & CEO of the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center in Fort Wayne, Ind., devotes $35,000 of his $1.25 million annual budget to advertising, nearly all of which is dedicated to promoting his clients. LaPan’s $35,000 is a lot more than many programs have to work with, but he still makes it stretch. He buys ad space in bulk – a year’s worth in advance – and negotiates discounted rates (about half the retail rate) with four area business publications and the regional National Public Radio affiliate. “At retail, we’d pay higher rates, but we’re able to get reduced rates because we’re a community nonprofit creating jobs and businesses, and people share our vision,” he says.

Make marketing a learning experience

Need some extra hands for marketing? Get help with marketing tasks by taking on student interns from a nearby college or university, or even a high school. “We’ve made it a part of our policy that we hire interns [from nearby Southern New Hampshire University] on a regular basis” for marketing, Gustafson says. She’s built relationships with the university’s career development department, as well as individual professors who often recommend student interns to her. “I have two interns now just because teachers said, ‘I have someone good for you,’” Gustafson says. Interns have conducted client and graduate surveys for Gustafson, among other projects.

Los Angeles’ Lieberman taps students from nearby Mount Sierra College to create the Web site and brochure for the incubator’s annual Tech Week, a high-profile series of events for the city’s tech entrepreneurs. The school focuses on IT, media and Web design, which makes its students a great match for his needs. “These kids are savvy and need resume builders,” he says. “If they have to work on a Web site for class, why not do it for real?”

Look in your own backyard

Who better to promote incubation than someone who’s benefiting from it? If your clients or graduates include a designer or a public relations company, give that firm your business.

Debbie King, director of the Springfield Business Incubator in Springfield, Mass., has many of her marketing materials (including her newsletter and postcards promoting training events) designed by a client whose company does photography and graphic design. Although the incubator doesn’t get a cut rate, “There is definitely an advantage to working with an in-house firm,” King says. “It is very easy to get things done because you can just walk upstairs to the [client’s] office to review what’s being edited. An additional benefit is my ability to contribute to the [client’s] growth while at the same time meeting my own marketing needs.”

If you don’t have those resources in-house, look for home-based businesses. Many talented people are hiding out there, and they’d relish the chance to show their stuff through a high-profile client like an incubation program. (And who knows? Maybe they’ll decide they’re ready to get out of the house.)

To promote an event intended to raise awareness about the Adirondack Regional Business Incubator before it actually opened in Glens Falls, N.Y., Peter Wohl, chairman of the incubator’s board of directors, turned to a home-based graphic designer rather than a higher-profile firm. The result was an eye-catching poster that was displayed throughout Warren County. “We chose [the designers] because they were local, a potential incubator client and extremely price competitive,” Wohl says. “And we liked their work.”

Be creative

Entrepreneurs want to be associated with other dynamic people and organizations. Stakeholders want to point to their association with the incubator with pride. So make sure your marketing presents your program as the dynamic, exciting, things-are-happening place it is.

When The New Century Venture Center in Roanoke, Va., needed to promote a new program aimed at home businesses in 2003, President Lisa Ison hired Access, a 1999 NCVC graduate (and 2002 NBIA Outstanding Incubator Graduate) that had become one of Roanoke’s leading advertising firms. Ison met with the Access team to discuss the new Venture Out program, and then let the firm handle the rest. “They did their creative thing with it,” she says.

The ads caught readers’ eyes with large, offbeat photographs and headlines that captured some of the pitfalls of a home-based business. One example: “It’s bad when someone at your business makes advances toward a client. It’s worse when it’s your dog.” Each ad carried a tagline – “If you own a home-based business, isn’t it time you ventured out?”– and touted NCVC’s amenities and track record, along with a list of services available through the Venture Out affiliate program.

“It got a lot of attention,” she says. “Everyone who saw it was like, ‘Wow!’” The campaign also won an American Advertising Award from the Roanoke Valley chapter of the American Advertising Federation.

Think creatively about form as well as content. Gustafson’s incubator is located right next to Manchester’s Fisher Cats Stadium, home of a AA affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team. The stadium, which opened in 2005, seats 6,500 and hosts nearly 150 home games between April and September.

For about $150, Gustafson had a giant banner made with the incubator’s name on it. With her landlord’s blessing, she hangs the banner on the side of the building facing the ballpark during every Fisher Cats home game. And because many people park in the area for events and concerts at the nearby civic center, Gustafson makes sure the banner is displayed for them, too.

“We noticed that several hundred people were walking past the building,” she says. “It just made sense.” While the banner doesn’t bring in new clients, it does raise the incubator’s profile. “It helps with branding and awareness,” she says.

Steal from the best

Designers, writers and similarly creative folks don’t just get their ideas out of thin air. They’re always looking at what other designers, writers and creative folks are doing and thinking about how they can apply those techniques to their latest project.

You should do the same. If you’re thinking about printing a brochure or redesigning an existing one, pick up brochures you see around town. Maybe you like the font from this brochure or the colors from that one. Perhaps you’d just like to try something different and see a brochure that strikes your fancy. Show those to your designer (who’s doing the work for free or a discount, right?) and see what happens.

It’s not just the visuals that may be worth borrowing, but also the ideas. Some of those are above. There are more (lots, lots more) in A Practical Guide to Business Incubator Marketing, which features the marketing experiences and insights of more than 50 NBIA members. It also includes a CD-ROM with samples of actual incubator marketing materials: ads, newsletters, postcards, even Flash presentations.

A Practical Guide to Business Incubator Marketing is $42 for NBIA members and $59 for nonmembers. Order yours at www.nbia.org.

Marketing mistakes to avoid

While every marketing method has its own pitfalls, there are some overall traps to avoid.

Information overload. “People aren’t looking for total knowledge right away,” says Robert Hisrich, Garvin Professor of Global Entrepreneurship and director of the Thunderbird Global Incubator at the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Ariz. “When your message needs to be appealing, it needs to be shortened significantly.”

Hit-and-run marketing. “Repetition is important,” Hisrich says. “People need to be hit over the head.” For example, it’s better to run four quarter-page ads than a single full-page ad so readers see it more often and remember it. Select a powerful message and stick with it.

Unrealistic expectations. If your incubator has been at half capacity, don’t expect it to be full as soon as you start marketing. “Marketing is not a fast process,” says Mark Lieberman, administrator of the Business Technology Center of Los Angeles County in Altadena, Calif. “To do it right takes time.” Give yourself at least six months to a year to see real results.—CC

Read more about incubator marketing

NBIA’s newest publication, A Practical Guide to Business Incubator Marketing, is the most comprehensive book published on the topic, with separate chapters on market research, market planning and specific marketing techniques – all emphasizing cost-effectiveness. This is not a textbook; it’s an easy-to-read guide that offers real-world tips and advice from more than 50 incubation professionals. An appendix covers media relations, from writing and sending press releases to organizing a press conference. And an included CD-ROM features more than 40 samples of actual incubator marketing materials from radio sponsorship announcements to stakeholders reports (plus links to over 30 great incubator Web sites). For more information or to purchase the book, visit www.nbia.org/store, e-mail publications@nbia.org or call (740) 593-4331.

Getting professional marketing help

While many marketing tasks can be handled in-house, it sometimes pays to hire a pro. This need not break the budget; in fact, you probably can get the work done at a significant discount or even for free, says Charles Stein, president of Strategic Development Services, a consulting firm in Columbus, Ohio, that specializes in incubator development and funding.

“Most marketing services can be obtained in-kind if you work at it or at dramatic reduction from retail rate,” Stein says. “If you explain what’s going on [at the incubator], a marketing firm will many times do pro bono [work] in return for being linked up to incubator tenants, especially the more mature ones who may need marketing services.”

For example, the Indiana University Emerging Technologies Center in Indianapolis got a reduced price for the services of a public relations firm that developed the incubator’s logo, marketing materials and Web site before the incubator opened in 2003. The total cost was about $3,100 – $2,000 less than the retail rate, says President & CEO Mark S. Long. “They knew we didn’t have a lot of money and they wanted us as a client,” he says.

One way to get professional help at a lower cost is to work with a university. Donald C. Schutt, executive director of the MidMichigan Innovation Center in Midland, Mich., turned to a local university for help with a 2006 research project. Faculty from the university checked Schutt’s questionnaire for bias that could influence responses, and also linked him with a graduate student who conducted the actual interviews.

Professional help may be the best choice if your project is complex or time-consuming. The University of Florida Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator in Alachua, Fla., hired a market research firm to conduct a national survey of peer institutions, as well as interviews with incubator clients, in 2000. “We wanted not only to increase our visibility as a leader in this area, but also to get a better picture of where we fit into the industry and how we could collaborate with others and share information,” says SMBI Manager Patti Breedlove. The job took the pros six months – time that a small incubation staff probably doesn’t have.

Another reason to hire a pro is to keep an arm’s-length distance from the project. “People may not tell us what we found out [had they not been] talking to a third party,” says Jasper Welch, director of the San Juan College Enterprise Center in Farmington, N.M. Welch hired a professional researcher to interview stakeholders, clients and graduates.

Incubator professionals who have worked with marketing and public relations firms say that the results were better than they could have achieved on their own. “I needed a map to guide us through marketing and to get better deal flow through the incubator,” says Stephen Loy, director of communications for the Louisiana Technology Park in Baton Rouge, La. “I have a public relations and media background, not a marketing background.”

And the payoff can be big. The same public relations firm that created IUETC’s logo also arranged a grand opening gala, which drew nearly 400 people to the incubator. “We raised over a half-million dollars” as a result of the event, Long says. One of the guests had sold the incubator a generator. He was so impressed by what he saw at the gala, Long says, “He asked me how much we paid for [the generator] and he wrote me a check [for that amount] on the spot.”—CC

Keywords: market research -- incubator, marketing and promotion, partnerships -- organizational/corporate, student intern

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