What do you think of when you hear the word marketing? Ads? Billboards? Social media? Email? Direct mail?

While these are all an important part of marketing, there’s another channel that can sometimes be the biggest boost or barrier to growing your business or organization: your relationships.

Mastering the art of relational marketing is more than just understanding target audiences and key messages. In fact, it has a lot less to do with marketing and a lot more to do with relationship-building, which will in turn grow your reach. Here are three relationships that can have a big impact on your marketing success: 

1) Employees

When you think about all the tools in your marketing toolbox, the last one you probably think of is the one sitting right across the hall from you: your employees. We tend to be a bit farsighted when it comes to marketing, looking straight out to external audiences and forgetting to show our internal audiences a little TLC.

Fostering happy, enthusiastic employees is one of the best things you can do for your business or organization. Employee satisfaction will bleed down into customer experience. It will boost recruitment. And it will ultimately result in direct word-of-mouth marketing and indirect boosts to the bottom line.

Remember that your employees know you better than anyone else. They’re your first line of brand advocacy or your biggest threat. Even if they don’t directly badmouth you, both enthusiasm and lack of enthusiasm are contagious and affect the perception of your brand. Not to mention the fact that employees who are bought into company vision and a shared goal are going be more likely to go the extra mile to see business grow.

Employees are also out interacting with potential customers every single day, telling your story in the most organic way possible: by simply sharing life with their friends and families. If employees are happy and enthusiastic, their networks will have a positive view of your company – which could pay off when someone they know is looking to try a new restaurant or hire a firm or make a donation.

How to Apply It: You can’t run a successful business without schedules, accountability, performance expectations and leadership structure. But within the confines of business, look for ways to treat employees with dignity. In the office, create great cultures built on transparency, camaraderie and the occasional fun break or treat. Look for opportunities to invest in people and help employees develop their strengths. Share company vision and let your people know they are a critical part of a bigger mission that makes a difference. Outside of the office, remember that employees have personal lives that they are trying to balance with work life. Respecting that time and even offering a bit of flexibility when needed can go a long way when you need someone to be flexible and put in extra hours. The bottom line: when employees feel like you care about them as humans and not just as cogs in the machine, they’ll show up motivated and willing to serve and share.

2) Customers

Everyone knows that happy customers are good for business. But it’s not just about retaining the customers you have. Loyal – and angry – customers define your public reputation more than anything else.

You can have the best brand messaging in the world, but it’s ultimately what your customers say about you that will define how others perceive you. With enough money, you can buy your way into billboards and magazines, but the way the word will naturally spread when customers’ are blown away by their experience with you is priceless.

When you treat customers how they want to be treated, it builds a sense of reciprocity. While providing consistently great service is one piece of the puzzle, it’s also about relationships and how you make your customers feel. If you truly care about them, look for unique ways to meet their needs and give to them rather than always ask of them, they will develop an emotional and relational attachment that goes far beyond the quality of your product – and in turn share that with others.

How to Apply It: Start with making sure your product and service is dialed in. Once you’ve built this foundation, begin thinking about the customer experience. Are there ways you can go above and beyond in meeting their needs? Or maybe it’s less formal and you simply find ways to surprise and delight customers. Send a free gift or “thank you” note to loyal supporters. Schedule a birthday email with a discount. Provide free resources that will help them use your product better and make your life easier. Or maybe just smile and ask about their day. It’s all about building a relationship that goes far beyond a transaction. Not only will this keep customers coming back, but it will also result in positive reviews, testimonials, word of mouth and maybe even a customer looking for ways to help you out beyond just a purchase.

3) Peers

Your business or organization does not exist in a vacuum. You’re surrounded by a community of other likeminded people and organizations working towards similar goals. For some, that community is defined by geographical location – maybe a group of small businesses in the same town –, for others by industry, and for others by mission. Your community might even include your competitors. And while it’s counterintuitive to be buds with the competition, a rising tide lifts all boats, and lifting up the industry and your peers will ultimately lift you up as well.

Look for ways to support and learn from others. While business is competitive and you must stay smart and focused, at the end of the day, everyone is relational and values genuine connection. Connecting with and celebrating others will ultimately lead to support for you. You never know when a mutually beneficial promotion opportunity will arise or when another organization will get a call from a client that’s not the best fit for them and refer to you. Be the one that others want to work with – not the mean guy that everyone wants to take down.

How to Apply It: First, spend some time building your community. Define who your peers are and begin networking. Make Twitter lists, add contacts on LinkedIn, and maybe even reach out to someone to invite him or her to coffee. Then, begin supporting your community! Share and retweet posts. Attend events such as grand openings, fundraisers or community events. Celebrate big moments with fellow leaders. When you celebrate others, they will celebrate you, and they’ll be more likely to respond when it’s time to call in favors.

Marketing and sales (or fundraising if you’re a nonprofit) can be a bit of a selfish endeavor. It involves a lot of thinking and talking about yourself and a lot of asking things of other people: share, buy, register, sign up, give, donate. While there is nothing wrong with this, sometimes our best marketing happens when we stop taking and start giving.

It can be tempting to view your relationships through what they can do for you, but in reality, relational marketing works best when you look at what you can do for others. When you care about others, they’ll care about you and be willing to jump in when you need support. While the results aren’t as immediate as purchasing an ad or TV spot, investing in relationships with your employees, customers and peers is a critical part of your marketing strategy that can pay off big and shouldn’t be ignored. 

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