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Online advertising for small business: Five questions and five steps for success

Pay-per-click, remarketing, and landing pages … oh my!

Those online advertising terms mentioned above may not be part of your vocabulary. They might even sound intimidating.

Still, with 4.3 billion people online worldwide today—3.9 billion of which are mobile users, and 3.5 billion social media users globally—the upside is hard to ignore.

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One recent study found that 79% of small businesses that spent 5-10 hours per week on marketing “reported revenue growth.” 52% that spent less than five hours also said they saw revenue growth.

And yet, while nearly 3-in-4 Canadians spend at least 3-4 hours online each day. Many small businesses do not advertise online. For example, In the United States, 66% of small businesses advertise online.

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If you’re among the near majority not yet advertising in the digital world, we’ve created this guide to …

Answer five questions and provide five steps for small business online advertising success.

1. What is online advertising?

From search campaigns to banner ads, mobile marketing to social media, online advertising spans the internet. As an advertiser, small businesses select (1) the channels, (2) the ad formats, and (3) the placements best suited to reach their target customers and meet their advertising goals.

With a strategic message and persuasive offer, ads convince your customers to act—either to buy immediately or learn more about your business.

Start with your target audience

Who you’re targeting and what ad placements you choose will depend on the strategies you’ve put together in your small business advertising plan. If you haven’t done so already, spend some time defining …

Who is your target customer?

What demographics—like age, income, and geographic location—define your ideal buyer?

Where do they spend their time online?

Do they use specific social media platforms? Are they heavy mobile or desktop users? What are their interests and what types of sites do they visit?

What are their pain points or psychological motivations?

What keeps them up at night and what was the trigger that got them to buy your product?

Creating personas and mapping out their buying journey lays a behind-the-scenes foundation not only for online advertising but growing your small business overall:

Next, identify your online campaign

There are two main types of online ad campaigns:

(1) Direct response ads

These ads use a strong call-to-action to drive immediate results (e.g., buy or call now, download this eBook). Direct response campaigns are mostly done on a pay-per-click (PPC) or cost-per-acquisition or cost-per-action (CPA) basis.

Copy for these ads should be short, with a clear message—explaining your offer and why customers need to act quickly.

(2) Branding campaigns

Branding, on the other hand, helps you raise awareness, so customers remember your name and what your business does. The goal is to generate an emotional response—making you stand out in their minds.

These ads are bought based on audience reach and are often paid for on a cost-per-thousand-impressions (CPM) basis, or a flat fee per ad or listing. An impression or view is counted every time a customer sees your ad.

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Writing copy for these ads should appeal to the hearts and minds of potential customers—tied to what your brand does and why they should choose you.

Of course, you may be thinking …

This all sounds great, but what if I’ve never created, bought, or posted an ad before? Let’s touch on it next.

2. Why advertise online?

Online ads typically aim at one or more five goals:

Data from The Manifest

Also, consider …

  • Facebook users click on 10 ads every month
  • 87% of shoppers begin product searches online
  • Social ads drive three times more new customers than existing customers
  • 95% of mobile internet users use their phones to lookup local information with the intent of calling or visiting a business

Data from We Are Social, Retail DiveAdobe, and eMarketer

In addition, online advertising is …


You can pay per click or customer acquisition, rather than a flat fee (which is often higher) to target a set number of media impressions.


You can reach ideal audiences based on geography, a specific time of day, specific interests, and more. For example, you can target only women ages 18 to 34 in Sydney, Australia who like to shop for the latest fashions on their phones over their lunch break.


You can calculate your return on investment and refocus your campaigns on the best-performing platforms.

Pausable, removable, and flexible

Perhaps your cash flow statement reveals a shortage one month or you discover — through your inventory management platform — one of your advertised products is out of stock. With print or OOH (out of home) advertising, you’re stuck. Online, you can adapt quickly.

3. How to create your online presence?

Before we dive into how to advertise online, it’s essential to consider where you’ll send people once they click on your ad.

It could be a website, a product or service page, or a landing page specifically designed for an ad campaign.

Basic website or blog requirements

We cover website necessities in our post on how to start an online business. Some of the highlights include:

  • Clean design with lots of whitespace
  • Compelling web copy
  • Easy navigation

There are several budget-friendly options to launch your small business website—like WIX, Squarespace, or WordPress. If you’re short on cash, use a template versus building a custom site.

Being online is vital, but you don’t need a showstopper of a site to begin. You can improve your site by adding better imagery, social proof, and functionality as your business grows. Lastly, have a look at what your competitors are doing to inspire you.

What’s a landing page?


Landing pages are standalone webpages you send customers to when they’ve clicked on your ad.

If you already have a website, it’s still preferable to use a landing page as the destination for your online ad campaign.

Alternatively, you can also use your homepage or a specific product, as long as both have clear calls-to-action.

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4. What digital advertising terms matter?

There’s a lot of technical jargon associated with online ad campaigns. Let’s review the top terms now.


Every time someone sees your ad online, it’s counted as an impression. Businesses looking to run a brand advertising campaign will often buy ads based on a set number of impressions. You reserve those impressions on websites highly targeted to your ideal customer—so you know your ad is likely to resonate with your audience.

CPM: Cost-per-mille (thousand)

You pay a set fee for every thousand impressions you buy. So, if a website charges a $6 CPM, it means you’ll spend six dollars for every thousand impressions. Ideally, you’ll want to reach as many people as possible within your set budget. So, if you have $10,000 to spend, at, say, a $5 CPM, then you could buy 50,000 impressions.

It sounds like a lot, but that budget can be spent in a very short time on a site with high traffic. It’s why a lot of small businesses prefer to pay per click, rather than per impression.

PPC: Pay-per-click

PPC ads let marketers pay for an ad online when a customer clicks on it. This form of advertising is preferable to small businesses running direct-response campaigns, as it’s perceived as easier to measure ROI from this strategy.

What you pay per click depends on the keywords or audience categories you’re bidding on. The more popular the keyword or audience, the higher the price.

CTR: Click-through rates

Click-through rates tell you the percentage of people who clicked on your ad, based on the total number of people who saw the ad. These days, CTRs are pretty low. However, your ad will still be seen by a lot of people, which helps you from a branding perspective. Average CTRs for a Google search ad is 1.91%, and 0.35% for a Google display ad.

CTR: Click-through rates

Click-through rates tell you the percentage of people who clicked on your ad, based on the total number of people who saw the ad. These days, CTRs are pretty low. However, your ad will still be seen by a lot of people, which helps you from a branding perspective. Average CTRs for a Google search ad is 3.17%, and 0.46% for a Google display ad.

CVR: Conversion and average conversion rate

A conversion happens when someone who clicks on your ad, then proceeds to buy something from your website. This term applies to transactional websites. The average conversion rate is the percent of conversions you get from a particular ad. On Google, average CVRs are 2.70% for search ads and 0.89% for display ads across all industries.

CVR: Conversion and average conversion rate

A conversion happens when someone who clicks on your ad, then proceeds to buy something from your website. This term applies to transactional websites. The average conversion rate is the percent of conversions you get from a particular ad. On Google, average CVRs are 3.75% for search ads and 0.77% for display ads across all industries.

CPA: Cost-per-acquisition or cost-per-action

CPA represents how much it costs you to acquire a new customer, based on a specific action you set. The action could be to sign-up for your email newsletter, register for an event, or download an eBook. You can bid for Google keywords based on a CPA. Average Google CPA is roughly $59 for search and $61 for display or banner ads.

Companies seeking to generate new leads often bid on a CPA basis when their product or service is worth a lot of money (e.g., a car or enterprise software).

CPA: Cost-per-acquisition or cost-per-action

CPA represents how much it costs you to acquire a new customer, based on a specific action you set. The action could be to sign-up for your email newsletter, register for an event, or download an eBook. You can bid for Google keywords based on a CPA. Average Google CPA is roughly $48.96 for search and $75.51 for display or banner ads.

Companies seeking to generate new leads often bid on a CPA basis when their product or service is worth a lot of money (e.g., a car or enterprise software).


Engagement is another way businesses now track the effectiveness of an ad. It’s especially important in social media and with video ads. Engagement with a paid social media post or video ad can be measured by likes, ratings, comments, time spent watching a video, and shares.


A tracking cookie is data stored on a user’s computer by a third-party advertiser (e.g., a media platform like Facebook or Google) to monitor your online surfing habits. The advertiser must notify customers, via a privacy statement, that they use cookies and give the user the option not to proceed.

Retargeting or remarketing

Remarketing is the ability to show ads to people who have previously visited your website as they browse other sites across the web. Remarketing focuses specifically on web users who have, in some way or another, expressed an interest in your product or service.

For example, some visitors may have looked at merchandise sold on your e-commerce site or they may have abandoned their shopping carts before purchasing the items. These cart “abandons” are considered a sales lead and are excellent targets for remarketing.

Tracking URLs

Tracking URLs are unique URL extensions you use to track your advertising campaign performance on each ad platform. You can create a tracking URL and monitor it using Google Analytics.

Google Analytics

Google Analytics is free software you can install on your website or landing page to track the success of your online ad campaigns. The tool offers many reports to help you understand the behaviours of visitors to your site (e.g., how much time they spend, the top pages they visit, the total number of pages they view).

Additionally, you can learn which sources—namely, which search engines or social media networks—and websites are sending you the most traffic. Knowing this helps you identify advertising opportunities.

Return on investment (ROI)

ROI is the amount of sales revenue you earn from advertising on a particular platform. I’ll explain how to calculate it shortly.

Now that you know the terms let’s look at the most popular platforms for small businesses to advertise online.

5. Where to buy and place online ads?

Social media, display advertising, and paid search are the most popular formats for small businesses. So, let’s take a look into each of the options.

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To make this practical, most of the campaign examples I’ll share are for plants, flowers, and landscaping.

However, the same types of campaigns can be set up for any business.

Paid Google search and display network ads

Google Ads lets you create ads which appear on Google when people search online for certain words or phrases, known as keywords. They use a cost-per-click model, so you pay when a user clicks on your ads. Or, bid based on a CPM model to buy a set number of ad impressions for display ads.

You can set your maximum budget for reaching new customers, and your ads will run until it’s all been spent.

AdWords allows you to bid on keywords to place text ads at the top of search engine result pages (SERPS). The ads appear at the top of the page, with a small “Ad” logo in green on the top left of the text. You can also buy video and image-based banner ads through Google’s display network.

Both text and display ad options are available to appear on partner media publication websites and blogs. These sites opt-in to the network to have their ad spots sold through Google AdSense.

You manage where your ads are placed by choosing specific websites that target your audience. Or, you can let Google select automatic placements for you, based on specified keywords and audiences.

For example, if you have a landscaping business, you could select keywords relevant to home improvement, gardening, and local searches like “near me.”

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If you want to make small changes on the fly, the Google AdWords Express app lets you quickly view and tweak campaigns. You can also use it to set up simplified pay-per-click campaigns.

This interface is beneficial for absolute beginners. Once you’ve set up a few campaigns, though, you should begin using the more extensive AdWords account interface.

If you want to learn more about Google AdWords, you can get certified as a Google Ads specialist. Or, find a freelancer or ask an employee to get certified to help you out.

Affiliate advertising

Affiliates are websites and content creators (e.g., bloggers and traditional media sites) that opt-in to promote your product on their site.

It’s often a cost-effective way to drive additional sales or leads for your business. You only have to pay them when someone clicks on a link or buys something. You might pay a percentage of the sale you made, or a flat fee. It works a lot like PPC advertising.

You can seek out an affiliate network to help you spread your message across the web. Affiliates in a network act like intermediaries between you and your product or service.

Paid social media display ads

Paid social media ads are seen by a captive audience of registered platform users. According to The Manifest, “Facebook (86%) is the most popular social media channel small businesses use to advertise, followed by YouTube (51%), Instagram (47%), and Twitter (41%).”

Here’s a snapshot of the highest-profile social networks:


With over 2.38 billion active monthly users (as of the first quarter of 2019), Facebook’s ad platform sells sidebar and newsfeed ads, also known as promoted content posts.

Blueprint, Facebook’s certification program, teaches you about their Ads Manager and the different reach customers.

Begin by selecting the type of campaign you run. It can be either brand awareness, consideration, or a direct response campaign to convert new customers (categorized as “conversion”).

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Actions move customers to the “consideration” phase of the funnel and include app downloads, form completion for lead generation, or engagement with a “how-to” video.

Next, select your target audience. You can do so by identifying demographics (e.g., age and geography) and then dive deeper into audience categories, like “Homeownership.”

Then, select your ad placements, which can run on Facebook, Instagram, Facebook Audience Network (similar to the Google AdSense network), and Facebook Messenger.

Finally, set your budget. Setting up your budget and scheduling your ads is similar to Google in that your ads run until your budget is spent. You can set the budget to “lifetime budget” to ensure Facebook paces the spending out over a set period.

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Like Google, these ads are bought based on a PPC auction. So, you bid on what keywords and audiences you want to target.

You’ll need to pick the right ad formats for your campaign too. Some of the different ad formats you can choose from include single image banner ads, carousel ads, video ads, and slideshow ads.

Below is a carousel ad example which tells a visual story with up to ten images. It works well for product businesses as well as landscapers or contractors to show-off their work:

Another popular Facebook advertising format for small businesses is the single image ad with text. It’s an affordable option when you’re kicking things off.

This ad placement is a “sponsored post” which shows up in a Facebook user’s newsfeed and looks like a standard post, except for the “sponsored” text under the title.

The link could drive users back to a blog post or landing page, which includes a guide to in-home gardening and a form to capture the customer’s information (e.g., their name and email address).


If you’re targeting other businesses, LinkedIn is a great advertising option and has over 645 million monthly users worldwide who use the site to:

  • Network with colleagues
  • Create and share content
  • Find full-time or freelance jobs

You can begin by creating a free LinkedIn business page to promote your company and share business-targeted content. Additionally, you can buy both display and text-based ads through LinkedIn Marketing Solutions.

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Your ads can appear as sponsored content, similar to other social networks, or as text or display ads to the right of a user’s news feed.

Buying a native ad involves promoting the content you’ve created and posted on LinkedIn to drive people back to your business page. Display and text ads can be highly targeted to niche businesses or user profiles (e.g., CEOs, CFOs, or CMOs).

Sponsored “InMail” is another option which sends a targeted email message to a group of specified users. These ads are bought based on a set price and targeted email list. You can learn more about it via LinkedIn Marketing Solutions on its website.


Instagram is owned by Facebook and has roughly one billion monthly active users. You can set up and run targeted Instagram campaigns straight from the Facebook Ads Manager tool.

There are many different ways to advertise on Instagram, including stories ads, and sponsored post photo ads, video ads, carousel ads, and collections ads. If you’re on a tight budget, the single image ad, like the one for Facebook, is probably your best bet as it won’t cost as much for design.

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Review the Instagram advertising guide for more details on their different ad formats.


YouTube is the second-largest search engine behind Google. In fact, one billion users spend 40 minutes a day on the video platform.

If you have the budget or know-how to create video content or ads, you can target customers through keywords. Your video ad will appear based on your target audiences’ interests, specific video topics, demographic groups, and more.

The most common types of video ads on YouTube run before a partner video plays (e.g., other video creators who’ve opted-in to the YouTube ad network). These are called pre-roll ads and come in skippable and non-skippable formats.

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Additionally, video ads can run after a set period into a video stream (e.g., the length of time a video is playing). These are called in-stream ads and are very similar to traditional TV ads because they’re like commercial breaks.

If you prefer, simple display ads which can be managed through the Google ad network. Add YouTube as one of your targeted ad placements.

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Another option is semi-transparent overlay ads in the form of display or text ads which appear over the bottom portion of a video. Keep in mind; advertisers must now include those as part of a reserved CPM sponsorship ad buy.

TrueView Discovery ads are another excellent PPC option if you do create YouTube video ads. These ads show up next to videos on YouTube search result pages. All you need is a small thumbnail of your video and text to create the ad.

The YouTube ads platform breaks down all possible formats and pricing options. Also, check out the YouTube advertising playbook, which can help you with video ad creation ideas.


Twitter has about 275 million monthly active users. The social platform lets businesses run several different campaigns, including promoting your account to get more followers, sharing promoted tweets to get more engagement (e.g., retweets, replies, and favourites), and promoting hashtags.

You can drive traffic to specific links and pages as well. Single-image promoted Tweets are a good option and show up in your target customers’ Twitter Feed. Here’s a helpful guide on Twitter advertising.


Pinterest boasts 291 million monthly active users, and you can target customers based on their interests. For example, a landscape architecture business could target Pinterest users who are pinning images of unique landscape designs.

You can target customers through promoted pins in the app and on the site, promoted video pins, and buyable pins, which let you click to buy something immediately from a pin.

Promoted pins are probably the best place to begin as a small business. Similar to Instagram and Twitter, you only need an image and some text to create the ad.

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To advertise on Pinterest, signup for a business account and follow the steps in our Guide to Pinterest post.

Targeting mobile users with ads

While mobile ads weren’t called out specifically in The Manifest’s chart, mobile users are important to target across all of your online ad buy formats.

An increasing number of shoppers are abandoning their desktops in favour of using smartphones and tablets to get online. Mobile internet traffic surpassed desktop traffic back in 2016, and mobile e-commerce sales continue to grow. Although, as of the publication of this post, they still lag desktop sales.

Fifty-three percent of PPC traffic comes from mobile. All this means mobile targeting is effective. Because people typically have their phones on them at all times, customers can see your message or offer as soon as you send it.

By using location-based targeting to determine users’ geographic locations, businesses can tailor their mobile messaging to match the users’ unique circumstances.

Many of the PPC platforms I outlined above offer mobile-targeting in addition to desktop. And some of them are now launching mobile-specific ads.

For example, here are the guidelines to all Google network mobile targeted advertisements. Also, here’s the link to Facebook mobile app ads.

Be sure to check both the mobile targeting options and opportunities to create mobile-specific ads for the online platforms you choose. If you start with images and text ads, it should cover both mobile and desktop platforms in most cases.

Now that you know about the standard formats, we’ll discuss how to plan a campaign.

6. Plan a test campaign

Once you select the types of ads you’d like to run, it’s time to set a budget.

Let’s assume you have $10,000 to spend on online advertising for the year. You can absolutely work with less; this is just a hypothetical number.

With a limited budget, experiment with one or two standard ad formats and messages.

Use this first campaign as a test to see what works. Let’s say you’ll launch with a two-week Facebook (plus Instagram) and Google search test campaign. We’ll also assume you’ve spent $500 to pay a copywriter to write the ad and paid $500 for a designer to create the ads.

You have $9000 left and will spend $1000 on each platform. That leaves you $6000 to spend once you’ve seen some results. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Create an account with Google AdWords and Facebook, which includes Instagram ads, too.
  • Follow the steps to set up your campaigns in each of the ad management platforms—including setting your budget and scheduling your campaign.
  • Read about tracking in the next section before you set your campaigns to go live. You’ll need to do a few things in Google Analytics first.

Plot out campaigns with a media plan

We’ve created a sample media planning template for you to use to map out your campaign. We included rows for other types of platforms you might want to consider advertising on in the future.

Your media plan is helpful as a project management tool. You should create it before you book and run your campaigns.

Then, you can use it to remember when your campaigns are beginning and ending. You should go into your accounts half-way through the campaign, and a few days before the end date to see how they’re performing. Let’s get into how to set up campaign tracking next.

7. Set up your tracking

For both branded and PPC campaigns, you can use Google Analytics to track the ad campaigns you’ll run on each platform:

  • Create separate tracking URLs (one for each platform) to monitor performance in Google Analytics. How to create the URLs is explained on the Google Analytics website.
  • Follow the instructions so you can see which platform is sending you the most traffic, or is driving the most ROI in your analytics reporting.
  • Use those URLs as you’re setting up each of your campaigns in your platform advertising accounts.

If you want to measure conversions in Google Analytics, you’ll need to set up campaign goals in your account.

To set up campaign goals, follow the steps outlined on the Google Analytics site. The goals will show up on your website’s campaign report, which we’ll talk about in the next section.

For branding campaigns, you can track a lift in phone calls or visits to your site both before, during and after a campaign has gone live. You may want to create a unique 1-800 number, just for the campaign, to track call volume.

You can also create a unique landing page and custom campaign URL (e.g.,, as I mentioned earlier, to track visitors and contact form completions from the page.

For paid social media campaigns, many platforms offer in-house analytics suites for free or a small fee. Other services offer external analytics, which may provide additional insights over in-house solutions. Examples of each include:

Each of the ad platforms you use will have their own advertising reporting tools as well. Or, the site can send you a campaign report if you cannot access it yourself.

As you track your results, you can adjust and optimize your campaigns (more on that shortly).

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