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5 Digital marketing tips for small business

Your current and prospective customers are looking for you online. Can they find you?

Despite the internet’s global landscape, nearly half of all Google searches (46%) are for local information. 90% of people use the internet to find local businesses, and over a quarter say they use the search engine “every day” for local searches.

And yet, many small business owners have yet to stake their claim in digital marketing by creating a website, marketing themselves on social media, or leveraging online marketing channels.

But the tides are turning for new small business owners. These new entrepreneurs are doubling down on their digital marketing efforts. Nearly half of those who plan to start a business in the next year are prioritizing Facebook and Google advertising, according to a recent QuickBooks survey. The majority of these new business owners (87%) feel confident in their marketing skills.

On the other hand, current business owners are more likely to recommend cost-effective alternatives, like creating a Google business listing or building an email subscriber list. And they recommend getting started as soon as possible within the first year of business.

Across the board, more business owners are prioritizing building a business website above all else. Established businesses and startups alike plan to invest in virtual technology and sell online following the coronavirus outbreak.

Developing a digital marketing strategy can feel intimidating. In truth—whether you sell products through an e-commerce website or retail POS, or sell a service—it’s as simple or as complicated as you make it.

In this guide, we’ll cover the basics of small business internet marketing, including steps you can take right now, so that your business can continue to thrive.

What is digital marketing for small businesses?

As the name implies, online marketing is a broad category that represents any type of marketing activity that takes place through digital methods. Everything from an optimized website to a paid Facebook campaign to emailing customers for reviews is considered digital marketing.

Although they’re often treated interchangeably, advertising is just one part of a marketing strategy—a subset of tactics designed explicitly to drive action; namely, to generate leads or sales.

To clarify the differences, we’ve covered 20 of the best small business advertising ideas in this article and outlined 5 steps for success.

Grab the small business advertising cheat sheet (PDF) here.

5 types of digital marketing for small businesses

For the sake of simplicity, let’s break small business digital marketing into the following five types.

1. Search engine marketing (SEM)

Imagine you need some home repairs done. What do you do? Take out your smartphone and Google “handyman near me.”

Do you see the little green boxes that say “Ad”? That’s search engine marketing (SEM) at work—more accurately, Google Ads (or Google Adwords).

Using this tactic, digital marketers pay to have their business displayed on the search results pages. The goal is to get more people to visit their landing page or website and, hopefully, buy their products or use their services.

You’ll also hear SEM referred to as paid search marketing or pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. The amount you spend on this type of advertising typically depends on how many clicks your ads generate.

If you’re not sure where to start, claiming your Google My Business listing is a good (and free) first step. This allows you to update and verify the information that users see when they search for your business (including Google Maps).

2. Social media marketing

The average person will spend nearly two and a half hours on social media channels every single day.

That’s why more small businesses are investing more time, energy, and money into their social media marketing channels. You likely already have one or more social profiles set up for your business on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, or other social media platforms.

This preference for social media has led to an entirely new strategy called influencer marketing. Using this tactic, brands and businesses partner with influencers (people who have large or highly-targeted followings) who will promote the business, product, or service to their own audience.

Beyond influencer marketing, advertising on social media platforms using Facebook ads or Instagram ads is relatively inexpensive. You can choose how much you want to spend, and who you want to target. These platforms have made it easier than ever to reach new audiences and new potential customers.

3. Search engine optimization (SEO)

Search engine optimization (SEO) is closely related to SEM. The difference is that SEM requires direct dollars (CPC or PPC), whereas SEO centers on behind-the-scenes tactics to increase your website’s organic rankings on search engine results pages (SERPs).

In its most basic form, SEO involves keyword research and keyword placement on your website to help search engines understand what your small business does. For instance, if you were looking for a place to grab a coffee in Appleton, Wisconsin, you’d Google “coffee shop Appleton.”

Yelp and TripAdvisor come up first—and you should be on those platforms too (more on that in the next section). Below them, we see results for local coffee shops—like Tempest Coffee, All Seasons Coffeehouse, and Copper Rock Coffee Company.

All of these businesses have optimized their websites, likely using both short-tail and long-tail keywords.

  • Short-tail keywords: One-to-three words that capture the core of a business’ products or services: e.g., “coffee shop.”
  • Long-tail keywords: Three words or more that are detailed, specific, and will return more targeted results: “coffee shop in Appleton”

Optimizing your site for search engines is typically considered one of the basics of digital marketing, as even small changes can help you win more traffic and, ideally, more customers. There are plenty of free SEO marketing tools to choose from to help you take that first step. Google Analytics, Moz, and SEMrush are popular choices for marketers.

4. Content marketing strategy

Nielsen estimates that the average adult spends over 11 hours per day interacting with media content—whether it’s watching, reading, or listening. That’s why more and more businesses are investing in content marketing to engage their customers, foster loyalty, and grow brand awareness.

Content marketing fosters relationships with potential customers by offering them something of value for free. That way, when the time comes for them to actually make a purchase, your business will be trustworthy and top of mind.

As such, whether you’re creating YouTube tutorials or writing in-depth guides, be aware that using content isn’t a quick win in the same way that paid advertising might be. It’s a long-term strategy that requires dedication and effort.

5. Email marketing

With email marketing, you engage with customers and promote your business using email campaigns. Email campaigns are typically sent to a large audience at the same time, rather than individual correspondence, using marketing automation tools.

Email marketing is possibly the most valuable form of digital marketing. It’s the culmination of all the other types in this list. It’s how you regularly communicate with new customers and retain those who have used your business before.

These email campaigns don’t have to be complicated. A monthly newsletter is a good place to start. Your newsletter should cover recent happenings with your business, announcements about your sales, promotions, or new products, and fresh content that benefits your readers.

5 steps to optimize your small business online marketing

Now that you’ve familiarized yourself with the basics of small business marketing, let’s talk about the initial steps you can take to begin marketing online.

Crafting a profitable digital marketing plan shouldn’t be done in isolation from the rest of your business. Instead, the best way to start is to use a business plan template. If you download the template, pay special attention to step three—market research and potential—and step six—marketing and sales strategy.

1. Set ‘SMART’ online goals

Like anything else within your business, your online marketing strategy needs to have purpose—a clear goal that you can work towards.

That’s why it’s so important to have a strategy in place. Rest assured, it doesn’t need to be anything overly complex. It all begins with setting SMART goals for your marketing efforts. The key here is to get specific—“market my business” doesn’t count as a goal. The more granular you get with your goals, the easier it is to monitor them.

Rather than setting a goal to “make more sales,” narrow it down even further to “bring X number of people to my website” or “start X amount of conversations on social media per week.”

You can set unique goals for each platform you plan to use or specific marketing campaigns. For example, before you post to your company’s Facebook page, pinpoint your purpose. Do you want to drive people to your website? Add more subscribers to an email list? Get more ratings and reviews?

Use the SMART goal framework to set objectives that actually motivate you and hold you accountable:

S: Specific

M: Measurable

A: Attainable

R: Realistic

T: Time-bound

Here’s an example of a SMART goal that you might set for Facebook marketing efforts:

Post to our company Facebook page at least three times per week, in an effort to increase traffic to our website by 10% by the end of September.

Setting these goals might seem like an unnecessary formality. But without them you run the very real risk of creating for the sake of creating and not seeing the results of your effort. Your goals will serve as your compass for where to start and what you prioritize.

2. Determine your digital marketing budget

Recent research shows that the average small business spends 1% of its revenue on advertising.

When it comes to online marketing, there are two terms you’ll hear again and again: paid and organic. You can think of these as the dividing line between activities that will cost you time and those that will cost you money.

Paid marketing requires a direct, monetary budget behind it. For example, an Instagram Ad or a sponsored search result.

Organic marketing is a channel you don’t have to pay for—at least, not directly. Facebook and Instagram posts, Google My Business, Yelp, TripAdvisor (and other online review sites), as well as content and search-engine-friendly changes to your website all qualify as organic.

Most businesses use a mixture of both paid and organic marketing.

Ultimately the best thing you can do is to leverage your strengths and find a way to amplify them. If you’re a good photographer, Instagram and Facebook should be your go-to’s. If you love writing, then invest in blog posts and guides. If videos are your forte, turn to YouTube.

In each instance, set a foundation of organic content first, then determine a paid budget.

3. Know your target market (ideal customer)

You probably had an idea of who you wanted to sell to when you started your business, but customer bases evolve over time. When you take a step back, you might be surprised by who you’re selling to today.

So how do you identify your target audience today?

Google Analytics is a great place for hard data. Its built-in acquisition and demographics dashboards contain a wealth of insights—especially when it comes to your current traffic sources as starting points for your digital marketing campaigns.

Taking note of who’s coming in the door, how many new faces you’re seeing, or trends in purchasing behavior can be enlightening. You can also use informal conversations with existing customers to find out more about how they found your business and what problems you’re solving for them.

To develop a clear picture of your target audience, consider mapping out your customer journey and building personas to match.

4. Develop a brand identity

Your online presence needs to be cohesive with your marketing plan. The overall look and feel of your company—the stories you and your customers tell—is what small business branding is all about.

This applies as much to your products and people as it does to your words and visuals: “In simplest terms, a brand is the core truth of your company brought to life.”

How do you want your business to be perceived through your various marketing campaigns? Do you want to be:

  • Inspiring and motivating
  • Corporate and serious
  • Snarky and sarcastic
  • Casual and personable

Speak to existing customers and prospective customers to find out how they’d describe your business. What words do they use? What feelings do they associate with your brand? When they need something, what makes them come to you specifically?

Ideally, your brand becomes a dual reflection of you and your customers.

From there, document general rules for how you communicate in your online marketing tactics. That way, if you ever delegate tasks, everyone understands how your business should be portrayed online.

5. Pick your starting point and build

With those basics in place, it’s time to push “go” on a digital marketing strategy for your business. Don’t overwhelm yourself. Instead, build slowly.

First and foremost, identify your strengths. Leaning into what you’re already good at will help the whole process feel less intimidating. If you have a knack for writing, content is a good launching point. Or, if you have an analytical mind with an eye for detail, start with search engine optimization.

Use your expertise and your comfort zone as your foundation. Start there and then take small steps. Slowly but surely you’ll begin to feel more and more comfortable with your small business digital marketing strategy.

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