Market your small business with big success after learning all you need to know about market research, branding, and SEO in our essential guide to marketing your small business.
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Even the best businesses in the world wouldn’t get to where they are today without a good marketing strategy. Business growth is not linear, nor is it always entirely logical, but marketing your small business the right way can see you get to your goal much faster.
That’s why marketing your small business in the right way is so important. Get it wrong, and you could be missing out on more opportunities than you even know!
To help you get to grips with the essential elements of marketing, we’ve put together this guide for small businesses to show you where to get started.
What is Marketing?
This is a somewhat difficult question to answer, as marketing has come to be conflated with other areas of business where they intersect; like with sales and advertising, for example.
Defined as “the action or business of promoting and selling products or services, including market research and advertising”, marketing is how a company is able to build its reputation and gain the attention of key target audiences through strategic advertising.
Marketing refers to all activities that relate to the promotion or selling of products or services, but there are various subsections of marketing that each has a different purpose.
Commonly referred to as ‘The Four Ps of Marketing’, this includes the following concepts:
- Product: The items or services that your business offers. Without a clear understanding of what the product is, how it stands out, and whether it satisfies the demand, your marketing campaign could end up confusing potential customers.
- Price: In addition to the costs of manufacturing and distributing the product, businesses will also need to consider the costs associated with marketing the product and/or business. To market your product well, you should also research competitor products and services to see whether you provide a cheaper alternative.
- Place: How will you distribute your products or services? Regardless of whether you decide to do this via physical or digital channels, think about your product placement and how you can use this to help with marketing your small business.
- Promotion: The final stage of marketing advertising, sales promotions, selling, direct marketing, and sponsorship. As Investopedia writes, “marketers understand that consumers associate a product’s price and distribution with its quality, and they take this into account when devising the overall marketing strategy.”
How Much Should I Spend on Marketing?
Again, it’s hard to give an exact answer to this question, as each business is different and will therefore achieve different results using different marketing strategies.
So, it’ll be no surprise to learn that the amount you should spend on marketing will be different between businesses as well. We also say “should spend” very lightly here, as this will estimate will also vary depending on your business and the size of your overall budget.
The number can also change depending on who you talk to. The US Small Business Administration states that small businesses should be prepared to spend around 7-8% of their annual budget on marketing, compared to the 10.5% found by a Gartner CMO Survey, or the higher 16% that was suggested by a B2B Marketing magazine from 2018/19.
However, not every small business is able to turn a large profit in the early stages. Marketing can be a tough cost to swallow, but instead of decreasing your budget for marketing if you have margins less than 10-12% it might be worth increasing that to invest in your business.
What is Branding?
Branding is an essential part of running a successful business, big or small. Although it may change or develop over time, the branding for your business needs to be nailed down early as it will become one of the core points of your marketing strategy.
- Positioning = branding
- Visual Identity = the tangible aspects of your business
- The personality or tone and voice of your businesses brand = intangible aspects
This is essentially the promise you make to potential customers, which outlines what they should expect from your products and/or services and why your business stands out from the competition.
Branding is also what determines the value of your products and services. Without a clear foundation for your brand identity and your overall marketing strategy, the value of your products or services relies solely on the price, which is a dangerous structure to build on.
When developing your business brand, ask yourself the following questions:
- Why choose your products or services? Finding out what it was that persuaded potential customers to become patrons shows you where the value in your brand lies.
- What brought your brand to your customers’ attention? You can use this information to identify which marketing channels are proving successful.
- Which potential customers are most likely to become loyal customers? Take note of any patterns in your customers’ characteristics as this helps you build your customer profile and shows you which demographics to target your marketing towards.
- Are there products or services you offer that could be sold through other channels or suppliers, including third-party partnerships? Pay attention to how your prospective customers prefer to shop and work with this to make it easier for them, as this will help encourage sales.
Steps to Marketing
While I do understand the sentiment behind statements like “marketing is a lot of trial and error,” that’s not particularly helpful to small business owners who don’t know where to start.
That’s why I’ve put together the following steps to marketing to act as an outline for you to base your own marketing strategy on.
Conduct Market Research
Once you’ve established the goals and budget for your marketing strategy, you’ll need to turn your attention to your ideal target market.
Market research is a huge element of how successfully you are able to execute your brand strategy. In order to create a message that engages your intended audience well and encourages them as potential customers, it’s important to understand who this audience is.
Like most things, the best way to learn more is through conducting research. This can be as easy as asking them, if your small business has already attracted some customers, via phone call, email, or completing an online survey. Without an existing customer base, you can turn to Google to tell you more about the type of audience you’re intending to target.
Some of the key questions you should be asking include:
- What are the demographics of your ideal customer?
- Where are they in life? What’s their age, gender, marital status, etc?
- Where do they live?
- Do they have an educational background?
- Do they have a career in a particular industry? What are their career goals?
- What are their interests and hobbies?
- What skills are most useful to them during a typical day?
- What challenges do they face on a daily basis?
- How and where do they like to shop?
- What news sources do they trust?
Add any other questions that you feel are relevant to your customers and business that will help you better market your products or services to the consumer.
Profile Target Markets
As the infamous saying goes, “when you try to sell to everyone, you end up selling to no one.” After identifying who your target audience is, the next step is to put together a more complete profile that refines and articulates your goals regarding future customers.
Creating a target market profile and a positioning statement allows you to gain a more nuanced understanding of your intended audience, to the point where you might even feel like you’re overdoing it slightly with the research. If in doubt, we’re here to remind you that you can never know too many details about your ideal customers, despite your best efforts!
There are templates available online that provide a basic outline of the types of questions you should be asking yourself about your target market, but as a general guide, you should follow these steps to develop your customer profile:
- Identify the demographics of your target market/ideal customers, including their age, gender, education, nationality, income, marital/parental status, profession, and religion, just to name a few.
- Learn in more detail about their desires, needs, issues, and any interesting personality characteristics that can be worked to your business’s advantage.
- Chart each stage of the customer’s purchasing process to better understand the consumer journey and the strength of their connection to your brand.
- Make sure you align your goals with that of your customers and work to effectively communicate this so they can trust the core values of your business.
- Now you can come up with a strategy to directly reach and engage with your customers, including writing your positioning statement.
Identify Unique Selling Proposition
There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to marketing a small business. What works for one won’t necessarily work for another, so to establish your business’s position within the market, you’ll first need to find what it is that makes your business stand out from the rest.
Start by researching your competitors and seeing what services or products they offer, and whether or not your services or products fill any gaps in the market. Think about what consumer needs your business is meeting and outline the areas that can’t be easily imitated.
Use this to drive your marketing efforts and to engage with and encourage new customers. You should try to come up with catchy, concise phrases that sum up your USP and answer your customers’ most important question: how does your product or service benefit them?
Develop Business Brand
You may think that after initially establishing your business brand you can sit back and watch the marketing side of things propel your business to new successes, but the reality of running a small business is that your brand will constantly need development.
This is because your brand and objective will change as the business changes and grows, so the definition of what your brand stands for will also change.
As Brian Chesky, the CEO of Airbnb put it: “The designing of experience is a different part of your brain than the scaling [of] your experience. It’s a different skill set. The scaling experience is a highly analytical, operations-oriented, and technology-oriented problem. The designing of experience is a more intuition-based human, empathetic, and end-to-end experience.”
To develop your business brand effectively, you need to combine both skill sets. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What gaps in the market do my brand fill? Does it solve any problems?
- Who is my ideal customer and how do my competitors target them?
- What message is my brand trying to convey? How does it make my customers feel?
- Can my customers trust my brand? Why or why not?
- Why was my brand created? What is its story/purpose?
- What traits and characteristics does my brand encompass?
Knowing the answers to these questions can inform later decisions about the details of your business to create a brand identity that ties in with your customers, including things like your motto, the logo colors and design, writing font, and various other marketing components.
Choose Marketing Avenues
There are a number of different directions in which you could take the marketing strategy for your small business, including a website, social media channels, blogs, print advertising, event networking, word of mouth promotion, and cold calling, but make sure you keep in mind your target market when deciding on the best marketing avenues to use.
It pays to keep up with current small business marketing trends to see if any of these avenues could work for your business. Some examples include:
- Reward followers: Hosting giveaways and releasing discount codes or other incentives via your social media channels is a great way to retain followers so they don’t miss out on your latest marketing efforts.
- Advanced AdWords and targeting techniques: Paid ads are only effective if marketing towards the correct audience, so general, non-specific ads will be a waste of time and money. For better target ads, check out Ben Wood’s piece for the Search Engine Journal which goes into some examples of advanced targeting techniques.
- Keep it reel: You don’t always need to be publishing perfectly professional reels, photos, and videos- behind the scenes clips and sneak peeks of how the business is run are particularly popular at the moment with great success, as is more authentic content rather than posts which are admittedly impressive, but arguably unrealistic.
- Utilize apps: Social media is coming out with new features almost every week it seems, but keeping up to date with functions like reels and live streaming will help you to connect with your audience and establish your business’s presence online.
- Think curate-ively: Whether we like to admit it or not, most people are influenced by what they see on social media, and having a feed that is aesthetically pleasing is an easy way to grab people’s attention mid-scrolling session. Carefully curating your feed so that it gets your branding across whilst also looking great is key.
Set Goals and Budget
You should also set clear goals and a budget limit when considering different marketing avenues for your business.
The first will help you to set out what you’re hoping to achieve with your marketing, which should be SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based.
The second needs to cover the costs of the following marketing elements:
- The design, development, and maintenance of your business website.
- A consultant or specialist in SEO strategy.
- Branding design including logo, themes, and packaging.
- Printing promotional materials such as business cards, loyalty cards, advertisements, flyers, posters, etc.
- Charity donations and sponsorships.
- Hiring staff to carry out marketing campaigns.
Nurture Loyal Customers
What is the only thing that can make your business a successful operation? Your customers. Looking after them will pay off both in the beginning when you’re trying to attract attention to your business and in the long run as you’ll encourage brand loyalty and repeat shopping.
It doesn’t take a business specialist to tell you that the way you treat your customers plays a huge part in this and that providing above-satisfactory service will make your business stand out from the rest of your competitors which will help nurture this loyalty.
There are a few additional strategies that you can implement to build up customer loyalty, including the following:
- Regularly engaging and communicating with your customers via a mixture of channels, including social media, the comment sections on your blog, or e-news.
- Following up with customers after the point of sale to ensure their needs were met.
- Ensuring that you always deliver on your promises to customers.
- Providing ‘above and beyond’ service that seeks to exceed customer expectations.
- Take feedback on board and use it to inform decisions about future improvements.
- Actively listen to what customers are telling you.
- Making sure that all staff undergo customer services and basic sales training.
Monitor and Review
Despite all the effort that goes into creating a marketing strategy for your small business, the fun doesn’t just stop there. You’ll need to consistently monitor and review all business activities that are related to marketing in order to determine their success levels.
When you’re still in the early stages of growing your small business, no matter how tempting it is, try to resist the temptation of switching your marketing strategy up too frequently just because you’re not seeing the results you wanted straight away.
You could end up ditching a perfectly good strategy because it hasn’t hit the desired targets, but this could have less to do with your marketing and more to do with another factor entirely. So, until your business has established itself, only review after three months.
Once you’re at the stage where you’re able to pick up trends more easily in your business, review your marketing strategy every time you bring out a new product or service and whenever a new competitor springs up to try and corner some of your share of the niche.
You can keep track of your progress and monitor marketing activities by looking over your sales figures regularly, preferably on a monthly basis at the very least. Monitoring ad campaigns and recording the effects of these on your business, successful or not.
These days, there are even apps that help you analyze things like your social media posts and website campaigns to determine how effectively they’re able to help your business.
As more and more of our modern world is being Ctrl + C’d onto the world wide web, website marketing has become an invaluable tool in growing your business reach. Your website is also one of the main places of information for your business, and it plays a large role in creating brand awareness as well as being a medium for sales or service bookings.
You can check to determine how easy your website is to navigate using Google Analytics, which will show you things like whether or not it’s mobile-friendly or if there are website bugs.
Things like the page loading speeds are also important if you want to avoid frustrating the visitors on your site, and there are a number of ways to optimize your website marketing. For example, one way to increase the time users spend browsing your website is by adding a video on the homepage to grab and hold their attention.
For more tips like this, it’s worth checking out Google My Business or the training course by Google, Digital Garage, which is free and provides a comprehensive training course for small businesses that are just starting out.
Google algorithms favor certain things about your website over others, like being mobile-optimized, for example. By tailoring the content on your website to align with the algorithms, you’ll have a greater chance of appearing further up the list on Google search results, which leads us neatly onto our next point.
Search Engine Optimization
Ranking highly on Google search engine results is a great way to drive more traffic to your site, which you can then work to convert into leads or potential customers. In fact, according to Search Engine Journal, almost 93% of all web traffic comes from search engines.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is one of the ways you can tailor your content on your website to target the algorithms Google uses to determine a site’s ranking, in order to make sure that your website is primed to snatch that coveted top spot – or at least the first page.
You can do this yourself by reading up on the many resources available which explain how to implement the right SEO techniques on your website, or alternatively, you could hire an SEO specialist to optimize your content for you if there’s scope for this within your budget.
Creating clever and enjoyable content is, unsurprisingly, an important element of marketing that will help you get your message across to potential customers in a fun, engaging way.
In between your more obvious sales-type posts, it’s important to engage with your audience on a more authentic, personal level, which includes content that’s not directly being used as marketing material.
To keep up with regular posting and to see a clear overview of what you’ve covered so far, it’s a good idea to organize your content into a calendar. This helps you see when you should start strategies and post new content, driving that all-important traffic to your site.
Our top three tips for content marketing include:
- Never plagiarise content: Whilst viral trends see thousands of people take on the same challenge, giving credit is important and plagiarising work will potentially result in your content being penalized by Google. It will also breed mistrust in your customers as this is an extremely unethical practice.
- Don’t overdo the keywords: Carrying out SEO keyword research can help supplement your content, but you should avoid packing out entire paragraphs of keywords just for the sake of using them. It’s always better to produce content that reads or plays out naturally rather than being forced to fit the keyword results.
- Repurpose your content: While you shouldn’t plagiarise, there’s no harm in repurposing content that has worked well for your business into several formats. Think about creating downloadable guides from old blog posts or repurposed articles as email updates to get more money’s worth out of your hard work.
The last few years have seen a complete breakthrough in social media marketing, with many new small businesses turning to the likes of Instagram or Facebook before other channels to promote and market themselves, even before creating their own website in some cases.
With the rise in the social media presence of businesses, customers now have certain expectations about how brands should respond or react on social media. It’s essentially a newly developed social media role where you can receive feedback from consumers.
Using your social media channels wisely can be a great way to not only promote your products or services, but can help to build trust between your brand and customers through speedy, helpful responses that work to fix any customer issues and/or concerns.
Social media may have taken over more recently, but it hasn’t completely killed the email star just yet. There’s still life in this ‘old-fashioned’ marketing method yet, and it’s been proven that it’s still a highly effective method of communication for businesses.
Small businesses can benefit greatly from using services like MailChimp, which help you to create personalized email communications that are tailored to the recipient’s needs and interests in order to capture their custom. Placing click-throughs on emails that are based on specific areas of interest is a great way to gather more data for improved targeted marketing.
Most businesses are online these days, so it makes sense to advertise your business online as well. This broadens the reach for your business as you’ll have a wider audience to target.
Online advertising can work particularly well with social media channels, as you can place ads using services such as Google AdWords which typically pay per click on social media. Posting ads to your feeds is a great way to encourage engagement from your followers and is a useful way to gather feedback at the same time which you can review for future ads.
You can also work towards a higher quality and authority score as well as conversion by using landing pages that are specific to individual ads.
Examples of online advertising include:
- Social media channels.
- Mobile adverts.
- Search engine marketing and optimization.
- Display adverts.
- Email marketing.
While it feels like everything is exclusively online, there are still offline advertising channels that mean small business owners with a more local operation can still grow their business by utilizing the local avenues close by.
It’s another marketing avenue that was written off for a while, but in fact, the opposite was true. Just think about the Superbowl and how many businesses trip over themselves to secure a prime-time advertising slot and it will be clear by offline advertising is still used.
Any of the following options are examples that could work really well for offline advertising:
- Print advertising in local papers.
- Leafleting campaigns or letter drops in the surrounding areas.
- Direct mail.
- Sponsored openings or events (i.e. networking).
- Radio adverts and/or appearances.
- Exhibitions where you can come face-to-face with potential customers.
Running a small business is a huge responsibility and it can be overwhelming to think about all the different aspects you need to consider. This is especially true when it comes to marketing due to the influence this has on the overall success of your business.
Whether you’re still testing the waters before taking the plunge and launching your small business or if you’re re-evaluating your existing small business’s marketing strategy, we hope you’ve found this guide to marketing small businesses a helpful stop on your journey.