The Small Business Marketing Guide You Should Be Following
Your marketing dollars need to go further when you run an entire business on your own. Frankly, you can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars on “brand awareness” because it just doesn’t boost your traffic consistently.
Don’t give consultants and agencies your hard-earned money to “raise awareness.” Real digital marketing (read: cost-effective marketing) actually generates leads, and every marketing effort you make needs to contribute toward that goal.
Follow this small business marketing guide to earn the sales you need. It’s not always easy, but it is effective in the mid and long term.
Table of Contents
Effective small business marketing strategies
Operating with a small team
Marketing ideas for small businesses that you can start right now
Email marketing materials for your small business
The truth about social media marketing and small businesses
Traditional marketing plays for small businesses
The Most Effective Small Business Marketing Strategies
Here’s why digital marketing often works better for small and medium businesses:
- You pay only for what you need.
- Results will scale with your budget.
- Digital ads have far lower production costs.
- It meets people when they’re already looking to buy.
- You don’t need much money to get started.
- You’ll reach more people—where they actually spend time.
- Demographics have shifted heavily to digital channels.
You could spend money on radio ads, but people switch stations to find music instead (and only hear anything during commutes). You also could pay $15,000 to rent a billboard for a month, but are drivers really paying attention?
Here’s what you can do to get an immediate return instead.
Immediate Marketing Strategies for Small Business
Sponsoring local networking events and charity events can totally work, but that sort of thing isn’t consistent. Here’s what you can do to create a stable stream of income, starting today.
Search advertising captures people closer to the bottom of the sales funnel—which means closer to the point of sale.
Don’t let these people go to your competitors when they’re so close to buying! Create a PPC advertising campaign to capture that traffic and make an offer your customers can’t refuse.
Google alone processes about 3.5 billion searches per day, making the search engine one of the most reliable and cost-effective marketing strategies for small business.
But be warned: Google AdWords is most definitely not a do-it-yourself advertising platform, despite how Google markets it. PPC advertising requires:
- A serious budget.
- A deep understanding of the Ad Rank and Quality Score algorithms.
- Deep keyword research and planning.
- Time to experiment, measure, and iterate on your campaigns.
Website Lead Capture
This is a core marketing strategy for every small business out there (large businesses too, for that matter). Essentially, you want to ensure that as many website visitors as possible will become qualified leads.
How do you do this? Email signup in some form is usually the way to go, getting interested customers on a list in exchange for something valuable.
Place these lead capture mechanisms at strategic points on your website when the visitor’s interest would be at its peak.
Email marketing is one of the most cost-effective forms of marketing out there—arguably the single best, measured by your return on investment per dollar. Seriously, the average ROI of email marketing is $38 earned back for every $1 spent across all industries.
The best part is that you can start an email campaign quite easily. The best email marketing platforms out there can cost as little as $10 USD per month to get started, and that’s for one of the best platforms on the market.
Email marketing should be a part of every small business strategy in some way, shape, or form.
Pro Tip #1: Email is a remarketing and nurturing channel, but it’s not the best acquisition channel.
Pro Tip #2: Stay away from Mail Chimp if you can. While it’s made progress in the last year, our experience has been that it can become more trouble than it’s worth. “Free” doesn’t get you business-grade value.
Search Engine Optimization and Content
This is one of Webb Content’s specialties, and we could talk about it all day… but we’ll stick to the essentials for now.
Content marketing and search engine optimization (SEO) are some of the most misunderstood forms of digital marketing out there, and for good reason. More than a few agencies and consultants out there sell costly blogging services with zero strategy or data to back up any of it.
We know this because we’ve worked for (and with) someone who did exactly that—and we left it behind to conduct transparent marketing that generates actual traffic.
Watch out for these SEO scams:
- Consultants promising #1 positions. No one can guarantee this, and it’s not a great metric on its own.
- “SEO packages.” SEO isn’t one-size fits-all and shouldn’t be priced like it.
- Consultants who promise to write a certain number of blogs or articles every week. Google dislikes cheap content fired out every week, and any good SEO agency should know that.
- Agencies with “connections at Google.” This one is the biggest jokse on the list, so run away if you ever hear this from someone.
Now for the good news! Done right, content and SEO definitely have a spot in your arsenal of marketing strategies for small business. Follow this process:
- Target specific keywords that garner a certain number of searches per month (you’ll need specialized software for this, but it can be quite affordable).
- Develop a content plan to take advantage of those keywords with long-form, in-depth content.
- Pro Tip: take a look at the structure of this page!
- Write individual pieces of content that provide genuinely useful information and solutions related to those keywords.
- Promote your content with relevant organizations, partners, or other outlets in your niche or community.
Doing all of that—strategically, effectively, and diligently—will produce content that attracts a certain amount of traffic from search engines every month. If you have an idea of how much traffic that content generates (which keyword research tells us), then you can calculate approximately how much of that will convert into qualified leads, and eventually sales.
The top-ranked content claims about 33% of all traffic associated with a given keyword, which means two things for your content:
- Making and promoting the best content nets you the single largest portion of traffic for the most relevant keywords.
- You can claim a portion of the remaining 66% of traffic even if your content doesn’t rank in the #1 spot—but the content still needs to be good.
At the end of the day, your business knowledge and experience will be the competitive advantage that sets your content apart from competitors. Work closely with your consultants to create content that’s both optimized and genuinely insightful.
How to Market a Small Business with a Small Team
Hiring a single marketing employee to do everything might be the way to go, but these people are tough to find—and their learning mindset usually puts them on a career trajectory beyond any single company in a short time, corporate or local.
Your other option is to hire a consultant or an agency, but be wary—agencies are notorious for selling you services that you don’t necessarily need, often handing them off to juniors and interns who lack the experience to deliver effectively. We do all of our work directly, but not everyone does.
We’ve worked for and with 8 marketing agencies before, which is why we know how they operate.
Then what are your options if you can’t trust an agency, but you also can’t find the perfect all-rounder marketing specialist?
Find consultants who offer limited, niche services. For example, we’ve worked with agencies who offer “everything,” calling themselves “full-service marketing agencies”—but they don’t excel in any one area because they try to do everything at once.
You can imagine how that turns out.
Instead, find consultants who specialize in one or two marketing areas. They know their stuff and won’t sell you costly “extras.”
Use These Online Marketing Tools for Small Business
You might be a yoga instructor, real estate agent, author, or trades specialist running your own one-person business. This could leave you in a pickle where you don’t have a small business marketing team to do the work for you, but you might not have the capital to reinvest into an agency.
That’s not the end of the road! You can use these online marketing tools for small business to take your first few steps into growing your venture (or just making more money).
- Use ActiveCampaign to start your email marketing efforts.
- Use Facebook Advertising to reach nearby people cost-effectively.
- Use Canva to make some decent designs.
- Use Hootsuite or Buffer to cover multiple social media channels at once (but we recommend building up each network individually).
Focus on nurturing existing customers and leads with email marketing, or even social media if that’s where your customers really “live.” You can get into paid advertising once you’ve built up enough capital to stop treading water (a phase that every single business goes through).
Online Marketing for Small Business Has to Fit Your Bandwidth
Remember not to sacrifice your core operations for marketing. Most marketing just amplifies the good work that a small business already does, but it won’t pull a rabbit out of the hat overnight if the leads have dried up.
Every small business has a certain amount of time, energy, and money that it can spend on marketing, and not an ounce more.
That’s why you have to be pragmatic. Here’s what that means for you on an everyday level:
- Master one marketing channel or strategy for your small business before diving into the next.
- Put time into networking, but do it right—and add genuinely appropriate contacts to your email marketing lists.
- Don’t jump on social media just because everyone else is doing it. Most companies have no idea what they’re doing on social. They’re wasting tens of thousands of dollars and they don’t even know it.
- Don’t spend all day struggling to get a single email to look just right when you could be knocking on doors and networking your way into a new customer’s good graces.
- Don’t waste thousands on display advertising if you don’t understand what to expect from it.
- Work with your marketing consultants for small business at the beginning of every plan and process so that they can develop a system that generates revenue without your constant interaction.
Make sure that your internet marketing for small business scales in relation to the time and money you can dedicate toward it.
How a Small Business Marketing Agency Should Build on Your Team
If you do hire a small business marketing company of some sort as your partner, then you need to ensure that it generates revenue or contributes toward your marketing and sales funnel in a meaningful way (often with website traffic).
That value will depend on your industry, the nature of your marketing and sales funnel, and the specialty of your small business marketing consultant.
At the very least, make sure that your agency can do one:
- Generating useful traffic for your website.
- Generating eCommerce sales (for inventory-based businesses).
- Acquiring new leads for your marketing and sales funnel.
Start with a Marketing Plan for Your Small Business
Whether you do marketing on your own or with an agency, you need to start with a marketing plan for your small business.
Figure out and document these things to form your plan:
- Who is your ideal customer (Buyer Persona)?
- Where does that ideal customer live?
- How much does it cost to acquire a lead and a sale?
- How long does a lead need to trust you enough for a sale, on average?
- Which platforms or media do you need to reach your ideal customers?
- What’s your budget, and how much of it do you need to acquire a lead?
- How does this change by channel?
- What are the estimated “ceilings” in every channel?
Marketing Ideas for Small Business You Can Start Right Now
Try these to get your sales funnel flowing again in the short term:
- Attend or sponsor networking events.
- Run some pay-per-click (PPC) search ads, especially if you’re in eCommerce.
- Partner with local or non-profit event organizers to meet people who associate business value with social values (don’t underestimate this one!).
- Set up Google My Business right now (no, seriously, right now).
- Build Facebook event pages and promote with a minor ad budget.
- Dedicate 10 minutes per day toward networking apps.
- Give existing customers discounts or straight-up cash for meaningful referrals.
- Run contest giveaways if you have a decent social media following, and remember to boost it strategically with some kind of ad budget!
Quick Marketing Tips for Small Business
It’s important not to get lost down the marketing rabbit hole, because every marketer out there is going to sell you something—whether that’s influencer marketing, advertising, SEO, or just traditional billboard ad exposure.
Always keep these quick marketing tips in mind to drive your business forward:
- Do as much direct marketing as you can, because it leads to sales more often than anything else.
- Real brand building happens when you help people and ask for nothing in return. Do this at networking events.
- Social media isn’t truly free anymore—it’s pay-to-play if you’re serious about it.
- Build out the bottom of your sales and marketing funnel first, because that’s where customers are ready to buy. Work on “brand building” later.
- Your website is the bedrock of all your digital marketing. Keep it clean, simple, and helpful.
- If you’re not sure where to start, build an email marketing list out of your existing customers, prospects, and connections in the industry.
Content Marketing Works (with a Strategy)
Have you or someone you know ever hired a freelance blogger and seen zero results? You’re not alone, but that doesn’t mean it’s a waste—most people just don’t execute content marketing properly.
In fact, it’s one of the specific marketing problems that we fix!
Most people just intuitively think of topics and write 300 words about them. Then they continue to write about the exact same topic without really diving into useful details for several months.
That strategy just won’t work. We know because we’ve watched many companies try it unsuccessfully.
Most phrases and concepts earn a certain number of searches every month from real people. Find the ones that have higher search volumes and write about them. It begins with keyword data.
Remember to add as many useful multimedia elements as you can, but keep everything useful and relevant. Include:
- Embedded YouTube videos.
- Attractive images.
- Links to other helpful resources.
Make it scannable, enjoyable, immediately useful, and something that makes people feel ahead of the curve when they share it.
Does Text Message Marketing Work for Small Business?
SMS marketing for small business can definitely work, but you need to be careful not to abuse it. Make sure you have something useful to broadcast before you insert yourself right into your customers’ mobile phones.
You can use text message marketing to promote things like:
- Freshly published content.
- Ecommerce updates.
- Community events.
- Seasonal sales.
Just don’t spam people, or else they’ll block your number faster than you can blink.
The key is to use text messaging to communicate something truly valuable instead of using it just for the sake of being in your customers’ orbit. Just like all marketing, really.
Small Business Video Marketing Works for Content and Branding Only
Small business video marketing can definitely work, but it often calls for larger budgets than what most SMBs have.
Video is often touted as the future of marketing and the Internet itself, but it definitely has limitations. Video marketing will not solve large-scale business challenges for you on its own, but it will help you close the content gap in specific situations.
What does it mean to “close the gap?” You can use video to do these things:
- Introduce your business above the fold on your website.
- Explain complex products or services.
- Provide customer testimonials.
- Deliver blogs or interviews in a more engaging format.
- Promote partnerships, events, or your company culture.
- Show your production process for transparency.
- Improve performance on your landing page (if video doesn’t slow down the page).
Here’s the rub, though—none of those use cases generate leads or sales on their own. Instead, you’ll need to use video to enhance your existing marketing funnels. That’s why video isn’t a silver bullet for marketing or advertising.
Basic Marketing Materials for Your Small Business
Not sure what you actually need for your marketing stack? You really only need a small number of core assets to get started:
- A website (that captures leads).
- A logo and a visual brand kit.
- A reliable acquisition strategy (organic search traffic is the place to start).
- An email marketing platform for remarketing.
Agencies and technology companies will try to sell you bells and whistles wherever they can—and they might even work once in a while—but every business needs to establish the foundation of its funnel first.
Things like influencer marketing, big data, and individual customer profiling rest on a pre-existing marketing funnel. Most companies just aren’t ready for them. Believe us on this one, because we’ve watched organizations put all their hopes into these services as if they were silver bullets.
Every one of them was disappointed.
Master the basics and take them as far as you can before sinking large sums of money into a new service or technology that you might not fully understand.
Email Marketing for Small Business is a Key Channel for R.O.I.
Use email to re-engage customers who are in your orbit, but not quite the point of sale (unless you’re an Ecommerce company). We recommend that you do, too—which is why we’ve written this massive guide on email marketing. Spoilers: it’s longer than this one.
The Best Email Marketing Software for Small Business
It’s all well and good to say that email marketing is amazing, but we won’t leave you hanging there.
Here’s the rundown on email marketing platforms we’ve worked with, and we also have 10 different reviews of the best email marketing software on the market right here.
ActiveCampaign is our personal favourite because it offers all the industry-leading features we’ve come to expect for a reasonable price. It starts at $12.50 CAD per month (or $10 USD).
Drip is a more recent competitor of ActiveCampaign. It has a more user-friendly interface but has a higher price barrier to entry. It starts at $52 CAD per month ($41 USD) and comes as our second recommendation.
Infusionsoft has recently tried to rebrand itself as a small business email platform, but it starts at $129 CAD per month ($99 USD per month)—and it’s still not as intuitive as ActiveCampaign or Drip, which go for one-tenth and half of that monthly price, respectively.
Mailchimp is free, but you get what you pay for—not a whole lot. It restricts what you send unnecessarily, messes with your branding by inserting its own in every email (in the free version), and has the worst user interface we’ve ever seen (even in the paid version). Do yourself a favour and choose anything else on this list.
Email is the Best Marketing Automation Solution for Small Business
Ever devoured some thought leader’s blog on LinkedIn, Entrepreneur.com, or Medium.com only to finish it wondering why they never used specific examples?
Those “thought leaders” often talk about marketing automation in the same way, but it’s not just for programmers. You can actually use email to automate sections of your sales funnel and marketing stack to guide users down without the need to do it manually for every customer.
Think about how you would onboard a customer after they landed on your site or read your blog. What would you do to develop the relationship? You’d probably send them helpful resources, let them know when your best sales went live, and just build the relationship before asking for anything in return.
That’s exactly what marketing automation should (and can) do for your business.
Email marketing automation can do that for your marketing stack, if you’re strategic in your execution. That’s why it returns nearly $40 for every $1 spent.
You’ve probably read more than one success story talking about how some 20-something entrepreneur college dropouts launched their companies because of the buzz they generated on Instagram.
It simply doesn’t work that way for 99% of businesses out there. It’s the biggest-kept secret in the marketing industry, but no one wants to admit it because they’re afraid of appearing incompetent or obsolete.
Here’s why: social media platforms used to be free for companies to hop aboard and gain followers without any real budget or limitations. Now, however, they’re almost exclusively pay-to-play, giving the advantage to larger brands with multinational budgets.
You can’t outspend companies with deeper pockets than you, obviously. What’s more, social networks have a recent history of changing their algorithms to the point of wasting advertisers’ money.
Facebook’s algorithm changes have been so dramatic in 2017 and 2018 that certain publishers have gone out of business. Putting all of their eggs in the Facebook basket wasn’t wise, but it demonstrates how volatile the platform can be.
Frankly, most companies waste their social media budgets with weak messaging anyway. Remember: it’s called social media, not “corporate” media. No one’s going to like a post just because you boost it saying “buy our product now.”
That’s just lazy marketing.
How Facebook Marketing for Small Business Really Works
The other issue with social media is that it can become a bit of a scam on the advertising side because you’re constantly paying to acquire and re-acquire the same leads with boosted posts.
Facebook’s algorithm actually suppresses company posts—even to its own followers—down to 2% without paying money to “boost” it or run a dedicated campaign. Pretty much all social networks do the same thing, but we like to use Facebook as the running example because it’s the biggest network and has the most robust advertising platform (but don’t get us started on its bugs and usability issues).
That’s an uphill battle you don’t want to fight without financial breathing room.
The Good News About Social Media Marketing
For all that nay-saying, we believe that social media really can work for your business—just don’t get lost down the rabbit hole.
People can spend hundreds of hours researching their industry, writing posts, finding images or infographics to share, creating monthly schedules, and promoting answering comments without seeing a single sale from it.
Obviously, that’s a terrible return on investment—so don’t fall into the same trap!
You can use social media to great effect for a variety of uses, such as:
- Establishing brand partnerships to build your audience laterally.
- Creating more accessible customer service channels.
- Promoting events more effectively than on your website.
- Displaying positive business reviews.
- Reaching customers directly with chat bots (but use these very, very wisely).
- Advertising with rich demographic data (if you know what you’re doing).
- Distribute content to bring followers into your website funnel.
There really are quite a few things you can do with social media, but—similarly to video marketing—most of those uses don’t generate leads or sales directly.
Online publishers that distribute content tend to find the most success advertising on social media simply because the traffic they buy is cheaper than the revenue they make on their instant articles or website ad exchanges.
Be smart about how much time, energy, and advertising money you put into your social channels. If it doesn’t drive sales, then it’s not your real business engine.
What to Ask Social Media Marketing Companies for Small Business
If you actually do have a proper marketing funnel in place and want to expand it with social media, then ask your social media marketing company about these things:
- How many sessions or conversions can you expect to see, if historical data’s available?
- What are your estimates for audience growth rate?
- Do we need to create any assets to make social work?
- What will our social advertising budget look like, and what’s the ROI?
Don’t sign up for a huge social media contract just because all the cool kids seem to be doing it. Truth be told, most companies have no idea what they’re doing on social media anyway.
Make sure that your agency does.
Offline and Traditional Marketing for Small Business
Offline marketing for small business isn’t something we offer, but we’re happy to share successful strategies that we’ve used and witnessed.
Go to Networking Events Regularly
Networking events probably won’t be the single best way to land sales once you’re established, but they are one of the most cost-effective ways to land business in your early days.
The truth about networking is that 90% of everyone these events is there to get something from other people. The moderately successful people know who they want to impress, while most people are just there because they have a vague idea that they’re supposed to be.
This is where you can leverage an advantage. Go into networking events with the intent of helping other people without expecting anything in return.
How does helping other people generate sales for your business? It doesn’t—not immediately, anyway. But it gives you something crucial: a stellar, trustworthy reputation. That’s going to be the make-or-break factor during your next sale, which will probably involve some kind of reference or referral.
Build a reputation for being helpful and people will treat you as a trusted advisor who doesn’t try force sales on them. That’s trust you can’t just buy, and it’s crucial in selling big-ticket services.
Support Local Events and Non-Profits
Small business are often local businesses, which means that your customer base probably has an interest in the well-being of your area.
Support that local scene! You don’t even have to sponsor events or organizations directly to do this. Just donate your time instead. It builds your network and your brand at the same time, making you a known and favoured company.
You can donate:
- Venue space.
- Your own time.
- Complementary products.
- Consulting expertise.
- Connections and referrals.
That good will comes back to you eventually, but you will probably need to put in more than you get back for a while. Be prepared to put in the work to get the long-term returns.
Steamwhistle does this brilliantly by giving away everyday items featuring its brand, from novel beer steins to more frequently used bottle openers.
Think about what your customer base spends time doing and create something cheap and cheerful that will let them see your name every week (or even every day).
The goal isn’t to get garner good will just once with some random trinket. The goal is to get free advertising every time your customer uses that item and build a positive experience whenever that happens.
Think about how your customer wants to interact with you and use an appropriate item:
- Tradespeople can use fridge magnets with phone numbers for quick calls.
- Financial planners could use fill-in-the-blank budget sheets.
- Trainers can provide fill-in-the-blank workout schedules to stick on the fridge.
- Nutritionists can make mini-recipe books.
- Yoga instructors can sell branded yoga mats or apparel.
The best way to do this isn’t to just give people branded pens like everyone else, but to give people an item that a) won’t be replaced right away, and b) actually has something to do with how your business helps customers in their time of need.
Next-Level Business Cards
Business cards don’t need to be a soulless exchange of paper at every networking event you attend. You can get creative with your business cards by leaving them in strategic places.
Leave your business cards in these places:
- Bulletin boards.
- The entrance or greeting table for events.
- Books with business cards tucked in them as bookmarks.
- Random tables at any gathering.
You don’t want to saturate your own backyard with business cards, but make them stand out in opportune moments and places—or where people gather who can actually use your services.
Seminars and Public Speaking
What better way to show your expertise to people at scale (other than digital marketing) than by speaking to them where they’ve gathered specifically to learn about your expertise?
You can do this by piggybacking on other people’s events, like local associations or fundraising events (perfect for offline small business marketing!) or by hosting your own seminars.
It gives you a solid 30 to 60 minutes of meaningful interaction with your potential customers while helping them understand what you do and how they might be able to solve their own business problems.
This is an absolutely killer way to generate qualified leads for small businesses that sell ongoing or high-ticket services. You can also do this online with a good webinar platform, but it works just as well offline.
Time to Get Out There and Earn Some Leads!
Don’t hesitate to reach out with questions if you have any. We like to see our friends out there crushing it.
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