Business.com is celebrating Small Business Week with a series of guides with the latest recommendations for small businesses.
One of the hardest things about being in business is staying current. Technology changes at an incredible pace. Our Small Business Week Guides will help you catch up with trends and get actionable advice for the coming year.
This Small Business Week Guide examines online marketing, still an area of rapid development. In Asia, marketing and sales have migrated to smartphones to a much higher degree than in Western countries. In the United States and Europe, desktop and portable computers still rule.
The integration between these platforms is so close it is difficult to tell them apart. Today, online marketing is performed using increasingly sophisticated suites of software — or platforms — that deliver content to phones, tablets, computers, personal assistants, and any online device that carries communications.
This Small Business Week Guide to Online Marketing will quickly catch you up on new developments in three important areas: Website Marketing, Email Marketing and Social Marketing. We'll look at the top issues, the top brands, and our top suggestions for your small business.
Do small businesses still need websites to compete in digital marketing? Yes! Your own website is still the center from which all other marketing radiates. For example, 40% of website traffic comes from search. Your position in organic search, map-based search and mobile search is dependent upon your website's reputation.
The other major reason to maintain your own website is for protection. If all of your marketing is done through someone else's platform, then they control access to your customers and prospects. Your small business website might not get as much traffic as your Facebook page or Yelp listing, but everything there is yours, and you don't have to pay anyone to communicate with the prospects who use your website to connect.
Here some web platforms to consider:
- WordPress is a platform for building web content. Despite all the expensive, high-end platforms out there today, WordPress still does a great job of providing a reliable content management system that is inexpensive and easy to use. It includes WYSIWYG interface, scheduled posts, version logging, permissions levels, and more. It also integrates well with a variety of programs for stats, SEO and social updates.
- Tumblr is a combination of Twitter, Instagram, Blogger, and a website! Tumblr got a big boost when Facebook set up tollbooths for brands trying to communicate with the lists they had painstakingly built. With Tumblr, your small business owns and controls all the content. An excellent choice for millennials who don't want to use their parents' CMS.
- SquareSpace is a website platform that goes with the popular Square payment card processing system. It makes sense to have your merchant account and your website tightly integrated if direct online sales are important. The early reviews, however, is that Square's modular website builder is hopelessly limited for serious marketers. This might do for the Etsy crowd -- until Etsy designs a better platform.
When evaluating a website platform for your small business, free trial offers are almost useless. It takes too much work building a site before you can evaluate the program. By then you're committed. You're better off reading ratings and reviews at Business.com or tracking down the builders of sites you want to model your site after.
Email still rules. It consistently rates as the most effective form of digital communication for marketers and the one that delivers the highest ROI. With many online promotions, you have to wait for someone to find your content, then notice it then share it. With email, you control message timing to a greater degree. Using an opt-in list, you can pierce firewalls, spam filters and ad blockers. You can reach out to someone who forgot completely about you and pull them right back into your circle.
Email is so important that many profitable companies sprang up to help small businesses use email marketing well. Today, those companies have grown up to integrate email, social, and CRM into very muscular messaging platforms. Here's a quick look at three of the best:
- Constant Contact is a classic and elegant email interface that consumers have come to trust. It provides full email integration, including merge fields that generate emails using data from list profiles. Their templates make it easy for beginners or those who mail infrequently and don't need all the bells and whistles. Constant Contact's "safe unsubscribe" and strict rules mean your email gets attention because the carrier is trusted.
- MailChimp is a more aggressive email marketing platform that plays well with other critters in the online marketing jungle. MailChimp integrates well with Google, Zoho, Salesforce, Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms. It's a little trickier to use than Constant Contact; however, MailChimp is well-designed for those who want to manage their list in a CRM program but integrate it with an full-powered messaging platform.
- HubSpot has become an excellent high-end messaging solution. If you want more of the CRM embedded in your email software, HubSpot is the program for you. Message creation can be highly customized, such as Welcome messages tailored to the way a prospect reached your landing page. You can also do automated message delivery — so-called DRIP campaigns — where the message content and timing are determined by previous behavior. Nice!
Email is especially effective when combined into a communications platform that includes other forms of messaging such as texting, image transfer, and video. Email lets you speak one-on-one, with a pitch customized to a high degree, although few marketers are yet using it that way. These new platforms allow for automated tailoring based on customer profiling. Email is embedded in almost every other kind of software these days, but often very clumsily. It pays to invest in a messaging platform that can help you actually reach those lead development goals.
Related article: 5 Practical Tips to Improve Your Email Marketing Campaign
The trend in social marketing is automation. If that doesn't sound very "social," it isn't. It's practical. Most small businesses recognize the impossibility of maintaining 24/7 personal communications across dozens of social platforms. Just as distance learning works best when it combines personal attention with great canned content, so social marketing works best for small businesses when personal attention is combined with intelligent automation. Here are some examples:
- Hootsuite is an example of a social marketing platform that solves a lot of small business problems. Through the Hootsuite dashboard, you can monitor social networks for mentions or opportunities, harvesting contacts and leads that can then migrate to your email marketing platform or CRM. Hootsuite also enables you to publish automatic and manual updates to a variety of social networks, including LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.
- Buffer offers a similar suite of social marketing solutions. Small businesses can connect dozens of accounts and schedule thousands of updates in advance, with analytics that provide instant feedback on A/B testing and message reach.
- Socialoomph is a little less graphical than Buffer or Hootsuite. It provides a no-frills, versatile set of tools for connecting to social accounts, RSS feeds, and other message outlets. Automated scripts then do things like autofollow people, mimic the followers of others, sort through followers to remove spammy accounts, and send direct messages to the list.
One of the problems with social marketing platforms is that they are intermediaries between you and the social networks. From time to time, the social networks do not play nicely with marketing automation software.
Status updates posted from some platforms are ignored or restricted in reach by some networks. They want your business to visit the site to post your updates so they can market to you, and they are prejudiced against bots. So look for social marketing platforms that are sanctioned by the big networks, have a good working relationship with the big networks, and do not generate a lot of complaints about inability to achieve reach for messages.
Here are some other tips for small businesses using automated social marketing platforms:
- Take advantage of free trials! There are so many competitors in this space that platforms are willing to practically give the service away just to get signups. Just be prepared to migrate if they suddenly try to turn on the revenue.
- Test your ability to migrate OUT of the platform. It's often easy to import data into these systems but impossible to export it in a useable format. So test first, with a small sample, your ability to export your content back out of the system in a usable format.
- Manage your total costs. Social marketing platforms typically charge subscription fees per user per month. It may be possible to confine your use to one user for a long period of time. It can also be an advantage to contract out for social marketing services with a person or firm that maintains paid subscriptions to expensive automation tools.