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Grow Your Business Technology

Internet Marketing: A Small Business Guide

Internet Marketing: A Small Business Guide
Credit: Peshkova/Shutterstock

One of the easiest, fastest and cheapest ways for businesses to reach consumers today is via the Internet.

Digital marketing, also known as Internet or online marketing, is quickly replacing print, television and radio advertisement as the marketing approach of choice for businesses of all sizes. Recent research revealed that 1 in 4 of every business-advertising dollar is dedicated to Internet marketing.

"Online marketing is ensuring potential customers find your business — your brand and messaging — everywhere online," said Trevor Sumner, co-founder of the local marketing firm LocalVox. "With today’s connected consumer, your business must be found everywhere consumers are looking."

The first step to digital marketing is having an online presence. That requires a well-developed website and an array of social media profiles. The key is then to use various digital marketing strategies and tactics to ensure consumers can find those websites and profiles when searching for the products you sell or the services you offer.

Previously, being in the phone book was the best way to attract customers and ensure they could find you when they came looking. However, that's no longer the case, said Kirthi Kalyanam, the director of the Retail Management Institute at Santa Clara University.

"Small business can easily benefit from Internet [marketing], because search engines such as Google have replaced phone directories and the Yellow Pages in a digitally enhanced way," Kalyanam told Business News Daily. "The most basic thing a business can do is a to have a great Web page and make sure this page is easily surfaced by a search engine, such as Google."

Cost is one of the biggest reasons digital marketing is so appealing to small businesses, said Andy Beal, CEO of the social media monitoring tools provider Trackur and founding editor of the marketing news site Marketing Pilgrim.

Editor’s Note: Need help choosing an Internet Marketing Service for your business? Fill in the following form for a quote.

"Online marketing is a great opportunity for small businesses, as generally you need a much smaller budget than, say, TV or print," Beal said. "The other big benefit is that online marketing is generally very measurable, which means that a small business owner can be much more frugal with their marketing spend."

Pete Kennedy, founder and chief marketing officer of the Internet marketing firm Main Street ROI, said online marketing also appeals to small businesses because it helps them generate a steady flow of leads and customers.

"Many small businesses are attracted to online marketing, and search engine marketing in particular, because they want a steady flow of new business, without lots of manual labor," Kennedy said.

While small business owners and employees can do digital marketing on their own, many often hire Internet marketing services to do it for them. Such services use their expertise to help businesses develop and set goals, determine the marketing strategies that will best help accomplish those goals, and handle the implementation and reporting of each tactic used.

Small businesses have a wide range of digital marketing options at their disposal. Among the most popular are search engine optimization (SEO), pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, social media marketing, content marketing and email marketing.

"There are more channels than ever to manage," Sumner said. "The reality is that each of these is critically important to your business' success."

However, it isn't necessary for businesses to spend the same amount on each and every strategy, Beal said.

"The key is to test various channels — SEO, PPC, social — and determine which best allows you to reach your target audience at a price point that fits your budget," Beal said. "You can then scale your spending as you see the return on your investment."

Lenny Verkhoglaz, CEO of New Jersey-based Executive Care, said his franchise system uses a variety of Internet marketing strategies, including SEO, local market landing pages, PPC ad campaigns and content marketing to help sell its franchise opportunity and support the marketing and sales of its home health-care services.

The key to figuring out which tactics are best for you is really understanding who your audience is, Verkhoglaz said.

"Internet marketing is massive, when you consider all of the channels available to us as small business owners" Verkhoglaz said. "However, with a clearly defined target/customer in mind, you can narrow down on where your efforts should be focused."

To know which tactics to use, it is important to know what each one entails.

Search engine optimization

SEO is the process of getting websites to show up in nonadvertising search engine results. The goal of SEO is to get websites as high up in the rankings as possible.

"Search engine optimization is the art of getting to the front page of Google when people search for businesses like yours," Sumner said.

Being high up in the rankings is critical to building an online presence. A recent study from Search Engine Watch discovered that the top listing in Google's organic search results receives 33 percent of the traffic. Additionally, three-quarters of consumers never click past the first page of results. This means that if you aren't rated highly enough, there's a strong likelihood that the vast majority of consumers will never find your website when they search for your business.

Sumner said there is an entire art to getting highly ranked via SEO that includes making sure websites are optimized for the right keywords, putting out a lot of content and getting other outlets to link back to the website.

The main benefit of SEO is that you can attract free traffic and free customers to your business on an ongoing basis, Kennedy said.

"Of course, it will take time — and money if you hire an SEO company — to gain that exposure," Kennedy said. "But, overall, SEO is one of the best investments a small business owner can make in their marketing."

Austin Paley, corporate marketing communications manager for the online marketing firm Blue Fountain Media, said a huge benefit of SEO for small businesses is that it helps them level the playing field with large companies. He said big businesses can't pay Google to place their website higher in organic search results.

"What Google displays when people search for a keyword represents what Google believes to be the most relevant and helpful content available, regardless of business size," Paley said. "If you're a small business, this means you can generate traffic and sales from simply creating great content and making sure the right people see it and link back to it."

Pay-per-click advertising

Pay-per-click (PPC) is the practice of advertising online and only paying when a customer clicks on the ad, Sumner said.

The most popular PPC option is GoogleAdWords. With Google AdWords, Sumner said, businesses bid on keywords, and if their bid is the highest, their ads will pop up when online users search for those keywords.

Paley said PCC can be an excellent way for small businesses to generate quality customer leads.

"Particularly if a business can identify relevant keywords that have low competition, often a small business may be able to spend very little to generate both traffic and sales," Paley said.

Kennedy said the main benefit of PPC advertising is speed.

"You can get a Google AdWords campaign up and running in a matter of days, or even in a matter of hours, depending on how fast you can implement it," Kennedy said. "And you can start getting clicks on your ads within minutes of [making] your ads live."

Content marketing

Content marketing is an umbrella for a lot of channels, including blogs, business descriptions, announcements or deals that are posted to a website, social media pages or directory sites, Sumner said.

"The general point is that 90 percent of consumers prefer to find out information about your business from custom content rather than ads," Sumner said.

With content marketing, businesses aren't trying to sell anything directly to consumers, but rather trying to frame the businesses as a thought leader. That way, those who initially see the content come back much later when they find themselves in need of the product or service the business offers, Paley said. Additionally, great content marketing also creates new points of entry for customers to get to a business's website.

"If you have tons of great resource pages or a well-written blog with articles that lots of people love to read, you're more likely to attract new users who are looking for a product or service that your business offers," Paley said. "Content marketing allows you to capitalize on these users and build brand loyalty by providing information for free."

Social media marketing

Social media marketing uses social media platforms, like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and Pinterest, to reach a business's target audience, Paley said.

"With few exceptions, each social media marketing platform covers most target demographics, and using each platform correctly means that businesses can more effectively reach their identified target audience," Paley said. "Given the right amount of time and the correct execution, companies can build up brand loyalty among their target market that can translate directly into bona fide sales."

Unlike other forms of digital marketing, social media marketing allows businesses to communicate back and forth with their customers, Sumner said.

"Facebook is a great example where anyone can follow you, message you, leave a comment, interact with other people on your page, etc.," Sumner said.

The video messaging service Movy is capitalizing on social media by creating relationships with pre-existing and prospective clients, said Jacob Markiewicz, the company's public relations and media specialist.

"From here, we are able to create both brand awareness, and brand loyalty," Markiewicz said. "This leads to grassroots marketing and word-of-mouth advertising offline."

One of the best parts of social media marketing is that it can be done for little to no cost, since it only requires creating profiles pages and then generating content for those pages, Paley said

"Creating an account that engages with users and knows when and what to say to their audience initially might win a substantial amount of followers. But what a lot of businesses don't realize is that they can use these same people to create brand awareness and sales down the road if they are nurtured correctly," Paley said.

Email marketing

Email marketing, an online version of direct mail, is when businesses use email messages to communicate with current and potential customers.

Businesses can use email marketing for a variety of purposes, including to promote new products or services, send customers coupons, keep customers informed of company news, and gather feedback from customers.

Studies have shown that email marketing has a huge return on investment; Sumner said email marketing returns $38 for every $1 spent.

"If your business is not leveraging email marketing, you are leaving a lot of money on the table," Sumner said.

One of the biggest benefits of email marketing is that businesses have much more control over it than over other forms of digital marketing, such as SEO, Kennedy said.

"Your email list is a marketing asset that you fully control, which gives your marketing more stability," Kennedy said.

Additionally, it's one of the easiest tactics to get started.

"You don't have to learn a lot of new concepts, as you do with SEO or Google AdWords," Kennedy said. "Anybody can get up and running with email marketing in minutes, not days or weeks."

Additional Internet marketing tactics

There are a number of other digital marketing strategies that small business might find valuable, including affiliate marketing, mobile marketing, viral marketing and online reputation management.

Online reputation management revolves around keeping a constant eye on what is being said, both good and bad, about a brand online. While good reviews help build up a brand's reputation, negative ones can easily tear it down.

Small businesses can use online reputation-management strategies to combat the online negativity about their brands. This is done in a variety of ways, including creating additional positive content that will outperform the negative comments in search engine results.

Online reputation management is one of the most important tactics small business owners should consider, Beal said.

"When you have a great reputation, you effectively let your customers' praise attract other customers to your business," Beal said. "When you have a negative review profile, or tainted Google reputation, you have to spend more — and work harder — to attract customers."

Small businesses say there is wide range of benefits that comes from using various Internet marketing tactics.

Digital marketing provides small businesses a huge opportunity to really expand their reach, said John Turner, CEO of the website feedback service UsersThink.

"I've been able to reach people that I might have had a hard time getting to otherwise, such as folks on other continents, and even people I wouldn't have guessed would be customers," Turner said. "Just by gaining more of an online presence, I've found I'm able to help people who I wouldn't have guessed would be interested in UsersThink."

Kari DePhillips, owner of the digital public relations firm The Content Factory, agreed that the amount of business digital marketing can generate is unparalleled. Because of its SEO and blogging efforts, The Content Factory draws in new clients regularly.

"It's the best passive lead-generation system that we've been able to build so far, and it keeps us from having to search out new clients," DePhillips said.

Jason Hawkins, president and co-founder of the Internet marketing firm No Risk SEO Inc., said that his company not only provides digital marketing services to its clients, it also use the same strategies to promote its own business.

"We are using Internet marketing because there is not one higher-quality lead-generation source," Hawkins said.

It generates such strong leads because the online searcher identifies exactly what they're looking for, Hawkins said. For instance, if a doctor types in "doctor SEO company" or an e-commerce store owner types in "e-commerce PPC management company," No Risk SEO's website is one of the top results returned to the searcher, according to Hawkins.

"This searcher has self-qualified themselves as a wonderful fit for our company, and it is the job of our website to answer any questions, show how we're different, show our results, our accomplishments, etc.," he said. "This leads to a higher-than-average conversion rate."

Mat Durham, director of Skyblu Web Design, said his company finds specific value from social media marketing because it allows the businesses to target specific types of consumers.

With Facebook ads, Skyblu is able to target consumers geographically, to within 5 miles (8 kilometers) of a specified location, and by a person's interest. The company also uses Twitter ads, which gives it the ability to target by keywords.

"No offline medium can provide anything like that level of targeting accuracy," Durham said. "So if you're in a niche market, or can divide your customer base up into multiple niches, Internet marketing through [social] ads is a no-brainer."

Another benefit to content marketing is that the information that a business distributes has the potential to be shared with those who are seeing it, said Jesse Ignell, the marketing communications manager for Computer Market Research.

The sharing of information is one of the main things that made the Internet truly revolutionary, and today social media, blogging, video marketing and email marketing are all optimized to be shared, Ignell said. "Not every piece of marketing will go viral, but utilizing the Internet for your marketing efforts will at least leave you open to the possibilities of reaching exponentially more people through sharing."

While traditional marketing efforts are often hard to track, online marketing allows businesses to easily see the return on their investments, said Markelle Harden, director of content and business development for Get A Copywriter.

"Monitoring items such as bounce rate and conversion rate has allowed us to deliver better user experiences to our visitors," Harden said.

Keeping track of how many impressions or clicks its promotions get is a huge reason the online social investing community Tip'd Off uses digital marketing.

"This allows us to determine what promotions work and which don't, and make the
necessary adjustment to our messaging," said Sebastian Koscinski, who leads Tip'd Off's online marketing efforts.

When getting started with digital marketing, small businesses first must determine if they can do it on their own, or if they will need assistance from an Internet marketing firm.

Since doing it on their own is an option, Beal always recommends small businesses at least start with that route before investing in a marketing agency.

"By getting your feet wet with online marketing, you'll have a much better idea of the type of expertise you need, and you won't so easily have the wool pulled over your eyes by clever sales tactics or rhetoric from a marketing agency trying to spend your money," Beal said.

If after trying it out, they do decide a digital marketing firm would be a better fit, small businesses should start small with an agency so it can demonstrate that it can provide a return on an investment, Beal said.

The main reason a business owner should hire an online marketing company is for speed of implementation, Kennedy said. Many business owners are simply too busy to learn all of the online marketing best practices and implement everything on their own, he said.  

"By hiring a company, you are taking advantage of their years of experience and expertise, and they'll do the work for you," Kennedy said. "In this way, hiring a company frees you up to spend your time doing what you do best in your business, such as delivering services or managing your team."

Internet marketing firms also have the ability to make sure each marketing strategy aligns with the other, Paley said.

"A digital agency can provide you with a full team that will closely look after the needs of each of your online marketing channels," Paley said. "Even more importantly, they will make sure that each channel is seamlessly blended together, so that your business is sure to get the most out of each channel."

Hiring a firm can also be more cost-effective for small businesses. Kennedy said it is often cheaper to hire a digital marketing agency, rather than hiring a full-time marketing specialist.

While deciding whether to use an Internet marketing firm might not be so tough, choosing which one to hire can be a much more difficult chore. The average small business gets between 30 and 40 calls per month from Internet marketing agencies selling their services, said Laura Cole, vice president of marketing for The Berry Company, a full-service marketing company for small and medium-sized businesses.

"Sadly, there are a lot of services that make big claims and promises, but don't deliver," Cole said. "It's overwhelming, and ultimately, they all start sounding the same."

When starting their searches, businesses should do some homework on each company they are considering hiring. Cole said if the company touts itself as an "SEO expert, small businesses should search online for local online marketing" or other terms to see if the marketer shows up.

"If they can't get themselves to the front page of Google, what makes you think they can get you there?" Cole asked. "Get a basic understanding by reading up so you can be educated enough to make a good decision."

One of the most important factors to look for when choosing an Internet marketing firm is that it can implement a vast array of marketing tactics, so you don't have to hire multiple firms that strictly specialize in one strategy over another, according to Cole.

"Small businesses don't have time to manage multiple partner relationships, communicate what's going on multiple times or log in to multiple tools to figure out what's working," Cole said.

Also look for an online marketing agency that has significant experience in the industry, Kennedy said. He recommends choosing firms that have been around for at least five years.

"That way, they have a sense for the evolution of the industry, and they've also been able to learn from some mistakes along the way," Kennedy said.

Another sign of expertise is whether the company is seen as a teacher or leader in its industry. Kennedy said evidence of this could be whether or not the company publishes best practices on its website or hosts informational webinars on its latest research and advice.

Small businesses should also look for an Internet marketing company that has employees with strong communication skills, Kennedy said.

"Before you hire a marketing company, make sure that they can clearly explain what they will be doing for you, so you understand the basics and at least some of the details," Kennedy said. "If the consultant or company can't clearly explain what they're going to do, then that's a red flag that either they aren't experts or they lack communication skills."

Cole said businesses shouldn't be scared off by agencies that want them to do at least some of the work.

"Understand that to be really effective, you need to be at least a little involved" Cole said. "If they say they can do it all on their own, chances are it won't be that good."

She said you'd be surprised how just an hour or two of your time per month makes a big difference to driving great results.

When it comes to cost, small businesses should plan to invest anywhere from $500 to $5,000 a month, Kennedy said. Minimum fees for Google AdWords management are in the $500 a month range, while SEO fees can run anywhere from $500 to $3,000 per month, he said.

"For full-service online marketing — including SEO, Google AdWords, social, email, etc. — a small business should expect to invest a minimum of $1,500 per month or more depending on the size and complexity of the online marketing campaigns," Kennedy said.

Editor’s Note: Need help choosing an Internet Marketing Service for your business? Fill in the following form for a quote.

Originally published on Business News Daily

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.