Today, businesses have more ways -- and places -- than ever to market themselves. But deciding on a marketing method, particularly when you are a small or even a mid-sized business with a small budget and limited resources, can be difficult. While social media marketing is generally free, it can be time-consuming; and the same goes for blogging. But traditional print advertising, as well as digital advertising, can be expensive.
So which marketing channels are best for SMBs? Dozens of small business owners and marketing professionals share the following list of top marketing strategies for SMBs.
1. Blog. "One of the best marketing strategies for a small business is blogging," says Maren Hogan, chief marketing brain at Red Branch Media.
"By providing your prospects and clients with informative, non-salesy content that you can house on your blog, promote socially and offer to other networks to supplement their strategy, you and your team can quickly establish yourselves as experts in a desired field," Hogan says.
It can also positively impact your SEO.
"By blogging at least twice a week, you significantly increase your website's ability to be found on search engines," adds Mike Lieberman, chief marketing scientist and president, Square 2 Marketing. "The more you blog, the more traffic your site will get from Google, Yahoo and Bing... [because] you are adding fresh content to your site [assuming your blog resides on you company website]," he says. And "if each of your blog posts includes a call to action, you might even generate some leads from your blog."
Business owners and managers should also consider guest blogging.
"Guest blogging is one of the best marketing tools I've ever found," says Susan Payton, president, Egg Marketing & Communications. "By contributing to relevant blogs with useful content, you can expand your reach and show off your knowledge." Moreover, you can typically link to your website via your author bio, "making it easy for people to visit your site."
2. Leverage social media. "If your small business isn't using social media, it's time to start," says Mike Volpe, CMO, HubSpot, which specializes in inbound marketing. "Social media produces almost double the marketing leads of trade shows, telemarketing or direct mail."
Because social media can be (or seem) overwhelming, "choose one social media platform that your customers, prospects, and industry leaders engage with the most -- be it Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Google+ -- and start building a presence there," Volpe says. "Once you've set up an account, start connecting sharing your original content, joining discussions and engaging with the community. Keep your social efforts frequent, but above all, relevant and helpful to your audience."
3. Create a Facebook business page and use Facebook advertising. "Facebook is one of the most important marketing tools for any business to use, especially a small business," says Tori Hoffman, the social media strategist at Potratz, an automotive advertising agency.
"Americans spend one out of every seven minutes on social media, providing a huge opportunity for small business owners to build a relationship with fans by sharing relevant content and interacting by commenting and liking fans' comments," Hoffman says. "The more a user interacts with a page, the more likely their friends are to see it, increasing awareness."
Also consider Facebook advertising.
"We have been having great success for our mobile marketing clients with Facebook advertising," says Bob Bentz, president of ATS Mobile, a mobile marketing agency. "The ads appear right in the news feed so it's really impossible to miss. It is especially effective with local clients, because there is virtually no waste as with traditional media," he says.
"A local restaurant, for instance, can promote just to the zip codes where it draws from. It can even target specific age groups and sex," Bentz says. "Best of all, you can target those customers during the time that they are most likely to buy; for instance, you can display your ads just before and during the lunch and dinner hours." And if your Facebook campaign isn't getting the desired results, "there's no long-term commitment. You can cancel at any time."
4. Post to Pinterest and Instagram. If you are selling a highly visual product or service, say you are in the bridal or food business, you should be regularly posting images on Pinterest and/or Instagram. Posting is free and both platforms have large followings, particularly among women.
"You can drive major traffic to your website via Pinterest, and no platform uses hashtags to build audiences like Instagram," says Eric Elkins, CEO and chief strategist at WideFoc.us, a real time social media company.
"For goods and services specifically targeting women ages 18 to 65, [we] recommend companies utilize Pinterest," says Ria Romano, partner, RPR Public Relations. "Since women are inherently more visual than men when it comes to shopping online -- it's not just a clichÃ’Â© -- a picture really does speak 1000 words," she says. Indeed, "for every dollar a female consumer spends on our clients' products and services they find on Facebook, the same shopper will spend $3 on the same product or service on Pinterest."
"My favorite place to sell my handmade jewelry is Instagram," says Mindy McCarthy, owner of MinMac. "It's the queen of virtual markets. Potential customers can scroll through your collection of pictures and see who they're supporting," she says. "They make a connection with you as a person, not just a business owner. It's very rare that I post a piece of jewelry that doesn't sell within minutes."
5. Leverage email marketing and email reminders."Email marketing is great for engaging customers, but you're really limiting its potential if you keep it in a silo," says Ron Cates, director, Digital Marketing Education, Constant Contact. So be sure to integrate your email marketing campaigns "with your other marketing campaigns for maximum impact," and vice versa, he says. For example, "if you're running a Facebook contest, increase the number of people participating by notifying your email subscriber list of engaged customers," he says. "If you're running a time-limited deal or special offer, send a reminder via email.
"The impact of email is undeniable," Cates states. "We've seen from our customers that upwards of 25 percent of all sales of coupons and deals can be attributed to reminder emails."
6. Try PPC (Pay-per-Click) advertising/Google AdWords. "SMBs need to be as targeted with their marketing efforts and dollars as possible, especially if their product/service is location specific -- and PPC ads are one way to do so," says David Waterman, account director, Digital Marketing, The Search Agency, a search marketing and optimization firm.
"PPC ads can be a cost efficient way to dip your toe into the online marketing world and use your marketing dollars to specifically target the regions and terms that relate most to your business," Waterman says. "Some media/marketing companies even offer automated bidding solutions that allow the SMB PPC novice to gain the same level of targeting and exposure without the heavy lifting."
"An efficient Google AdWords campaign, where you are sure you know how the platform works, can be a huge quarry of leads for small businesses," adds Kyle Peterson of Clement | Peterson, a tech PR and marketing firm. "Start with uber-targeted keywords, paying close attention to keyword match types, negative keywords and search query results to eliminate irrelevant visitors, like people looking for jobs," he says.
"Then, enable some form of conversion tracking so you know that new visitors are scoping out your business and not immediately bouncing," he says. "Scaling up the spend is the easy part. Making sure you aren't wasting money on irrelevant clicks is where the biggest AdWords challenge lies."
In addition, or instead of Google AdWords, Waterman recommends small and midsized business owners check out Bing PPC advertising.
7. Conduct webinars. "Use webinars to build your list and generate leads," says Nicole Skuba, a partner at marketing firm Blue Tree Digital. "Webcast experts say some webinars see a 70 percent rebound effect comprising those who viewed the live broadcast as well as new individuals," she says. "Webinars are also more interactive and keep the attention of leads or potential clients."
Just make sure your webinar is content rich, with relevant content (that is content relevant to the target audience), well organized and hosted by someone with experience conducting or running a webinar.
8. Don't forget about press releases."Competition for visibility is intense," says Abby Hammer, product manager, Vocus, which owns PR Web. "Press releases help small and midsized businesses amplify their content across hundreds of global and local channels, allowing them to achieve the same exposure as much larger brands," she says.
"By including press releases as part of an integrated marketing strategy, small businesses are able to get their content directly in front of consumers and connect with journalists and bloggers -- interactions that can result in lasting impressions," Hammer says.
In addition, the cost of posting a press release via a wire service is relatively inexpensive, typically $200 to $300, with releases being picked up by the major search engines and thousands of websites. And small businesses have a number of wire services to choose from, including PR Newswire and PR Web.
Jennifer Lonoff Schiff is a technology writer and a regular contributor to CIO.com. She also runs a marketing communications firm.
Read more about online marketing in CIO's Online Marketing Drilldown.