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An expert guide to marketing for small businesses

15-minute read

Lucy McNeill, Sam Bromley and Lauren Hellicar

8 July 2020

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If you’re not sure where to start with your marketing, or you’re stuck for inspiration, this expert guide to small business marketing offers some ideas on how to grow your business and get noticed by your customers.

Whatever your profession, you no doubt went self-employed because you’re good at what you do – not because you necessarily love marketing, bookkeeping or paperwork. While there are obvious benefits to being your own boss, it also means you’re responsible for all of those things by default.

So here are the top seven types of promotional methods used by small businesses, according to our in-house experts at Simply Business:

Marketing strategies for small business

1. Social media marketing for small business

Danni, Social Media Manager

What is it?

The term ‘social media’ refers to websites and apps, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, where users are encouraged to share updates and information. Social media gives your small business a way to communicate directly with your customers, potential consumers and industry in a relaxed and conversational way. It's one of the most popular types of online marketing for small business.

What’s the benefit to my business?

Using social media in the right way will help increase awareness of your business which can ultimately lead to an increase in sales. If you can, try to put aside a little bit of time each day and you’ll soon see the benefits of actively engaging with your customers.

How do I do it?

  • choose the right social media platform. Find out where your customers and your competitors are most active on social media. If you’re selling products this might be Instagram, whereas LinkedIn is your best bet if you’re selling a professional service. Facebook have recently launched a number of features to help small businesses sell on their platform.
  • set a goal and create a social media plan. Are you looking for increased brand awareness, better customer service or sales? Depending on what goal has the highest priority, make sure you choose the right social media platform.
  • track your marketing progress. Every social media platform has free analytics so you’re able to track your social media activity against your marketing goals.
  • use social media scheduling tools. Tools such as Tweetdeck, Buffer and Hootsuite can help you save time as they allow you to plan and schedule posts in advance. Some of these tools also offer social listening options, so you can organise, view and respond to customer queries and conversations, brand mentions, relevant industry topics, trends and hashtags.
  • show your brand personality. Social media should be used as a two way conversation between you and your customer. Tell your brand or business story in a visually creative, authentic way. Ask your customers questions and offer them solutions with your content and promote their positive feedback of your business. You could even reward your most loyal customers or followers with competitions and discount code

Good examples from other businesses

For an idea of how to use Facebook successfully, look no further than BirchBox UK. No customer query or comment goes unanswered, they frequently use customer-created content, and they use Facebook Shops, so customers can easily purchase their products directly from their Facebook page.

If you’re looking for Instagram inspiration, take a look at @TinyRebelBrewCo. From behind the scenes access to their brewery to their beautiful customer pictures – Tiny Rebel are brilliant at engaging customers every day.

Innocent UK has always shown other brands how it’s done on Twitter. Their brand voice is whimsical but authentic, and they work at answering customer queries and entertaining their followers. They often start conversations about shared experiences or popular culture topics that they know their audience is already talking about.

2. Email marketing and newsletters

Kayleigh, Senior eCRM Executive

What is it?

Email marketing and newsletters help you keep in touch with your customers. They allow you to send advertisements, updates, sales messages, and important information about your services or products.

You’d usually use this type of small business marketing to:

  • boost sales
  • help your customers understand something
  • build engagement with your brand

What’s the benefit to my business?

Personalisation – send personalised, relevant messages to customers at exactly the right time. You could, in theory, completely tailor the experience to each customer, depending on how much data you have access to.

Cost-effective – deliver content straight to people who are interested in your brand. There are lots of free or low-cost platforms available and, once you’ve set up a few email templates, you can send as many as you like. You’ll also be avoiding the costs of sending things in the post, or displaying expensive signs in public advertising spaces, and hoping people see it.

Instant results – directly measure the results of your emails (which isn’t possible with traditional forms of marketing where you can only estimate). Most tools let you see how many people have opened, or clicked on, your email within seconds of sending. Some will also let you see how many customers bought a product after seeing your email.

Adaptable – easily adapt the tone, messaging and style of your emails to make them consistent with your website, if you have one, and if you don’t, it’s a great place to build it up from.

How do I do it?

You’ll need a few things to get started:

  • an email service provider (ESP) or customer relationship management (CRM) platform (which isn’t as complicated as it might sound). They’re ways to create an email, upload your contacts and send an email. Mailchimp, Campaign Monitor, and Constant Contact are worth looking into if you’re a small business.
  • an email template. You’ll need at least one to be able to send emails, but most ESPs can provide these for you. For example, Mailchimp’s wide choice lets you vary the layout of your emails. If you search for ‘responsive templates’, like these templates from Campaign Monitor, they’ll be formatted correctly on both desktop and mobile.
  • good content ideas. Your message needs to be timely and relevant to engage your target audience. Keep it simple and don’t overwhelm customers with too many emails. Give the recipient a reason to open your email, and follow this up with a message that helps them do something or invites them to ‘buy now’ or ‘learn more’. You might also want to share a discount code to use on your products or services.
  • data. You can’t send marketing emails without people to email. Stay on the right side of the rules and regulations on customer data protection introduced with GDPR in 2018. It’s important to make sure you have the required consent to email your customers. Read our guide to GDPR to understand the details.

Good examples from other businesses

Visit Really Good Emails to find great email examples. They have thousands in their collection and you can view by category (such as ‘abandoned cart’ emails, or ‘welcome’ emails) and by company.

Bigger companies like ASOS and Uber do emails really well, if you want a standard to aim towards. They use data and website/app behaviour to create perfectly tailored email messages.

But smaller companies can be just as effective. The best thing to do is to sign up to emails from a range of companies, including some in a similar field to you, and see what lands in your inbox. You’ll start to get a feel for what they send and how often, and you can use that as a starting point.

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3. Business website with SEO

Jerry, Senior SEO Manager

What is SEO?

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) involves optimising your website to get lots of visitors from search engines (like Google, Bing, Yahoo, and DuckDuckGo). If you get a lot of your sales from your website, or would like that to be the case, this is something you should really consider doing.

SEO can be confusng at first, but there are lots of tools out there that can help you get to grips with it and really make the most of the boost it can bring your business.

What’s the benefit to my business?

Search engines are a huge feature of our day-to-day lives, with people using them to answer all sorts of queries. If you want to know whether to watch a particular film, search engines help you find reviews in an instant. Your potential customers are doing the same when looking for products or services.

With no direct costs associated with SEO, it’s ‘free’ marketing. The cost is the time and effort you put into developing an SEO strategy.

How do I do it?

Pages and pages of results can show for a search query, but most people will only look at that first page of results. Not only that, the highest position at the top of page one (known as position one), will drive the most clicks and traffic. Your goal is to be position one.

There are two main techniques you can use:

  • on-page – this is typically everything on your website, including your content, the website’s architecture and structure, the code and site speed
  • off-page – this is everything that happens away from your website, including backlinks (when another website links to yours)

On-page basics

Keywords – Keywords are, like the name suggests, the key words or phrases to include on your page. The right keywords help drive traffic to your website. Use online tools, like keywordtool.io, to find out which ones you want to target. You can also carry out keyword research by asking customers what they’re searching, or searching yourself to see what people are asking.

Write useful content – create content around your keywords. Start with written content and add images. If you have more budget, add video or rich media. Content has to be unique – you can’t copy and paste information – search engines don’t like plagiarism. We'll go into this more in the content marketing section below.

Optimise your content:

  • use short, descriptive URLs and include the keyword in them
  • write a compelling title tag and description, using 70 characters for a title and 150 for a description
  • use headings – the title of your post is known as the H1 (and should include your keyword)
  • link to relevant internal and external web pages
  • optimize your images with descriptive ‘alt’ tags – search engines can’t actually see what’s in an image, so you need to describe the image using this tag
  • if you’re using a CMS like Wordpress, download a plugin called Yoast SEO to help optimise your content

Off-page basics

Make sure your business is visible – create a Google My Business profile. It’s free and lets you create a business listing, helping you appear in Google search and Google Maps.

Build backlinks – when another website links to yours, Google sees yours as more trustworthy. You could get backlinks by:

  • giving expert quotes to other websites and asking them to link to you as a source
  • asking companies you work with for a link on their suppliers or partners page
  • asking websites to include you in blog posts, including ‘best of’ lists or reviews
  • looking for where competitors are mentioned and asking if you can be mentioned too
  • finding resource sections on websites – just as a partner may have a supplier list, a website might have a resources page
  • having a social media presence. It doesn’t affect SEO directly, but it’s a great way to earn trust

Best SEO tools for small businesses

Google Search Console shows your website’s performance. You can also see what keywords customers have used to find your website, handy when you're looking to optimise further.

Most tools offer keyword exploration, backlink analysis, keyword tracking and competitor analysis. Buffer.com has a list of popular free tools.

And if you’re interested in learning more about SEO, have a look at these resources:

4. Blogging and content marketing

Sam, Copywriter

What is it?

Content marketing involves creating engaging content to help answer a user’s question or problem. This content can come in various forms, including blog posts, podcasts and videos.

Content marketing is closely tied to many other areas described in this guide. It’s helpful to think of email, SEO and social media as channels you use to get your content in front of readers (and listeners and viewers).

What’s the benefit to my business?

Getting your business’s unique ‘voice’ and expertise across through blog posts, videos and podcasts (and doing it better than your competitors) can help you win customers.

But considering the benefit to you is the wrong way to think about content marketing. You should think about the benefit to your customers (and potential customers). How does your content answer their needs?

How do I do it?

Blogging regularly is the easiest and cheapest way to get into content marketing.

Come up with a schedule for regular posts. Before posting, make sure you get someone else to read your article first. Typos, errors and badly researched pieces can damage your reputation.

Here are a few ideas to get started:

How-to blog posts – think about how many times you’ve typed a ‘how to’ question into Google. What could you instruct your readers on? For example, if you run a dog walking business, you could write an article about how to groom your dog at home. Do some keyword research and write a user-friendly article, using headings and images. Keep your sentences short and punctuation light.

Listicles – some see lists as ‘clickbait’, but listicles can be a great way of getting information across to readers. The dog walking business above could write a listicle about the 7 best dog walking routes in England.

Experiment with video and podcasts – some businesses are suited to video. For example, a cycle repair shop could post a video explaining how to fix a puncture. This type of content takes time and money to create, but can bring your brand to life.

Promote your content – how will people find your content? Your topic might be particularly well suited for people to find it in search, or you can add it to an email newsletter and share on social media. Planning this before you start should help you find the right audience.

Keep track of what’s working – are people actually reading and watching? Be sure to analyse what people like, using Google Analytics or social media tools, so you can replicate your successes – and ditch the duds.

Good examples from other businesses

Blogs about content marketing are themselves some of the best examples of content marketing. Have a look at these to get started:

  • Neil Patel – Neil Patel is an entrepreneur and content marketer who runs one of the most successful blogs about content marketing on the internet
  • Copyblogger – Copyblogger has lots of great tips on content marketing. But its focus is on writing and how to get your words working as hard as possible
  • Oberlo – Oberlo is an ecommerce app that has a blog about entrepreneurship, with training videos and great ‘success story’ case studies

5. Customer reviews

Saniya, Brand Community Manager

What is it?

Including reviews as part of your business’s online marketing lets your customers rate the service or product your business has given them. Using an online review platform like Google, Facebook, Trustpilot, or TripAdvisor also lets potential customers know what your existing customers think of your business, whether it's positive, negative or neutral.

What’s the benefit to my business?

Reviews from others who have already been there give clients faith that your business is trustworthy and isn’t trying to hide anything. That’s why it’s important to embrace negative as well as positive feedback.

Often people will research your business before making a decision on whether to buy your products or services. Positive reviews can help encourage your potential customers to choose your business over your competitors.

Even negative or neutral reviews can bring positive benefits – they can give you insight into what you can do better, and they’re an opportunity to show your customers that you care, by responding positively and taking action to turn your customer's negative experience into a positive one.

Read more in our article on how to respond to online reviews of your small business.

How do I do it?

It’s usually fairly simple – and often costs nothing – to set up an account on a customer review platform.

Take Feefo for example – they’ve created their 60 Second Guide to Feefo. The simple steps on their list include:

You’ll find similar support to guide you through the setup process on Trustpilot, TripAdvisor, Google, Yelp, and Facebook.

Good examples from other businesses

Research shows 92 per cent of people are more likely to buy your products or services after reading positive reviews.

A general rule of thumb when responding to negative reviews is to apologise for the less-than-perfect experience your customer feels they've had – even if you know you’re not in the wrong. To protect your brand image, a public review platform isn't the place to get defensive about what a customer has said. If you can, move the conversation to a private channel to resolve the issue. But don't forget to make it obvious to others reading your exchange that you're taking it seriously and care about putting things right.

In one of our own examples from Simply Business, a reviewer edited his review and star rating after we addressed his complaint:

March 2020

"I called to state I did not want my policy renewed in 3 weeks time. "Why is that?" I was asked. Advising them I had already signed up with a cheaper provider I was informed that I would have to pay an admin charge to avoid dual insurance. So if I had not called until a few days before payment was due to be taken, there would have been no charge as it would have been too close to the policy expiry date."

June 2020

"Since posting the above review, [Simply Business] got in touch and sorted the whole thing out. It looks as if someone in the team did not have the complete training they needed and the process was not followed correctly. As a result of this complaint, I got a full refund for the fees charged and a small goodwill gesture which was appreciated. It restored my faith in this company. I have therefore changed the rating to 4 stars. Many thanks Simply Business for sorting this out to my satisfaction."

6. Word of mouth and networking

Peter, Development Manager

What is it?

In simple terms, networking is about building mutually beneficial relationships. This would usually involve building on your professional and social contacts so that you can bounce ideas around and get information that could be crucial for your business.

What’s the benefit to my business?

Having a network can provide multiple opportunities — your network can support you in troubled times, help your business grow (via word of mouth) and you can use it to bounce ideas off.

A solid network can even help reduce costs by helping you find a good deal, or hunt down a piece of equipment that you might need. Crucially, it can help you understand your marketplace in more detail.

How do I do it?

  • have a Linkedin presence. Create blogs relating to your business, connect with clients and competitors, and get chatting.
  • join your local chamber of commerce. They usually run events throughout the year and can update you on new policies that may affect your business. These events are excellent for meeting other local business people.
  • become a member at local sports clubs or join a local sports team. If you trade locally, this could be a source for new business as well as a place to find new connections.
  • stay in touch with friends and current or former colleagues. They can often turn out to be a valuable source of new business.
  • use Facebook appropriately. Facebook is a great place to understand what others think about your business and products, but don’t get sucked into public conversations that could come across as unprofessional.
  • attend local business forums. A great way to integrate with your local business community.
  • attend local business events and awards ceremonies. Your presence at these can show your commitment to the sector and helps develop your network.

Remember to talk to as many people as you can at events — you’re there to start building relationships that could be crucial for the development of your business.

Good examples from other businesses

Businesses who network well will often set aside time for specific networking events, such as forums and conferences. When you start networking, make sure you’re setting aside enough time to network in groups as well as one-to-one situations.

If you work in finance, Owen James is a good place to start. They host events in the financial sector and connect businesses to potential clients and stakeholders.

Facebook is a great place to find local business groups such as the South Devon Business Club.

7. Flyers, business cards and print marketing

Ellie, Graphic Designer

What is it?

Printed marketing materials have been around a lot longer than most of the options listed above. They include everything from flyers, business cards and pens to water bottles, stickers and hoodies.

Before you decide which printed marketing materials to spend money on, it’s worth asking yourself a few questions:

  • how will my customers use this item?
  • how does it relate to my business?

Relating your printed marketing items to your core product or service means you’re more likely to stick in people’s minds. For example, if you sell bottled drinks, you could market using branded bottle openers. Or, if you repair electrical goods, you could distribute fridge magnets among your customers.

What’s the benefit to my business?

Digital advertising may be turning printed marketing into a dying art, but having a tangible product to give to potential customers still has its benefits:

  • if you’ve invested time and money into creating printed marketing materials, it shows you're serious about your services or products
  • you can hand out printed marketing materials any time, anywhere
  • social media isn’t for everyone, but everyone understands what a business card is
  • a flyer or business card can feel less intrusive but can be picked up again and again, if a customer is interested in what your business offers
  • customers don’t have to be online to get a visual reminder of your products or services
  • you don’t need to rely on Wi-Fi to make sure people know how to get in touch if you have a piece of physical marketing to hand out

How do I do it?

The first step is to be creative with your design so your business will be remembered. Then do your research to find local print suppliers – not only is this likely to save you money, you’ll also be supporting other local small businesses.

It may also be easier to build a great working relationship with your print provider, which means you’ll be more likely to get tailored service from them. It’ll also make life easier when you want to see sample prints and make tweaks to the design.

If finding a good quality, local printer isn’t an option for you, Moo is a good example of a high-quality online print marketing provider, offering great service and a variety of finishes to help you nail the right style and tone for your business.

You can give them a go by ordering a free sample pack of their range of paper weights and print finishes.

Good examples from other businesses

You can explore Moo’s blog, giving you loads of inspiration for the look and feel you want to create for your business.

If you want to get seriously creative, try Behance for ideas on how you can use your logo across a range of printed marketing materials.

And don’t forget Pinterest as a great source of creative inspiration and ideas on how others in a similar line of work to you are doing things.

Would you like more marketing ideas and tips for small businesses? Let us know what you need in the comments section.

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We create this content for general information purposes and it should not be taken as advice. Always take professional advice. Read our full disclaimer

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