By Heather Miller

The holidays aren’t any kind of holiday for a small business. Nowadays you need to start even earlier to get ready. Yes, it’s technically still summer, but it’s never too soon to start thinking about the busiest (and potentially most profitable) time of the year.

According to an Experian survey, 49 percent of marketers plan to launch a campaign before Halloween. Hallmark started marketing their popular ornaments with a holiday movie marathon in July this year. And QVC didn’t miss out on the “Christmas in July” theme either.

Like last year, it’s a very short selling period—only 26 days between Black Friday and Christmas. Compare that to 25 days in 2013 and the ultimate 31 days in 2012. It’s prime time now, so get in the holiday spirit and plan your strategy!

Promotions—You Gotta Have a Gimmick

There’s no question about it. You will need to offer a promotion in order to compete. The same Experian survey also stated that free shipping is the top promotional tactic of marketers (39 percent), followed by deal of the day offers (28 percent) and eCoupons (21 percent). Determine what will resonate most with your customers. Is it shipping? Or is it a free item or a percentage off?

It could also be the experience at your store—a holiday gathering, hosting a local charity event, or a visit with Santa for the kids. (Bonus is you can get this event listed on local websites—free advertising!) Make it a festive atmosphere. Maybe a glass of egg nog and cookie for every customer? Be imaginative. Free shipping is great, but not the end all, be all especially for brick-and-mortar businesses.

Mobile and Social—It’s Where Your Customers Are

“U.S. sales over mobile devices on Black Friday 2013 leapt nearly 43 percent year-over-year, to 21.8 percent of all site sales,” IBM’s recent 2014 US Online Retail Holiday Readiness Report reported. More than ever, mobile must become a priority.

At the same time, small businesses must also squarely focus on social media, email campaigns, and digital coupons. These can all tie together quite nicely. A Vision Critical study found that approximately 50% of social media-inspired purchases are completed one week after sharing or favoriting an item. Make a commitment to the social platforms your customers inhabit most (Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and the like).

Push digital coupons and more, but remember the three-to-one rule. With every “self-promoting” social share, make sure you have already shared three other interesting, informative, or helpful pieces.  Don’t be that company—the one only touting itself!

Time is ticking to start planning and promoting. Think outside the gift box for your best holiday season yet!

Heather Miller is a digital storyteller for Autodesk’s Line//Shape//Space.