Constant Contact recently announced the results of a new national survey of small business owners, looking at how these entrepreneurs approach and prioritize things like operations, marketing and strategic planning. The survey found that most small business owners are self-taught marketers, digital-first and hungry for tools to elevate their businesses. We spoke with Pamela Slim, an award-winning speaker, small business coach and leader of the Small Business Learning Lab in Arizona, to learn more about the survey and key learnings for small business marketers.

What did the survey reveal about how small businesses approach marketing? Did any of the results surprise you?

What makes this survey really interesting is that it sheds light on a lot of different, interrelated topics, like strategic planning, top business goals and marketing, that we may not always think about as related. For example, the survey showed that most small business owners (63 percent) plan strategically just a year (or less) in advance and often prioritize issues of the day over longer-term strategic goals. Small business owners surveyed also most often indicated that their top business goals for 2018 included increasing revenue/sales (64 percent), increasing new customers (53 percent), offering superior customer service (33 percent) and increasing productivity (32 percent).

Looking at what small business owners are prioritizing in 2018, what struck me is that throughout the results, marketing seems to be the common thread. While business owners don’t necessarily think about marketing as a goal in and of itself, the reality is that it’s critical to achieving their top business goals.

When it comes to how small businesses approach marketing, the survey found that almost all small business owners (95 percent) do some form of marketing for themselves, but that most are self-taught and many lack confidence in their marketing skills.

I think the takeaway for a lot of small business owners is that marketing is more important than it seems and growing your skills as a marketer is an important way to grow your business.

Are there particular areas where entrepreneurs are looking for guidance or ways to improve their marketing skills?

While most small business owners aren’t marketers by trade, almost all become marketers by necessity and end up doing some form of marketing for themselves, which means many need to master what can feel like a very steep learning curve quickly. The survey found that most entrepreneurs and small business owners (64 percent) are self-taught and less than half (46 percent) consider themselves “marketing savvy.” Many need guidance and help to achieve their goals.

When it comes to further honing their marketing skills, small business owners would most like to learn or improve on social media marketing (36 percent), website design (30 percent), search engine optimization/search engine marketing (27 percent) and email marketing (25 percent).

Today, there are a wide range of products and services available to help improve business owners’ marketing skills and take their businesses to the next level, but it is important to select vendors and marketing tools carefully. The right vendor should be a true partner and provide the marketing tools they need and ongoing education, training and support to help their business succeed.

The survey found that for many small business owners, email is viewed as key to promoting their business. What makes email marketing popular among entrepreneurs?

Of the tools included in the survey, email marketing is the most-used tool among small business owners (42 percent), followed by online advertising and promotion on their business homepage (39 percent). Many small business owners reported that email helps them connect with new and potential customers (57 percent) and drive brand awareness (56 percent).

The findings also speak to a larger trend in small business wherein digital surpasses traditional tactics like direct mail and print and TV advertising, that were once considered table stakes. In fact, the survey showed that traditional tactics like print advertising (32 percent), direct mail (26 percent) and TV advertising (6 percent) are being utilized much less often. I think a lot of this has to do with cost and return on investment. Email is one of the most effective channels available to small businesses and offers the best ROI.

SOURCE: This nationally representative survey was conducted online among 1,005 U.S. small business owners (those owning businesses with 1-20 employees; aged 18+) and fielded between March 15-20, 2018. The margin of error was +/- 3.07 and a 95 percent confidence level.

Pamela Slim is a small business coach with a strange twist: most of her clients are very large companies who serve the small business market. They hire Pam to advise them on how to understand and connect with small business owners today. Her first book, Escape from Cubicle Nation, (Penguin/Portfolio 2009) won Best Small Business and Entrepreneur Book of 2009 from 800 CEO Read. Her most recent book, Body of Work: Finding the Thread That Ties Your Story Together, (Penguin/Portfolio 2014) gives a fresh perspective on the skills required to thrive in the new world of work.