Small Business Owners and Online Marketing

I spent two days in Grand Central Terminal talking to small business owners about online marketing and here is what I learned

By Dave Charest, Director of Content for Constant Contact

Small business owners never cease to amaze me.

Even after 13 years of working with them, I’m always inspired by their energy, determination, and overwhelming desire to be their own boss.

I’m honored to talk with small businesses about online marketing on a regular basis. It’s clear that even though they know online marketing can benefit their business, they unfortunately don’t always have the time to figure out how to make sense of it all in a practical way.

That’s why I’m grateful to work for a company like Constant Contact where we provide busy small business owners with powerful tools, marketing advice, and more to help them navigate the ever-changing digital landscape and do more business.

Recently, we set up a Marketing Helpline Booth in New York’s Grand Central Terminal to offer free marketing advice to any small business owner stopping by.

Here’s what I learned after two days of conversations…

Small businesses are a diverse group.

This statement shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s just not obvious when we lump everyone together with the term ‘small business’. Though they may identify as a small business what that actually means can be extremely varied and specific.

I spoke with people selling online guitar courses, promoting a big marketing-tech event, someone starting a tattoo parlor, a nonprofit looking to better communicate with their donor base, a jeweler, a small law firm, and even a laundromat owner.

And though their online marketing experience varies, ultimately, they all want practical advice that they can apply to their unique situation.

They’re optimistic about the possibility of what online marketing can do for their business.

Everyone who came into the marketing helpline booth had a great sense of optimism in their questions. There wasn’t a lot of skepticism about the need to use online marketing, instead, the questions pointed more toward “what specifically should I do to get the word out most effectively so I don’t waste my time.” Time being the always-limited resource for these owners who wear many hats as they start or run their business.

That optimism wasn’t devoid of acknowledgment of the challenges. Many just weren’t sure how to bring it all together to help them reach their goals. Which leads me to my next insight…

They feel overwhelmed by all the options and aren’t sure where to go next.

It seems like there’s always some new site, tool, or salesperson vying for the attention of the small business owner on a daily basis. With so much information and a limited amount of time, the people I spoke to were looking for guidance in identifying where they really needed to focus their attention to make a meaningful impact.

My advice was to ensure they checked the boxes on some of these essential online marketing items and help them understand why they are important.

  • Do you have a mobile-responsive website? Your website serves as your home base online and needs to look great on any device it’s being accessed from. People often visit your website to see if your business is right for their needs. Consider it a resource to answer the questions prospects may have about your business.
  • Are you using an email marketing tool to stay in touch with customers and prospects? Email marketing is at the core of your online marketing efforts because once someone leaves your website they may never come back. If you have their email address, you can keep your business top of mind and encourage them to visit you again. You can also contact people on your terms without being beholden to the ever-changing algorithms that limit your reach on social media.
  • Are you focused on a primary social channel? Social media can be a great tool for small businesses, but oftentimes small business owners end up doing a little on multiple channels. This approach results in a lot of busy work with little return. You end up in a situation where you feel like you’re spinning your wheels. Instead, focus on one social channel that makes the most sense for your business. Then you can get really good at it and see the fruits of your labor before moving on to something else.
  • Is the information out there about your business online correct? Search for the name of your business and then take a look at the places your business shows up. Is the information on these sites correct? You can often claim these listings as the owner so you can make sure details are up-to-date. You don’t want to have people getting the wrong information that could lead to missed opportunities or disgruntled would-be customers.
  • Are you making it easy for people to find out about your business? Think about how people use search engines and social channels. Your customers and prospects are often looking for answers to specific questions. Think about your website as a resource and create content to answer those questions. This content is what people search for, consume, and share online. This activity increases the likelihood of new people finding out about your business.

Once I had an idea of what they were already working with we could explore what they were doing, where they were getting stuck, and where they may need to make adjustments. These conversations made me happy because…

No one asked for a silver bullet. They wanted to know how to approach the problem.

In a time where everyone shouts about a quick fix or THE thing that’s going to push them over the edge, small businesses seem to understand it’s not about one thing, but rather it’s about the consistent effort and hard work over time that creates that tipping point.

Rather than offer tricks or hacks (yuck!), we could focus on how to go about approaching their marketing efforts. Beyond understanding how it all works together, you also need to understand how to take action toward your goals.

At Constant Contact, we walk people through a framework when it comes to thinking about how to approach a marketing problem. In each step, you’re trying to answer a specific question.

  • Plan – What am I trying to accomplish? For many small businesses, marketing can often fall by the wayside. This typically happens because there are many items on the to-do list vying for their attention. Many of those items can pop up by surprise. This is why it’s important to have a plan and then work the plan. Knowing what you’re working toward with an eye towards when things are coming up, go a long way in keeping you consistent and on track.
  • Design – What should it look like? You’ll need to think about the proper look and feel based on today’s audiences and how people are consuming information on a particular channel. The mobile experience should be paramount when making design decisions.
  • Create – What content do I need to support it? What you say and how you say it matters. Whether it’s on your website, in an email, or on social, each channel has a unique context that you need to consider to get the best results.
  • Measure – How will I know if it’s working? What are the important things to look at to know if you’re successful? Think back to your goals and go beyond vanity metrics so you can assess the impact of your actions. Followers, likes, traffic, and opens and clicks only tell part of the story. Dig into the next levels of the actions you want someone to take to see the true value.
  • Grow – What can I do to make it work better? Whether getting more of the right traffic to your website, growing your email list, or creating better content to support your efforts, with this overall framework in place you can understand the bigger picture to come up with ideas for where you may need to make adjustments to grow your business.

Here’s my overall advice to small businesses…

First off, you’re doing great. Your energy and excitement are infectious. I’m always left inspired by speaking with you. Remember what’s driving you when times get tough and that there are people cheering you on. Ultimately, it’s up to you to understand how to make all of these online marketing elements work together for your business. And then you must focus. It’s that focus and determination that will get you to where you’re trying to go. If you need some advice along the way, we’ll be here for you. Keep going!

For more small business marketing insights and advice, visit the Constant Contact blog.

Dave Charest follows a simple philosophy when it comes to content marketing, “All good things come from focusing on the people you’re trying to reach and helping them become more successful.” Creator of the One-to- Many Method of content creation, Dave and his team at Constant Contact have used this process to reach millions of small business customers and prospects with various forms of content. He is also the producer and host of the Small Biz Stories podcast, where he interviews successful small businesses on how they got started, their biggest challenges, and hopes and dreams for the future. @ConstantContact.

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