No matter how shoestring the budget, marketing a small business can be the difference between soaring and sinking.
Ben & Jerry’s started out in a refurbished gas station after the partners completed a $5 mail-order course in ice cream making. In 2007, Airbnb’s founders were renting out air mattresses in their loft for $80.
How did these small businesses hit the big time? Sure, they had a great product. But they also had a solid marketing plan.
Marketing can make or break your small business — if nobody knows about your product or service, nobody will buy it. Thankfully, weaving marketing strategies into your everyday management activities doesn’t have to be complicated or costly.
Here’s what to know about marketing your small business to set yourself up for success.
Marketing your small business: First steps
It’s worth thinking about marketing right from the start, even as you’re developing your first product. Researchers estimate that 95% of new products fail — so to land in the successful 5%, you need to examine market research to understand what your customers want and what they don’t.
In other words, it’s all about defining your marketing strategy: the overall approach you’ll take to pitching your product to the world.
How to create a small business marketing strategy
Start creating a high-level marketing strategy for your small business step by step:
1. Determine what makes your brand unique
Think about what makes your product better than the competition. Maybe it’s the pricing, the outstanding customer experience, your round-the-clock customer support, or all of the above. That’s your value proposition, and knowing yours is fundamental to an effective marketing strategy.
Take Airbnb, for example. The company has two value propositions, one for guests and one for hosts. For guests, it’s to save money by living like a local while traveling. For hosts, it’s to earn money from homes and rooms they aren’t using.
2. Conduct market research and identify your target market
Most small business owners don’t have the time or resources to capture large volumes of data directly from customers, analyze it, and act on what they learn. But you can still do market research by examining industry and government reports, competitors’ promotional materials, and online reviews of similar products or services.
Once you identify your target market, consider creating buyer personas — fictional representations of your ideal customers. Buyer personas often include information such as age, gender, education level, goals, and preferred marketing channels. They provide insight into your target customers’ motivation, purchasing patterns, and pain points (problems they need solutions to).
Determining the key demographics of your target market and creating buyer personas allows you to better understand exactly how wide or niche your range of customers is. And that’s key to making smart marketing decisions across the board, whether it’s the promotional channels you focus on (are you going after Gen Z on TikTok or millennials on Instagram?) or the colors on your website.
3. Set SMART goals
Next, you need to determine marketing strategy goals. What do you want to achieve, and how will you know if you’ve been successful?
Structuring your goals using the SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) framework will help you keep your strategy on track.
For example, let’s say you want to improve your site’s ranking in search results. Here’s what this objective looks like as a SMART goal.
- Specific: Rank in the top three results for the keyword “doggy daycare Chicago.”
- Measurable: Jump from 15th place in Google search rankings into the top three.
- Achievable: The websites in 4th–15th place don’t have many ways to add new content. Create a blog to add fresh SEO-based content.
- Relevant: Move up in search results by driving more organic traffic to the site, generating more leads, and bringing in new customers.
- Time-bound: Achieve this goal within the next 12 months.
This makes your final SMART goal: “Bring in new customers by getting into the top three Google search results for ‘doggy daycare Chicago’ through SEO-based blog content within 12 months.”
4. Calculate your marketing budget
Small businesses — especially if they’re new — don’t have the advantage of brand recognition or word of mouth, requiring them to spend more on marketing.
Aim to set aside 7–8% of your revenue (or up to 20% if your industry is competitive) for your marketing budget. That means that if your gross revenue is $200,000, you should allocate between $14,000 and $16,000 to marketing. That sounds like a lot, but remember that marketing drives revenue.
5. Define your brand messaging
What’s the best way to tell your target market about your product or service and its value proposition? Start by thinking about your brand identity. This is the “personality” of your brand. Consider your company’s values, what it’s good at, and how you want to make people feel.
Personifying your brand helps customers relate to you, making them more likely to listen to what you’re saying and, in turn, be more interested in what you’re selling. In fact, researchers have found that when people like a brand, they respond to it emotionally as though the brand is their friend.
Now imagine that your brand identity and your buyer personas are strangers who’ve just met and are getting to know each other. To break the ice, perhaps you can tell a story about how your product or service helped a person like them, be it a stay-at-home parent in the suburbs or a startup CEO who constantly travels.
6. Choose your main marketing channels
You know what you need to communicate (value proposition), why (SMART goal), how you’ll communicate it (brand messaging), and who you’ll communicate it to (buyer personas and target audience). Next, you need to decide where you’re going to put your message. To do this, consider the following:
Where your audience spends their time
If your target market is a younger demographic, your best bet might be TikTok and other social media channels. If it’s an older demographic, flyers, brochures, and other print media might be more effective.
The nature of your product or service
If you’re selling software that needs some training, consider YouTube tutorials and ads. If your product is decorative, Instagram or Pinterest might be a better fit.
How you can support all stages of the customer journey
Allocate some of your budget to improving brand recognition, some to attracting people to your site, and some to converting site visitors into customers.
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How to market your small business online
In 1986, Ben and Jerry journeyed across the United States in a purpose-built Cowmobile, handing out free ice cream to promote their products. But thanks to the internet, you don’t have to literally roam the land to share your products and services with others. Instead, tap into the potential of effective online marketing. For small businesses, the road map may vary depending on specific needs and goals, but here are six steps to get started:
1. Perfect your website
Your website is the public face of your brand — it’s a visitor’s first impression. Whether you build your own site or hire someone to build it for you, it needs to be user-friendly and appeal to your target market. If you’re selling directly to consumers, ensure your website has ecommerce capabilities.
Follow search engine optimization (SEO) best practices when setting up the site, as this helps it rank higher in search engine results and attract potential customers without paying for ads. If you’re on a budget (and most small business owners are), there’s no need to spend money on advanced SEO tools. Start simple by using a free SEO option and develop an approach to SEO that grows with your business.
Along with all the other basic elements — an about page, contact info, info about the products or services you offer — consider including a blog on your site. Publishing high-quality blog posts attracts new visitors who are already interested in products like yours, and it gives your existing client base an opportunity to keep up on everything exciting happening in your world.
2. Run an email marketing campaign
Airbnb’s email marketing, in fact, is what took them to the next level: The team directly emailed people they knew were looking for specific accommodations with properties that matched what they were searching for, plus occasional suggestions for holiday getaways. In doing so, Airbnb proved that their platform is about more than just finding a place to stay. It can also help plan an entire vacation.
But before you can send out marketing emails, you have to create an email list. To do this, consider asking site visitors to sign up for an email newsletter or provide a downloadable free resource (an ebook, a short course, or a collection of valuable tips) in return for an email address.
If you’ve built a site with Webflow, you can leverage email marketing integration options and other marketing tools, such as Mailchimp, to ensure your campaigns run smoothly and efficiently.
3. Reach new customers on social media
While a website is the hub of your digital marketing efforts and email marketing lets you reach customers directly, social media marketing has the potential to reach new people who haven’t heard of your brand and create a genuine sense of community.
It’s also highly effective in building your customer base: Social media is consumers’ preferred way of connecting with a brand, and 76% of people will buy from a brand they connect with over a competing brand.
Social media platforms are also ideal for customer service. You can hear directly from unsatisfied customers and resolve their problems publicly, showing other customers that you’re trustworthy and care about making them happy. You also give satisfied customers a chance to share their positive experiences, be it on your social media or theirs.
4. Educate and entertain with videos
Videos are an effective way to engage audiences, build brand loyalty and awareness, and influence purchasing decisions. Audiences also love them — 66% of consumers have watched a video about a product to learn more about it.
Customers are more likely to share video content than any other type of content, which can help you reach even more people. Ensure your videos have captions, as 75% of people say they often watch videos with the sound off. And make them short: The sweet spot for keeping viewers’ attention is under three minutes.
Video can boost your other channels, too: Adding a video to your website’s landing page keeps visitors on the site longer, which helps increase conversion rates.
5. Host special events
Never underestimate the power of a well-planned party — whether it’s in person or virtual. To celebrate their first anniversary in 1979, Ben & Jerry’s held a Free Cone Day, an event that proved to be such a success that the company still runs it today.
While digital marketing gets the word out fast, there’s something special about in-person experiences. Event marketing gives people the opportunity to directly interact and engage with a product, help them better understand it, and have a positive, memorable experience with it. Attendees are also more likely to become repeat customers. Plus, events encourage people to create social media posts and drive referrals through word-of-mouth marketing.
6. Create podcasts and webinars
Well-crafted blog content draws potential customers to your site, but podcasts and webinars give them a chance to engage on a whole new level.
Podcasts allow your audience to listen in on an ongoing conversation that explores your company’s core essence one episode at a time. For example, a large part of the Ben & Jerry’s brand is their social and environmental activism. Their podcast reflects this by focusing on social justice themes, a message that says Ben & Jerry’s is about much more than ice cream.
Webinars focus more specifically on your product or service in detail, how it works, and how it can help. They attract people who are close to making a purchase and have a high conversion rate: Somewhere between 5–20% of webinar attendees buy the product or service after attending.
Cross-promotion (sharing content through multiple channels) makes your content even more likely to stick, so consider embedding a video on your website or promoting an in-person event on social media.
If you’re after even more marketing tips for small businesses, such as selling gift cards, recovering abandoned carts, and exploring influencer marketing, browse our list of low-cost marketing ideas for small business owners.
Take your small business to the next level
Once you’ve developed an overall strategy, start to think about how you can use it to create a marketing plan for your small business. While the marketing strategy is a long-term, big-picture account of your approach to marketing, a marketing plan spells out the minute, concrete ways you’ll go about implementing your strategy in the short term. You can start with the above ideas for online marketing and expand as needed.
By studying the marketing strategies of successful multimillion-dollar companies like Ben & Jerry’s or Airbnb, you can gain valuable insights — like understanding the ins and outs of logo design or brand design — to ensure your business’s best chance of success.