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Digital Marketing for Small Businesses: A Beginner’s Guide

5 June 2017 Small Business Advice

As a small business owner, you’ve probably heard about digital marketing through the grapevine. You’re probably thinking it’s about time to get started promoting your business online. You’d be right.

Whether you’ve got a bricks and mortar store and need to boost your online profile or an eCommerce business where online marketing is critical to your success, promoting your business online  can make a big difference.

Why should I care about digital marketing?

Every second, there are more and more people coming online from around the world. You can see this in real time on Internet LiveStats’ counter of global Internet users. In the UK alone there are over 60m people (that’s 90 percent of the population) with an Internet-enabled device. And when it comes to buying online, 77% of UK Internet users made an online purchase in 2015, making it one of the leading markets in Europe.

This means no matter where you are or where you do business, potential customers (or prospects) are browsing online and looking for your services. So the question is, why wouldn’t you make yourself discoverable?

It’s cheap (or free)
Since its inception, the Internet has brought a ton of benefits our way. One of them is quick and inexpensive communication. Prior to the Internet, announcing a flash sale to 500+ prospects would have been both expensive and difficult. Now, with social media, you can deliver a message to hundreds or thousands of followers with the push of a button. They don’t call it a revolution for nothing.

It’s effective
Digital marketing can be more effective than marketing through local newspapers, on the radio or TV. Why? Because the majority of the tools allow you to select a specific audience of people who are more likely to buy your products and services, increasing the value of each promotion. What’s more, you can see how many people have engaged with your message, monitor how effective your campaigns have been and improve them for the future. Say goodbye to the guesswork.

It’s fun!
Business is serious stuff, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyable. Digital marketing lets you tap into your creative side by coming up with ideas about how to reach prospects and people interested in what you’re doing. There are plenty of established methods of promoting yourself out there, but because the digital world is still relatively new, there are still loads of new techniques being dreamed up everyday.

It let’s you connect with your customers
You can interact with prospects and existing customers directly. Start a conversation, run surveys and get feedback straight from the horse’s mouth. It’s also easier for people to see and hear the wonderful things your customers are saying about you, encouraging others to join the gang.

So now that you know some of the benefits of digital marketing, what can you do to take advantage of the opportunity before you? Follow our 3 steps to digital marketing for small businesses to find out.


Step 1: Understanding

What are the most popular digital marketing channels?
The first step on the road to digital marketing for your small business is to get familiar with some of the marketing channels. Once you have an understanding of the promotional tools available, you can tailor-make a marketing strategy to suit your particular business. Take a look at the channels below — all of which can be used either freely or very cheaply.

Social Media Marketing

What it is: By now, only those that have been locked away in a nuclear bunker for 20 years can legitimately ask the question ‘what is social media?’. But conversely, even those that are certified Facebook addicts might not know exactly how to market their small business correctly. The best way to explain social media marketing is: using a network of people interacting socially online to drive your product or service to their attention and encourage them to take an intended action.

How it works: As a business, you can engage with people on social media through paid or non-paid activity, or a combination of both. It’s free to set up an account and start promoting yourself to whomever discovers and follows your particular profile. Paid promotion is much more effective as you can reach a lot more people.

The first step is to create a budget for your business and start running paid campaigns to a specific subset of people. For most social networks, there is no minimum or maximum budget amount, meaning you can test the waters before jumping in. And once your budget runs out, you can either continue your campaign or switch up your strategy.

The big players: The 3 giants of social media are Facebook, Instagram and Twitter with 1.8 billion, 600 million and 370 daily active users, respectively. That’s a grand total of nearly 3 billion, making social media marketing a core part of any business strategy. Facebook should be your main focus due to its massive user base and its fantastic targeting options.

Good for: Brand awareness and driving traffic to your website – especially for local or product focused businesses.

Not so good for: Business to business marketing or very exclusive niche markets as it can be tricky to target your audience.

Budget: Anything from £1 to £100,000 per day should bring in results depending on your industry and targeting.

Search Engine Optimisation & Content Marketing

What is it: Search engine optimisation (or SEO) is fancy-sounding term with a rather simple explanation: it’s the practice of making your website appear higher in search engines like Google, allowing people to find you more easily when looking for the products or services your business offers.

Content marketing is another element closely related to SEO.

How it works: By creating interesting, engaging and relatable content for your target audience and sharing it on your website, other relevant websites and social media, people are more likely to be exposed to it. The more they’re exposed to it, the more they are likely to buy your products or services and position your brand as an authority in your industry.

The big players: Google and Bing are the two major search engines on the Internet. Google processes around 3.5 billion search queries per day — that’s 40,000 per second! Bing (owned by Microsoft), processes up to around 123 million per day, or 1420 per second.

Good for: Any brand establishing itself in a competitive market. Search engines are known as “the high street of the Internet”, making it all location location location for any business looking to grow. SEO & Content Marketing require time and resource but if done correctly they can bring fantastic results.

Not so good for: Businesses that are looking for short term results and do not have enough time and resource to allocate on SEO. Good SEO & Content Marketing require planning and investment of time, so if your business is likely to change direction in the next few years or you do not have much time to invest, it may be tricky to keep up.

Paid Search Advertising

What is it: Paid Search is the second half of our search engine-related strategy. Another way to appear high up on search results is to pay for your website to appear as a featured listing. Paid Search is known to be a little more sophisticated because it requires analysis and monitoring on a daily basis.

How it works: With Paid Search, you’ll bid on phrases known as keywords. The more popular (or competitive) the term, the higher the bidding price. When prospects search using one of these keywords, your results will appear at the top or bottom of the results (depending on how much you pay). This is similar to paid social media marketing in that you can set a modest budget and control how much you spend.

The big players: Naturally, the two largest search engines, Google and Bing, reemerge as the dominant players for Paid Search. Their respective bidding services, Google Adwords and Bing Ads, are free to sign up to, and can have your web pages atop the search engine results in a matter of hours.

Good for: Those looking to drive direct action such as a purchase, sign up or online subscription that can be tracked to measure the effectiveness of the paid campaign.  

Not so good for: Small businesses selling a limited range of popular consumer products. The more popular the search term, the higher the bidding gets, making it more difficult to consistently outbid your competition for a place on the top spot.

Email Marketing

What is it: Email marketing is, as it sounds, marketing through emails. More specifically, the recipients of the emails are a base of existing customers or prospects who have signed up to your mailing list and agreed to receive marketing from you. These could be customers who have bought from you already or entrants from a competition ran in the past.

How it works: As opposed to sending out ad hoc promotions one at a time, email marketing lets you strategically dispatch hundreds or thousands at once, saving you money and precious time on stamp-licking duty. As consumers, we receive countless emails every day, and thus Email Marketing has evolved into a science of how best to capture and retain the reader’s attention before they lose interest. This is often used in combination with other methods like Content Marketing.

The big players: Mailchimp and Sendgrid are a couple of well-known services that allow you to sign up and start sending thousands of emails for free. Their template builders mean that even with zero experience in designing email campaigns you can create something slick in a matter of minutes.

Good for: Businesses with an expanding product range for retargeting past and present customers. Keep in mind that retaining existing customers can be more profitable and easier to convert them into ambassadors for your brand.

Not so good for: Businesses selling a single-product or service that customers will only need once, e.g. hair transplants. Not being able to resell or upsell your products may leave you with limited options for email campaigns.

Display Advertising

What is it: If you run a store near other local business owners you’ll be familiar with display advertising in the offline world where shop owners leverage the space within their store to advertise each other’s businesses. Take this online and you’ve got affiliate marketing in the digital world.

How it works: The main difference (and advantage) of online display advertising is that your ads will only appear on sites relevant for your target audience. This increases the likelihood of a potential customer seeing your ad, liking what they see and clicking through to your site.

Like Paid Search and Social Media Marketing, you can set a daily, weekly, monthly budget for your campaign and run it for as long as the budget lasts. Unlike the others, you can choose to pay each time a customer sees the ad (called cost per impression or CPM), each time they click the ad (cost per click or CPC) or each time they take a specified action (cost per action or CPA). Depending on whether your aim is to drive awareness or sales, you may want to opt for one over the other, or a combination.

The big players: There are tons of display networks vying for business, but Google Adsense and are two of the biggest in the UK. As a middleman, their job is to take your text, image (or even video) campaign and place it on sites most relevant for your categories.

Good for: Digital products and physical stores with an eCommerce arm. The ability to lead a customer directly to take a desired action and retarget them with your ads on other websites is what display advertising was made for.

Not so good for: Strictly in-store businesses and those selling high value goods such as cars, homes and jewellery where consumers will want to see the product before buying. 

Step 2: Research

Who are my customers?
The second step on the road to digital marketing mastery is to identify your customers. A clear understanding of your target audience will make it easier to allocate budget in order to reach them or create opportunities for them to find your business and products. Here are some of the things you need to know.

Location. Where are your customers located and congregated? Where might you find them both online and offline? How will their location in the world impact how you communicate with them? If you’re an existing business with a website you can use tools like Google Analytics to easily identify where in the world, continent, country or city your website traffic is coming from. If you are a local business, think of how much people will travel in order to buy your products. You can easily ask them for feedback at your store and provide them with a discount voucher in return.

Age. Depending on your business, age may or may not be relevant. Ask yourself: is my product or service designed for a specific age group? If not, which age groups are most attracted to it? It’s best to gather this data by identifying trends within groups of prospects and existing customers.

Gender. Does gender dictate who can use your product? Are you targeting a niche that empowers a particular type of person? If so, what are the lifestyle differences you can leverage in your messaging? It’s useful to know that a product designed for one gender or sex may become applicable to another over time.

Income. Are you selling luxury or high priced items that only a few can afford? Conversely, are you offering something at a lower rate with the hope of attracting more people with a lower income? If you don’t know, it’s best to gather this sensitive information in interviews and one-on-one conversations, as people may be unwilling to share it via online forms. Also, it’s very important to have a clear understanding of your margins so that you can calculate your online profit and ROI.

Goals & challenges. What are their short-term and long-term goals? How do they currently meet those goals and what challenges do they face along the way? Depending on the need your product serves, you might already have the answers to these questions; however, it’s best to cement your assumptions by speaking to customers, salespeople and customer service representatives.

Hobbies and interests. How do your customers enjoy themselves? Which activities do they engage in? Are they solitary or group activities? How do those activities lend themselves to be hijacked by your brand? If you’re a fashion brand, for example, it’s helpful to know if large segments of your audience are also into fitness and wellbeing, as that can help inform your future content creation and partnerships.

With a firmer understanding of who your customers are, you can create a series of customer personas using a persona template like this quick and easy one from Hubspot. Once the personas have been firmed up, try categorising them by the type of channel you can reach them by.


Step 3: Action

Now is the time for action. Go ahead and set up your digital marketing accounts across as many or as few channels as you want. We’ve grouped the actions by business type to make it easier to see what’s relevant for your business.


How to create a website

If you haven’t already got your website up and running head over to Wix, WordPress or GoDaddy and set one up in minutes. As a small business, you should steer clear of adding any complex features and widgets as these can always be added later on. A simple, mobile-responsive website is all you need.

The cost of a website is broken up into two parts: domain and hosting. Think of domain as the leasing cost for your “Internet real estate”, and hosting as the service charge or maintenance costs. Domains are normally charged annually and can cost less than £10. Hosting, on the other hand, is typically monthly and can vary in price.


  • Must do: Add your price list or menu & location. Make sure your contact details are clear and up to date.

  • Should do:Include attractive images of your shopfront and your window display or merchandising.

  • Don’t:Create a series of half-completed pages. Get one page looking good and reading well before moving onto the next.



  • Must do: Focus on product images and descriptions. In the absence of a physical store you have to work harder to convince your customers to spend their cash online.

  • Should do:Get a Payment Gateway so customers can make orders securely and swiftly directly from your website. Check out this Complete Guide to Accepting Card Payments from Paymentsense for more info on enabling secure online payment solutions.

  • Don’t:Hide your contact forms or details if you can’t list your prices. You’ll want to make it as easy as possible for prospects to get more information.


Social media profiles

The basics

While there are tons of social media platforms available, each one boasting its own set of unique selling points (or USPs), the most useful for SMEs are Facebook, Instagram & Twitter. Registration is completely free and should only take a couple of minutes.

Add your logo and information to your profile so that your followers know who you are — this is a chance to show your brand off to the world! Use your social media posts to tell people about what you offer, answer any questions they might have and respond to any complaints. Protip: the last two are just as important as the first.


  • Must do: Include your area or location in your profile description so that people can see at a glance if you’re local to them.

  • Should do: Follow a list of influencers, get a conversation going and see whether they’re interested in promoting your wares to their loyal followers. See Kissmetrics’ guide to influencer marketing, covering what it is, how it helps and more.

  • Don’t: Repeatedly promote yourself without creating human conversations with people.


  • Must do: Create a set of targets for posting (e.g. once per day) to find a comfortable level of consistency.

  • Should do: Link back to your website or a relevant page from your profile.

  • Don’t: Expect users to follow you just because you follow them. See what they’re talking about and start a conversation.



The basics

You should not underestimate the ability SEO has to increase the amount of digital footfall your business receives. With more and more people coming online everyday and searching for the things they want, you’ll want to position yourself in their line of sight.

With your website setup, you can create pages featuring keywords that your prospects are using. This means that when users search for ‘shoes for mountain climbing’, your page will appear with words from their query in the title. Optimising meta descriptions (the lines underneath the search result titles) helps to contextualise the page and push the user to click through. Read SEO Fundamentals: Guide to Title Tags, Meta data and Headers for a quick and simple breakdown.


  • Must do: Add your business address to Google Maps in 6 simple steps so that when people search for you they have no trouble finding your store.

  • Should do: Include opening/closing times and your business phone number to your Google profile.

  • Don’t: Add poor quality photos that could put prospects off. Hold out for good quality imagery to show your business in a good light.


  • Must do: Make sure your page titles contain the correct product information.

  • Should do: Start creating content that your customers care about. Research your topics well and create links between posts of a similar theme (also known as internal linking).

  • Don’t: Stuff your pages with keywords. Search engines are smart enough to know the difference between content that’s useful to humans and that which has been written for robots.

Paid Search

The basics

Get yourself a free account with Google Adwords. Work out which keywords you want to appear for and consider the intention behind those phrases. For example, if you’re considering bidding on ‘what are 3D printers’, it’s pretty clear that the user is looking for information, and may not be ready to make a purchase. If you do decide to bid on this keywords, make sure your page answers the user’s query and doesn’t just try to sell them something.


  • Must do: Create pages designed to answer a user’s transactional query e.g. ‘cheap hard drives’, ensure the price and link to buy are clearly visible at the top of the page.
  • Should do: Set yourself a modest budget to start with and increase it as you start to see what works well.
  • Don’t: Mislead the user by bidding on terms that aren’t related to your business.

Email marketing

The basics

Once you sign up for Mailchimp or Sendgrid, explore some of the email templates and send yourself a few tests to see how your campaigns will look on both desktop and mobile screens. Experiment with different subject lines and themes for your message to see which works best for your target audience.


Must do: If you have the emails of your existing customers, add them to your mail out list to keep in touch with them.

Should do: Segment the database of email addresses by prospects and existing customers. You can even do it by location, age range and product purchased, if you have that info to hand.

Don’t: Try to remove the ‘unsubscribe’ button. This is illegal and can land you in a heap of trouble.


Must do: Promote. While social media is about creating conversation, email marketing is about promoting products, sales and offers alongside the occasional content piece.

Should do: Setup a mailing list subscription form on your site to capture addresses from interested third parties.

Don’t: Spam. Keep your campaigns infrequent in most cases. If you frequently have news to share, compile it into a single, more lengthy email rather than sending many smaller ones.

Display advertising

The basics

Join a display advertising network with a good reputation like Google Adsense or Use cookies to retarget people once they visit your site. These are virtual tokens that track a user’s journey through the Internet and shows relevant ads wherever they go. So if someone visits your site and leaves, they can still be targeted with ads for your product on other websites.


  • Must do: Choose the relevant categories for your product or business when you start your campaign. This will ensure your ads reach the right people.
  • Should do: Make a better offer. If you can, create display ads that takes the user to a page with a better than the offer they were first shown. Often if a prospect leaves, they’re shopping around for a better deal, so give them one.
  • Don’t: Make it too culturally specific. People from around the world will come into contact with your ad so avoid colloquial terms that only a handful of people will understand. Instead opt for more global language to make sure you get your message across.

Bonus step #4

Now that you know the essentials of digital marketing for your small business, put what you’ve learned into practice. Refer back to this guide to improve your techniques and share it with friends who are starting a business. Before you go, here’s a couple of things to remember:

Set goals: Set achievable goals for yourself in your digital marketing activity. Planning and execution will always take a lot longer than expected so don’t be too disheartened if you don’t reach your targets initially. Change your goals regularly and avoid being overly ambitious.

Keep it consistent: If you start strongly but slowly start to fall behind in your promotion, don’t despair. Just reorganise yourself and get back in the driver’s seat by setting a date to plan your comeback and sticking to it.

Network: Share ideas and talk to other small business owners about things they found helpful. Your network can often deliver a wealth of resources that you never knew existed.

Happy Marketing!


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