SYS-CON MEDIA Authors: Pat Romanski, Gary Arora, Zakia Bouachraoui, Yeshim Deniz, Liz McMillan

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12 Tips + 1 to Run a Digital Marketing Strategy in Small Businesses

Small Businesses Can Have a Marketing Plan and Have Good Results

Owners of the small companies as well as individuals do think in marketing, but once again, what goes first? To get a marketing budget, they need to increase sales, and to get new customers they need marketing.

Issues related marketing are top-minded for small company's owners. Researchers like Yodle state that 42% of small business owners said they are worried about finding new customers; it's actually their #1 concern. 33% said they are also worries about keeping their current customers, and 21% said they are worried about competition.

This information clearly provides a formula using the common yet undeniable facts that are aligned with the global markets trends.

New customers + Customer care + enhanced competitiveness = Success

The fast paced changing environment pushes the small and also medium business to unsafe BYOD practices and the sales account managers performing their own marketing activities that in the long run end up turning against the company if not controlled and attached to true marketing strategy.

Sometimes marketing is perceived as expensive yet UN reachable, but guess what! Business owners can have a way effective digital marketing strategy and campaigns running to position their brand, get new prospects and retain their customers. So as you start this 2014, it would be wise to review this 12 + 1 simple tips for building an effective marketing strategy for your business; a marketing plan that includes customer care activities and that helps you getting the new customers you want. Here we go:

1. Develop a Realistic Marketing Plan and Budget: It's about time to put your money where your mouth is. Business owners talk a lot about how hard it is to get new clients, they also talk a lot about customer retention; but the reality is that their marketing investing is usually minimum or nonexistent.

Actually 1 in 4 small businesses state that they don't invest any money on marketing, while just 56% invest not more than $500 dollars a month. Most small businesses don't have a marketing expert, nor do they have a budget for this position.

2014 is year to change and give a more flexible marketing budget, if you don't want to add a salary and the intern expenses of an employee, then outsource your marketing. This could even prove to be much more effective. Try the new marketing tools that will help you tackle the new opportunities in your market in this fast paced evolving marketplace. I'm not saying you should sign a multi millionaire contract with a large agency; what I do recommend is to make a more strategic investment in marketing with a professional freelancer or a small firm that can help you enhancing your business brand positioning in your target markets and help you to both get new clients and make your existent customers feel comfortable with you.

ROI (Return-on-investment) is the key factor for you to measure your marketing efforts. However be sure the marketing efforts are in orchestra with the sales efforts because no matter how many new leads marketing brings, nothing will happen if sales doesn't do their work, which is: Closing the sales!

Focus your marketing plan on the digital tools, avoid the traditional yet expensive marketing, leave that for corporations.

2.  Build a Simple and Effective Website Layout: In a 'Digital Strategy' the website is the key piece, the backbone of your marketing strategy; also it is the easiest, yet most effective tool for your potential customers to contact you and for you to connect with them. I felt astonished when I read that about 52% of the small businesses don't even have a website.

Your website should be your priority this year, and to do this, don't hesitate and get a real professional to develop, but I am not talking about the designing and development, I am talking about both the designing, the development, the planning, the content, and it's interaction with the other marketing tools like social media networks, data base, and email campaigns.

Have professionals working on your website, it should be appealing and easy to use, a contemporary website with a straight forward navigation. This will put the key information at a hand to the visitors professionally.

Make sure your website is fully responsive, this means it automatically adapts and displays in every mobile device. Be careful about using features as Flash which don't load on some Smartphone and may become a negative impact.

A recent Google/Nielsen study found that 59% of consumers visit a business' website when conducting a mobile search. However, the vast majority of small business owners - 9 out of 10 - said their websites aren't optimized for mobile. This represents a clear gap in small business' ability to provide on-the-go consumers with a proper website experience, thus threatening their chances to get new customers or leads from those sources.

3. Content is the King! If you decide to write the content yourself or in-house, make sure it is at least edited by a professional; be sure you use defining and searchable keywords on the front and back end, use SEO. Professionals usually do this when they are drafting the websites' content. This ensures that your website will appear in the searches. Also make sure that these keywords are incorporated into anchor text in the URL links and specific titles, descriptions, and tags in your website.

Develop and publish your success stories, customer referrals are powerful tools and should be an ongoing activity in your marketing strategy.

Tell your visitors who you are, and what you do. Incorporate your business contact information consistently throughout your website. To do this and still be protected from scammers and spammers define a specific phone number and email address; and of course add a contact form.

4. Include a Blog: Here it is when your marketing plan starts taking a definite shape. To have an effective blog and website you will need to go back to your marketing strategy and link it to the sales plan in order to define an editorial calendar that will give dynamism to both your blog and your website. Post short articles in your blog according to news, trends, and the evolution of your marketplace and industry; and also according to your sales plan, launching of products and promotions. Make everything match!

5. Feed your Data Base: We have already spoken about integrating your marketing and sales strategies to keep them current by regularly posting and updating the content in your website. Your sales plan should feed your marketing strategy for it to generate activities that leverage the sales plan to achieve mutual goals: Brand positioning, new customers and existent customers' retention. Landing pages can be excellent tools to help you promoting your products and services as well as nurture your data base with effective contacts for the sales area.

6. Create a monthly newsletter: You already have an awesome website, a blog; the content is flowing and your marketing and sales strategies are integrated. The following step is to drive traffic to nurture your database and extend your reach; one way of doing this is taking your articles, news and promotions through a newsletter that you may start sending to your existent clients and prospect database. There are also some other ways to spread it to longer databases; magazines usually give mail delivery services, you may approach to the ones specialized in your market and choose the best option for your interests; this way your newsletter will be spread to an updated and targeted database catching the interest and registration of a good number of prospects; yet nurturing your database and customers base too.

7. Build an Engaging Social Media Presence: Consumers today spend a considerable amount of time on social media, they interact not only with family and friends, but increasingly with brands as well. Businesses are successfully building social media channels to generate loyalty and engagement with their customers and potential customers. Actually, Facebook recently announced that 24 million small businesses maintain active pages on their site.

Analyze and determine the Social Media Channels that best suit your needs and your business, for example: Twitter, Google+, and Facebook provide strong platforms to reach a huge amount of consumers, your sales, promotions, news and achievements will easily reach a target audience. They also add the advantage of engaging in one to one conversations regarding questions, customer care, concerns and complain. LinkedIn provides all these capabilities, plus the advantage of being a network dedicated to business, this is ideal for the B2B businesses, and a more serious environment for certain products and services. Pinterest is ideal for those businesses with more visually offerings like furniture, clothing, jewelry, and certain services like events and weddings organizing, or graphic design, or websites development. YouTube becomes key for the musicians and video related businesses; but it is also useful to companies with 'how to' videos, webinars, and certain user manuals, like Photoshop tips and tricks for example.

Follow your editorial calendar, give continuity to your strategy, the goal is to take your message to your contacts. Consider that if you create a page for your business on a social media network, it's imperative that you remain engaged and never let the page sit idle. Consumers today expect businesses to update their social media channels several times a week with relevant information; to do this you have all the information in your blog, landing pages, and newsletter in order to keep a steady flow of updates. Incorporate the compelling photos, videos and all the content that feed your website, blog and landing pages.

Share Your Deeds!: Once your website and channels are established, share your achievements and your success stories. Referrals are powerful marketing/sales tools.

8. Respond Promptly To Consumer Questions: Consumers view your social media channels as an extension of your digital presence and expect you to respond to their questions, comments and other inquiries they share there. So setting up a process for monitoring your business' pages is key; as well as integrating a customer care plan to your social media daily activities.

9. Handle the customers' negative comments, complains, and reviews: You don't have to worry about the positive comments and reviews; just please always thank them. But you can't prevent customers from writing negative comments and complains in the first place. An angry customer will do it publicly, so instead of trying to avoid them, you should have policies to give them immediate attention. You can easily stop the problem if you reply quickly and with a true professional solution to the customer's problem. Ensure your customers feel you are close to them, and ready to give them personalized and professional attention.

Monitor your Social Sites on an Ongoing Basis: Setting up a regular monitoring schedule of your social media websites will help you catch the negative comments on the fly and take them to the customer care process fast enough to stop the issue before it grows, and has consequences.

Keep Positive & Respond Directly: It's easy to get upset by a negative comment, with that said, it would be a good strategy to ensure that your core response messages are professional and focus on ways to remedy the problem. As a first step, always try to contact the upset customer directly by phone or even with a personal visit to remedy the problem. Again I recommend having a third party giving this first response, it would be more objective. Having an outsourcer will always help giving you a more objective perspective of the situation; this would help in the customer retention and satisfaction.

Determine When To Respond Publicly: Set a policy for what red lines must be crossed in order for you to respond to a negative comment or complain publicly. Your first course of action is to ask the customer for a phone call schedule to stop the complain. Once you have the customer on the phone you will be able to give remedy and even visit  them turning the complain into a satisfied customer.

Encourage Happy Customers to Drop Positive Comments: Setup a strategy for encouraging satisfied customers to post positive comments on the social networks and your own website. This is another integrated strategy, a success stories strategy. This can be as simple as calling the customer to get a positive comment that then you can post in the website, use in a collateral, and believe me, your customer will always appreciate some free publicity, mostly if your customers are other businesses.

10. Build A Complete & Accurate Listings Presence: Whether it's Google, Bing, Yelp, YP.com, Yellowbook.com or SuperPages.com, small businesses appear on a variety of business listing websites. Ensuring that your business' listing is complete and accurate plays an important role in determining whether consumers reviewing your listing can move forward with contacting you and making a purchase or getting your services.

It may be surprising, but a notable share of business listing information is inaccurate. In fact, a ConstantContact survey of more than 350 SMBs in 2013 found that 50% of SMBs have come across inaccurate listings for their businesses. Despite this, nearly half (49%) of those surveyed said they've never updated their business listings online.

Spend time in 2014 getting your business' listings up-to-speed with complete and accurate information: Certify that your business is listed in services like Localeze, SinglePlatform, Yext and Universal Business Listing, or your country's business listings.

11. Take Advantage of Automated Scheduling & E-Commerce Tools: In 2013, we saw a lot of strong activity on the automated scheduling and e-commerce front. Yet despite the benefits of these technologies, many small businesses have remained on the sidelines. According to the Yodle survey, only 39% of small business owners rely on automated appointment booking and scheduling technology.

2014 gives the opportunity to reevaluate the benefits of these tools and move forward:

Popular local websites such as Yelp, along with some other vertical websites such as OpenTable, Seamless and GrubHub are making it easier for consumers to seamlessly purchase products or schedule appointments at businesses from wherever they are.

These practices are expanding beyond just restaurants to also include everything from doctor appointments to home repairs services, and even appointments for services from marketing agencies and IT solution providers. Actually every kind of business could be benefit from these technologies.

Sites like Amazon and eBay are continuously improving their offerings for digital storefronts that enable consumers to easily shop and purchase from businesses via their desktop, Smartphone or tablet. Amazon is extending these benefits to other countries and it is becoming a regular practice so it would be easy for you to find your local retail web stores.

While retail businesses have fees associated with each of these e-commerce offerings, small businesses benefit from avoiding the development and maintenance costs to have these systems on their own. These tools also increase efficiency (cutting down on labor costs) and provide great platforms for increased visibility in online search.

As per the businesses offering services or products attached to special individually developed services like IT providers or MSPs, these tools extend their opportunities to get clients in other cities of even countries; or the possibility to interact with other businesses establishing alliances with mutual benefits. After all the main keyword is GROWTH!

12. Apply Analytics, and Business Intelligence to your business: This tip is not only for the website and the digital marketing activities; this should be applied to all your business areas to then integrate them and allow you to see your business performance as a whole: Get BI tools and take decisions based in your business' performance.

Now about your website, pay close attention to its activity, analyze the origin of your visitors, the most visited pages. What is happening? Which is your average visitor profile? Does it match with your customer profile? Which promotions have been more successful? What promotions have not succeeded? Why? Then apply surveys and get more results. All these information will help you to consistently update your marketing plan in order to make your website, promotions, events, news and activities more effective.

This should be a continuous activity because it's important for small businesses to develop procedures for locating and responding to online comments. Small business owners should spend time mapping out or improving their response plan for online comments - especially those that place their business under a negative light.

According to the Yodle survey, 56% of small business owners that are performing any marketing activity do not measure results from it. This means that those small business owners have no baseline to determine how well their marketing is doing or how to set priorities for what else they can or should be doing.

As you head into 2014, develop a simple reporting structure, not only for your marketing but for your business as a whole - perhaps a monthly report that you can develop with your team - that will enable you to clearly see how all of your business activities are doing and their resulting impact on your revenue.

I hope these tips are useful to you, as a small business owner I know there is nothing better than our business being successful. All my effort researching and writing this article is paid when I know that it has been useful to one business owner.

Today I will use the magical number 13. To some people, like me, number 13 is good luck.

Tip Number 13: Small business can really benefit from small marketing agencies rather than doing all the marketing in-house. The reasons are simple, owners of small marketing agencies are usually experienced marketers, they already have a team of experts to develop your website, manage your social media and all the related activities; they also use technological tools to provide their services, and the costs of these tools are optimized as they are used with more than one client. Their fee would be more or less the same as one manager salary, but you get the benefit of a complete team and the technological platform at your service. This makes your investment and budget much more efficient and affordable.

What are you waiting for? Make 2014 the year of your marketing strategy and get the new customers you want to raise your income and grow your business!

Source: Yodle's First Annual Small Business Sentiment Survey, Aug. 2013

More Stories By Monica Paul

Monica Paul is a marketer and web developer with 20 years experience in local, regional, and global marketing strategies. In 2001, after eight years working as an employee for several IT companies such as Micrografx and Visio; Monica founded Marcomtec, a division of Magic Masterminds LLC, a marketing firm providing strategy and content services, as well as marketing campaigns in English and Spanish. In 2013 Monica launched Magic MasterMinds (www.magicmasterminds.com), a publishing platform to help writers all over the world to publish and market their books.

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