woman running in marathon

Smart Strategies, Hard Work & Realistic Expectations

This past spring, at the height of Ohio’s COVID-19 quarantine, Data Dames Marketing helped a local nonprofit, Lighthouse Ministries, build a landing page for their online Day of Giving. The director’s first draft of the content started with a message about why the organization’s annual banquet sadly needed to be canceled. That was reality, of course, but as we talked, I realized sadness would not be the reason Lighthouse supporters would donate.

I told him, “Those who come to your Day of Giving page will give because they have hope.”

Hope means to cherish a desire with anticipation. Hope is about the long game. However, in order for hope to eventually materialize into something tangible, it must be supported by a purpose and a plan.

The same goes for small business marketing. In his checklist for dramatic times, business coach and consultant Dan Gisser, M.B.A., Ph.D., put things into perspective: “The only two areas of business that drive revenue are marketing and sales. Is this COVID-19 crisis a good time to beef up, adjust or start something related to your sales and marketing?”

Chances are this is not only a good time, but also a critical time for your marketing. What does the marketing long game look like, especially online, for small businesses today?

Every Small Win Online Requires Working Smarter AND Harder

In truth, digital marketing has always been about the long game, but many small businesses get distracted and misled by short-term marketing promises, outdated approaches, and an almost magical trust in things like marketing automation. For those without a lot of marketing experience, it can be hard to distinguish between trustworthy guidance and marketing bullshit.

Even during good economic times, small businesses face a number of barriers with online marketing, the chief one being unrealistic expectations. Many people still believe entry into online marketing is fast and cheap, but over the years, it’s become highly competitive, even at the local level, requiring:

  • Big-picture thinking, strategic planning, and creative execution.
  • A lot of time and resources to develop and maintain your efforts.
  • Tools and platforms, which can be expensive and necessitate learning how to get the most out of them.
  • A broad set of specialized skills (or the budget to hire people with them), including content writing, graphic design, videography, audio recording, website development, search engine optimization, online ad platforms, and more.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, my business partner and I were working on a presentation, Small Wins In Online Marketing: Work Smarter AND Harder, for a networking and education group in Akron, Ohio, led by our friend Heather Taylor with Glitter Girl Media. Our premise was small businesses, startups, and solopreneurs:

  • Inherently understand the value of hard work because that’s what it takes to run one.
  • Must work smarter and harder for every incremental marketing win online because of the barriers they face.

In the time of COVID-19, as well as any other periods of challenge your small business may face, smart strategies, hard work, and realistic expectations are the basis of your long game in marketing.

Know What You Want to Accomplish Before You Adjust Your Marketing

As individuals and business owners, we tend to be very cautious during difficult times and with good reason. We have fewer resources at our disposal. That’s why it’s critical to identify the objectives and goals your marketing must support. Otherwise, you will end up spending too much time, energy, and money on marketing tactics that won’t ultimately help you achieve what you need to. This goes for every type of marketing a small business or solopreneur uses, including:

  • Kinds of referrals you seek
  • Types of networking events you attend virtually or (at some point) in person
  • Leads you spend the most time cultivating
  • Content on your website and how you optimize and share it
  • Calls to action you use
  • Social media where you’re most active
  • Ads and sponsorships you buy

When I talk about objectives as a marketer, I’m referring to principles / key things (three at most) you are moving toward in business. A quantitative goal is one that can be measured and indicates you’re moving in the direction of your objective. You should have at least one goal for every objective, and your objectives and goals can also help you define your audience.

Not All Marketing Strategies Apply to Every Small Business

It’s important to remember marketing is not a cookie-cutter process. The strategies you choose will depend heavily on your business objectives and goals. Most of the following strategies and tactics will apply to all small businesses, but some won’t. The implementation will also look different for every business, and success will depend on a variety of factors, including:

  • The size of your small business and the degree to which you do business online.
  • How long difficult economic times last and how they affect your specific industry.
  • How competitive your market is, as well as the size of your competitors.
  • How long you’ve been marketing online and how authoritative search engines think your content is.
  • Your approach to growing and managing your reputation.
  • The amount of effort you spend on branding and facilitating word-of-mouth marketing.

Improve Performance Basics of Your Website

Unlike social media, which I’ll get to later, your website is your own little piece of the Internet. It belongs to you, and there are several things you can do to help it perform better for your small business.

Note: With the exception of how to write title tags and meta descriptions (#3), the marketing tactics in this section (#1, 2, 4-8) come from Annalisa Hilliard, the Data Dame who’s spent the last decade learning how technical search engine optimization (SEO) fits into digital marketing strategy and applying her knowledge daily for clients.

#1: Understand the Complexity of Search Engine Visibility 

Rubics CubeBack in the early days of search engines, it was easy to achieve #1 rankings for your website in search results simply by gaming the system. Those days are long gone, and you should be suspicious of any marketer or agency that still makes that promise. (Hard to believe, but I still hear the stories.)

Today, SEO is complex and involves a broad range of tactics, such as:

  • Data and competitor analysis.
  • Technical indexing and search engine accessibility, architecture, user experience, and conversion optimization with websites.
  • Knowledge of search algorithms, as well as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.
  • Deep understanding of the holistic approach required to achieve search results.

SEO best practices do not deliver quick results. Rather, when combined with other forms of digital marketing (especially good content), SEO becomes an asset that appreciates over time.

#2: Decide If SEO Makes Sense for Your Business & Vet Providers Carefully

Some digital marketers will tell you SEO is for every business, and they may try to sell you on what amounts to “keyword sprinkling” throughout your site (often using meaningless, non-competitive phrases) with little-to-no performance tracking.

If you are a solopreneur or a business owner who uses a website mainly to build credibility as part of your networking process, then focusing on SEO probably isn’t something you should spend money on right now or maybe ever. Skip down to the next section on title tags and meta descriptions.

However, if you sell products or services online, want your site to generate leads, or have a brick-and-mortar operation you want people to discover, you should think more seriously about how “findable” your site is. With that, it’s important to remember a few things:

  1. Search results are highly personalized and device and geographically dependent now. You and a friend could type the same search into your own phones and come up with completely different results. The same might happen using laptops and tablets.
  2. If you compete with large companies regionally or nationally, you won’t be able to outspend them for competitive search terms. Your reputation, word-of-mouth referrals, and direct traffic (meaning people directly type your website address into their browsers) will be the main way people find you. Make sure your site is useful and gives them what they’re looking for in a clear, concise, and user-friendly way.
  3. Vet digital marketers / SEOs carefully. Be highly suspicious of anyone still offering #1 rankings and cautious with those who say every business needs SEO and/or claim to do everything in terms of digital marketing. We devoted an entire podcast to this topic. You can listen to it here.

#3: Create Good Title Tags and Meta Descriptions

Every site, no matter what you sell, will benefit from optimized, well-written title tags and meta descriptions on every page. Those are tiny bits of HTML code in the header of a web page that tell search engines what the page is about, and you can see them when you hover over a browser tab.

This is not technical SEO by any means. Rather, it’s SEO 101, a tried-and-true tactic. However, we still see many, many sites with poorly written, auto-generated, or completely blank title tags.

Unfortunately, the place where you add title tags and meta descriptions varies by website platform and even by template, which can sometimes make them hard to find. If you’re having trouble locating this feature, contact the developer you used for your site or the help desk with your website builder platform.

Title tags and meta descriptions are limited to a relatively small number of pixels by search engines. Translation: you don’t get much space to write. So, you’ll want to write tags and descriptions using a simulation tool. Just Google “SERP simulator” and you’ll find several. I often use this one. Make sure you toggle between desktop and mobile, which have different pixel allowances.

In most of your title tags, I recommend including your brand name or, if it’s really long, a shortened version of your brand name. Also, look at the content of each page and use words you think your ideal customer might type into a search engine to find that particular page. You can get ideas by looking at how your competitors come up in search, by searching for what you think are common terms, and watching how search engines autofill your searches as you type them.

Finally, in your meta description, focus on calls to action, such as buy, get, discover, learn, etc., and mention benefits potential customers may get. Both of these tactics are designed to encourage click-throughs.

SERP Snippet Preview

#4: Choose Your Website Platform Carefully

Many small businesses choose website builder platforms like Squarespace, Shopify, Weebly, Wix, etc. Templates are the main benefit of using a website builder because you don’t need to hire a website designer or developer. (For an in-depth explanation of the differences between website marketers, website designers, and website developers, listen to our podcast episode about that here.)

However, there are several things to consider before choosing a website builder platform over the designer/developer team:

  • You can only customize a template to a certain extent. How much customization will you need to market and sell your products and services—not just now, but also in the next few years? When it’s time to upgrade, you may have to start from scratch.
  • Dashboards aren’t always as intuitive or easy to navigate as you might expect. Many are downright clunky. We’ve discovered this for ourselves while helping clients.
  • Although some website builders have gotten better with out-of-the-box SEO, many of them are still behind. In addition, you may have to do a lot of digging to find SEO-related fields and/or pay extra for integrations that can boost site performance.
  • With website builders made especially for a particular industry (think car dealers, insurance brokers, etc.), you may have a hard time differentiating your brand because your site will look similar to others using the platform (that potentially includes your competitors). Plus, you won’t receive consideration for what’s best for your business.
  • Website builder platforms may promise customization, but you could be required to do that customization through them—for a price.

The other extreme is a completely custom site with no content management system. With that scenario, most small businesses will not have the in-house capabilities to make updates, requiring the involvement of a developer for every little change.

We are fans of WordPress, which offers the best of both worlds: extensive customization options with a user-friendly content management system. Some say WordPress is too code heavy. However, it continues to perform well in search results.

Side note: there are a number of WordPress page-builder plugins that tout drag-and-drop design, templates, etc. Unfortunately, every experience we’ve had with these plugins has proven to be frustrating for many reasons, and we recommend avoiding them.

#5: Don’t Forget Mobile Usability

Data Dames Home Page Mobile ViewMobile now owns a large percentage of search. Do you regularly check your website on mobile to make sure it looks good and functions well? If it doesn’t, this would be a good reason to hire a developer to do some site updates.

You should vet developers as carefully as you vet an SEO. It can be a challenge to find a good one, but here are some things you can look for or ask about:

  • Background and experience
  • Projects / portfolios
  • Hard coding vs. site plugins or apps. A qualified developer will prefer hard coding over plugins because, although plugins can be a quick way to get cool stuff integrated into your site, plugins also have the capacity to crash your site when updates occur.
  • If the developer you’re considering has a website, how does it function on desktop and mobile?

#6: Make Calls to Action Clear

Tell people what you want them to do clearly. Calls to action (CTA) on your site should be in keeping with your objectives and goals. For most small businesses, a “macro” (or major) CTA will be a phone call, email, or form fill. Don’t make it hard for people to find that information or confuse them with too many competing calls to action on one page.

#7: Reduce Image Size to Speed Up Load Times

Make sure images on your site are compressed because no one wants to wait for your site to load anymore. Also, it’s a search engine ranking factor. If you have a WordPress site, you can use this plugin, which compresses every image as you upload it. You can also compress images using a third-party site and then upload them to your site.

Note: load times can differ widely due to many variables, so don’t make image size one of them.

#8: Look at Your Data Analytics

Although many small business websites do not get enough traffic to have statistically significant data, I still recommend getting familiar with the data that’s being collected on your website. It will give you some insights into visitor behavior. Also, if your business grows over time, it will be really helpful to have historical data to review.

Create On-site and Off-site Content Assets

#9: Develop Content for Every Part of the Customer Journey

The way people and businesses search for what they need and want no longer corresponds to the marketing funnel concept. Instead, it’s become a journey with lots of touch points along the way. Develop content for each of those touch points.

In addition, make sure your brand identity, storytelling, and messaging are on point. If you’re not sure how, we recommend learning from trusted sources like SolBrand, Connie Collins LLC, and Pam Didner.

#10: More Value, Less Noise

boy yelling into radio micWe’re living in a time of content overload, and COVID-19 has only accelerated content production. However, many are adding to the noise without a great deal of thought. That means your target audience may be overwhelmed or even harder to reach than ever before. As Dorie Clark and Andrew Sobel noted in a LinkedIn Live session earlier this year, you will have to reach out a lot more than ever before to your current and prospective clients, but it needs to be in the right places with the right message.

Invest your time in creating content assets that are “evergreen,” meaning the ideas remain valuable over time. Content hubs, such as a resource library, are one way to do that.

Early in the pandemic shutdown (I say this even as more shutdowns loom), I spoke with a specialist in physician leadership development. At the time, she was focusing on trauma recovery, which is not only a timely topic, but also one that will stand the test of time. Her expertise was applicable then, now, and in future trauma situations physician leaders may find themselves in. Later, she could update, refresh, and repurpose this content for even more mileage.

Think about how you can do something similar for your customers.

#11: Define Your Purpose on Social Media

I understand why small businesses focus a lot on social media. It’s free to have a profile, and there are more eyeballs on social media than ever before because…COVID, economic crisis, protests, and more.

More eyeballs are great, but it’s important to consider the following:

  1. You don’t own your profile or your audience on any social media site. At best, it’s a nice rental.
  2. Social media sites can change their rules and how their platform functions any time they want.
  3. They can take your profile and your content down without your permission for any reason.
  4. You have to invest a lot of time and energy into content that may not get much traction organically.
  5. You have more competition than ever because…content overload.

It’s always better to cultivate a following on one or two social media platforms rather than have a meager presence on a bunch of them. Determine where your target audience(s) are more likely to be and spend your time and effort there. Share good content. Have conversations. Give shout-outs to business partners, collaborators, non-profits, etc. Do this consistently over time and you will see results eventually.

Keep in mind that impressions are not necessarily a good measure of success on social media. That’s more of a vanity metric. Focus instead on things like comments, shares, and website referral traffic.

#12: Focus on Your Owned Audience

Pay special attention to people who have given you permission to market directly to them via text and/or email. They are the audience you own. Segment them carefully. Send them your very best content before anyone else sees it (such as articles you’ve written but not yet posted anywhere). Entice them with exclusive offers. Encourage them to leave you reviews. Thank them for their business.

Your earned audience is worth far more than your social media following, even if it’s smaller. Treat your subscribers that way.

#13: Claim and Manage Your Google My Business listing(s)

Yes, claiming a Google My Business (GMB) listing can be a pain. I’ve been through many difficult scenarios with them over the years. However, they are an important search result and review platform for your business and should be built out to their full potential. If you need help with this, I recommend Glitter Girl Media, a company I mentioned earlier in this post.

Don’t Forget to Pace Yourself

Small business owners face a lot of challenges when it comes to digital marketing even during normal times, and 2020 has been anything but normal.

Remember, you don’t have to implement all 13 of these small business marketing strategies at once. And while they are all (relatively) affordable, tried-and-true strategies, none of them are quick fixes. You will need to apply consistent effort and have patience as you wait for them to pay off. That’s OK. This is the long game. Stay the course and pace yourself.

I wish all my fellow small business owners the very best. Data Dames Marketing will be playing the long game right along with you.