In today's world, where consumers live on their laptops and mobile devices, most small businesses know the importance of online marketing—a valuable and often cheaper way to reach customers.
"When done well, online marketing can save failing businesses, create profitable new opportunities, and find talent for both small businesses and nonprofits," says says Geri Stengel, a marketing expert and founder of Ventureneer.com, a firm that provides advice to "socially-responsible" small businesses and nonprofits.
But while many small businesses dabble in the area—by taking out an odd ad here and there or starting a company Facebook account—few are using it effectively, says Stengel.
"Much of the skepticism about online marketing seems to come from a lack of training in using tactics effectively and from not understanding and using metrics in a way that guides good decision-making," she said. "Power-users—those who devote more than 25 hours per week to social media—have done their homework and are confident that their investment of time reaps benefits."
So how can your firm become an effective "power-user" of online marketing tools? Stengel cited these five questions to help guide the way.
Who do you want to reach?
This is important. Are you hoping to hone in on a small local audience or are you hoping to attract customers from farther away? Is your target audience young or old? Male or female? Web saavy or not so much? Different target audiences will be best reached through different methods so its very important to first know your target audience.
What are your goals and objectives?
Do you want to generate new business? Retain current customers? These goals will likely be best served by different tools and methods like knowing you're target audience—figure out this first.
Which platform or medium is best suited to your goals and market?
Once you have determined your goals and target market, now think about the best way to reach them. Social media can be a smart way to target young people or promote customer service, while you would likely be best using e-mail to reach a more elderly audience.
How will you evaluate your campaign for continuous improvement?
Metrics, metrics, metrics. If you don't track your success (or lack thereof), you will have no way to know if your investment is working.
How much do you want to spend?
The cost of online marketing tools vary significantly so this is a big one. While one company may benefit from spending to advertise on a major news website, other companies may want to stick to smaller, cheaper methods.
Hiring people with the know-all for more complicated online marketing tools can also be a big investment.
Most importantly, don't be afraid to start small, taking one type of online marketing at a time, says Stengel.
"Small businesses have been using e-mail longer than other online marketing categories and rate themselves more effective at using it," she said. "It's easier to learn to do e-mail well compared to social media, search engine optimization or social networking advertising."
Photo credit: Ventureneer.com