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Must-know digital marketing advice for small businesses

SearchCIO small business columnist Bryan Barringer offers a primer on marketing a small business in the digital age.

A few months back, some business partners and I started a company called ThinkDigital. We focus on providing our clients with modern and effective digital marketing methods for customer engagement/acquisition and for customer interaction. Customer engagement/acquisition and customer interaction are, respectively, the industry terms now used to describe social marketing and having a compelling Web presence.

We work with our clients to show them that these areas must be in lockstep when marketing a small business. In other words, if you are outrageously successful at driving traffic to your Web presence but the customer, once there, has a negative experience, your business will not grow and your digital marketing efforts will be wasted. The website needs to provide a compelling and consistent user experience regardless of device (smartphones, tablets, computers, wearables, etc.). Conversely, you can have a killer website that addresses everyone's needs and desires, but if no one knows it exists, again, it's a waste.

A destination site for digital customers

Now that the stage is set for the topic, let me cover each of these areas in more detail. First, let's talk briefly about Web presence -- the destination site for all the traffic you are going to drum up through the social component of digital marketing (lesson No. 2).

Consumers are more sophisticated and technologically advanced than ever before, and they have the ability to jump from one business to another based simply on the experience they are having online.

There are some very basic yet fundamental things to know when building your Web presence. To start, it is very important that you design and build your site for your target customers and not for yourself. There a millions of websites out there where the primary reason they are the way they are is because the stakeholder of the business wanted the site to look and act a certain way based on his or her own desires and misconceptions of what their target customers actually want. Spending time with a user experience (UX) expert to learn about your audience will help you avoid this common mistake in digital marketing.

Consumers are more sophisticated and technologically advanced than ever before, and they have the ability to jump from one business to another based simply on the experience they are having online. That is why you have to know your audience and what is going to motivate them to buy from you and not someone else. Fortunately for small businesses, it really doesn't matter to the consumer if you are a Fortune 100 company or the local retailer in another city miles away. If both companies offer the same product or services, the one with the better value and online experience will win the business. Know thy customer.

Digital marketing for small business customers

Another very important aspect to focus on is your customers' buying behavior and purchase trends. No one wants to be inundated with ads for products we don't buy and probably don't want. In today's digital marketplace, most consumers now see the value in being more transparent about their Internet search trends and buying behaviors, because they see the value in having their preferred retailers and service providers know more about them in order to make shopping more convenient, more cost-effective and more personal. For example, if I buy the same brand of dog food five times over the course of five months from the same online pet company, that company should proactively send me a brand-specific discount coupon for my sixth bag of food. And by "send," I mean it should be in the form of either a pop-up or push notification when I visit the site the next time or a specific email to just me based on my buying trend.

This example is why marketing a small business is so different from the way it was even 12 months ago. I am not here to tear down the reasons and "value" of traditional marketing forms like print, radio and TV, but I will say that, based on my experience, these broad-stroke types of marketing are no longer effective at driving traffic to the online places where many consumers are researching and shopping for goods and services. Consumers are much more likely to shop for products from certain vendors based on word-of-mouth recommendations from those they know. Only now, the word of mouth is often transmitted digitally -- hence the need for digital marketing methods. Ask any one of the 1.45 billion active users of Facebook. In our Facebook timeline, we now see ads for products and services that we have purchased, that our friends are talking about and that we have searched for on Google just minutes before checking out Facebook. This is social marketing at its most impressive.

Less marketing, more meaning

Now think of your small business and how to engage your target customers even more: Market to them where they spend their time, which is less in front of a TV or listening to the radio and significantly more online. We strongly suggest you use digital marketing channels such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and other sites like Pinterest and LinkedIn. Through these channels, a small business is literally charged dollars and cents to promote marketing messages and to hit a greater number of a more specific group of people. The key to this is, once again, knowing your audience and then generating content on these social channels that promote your brand and offering. As you study the analytics of your customers and who they are and what they are buying, continue to tailor your digital marketing to them both as a group and as individuals.

One of the key messages my business partners and I will be launching in June via our own social marketing campaign is "less is more." That is, less messaging and marketing aimed at a large and generic group of users and, instead, more messaging that is relevant to a specific customer or segment of customers.

About the author:
Bryan Barringer is an independent enterprise mobility expert and noted speaker specializing in user adoption, UX/UI design and consumer engagement. A serial entrepreneur, Bryan recently founded ThinkDigital, which helps companies make the leap to digital business. The firm based in Memphis, Tenn., builds consumer-focused, multichannel solutions for businesses with coordinated social engineering and back-office systems integrations for a total digital transformation.

Next Steps

For more startup advice, check out Bryan's columns on perfecting the investor pitch and hiring the right team.

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- What is the role of the Chief Marketing Technologist?
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