The world of digital marketing is vast. Thousands of blogs trumpet the latest tactics. But they rarely recommend a workable strategy for small businesses. There is too much information to process. Too many tactics to test. How can we get a return on our investment of money and time?
Marketing gurus imply digital marketing is simple once you know the incantation. Rub the lamp. Use magical phrases in your sales copy; post a silly video on social media. Open the floodgates to endless sales. Some ingenious tactics do get results, but it is good to know their limits.
What Digital Marketing Can't Do
Introverts like me dream of owning an automated internet business. Isn't it possible that digital marketing can create a perpetual motion cash machine? We would love to generate predictable income without human intervention. When fancy struck, we could create a new product to keep our customers engaged. This idealized business does not need the messiness of customer conversations. It relies on the pioneering vision of the owner for success.
Digital marketing is no substitute for real-world relationships. Friendships grow through painful conversations with people who can choose to ignore us. Effective marketing relies on interpersonal connections to understand the market.
It all begins with a hypothesis. "My potential customers have a problem X and are willing to pay for a solution. I can offer them a solution Y, and they will be happy to buy." We test this hypothesis by making an offer.
This hypothesis predicts the needs and wants of our customers. As trust grows, we share our guarded aspirations with new friends. But business relationships truncate this process. Businesses solve felt needs in return for money, so we cut to the chase. "Does this problem bother you? If so, I can help you." We pretend this discussion is just business. Business relationships are transactional, but they are still meaningful—never just business.
But don't some businesses avoid direct customer relationships? What about e-commerce?
E-commerce tools automate the sale of digital products. It can even produce income while we sleep. This sort of passive income is the lazy man's dream. But creating income this way is the same as other forms of business. We ask a real person, with hopes, fears, and finite resources, to make a purchasing decision. They trade their dollars for our solution.
Long before we made that passive sale, a writer thought deeply. She had a sales conversation to clarify the customer's motivation. Using that knowledge, she wrote sales copy that moved them to action. E-commerce scales sales conversations; it fosters human connections.
Introspection only goes so far; breakthrough insights come through thoughtful conversations. We risk failure if we hide from candid feedback. Why not leave the hermitage and seek out honest criticism?
What Digital Marketing Can Do
Marketing cannot replace the messiness of human interaction. There is no perpetual motion machine that produces endless wealth. But what can it do?
Power Your Sales Conversations
About 20 years ago, I managed a small-town bookstore in Wooster, Ohio. Sales were slow but steady. It seemed wise to be part of the local business community. I needed friends, and I wanted to offer bulk purchases to business leaders. To that end, I joined a small business referral network. I enjoyed getting to know others and began to build some friendships. After lunch, each member had a few seconds to answer the question, "What do you do?" Each speaker took their turn; every answer professional. My dread grew; words fled. I mumbled, "We sell books. Anything you need."
My dismal marketing skills did not grow the business much before I moved on. It was an opportunity lost. My answer should have been about the purchaser and not about my product. Mediocrity in sales and marketing back then taught me a lesson I continue to learn today. Self-absorption is the enemy of a profitable business.
Hiding within myself, I could not imagine a conversation that focussed on the needs of others. It would have been easy to share a plan for the success of my local business compatriots. They would have envisioned how to avoid failure and achieve success—with my help.
What should I have offered that lunch table crowd? I had a simple goal: growing our bulk book sales. A simple question would have sufficed. "Are you and your employees working at peak productivity?" The answer would have been negative. There is always room for improvement. I had a plan to improve productivity through education.
"We offer a list of suggested book titles on business, sales, marketing, and personal growth. Use our catalog to boost your learning as a company. Get a discount when you buy in bulk. Whatever your growth challenge, we have the learning resources you need."
That would have been good. But almost any answer would have been better than my halting, "We sell books."
Amplify Your Brand Message
Effective digital marketing tells a compelling brand story. Re-broadcasting your brand through digital channels amplifies your message. It cuts through the noise with a simple roadmap for success. It says, "I understand your challenge, and I can help you overcome it."
In December of 2008, I pivoted my solo design studio into the marketing space. Explaining how to spell my business name wearied me. It sounded pretentious. It was time to move on. Success was on the way when I left Design Delineations behind to launch Abound Marketing.
But my plan had a serious flaw. I underestimated the value of brand names. They encode your reputation; they improve with time. What's worse, I misunderstood marketing. I bragged about the skills I possessed, the technologies I used, and the services I offered. I drowned my offer in the noise of my insecure braggadocio. What transformation did I create in my customers' businesses?
By the end of 2009, my fate was unavoidable. Abound Marketing had failed.
How much did the economic downturn of 2009 affect this outcome? I will never know for certain. But I am sure my marketing did not work. Boasting and muddled mumbles could not penetrate paralysis, fear, and uncertainty.
With a clear message, Abound Marketing could have survived. Using all the channels available, I could have broadcast a compelling story. I could have helped small businesses weather the economic downturn and market crash. A clear plan for success would have contrasted with the pessimism of the time.
Against a tumultuous background, purpose animates your design and content. A well-worded strategy stands out. Your business is findable because business owners search for plans in tough times.
I missed an opportunity. I didn't say, "I see you, and I have a plan to help you reach your goal."
Keep Your Business in Front of Your Customers
Social media, search marketing, and email marketing can tell your story bit by bit. Your scheduled messages in inboxes show staying power and generosity.
Daily, your potential customers see your business offering advice, tactics, and strategies they can put in place—for free. Someday, they will need to buy a product or service you offer. When they pick up their phone to make a call, whose phone will ring? Yours, or a phone on the desk of an unheard-of competitor?
The answer is obvious.
Turn Weak Ties into Strong Connections
Most LinkedIn job referrals come through second or third-level connections. According to a 2016 Fast Company article, recommendations flow from weak ties because the risk is low. If the company does not hire your referral, no one has hurt feelings.
The flow of job referrals reveals how word spreads through social networks. On social media, our strong connections see most of what we share. These people already refer business to us. Their attention is unlikely to cause a dramatic leap in our marketing results.
But our most fruitful engagement comes with those to whom we are not directly connected.
Our second and third-level connections overlap with those of our strong relationships. In this extended network, we see the power of social networking. Messages shared on LinkedIn flow out through those links to new markets. A loose connection can inquire about your reputation through closer friends. Social networking draws weak ties closer, turning strangers into friends and clients.
What to Do Next
Choose your marketing advisors with care. Adopt marketing tactics with even greater discernment. As a small business owner, you have limited attention, so put just a few tactics in place. Don't mimic your large competitors. Success begins with a clear marketing message that connects with your customers. A brand story that resonates with buyers will give you a return on your time and money.
For a few simple ways to improve your digital marketing, see 3 Ways You Can Boost Your Website Results.