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Digital marketing: Harnessing the potential of the internet to promote your business

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We live in a digital world where customers expect businesses to fulfil their orders and respond to their queries and complaints almost immediately.

For small business owners, the advance in technology can be overwhelming. But a failure to get to grips with digital marketing – and in particular social media – can cost them money.


“There is a worrying lack of confidence when it comes to digital skills among many small business owners,” says Sonali Parekh, FSB’s Head of Policy. “That needs to be addressed to make sure small firms can capitalise on digital technology, which can improve engagement with existing and potential customers.”

The FSB report Learning the Ropes: Skills and Training in Small Businesses found that 26 per cent of small business owners, particularly sole traders, lack confidence in basic digital skills. One-fifth (22 per cent) worry that their employees’ poor technical skills are stopping their business becoming more digital – and 25 per cent of small businesses do not consider digital skills to be important to growth. 

Katrina Cliffe is Managing Director of digital marketing agency KC Communications, which she formed three years ago. It now has six staff and a £350,000 turnover. “Lots of companies are daunted by digital,” she says.

“They know they should be doing it, but worry they are not seeing any real return on investment (ROI).”

Her agency uses Google Analytics to provide in-depth reports on how well a digital strategy is working. She urges businesses to devise a plan based on their website, and to allocate time to writing blogs or Twitter posts. “In a digital world, your website is your shop window,” she says. “So before you use social media to drive visits to your website, make sure people can find what they need and that the site is easy to navigate.”

When it comes to buying online, consumers go through a ‘purchasing funnel’, which includes comparing and researching products. Businesses need a blend of online PR, social media and search. 

Last year the Government launched the Digital Skills Partnership supported by technology trade body TechUK. Its Policy Manager for Skills, Doniya Soni, says slow digital adoption is a problem for British business. “We need digital skills to be taught more effectively in schools and to encourage more digital apprentices,” she says.

“Government investment will also help people to retrain and learn digital skills to plug the skill gaps.”

The following methods will help you make the most of digital marketing: 

Invest in search engine optimisation (SEO)

Search engines drive the majority of online traffic to a company’s website. Joe Friedlein, Managing Director of Browser Media, says local SEO is particularly powerful. “With the explosive use of search on mobile phones, make sure Google knows exactly where you are and what you offer,” he says. “If your business has a physical presence, ensure you rank well on localised searches and are visible on Google maps.” 

Use Google AdWords

Google AdWords is an online advertising service where businesses pay to display advertising copy, product listings and video content. Its pay-per-click (PPC) model helps small businesses target specific audiences. 

PPC Account Manager at Bicester-based agency Digital Gearbox, Matt Lowson, says PPC advertising supports SEO and website content while reducing the cost per lead.

Think about keywords and how people search. Consider phrases such as ‘boutique hotels in Devon’ rather than simply ‘hotels’.


Make the most of social media

Oly 60 per cent of small companies use social media, and only 42 per cent have a blog, according to Office for National Statistics (ONS) data analysed by company formation firm Turner Little. Yet three in 10 consumers want to interact with businesses and find out more about products and services using social media. 

Social media pages should link to the company website, while a regular blog positions a firm as a thought-leader and boosts its SEO, says Turner Little. Many customers post views and complaints on social media, and 77 per cent of Twitter users feel more positive about a brand when their tweet has been replied to, according to the ONS.

Use email marketing

Email marketing is cheap and software is available to manage, automate and track a campaign. Audiences can be segmented to improve targeting, while calls to action encourage impulse purchases and website visits. Make the content topical and relevant so recipients share the emails. 


However, General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) imposes rules on holding and using people’s contact data. FSB members can access legal advice through the legal helpline. For more information, visit fsb.org.uk/benefits 

Don’t forget video

Good video content can boost search results – many people prefer to discover more about products and services by watching a video, particularly on Facebook and YouTube. Ensure your content is high-quality and something people will want to share. ‘How to’ videos are particularly popular.

Check online review sites

Smaller businesses can respond quickly and personally to unhappy customers who write disparaging comments on review sites such as TripAdvisor or Trustpilot, potentially turning something negative into positive marketing. However, a poor review can hit the bottom line.

Set up Google alerts or use tracking services such as ReviewTrackers, and respond within 24 hours. Good reviews can be used in PR and marketing. FSB members can also access the PR/crisis management helpline; see fsb.org.uk/benefits for more information. 

Align strategy to business goals

Data enables businesses to be more results-driven, but the digital strategy must be aligned to the business objectives. Is the aim to generate sales or raise brand awareness? 


Does the website have a call to action? Are you using the right language? Have people learned enough about your products and services before you ask them to purchase? 

Boost digital skills internally

The more people internally who understand the potential of digital technology and can analyse the data, the better placed a company is to boost the ROI and hold a digital agency to account. 

Why are online sales falling? Have the people visiting the website changed or is the website content ineffective? FSB runs digital marketing training courses and Google offers free online support through the Google Digital Garage.

Allocate an effective budget

Deciding how much to invest in digital marketing is difficult. Tim Butler, Managing Director of digital marketing consultancy Innovation Visual, suggests looking at the gross profit generated over the average customer’s lifespan, and making this the maximum spend to attract a new customer.

If a company generates £10,000 per customer per year and the aim of a digital marketing campaign is to grow the business by £120,000, then it needs to attract 12 new customers.

If the business spends £1,000 to get one new customer who will be worth £10,000, then the business is £9,000 up on the deal.  

SEO expert fine-tunes strategy

Company Debt is an insolvency hub that helps directors of other companies manage their financial problems. 

Founded in 2007, it has increased its investment in digital marketing and appointed search engine optimisation (SEO) expert Piers Ede as its Head of Digital.

“The hardest part is devising the right digital strategy and knowing how much to spend,” says Mr Ede. 

He believes businesses must consider how their audiences use digital channels and social media. Are existing and potential customers likely to be using Facebook more than Twitter, for example? 

Good content is also crucial. “We are hard-wired to respond to stories – even the smallest business can write one blog post a month,” he says. “We write about topical and relevant issues.”

In the past few months, Company Debt has published articles on the Autumn Budget and the collapse of the construction firm Carillion.

It is also investing in new technology such as Voice Search, where people speak into their phone to get advice. “They might say ‘we have bailiffs at our door, what should we do?’ This requires different content, with short answers providing quick and immediate advice,” says Mr Ede.

The company has also identified key influencers to help promote its products and services. “Accountants regularly share our content with their own 
clients,” he adds. 

Social media focus

Pandora Jacobs co-founded natural light solution company Limitless – based in Frome, Somerset – in 2008 and taught herself digital marketing.
 
“It was trial and error to see what worked,” she says. “I started with the picture site Pinterest, because our products are high-end and about daylight and sunlight, so we rely on images.” 

 
Ms Jacobs says small business owners must be clear about what they are trying to achieve from digital marketing, and remember how they personally search and buy online. “From experience, I would say the more a company can create a ‘noise’ online, consistently and with clever, short text and plenty of pictures, the more potential business will come its way.”
 
Among the techniques that work for Limitless are:
● Scheduling online posts – using the social media management platform Hootsuite – up to 30 days in advance
● Using Twitter to grow its audience by posting interesting, educational or funny information
● Posting pictures with a relevant URL on Pinterest to showcase its products. Pinterest is the second most popular way customers find the brand, after its website
● Analysing the success of any campaign using Google Analytics, which reveals the most popular pages on the website, who’s looking at them and for how long. This makes it easier to adjust and tailor future content
 
Ms Jacobs advises: “If you are new to digital marketing, just take it one step at a time.”