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How to promote and sell by using the internet


Almost every small business can use the power of the internet and its associated spinoffs to market their brand and sell their wares. But knowing which areas to target can be tricky, says David Adams

It may be more important for some businesses than for others, but pretty much every small business now needs digital technologies – websites, social media, blogs, online video and others – to help market the business, sell goods or services, and interact with customers, clients, suppliers and potential investors or staff. 

But there is so much that you could do with digital that it is hard to know where to begin. “Start with who your customers are,” says Jim Bowes, Chief Executive at digital consultancy Manifesto. “Where are they, in digital terms, and where do they go to find what they’re interested in?”

For most businesses, the first step is to make their website and social media presence appealing to current or prospective clients. That means making it as easy as possible to find your site and navigate around it, regardless of the type of device a visitor is using. But the key element is a good understanding of who you want to visit the site, and of what they are looking for. 

Using search engine optimisation (SEO) to tailor your site to probable search terms will make it more likely that more people will find the site. The FSB Business Profiling online tool can help in this respect – see

All right on the site

On the site, it is often a good idea to provide more than just factual information about your company and its products or services, as well as a ‘buy’ button. “A good blog or news section on a website, regularly updated with fresh content, is often a great way to attract attention,” says Joe Friedlein, Managing Director at another digital specialist, Browser Media. “A blog allows you to comment on the industry you work in and show thought leadership.” Video content can also be useful, on your own website and/or Facebook page, but also posted on public platforms such as YouTube.

We’ve all had bad experiences with unwanted email. But if it is used well, email marketing can help to cultivate a loyal customer base. South Wales-based printing products and services provider Screentec claims to have had huge success with email marketing. “We use the website to create leads,” says Managing Director Darren James. “If we have someone’s email address, we can engage with them. It’s about being there when they need you.” 

The FSB member also manages customer interactions through Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Mr James claims the strategy delivers around 20 new corporate clients per month, half of which return to make further purchases.

While in the past a handful of the company’s clients were responsible for 70 per cent of turnover, today, largely because of the online strategy, the company has more than 600 customers, with the largest billed for less than 5 per cent of turnover. 

Go to market

For small businesses selling direct to consumers, one obvious way to gain visibility is to work with a well-established online marketplace, such as eBay or Amazon. FSB member Jane Vanroe is owner, Chief Designer and the only full-time employee of Vanroe, a manufacturer of luxury compact mirrors. The company has now become an Amazon Beauty Brand. Its mirrors are designed in the UK, manufactured in Asia, then stored in Amazon warehouses before being distributed to customers in the UK, Europe and the US. About 80 per cent of sales now come via Amazon. 

The company also uses a Facebook page for various interactions with customers, including discussion of vintage compact mirrors, a subject about which Ms Vanroe has in the past published blog posts and video material – in fact, she is still being contacted by people who have just come across content she posted on YouTube several years ago. 

But how do you use digital in this way if interacting with your business is likely to be seen by many customers as a chore? B2B insurance broker PolicyBee, a purely online business, sells professional indemnity, public liability, employers’ liability and directors’ insurance.

“We’re realistic: for most people buying insurance is an unpalatable task,” says PolicyBee Head of Content Nick Green. “We have tried social media campaigns to engage our audience, but in the end people don’t really want to talk to their insurance broker very often. Fair enough. Why should they?”

Instead, PolicyBee has made its website a valued source of expert knowledge and advice, incorporating a blog and a section called ‘The School of Risk’, keeping customers up to date with changes affecting insurance. The firm also plans to make more use of email for education and marketing, with campaigns based on specific topics such as cyber crime.

Members can also now register for FSB’s new free secure online marketplace, giving them the opportunity to sell their products or services to other members – the idea is to extend this to non-members further down the line. For more information and to register your own products and services, visit 

Build a community

Whatever the shape of their digital strategy, most small businesses, particularly those selling direct to the consumer, will need to interact directly with clients or customers online sometimes – acknowledging or reacting to customer referrals and reviews on websites such as Checkatrade or TripAdvisor, for example. 

But if a business can go beyond this, it can gain multiple benefits through building an online community of customers. It can, for example, act as a sounding board for new ideas, or provide a pool of potential investors. 

Luxury men’s bathroom goods supplier Thomas Clipper supplies shaving equipment and accessories. Launched in 2014, it is largely an online company, although its goods are also available at Fortnum & Mason in London and at J. Press in New York. 

Thomas Clipper was launched on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter. The initial investors, and many of its customers, have become part of the firm’s ‘community’. The company interacts with them via email, podcasts and social media. For example, it may seek customers’ opinions of a proposed product before building a prototype. “Crowdfunding is a way to strengthen engagement with customers, and a relatively low-cost way to grow your brand,” says Co-Founder Antonio Weiss. 

Getting social

One way to increase online interaction with consumers is to pay for advertising services on social media. Paid advertising on Facebook, for example, can in theory enable highly targeted marketing. Some businesses that have tried this have been unsatisfied with the direct returns generated by this sort of activity. But most of us know that interacting with brands via social media isn’t really about direct conversion into sales, anyway. 

That’s not to say it can’t generate revenue. Claire Fenwick is Managing Director of a small firm of land surveyors, Spatial Dimensions, which she launched five years ago and which now employs 10 people. The business uses Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. “We have definitely got work out of using social media,” she says. “Our stats show Instagram gets the most landing page hits, but Twitter, with the talking, the engagement and the advice we provide, is our most successful platform for turning social media into paid work.” 

But how can you work out which platforms to use? “Don’t do too much,” says Sharon Stevens-Cash, Director at consultancy Gravity Digital. “If you’re trying to produce one blog post per week, tweeting five times a day, on LinkedIn and running different projects for the website, you may be setting yourself up to fail. Make sure you can afford to do things properly and you have enough time.”

Expert advice

Many businesses will benefit from at least some support from a consultant. You could also use services such as Brainbroker, an online system that enables small firms and other businesses to access a network of freelance experts in digital, online marketing, website design and other relevant skills; and/or a range of software tools for web design, data management, digital marketing and other tasks. 

FSB also now offers members discounted access to a Business Profiling service, Handle, which provides a dashboard view of the digital ‘profile’ of their business created by their website, social media activity, customer feedback, credit score and other financial information. Members can then receive advice on how they might improve their performance and compare their scores to those of other companies. For more information on FSB Business Profiling, see

Whatever you want to do with digital, a strategic approach is essential, says Martin McTague, Policy Director at FSB. “You need to be thinking about what incorporating digital technology in the business would entail and what outcomes you want to see,” he says. “Then you need to evaluate the strategy at regular intervals and tweak as needed.”

You need some patience, says Screentec’s Mr James. “It does take a while, but if you engage with it and buy into it properly, I’ve not seen a business it won’t work for,” he says. “Everything we do is an investment – we don’t look at it as a cost. You’ve got to look at the lifetime value of the customer.”

Ultimately, digital can make it easier to find – or lose – customers. But for those businesses prepared to use it, there is a whole world of knowledge and technology to use, which is easily accessible and often surprisingly affordable. Whatever your line of business, there is a way to make digital work for your company.  

A digital operation in bloom

Plants and seed producer and FSB member Mr Fothergill’s is based near Newmarket in Suffolk, employs about 100 staff and has a turnover of just under £20 million. This well established brand – if you or a close relative has any interest in gardening you will recognise its logo immediately – has been running a digital operation, based on its website, for more than 10 years. 

Retail Marketing Manager Ian Cross confirms that, as you might suspect, many customers are aged 45 or over. But, he says, it would be wrong to assume they are not also online. Mr Fothergill’s online sales increase at a healthy rate every year, and many customers are keen to interact with the company via Facebook and Twitter. 

The website has also become a valued repository of gardening information, featuring a comprehensive advice section and a popular blog, including ‘how to’ video content. 

Over the past three to four years, the company has also increased social media activity. Facebook and Twitter are the platforms most used, with posts and tweets linked back to the blog and website. The company also uses LinkedIn for some B2B interactions. 

“People like to talk but not to be sold to,” says Mr Cross. “The primary objective was to get onto those platforms, talk to people and learn what’s important to them.” Mr Fothergill’s has also considered using Instagram and Pinterest, but decided against them for the time being. 

Overall, the company has a clear strategy, says Mr Cross: to build on progress to date. “Keeping it going and relevant gets more difficult as the numbers grow,” he says. “But at the moment it’s going in the right direction.”

David Adams is a freelance business journalist