Your business v. the business of digital marketing

I met with a prospective client this morning. This client is a sole proprietor who makes many other people’s lives better through health and wellness services. Her coaching and calm, quiet leadership help people become more fit and less stressed. Yes, she is a yoga instructor.

In thinking through a marketing program for new services she is launching I was reminded that many small businesses aren’t in the business of digital marketing. They are in the business of whatever their product or service offers their customers. To read any modern marketing advice, you’d think they all have to become expert in social media, video marketing, SEO, SEM, Adwords, email marketing and digital display ads. They should spend more time each day cultivating the digital relationship with their market than on their actual business. Or they should spend a fortune on an agency who does all of this for them and who, somehow, manages to osmose the business person’s subject matter expertise.

There are books and books that profess to make it easy and allow you to do any of these things in “an hour a day”. Yet when you add up the single hours for each category, you end up with a full work day of nothing but digital marketing and social media. When does the business fit in?

My approach with this client was, not surprisingly, analytics centric. This business cannot afford to do it all and it is questionable whether every path would yield value. So we’ll start small. A basic website that can capture email addresses and offer value through content. Traditional ads in print in the local area with CTAs that land on the website with tracking codes or landing URLs so we can see what works and what doesn’t and adjust the plan. A predictable, if infrequent, email campaign that offers tips and sustains mindshare, again with measurement. Asking real customers where they would expect to see this business online leading to a basic presence on one social media channel to start. Smart use of words in all content for SEO value with measurement so that when we can afford the time to invest in SEM, we have a well-informed starting point. And more non-digital marketing such as free trial classes for employees from major companies in the area and word of mouth through existing clients.

In a variation on “measure twice, cut once” or “if you can’t afford to do it right the first time, when will you ever have time to do it again”, I found myself advocating for measurement from the get-go. Analytics isn’t easy for a non-technical small businessperson. They may have to pay for help. The time and or money invested in measurement is a powerful guide to directing the rest of their marketing investments to optimal outcomes and they can’t afford to spend unwisely — with their time or their money. The familiar mantra of experiment, measure, experiment, measure and so on and so on fits small businesses too. They might just be testing serially where a large company could afford the people or budget to test more things in parallel.

Why is better than which

With our intense focus on analytics, experiments, A/B testing and big data, we’re living in rich times as far as data driven, continuous improvement of marketing. Yet most of us would agree that marketing is both art and science. If we know one version of an ad works better than another by looking at the analytics data, can we say for sure why?

Surely knowing why one ad performs better than another will accelerate our ability to generate the greatest result, the fastest in the future, right? When analytics tells us which is the winner, shouldn’t we take the time to explore why?

I was pondering this very question today and it occurred to me that a classic ad critique might be a good way to document what is truly different between the ads. Not just the apparent wording, graphic, color theme or placement differences, but, rather, the broader marketing differences. By comparing two ads for target, objectives, content, primary benefit, image and creative execution, it may become more obvious what is really different and why one worked better than the other. This is as applicable to a landing page as it is to an online ad, paid search placement or inbound marketing content item.

Don’t throw random acts of marketing at your experiments, use decided alternative approaches so you can learn more about your market’s preferences, interests, sources, needs and responses.

Tale of two neighbors

When it comes to marketing strategy it is important to consider your business, especially when it comes to online advertising and social media. Let’s consider two of my neighbors’ businesses.

I have two neighbors that have small businesses and need to do marketing. One is a plumber covering a few towns in the area and the other is a gadget maker selling his products online worldwide. Neither is a large business.

The plumber needs to be well known in the towns he covers and needs to be visible and add value to the conversation in places where residents can be found (online and offline). Social media can help him but he needs to go where the residents are instead of trying to bring them to follow him. Personally I hope to need and pay attention to a plumber as infrequently as possible but when I need one I’m calling the one that is front of mind. A social media channel or page full of plumbing tips is likely to be of moderate value to him at best. That isn’t to say he shouldn’t have a basic presence since some customers will start their search in social media but if the choice is to do a paying repair job or spend another hour adding content to his social streams, he should prioritize the customer. His highest priority online besides being found is probably having good reviews so his social presence should consider positive reviews as a goal and consider how he can engage with his customers to suppor that result. If I have a problem I think I can solve myself I might find a YouTube video on how to do it far more useful than a series of tweets.

The gadget maker makes a variety of gadgets and is always inventing more. His primary products right now are battery eliminators for devices that are battery powered but don’t have AC adapters or even a place to plug in an AC adapter. Basically he sells a battery shaped piece of plastic with battery contacts and a wire that goes to a small power supply. He has more cause to develop an audience of his own as he will introduce more gadgets that will appeal to the same audience over time. He can also benefit from hearing from them about their additional needs. He should also hangout where his customers do. Guitar players’ “stompboxes” are a prime market for him (he’s also a musician and recording engineer) and adding value to the conversation in a guitar player electronics group will yield both new invention ideas and prospects for his current gadgets. When he comes out with something new, I personally want to be one of the first to know. I’ll follow him on twitter and facebook. I’d even hangout with him on Google+ in order to see a new gadget in development or talk about the problem of AC hum in stompboxes and how floating power supplies might be able to solve it.

There are uses for social media for both of these small businesses. The tools that make the most sense and the ways that they can leverage them are not identical. Neither is the way they should measure them. The gadget maker’s primary goals are sales, leads and ideas. The plumber’s primary goals are awareness and reputation. Of course awareness helps leads and word of mouth awareness and reputation don’t happen without sales. Still, beginning with the end in mind leads to better results so we decide on primary goals and build our strategy around those goals.

Both can benefit from online and offline advertising but the demographics will be quite different. Search ads with geographical scope may be the plumber’s best tool. For the gadget maker it may be display ads targeted to specific audiences by interest and a wide open geography. Again, search matters to the gadget maker and interest matters to the plumber but we pick a major to lead our strategy.

All of these things we’ve discussed can and should be measured so we can tune our execution and improve our results.