By Joy Jordan

Digital marketing is here to stay. It’s not a fad or a passing fancy. According to data gathered by HubSpot, 81 percent of shoppers conduct online research before making big purchases; mobile commerce makes up 30 percent of all U.S. ecommerce; 72 percent of consumers who did a local search visited a store within five miles; and 51 percent of smartphone users have discovered a new company or product when conducting a search on their smartphone.

It’s clearly making an impact on the business community. Yet many business owners and managers are still unsure about whether it’s right for their business, or how to go about creating a plan of action.

Th­is month, we will host another event in our Marketing Summit series, focusing on digital marketing. We spoke with some of the conference speakers, who share an overview of their approach to digital marketing. Th­ey speak frankly about the pros and cons and ins and outs, and their insight is sure to help many small businesses.

“When creating a digital marketing plan, the tools come LAST. Do not choose which channels to focus on before determining your goals and identifying your target audience. You have to know why you are using digital marketing and what value you are providing before setting up accounts across different platforms. Otherwise you will end up spinning your wheels and not getting the results that you want.”
Julia Campbell, Author of Storytelling in the Digital Age

Pros and cons

Like any marketing method, digital marketing will not have the same impact for all businesses, and it’s not a panacea.

Local entrepreneur Sean Fitzpatrick, founder and owner of Cape Cloth, has used digital marketing and social media extensively to launch and grow his business.

“Th­e pros are the ability to communicate a story to a massive audience for relatively low cost if you are creative and know your demographic,” says Fitzpatrick. “Additionally, the data you receive from certain services can help you identify and target demographics. ­The cons are the amount of information people are inundated with on a daily basis and trying to cut through that noise in order to achieve your goals. More and more services are charging for prime placement, putting a higher premium on knowing your audience and how they consume information.”

The ability for businesses to target a wider demographic at an affordable cost is one of the primary benefits of digital marketing, says Colin Haviland of Boston Web Marketing.

“Companies can utilize countless avenues to reach potential clients, such as SEO, Facebook ads, AdWords, email marketing and more. ­This is also a good route to take for startups, not only because digital marketing is cost-effective, but companies can grow their reputation extremely quickly.

“If you’re doing digital marketing correctly, you’re not going to experience any setbacks,” notes Haviland. “You should be mindful of negative reviews and comments, however. Once you start building your online reputation, there are always going to be people ready to critique your company. When businesses aren’t following the ‘laws of Google’ this can potentially hurt your business. Often when we see companies doing digital marketing on their own, we’ll see duplicate content, spam links, and keyword stuffing, which could result in a decrease in rankings.”

Bobbie Carlton, founder of Carlton PR & Marketing, Innovation Nights, and Innovation Women, points to the data measurement tools as being particularly valuable.

“Th­ere are so many aspects of digital marketing that make it bigger, faster, and stronger than traditional marketing but my favorite is the ability to track and measure results. Tell me where that lead came from! Show me the path it took and let me replicate it … again and again and again!

“Conversely, one of the downsides of digital marketing is the ability to replicate anything you do, again and again and again,” adds Carlton. “Some people use digital marketing tactics with a ‘set and forget it’ mentality, and pay the price. We had a client who came to us for a marketing diagnostic because they had spent $17,000 on Google AdWords without a single lead. Ouch! Someone had plunked down a credit card, wrote a quick ad, and opened the flood gates to the Google Content Network. Google, in its infinite wisdom, placed the ad, intended for credit union CEOs, on MySpace. No wonder there were no leads or conversions.”

“We’re big fans of a mix of digital and IRL marketing – once you fill up the top of the funnel with digitally acquired leads, where do you go from there? As you nurture these leads and qualify them, depending on what kind of product you are selling, there might come a time when you need to get face-to-face. And, for many companies, they still need that one-to-many model, and so that’s why we see a proliferation of events, and we’ve been building up InnovationWomen.com. This is the environment when you need to be ready to go “live” at any moment.”
Bobbie Carlton, Carlton PR & Marketing, Innovation Nights, and Innovation Women

Ch-ch-ch-changes

Technology changes rapidly, and with it, the nuances of participation in digital marketing. For smaller businesses or solo entrepreneurs, it can be challenging to keep up with all the latest and greatest tools available. From new ways to measure progress to new social media sites, there’s always something to learn.

“Certainly, algorithms have had an effect on all digital marketing,” says Fitzpatrick, “but overall it’s the speed of how the technology changes and quickly identifying what social networks and digital marketing practices hold the most value for your business and adapting as quickly as possible to utilize them. ­The Internet and social media aren’t going anywhere, yet some organizations still continue to lag behind when it comes to basics like web presence and mobile marketing.”

Haviland also points to algorithms and mobile as being areas of great change.

“Digital marketing is constantly changing, so we always need to stay on top of things. Google is putting more of an emphasis on mobile-friendly sites as well as sites that are fully secure. Th­ere are more and more algorithm changes, which are targeting slow-loading websites as well. Mark Zuckerberg has updated Facebook’s algorithm this year, and we’re expected to see some major changes with Facebook for businesses. ­This means companies might need to change the way they’re pushing out posts and they should start to consider paid advertising. Th­e list of changes can go on and on. Even digital marketing shifts that seem minuscule can have a major impact on your website’s performance, whether it’s the increase in character count for meta descriptions or updates to AdWords.”

For brands that need to establish a presence in the marketplace, particularly with the consumer and retail market, the use of paid online influencers has greatly increased in recent years.

“Influencer marketing is bursting on the scene and is rapidly evolving,” says Devin Donaldson, founder of both the natural cleaning product company ­The Optimist Co. and MeetJointly, a new metric-driven influencer marketing platform. “Many brands are struggling to know how to integrate this into their marketing and PR strategy. It’s not always the most valuable to go after the largest influencer in your industry. 2018 is the year brands are really investing in micro-influencers with more engaged and more narrowly focused audiences.”

Carlton, who has witnessed many changes in the industry, notes that it’s not just media changes but advances in hardware and equipment that have impacted the practice.

“It’s been interesting to see the changes over the years in digital marketing,” Carlton says, “from the earliest websites to all of us carrying around our personal ad-serving device at all times. But it also feels more like an everchanging seascape than any great single leap at any one time – you just need to keep your eyes open and keep experiencing the digital world to keep abreast of it.”

In terms of more recent changes, Julia Campbell, Author of Storytelling in the Digital Age, points to three current trends that affect the way marketers and businesses operate.

“Th­ere have been three big changes that I’ve seen in the past few months: 1. ­The Facebook News Feed algorithm. ­There have been three changes just this year that affect admins of Facebook Pages; 2. Increasing popularity of Facebook Live. Live videos on Facebook generate an average of six times as many interactions as regular videos; and 3. Usage of messaging apps for marketing.”

Tools such as video and artificial intelligence are changing how we interact with technology in general, and that applies to marketing as well.

“One of the biggest changes in the digital marketing sphere over the past 6 to 12 months and looking ahead into 2018 is the rise of video content, specifically live streaming video,” says Allison Oberton of Oberton Marketing. “It’s becoming increasingly crucial to integrate this type of content into your digital marketing strategy for 2018. Additionally, the rise of AI within digital marketing is gaining momentum. Th­ings like chatbots on websites and social media are now very simple to implement and improve the customer experience, making this technology hard to ignore.”

“The best benefit of digital marketing is the ability so scale and spread your brand message to a large audience. The con is knowing how to  do this effectively and increasingly affordably.”
Devin Donaldson, The Optimist Co. and MeetJointly

Where to start

As many small businesses content with the day-to-day work of the company, it is daunting to begin a digital marketing endeavor.

Th­ere is sometimes lack of clarity on where to begin or what to focus on.

Fitzpatrick notes that much of the planning is similar to that done for more traditional marketing methods.

“Like any marketing, it helps to know your audience,” says Fitzpatrick. “That being said, certain characteristics dictate what tools have more of an impact on your audience depending on how they consume information. For example, a business with an older clientele may have more engagement on a platform like Facebook versus a business trying to reach teenagers on YouTube or Snapchat. No matter what, your business needs to have some sort of social media presence in the 21st century.”

Th­e need to know your audience is echoed by Donaldson, as well.

“You need to think about on what platforms your brand will be best received,” she says. “For many B2B businesses, that is LinkedIn, and consumer products are thriving on Instagram. Th­e platform(s) you focus on also impact the type of content you need to produce – from articles to images and video. Having a clear focus on where your content should go and what content to make is the first step.”

Th­e details matter, as always, in terms of ensuring accuracy and consistency of information and messaging.

“It’s critical for businesses to make sure their name, address and phone number are consistent across the web,” notes Haviland. “Say you own a restaurant and your Facebook page has a different address than your website, this can cause a lot of confusion and may even lose you new customers. Make sure everything is up-to-date, as well. If you have new projects, menus, photos, or a new address, this all needs to be updated. Digital marketing is ever changing and confusing at times, but it’s increasingly important so hiring a reputable web marketing company is well worth it.”

Campbell lays out her recommended step-by-step plan for businesses just getting started in digital marketing.

“When you are starting out with digital marketing, I recommend creating a one-page plan to guide you. ­The first step, and this is absolutely essential – start with WHY. Determine your goal. Why are you doing this work? What do you hope to accomplish? What does success look like? How will digital marketing help build your business or grow your nonprofit?

“Th­e second step is to identify the target audience that you need to reach and engage in order to accomplish this goal. Who are you talking to?

“Th­e third step is to figure out your content strategy. Your content strategy is 100 percent based on your target audience. What do they want to hear? What do they want to learn more about?

“Th­e fourth step is choosing your tools. Which platforms can help you reach the target audience and encourage them to take the action required for you to accomplish your goal? Remember that each digital marketing platform is unique in its strengths and weaknesses. What works on Twitter may not work on LinkedIn, or Instagram, or Snapchat.”

When it comes to creating a digital marketing plan, many of the steps are quite similar to more traditional marketing plans, says Oberton.

According to Oberton, the first steps to get started in digital marketing should be:

  1. Research your customers and your competition
  2. Establish clear, MEASURABLE goals
  3. Determine your budget and available resources
  4. Create a plan that makes sense for YOUR business
  5. Use the tools – there are so many free and low-cost tools to help manage and streamline digital marketing activities
  6. Finally, check in frequently – do more of what’s working and less of anything that underperforms.

“It may sound like a lot,” says Oberton, “but take it step by step, be realistic, and don’t be afraid to put progress over perfection. Digital marketing is evolving rapidly and continual learning is a big part of the process, even for seasoned marketers.”

What’s next?

We asked these experts to peek into their crystal ball and let us know what they see coming on the horizon for digital marketing.

“With the rapid advancement in tools and technology, things like video have become standard almost overnight,” says Fitzpatrick.

“Th­e future is already showing itself with augmented reality, virtual reality, and audible interaction. Having your brand or business synonymous with its respective industry will have a huge impact in the future because people will be ordering products and services through their home’s virtual assistants like Alexa, Siri, and Google home. Amazon has already rolled out dash buttons to reorder items quickly to your door, so breaking into markets and brand loyalty will depend on business’ abilities to adapt to these technologies. Soon, I would imagine most appliances and utilities to have some type of virtual assistant to interact with like we’re seeing with smart thermostats and doorbells to keep customers loyal to that brand and its affiliates. Once technology like that is in place, it changes how you sell products.”

Haviland sees expansion in many of the areas already discussed.

“With people looking for quick answers (voice search), solutions, and products on their phone, businesses need to get ahead and start optimizing for mobile,” he adds. “In the future, I’d expect to see an emphasis on social media for businesses, paid advertising, and mobile-friendly sites. Also, social media channels are really making an impact, especially for businesses that are image-heavy. Since ‘traditional’ advertising channels are becoming obsolete, digital marketing is certainly going to be in full swing in the years ahead.”

It all comes down to content for Donaldson. She points to quality, consistent content as the key to creating connections with customers.

“I think the future of digital is in user-generated content,” she says. “­The cost of producing highly visual, professional-looking content is down, and influencers are using this to help brands share their message in authentic and interesting ways. ­This also means brands have to let go a bit of highly produced looking images and content and be open to collaboration with the users of their products and services.”

While technology becomes increasingly agile and malleable, it will offer more opportunities for creativity, but the personal touch will always be needed.

“For the ‘out there’ experiences, I point to things like augmented and virtual reality experiences,” Carlton says. “We have a client that speeds up the process of converting CAD models of objects into objects ready for AR/VR/MR and 3D WebGL, so I see the ability to quickly and easily create these kinds of experiential marketing. But I also think there will be more personalization and more ‘in-context’ marketing, especially as we continue to move through life with our mobile devices (phone, watch, tablet) in our hand at all times.”

­The future of digital marketing will largely be directed by those who engage in it, notes Campbell, pointing to the necessity of being a part of that conversation.

“­The future will be determined by the businesses and nonprofits that create a great experience for their customers and donors,” she says. “You can no longer use digital marketing channels as one-way billboards, filled with advertisements, spam, and boring content. “We all need to approach digital marketing from the perspective of creating value and building relationships with our target audience,” says Campbell. “No more thinking ‘What can these channels do for me?’ Flip that thinking on its head. Th­e great digital marketers are always asking: What value are we contributing? How can we cut through the clutter and serve our customers and constituents, not just get something from them? How can we improve?”

Successfully running a business takes hard work and a great deal of reflection – and the ability to be agile and change with the times.

“Your strategy for 2017 is not going to work in 2018,” says Donaldson. “As platforms evolve, algorithms change, and more brands compete on for the attention of their audiences, your strategy must also stay flexible and evolve.”

 

Top six reasons to use digital marketing

Social marketing expert Julia Campbell shares the top benefits of creating a digital marketing strategy:

  1. Reach new people. Pew Internet found that, as of January 2014, 74 percent of online adults 18 years of age and older use social networking sites. In fact, 73 percent of online adults 18 and up use at least one social networking site daily! When a supporter shares a story posted on your Facebook page or retweets your tweet, the supporter’s friends, family members, and social network connections become aware of your organization. Stay at the top of your audience’s minds with frequent Facebook postings, tweets, and Instagram photos that showcase the stories of your organization.
  2. Create connections with your audience. When you share helpful, useful, educational information that is valuable to your audience, you build connections that will help you accomplish your goals.
  3. Build your email list. Social media can be used to grow your email list, which should be a top priority of any business or nonprofit.
  4. Showcase your expertise. Becoming a trusted, go-to resource should be a primary goal of any digital marketing plan.
  5. Focus your message. Digital marketing moves quickly and you don’t have much time or space to grab someone’s attention. It forces us to see what we do with a more critical eye. Yes, we know why we do what we do and why people should donate, volunteer, and attend our events, but can we tell it in a way that will make complete strangers care? Can your message cut through the clutter and the noise on the Internet? And if not, what are you doing wrong, and in what specific ways can you improve?
  6. Get real time feedback. Social media tools are perfect avenues to gather instant, unfiltered feedback on a new program, topic, or question, as well as validation and confirmation of your important work. Post, tweet, and share online and then listen to the conversation that ensues!

While the potential of digital marketing tools can be powerful, there are a few cons to carrying out a digital marketing program:

  • Time. It takes a lot time to consistently research, create, and monitor content on digital marketing channels, especially social media. Digital marketing is a marathon and not a sprint. Often people have elevated and unrealistic expectations about what the platforms can accomplish, with very little work.
  • Overwhelm. With the digital marketing space moving at a lightning fast pace, it’s hard to keep up with all the shiny new tools and the platform changes. There always seems to be one more tweet to send, one more message to check. I always recommend the less is more approach – be on one or two channels that you can master before jumping on a new one.
  • Rented land. You do not own social media channels – this is why I always recommend starting out with a focus on creating a dynamic website and building your email list. Facebook and Twitter could shut down tomorrow. Do not build your house entirely on rented land.
  • Wrong perspective. This is the biggest problem that I have seen in digital marketing. People are so focused on what the channels can do for them: How can we use Facebook to grow our business? How can we get more donations from our email list? How can we use Instagram to reach people? Instead, you need to focus on how you can use these channels to give back and provide value to your audience. It’s not about what you want to say to them – it’s about what they want to hear from you.

Top tips

Digital marketing experts share their top three strategic tips for successful outcomes.

Sean Fitzpatrick, Cape Cloth: “Be authentic, use the appropriate tools for communicating certain messages to demographics, don’t rely on the tool to replace good storytelling. Business will always be about forming relationships through communication, and no amount of technology will ever replace that.”

Colin Haviland, Boston Web Marketing: “To truly become successful in the digital marketing field, it’s important to pay attention to Google’s ever-changing algorithm updates. If you’re not keeping an eye on algorithm changes, you could be hurting your online reputation. Secondly, there’s a lot more weight on reviews so be sure to respond to every review, both negative and positive. Lastly, push out unique content. I can’t stress this enough. If you want to be the leader in your industry, continue to answer common questions that customers have been asking, promote deals and coupons, and generate fresh content about new products or services.”

Devin Donaldson, The Optimist Co. and MeetJointly: “1. Content needs to be authentic and rich. Gone are the days of pumping out content just to have it. You need build collaborations, a great story and visuals to share your brand. 2. Be less perfect. Show behind the scenes, share your team and process and build a more authentic story. Live video and Instagram stories are a great way to do this content and have fun. 3. Collaborate! Build relationships with influencers that will help you create and share your content. Use their audience to help you create your products and get feedback. As brands have to pay to play to get their content seen on social media channels, find influencers with engaged communities who you can work with for more organic and authentic content reach.”

Bobbie Carlton, Carlton PR & Marketing, Innovation Nights, Innovation Women: “1) Know thyself and thy customer. 2) Test everything – never assume. 3) Integrate all your marketing programs – no silos! Make them work together.”

Julia Campbell, Author of Storytelling in the Digital Age: “Know your brand inside and out. Know your voice, your style, what you stand for, and who you serve. Don’t worry about people who don’t get you, who don’t want your service, who have no interest in your content. Focus on the people who know you, love you, and want to work with you. Engage them to engage their friends and family.  Give this audience the content that they want, and exceed their expectations. Talking to a warmed-up audience is much easier than trying to convert a completely cold one. Be creative. Get out of your comfort zone. The worst thing you can do in digital marketing is to be boring. Be provocative and encourage debate and discussion. Comment on current events. Don’t worry about offending people. Be genuine and authentic and the right customers, donors, and stakeholders will be drawn to you and what you do. Like many things in life, less is more. Do not spread yourself too thin by mass-posting boring content across 50 channels. Focus in and dive deep into one or two digital marketing channels. Master them and build an engaged audience there.”

Allison Oberton, Oberton Marketing: “1. Create a solid digital marketing strategy that is aligned with your overall business goals, and ensure that you’re able to measure success. 2. Prioritize SEO (AKA website optimization) as part of your strategy. It’s no longer acceptable to customers or search engines to have slow, hard to navigate, outdated websites. 3. Put your customers’ needs ahead of your own. Competition is fierce and the companies who provide the most value and the best experience for their customer will ultimately win.”