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Inbound marketing for small businesses and start-ups

Author's avatar By Gavin Llewellyn 24 Apr, 2012
Essential Essential topic

How to create an inbound marketing strategy - some case studies of tools and tactics

I've found setting up and running a small business is both daunting and exciting in equal measure.

The combined economic downturn and increasingly crowded competitive landscape mean the need to promote your business and get your message ‘out there’ is as important as ever.

The small business marketing challenge

Marketing is a huge challenge for small businesses, particularly start-ups with no established customer base or community around them.

Traditional advertising is an absolute necessity to let people know who you are.

But if you’ve limited money and resources, what other options do you have to get your message about your fantastic new business out there?

Inbound marketing is one strategy I would highly recommend.

An introduction to inbound marketing -  ‘pull’ rather than ‘push’

For any business, large or small, there are three key media types you can use to connect with consumers; paid, owned and earned:

Image credit: Gavin Llewellyn - Onetoomanymornings - adapted from Starbucks/Blast Radius

Advertising and website development fall into the first two categories respectively. Inbound marketing is primarily focused on earned media - essentially earning people’s attention by creating content that others share and start conversations around.

Inbound marketing defined

“any tactic that relies on earning people’s interest rather than buying it.”

Inbound marketing is all about helping people find you online; using ‘free’ online marketing tactics to target people who are already learning, researching and shopping in your market sector. Inbound marketing strategies use a combination of SEO, social media and great content marketing to attract prospects to your website.

Inbound marketing strategy focuses on adding value and helping people.

An inbound marketing approach is in stark contrast to a disruptive outbound marketing strategy, such as advertising, sales promotions and direct mail. Outbound communication strategies tend to ‘interrupt people’, and these people are not necessarily interested in your products and services.

There's an interesting hubspot blog about the merits of inbound marketing vs. outbound marketing if you'd like to read more about it.

The advantages of an inbound marketing approach

Inbound marketing is a very effective form of marketing because it’s about adding the ‘human touch’ to business interactions. It’s about encouraging companies to broadcast and, furthermore, involves prospects and customers in the brand’s activities.

Whilst inbound marketing can certainly be considered cheaper than many traditional marketing tactics, it does take a lot of time and commitment.

There’s no easy way round it - inbound marketing demands a lot of effort but, if implemented correctly, will pay dividends.

Is inbound marketing right for your business?

Inbound marketing has been phenomenally successful for many large and small businesses, particularly those in the business-to-business sector. Its use has been less widely reported in commercial business-to-consumer sectors.

There are far more case studies about technology companies using inbound marketing [http://www.hubspot.com/customer-case-studies/?Tag=technology] to increase website traffic and leads than there are about small boutique clothes shops!

However, I believe that anyone can use inbound marketing to promote themselves and their products and services.

It’s about finding the right suite of tools and tactics for you and the customers you want to attract.

Key inbound marketing tools and tactics for small businesses

“No matter the form; content is the foundation of great content marketing”

 Rand Fishkin

 Inbound marketing is a combination of tools, tactics and channels but it revolves primarily around content. Content is king in inbound marketing. Content is the key to getting people talking about your main marketing messages and attracting them into your site, where you can tell them more about your brilliant business!

If great content is essential to effective inbound marketing, then creating a blog for your business is a perfect way to begin building a social hub or platform for your company.

Sticky business blogging

A business blog should become the central point for all inbound marketing efforts, primarily because you own this space.

Social networks are great (and we’ll come on to those shortly) but you don’t own those channels; you only ever rent them. So, having your own piece of digital ‘real estate’ will allow you to bring people into a space you own and control.

One of the misconceptions about blogging is it has to be daily and comprise a does of 300-500 words.

A blog doesn't have to be a ton of text.

A great business blog is created around and for your customers. If your audience is likely to respond better to images or video, then create a blog that is very visual and makes use of interesting photography and video.

The aim of a business blog is to create original content your target audience will love and share, and keep them coming back for more.

Case study: Fabulous Places blog

Fabulous Places is a small local business recommendation site. It features and promotes local cafes, restaurants and shops in the UK counties of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Cheshire.

To complement the main website, Fabulous Places also has a blog written and run by Deb, the company’s founder.

The blog is largely image-based and features short, regular posts covering various topics ranging from interesting suppliers and events to great things Deb has spotted on her travels.

The visual nature of the blog, and the personal touch the founder gives it, fit nicely with the company’s main website. The blog is very well designed and suited to the target market Fabulous Places aims at.

Integrated social networking

Social networking is another key inbound marketing tactic. The aim of successful social networking is to build a following and an active community around your brand using a combination of content creation and curation.

Any SME (small-to-medium sized enterprise) or start-up should consider leveraging the right social network to build awareness of their brands, products and/or services.

The cool thing about social networks is that they can be used to both create and curate content.

Social networks are therefore perfect to use alongside blogs to build an engaged audience around a brand.

The key to good social networking is to choose the social network that works for you and your customers.

There’s really no point in creating an impressive Facebook presence if the majority of your prospects and customers are hanging out on Google+. Likewise, don’t invest in Pinterest if you’re likely to get more value using Twitter. Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Pinterest - choose the social networks that best fit with your brand and customers.

Case study: Les Enfants social networking

Les Enfants is a children’s party planning company. In addition to having a blog and a presence on Facebook and Twitter, Les Enfants has also made great use of the social photo-sharing site, Pinterest:

Les Enfants uses Pinterest to share examples of what it has to sell, as well as other people’s cakes, decorations, and party ideas too. You can therefore get a clear idea about the Les Enfants’ brand identity just by looking at its pinboards.

Les Enfants has used Pinterest to successfully combine content creation and curation to paint a picture of everything the brand stands for - style, colour, caring and fun!

 Audience focused SEO

Search is how we find things on the web and we use search engines, such as Google, Bing and Baidu, to discover, gather and filter information. Search is still one of the most popular online activities (along with email) and is likely to continue to grow alongside the rise of other online activities, such as social media.

There are currently more than three billion searches per day on Google and search is still thought to bring in the most qualified, targeted traffic to one’s website. 80% of people count on the organic results that appear when they search for something online.

Despite the huge organic search volume, companies spent $35 billion on pay-per-click (PPC) advertising in 2011, compared to $2 billion on SEO. Nearly 90% of companies’ marketing budgets are being spent on locations where only 20% of the clicks happen; revealing the popularity and reliance on bought media.

However, small businesses have limited resources. So, why not invest in activity to get your website listed in the natural search results that clearly matter more to most to people?

Good SEO is not about stuffing as many keywords as you can into your content, titles and meta data.

It's about ensuring your website is designed and structured in a way that allows visitors to successfully find the information they want about you so that they can make a more informed purchasing decision.

Your SEO aim is to be found in search results for specific keywords relating to your brand by developing an online presence that is content-rich, engaging and meaningful to your target market.

 Effective social search leads to content sharing

If search equates to discovery, then discovery leads to sharing.

As social media continues to grow and impact how companies do business (hint: social media does not have to be owned by marketing), people's search results are beginning to be affected by their social graph; i.e. what their friends and contacts on social networks are saying.

Social media is influencing traditional search engine results in a big way and every company, big and small, should take note of this trend and act.

For example, if someone conducts a Google search on 'cupcake shop Derby', the results are likely be a mix of what your contacts on Twitter and Google+ like, in addition to the usual organic listings. Google is attempting to augment its traditional search results with what your friends are saying they're interested in.

This is a big deal because it means old-school 'black hat' SEO techniques are no longer valid.

Google, the UK's no.1 search engine, is putting more emphasis on quality content. Increasingly, if you don’t have quality content, from blogs and social networks for example, you're unlikely to get the shares, likes and +1s required to get Google's attention.

Google is basically saying that if people repeatedly like and share your content based on the keywords and phrases used in a search, then it follows that your site must be relevant to a particular audience.

Social search strategy should focus on staying relevant in search by ensuring that your brand is being found, talked about and discussed throughout the social web.

Email marketing

As the wave of interest in social media continues, email marketing is often overlooked. Despite this, email marketing remains one of the most effective inbound marketing tools for small businesses.

Email marketing’s goal is to send out interesting relevant messages to a group of willing subscribers on a periodic but regular basis.

As with all other forms of inbound marketing, email is about developing a relationship with your prospects and customers by offering valuable content; i.e. your email content shouldn’t focus exclusively on selling things!

Email marketing is a straightforward, easy to implement tactic and the results from an email marketing campaign are often quite easy to analyse.

Social media activity can be integrated with your email marketing strategy too. For example, always ensure your emails contain clear links to your social media outposts and encourage your readers to share your email content with their social networks.

Email marketing strategy should aim to build a database of subscribers and to send out frequent, interesting emails that are engaging, deliver value to recipients and keep your brand in the front of your audience’s minds.

Summary points

I believe inbound marketing can be incredibly useful for any small business or start-up wanting to raise awareness of their brand online. More and more people are spending time on the web; it’s therefore vital that small businesses without an established audience or customer base promote their brands across the various online channels at their disposal.

By using a combination of social media, search and email marketing, any small businesses, regardless of its product or service offering, can earn people’s interest and attract prospects on to its website by engaging them with valuable, helpful and interesting content.

Author's avatar

By Gavin Llewellyn

Gavin Llewellyn (LinkedIn) is an independent consultant. He is a Chartered Marketer who specialises in digital marketing, specifically in social media, SEO and online strategy. Gavin blogs at One Too Many Mornings where he offers advice, guidance and ideas on how individuals and companies can use digital marketing effectively to get found online, build engagement and generate conversion. You can Follow Gavin on Twitter.

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