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Digital marketing 101

CNET@Work: Reaching out requires a marketing plan that can find customers before they find you.


With technology increasingly intertwined with all aspects of business, CNET@Work can help you -- prosumers and small businesses with fewer than five employees -- get started.

When Susie Blumfield started her sewing machine business in the 1970s, the marketing approach for companies like hers usually centered around paying thousands of dollars each year to advertise in the Yellow Pages.

"That's the way people would find you back then," recalled Blumfield, the CEO of Sewtime Sewing Center.

Ah, simpler times!

Few people nowadays discover a company or product online and then make their purchase immediately. An AdWeek study found that 81 percent of customers conduct research online before pulling out their credit cards.

At the same time, customers often take an indirect route as part of that digital buying journey. No matter the platform, that puts the onus on small businesses to find and connect with customers, not the other way around.

Because today's shoppers can access information literally at their fingertips, engaging with them on a variety of digital touchpoints becomes vital to a company's marketing success. That means companies need to bone up on the ins and outs of website design, social media, online advertising, email advertising and SEO.

It's worth the effort: Digital allows you to understand customers in ways that businesses of previous eras could only dream about. If you're not set up to digitally engage with customers, there's going to be a price to pay. Just ask Blumfield.

"I thought we were doing everything right," she noted. "We would hold events, do emailings and contests to try and bring new people into store. We held sales at hotels with free food and the whole nine yards. But still, I watched the number of people dwindle and get smaller and smaller."

Unlike the preinternet era, when businesses such as Blumfield's were hard-pressed to measure the effectiveness of their advertisements, current technology removes that kind of guesswork from marketing campaigns.

"If you want to know a quick statistic for a report, you Google it," said Jean Paldan, the owner and managing director of Rare Form New Media, a full-service marketing firm in Oxford, England. "And the tools have developed to an all-new level. We can now build incredibly detailed reports that we just couldn't before. We can focus not just on a general target audience, but talk about specific locations, what day is best to communicate with them, even what time of day is best."

As Palden puts it, "We're spoiled with information."

The digital basics

If you're thinking about how to get started, here are a few starter ideas to consider:

Google Analytics

Pay attention to analytics: When it comes to knowing your audience, forget intuition. Google Analytics is a must-have tool that will help measure both audience and their response to your company's content. It also generates daily reports to understand a marketing campaign's impact on website traffic. Beyond basic traffic numbers, Analytics can further unearth other useful information, ranging from someone's location and the device they use to data on campaign-based traffic and conversions. If you're not a tech whiz, Google provides free tutorials through its Analytics Academy. Best of all, the product's free.

Use marketing automation:  When it comes to engagement marketing, market automation programs are essential tools that not only take care of a lot of repetitive tasks but also help a business remain attached to its customers. These programs automate email newsletter services that maintain ongoing connections with customers across every one of their digital interactions with the company. They also offer a lot of valuable functions in addition to email. For instance, they can identify and engage buyers online, filtering leads based on their levels of interest, and pass them onto sales. They also will send follow-ups to customers who leave after viewing your site's checkout cart without making a purchase. Prices vary, depending on how fancy you want to get. Some worthwhile entrants include MailChimp, Hubspot, Marketo and GetResponse.

Optimize your website: Successful digital marketing will drive people to your website so don't drive them away by neglecting the look and feel of your website. Put in the effort to make sure the page helps, not hinders. Everything -- from the layout to the content -- ought to sparkle. Growing amounts of traffic now arrive through Google searches, so pay attention to SEO to make your site visible in search engines. Make sure to select keywords that are relevant to your business and its location. Experiment with video, which has become an increasingly effective way to engage with prospects on company websites (as well on platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo). Lastly, make sure the website is mobile-friendly so that prospects landing on your page via their phones can access content without wondering whether they've been transported through Alice's looking glass.

Don't over-socialize: Engage daily with Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. But be careful not to abuse readers' patience by unnecessarily dialing up the volume. Some argue that small businesses should use social as if it were a public email listserv for the web. Be careful. You're going to be better off trying to educate and nurture prospects until they turn into qualified leads. Bombarding people with useless self-promotion will only annoy them to the point where some erect spam filters to block you. Try instead to understand customer business challenges and requirements to build trust and become viewed as a trusted advisor, not just someone looking to close a sale. At the same time, social media ads can help raise the company's profile online and you can target audiences according to their location, demographic or interest.

Target locally: Use local business listings such as Google+ LocalBing Places and Yelp. It's cost-effective and will help raise your digital profile locally.

Generate leads: Online lead generation services can help generate new customers. Pricing may be a per lead basis, involve membership fees or charge a percentage of the contract amount. But smaller companies with limited budgets may balk at paying a third-party lead generation service to help find qualified leads -- especially given that many leads turn into dead ends.