Skip to main content

Few small business owners have a marketing plan – they need an integrated one.SUPPLIED

How can small business owners draw consumers to their online or physical businesses? That ever-present marketing imperative has become even more urgent.

“Right now, any small business’ sole focus should be ‘How do I drive traffic?’ If you’re not doing that, then you may not survive,” says Stephen Brown, chief executive officer at FUSE Create, a Toronto creative agency. “The typical flow of people is gone, the typical commuter traffic is gone, and you cannot rely on these consumer patterns or models anymore.”

In the current environment, small business owners need to develop a plan that includes a combination of both digital and tangible marketing options. That helps to ensure their message is reaching their demographic, whether to target new customers, enhance customer relationships, build brand awareness, or enter new markets.

“Very few businesses can market through a single channel,” says Mr. Brown. “People consume media through very different ways. If you rely too heavily on one, you’re missing other key ones.”

One challenge – many small businesses take a haphazard approach. Only 36 per cent of small business owners prepare a marketing plan, according to a small business marketing trends report prepared for Canada Post. Instead, they only do marketing activities as needed.

Among the main reasons for not having a plan, notes Canada Post: budget constraints, uncertainty about what’s most effective, and limited knowledge about how to establish the right mix.

“You have to think about who you’re trying to reach, what you’re trying to tell them and what are the most effective platforms for this message,” says Mr. Brown.

That depends partly on your product and market. A virtual business doesn’t need to limit a social media campaign, for instance, based on geography, while a local shop might benefit from sending a physical mailing to their local community.

The Canada Post study noted that, on average, small businesses used more than five marketing methods in the past 12 months to promote their business. Many gravitate to social media marketing, with Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn being the most popular platforms. Other digital activities include e-mail marketing, search engine optimization, online ads, and online customer reviews.

Why have digital and social media become so popular? As money and time are top marketing challenges for small businesses, Canada Post says these channels may be picked frequently because they’re free or low cost, and easy to set up.

While digital marketing tools are often successful, Marc Cooper, president of Toronto integrated advertising agency Junction59, points to direct mail as another effective way to help business owners personalize their marketing materials.

“Direct mail can be a lot simpler than a lot of people think, and it can connect to your digital channels easily too,” he says. “These marketing solutions make it really easy to select your target audience. Canada Post has a wide network of partners who offer services like data and printing to help put it all together for you.”

Personalized marketing approaches, like direct mail or a targeted e-mails, not only attract new customers, but encourage long-term customer loyalty. Whatever the integrated marketing mix, the goal is both acquisition and retention.

There’s power in that integration, according to two market research firms. InfoTrends reports that combining web, e-mail and mobile with print translates into a 45 per cent increase in response rates compared to a digital-only media mix. And Forrester notes that 86 per cent of marketers say that melding online channels with offline marketing, as part of a synchronized campaign, is critical to long-term success.

Small business owners also need to be aware of the evolution happening in marketing. Mr. Cooper says it’s vital to ensure that businesses are telling customers how their product or service can help them right now.

“In a COVID-19 landscape, it’s more important than ever to understand the customer’s pain points, which are different than they were six months ago, and where your business can help solve them,” says Mr. Cooper.

That can be as simple as conveying messages about curbside pickup, or more products available online for delivery, to help alleviate a customer’s anxiety of going into a shop. A restaurant owner might target a direct mail piece locally, to let neighbours know they have a safe space on their new outdoor patio, or to make an offer (like a free appetizer for pickup) as a way of promoting that they’re open for business.

Mr. Brown explains that staying relevant to the needs of customers means thinking creatively and expansively about marketing. Even something as simple as sending notes in your deliveries to thank customers for their business can be part of a marketing strategy. The centre for many people is now the home, so he advises to use that too.

Every marketing campaign is different. How can companies know what mix works best and which touchpoints resonate most? There’s no one-size-fits-all formula. The best way to find out is to test, learn, repeat and scale up quickly when you achieve success.

“Get out of your comfort zone,” Mr. Brown says. “What worked before may not work now, so it’s the time to adapt.”

Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.