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Kim McLaughlin.

Natalie Campbell-Djedje/Handout

Kim McLaughlin is a Toronto-based, marketing strategist who specializes in marketing for professional-service firms.

Can a small or medium-size business still be heard online today? Despite punishing algorithms and massive corporate advertising budgets, the surprising answer is yes, but it takes a little ingenuity, razor-sharp focus and a willingness to go beyond typical marketing tactics.

Ten years ago, I started advising small and mid-sized companies on digital marketing, but it was a different world. Back in 2009, digital marketing was the great equalizer; a small business of 10 people could have as much impact online as Coca-Cola, and it was inspiring and even amusing to see smaller companies out-market the conglomerates.

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Now, things have changed. Social media has morphed into advertising vehicles driven by big budgets and purchasing online space via Google AdWords is prohibitively expensive. Broad-based, content marketing (e.g. blogging and funnels) is so competitive that the time and money required is well beyond the reach of smaller players.

However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for small and medium-sized businesses, but it requires a shift in thinking and a return to grassroots marketing.

Digital marketing has come full circle. In 2009, we preached quality over quantity. Don’t worry, if your Twitter feed had only 100 followers, it was fine as long as they were the right followers. You could concentrate your efforts on a specific demographic, focus your budget and build real relationships with people who count. Ten years later, this approach remains a best practice for smaller companies.

So, what does this actually look like?

First, it’s imperative that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have a strategy. When I tell my SME clients this, they think it will cost tens of thousands of dollars. Not so. Many talented consultants can help SMEs develop their strategy for less than $10,000, but here’s the key: Have a road map before you begin because it will save you money and empower serious return on investment.

I recommend that small businesses spend 5 per cent to 10 per cent of their marketing budget on the strategic plan and that must come first.

A strategic plan identifies your company’s niche market and your marketing objectives (ensuring they align with the business objectives). It also defines what is important to that specific demographic, and how and where to reach it. A set of key messages drives what kind of content should be created for the company so it can meet its objectives.

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For example, I often see professional-service firms trying to expand their C-Suite client database by investing in Google AdWords. The reality is that most chief executives hire professional-service firms based on referrals, not through an online search. Provided the firm already has a solid website and looks credible online, it’s best to focus their marketing efforts on developing the team’s presence on LinkedIn. This kind of activity makes better sense and is cost effective.

When we look at marketing efforts from a strategic vantage point, it doesn’t matter that the big firm down the street has a $50,000 per month AdWords budget. B2B business is based on relationships, not flash activity. For a smaller firm, real-world relationship building is a winning strength to be leveraged.

On the other side of the spectrum, let’s consider a retail company marketing to older teens, and the goal is to increase market share. A limited budget may be better spent sponsoring young influencers on networks such as TikTok or Twitch, rather than attempting to out-advertise big companies on the big networks.

These grassroots approaches are effective and promise to deliver better returns than attempting to compete with big company budgets online.

SMEs can definitely be heard loud and clear in the world of digital marketing, but it takes strategic thinking and a return to strategic grassroots marketing where it’s not the number of relationships that wins the day, but the strength of those relationships.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

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