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it starts with one

Gordon McCallum, president of First Foundation Inc.Ian Jackson

Gordon McCallum and his team at First Foundation Inc. are in business to help Alberta home buyers find the best mortgages available.

But in the past five years, Mr. McCallum and his staff have also honed their skills at blogging, tweeting and posting pithy comments about topics that range from bond yields and fixed-rate mortgages to McHappy Days at McDonald's.

"We now have over 700 pages of blog content written by me, my staff and sometimes by guest bloggers who are subject matter experts," says Mr. McCallum, president of the mortgage broker, which has offices in Edmonton and Calgary. "In addition to our blog, we have a Twitter account that has multiple contributors, and we're also on Facebook."

These social media activities are all part of First Foundation's digital strategy – an online marketing plan that requires hundreds of hours of work and costs the company between $100,000 to $150,000 a year. It's not exactly small potatoes for what is still a small, if thriving, business, but Mr. McCallum says the strategy is paying off. First Foundation's business has grown by about 40 per cent since 2007, he says, and its staff has doubled in number to 14 employees.

More than 50 per cent of the company's business now comes from the Web, Mr. McCallum says.

"Despite the fact that mortgage broker market share has been declining nationally, we've been able to go against the trend," he says. "And part of our success is due to our business model and our digital strategy."

For many small businesses, digital media marketing is still an ad hoc activity – given attention only when the company decides to run a marketing campaign, or when the owner-entrepreneur has a spare hour before bedtime to craft a blog post.

Digital marketing experts say this is starting to change. As more companies report successes with their online marketing efforts, and as people spend more time on the Web and in social channels such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, a growing number of small business owners are realizing it's time to get their digital marketing act together.

"There is definitely an uptake," says Gary Nugent, account director at Edmonton-based Bluetrain Inc., the online marketing company that helped First Foundation develop and implement its digital marketing plan. "Small business represents more than half of our account base, and small business inquiries outnumber big business inquiries by about four to one."

Small businesses aren't the only ones drawn by the siren song of digital media marketing – a catch-all term that includes social networks, Twitter, e-mail, mobile marketing and search engine-based Web marketing. In an Ipsos Reid survey this past summer, of 381 Canadian marketers and advertising agency employees, more than 60 per cent of respondents said their senior managers are very interested in digital media and plan to allocate more marketing dollars to online channels.

According to a report published last month by the Canadian Marketing Association, the Internet is expected to account for 26 per cent of overall ad spending by 2016 – up from 18 per cent in 2011.

For small businesses with shoestring budgets, going the digital media route makes plenty of sense; it's cheaper than traditional marketing channels, and it's also more targeted because people usually follow links to a website when they're interested in what the site offers.

Given small businesses' limited financial and human resources, it's important for them to have a plan before putting money and time into digital media, Mr. Nugent says.

Ideally, this plan will map out which digital media channels the company should target and how they're searching for products and services online. In order to do this, businesses need to know where their target customers are hanging out – are they on Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest?

"Make sure you do your research so you're not making false assumptions," says Duane Brown, a digital strategist and consultant with Creative Traction in Toronto. "For example, you might think the best way to reach young people is on their mobile, but a lot of young people don't have enough money to spend on a data plan for their mobile device."

Mr. Brown points to sites such as and as good sources of market information.

Businesses shouldn't feel that they need to be everywhere in digital media, he adds.

"It's better to be on only one or two places online and execute really well in those places," he says. "Small businesses, especially, don't have significant marketing budgets, so they need to make sure they're spending it where it counts."

Content creation is a big part of a digital media strategy, so businesses need to ensure they've got the people and the time to write blogs and tweets, and to monitor what their customers are saying about them.

Dani Reiss, president and chief executive officer of Toronto-based Canada Goose, says companies that set up a presence in social media have to be prepared to respond promptly to the friends, followers and connections who expect their favourite brands to engage with them. It's a good idea to assign staff who can respond quickly to questions or comments on social media, he says.

"And you have to be open and honest with your customers," he says. "You need to be authentic, or your customers will know if you're not."

Mr. Nugent says he is a proponent of social media content produced by the business that owns the content. To motivate staff to write blogs or post on Facebook or Twitter, he recommends that business owners heed the what's-in-for-me rule. At First Foundation, for instance, mortgage associates who are paid salary and commission get their social media posts linked directly to their profile page on the company website.

"This way, they get the lead that they generated by writing the content," he says. "People need to know that there's something in it for them."

Blueprint for digital

Have an editorial plan. Instead of thinking up topics on the fly, create an editorial calendar for the year head.

Start small. Don't try to be everywhere right away. Instead, focus on one or two places online and commit as much of your resources as you can to establish a strong presence in these channels.

Enforce a social media policy. Lay down some ground rules and guidelines for how employees should conduct themselves on a social network. Website has examples of social media policies from companies such as Apple and Coca-Cola.

Baseline and measure. Digital media gives businesses the ability to accurately measure results – from the number of website visitors to how long they lingered on a particular page. But while these metrics are important, it's the business results that really matter. How many leads did you get before and after your digital strategy? By how much has revenue increased since the strategy?

Be diverse in voice and content. Distribute social media responsibilities across the company, not just to the usual suspects. In the mortgage business, for example, an office administrator might not know much about mortgage rates, but she could probably write a blog about acclimatizing a pet to a new home – a topic that many of your home buying customers would find interesting.

Think beyond your company. Like a good conversation, social media marketing can't always be about me, me, me. Avoid constantly pushing your products or services, or singing the praises of your company. Instead, talk about topics that your customers care about but still relate to your brand.