small business open sign on iPadThe Internet giveth and the Internet taketh away.

For small and mid-sized businesses – including the smallest, which are just one person — the Internet has provided huge advantages. Relatively inexpensively they can create a basic website or blog and potentially reach a global market. They can get up and running on search advertising platforms, such as AdWords and Bing, and for just a few dollars a day their ads can be mixed in among those of Fortune 500 companies. Social media provides them with free platforms for having ongoing conversations with prospects and customers, to connect with people looking for their products and services and do informal market research.

But just as there is a “digital divide” for individuals, with lower income people and people with less education having less access to the Internet in general and broadband in particular, there is a digital divide among companies, too. And that divide may be especially apparent in their ability to take advantage of digital marketing technologies and channels.

I recently wrote about Innovation Overload – the problem that marketers have as a result of the increasingly rapid development of marketing technology. A recent survey of the field found 947 marketing technology companies in 43 categories, and a few weeks later the creator of that posted that he had missed not only many companies but entire categories. And those are just tools to help manage the marketing efforts. Today’s marketers also need to understand omni-channel marketing and how to get the most out of individual channels including direct mail, email, television, YouTube, print, online advertising, mobile, social, search advertising and so much more.

No wonder that Adobe calls this “Digital Distress”.

What market leaders are doing

Some bigger companies aren’t stressed, though, some are really taking advantage of these opportunities to increase the effectiveness of their marketing by high double digit or even triple digital percentages. In other words, to make a lot more money. Amazon, Netflix and Pandora use predictive analytics to recommend products, movies and music to their customers. For Amazon, their recommendation engine powers 30 percent of their sales; for Netflix and Pandora they have happier customers who are more likely to continue their monthly subscriptions. Companies like Dell and Cisco have created multi-million dollar command centers with several staff monitoring and reacting to the social media conversations in real time. P&G says that a third of its multi-billion dollar marketing budget is now in digital.

Which is not to say that all large companies are getting this right. I’ve worked with billion dollar B2B companies that don’t even score leads, and that are spending a quarter or less of what their competitors are spending in search ads, missing out on tens of millions of dollars of opportunities annually. But those are cultural issues; they may not have a data driven marketing culture or management. They have the money. They could be doing it right.

While for many SMBs the digital opportunities may be there, but they simply haven’t committed the staff or funds to take advantage of them. Just figuring out something resembling a buyer’s journey and which channels they should be in and what supporting technology to use to manage it is a daunting task. What good does it do to tell a company that the benefits from blogs – traffic, leads — really take off after they get to the 100-200 post level; it may take some small companies 3 or 4 years to write that many posts.

So, right around now you may be thinking, “What else is new? The rich get richer.” And that’s definitely part of the problem. But often the problem is cultural at the small company level, too. They could do more, but they choose not to, perhaps because they’re not familiar with the options, or think they cost more than they do.

An SMB digital marketing action plan

For many small companies the place to start will search marketing, specifically Google AdWords. You can get in front of people who are looking right now for what your company is selling. It’s completely measurable and, when combined with the free Google Analytics, can give your company the cost per lead and opportunity. If you have an ecommerce site, you can also track cost per sale.

And you don’t have to break the bank to do it. You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars a month, but you do have to spend enough to be always on and to optimize your keywords, ads, offers, landing pages, etc., to be constantly improving results. And as those results do improve you’ll see the ROI and have more funds for investing in other digital opportunities.

Key to successful search marketing are the landing pages that you’ll be directing people to. After all, you want to be sure that as many people as possible that you’ve paid for to get to your site actually fill out a form and let you know who they are. The design of the page and the nature of your offer will have a huge impact on that.

Even easier than search marketing, in most respects, is remarketing. You’ve experienced remarketing: you go to a website and then for the next few weeks as you go to other sites you see ads for the site that you visited. This is a tremendously powerful tool because your ads only are shown to people who already know about you — people who have visited your site. You’re only advertising to your own private list. Don’t even necessarily need special landing pages for remarketing, but you will need display ads — or at least text ads.

Email marketing is another channel that should be top of mind. Don’t buy a list – that’s spam. But build your own list of people who visit your site and blog and opt-in to receive your emails. It takes time to build a sizeable list, but it’s one of the most effective forms of marketing and costs very little.

In the 947 companies included in that digital technology landscape, there are many free or inexpensive options. Google Analytics is free. You can use Hootsuite to manage your social media channels for free. With BrightInfo, you can personalize the content on your site for $89 a month (more as your traffic grows). A marketing automation system like Eloqua or Marketo may be beyond the budget or skillset of many SMBs, but you can get up and running on systems like Hubspot and Act-On (“Marketing Automation for the Fortune 5,000,000”) for a few hundred dollars a month.

Many people who lead an SMB, especially if they grew up with traditional sales and marketing, won’t know what many of those 43 categories of marketing technologies are. I have worked in the field full time for years and there are some that I’m not familiar with. That’s where an experienced digital marketer on staff or retainer can help out. She should have a solid foundation on which to do the research into the options. By talking through the various opportunities, you can decide which ones really make the most sense for your company. Not all will.

So, to do this companies need:

  • People: Unless you’ve been reading a lot and keeping up with digital marketing, you will need one or more people advising and implementing when you start out. As you see results and your business grows, you may want to grow an in-house team, too.
  • Time: with many of the free and inexpensive options you actually can produce measurable results for relatively little money. But it does take time to learn, implement, measure and optimize.
  • A willingness to experiment: As David Sandler said about sales, “You can’t teach a kid to ride a bike at a seminar.” You need to get on the bike, and you will fall and scrape yourself a few times. Even very experienced riders have accidents. Learn and improve; this is new for everyone.
  • A data-driven mentality: You need to listen to the data. Anyone with experience in digital marketing can tell you times when they tested many ads and were surprised which were actually the most effective ones. As with any form of direct marketing, small changes – sometimes just a single word — can make a big difference. Ignore what you like and listen to the market. Discontinue what isn’t working and ramp up what is.

And some money. But probably not as much as you think, at least to start out.

SMBs don’t need to start with a multi-million dollar social media command center. But they do need to start.

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