Often, a small business’s biggest challenge is attracting enough customers to ensure a constant stream of revenue. “Marketing” refers to a broad universe of tactics, tools, and theories, but when it comes to marketing strategies for small businesses, the most effective ones truly prioritize customer relationships. A strong brand keeps up momentum even if advertising expenses rise.

The right mix of cost-efficient inbound and outbound marketing allows SMEs to grow their customer base without hurting their profits. Here are the best marketing strategies for small businesses.

The Importance of Small Business Marketing

While large corporations typically have both the cash and the caché to keep up their sales, small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) must protect a slim profit margin.

That’s why paid media advertising — the bread-and-butter of big brands — can be cost-prohibitive for small businesses. Ad budgets can quickly become bloated without contributing to growth.

New small business owners often assume that paid advertising is crucial to getting customers. A few Google or Facebook ads can easily rack up thousands in ad spend per month. Unfortunately, advertising has a poor ROI compared to other forms of marketing, especially for new businesses. On average, 76% of Google Ads spending goes toward irrelevant keywords — failing to attract any actual customers.

Today’s consumers are averse to ads. If they’re not actively blocking them with browser plugins, they’re simply tuning them out. This isn’t to say ads never work, but for small businesses, they can be a wasted expense.

Always lead with a strong marketing strategy that reliably connects you with potential customers — even if you’re short on advertising funds for a month.

Building a Sustainable Small Business Marketing Strategy

As the adage goes, you must spend money to make money. However, spending without strategy leads to wastage. Rather than throwing money into advertising, here’s how you can craft a more cost-effective strategy.

First, let’s break down the types of marketing.

Outbound marketing entails advertising, cold-calling, and other tactics we commonly think of as “marketing.” This approach is also called interruptive marketing: the idea is that you capture consumers’ attention and create an urgency to buy from you. Outbound marketing can be quite expensive because you must (a) purchase advertising space or (b) pay for labor to perform outreach.

Inbound marketing is also called attraction marketing because it draws customers to you. Inbound strategies include content marketing (social media, blogs, videos, etc.), opt-in-based email lists, and earned media (e.g. coverage in news publications).

Research has shown that chasing down potential customers with outbound strategies can cost up to 3 times as much as attracting new leads to your business! It makes sense: Consumers don’t like to see ads, but they do enjoy gaining value.

And indeed, your business’s value proposition is the core of your brand promise.

Step 1. Know Your Audience

Paid advertising campaigns take a lot of time and tweaking. As mentioned above, most of your ad spend goes toward keywords or listings that don’t yield results. That’s why PPC, sponsored posts, and other paid media are better for larger businesses that can afford more experimentation.

Small businesses must start with a thorough understanding of their potential customers. What makes them tick? Once you know that, you can start promoting your business in a way that resonates with your target audience.

Ask yourself three questions:

  1. What is my ideal customer’s core problem or “pain point”?
  2. How does my business solve that problem?
  3. Why would they choose my business over my competitors?

The answers to these questions compose your value proposition.

Step 2. Define Your Value Proposition

Your value proposition is a concise statement of what your business uniquely provides to your customers and how it benefits them. Don’t confuse this with your company’s values or mission. The value proposition defines your relationship with your customers. What can they expect from you, and why is that important to them?

For example, if you run a lawn care business, your value proposition is not “mowing, weeding, trimming, etc.” It might be “detail-oriented, environmentally-friendly lawn service” or “reliable lawn maintenance that doesn’t break the bank.” There’s no right or wrong answer.

However, your value proposition should include your points of difference: what sets you apart from your competitors. Remember, small businesses often find it challenging to compete on price alone. The average homemaker, when presented with two generic lawn care options, will usually choose the cheaper one. If it’s important to them to avoid herbicides, though, and you’re the only business that offers eco-friendly weed control, that’s a key value you offer them.

Step 3. Choose Your Channels

In Step 1, your audience research should include details about where your prospective customers spend time. There’s little point in paying for Facebook Ads if your target audience isn’t active on Facebook.

There is a wide variety of channels, both digital and physical. Consider:

  • Reddit, Quora, and other discussion-based platforms
  • Pinterest, Instagram, and other visual social media networks
  • YouTube and TikTok
  • Facebook groups surrounding target industries or interests
  • Nextdoor and local word-of-mouth groups
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • Medium, Vocal, Quora+, and other content-sharing platforms
  • networking meetups and online business directories
  • physical signage e.g. billboards and marquees
  • email marketing: far from dead, this tactic boasts an incredible $42 per $1 spent. The key is to build your list from high-value content (e.g. white papers, worksheets, webinars) instead of purchasing a pre-assembled contact list.
  • direct mail campaigns
  • chat-based marketing via Messenger and WhatsApp

Step 4. Plan Your Content

Once you’ve identified your core channels, figure out how your value proposition would play out in each one. People visit Pinterest for DIY tutorials and inspiration, whereas Facebook is more for problem-solving. So, your lawn care business could share landscaping demos and tips on Pinterest while discussing “common lawn care issues” and directly promoting your business on Facebook.

Instead of focusing on “campaigns,” think about your overall business goals and how you can turn them into sustainable efforts. More often than not, you’ll have ongoing results you want to achieve. Perhaps you want to generate at least 500 new leads per month, but you also want to increase your conversion rate for previous customers from 10% to 15%. These goals require different tactics: perhaps a time-limited direct mail campaign for the former and more frequent email newsletters for the latter.

Step 5. Optimize, Optimize, Optimize

SEO is actually a key tactic in any marketing strategy. You need your digital presence to readily accept and convert leads, whether they’re coming from ads or organic content.

Here are a few core tenets to keep in mind:

  • Any ad or social post should lead to a specific page rather than your main website URL or social profile.
  • Each page and post should be optimized for your target audience’s preferred search terms. So instead of targeting high-competition keywords such as “lawn maintenance” or high-volume hashtags such as #lawncare, get specific, e.g. “environmentally friendly lawn care” or “#EcoFriendlyLawn.”
  • Keep your target audience’s buying journey in mind. If their chief pain point is finding a lawn care service that uses eco-friendly weed control, your website should immediately introduce that benefit and invite them to get a quote. Don’t waste their time with “welcome to our website” content.

It’s worth noting that small businesses often get the best leads from local searches — even if they technically have a broader geographic market. That’s because Google, Facebook, Instagram, and other search engines/social platforms prioritize local results for their users. Local SEO should always be part of your strategy. The best tactics include:

  • Google My Business: 34% of GMB listings get viewed more than 1,000 times per month. That’s thousands of dollars in free advertising.
  • Geotagged Instagram posts
  • Facebook pages with business address
  • Keyword optimization and schema markup for local searches e.g. “mowing and weeding gainesville fl” or “lawn care business near me”

Step 6. Use the Right Tools

The nice thing about paid advertising is that it’s relatively easy. Select your audience and keywords, upload your creative, and wait for results. Inbound marketing, by contrast, requires a lot more time even if it’s cheaper. You may gain a higher ROI and more revenue from high-value blogs, videos, press interviews, and so on, but those all take significantly more time than tossing together an ad.

To boost your ROI and your business’s overall profitability, you need the right tools for the job.

Social Listening

Social listening tools take the guesswork out of content creation and brand monitoring. Even the most thorough audience research can’t predict which topics, keywords, and links will resonate most with your target audience. Pay attention to these so you know how to optimize your marketing content. Some helpful platforms:

Marketing Automation

A marketing automation platform such as SharpSpring takes care of repetitive tasks and helps your team build stronger relationships with both leads and customers. For example, let’s say you receive 10 new leads, but 5 of them have questions, 4 have objections, and only 1 is ready to convert. Don’t let the 9 wait while you prioritize the easy sale.

Marketing automation allows you to send targeted messages depending on each lead’s origin and activity, as well as coordinate your email outreach and social content. Ideally, your marketing automation platform also integrates with a CRM to handle sales and subsequent upsells/renewals and retention.

Content Creation

To optimize your content before it goes out to your audience, check out these helpful tools:

  • Grammarly: basic spelling/grammar check, along with tone/diction assessment, readability review, and English variations for different countries
  • Airtable: a spreadsheet-based platform that allows you to draft, collaborate on, and automate content for various channels
  • Canva: simple graphic design with social scheduling options, easy content copying, and brand templates
  • ai: powerful transcription service to document voice conversations and convert them into reusable content

Sales Enablement

Sales enablement is an emerging field that entails better coordination of marketing and sales teams. The idea is to share data from website analytics and social insights with sales reps, as well as CRM data and service requests with marketers. This allows a small business to better understand its customers’ life cycle, pain points, and preferences.

Your marketing automation and CRM platforms both feed into sales enablement, but you’ll also need to set up internal workflows to tweak campaigns and processes. Some key sales enablement tools are:

  • ClickUp, Asana, and other project management platforms to coordinate efforts
  • Highspot, Veelo, and other AI-based tools to improve sales reps’ performance with content recommendations and customized pitch decks
  • Dooly: smart meeting notes review to help sales reps overcome objections and update the CRM
  • Drift, Botsify, and other chatbot tools to capture leads and pre-qualify them before your marketing automation kicks in

What to avoid

These marketing tactics are now considered black-hat and may run you afoul of data privacy laws, Google’s algorithms, and social platforms’ terms of use:

  • Sending unsolicited messages to purchased email lists
  • Keyword stuffing or cloaking
  • Link farming (i.e. posting your website’s URL on link-heavy pages)
  • Automated messaging or following via LinkedIn, Instagram, or Facebook (These platforms’ native auto-response tools and messages sent to qualified leads are okay.)
  • Follow–unfollow tactics

Wrapping Up

Once you’ve identified your audience, researched their interests and preferences, and developed tactics for each channel, congratulations: you have a marketing strategy! Take some time to review and tweak your results as your business grows. Often, nascent enterprises find their initial themes and tactics to be incomplete. There’s little margin for error with paid advertising, but with an inbound-focused marketing approach, you can build meaningful relationships … and therefore word-of-mouth that leads to a strong brand reputation!

In any case, it’s always more cost-effective to focus on providing value and streamlining your lead generation-conversion process rather than throwing money at ads. With today’s advanced and affordable AI-powered tools, it’s easier than ever to let the robots perform tedious tasks — reducing your labor costs and thereby improving your profitability. Plus, these tools can give you invaluable insights into your ideal customers’ desires and interests, allowing you to craft the perfect message to make an impact.

In short, you don’t need to “spend money to make money,” per se. You need to spend time understanding your audience, then save money as you let your business’s core value proposition drive great results.

Lisa Rios