Small business marketing: The ultimate 2021 guide

Small business marketing can be tricky or even downright bewildering.

And marketing is a life-or-death matter. If no one knows you exist, your business will die. And soon…

How do you find your way through the intricacies of brand awareness, brand equity, buyer personas, the 5P’s, the 7P’s, clickthrough rates and whatnot?

Now the good news: every small business does marketing every day, and you can do it too. Even if you have to double as chief marketing officer, you can leverage marketing to survive and thrive in even the most challenging marketplace.

Small business marketing strategies: Learn to market your products

Marketing is promoting and selling products and services. Business professor Philip Kotler defined marketing as:

“the science and art of exploring, creating, and delivering value to satisfy the needs of a target market at a profit.  Marketing identifies unfulfilled needs and desires. It defines, measures and quantifies the size of the identified market and the profit potential. It pinpoints which segments the company is capable of serving best and it designs and promotes the appropriate products and services.”

Philip Kotler tells it like it is

This means that:

  • You need to know who your potential customers are.
  • You need to figure out what they need.
  • You have to contact them wherever they are.
  • You must ensure that your marketing drives profits.
  • You must be deeply interested in your customers.

When faced with such disparate tasks, many small businesses draw complicated plans and strike out in multiple directions. This is a mistake.

The best approach is to assess the marketplace, figure out what is likely to succeed, create and execute a marketing plan, measure your results, discard what doesn’t work and double down on what does.

To accomplish this, successful marketers break it down into manageable subtasks, which fall into 5 key strategies.

What are the 5 marketing strategies?

Marketing has at least 4 P’s

Marketing activities, also known as the marketing mix, are categorized into 4 P’s: product, price, placement and promotion. A fifth P (people) is sometimes included.

The four P’s are:

  • Product. Tell potential customers about your product and present your unique value proposition.
  • Pricing. Offer several pricing points, discounts, promotions, and payment plans. Price your product according to its perceived value rather than to its actual costs.
  • Place. Find out where, how, and when you should reach your customers. Figure out which marketing channels work best for you.
  • Promotion. Lead your customers through the customer journey; it takes 4 steps:
  • Awareness: The customer becomes aware of your brand after seeing your ads or through word-of-mouth.
  • Interest: The customer develops an interest in your brand. Engage them to kindle their interest.
  • Desire: The customer begins to desire what you offer. At this step you may close the sale by offering free trials, affordable price points or discounts.
  • Action: The customer interacts with you by visiting your web page, calling you or buying your product.

Some marketers add a fifth step:

  • Retention: The customer keeps in touch with you and receives support, provides feedback, and buys more products.

The AIDA(R) model is also called the sales funnel because many people will become aware of your offering, but few will act on it.

And the fifth P is:

People. Keep in touch with your customers, contractors, employees, and the public. Always project a positive image.

Two more P’s are sometimes added:

  • Positioning. Present yourself in imaginative ways to influence customers’ perceptions. Give your brand an unique identity.
  • Packaging. Show your product in the best possible light (ie, mind its “packaging”). Every detail counts.

What is the most effective advertising for small businesses?

In a nutshell: figure out what is likely to yield results, discard what doesn’t work and double down on what does.

Your small business is unique, so are your marketing needs. To maximize your chances of success, you must develop your own marketing ideas, create a sound marketing plan, choose among available marketing services, and execute your plan with laser-like focus.

But how do you create a strong small business marketing plan?

Small business marketing plans: Never fail to plan

A small business marketing plan shouldn’t be mind-bogglingly complicated, but you do need to write it down, communicate it to your team, and execute it competently. Your plan should cover:

  • Your unique selling proposition (why you?)

Why would a customer choose you over your competitors? What sets you apart from them? Is your product better? Cheaper? Rare? You task is to make an unique and compelling offer.

  • Your elevator pitch (tell them in 30 seconds)

An elevator pitch is a brief (up to 30 seconds) oral presentation of what you offer. Be always ready to deliver an impactful pitch that grabs people’s attention.

  • Your buyer personas (why would he buy from you?)

Who are your customers? What makes them tick? What are their pain points?

To help you figure them out, create buyer personas. A persona is a fictional character that reflects your customers’ demographics, education, employment, interests, hobbies, and position in your sales funnel.

  • Brand building (are you looking your best?)

A brand is everything the public sees and thinks about your business—your products, your premises, your employees, your customers, and even you yourself.

Every brand has its own “personality” or brand voice; it can sound playful or serious, formal or laid back, trendy or traditional, etc. Burnishing your image requires continuous effort. Think carefully about:

  • What are you promising to customers?
  • Is your logo memorable and unique?
  • Is your advertising truthful and authentic?
  • What value does your business add to your customers?
  • Do they trust you?
  • Are you available when they need you?

Powerful brands also enjoy brand equity, which reflect how much more customers will pay for the branded product over a generic version, and inspire brand loyalty, which drives repeat sales.

  • Clear goals (can you play the numbers game?)

Deep down, marketing is a numbers game. To make sound decisions, you must know how much you spent, where the money went, and what you got in return. 

  • How much should your small business advertising budget be?

Broadly speaking, small B2C businesses should spend 5%-10% of their revenues on marketing. That figure tends to be higher for new businesses (up to 20%) and smaller companies (7%-8%), but lower for B2B companies (2%-3%).

* How do you set marketing goals?

Sound marketing goals are measurable and based on formal indicators such as website visits, social media engagement, inbound leads, and conversion rates (ie, the percentage of visitors who closed a sale). Well-defined goals can be contrasted with your actual results.

Always define…

SMART goals. A SMART goal is smart, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound; it must include a metric and a deadline.

For example, instead of…

Sell bento boxes like crazy


A SMART goal reads:

Increase daily sales of bento boxes by 30% in the next 90 days

Using SMART goals, you can accurately measure your campaigns’ impact and adapt it to changes in the marketplace.

…but your main yardstick is…

Return on investment. ROI tells you how things turned out in the real world. It’s calculated as:

ROI = (earning – investment) / investment (%)

A good ROI for small business marketing campaigns is about 15-30%.

To track your campaigns accurately, you must keep tabs on your accounts, including net margins, costs, and overhead. Always stay on top of your accounting game.

  • Market research 101: Know your customers

You need to meet the people who buy from.

To really know who they are, reach out to your customers. Meet them at your place of business, call them, email them, and run surveys. Find out why they chose you over your competitors, how you benefit them, and what they think of you.

  • Customer relationship management: Survey the field

A customer relationship management (CRM) system is a database with information about your customers, leads and prospects. A robust database with carefully curated data will help you identify marketing opportunities and trends. 

Many CRM software packages that offer all the resources you need are available for free.

  • Public relations 101: Meet the press

Reporters and editors are always looking for stories, and social media makes it easy to find journalists who might be interested in your business.

To grab their attention, tell a story that’s unique to you. Showcase your work, your products, your business culture, and how you give back.

Other useful services include HARO, where you can respond to queries from journalists, PRWeb, where you can publish your own press releases, and Google Alerts, where you can track online searches about your business.

To present yourself in the best light, always include a link to professional-looking media kit when you pitch stories to the press. Your media kit should summarize your business, including your logo, your people, your press releases, and your media contacts.

  • Small business marketing automation (make $$$ while you sleep)

Automating marketing chores frees up time, prevents mistakes, and helps retain customers and increase productivity.

Marketing automation software can pull data from your CRM, including email open rates, shopping carts left behind, and web form data; it can also schedule email blasts and social media posts. Many CRM packages are free for small businesses.

But how do you get all those grand plans off the ground? Let’s start with local marketing

How do I market my small business locally?

  • Mind your presentation 

Get awesome business cards and stationery, register your domain name, and create a website, social media profiles, and a professional-looking email signature. If applicable, order magnetic signs, bumper stickers, and window decals for the company car.

  • Build a solid network

A robust business network takes time to build, but it’s one of the best assets you can have. It helps you find customers, investors, and business partners. So get the word out: call old customers, friends, family, former bosses and employees.

And don’t neglect LinkedIn. Create a business page. Make new connections and talk to them, write comments, and regularly post relevant content.

  • Get referrals

Word-of-mouth is alive and well. Most consumers listen to other people, especially those they know and trust, before deciding on a purchase. Referred customers are also more likely to buy repeatedly.

So ask for referrals from your relatives, friends, neighbors, colleagues, customers, and employees. Remember that many people are willing to provide referrals, but few will do it spontaneously, so don’t hesitate to ask.

And make referrals yourself. Maybe they’ll return the favor.

  • Use coupons, promos and freebies (discounts pay, really)

Promos and sales can attract new clients, who may convert into loyal customers. You can use holiday promotions, coupons, commissions on sales, affiliate networks, rewards programs, coupon deal websites such as Groupon.

  • Deliver on customer care

Getting a new customer is much harder than keeping a current one. Therefore, always be ready to go the extra mile to please your customers. If a customer is unhappy, find out why. Run surveys. Give frequent buyer discounts, send birthday cards and holiday gifts.

  • Give out swag

Give your customers useful things such as magnets, pens, pads, rulers, notebooks, USB drives, tote bags, etc. You can also distribute those items at trade shows and other events.

  • Attend local events

Look out for events where you can expand your network. Check out local contests and celebrations at schools and malls, and the local chamber of commerce. Get involved.

  • Partner with other businesses (no business is an island)

Partnering with other businesses is a great way to get resources such as expertise, technology, and know-how.

You can organize joint promotions, donate to a social cause or cross-promote products that complement yours (eg. a gym selling sports apparel at a discount).

  • Send direct mail (slowly does it)

Although more expensive than email, direct mail remains quite profitable. Promotional mail should use personalized envelopes with bulky contents and persuasive copy. You can also send inserts, tear cards, props and free samples.

Direct mail may be a supercentenarian, but it’s gotten on with the times. Today most direct mail campaigns are coupled with online marketing techniques.

  • Advertise on local print media

Although publications are going digital, print media can still run effective and affordable ads. Nowadays print ads are usually integrated into online marketing strategies to better engage customers.

  • Fight guerrilla marketing actions

No helmets or rifles required, but you do need guts and creativity. Guerrilla marketing employs bold, creative strategies such as placing eye-catching visuals in unusual public places, creating street art, or organizing flash mobs.

Local marketing ideas: Opportunity could be right under your nose

Marketing is moving online, but older methods such as direct mail and flyers can be a good fit for the marketing strategy of your small business.

Some small business marketing tips you can try:

4 marketing event ideas for small business 

  • Speak in public
  • Apply for business awards (or host your own)
  • Host a webinar
  • Hold social media contests

12 medias that small business often overlook

  • Leaflets and brochures
  • Flyers
  • Radio
  • Billboards
  • Car stickers and magnets
  • Branded automotive paint jobs
  • Newspaper ads
  • News OpEds
  • Local TV stations
  • Independent websites
  • Sidewalk signs
  • Online directories

No small business can neglect digital marketing. Let’s look at the tools of that trade.

How do I market my small business online?

Small businesses should direct the bulk of their marketing efforts online; it’s affordable, effective, and offers several great opportunities. And many online marketing techniques are low-cost or even free.

  • Find local clients online

The internet reaches everyone, including your neighborhood. People near you can find you through directories such as:

Google My Business. This service helps users find nearby businesses such as retail shops, restaurants, and beauty parlors. You can set up a free profile or buy ads.

Facebook. Creating a business page on Facebook is free and an excellent way to promote your small business and interact with your customers.

Yelp. Claiming a spot on Yelp is also free. You can optimize your profile, add pictures, and ask for reviews. Favorable Yelp reviews can boost your search engine ranking.

Online marketing for small business: Getting the basics right

Starting out online is easy. Basic websites are affordable, and sophisticated analytics tools and other software are free. To get started, create your website and social media profiles.

  • Create a website

A website shows the world who you are, what you offer, and how to contact you. Unlike online platforms, your website is not subject to fluctuations in popularity or changes in third-party policies. Hosting services offer basic websites at good prices or even for free.

Your site can receive inbound traffic, and, if your content is interesting enough, even generate traffic for free (also called organic traffic).

  • Install analytics software

Modern analytics tools provide detailed statistics about your visitors, including demographics, language, devices used to view your site, interests, and behavior (when they came to your site and what they did).

  • Start a blog

A good blog with great content establishes your credibility, drives awareness of your business, and gets you customers. Remember that your content should include the keywords that searchers might use to find you online.

  • Share your social media links

Your site should link to your social media profiles. Help your visitors follow you, share your content, and spread the word about your business.

Inbound marketing for small business: Build it, and…

…they will be tempted to come. Inbound marketing, sometimes known as “pull” marketing (as opposed to the “push” marketing of advertising), consists of offering your customers valuable content to attract their interest instead of interrupting them with paid advertising.

Content marketing includes three steps:

  • Attract. Customers come to your website for content that informs, educates or entertains them. Create focused content that highlights the benefits of your offering to a specific buyer persona.
  • Engage. When customers interact with your content, talk to them through social media, email and chat.
  • Delight. After a sale is closed, continue to engage the customer. Ask how well your product worked for them, provide further guidance, extend additional offers, and show interest in them. Remember that delighted customers will spread the word.

The attract/engage/delight cycle is often compared to a flywheel which keeps spinning and bringing in new leads and customers.

You can disseminate your content through blogging, search engines, social media, referrals, and paid ads. Your inbound marketing campaigns should also leverage web analytics, employ shareable content, and adopt a consistent content strategy.

Content marketing 101: Make your small business shine

Content marketing makes customers connect with your brand by offering relevant, valuable content. Although it takes time to yield results, a strong content hub can generate all the inbound leads your need.

Quality content benefits your audience and showcases your authority and expertise, thus gaining their trust more effectively than conventional sales pitches. Your may publish blog posts, infographics, videos, ebooks, courses, and podcasts.

Visual content, especially video, has become highly popular on social media. So let’s talk about visuals.

Visuals: Small business can go multimedia too

A word on copyright

Pirating others’ work is frowned upon by the original authors, by search engines, and even by the law. Make sure you are legally allowed to use everything you publish. When in doubt, seek legal advice.

That said, affordable visuals are plentiful, including infographics, drawings, photos and short videos. Quality visuals make your content more engaging, be it on email, social media or your own website.

The main types of visuals are:

  • Infographics (more than a pretty picture)

Good infographics convey your message quickly and people love to share them. You can create infographics using free tools like Canva or Visme. Use shareable infographics to divulge data about your business or information relevant to your industry and your audience.

  • Photos (stock, DIY or professional)

All stock photo repositories offer some high-quality images for free. Your can also use your smartphone to take pictures and showcase your premises, your products, and your brand.

Get inspiration from photos of similar businesses, pay attention to background and lighting, and try different angles, effects and flash lighting.

For more complex needs and better results, you can hire a professional photographer.

  • Video (yes you can!)

Many small businesses think that video marketing is beyond their reach, but nowadays everyone can shoot and edit simple marketing videos. Maybe you already have a few suitable clips in your smartphone.

You can create how-tos, slideshows and lectures, product reviews (eg. unboxing videos), video ads, blog teasers, testimonials, about-us presentations, and much more.

Remember to use the correct formats for social media (usually square or vertical), include subtitles (mobile users usually view videos with the sound off), and keep in mind that users behave differently on each platform; mostly they use Facebook fir updates, Twitter for news and trends, Instagram for inspiration, and YouTube for learning and entertainment.

Content marketing strategy: Small business can think big

A common strategy is the hub-and-spoke model, which consists of larger posts designed to rank on search engines (say, “The Ultimate Guide to Muffins”) linked to smaller related posts(“How to Bake Moist, Tender Muffins”, “Melted Butter Muffins: 3 Superior Recipes”, “The Secret to Avoiding Bland Muffins”, etc).

Remember to tailor your to your buyer personas and that most people never saw it in the first place. Some pieces are “evergreen” and can be reposted or repackaged. For example, a successful blog post can turn into an ebook or a video tutorial.

You can also pay to play. Options include boosting (so-called sponsored posts), where social media platforms place your content in users’ feeds; paid promotion, which invites users to interact with your page; and lead generation ads for your content.

Search engines. Your content will be read by people and also by search engines. High search rankings ensure that your content will be viewed by a wide audience. The techniques used to grab Google’s attention are called search engine optimization, or SEO.

Search engine optimization: Talking to Google’s bots

To improve your search rankings, you should employ search engine optimization (SEO) to increase the chances that people will find you on search engines when they look up relevant keywords. Google publishes guidelines for sites that want to be well ranked in its search engine.

Their main points are:

  • Don’t cheat. Some websites attempt to trick Google into ranking them high. This is called black hat SEO. Techniques include duplicate or machine-generated content, keyword stuffing, misleading headlines, and paid links from third parties.

But Google has wised up to such tactics and works continuously to stay ahead of tricksters. If you use such shenanigans, odds are that you’ll be caught.

And getting on the wrong side of Google can hit your wallet hard. Your search rankings will plummet and your traffic will sink, taking your bottom line down with it. If you want to be found on Google, follow their guidelines.

  • Build solid IT foundations. Google also penalizes technical issues like missing pages (404 errors), broken redirects, faulty SSL certificates, and hacked sites. If your IT foundations are wobbly, your will miss out on traffic. Hosting services offer guidance and support for dealing with these technicalities.
  • Embed your target keywords. To nudge Google into improving your rankings, weave the desired keywords into your copy, especially into your headings and subheadings. But avoid excessive repetition—use them naturally, as you would if your content was targeted solely at people.

But which keywords are best? Your keywords should be both relevant to your business and used frequently on Google. To make good choices, use keyword screeners like Ubersuggest, KW Finder or Google itself.

Small businesses should focus on long-tail keywords, which are more specific. Common keywords (say, “running sneakers”) are fiercely disputed by large corporations with massive advertising budgets (like Adidas or Nike). A small business could target, for example, “sneaker store in Miami.”

  • Earn backlinks. When ranking a website Google checks its backlinks (if other sites link to it) and whether those sites have high domain authority (ie, are prestigious, high-traffic sites).

To earn backlinks, you need to publish content that other sites will want to link to and promote your content to webmasters, journalists, bloggers and influencers.

You should also link to other sites (they may return the favor).

  • Provide value. No amount of technical thingamajigs can obviate the need for consistently valuable content that informs, entertains or educates your audience.

High-quality, SEO-optimized content will be found by search engines, shared on social media, and attract backlinks from sites with high domain authority.

Email marketing: Why electronic mail is old but gold

Although email marketing is much simpler than social media or search engine marketing, it often yields higher returns on investment. The granddaddy of internet messaging remains one of the most efficient channels for nurturing and converting leads; it’s also cheap, easy to use, and has worldwide reach. For many marketers, email is still their main channel for lead generation and biggest source of ROI.

Modern email platforms offer a wealth of resources at affordable prices. You can segment your mailing lists, create customized messages, track responses (including how many recipients opened each message, clicked on its links or followed your call to action), and measure conversion rates.

Crafting your messages. When creating an email piece, check the following:

  1. Sender address. Does the message come from a recognizable business address?
  2. Subject line. Does it tease the reader without being misleading?
  3. Body. Is your message appealing and easy to read, including on mobile?
  4. Call to action (CTA). Did you tell your recipient know what you want them to do?

Email marketing revolves around two concepts:

  • Lead magnets. To get subscribers, use a lead magnet: offer something valuable such as an ebook, a “seat” at a webinar, a free trial, a discount, etc.
  • Lead nurturing. Once they subscribe, send a regular stream of emails to engage your audience, build credibility, and promote new offers. Each message should encourage readers to follow along your sales funnel until they become paying customers.

Another two important concepts in email marketing are:

  • Segmentation. Email lists can be segmented according to the subscribers’ gender, age, location, interests, etc. Your messages should be tailored to each segment’s demographics, previous interactions with your content, position in the sales funnel, and past purchases.
  • A/B testing. In an A/B test, you send two versions of the same message having different subject lines, headlines, copy, images, layout, timing, and calls to action. You can then check which messages were most effective at bringing in visitors to your website or new purchases.

A word on spam: Abusive practices such as unsolicited emails, misleading subject lines, and emailing people who have unsubscribed from your list are prohibited by law.

You must also provide a mailing address and an unsubscribe link. Noncompliance may lead ISPs to block you or even attract legal trouble. Don’t do it.

Social media marketing for small business: Turn connections into $$$

Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are powerful business tools. In 2021, adults spent on average of 2.5 hours per day on social media. Odds are that your customers are on social media too.

This means you should build a strong social-media presence; it will make you sound responsible and credible. You can amass followers, show ads, and even provide customer service.

Choosing social media platforms. Each social media platform attracts different users. Teens flock to Instagram and TikTok, whereas adults prefer Facebook and Twitter; LinkedIn users tend to be older and more affluent; and nowadays retirees are increasingly joining Facebook.

And some platforms are better suited for specific types of content. For example, Instagram and Snapchat are designed around images, so they may be more helpful for businesses that produce strong visual content.

Social media metrics. You should keep track of social media indicators to measure the effects of your marketing actions.

The key indicators are:

  • Impressions. How many times your message was viewed.
  • Engagements. The number and types of interactions with your message, including Likes, Favorites, Shares, Retweets, Clicks, Replies, Follows, and Pins.
  • Engagement rates. The percentage of people who engage with your post after seeing it.
  • Site visits. The number of people who visited your site using the link in your social media profile.
  • Mentions. How many times a piece of content was mentioned by other users in their own posts.
  • Followers. How many users follow a social media profile.
  • Sales. How many users bought from you after viewing your profile.

Using these indicators, you can identify the content that resonates with your audience and fine-tune your marketing strategy.

Social media audiences. Social media will tell you a lot about your audience, including age, location, gender, income, education, career and interests, and when they come online. This information helps you choose platforms, fine-tune your online presence, attract followers, and create positive social-media experiences.

Social media automation. Marketing automation software will post your content to multiple accounts at scheduled times so you don’t have to login to several accounts. The software also aggregates indicators from several platforms, thus helping you manage your campaigns across your entire social media presence.

Organic social media marketing: Look, no upfront $$$!

Social media marketing is called organic when it involves no paid promotion. Instead of buying ads, you post content and engage your followers. You can promote your blog posts, post infographics and short videos, run polls, host contests or giveaways, and ask for feedback. You should also respond promptly to direct messages and other user interactions.

Other social media tools and techniques:

Tagging. Tag your users, your employees, associates, and other businesses. Encourage others to tag you. Remember to ask for permission before tagging your customers and to engage people who tag or mention you.

Hashtags. Hashtags come in several flavors. There are trending hashtags, that draw the largest crowds; specific hashtags, that cover specific subjects; and custom hashtags, that you create yourself to highlight topics specific to your message.

Social media monitoring. Social media listening tools provide real-time alerts to mentions searches, thus allowing you to join the conversation.

Tracking your competitors. Look up what your competition is doing. Find out how you measure up and try to find new ways to stand out.

Influencer marketing. Digital influencers are influential individuals with large followings on on social media. Some of them may be willing to promote your business. You can ask an influencer to talk about their experience with your business or pay them to endorse your product.

Pay-per-click ads: How to make every $ count

Social media platforms know so much about their users that they can find clients for any business. One way to reach new clients is using paid ads. Despite the upfront cost, paid ads usually yield returns faster than organic campaigns and, if you choose your keywords and budgets carefully, they can be quite affordable.

The main platforms are:

Google AdWords. To place effective ads, zero in on the keywords your customers use. Pick your keywords carefully and embed them in your content as well. Google ads generally work better if you know exactly what your customers are searching on the web.

Facebook. Facebook allows you to target audiences based on factors such as age, sex, location, language, interests, and online behavior. Facebook ads are easy to create and can be very affordable. Unlike Google ads, Facebook ads are more appropriate for generating interest among your target audience.

Instagram. Facebook and Instagram share the same ad facilities. Instagram started as a photo sharing platform, so it’s better suited for strongly visual campaigns. Include appealing photos and images of your products, your premises, and your brand in general.

Now get yourself out there. Like a boss.

Small business marketing is full of exciting opportunities. With careful planning, judicious investment, and competent execution, you can attract loyal customers and offer them value that they will be happy to pay for. So dive in. The world is waiting for you.