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By Kerry Gorgone, {grow} Contributing Columnist

If you want to jump ahead of the pack in digital marketing, you’re running out of time. Small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) are adopting channels like social media, SEO, and interactive websites in greater and greater numbers.

A new study from Inc. and Vocus on the State of Digital Marketing for SMBs found that 78% of SMBs with $1 million or more in annual revenue use social media for marketing, and smaller businesses aren’t far behind. More than half of the businesses surveyed use some of the most popular digital marketing tools, including social media, SEO, email marketing and blogging.

More than one-third of respondents rate websites as their most effective digital marketing tool, although “digital marketing tools that incorporate social interaction online are emerging as a much more powerful and effective alternative,” according to the Hart Roberts, marketing manager at Telluride.com.

Judging by the study, which analyzed responses from 408 marketing decision makers, adoption has lagged for “more sophisticated approaches” like ecommerce, mobile, paid banner ads and search terms, and custom content creation. To stand out from the competition, business owners should master these approaches, and use them to bring users to on-site content that nurtures a genuine connection between the company and its audience.

Create “owned” content that invites engagement through polls, images, share links and other interactive features. You might bring people to your site through paid channels, but if they like what they see, they’ll share, which will amplify your message through earned media.

The study attributes increased adoption in part to the lower cost of using digital marketing channels, as well as increased awareness about them. Analytics have also proven to be a powerful lure: robust audience data helps companies to better understand their customers’ needs and preferences.

The ROI of social media and other types of digital marketing continues to be a topic of debate, but the businesses surveyed prioritize one key metric: sales. They may like “likes,” but they love leads. Sales received an average importance rating of 4.45 on a scale of 1 to 5. Other goals include raising brand awareness and reaching new audience segments.

Despite the perception that social media marketing is free or low-cost, the time and attention these channels require demands adequate staffing. The majority of SMBs reported having between one and five full-time employees working on digital marketing, but 1 in 10 of the $1-million plus businesses have no full-time employees assigned to digital marketing. Just over 5% of businesses outsource their digital marketing.

In order to effectively use social media and other digital channels to their best advantage, SMBs need to ensure that someone within the company has responsibility for digital strategy and performance. Even if the businesses outsources its digital marketing, someone in-house should work with the outside agency. If no one “owns” an organization’s digital marketing strategy, efforts will be haphazard, and results lackluster.

Businesses already have to break through a huge amount of noise online to grab the attention of their audience, and things are only getting noisier. Nearly all (90%) of companies surveyed said that they were “very” or “somewhat” likely to increase their digital marketing efforts and spending over the next three years.

The bottom line: SMBs need to embrace online social interaction, and take a data-driven approach to marketing strategy. The trailblazers in these areas will gain a competitive edge over companies that maintain the status quo in their marketing mix.

For more information, download the complete study or check out the infographic.

 

kerry gorgoneKerry O’Shea Gorgone, JD/MBA, teaches New Media Marketing in the Internet Marketing Master of Science Program at Full Sail University in Winter Park Florida. Follow her on Twitter: @KerryGorgone

 Top illustration courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons and Jason Ozur.

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