The Beginner’s Guide to Online Marketing for Small Business

Updated on February 4, 2021
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If you’re completely new to online marketing for small business, getting started might seem like a daunting process. And with good reason: Online marketing is constantly evolving.

Not to mention the fact that it’s a huge industry with a lot of competition. But don’t worry! To get you started on this all-important small business owner journey, we’ve broken down everything you need to know about online marketing for small business as well as resources you can use to implement your strategy.

But first, the basics.

What Is Marketing?

This may not be as obvious as it sounds. Many people confuse online marketing with online advertising. In reality, advertising is just one component of a comprehensive marketing plan. Media planning, public relations, product pricing and distribution, sales strategy, customer support, market research, and community involvement are all parts of comprehensive marketing plans.

Many of these components translate into online strategies. We’ll break that down for you even more below.

Online Marketing for Small Business: The Basics

Consider these the launch pads that you can use as the foundation of your online marketing for small business strategy. Results will vary from business to business, but the information gleaned from this section will be valuable to anyone.

Understand Your Company’s Exact Needs and Goals

Your customers, prospects, and partners are the lifeblood of your business. You need to build your marketing strategy around them.

Step 1 of marketing is understanding what your customers want, which can be challenging when you’re dealing with such a diverse audience.

Marketing is strategic. To succeed, you need highly focused goals. You need a framework for a scalable, replicable framework.

Get to Know Your Customers

Before jumping into your online marketing for small business strategy, it’s important to have a conversation with your existing customers.

How did they find out about your product or service? What was the process that transformed them from interested prospects into paying customers? And what do your customers value or care about?


What you’ll likely hear and find most compelling are stories about how your business solved some of your customers’ most pressing problems.

It’s also important to get demographic information such as age, gender, location, profession, and household role (do they make most of the purchase decisions for their household?).

The goal here is to discover who your core customers are and dig deep into what kind of experience they want online.

Develop Customer Personas

Once you get feedback from your customers, you’ll find that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all customer.

Each customer has their own unique preferences, traits, and needs. Your online marketing initiatives need to reach each and every one of these customer segments or personas.

A customer persona is the behavioral, demographic, and psychological characteristics of your buyers.

The goal here is to set yourself up to maximize online tools (which we’ll get to) to reach these different customer personas. Fortunately—there are plenty.

Make a Plan

You’ll be ahead of the curve if you make yourself a comprehensive marketing plan.


Don’t just throw things at the wall and see what sticks—the only way you’ll be able to really test success is through consistent execution and tracking.

So, once you read through this guide and figure out what you’d like to do, draft up an official plan for your company to follow, and get to it!

Define Online Marketing for Small Business Goals

You’ve got several ways to approach online marketing for small business, and while it may seem great to tackle all of them, even resource-rich Fortune 500 companies streamline their online marketing goals.

What you do for your online marketing for small business initiatives is just as important as what you don’t do.

So, consider all of these options and—using your knowledge of your unique business and customer needs—tailor your online marketing for small business strategy to what best works for your business.

It’s possible you’ll identify multiple goals—that’s great! We’ll jump into more tactical strategies for each a bit later.

Brand Awareness

One of your company’s goals might be simply “brand awareness.”

Brand awareness is the extent to which consumers recognize the existence and availability of a company’s product or service.

Creating brand awareness is one of the key steps in promoting a product or service—and online marketing for small business is a great way to do that.

It’s particularly important when launching new products and services. And it’s a way for a company to differentiate similar products and services from its competitors.

Brand awareness strategies don’t often convert to direct sales. It’s more of a long game relationship and growth strategy with customers or potential customers.


Conversely, a sales strategy aims to create direct paths to sales based on how customers go from potential buyers to actual buyers.

Many companies believe that prioritizing sales goals is all they need—and if you’re struggling for revenue, then that is probably the case.

But that’s not always necessarily true. Brand awareness and other goals can be important contributors to your business’s success.

Think about it this way: As a customer, if a brand is constantly hawking you to buy, buy, buy, it’s just as likely that you’ll get annoyed by the marketing ploy as it is that you’ll actually buy something.

That’s why consistent, more subtle marketing goals can go along way in the health of your business.


Additionally, “sales” goals can mean different things to different people.

Perhaps you’re looking to expand your business beyond your existing customer base.

This will alter your online marketing strategy considerably from if you were just looking to get the same customers to buy more things.

Which leads us to customer retention.

Customer Retention

Customer retention refers to the ability of a company or product to retain its customers over some specified period.

This goes a little beyond brand awareness and sales.

Customer retention goals are about increasing the frequency with which customers engage with your band.

Online Marketing for Small Business Strategies

Below you’ll find examples of online marketing strategies that accomplish different goals and require different skills and resources.

Knowing these different strategies can help you determine which are best to implement for your business.

Destination vs. Distribution

Just over 10 years ago, online marketing was all about generating traffic to a website—a destination—built for a desktop.

Now? The impact of smartphones on online marketing is surely not lost on anyone.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to forgo a destination in favor of distribution models like various social media, email, influencer marketing, etc.

There are levels of approach to this problem: attracting people to a specific place that converts to sales vs. reaching the maximum amount of people online.

Depending on your business and customer needs and online marketing goals, you’ll likely develop a strategy that tackles both of these issues in your own way. But it’s important to understand the difference between what each of the below strategies can achieve for your business.

Earned vs. Owed vs. Paid

Many marketing strategies can be broken down into three categories: earned, owned, and paid.

But they can also intersect. Titan Media has a great graphic to demonstrate this idea:[1]


Earned media is mostly likely distributed content—social media posts, mentions of your business online by blogs, reviews on Yelp, etc.

Owned media is your destination—your website or app and the social pages you own.

Paid media is advertising, plain and simple.

We’ll break down a few ways you can execute on these three strategies below.

Online Advertising

The most straightforward online marketing strategy is to advertise your business online.

Online ads are designed to generate click-throughs to your online destination—a store, an informational page, or whatever you are trying to promote. Online ads can be used for a variety of purposes—from brand awareness, sales, expansion, and retention.

The cost is usually relative to the number of click-throughs the ad generates. This varies from service to service.

A good place to start with online ads is through a service like Google Ads. This will place your ads across sites on Google according to your specifications.

Your customer personas will certainly come in handy here, as you’ll be able to create and target different ads to different personas.

Content Marketing

Content marketing involves the creation and sharing of online material—such as videos, blogs, podcasts, e-books, and social media posts—that does not explicitly promote a brand but stimulates interest in its products or services.

It’s different from online advertising in that it usually doesn’t explicitly ask anything of the customer other than acting as an invitation for engagement with the content itself.

Content marketing is a vital tool for brand awareness and long-term customer relationships online. It can be a continued effort of earned, owned, and paid media altogether or slices of each.

Content marketing strategies often require content management systems to manage the content. WordPress is one example of a content management system.

If you’re looking for ideas on content to create for content marketing purposes, Google Adwords, Answer The Public, and SEMRush are great tools to figure out what topics people are searching for in relation to your product or service. You can also try social listening as a way to figure out what questions and concerns your target audience has.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Search engine optimization is inextricably intertwined with content marketing.

It’s the process of affecting the online visibility of a website or a web page in a web search engine’s unpaid or organic results.


So if you’re creating content related to your industry, business, or service but aren’t optimizing it for the search engines, you’ll miss out on high-quality traffic.

One way to optimize your content for SEO is to understand what users are searching for and implement those queries—or keywords—in your content. You can use the tools listed above to do keyword research.

But SEO doesn’t end at keywords. There is an art and a science to getting your content to surface in the search engines. Check out the Beginner’s Guide to SEO by Moz for a comprehensive explanation.

Email Marketing

Email marketing is a type of content marketing. It’s also a great way to get the word out about other content marketing initiatives such as blog posts, videos, and podcasts.

Email marketing is the act of sending a commercial message, usually to a group of people, through email. Essentially, every email sent to a potential or current customer can be considered email marketing.

Email marketing is one of the best customer retention and sales generators available. Many businesses use an email marketing manager like MailChimp to execute their email marketing strategy.

Social Media Marketing

Another type of content marketing, social media marketing is the use of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat, and elsewhere to promote your brand or execute content marketing strategies.

There are millions of ways to use social media marketing for your business, from creating hashtag campaigns to posting deals and giveaways to your followers.

The best social media marketing strategies incentivize customers to follow your business, generating brand awareness, and customer loyalty. For a deep dive on social media marketing, SproutSocial has a great guide.

Conversion Optimization

To capitalize on your “owned media,” conversion optimization is the way to go.

Conversion optimization is a strategy for increasing the number of visitors to a website that “convert” into customers or take any desired action on the owned media. provides a software program that helps businesses optimize visitor experience, and consequently, their conversion to paying customers.  


Digital media is a great way to host a giveaway or post exclusive deals for customers. It’s a type of content marketing that often does convert followers to paying customers.

Referral Incentives

Offer incentives for customers who refer their friends, family, or followers to your business. You can build a homegrown system for creating unique referral codes for your customers to track their success or there are plenty of B2B services you can use that will offer you a customized solution.

Influencer Marketing  

Work with people who have significant followings online to promote your brand. This is a form of paid media that has an organic feel.

It’s important to choose influencers who will resonate with your customers—not just those with the highest following. Check out our guide to influencer marketing if you’re interested in getting started.

Measure Success

Whatever you do, make sure you are tracking your online marketing successes and failures. See what parts of your plan work better than others.

A robust online marketing plan will likely have fragmented measuring tools—Google Analytics, the metrics on your content management system, among other things.

Make sure you gather those all in one place and weigh their success and failures.


Hopefully, you’re now ready to get started with online marketing for small business. We’ve covered a lot of ground, but it’s just the beginning!

And don’t forget—have fun!

Article Sources:

  1. “What is Earned, Owned & Paid Media? The Difference Explained
Meredith Wood
GM, New Markets at NerdWallet

Meredith Wood

Meredith Wood is the founding editor of the Fundera Ledger and a GM at NerdWallet.

Meredith launched the Fundera Ledger in 2014. She has specialized in financial advice for small business owners for almost a decade. Meredith is frequently sought out for her expertise in small business lending and financial management.

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