Talk of the Town: 7 Simple Digital Marketing Strategies For Local Businesses

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We work with a number of local businesses. Small companies, with brick & mortar storefronts owned by people who have roots in their communities. They come to us because they need mobile-optimized websites to compliment their real-world activities. They tell me they want websites to drive sales, and leads.

A weird thing happens when I ask them if they’ve considered other digital marketing activities, like advertising, to get them out there. They say things like:

Advertising is too expensive.

Digital marketing is for big brands and chains, we’re just a mom & pop shop.

Everybody who needs to know us already knows us; they know where we are and what we do.”

This post is going to look at some easy-to-implement, inexpensive digital marketing activities that you local businesses owners can use to increase the awareness of your brand among your local market, drive repeat business, build customer loyalty and online word-of-mouth.

But before getting into the tactics, we need to understand why digital marketing isn’t just for big brands.

It Begins Offline, With All The Marketing You’re Already Doing

You’ve got a storefront. That storefront is on a street. People, maybe thousands of people, walk past your storefront every day. In marketing parlance, every time someone looks up at your signage, that counts as an impression. For that fleeting instant, that person had your brand in their brain.

Now you have to ask yourself, was that person a prospective customer? Maybe? I mean, you went to the trouble of weighing all the pros and cons of the location you selected and the local population had to be one of the factors you considered right?

In addition to cost and square-footage, location (location, location!) was one of the main considerations informing your decision to set up shop where you did. Is it close to a transit hub? If so that increases the volume of impressions you’ll get. Are you the only bakery in a seven-block-radius? If so then you’ve narrowed your competition and given yourself a totally workable value proposition. Do you offer personal fitness training services in a neighborhood full of affluent work-from-home types? Then the quality of your impressions is better, since you’re more likely to connect with people who can use your services.

The point is, the selection of a location for your brand is part of your marketing strategy. It’s a first step, and you’ve already done it.

The question becomes, how do you turn those impressions into leads and ultimately, sales?

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Walk-Ins & Word-of-Mouth

The first sales you’re typically going to make are from walk-in customers off the street and word-of-mouth business coming from people you’ve got preexisting relationships with. Those people will tell their friends about you who’ll in turn come in, buy something and tell their friends about you.

Things are looking up. Over the course of a year you see your sales increase, and you’ve built a small, but loyal repeat customer base. But then something happens, your sales start to plateau? What gives?

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The Temptation to Diversify

It’s usually at this point that many local business owners throw their hands up in the air and say “well, I guess that we’ve reached all the people who are interested in our brand”. The thinking behind such statements is that everybody who could possibly use whatever it is you’re selling has already walked by enough times to know you, and if more people aren’t coming in it’s because you’re not selling something they want.

It’s at this point that many businesses think about diversifying their offerings. That’s a tricky game to get into. Adding a new line of business can come with increased infrastructure investment. And, the inherent contradiction in this logic is that if everyone in your local market already knows you, then they already have built-up an idea in their heads about what you do. How are you going to change idea, without confusing your core audience?

See, the thing is, as a small business, one of your great advantages is that you’re free to focus on one thing, so long as you do that one thing really really well. You have permission to not be everything to everyone.

I’m not saying don’t do it. I am saying it’s tricky and that it might make sense to try to maximize your core business offering before investing heavily in diversification.

There Are Plenty of Paths to Purchasing

I think the mistake many small businesses make is thinking that there’s a single, linear path from awareness to sale for their customers; customers see your storefront, understand what you do, and when they need or want your offering, they come in and convert (and if the experience was great, they’ll tell their friends).

While that’s certainly a customer journey, it’s not the only one.

3174186405_4654a14ae4_zThere are plenty of potential customers who simply don’t walk past your storefront regularly, because it’s slightly off their route. There are plenty of prospects who do walk by, but are otherwise distracted, thinking about their workdays, dinner plans, or transfixed on their phones; they won’t necessarily understand your brand or your value proposition.

Then there are lots of folks who do know you and what you do, but when the moment comes that they need a product or service in your category, you’re not top-of-mind. And what about the people who’ve already come in a few times, had good experiences, but overdid it and stopped coming in? Maybe you’re a restaurant that serves a particular type of food, maybe those customers needed a break from your cuisine after several dinners chez vous. And then they got into the habit of not coming in. They need to be reminded that they did enjoy your food. Maybe you’ve got some new specials to entice them with?

The point is, the path to purchasing is not straightforward. Retail decisions are historically low-consideration, driven by need and impulse. But to capitalize on those factors, you need to be top-of-mind at just the right time.

So how do you do that?

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The Digital Marketing Mix for Local Businesses

If you’re interested in some of the strategy behind some of the tactics we’re proposing here, take a look at our Incremental Marketing Framework called Who? What? Where?, or if you want to get really heady, check out our Marketing Map Series. Or just dive in below.

Step 1 – Define Your Niche

The first rule of marketing is define your niche. What makes you special? What makes you different? What’s your value proposition? What are your key differentiators? What’s your brand’s personality?

A lot of that is defined by your customers. Your brand lives in the minds of your customers. Your brand personality is your customers. Who are the people you serve? What makes them special?

As mentioned above, much of it is defined by your location. Are you the only tax-accountant catering to a particular ethnic-market in your area? What are the demographics of your neighbourhood? Who lives there and how do you make their lives better, easier, more fun?

The thing a lot of local businesses don’t get, is that location is a niche. It’s a marketing hook. It’s not just about what you do, but where you do it (and who you do it for). The point is, who you are is intrinsically related to where you are.

So look around you, and ask yourself how do you fit into the fabric of the community you’re in.

Step 2 – Be Findable (Online)

This one is easy. Make sure you have the following digital assets:

  • A mobile optimized website
  • A Facebook Page
  • A Twitter Account
  • An Instagram Account if you’re in a business that involves anything visual

Make sure they all list your location (not just your address, but your neighborhood, intersection and directions to/from the nearest transit hub or well-known landmark), phone number, services, prices, and 1-2 sentences about what makes you special.

Also make sure you’re listed in all the directories that are relevant for your category. For a lot of local businesses, that means Yelp & Google My Business. It’s quite possible that your already listed in those directories, so you just have to claim your pages (here on Yelp and here on Google My Business). Make sure the information about you is accurate and don’t worry about the negative comments. There will always be negative reviews, because people are more inclined to go to the trouble of leaving comments when they’re frustrated or angry than they are if everything is just fine. Anyhow, better to know about customer complaints than to go on unaware. Depending on your line of business, there may be sector-specific directories or Guilds and local Business Improvement Associations (BIA) to list on.  

In addition to creating (free) secondary destinations for your brand, directories also provide you with backlinks, which in turn further improve your SEO.

Step 3 – Get Social

Look around you. Note the names of some of the leading businesses and organizations in your community; restaurants, shops, professionals, politicians, community organizations like libraries, art galleries, boutiques, whatever really, as long as you respect what they do. Find them on social media and follow them. This includes competitors too. Find them, follow them and even consider linking to the ones feel compliment your business offering on your website.

Tag them in social media posts promoting their activities. If you’re a restaurant located near an music venue or art gallery, tweet or retweet their events. If you tag them, that means their followers get exposed to your brand. And if their followers are coming to an event, maybe they’ll stop by your place for dinner first?

Is there a local cause you can get behind? Some community activism? Promote it to your audience. Build those relationships. The point is, being part of a community involves offering support offline and online. And that support will be reciprocated. People who don’t know you will become aware of you, and people who do know you will get a deeper appreciation for your brand’s personality. The best part is, it’s free. Think about how much an ad costs in newspaper. A single unit on a weekend can cost you hundreds if not thousands of dollars, for what might amount to a few thousand impressions. If you interact with a dozen local brands online and they each have followings of 500 people, you’ve just captured a potential 6000 impressions. For free.

And all you have to do take a few minutes every day to scan your social media feeds and share what they’re doing.

And again, every time someone shares your site on social media, that’s a backlink, which again, in turn, improves your SEO.

Step 4 – Give Your Community An Excuse To Share What You’re Doing

People make content marketing sound way more complicated than it actually is. Look, you’ve already defined your niche, you’re findable, and you’re contributing to your community online. The next step is about sharing a little bit about yourself, to give all the folks in your community that you’re showing love to a chance to give you some back.

But remember, your content needs to go beyond shameless self-promotion (some of that is fine), and become valuable in and of itself. That’s the stuff that gets shared widely on social media.

Are you a holistic wellness centre that offers massage and acupuncture? Write a little blog post about the history of acupuncture, or a short piece about how different kinds of massages are indicated for different types of pain. Are you a restaurant that serves a completely unique dish? Share the recipe! Don’t worry, people aren’t going to just make it at home and never come in. It’s just an excuse for them get to know you better and to share you, after you’ve whet their appetites. Are you a dentistry practice? Talk about all the different ways to build good oral health habits for kids. Are you an accountant catering to entrepreneurs? Share some spreadsheet templates you’ve made to help small businesses keep track of their expenses and cash flow.

The point is, keep doing what you’re doing, but talk about it. Share it. Give it away for free. Push it out on social media. See who responds to what types of topics, and use those learnings to help you decide what to do next. As time goes on, start to develop a calendar for your content, where you tie what you’re going to share to seasonality or special promotions you’re offering. If you’re a clothing store, seasonality is a no-brainer. What’s in for fall fashions this year, and why? If you’re in accounting or financial planning, there’s tax season, RRSP season and even life events like getting-married-season! If you’re a real-estate broker you know that spring is the big closing season, so start sharing tips for finding the right home inspector in late winter!

Whenever possible, try to use pictures and videos and graphics, because those tend to resonate more easily on social channels.

And if you simply don’t have the time to create a lot of content yourself, follow industry leaders and share their content.

Step 5 – Advertise

Hang in there. I know what you’re thinking. Advertising is expensive. It isn’t. Not anymore. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram all have really affordable, easy to implement advertising units. There’s Google AdWords, which allows you to serve ads to people who search for something related to you line of business. That’s pretty powerful because users who are searching for something in your category are demonstrating intent. Your ad can help them move from intention to action. The best part is, you only pay for the people who clicked on your ads.

All of these networks offer really really powerful targeting options. You can restrict the advertising to only be seen by people in the geographic areas you want (right down to the postal code in many cases). You can target by any number of socio-demographic factors like language, age, gender, education and even interest. Think about that, if you’re a gym that offers specialized personal training to baby-boomers, you can target that age group specifically. If you offer yoga classes every night you can refine that targeting further, so your ads will only be served to people who are boomers AND are interested in yoga. Isn’t that amazing?

Geotargeting is one of the reasons that online advertising is so inexpensive. A 30-second TV spot aired during the superbowl will cost you $4.5 Million USD, and that ad reaches 115 million people. That’s an average CPM (cost per thousand impressions) cost of $40, which admittedly, is a decent rate for a 30-second block of attention. But you don’t need to reach 115 million people. You need to reach a few hundred, more qualified prospects. Facebook advertising averages from $0.16 to $2.00 per thousand impressions (depending on industry). A better rate, and you can target locally, demographically and by interest. Because you’ll be dealing with a smaller total number of potential customers, your ads will be served to the same people a few times, which will help your customers get your brand into their brains.

And all that content you’re creating in step 4, you can promote that! You can make AdWords ads that link straight to your blog posts. You can promote your Facebook posts to target audiences. You can use advertising to articulate your value proposition (as demonstrated in your intrinsically valuable content) to a much wider audience. Don’t think of advertising as the annoying interruptions to your favourite TV shows. Think of it as a way to amplify your voice, and get valuable information to more people.

You can even use social media advertising to build targeted lead lists (in the form of social media followers)! Facebook & Twitter offer advertising units designed to get people to follow you. That means, you pay for that one action, but then, every time they log in to those channels, they’re likely to see your content. Those are leads. Soft-leads, but leads nonetheless. Once you’ve built a good content marketing practice, it’s a worthwhile investment to build that recurring audience.

Remember, there are many paths to purchasing, but it’s very often about being top-of-mind when someone needs or wants your offering. Advertising is a way to keep you top-of-mind. And the fact that you’re a local business is a huge advantage, because it gives you and out-of-the-box geographical niche, which keeps your advertising costs low. A few hundred dollars a month can keep you in your customers’ sights, and sometimes that makes all the difference when it comes time to seal the deal.

Step 6 – Advertise Special Offers and Promotions

If you’re ready to get really sophisticated, you can use social media, Facebook especially, to advertise special offers and promotions. This is a great way to close the loop between awareness and purchase. Facebook lets you run ads that function a little like coupons. Special offers that your highly targeted niche audience can accept online and come in-store to claim.

But even beyond those specialized ad units, just think about all the promotions you do to generate business. Do you offer free consultations? Is there a big end-of-season sale coming up? Are you a restaurant with a special prix-fixe dinner this week? Get those offers out there! Again, the per click/conversion cost is really low; a few dollars per action. Compare that cost to the value of a new customer. Depending on your business that could be hundreds or even thousands of dollars in repeat business. And, if you’ve got a big promotion coming up, consider using retargeting, to get it in front of people who’ve already visited your site or interacted with your brand online in some way. 

Step 7 – Close The Loop

Really really simple. Just make sure your signage and print assets all prominently display your online and social media destinations. And talk to customers. Let them know what you’re doing online and they might just share you. If they have an incredible experience with you, they’ll tell their social networks, all  they need are digital destinations to point their friends to.

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And then you’ve got word-of-mouth. A social media endorsement is almost as good as an in-person endorsement, and it can have way way more reach. The average Facebook user has 338 friends. That means someone sharing pictures of a delicious dinner they had at your restaurant and tagging you in it and sharing your website link becomes a trusted,organizedmindword-of-mouth endorsement to a whole lot of people.


And you can’t beat that.

I leave you with the following quote from The Organized Mind, by neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin on the subject of word-of-mouth:

“We are social creatres. We are easily swayed by first-person stories and vivid accounts of a single experience.”

Can’t. Beat. That. 

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