How to Market Your Business — A Small Business Growth Guide

Whether you’re a brand‑new entrepreneur or a seasoned pro who wants to increase sales, learning how to market your small business effectively is vital to your success.

A thoughtful, well-designed marketing plan will build awareness of your business, drive sales, and turn your customers into lifelong fans.

The best way to create a cohesive marketing plan is to begin by defining your niche, unique selling proposition, and brand identity. This triad forms the base of your plan. Once you’ve established that foundation, all the other pieces will fall into place more easily.

Step One: Define your brand

Consumers have the entire world at their fingertips when they’re shopping and their lives are already overflowing with marketing messages. How can you make sure your voice will be heard in all that noise?

Defining your niche and your brand as narrowly as possible is the best way to succeed in today’s crowded marketplace. The more personalized your marketing messages are, the more people will pay attention to them.

Your target market, unique selling proposition, and brand identity should be tightly intermingled. Aim to keep them closely connected as you refine them.

Describe your target market

You may find yourself instinctively wanting to throw out as wide a net as possible in the search for customers. Surely everyone could benefit from your amazing products and services, right? But when you try to sell to everyone, your message gets so watered down that no one pays attention to it.

Instead, define your potential customers as precisely as possible. You can choose more than one target group, as long as each one is clearly specified. But if you’re just getting started in marketing, your life will be easier if you begin with just one.

Here are some possibilities for narrowing your market and defining your buyer persona:

  • Gender
  • Age group
  • Urban vs. rural
  • Geographic area
  • Income level
  • Profession
  • Education level
  • Personality traits
  • Household size
  • Values
  • Spending habits

Your goal is to create a cohesive buyer persona: a portrait of your ideal customer. For instance, perhaps your customer is Alice, a fun-loving, young, middle-class mother who is concerned about her family’s security. Or maybe your customer is Karl, a free-spirited man in his 50s who needs to plan for retirement but doesn’t enjoy thinking about money. Use your customer stories to create detailed profiles for your buyer personas.

Consider the needs, struggles, hopes, and goals of these personas, and adjust your marketing accordingly.

Identify your USP

One of the core concepts in marketing is the Unique Selling Proposition or USP.

This is a clear statement of what sets your business apart from your competitors, and it defines your position in the marketplace. Here are some examples of how you might express the USP of popular brands:

  • Apple: Cutting-edge tech made user friendly
  • Whole Foods: Well-curated selection of organic, healthy, earth-friendly foods
  • Aldi: The stock-up store, with lowest prices on pantry staples
  • Nike: Serious athletic performance gear

To define your USP, answer the question “Why should people come to you for X instead of anyone else?” in a single phrase or sentence.

If you’ve already been in business for a while, you might want to survey your customers to find out why they chose you, and why they would choose you again.

If you don’t have customers yet, set aside a few minutes to write out different ideas that come to mind when you think of your brand, as quickly as possible and without editing your thoughts. Then, pick through that list for the strongest words and ideas and distill them into one statement.

Pro tip: Look behind the obvious reasons people buy from you and seek emotional reasons instead. People buy from Whole Foods and Nike because of how they want to see themselves, not because of tangible needs.

Define your brand identity

Your brand identity (often just referred to as your brand) should grow out of your USP, but it’s slightly different. Your brand is the personality your business exudes, and can usually be expressed in a single word or short phrase.

For instance, the brands mentioned above can be expressed as:

  • Apple: Sleek
  • Whole Foods: Conscious living
  • Aldi: Bargains
  • Nike: Strength

To understand the importance of a well-defined brand, imagine two companies that are both marketing vacation resorts. If they use similar pictures of swimming pools and market themselves to “everyone who wants a vacation,” neither one will be very successful.

But suppose one resort defines its target market as young families, and its USP is that it offers lots of activities for children. That resort might represent its brand identity as “family fun,” and use bright colors, playful fonts, and action photos of laughing families for its marketing.

Imagine the other travel company has a target market of affluent women aged 40 and over, and its value proposition is that it specializes in peaceful retreats from the stresses of daily life. This company might define its brand as “serenity” and represent itself with light, neutral colors and photos of women in hammocks on secluded beaches.

Now that these companies are fully differentiated, each one is far more likely to catch the eye of its ideal potential customers.

Remember, your target market, USP, and brand identity are meant to work together. Try to define your brand in a way that stresses your USP and speaks directly to your target market, this will make a difference when promoting your business.

Step Two: Find your potential customers

Now that you know exactly who your market is and what you need to tell them, you’re ready to find ways to bring your brand to their attention.

Improve your search visibility

Want more traffic to your website without spending money? Optimizing your site so that you get found by search engines is easier than you might think.

Choose a long-tail keyword First, figure out what phrase your target market might type into a search engine when they look for your products or services. Choosing a long-tail keyword — a phrase of 3 to 5 words instead of a single word — narrows your competition and helps you get higher placement in search results.

For instance, in the example above, one resort might choose “best vacation with young kids” while the other might choose “luxury beach getaway.” Both are better choices than a highly-sought-after and less specific keyword like “travel” or “vacation.” It would be very difficult to get to the top of the search results for a competitive keyword like that.

Note: If your business is local, be sure your metro or town name is in your long-tail keyword.

Optimize your content

Put your long-tail keyword in as many of the following locations as you can, so the search engines know that this is what your site is about:

  • Your URL, if you don't already have one
  • Your site name
  • Your homepage title
  • The first paragraph of text
  • At least one subheading
  • The meta description of the page
  • “Alt” tags for images on the page

Sprinkle more repetition of the keyword phrase throughout the text where it feels natural — just don't overdo it. Search engines prioritize websites that use natural language over ones that pack keywords in where they don’t belong.

You can optimize for more than one keyword phrase, but it’s easiest to get started with just one. If you add more keywords later, create a landing page or blog post for each one and optimize that page. Including search engine optimization tactics in your online marketing plan can help you grow your business in the long term with little or no marketing budget.

Add blog posts

Publishing blog posts is a great way to bring organic traffic to your site for more keywords. You can write them yourself or pay someone to do it. Either way, think about the questions that your potential customers might type into a search engine and try to answer them. Use the words from those questions as your long-tail keywords for that page.

For instance, the family resort website might publish a blog post for the keywords “what to pack for children on vacation” or “best airline to fly with kids.” The blog posts would answer the questions thoroughly and invite the visitor to sign up for an email list, possibly offering a discount or prize drawing in exchange for subscribing.

Create a Google My Business Account

Setting up a listing with Google My Business can pay off in terms of search engine placement, especially if you run a local business, and it’s free. Your listing also lets you control how your company appears on Google Maps and gives options for collecting reviews and offering discounts.

Reach out to media

Which websites and magazines are your customers reading? Email them a press release periodically, describing anything innovative or newsworthy that your company does. You can also let them know that you have experts on staff who are willing to give interviews when needed.

Writing guest posts for popular blogs that your audience reads is another good way to let them “meet” you and get links back to your website. If your business is local, be sure to include local news sources in your media outreach as well.

Advertise online

A small budget doesn’t need to limit your advertising options. Google and Facebook, the two giants of online advertising, both let you set your own budget. Even better, you can opt for a “pay-per-click” model, which means you only pay for advertising that brings traffic to your site.

With Google Ads, all you have to do is set a daily budget and Google multiplies that by 30.4 to reach a monthly maximum. So if you want to spend $30 a month on Google’s paid advertising, set a $1 daily budget. When you reach $30.40 for the month, your ads will stop running.

Creating display ads for Google is easier than you probably think. Once you specify which page on your website you want an ad to link to, Google will pull the headline and images directly from that page. Google can automatically build ads of different shapes and sizes using those elements, and if you don't like the results, you can change them.

Facebook's display advertising has very similar features. Facebook also lets you boost posts that you create on your Facebook page, setting limits as low as $1 per day to send your post to an audience you define. Facebook ads are a great marketing tool for promoting your business if you operate with a limited budget.

Both Google and Facebook let you specify an audience according to age, income, location, and interests. Whether you want your ads to reach young moms who love to knit, or retirees who like decorating, or teenagers in your town, you can accomplish that with either platform.

Use social media wisely

Focus your social media efforts by choosing just one or two channels to work with at first. Start with the one where you feel the most comfortable and where you think you’re most likely to connect with your target audience.

For instance, Facebook is widely used by people ages 30 and over, while Instagram appeals to teens and young adults. Men are more likely to be on Twitter or YouTube, but Pinterest is a good place to reach women.

Whatever social media Platforms you choose, create posts that reflect your brand identity while being useful to your audience. Some of your posts should be about your products, services, and promotions, but make sure you’re also offering tips, humor, and links that your followers will enjoy. Engage them in conversation by asking questions or polling them for their opinions.

If you’re already creating blog posts, you can use excerpts from those as social media posts, with or without links to the blog itself. Look for new ways to present the same information, like recording explainer videos or turning a series of tips into a collection of simple graphics that you can share individually.

If you keep sharing useful, interesting content, your audience will grow organically over time. You can also boost that growth with contests or giveaways.

Create contests and giveaways

Some small businesses use contests and giveaways as their main tool to build a social following, increase brand awareness and grow their email list. Here are some tips to make this marketing method work for your business:

  • Choose a prize that your target market will be excited about.
  • Create posts and ads to advertise the contest that also promote your brand and USP.
  • Have people enter by joining your email list and/or following your social media.
  • Give them additional entries if they share the contest.
  • Follow up with a welcome email for all your new audience members.

Step Three: Build relationships with your customers

As your customer base grows and your audience expands through email and social media, make sure you give as much attention to nurturing those connections as you do to creating new ones.

Create an email marketing strategy

While social media lets you broadcast messages to large groups, email allows you to talk to people one-on-one. Your email strategy needs to include a welcome email (or series) when people join your list and a regular schedule of messages to stay in touch.

What kind of messages should you send? While you definitely want to let your audience know when you have a promotion or a new product, you should also send information that will entertain, amuse, and engage them. If you regularly share useful tips, discounts, and resources, your audience will be more likely to open your emails than they would if they expected self-promotion in every message.

Think of email as an opportunity to build strong relationships with existing and potential customers. Show them that you understand their needs and want to help them. Give them a chance to get familiar with your brand and learn more about your business. If people connect deeply with your brand, they’ll become ambassadors who not only buy from you again but recommend you to their friends.

Email automation lets you go far beyond sending a welcome email and monthly newsletter. You can set up a system that greets new audience members, onboards new customers, reminds visitors of items they’ve left in their cart, follows up with people who opened a previous message, and gives customers recommendations about other items similar to the ones they've purchased.

With automation, you write the messages and design the series, and then your business stays in touch with your customers automatically — even while you sleep, vacation, or run other aspects of your company.

Get to know your customers

Communication should always be a two-way street. While you’re helping your email audience get acquainted with your business, you should be learning as much about them as possible too. The more you know about your subscribers, the more targeted your messaging can be — and the fewer emails you’ll send that miss the mark.

Segmenting your email list enables you to speak more directly to each customer. You can create segments based on the items they’ve purchased in the past, how often they interact with you or open your messages, which page they were on when they subscribed, or specific interests you know they have.

Integrating your marketing platform with your e-commerce system will save you a lot of time in this regard. With platforms like Mailchimp, you can assign customers to segments based on their buying patterns and behaviors. Then, the system can keep tracking their behavior and send them emails you've created for specific situations.

For instance, Mary buys a set of wine glasses on your website. With a connected marketing and e-commerce system, you can automatically send Mary a thank-you note for becoming a customer and add her to a "wine lovers" segment of your list.

Mary then receives some tips for buying, storing, and enjoying wine, and two discount offers — one for a wine storage rack and one for a different kitchen item. If she buys the kitchen item, she might be added to a new segment and receive emails with more cooking tips and kitchen item discounts.

Step Four: Use advanced marketing techniques

Once you have the basics in place, you may want to add more tools to your marketing plan. Here are some popular options that work well for many small businesses.

Remarketing

You probably spend a lot of time and resources bringing people to your website. But how can you follow up with them if they leave without signing up for your list or buying anything?

Remarketing campaigns (also called retargeting campaigns) are aimed at your recent visitors. This type of campaign will show your ads to them whenever they visit sites that are part of the Google marketing network. Remarketing lets you follow up with people who were interested enough to visit your site once and hopefully bring them back to complete a sale.

Lookalike audiences

One of the best ways to find new prospects is to analyze your existing customer base and look for people who are similar to them. This is called a lookalike audience, or a similar audience.

Google, Facebook, and Mailchimp all have systems that can analyze your list, find other people who share demographics and interests with them, and target ads to those people. Once you have a strong, responsive list, this is an effective way to expand your reach.

Partnerships

Marketing partnerships can be a win-win for two companies that sell different things to the same audience. The ideal partner is a business that shares your niche and has some overlap in brand identity, but isn’t a direct competitor. Once you find a partner you’d like to work with, brainstorm ideas for ways to enhance your businesses together.

For instance:

  • Co-sponsor a live or virtual event and invite both your audiences
  • Offer discounts on one another’s products as customer incentives
  • Create a giveaway together, with prizes from both businesses
  • Write guest posts for one another’s blogs or newsletters
  • Trade advertising on your websites or in your emails

Offline marketing

Not all marketing has moved online. There are still viable ways to market your business offline as well.

Direct mail is one option. Sending postcards to the people who have interacted with you online is an affordable way to build awareness and promote your products or services.

Another option is hosting or attending events. If your business is local, or part of an industry that hosts conventions, seek out the events your customers are most likely to attend. Rent a booth and hand out branded swag — or useful digital downloads, if the event is virtual. Even better, volunteer to speak and give a helpful presentation related to your industry.

How it all fits together

There are a lot of elements to keep track of when learning how to market your business. However, as you work through all these methods and techniques, you’ll see that they fit neatly together to form a cohesive marketing strategy.

After you create some blog posts for your website, for example, you can recycle that content into social media posts, videos, or guest posts for other blogs. You can use similar content to engage your email audience as well. Plus, you can use your emails, ads, and social media posts to drive traffic to your website, then target those visitors with a remarketing campaign to make the most of their interest in what you're offering.

Weaving your brand identity and USP through all of your marketing efforts will create synergy and tie everything together. In the end, you’ll have an effective plan that brings new customers and increased sales to your business.