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Standing Out in the Crowd
Small businesses sometimes find it hard to stay competitive, but there are effective and affordable marketing strategies they can adopt to build their brand and find their audience.

by Matt Cosentino

Small business owners often feel like perpetual underdogs as they try to keep pace with their larger competitors, and it is certainly true that they face unique challenges in addition to the normal issues that companies of all sizes must deal with. As important as it is to build brand awareness, get the message out about their products and services, and engage with customers, marketing sometimes appears to be a luxury they simply can’t afford. But that doesn’t have to be the case.

lenn Davila, the president of Performance Marketing & Signage, has more than 20 years of experience in the industry and has worked with a wide range of clients. He believes that small business owners who don’t take advantage of all the avenues available are doing themselves a disservice.

“Small businesses are afraid to ask an agency for help because they think they’re going to say, ‘You can’t afford it.’ But the worst that can happen is they say no,” Davila explains.

“The tactics for a small company are the same tactics we’re using for the big companies. The big challenge that small companies have is there’s a smaller margin for error. Spending $10,000 means a lot to a small business, whereas for a big business, that’s a rounding error.”

Getting professional guidance on how to best market the business without breaking the bank is key, and there are also methods that can be used that focus on the investment of time rather than money. South Jersey Biz spoke to several local professionals to learn more about those strategies and how small businesses can go about implementing them.

It All Starts with the Website

It goes without saying that in today’s business climate, the first impression that most consumers get of a company comes from visiting their website. Not only must it meet a certain level of professionalism, but it also should stand out in unique ways and be user-friendly.

Len Ward is the managing partner of Commexis, which offers secure website hosting and is committed to helping clients conduct business efficiently and smoothly. All too often, he finds that business owners neglect this very important step.

“One of the reasons why our company has pivoted and is focused on the health of the website is because too many small business owners don’t invest in their website the way it should be invested,” he says. “You can do SEO, you can do pay per click, and all of that stuff will generate leads and it will work. But if the website is down, if the e-comm function is not working or the contact form is not working, it’s all for naught.”

Before starting any marketing campaigns, Ward recommends reaching out to family and friends to receive honest feedback on the health of the website. If changes are needed, professional help may not be as expensive as business owners think—for example, the least costly plan that Commexis offers for website hosting and other services is just $99 per month.

“As you reduce the importance of your office, the importance of your website is now paramount,” he says. “Before you would spend tens of thousands of dollars on your own office to make sure it looked good and it was appropriate for when a client walks in. The problem is that [around 60%] of businesses in South Jersey right now are either hybrid, they don’t have an office anymore or they’re not bringing clients in because they’re doing Zoom. So the website is the next step.”

Vania Abdul, the chief marketing officer and co-founder of 360 Marketing & PR, emphasizes the importance of a functioning website especially when trying to attract a wide audience from across the country or even globally. She also points out that it’s not just individual customers who may be looking into a business.

“I tell a lot of small businesses this: When you are looking to grow, sometimes that growth comes from other companies, not from individuals and consumers,” she says. “The first thing you need is a website if you’re going to sell to another company, because companies look at websites and they have to verify that you are real, that you have good business practices. … It brings legitimacy and trust.”

And, unlike years past, a company’s website should not be created and then forgotten about.

“Years ago, websites were built and that was how they were going to look for the next five years,” Ward says. “Websites now are almost living, breathing creatures and social media has made that happen. People used to go to the website first and then take a look at their Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram pages to get real-time updates. Your website needs to be able to do that as well.”

The Power of Google

Davila is quick to note that Google still dominates the search engine space, processing over 8.5 billion searches per day. Therefore, SEO is critical for getting a business to appear in as many searches as possible.

“If that were the only dollars I had to spend, I would definitely start with an SEO program,” Davila says. “It’s the second thing I would do, because obviously you have to have a website to go to. You need to have SEO because that’s where people go to make their decisions now.”

He goes on to explain the marketing terms top-of-mind awareness and aided awareness, which are similar but not the same.

“Our goal in marketing is to build top-of-mind awareness, but it’s really hard to do for small businesses because it requires a lot of engagement,” he says. “We have to continually educate the consumer that they want to know who we are and what we do. Sometimes you can do it with phone calls and elbow grease, sure, but sometimes you have to spend money. What Google allows you to do is be there when top-of-mind awareness fails.”

Social Media and Video

One way that businesses of any size can reach customers is through social media campaigns, so it is important to understand the differences between Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and the kind of users each attracts.

“I think the important thing about social media, so companies don’t waste their money, is really understanding who their audience is and who they’re trying to target,” Abdul says. “Certain platforms are for certain target audiences, and some businesses make the mistake of advertising on platforms where their customers aren’t even looking. They’ll spend hundreds of dollars on social media ads and not get the results.”

Whether through social media or on a company’s website, generating interest through video has become crucial as well.

“There are so many tools out there where you can create videos for a very inexpensive price,” Abdul says. “You don’t need to hire a whole production team to create a video ad, and video ads are also king because people have short attention spans.”

Davila agrees and will often ask clients to take videos with their cell phones that he can use to promote their events.

“They’ll say, ‘Cell phone video? That looks unprofessional,’” he says. “Well, first of all, it’s the wave of the future. Everybody has cell phone video and TikTok wouldn’t exist if that weren’t the case. The second thing is that if you give me some video that is shot on your cell phone with no editing, it’s better than nothing at all. In reality, audiences don’t want polished anymore.”

Digital Word of Mouth

Positive word of mouth is still a great way for small businesses to grow, but now it is not just done face to face among friends, but through social media posts or online reviews, which Davila calls “the new advertising.”

He suggests that business owners take all reviews seriously to see what they are doing well and where they can improve. Negative reviews can be difficult to see but if left to linger, can have far-reaching damage.

“If things go bad, you need to engage that consumer even more than the happy one because that person is something like 60% more likely to complain publicly than the happy person is to praise you publicly,” Davila says. “You should answer all reviews, but answering the negative is important because not only does it show the consumer that you care about them, but it shows other consumers that if for some reason they have a bad experience, you care enough to try to make it right.”

What’s Next?

Google Analytics 4 or GA4, the company’s latest program in taking a data-driven approach to measuring marketing campaigns, has made significant strides since GA3. Ward says every website will be converted to GA4 by mid-summer, so it has to be on companies’ radars in 2023.

Abdul, meanwhile, is keeping an eye on emerging technology that will further shape the industry and can help businesses differentiate themselves.

“With AI, you can have chatbots on your website and use that to [gather] personal data and personalize recommendations for your consumers,” she says. “You can have interactive content like quizzes, surveys and polls—anything to get the consumer engaged and provide really valuable insights into who your buyer is.

“A lot of companies aren’t really sure about VR and the metaverse, but I think the important thing is, if it’s something that you’re interested in, then consult with someone who has the knowledge and can give you some insight and some actionable items to execute so that you can live in those spaces.”

Those concepts may seem farfetched to some small business owners, but professionals can help them navigate the situation. And finally, Abdul notes, there are more resources available to them than they might think.

“I would encourage them to reach out to an agency like ours or another agency they may have worked with before that they trust,” she says. “I would also look into programs that their county, their city or their state offer. The NJEDA is offering a program right now for companies to get their websites built. It’s a grant program that allows them to hire us or hire one of the other agencies on the project and we would execute the website for them.

“There are many cities and counties that we’ve worked with that have a ton of money for small businesses, and they’re just waiting to give it away.”


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Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 13, Issue 4 (April 2023).

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