There have never been so many free and inexpensive tools for small businesses to manage their own marketing.
There is no better time for small businesses to take advantage of online marketing. Today, there are many online marketing channels to suit any type of business and any size marketing budget.
Not only is the number of quality marketing channels impressive -- think social networking sites, email, mobile and online video -- but there have never been so many free and inexpensive tools that require little to no expertise available.
These are just some of the reasons why 2012 is shaping up to be a great year for small businesses to invest in online marketing. Small Business Computing decided to talk with leading industry experts to find out which online marketing trends are worth including in your small business marketing plan this year.
Trend 1: Social Media Marketing -- Focus Efforts on Facebook and Integration
Social media is huge. A recent Pew Research Center study showed that sixty-five percent of adults on the Internet use a social networking site. Continued growth and popularity of social media throughout 2011 has affected the way businesses effectively communicate with customers and business partners.
Small business analyst Laurie McCabe, co-founder of the SMB Group, agrees that social media is a trend that small businesses need to pay attention to. More people are getting more information from social media than ever before.
McCabe said that a big trend this year is integrating social media marketing with your website and other CRM tools.
"Letting the people who come share their favorite products and likes from your homepage would be a basic way of doing this, but it can be much more involved," she explained.
McCabe believes that right now Facebook is the big driver behind social media marketing. She said that other social platforms (like Google+ and Twitter) are good for some tasks, but compared to Facebook these sites offer only a miniscule percentage of referral traffic.
On Facebook, your landing page is also important. A number of vendors offer inexpensive tools that small businesses can use to help them build a more interactive Facebook page and provide reporting so you can monitor and measure traffic and conversions from Facebook. There are also a number of products available to add an ecommerce function to your Facebook site.
"I think that for small businesses, having something that makes it easy to create a page on Facebook, something to monitor it and then something to conduct sales on there is the kind of thing that will spread like wildfire," McCabe said.
Trend 2: Mobile Marketing -- Consumer Usage Drives Marketing and Sales for Business
Mobile marketing is the second big trend everyone expects to get bigger in 2012. Mobile commerce sales are up -- as much as 10 to 15 percent of people use mobile devices at retailer sites, and that number is expected to grow.
Mobile can be integrated into a small business marketing plan in a number of ways. First, there is text messaging (SMS marketing), which can be used to tell customers about your promotions, contests and other campaigns. You can also integrate mobile marketing with other marketing channels, such as social or email.
"People want to do more and more on their devices, so I think in terms of digital sales and marketing it's the key to enable everything for mobile consumers," said McCabe.
This means a small business website that's optimized for mobile devices is a necessity for success. To be successful, you have to make it easy for consumers with mobile devices to find information or place an order on your website.
Another mobile trend to prepare for in 2012 is mobile payments, or "m-payments." This is when consumers make a purchase using a mobile phone instead of using cash, credit card or debit. The potential for mobile payments is huge, and industry experts share a consensus that mobile payments will accelerate rapidly in 2012.
Trend 3: Online Video Marketing -- Use Video and Make it Personal
Online video is an effective marketing tool, but it's also something that McCabe thinks small businesses should do more with. According to comScore Video Metrix, more than 184 million U.S. Internet users watched online video content in October 2011, for an average of 21.1 hours per viewer.
"We're at a point in our culture where we increasingly like to watch things, and a small business can provide value and education to customers with online video," said McCabe.
Another trend in online video this year is personalization. Rather than creating one video for branding and sending it to all customers, videos can be customized with unique aspects for individual customers and produced by the thousands, based on a single template.
Jim Disco, president of SundaySky said, "The more you can personalize a video and have it be related to personal interests or issues, the more you can engage the person watching it."
SundySky uses proprietary software to create videos using structured data stored by a company's content management system (CMS) to create a video template. A single template can produce multiple videos that can then be personalized based on a customer's behavior. The personalization could be anything from addressing the individual by name to providing shipping invoices, or it could feature products related to the customer's purchase.
He admits that larger businesses currently invest more in personalizing online video, but it does have some early adopters in the small business market. As we've seen with most online marketing channels, marketing techniques become more affordable over time.
Finding the financial resources may still be a challenge for many small businesses, but personalized video marketing is something that Disco believes should be part of their consideration.
Trend 4: Email Marketing -- Maximize With Rich, Accurate Contact Data
Email marketing, while certainly not a new marketing strategy is still alive and well in 2012.
"Email marketing is not going away any time soon," McCabe said. "It serves a purpose; when someone subscribes to an email marketing list, they want to hear from you -- at least until they unsubscribe."
Paul Turnbull, Campaigner product manager said that combining social media and email marketing is something small businesses should look at this year.
"Despite last year's social media buzz regarding the importance of social media and marketing a brand, many SMB owners are still unsure about, or perhaps are still experimenting with, leveraging social media tools for their business," said Turnbull. "Too many focus on how it's different than email marketing, but when you look the fundamentals of both methods, the same best-practices apply."
The combination of email and social marketing gives customers more flexibility in how they want to keep in touch with you. Both can be effective tools to engage interested people online to promote your brand, to inform your readers or to nurture leads.
Another key trend in email marketing this year: obtaining richer and more accurate contacts data to give you more options to create targeted email messages.
Turnbull said that getting this data can be difficult, but if your content is valuable and you gather the information in a transparent way, many customers will provide it.
"You don’t need to be a big business to have big data. You can use even the smallest amount of quality data about your recipients to create more relevant content or even trigger whole new email campaigns, such as a personalized thank you messages after a transaction," he explained.
2012: What a Great Year to be a Small Business
Here's the reality of online marketing today: if you can think it, there's probably a free tool, an inexpensive Web service or a marketing firm to help you get started.
This is an excellent time for small businesses to create and manage their own online marketing strategies. In fact, McCabe sees this as being a good time to be a small business because of the number of free and inexpensive tools that require little to no technical expertise.
"If you just open up your mind to some of these things you can do a pretty good job of marketing yourself," said McCabe.
Based in Nova Scotia, Canada, Vangie Beal has spent the last decade contributing featured articles and reviews to more than 20 technology-focused publications, including Webopedia and Ecommerce-Guide. You can tweet with her online @AuroraGG.
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