Master the Long Game in Digital Marketing for Small Business with 13 Strategic Steps

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No matter the status of the economy, companies always face barriers with digital marketing for small business. In uncertain economic times, smart strategies, hard work, and realistic expectations are the basis of the long game in small business marketing.
This blog post, first published in July 2020, has been carefully updated to capture the evolving landscape of digital marketing in the post-pandemic world. While much of the original advice remains pertinent and has stood the test of time, the most significant update centers around the integration of artificial intelligence. The rapid proliferation of AI marketing tools for small business represents a game-changer in how we approach digital strategies today. You’ll find links to recent articles The Dames have written about conversational AI search throughout this blog.

Just before the start of the pandemic in 2020, my business partner Annalisa Hilliard and I used our decades of marketing experience to launch ourselves as fledgling small business marketing consultants. By the pandemic’s height, we were helping several organizations ramp up their digital marketing presence as quickly as possible, including a nearby nonprofit, Lighthouse Ministries.

In working with the director to redesign their online giving process, I reviewed his first draft of on-page content. It started with a message about why the Lighthouse’s annual banquet sadly needed to be canceled. That was reality, of course, but as we talked, I realized sadness would not be the reason Lighthouse supporters would donate. I told him, “Those who come to your Day of Giving page will give because they have hope.”

Hope means to cherish a desire with anticipation. Hope is essentially about the long game. However, in order for hope to eventually materialize into something tangible, it must be supported by a purpose and a plan.

The same goes for small business marketing. In his checklist for dramatic times, business coach and consultant Dan Gisser, MBA, PhD, put things into perspective: “The only two areas of business that drive revenue are marketing and sales. Is this COVID-19 crisis a good time to beef up, adjust or start something related to your sales and marketing?”

Looking back, we now know 2020 wasn’t just a good time but a critical time for small business marketing. Fast forward four years. The landscape is shifting in a big way again, thanks to the release of artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots—ChatGPT, Claude, Google Gemini, and many more on the horizon—and the rise of conversational search. This technology will definitely change everything from high-level small business marketing strategy to the more granular tactics of small business SEO, public relations, websites, and data analytics.

Digital Marketing for Small Business Requires Working Smarter AND Harder

In what is now my fifth year as a small business marketing consultant, I want to underscore how imperative it is to have a resilient and adaptable online strategy. In yet another period of rapid digital evolution, small businesses are faced with the dual task of navigating immediate challenges while also laying the groundwork for future success.

The essential question remains: how can small businesses craft an online presence that not only captures attention but sustains engagement in the long haul? It’s about understanding the digital terrain, anticipating changes, and being prepared to pivot strategies as necessary. This era reinforces the value of strategic foresight and the importance of building a marketing approach that’s not just reactive but proactive.

In truth, digital marketing for small business has always been about the long game, but many companies get distracted and misled by short-term marketing promises, outdated approaches, and an almost magical trust in things like marketing automation. For those without a lot of marketing experience, it can be hard to distinguish between trustworthy guidance and marketing bullshit.

Even during good economic times, small businesses face a number of barriers with online marketing, the chief one being unrealistic expectations. Many people still believe entry into online marketing is fast and cheap, but over the years, it’s become highly competitive, even at the local level, requiring:

  • Big-picture thinking, strategic planning, and creative execution.
  • A lot of time and resources to develop and maintain your efforts.
  • Tools and platforms, which can be expensive and necessitate learning how to get the most out of them.
  • A broad set of specialized skills (or the budget to hire people with them), including content writing, graphic design, videography, audio recording, website development, search engine optimization, online ad platforms, and more.

Before the pandemic, our small business marketing consultant team was working on a presentation, Small Wins In Online Marketing: Work Smarter AND Harder, for a networking and education group in Akron, Ohio. Our premise was small businesses, startups, and solopreneurs:

  1. Inherently understand the value of hard work because that’s what it takes to run one.
  2. Must work smarter and harder for every incremental marketing win online because of the barriers they face.

In the time of COVID-19, as well as any other periods of challenge your small business may face, smart strategies, hard work, and realistic expectations are the basis of your long game in marketing.

Know where you want to go before you adjust your marketing

As individuals and business owners, we tend to be cautious during times of change and with good reason. We have fewer resources at our disposal. That’s why it’s critical to identify the objectives and goals your marketing must support. Otherwise, you will end up spending too much time, energy, and money on marketing tactics that won’t ultimately help you achieve what you need to. This goes for every type of marketing a small business or solopreneur uses, including:

  • Kinds of referrals you seek
  • Types of networking events you attend virtually or in person
  • Leads you spend the most time cultivating
  • Content on your website and how you optimize and share it
  • Calls to action you use
  • Social media where you’re most active
  • Ads and sponsorships you buy

When I talk about objectives as a small business marketing consultant, I’m referring to principles / key things (three at most) you are moving toward in business. A quantitative goal is one that can be measured and indicates you’re moving in the direction of your objective. You should have at least one goal for every objective, and your objectives and goals can also help you define your audience.

Not all marketing strategies make sense for every small business

It’s important to remember digital marketing for small business is not a cookie-cutter process. The strategies you choose will depend heavily on your business objectives and goals. Most of the following strategies and tactics will apply to all small businesses, but some won’t. The implementation will also look different for every business, and success will depend on a variety of factors, including:

  • The size of your small business and the degree to which you do business online.
  • How long any particular economic challenge lasts and how it affects your specific industry.
  • How competitive your market is, as well as the size of your competitors.
  • How long you’ve been marketing online and how authoritative search engines (and now AI chatbots like think your content is.
  • Your approach to growing and managing your reputation.
  • The amount of effort you spend on branding and facilitating word-of-mouth marketing.

Improve Performance Basics of Your Website

Unlike social media, which I’ll get to later, your website is your own little piece of the Internet. Annalisa and I wrote recently:

There’s a strong possibility good websites—as defined by more than just today’s search algorithm signals—could grow in importance to both businesses and AI technology. AI’s advanced natural language processing capabilities will hopefully allow it to evaluate content trustworthiness in ways that go beyond current standards, such as analysis of context, relevance, factual accuracy, and even the authoritativeness of sources cited, potentially taking the identification of quality content to a new level.

At the end of the day, your website belongs to you, and there are several things you can do to help it perform better for your small business.

Note: With the exception of how to write title tags and meta descriptions (#3), the marketing tactics in this section (#1, 2, 4-8) come from Annalisa Hilliard, the Data Dame who’s spent the last decade learning how technical search engine optimization (SEO) fits into digital marketing strategy and applying her knowledge daily for clients.

#1: Understand the complexity of search engine visibility

Back in the early days of search engines, it was easy to achieve #1 rankings for your website in search results simply by gaming the system. Those days are long gone, and you should be suspicious of any small business SEO services that still make that promise. (Hard to believe, but I still hear the stories.)

Today, as any good small business marketing consultant will tell you, SEO is complex and involves a broad range of tactics, such as:

  • Data and competitor analysis.
  • Technical indexing and search engine accessibility, architecture, user experience, and conversion optimization with websites.
  • Knowledge of search algorithms, as well as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.
  • Deep understanding of the holistic approach required to achieve search results.

SEO best practices do not deliver quick results. Rather, when combined with other forms of digital marketing (especially good content), SEO becomes an asset that appreciates over time.

#2: Decide if small business SEO services are right for you. Vet providers carefully.

Some SEO services for small business will tell you SEO is for every business, and they may try to sell you on what amounts to “keyword sprinkling” throughout your site (often using meaningless, non-competitive phrases) with little-to-no performance tracking.

If you are a solopreneur or a business owner who uses a website mainly to build credibility as part of your networking process, then focusing on SEO probably isn’t something you should spend money on right now or maybe ever. Skip down to the next section on title tags and meta descriptions.

However, if you sell products or services online, want your site to generate leads, or have a brick-and-mortar operation you want people to discover, you should think more seriously about how “findable” your site is. With that, it’s important to remember a few things:

  1. Search results are highly personalized and device and geographically dependent now. You and a friend could type the same search into your own phones and come up with completely different results. The same might happen using laptops and tablets.

  2. If you compete with large companies regionally or nationally, you won’t be able to outspend them for competitive search terms. Your reputation, word-of-mouth referrals, and direct traffic (meaning people directly type your website address into their browsers) will be the main way people find you. Make sure your site is useful and gives them what they’re looking for in a clear, concise, and user-friendly way.

  3. Vet any SEO service for small business carefully. Be highly suspicious of anyone still offering #1 rankings and cautious with those who say every business needs SEO and/or claim to do everything in terms of digital marketing. We devoted an entire podcast to this topic. You can listen to it here.

#3: Create good title tags and meta descriptions

Every site, no matter what you sell, will benefit from optimized, well-written title tags and meta descriptions on every page. Those are tiny bits of HTML code in the header of a web page that tell search engines what the page is about, and you can see them when you hover over a browser tab.

This is not technical SEO by any means. Rather, it’s SEO 101, a tried-and-true tactic. However, we still see many, many sites with poorly written, auto-generated, or completely blank title tags.

Unfortunately, the place where you add title tags and meta descriptions varies by website platform and even by template, which can sometimes make them hard to find. If you’re having trouble locating this feature, contact the developer you used for your site or the help desk with your website builder platform.

Title tags and meta descriptions are limited to a relatively small number of pixels by search engines. Translation: you don’t get much space to write. So, you’ll want to write tags and descriptions using a simulation tool. Just Google “SERP simulator” and you’ll find several. In the past, I’ve used this one. Make sure you toggle between desktop and mobile, which have different pixel allowances.

In most of your title tags, I recommend including your brand name or, if it’s really long, a shortened version of your brand name. Also, look at the content of each page and use words you think your ideal customer might type into a search engine to find that particular page. You can get ideas by looking at how your competitors come up in search, by searching for what you think are common terms, and watching how search engines autofill your searches as you type them. You can also turn to AI tools for small business to ask for conversational search ideas. At the moment, a vast array of them exist; unfortunately, many leave a lot to be desired.

Finally, in your meta description, focus on calls to action, such as buy, get, discover, learn, etc., and mention benefits potential customers may get. Both of these tactics are designed to encourage click-throughs.

#4: Choose your website platform with the future in mind

Many small businesses rush to build a website, picking website builder platforms like Squarespace, Shopify, Weebly, Wix, etc., simply because everyone else is using them. Templates are the main benefit of using a website builder because you may not need to hire a website designer or developer. (For an in-depth explanation of the differences between website marketers, website designers, and website developers, listen to our podcast episode about that here.)

However, there are several things to consider before choosing a website builder platform over the designer/developer team:

  • You can only customize a template to a certain extent. How much customization will you need to market and sell your products and services—not just now, but also in the next few years? When it’s time to upgrade, you may have to start from scratch.
  • Dashboards aren’t always as intuitive or easy to navigate as you might expect. Many are downright clunky. We’ve discovered this for ourselves while helping clients.

  • Although some website builders have gotten better with out-of-the-box SEO, many of them are still behind. In addition, you may have to do a lot of digging to find SEO-related fields and/or pay extra for integrations that can boost site performance.

  • With website builders made especially for a particular industry (think car dealers, insurance brokers, etc.), you may have a hard time differentiating your brand because your site will look similar to others using the platform (that potentially includes your competitors). Plus, you won’t receive consideration for what’s best for your business.

  • Website builder platforms may promise customization, but you could be required to do that customization through them—for a price.

The other extreme is a completely custom site with no content management system. With that scenario, most small businesses will not have the in-house capabilities to make updates, requiring the involvement of a developer for every little change.

We are fans of WordPress and page builders such as Elementor. This combination can offer the best of both worlds for small business marketing: extensive customization options with a generally user-friendly content management system. Although this can lead to code-heavy sites, they continue to perform well in search results.

#5: Don’t forget mobile usability

Although mobile and desktop searches have evened out a bit since the pandemic (and can be highly industry specific), mobile still owns a large percentage of search as of 2024. Do you regularly check your website on mobile to make sure it looks good and functions well? If it doesn’t, this would be a good reason to hire a developer to do some site updates.

You should vet developers as carefully as you vet small business SEO services. It can be a challenge to find a good one, but here are some things you can look for or ask about:

  • Background and experience
  • Projects / portfolios
  • Hard coding vs. site plugins or apps. A qualified developer will prefer hard coding over plugins because, although plugins can be a quick way to get cool stuff integrated into your site, plugins also have the capacity to crash your site when updates occur.
  • If the developer you’re considering has a website, how does it function on desktop and mobile?

#6: Make calls to action clear

Tell people what you want them to do clearly. Calls to action (CTA) on your site should be in keeping with your objectives and goals. For most small businesses, a “macro” (or major) CTA will be a phone call, email, or form fill. Don’t make it hard for people to find that information or confuse them with too many competing calls to action on one page.

#7: Reduce image size to speed up load times

Make sure images on your site are compressed webp files because no one wants to wait for your site to load anymore. Also, it’s a search engine ranking factor. There are a handful of third-party sites that will help you convert image files to webp and compress them, such as XConvert.

Note: load times can differ widely due to many variables, so don’t make image size one of them.

#8: Look at your data analytics

Although many small business websites do not get enough traffic to have statistically significant data, I still recommend getting familiar with the data that’s being collected on your website. This is another area that’s changed significantly since 2020 with the rollout of Google Analytics 4 (GA4) in 2023. It will give you some insights into visitor behavior, but a lot of GA4 customization may be necessary.

Create On-site and Off-site Content Assets

#9: Develop content for every part of the customer journey

The way people and businesses search for what they need and want no longer corresponds to the marketing funnel concept. Instead, it’s become a journey with lots of touch points along the way. Develop content for each of those touch points. In addition, make sure your brand identity, storytelling, and messaging are on point. 

#10: More value, less noise

We’re living in a time of content overload, and AI will only accelerated content production. However, many are adding to the noise without a great deal of thought (and a lot of it sounds exactly like ChatGPT). That means your target audience may be overwhelmed or even harder to reach than ever before. You will have to reach out a lot more than ever before to your current and prospective clients, but it needs to be in the right places with the right message.

Invest your time in creating content assets that are “evergreen,” meaning the ideas remain valuable over time. Content hubs, such as a resource library, are one way to do that.

During he pandemic, I spoke with a specialist in physician leadership development. At the time, she was focusing on trauma recovery, which was not only a timely topic, but also one that continues to stand the test of time. Her expertise was applicable then, now, and in future trauma situations physician leaders may find themselves in. Plus, she can update, refresh, and repurpose this content for even more mileage.

Think about how you can do something similar for your customers.

#11: Define your purpose on social media

I understand why small businesses focus a lot on social media. It’s free to have a profile, and there are more eyeballs on social media than ever before. However, platforms and audiences are fracturing. Since 2020, social media controversies—with the added pressures of AI, politics, and misinformation—continue to abound. TikTok is currently under heavy scrutiny. Twitter has devolved into X, and niche platforms like Mastodon, Bluesky, and Threads are evolving.

As you develop a small business social media strategy, it’s important to consider the following:

  1. You don’t own your profile or your audience on any social media site. At best, it’s a nice rental.
  2. Social media sites can change their rules and how their platform functions any time they want. We’ve seen this over and over since 2020.
  3. They can take your profile and your content down without your permission for any reason.
  4. You have to invest a lot of time and energy into content that may not get much traction organically.
  5. You have more competition than ever because…content overload.

It’s always better to cultivate a following on one or two social media platforms rather than have a meager presence on a bunch of them. Determine where your target audience(s) are more likely to be and spend your time and effort there. Share good content. Have conversations. Give shout-outs to business partners, collaborators, non-profits, etc. Do this consistently over time and you may see results eventually.

Following this focused approach on social media, digital marketing for small businesses can further amplify their reach by partnering with social media influencers. These collaborations offer a unique opportunity to tap into established audiences that align with your business’s values and target market. When selecting influencers, look beyond follower counts to gauge engagement levels and audience relevance. A well-chosen influencer can introduce your brand to potential customers in a way that feels authentic and personal.

Start by identifying influencers who share your brand’s ethos and have a genuine connection with their followers. Then, work together to create content that resonates with both your audiences. This strategy not only extends your reach but also adds a layer of trust and relatability to your brand.

#12: Focus on your owned audience

Pay special attention to people who have given you permission to market directly to them via text and/or email. The power and value of direct communication channels with your customers is vital. This audience, cultivated through the trust and consent they’ve given you to reach out to them directly, holds immense potential for fostering strong, lasting relationships and driving meaningful engagement.

Developing a deeper understanding of your audience’s preferences and behaviors is key to tailoring your communication effectively. Use campaign URLs, analytics, and customer feedback to segment your audience based on their interests, past purchases, and engagement levels. This segmentation allows for personalized communication and helps your messages resonate more strongly with each recipient.

In addition to offering exclusive content and deals, consider implementing loyalty programs or customer appreciation initiatives that reward ongoing engagement and support. Such programs not only enhance customer retention but also turn your audience into brand ambassadors who are more likely to share their positive experiences with others.

Don’t forget to regularly seek feedback through surveys or direct communication. It can provide valuable insights into your audience’s evolving needs and preferences, enabling you to adapt your offerings and messaging accordingly. This two-way dialogue emphasizes the value you place on their input, strengthening their connection to your brand.

Remember, your owned audience represents a direct line to individuals already interested in what you have to offer. By nurturing this relationship with thoughtful, personalized content and exclusive benefits, you’re not just maintaining a subscriber list; you’re building a community of engaged and loyal supporters.

#13: Claim and manage your google business profile

As a small business marketing consultant with a company that offers SEO services, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Google Business Profile (now integrated with and managed on Google Maps or in a browser window). A well-optimized Google Business Profile not only enhances your chances of appearing in top search results but also provides potential customers with essential information about your business at a glance. This includes your hours of operation, contact information, services offered, and customer reviews.

Engaging actively with your Google Business Profile allows you to respond to reviews and feedback, showcasing your commitment to customer satisfaction and service quality. Positive interactions here can foster a loyal customer base and encourage word-of-mouth recommendations. Furthermore, regularly updating your profile with fresh photos, offers, and events can keep your business relevant and top-of-mind for both new and returning customers.

Additionally, leveraging the insights provided by Google can inform your marketing strategies and understand better how customers are finding and interacting with your business online. This data can guide adjustments in your online presence, ensuring you target your audience more effectively.

In today’s digital age, a robust Google Business Profile remains indispensable for small businesses looking to thrive. Taking the time to claim, optimize, and actively manage your listing is a strategic visibility and reputation investment in digital marketing for small business.

Don't Forget to Pace Yourself

Small business owners face a lot of challenges when it comes to digital marketing even during normal times, and since the pandemic and public launch of AI, I’m not sure entirely sure what normal means anymore.

Remember, you don’t have to implement all 13 of these small business marketing strategies at once. And while they are all (relatively) affordable, tried-and-true strategies, none of them are quick fixes. You will need to apply consistent effort and have patience as you wait for them to pay off. That’s OK. This is the long game. Stay the course and pace yourself.

I wish all my fellow small business owners the very best. We small business marketing consultants at The Dames Marketing and PR will be playing the long game right along with you.

hiking trail direction sign that says long trail used as illustration in Dames Marketing & PR blog post about 13 steps to play long game in digital marketing for small business
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