Focusing Your Online Marketing
Marketing self-diagnosis! Use the following series of questions and strategy viewpoints to help you plan what kind of marketing work to focus on. Follow the blue links, choosing the options that apply to your business.
Online marketing is a fast-developing and potentially confusing field of business activity. But you can't ignore it nowadays. You need to have a strategy, as your website1 becomes an increasingly central part of growing your business.
In this guide we introduce you to the reasoning behind our unconventional marketing strategy advice, not to try to be good at everything.
[[What are the main online marketing areas?|Marketing Areas]]
1 For the majority of businesses, digital marketing revolves around a website. In this discussion we will assume your online marketing is about bringing users to your website, and that website helps serve those users and grow your business. This could equally apply to ecommerce sites, online applications, or native apps.
Main areas of marketing work
Perhaps your business is already active in several of the types of marketing activity listed below.
Most commonly discussed marketing activity areas:
- Web design
- Content creation
- Software services, self-service, automation
- Search Engine Optimization (SEO) - including both on-site and off-site factors1
- Paid Search advertising
- Display advertising
- Content marketing, blogging
- Social media
Most of these marketing areas are interconnected. Whenever you start studying one type of tactic or strategy, it will lead you to others...
As more and more ideas are added, all competing for attention and resources, you will find yourself asking:
[[What is the correct mix of tactics needed?|Balanced Marketing Mix]]
1SEO: on-site factors are generally grouped under "technical" SEO. Once the base is in place there, the real work begins on off-site factors, i.e. link building. This is an area where it is impossible to find any "straight" information because (a) Google doesn't want you to game the system by artificially acquiring links; (b) SEOs work on this but can't admit it because of (a); (c) most of the common linkbuilding tactics have little or no effect, and people will not discuss the effective tactics because then everyone would do it and it would stop working. Regardless of these points, in this guide we advise you only consider doubling down on SEO and content marketing if you already have a fairly strong position in organic search traffic. We don't consider it a business-building option for new websites at all.
A Balanced Marketing Mix?
Digital marketers often advise, "ideally", that you should cover all the main bases.
You'll hear words like:
- marketing mix
- balanced strategy
- full spectrum marketing
Obviously it would be great to do everything, if you could afford to do everything.
But in real life website marketing resources are not unlimited.
Most businesses cannot afford to "do everything" in digital marketing, and we don't think you should try.
[[A more focused marketing strategy]]
A more focused marketing strategy
Attempting a mixture of different digital marketing tactics is likely to spread your resources too thin, making you less effective overall.
We recommend you focus your resources on very few tactics and try to perform well at them.
One way of deciding how to focus your efforts is strategically to ignore the activities in which your organization isn't naturally strong.
Which activities should you ignore? The ones which don't deliver commercial results and which may be a waste of resources compared to alternatives.
The first principle of eliminating less productive marketing work is to consider if you already have some main potential sources of growth which can be developed, instead of starting from scratch on learning/implementing new things...
[[Next: Can you grow just from serving existing customers better?|Begin eliminating]]
Providing existing customers with better support, information, services
If the most important purpose of your website is to serve existing customers, your best marketing priority is to do that better!
The key word here is "existing" customers.
(If you don't have plenty of customers yet, you won't have plenty of visitors to your website. There is little point going deeper into your online services if you haven't got traffic from existing customers to serve.)
You might already have customers who visit your website, or could be attracted to use your website, if:
If some or all of the above are true, and you can either already see plenty of people on your website, or potentially could bring customers straight there easily... then your main marketing opportunity lies here - in improving how you serve these customers, rather than investing in untested new marketing channels.
[[Improvement areas for existing users]]
- you are an established business with an established customer base
- you sell online (e.g. Amazon, eBay) and have customers who could be connected with your website
- your brand is already well known in your market (or getting there)
- you provide online services to customers which could be integrated into your website or made more self-service
- you provide offline services to customers which could be supplemented or converted into online systems
- you have back-office systems or parts of your business which lend themselves to automation via online systems
Winning new customers
When the main purpose of your website is to win new customers, i.e. conversion, the next question to ask is:
"Do we already have enough potential customers visiting our website?"
If yes, meaning your website is already receiving plenty of direct visits, organic search traffic, and referrals, then your focus should be:
[[Exploit existing traffic better]]
However, if you don't have customers or enough website traffic already coming to your site, then you:
[[Need awareness and traffic]]
Improvement areas for existing users
Gain a better understanding of your users, and then work on serving them better through digital media and software.
Here are some areas to think about:
Working on these kind of things will bring you more benefits than chasing after new customers in unfamiliar marketing activities.
Simply put, if you already have a strong user base, find ways to make online systems serve them better. This is your marketing focus.
- Conduct market research, systematically survey your users
- Participate in 3rd party review systems
- Gather anecdotal feedback, run usability tests
- Develop a content and functionality strategy
- Integrate mobile and social media more closely with your main website resources
- Improve automated alerts and notifications
- Invest in software development to improve automation and self service
- Improve the ways you deliver customer service online
- Find ways to bring your real-world expertise into online-accessible formats
- Encourage and incentivize word-of-mouth recommendations
[[Back to start|Website Marketing Focus]]
Exploit your existing traffic better
If your website already has the makings of good traffic, from a combination of market/brand awareness, and search engine love, then focus on converting these visitors!
If the traffic consists of the right kind of target customers, it is easier to "work on" those prospects than it is to head off into completely unfamiliar marketing tactics.
Find out why people are coming to your site, and give them what they are looking for!
A key point we are asserting here: SEO is for sites which already have at least a foot in the door, and qualified visitors roaming around the site to provide with value. Conversely, SEO is not a way to launch a website from zero awareness to commercial viability.
Read on for some more ideas:
[[Improvements for sites with existing traffic]]
Display advertising, the long game
Display advertising means you have to plan to play a long game.
You fill in a picture in your prospect's mind about why your brand/product/service is good, gradually.
The whole process to get someone to an actual sale may take quite a long time.
Because the customer moves closer to purchase over time, you need to plan out carefully the different kinds of information, enticement, and value that are relevant to the different stages.
In practice this means, over time, you have to develop quite a complex array of different content and media.
The first step is to work on your own understanding of how your customer comes to learn about you, and how she thinks about the value you provide, in relation to her own needs.
If you understand the way your customers think and why they buy from you, you can begin to advertise in a way that captures their attention and communicates your value proposition compellingly.
Most display advertising is dull, repetitive, one-dimensional, and provides no value to the viewer. But this is because most display advertising is done in a lazy and ineffective way!
Effective display advertising works in the opposite direction to the stereotype:
- Pulls the viewer deeper into the interest
- Provides value
This is why display advertising will also require you to work on email marketing (and similar): you pull people in and you need to capture their contact so you can continue to expose them to gradual development of your commercial message.
In summary: display advertising CAN work BUT only if you commit the right resources to doing it well, rather than just spamming users and essentially training them to ignore you.
[[Back to start|Website Marketing Focus]]
Serve existing customers better... Or focus on winning new customers...
The first question to consider is whether your website is mainly about serving existing customers, or about attracting and converting new customers.
If you can serve your existing customers well via your website then this will keep them happy and loyal, improve repeat purchases, increase word of mouth spread of your brand, and give a lift to your position in search engines.
Could you grow your business mainly by exploiting online systems to serve your existing customer base better?
If yes, read more...
[[Serve existing customers better]]
HOWEVER, if your business is in earlier stages, you will have little or no website traffic to speak of, and only small numbers of potential visitors from those existing / recent customers.
In this case, you likely feel that your priority is:
[[Winning new customers]]
We need awareness and traffic
If you lack traffic to your website, the first area to consider is social media.
Doing well in social media means tapping into huge, active audiences of people - fans, even - whose connections help you build word-of-mouth awareness.
However, social media only really works when your business genuinely has both "social" and "media" aspects to it. You can't fake that!
Here is the challenge:
"Do our people and products produce a stream of great stories, images, videos, and interaction that are appealing to the target audience AND relevant to our commercial goals?"
If yes, your business is naturally creative and popular then:
[[Focus on social media]]
If your business and people are NOT naturally a source of fresh content and audience love, then getting new customers via social media marketing is probably too hard...
[[OK... what's left?|Recap]]
Improvements for sites with existing traffic
If you have plenty of potential customers visiting your website already, find ways to get more of the same traffic, and turn these visitors into customers.
Things to work on:
- Analytics: who are these visitors and why are they here?
- Improve content, design, and functionality to see what keeps people on the site longer and converting: develop strategies for each of these areas separately
- Look at technical and design improvements for mobile users
- Produce more and better pathways to online conversion
- Look at SEO competition and one-up the sites which are above you
- Bolster your advantage in search results which bring you most traffic, by working on higher quantity and quality of content
- Look at ways to make static content more interactive
- Look at stability and performance for your website systems so you are on a solid technical foundation
- Develop email and notifications as ways to bring people back to your site for repeat visits
- Test ways to incentivize conversion, e.g. gifts
- Strengthen branding consistency across your website
- Keep important pages for repeat visitors fresh and regularly updated
[[Back to start|Website Marketing Focus]]
When to focus on social media
Social media marketing is for you, if:
- Your team are creative and sociable
- Your product/service naturally aligns with interests of your audience BEYOND just buying/using it
- Your team have the skills to work on the media that relate your brand to your audience's interests
- You are happy for a large part of your company resources to go into media production and online socializing, for no immediate and direct transactional result, indefinitely
Still saying yes to social media?
[[Further resources needed to succeed in social media]]
Your website doesn't have traffic, but you need traffic...
If you haven't got traffic on your site already, and social media marketing isn't a natural fit for your company, then you will have to get good at online advertising to bring new visitors to your site.
In a sense, if your website is unknown, you need to "buy in" people's attention. It has to be the right kind of attention, from the right kind of people, to see the right kind of web content that connects with your commercial goals. This is where advertising is both an art and a science.
Most advertising is display advertising. It is essentially distractive / interruptive commercial messages inserted into other stuff that people are paying attention to.
Display advertising is unlikely to convert customers "from a cold start". You will need repeat exposure with the right interesting messages at the right times or in the right placements. To put this another way, unless you have proof your new prospects make their buying decision with you very quickly, you need to prepare for the more repetitious strategy of display advertising.
How to decide between display advertising and search advertising
The first question in your advertising strategy is:
"Is our offered service/product something that our customers take a long time to think about?"
If yes, you need to expose them to a lot of display advertising over a longer period of time.
Continue reading notes about:
[[Repeat ad exposure]]
If no, because you reckon you can convert brand new visitors to buy/commit immediately, even if they have not really heard of you before, then you should take a look at:
[[Whether paid search would work]]
Further resources needed to succeed in social media
Social media marketing is expensive hard work, and it's more work the more channels you want to cover: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Wechat... you can go on...
You need skilled, knowledgeable, motivated, well-managed staff working on your social channels constantly with no direct commercial causality.
But there are two more resource ares you have to budget for if you want social media to be your main customer source.
1. Paid Reach
You need to be willing to pay to acquire your audience, and then pay for your awesome content to reach that audience. Attention is precious and you are essentially renting space from the social media companies who control the eyeballs.
If social media channels are your way of reaching new people who haven't previously heard of / bought from you, then you will need to pay to boost visibility.
Advertising in social media works best when you are doing well on the social and media side of things, and conversely your media and socializing will only really have an effect once you are willing to invest in advertising. This means you will also have to add technical ad management to your social media team skill mix.
2. Keeping Sight of the Commercial Point
Finally, if social media marketing is going to be your focus, you constantly need to supervise that it does connect to commercial goals somehow. Work on analytics, audience segmentation, and conversion pathways.
To some extent, at the management level you can view yourself as sponsoring all the selfless fun of social media. You need to keep an eye on the branding that's being conveyed, and track to ensure that, overall, it is actually building a flow of new customers.
[[Back to start|Website Marketing Focus]]
So far we have eliminated several marketing areas...
If you can't see yourself putting your most topic-knowledgeable, motivated, creative, and technically skilled people to work in Facebook all day, then probably social media marketing is not for you.
You may need to maintain a minimal brand presence in the one or two channels which are relevant to you, but beyond that you can pretty much ignore it as a source of new customers.
To recap our channel elimination so far:
So it turns out we have eliminated everything apart from...
- Don't bother working deeply on the customer service side of our website, because we don't actually have lots of customers using our website yet
- Don't bother working deeply on SEO and content development, because we haven't got lots of people looking at our website yet, to optimize for and provide value to
- Don't bother working deeply on social media because our existing business and team are just not that social or media-oriented
Display advertising is about cheaper, lower-attention span exposure of your brand. The idea is that you create repeat exposure to your brand or offer, and build awareness towards a purchase decision.
Most of us scoff at the relevance of the thousands of ads that surround us every day. But if we're honest with ourselves, very often they do influence our purchase decisions.
For example, we don't really carefully study watch advertisements in magazines or website banners. But if we decided to buy an expensive watch for a gift, all those adverts would surely have an effect on our choice of brand and sense of value/quality.
Even if you just had to name 5 watch brands off the top of your head, the chances are you know these from display advertising... or from word of mouth because someone else was influenced by display advertising!
Display advertising performance is about the following factors:
- Reach: how many people see it
- Targeting: the right people see it
- Repeat views
- Developing awareness (i.e. repeat views are not all of the same thing)
- Education/priming (i.e. the prospect learns something)
Could paid search work?
If you said that your customers can arrive on your web property, have little to no knowledge of your brand identity, value perception, or product/service details... and then and there commit to a purchase decision1 then great! -- You can consider Paid Search advertising instead of Display.
1 if not an online sale, then at least a good lead or sales conversation
But hold on! Even if customers appear to make quick purchase decisions, most business models are still not suitable for high performance in search advertising.
[[Why some converting buyers are still hard to target with search]]
What else might make a business model unsuitable for Paid Search advertising?
Sometimes, customers will come to a website and make a purchase decision very quickly and easily. But it is too difficult to target these people for paid search advertising.
Why? Because the customers are making buying decisions based mainly on desire-dominated criteria, not on need-dominated criteria.
Need-dominated buying: emergency plumber; new car tyres
Desire-dominated buying: weight loss plan; new shoes
All of the above are cases where a buying decision may be made quickly, but the desire-based buying cases won't convert highly from adverts because the product/service has to be the exact right one at the exact right moment to motivate immediate action. And it is too hard for you to match that exact offer at the exact time.
Is your business more about needs or desires?
Desires - paid search may not be right...
[[More about desire-based buying]]
Needs - we can target buyers with our solution right when they are searching for it...
Advertising to desire-based buyers
Often it is more efficient to advertise to large audiences about your general categories of products/services, than it is to try to match accurate search terms to specific offers.
To provide a shopping example, the person who clicks through an ad, discovers the perfect pair of sunglasses, and buys them immediately... did not begin his search with
"Pewter Ray-Ban RB2447 1158/R5 free delivery with 10% off coupon". That was what he bought, not what he searched for. His search was maybe just
"ray-ban", which would be a headache to bid on in Search ads. Repeat advertising to the right demographic about a general Ray-Ban category (and offers etc) would likely be more cost-efficient than targeting this broad search term.
The following are likely indicators that you need a more long-term advertising approach to match what you are offering to the right person at the right moment:
In all of the above situations, you likely need to bring in traffic from longer term, repeat exposure:
- buying based on discounts
- buying based on novelty, newly available feature
- buying based on fashion or innovative design
- buying based on variety and choice
- buying based on hard-to-define or irrational motivations
Paid search ads are going to work well for you if your customers express a specific want / need / problem in searches, and you can identify those searches and connect them to your matching solution.
search: dog proof rat trap
you sell: pet-proof rat traps
search: funeral director manchester
you are: a funeral director serving Manchester
... you get the idea!
The performance factors in paid search advertising are:
- how competitive the market is, and whether you can afford to enter the auction
- how well you can convert
Easy, surely it's easy to get results here?
[[There is a bit more to it than that]]
The problem is high competition driving up paid search ad costs
In most markets, your competitors (direct or indirect) have already discovered to some degree of efficiency which search terms are worth bidding on.
This means that the market will already be somewhere between "pretty competitive" and "insanely competitive", and so even if you can swallow the up-front cost of joining in the auction, the question is whether you can convert well enough to stay in the game.
For example, maybe as a wedding planner in Manchester you can convert visitors from the search term
"wedding planner manchester" - pretty specific, right?
The question is, are you able to pay £6.50 per click for each and every visitor? If you convert these visitors to customers at 2% then your cost per acquisition is £325. Maybe worth it.
If you convert at only 1% then it is £650 per customer and you might not be making money any more.
Even at the better cost per acquisition level, it's likely the small business's campaign wouldn't achieve that efficiency from the outset, so there may be a while testing out various keywords and targeting tactics which produce much more inefficient conversion costs, or no conversions at all... This is all part of the cost of working on paid search, which you have to budget for.
The same considerations about conversion and cost per acquisition apply to any kind of advertising, and indeed to your marketing overall... but in paid search advertising it is really in-your-face because of the often eye-watering up-front cost per click.
It helps to be able to find lower cost-per-click keywords, but this also comes back to conversion tracking, because less competitive keywords might be less "hot" search terms, meaning lower conversion rate and therefore a higher number of clicks you need to buy for each conversion.
Overall, we can say doing well in paid search means your website has to be a very good salesperson. There is nothing to stop you creating paid search advertisements to bring traffic into your website, whatever its quality, but if the website is too ugly, out of date, uninformative, or simplistic... and you find your campaigns are "not working" then it will be about the website more than any marginal improvements you make to the advertising setup.
Regardless of how clever your advertising is, your customers remain savvy, cynical, demanding human beings, so the more you are paying for visitors, the more you should match that ad spend with design, content, and interaction to engage those visitors.
Anyway, as we said, the key issue is whether you can get this accurate but rather expensive traffic to convert... Let's continue:
[[Factors affecting conversion]]
Factors affecting conversion
In order of importance, the following will affect your ability to convert paid search traffic:
1. The nature of your business and market
As mentioned already, maybe what your customers want and what you offer are not naturally suited to instant-response search advertising. This is a sliding scale so sometimes you may decide to go ahead with search advertising just to find out. If search advertising is not working out at all for you, this may be the root cause rather than any details of implementation.
2. The match between what the customer wants
Search advertising is not quite as simple as:
Customer wants X --> Yes, we sell X --> Buy now
The steps which need to match up are more like this:
a) Customer wants solution S
b) Customer searches with search term T
c) Ad is triggered by T
d) Ad, in the eyes of the customer, relates to T
e) Customer clicks ad
f) Landing page is clearly about T
g) The information provided about T relates to solution S
h) Solution S can be obtained here, the next step to get it is (step 1 of your intended conversion!)
Matching can be improved at each of those steps.
A reasonable match quality is needed between all of the steps to achieve basic advertising performance.
3. How compelling the offer is
It is possible to get everything right... understanding the customer needs, advertising well when she searches about it, bringing the customer to your landing page... and still not converting her.
In fact, this will be the case most of the time. A healthy 5% conversion rate means the other 95% of people didn't become your customer this time.
You can't make people buy. But "compelling" offers do a good job of making people want to buy. Sales persuasion is a topic for another day.
To finish up here, let's look at:
[[PPC resource considerations]]
PPC resource considerations
The following resource headings apply both to display and search advertising.
A lot of this can be built up over time, and devised on the fly based on what your active ad campaigns are telling you. But you will need to have some plan and budget for developing each of these areas if you expect PPC to be your main source of business growth.
Landing pages and other conversion-influencing materials are arguably more urgent to work on in advance for search advertising, because of the higher up-front cost of the clicks and (on the plus side) the more immediate data you get about whether you are converting visitors.
All of the above can be summarized in one line:
"A compelling value proposition."
This begins with well-targeted and well-optimized ad campaigns, and the success overall depends on how well your business can understand the customers' needs and wants, match products/services to them, and communicate the value proposition in the online context. It is not going to come together instantly at the beginning: so good planning, sufficient resources, and a willingness to experiment are all prerequisites to a business succeeding in pay-per-click.
- Direct advertising budget, including enough to get through initial low-efficiency phases, and enough to cover research work
- Advertising management costs
- Ad creative (most relevant to display: banners, animations, video)
- Landing page design and content (involves a variety of skills, likely from different people, which need to be coordinated)
- Deeper content, e.g. to deliver to leads automatically after contact capture
- Product/service sales information
- Special offer and promotional creative, as well as the cost of the offers / gifts themselves
- Special media such as video, graphics, and interactives
- Analytics management
- Technical setup and improvements in your site to support ad campaigns
[[Back to start|Website Marketing Focus]]