Buy And Sell A Business

Insight Three: Online marketing is no longer optional

You may recall the haunting images of empty city streets at the height of the pandemic, when bustling areas were struck by an eerie quiet. Online, however, the volume was turned way up.

The web became the primary forum for information gathering and discussion. Virtually everyone was watching COVID case counts, hospitalizations, and mortality rates obsessively, anticipating policy changes, stricter lockdowns, relaxed lockdowns, and new rules that were announced and debated daily.

For every small business affected by the pandemic (all of them), sending a clear signal in this noisy new environment became critical.

As we noted previously, the public health measures forced many businesses to change their offerings. Fine dining restaurants began doing takeout; retail stores began doing curb-side pickup and home delivery. The criteria around “essential” services changed as the waves of the pandemic ebbed and flowed, creating confusion around which small businesses were open.

Businesses had to rely on their online presence to get the word out. Those that were forced to build their online marketing strategy from scratch were at a massive disadvantage.

Online commerce spiked, but relatively few small businesses were the beneficiaries. Instead, Amazon made nearly $27 billion in profits alone between April 2020 and March 2021. And that’s still rising. In the first quarter of 2021, net sales increased 44%—the company’s 78th consecutive quarter of double-digit growth. Meanwhile, between March and June of 2020 alone, over 300,000 Canadian small businesses closed.

Some small businesses managed to adapt and even thrive during the pandemic. While it’s difficult to generalize the keys to their success, these are some of the key principles underlying their marketing efforts.

You must pay to play

If your business is making less money, you as a prudent business owner are also going to spend less money. In most cases, the first thing to be cut is the marketing budget. Besides, most small business owners reason, organic marketing (which, for the purposes of this report, refers to virtual word-of-mouth marketing you don’t have to pay for; this is a good primer) is better.

This is incorrect. Or rather, it’s not totally correct. Paid online marketing is usually your best and sometimes only chance to directly reach many more people who would otherwise never hear about your business. Plus, it allows you to target specific demographics who fit your client profile—men under 25, mothers over 35 in X income bracket, etc.

Will most of these people ignore or be vaguely annoyed seeing your ad follow them as they browse the web? A lot of them, probably. But those who don’t, however few, always justify this expenditure.

Start with your community

This means two things: First, that your marketing efforts prioritize people who are nearest to you.

Although a retail business can ship its merchandise around the world, and someone in Indonesia can access your website as readily as someone next door, the truth is that a small business’ traction requires a lot of touch points. You’re unlikely to have enough of those to make someone in Indonesia want to visit your website, at least until you’ve done the work of growing your business. That growth almost always begins with the people closest to you. If you’re not actively building your business for your community, odds are you don’t have a clear vision of who you are targeting with your marketing, which means you are targeting no-one.

Second, “start with your community” means thinking about how your business fits with that community. Many small businesses were instrumental in coordinating mask drives, cooking free meals for healthcare workers, and offering discounts to those on the front lines, often live-streaming their involvement and posting it to their social media accounts. Many of those businesses inspired tremendous loyalty with these displays of generosity.

But this isn’t something they did because it was “good for business.” In fact, in the short term, many businesses took a hit to do so. They did it because it was necessary, because they understood that their role in the pandemic was bigger than the simple exchange of goods and services. Their communities recognized them for it.

Watch your analytics

Every small business owner now has a massive array of tools that indicate what their customers do and don’t want. Some of them, like orders and page views, are straightforward. But website hosting services, online marketplaces, and social media companies also offer much more comprehensive data to help you shape marketing efforts and find untapped markets—moves that have transformed businesses in the turmoil of the pandemic.

In some cases, it may be worth hiring a consultant to help parse your analytics. Companies such as Google and Facebook also have representatives who work with you when you purchase ad space.

Reward requires risk

While there are a few iron-clad truths in marketing (more eyeballs are always better for business, for example) there are very few guarantees. Successful marketing requires doing things that may not work.

Smart businesspeople consider the evidence and weigh it carefully before they make any decisions. But in the context of the pandemic, that wasn’t an option. “I think the reliance on data for decision making limited the ability of businesses to think and respond to an unprecedented situation,” wrote Forbes contributor Rohit Kumar, the cofounder of Zensciences global marketing agency. “Many chose to take the more risk-free path—to wait, watch and learn.”

Many small businesses were penalized for that. “We still don’t have all the answers,” Kumar wrote, but it’s now obvious that not trying, something, anything, to adapt, doesn’t work, he continued.

This is not to advocate against prudence, but the pandemic revealed that for many small businesses, plans can take some severe and unexpected turns. Successful businesses are the ones with drivers who can navigate them.

Read the previous two entries in pandemic insight series:

Insight One: Why many businesses aren’t built to last

Insight Two: Selling a business isn’t a waiting game

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Insight Three: Online marketing is no longer optional
6 mins (1325 words)