Gaining an online presence is a daunting task. Where do you start? What should your website look like? How do you make sure you get in front of your target audience? Those are just a small sampling of the questions new businesses face when trying to gain an online footprint.
When looking to increase an online presence, it's best to create a digital marketing strategy. Inexperience or ignorance can lead to a lot of wasted time and energy, with little to show for it.
Rich Brooks, president of Flyte New Media based in Portland, Maine, helps companies develop websites and improve their online presence using a four-step marketing plan template he calls BARE: build, attract, retain and evaluate. During a session at the 2018 Social Media Marketing World conference in San Diego, Brooks said that, while his framework can lead a company in the right direction, a digital marketing strategy always has some unique qualities that add some complexity.
"The thing with frameworks is they are usually one size fits all, but a plan is about where you are and where you want to go," Brooks said.
Step 1: Build a website
Most digital marketing plans should begin with the website, Brooks said, as that's the primary place where you will turn site viewers into prospects and customers. The bevy of web content management tools available -- including free web design programs, such as WordPress and Squarespace, and licensed content management system (CMS) products, such as Acquia or Adobe Experience Manager -- can help with the design.
CMSes generally, at minimum, give organizations the ability to create and maintain a website, review and approve content, and automate publishing. They can also include page templates, e-commerce capabilities, workflow management and collaboration tools, version control and plugins that extend functionality with third-party applications.
It is especially important that a company's website be based on some kind of CMS, Brooks said.
And it's also vital that a small business or emerging company has a web presence separate from social network platforms. Brooks said it is not uncommon for small businesses that are just getting started to try to build their audience exclusively on social media platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram. While social media can be a great way to attract and retain new customers, it cannot stand alone.
"Building a business on Facebook is like building a house on a landslide," Brooks said. "There is a lot that is out of your control."
Brooks also advised that businesses not get caught up with too many bells and whistles during web design.
"Your website is probably too busy," Brooks said. "Simple is better when it comes to a website. You want to bring people to your website, but you don't want to give them a lot of choices."
Have a clear idea of what action you want customers to take while on the website -- be that filling out a form, calling the physical retail store or signing up for a newsletter -- and make sure that the website guides them through that process.
Then, be sure all of these action items -- the form fields, the phone number, the place to opt in to the newsletter -- stand out on the site and are easy to find. Brooks suggested choosing a color that stands out against the rest of your website and using it for every clickable and interactive object on the site.
Organizations should always make sure the next step is obvious, Brooks said.
Step 2: Attract customers to the site
Now, your website is built. It's simplistic, yet it sends the right message. The next question is how to attract customers to your site.
This step in your digital marketing plan requires you to invest in strategies and technology that appeal to your desired customer base. There are three primary ways to attract customers: search engine optimization (SEO), social media and digital advertising.
"Everything we do with SEO, social media [and digital advertising] is about customer acquisition," Brooks said.
Of the three, digital advertising is the most straightforward. Digital advertising -- ads that display on the internet -- can come in the form of banner ads, pop-up ads, social ads and ads within search results. The digital ads that customers see are often based on their browsing history.
Companies working to build out their digital marketing plans often debate the benefits of SEO versus social media output. When breaking down the two, however, SEO and social media tackle different concerns. When it comes to driving traffic, Google and SEO are still king, Brooks said.
"A lot of what your customers search for depends on what Google thinks," Brooks said. "Most traffic -- including new customers and leads -- comes from search engines."
SEO, a series of strategies aimed at improving how content ranks in organic search results on search engines, often feels like a big game of who can stay ahead of Google's algorithm changes the fastest.
However, the best way to optimize for search is to create useful content and good UX. First and foremost, this means making sure that your website is mobile-friendly, loads quickly and is built on a CMS, Brooks said.
"[Your website] needs to be designed for results because you could drive so much traffic to your website. But, if you're not converting any of that traffic into actual business, your whole plan falls apart," Brooks said.
While SEO drives more traffic through search engines, social media has its place when architecting your digital marketing plans. Social media platforms are not only a good place to publish content marketing material that defines a brand, but it is also a good place to handle customer service issues, interact with customers and potential leads, and solidify customer loyalty. It is also a great way to learn more about who your customers are in order to create more effective, targeted marketing campaigns.
Base which social media sites you use on the demographics of your existing audience and the kinds of people you want to attract. While the majority of Americans primarily use Facebook and YouTube, sites such as Instagram and Snapchat are likely to be more effective in reaching younger audiences.
But, when creating content for social media, it's important to not get caught up in the idea of going viral, Brooks said.
"Value trumps viral," he said. "Don't worry about being in front of 100,000 people. Be in front of the 200 that matter to you."
Step 3: Retain customers
You've got your website, and you've gained some traffic. But how do you turn those prospects into loyal customers?
Retention is where you start to communicate with your website visitors directly -- ideally through email.
Rich BrooksPresident, Flyte New Media
"Your customers' email inbox is the most valuable property on the internet," Brooks said. "Email is unavoidable. You miss thousands of tweets and posts, but your email is always there for you."
However, it is important not to overwhelm customers with too many email. The best way to make sure customers open and read your email and newsletters, rather than automatically deleting or unsubscribing, is by making sure they are useful to the customer.
"The goal is to make every email as valuable, as targeted and as timely as possible," Brooks said in an interview. "I subscribe to a lot of email marketing newsletters -- in part to see what others are doing -- but there's only a few I read and even fewer I religiously read. Those email are filled with specific information to help me do a better job or to stay up to date in my industry that they are must-reads."
While the website is the main objective of attracting customers, retaining them is a distinct objective for companies developing their digital marketing plans. The value of Google and SEO is apparent for companies, but with the constant manipulation of Google's search algorithm, working within an inbox is a sustainable method for interacting with potential customers, he said.
"Email is stable," Brooks said, adding that conciseness is important. "Most people don't want long emails -- and you want people out of their inbox and back onto your website."
Email also offers one of the best opportunities to deliver personalized content to customers. According to Acquia's 2019 Customer Experience Trends report, 78% of customers are more loyal to brands that know their interaction history.
Companies can personalize everything from the content within email based on the customer's browsing history to the time of day email are sent based on when the customer opens the most email. Personalization, combined with marketing automation software, customer segmentation and various other marketing strategies, can help you create engaging and precisely targeted content.
However, it is important not to overuse or misuse personalization. There is a line between personalization that eases friction in CX and personalization that is intrusive that organizations should not cross.
Likewise, organizations should not be sending customers an excessive number of email. For example, a customer should not receive personalized email, as well as all of the generic marketing email.
Both of these tactics can discourage potentially valuable and loyal customers.
Step 4: Evaluate the strategy's success
Lastly, it's important to evaluate the work you've done up to this point, both soon after you create and implement a digital marketing strategy and continually over the long term.
While building a website, attracting prospects and retaining them can primarily be done with in-house work or free technology tools, evaluating the success of these projects may require some more technological tools to help provide insight.
In order to know what data to measure and analyze with a content analytics tool, it is important to have specific business and marketing goals in mind to create a digital marketing strategy.
"It is not enough to say, 'I want to get more leads.' Saying, 'I want to see a 20% increase in sales this year,' would be much more specific," Brooks said. "Figure out what your top three goals are: What is really going to move the needle for your company this year? Have it sitting in your head as you make your digital marketing plan."
Measuring how effective specific digital marketing efforts are will also bring marketers another step closer to being able to measure the ROI of marketing strategies -- something that is infamously difficult to do in practice.
Businesses must also keep in mind that a digital marketing plan is just a framework, and companies need to test and evaluate each step along the way.
"Best practices don't equal best results," Brooks said. "You won't know until you measure it and use the data to come up with something better."