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Small business guide: How to invest your digital advertising dollars

No matter what you’re selling, be it software, sneakers or sandwiches, marketing your products to your target audience is critical. And while billboards and newspaper ads are still prevalent, advertising is shifting toward digital media, and experts say small business owners should keep up with that trend. But with a limited budget, where should you invest your marketing dollars?

“You can easily throw a lot of money down the drain if you don’t think about the right strategy and right platforms,” said Eric Schiffer, head of marketing firms and

Here are some of the latest marketing trends businesses should consider:

Social media surging

Marketing firms have been experimenting with social media advertising for years, but until recently, Schiffer says their attempts have amounted to “a lot of hype and hot air, but not much substance.” Now, that’s changing.

Data, he said “has become so powerful on sites like Facebook and Twitter, and it allows you to very affordably target not just groups or a wide audience, but very specific types of individuals who aren’t your clients but could be.”

Known as in-line advertising, Facebook and Twitter in the past year have started embedding promotional posts into their users’ social networking feeds. Calling on personal information that users hand over willingly to the sites (such as age, interests and location), advertisers can now pinpoint the customers they want to reach and get their marketing materials in front of them.

And it isn’t hard to get started. Owners who build a local business profile on either site will be presented with buttons to “advertise” or “promote” their page.

“You can identify and convert customers at far less cost than you could with search-based advertising, which was at the top of the realm just a couple years ago,” Schiffer said.

Don’t forget about e-mail

Don’t get so caught up in social media that you forget about the importance of e-mail marketing, advises Ray Sidney-Smith, owner of W3 Consulting, a marketing and technology management firm in Alexandria.

“I think a lot of business owners have disregarded e-mail in the wake of this social media revolution,” Sidney-Smith said. “E-mail is still king, and building out your e-mail list is so important.”

Services such as ConstantContact, Vertical Response and iContact can make it easy to manage an e-mail marketing list. And to encourage individuals to sign up, Sidney-Smith suggested, include deals and special offers customers can’t get elsewhere.

Even better, send a text

Still, research has shown that only around 10 or 15 percent of e-mails get opened. On other hand, the open rate for text messages? Higher than 90 percent, Sidney-Smith said.

There are now services making that type of connection possible between small business owners and consumers.

Companies such as MobiQpons uses GPS data to push coupons and deals via text message to individuals who are near a store.

“That could be the future for small business marketing, as long as it doesn’t become a spam field,” Sidney-Smith said.

Loyalty cards, now on phone

You may have them in your wallet or purse right now — those loyalty cards, where some number of stamps or punches earns you a special reward. They remain a powerful customer-retention tool, Sidney-Smith said.

The difference today? Those cards, along with everything else, are moving onto your smartphones. Companies such as Perka, Loyal Blocks and Belly all run mobile-phone-based loyalty programs for retailers and eateries.

“So not only are you bringing back existing customers, but you are getting them to talk about you through social media, too,” Sidney-Smith said.

J.D. Harrison covers startups, small business and entrepreneurship, with a focus on public policy, and he runs the On Small Business blog.



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