Effective marketing channels for your online business
Whether you’re just getting started, or you’ve been around the block and back again, marketing will always be a part of your business.
Marketing is broad. It’s not just an ad in The Economist, or a billboard in Times Square. You don’t need a multi-million dollar budget for a 60-second spot in the Super Bowl ad break, nor do you need to try and win awards at Cannes. When you speak to someone about your company, that’s marketing. When you send an email with your company signature, that’s marketing. When you give a local meetup talk or participate in a podcast about your expertise, that’s marketing.
And it is crucial to the success of your business.
But marketing can be downright scary if you’re already wearing a million hats in your bootstrapped company. Or it can be incredibly confusing if you’ve typed “How to market my business” into Google 10+ times, and closed your browser window straight away. We’ve pulled together some of the most effective marketing channels for your online business, along with some extra tips on how to use them.
But first, why should you market your business?
If people don’t know about your product or your business, how can you even be considered an option? You can’t be considered. And without marketing, you won’t be considered.
If you offer a digital product or service that will solve a problem for many people, you need to tell them about it. You need to generate awareness of your business and your brand. You need to educate people about what exactly you offer, why it is valuable (or more valuable than other similar or competing options), and how it will improve their life when they work with you. That is why marketing is crucial.
Who should you market your business to?
Do you sell a digital product that other businesses will use (B2B – Business to business)? Or do you sell a digital product that is meant for an end user (B2C – Business to consumer)? Is your product targeted at mothers, fathers, kids, or grandparents? Does your consulting service suit the software industry, or are you a life coach? Knowing your audience is imperative to deciding which marketing channels you should investigate further.
Any existing data you have on your current customers will help you define who your customers are. Don’t have any data? Get in touch with your existing audience to learn more about them:
- Conduct a short survey with several questions that will help you uncover who your audience is, and send it to them via email.
- Engage with them. Talk to a handful of your customers one-on-one. Get to know them. Have a discussion and learn about their goals and their struggles.
- You may also wish to find out which marketing channels your existing customers use, which could help you decide if you should use those channels to reach new potential customers.
Once you have a better understanding of who is already using your product, you’ll be able to paint a picture of who your ideal customer is. Some channels allow you to target specific audiences so you can more effectively use marketing to attract your ideal customers.
Wait… what are channels?
Marketing “channels” are also called “mediums” by advertising and media agencies. Essentially, it is the means or method used for distributing a message to a specific audience.
Almost all channels and media can be categorized into three groups: Paid, Owned, and Earned.
- Paid channels/media are services and placements that have been literally paid for. You are in control of the content that goes in the paid spaces, but you don’t own the space.
- Owned channels are directly influenced by you. You are in control of what goes where, and how your business is represented in that space. You own the space (or the account, in some cases).
- Earned media is free, but it is not controlled by you. It is given at the sole discretion of others. And it’s the most valuable exposure you can get.
Let’s look at some of the most effective marketing channels for online businesses under each of these categories.
SEM (Search Engine Marketing)
Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is paid advertising through search engines. Ads that promote your business will appear when certain keywords or phrases are searched for by search engine users. You’ve probably seen them before, they look like this:
SEM is excellent for increasing awareness. It can also indirectly affect your site’s rankings. Paid ads on search engines encourage clicks, and clicks may lead to increased exposure. This could include links from other sites, sharing, and so on; these things do boost your organic search ranking. Both Google and Bing have tools to help you create ads.
Search Engine Marketing tips:
- Do some research on keywords and phrases related to your business and your industry.
- Create a list of keywords and phrases, and start searching. What kind of results do you get? Are there other advertisers targeting the same keywords? Are your competitors popping up when you search for these phrases? What phrases do they match up against? Are these phrases that you want to use to increase traffic to your own website?
- If you’re willing to give SEM a shot, you can start out small to see how it goes. There is no minimum spend, and you can pause spending at any time to stop spending out (you’ll have to pay what you’ve spent, of course).
- Bear in mind that running one ad for one day for $1 probably isn’t going to tell you much about how successful your SEM activity was. If it’s feasible, try running several ads for a few months to see how they perform.
- Fun fact: SEM ads are not affected by ad blocker software which hides display ads for users on both mobile and desktop.
Retargeting / remarketing
Retargeting is a paid channel that helps you convert “window-shoppers” into purchasing customers. It tracks and targets people who have already visited your website after they have left your website. Retargeting shows these people a display advertisement for your product or business. These people are likely already interested in your product, as they have already visited your website.
A display ad is usually an image, which may have graphic elements and text. There are various sizes and formats as websites sell various ad placements on their homepage and content pages. Here’s an example of a display ad/display banner:
Retargeting services tap into large advertising networks with huge numbers of websites that sell advertising space on their sites. These websites are then broken down into categories for easier targeting. The Google Display Network has one of the largest display networks in the world.
We started using retargeting last year, and after just a few months, we saw some very surprising results:
Many retargeting services have a pay-as-you-go option, so you can choose how little or how much you spend. This allows you to dip in and out of retargeting if you want to take it for a test drive before committing to it as part of your long-term strategy.
- Offering a discount code or coupon in a retargeted ad is more likely to convert a “window-shopper” into a paying customer: “Come back and save 10%!”
- Not-so-fun fact: Display ads are affected by ad blocker browser software, which hides display ads for users on both mobile and desktop. Ad blocker penetration is growing, but it is not the norm. Keep in mind that ad blocker software is a factor if you are looking at investing in retargeting.
Affiliate marketing is a paid channel that brings other people into your business to help you promote it. With some firm terms and conditions in place, it is incredibly low risk, and highly effective. Here are the basic steps:
- You recruit people to become affiliates
- Affiliates promote your product via an affiliate link/URL to your website (the affiliate is tracked through this link). They share the link with people they know or through their own marketing channels
- If a potential customer clicks the affiliate’s link, and successfully completes a purchase on your website, the affiliate is paid a commission.
Affiliates aren’t awarded a commission until a sale is complete, meaning you don’t pay them anything until a referred customer purchases your product.
As an example, in September 2017 we paid out around $1,300 in affiliate commissions to our affiliates. Those affiliates helped us generate ~$5,000 in net revenue (after the affiliate commission) on top of our regular sales. That’s revenue we may not have earned had it not been for our affiliates helping to promote our products. 💙
Affiliate marketing tips:
- Spend some time researching to determine what type of affiliate marketing solution will work best for you. You can run a self-hosted affiliate program on your own website, or you can use a 3rd-party solution.
- Don’t set your commission rate too high that you lose out. You have bills to pay, too!
- If you have a refund policy for your store, only pay affiliate commissions after the refund policy has passed. This means you can reject an affiliate’s commission if a customer they referred requests a refund. You can put this in your affiliate terms and conditions.
- If you are running a self-hosted affiliate system, review your affiliate applications carefully. Make sure your affiliates are the right fit with your business.
Email marketing is one of the most popular owned marketing channels. By placing a sign-up form on your site, and connecting it to an email marketing service, you can collect the email addresses of potential customers. Creating a mailing list of people who are interested in the products you sell or the services you provide gives you an audience to engage with on an ongoing basis.
Email marketing is effective for numerous reasons:
- Email is one of the most widely used communication methods
- Almost all email users check their email every single day
- You control the content that is included in the email, so tailored messages can be communicated to specific groups of people, at specific times of day, in specific locations
- It is more personal than other channels
- It is cost effective, and can be completely free to use
- The people on your mailing list are validated – they have provided you with their email address so you can communicate directly with them.
Email marketing tips:
- Use an email marketing service like MailChimp, Aweber, ActiveCampaign (to name a few). The features they provide will make your email marketing more streamlined and easier to manage. Plus, they provide reporting and data so you can see how your emails are performing.
- Use emails to inform your audience or customers of news, updates, sales, and content. Stay in touch with them on a regular basis to keep your business top of mind and grow your awareness.
Social media platforms
Social media is another owned channel that allows you to form connections with people. It opens up the opportunity to have discussions with your followers or customers in real-time or near real-time, and some people prefer interacting with businesses on social media for a more personal experience. You can quickly communicate to people who follow you en masse, or directly to individuals by sending them a message. And it’s free to set up an account and start posting!
Most social media platforms channels also have excellent audience data, which you can use to learn more about the interests and behaviors of the people who follow your business. Some social media channels also have paid advertising opportunities to further extend your reach to extremely targeted audiences.
Social media tips:
- Don’t bombard your followers with a constant stream of posts. For many people, social media is a means of staying in touch with people they know – use it to create a connection with your followers.
- Be mindful of what you post on social media – everything you say is a reflection of you and your business.
- Secure the social media handles for your name or your business name as soon as you can. Grab them on the popular platforms, like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (if it’s right for you). Or, create a handle as close to your business name as possible. You never know when you might want to start using that account!
The one channel you have the most control over is your website. And having the right information on your website will determine if a visitor stays or goes. How many times have you opened a company’s website just to close it down almost instantly, because it either 1) wasn’t relevant to what you were looking for, or 2) wasn’t attractive enough for you to want to stay?
Your website is your home on the internet. The primary face of your business. It’s also where you turn visitors into customers.
- Your website should provide important information about what you do or sell.
- It should detail the value you offer and the problems your products solve (the benefits).
- Get the basics of search engine optimization (SEO) down. Be sure to use phrases in your content (including product pages, blog articles, transcribed videos and podcasts, etc.) that your ideal customers would use in search engines to help improve your organic Search ranking.
- Ensure that your customer service and support process is helpful and useful to customers. Customer support or service on its own is another marketing “channel”, though in most cases it will live on your website. This essential touchpoint for your customers can make or break a relationship (or a sale). It directly links to the success of your business, and can be extremely rewarding when implemented and managed with care. It also has an impact on Earned media, specifically WOM, which we’ll discuss more in the next section.
The biggest tip I can give you with regard to your website is to create content. Content marketing is one of the most effective ways you can communicate with people through your site. Publishing valuable, useful, relevant articles will open another forum for discussion on the topics you write about. When potential customers are researching online for keywords or phrases specific to your business, and you’ve nailed your SEO, the content you create and your product pages will appear in search results. When you post content regularly, you’ll build trust with your customers.
Content builds relationships. Relationships are built on trust. Trust drives revenue.Andrew Davis
Rallying a community around your brand, business, company, or product is the ultimate win. People who completely believe and trust in what you create should be your ultimate goal.
These people don’t just like you, they love you. Lovers of your brand or business believe that what you do makes their life better. They’ll then communicate their positive feelings about your brand to anybody who will listen. It’s like having a dedicated PR team always at your back.
Now, there aren’t any tips for this section, because from a traditional marketing perspective, earned media isn’t influenced by your company. But in fact, earned media is wholly influenced by your company. Every single touchpoint of your product or business impacts on a user or a customer, from the email sign-up, to the purchase process, to the customer support they receive. These people have to be utterly in love with what you do for them before they become an advocate for you.
Why is earned media so valuable? Online research. Most people conduct research before they make a purchase. And whilst your website is your primary channel, potential customers won’t stop there. They will continue researching about you and your business until they are satisfied that your store and your business is the one they want to purchase from. Users rely on this social proof from their peers or other customers on your site to help inform their purchase decisions.
Organic, un-bought marketing, straight from the horse’s mouth, online or offline. Word-of-mouth is the most trusted form of marketing, from one user or customer to another. With word-of-mouth, your brand or product is the first thing that comes to someone’s mind, usually because of the positive (or negative) experience they had with it. Or, someone they know and trust had a positive experience with your business. This can, of course, swing either way; positive WOM is as influential on a new potential customer’s purchase decision as negative WOM.
Articles and reviews about your business on other sites
Unprompted, positive articles written by other people and posted on their own websites reflect favorably on your business. Positive reviews impact how people feel about your business when they are still in the consideration stage. Whether these articles and reviews live on social media, or on unbiased third-party sites, they’re an incredibly powerful earned asset which can influence a customer’s decision to choose your business over a competitor.
Testimonials & social proof
When a customer is over the moon with your product, service, company, or all of the above, they will be more than happy to provide you with a testimonial, organically. Glowing testimonials should have pride of place on your website – put them on your homepage. It’s not arrogance if it’s true!
A brand is no longer what we tell the consumer it is — it is what consumers tell each other it is.Scott Cook
Earned “media” is priceless. It is real-world testimony that the experience that you and/or your company delivers to people is meaningful and worthwhile. Earned media cannot be bought. Paid articles, paid reviews or paid testimonials are sponsored activity, and are not earned. This is the pot of gold right here, folks!
Marketing is a marathon, not a sprint
It’s about the long game. And you don’t have to try and do everything! Are you flying solo or part of a modest team with all hands on deck? A pay-as-you-go option that you can set and forget for a little while will help you get started with marketing. The more consistent you can be, the more people will learn about your business, the more you’ll learn about what channels work best for you, and the more top of mind awareness you’ll earn.
Try a free marketing channel, spend a little bit of money on some paid activity, or start writing content. You don’t have to commit to any one channel forever, and you can change how much or how little you can realistically achieve at any point in time. If you’ve started a digital product business, and you want it to go the distance, make marketing your next step.
Tell us which marketing channels you’ve had success with! Have you tried any of the channels we’ve listed here? Are there any others you’d like to try but haven’t yet?