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‘The biggest challenge for small businesses is marketing’

Marketing your small business can be tough, especially if you don’t have the time or the resources. Two small businesses told NerdWallet about some of the lessons they’ve learned about marketing, social media and SEO.

Do I need to set up an Instagram business account? Should I hire a consultant? What’s SEO and how do I do it? It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the range of marketing options, acronyms and advice you are faced with as a small business owner.

The number of choices on offer, as well as the costs involved, can leave you with decision paralysis, or worse, a catch-all approach that makes it hard to track how well your marketing strategy is actually performing.

Just ask Hannah Carlisle and Emma Kong, co-founders of luxury roses and gifting service Palette, who told us: “The biggest challenge for small businesses is marketing.”

So what mistakes should businesses avoid? And where should they begin when it comes to marketing? We spoke to business owners and marketing consultants to find out.

Discover your target audience: “We found out our market wasn’t what we thought it was…”

Before you start spending money on promoting your business, you need to know which customers you want to attract through your marketing strategy. And you may be surprised who that ends up being.

“As a small business, it can be hard to track who is actually your customer, and who is just going, ‘Oh, that is lovely’ on Instagram,” say Palette’s co-founders, Hannah Carlisle and Emma Kong. “You have to work out that, even if people follow you or might like you, they might never buy from you.”

Carlisle and Kong started Palette during the pandemic, and they quickly learned that the assumptions they had made about their audience were incorrect. Part of the problem was that while marketing their business on social media was a help, it also made it harder to identify their target audience.

“We thought it would be the middle-class women with a certain amount of disposable income, the mums who follow us on Instagram,” explain Carlisle and Kong. “But it has been people that share our style more than our lifestyle.”

Marketing tip 1: Identify your ideal client

As the founders of Palette discovered, knowing your customer is crucial. But when it comes to finding that audience, small business owners can suffer from “anyone syndrome”, argues Nigel Davey, virtual marketing director at consultancy SME Needs.

Davey encourages business owners to instead work out their ideal client. “The more specific they are, the more focused their marketing becomes. The more focused it is, the more effective it is. And the more effective it is, the more leads they get.”

Avoid overspending: “I was haemorrhaging cash…”

Even when you know your audience, getting people to engage with your business can be a challenge. For Georgina Atwell, founder of online children’s book review site, marketing has been a learning curve.

Atwell started Toppsta in 2014 as a Facebook page, eventually building a 25,000-strong following through daily posts and free giveaways. But when, after a year, she set up a dedicated website, she hit a snag.

“It is really, really hard to get people to move from casual browsing on social media to engaging with a website,” she explains.

So Atwell turned to SEO, or search engine optimisation: the process of increasing the visibility of your website by writing content and ‘optimising’ it to improve the performance of her website and drive more traffic to it.

With no experience herself, she brought in consultants. But Atwell learned the hard way about overspending on marketing. In the end, she was “haemorrhaging cash, and not really getting a return”.

Marketing tip 2: Things don’t have to be perfect straight away

As with many aspects of running a business, the first thing to consider with marketing is cost. With so many options on offer, it can be tempting to throw a lot of money at it. But that isn’t always necessary.

“Sometimes start ups want to spend thousands on their logo, thousands on their website,” says Tom Welbourne, founder and director of digital marketing agency The Good Marketer. “But don’t worry too much if you don’t have everything perfect straight away. It is better to get it out there for now, get your feedback, and start to improve it over time.”

Welbourne urges owners of small businesses to remember what is important: “Your customers care less about your brand logo, and more about you having good quality products and solid customer service.”

Do it yourself: “SEO has been my saviour”

After spending a lot of money on consultants without getting the returns she wanted, Atwell decided enough was enough. Although not everyone may feel confident enough to take this approach, Atwell decided she could do it herself.

By working through a blogging course on, a website specialising in SEO tools and competitor analysis, she learned the skills she needed to grow Toppsta’s website traffic from 25,000 to 300,000 unique visitors a month. A unique visitor is someone who has visited the website at least once during a certain time frame.

“An article is an investment in the website, something I will be able to keep forever – it’s like an asset,” says Atwell. “You can spend your life labouring over social media posts and get nothing back to your website or you can write one short blog, and it sits on your website, and it gets traffic day in, day out.”

Marketing tip 3: Make simpler decisions

Atwell found measurable success when she honed in on SEO as a strategy.

This kind of focus is important, says Murray Dare, B2B marketing and content expert, and director of marketing consultancies Connected Cheetah and Murray Dare: “Make simpler decisions and scale up from that point of view, rather than doing multiple different things and not having a clue how anything works.”

Image source: Getty Images

About the Author

Connor Campbell

Connor is a writer and spokesperson for NerdWallet. Previously at Spreadex, his market commentary has been quoted in the likes of the BBC, The Guardian, Evening Standard, Reuters and The…

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