“I need to get better at this digital marketing stuff. I have a [gal, guy, vendor] who has been doing [social, site, email, SEO, etc.] but I’m just not happy with how it’s going. I feel like my competition is getting ahead of me, and I don’t know how to fix it,” This is what I hear from business owners now, even those running mid-sized companies.

There are thousands of articles about specific aspects of digital marketing, written for the implementers. But hardly any articles that describe digital marketing from the business owner’s perspective. What is it, really, and what do you need to know in order to manage it effectively?

We’ll get there in a second. Let’s first look at what you want to avoid.

What digital marketing is not

Marketing – even before digital marketing – has always suffered from the “magic bean” or “shiny object” syndrome. “Do this one thing, and you will get 3 million leads overnight!”

No self-respecting business owner falls for anything this blatant, but almost everyone falls for the less stupendous versions of this concept.

There are various “I have a hammer, you must have a nail” specialists, and they all claim that their particular hammer is that magic bean. The SEO vendor will tell you: “I understand your sales problem, and I can solve it. What you need is SEO.” From the social media specialist: “What you need is social media. That will get your revenue up.” And so on.

You, on the other hand, can’t be sure, and you won’t know until after you’ve spent money and time and resources trying to make it pay. Which is where a lot of business owners are right now.

At the other end of the spectrum are the generalists. “What you need is a completely integrated marketing campaign,” says the agency. They pitch beautifully; the CEO gets all excited and the work begins. Unfortunately, many tend to disappoint over time, because they often keep costs down by hiring a lot of fresh-out-of-college folks to do the actual work, who are definitely intelligent and well-meaning, but lack experience.

Why is experience so important? A CEO I spoke with recently said, “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”

Turns out the quote comes from Randy Pausch, the professor of computer science who died of pancreatic cancer in 2008 and author of the book The Last Lecture. His quote is appropriate here, because these days, when it comes to digital marketing, it’s really easy to “not get what you wanted.”

There are two ways you can avoid this all-too-common disappointment.

One is by not being a lemming, just blindly doing what everyone else is doing. That never pays.

The second is by using experience, rather than having experience beat you up.

What is digital marketing? What will work for you? It depends.

Generic advice doesn’t work because you are not like anyone else. Your company is different, your products are different, the way you manage your company is different, your staff is different, and your brand is different than your competition.The promises that you can keep are different than the promises that your competitors can keep. (“Branding is the promise that you make; your brand is the promise that you keep.” I said that the first time years ago, and it’s still true today.)

Your customers are also different. The customers you attract will be different than the customers your competitors attract. The customers who buy from you will decide that you are “the one” because of their specific needs. You have to know what those needs are as well as you know the needs of your family members and closest friends.

If you guess this, you lose.

You may think you are making “educated” guesses, because you read and listen to experts, and even others who have had luck with a specific method.

Unfortunately, when you apply that generic advice to your unique customers, without knowing who they really are, prospective customers will come to your site and think, “These people don’t even understand why I’m looking and what I’m hoping to do with their product.” [Click – away.]

So the first place to start is to interview your current customers (see my book – Chapter 3 – for specific instructions on how to do this). After even just a few interviews, you will be that much closer to attracting more customers like the ones who have already chosen you, and satisfying their needs when they arrive at your site.

The second thing is to realize that you have two customers now: real people and Google, who is, ironically, trying like crazy to meet the needs of real people by serving up what those real people are looking for.

Google can only continue to dominate the search engine space if it continues to give real people what they want.

Google and a number of other fine digital tools will give you all sorts of flat-out clues as to how people look for your type of product or service. Your goal is not to “game” Google, but to learn from the data Google serves up, and then to give Google what it needs to rank you positively for the terms that most logically lead people to you.

Again, if you guess at this, you lose. I can’t tell you how many times someone inside a company has said, “this is the keyword phrase we need to focus on,” and it turns out no one searches for that company’s products that way. Guessing = losing, in all things marketing. You’re defeated before you even begin.

It’s important to remember, though, that these digital tools will tell you “how” your potential customers are looking for you, but not “why.”

The “why” comes from the interviews. And the “why” is really important, because when you’re writing content for these customers, the “why” is what matters most to them. “These people understand why I’m looking and what I’m hoping to do with this product.” [Click – forward.] “Ah. Good. More good info. They are now on my short list.”

That kind of positive progression comes from you knowing why someone would buy from you.

Real data, then your own experience.

So you start with data, from customers who have already bought from you and from the helpful digital tools (Google Analytics, SpyFu, Moz, etc.). That will put you ahead of most of your competitors.

Then, you use that data to start to build your digital marketing program. Questions you need to answer:

  • Where does each “channel” come into play in their buying process? For example, not all social matters. Some social matters a lot, some not at all, depending on the type of product or service that you sell. At the very least, it’s important to understand the difference between B2B (business-to-business) versus B2C (business-to-consumer). LinkedIn is better for B2B, and Pinterest, Facebook, and Instagram are often better for B2C.

But, that’s another generalization; it could be different for you. The real question is, when you asked your customers, what did they say? Would they ever look for you in any of the social channels? Did they do anything with social as part of their buying process? Might they have just gone there to see what you have been “tweeting” but not to follow you? Again, it depends – on what they tell you.

At the moment, digital marketing channels and systems include:

  • Your site and its optimization and maintenance
  • Search Engine Optimization (including “near me” searches, and the fact that Google is fast approaching a state where they can serve up all sorts of things about your company without the person ever visiting your site)
  • Search Engine Marketing (e.g., AdWords) 
  • Online Advertising, including display ads and ads that “follow” you (remarketing)
  • Social
  • Chat
  • Content marketing
  • CRM and Marketing Automation systems
  • Email marketing  
  • Video and Audio – including webcasts, podcasts, YouTube, etc.
  • SMS marketing

Of course, you’re still probably also still doing the “non”-digital stuff, such as direct mail, public relations, print advertising, and conferences/events.

  • How are they looking for you? Have you determined what you want Google to think about you? This is more than just coming up with key phrases. You need to build an SEO persona for your company. Once you’ve settled on how you want Google to see you, and the terms people use to find your product/service, you also need to know the types of articles on those subjects that are most popular – the ones that readers share the most.
  • Are you in the major online directories? Is your information up to date, and consistent across all directories? This is often part of an SEO effort, but whoever “owns” it, it must be done. This is especially important for local businesses.
  • Do you have a way for customers to interact with you somehow on your site? Chat is becoming so common that it’s expected now, and it’s easy enough to set up and turn on and off, thanks to applications such as LiveChat.
  • Are you clear about what you sell and what they can do with it? Forget “features and benefits”; think “functions” (as in, “How can I use this?”) and make sure you always answer the most important question: “What’s going to happen to me after I buy?” I can’t tell you how many times, when we do a digital marketing audit for a company, we honestly can’t tell what they’re selling when we first go to their site.
  • What systems are you using already? Are they working or making things worse?  What are you using for your CRM, marketing automation, and email campaigns? Are they right for what you want to do? Do they play nicely with each other? Are they cost-effective?
  • Are you consistently producing new content for your blog and site pages? Are you socializing that content?
  • Are you constantly checking your site for errors and fixing them? Sites break, DNS and server hosts have blackouts, one small change to one page can affect other pages and create broken links.
  • Do other sites link back to your site? Is backlinking part of your outreach strategy? Google pays attention to backlinks, and the domain authority (and validity) of those backlinks.
  • Do you have a way of keeping track of all this, including assigning and tracking tasks? Project management systems – I must have tried dozens by now – have finally gotten to the point where they can actually support a proper workflow. Avoid the ones that waste too much screen space on “cards” instead of simple list views.

You will need experienced specialists for the various elements of your digital marketing, especially for the more complex areas such as search engine optimization, pay-per-click, social, and the backends of websites. Partly because this work is constantly evolving and requires close attention. The days of “set it and forget it” are long gone.

Digital marketing is, frankly, where the market battles are now being fought, and if you want to win, you need to be there. You need to get the basics right, first, before you get carried away with shiny objects. And you need to understand and satisfy your two main customers: People and Google. They are the keys to more revenue, not “the crowd.”

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