The Small Business Owner’s Guide to Digital Marketing

The Small Business Owner's Guide to Digital Marketing

Every small business needs a viable product or an in-demand service. But what’s next? Here are the digital marketing tools you need to get the word out.

Any small business owner knows the challenge of developing an in-demand product or service. Researching markets and developing your ideas is time-consuming, and the volume of available data is overwhelming. It takes guts and determination to wade through this process and strike out on your own.

But, developing your company is only part of running a successful small business. If your customers have never heard of you, or can’t find you, then, well, they’re not your customers.

Navigating digital marketing can be just as overwhelming as developing your business in the first place. In this guide, we’ll take a look at the primary marketing techniques you should be deploying, as well as a few digital tools that can help you get the job done.

Feel free to jump directly to the area of your interest.

Branding for Small BusinessThe Importance of Social MediaTools to Generate Marketing IdeasEmail Marketing ToolsConversion Optimization and Tracking Tools

What Does “Branding” Mean for a Small Business Owner?

Photography-1.jpg?w=750" alt="Shutterstock Branding Logo" class="wp-image-142303" />You can see the Shutterstock logo, which is part of our overall branding, deployed throughout our website. Image via dennizn.

Let’s start with a term you see bounced around often: branding.

Before we can dive into the marketing guide, we need to establish a few core details so you’ll have some idea what to say about your product or service. Branding is a bit of a marketing catch-all term. It can refer specifically to your icon, logo, or site layout, but it can also describe your company’s personality.

Create a Market Identity

How you speak to your audience or market your product is part of your brand. The ideas or issues your company does (or doesn’t) stand for are part of your brand. How your company does (or doesn’t) respond to world events and news cycles is part of your brand. All of these taken together create a market identity. If it’s consistent, and it aligns with types of brands your customers want to do business with, then you can create a direct path to sales or earnings.

Social Issues and BrandingThe social issues that Shutterstock aligns with on its blog are an important aspect of the company’s overall branding.

Define Your Audience

So, you know who you are as a company. However to round-out your branding so you can begin consistent marketing, ask yourself to whom you want to sell?

Is your audience younger? If so, then you might need a light, fun, un-serious personality, logo, website, and social media presence.

Are you catering to a more serious market, like couples about to get married? If so, you’ll need to strike a tone of elegance, trustworthiness, and inclusiveness that signals to all those soon to be married that your service is capable of handling their wide variety of wedding needs with grace.

Decide how you will or won’t attach your brand to news cycles and world events, and keep a consistent tone in all of your social media posts and marketing materials (more on this later).

Additional Information

Before we move on, let’s take branding just a little further. Your website, and your storefront, need some consideration, as well. You have the perfect logo that you’ve spent some time customizing, you know your market, and you know how you want to represent your company. The next step is what additional information you offer, and how you handle the e-commerce experience.

Most websites include an “about” section. Here you can tell the story of how the company came to be and where you hope it’ll go (use the same tone you’ve decided to strike in your marketing and social media efforts). Showcase some behind-the-scenes photos (include some smiling human faces), and transform your online website from a bunch of pixels and buttons into an experience your customers get to be a part of by doing business with you.

Create an Appealing Storefront

Next, spend a little time branding the actual transaction of your website — specifically, your storefront. Don’t just throw snapshots of your products or services up and move on. Take the time to create immersive photo experiences by using dramatic angles, 360-coverage, and professional lighting.

Be consistent with this approach across all of your offerings. That way your customers see a stable and recurring professionalism to your product or service line.

To really put the cherry on top of this storefront sundae, use big, engaging header images and parallax scrolling to actually tell a developing story as your customer clicks and scrolls through your catalog and on to the shopping cart. Don’t worry, most hosting and storefront services — like Wix, Squarespace, GoDaddy, etc. — will help you integrate this kind of web design painlessly. Follow Fitts’s Law and keep your buttons big, your navigation clean, and your calls to action clear.

All right, you’re branded, your website’s built, and you’re ready to start marketing. What’s next?

The Importance of Social Media in Digital Marketing

Effective social media marketing is a hustle. There are several platforms you should be paying attention to, each of which appeals to different markets. Each one also lends itself to different post frequencies, and even times of day. To make your life simpler, you can use social media coordination tools — like Hootsuite (starting at $29/month), Sprout Social (starting at $99/month), or Buffer (starting at $15/month). These will help you automate your posts across your social media profiles, all in one location.

Keep the primary user bases for each platform in mind when tailoring your social posts. Do not simply post the same content on each platform. This will irritate most social audiences.


Facebook lends itself to longer posts with fuller comment threads, and it has probably the “oldest” userbase of any of the big three social platforms. The comments are an important aspect of your social media posts on Facebook. Be sure to monitor them and engage with each user you can — trim out any inappropriate or spam comments.

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♀ Beyond celebrating the ratification of the 19th Amendment, today we celebrate the fearless women who throughout history have fought for an equal future where their voices can be heard. Continue empowering women and highlighting their strengths with the collection at the link in bio celebrating their resilience. – 📷 @ShutterstockContributors: @jacoblundphoto ID: 1123096919 – #feminism #equality #femaleempowerment

A post shared by Shutterstock (@shutterstock) on Aug 18, 2020 at 10:00am PDT


Instagram is primarily for sharing photos, but don’t fall into the trap of simply taking photos of your products or throwing up advertisements. You can build graphics for free using Shutterstock Editor, which will allow you to include messages and CTAs in your posts, but vary it up.

Instagram’s userbase is younger than Facebook’s, so if you simply advertise all the time, your potential audience will never show up. Extend your market identity into the kinds of things you want to be associated with, and share content that reflects this.


Twitter is one of the most dynamic and fastest-moving of the big social media platforms. There’s little room here to spend your time marketing directly or advertising. Instead, craft pithy, memorable messages, thoughts, or meditations to show your audience you’re more than just a business. You’re also a content destination, and even if your followers rarely or never conduct business with you, you can still establish brand authority in your market space by creating entertaining and timely content. Oh, and don’t forget the images. Twitter users love images.

Thank you to all the #RealLifeHeroes who have committed their lives to save others — we admire you and are forever grateful 🙏#WorldHumanitarianDay ❤

— Shutterstock (@Shutterstock) August 19, 2020

Tools for Generating Digital Marketing Ideas

So, we have the how, the why, and the where for digital marketing, but then there’s the what. It’s one thing for me to tell you to vary your content and associate your brand with complementary events, activities, or trends, but it’s another thing entirely to develop specific posts that follow this advice. That’s where idea generation comes in.

Marketing Campaign

Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to have an overall marketing campaign in mind. This campaign may only cover a week (is it a big trade show week in your field and you want to market your specials?), it may last a month (is it the holidays and you want to spend a little time marketing specifically in that vein?), or it could last a year (did you roll out a impressive, new product line, and this is the year to make it or break it?). When you know how long you’re going to sustain this campaign (and how long to track its success), you can determine how broad your field of ideas should be.

If it’s a year-long campaign, you’re going to need a lot of variety in your thinking to tie everything back to your new product rollout without getting repetitive. If it’s only a week, you can stay tightly focused on one theme all week long.

With a duration and a topic (or topics) in mind, it’s time to start planning out the content. It’s tempting to just type up a quick post that’s on-topic, send it out, and move on, but the best digital marketing spends its time in the trenches before it even sees the internet. An efficient planning tool you can steal from the film, video game, and animation field is storyboards.

Using Storyboards as Marketing Tools

Implementing StoryboardsStoryboards can help you get your ideas down and arranged in groups to help you develop images that tell stories. Image via SkyLynx.

Storyboards are, well, storytelling tools. They help you build the beats that tie together to create a story or a campaign. They can be as simple or as sophisticated as you like — from scribbles on Post-Its to computer-generated graphics and layout software. You can use storyboards to brainstorm content that might fit your campaign, and then arrange it later, after some revision, to stitch together a play-by-play digital marketing campaign. You can even create micro-stories for still images or graphics you want to share, and whittle the lot down to the final frame.

Don’t think of your doodles and images as just doodles and images — they are imagistic stories. Start from that perspective and work backward to the specific content of your graphics.

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel — Build Infographics and Templates

Sometimes, you can take advantage of good ideas rather than dreaming up everything yourself. Infographics are a good example. Infographic marketing allows you to creatively relay statistics and information that may otherwise come across as dull and uninteresting. Say you’d like to share a story about the life cycle of your product. An infographic can help you do that. Perhaps there are elements of your industry that relate to people’s daily lives in ways they aren’t aware of. Infographics are educational without being didactic.

And don’t be intimidated by the design aspect. Shutterstock Editor allows you to quickly and easily create professional-looking infographics, with images, shapes, and other elements created by our design professionals. Check out this block of infographic template images, and try your hand at creating one.

Incorporate InfographicsInfographics let you say more about your company, your product, or your industry than you can otherwise usually get away with in a social post. Image via Pro_Vector.

Similarly, you can save yourself some time in the long run by building templates for your social posts — especially Twitter. They create a consistent look when used in rotation that contributes to your market identity. They’re also very convenient when a social post might seem too direct or obvious, like seasonal content, when everyone is seemingly posting about the same thing just because. Don’t worry — we’ve got you covered here, too.

Let Other People Help You Out — and Send Updates!

There are ways you can bring outsiders into your digital marketing efforts. This can bring some variety to your campaign and add a little horsepower to your brand identity by showing off your place in the larger world. It’s a slightly less monotone approach to your marketing because it allows someone else to speak for you, rather than simply asking everyone to trust you and listen to what you have to say.

Influencer marketing is a proven way to do this. Influencers are social media stars or celebrities with social media profiles who have huge, active audiences. This is a commodity they can market, and with a little investment, you can leverage those audiences to expand your reach.


With a tool like BuzzSumo (starting at $79/month), you don’t have to worry about finding and vetting influencers yourself. BuzzSumo plugs you into a database of influencers, and you can search for the best matches for your target demographic. You can also view trending topics and content areas where you may not be spending as much time as you should.

Expand Your AudienceInfluencer marketing is a great way to expand your audience. Image via Jacob Lund.


Proof (starting at $24/month) is a service you can use to help build and market your brand based on your customers’ experiences with you. The software integrates with your site, allowing you to display customer reviews and testimonials, active users on your site, social media interactions, and even video testimonials. Proof will even feed you data about the demographics of those visiting your site, which you can use to refine and re-target your marketing efforts.

Email Marketing

Email marketing is a many-headed beast. It needs effective header images, it needs enticing coupons and CTAs, and it needs to tell a story authentically. Sometimes, your audience is there willingly, having done business with you before and sought out a subscription to your newsletter. Other times, a reader may not remember having signed up with you, in which case you’re just another email in the inbox trying to sell them something.

The trick is to come up with updates and narratives that are tied to your overall business model, and your specific business goals, at the time of the email. Talk candidly about business, the market, and what it’s like behind-the-scenes. You want to pull back the curtain on the humanity behind your digital brand, and since you’re not cramming all of your messaging into a post, a tweet, or a photo, now’s your chance to speak up.


Mailchimp is a great tool for getting started with email marketing — it’s free, up to a point. It automates your newsletter campaigns, and offers email templates, several software integrations, and key analytics on how your emails are performing. Over time, as you master the wily art of email marketing, you’ll probably want to move on to a more robust platform like HubSpot.

Keeping Track of Your Digital Marketing Wins and Losses

Now that you’re prepped, equipped, and ready for marketing action, you have to remember to follow through. Tracking the success (or failure) of a marketing initiative is how you’ll refine your strategies for better-performing content. Some performances are easier to measure than others, like the total number of hits a blog post generates at your website, Meanwhile, others can be more complex, like A/B testing your efforts in different regions across the calendar year.

First of all, it’s okay to discover some mistakes or misfires in your data. Marketing is an inexact science on its best day, but it’s getting more precise the more data we collectively surrender. If a campaign or an initiative didn’t deliver the results you wanted, there could be several mitigating factors that led to this result. So, tweak it, try again, and see if you get different results. When you see your competitors consistently sticking with certain kinds of content, it’s probably because they’re seeing the kinds of metrics they want behind-the-scenes. How can you borrow from their playbooks to hit upon your own winning streaks?

Google Analytics

Explore Google AnalyticsGoogle Analytics is a widely capable platform, and there are plenty of free courses to help you master it. Image via IB Photography.

The best place to start is with Google Analytics. The standard version is free, and it offers tons of customizable dashboards. The first time you fire it up, you might feel like you’re looking at the control panel of an alien rocket ship. Luckily Google offers free online training, so you can become fairly proficient with the platform over a long weekend. Analytics is perfect for traffic, trends, and user info, so you can start by building general summaries of how your site does throughout the year.

Search Engine Optimization

SEO is another important aspect of digital marketing. It stands for Search Engine Optimization, and at its core, it’s the practice of optimizing your content to improve the “quantity and quality of traffic to your website through organic search engine results.” What does that mean? Well, in short, we’re all competing for traffic on the internet, and there are a lot of us. So, Google continually develops ways to gauge the quality and authenticity of what you’re putting on your website.

Research MozMoz is your one-stop shop for all things SEO. Their massive knowledge base is free, but you can also upgrade to some of their services for even more functionality. Image via Moz.

The best way to get into the SEO game is just to get in it. Moz is one of the industry leaders on the topic, and there’s plenty you can learn just by reading what they’ve said about it, but they also have products you can use to help accelerate your mastery of the practice.

Screaming Frog

While learning to optimize your content as you go, you can use tools like Screaming Frog to crawl your website and find SEO issues you might not have thought of — like broken links, repeat content, redirects, bad page titles, and metadata. This is what your web pages say about themselves to the machines at Google behind-the-scenes. Screaming Frog has a free plan and a more advanced option for just under $200/year.

Google also offers a free tool — Google Search Console — which can shed a lot of light about your site’s performance in Google search results. Bing has a similar tool, as well.


Proof (starting at $24/month), the service we mentioned earlier, can help you with A/B testing. Also called “split testing,” this is a good way to make sure that you’re putting your best foot forward.

Different images, buttons, or lines of copy will perform differently depending on the combination. A service like Proof can help you run real-time tests to see which version of your ad, coupon, CTA, or even button is performing better than the others, so you can make sure that everything is humming in high gear, at its fullest capacity.

Once you’ve cut your teeth on Proof, consider upgrading to Optimizely, which is the cream of the crop when it comes to testing. It’s a more advanced platform, and pricier, but when you get serious about conversion optimization, Optimizely is the way to go. The pricing is custom, so, yeah — it’s that kind of expensive. For a more affordable option when you’re ready to upgrade, head to — they offer a lot of the same options as Optimizely, but for much less.


Surveys might just be the most straightforward aspect of digital marketing in this post. So, they’re a good way to wrap up this field guide.

Surveys are exactly what you think they are: a series of questions you ask your customers or visitors. You could survey anyone about anything, but there are ways to do it that are more effective than others, which is where a service like Survey Anyplace comes in. This service starts out free and scales up to $42/month for enterprise users.

Optimizing your surveys for mobile devices seriously increases the likelihood of someone taking the time to fill one out — Survey Anyplace excels at this functionality. When you’re ready to scale up for a bit more advanced service — and a $25/month fee — check out Survey Monkey.

If this all seems like a lot, it is. Don’t be intimidated, though. The world of digital marketing is constantly evolving, and we’re all learning the tricks as we go. Dive in to the best practices you’ve seen here, and if the learning curve seems steep, don’t feel bad. It is, but it gets easier! Remember to be creative. Authenticity is more important than hacking all these numbers, so start there — the tricks only work on good material.

And, keep your eyes here on our blog for more small business tips and tricks. And, if you need answers now, search our archives — there’s plenty more where this came from.

Need more digital marketing tools? Check out these additional resources:

When a Facebook Post Becomes an Ad: How to Design for BoostingHow to Make a Brand Book for Your Small BusinessHow to Brand Your YouTube Channel with Channel Art

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