18 minute read time
Your small business works hard. You and your team—especially if your team is just you—stretch every budget and every minute to get the most out of what you do. It’s the business of running light, spreading thin, and squeezing every ounce of juice you can from an already-pressed organization.
And the need to get the most from every resource definitely applies to your marketing efforts. No matter what you’re doing, there’s always the feeling you could be doing more. So, how do you know if you’re doing everything possible to attract new customers and get your brand in front of the people looking for a small business just like yours?
We surveyed over 1,000 small business owners and decision-makers to find out what their marketers are doing to reach the right audience at the right time. And we gathered all that information here as a resource for you.
Use this guide to understand what marketing efforts are working for other small businesses just like yours, as well as which tactics have struggled. Read on to find out where other small business marketers are putting their time, energy, and resources.
Everything in this guide is designed to help you adapt your strategy to your needs, giving you confidence about where your marketing dollars are going and the kind of ROI you should expect.
Small businesses who want to feel confident in their marketing efforts. Whether you use a dedicated team or it’s just you, this survey will help you refine your marketing efforts.
Through the results of our survey, you’ll see how other small businesses market their business, gaining insight into what works and what doesn’t. You’ll also learn which areas other small businesses believe will have the biggest impact in the near future.
We included over 1,000 participants in our small business survey, working in various industries—from agriculture and education to construction and the arts. All of our participants work in small businesses, which we qualified as 1-100 employees. We did not ask any questions about which email service provider these small businesses use or solicit Campaign Monitor customers for the survey.
We asked respondents to select only one answer in some questions, while other questions allowed them to select any and all answers that applied. Additionally, when respondents ranked their answers, the top choice received the maximum amount of points, with each subsequent answer receiving fewer points, respectively.
This variance in the question format means that some percentages add up to 100% while others don’t, and other questions (specifically ones involving rankings) received more points than the total number of respondents in the survey.
Small businesses can be set up in drastically different ways, so we asked our respondents questions that defined how their companies work. When we understand a little bit more about their small businesses, we understand a little bit more about their marketing endeavors.
Out of all respondents in this survey, 17.6% work in retail (either e-commerce or traditional), 15.2% of respondents work in marketing, 13.5% work in technology, 9% work in healthcare, 5.6% in real estate, and 4.7% work in nonprofits. These industries proved to have the highest concentration in this survey.
Overall, we had respondents from over 30 industries, including niches like agriculture, religious groups, architecture professional services, and the legal field.
We categorize a small business as 1-100 employees, but that still leaves a lot of variety. So, while every participant stayed within this parameter, the largest percentage of our respondents had between 41-50 employees at 13%.
The next highest concentration of responses came in at 12% of respondents who had 91-100 employees, 11.5% had 31-40 employees, and 11.3% had 10-20 employees.
All other answers received less than 10%.
There are a lot of ways to tackle your marketing, and you’ve probably thought about what kind of team will give you the best results for the best price.
Of our respondents, 56.9% have dedicated in-house marketers. In the middle, 20.8% have at least one employee who does marketing in addition to other tasks, while 15.3% say the owner executes all of their marketing. And the minority use either an outside agency or freelancers and contractors, at 4.8% and 2.2%, respectively.
Across industries, small businesses prioritize marketing and tend to keep their teams in-house, whether that marketing is completed by a dedicated team or employees who wear multiple hats, including the owner. When you have a team with a lot on its plate, it’s all the more important to find ways of marketing more efficiently.
And these small businesses have decided that an in-house team of marketers—even when they have to perform multiple roles—is far more efficient and cost-effective than hiring someone from the outside.
Small businesses need effective options to make the most of their small budget and limited resources. With the right strategies and tools in place, small businesses can operate at a high level, even with limited resources and multi-tasking personnel.
The most common platform for building brand awareness was social media marketing, which consistently outranked all other mediums.
After a 12% decrease in points, email marketing came in second, followed closely by content marketing and paid media, which ranked as the top four opportunities for building brand awareness.
After another massive drop, we see three more tactics closely grouped together: digital display advertising, event marketing, and influencer marketing.
There was another significant decrease after that, putting print advertising, podcast marketing, OTT/video streaming advertising, SMS marketing, and, finally, radio advertising in the lower rungs for brand awareness.
Biggest opportunity to build brand awareness: social media marketing (8675), email marketing (7766), video marketing (7730), content marketing (7697), online paid media (7626), digital display advertising (7356), event marketing (7320), influencer marketing (7209), print advertising (6855), podcast marketing (6622), OTT/video streaming advertising (6598), SMS marketing (6412), radio advertising (6410)
According to small businesses, the foremost opportunity for gaining new customers is, again, social media marketing.
Small businesses next ranked email marketing and online paid media, followed in close succession by event marketing and video marketing. Closely behind those came content marketing, then digital display advertising and influencer marketing.
Print advertising, podcast marketing, and OTT/video streaming advertising scored in the third tier, with little difference between each. Meanwhile, radio advertising and SMS marketing came in last for potential to acquire new customers.
Biggest opportunity for gaining new customers: social media (8784), email marketing (7659), online paid media (7587), event marketing (7575), video marketing (7541), content marketing (7498), digital display advertising (7410), influencer marketing (7393), print advertising (6727), podcast marketing (6684), OTT/video streaming advertising (6675), radio advertising (6370), SMS marketing (6291)
The vast majority (78%) of respondents reported they would increase spending in digital marketing, following closely by social media (73%) and email marketing (57%).
Small businesses plan to increase spending on: digital marketing (801), social media (744), email marketing (587), event marketing (576), traditional marketing (470)
Of tactics being cut in budget by small businesses, traditional marketing came to the forefront, as almost 19% of respondents said they’d be decreasing spending there. Collected below that reside event marketing (11%), email marketing (10%), and social media (8%).
Small businesses plan to decrease spending on: traditional marketing (191), event marketing (116), email (99), social media (84), digital marketing (36)
While some small businesses plan on decreasing spending on traditional marketing, others—as much as 36% of respondents—plan to keep it consistent. This is followed up very closely by email marketing and event marketing at 33% of respondents.
Small businesses plan to maintain spending on: traditional marketing (365), email marketing (340), event marketing (334), social media (198), digital marketing (189)
All in all, it looks like most small businesses tend to increase their marketing budgets across the board, and very few plan to decrease certain tactics within their marketing strategy and budget. This is great news: These small businesses have found what works for them and intend to use their resources to do even more throughout the year.
These results also show that, even after everything Facebook and its users have been through, small businesses still view Facebook and other social platforms as a good opportunity to reach and expand their audience. But, if your small business relies on Facebook, be careful: You have to use Facebook intentionally in order to see a return, and that return may not be worth the potential loss of private data.
On the other hand, when small businesses utilize email marketing—which these respondents perceive as promising as Facebook—you own your own data and your website. You won’t have to worry about the website going down or an algorithm shifting beneath your feet.
And, while a majority of respondents plan to increase their spending on email or keep it as is, that still leaves about a third who plan to decrease their spending on email, even though it ranks firmly as a top channel for providing opportunities for both customer acquisition and brand awareness.
In the upcoming results, email ranks as the highest channel for customer communication, as well as the top channel for return on investment. So there’s a chance that the people who want to decrease their email spending may have invested money without optimizing their strategy or finding the right ESP to fit their small business’ unique needs.
Our survey shows that email continues to drive results and accomplish any of the biggest marketing challenges small businesses will face.
Far and above the rest, customer acquisition is the biggest challenge small businesses are facing in the next year. Closely related to and following acquisition, increasing the number of prospects and leads is also a main challenge facing our small business respondents.
Sitting handsomely below acquisition and prospecting lay the challenges of increasing web traffic, increasing social media following or engagement, and increasing conversions. While not a primary focus, these are still considerable challenges for many small business marketers.
Retaining current customers, increasing email marketing list size, and lead nurturing also seem to be concerns for our respondents, though not primary ones.
Despite changes to the law and recurring stories about data, privacy, and digital marketing platforms on the news, the challenges of understanding shifting algorithms and managing data and privacy laws received a low ranking.
Biggest marketing challenges ranked: customer acquisition (6897), increasing prospects/leads (6348), increasing web traffic (5955), increasing social media following or engagement (5820), increasing conversions (5718), retaining current customers (5599), increasing email marketing list (5472), lead nurturing (5258), understanding shifting algorithms (5119), managing data/privacy laws (4794)
While it’s in the top two challenges facing our respondents, acquiring new customers is also the biggest marketing goal for most of our respondents.
There’s a big drop-off between the first goal, acquiring new customers, and the second-highest goal, retaining current customers, decreasing in priority by more than 12%. And, fortunately, since retaining customers ranked toward the bottom end of small business challenges, that goal doesn’t seem to be a difficult one to achieve for our respondents.
Closely tied after acquiring and retaining customers ranked the goals of increasing the lifetime value of customers, creating news awareness or buzz for your brand or product, and building a loyal fanbase.
Voted slightly below the previous grouping of three is the aim to build a larger pipeline of prospects or leads.
In the lowest tier, it seems most small businesses we surveyed are satisfied with their average order per customer as well as the size of their email marketing list.
Biggest marketing goals: acquiring new customers (5620), retaining current customers (4947), increasing the lifetime value of customers (4693), creating news awareness or buzz (4645), building a loyal fanbase (4625), build a larger pipeline of prospects or leads (4554), increase average order size per customer (4234), grow size of email marketing list (3978)
Social media and email reign supreme for small businesses, and for good reason: These platforms open channels of direct communication and allow you to be transparent with your audience. Channels that cultivate authenticity will help you build trust with your audience and increase the likelihood of building brand ambassadors out of your biggest fans.
These channels also offer the biggest bang for your buck.
Plus, there are very few challenges and marketing goals that you can’t accomplish through email and your social media profiles, the channels most small businesses already utilize.
These results also show us that the biggest goal for small businesses also happens to be the biggest challenge: acquiring new customers. Luckily, there are plenty of ways your small business can leverage the channels you’re already using to acquire new customers.
Many small businesses aren’t sure how to go about generating leads and increasing the traffic that actually reaches their website, but implementing a few simple tactics can revolutionize your digital marketing and move you that much closer to accomplishing your marketing and sales goals for the upcoming year.
When looking to retain and increase the lifetime value of your customers, you can achieve both simultaneously. Just add these tactics to your marketing to-do list and you’ll see customers stick with your brand longer and purchase more from it.
Facebook is used by nearly 69.6% of our respondents, and email marketing is used similarly by 64.1% of small businesses. Perhaps a little surprisingly, more small businesses use direct mail (52.4%) than Instagram (48.3%) or Twitter (47.0%).
Also coming in with less than half of the respondents is print ads with 45.7% and paid search with 42.8%.
There’s a big drop-off between paid search and what comes next: Only 27.3% of small businesses we surveyed use Snapchat.
At less than a quarter of respondents, 24.5% use billboards or other out-of-home advertising. Another channel not being used by many small businesses is the music streaming space—advertising on platforms like Pandora or Spotify—with only 23.6% of respondents using those.
The least used channel is in a relatively new space. Only 18.8% of respondents say they use podcast programming and 18.5% use podcast advertising.
Ranked usage of marketing channels: Facebook (69.6%), email marketing (64.1%), direct mail (52.4%), Instagram (48.3%), Twitter (47%), print ads (45.7%), paid search (42.8%), Snapchat (27.3%), billboards or out of home advertising (24.5%), music streaming ads (23.6%), podcast programming (18.8%), podcast advertising (18.5%)
The most difficult channel for the majority of small businesses is influencer marketing, followed closely by SEO marketing, trailing by .08%—only 7 points. Digital paid media marketing fell at 4.5% behind SEO as the third most difficult channel to use.
Small businesses feel more comfortable with SMS marketing than traditional paid media marketing. Next comes content marketing, though they still find this channel more difficult to leverage than any of the social platforms.
Snapchat, trailing tightly behind content marketing, is the most difficult of the social media platforms for small businesses to use.
Coming in as the least difficult channels are Twitter, Instagram, direct mail, and other social media.
But the easiest marketing channels for small businesses are email marketing and, finally, Facebook.
Most difficult channels to use: influencer marketing (8202), SEO marketing (8195), digital paid media (7819), SMS marketing (7575), traditional paid media (7431), content marketing (7360), Snapchat (7259), Twitter (6957), Instagram (6829), direct mail (6825), social media (6744), email marketing (6603), Facebook (6477)
The majority of the small businesses we surveyed (71.8%) use email to communicate with their customers. Scoring beneath email, 60.8% of small businesses use Facebook for communication.
The only other channel that’s used by more than half of respondents (55.8%) is the phone. Meanwhile, 47.6% use direct mail to communicate with their customers.
Instagram and Twitter are used by nearly the same percentage: 39.9% and 39.8%, respectively.
SMS marketing is used to regularly communicate with customers by only 33.3% of our participants, while web chat is used by 31.3%. Company blogs are preferred by an even 31%.
A frequent answer we saw in our survey was that everything our respondents tried worked for them, which is impressive.
After that encouraging answer, the most frequent tactics we saw were social media, Facebook, podcasting, print ads, and mass mailings.
Here are some responses we saw (edited for length and clarity):
Remember, you don’t have to use any channel that’s not working for you. Only you know what resonates and brings in the best return for your specific niche and audience. There’s nothing that says you have to be on every social media platform or pursue every channel available to you. If influencer marketing works for you, great. If it doesn’t, don’t feel obligated to spend resources where you don’t see a return.
Instead, find what works.
Facebook turns out to be a bit controversial. While some small businesses see a great return, plenty of people said Facebook didn’t work for them. With Facebook’s many privacy and data issues and its increasing presence in the news cycle, it’s important you’re aware of the pros and cons that come along with marketing on Facebook.
Some things you should consider:
Developing brand ambassadors who will take on some of the marketing work for you and become some of your strongest allies out in the world is key to growing your business. Brand ambassadors tell their friends about you, share your posts and emails, and go out of their way to use your small business, no matter what competitors are also in the space.
But, based on the research, the majority of small businesses find influencer marketing to be the most challenging tactic. Luckily, influencers aren’t the only brand ambassadors you can utilize. In fact, a person doesn’t need to have a large following to be an advocate for your brand: Any customer who loves your brand, products, and what you stand for can be a brand ambassador.
The best way to create these advocates is by connecting with people on a personal level to ensure they feel strongly about their commitment to you, your products, and your small business’ mission.
To build brand advocates, you should:
All of these tips focus on communicating directly with followers and emphasizing the human element of your small business to strike an emotional chord with your target audience.
Small businesses spent the most money on traditional marketing, email marketing, and Facebook.
Meanwhile, digital paid media marketing, direct mail, and content marketing were the next biggest investments for our respondents last year.
SEO marketing, Instagram, and SMS marketing are toward the bottom, with Twitter, other social media, and Snapchat having virtually zero spend behind them.
Biggest investment for small businesses: traditional marketing (7983), email marketing (7587), Facebook (7510), digital paid media marketing (7358), direct mail (7284), content marketing (7207), SEO marketing (6477), Instagram (6159), SMS marketing (6140), Twitter (6030), other social media (6020), Snapchat (5053)
Email marketing scored highest as the biggest return of all the tactics implemented by these small businesses.
The second biggest return was Facebook, then traditional marketing. It’s interesting to note that the top three biggest investments small business made also saw the biggest return for small businesses, though not in the same order.
Direct mail, content marketing, and digital paid media marketing were the next three biggest returns, and were in the same corresponding positions as the next biggest investments.
Instagram, SEO marketing, Twitter, other social media, and SMS marketing all have lower return. Finally, Snapchat merited little investment and a similarly minute return.
Biggest return: email marketing (7845), Facebook (7821), traditional marketing (7471), direct mail (7174), content marketing (7140), digital paid media marketing (7034), Instagram (6426), SEO marketing (6349), Twitter (6243), other social media (6149), SMS marketing (6043), Snapchat (5113)
These results prove that email marketing is both simple to use and capable of driving major revenue for small businesses, all while consuming very few resources.
Implementing a few key emails into your strategy can yield big money for your small business, especially when you can automate trigger-based emails and let email programs run in the background to reach your prospects and customers at just the right time.
Email is perhaps one of the most personal forms of communication available to businesses of any size. A person’s inbox is sacred. Some of their most important communication takes place there, which means most people protect their inboxes with a ferocity uncharacteristic of other channels.
Thus, to be invited into someone’s inbox is a privilege, allowing you unique access to people who have already expressed major interest in your small business.
That’s what makes email marketing both powerful and effective. There are some major benefits unique to email marketing that other marketing channels just can’t touch:
When you look at where to spend your budget, consider what channels will yield the biggest return, like email marketing, but be mindful of the channels that require a big investment to ensure you see results, like Facebook and traditional marketing.
What we learned in this survey is that small businesses should focus on 1:1 communication through channels like social media and email marketing that offer a direct connection to your ideal audience. Being able to connect personally will help you create brand advocates who work with you to spread your brand’s mission and message.
We also saw that, while social media continues to be a challenge for many small businesses, it can also help small businesses grow their audience and push customers to their site—but only when executed well.
Similarly, while Facebook works well for many small businesses, respondents also told us Facebook was their biggest marketing flop. If you want to invest in Facebook marketing, be sure you are supplementing your efforts and not relying on any third party you can’t control for the majority of your results.
Ultimately, email marketing remains the easiest platform to use and brings in the best return for small businesses, yielding the biggest bang for your buck. And, in the world of small businesses, making the most out of every day is key to your success as a company.
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