Obviously it depends on your budget, your time, and the role the Internet plays in your business. If you’ve got the time and inclination, doing online marketing yourself will be more cost-effective than hiring a dedicated employee or outsourcing to an agency. In the beginning, however, there’s often a steep learning curve and it could also be quite time-consuming and potentially frustrating.
All small business owners are entrepreneurial and that suggests a hands-on orientation. When it comes to online marketing, however, you may want to hand off the execution to someone else.
Online marketing in its many and varied forms may be conceptually simple but is often complex to effectively implement. Before going further, let’s step back and examine what the term “online marketing” means. What does it encompass?
Broadly defined, it could include any or all of the following strategies:
- Paid search
- Search engine optimization
- Paid inclusion
- Contextual advertising
- Behavioral targeting
- Pay per phone call
- Shopping search engines
- Online newspapers
- Content sites
- Email and maybe RSS
- Affiliate networks
- Banners, rich media, and video
- EBay, Amazon, and other “marketplaces” such as Craigslist
- Industry-specific vertical directories and classified sites
- Internet Yellow Pages and directory-community hybrids (e.g., InsiderPages, Judy’s Book, and LinkedIn)
And this list is not exhaustive. Certainly not everyone is going to use all of these vehicles and platforms. Most small businesses don’t have the budget (The Kelsey Group found that the average small business marketing budget is between $5,000 and $6,000.) Beyond this, the list of strategies and sites you might want to use could be quite short, just one or two of these.
These different tools and approaches involve varying levels of complexity and time commitment. To some degree your approach and choices will be determined by whether your business primarily sells products or services and whether you cater predominantly to a business-to-business or business-to-consumer audience. An assessment of your needs and your competition and the available options for businesses in your industry and position is a valuable exercise.
For example, where do your competitors advertise online? What sites do you frequently use to find suppliers? And what sites do you use to locate goods and services as a consumer? These may point to sites and strategies that you should consider.
You may be able to go directly to some of those sites and list your business or purchase advertising. That process may be relatively straightforward (as with Google’s and Yahoo!’s most basic listings). In other cases, such as paid search or contextual advertising across a network, it can be a good deal more complex.
In 2004 The Kelsey Group and search-marketing firm Web.Advantage conducted a non-scientific online survey of small businesses that were using paid-search advertising. The vast majority of the 208 businesses that responded had between 1 and 10 employees. They were asked: “How is your Paid Search Advertising managed?” The bulk of respondents said that they used a dedicated or partly dedicated employee. Fewer than 10 percent of these small businesses outsourced their paid-search campaigns.
If you or another internal staff person has the desire to take this on, give it a try. There’s no substitute for direct knowledge. Over time, you may find that you can become proficient at online marketing and don’t need to outsource.
While it may be cheaper financially, there may also be an opportunity cost in terms of the time it takes for you or another employee to manage these campaigns. And you may not be very successful in the end. But if you choose to go with an outside firm or individual, at least you’ll be able to understand and know better what you’re buying. You’ll have a clear sense of whether what they’re telling you (and charging) is reasonable and accurate.
Increasingly, there is a range of businesses (often Web hosts, yellow pages publishers, and even credit card companies) that are simplifying online marketing for small businesses. These providers may offer a number of different options depending on the type of business you operate. But they’re usually “turnkey” approaches that only require you to write a check. Some of those services are discussed in the article Where Should I Put My Money, Toward a Better Web Site or More Online Marketing?
The total costs of using an outside firm are going to be greater than if you do it yourself. But it translates into a time vs. money trade-off. And for many entrepreneurs, time is the more valuable commodity.