If we have learned anything about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that a surprising range of things can happen virtually: gym classes, meetings, networking events. Business, it turns out, is particularly well suited for digital.

Social distancing measures between February and May 2020 resulted in twice as many e-commerce sales in Canada compared to the previous year. South of the border, Americans are seeing similar trends: According to IBM’s August 2020 U.S. Retail Index, the pandemic accelerated e-commerce adoption by five years, while an October 2020 McKinsey report found that digitization of supply-chain and customer interactions and internal operations has been accelerated by at least three years.

These digital approaches aren’t going anywhere, which is why it’s important to understand the tools at your disposal—and how to use them to build a strong strategy. Enter Avery Swartz. A Toronto-based digital marketing consultant and founder and CEO of Camp Tech, which offers digital marketing training for small businesses, non-profits and individuals, she has literally written the book on digital marketing (2020’s presciently titled See You On the Internet: Building Your Small Business with Digital Marketing). Here, she shares her insights on improving your SEO, building an audience on social media, as well as and why you need to make email part of your arsenal.

Don’t put all your eggs in one digital basket

Digital marketing skills will continue to be relevant long after the pandemic, Swartz says, but there are many options available to small businesses. “Online channels are not the only channels potentially available to market a business. Let’s look at this as a big picture—there are so many amazing offline ways to potentially market, including events.” Even when we’re looking at online channels, the ideal strategy includes social media, search engine optimization, email marketing and paid advertising.

Get smart about data

Most small businesses don’t need “mega-dashboards” that track every possible metric from Instagram reach to website bounce rates, Swartz says. “I’m a big fan of scrappy. Take it down to a much simpler level: where do you want to take your business in the next six months to a year,” she says. From there, make a list of marketing efforts, then pick a metric to tell you if you’re getting closer to your goal. Congratulations, now you have a key performance indicator (KPI)! Just make sure you’re tracking the right things. If you’re trying to grow your audience size through your existing subscribers, your KPI shouldn’t be total new email sign-ups; it should be the number of times each email gets forwarded. Or, if your goal is to attract brand-new customers from outside your current audience, you might want to track the number of clicks a paid ad earns. “Confidence is one of the number one thing missing in digital marketing. You want to you want to be able to confidently say, I have five new subscribers today and I know why.” Data can give that confidence.

Own your audience

“Obviously, social media is great for building a business if you put in the time, but I see people do it at the expense of building their own place online,” Swartz says, pointing out that social media–focused businesses are at the mercy of algorithm changes. Take, for example, the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018; after news broke about the consulting firm’s misuse of Facebook user data, the platform began rejigging users’ newsfeeds, deprioritizing content from business pages in favour of content from family and friends. For many small businesses, post visibility plummeted—and the same thing can (and does) happen on other platforms.

“Social media is amazing until the goal of the social media platform changes, and then you get kind of knocked at the knees. So, don’t build your castle on somebody else’s land. Train customers to get on your email list,” she advises. Swartz loves email because it’s usually less time-consuming than social media, less expensive than running ads and, best of all, it gives you direct access to your customers, who are more likely to stick around if you send them useful, meaningful and engaging messages. “There is a boatload of data that says people who sign up for emails are more likely to stay on email list,” she says.

Invest in SEO

It’s not very sexy, nor is it fast, but search engine optimization pays dividends, Swartz says. Here’s what to do: build a website. It doesn’t have to be a fancy website, but it does need an email signup (see Swartz’s previous point) and some snazzy copywriting that speaks to your customer in the language they use themselves. Not ‘we offer the most innovative product,’” she says. “Don’t centre yourself, centre your customer.” It also needs some keywords sprinkled throughout the copy—basically, the words someone might be typing into a search bar if they were looking for a business like yours, which helps search engines point visitors toward your site.

From there, the savvy digital marketer should try to secure backlinks. These are links on other people’s sites that point to your own. To illustrate how, Swartz offers up an analogy using the movie Mean Girls. “So, [Lindsay Lohan’s character Cady] shows up. She’s been homeschooled her whole life, so she is literally an unknown quantity. Nobody knows who she is. We don’t know if she’s cool or not. But she befriends the coolest kids in school and that makes everybody else in the school immediately look at her and think, ‘Oh my gosh, she must be really cool, right?’” Backlinks, Swartz says, are the equivalent of Regina George’s co-sign. If keywords are what tell search engines that you have information their users need, backlinks are the confirmation that other people agree. Getting listed on citation sites, like Google My Business, Yelp or the Better Business Bureau, can “up your presence in local search,” Swartz says. “Let's say you are a Toronto area pizza shop. If you are listed in a bunch of online directories that have your address, then Google will be more likely to serve you up in a result when someone local is searching for pizza, as opposed to a pizza shop in New York City.” Being included in listicles on sites like BlogTO or Narcity also helps, as do social media mentions.

Be strategic with your ad dollars

Here’s the thing: Online advertising is very speedy. If you want 20,000 people in Toronto to see your beautiful new loungewear line, you can do that pretty easily through a Pay Per Click ad campaign on Google ads. But it’s going to cost you—and that might not be the best way to spend your money, especially if you’re bootstrapping your business. “You can burn a lot of money really, really fast on Google ads. But if you don’t have a minimum to spend, you will not see enough results to get the data that you need to tell you whether or not it’s working,” she says.

Swartz’s rule of thumb is to budget for a $1,000-spend every month for three months to see useful results. “If you’re more like $100 a month for three months, then go have fun on Facebook,” she advises. “And if you have $100 period, or $50, look at niche channels. That means buying a small ad or a mention in a blog or a newsletter, or potentially hiring an influencer, or running a contest.” In other words, pick the right platform to make sure your ad spend packs the biggest punch.

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