Inbound marketing for small businesses

Inbound marketing for small businesses

This post was originally published on Smart Insights on 24th April 2012. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure!

Setting up and running a small business is both daunting and exciting in equal measure. But with the economic downturn combined with an increasingly crowded competitive landscape, the need to promote your business and get your message ‘out there’ is as important as ever.

Marketing is a huge challenge for small businesses, particularly start-ups who have no established customer-base or community around them. Traditional advertising is an important – and absolutely necessary – way of letting people know who you are.

But with limited money and resources, what other options are there for getting your message out there about your fantastic new business? One strategy I would highly recommend is inbound marketing.

Inbound marketing – a definition

Paid, Owned and Earned Media

For any business, large or small, there are three key media types one can use to connect with consumers: Paid, owned and earned.

Whilst advertising and website development falls into the first two categories respectively, inbound marketing is primarily focused on earned media, which is essentially earning people’s attention by creating content that others share and start conversations around.

Inbound marketing can therefore be defined as “any tactic that relies on earning people’s interest rather than buying it”.

What is inbound marketing?

Inbound marketing is about getting found online by using a range of ‘free’ online marketing tactics to target people already learning, researching and shopping in your industry. It’s about adding value and helping people.

Inbound marketing can be defined as using a combination of SEO, social media and great content marketing to attract prospects into your website rather than using disruptive outbound marketing tactics (such as advertising, sales promotions and direct mail) to interrupt people who are not necessarily interested in what you have to sell.

Why use inbound marketing?

Inbound marketing is a very effective form of marketing because it’s about adding the ‘human touch’ to business interactions. It’s about encouraging companies to not only broadcast but involve a prospect or customer in what they’re promoting.

Whilst inbound marketing can certainly be considered cheaper than many traditional marketing tactics, it does take a lot of time and commitment. There’s no easy way around it – inbound marketing requires a lot of effort but if implemented correctly will pay dividends.

How should inbound marketing be used? And will it work for you?

Whilst inbound marketing has been phenomenally successful for many large and small businesses – and particularly those in the Business-to-Business (B2B) sector – in the commercial Business-to-Consumer (B2C) sector its use has been less widely reported. There are far more case studies about technology companies using inbound marketing to increase website traffic and leads than there are about small boutique clothes shops!

However, I believe that inbound marketing can be used by anyone to promote themselves and the products and services they have to offer. It’s about finding the right suite of tools and tactics that work for you and the type of customer you’re looking to attract.

Key inbound marketing tools and tactics for small businesses

Inbound marketing is a combination of tools, tactics and channels revolving primarily around content. For inbound marketing, content is king and it’s the key to getting people talking about what you have to say and attracting them into your site (where you can tell them more about your brilliant business!).

As Rand Fishkin says:

“No matter the form; content is the foundation of great content marketing”


If great content is essential to effective inbound marketing, then creating a blog for your business is a perfect way to begin building a ‘social hub’ or platform for your company.

A business blog should become the central point for all inbound marketing efforts, primarily because you own this space. Social networks are great (and we’ll come on to those shortly) but you don’t own those channels. You’re only ever renting them. So having your own piece of digital ‘real estate’ will allow you bring people into a space which you own and control.

One of the misconceptions about blogging is that they have to be a daily dose of 300-500 words. But a blog doesn’t have to be a ton of text.

A great business blog should be built around and for your customers. If your audience is likely to respond better to images or video, then create a blog that is very visual and makes use of interesting photography and video.

The aim: To create original content that your target audience will love and share and keep them coming back for more.

Case study:

Fabulous Places blog

Fabulous Places is a small local business recommendation site. They feature and promote local cafes, restaurants and shops within Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Cheshire in the UK.

To complement the main website, Fabulous Places also has a blog which is written and run by Deb, the company’s founder.

The blog is largely image-based and features short, regular posts covering various topics, from interesting suppliers and events to great things Deb has spotted on her travels.

The visual nature of the blog and the personal touch the founder gives to it fits nicely with the company’s main website and is very well designed and suited for target market Fabulous Places is aiming for.

Social networks

Another key inbound marketing tactic is social networking. Any SME (small-to-medium sized enterprise) or start-up should consider leveraging the right social network to build awareness of their brand, products and/or services.

The cool thing about social networks is that they can be used to both create and curate content and can therefore be used alongside a blog to build an engaged audience around a brand.

The key to good social networking is to choose the social network that works for you and your customers. There’s really no point in creating an impressive Facebook presence if the majority of your prospects and customers are hanging out on Google+. Likewise, don’t invest in Pinterest if you’re likely to get more value using Twitter.

Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Pinterest – choose the social networks that fits best with your brand and customers.

The aim: To build a following and an active community around your brand using a combination of content creation and curation.

Case study:

Les Enfants on Pinterest

Les Enfants is a children’s party planning company. In addition to having a blog and a presence on Facebook and Twitter, Les Enfants have also made great use of the social photo-sharing site, Pinterest.

Les Enfants uses Pinterest to share examples of what they have for sell as well as other people’s cakes, decorations and party ideas, too. You can therefore get a clear idea about the Les Enfants brand identity just by looking at their pinboards.

Les Enfants have used Pinterest to successfully combine content creation and curation to paint a picture of everything the brand stands for – style, colour, caring and fun!


Search is how we find things on the web and we use search engines such as Google, Bing and Baidu to discover, gather and filter information.

Search is still one of the most popular online activities (alongside email) and is likely to continue to grow alongside the rise of other activities such as social media. There are currently more than 3 billion searches per day on Google and search is still thought to bring in the most qualified, targeted traffic to one’s website.

80% of people count on the organic results that appear when they search for something online. And despite this, $35 billion was spent on pay-per-click (PPC) advertising in 2011 compared to $2 billion on SEO.

The fact that nearly 90% of companies’ marketing budgets are being spent on where 20% of the clicks happen indicates the popularity and reliance on bought media but as a small business with limited resources why not invest in the work that will get your website listed in the results that matter most to people?

Good SEO is not about stuffing as many keywords into your content, titles and meta data. It’s about ensuring your website is designed and structured in a way that allows visitors to successfully find the information they want about you so that they can make a more informed purchasing decision.

The aim: To be found in search results for specific keywords relating to your brand by developing an online presence that is content-rich, engaging and meaningful to your target market.

Social search

If search = discovery, then discovery leads to sharing.

As social media continues to grow and permeate how companies do business (hint: social media does not have to be owned by marketing), people’s search results are beginning to be affected by their social graph, i.e. what their friends and contacts on social networks are saying.

Social media is affecting traditional search engine results in a big way and every company – big and small – should take notice and act.

For example, if someone searches for ‘cupcake shop Derby’ on Google, the results that are served up will likely be a mix of what your contacts on Twitter and Google+ like as well as the normal listings. Google is attempting to augment their traditional search results with what your friends are saying they’re interested in.

This is a big deal because old-school ‘black hat’ SEO techniques are no longer valid. Google (the world’s no.1 search engine) is putting more emphasis on quality content and without quality content (from blogs and social networks, for example), you’re unlikely to get the shares, likes and +1s required to get Google’s attention.

Google is basically saying that if people are repeatedly liking and sharing your content based on these particular keywords, then your site must be relevant to this particular audience.

The aim: To stay relevant in search by ensuring that your brand is being found, talked about and discussed throughout the social web.

Email marketing

With the wave of interest in social media continuing, email marketing is often overlooked despite remaining one of the most effective inbound marketing tools for small businesses.

The goal with email marketing is to send out interesting, relevant messages to a group of willing subscribers on a periodic but regular basis. As with all other forms of inbound marketing, email is about developing a relationship with your prospects and customers by offering valuable content, i.e. don’t just email subscribers when you’ve got something to sell!

Email marketing is a straightforward, easy to implement tactic and the results from an email marketing campaign are often quite easy to analyse.

It’s also possible to integrate your social media efforts into your email marketing strategy, too. For example, in your emails always ensure that you contain clear links to your social media outposts and encourage your readers to share your email content with their social networks.

The aim: To build a database of subscribers and to send out frequent, interesting emails that are engaging, add value and keep your brand in the front of your audience’s minds.


I believe inbound marketing can be incredibly useful for any small business or start-up wanting to raise awareness of their brand online. More and more people are spending time on the web and it’s therefore vital that small businesses without an established audience or customer base promote their brands across the various online channels at their disposal.

By using a combination of social media, search and email marketing, any small businesses, regardless of their product or service offering, can earn people’s interest and attract prospects into their website by engaging them with valuable, helpful and interesting content.