A quick guide to the 4 main marketing channels for small businesses

Before you invest your hard-earned money into a multi-faceted marketing plan, let’s explore your options first and figure out what’s best for your type of business.


4 marketing channels

Kyle Van Deusen

OGAL Web Design owner and WordPress educator helping businesses succeed with design, development, and marketing since 2003.

Filed Under: Marketing

If you’re brand new to the world of marketing for small businesses, it can be pretty overwhelming to get started. 

There’s a whole lot of new things to learn: new terminology, new platforms, and plenty of new ways to spend your marketing budget! 

The whole purpose of marketing is to get your message out to your target audience, draw them in, and convert them into loyal, repeat customers. When you’re faced with so many marketing options, it’s easy to lose sight of the ultimate goal of marketing: attract and convert new customers. 

Before you invest your hard-earned money into a multi-faceted marketing plan, let’s explore your options first and figure out what’s best for your type of business. 

I like to split that super broad term ‘marketing’ into four easy-to-understand marketing channels. 

  1. Paid media – this is where you pay for advertisers to spread your message for you. Think Google AdWords, radio stations, and internet banner display companies.
  2. Owned media – this includes your own resources, like your website and your email list.
  3. Earned media – bloggers, reporters, industry insiders, and others who tell your story to their audience for you. 
  4. Social media – Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube are usually the go-to social media platforms – but there’s constantly new social media platforms being added to this list.

Each type of marketing has its own benefits and use. Some may not be right for your company and fail to connect with your audience, others will give you a great return on your investment – it all depends on what you do and who you do it for

What’s the best marketing approach for small businesses? 

Well, that depends on your individual business, but it’s usually a well-balanced combination of different aspects of the four channels above.  

Let’s take a look at each of them, what they are, what they can do for you, and whether they’re a good fit for your needs. 

Paid Media

When you invest in paid media, you get what you pay for! Paid media is pretty much the modern version of traditional advertising. The good news is that with paid media, you decide how your company is presented, what your adverts say, and who sees them. 

The downside to paid media is that it’s paid. Depending on the methods you choose, it can end up costing you a large chunk of change. 

Another thing to consider is how much attention will your audience actually pay to your ads? Your average person sees between 6,000 and 10,000 ads EVERY DAY. That’s a whole lot of ads!

Now if you’re going down the ‘traditional’ paid media outlets like local radio, you can expect to be spending around $250 per spot for local stations, $450 for national news stations, or even $3,500 for major market talk stations… and that’s for a single ad. 

Those kinds of rates simply aren’t a long-term solution for most small businesses, especially when you consider how often you need to run an ad to gain any real traction. If your services typically cost $100, you’ll have to attract at least three new customers just to cover the price of one local radio ad. 

You also have to consider the message you can actually deliver in a 30 second slot. It might be easy to promote a seasonal sale in 30 seconds, but can you effectively convey what makes your company great? 

Do you want to attract people hunting for the biggest discount they can find, or do you want people that truly value your company? The problem with relying on bargain hunters is that they’re notoriously disloyal. As soon as they find a better price, off they go!

Here’s where digital marketing methods are different

With online advertising, you can focus your adverts on specific audiences to minute detail. With Facebook ads, you can target very particular demographics – we’re talking about marital status, job type, geographic location, annual salary, the whole nine yards (yes, it’s super creepy). 

By focusing on the demographics that are most likely to convert into customers, you can keep the cost of gaining a customer much lower than traditional methods. 

A lot of small businesses get great results from pay-per-click advertising on Google. Google Ads appear whenever your target audience searches for a term related to your business – and you only pay if they click on the ad. 

Paid ad spaces in Google search results

For the best results from search engine marketing, you want to ‘bid’ on search terms that your target audience are most likely to be searching for. So, if you’re an interior designer that specializes in high-end, luxury design services, you don’t want to have your ads show up for ‘cheap interior designers’ or ‘DIY interior design ideas’. You can even target searchers with the intent of buying your specific service. So, you could even appear on search results for things like ‘best luxury interior designer to hire in Austin’, if you’re a luxury interior designer working in the Austin area. 

If you’re not sure which type of paid online ad is right for you, there’s a really simple breakdown to consider: Social media marketing allows you to target the person on the other side of the keyboard, Google Adwords enables you to target specific search terms. 

There are a bunch of other online advertising platforms to choose from, including:

  • Amazon (great for authors)
  • YouTube (great for products that look amazing on video)
  • Display ads (great for appearing on popular websites)
  • Mobile ads (the world now has more mobile devices than people, yes really.)

Paid media is a great way to attract attention to your company – but it’s important to outline where it fits into your overall strategy. 

Small businesses don’t have the same budget as the likes of Pepsi or Coke do to achieve brand awareness/brand recognition. To make your company a household name, you’d have to spend TONS of money, time, and resources – and most small businesses simply don’t need it. 

Owned Media

Owned media includes your website and your database of customers for email marketing – it’s the category of marketing channel that you have the most control over. 

Most local businesses see the greatest return on their investment of time, energy, and money with owned media options. 

It’s a well-cited fact that email marketing has an average return on investment of $42 for every dollar spent, according to both Litmus and DMA. Compare that to the  $1.5 return Google promotes for AdWords and owned media options sure do look good. 

Why does owned media tend to have a better return on investment? Studies have shown that it can cost five times more to convert a new customer than retaining an existing customer. The success rate of selling to a customer you already have is 60-70%, while the success rate of selling to a new customer is 5-20%.

If you have a good list of interested parties in your email list, you can stay in touch with them easily and make new sales pretty inexpensively. 

Think of owned media like owning your own car: with a one-time expense, you have a reliable way of getting around that you can keep how you want. 

Paid media is like renting a new car every day, relying on someone else to keep it in good condition and having to make sure it’s kept to the rental company’s standards at all times too. 

Your website is your most valuable asset in the owned media category. 

Your website is basically your 24/7 salesperson. 

It can answer customer questions around the clock. 

If you have an eCommerce functionality setup, it can sell for you while you sleep. 

Run a service-based business? Integrate an online booking system and it can book in clients for you day and night. 

Online booking is available 24/7

With COVID lockdowns widespread around the world, more people than ever are buying online – but before they make any kind of purchasing decision, they research. 

When someone Googles the products or services you specialize in, do they see a beautifully-designed website with up to date information on what you do and why you’re the best choice for their needs… or do they find your competitors’ sites instead? 

Take buying a hot tub (because why not). 

Pre-internet days, hot tub lovers would visit four or five outdoor leisure companies, have a look at models on display, maybe take a leaflet or two. 

Now, they’ll look for a company that specializes in hot tubs – research the best model that fits their needs, then head to the showroom of the company they’ve chosen to buy from. 

Your average buyer has already made their purchasing decision before they even step through the door – which is why it’s critical that you reach them while they’re in that researching online phase. 

How can you do that? Organic search engine optimization. Which is basically where your website ranks on Google, Bing, and other search engines for your relevant search terms.

Ranking organically takes a lot of hard work, but when done correctly, you can appear in thousands of search results without paying anything (as opposed to spending hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on paid ads). 

Create unique, helpful content (blog posts, landing pages, product guides, you name it!) and people will find your site when they’re searching for a provider of your services/products. You’ll catch them during their research phase, educate them on why you’re the best choice (hello, you’re such an expert on your industry you write about it non-stop), and when they’re ready to buy you’re their trusted go-to company. 

Earned Media

Earned media is pretty much what it says it is. You earn attention and praise for your business by being awesome. This can include online reviews, newspaper articles, blogs, or a feature in someone’s newsletter. 

Earned media is unrivaled for credibility. Nothing beats a happy customer sharing a 5-star review or an unbiased mention from an industry expert.  

The downside to earned media is that unlike your paid media or your owned media, you have no control over what is said or promoted about your company. 

Google My Business is a great place to gather positive reviews from past clients. Not only does it promote your business as great to deal with when people search for you, but it also works in your favor for local SEO. Local SEO is the term used when Google actively promotes a business that’s geographically close to the person searching – so it’s super useful for home maintenance companies, mechanics, landscapers, and anyone else that relies on local customers. 

Online reviews build trust and are free earned media

When you have a Google My Business account, you don’t really have much control over who leaves you an online review, good or bad. It’s notoriously difficult to have a negative review removed from your profile. 

A good tip is to encourage every happy customer you have to leave you a positive review.

A bonus tip is to make sure you respond to every review. 

For not-so-favorable reviews, stay professional, be polite, and focus on the potential future clients who will read your reply. A well-balanced reply will make them see you as a better business to deal with than someone who replies to a negative review with an expletive-ridden rant. 

Other earned media opportunities include:

  • Press releases (you can easily do these yourself)
  • Guest articles (bloggers and magazines always need new content to publish)

Make the most out of earned media. Promote them on your social media accounts, publish them on your blog, and create a (classy) ‘as seen in’ section on your website. 

Social Media

With most people having at least one social media account, it’s a great opportunity to promote your business directly to potential customers – however it’s easy to give it a little too much credit on the marketing front. 

A mix of both owned media and earned media, you create your profile and publish the content on it, but the platform is owned by someone else. Never rely on social media for 100% of your marketing efforts – you are completely at the mercy of the platform’s policies and algorithms. 

Benefits of social media include they’re cheap, easy, and can be fun to manage. You get a direct communication line with your followers, and social media can help nurture your relationship with potential customers. 

Social media profile

Social media is a great addition to an overall online marketing strategy, but on it’s own, it’s not an effective money maker. Most social media users browse the sites when they’re bored or passing the time – not when they’re actively researching their next purchase. For a stronger shopping intent, you’re better off to focus on your search engine optimization efforts to get your website ranking for relevant search phrases. 

It’s always a good idea to remember that the likes of Facebook and Instagram make their money off paid ads – so they really want you to pay them for promoting your company. Which basically means that to get any real traction on social media, you have to pay to reach more people. 

What channel(s) make the most sense for you?

Ultimately, to get real results from your marketing, you need to figure out where your audience is hanging out online, what they’re looking for, and figure out how you can get their attention. 

I’ve found a combination of all four of these marketing channels is usually the most effective for many small businesses, but your needs are uniquely yours. It’s important to ask yourself:

  • What are my customers looking for?
  • Do my current marketing efforts give them what they want? 
  • Is my marketing promoting my company accurately?
  • What results do I want from my online marketing? 
  • How do I measure my online success? 

Hopefully you’re now thinking of ways you can implement a more complete, comprehensive, long-term marketing strategy for your business. This step alone will put you miles ahead of most of your direct competitors and win you more business on a consistent schedule than you’ve ever experienced before.

Now it’s time to get to work… Make sure to invite me to like your Facebook page and add me to your email marketing list so I can see how you progress!

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