Digital Advertising for Small Businesses: Getting Started

Do you have the kind of business that can happily chug along, only relying on word of mouth and loyal repeat customers to keep growing and thriving? Lucky you! Fact is, most small businesses out there require some sort of advertising to fuel the fire and get their products or services in front of consumers. The problem is that print, radio, and TV ads are prohibitively expensive for small biz budgets. That’s because they require mad skills and major expertise to create and place, which many small businesses just don’t have in-house.

Small businesses, by their very nature, need to be quick, agile, and frugal, making traditional advertising a no go. Fortunately, with the rise of digital advertising, the benefits of paid ads are more within reach than ever before. A report by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) found that digital advertising revenues in the United States for the first half of 2018 showed a significant 23 percent increase from the year before. According to one study, half of the global ad spend will be used for digital ads by 2020.

Businesses large and small have realized the power of digital advertising, and are developing marketing strategies that take advantage of its unique ability to reach the right audiences with their messages. As IAB CEO Randall Rothenberg put it: “This landmark figure cements digital advertising—whether display, search or mobile video—as one of the most powerful mechanisms of all time for brands to build relationships with consumers.”

Sources: Wordstream, HubSpot, eMarketer, Marketingland, Google

Another big shift is that more than 60 percent of all companies now handle their advertising internally, up 20 percent over the past decade. That’s because digital advertising is easier to develop than traditional ads, making design agencies, analysts, and media buyers less critical. What’s more, innovative design tools and the trend toward greater authenticity make DIY ads not only possible, but often preferable.

However, while digital ads are easier and cheaper to create, the online advertising space can still seem confusing to the average small business person. Here we offer a rundown of the most popular types of online ads, as well as tips to consider when devising your digital advertising strategy.

Measuring and Tracking

One of the things that makes digital advertising so effective is its extraordinary ability to track engagement and measure your efforts. With traditional media, it’s always been a challenge to figure out how many people see an ad and respond to it. But with digital technology, calculating the exact number of impressions and interactions is amazingly straightforward, making it possible to analyze your return on investment and ensure your ad dollars are spent wisely.  

“When forming a strategy, having clear goals is key,” says Kimberly Kuhn, co-founder of MK Growth Marketing, who believes that the data you collect will help you optimize your marketing efforts. “Defining the actions you would like your audience to complete should shape your messaging and targeting. Your strategy should evolve over time as you gather more data about what your specific audience responds to.”

While digital advertising allows you to monitor your efforts closely and ensure your ad spend is not being wasted, Kuhn cautions that you shouldn’t act impulsively before allowing your strategy time to yield results. “Businesses should avoid underestimating the time and investment needed to develop a strategy that works for them. Getting great results takes time.” She advises businesses not to immediately look to their advertising budget as the place to trim expenses. “The last thing you want to do is pull back on advertising that has a high ROAS (return on ad spend). If seasoned campaigns are consistently bringing in revenue at high ROAS, it may be time to ramp up rather than pull back.”

Display ads

Display ads have been around since the beginning of online marketing. Basically, they are the boxes that you see on websites that are obviously promoting a product or service. They can be long horizontal banners across the top of a page, a framed window within a block of text, a long vertical rectangle to the side, or anything else that is clearly delineated as separate from the website content.

Display ads offer an opportunity to communicate your brand message in a compact, visual snippet so you can get impressions, clicks, and sales. Increasingly, these ads are becoming more interactive and innovative in order to stand out from the crowd and get noticed.

Here’s a quick look at some of the most common display ads:

  • Classic banner-type ad: This is the most traditional and ubiquitous type of display ad and can be static, animated, or even floating across the page. It’s usually more image than text based and is designed to get someone to click and go to your website.

  • Wallpaper ad: This is a relatively newer type of display ad that is much larger and takes up the entire real estate of your screen. They essentially transform the background of a website, creating a more immersive feeling for the viewer.

  • Video ad: A video ad brings sound and movement to your marketing efforts and can be effective at getting someone’s attention and drawing them in. According to the IAB report, they’re one of the fastest growing digital ad types, with revenue up 35 percent in 2018, from 2017. Videos that automatically launch when a page loads can be annoying when you’re trying to browse discreetly, so many advertisers choose to make their videos begin only when someone rolls over or clicks on them.

  • Interstitial ad: What began as pop-up ads—those digital ads that popped up on a screen out of nowhere and inspired the invention of the pop-up ad blocker—are now known as interstitial ads. They cover the full interface of the website or mobile app where they appear, but are usually placed at transition points so as to make them a bit less annoying and disruptive. They can be static images, videos, or any other type of display and are commonly used on mobile devices and in games.

Native ads

No matter how clever, entertaining, or imaginative display ads have become, they are still often seen as intrusive by most people and can be easily ignored. For that reason, native ads have infiltrated people’s brains without them even noticing.

A native ad is designed to appear similar to regular content, sometimes fooling the reader or viewer into thinking it isn’t an ad at all. For example, a native ad could be structured like an image for an article and placed alongside other article images, with the only way to know it’s an ad being the word “sponsored” in the corner. This is an excellent way to get someone to inadvertently click on an ad, but it’s best not to be too deceptive about the fact that it is, in the end, an ad.

Search advertising

Much like native ads try to appear like regular content, search advertising is a way to appear like an actual search result. For example, if you’re a belt buckle designer in Boise, you could set up an ad campaign with Google so that every time certain terms are used in a search, an ad for your business will appear somewhere within the search results.

Because anywhere from 71 percent to 92 percent of Google clicks occur on the first page of results, having your business listed at or near the top can make a huge difference when it comes to being discovered by potential customers. And because these ads appear with a simple, unobtrusive “Ad” next to the URL, they often go unrecognized as an ad and inspire people to click without hesitation.

The key to successful search advertising is choosing the right keywords to use. But this is made all the more difficult because of the changing dynamics of searches, trends, and consumer behavior. For that reason, many businesses choose to contract with special search marketing firms to help devise their strategy, but doing it yourself is definitely possible with a little time, effort, and concentrated research.

Another barrier can be cost, since the most popular keywords will be the most expensive. That said, by focusing on location-based and niche search queries, a small business can effectively target the right customers at the right time for a reasonable cost. The largest search engines offer detailed guides on how to procure valuable keywords and build a search advertising campaign that can reel in the best prospects.

But don’t focus solely on traditional search engines if you want to partake in search-based advertising. More and more people are initiating their product searches right on Amazon, making it an ideal place to advertise. EMarketer analyst Monica Peart pointed out that as opposed to the more popular platforms of Google and Facebook, Amazon offers businesses a direct connection to customers right at the point of purchase. “Advertisers are looking for a third option that ties purchase data directly to the advertisement,” noted Peart.

Social media ads

One of the easiest ways for small businesses to get started in the digital advertising arena is through social media ads, which are affordable, easy to place, and relatively simple to produce. But even the biggest, most successful companies see these social ads as a critical element of their overall marketing efforts. In fact, one study found that 88 percent of all companies are marketing with social media.

There are many social platforms to choose from, including Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Pinterest. But Facebook offers the most popular platform of all, with 2.27 billion monthly active users, which is why an estimated 80 percent of small businesses use Facebook for marketing as of 2017. Beyond its massive audience, Facebook provides businesses with a cornucopia of tools to help them hone in on the audiences that will respond best to their ads.

In addition to the paid display ads that can be purchased on social sites, businesses can also boost or promote certain posts so as to ensure they get seen by their target audience. Because authenticity is such a prized aspect of social media and ads can sometimes be shunned by users, a well-timed boosted post can be an ideal way to attract attention in a more natural, organic way that sits well with your potential customers.

Now that you’ve got a general overview of the digital advertising market, it’s time to dip your toe in the water and start making some digitized waves. By making a small initial investment and gradually developing your strategy, you’ve really got nothing to lose.

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Molly Shapiro

Before joining the PicMonkey editorial team as a senior writer, Molly wrote about topics as varied as politics, finance, global health, and online dating. As a fiction writer, she’s published two books, both available on Amazon through totally non-sketchy retailers. A midwestern transplant who now calls Seattle home, Molly firmly believes that the Space Needle is way cooler than the Eiffel Tower.