Funders can be fickle. Each has their own set of criteria for deciding whether a startup has potential. And sometimes it’s a downright mysterious group of benchmarks. Everything from politics to personality may come into play when you’re trying to attract investors

Still, there are a few considerations you can expect to be a part of the calculus. Is there a well-defined, sustainable market for your product? Does it solve a known problem? Is it the first product to do so? Is it differentiated from other products in its competitive set? Do you have a strong management team in place? 

And one question that many startups overlook at the early stages of formulating their business plans: do you have a well-reasoned, effective, and budget-savvy marketing plan?

Marketing Is a distinct business function

Entrepreneurs aren’t superheroes. They may be experts in the industries they’re seeking to break into: musicians who develop music recording technology, dentists who design teeth-whitening systems, or investment advisors who want to launch an e-trading platform, for example. But particularly when you’re running lean and mean, you may not have native expertise in every aspect of managing a startup. 

Marketing is one such function. The difference between marketing and say, finance, is that, as consumers, we’re constantly exposed to marketing messages. It’s easy for us to assume we know enough about marketing to wing it, at least for a while. But while marketing may feel familiar and some aspects of it are genuinely intuitive—is that jingle catchy or does it fall flat?—it’s also a science. 

That’s even more true in the digital age. Entrepreneurs who demonstrate to venture capitalists that they have a comprehensive digital marketing plan are more likely to make funders sit up and take notice.

Why you should invest in a digital marketing plan

We know. Money is tight. But one investment you should seriously consider making, even before you embark on your quest for funding, is engaging a professional marketing firm to take a look at your business. Some firms specialize in research and can assist with pulling together some compelling numbers and detailed customer profiles. 

Others can help you with branding your company or products—one aspect of marketing that’s particularly prone to amateur missteps. You might ask a marketing firm to write and design your pitch book, which is pretty much the cost of admission to an angel’s office. And some firms focus squarely on the nuts and bolts of putting together digital marketing strategies. 

Because digital marketing is more firmly rooted in pure math and more easily automated than the more touchy-feely aspects of marketing, developing a digital marketing plan is sometimes one of the less expensive services professional firms offer. Most firms will schedule a consultation with you at no cost. Take advantage of that opportunity. At the very least, you’ll come away with a roadmap for crafting your own digital strategy if you decide to do it yourself. 

How to leverage digital marketing for your business

Applying digital marketing practices to your business may seem daunting and complicated. However, if you take the time to understand the processes, terminology and tools it can quickly become a valuable function of your business. Here are 5 tips that will work as a crash course on the world of digital marketing for your small business.

1. Get the basics under your belt

Ready to learn a new language? Some of the terms used to describe digital marketing may be unfamiliar, but they’re not difficult concepts to understand. If you’re fortunate enough to land a meeting with a VC firm, you’ll be at an advantage if you can hold your own—or even confidently lead—a conversation that touches on digital marketing tactics. 

You should also have a little background in the technology behind the tactics that make up a sound digital marketing plan. You needn’t become a hardware or software guru, but those products will be part of your marketing spend so it’s best to have them on your radar.

2. Distinguish between inbound and outbound marketing 

What is inbound marketing?

Inbound marketing is about creating a welcoming home for your customers through platforms such as your website and social media communities like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. By creating relevant, unique content for potential customers, you begin to build a relationship with them and position yourself as an authority they can trust when they want to learn something—or even be entertained. It’s more of a “pull” technique than its opposite, outbound marketing. 

What is outbound marketing?

Outbound actively pushes customers toward you using tools such as banner ads placed on other companies’ websites, email blasts, paid ads on search engines, or traditional direct mail campaigns and radio commercials. 

Which is more useful?

Most digital marketing programs include both inbound and outbound marketing tactics. But a majority of marketing experts nowadays believe that inbound marketing is more effective than outbound. Consumers are inundated by ads and tend to tune them out or try to skip them entirely. The pop-up blocker option on your computer and DVR devices are two technologies designed to help you do that. 

What’s more, inbound marketing is less expensive than outbound marketing. Some estimates suggest that the cost of generating a single lead through outbound tactics is three times the cost of using inbound marketing techniques to do so.

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3. Leverage SEO to support inbound marketing 

You can set a table overflowing with the fanciest appetizers and pour the best wines, but if you don’t send out party invitations you’re going to be dining alone. The same holds true for the website and social media pages you design for your business. You have to attract customers to your sites before they can enjoy the delicious content you’re serving up. That’s where search engine optimization (SEO) comes in.

According to Google, an estimated 63% of purchases begin online. Consider your own experience. Chances are when you’re thinking about buying something, the first thing you do is a Google search. SEO is a suite of tactics businesses employ to make sure their websites rank prominently in search results. Successful SEO strategies raise your search engine ranking. Marketers, and small business owners, should aim for the holy grail: appearing among the first ten listings in a Google search.

Do-it-yourself SEO tactics 

A full-on SEO strategy encompasses many practices, some of which are invisible, technical, and are found in the coding behind your site. But you can optimize your content—the part of your site customers actually see—for search by following a few basic steps.

Start with a website outline

Experts recommend that you begin designing your site with something very familiar: an outline. Identify the topics or categories of topics you believe will be most relevant to your consumers. Your products will likely top the list, but your company history, customer reviews, and educational resources may be equally important during the early stage of building customer relationships. If you’re selling products directly online, one essential feature of your site will be a shopping cart. Each of these core items may become a page on your website that is accessible from your homepage.

Identify what your customers are searching for

From there it gets a little more complicated. For each topic you come up with, you’ll want to generate two more lists: one containing keywords (one or two-term phrases) and one containing long-tail keywords (sentences, questions, or longer variations of keywords). Both are phrases that describe what visitors will find on each of your pages. They’re also the terms customers type in when searching for a company or products like yours. 

Eventually, you will include those keywords and long-tail keywords in your website text. Both keywords and long-tail keywords should be relevant to the content you provide. In order to cover as much search territory as you can, you should make both of these lists very comprehensive. If you need inspiration, it’s always wise to look at who currently ranks for the keywords you intend to use.

Differences between regular and long-tail keywords

There are a few differences between regular keywords and long-tail keywords. Keywords tend to be short and general. Someone might type “best enchiladas” into the Google search bar when they’re craving Mexican. If you make enchiladas, that’s a keyword you should sprinkle liberally throughout your site. 

But many people search using the language they’d use when they’re speaking: they’re not very concise when it comes to search terms. They might search for “where to find the best enchiladas in the Bronx” instead. That phrase is considered a long-tail keyword. “Best enchiladas in the Bronx” and “best enchiladas near me,” and “find the best enchiladas” all qualify as long-tail keywords.

How to use regular and long-tail keywords

SEO strategists advise using a mix of regular keywords and long-tail keywords in your website text. You can bet that nearly every Mexican restaurant out there uses the keyword “best enchiladas.” The problem is that while many people will use that phrase to search, the list of restaurants the search engine returns will be endless. 

Your restaurant might not show up until the hundredth page of search results. Fewer people might search using the long-tail keyword “best enchiladas in the Bronx,” but your chances of showing up in the early pages of search results improve with terms that are used less frequently. In addition, using more specific keywords such as “green enchiladas,” “spicy enchiladas,” or “big fat enchiladas” can increase your chances of appearing higher in search results.

Which keywords should you use?

How do you know which keywords to include in your site? That’s a science unto itself. Digital marketing firms specialize in finding the most powerful keywords for their clients. But there are free tools you can access online to help you identify the keywords for your site, product category, and industry. 

Links are pretty important—they’re what the entire internet is built on. They’re also an essential part of SEO. Search engines don’t like freeways with no exits. 

Having outbound links (links that connect to other sites) on your site improves your search standing. If you link to highly authoritative sites, Google loves you even more. So before you link to a site from your website, consider how it reflects on you. Linking to government and academic websites can be an effective SEO tactic. You can also check the domain authority of any site you’re thinking of linking to. That’s a measure of a site’s search standing. 

Perhaps outbound links make you nervous. Why let visitors out when I have them where I want them? It’s true, outbound links are a double-edged sword. But here’s another kind of link you’re going to love: the backlink. 

Backlinks are links you secure on other people’s websites that lead back to your site. They’re pure gravy and SEO-savvy marketers pursue them like mushroom foragers hunting for truffles. The more backlinks your site garners, the greater its domain authority will tend to be, and the better it will perform in search. Large companies have entire departments dedicated to securing backlinks, but you can start small. 

You can ask some of your vendors—or frankly, even your brother-in-law—for a backlink. Some companies will agree to link to your site if you do the same for them. Pursuing backlinks isn’t something you do once, either. It should be part of your ongoing online marketing plan.

5. Your site is live. Now what?

Search engines reward you for keeping your site updated. The more often you update your site—using long-tail keywords and keywords, of course—the better you’ll fare in search. That’s why digital marketing specialists often recommend that you include a blog page in your site design. Your products and pricing may not change from week to week, but blogging provides an opportunity to keep your site fresh by adding content your customers care about regularly. Even updating an old article on your site can earn you better results in search. Content that is evergreen, such as the popular “Top Tips” article format, also earns favor from Google.

Track your performance

Once your site is live, tracking its performance is crucial. It’s the only way you’ll learn what’s working and what’s not. You can get very granular about it, but to start out, there are a few key performance indicators you’ll want to keep an eye on. Again, there are a number of free (or almost free) website auditing tools available to help you with the process. Here are the metrics we suggest you learn more about and focus on when analyzing your site’s efficacy:

  • Track unique visitors to get a sense of how well you’re driving people to your site via inbound and outbound marketing tactics.
  • Check your bounce rate to learn whether visitors find your content compelling.
  • Identify your top landing pages. You may be able to glean which pages of your site are outperforming others in search. Then you can make your other pages more like them.
  • People enter your site and eventually they exit. Identify your top exit pages then figure out why you’re losing people at that point in their journey. Tip: it may not be the content that’s driving them away. It could be a technical malfunction as simple as an annoying broken link.
  • According to Hubspot, 55% of visitors leave within 15 seconds of arriving on a website. That’s all the time it takes for them to decide whether your site offers them something of value. Your average session duration is a rough indicator of the quality of the user experience you’re offering visitors, which may depend on such factors on compelling content, an attractive design, the navigability of your site, whether the content of your site delivers on the keywords you’ve chosen, and whether your pages contain clear calls to action. Customers who don’t find what they’re searching for won’t stay on your site for long. Nor will they linger if you don’t show them a clear path to getting what they want. Time spent on-page is a related metric you may also want to track.
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Essential tech tools and services for the entrepreneur

You can bet that every investor considering you for funding is going to Google your company and visit your website. So how are you going to create this fabulous website of yours? Let’s take a look at a few of the things you’ll need to build a site that reflects well upon your company and drives sales for your organization.

Web hosting

The very first tech service you’ll need to buy before you launch a website is web hosting. Web hosts create a place on the internet where your site can live. No web host, no site. It’s that simple. There are thousands of web hosts to choose from, but here’s a common-sense rule to keep in mind. The best web hosting service is the one that doesn’t fail you at a critical moment. 

You’re going to find that a preponderance of web hosting services advertise 99.9% uptime. But do they deliver? Look for a host that verifies its uptime claims through independent certification. Your business may be small now, but you’re poised for growth. Find a web hosting service that makes scaling up easy when the time comes. Finally, be sure to choose a host that takes your security—and your customers’ security—very seriously. Cybersecurity breaches are extremely costly, in part because they squander the goodwill you’ve built up with your target market.

Build your website

Once you have a place to put your site, it’s time to build it. Some web hosts also offer their customers website design services. But if you’re operating on a lean budget, you or someone in your company might want to give building your own site a try.  Do-it-yourself website building software is widely available. Most products offer a lot of design flexibility, so you needn’t worry about your site turning out like a cookie from a cutter. The best packages have built-in SEO tools so you can start building a search-friendly site from the get-go, even if you’re not an SEO maven. 

eCommerce tools

If you to plan sell your products directly from your website, you’ll need to install an online shopping cart. Online shopping carts are often sold as separate technology that’s integrated into your primary website architecture. Considering all the work you put into attracting customers to your site, inspiring them to trust you as an industry authority, and persuading them to choose your product, your site has to be ready and hospitable at the moment of truth. 

Unfortunately, researchers have determined that nearly 70% of shopping carts are abandoned before customers complete their purchases. What’s more, those people who do click the order button rarely buy all of the items they place in their carts. While your online shopping cart may not have real wheels, it’s where the virtual rubber meets the road, so research your options carefully. 

Keep sales simple

Simplicity is one hallmark of an effective shopping cart. Carts should break the process of ordering into as few, easy-to-follow steps as possible. Flexibility is another key feature of great shopping carts. If your customer wants to order a product in two colors instead of one, your cart shouldn’t send him or her back to square one of the ordering process. 

Shopping carts can be smart, too. If it appears a customer is starting to walk away from your site without ordering, some carts can be programmed to offer a purchase-motivating discount or other promotion. Finally, the best online shopping carts have long memories. Sometimes customers fill up a cart even though they’re not committed to buying. That’s a common reason why carts are abandoned. But carts can be programmed to remember returning visitors and welcome them back to your site with the products they almost purchased the last time they were there.

More resources at Bplans.com

While establishing a powerful online presence is essential for today’s startup businesses, effective marketing, and sales strategies encompass considerably more. You may want to read about other important strategic concerns like competitive analysis, customer profiling, positioning, branding, and more before meeting with potential investors or diving into building your online marketing plan.  We’re here to help. Search our extensive blog for advice and helpful tools you can use along the way to becoming a marketing force in your industry.

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AvatarSusan Doktor

Susan Doktor is a journalist and business strategist who hails from New York City. She has a thirty-plus year background in brand marketing. Susan writes on a wide variety of subjects, including market research, technology, and finance. Follow her on Twitter