Ryan Knoll thought social media sites like Facebook would be the best places to advertise his brand-new home cleaning service. Then he had an epiphany.
"Put yourself in the customer's shoes. How would that customer go about trying to find the business?" says Knoll, whose company, Tidy Casa, is based in Phoenix.
Ryan tried marketing on several social media sites, but eventually realized people needing cleaning services would head first for review websites like Yelp, Thumbtack and Angie's List.
While small business owners who started their companies the past few years have achieved great success by marketing on social media, some find that Facebook, Instagram and Twitter aren't an automatic go-tos. Instead, owners turn to more specialized websites like review services, and even low-tech methods like networking and cold-calling. Many, like Knoll, go through a period of trial and error before finding an advertising method that works.
Knoll also assumed at first that he should try to get Tidy Casa's website to rank high in Google directory results; owners can accomplish that using specific keywords that customers are likely to search for. But he realized it would take months and thousands of dollars to get the response he wanted. Then Knoll noticed review websites showing up when he searched for "cleaning service Phoenix."
Knoll is taking a different approach with his men's hair product, Simple Hair. He's working toward selling on Amazon.com because that's where many consumers search for personal care products.
An owner's choice of advertising channels depends on their target customers, says Ramon Ray, a small business consultant who often speaks publicly about marketing.
"It's ultra-important to clearly understand who you are selling to," Ray says. Armed with that information, an owner can decide if social media is best or if they should try methods like email marketing, sending brochures through the mail or making networking calls, Ray says.
Simon Trask has had four companies including an advertising agency, two online stores and a consulting business. With his background in advertising, "I've seen hundreds of companies and they're all case by case unique, depending on what products they sell and what kind of companies they are," Trask says.
Trask has found that for his e-commerce sites, knife seller Uppercut Tactical and Rita Marie's Chicken Coops, buying ads on Google have worked well; his customers are likely to do an online search for his products rather than seek them out through social media. Trask, who lives in Denton, Texas, has also started using podcasts to help market his chicken coops, which come in a variety of styles and sizes. He sees podcasts as a way to build public awareness about the coops -- podcasts are likely to work in the long term by entertaining and informing people rather than prompting immediate visits to his website.
But Trask is taking a different tack with his consulting business, which is still in its formative stages. He's not advertising it; he's talking about it through networking and letting other business owners know he's available.
When Robyn Lanci began marketing her public relations firm nearly three years ago, she found success from cold-calling, phoning business owners who are complete strangers and pitching her company to them. Cold-calling can be frustrating because owners get more rejections than interest, but Lanci was able to sign up clients for Owl PR in her first two months because she researched the businesses before calling to improve her chances of success. Similarly, when she emailed prospects, she crafted subject lines that were personal.
Since then, Lanci, who is based in Lindenhurst, New York, has found more success from networking groups and casual, friendly conversations with business owners she encounters. Talking rather than pitching has been her best approach.
"When I stopped "selling" myself hard, the business came easier," Lanci says.
Speaking or taking part in panels at conferences and other events has helped Spencer Smith get clients for his social media marketing firm, AmpliPhi. Smith estimates that he's given 200 speeches in the past few years.
"When you're on stage, those in the audience assume you're an expert in your field. After all, you've already been vetted by someone -- a conference organizer -- who's involved with an association or group they trust," says Smith, who's based in Madison, Wisconsin.
Smith finds that LinkedIn, the social media channel where business people connect, helps because he's able to prospect for new customers there, and he's also able to post articles and other content that will appeal to his target client.
Still, social media channels like Facebook and Instagram are appealing to many small businesses, especially those that sell to consumers, because of their reach and low cost. Social media marketing can be free if companies use the basics, like Facebook pages and Instagram accounts without ads. And advertising, depending on how many people a company wants to reach, can be relatively inexpensive, in the hundreds of dollars per month.
Cost was one reason why Gabriella Jacobsen decided to market her environmentally friendly grocery bags on sites including Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Jacobsen, who calls social media "cheap and accessible," says Instagram alone prompts 70 percent of the visits to her website, www.greenupward.com.
One of the most valuable aspects of social media for Jacobsen is the fact she can get feedback -- marketing information -- on her products from the comments people post.
"It helps me with making better business decisions going forward," she says.
--The Associated Press