If you've read some of my recent columns, you know I'm a big fan of pragmatic marketing decision-making and reducing wasted time and money. That's why one of the things I love best about being an online marketer is that you can so easily and quickly test, learn, tweak, and pivot your online marketing initiatives. In fact, I call the digital space the "Great Big Marketing Laboratory."

Not enough businesses take a testing approach to their online marketing. They either go all in with big commitments before they've had a chance to test; or if they do test, they don't really know how to go about it properly. Then they fail (or don't succeed as well as they could).

The testing mentality allows you to preserve budget, or with enough advance planning, budget more accurately. So this week, I want to share some methods and best practices.

What Analytics Reveal

Before starting any online marketing initiatives, review your Web analytics. Those analytics can not only establish baselines against which you'll measure success or failure, but can also reveal secrets about what attracts users to and on your website--and what repels them. To better understand how to decipher your Google Analytics, check out my piece: Google Analytics: 7 Tricks for Smarter Web Analysis.

What Search Reveals

I love search data. Search is still one of the most popular activities for adults online. Because of that, what happens on search engines can be very revealing. Keyword research can reveal all sorts of useful nuggets for developing testing ideas.

I also love using Google AdWords for quick and easy marketing testing. If you know how to set-up and run a proper AdWords campaign, with a minimal investment of time and money, you can test:

  • interest in products or services
  • eye-catching headlines
  • action-generating ad copy and links
  • how much it will cost to generate an action
  • the best times of day or days of week to advertise
  • Web versus mobile ad versions
  • if your competitors are watching and tweaking their campaigns

Even running a campaign for just a week or two can reveal enough information to help you make some first-line decisions about your next marketing steps.

Ad Message and Creative Testing

Beyond AdWords, the same kind of testing can be applied to other forms of online advertising.

  • Display ads. These graphical image ads can be anything from simple words or pictures to highly interactive rich media ads that show video, let you play games or allow you to complete forms. If you're just using display ads for testing, try the Google Display Network (which helps you build your own ads) or any of the other DIY ad networks for low-cost, low commitment testing. With larger display ad buys, to take a testing approach, you should always negotiate an "outclause," which will allow you to terminate a campaign if it's underperforming after a certain period of time.
  • Email. Email marketing is another great place to test out your ad message and creative concepts, especially if it's your own in-house email list. A well-written subject line that generates a higher-than-average open rate can translate into headlines you use for other advertising. Offers you promote via email can be rolled out to other advertising formats, and so can the graphics you use. Plus, you'll learn from the responses.
  •  Social. Many of the popular social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube) offer advertising options. Social media advertising has mixed results, but wearing your testing hat, at the very least you can learn if it will work for you, and if it does, do more of the same.
  • Mobile. Mobile advertising is still the new frontier, but sometimes that's the best time to get in--before your competitors do. Test to see if it works for you.

Market Research

Digital platforms and tools abound to help marketers conduct audience and product research online. From very simple polls and surveys (SurveyMonkey, PollDaddy, TwtPoll to complex and customizable platforms, these tools let you gather information about your market, your competitors and product interest and demand. Since so many people are online every single day, you probably can reach your target consumer to gather useful opinions and data.

I hope this article gave you some good food for thought as you plan your 2013 digital marketing initiatives. It's okay to walk before you run, especially when your business's time and money are on the line.

Published on: Jan 9, 2013
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.