The small business marketing guide

First published 18 December 2018 • Updated 11 June 2019

Market sign

Virtually every business needs to carry out marketing. Whether through advertising, social media, events, word of mouth or any other method, you must somehow make your potential customers aware of your products and/ or services and – most importantly – want to buy them.

Big companies can spend millions on marketing. Your small business probably doesn’t have that luxury, so you’ll need to think carefully about how you get maximum marketing impact from every pound you spend. This guide should help you begin. You can also consult your accountant about the best way to budget for marketing.

What is marketing?

Marketing is the process of finding your market and connecting with it. This makes it quite distinct from selling, which is pushing your products or services to a market that is already lined up waiting.  You can think of marketing as the process of ‘matchmaking’ what you have to sell with the ideal customers to buy it.

Marketing is also about generally raising awareness of your business offering, in the hope that this will filter through to your target market. You might also use it simply to maintain your current position in the face of competition, to remind people that you’re there (this is known as ‘defensive’ marketing).

Identifying your market

The first step in marketing is identifying your market. In many cases this might seem obvious, but it isn’t always. For instance, if you sell your own style of baby sling, you could say that your market is new parents – but is your target just mums, or mums and dads? Or perhaps it’s designed specifically to appeal to dads most of all? It is the fine details and USPs of your product or service that will help to identify your core market (the people most likely to be customers, accounting for around 80 per cent of sales) and your peripheral market (a broader demographic, from which a significant 20 per cent of sales may come).

The surest way to zero in on your core and peripheral markets is with some market research.

How to use market research

Market research is an essential marketing tool. It can help you to:

  • test your assumptions about your target market
  • understand your customers better
  • explore other potential markets
  • identify areas for improvement in your marketing plan
  • fine-tune your brand
  • highlight new marketing opportunities
  • find the most efficient and effective marketing strategy
  • improve your product

You can conduct simple, low-cost market research yourself using tools like online surveys, though this may be of limited value. Professional services are available for more in-depth market research such as product testing and UX (user experience) research. Before going down a particular route, identify what questions you want to answer and why, so you can justify the cost. Also be sure to keep an open mind, and take notice of the findings even if they aren’t what you hoped for.

Now you can think about what kind of marketing you need to do.

Types of marketing

Marketing may take dozens if not hundreds of different forms, but most falls within one (or more) of the following four categories:

  • Above-the-line (ATL)
  • Below-the-line (BTL)
  • Direct
  • Digital

Here’s a quick introduction to each type.

Above-the-line marketing

ATL marketing is the most obvious and visible kind. Essentially ATL involves mass media – e.g. TV, cinema, radio, billboards, the press and high-profile internet sites. Its message is typically broad, aimed at a wide range of consumers instead of targeting a few. For a small business, ATL marketing will usually be restricted to radio and the press (perhaps local in both cases), billboards and the internet.

Below-the-line marketing

BTL marketing targets smaller audiences that are more carefully defined. Instead of mass media it relies on a combination of online and offline communications, tailored specifically to those consumers. Types of BTL marketing include online adverts, search engine campaigns, social media, PR and content marketing (i.e. producing interesting articles that link to your business). BTL marketing may also take the form of events (e.g. product parties, festival stall), free samples and word-of-mouth. The impact of BTL is generally easier to measure than that of ATL.

Direct marketing

Direct marketing is a form of BTL marketing that involves contacting potential customers directly (as opposed to letting them find you). This can be through emails, telephone calls, physical mail (e.g. letters, catalogues), text messages and so on. The challenge is to target those customers most likely to respond favourably, otherwise you can easily damage your brand by being seen as a nuisance. For this reason, direct marketing should be accompanied by thorough ongoing market research.

Digital marketing

Digital marketing can be BTL or ATL, and simply means any form of marketing that uses the internet or email. Examples include web ads, pay-per-click links, smartphone ads, social media, email and content marketing. Digital marketing can be low cost, but requires considerable expertise to achieve value for money.

Creating your marketing strategy

Your marketing strategy should form part of your business plan. It will clearly define the following elements: What, Who, Why, Where, How, and How Much?

  • What are you selling?
  • Who you are selling to?
  • Why do they want it?
  • Where will you sell it?
  • How you will sell it?
  • How much will you sell it for?

‘What’ should be the easiest part to answer. ‘Who’ may seem obvious, but by doing your market research you can identify both your core customers and your peripheral market. Work hard on the question ‘Why’ they want your products, as this will help you refine your USPs.

‘Where’ you will sell your product is a key question. Online, offline or both? By post or in person? Fixed or mobile? But the core of your marketing strategy is the question ‘How’ you will sell your products. How will you let your market know, and what promotion methods will you use? It will be easier to answer this question once you know the other elements: the ‘What’, ‘Who’, ‘Why’ and ‘Where’.

Now you are ready to create your marketing plan.

Writing a marketing plan

Your marketing plan is a practical document: it is the list of activities you will carry out in order to market your business. Your starting point is the ‘How’ section of your marketing strategy (see above). This contains only the broad types of activities you mean you use, so in your plan you need to refine these to definite actions and create a budget for them.

As you develop and implement this practical plan, you may encounter problems with your original marketing strategy – e.g. is it too costly, is it using the wrong marketing channels, is it focusing on the wrong audience or USPs? Feed back your findings into your strategy and update it, so it is constantly being refined. Keep both the strategy and the plan updated and aligned – don’t just deviate from them, as that will leave you with unstructured marketing.

Marketing on a budget

If you don’t have a huge budget to spend on marketing, here are some low-cost solutions that can work for small businesses.

  • Social networking – it gets your name out there
  • Low-cost merchandise (e.g. t-shirts or balloons with your logo)
  • Sponsoring local kids’ sports teams
  • Put an advert on your own car
  • Eye-catching business cards
  • Set up stalls at local events with free giveaways
  • Enter business awards
  • Customer referral programmes
  • Instructional videos – put something really useful on Youtube and the hits will roll in

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About the author
Nick Green
Nick Green
Nick Green is a financial journalist writing for, the site that has helped over 10 million people find financial, business and legal advice. Nick has been writing professionally on money and business topics for over 15 years, and has previously written for leading accountancy firms PKF and BDO.