The COVID-19 pandemic has brought digital marketing more front and centre than ever before. Businesses from across a wide range of sectors have been forced to take a digital-first approach by the varying degrees of lockdowns and restrictions in place around the world.

This move to digital has seen more small businesses than ever taking their first steps into the world of online marketing. Previously, these businesses, many of them local, would simply rely on face-to-face engagement, word-of-mouth referrals, and a very personal approach to doing business.

Now, the landscape has changed.

Instead, small businesses are having to come up with new ways of engaging with their customers online, whilst continuing to deliver the high levels of customer service and experience that their existing customers have come to know and love and new customers are yet to discover.

This is a challenging time for businesses large and small.

In September 2020, SEMrush ran a survey to identify the biggest marketing challenges faced by small businesses. The results of the survey provided some great insights into the challenges faced and many of those challenges are the ones that will face small businesses as we head into 2021 – they will simply be escalated to new levels.

The SEMrush survey interviewed 271 people. Of those respondents, 66% were employed in businesses with less than 50 people, whilst 12% described their business as ‘freelance’ and 9% were agencies.

As a small business ourselves, we understand these challenges as well as anyone. Whilst we already had visibility in the online space, increased competition has magnified some of the challenges we already face, however, we are practising what we preach and following some of the tips below in an attempt to overcome the challenges and prove than just because your small doesn’t mean you can’t be heard online.

The results of the SEMrush survey

We wanted to focus on the top five challenges identified by small businesses in 2020 and provide some actionable tips to combat those challenges as we head into 2021. The top five challenges identified can be seen below:

Digital Marketing Challenges 2021

In addition, we also want to include a bonus item from the list which we feel will be more prominent than ever in 2021 – moving from offline to predominantly online presence which attracted 14.2% of the poll votes.

To be honest, it’s slightly surprising that this is not higher although the sample size of 271 and the fact that the survey was carried out via Twitter and Typeform means that a lot of businesses new to the online space would not have had the opportunity to participate. We believe that the number of businesses that have had to shift from offline to predominantly online would represent a much larger percentage of businesses worldwide and that’s why we think it’s important to cover this one off as well.

And so, to the challenges faced and our thoughts on the best way to combat these challenges.

1.      Limited Marketing Budgets

Limited budgets have been a challenge for small business for years, whether you were focussed on or offline. Now more than ever, budgets are being stretched thin. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on a wide range of business sectors and whilst some thrive, others are watching every dollar spent.

Digital marketing can be a great way to get more out of your budget. Ad platforms can be a cost-effective way of generating leads and it’s down to you to identify the best-performing platforms for your business. A great tip from Greg Gifford, Vice President of Search at DealerOn, Inc, is to test your ads for limited periods across all platforms and see which ones deliver the best ROI – Google, Facebook and Instagram are great places to start and can help to generate leads quickly.

If you’re not sure which ad platform is going to work best for you, carry out some competitor research and see how well they are performing. SEMrush has a rather nifty Traffic Analysis Tool which allows you to look at where your competitors are getting their traffic and this might help to identify potential opportunities.

As an SEO agency, it would be remiss of us not to recommend that you start building your SEO strategy simultaneously. We do know, however, that results from SEO will take much longer than results from paid advertising. SEO is the long-term play and will hopefully mean that you can trim back your ad spend as you start to drive more organic traffic over time.

2.      Organic traffic requires a lot of effort and patience

For businesses that are new to the online space, it can be frustrating trying to grow your presence in the organic space. Brand awareness, or a lack thereof, means that branded search will be very limited and unless you have designed and built the most kick-ass website of all time and you are publishing market-leading content in your sector every week, it’s also unlikely that you will suddenly be ranking number one for all your target keywords.

Don’t let this put you off.

SEO is definitely a long-term play, however, that doesn’t mean there can’t be short term wins. First and foremost, get your business set up on Google My Business so you have a presence in the local space. Encourage your customers to leave a review – especially if they have been a repeat customer for years – they will only have great things to say about your business and reviews are a huge factor both in terms of influencing a purchase decision but also as a ranking factor in the local space.

Target long-tail keywords. If you are new to the online space or just starting to build your business online, it’s unlikely that you are going to swoop straight into the number one spot for your main target keywords. Let’s say you are an electrician who has been forced to focus your business online as you can no longer attend trade shows or meet as many customers due to lockdown restrictions. It’s unlikely that you will be able to rank for the term ‘electrician’ straight off the bat. Instead, you should focus your efforts on longer tail keywords. These might include location modifiers such as your town, city or even country but you might also start to target things like ‘what do I need to be an electrician’ or ‘how much does an electrician cost’.

If you have the time, you can also start thinking about building your brand online by providing great content for your customers. Let’s stick with the electrician example. There is lots of search volume for people wanting to know about electrical jobs they can perform around the house. Identify the keywords with the biggest search volume and provide content which shows people how to do those things – a video, a step by sept guide, a blog – whatever you are comfortable with. Not only will this give you’re the opportunity to rank for that keyword, but it will also mean that people engage with your brand, possibly for the first time, and then when they do need an electrician, you are likely to be top of mind.

As well as content, having a website that is technically sound is really important. There are a number of tools out there which can help to audit your website and provide you with a list of issues that can often be fixed pretty quickly. Prioritise the easy fixes and make small incremental improvements to your website every month and you will have a much better chance of ranking for the keywords you are targeting.

3.      Competition with big companies in the digital world

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges faced by small companies, on or offline, is competing with the big brands within your sector. Whilst some of this is budget-related, you are also battling against an established brand name, a site that attracts a lot of links, and a brand that has a big following on social media platforms.

This doesn’t mean you can’t compete. You may be new to the online space, however, you will already have an established customer base. It’s important to understand these customers and use them to create strong buyer personas – a clear picture of what your ideal customer looks like. This will help you to refine your marketing messages online as well as refining your targeting for online ads, helping your budget to go further and ensure you are targeting those customers that are most likely to convert.

The online environment does provide businesses with the opportunity to compete with big brands. We recommend investing in content marketing to help to build your own brand and the skyscraper technique is a great way to compete with larger brands. Identify some key topics that you would like to rank for and research the top-performing content in the search results for those keywords. Analyse their content and then create something that is better. Google’s mission is to serve the most relevant result to the end-user, and this shouldn’t be impacted by the brand. If your content is the best at explaining something, it stands as good a chance as a big brand of ranking so keep on creating content that is better than the competition, big or small.

Finally, take a personal approach. Many of the bigger brands have automated processes for everything – social media, email marketing, chatbots – the art of personalisation is getting lost by big brands as they struggle to keep up with their growing customer base. For smaller businesses, you can still take the time to send a personalised email, speak to customers one on one, and get direct feedback about their experience with your business.

4.      Building a visible brand

We have already touched on this in points #2 and #3 above when it comes to growing organic traffic and competing against big brands. There are of course other areas you can focus on to help you to build your brand online. Some of these tactics include:

  • Build an appealing website that offers something different to the competition – highlight your USPs and don’t be afraid to be different. For inspiration, check out the Digital Hothouse website which goes beyond your usual SEO agency website.
  • Build your presence on social media platforms – social media can be a great way of building brand awareness. Work out which platforms are best suited to your business and use your personas to identify where your customers are spending the most time. Try not to spread yourself too thin – better to do 1-2 platform really well than do an average job on every single social media platform.
  • Launch a referral or affiliate programme – this is a great way of getting experts and influencers as well as your current customers to spread the word about your business online
  • Free stuff – people love free stuff and if you can spare some budget for some branded promotional items, giveaways and competitions are a great way to build your brand awareness and increase your social engagement. Encourage people to share images of them with their free merch – something SEMrush do really well.

Focussing on SEO, creating awesome content and paid advertising are also part of your strategy to build your brand awareness online.

5.      Keeping a positive marketing ROI

ROI on marketing spend can be difficult to track, especially for small businesses who may not necessarily have the relevant tools to help to manage spend. The one huge advantage of digital marketing is that spend is typically much easier to track than, radio, TV, billboard, and newspaper advertising for example.

For every dollar you spend on social media advertising or Google AdWords, you can track how much revenue that generates for your business (providing of course that you have Google Analytics set up to track conversions and revenue).

Some elements you will need to work out manually. For example, it costs nothing to write content for your blog, or optimise your website for SEO, however, there is a time cost and that should be factored in – how much time did you spend on those tasks and what is the cost of that time to your business. This is harder to track but you should attempt to keep a record as you will hopefully see that cost going down over time as your website improves and your start ranking for keywords that send traffic to your site month after month.

There is a simple formula you can use to calculate ROI on marketing spend which looks like this:

ROI: [((number of leads x lead-to-customer rate x average sales price) – cost or ad spend) ÷ cost or ad spend] x 100

BONUS – Moving from offline to predominantly online presence

We think this is going to be a big factor for many businesses and the way to combat this huge shift in your business is to focus on those top five tips listed above. Prioritise SEO, invest in online advertising on the platforms that deliver the best ROI, focus on content marketing, build your brand online by personalising the experience, and make your budgets stretch further by testing everything.

Quickly adapting to new customer needs and demands can be difficult. Remember, just as you have had to move your business online, for many of your customers, they are also adapting to a new way of shopping. For many, especially older audiences, it may be the first time they have had to interact with a business online rather than face-to-face. Make sure you keep the experience as personal as possible, no matter what platform you are communicating on and make them feel welcome at your business, just as you would in person.

Be patient. This is a big move for you and you might not get everything right first time. However, if you stick to some of the tips above, you will come out of this with a strong online presence and an opportunity to reach more people than ever before.


If you are struggling with the move to online and you want to speak to someone about your options, give us a call. You are not alone in this and thousands of businesses are having to make the same shift. It’s a big one but we’re here to help.

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