How to grow a small business online in 2024

Tips and basic standards for SMEs seeking better positioning online

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The question of whether there are proven guidelines on how to grow a small business online, has been a common one among web developers/designers, SEO/marketing specialists and business owners since 1995, when online shopping is said to have marked the commercialisation of the internet.

In the early days of the internet, webmasters employed a variety of tactics, some ingenious and others dubious, to ensure their websites appeared prominently in search engine results.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the internet was largely unregulated, with websites ranging from simple self-promotion to outright deception aimed at enticing clicks.

If you were an internet user back then, you’ll recall that finding the information you needed could take tens of minutes or even hours. Search engines were in their infancy, and websites were often poorly organised and difficult to navigate. As a result, it was common to spend a lot of time just trying to find the right website, let alone the specific information you were looking for.

In addition to the challenges of navigation, early internet users also had to contend with slow connection speeds. Dial-up connections were the norm, and downloading even a small 200kb file could take several minutes. This made it even more frustrating to try to find the desired information.

Two decades later, despite significant advancements in search engine technology, quick acquisition of information, readily available, free and accessible tutorials on how to grow a small business online, and the widespread use of social media, many providers and business owners continue to neglect fundamental best practices, hindering their visibility and ranking.

Suggestions and guides

When searching for guides on growing a business online, you’ll typically find a variety of suggestions, including:

  • Creating high-quality content that is relevant to your target audience,
  • Optimising your website for search engines (and human beings),
  • Building backlinks,
  • Promoting your website through other online channels,
  • Using design that’s mobile friendly and responsive on other devices,
  • Making sure your website loads quickly in visitors’ browsers,
  • Include easy to use navigation,
  • Keeping your website up-to-date with relevant content,
  • Adjusting to the latest search engine algorithms and,
  • Tracking your website and advertising performance – making adjustments as needed.

Missing foundational aspects

While the previously mentioned points are all important, they may seem meaningless or provide limited assistance if the foundational aspects for their implementation are not in place. The absence of these aspects can pose a significant challenge for small to medium-sized businesses and startups looking how to grow a small business online. This can be attributed to several factors, the most prevalent of which include:

Lack of knowledge

Many business owners lack the necessary knowledge to effectively implement a solid web presence and/or manage online marketing campaigns. This can lead to poorly executed strategies and missed opportunities.

Limited budget

Budget constraints often restrict small businesses’ ability to invest in comprehensive online marketing solutions. This can limit their reach and hinder their ability to compete effectively.

No definition of their target audience

Clearly defining the target audience is crucial for crafting effective marketing messages and strategies. Without a clear understanding of their target customers, businesses may waste their budgets, struggle to connect with their audience and not achieve their marketing goals.

A non-existent strategy

Lacking a well-defined online marketing strategy can lead to haphazard efforts and missed opportunities. A comprehensive strategy provides direction, focus, and a framework for achieving long-term marketing objectives.

Lack of specialised expertise

Businesses often assign marketing responsibilities to employees who lack the necessary knowledge and experience.

The absence of specialised expertise can result in a fragmented approach to online marketing, missing essential elements that could significantly improve performance, lead generation, and ultimately, sales.

Fragmented brand consistency

Brand consistency is the practice of using a consistent visual identity across all of your marketing and communication materialsThis includes your logo, colours, fonts, imagery, and messaging.

When your brand is consistent, it helps to create a strong and recognisable brand identity that makes it easy for customers to remember and trust you.

Without it, your brand’s reputation may suffer, requiring significant time, effort, and financial resources to rectify the situation later.

6 Tips on how to grow a small business online:

So, how can companies maximise their limited budgets on an ongoing basis, while progressively and effectively focusing on how to grow a small business online?

Over the past nine years, we’ve witnessed remarkable results stemming from implementing certain aspects early on. This solid foundation has enabled the successful integration of additional elements, leading to a steady increase in overall exposure, reach, and positioning across multiple platforms.

Based on a basic understanding of the business’s offerings and target market segments, here’s a beginner solution for SMEs and startups for online marketing:

1. Setting an affordable, base-line, monthly budget

No matter how small, maintaining a consistent online marketing budget is crucial for businesses of all sizes to achieve long-term growth and success.

A consistent budget allows companies to effectively plan, execute, and optimise their marketing campaigns, ensuring that their brand remains visible, engages with target audiences, and drives conversions over time.

A consistent online marketing budget provides the options for:

  • Exposure to your market segment(s),
  • Relationship nurturing and Customer Loyalty,
  • Data acquisition,
  • Monitoring Performance
  • Lead Generation and Sales

How much should you budget for?

Dependent on your industry, budgets on average range from 7% to 20% of historical overall revenue (or forecasted overall revenue). As a point of interest, in South Africa – marketing, advertising and promotional spend can also be claimed as business expenses, effectively lowering your company’s annual tax obligations.

2. Plan a strategy that utilises as many free marketing platforms as possible

Incorporating as many free marketing platforms as possible into your strategy can provide a range of benefits in how to grow a small business online

A free marketing platform strategy provides:

  • Cost-effectiveness
  • Increased reach and visibility
  • Diversification and reduced risk
  • Enhanced brand credibility
  • Valuable insights and data
  • Low-barrier entry and experimentation
  • Building relationships and communities
  • Creating valuable content for SEO benefits (If you have a website)

3. Set a realistic schedule related to the allocated monthly budget

In the absence of a well-defined schedule with milestones, business owners may find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer volume of tasks at hand and struggle to determine the sequential order required for the next phase to proceed effectively.

A well-structured schedule, not only provides clarity on the various aspects involved but also offers insights into the rationale behind these processes and facilitates ongoing learning.

4. Build a centralised marketing data collection point

A centralised marketing data collection point is an essential tool for businesses that want to improve their marketing performance and achieve their business goals.

A centralised data collection point helps businesses to:
  • Have a single place to assess all marketing data,
  • Improve data quality and consistency,
  • Get a more holistic view of the customer journey,
  • Personalise marketing campaigns,
  • Measure performance and value of marketing campaigns.

Although a wide range of online and offline data collection systems exist, such as customer relationship management (CRM) systems, data management platforms (DMPs), marketing dashboards, and marketing attribution platforms, the simplest option on how to grow a small business online is a website, integrated with Google Analytics, Google Search Console, and Bing Webmaster Tools or, at least an official social media business page integrated with Meta Business Suite. Google business, if used correctly also offers a decent data collection point outside of social media.

5. Find a trusted marketing services provider

A marketing services provider that’s experienced in how to grow a small business online and interested in the long-term success of your business is invaluable. A provider uninterested in your long-term success can be detrimental to your company’s growth and stability.

Reasons why you should avoid working with providers uninterested in your long-term success:

Lack of alignment
They’re likely to prioritise short-term gains and may not align their strategies with your overall business objectives. This misalignment can lead to ineffective solutions, wasted resources, and missed opportunities for growth.

Limited commitment
They may only focus on fulfilling the immediate requirements of their contract, without considering the long-term impact of their work on your business. This lack of commitment can hinder your progress and prevent you from achieving your full potential.

Insufficient support and guidance
A service provider who is not invested in your long-term success may not provide the ongoing support and guidance you need to navigate challenges and make informed decisions. Without this support, you may struggle to overcome obstacles and achieve your goals.

Inability to adapt to your evolving needs
A service provider who is not committed to your long-term success may not be able to adapt to the changing needs of your business as it grows and evolves. This inflexibility can hinder your innovation and limit your ability to respond to market trends and customer preferences.

Potential for conflicts of interest
A service provider who prioritises their own interests over yours may engage in unethical practices or make decisions that conflict with your best interests. This can damage your reputation, erode customer trust, and jeopardise your long-term success.

6. What to look for in a marketing services provider

Working with a service provider who knows how to grow a small business online and shares your vision for long-term success can provide you with several benefits:
  • Strategic partnership and collaboration
  • Dedicated support and expertise
  • Continuous improvement and innovation
  • Alignment with your business goals
  • Mutual trust and respect
Aspects a marketing professional may provide:
  • Identifying your target audience and develop buyer personas
  • Developing a strong brand identity and messaging
  • Create a user-friendly and visually appealing website
  • Help develop and manage social media campaigns
  • Help you track and analyse your website traffic and marketing performance
  • Provide you with ongoing support and advice
Additional, essential qualities to seek in a service provider:

Honesty and transparency
A reputable service provider should not hesitate to provide straightforward and honest assessments of your needs, even if they may not be the most pleasant to hear. This level of candour is crucial for building trust and ensuring that you receive the most appropriate solutions for your business.

Privacy and data protection
Your business information and customer data should be handled with the utmost confidentiality. A trustworthy service provider should have robust data security measures in place and adhere to strict privacy policies to safeguard your sensitive information.

Customer references and testimonials
Take the time to seek out testimonials and reviews from current and former clients to gain insights into the provider’s track record and reputation. Positive feedback from satisfied customers can provide valuable assurance of their capabilities and commitment to excellence.

Project examples and campaign portfolios
Review the provider’s portfolio of completed projects and successful campaigns to assess their expertise and experience in areas relevant to your needs. This will help you evaluate their ability to deliver on your objectives and achieve desired outcomes.

Performance metrics and campaign proof
A service provider should be able to demonstrate the effectiveness of their work through measurable metrics and data-driven insights. Ask for proof of campaign performance, such as increased website traffic, enhanced conversion rates, or improved brand awareness.

Affordable and flexible payment plans
The provider should offer payment plans that align with your budget and financial constraints. A flexible approach to pricing demonstrates their willingness to work with you and accommodate your specific needs.

Start learning, one step at a time
Overall, working with a marketing professional can be a valuable investment for SMEs who want to learn how to grow a small business online. By working with a professional, small business owners can gain the expertise and support they need to develop and implement effective online marketing strategies that will help them achieve their business goals.

If you are a SME or startup seeking to learn how to grow a small business online, reach out to us to embark on this journey. Every effort you invest in the digital realm will accumulate over time and contribute to your overall success. Strategic planning and proper implementation of your goals from the outset will yield an even greater impact in the short term and well into the future.

Ready to start growing your business online?