The Invisible Digital Race

This one is for all the small business owners that are running in the invisible digital race.

It's no secret that digital marketing and social media has completely changed the way businesses market themselves. It's a daunting task behind the scenes as they calculate the cost of labor and goods, try to retain good staff or maybe even find good staff, and constantly try to stand out from competitors.  Without the budget or the manpower to create strategic marketing plans, they can often find themselves relying on digital marketing without counting the cost or looking for a real return. 

In my not-so-distant corporate marketing days, we ran digital campaigns, one after another. Like any throughout digital plan we selected specific websites where our banner ads would be displayed and geo-targeted them to just a few key locations. That way we could compare any lifts over our control groups that weren't getting any digital help.  These were big initiatives that were supposed to first and foremost drive traffic and sales, and secondly increase brand awareness.

What were the key takeaways after a lot of planning and tens-of-thousands of dollars spent?

  • Did people click on the ads? Yes.

  • Was there an increase in traffic to those locations that were targeted? We couldn't tell. All that we could clearly see was how the ad did based on industry benchmarks for click-through rates.

  • Did sales increase in those targeted locations? Nothing significant to directly tie to these ads.

We had just run an expensive marathon in the invisible digital race. 

Even with all the resources available to us and a digital agency leading the charge we realized quickly that we had spent a lot of money and couldn't speak to whether or not it was worth it. This isn't to say that digital marketing is worthless, not by a long shot.  However, if large corporations have to work through the learning curve while spending large chunks of money to learn how to hone in on exactly what drives results, how would a small business fare?

So what does this mean to small businesses who aren't engaging in such expensive marketing tactics?

When a blogger or social media account sends you a message asking for free items in exchange for "free promotion", first off - it isn't free. Giving away items at cost may not break the bank but there is cost.

Secondly, how (if at all) are you measuring the giveaway of the freebie to know whether or not to repeat such an endeavor? Are you measuring it based off of the likes their post gets?  Are you counting your follower increases after they've posted?  Can you directly track an increase in sales or traffic from it? Are you using Google Analytics to see if hits to your website have increased in correlation to their post?  Did you create an offer that users could take advantage of with a redemption code, or are you just giving free goods away with no strings attached?

Often, businesses are not left with solid ways to calculate a return. Some may factor in anecdotal evidence when a consumer mentions how they found out about them, but direct communication like that is often never received if the question is not directly asked. So the question remains, what return are you left with after giving away goods?

To be even clearer, when a digital collaboration goes well and a post receives a lot of attention, the key takeaway is still this:


Small business owners would do well to never forget that bloggers and social media accounts are in the same invisible digital race that you are in. They are constantly needing to create content to keep their followers engaged, and some of them want to do it without spending money out of their own pocket.  They may come to you with words dripped in promises of wanting to support you, but their offers are not always quite so altruistic.

They need your freebies for content, so in their digital reality they may need you, more than you need them.

Not to mention that influencer accounts are becoming more and more fraudulent.  Chew on this HighSnobiety article when you have time.

If you feel like giving away items in exchange for content is one of your only affordable options, as a small business owner you may be ignoring or forgetting about alternatives that you should be including in any overall strategy.

  1. Have you tried optimizing your site for SEO so you show up more prominently in google searches? There is a lot to learn when it comes to SEO, but don't let that deter you from investing and immersing yourself in it.

  2. Do you use Facebook's Business Manager and create paid promotions that are tied to trackable redemption codes? Don't feel like you have to throw large amounts of money into this, you can do this in small dollar increments and test the results. The analytics tell you how your ad performed, and also give you insights into what your digital demographic looks like on that platform, which many small businesses often guesstimate.

  3. Do you make good use of User Generated Content (UGC) and encourage it, if not reward it?

  4. How often do you engage in any form of local store marketing in your community? Do you partner with other local businesses when it makes sense, or simply get out in the neighborhood and take part in high profile events?

All of these other avenues of marketing may take time and resources that you feel you don't have, but a strong strategy doesn't rely solely on passing off your marketing to a person(s) in hopes of a magical monetary return with little research done behind it.

Social media can be an extremely useful tool in a growing a business but each small business owner must ask themselves at what cost and with whom they should partner.  Does it really make sense for someone claiming to be passionate about supporting local businesses and their community to be asking for freebies or money in exchange for their digital influence if they can't back it up with solid results in a professional marketing manner?

Take the time to be diligent in who you seek out when it comes to collaborations and do it on your terms. 

How you market your business, is well, your business. However, I will never shut up about the perils of falling into the traps of the invisible digital race.