For most new businesses today, the internet has become the launch pad. Even for more conventional businesses that in themselves have nothing to do with the internet, a website is the first step in putting that business out into the world.
Despite this, I see most people in business believing they should outsource the thinking and execution of the digital component of their business. I believe this is a mistake.
Thirty years ago, marketing and advertising were just as important as they are today, but they were far more tangential to your business. Technology has however infiltrated our lives to such an extent that the internet is now part of your service offering in one way or another. At the very least it is likely to be the second most common initial interaction someone has with your business (second only to word of mouth).
Historically, the skills required to make a radio or print ad were so different that it made perfect sense to outsource this. But, in those days, people didn't jump onto a search engine to look for your radio ad when they needed a product or service like yours. Today, as you know from your life as a consumer, the first place people will look is your website. Therefore, given the importance of this platform to your business, I believe it is imperative for businesses, big and small, to have a basic understanding of digital marketing so that they can roll up their sleeves and get the work done or can be in the driver's seat when working with a service provider.
The digital marketing landscape is vast and there is a wide array of skills you can use to build a great digital presence and draw people to it. However, if I had to simplify this into four must-do aspects, they would be as follows:
Firstly, you need to build a customer-focused website. You don't have to build it physically yourself, but the better you understand the process, the closer you can be to it, and the closer you are, the better the result. Twenty years of experience tells me that this improved outcome means that no one, no matter how hard they try, can know your business and your customers like you do.
As much as web developers will do their best to understand what you need from your website, it will always be secondhand. Instead, if you know the fundamentals of user-experience design and information architecture, you can combine this with a basic wireframing tool which will allow you to put together a simple prototype of a website with no technical skills whatsoever. This prototype can be given to your developer. Instead of the developer guessing the best way to articulate your business digitally, you can supply a roadmap allowing the developer effectively to "paint by numbers" as he or she digitises your dreams. The difference will be that you'll have a website that engages customers rather than one that probably does not.
Secondly, you need to make use of search marketing. There are literally hundreds of tactics you can use to bring people to your website and, over time, you should explore some of them. One tactic, however, stands above the rest. For the best bang per buck, I advise that you buy search ads, specifically Google ads. They are highly targeted, have controlled costs and can bring people to your business extremely quickly and cost effectively. Again, you don't have to do this all by yourself and certainly, as your business grows, you should outsource this. But the more you understand it upfront, the better the keywords you will choose and the more compelling the text ads you will write. Why? Because no one knows your business and your customers better than you do.
Thirdly, you must have email marketing skills. Email may be the oldest trick in the book, but it's also the most effective when it comes to retaining customers, building relationships with them and ultimately turning them into life-long buyers and evangelists of your product or service. Again, you can outsource this task and probably should over time, but the essence of a great email marketing programme is the email itself and there is no one better than you to write that email and make targeting decisions because no one knows your business and your customer better than you do! Email is incredibly cheap and gets great results, so don't limit your success by avoiding ownership of this powerful tactic.
Finally, and perhaps most obviously, the skill I really want to encourage you to be in control of is your social media marketing. These days, if your website is the face of your business and your email marketing is your voice, your social media is your personality. Why would you want to outsource your personality?
Social media has given your customers, and indeed the world as a whole, the opportunity to talk with your business directly albeit in a totally public space. This fact has made social media marketing, engagement and community management an absolute business non-negotiable if you want to thrive in the 21st century. I believe it is vital that this function is managed internally in a business or, if you are really big, at least is driven from within the business, if you want to outsource certain executional functions. Once again, this is because no one knows your business and your customers as well as you do, and therefore the ability to communicate with them effectively is severely limited when this function is fulfilled outside the organisation.
In conclusion, I am not advocating that you become a digital marketing guru. What I am recommending is that you take a small amount of time to gain an understanding of the various tools and tactics available to your business, so that you can lead the digital relationship with your customers.
Human relationships cannot be built via proxy. To be genuine and effective they must be built directly. Fortunately the skills required to do this are now not only within your grasp, but are actually quite easy if you invest a small amount of time in getting to understand them.
Rob Stokes is an investor and entrepreneur focused on the technology and education sectors. He founded award-winning digital agency Quirk in 1999; building it into one of the largest digital agencies on the African continent before selling it to the global WPP network in 2014. He is chairman of the Red & Yellow Creative School of Business and director of companies. Red and Yellow, has become a leader in teaching marketing skills for a digital world. USB-ED has partnered with this company to present two courses: Digital Marketing and Social Media: Application and Best Practice.