Small Business Advertising for Beginners

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When you hear the words “small business advertising,” do you shudder because immediately you start imagining having to pay someone tons of money with no guarantees it will actually help your business?  You’re not alone.

Tons of small businesses struggle to figure out the best way to advertise for their products and services without blowing their budget.  Yet small businesses still advertise every single day. A return-on-investment (ROI) or even a return-on-ad-spend (ROAS) from advertising must be possible or small businesses would have stopped years ago.

In the chart below, you can see that the ROAS (for all types of advertising included) is at least four times the initial investment.

Of course, the key to that type of ROI is smart planning. In this blog post, you’ll learn all about small business advertising including the difference between marketing and advertising, traditional advertising options, digital advertising options and how to plan your advertising...even what questions to ask! Read on, your business depends on it!

Small business marketing vs. small business advertising

Marketing is defined by the American Marketing Association as:

“the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.”

Advertising is a specific form of marketing communication that uses a sponsored (paid-for) message to promote or sell a product, service or idea. In other words, advertising is only one of many marketing activities your business might do. Allow me to elaborate.

Traditional small business advertising options

For a long time, small businesses were limited to traditional advertising options. While these can still be effective in some cases, in general, they can quickly become very costly for small business.

  • Print: Print advertising includes ads in print magazines, newspapers, and other publications.
  • Television: Of course, small business owners can't expect to see their ad on the Super Bowl, but local cable television advertising can be affordable for small businesses, and also helps them target local customers.
  • Radio: Many people still listen to the radio, especially in their cars, so depending on your target market, this can be a good advertising option.
  • Out-of-Home: This encompasses any advertising that takes place outdoors or in public places, such as bus stops, movie theatre ads, billboards etc.

Digital small business advertising options

Compared to traditional advertising, online advertising has opened up a world of affordable, easy-to-use choices for small business owners. Digital advertising can also be more valuable to business owners, since 55% of people learn about products by going online and 74% of people go online daily. Advertising online can be the best way to capture your target customers' attention.

Popular online channels for small business advertising

Given how accessible digital advertising is to small business owners, it’s worth exploring the different options available online. Here we’ll look at two of the most popular forms of online advertising for small businesses: pay-per-click (PPC) ads and social media ads.


Fewer than one-third (30%) of small businesses with 10 or fewer employees invest in PPC advertising. That means doing so could put you ahead of the competition.

PPC ads come in two flavors: search and display.

Search Ads

PPC search ads show up first on a search engine results page and look very similar to the results. In the screenshot below we can see that the first three results are paid ads inside Google’s search results for the term “general contractors”.

With 30 Billion Google searches per month and 75% of local searches turning into in-store visits within 24 hours, PPC ads in Google are the way to go! But Bing is also a strong competitor when it comes to PPC search ads. Bing says advertising on their network will get you eyes from 60 Million searchers not reached by Google:

Try Google Ads, try Bing Ads, the point is to try PPC search advertising for your small business! It’s the fastest way to get leads, but isn’t always intuitive. If needed, services for managing small business PPC campaigns are available to help.

Display Ads

Display ads are another form of PPC advertising. Display and search ads are both called pay-per-click ads because the advertiser only pays when someone clicks on their ad.

Display ads aren’t shown in search engines though. Instead of appearing on search engine results pages, they show up on websites that your target customers visit. They also come in different shapes and sizes and depending where they can appear, they can be in image, video or audio formats.  

Here's an example of a display ad (circled in red) at the top of a news website:

Display ads can also run elsewhere on the page, like this example (also circled in red):

While these are examples of typical banner-style display ads, small business owners could also try more sophisticated types of display ads like Spotify or YouTube. Before you go that route though, you may also want to give social media advertising a whirl.

Social Media Ads

Many small businesses supplement their online presence by using social media advertising in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and many more. Each platform has different methods to advertise and offers different audience demographics to advertisers, but not every platform will be right for your business. For example, if your small business has physical products to sell, visual social media platforms like Instagram may work well for your campaign.

In Facebook promoted posts are a type of ad available that look similar to regular posts and show up in users' social media feeds. Here's an example of a Facebook ad below. It’s eye-catching with its lovely imagery but video can also be used.  

How to plan your small business advertising

Ok small business owner get your pens and pencils ready because it’s time to start planning your next advertising campaign!

1. Set goals

As with just about any business activity, the first step in planning your advertising is identifying your goals. What do you want your advertising to achieve? Be specific and make your goals measurable. For example, you might want to get 50 leads to contact your business, or get orders for 100 units of your product in the next month.

2. Select the product or service to advertise

In general, advertising typically promotes a specific product, service, event or offering, rather than just the business itself. For instance, if you own a landscaping business, you may want to promote different seasonal services, such as tree trimming, garden design or lawn re-sodding, at the appropriate times of year.

3. Pinpoint your target audience

Who is your ideal target customer — not just for your business as a whole, but for the specific product, service, event or special offering that you want to advertise? Your target customer can vary greatly depending on your advertising goal.

For example, if you own a women's clothing boutique, you'd advertise to women most of the year. Around Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, or other gift-giving holidays; however, you should also advertise to men who might be buying gifts for the women in their lives.

Map your target audience to what you want to advertise and even when these ad campaigns make sense. You can create a demographic profile of the target audience for each ad, including:

  • Location
  • Gender
  • Household income
  • Marital status
  • Age
  • Pain points (ie. I need an accountant in March)

4. Identify the best way to reach your target audience

Once you've got your target audience narrowed down, it's time to figure out which advertising channels offer the best way to reach them. The advertising channels you are considering should be able to supply you with specifics about who will be seeing your ads (ie. who their audience is).

For example, a print ad in a local newspaper might be able to target people in a specific city or group of cities, while an online ad could target people much more narrowly. Advertising in a print magazine may enable you to target people based on hobbies and interests, such as skiing or decorating. Or, suppose your clothing boutique is trying to reach husbands with Valentine's Day ads, and you’re thinking about advertising on cable television. The cable provider’s ad sales reps can tell you which shows and times of day will be most effective in reaching married men in your area.

In the case of PPC ads, where all kinds of users interact with search, display and social ads, you can set your target audience in each. However in the planning phase just get an idea of where you want to advertise and who you want to target there.

5. Set a budget

How much should you spend on small business advertising?  That depends on your goals, your industry and your chosen advertising channels. There's no one agreed-upon measure for how much a small business should spend on advertising. Experts recommend everything from 2-3% to 20% in highly competitive industries. No one can decide what your business should spend on marketing except your accountant!

But if you don’t have one or want to lead the discussion, your industry or trade association can be a good source for benchmarks on what percentage of your annual revenues should be invested in advertising. You can also get an idea by looking at what type of advertising your competitors are doing.

Keep in mind that your advertising budget may be higher at certain times of the year and lowered others. For example, if you own a retail store or e-commerce website, you’ll undoubtedly increase your advertising budget during the holiday shopping season.

Questions to ask your small business ad provider

If you decide to advertise on a radio channel, in print or even on Instagram, you should ask certain questions before you start. You can look these up online or ask your rep to help decide which makes the most sense for your small business:

How narrowly can I target an audience with this advertising method?

What are the minimum costs for the amount of advertising I would need to make an impression?

Running an ad once is unlikely to have a big effect on your sales, because people need to be exposed to an ad several times before it makes an impression. Ad salespeople can advise you as to how many times your ad should run for best results.  Look for the option that gives you the most bang for your buck.

What is the lead time for advertising?

Online ads can be created and placed in minutes. However cable television or radio ads require longer lead times, because you need to plan and record the ad, and wait until air time is available. Even print ads in a newspaper or magazine need to be planned fairly far ahead. If you’re in a rush, look for an option you can implement immediately, such as online advertising.

How flexible is this advertising medium?

Can you make changes to your advertising if necessary? For example, suppose you run a print ad in the phone book, but when it's printed, your telephone number is incorrect. You'll have to wait for the next edition of the phone book to come out before you can correct that mistake. Again online ads are more flexible than traditional advertising mediums.

How easy is it to measure your results?

Whether you’re placing print ads, broadcast ads or digital ads, there are methods you can use to track which ads drive customers to your website or get them to call your business. For instance, in a print ad or TV commercial, you could include a code like "SUMMER60” that people can use when placing an order. This will tell you which orders came from that ad. Tracking varies greatly between different forms on small business advertising.

Small business advertising: what are you waiting for?

Now that you know the basics of small business advertising, take some time to go through the steps I've outlined above. Explore ways to advertise your business and make some decisions about what would work best in your unique situation.

You don't have to dive into advertising headfirst — just dipping your toe in the water can make a huge difference in your businesses sales and success.


Products mentioned in this blog post include:

Image Credits

Feature Image: Unsplash/Kate Trysh
All screenshots by author. Taken October 2018.
Image 1: Screenshot via Statista
Image 2: Screenshot via Google
Image 3: GIF via Bing
Image 4: Screenshot via Facebook