Perhaps the most asked question of small businesses in the past three years is: “How do we measure return on social media, blogging, and digital marketing?”

Translation: If we spend time, money, or energy on these pseudo-marketing activities, is there a measurable return we can expect (in like five minutes)?

Since we are impatient for ROI on digital digital marketing playbookmarketing, let me ask you another question: Does every ongoing conversation that you have with your customers translate to a measurable return? You know, those golf outings, happy hours, incentive trips, and other glad-handing activities. Can you truly calculate revenue to your bottom line from those relationship building activities?

Together now, let’s shake our heads from left to right and say, “No, we cannot.” Yet we do them anyhow.

When you answer the question completely honestly, the bottom line is you just don’t know. You think you know because customers may tell you they had a terrific time, but unless you are in a controlled experiment where you can hold the “relationship building” variable constant, there is no actual way of knowing.

Let me digress…and get to digital marketing.

Relationship building, done online

If I had to liken digital marketing to something that makes sense for any marketing manager on the planet, it would be this: The way your company does digital marketing should be exactly like the way it does “real-life” relationship building.

With this caveat, the assumption is your business cares about nurturing customers, suppliers and relationships. So what does this mean? You can’t golf, have dinner, or share a cocktail over Wi-Fi, so it isn’t exactly the same.

But what you can do is be consistently engaging, provide content that is high quality and useful to your prospective and current clients, while making sure to be responsive in a similar manner to traditional mediums.

It is through those recurring and valuable interactions that relationships between buyers and brands take place, making your brand more humanistic and the relationship more meaningful.

Is online engagement the new SEO?

Did you know that Google is changing its algorithm yet again to make it impossible for marketers to see what keywords are driving search traffic to their site?

Yup, it completely changes the game and simultaneously puts the onus back on companies to actually talk to their customers. I liken this to how old media advertising has lost tremendous value as people stop reading physical newspapers and how they now skip commercials with their DVRs.

Freedom of choice allows people to choose what content they engage with. Much like who we befriend, buyers now engage with brands and content they want, and the ability for marketers to short circuit this with ad words and other keyword marketing techniques is being trivialized more and more each day.

Should marketing trump sales?

Companies spend more on sales and pay their sales people more. This isn’t subjective, it is absolute truth. Companies often see sales as paramount to marketing. Some companies don’t market at all, they really just depend on sales to go find customers and it can work to an extent.

But today things are changing. According to Forrester, potential buyers are more than 70 percent through the purchasing decision before they engage sales.

If this is the case, then where are they getting their info from? Clearly not from a sales person.

They are getting it from content marketing. Moreover, they are reading the blogs and other content shared by companies and using that as the insight they need to move toward a purchase decision.

The same report indicated that the amount of content a buyer engaged with prior to a purchase was 10 pieces in 2011, up from five in 2010. Hence, people are getting more and more dependent on content for buying decisions, technology amongst the highest in dependency.

So spend away on sales, but the impact may be less than you think.

Final word on digital marketing for small businesses

If you want your organization to have a strong online community, you have to treat digital marketing with the same care you treat your real life interactions. Behind the monitor are people at every end. Aand while the correspondences may at times feel less than human, they are.

But the winds of change are blowing and like the shift we have seen from hardware to integration and then integration to service, the way we communicate with customers is forever changed.

It is your choice whether to make that for the worse or for the better, but it is manageable.

Is your company ready to take advantage of the new digital consumer?

What do you see as the future of digital marketing?

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