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Whenever I meet with a client for the first time, one of the first things I hear them say is "I have so much competition online and it's really hard to stand out."
Ten years ago, just having a website was enough to differentiate your business from the millions of companies that didn't have one. Now, a website is practically a prerequisite to starting a business, like getting a bank account and filing your LLC paperwork.
Standing out got harder.
Social media promised to change that. By setting up accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, you could interact with a wide base of potential customers directly. For many businesses, social media did work—for a while. But the flood of new business pages on those platforms and changes to their algorithms made it harder to start and grow a new profile from scratch without spending large amounts of money on advertising.
Standing out got harder—again.
Yet an army of bloggers, coaches, agencies, and software companies continues to parrot the same old advice in thousands of articles across the web:
- "Be active on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter."
- "Set up a blog and post on it regularly."
- "Install an SEO plugin."
- "Pick a narrower niche to market to."
- "Build an email newsletter and send out coupons."
Here's the problem:
Everyone is doing the exact same things and getting similarly bad results.
If you want your business to stand out online, you're going to have to think outside the box and find efficient, cost-effective ways to promote your business. In this article, I'm going to give you some tips on how to differentiate your business from the competition.
Adopt a Unique Look and Tone for Your Business
Have you ever noticed that small business websites in the same industry all tend to have a similar look and feel?
Financial services websites all tend to be blue or green, with serif text and lots of columns.
Insurance agents all have blue websites with a picture of a house or a minivan on the top portion of the homepage.
Digital marketing agencies all have pictures of their office and the company dog.
On one hand, you could say that businesses tend to gravitate towards a certain look because customers expect it and because they'd be suspicious of something that doesn't have familiar imagery.
But if you have a website that looks like everyone else's—and you're not getting results—it's time to consider radically changing the look and tone of your business's website.
The first and most obvious thing to change is the visual design of your site. Try out bolder color schemes. Consider hiring a professional photographer to take pictures of your business and your staff, especially while they're working on a project. Add curves and angles into your site's design to break up the "stacked blocks" look that so many other sites suffer from.
After that, you should focus on your site's text (called "copy" in the marketing world). One excellent resource to consult is Harry Dry's Marketing Examples, which shows real-world before-and-after examples of marketing copy that have been improved.
In general, you should strive for a conversational tone, write in short sentences, and focus on how your business's product(s) or service(s) can make the customer's life better, easier, or more fulfilling.
Don't be afraid of being bolder or edgier than your competitors. Changing the look and tone of your business online is a free, quick, and easy way to make a strong impression on potential customers.
Personalize Your Customer Communications
The internet has made doing business a million times more impersonal.
Face-to-face conversations have been replaced with formulaic emails. The tactile and sensory experience of in-person shopping has been replaced by clicking your mouse, entering your credit card information, and getting a tracking number.
But this drive toward ruthless efficiency has created a golden opportunity for independent business owners who are willing to seize it.
Your business can instantly distinguish itself from the competition with stellar customer service.
The bar is set so low nowadays that any amount of personal attention stands out.
If you have space on your homepage, adding a picture of your team and a few lines about how your business got started will help customers put a face to your business.
If you sell products, consider enclosing a pre-printed note with your packages thanking the customer for their order, offering them a discount on a future order, and giving them a number or email address so that they can contact you in case of any problems. Initial it or sign it by hand to emphasize that their order was handled by a real person, not a robot in a mega warehouse.
Instead of sending the same old boring messages out to your email newsletter, why not record and attach a short video thanking your customers for their support? Better yet, you can use a tool like Bonjoro to help you record personalized messages for people who buy items from your Shopify store or sign up for your newsletter for the first time.
If you have a messaging platform that connects with the front end of your website (we've had good luck with Crisp), consider responding to messages on it yourself during normal business hours if time permits. With so many businesses going over to AI chatbots, phone trees, and automated email responses, actually getting through to a real human being will result in a positive customer experience—and more business as a result.
Respond to constructive messages that are left for your business on social media. Your replies can be short and to-the-point, but people will remember that you took the time to respond with something other than a canned message.
It's hard to compete with your big-name competition in terms of price. But larger businesses tend to struggle with the human element. Focus on connecting with your customers on a personal level and you'll be rewarded with extra word-of-mouth referrals and increased customer loyalty.
Seek Out and Display Reviews
One phrase you hear a lot in the marketing world is "social proof." Social proof is something that shows that other people have worked with your business before and have had a great experience.
It's an uncomfortable truth, but the internet is full of sleazy, fly-by-night businesses. It's easier than ever for a lousy business to create a professional-looking site, set up a social media presence, and fool people into buying from them.
The way that the average person stays safe while navigating the online business world is by reading reviews. We're all familiar with the two biggest review sites—Google Reviews and Yelp—but people also check out reviews on niche-specific sites, on recommendation / lead generation sites like Angi and Thumbtack, and on the websites of businesses they're researching.
As a business owner, you need to stay on top of your customer reviews. They give you valuable feedback that helps you make better decisions and figure out what you're doing right (and wrong). Unfortunately, a lot of businesses take a passive approach, resulting in missed opportunities for testimonials and a preponderance of negative feedback, since dissatisfied customers are more likely to leave a review than satisfied ones.
Consider using a testimonial automation tool like Endorsal that plugs into your existing e-commerce platform or customer relationship management (CRM) suite and automatically asks users for reviews after a successful transaction. Endorsal has the added bonus of being able to redirect customers to Google, Facebook, Yelp, TrustPilot, and other review sites so that you can increase your reviews on sites where you may be lagging behind.
A less obvious benefit to automating your testimonial gathering is that you have an opportunity to head off bad reviews before a customer leaves them on another site. Give customers the chance to deal directly with you or a member of your team and work out a resolution. In many cases, that will be enough to turn a potential zero or one-star review into a three-star or higher.
Once you've gotten some reviews and testimonials, you should display them prominently on your own site, preferably next to a call-to-action button that prompts your site visitors to take the next step toward a sale.
Taking a proactive approach to managing your business's online reputation will help distinguish it from all the other businesses that treat their reviews as an afterthought.
Use Niche Advertising to Reach More Potential Customers
One of the most common suggestions you find on digital marketing blogs is to run a pay-per-click ad campaign to advertise your business.
There are some definite upsides to this approach. With Google Ad Sense, in particular, running an ad for your business's name ensures that you will always appear toward the top of the search results, even if your site is new.
The problem with PPC (pay per click) and PPI (pay per impression) ads is that you can potentially rake up hundreds of dollars a day in fees with zero return. You're bidding against all of your serious competitors for people's attention on overcrowded sites.
It is possible to do well with these types of ads, but you need to be extremely good at copywriting, and you have to aggressively target and test your ads to improve their performance—and decrease clicks from people who are just window shopping.
Most small businesses don't have thousands of dollars sitting around in the advertising budget to spend on simply learning how to run an ad campaign.
What's worse—with so many people running ad blocking extensions in their browsers, it's become harder for businesses on traditional ad networks to reach their customers.
That's why it's important to find advertising opportunities that will give you the most bang for your buck. That means looking at niche-specific advertising networks and ones with less competition.
The first place to look is on the platforms your business may already be using. Many platforms allow paid advertising, not just social media sites. UberEats, for example, allows restaurants to pay to boost their position in the company's suggestion algorithm.
Next, you might want to scout out advertising networks that are specific to the niche that you're in. Many ad networks require large minimum ad spends and only work with larger brands, but there are plenty without such requirements.
Some great examples of niche advertising networks include:
- Mantis Ad Network is popular with CBD and cannabis-related businesses, who can find it hard to advertise through traditional channels. Mantis offers low, transparent pricing and self-service options to make it easy to set up an ad campaign.
- BuySellAds is great for reaching an audience of web developers, cryptocurrency enthusiasts, and lovers of high-tech gadgets. They give you multiple channels for distributing your ads, like native advertising in blogs and publications or via email newsletters.
- Carbon Ads is another great network for targeting web developers and digital product creators. Carbon Ads tend to be displayed in a more natural and less intrusive way than ads from other networks.
Advertising on less-crowded and more specific channels still costs a decent amount of money, but it can help you reach outside of your word-of-mouth referral network and your local community.
Write and Distribute Press Releases
At first glance, this suggestion might seem like it crawled out of 1995.
In the pre-internet age, press releases and outreach to journalists were key strategies for businesses looking to get noticed. If people wanted to know what was going on, they turned to television, radio, or the local newspaper. And local reporters tended to get a lot of information from press releases.
A press release is, essentially, a blend between news and advertising. Press releases contain information that would be newsworthy in its own right, like a grand opening announcement, a promotion that would be of interest to your community, or a tie-in with an event of national or international significance. In short, a press release should tell a story.
In an age where most journalists are on Twitter and news cycles (and attention spans) are short, it might surprise you to learn that press releases are still extremely relevant.
In fact, press releases are still one of the primary ways that news outlets get information about businesses. This is especially true for local and regional news agencies and industry news sources.
The main benefit to generating publicity via the occasional press release is that news sources have a very wide audience. Because a newsworthy story written about your business is free, and the costs of distributing a press release are low (typically in the hundreds of dollars), it can be a cost-efficient, high-impact way to get more publicity for your business.
Outside of simply getting featured in news sources, press releases have a lot of benefits in their own right. These include:
- High domain authority backlinks (which can improve your Google ranking)
- Getting your business to rank for additional keywords
- Establishing expertise in the eyes of your customers and industry peers
- Building credibility with journalists
Because a press release needs to be newsworthy, it has to follow journalistic writing standards. A well-written press release uses the inverted pyramid format, where the most important details come first and background information goes last. It should contain relevant facts and figures and quotes from you, the business owner.
It's generally a good idea to hire an experienced writer to create a press release for you. Your press release will benefit from the objectivity and distance of someone who isn't a direct part of your business. Press releases that come across as spammy or self-serving won't get you much traction, and worse, they could hurt your reputation.
Using press releases sets you apart from competitors who don't. It allows you to take advantage of free publicity and establish your business as a leader in your community and within your industry.
Claim Your Google My Business Profile
One of the most effective ways to reach new customers also happens to be the easiest.
Despite how easy it is to use—and the fact that it's free—comparatively few businesses claim their profile and take advantage of it.
Google My Business is the name for the box that appears in the search results when you're looking for a specific business or type of business.
It contains all of the relevant information about your business—like your contact info, hours, and website link—all in one place. You can upload photos of your business or your products, and you can even advertise specific products or services.
Google My Business also includes an optional messaging feature that allows customers to contact you directly through your profile. This can be a very useful feature, but only if you are sure you will check your messages often.
Perhaps most importantly, Google My Business also allows customers to leave reviews. Your Google reviews will typically be the first set of reviews that a potential customer encounters, which makes it extremely important to claim your Google My Business profile.
Claiming your Google My Business listing involves receiving a postcard in the mail to confirm your address. Once you receive it, you enter a code on the website and verify your account.
It's a common misconception that Google My Business is only for businesses with a permanent physical location. Contractors, mobile businesses, and food trucks can register as a "service area business" and select the areas they work in.
Google My Business is great for business owners because it doesn't require much time to set up and update, and it delivers a lot of value quickly. Be sure to keep the business information you entered into it (name, website, address, hours) consistent across all your social media channels and your website to receive the maximum SEO benefits when customers search for your business.
Use Influencer Marketing For Product-Based Businesses
Trying to get noticed on social media these days is an uphill battle.
You've likely found it hard to break outside your initial audience of family, friends, and initial customers. Ten years ago, it was fairly easy for a new Facebook page or Instagram account to get a lot of likes right off the bat. Now, changes in social media sites' algorithms and the sheer number of competitors on major platforms mean that it's exponentially harder to get noticed.
If your business is primarily centered around a product that you produce and sell, influencer marketing can be a great way to build credibility and drive sales.
Influencers—if you're not already aware—are people who have built large followings on social media. Some of the first major social media influencers were gamers streaming their playthroughs on YouTube, but nowadays, you can find influencers for just about every interest or niche.
Influencer marketing works by allowing your business to leverage an influencer's fan base. For a fee, the influencer will talk about or review your product, putting it in front of a much larger audience than you otherwise would have been able to tap into.
Food items, clothing, pet fashion, fitness products, home and garden products, jewelry, health products, restaurants, food trucks, and DIY / crafts all tend to do well with influencer marketing.
It's not impossible to promote services or less consumer-focused products via influencer marketing, but it may be much harder to find influencers who can effectively market what you're selling.
So how do you go about finding influencers? One way is to search popular Instagram hashtags and identify them yourself. Some people will post contact instructions for collaborations in their bio or on their Linktree. Another way is to use a platform like Influence.co, which allows you to search for influencers using criteria like follower count, engagement, and how much they charge.
The nice thing about influencer marketing is that it's a fairly direct way to advertise. Influencers usually attract a fairly specific active following in their niche, and sponsoring a post puts your product in front of the entire audience.
Sponsor a Podcast or Video Channel
Podcasting has exploded in popularity these past few years. No matter what you're interested in, chances are someone is recording a series about it.
Because it's such a convenient way to get information—and be entertained—it's been a staple of long commutes for a while now. And with so many of us working from home throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, podcasts have also become popular listening throughout the workday, something that's likely here to stay.
Similarly, YouTube has evolved from a platform dominated by 3-5 minute videos of cats and goofy stunts to one with lots of channels producing excellent long-form content on every topic imaginable, from sports, fitness, and travel to investing, history, cooking, and woodworking.
Despite how popular they've become, podcasts and video channels remain underutilized from an advertising perspective. And that's a shame because what they offer is a goldmine:
- Targeted audiences in specific niches
- High engagement
- Long duration of ads (usually thirty seconds to a minute)
- Advertising copy presented in the host's voice
Sponsoring episodes on the most popular podcasts / video channels can be costly. From a small or midsized business perspective, you want to aim for up-and-coming channels with interesting hosts that have thousands or tens of thousands of downloads per month.
Before you reach out to podcasters or YouTube creators, take a look through their past episodes. Get a sense for:
- How consistently they produce good content that you enjoy listening to
- What kind of audience do they attract
- How engaged their audience is (through comments, shares, likes, subscriptions, patronage, etc.)
- How controversial their takes are (and if you're okay with your business being tied to them in today's cancel culture)
If they already have a sponsor or two, you should also get a sense of whether or not they are actually trying out the sponsored products or services they're promoting, and how sincere or enthusiastic they sound while promoting them.
You can approach podcasters or YouTube channel creators directly if you have their contact information, especially if they aren't big enough yet to qualify for an advertising network.
If you're looking to target larger channels and have a bigger budget, you can go through a dedicated network like AdvertiseCast, which can help you target your ads to specific interests and demographics. Going through an ad network also helps you get featured on multiple channels at once, increasing the likelihood that your brand name sticks out in customers' minds.
Working with podcasters and video channel creators is a great way to reach outside your geographical area but still engage an audience that shares the interests and demographics of your core customer base.
Differentiating your business from the competition is difficult in a digital environment that's so crowded with competition, but it is doable.
The key, as with any area of digital marketing, is to look for the opportunities that other businesses have missed and use them to your advantage.
One final tip: consider partnering with a digital marketing agency that specializes in small and midsized businesses. (We're partial to our agency, of course!)
Working with an experienced digital marketing professional will help you create a distinctive image for your business and identify channels for promoting your business that is highly relevant to the customers you want to reach. Best of all, it will allow you to focus more of your time on the ultimate differentiator—delivering quality service to your customers.