Nearly Half of SMEs Struggle to Use Digital Marketing Effectively, Our Survey Reveals

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Almost half of UK companies are unsure how to effectively use digital marketing to get ahead online, saying they don’t really know which channels provide the best return on their investment of time, effort and capital, a survey we carried out reveals.

The majority of executives who took part in our poll (49.6%) said their biggest challenge with digital marketing was knowing which traffic source — organic, paid search, social, email, content, digital PR and others — earns the most valuable leads that could be converted into sales.

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Another challenge for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) was working alone, with 48.7% of respondents saying it was difficult to use digital marketing properly when they weren’t part of a team whose members had a speciality in the area.

Others (45.4%) didn’t understand why their target audience wasn’t converting from contacts or leads into sales — perhaps signalling issues with their website, such as overly complicated email capture forms or no calls to action — and more (44.5%) didn’t really know which digital marketing tasks to prioritise.

As for all the data generated from the various digital marketing channels via tracking tools like Google Analytics and Semrush, more than a quarter of respondents (27.7%) were unsure how to use or analyse the information to get the market and customer insights they need.

Waiting for Digital Marketing to Takeoff

Executives at 120 SMEs across the UK who answered our survey questions — sent using survey solution Typeform — also said they were still trying to figure out if they were getting a return on their investment (ROI) in digital marketing.

A total of 40.5% said they weren’t sure, as they’d only just started using digital marketing, while 24.8% said they were getting a solid ROI, and 21.5% were getting enough of a return to pay off their digital marketing costs, and 13.2% felt they were not getting any impact from their digital marketing efforts at all.

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Asked if they got a positive or negative return from their investment during the turbulent and business-challenging year that was 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic raged and countries were plunged into rolling lockdowns, the majority (61.9%) said they got a positive ROI while 38.1% said the result of their digital marketing efforts was negative.

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So which digital marketing channels are working for the SMEs we surveyed? Organic search, using search engine optimisation (SEO) techniques to boost visibility and help websites appear higher in search engine results pages, was the clear winner, with the majority (46.1%) saying it delivered the best results for their companies. It was followed by:

  • Organic social media — 31.3%
  • Paid social (Facebook, Instagram and other social media ads) — 27.8%
  • Email marketing — 27%
  • Pay-Per-Click (PPC) advertising (Google and other search-engine ads) — 25.2%
  • Affiliate marketing — 6.1%

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And the online marketing channels that had the worst ROI?

  • Paid social — 49.6%
  • PPC — 30.6%
  • Organic social media — 16.2%
  • Email marketing — 13.5%
  • Organic search (SEO) — 12.6%

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Where will most of the respondents’ digital marketing budget be spent in 2021?

Nearly half (48.3%) said organic search and SEO, followed by paid social (34.7%), PPC ads (33.9%), email marketing (29.7%), organic social media (22.9%) and affiliate marketing (10.2%).

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Breaking the spend down further, most executives (72.5%) are planning to use Facebook for their paid advertising this year, followed by Facebook-owned Instagram (53.2%) and professional network LinkedIn (24.8%).

Twitter and YouTube were equally matched at 14.7%, while just 7.3% of respondents were planning to advertise on image site Pinterest and the same number on social media newcomer TikTok.

None were interested in discussion forum Reddit or disappearing-messages app Snapchat. Only 0.9% had an interest in encrypted messenger Telegram, which like Facebook’s WhatsApp, has yet to start offering ads.

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Digital Marketing More Important Than Ever

Our businesspeople held the view that digital marketing will become the most important factor in a business’s success in a post-pandemic world where the internet became a lifeline not just for consumers wanting products but for companies desperate to stay in business.

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A total of 65.3% of executives said it was now vital to getting ahead in business and achieving higher levels of sales. An even higher number of respondents — 75.2% — said putting more emphasis on increasing business via internet marketing in 2021 was “hugely important” to them.

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And the majority (55%) said that what they look for most of all in a digital marketing agency to do all their work was honesty, transparency, and plain-speaking — no bamboozling and meaningless marketing-speak — as well as an agency they could trust and understand.

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Remote Digital Marketing Agency or Office-Based?

It didn’t matter to most executives whether their digital marketing agency had an office that they could visit to talk about their digital marketing strategy or if the agency was entirely remote, as with lockdowns increasing the number of people working from home, most are now comfortable with staff working from wherever they happen to be.

The majority of respondents (62.7%) said the location where people work wasn’t important to them, while 31.4% said a totally remote digital marketing agency would be beneficial to their company — perhaps because it might offer more in terms of flexibility and the agency’s fees might be lower than those with the higher overheads of offices.

Additionally, remote agencies can hire the best staff regardless of where they are, a crucial aspect that can hinder a physical setup.

Just 4.2% of participants would like an office-based agency but would still be prepared to use a remote digital marketing company if they had to.

Only 1.7% said they would not be comfortable with remote digital marketing staff because visiting an agency was important to them.

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Trying to Figure Out the Concept of Digital Marketing

Not everyone was fully aware of what digital marketing is and how it’s done, however — perhaps reflecting how it’s still a relatively new field for many companies as they transition from traditional marketing, via mass media, to where audiences increasingly are: online.

Our survey showed that only 38.5% of company executives who took part “knew something” about digital marketing while 35% said they “knew quite a bit” and 11.1% said they were “highly skilled” in digital marketing.

A further 9.4% of respondents said digital marketing was “a bit of a grey area”, and 6% said they “don’t know much about it”.

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What are companies hoping to get from their digital marketing investment, whether they do it themselves or appoint a digital marketing agency to do it for them?

Unsurprisingly, almost all respondents — 90.7% — said it was to get more leads and sales.

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More traffic to their websites was the aim for 40.5% of respondents, and brand awareness was key for 40.5% of those who took part in our survey regarding what they wanted to achieve with their digital marketing strategies.

How Did Content Fare in Our Digital Marketing Survey?

A large part of having a website is continually creating content to put on it, whether companies do it themselves or appoint a digital marketing agency to execute the content part of a campaign for them.

We wanted to know how our executives felt about the content element of digital marketing, whether it was important to them or not, and if they were investing time and effort into writing web copy, blog posts, knowledge base-type articles as information for their customers and other online material.

An overwhelming majority of respondents (71.9%) believed that content was very important for their company’s website, agreeing that high-quality content is hugely important in getting higher levels of traffic from search engines.

A further 20.7% said high-quality content was vital for impressing their customers, while just 5% said they weren’t sure about how important content on a website is and a tiny 2.5% said it wasn’t important at all and that content was not a key part of their overall digital marketing strategy.

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How Important Are Blogs to a Company’s Fortunes?

Most companies have a blog attached to their website, and they update it with regular posts to keep their content fresh and to satisfy Google that the best sites are those with high-quality content that’s frequently added to.

Blog posts also serve to develop and maintain relationships with customers and potential new ones and position a company as an authority in its sector by publishing informative posts that are valuable to readers.

The majority of executives at the companies we polled (56.9%) said their website’s blog was important to them because it added value to the website and the company.

Half of the respondents said their blog drives traffic to their website and 45.1% said their blog and posts enhance their brand.

Another 42.2% of participants agreed that their blog develops relationships with current and new customers and 29.4% said they were better able to reach out to people on social media by sharing their blog posts on the various social networks.

Additionally, blogs also earn sales, with 17.6% of businesspeople who took part in our survey saying their posts directly created leads and sales for their company.

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What about SEO?

We also wanted to know about firms’ reliance on SEO as a digital marketing method of gaining more traffic and, therefore, higher levels of conversions and, ultimately, sales.

SEO includes many elements, such as ensuring a site is configured properly and there are no broken links between pages. Plus writing meta descriptions of pages that appear in search results, keyword research, making sure a site is responsive and displays and functions across the range of devices in use today and lots more.

Our poll asked respondents if SEO, whether done in-house or outsourced to a digital marketing agency, was vital to their business.

  • The majority (71.2%) answered yes. Search engine traffic was their most important source of visitors to their site.
  • Only 15.3% said no, that SEO and search engine traffic wasn’t important to their company.
  • An additional 9.3% said they tried SEO before but didn’t get a good return on their spend and so they had ditched it as a way of generating leads and sales.

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Paying for traffic, on the other hand, by way of running PPC ads on search engines and social media platforms, was mostly seen by respondents as effective, but 31.1% said it cost too much.

A further 23.5% said they didn’t use PPC as part of their digital marketing strategy because it’s too expensive, and 19.3% of firms surveyed said they use PPC, but it wasn’t a crucial element of their overall marketing efforts.

Only 16% said PPC is highly effective and cost-efficient for them, while 10.1% don’t use PPC at all because they don’t know how to.

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The key takeaway from our 2021 digital marketing survey is that there’s still a way to go before companies figure out and master this vital way of attracting new customers and growing their business. But with the digital economy booming, that’s sure to soon change.

Not sure about your digital marketing strategy?

Get advice from the best in the business by getting a free website and marketing review from the experts at Exposure Ninja now.

Our survey involved 120 companies in the United Kingdom and was carried out via email in February 2021.

Download all the graphics from this survey via Dropbox:

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