bank robber

When asked why he robbed banks, urban lore has famed bank robber Willie Sutton responding, “because that’s where the money is.” The same thinking can be applied to internet marketing. Why, if you run a business, do you need a robust web presence? “Because that’s where the traffic is.” Most small business owners, struggling in a post-yellow pages world, know this.

Unfortunately, the web is an inefficient marketplace in some respects. The best information doesn’t always rise to the top in both earned and paid digital media.

Earned Media

There are various forms of digital earned media, but one of the most prominent is organic search on engines like Google. In theory, create good content and you or your business will rise to the top of the search engine rankings for a particular keyword or query.

Online Marketing Earned MediaHowever, theory and practice don’t always play on the same field. For example, there are many factors that influence search engine rankings, from social signals to links, even domain age. As a result, big companies like Amazon monopolize search engine results pages (or SERPs).

It’s also rumored that Google has a preference for big brands, which dovetails with Google’s former CEO and current executive chairman Eric Schmidt’s now infamous “brand” comment. “Brands are the solution, not the problem,” he said. “Brands are how you sort out the cesspool. Brand affinity is clearly hard wired. It is so fundamental to human existence that it’s not going away. It must have a genetic component.”

Unless you’re a major shareholder in Amazon or its brethren, these are scary words, particularly if you run a small business.

Paid Media

Given the intense competition for organic search rankings, many small business owners turn toward paid media, specifically pay-per-click (PPC).

It’s a basic equation – you pay Google (or if you’re adventurous, Bing) for a click, and it sends you a visitor. Your hope – expectation – is that the visitor will buy from you.Online Marketing Paid Media

For a small business pressed for time, PPC might seem like the best solution. You only get charged when Google sends you traffic. Further, the clicks are a function of the keywords that you bid on. Are you a dog walker in Durham, NC? Then you might, so the thinking goes, bid on “dog walker” and attract dozens of dog owners to your business (if you’re smart, assuming decent traffic, you’d attach a local modifier, like “Durham”).

Unfortunately, the simplicity of PPC is deceptive. A click might sound cheap at two dollars. After all, the lifetime value of a pet owner could be thousands of dollars. Clearly, the ROI on a two dollar investment could be enormous. However, multiple factors contribute to a successful PPC campaign, including cost-per-click, conversion rate and search volume for a particular keyword.

As a result, many people spend a lot of money quickly with PPC, often with few conversions (or sales) to show for their investment. The same holds true for other paid media channels, including media buys on ad networks.

So What’s the Solution?

Given the difference in relative business models, skills, budgets, geography and industry, there’s no single path that a small business can take to achieve success online. Further, any low-hanging digital fruit – easy sales – are eventually converged upon to the point where all the profit is bled out of it.

So each small business owner needs to find his or her own path to success. The best way to do so is through rapid testing across multiple channels. Buy PPC traffic, test banner ads, create good content, engage in social media.

Online Marketing MixFinally, never rely on one single channel. Even if, for example, you were fortunate enough to find a few profitable keywords from your first foray into PPC, it’s important that you also produce good content for your site. You never know how long those keywords will produce for you. Only through testing can you find the opportunities that produce a positive ROI for your unique business.

Despite the risks and complexity outlined above, I think digital marketing holds immense opportunity for anyone who takes the time to test and learn. I’m actually pretty convinced that if Willy Sutton were alive today, he’d be an online marketer.