Bring your brand online (without breaking the bank)

BY Mike Barber


For new small businesses, if you’re not online, you’re not anywhere. While you might have a simple website in place, you need to take the next step in creating a full

digital strategy, brand voice, visual identity and customer experience—across all channels, including social media. Once you get all of the pieces in place, your target audience can start to trust you not just as a business, but also as a brand.

Start thinking beyond just making your goods or services available online.

Shifting a business from the physical world to the online one can feel daunting. Whether you’re trying to find the right digital platforms for your business’s needs or dealing with cranky customers’ comments, there is no shortage of pitfalls to avoid as you grow in this ever-evolving space.

Let’s go over a few standard considerations for building your brand online.

Know why you’re there

During the recent lockdowns pretty much everywhere around the world, many bricks-and-mortar businesses had to pivot very quickly to get online.

And if you did the same, the initial strategy was likely to “start selling online”—ASAP.

But as things start to get back to normal, it’s a good time to start thinking beyond just making your goods or services available online. Competition—both online and offline—is ramping up again. A digital strategy is key to making the most of your efforts. Some things to consider:

  1. What do your customers really want? It might not be as simple as them wanting to order a pizza, to buy shoes or to book a plumber. Instead, think about the need that your product is fulfilling:
    • Do they want to feel like they deserve a little luxury in their busy week?
    • Do they want to feel like they’re special, by getting a one-of-a kind creation?
    • Do they want to be reassured by a service guarantee and positive reviews?

    Getting at the deeper desire is the first step to understanding your digital strategy.

  1. When do customers decide to access your product? Is it an impulse purchase, an emergency need, or one that happens at the end of a long process of research? Knowing where you fit into a customer’s day will help you create a content strategy—both paid and organic—that puts your brand front and centre when they want you.
  2. How will you measure success? Are you looking for brand awareness, increased online sales, increased store traffic, downloads from your site, better social media engagement, etc.? Get your measurements in place, so you can see if your strategy is working—and adjust as needed if it isn’t.

Find your voice

A brand “voice” is the language you use to communicate not just your business’s products or services, but also its personality.

Is your brand friendly and approachable? Serious and responsible? Iconoclastic and irreverent?

Ideally, this personality flows from the people who comprise your business and the values you bring to it. Forcing a personality for your brand will work about as well as doing so would for a person, so stick to the language that comes naturally to you and your audience.

You might want to develop a list of words and phrases that can be used in copy, whether for your website, social media posts or a newsletter, that express those personality traits well. Write them down as you think of them, or use a thesaurus to broaden your brand’s lexicon, so that you can hold readers’ interest over the long term.

Likewise, if your competitors “own” a particular phrase or word, make a note to avoid using that in your own communications.

As your brand grows and more people become involved in its articulation, it can become difficult to control its voice without some rules.

I’m an editor, so of course I’m going to recommend that you should always have a minimum of one other person review any public-facing communications, whether it’s a Google Ad, a blog post or even (and perhaps especially) something as brief as a tweet.

Biases aside, though, it’s important to develop some sort of quality control: good writing often goes unnoticed, but bad writing never does.

Nail the look

When applied thoughtfully and consistently, a visual identity can become shorthand for everything your brand stands for.

In an ideal world, every visual component of your brand, from your logo to your website to the typeface of your business card, should be working in concert to express the brand’s promise.

Whether you work with an agency or a designer—or if you do the work yourself—you’ll want to make sure your brand identity is different from that of your competitors, is authentic to your brand personality, and makes sense for the type of industry you’re in.

Your logo also needs to be uncomplicated; think about all of the places where it will be shown—a logo that’s legible when printed out on a white background may not work when it’s embroidered on a jacket, or shrunk down on a mobile website.

And, finally, remember that your logo can never tell the entire story of your brand; it can only gain meaning over time.

Don’t reinvent the wheel with your website

Gone are the days when you needed a custom-built website that’s different for the sake of being different.

Users want to be able to navigate your site efficiently, which means they know what they’re looking for, and they want to get to it quickly. Just like driving on the right-hand side of the road or using a turn signal while driving, websites now have a number of conventions—whether the site is for retail, restaurants, services, etc.—and if you mess with what the user expects, you just make it harder for a person to find what they’re looking for.

Today’s most innovative sites are the ones that have SEO baked into theircontent and structure to ensure that the site is on page one of search results—whether on desktop or mobile.

Most small business new to online should use a service like Shopify or Squarespace (if you’re more web-savvy, feel free to dip your toes into WordPress). The easiest, fastest and most cost-effective way to get your business online is to use a template from any of these platforms. Choosing a template that fits your business needs, and customizing it with your brand’s voice, colours and imagery, will give you the greatest online presence—and results.

Don’t fight the feeling

For better or worse, customer reviews, such as those found on Yelp or Google, are an unavoidable part of running a business. While a couple of bad reviews can lower your ratings as well as your visibility in Google’s search rankings, consistently high marks from your visitors can set you apart from your competitors.

Try setting up a regular audit of the main reviewing platforms for your industry—you’ll no doubt run into unfair ratings from impossible-to-please customers, but the more reviews you receive, the more you’ll understand what you’re doing well in addition to what you could improve upon.

Also remember that, while unhappy people rarely hesitate to give you a bad review, people who are satisfied often need a little reminder. Be sure to include a message with each order/interaction along the lines of, “Happy with your purchase? Leave us a review!” (and include a link to the reviewing platform).

Social media can also be a useful tool for managing your reputation. If you’re like me, you habitually check your mentions on social media more than you probably should. But if you have a healthier relationship to the screens in your life, consider setting aside some time each week to scan your inboxes for mentions and direct messages, replying where necessary. Then, search your
business’s name or common variations on it to see if anyone else has mentioned you without tagging you in it.

For all mentions of your business, be sure to try to engage with the person in a natural way, even if it’s negative commentary—remember that you almost always gain a lot of brand loyalty from making things right with an unhappy customer. Just be careful that you don’t get sucked into useless online arguments with any trolls, scolds and fusses.

It can take a while to generate enough of a social media following to glean a useful idea of how people truly feel about your brand. To get started without feeling overwhelmed, I recommend starting with only one social media platform at first; make sure that you choose whichever one is most popular with your audience.

For most brands, that will likely be Instagram or Facebook. Conveniently, and somewhat ominously, those two are both owned and operated by Facebook, so you can manage both platforms from the same account. Remember, though, that audiences congregate in all kinds of settings; perhaps yours is watching unboxing videos on YouTube, arguing with the blue-checks on Twitter or warping Zoomers’ minds on TikTok.

Just as in the real world, it’s always easier to go to where that audience is instead of trying to get them to come to you.

Once your following is growing, consider branching out onto other platforms; no matter where you end up, be sure to use a consistent brand voice and visual identity.
The more platforms you’re on, the more data—both quantitative and qualitative—that social media can yield. When supplemented by your website’s analytics, this data can help create a precise picture of who exactly is buying what you’re selling, and tell you where your limited social marketing dollar can be most wisely spent.

As social media platforms become mini-internets unto themselves and take up an ever-larger share of online commerce and advertising, that data can be one of your most useful assets.

Lining it all up

By now, you’re probably tired of me telling you to “be consistent!” with your brand, but it remains as much of a pillar of marketing online as it does in the physical world. Doing so can also pose a considerable challenge, because your brand ultimately has to reconcile itself with the design and functionality limits of each platform in your arsenal, whether it’s Instagram, an email client or a website builder.

If you’re taking on this branding all by yourself (or with a handful of lucky family members and friends), you’ll soon learn trial and error can be the best way to learn these skills.
Finally, remember that you don’t have to do everything at once. Start with what you can manage, and build as you go. As the saying goes, “don’t let perfect be the enemy of done.”

In the end, your brand can reap the benefits of providing your audience with a cohesive—and efficient—online experience: name recognition, brand affinity, engaged customers and, if you do it just right, brand ambassadors.

The fact is, branding work is usually best left to experts. But it doesn’t come cheap. That’s why our agency, Goods & Services Branding, created a set of branding packages geared toward the needs—and budgets—of small businesses. Give us a call to find out more!