Common Marketing Mistakes Small Businesses Make

A guide on how to avoid classic small business marketing mistakes and what to do instead.

Anita T is an award-winning marketing consultant with 15+ years of experience.

How to avoid classic small business marketing errors and what to do instead.

Small businesses marketing mistakes often stem from a DIY marketing approach. Why not? If you can't afford a pro, you have to start somewhere right? Absolutely. That’s how Oprah did it. However, DIY marketing doesn’t tend to be a shortcut but rather, it can be a long road to brand purgatory… or even hell.

Brand purgatory: /brand purgatory/ where a brand is stuck between heaven and hell. Use example: “That brand did some dodgy SEO and got stuck in brand purgatory — on the 100th page of Google.”

As a digital marketing consultant with 15+ years of experience working with SME’s, let me save you from some of the most common small business marketing mistakes...

Small businesses can get stuck in a place of pain I like to refer to as ‘brand purgatory’.

Hopefully, these tips are so practical you’ll wish you had them earlier.

Small business marketing mistake number 1...

1. Lack differentiation, or Struggle to articulate it

Can you think of an industry where branding can be quite similar? For example, IT service providers tend to adopt blue or red, health professionals love blue or aqua blue, nail salons-pink, garden companies -green, and banks - blue. There’s nothing wrong with these colours, but the branding can all blend into the other.

Here’s an example of several landscaping services just in my local area. Your Mowing Mate is green, Jim's Mowing is green, the other two pictured are green too.

There’s nothing wrong with green for a landscaping company… but an elderly person could forget which company it was they booked.

When you are a small business, you need to capitalise on memorability. You’re more memorable by contrasting with your competition. Memorability helps get you the most bang-for-your-buck in your campaign spending, and, well, people will be more inclined to remember you, and your service or product when they need you.

Interestingly, out of the four brands above, only two really articulate their difference from the get-go.

This company promises ‘no job too small or large’
Your Mowing Mate promises a one-stop-shop.

What to do:

  • Understand your value proposition and use it to differentiate yourself from others.
  • Identify your local competition to ensure you one-up them.
  • Don’t be afraid to look different.

Small business marketing mistake number 2…

2. Pitch the product or service features, before the desire.

You might love your product because you understand the problem it’s solving for customers or the desire it fulfills. But you need that articulated, quickly, so that it’s also understood by your reader, quickly too.

The Litter Robot is an example of a business that does this well. The hero section of their website states: 'Reduce litter box odors... Litter-Robot is the highest rated automatic, self-cleaning litter box for cats.'

Nice, my cat needs one of those. I cat owner 'gets it' immediately.

Cat litter. Sorted. The Litter-Robot website shows us how it’s done.

Garmin’s product range is a good example too. If you look at their smartwatch website page each product articulates the desire of the product’s target market. Vivoactive helps you ‘stay healthy and active every day’, while the Fenix will, ‘push the limits of multisport performance’.

Garmin’s wearable range is a good example of pitching ‘desire’.

Compare that, to say, this small business website pictured below. The dental clinic asks you to book now without any sort of reason as to why. Sometimes services is high enough demand get away with this, but for only so long. A competitor could easily capture the opportunity this home page has missed.

The ‘Book Now’ button is handy. But why should I book exactly?

Ecommerce stores benefit from integrating desire into their scannable product information. Here's an example of a furniture store that does this well on their mobile landing page:

Here’s another example of integrating ‘desire’ into a product listing.

The furniture store's product description start with: 'Look forward to coming home... where comfort meets style...' It's desire centric. It's talking about a lifestyle even more than the actual product. Desire sells.

Service providers can build desire into their content’s first impression. For example, tech service provider, Telstra Purple offers Cyber security services, and their website information leads with the promise: ‘You’re in safe hands.'

The desire they are ‘articulating’ is ‘safety’. Makes sense for cyber security, right?

What to do:

  • Articulate your own brand’s attributes in your marketing. For example, a sign near a golf course might read, "Quality time, next exit" + the golfing facility name underneath.

Small business marketing mistake number 3...

3. The small business doesn't do any 'marketing'

I’ve heard small business owners refer to an Elon Musk 2019 tweet where he claimed Tesla ‘doesn’t buy any advertising.’ And, therefore ‘doesn’t do marketing.' So, marketing must be a ‘waste of time’ right?


Buying media, and earning media, are two different things.

Buying media advertising, and earning media are two different things. A quick search on Linkedin reveals Tesla actually uses plenty of marketing expertise… 1800 people over time if all the profiles that appear in the search results page are legit.

Plenty of people have worked for Tesla in a marketing capacity.

So now that I’ve addressed that myth, let’s talk more about your marketing.

If you've got a logo, you've begun to dabble into marketing. The pace of your growth curve depends on how sporadic, vs how strategic it becomes.

What to do:

Work out what to invest into marketing as a small business. Your spend depends on where you are at.

Harvard Business School research suggests that in order to grow aggressively you should invest 20%-50% of your total budget on marketing in your first few years, in order to drive brand momentum. Aggressive growth comes at a price, and entrepreneurs know it. After you’ve settled in the general expectation is that your investment is reduced to between 8 and 12%.

That may not be where you're at. Read more on what to spend on marketing as a small business.

Rockets need more fuel to take off and so do small businesses.

If you aren’t investing money into your marketing you’ll still end up investing time. Both are a resource, so for many small businesses, it’s up to the owner which they are more willing to part with.

Small business marketing mistake number 4...

4. Hire individuals to fulfil fragmented marketing tasks

Small business owners often hire individuals to fulfil fragmented marketing tasks off websites like Fiverr.

Freelance websites can be handy but your marketing activities can be fragmented and ad-hoc. Each activity a random puzzle piece, without an overarching picture developed by say, a small business marketing expert. Sure, you might have a growth plan developed by someone else, like your CFO, but they can suffer from limited marketing experience. Without this experience, activity can focus on short-term spend impact, and negate longer-term brand-building needs.

Instead of saving resources, the business owner is risking a whole lot of stuffing around pursuing short-term ideals and experiments— Ugh.

Einstein had time for experiments, but do you?

Classic ad-hoc purchases by small business owners:

  • Brand guidelines, by a random Graphic Designer
  • Website listings or links, by a random SEO freelancer
  • Cheap and fast website builds, OR a DIY website template

These sort of ad-hoc tasks outside of an overarching strategy can really leave a business owner thinking that ‘anyone can build a website‘”’, ‘I can DIY SEO’, or, ‘why do I even need brand guidelines pfttt…’ Their experience of such critical marketing tools is almost like someone that tries different gym classes a couple of times then decides they all must suck, because the classes ‘didn’t achieve what they wanted’, instantly.

You need the puzzle pieces of your marketing activities to fit together.

Brand development is not just a pretty picture, so if you think yours is just a pretty document, something’s off.

What to do:

You’ll save time and money, by working with a branding expert. You’re wanting a brand specialist OR a marketing specialist who has a brand bent. Look for a solid track record of developing branding strategies for similar-sized businesses, preferably in your industry sector.

The cheaper option is accepting that getting that ‘quick’ logo done online, will need some evolutionary stages down the track.

Even big brands evolve their branding over time… Check out the chart below on how different brands have progressively evolved over the years.


If you’re a small business that’s been around a while and are realising your branding may be...

  • A bit stuck in time
  • Lost in the ‘pretty document’ stage
  • Too detailed to be read on mobile devices

…you may want to evolve your brand. You can do so in a way that it doesn’t disrupt memory structure. That way, the public can still identify your business.

Cheer cheese, formerly known as ‘coon’, is an example of a company that evolved its brand to better fit with the changing world.

Image source:

Small business marketing mistake number 5...

5. Ask a web developer to build their website without marketing input

Another mistake small business owners can make, is getting their website built without marcomms input.  This is understandable in many ways - you often can't afford both a web developer and a marketing expert's contribution straight off the bat. BUT, web devs’ aren’t marketers. Yet here they are building a website specific for marcomms purposes.

So, they need marcomms input. Enough said? Apparently not.

Developers building websites without marketing input is a common small business plight. Somewhere along the line, marketing needs come into play, and the digital marketer has to request a whole heap of changes in order to ensure the website is essentially fit for purpose. Sigh.

I’ll give you some examples:

  • Paid Per Click ads, on both Google and social media, can be affected by this little thing called ‘quality score’. This score is calculated in a few different ways, including the website landing page experience. If your website sucks, your ads will receive a lower quality score, and this will drive up your ad costs. Ouch!
  • The way your website is structured is critical for search engines. If you already have a website, and it’s built without input from digital marketing or search specialists, you risk a massive traffic drop to site if you don’t do it right.
Building your website without marcomms input is a massive mistake that will cost you time and money.

What to do:

Build your website leveraging collective input from marketing specialists, or a marketing generalist, such as an outsourced CMO, whose experience covers web builds. OR, make sure your web development agency has a demonstrated understanding of conversion requirements. If you’re already in this boat, you can work with an agency or marketing specialist who does what we call Conversion Rate Optimisation (CRO). They’ll help you set up your website, so it performs better.

Small business marketing mistake number 6...

6. Purchase (dodgy) links to help build their search engine presence

It sounded like a good idea: somewhere along your small business journey you heard building links was a good idea for SEO. So, you found someone you could purchase some from. Oh goodie. OR found a freelancer that promised they would build you out a whole heap of ‘quality links’.

Be careful.

As they say, when something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

Your website is like a spider web. The better your links are anchored, the stronger your website.

Purchasing link creation can look unnatural to search engines like Google. Just imagine you’re a search bot plodding along and all of a sudden, BAM, this website you’ve been looking at for a while has 40 or so links to it magically appear. What happened? Did your website go viral? Oh… in another country…. wait… there are a lot of foreign websites linking to it… which seems weird because your business is based in Australia. Hmm… Looks dodgy. Now you’re a suspicious website and your domain authority drops. That’s not helping your rankings at all!

Often these types of businesses source the links from dodgy-link dedicated websites, and as search engine algorithms get smarter, they recognise them for what they are, dodgy, and penalise your website for it. Then a solid search engine expert comes along and sees that your website’s biggest challenge is cleaning up all those links you purchased… and that, my friend, is so much easier said than done.

What to do instead:

Look for a PR or search engine specialist with a solid reputation. If they're ok to do a short-term trial with you, I'd actually be highly suspicious of the service. Organic search takes work, and while it tends to be one of the best long-term investments for small businesses, commitment from both parties is needed to see results. If you have a reasonable amount of people visiting your website already, an SEO or marketing specialist should be able to work with you to forecast estimated results over time.

Of course, if you're at a stage in your small business journey that you really can’t afford specialist input, (yet) please leverage a reputable course like SEMrush’s academy. Remember, SEO takes time — your time. So, if you’re learning to DIY, it’s going to take even longer than it would if you worked with a pro, costing you time, and therefore, money.

Small business marketing mistake number 7...

7. Believe a marketing agency will sort all their marketing for them

Marketing agencies can be fabulous, but believing they’ll be as dedicated as you are to your business is naive at best. They’ve got a business to run too, and most marketing strategists have a nice long list of brands on their timesheets. This means that at very least, their attention is not only inadvertently divided, but limited by the hours allocated to your account.

There are reports experts are fleeing the ad industry due to burnout. This can risk high turnover on your account, too.

What to do:

Similar to 4, working with an independent marketing strategist will help establish an overarching strategy that is independent of agency agendas. For independent contractors, reputation matters, and they can support you almost like an outsourced CMO.

Small business marketing mistake number 8...

8. Purchase one-off print or Out-Of-Home advertisements

Ok, most of the time when you purchase once-off advertisements like Billboards, you may as well just flush your money down the drain. The number of times I have witnessed small business owners purchasing a 10k billboard, or a 25k magazine spread, because it was ‘on special’, via phone consultation with a sales rep, is unsettling. I know you want an ad that makes you look as hip as Nike, but is that one-page newspaper ad really going to do that for you?

Still trying to see those results from your one-off ad purchase? You may have just flushed money down the drain.

It’s because when you are a small business, or any business really, but especially a small business, you are going to need consistency to see results. Consistency builds brand familiarity so that you are ‘considered’ when someone finds they need a product or service like yours. Magazine, direct mail, newspaper, or billboard ads can be pricey, and as such, small businesses can seldom maintain them over a consistent period. These types of advertising initiatives build the business’s familiarity with the market over time. So, if you only invest in a one-off ad, even if it’s large, it’s going to have to be pretty darn clever to achieve that.

What to do:

Incorporating your advertising choices into an overarching brand strategy will save you money. Marketing is both an art, and a science. You need to get that chemistry right to see your small business take off.

Small business marketing mistake number 9...

9. Sales and marketing are at war

I’ve seen luxury brands whose head of sales managed to push the product on bargain websites like Catch Of The Day. The problem with this is while the deal can roll in some dollars short term, placing a lux brand on a bargain website can cheapen the brand long term, damaging the perception of ‘lux’. Long term, this can make the product less coveted, affecting future pricing expectations and demand.

You really need your marketing and sales teams to be playing for the one side.

It’s almost a tradition for sales teams and marketing to ‘clash’ in their opinions in these types of scenarios. The conflicts can lengthen the sales cycle and increase the cost of acquisition long term. Fortunately, there’s been a lot of studies on how to encourage cooperation between the two.

What to do:

This Harvard Research study provides a structure for integrating your salespeople, and your marketing people, based on whether your teams are currently undefined, defined, or aligned.

To summarise it for you, if the relationship is...

  • Undefined-create rules of engagement.
  • Defined — create collaboration opportunities, and arrange regular meetings to discuss problems and opportunities.
  • Aligned — Reward performance based on shared performance metrics.

Small business marketing mistake number 10...

10. Small business marketing mistake: Neglect current customers

After being in the marketing world for so long now, I almost assume everyone knows that it’s cheaper to nurture existing customers than to acquire new ones. However, if you’ve never heard of this, it’s a valuable fact for your accounts department.

Attracting a new customer costs five times as much as keeping an existing one.

~ Lee Resources 2010

What to do:

  • Stating the obvious here but… look after your current clientele :)
  • Keep in regular communication with them via email and social media for example
  • Reward loyalty through a loyalty program or member-only offers
  • Ensure you have a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system to help maintain consistent comms with the customer throughout the business, and batch identify upsell opportunities
  • Upsell.. of course.

11. Forget to authenticate the business's sending domain

You've set up email for your business. Maybe some automated email replies in response to website inquiries, or an emailed download. For some reason though, these emails have a weird email address attached or are ending up in spam? What's with that?

Some email platforms will flag an email as 'unverified'. The reply email maybe something like, instead of a business email like, Not only does this look unprofessional, but it can make it more likely for your branded email to end up in a spam or promotional inbox.

Here's an example:

This can be fixed with this thing called DKIM, which stands for Domain Keys Identified Mail. You'll need access to your DNS (hosting) account, where you'll need to add a TXT record. This TXT record will verify you own your business domain. It's usually supplied via your email service provider. Just ask them about DKIM!

To summarise, here are the 11 mistakes small business owners make that you want to avoid…

  1. SMEs can lack differentiation, or forget to fully articulate it
  2. They’ll pitch the product or service features, before the desire
  3. They don’t do any marketing
  4. They’ll hire individuals to fulfill fragmented marketing tasks, without having an overarching strategy (this only works for so long)
  5. They’ll ask a web developer to build their website without digital marketing input
  6. Inadvertently purchase (dodgy) links to help build their search engine presence
  7. Believe a marketing agency will sort all their marketing for them
  8. Purchase one-off print or Out-Of-Home advertisements
  9. Their salespeople and marketing people are at war
  10. They’ll neglect their current customers (oops)
  11. Forget to verify their sending domain

Small business marketing mistakes can represent progress

Just because you may have faced one of these mistakes, doesn't mean you've failed. Consistent effort and learning overcome mistakes over time. You're on a worthwhile mission, and I’m not the only one to reassure you of that…

Anyone building a business is doing the hard yards, so I hope this list saves you from some of the most common small business marketing mistakes.

This article was originally published on Medium.


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