Advising startups and small businesses on how to manage and create a comprehensive digital marketing program can be a challenge. I often give advice no start-up wants to hear; It must be holistic, there’s no magic bullet, and don’t start with paid advertising right away. I’m usually met with some resistance, but I will outline my reasoning below.

It Must Be Holistic

If you have a crappy product or service, do you really want to amplify it by using advertising? What if you have a great product, but poor customer service? That WILL impact sales. What if you have quality control issues or your website’s speed and UX is terrible? Digital Marketing can only take you so far. Your entire business has to be on point with operations, customer service, finances and marketing. It’s holistic! One break in the chain can have a devastating impact on everything else.

There’s No Magic Bullet

Internet and mobile app users are everywhere; they use Facebook, Instagram, Google, Gmail, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, LinkedIn, etc. Sometimes they replace one app over the other, ala Facebook to Instagram (same parent company, but very different user experience and demographic). The point is there isn’t one platform that will “create demand” for your product or service. Of course, you have anomalies such as @fuckjerry and @fatjew who have leveraged Instagram to super-stardom for their own personal brands, but most companies selling a product or service won’t be as fortunate. Use and test each platform and go after the specific audience you are trying to acquire. Eyeballs are constantly shifting. Be in-the-know and test your creatives.

Don’t Start with Paid Ads

This is strange for me to say, since my digital marketing agency manages paid marketing campaigns. If you’re a start-up, you don’t need to rush into paid ads. Test the waters organically. Instead of investing money, invest your time in building your website’s content via blogs, testimonials, product details, descriptions, Q&A and newsletters. This will help with SEO and provide a better user experience for someone who comes to your website.

Build an audience on social media using Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest etc. Doing so will create awareness and a great way to test the waters to find what works for each platform. Again, all this won’t cost much money, but you WILL invest time.

Start acquiring emails using a website capture form and social media. You will own this first party data and can email market to these people down the road. When you do decide to use paid ads, you can leverage a look-a-like audience using the emails you acquired. An additional benefit of starting paid ads later is accumulating demographic and geographic data in analytics, so you can accurately target users with your hard earned money.

Digital marketing can help tremendously, even jump-start some businesses (think of Dollar Shave Club’s viral video). Its not an end all be all, but a tactic with specific goals of building awareness, followers, leads, or sales. Digital Marketing is a very important tool in a startup’s belt, but you still need the other functional tools in order to achieve your objective. Make the right “impression”.