Marketing my small business: What worked and what did not

Simon Horton shares the marketing ups and downs he experienced since starting his company.

Every day I receive emails from companies offering to help improve my sales and marketing, from unknown businesses using gmail addresses to large corporations like the mighty Google, but for me it’s a job that I prefer to keep in-house.


Creating a marketing plan is time well spent. Working out how much to spend was, and is, the tricky part. However much you have to spend, there will always be a marketing offering to fit your budget. Once I was approached to appear in a major newspaper’s small business video club; all I needed to do was cover the £12,000 production costs. You can guess what I said.

Conversely, spend too little and no one will ever know how great your business is. I’ve seen marketing budget recommendations ranging from 2 per cent of sales up to 20 per cent for new start-ups in competitive markets.

There is no right answer and it will come down to a number of factors which mean that spending 20 per cent could be just as effective as spending 2 per cent. Ask yourself:

  • How much can you afford to spend every month?
  • How hands-on will you be with marketing?
  • How much time can you commit to marketing each week?

I didn’t want to hire an external marketing company as I felt this wouldn’t be effective enough for the budget and the timescales I was aiming for. Managing the job directly also meant I could monitor the effectiveness of each campaign, quickly identifying failing initiatives and reallocating my limited budget onto fresh ideas.

Below are the marketing activities I’ve tried with mixed results.

Pay per click (PPC) advertising

I’ve used Google PPC advertising on and off for several years. Each time we release a major new feature in our shopping cart plugin I give PPC another try to see if I can make it pay.

I make sure we use relevant, targeted keyword phrases so as not to attract too broad an audience. Each time the result has been pretty much the same; the ads produce a short-term traffic boost to the website, but the increase in numbers often appears to draw in only low quality visitors who bounce straight off.

The number of people who go on to register for an account and purchase a paid subscription has never covered the money spent on the advertising campaign.

Affiliate marketing

The promise of having hundreds of affiliate marketers promoting your business is an exciting prospect.

I chose an existing affiliate network to give us access to an established group of marketers rather than building our own programme from scratch. We offered a generous 20 per cent commission fee to make it worth their while, as the primary goal was to accelerate growth. The network we joined only pays a commission fee for a sale, ensuring the outlay was directly linked to the revenue generated.

The affiliate network had various levels of subscription fees corresponding to how much it promotes you to its membership. Of course I leapt in feet first choosing the membership for maximum exposure.

Although this has attracted a steady flow of affiliates to our programme, many of these are discount voucher sites looking for a voucher code to add to their lists. The net result is that I’ve yet to cover the cost of the affiliate network membership fee with the amount of paying subscribers this has attracted. It’s safe to say I won’t be choosing the highest subscription at renewal.


We set up a blog publishing regular articles focusing on helping small businesses with all aspects of marketing and sales online. The idea was simple: if we can give advice and help businesses using our ecommerce platform to increase sales, they are more likely to renew their software subscription with us rather than close their online store or move to a competitor.

This tactic has been a success as the content on the blog not only helps our members, but is a valuable inbound marketing tool producing a steady flow of visitor traffic to our website. It’s also a good way to fuel our social media channels with fresh content.

Search engine optimisation (SEO)

The sales funnel is all about numbers: the more visitors to the website, the more people sign up for a free shopping cart account with us, of which a certain percentage take a paid subscription. I decided that paying a specialist SEO company to link build through writing exclusive, interesting and relevant guest posts on credible sites was just what was needed.

When searching for a SEO specialist, I searched for one who was promoting itself organically rather than through paid placements, as I wanted it to do the same for me. Paying for professional SEO has been a worthwhile investment and is producing good long-term results.


Attracting a prospective client to your business is one thing, convincing them you are credible and trustworthy is another.

PR is about brand building, establishing your business as knowledgeable and highlighting the good points so people’s research doesn’t draw a blank leaving them concerned.

I spoke with a number of large PR agencies but their minimum monthly spend and day rates were way too expensive for our budget. Instead, I chose a freelance PR specialist who has long experience in my target press sector, and is both affordable and flexible.

These have been my experiences in marketing my start-up. Maybe the areas I’ve failed to produce a good return on were just due to inexperience in using those marketing approaches. I’ve a limited amount of resource, so it was better for me to move on to something new rather than persist in the hope of one day achieving a worthwhile result.

Simon Horton is the founder of ShopIntegrator.

Further reading on marketing

Simon Horton

Simon Horton

Simon Horton is the founder of ShopIntegrator, a hosted shopping cart e-commerce solution.

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