As in all other aspects of business, when it comes to leveraging online technologies to grow your business having a clear and well thought through strategy which articulates where you want to be and how youre going to get there is one of the fundamental keys to success. And yet, the vast majority of small businesses devote little, if any, time and effort to this vital area.

If youre one of them, here is a simple 5 step strategy development process you can use to bring clarity to your marketing programmes, ensure your limited resources of time, money and energy are focused on the things that are going to add most value to your business and help make the challenge of implementation a little less daunting.

1. Define your business and marketing objectives


Start by setting out what you want to achieve, identifying the things that are going to make the most difference to your success and translating your business goals into SMART marketing objectives. Spending some time thinking all of this through at the outset will pay handsome dividends in the long run, ensuring that your marketing is cohesive and laser focused, rather than a rag-tag collection of disparate marketing activities that simply confuse your customers about what your brand is.

Firstly, think about the specific outcomes you want to achieve. Do you want more customers in a particular segment? Do you want your existing customers to buy from you more frequently? Is reducing your costs a priority for you? Improving customer service? Generating buzz around an upcoming event?

Once youve drawn up your wish list, narrow it down to your top 3 objectives, each of which should have 4 or 5 specific targets.

Now think about the why? of your marketing programme. What are your aims and how will these serve your objectives? For example, are you going to be prospecting for business, building brand awareness, educating your prospects about the features and benefits of your products and services, making connections with potential business partners or engaging with your customers on a deeper level?

This would also be a good time to take a long hard look at your existing marketing activities. If theyre not delivering the results you want its time to find new and better ways of doing things.

2. Define your target markets and audiences


Identifying who you are trying to reach is the next vital step in developing a winning online marketing strategy. Many businesses make the fundamental error of trying to appeal to everyone and ending up attracting no-one so its important to be very specific when it comes to your customer targeting. One of the best ways to do this is to develop personas for different types of customer. How old are they? How much disposable income do they have? Where do they live? What sorts of jobs do they have? What are their motivations, buying behaviours and preferences? What are their interests?

Once youve developed your detailed customer profiles you then need to identify where they like to hang out online. Are they heavy or infrequent social media users? What are their favourite social networking platforms? Are they on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter? Do they read blogs? Do they use their mobile phones to search for products and services on the move or do they rely on more traditional media such as local newspaper and the Yellow Pages? This will tell you which media are going to be most effective in reaching and engaging them.

3. Define your online value propositions


The third step is to develop a distinctive and compelling online value proposition for each of your target audiences. It must be tailored to their specific problems, desires and preferences and set out clearly the benefits they can only get from you online. Make sure that your value proposition spells out the reasons why your prospects should do business with you rather than your competitors, using phrases like, we are the only company to or we do it better, cheaper, faster...

4. Decide your optimal marketing mix


This step is all about deciding which types of marketing are going to be needed to achieve your business goals. For example, if your primary focus is lead generation and customer acquisition, you are probably going to have a heavy emphasis on SEO and possibly also paid search to improve your visibility in online search results. You may also want to build an email list to give you a platform for direct marketing campaigns. If you want to reach local customers, getting your business listed on the first page of Google Places is going to be important and mobile marketing may also be a priority for you. If you need to build a tribe a well subscribed blog and an active social media presence will feature prominently.

Once youre clear about your strategies you can then start to think about tactics. This is where you plan the specifics of your marketing programme. What are you going to do? How are you going to do it? Whats the sequencing? How are you going to integrate all of the elements and align them with your offline marketing activities?

Remember here that failure to follow through is the single biggest reason why most small businesses fail online so be ruthless in your prioritisation and concentrate your efforts on those strategies that are going to make the biggest contribution to achieving your business objectives. Its better to execute a small number of strategies well than to try to do everything and end up being completely overwhelmed.

5. Define your metrics


The final step in the strategy development process is defining the key metrics you are going to use to track the effectiveness of your online marketing programme and to prepare a baseline against which you can measure and monitor progress. This will enable you to continuously tweak your strategy and approach to ensure that you achieve your business objectives.

When to seek help?

Sometimes its hard to see the wood for the trees and employing the services of a marketing adviser can pay dividends by bringing structure, objectivity and external challenge to proceedings as well as expert knowledge of strategies that have worked (or not, as the case may be) for other businesses faced with similar challenges. By asking the right questions, a marketing specialist can help you articulate your objectives and strategies more clearly and is also likely to have access to specialist tools and data that will allow you to complete the analytical aspects of strategy development more quickly, in greater depth and with a lot less effort, removing much of the heavy lifting for you.

You should not forget, however that your marketing strategy is a fundamental part of your business and as such is not something which should ever be outsourced wholesale. No one knows your business and the markets you operate in as intimately as you and its your success or failure on the line. So do your homework, take the time to educate yourself and develop a deeper understanding of the different ways you can deploy digital technologies in your business, learn from your competitors and the successes and failures of others and be prepared to roll up your sleeves and get stuck in. Your online marketing strategy will be all the more effective for it and if you do decide to employ a marketing expert to help, you are far less likely to end up having the wool pulled over your eyes.