Small Business Marketing Channels Explained

Kody Wirth

Kody Wirth

Kody Wirth

16 min. read

Updated February 21, 2024

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To market your product or service, you must distribute ads, promotions, and messages to places your potential customers will see them.

These “places” are marketing channels, with many online and offline options to consider. 

In this guide, we’ll outline the different types of marketing channels and provide a checklist to help you identify the best channels for your business. 

What is a marketing channel?

Marketing channels are the methods or platforms used to communicate and promote your products or services to your target audience. It’s how you get the word out about your products or services. 

Think of a marketing channel as the bridge between your business and your customers. Whether you’re using social media, emails, TV ads, or even face-to-face chats, these are all different “bridges” or channels you use to connect with and attract potential buyers.

With that introduction out of the way, let’s look at the different marketing channels you can use to promote your business.

1. Word of mouth and referral marketing

Word of mouth is when people talk positively and recommend your business to family and friends. This typically more spontaneous sharing can take on a more structured approach through a referral system—where businesses actively encourage customers to promote their products or services in exchange for discounts and other rewards. 


  • High trust factor: Recommendations from friends or family are often perceived as more trustworthy than advertisements.
  • Cost-effective: Word of mouth is essentially free, and referral programs might only cost you when they result in a new customer.
  • Self-perpetuating: Happy customers tend to refer to more than one person, leading to a chain reaction of referrals.
  • Higher conversion rates: Referred customers often have a higher likelihood to purchase and lifetime values than those acquired through other channels.


  • Less control: It’s hard to control what’s said about your business; negative experiences can spread as quickly as positive ones.
  • Scalability: While powerful, it might be less scalable and predictable than other marketing channels.
  • Dependency: Over-reliance on referrals can be risky. It’s essential to have a diversified marketing strategy.
  • Incentive costs: Costs can add up if you offer referral rewards—primarily if they result in lower-quality leads.

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2. Social media marketing

Social media marketing involves promoting products, services, or brands through social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It can encompass a range of activities, from posting regular updates and engaging with followers to running targeted ad campaigns. 


  • Broad reach: Social media platforms have billions of users worldwide, offering businesses a vast audience if you can capture their attention.
  • Cost-effective: While paid ads can be part of the strategy, many aspects of social media marketing, like posting content or engaging with users, are free.
  • Real-time engagement: Businesses can interact with customers in real time, fostering community and loyalty.
  • Brand awareness: Consistent presence and engagement can significantly boost brand visibility and recognition.


  • Time-consuming: Maintaining an active and engaging presence can be resource-intensive.
  • Rapid changes: The digital landscape and platform algorithms change frequently.
  • Negative feedback: Public platforms mean any negative feedback or complaints are visible, which can harm reputation if not properly managed.
  • Over saturation: Many businesses are vying for attention, making it challenging to stand out.
  • Unknown business impact: While engagement metrics are available, determining the direct return on investment can sometimes be elusive.

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3. Email marketing

Email offers a direct and personalized way to communicate with potential or existing customers. The goal is to engage, inform, or convert recipients into customers while respecting technical and regulatory considerations.


  • Direct communication: Emails land directly in a recipient’s inbox, ensuring a personal touchpoint.
  • Segmentation and personalization: Emails can be tailored based on user behavior, preferences, or demographics, leading to more relevant communication.
  • Measurable: You have insight into open rates, click-through rates, and conversions—allowing for data-driven decisions.
  • Flexible: Emails can be easily adjusted from design to content to fit different campaigns or audiences.
  • Nurture relationships: Regular updates help businesses stay top-of-mind and nurture long-term customer relationships.


  • Over saturation: Many businesses use email marketing, leading to crowded inboxes and competition for attention.
  • Spam filters: Emails can sometimes be filtered out by spam algorithms, reducing visibility.
  • List maintenance: Keeping an updated, clean email list requires effort as people change emails or unsubscribe.
  • Regulations: Laws like the GDPR and CAN-SPAM Act require businesses to follow specific guidelines, including unsubscribe options and not sending unsolicited emails.

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4. SEO strategy

SEO stands for search engine optimization, which is the process of improving your site to increase organic visibility for specific search queries. SEO aims to improve the quality and quantity of traffic to your website through onsite changes. Anticipating customer intent, understanding what type of content they’d like to see, and providing the best answers are the heart of good SEO.


  • Increased visibility: A well-optimized website can rank higher in search results, leading to greater visibility and organic traffic.
  • Credibility and trust: Websites that rank high for a given topic are often perceived as more credible and authoritative.


  • Time-consuming: SEO is a long-term strategy, and results can take time.
  • Algorithm dependency: Search engines frequently update their algorithms, affecting rankings. Businesses need to adapt to these changes.
  • No guaranteed results: Even if you follow best practices, search rankings aren’t guaranteed due to various external factors.

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5. Content marketing

Content marketing involves creating and sharing written or visual content to attract and engage your target audience. Instead of directly promoting a product or service, content marketing aims to establish authority, build trust, and foster relationships by offering helpful information or insights. 


  • Builds trust: Helpful content demonstrating experience can position a business as an industry expert.
  • Supports SEO: Well-crafted content can improve search engine rankings and drive organic traffic to your website.
  • Builds engagement: Content can educate, entertain, or inspire, keeping the audience engaged and returning for more.
  • Supports other marketing channels: Content can be repurposed for email campaigns, social media, webinars, and more.
  • Generates leads: With strategic calls-to-action, content can guide readers towards taking desired actions, like signing up or purchasing.


  • Time-consuming: Creating high-quality content requires significant time and effort.
  • Slow results: It can take time before content marketing efforts translate into tangible business results.
  • Requires consistency: Regular and consistent publishing is crucial for content marketing to be effective.
  • Saturation: With many businesses investing in content marketing, there’s a lot of content vying for attention.

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6. Video marketing

Video can be a far more engaging medium for current and potential customers to interact with your business. You can create short clips, perfect for social media, YouTube Shorts, and video ads, or opt for longer videos hosted on YouTube or your business website. 

Your video strategy can reflect your other marketing efforts and be used to sell your product/service, break down information, showcase customers, and provide technical support. It’s not enough to make “great videos.” You’ll need to understand how to edit and optimize to capture viewers’ attention and increase visibility on your chosen video platform.  


  • Engaging medium: Videos can capture attention more effectively than text or images alone.
  • Versatile: Videos can be used for various purposes, from product demos to testimonials or storytelling.
  • Improves SEO: Search engines sometimes include or prioritize video content, leading to better organic rankings.
  • Builds trust: Demonstrating products or offering a behind-the-scenes look can foster consumer trust.
  • Mobile-friendly: Videos offer a format that’s easily consumable on the go.


  • Resource-intensive: Producing high-quality videos can be costly and time-consuming.
  • Skill requirement: Effective video marketing often requires a mix of scripting, filming, and editing skills.
  • Platform dependent: Different platforms may have varying video format, length, or style requirements.
  • Short shelf life: On some platforms, especially social media, video content can have a short lifespan before being overshadowed by newer content.

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7. Online advertising

Online or digital advertising covers paid promotional activities on channels such as websites, streaming content, search engines, and more. Paid ads include pay-per-click (PPC) ads, display ads, social media ads, etc. 

You can target specific demographics, behaviors, or interests—improving your chances of reaching the right audience. While it can provide immediate results and detailed insights, you must stay current with platform changes, user behaviors, and best practices to ensure campaigns remain effective and resonate with your audience.


  • Targeted reach: Define and reach your ideal audience based on interests, location, behavior, and more.
  • Immediate traffic: Unlike organic methods, online ads can drive direct traffic to a website or product when set up correctly.
  • Flexible budgeting: You can set daily or campaign-specific budgets, allowing for control over spending.
  • Measurable results: Digital platforms provide detailed analytics, allowing you to measure the effectiveness of campaigns and adjust accordingly.


  • Cost: Popular keywords or demographics can be expensive to target, and expenses can increase over time.
  • Ad fatigue: Users can become desensitized to ads, especially if they see the same ones repeatedly.
  • Ad blockers: Many users employ ad blockers, preventing ads from being displayed.
  • Complexity: Managing online ad campaigns, especially on multiple platforms, can be complex and time-consuming.

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8. PR

Public relations (PR) is communication between an organization and the public. PR aims to build or maintain a positive reputation, handle crises, and foster a good relationship with the media. PR activities include press releases, media outreach, interviews, link building, event promotions, and more.


  • Credibility: Coverage in reputable media outlets can enhance an organization’s credibility and trustworthiness.
  • Cost-effective: Earned media (coverage you didn’t pay for) can be more cost-effective than traditional advertising.
  • Crisis management: Effective PR can mitigate damage during a crisis by controlling the narrative and communicating proactively.
  • Long-term benefits: Positive PR can have lasting benefits in terms of brand perception and recognition.


  • Lack of control: Unlike advertising, organizations don’t have control over how the media presents their story.
  • No guarantees: Even with a compelling story or pitch, there’s no guarantee of media coverage.
  • Potential for negative publicity: PR efforts can backfire if not managed well, leading to negative publicity.
  • Requires expertise: Effective PR requires specialized skills and established media relationships.
  • Measurement challenges: While PR’s impact can be significant, measuring directly than other marketing channels is often more challenging.

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9. Traditional advertising

Traditional advertising refers to the conventional methods of promotion used before the rise of the internet. Traditional ad channels like television, radio, newspapers, magazines, billboards, and direct mail. 

Traditional ads can provide significant brand exposure and trust, especially for local brick-and-mortar businesses. However, you must weigh these benefits against changing media consumption habits and the advantages of more modern advertising channels. 


  • Broad reach: Traditional platforms, especially TV and radio, can reach a vast audience.
  • Tangible: Print media, like magazines or brochures, offer a physical presence that the audience can revisit.
  • Local impact: Local newspapers, radio stations, and billboards can effectively target specific communities or regions.
  • High recall: Due to the sensory experience they provide (e.g., visual, auditory), traditional ads can have a high recall value.
  • Established trust: Some audiences trust traditional media more than digital channels—viewing them as more reputable.


  • Costly: Producing and distributing traditional ads, especially TV commercials, can be expensive.
  • Less targeted: Unlike digital ads, targeting a specific demographic is challenging.
  • Limited engagement: Traditional advertising is primarily one-way, lacking the interactive nature of digital channels.
  • Measurement challenges: It’s harder to track the direct impact of traditional advertising.
  • Declining audiences: Fewer people, especially younger demographics, consume traditional media.

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How to choose the right marketing channels

While there’s no tried-and-true method for choosing the best marketing channels—you can narrow your focus by considering the following:

  • Target audience:

Who are your customers? Where do they spend their time? Which platforms or media do they consume most?

  • Budget:

How much can you afford to spend on marketing? Some channels, like TV advertising, can be costly, while others, like social media, can be more budget-friendly.

  • Type of product or service:

Is your offering better suited for visual platforms like Instagram or informational ones like blogs?

  • Business goals:

Are you aiming for brand awareness, sales, or customer engagement? Different channels can serve individual objectives.

  • Geographic reach:

Are you targeting a local, national, or global audience? Local businesses benefit more from traditional channels like newspapers or radio, while online companies lean towards digital channels.

  • Content creation capabilities:

How much time and money can you spend creating marketing materials? Will you do it all yourself, hire a full-time employee, or need to outsource?

  • Frequency of communication:

How often do you want to communicate with your audience? Channels like email might be suitable for regular updates, while a billboard is more static.

  • Competitor activity:

Where are your competitors advertising? While you shouldn’t copy them, understanding their choices can offer insights.

  • Return on investment:

Are you looking for short-term results or building a long-term presence? For example, pay-per-click ads bring immediate traffic, while SEO or content marketing often requires a longer commitment.

To streamline your decision, check out these roundups of traditional and online marketing channels worth prioritizing. 

Choose marketing channels that fit your business goals

Not every marketing channel will make sense for your business. 

When deciding, prioritize channels your audience frequents that best represent your brand and help you accomplish your business goals. Remember, you can always test several channels and measure the results before fully committing.

Lastly, don’t jump directly into choosing marketing channels before solidifying your overall marketing strategy. Check out our complete startup marketing guide for help with these steps.

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Content Author: Kody Wirth

Kody Wirth is a content writer and SEO specialist for Palo Alto Software—the creator's of Bplans and LivePlan. He has 3+ years experience covering small business topics and runs a part-time content writing service in his spare time.