Picture this: a new business owner, just the first few months but getting impatient to get results and with almost no funds to spend. What does he do? Pays a social media consultant pretty much all the remaining cash, in a do-or-die attempt to kick start the business. No guesses of the outcome.

This is a very common approach for small and start up businesses, caught up in a maze, with no marketing plan, vulnerable and being told that digital marketing is the fix-all. Spruikers of digital marketing are our modern day snake oil salesmen, selling wondrous business elixirs that cure all marketing ills. A regular dose of SEO, Facebook, Adwords, Instagram or any other type of digital marketing is all it takes! SEO-ers are at the top of the heap, with an endless stream of experts harassing us, telling us it’s the only way to get results. One even introduced his email with ‘your website is not up to the mark.’

Don’t get me wrong, digital marketing is great for many reasons (cost, potential, metrics ), but it needs to be treated as just one element of a marketing mix, planned with consideration to your entire marketing approach - not as a knee-jerk reaction, on the fly decision made between other pressing jobs. Doing any kind of marketing without a plan is already crazy (but the norm in small business) and makes you very vulnerable. It means you don’t have any basis to assess new enticing offers and clever sales people. Does it align with your target market? What is the objective? How many sales does it take to break even? Can I afford to lose the investment?

In reality, digital channels are as crowded as everywhere else. Those of us who used to use free Facebook posts will share the frustration of never-ending policy changes that make it very unreliable for generating exposure. Adwords users will know how easy it is to drain your bank account on useless campaigns.

Even though each expert will tell you that their particular field is the one, not all types of digital marketing are suitable for all businesses and traditional marketing methods shouldn’t be overlooked in the process.

Facebook has it’s place, but it’s not so useful when your products are not fun, alluring or conversation-worthy. A whitegoods repair client of mine spent months years trying to build up a following on Facebook, not surprisingly without much traction. Likewise a with plumber and manufacturer. Likes also often gets confused with prospects; they are not interchangeable terms and followers does not always equal business.

SEO needs to be treated super carefully. There are few businesses that wouldn’t benefit from being #1 organic result in Google, but spending a truckload of cash is not always the best option. Be realistic, competition is fierce, so choose your keywords selectively for volume of traffic and keep it niche: will a small business be #1 in those categories dominated by corporates, government or education. For some businesses, SEO is just not important or viable. A business-to-business client of mine had only 20 potential clients, most of which employed tender processes. Direct contact with decision makers was the only strategy there.

Adwords is great when targeted, super-specific and gives you return on investment, otherwise it can be a blank cheque. It needs super tight management and some expertise.

Instagram is not useful if you don’t have visually appealing products. I have had a few clients that have achieved amazing results with Instagram, but that success is not universal. Anyone interested in pictures from a tree pruning company? A drainage company? My experience says no.

Small business is already disadvantaged in the digital marketing world, outflanked by specialists who can captialise on the opportunities that lie within. But for small business owners, already unsure, are vulnerable when spruikers come knocking, promising the world. As always, decisions should be made based on the business plan and marketing plan, in the cold light of day, where there is time to research and reflect.

Snake oil might be a cure for some ills, used in the right dose and under the guidance of a doctor. A cure-all? Be skeptical.