The first step in planning an effective marketing campaign is to define clear goals, including specific targets or achievements.

Abby Wilks, director at UAE public relations (PR) and communications firm House of Comms, says this is one of the main areas where companies go wrong. “The biggest issue is when people request PR and marketing without really understanding what they are looking for or what they want or need to achieve,” she says. “Very often they are given a brief to ‘get some PR’ and are unable to properly articulate exactly what it is they are looking for and what success looks like to them.”

“We take our clients right back to the start so we can truly understand what their objectives are – what it is they are looking to achieve, what the boundaries are within their budgets and what high-impact PR activity we can offer them to demonstrate real return on investment to the people managing the purse strings,” she adds.

The challenge with the market in which we operate is that media is incredibly fragmented

Defining what constitutes success in a marketing campaign is not necessarily straightforward, especially when measuring the impact of marketing activities can be a challenge. But whether the expected result is broad coverage to generate awareness, more targeted activities to position a company as an expert or thought-leader, or simply lead generation or direct sales, defining this and setting realistic metrics before starting a campaign is crucial.

With a clear definition of success, the next stage is understanding potential audiences, and therefore understanding the media landscape. In the GCC, this means understanding a diverse environment.

“The challenge with the market in which we operate is that media is incredibly fragmented. So as an SME you can never match the big budgets of large companies that can afford to put media across many channels,” says Paul Kenny, founder of regional e-commerce firms Cobone and Safarna, and partner in the venture capital fund Emerge Ventures.

The days of throwing as much PR out there as possible and hoping it sticks are gone

While the media landscape has become increasingly complex – with traditional media such as TV, radio, newspapers, magazines and direct marketing now competing with new online channels including banner advertising, email, search engines and social media – this trend holds positive elements for SME marketers. Compared with the high costs of traditional media, many new digital channels can be extremely cost-effective, or even free, allowing SMEs to gain traction against larger competitors.

“With any start-up, you need to find any cost-effective ways of getting your brand out there. Two successful mediums I have utilised in the past, which have provided significant return on investment, have been social media and PR. Both can be basically executed for free and can really drive brand awareness and trust,” says Kenny.

One area where digital marketing scores highly compared with traditional channels is its ability to deliver detailed metrics on performance, from number of views all the way to specific information on user behaviour and engagement. Especially for companies with easily measurable marketing objectives such as sales volumes, this ability to measure campaign effectiveness can offer a significant advantage.

Social media marketing in particular can appear to be an attractive option for smaller marketers with limited budgets. For little or no cost, marketing via social channels such as Facebook, Twitter or YouTube can offer clearly measurable results, along with direct engagement with target audiences – effectively combining aspects of traditional advertising with PR.

Wilks says many regional marketers see social media as a convenient ‘tick-box’ solution to communicate, but too often fail to understand the medium’s requirements or full potential. “What in fact tends to happen is that they sporadically fire out lots of marketing-based messages to their consumers to the point where it is seen either as spam, or just simply annoying because it isn’t something they want to hear about,” she says. “In this situation it tends to do more harm than good.”

Social media marketing can be very cost-effective in terms of direct expenditure on posts or impressions, but managing a social media campaign can be significantly more complex than managing a traditional media marketing operation. According to Wilks, marketers should treat social media marketing campaigns the same way as they would campaigns in other media.

“Social media should be respected to the same degree as print or broadcast. There should be a full 360-degree strategy for all content and interaction planning, which should be managed extremely carefully, with constant monitoring and evaluation. The other danger is that once something is online, it is out there forever – which further reinforces the need for social media platforms to be used extremely carefully,” she says.

While marketing agencies are understandably clear on the benefits of a fully managed social media campaign, looking at the total cost of marketing activities, including time spent by direct company employees, is critical to ensure a campaign remains cost-effective. Even using completely ‘free’ channels, SMEs may find the time required to manage a successful campaign necessitates re-tasking employees, or hiring additional resources, potentially adding significant overheads.

PR, another popular marketing channel for SMEs, has also seen a shift towards direct management. Marketers are now able to use online distribution systems to send press releases directly to media, instead of relying on PR agencies.

The prospect of cutting costs even further has a clear appeal for SMEs looking to stretch their marketing budgets as far as possible. But Wilks advises companies that they should ensure they focus on long-term strategic goals. The days of “throwing as much PR out there as possible and hoping it sticks” are gone, she says.

“More and more companies are starting to recognise the need to have a strategic PR and marketing campaign that is aligned to their business plan and focused on raising awareness and positive reinforcement with very specific target audiences. The key is focusing on creative strategic campaigns that really help to support the bottom line,” says Wilks.