I just recently moved to San Francisco and I’ve been going to lots of networking events so I can meet new people (and get out of the house – I work from home).  As a result, I’ve been speaking with a lot of small business owners.  Naturally, the topic of online marketing (SEO, PPC, etc) often comes up, because that’s what I do for a living – I’m a marketing consultant.

Many of the business owners I’ve been speaking with are frustrated with internet marketing.  Many want a consultant or company to help them – but they don’t know whom to trust. Many have been burned in the past by online marketing companies.

As a result, they feel stuck. They know they should be marketing online, but they’re not – and so their business isn’t growing as fast as it could be.

What should they do?

Here are what I consider to be the 4 options a small business owner has when trying to market his or her business online.

Option #1: Hire an Expert

The first option is to hire somebody who has specialized experience in the field, knows how to deliver return-on-investment (ROI), knows what they’re worth – and charges what they’re worth.  This could either be a solo consultant, small firm, or a big firm.  Either way, it’ll be the most expensive option (in terms of cash outlay), compared to the alternatives.

This option makes sense if you’re already generating some profits from online marketing, or if your “offline” business is profitable enough so you can make a significant investment into online marketing from the start. Otherwise, you probably can’t afford it.

Option #2: Hire an Inexpensive Company

The second option is to hire somebody cheap.  If you’re just starting out, this option may seem pretty attractive.

The cheap companies are not hard to find. Every single business owner I know gets harassed and spammed by companies promoting inexpensive services.  I have no idea whether these types of companies can deliver on their promises, because I haven’t tested them out – but I have my doubts.  My clients and contacts have forwarded me some of the solicitations they’ve received, and some of them are straight-up fraudulent.  I understand why most business owners are skeptical of online marketing companies.

On the other hand, there may be some more established, reputable companies out there offering inexpensive online marketing services. These may seem like a good fit if you have a very limited budget, but I’m still skeptical. I don’t think a “one-size-fits-all” approach is going to dramatically grow your business and help you increase market share. Think about it. These companies are probably working with your competitors, too. If you’re all doing the same thing, what’s your competitive advantage?

Option #3: Only Pay for Success

The third option is to hire a person on contingency where you only pay for success.  This seems to be what many of the business owners I speak to are looking for… and that’s not surprising.

Paying only for success is like a dream come true.  This is how real estate works – you only pay when your real estate agent sells your home. Why wouldn’t this work with small business online marketing services?

In my experience, it’ll almost never work because it’s not attractive to the marketing consultant.  If you’re good at online marketing, there are many better opportunities to make money than by helping other business owners get their marketing off the ground for a piece of the upside.

But let’s suspend disbelief and say you find somebody who will manage your marketing on a pure contingency basis. I think you’re still putting yourself at risk. Typically the kind of person who’ll go for a straight contingency deal is just getting started.  They might be willing to try that kind of arrangement for a little while, but if it doesn’t pay off for them within a month or two, they’ll move on.

The result? Maybe you saved some money, but you may have lost a bunch of time. And now you’re back to square one – looking for somebody else to help you.

Option #4: Manage Your Own Online Marketing

The fourth option is to do it yourself.  Some of the business owners I speak to say “I don’t have time for that” – and I understand and sympathize.

However, the fact of the matter is that marketing is the most important function in a small business.  There’s really no denying it. Without marketing, you don’t have customers. Without customers, you don’t have a business.

In other words, marketing IS your business. Therefore, as the owner of the business, you should own your marketing.  Don’t surrender control.  Get it up and running yourself, and then bring somebody in to manage it for you once you understand how things are working.

That way, you’re not as dependent on an outside person or company. You’ll know enough to be able to call their BS. And you can fire them if they’re not performing, without breaking a sweat.

But wait a minute,” you might be thinking, “I seriously don’t have time for this stuff…. Won’t it take me weeks or months to learn how to market my business online?”

OK, some aspects of online marketing – such as Google Adwords – take a bit more time to master.

Luckily, there are other ways to get started marketing your business online that are really quick and easy — and deliver solid return-on-investment.  Local search engine optimization (SEO) — e.g. getting ranked in Google Places — is one such example. Local SEO is something many companies charge hundreds or even thousands of dollars for – and yet it’s really easy and fast to setup and optimize. You can set it up yourself in just 1 day (or less) with the right step-by-step instructions to guide you, and then typically start ranking within 30 days.

We’ve created a free video that reveals the 5 steps to rank #1 in Google’s local search results:

How to Rank #1 in Google Without Hiring an SEO Company