By Niall O’Loughlin, Marketing Manager, 99designs

Are you ready to hold your own in the UK's competitive landscape for small businesses and start-ups?

With over 500,000 new businesses launching in the UK this year, there has never been a more important time to stand out from the crowd! Unique branding that makes a great first impression and creates a lasting relationship is the golden ticket for your success. Your brand identity communicates your core values and relates your message to your target audience, while paving the foundation for a positive reputation that lasts for generations.

1) Customer Focus
The Technique:
Focusing on your customers needs is more than just offering great customer service. To foster customer loyalty in a crowded marketplace, you need to take your customer on an exceptional journey from start to finish. When starting out, you have the opportunity to create a business strategy that is based on always putting your customer first, and at the core of your business. Many startups and small businesses rely on word-of-mouth as a primary driver in reputation building and acquiring new customers. Small businesses across the UK should strive to make every customer’s experience as share-worthy as possible. Think of your happy customers as ambassadors for your business. This is a fantastic, cost effective technique to market your business to the masses. If a customer has a query or a difficulty, use it an opportunity for your team to show off how much they value the relationship and the lengths they’ll go to in order to make things right. When you intend to exceed customer expectations, you foster customer loyalty by elevating their experience. A happy customer is a sharing customer.

The Tool:
Evernote is designed for note taking and archiving. It’s like a Word Processor meets a ring binder in the online world. You can organise notes into notebooks and notebooks into stacks. Before you move into customer service software, you can use Evernote to organise and archive all customer communication.

2) Build Come-Back-For-More Social Media Conversations
The Technique:
Social media needs to be at the forefront of all small business marketing strategies. Dedicate time to building a following. How? Provide value to your community in every post by sharing content that’s relevant to your industry and speaks to your ideal customer. Focus on quality followers over quantity. To begin building a trustworthy brand, you’ve got to start building an engaged social media following. Even if you only have 50-100 followers - create a valuable experience for those followers. You don’t need to be everywhere at once and you don’t bite off more than you can chew. If you have limited resources, start with a Twitter or Facebook account. The rest (Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr, FourSquare, etc.) will come more easily once you’ve established 1-2 primary profiles. To get real results you need to commit to creating conversations and providing value for your followers. Just because you’ve created an account doesn’t mean you’re done with social media! You’ll be using your social media account(s) to answer support-related questions, cultivate a community and to provide tangible value to each of your customers.

Don’t forget to consistently promote your social media profiles throughout all of your communication, whether it’s an email campaign, your email signature, press releases, video or in a prominent position on each page of your website. Social networks are the first place a customer looks to find information and to gain an overall sense of a companies activities, values and brand messaging.

The tool: Hootsuite, Buffer or Sprout Social
When working with one or multiple social media accounts, it can be a breath of fresh air to manage them all from one centralised place. Everyone has different needs from their management tool but these are the top three that all my industry pals use. Check them out, try them out and see which works best for you.

3) Focus On Content
The Technique:
Content creation is one of the most common stumbling blocks for businesses across the UK. You don’t have to stumble before you walk, here’s how to fly. All you need to know is that when you leverage the power of great content, you can foster an engaged community that keeps coming back for more! Creating unique and powerful articles, infographics, ebooks, Facebook posts, images, etc., will help you establish your company as a thought leader in your industry. Keep it simple. Use a medium that suits your business type and resources and that connects best with your target audience. To get started with creating engaging articles, start reading and following blogs that would interest your ideal customer - take note of 10 headlines that catch your attention - now write 10 headlines of your own that speak about your business but also will be interesting to your target audience.

The Tool:
Feedly is a cloud-based news aggregator that works across all devices. In simple terms, Feedly collects the articles from your favourite blogs, news sites and websites in one place. You get immediate updates on all the news being submitted around the world, so you are always down-to-the-minute with what’s happening. You can use it to catch up on news, find the best articles for your audience or for your own writing research.

4.Nail Your Visual Identity
The technique:
Designing a logo is simple, right? Think again. There's more to crafting a brand's visual identity than just placing a name in a square and calling it a day. Logo designers are in high demand, and it's for good reason — your logo is your next customer’s first impression of your business, so it is crucial to get it right. A great logo will impact your customer’s brand perception, purchase decisions and overall attitude toward a product.

Today, there has never been an easier way to gain maximum creativity at a fixed budget that suits your business, this cost effective solution is called crowdsourced design. Crowdsourcing your logo design allows you to access a wealth of design talent at a price that is fixed from beginning to end. It’s a fast, affordable and creative way to get the very best design for your business. It’s kind of like having your own team of graphic designers who create inspiring work for you to choose from, but without the huge overheads. An additional benefit of the crowdsourcing model is the ability to build relationships with multiple designers who can fulfil future design needs.

The tool:
99designs. With a few simple steps on 99 designs, you can launch a design contest, thousands of designers submit creative design proposals to you, then you choose a winning design and hey presto your visual identity is ready to start working for you! It’s a fast, affordable, creative and interactive way to access great quality graphic design. On 99designs, you can also stay in contact with your favourite designers, so that you can use them as your go-to resource for future design work.