Q: What is the best online channel for us to invest our money in? We can't afford to market across social media, e-mail and search, so we're struggling to decide where our budget should be focused.

Ace Work Gear

A: We need to look at two different but related parts: your objective and which tools you want to use. Are you looking to increase sales per transaction, attract new customers or grow sales of a particular line or category? Ace, like most organizations, has a finite budget — let's make sure that we know what we are looking to accomplish before we begin. This ensures that others in the organization know what we are trying to accomplish.

You identified three potential tools: e-mail, search and social media.

E-mail: First you need a list of e-mails. Where will you get these addresses? Online purchases from your site, in-store customers, etc.? Transaction-related e-mail addresses are especially powerful if you know what was purchased and when. If you have good data, the ability to segment these addresses and target specific messages can be especially effective.

Search: Successful search means picking the keywords that will attract viewers of potential purchasers. Search can definitely help you attract new viewers; and you have to pay for each viewer. Using search raises a critical question: "Is your site optimized for search?"

Both search and e-mail allow you to really control the pace. If you are swamped, then you can readily back off efforts. At the same time, if you want to drive activity to a specific time of the year, product group or customer segment, you clearly have that flexibility with search and e-mail.

Social: While you have control over timing and the direction of search and e-mail, this is not the case with social. Social is very, very powerful in that it is immediate and recipients tend to be actively engaged. That being said, who within your organization will manage social — what are the parameters you want them to work within and what is the source of their credibility? While social can clearly help you be perceived as a thought leader in your chosen space, thought leadership must be earned. As a reseller rather than a manufacturer, where are you going to go with social and how will you balance the different manufacturers you stock?

To go back to your initial question — and with the information you provided, my initial recommendation would be to build and maintain a solid e-mail list and start with an e-mail campaign.

Jon Seltzer is a professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.