It’s National Small Business Week, which raises a question (at least for us) of how small businesses should be marketing themselves.

Marketing can be difficult for small businesses – budgets aren’t necessarily huge and time is rarely a luxury. Many small businesses focus on old-fashioned Chamber-of-Commerce-style business card exchanges and that can be fine.

But it almost certainly is not enough.

So what should small business owners do? Advertising can be expensive and the ROI is very much guesswork. PR is more cost effective and credible but results are out of your control. Content marketing, however, can provide results like a good PR campaign without relying upon the media.

By creating quality content that is of interest to your prospective customers and sending it directly to them – whether via email, RSS or social media – you are creating a connection. You are engaging them. Your are initiating a high-level conversation about their business and industry.

A lot of small businesses struggle with the notion that they’ll be expending an effort that isn’t hard-selling clients; there’s a need for instant gratification. But think about this logically – if all you’re doing is giving them a hard sell about how great your software is, they’re going to tune you out. According to Sirius Decisions, 70 percent of the buying process is completed before your sales people ever speak to the prospect.

On the other hand, if the conversation you initiate adds value to your prospects’ business, they’ll want to know more. If you curate other important industry information, they’ll see that you’re actively trying to help them stay ahead of the curve. Over time, they’ll come to see you as a Thought Leader.

Content marketing takes a commitment – you can’t just blog for a week or two. But creating a steady flow of quality content – blogs, newsletters, whitepapers, etc. – will create a perception that your small business is on a higher plane. It creates a perception that you know your stuff, that you’re one of the big boys, that you’re stable and that you care about your customers.

In other words, the kind of partner someone wants to do business with.