Whether you’re in the process of launching a new business or already have one, having a strong online presence for your brand is extremely important.
In fact, consumers learn about local businesses online more than anywhere else, with Statista predicting the number of ecommerce users to grow to nearly 274 million by 2025.
If you’re a small business owner with little experience in online marketing, creating a strategy to boost your online presence may feel overwhelming. Have no fear — we’ve got you covered.
In this post, we’ll help you build and optimize your small business marketing strategy using inbound marketing, setting you up to attract new clients and ultimately grow your business.
Small Business Marketing
Marketing is meant to raise brand awareness and build a pipeline of qualified leads that turn into sales. With a small business, getting the word out can be challenging due to less visibility and lack of resources (like budget or time). However, there are key strategies that can help you scale your small business’s marketing efforts.
Whether you’re struggling with a limited budget, the time restraints caused by having a smaller team, or even a lack of direction, a marketing plan that’s appropriate for your business can provide guidance as you scale.
Small Business Marketing Strategies
- Know your audience.
- Emphasize your value proposition.
- Stay focused on singular goals and objectives.
- Capitalize on short-term plays.
- Double-down on what works.
- Understand the power of existing customers.
- Use free promotional tools.
- Create a website to own your online presence.
- Consider blogging to attract prospects for your website.
- Promote yourself on social media.
- Invest in ads.
- Make sure you’re capturing web prospects’ information.
- Use email marketing to nurture leads.
- Manage relationships with a CRM.
- Lean into word of mouth as a promotion channel.
These strategies are fundamental as you generate awareness and revenue for your organization:
1. Know your audience.
A key mistake is thinking that “anyone” is your buyer. Larger companies may be able to appeal to a wide market, but they say, “the riches are in the niches” for a reason. A niche is where you’ll have the most leverage as a small business. And to develop a niche and appeal to buyers within the niche, you must understand their pains, problems, triggering events, and priorities.
What is pushing them to make a purchasing decision? What does it look like if they succeed? Knowing these things will help you craft messaging that resonates and makes a compelling case for your solution.
Start by thinking about your existing customers and who you’d like to work with. Then, create a buyer persona to start the process of getting into the head of your ideal client.
2. Emphasize your value proposition.
If there’s no difference between you and your competition, there’s no reason why a buyer would be compelled to work with you. Your value proposition is what will differentiate you from others in your space and make up your prospects’ minds that you’re the provider to go with. What do you do better than anyone in the industry? Conveying this makes a compelling argument.
3. Stay focused on singular goals and objectives.
If you’re exploring the world of marketing, you may have noticed that there are a gazillion directions you can go in. It’s tempting to do it all at once and craft a complicated machine in hopes that you covered all your bases, and it’s easy to take on too much.
Instead, identify where the biggest impact will be. Where is the biggest blind spot in your marketing that’s prohibiting your growth? Set a performance goal around that one key area and focus your resources on the activities and tactics that will achieve that one performance goal. You can expand your efforts or pivot to other initiatives when you’ve made more progress toward that singular goal.
4. Capitalize on short-term plays.
Start scrappy. As you scale, it’s critical to see ROI sooner. This will give you the momentum and cash flow to put toward larger projects, long-term plays, and more sustainable growth models.
Tactics that take time to build (such as SEO) are poor fits for your primary initiatives because you won’t see a return soon enough for your liking. If you have enough resources to start there, great, but don’t put all your eggs in that basket.
If you have evidence that people are taking to Google with purchasing intent for your particular solution, you may find that paid ads will give you that short-term ROI.
5. Double-down on what works.
Once you have your initiatives running and you’ve experimented with a few things, pay attention to the data. This can inform you of what’s working. As you scale, it’s a good idea to double-down on proven methods of generating revenue.
6. Understand the power of existing customers.
On average it costs five times more to acquire a new customer than close an existing one. This means you shouldn’t stop marketing once they’ve made a purchase.
Identify your opportunities for repeat purchasing, upselling, and cross-selling. Because your existing customers have already made a purchase, they already know, like, and trust you. If you’ve provided a good experience, you’ve given them a reason to do business with you again should the need ever arise.
Even if the need doesn’t arise (in cases where it’s a one-and-done purchase with no upsell opportunities), you should still delight your customers. Word of mouth is a powerful (and free) promotional tool.
7. Use free promotional tools.
Speaking of free promotional tools, it’s important to note that since you’ve committed to a limited goal and scope, there’s no need to inflate your overhead with gadgets. Use free promotional tools where possible, and only commit to paid tools if you know they will drastically improve existing operations or performance. Here’s a helpful list of marketing tools (some free and paid).
8. Create a website to own your online presence.
Having a professional-looking website is one of the most important assets you will create for your small business. This is where you will show who you are, what you offer, where you are, and how a potential customer can get in touch with you.
It is a channel you will always own (unlike other platforms which may change policies or go in and out of style), and it has the capability of generating organic traffic in addition to being a place to send traffic from advertising and other marketing initiatives.
Your website isn’t just a simple brochure, either. You have the capability of turning it into a 24-7 salesperson by understanding how to convert traffic and turn them into leads (more on that later).
For one of the best website tools, check out HubSpot’s CMS.
9. Consider blogging to attract prospects for your website.
Blogging is a great way to generate organic traffic, particularly for those prospects who have not reached a purchasing decision yet. In addition, it can establish credibility in your space and position you as a thought leader.
To start a blog, you can use an inexpensive or free website tool to make a free site and use one of their templates. Even if you only publish once a week, it will improve your website’s visibility online and help educate your potential customers on why they should trust your company. If you’re planning to write your posts yourself, check out this beginner’s guide to writing.
Once you start writing, you can add a call-to-action on your posts for visitors to subscribe to your blog and receive emails This is a great way to start collecting leads and offering potential customers a way to get information if they aren’t ready to buy anything from you yet.
10. Promote yourself on social media.
With billions of potential customers using various platforms daily, social media is a powerful business tool. Social media marketing can help you engage with potential customers, build brand awareness, and promote your products. Why wouldn’t you want to be seen where your potential customers spend their time?
11. Invest in ads.
Organic traffic takes a while to build, and as a small business, you want to invest in short-term plays. Pay-to-play tactics that target buyers with high intent are great for short-term wins to jump-start other objectives.
Google Ads are perfect if you know that your target audience is searching the web for your product or solution. If they aren’t, you might consider social media ads instead. Individuals on social media have less buying intent, but with highly targeted ads and enough impressions, you’ll gain the interest of your audience.
12. Make sure you’re capturing web prospects’ information.
We’ve been talking a lot about visibility and traffic but haven’t really covered how these will help drive revenue yet. One simple way to start generating leads or customers from your website is to implement a conversion tool.
A simple, free option is HubSpot Marketing Free. By using this tool to add a pop-up widget to your website, you can start collecting the email addresses of potential customers. From there, you can send out promotions and offers and convert them into paying customers. You can also implement any of these 24 conversion tools to help you optimize your website and use it to drive leads.
13. Use email marketing to nurture leads.
Just because you’ve converted website traffic into leads doesn’t mean those leads are ready to buy yet. It’s important to stay top of mind and move them closer to a purchasing decision.
Email marketing is a critical part of your marketing toolkit. In fact, 73 percent of millennials prefer communications from businesses to come via email.
This strategy is an easy, free, and scalable way to communicate with both new and existing customers.
Once you have an email marketing tool in place (many are inexpensive or even free), experiment with emailing out newsletters (with your sleek new blog posts), and other promotions to your database. We know small business owners don’t have tons of free time to devote to digital marketing, so consider using marketing automation to make this process even easier for yourself.
To get started planning your email marketing strategy, check out this guide and template from HubSpot.
14. Manage relationships with a CRM.
Email marketing works best when you’re sending personalized, targeted emails. This begins with a customer database or customer relationship management (CRM) system.
Your CRM stores information about your leads, prospects, and customers so that you can keep track of customer interactions and identify sales opportunities more effectively.
HubSpot has one of the best CRMs (and best of all, it’s totally free).
15. Lean into word of mouth as a promotion channel.
As mentioned previously, delighting customers can have a big impact on your business, primarily in repeat purchases and word of mouth. If you provide a great experience, your customers will be more inclined to leave reviews, give testimonials, and tell their friends about you.
That’s why it’s a good idea to measure customer satisfaction and encourage customers to spread the word.
Marketing Tips for Small Businesses
- Determine your brand’s identity.
- Identify your buyer persona.
- Design a logo and other assets.
- Build your website with a CMS template.
- Draw up a go-to-market strategy.
- Hire a freelancer to help you scale your content.
- Consult agencies and freelancers for web design help.
- Track your site with analytics tools.
- Boost your Google ranking with SEO.
- Research keyword opportunities.
- Optimize your website for mobile devices.
- Write optimized blog posts.
- Experiment with photo and video content.
- Launch business pages on Facebook and Yelp.
- Build out your social media strategy.
- Use social media for customer service.
- Build interesting landing pages.
- Plan an email marketing strategy.
- Offer coupons in newsletters or on landing pages.
- Share your distribution channels on your website.
- Offer a free webinar.
- Try co-marketing.
- Encourage happy customers to share their experiences.
- Try out marketing experiments.
1. Determine your brand’s identity.
Having a consistent brand identity to promote your business will make you look more professional and help you attract new customers. According to a 2020 study, nearly 9 out of 10 people are brand loyal with nearly 25% of them climbing to be more brand loyal in 2020 compared to 2019.
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has described a company’s branding as “what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.” In other words, your brand is the feelings and emotions people have when hearing your company name. It’s is a combination of your brand name, logo, aesthetic, and the design of all your assets.
2. Identify your buyer persona.
When you imagine a customer searching for your product or service, what are they like? What are their pain points? What is their job? Creating a buyer persona that tells a story of your ideal customer can help you make a website that’s optimized for them.
By learning more about your target customer through creating a buyer persona, you can better figure out what types of things they may be searching for so you can include those terms on your website.
3. Design a logo and other assets.
To start getting the creative juices flowing, consider your color scheme and peruse palettes with Adobe Color or Coolors. You can create your own or look through pre-made or customized color palettes.
To create a logo, I’d recommend checking out Upwork or Freelancer. There are free and less expensive options for designing your own logo online, although using a freelancer or agency can give you a higher quality product and connect you with a designer who can change and update your brand assets as your company grows.
4. Build your website with a CMS template.
If you’re a fairly tech-savvy small business owner, you’ll probably want to build your own website. A CMS (content management system) makes the process simple.
Most CMSs offer customizable templates for your site that you can get for free or a small fee. There are templates for various skill levels — from beginner all the way to advanced.
Once you’ve created your website, most CMS platforms offer plugins to help you optimize your content for search (look for SEO plugins). This will help you rank better in Google — which we’ll discuss more in-depth in a bit.
5. Draw up a go-to-market strategy.
Once you’ve activated all the tools you need to promote your product or service, you’ll need to create a promotional plan that aligns with the customer journey. Consider which content will attract, engage, and delight your prospects and how you will convert them into a customer.
To help you plan out this process, use this template.
6. Hire a freelancer to help you scale your content.
If you need some help creating regular blogs or promotional content, consider hiring a freelancer over investing in a full-timer. Try Upwork for a freelance blogger, videographer, or photographer. You could also consider hiring a marketing agency for a larger project.
7. Consult agencies or freelancers for web design help.
If you aren’t on the technical side and want a website built for your small business, you can use a freelancer or a marketing agency that specializes in web design. This is a great option for businesses that already have a website but need it to be updated and revamped for SEO (search engine optimization) to help improve your Google ranking.
8. Track your site with analytics tools.
If you’ve never made a website before and aren’t entirely comfortable with the technical elements, there are a variety of free tools and services to help you get started. When you create your website, make sure you implement Google Analyticsor HubSpot Marketing Free(both of which are free products) so you can easily track who’s looking at your site.
Online Marketing Tips for Small Businesses
9. Boost your Google ranking with SEO.
If you already have a business, have you ever searched for yourself or your product/service online? If so, did you think, “Why isn’t my website showing up on Google?” If so, you probably thought, “How do I rank on Google?” or “How can I improve my Google ranking?”
There are a lot of factors that play into why a certain site or page appears in the top spots on the Google (or another search engine) search engine results page (SERP). Backlinko reports some of Google’s top factors, which include having relevant keywords (and their placement on your site), the length of your content, having high-quality content, how fast your page loads, how often you post content, and more.
When it all boils down, Google essentially tries to find the best piece of content to present to the person searching. For example, if I’m searching for the best salon in Newport, Rhode Island, it wouldn’t be helpful for me to find a web page of a salon that has closed down and is located in Newport, Kentucky. It would, however, be helpful for me to find a salon in my area with great Yelp reviews, an easy-to-navigate website, and contact information readily available. Google always wants to surface the most relevant, highest-quality piece of content.
To rank higher on Google, you can leverage the power of SEO, or search engine optimization. To start learning everything there is to know about this powerhouse marketing tactic, check out The Ultimate Guide to SEO.
HubSpot explains SEO as “techniques that help your website rank higher in search engine results pages (SERPs). This makes your website more visible to people who are looking for solutions that your brand, product, or service can provide via search engines like Google, Yahoo!, and Bing.” In other words, it’s the basic concept of structuring your website and blog posts to be in the best shape for appearing first on search engines.
SEO strategy usually consists of a few things. These include buyer persona research, keyword research, and on-page SEO research. These three areas can help you learn how your target market is searching online, and position your business to get discovered by the right people.
10. Research keywords opportunities.
Keyword research is an extension of buyer persona research. You can use the personas you’ve created to search for the best keywords for your brand, then use a tool like KW Finder to find related keywords for your target audience.
Then, you can do some on-page SEO research and optimization. This is where you put those keywords in the correct places on your website — like in the meta-description, page titles, and H1 tags.
11. Optimize your website for mobile devices.
Most Google searches are done on mobile devices, so it’s important to have a site that looks clean and easy to navigate when someone enters it on their smartphone. A mobile site can also be beneficial for SEO, with search engines like Google which rewards you with a higher ranking if you have a mobile site.
You don’t have to be a tech expert to build a site that looks good on mobile. In fact, most CMS platforms like HubSpot already offer mobile-optimized templates.
12. Write optimized blog posts.
Content and blogging are extremely important when it comes to your search engine ranking. The more often your desired keywords appear in your high-quality and helpful content, the more likely you are to appear in search results. A great way to become an authority on your topic, product, or service is to blog.
13. Experiment with photo and video content.
According to HubSpot Research, more than 50% of consumers want to see videos from brands. Additionally, most social media apps, like Facebook and Instagram are embracing more visual layouts. To keep up with these trends, it’s a good idea to make a few marketing videos. If you use these tips, producing a few can be quite inexpensive.
14. Launch business pages on Facebook and Yelp.
If your business is focused on a local area, the most important accounts for you are Facebook, Yelp, and Google’s business feature. Having high Yelp reviews improves your authority online and helps your search ranking. You can claim your business on Yelp for free, customize your profile and add pictures, and start asking for reviews.
The same thing goes for registering your Google business page. You can register your business with Google (for free) and add pictures. (If you’ve ever searched for your business in Google Maps and been disappointed not to see it, it’s because you haven’t claimed it yet!)
On Facebook, you can create a Facebook business page so that people can find your location and hours.
For any business, having up-to-date social media accounts will help you be found and engage with prospects. Create a Twitter account, Facebook page, learn how to use Instagram, create a Pinterest page (if relevant), and use them as a way to discover new clients.
15. Build out your social media strategy.
While Facebook and Yelp will be great tools for local searches and reviews, platforms like Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter will offer you even more opportunities to share your posts, content, and promotions.
If your customers can purchase your products or services online, these platforms will also give them another way to find you.
Be sure not to spread yourself too thin by joining too many platforms at once. To make strategizing easier, here’s a guide to the five types of social media platforms and the pros and cons of each.
16. Use social media for customer service.
Once you’re on your chosen platforms, be sure to answer customer or follower questions when they ask them through post comments or direct messages. This will make your company look responsive and credible. Here are some great examples of how brands have used Twitter for customer service.
If you have the means, consider hiring a social media manager with community management experience. On top of posting content on a regular schedule, community managers are charged with responding to questions or concerns of followers. Interested? We published a guide on what it takes to be a great social media community manager.
17. Build interesting landing pages.
A landing page offers your potential customers a free resource in exchange for filling out a short form of contact information. When they receive the resource, they might be even more pleased by your company and more interested in buying the full product.
Because landing pages raise your chances of customer conversion, you want yours to look enticing. To get started, read this landing page guide to learn more about what makes this strategy successful. Then check out these free and professionally designed templates.
18. Plan an email marketing strategy.
Once you start creating regular content and building out landing pages, you’ll want to share them with the prospects who seem most interested in learning more about your product. For this reason, we suggest building an email marketing strategy.
While you want to be careful not to bombard those who sign up for your email list with too many emails, you want to send just enough to keep your prospects informed and engaged. Here’s how our metrics improved when we streamlined our email marketing strategy.
If you’ve never sent regular newsletters before, you can use HubSpot or a number of other affordable tools to create and send an email with a professionally designed template. Many email tools also offer basic analytics that allow you to track open and click rates.
19. Offer coupons in newsletters or on landing pages.
Placing a coupon in your marketing emails can engage and delight your audience. After buying a product or service at a discounted rate, they also might be more willing to pay for it in full price. If you have a subscription service, it can also be helpful to offer prospects a code for a free trial so they can test it out.
20. Share your distribution channels on your website.
Once you have a few social media accounts and can allow people to sign up for your newsletter, highlight this on your website so your visitors can follow you. One way companies do this is to display all of their linked social icons and a newsletter sign-up call to action on all pages of your website. A good place to include these is on the top right corner or on the footer of each page. This way they are visible but aren’t distracting from any content.
21. Offer a free webinar.
A webinar allows potential customers to sign up for a short online course hosted by you. These courses are usually between 30 minutes to an hour and allow you to give tips and answer questions related to a topic your brand is familiar with. While this strategy can help you boost your credibility in your field, it can also offer you potential leads and sales opportunities.
22. Try co-marketing.
Is there a local business in your area that isn’t a direct competitor but offers a product or service to a similar target audience? Consider working with them on a cobranded campaign where you promote each other on social media, via email, or in your blog. While you’ll give your partnering company added promotion, it will also allow their fanbase to learn more about you.
23. Encourage happy customers to share their experiences.
When a happy customer talks about how great your company is on social media or a review site, your product or service looks like a good investment. Even on social media, word of mouth is still a huge factor in someone’s purchasing decision. If a prospect sees a friend raving about your business on Facebook or if they post a photo of a meal from your restaurant on Instagram, they could be more likely to go. After all, 71% of consumers are more likely to purchase based on social media referrals.
If customers are telling you they love your product, encourage them to share about the experience on Yelp, Google, or social. If you have a physical business, you might also want to place signs up with your account handles so customers know who to tag if they post a picture of your product.
24. Try out marketing experiments.
If there’s a new social platform you’re interested in or a new marketing trend, don’t be afraid to experiment. If an experiment goes well, you could be ahead of the game, and it never hurts to be a thought leader in your industry.
When you experiment with a new marketing strategy, be sure to have a solid hypothesis or question in mind. This will keep you focused on the end goal and reduce the desire to chase the next big thing as it comes along. Also, prepare for what your next steps will be if you get good or bad results. Here’s a quick guide to leading a successful marketing experiment.
Small Business Advertising Ideas
Now that we’ve covered some marketing strategy basics, let’s look into how you can put your advertising dollars to work. Below are some ways to tackle adverising for small business.
1. Set up Google My Business.
Creating a free Google My Business profile is a simple first step to helping potential customers find your business. It only takes a few minutes to add your business contact information, business hours, photos, and list your services.
Another perk of having a Google business profile is that you don’t need a storefront to create one. Your profile also comes with analytics that can help you better understand how customes are connecting with your business. Additionally, you can check out and respond to customer reviews and learn what keywords brought them to your business page.
2. Consder PPC ads with Google & Bing.
Using pay-per-click ad programs like Google Adwords or Microsoft Advertising can also help drive customers to your business. If you’re working hard on SEO, but are still looking for an extra boost, consider PPC — or pay-per-click advertising.
With this search engine marketing technique, you use Google AdWords or Microsoft Ads to show up as an advertised listing in search results. Before you dive into PPC, you’ll want to make sure your landing page is as optimized as possible. If you are paying by the click and those who click on the page don’t convert, you will lose advertising dollars.
To help you get started, read this Ultimate Guide to PPC. Then, use this PPC planning template to plan an optimized campaign. You can also use a few handy tools and software to edit, track, and report on your campaigns.
3. Run social media ads.
Most of the major social media platforms offer affordable advertising options that can help you target your posts to a specific audience. While many small businesses have been advertising on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn for years, Instagram now allows brands to advertise through its Shoppable tool.
Pinterest is also an excellent option for small businesses to advertise. In fact, Pinterest users say the platform has more influence on their purchasing journey than other platforms. Shopping ads on Pinterst drive three times the conversion of other competting plaforms.
4. Sponsor products on Etsy & Amazon.
If you’ve alreay set up shop on Amazon, you can give your products a boost by participating in their sponsored products program. This cost-per-click ad program generates ads from your product listings and automatcally targets your ads, making it a great option if you’ve never created a campaign before.
If you’re a maker and sell your wares on Etsy, consider using Etsy Ads to advertise your products. Similar to Amazon, this is a cost-per-click model with a default minimum daily budget of one dollar. With Etsy Ads your products will stand out in Etsy Search, category pages and marketing pages.
5. Leverage user-generated content.
Some of the best advertising you can get is from existing customers. Happy customers can vouch for your brand and add social proof to your marketing campaigns. Ask your customers to leave reviews or if they’ve already created content on social media involving your brand, ask permission to share it.
6. Develop a referral program.
Speaking of enlisting the help if your existing customers, you can incentivize them by using a referral program. Offer a discount, free gift, or other perk in exchange for them bringing in new customers.
Referred customers are 18% more loyal than those who aren’t and spend 13% more on purchases. Since these new customers will have been referred to you by someone they know, they’re more likely to have a positive customer experience.
7. Advertise with your local chamber of commerce.
If you have a storefront, it may also be a good investment to advertise with yoru local chamber of commerce. Each city is different, but you can typically be featured on their website, their social media channels, and included in their email newsletter for an annual fee.
It’s not only a great way to get your brand out there, but is also an excellent opportunity to network with fellow small business owners.
Start Marketing Your Business Today
Small business owners looking for a way to track ROI and brand awareness need digital marketing. Not only is digital marketing a must-have for promoting your products or services, but optimizing your online assets is also critical to your business’ overall success.
You may have a long road ahead to build your online presence, but any steps you can make will have a huge impact on your business.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in September 2020 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
A Complete Guide to Color Wheels & Color Schemes
While text-based content is always important when seeking answers to a question, creating visuals such as infographics, charts, graphs, animated GIFs, and other shareable images can do wonders for catching your readers’ attention and enhancing your article or report. Knowing color theory and design can help you make content stand out.
I know what you might be thinking: “I don’t know how to design awesome visuals. I’m not creative.” Neither am I, yet I found a strength in data visualization at HubSpot, where I’ve spent most of my days creating infographics and other visuals for blog posts.
Consider this your introductory course to color theory, types of color schemes, and the use of palettes. We’ll be covering the following topics:
What is color theory?
Color theory is the basis for the primary rules and guidelines that surround color and its use in creating aesthetically pleasing visuals. By understanding color theory basics, you can begin to parse the logical structure of color for yourself to create and use color palettes more strategically. The result means evoking a particular emotion, vibe, or aesthetic.
Why is color theory important in web design?
Color is an important aspect, if not the most important aspect of design, and can influence the meaning of text, how users move around a particular layout, and what they feel as they do so. By understanding color theory, you can be more intentional in creating visuals that make an impact.
While there are many tools out there to help even the most inartistic of us to create compelling visuals, graphic design tasks require a little more background knowledge on design principles.
Take selecting the right color combination, for instance. It’s something that might seem easy at first but when you’re staring down a color wheel, you’re going to wish you had some information on what you’re looking at. In fact, brands of all sizes use color psychology to learn how color influences decision-making and affects design.
Understanding how colors work together, the impact they can have on mood and emotion, and how they change the look and feel of your website is critical to help you stand out from the crowd — for the right reasons.
From effective CTAs to sales conversions and marketing efforts, the right color choice can highlight specific sections of your website, make it easier for users to navigate, or give them a sense of familiarity from the first moment they click through.
But it’s not enough to simply select colors and hope for the best — from color theory to moods and schemes, finding the right HTML color codes, and identifying web-accessible colors for products and websites, the more you know about using color, the better your chances are for success.
Read on for our designer’s guide to color theory, color wheels, and color schemes for your site.
Color Theory 101
Let’s first go back to high school art class to discuss the basics of color.
Remember hearing about primary, secondary, and tertiary colors? They’re pretty important if you want to understand, well, everything else about color.
Primary colors are those you can’t create by combining two or more other colors together. They’re a lot like prime numbers, which can’t be created by multiplying two other numbers together.
There are three primary colors:
Think of primary colors as your parent colors, anchoring your design in a general color scheme. Any one or combination of these colors can give your brand guardrails when you move to explore other shades, tones, and tints (we’ll talk about those in just a minute).
When designing or even painting with primary colors, don’t feel restricted to just the three primary colors listed above. Orange isn’t a primary color, for example, but brands can certainly use orange as their dominant color (as we at HubSpot know this quite well).
Knowing which primary colors create orange is your ticket to identifying colors that might go well with orange — given the right shade, tone, or tint. This brings us to our next type of color …
Secondary colors are the colors that are formed by combining any two of the three primary colors listed above. Check out the color theory model above — see how each secondary color is supported by two of the three primary colors?
There are three secondary colors: orange, purple, and green. You can create each one using two of the three primary colors. Here are the general rules of secondary color creation:
- Red + Yellow = Orange
- Blue + Red = Purple
- Yellow + Blue = Green
Keep in mind that the color mixtures above only work if you use the purest form of each primary color. This pure form is known as a color’s hue, and you’ll see how these hues compare to the variants underneath each color in the color wheel below.
Tertiary colors are created when you mix a primary color with a secondary color.
From here, color gets a little more complicated, and if you want to learn how the experts choose color in their design, you’ve got to first understand all the other components of color.
The most important component of tertiary colors is that not every primary color can match with a secondary color to create a tertiary color. For example, red can’t mix in harmony with green, and blue can’t mix in harmony with orange — both mixtures would result in a slightly brown color (unless of course, that’s what you’re looking for).
Instead, tertiary colors are created when a primary color mixes with a secondary color that comes next to it on the color wheel below. There are six tertiary colors that fit this requirement:
- Red + Purple = Red-Purple (magenta)
- Red + Orange = Red-Orange (vermillion)
- Blue + Purple = Blue-Purple (violet)
- Blue + Green = Blue-Green (teal)
- Yellow + Orange = Yellow-Orange (amber)
- Yellow + Green = Yellow-Green (chartreuse)
The Color Theory Wheel
Okay, great. So now you know what the “main” colors are, but you and I both know that choosing color combinations, especially on a computer, involves a much wider range than 12 basic colors.
This is the impetus behind the color wheel, a circle graph that charts each primary, secondary, and tertiary color — as well as their respective hues, tints, tones, and shades. Visualizing colors in this way helps you choose color schemes by showing you how each color relates to the color that comes next to it on a rainbow color scale. (As you probably know, the colors of a rainbow, in order, are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.)
When choosing colors for a color scheme, the color wheel gives you opportunities to create brighter, lighter, softer, and darker colors by mixing white, black, and gray with the original colors. These mixes create the color variants described below:
Hue is pretty much synonymous with what we actually mean when we said the word “color.” All of the primary and secondary colors, for instance, are “hues.”
Hues are important to remember when combining two primary colors to create a secondary color. If you don’t use the hues of the two primary colors you’re mixing together, you won’t generate the hue of the secondary color. This is because a hue has the fewest other colors inside it. By mixing two primary colors that carry other tints, tones, and shades inside them, you’re technically adding more than two colors to the mixture — making your final color dependent on the compatibility of more than two colors.
If you were to mix the hues of red and blue together, for instance, you’d get purple, right? But mix a tint of red with the hue of blue, and you’ll get a slightly tinted purple in return.
You may recognize the term “shade” because it’s used quite often to refer to light and dark versions of the same hue. But actually, a shade is technically the color that you get when you add black to any given hue. The various “shades” just refer to how much black you’re adding.
A tint is the opposite of a shade, but people don’t often distinguish between a color’s shade and a color’s tint. You get a different tint when you add white to a color. So, a color can have a range of both shades and tints.
Tone (or Saturation)
You can also add both white and black to a color to create a tone. Tone and saturation essentially mean the same thing, but most people will use saturation if they’re talking about colors being created for digital images. Tone will be used more often for painting.
With the basics covered, let’s dive into something a little more complicated — like additive and subtractive color theory.
Additive & Subtractive Color Theory
If you’ve ever played around with color on any computer program, you’ve probably seen a module that listed RGB or CMYK colors with some numbers next to the letters.
Ever wondered what those letters mean?
CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key (Black). Those also happen to be the colors listed on your ink cartridges for your printer. That’s no coincidence.
CMYK is the subtractive color model. It’s called that because you have to subtract colors to get to white. That means the opposite is true — the more colors you add, the closer you get to black. Confusing, right?
Think about printing on a piece of paper. When you first put a sheet in the printer, you’re typically printing on a white piece of paper. By adding color, you’re blocking the white wavelengths from getting through.
Then, let’s say you were to put that printed piece of paper back into the printer, and print something on it again. You’ll notice the areas that have been printed on twice will have colors closer to black.
I find it easier to think about CMYK in terms of its corresponding numbers. CMYK works on a scale of 0 to 100. If C=100, M=100, Y=100, and K=100, you end up with black. But, if all four colors equal 0, you end up with true white.
RGB color models, on the other hand, are designed for electronic displays, including computers.
RGB stands for Red, Green, Blue, and is based on the additive color model of light waves. This means, the more color you add, the closer you get to white. For computers, RGB is created using scales from 0 to 255. So, black would be R=0, G=0, and B=0. White would be R=255, G=255, and B=255.
When you’re creating color on a computer, your color module will usually list both RGB and CMYK numbers. In practice, you can use either one to find colors, and the other color model will adjust accordingly.
However, many web programs will only give you the RGB values or a HEX code (the code assigned to color for CSS and HTML). So, if you’re designing digital images or for web design, RGB is probably your best bet for choosing colors.
You can always convert the design to CMYK and make adjustments should you ever need it for printed materials.
The Meaning of Color
Along with varying visual impact, different colors also carry different emotional symbolism.
- Red — typically associated with power, passion, or energy, and can help encourage action on your site
- Orange — joy and enthusiasm, making it a good choice for positive messaging
- Yellow — happiness and intellect, but be wary of overuse
- Green — often connected to growth or ambition, green can help give the sense that your brand is on the rise
- Blue — tranquility and confidence, depending on the shade — lighter shades provide a sense of peace, darker colors are more confident
- Purple — luxury or creativity, especially when used deliberately and sparingly on your site
- Black — power and mystery, and using this color can help create necessary negative space
- White — safety and innocence, making it a great choice to help streamline your site
Worth noting? Different audiences may perceive colors differently. The meanings listed above are common for North American audiences, but if your brand moves into other parts of the world, it’s a good idea to research how users will perceive particular colors. For example, while red typically symbolizes passion or power in the United States, it’s considered a color of mourning in South Africa.
While it’s possible to create your website using a combination of every color under the rainbow, chances are the final product won’t look great. Thankfully, color experts and designers have identified seven common color schemes to help jumpstart your creative process.
What are the seven types of color schemes?
The seven major color schemes are monochromatic, analogous, complementary, split complementary, triadic, square, and rectangle (or tetradic).
Let’s examine each type of color scheme in more detail.
Monochromatic color schemes use a single color with varying shades and tints to produce a consistent look and feel. Although it lacks color contrast, it often ends up looking very clean and polished. It also allows you to easily change the darkness and lightness of your colors.
Monochromatic color schemes are often used for charts and graphs when creating high contrast isn’t necessary.
Check out all the monochromatic colors that fall under the red hue, a primary color.
Analogous color schemes are formed by pairing one main color with the two colors directly next to it on the color wheel. You can also add two additional colors (which are found next to the two outside colors) if you want to use a five-color scheme instead of just three colors.
Analogous structures do not create themes with high contrasting colors, so they’re typically used to create a softer, less contrasting design. For example, you could use an analogous structure to create a color scheme with autumn or spring colors.
This color scheme is great for creating warmer (red, oranges, and yellows) or cooler (purples, blues, and greens) color palettes like the one below.
Analogous schemes are often used to design images rather than infographics or bar charts as all of the elements blend together nicely.
The complementary color scheme provides the greatest amount of color contrast. Because of this, you should be careful about how you use the complementary colors in a scheme.
It’s best to use one color predominantly and use the second color as accents in your design. The complementary color scheme is also great for charts and graphs. High contrast helps you highlight important points and takeaways.
4. Split Complementary
A split complementary scheme includes one dominant color and the two colors directly adjacent to the dominant color’s complement. This creates a more nuanced color palette than a complementary color scheme while still retaining the benefits of contrasting colors.
The split complementary color scheme can be difficult to balance because unlike analogous or monochromatic color schemes, the colors used all provide contrast (similar to the complementary scheme).
The positive and negative aspect of the split complementary color model is that you can use any two colors in the scheme and get great contrast … but that also means it can also be tricky to find the right balance between the colors. As a result, you may end up playing around with this one a bit more to find the right combination of contrast.
Triadic color schemes offer high contrasting color schemes while retaining the same tone. Triadic color schemes are created by choosing three colors that are equally placed in lines around the color wheel.
Triad color schemes are useful for creating high contrast between each color in a design, but they can also seem overpowering if all of your colors are chosen on the same point in a line around the color wheel.
To subdue some of your colors in a triadic scheme, you can choose one dominant color and use the others sparingly, or simply subdue the other two colors by choosing a softer tint.
The triadic color scheme looks great in graphics like bar or pie charts because it offers the contrast you need to create comparisons.
The square color scheme uses four colors equidistant from each other on the color wheel to create a square or diamond shape. While this evenly-spaced color scheme provides substantial contrast to your design, it’s a good idea to select one dominant color rather than trying to balance all four.
Square color schemes are great for creating interest across your web designs. Not sure where to start? Pick your favorite color and work from there to see if this scheme suits your brand or website. It’s also a good idea to try square schemes against both black and white backgrounds to find the best fit.
Also called the tetradic color scheme, the rectangle approach is similar to its square counterpart but offers a more subtle approach to color selection.
As you can see in the diagram above, while the blue and red shades are quite bold, the green and orange on the other side of the rectangle are more muted, in turn helping the bolder shades stand out.
No matter which color scheme you choose, keep in mind what your graphic needs. If you need to create contrast, then choose a color scheme that gives you that. On the other hand, if you just need to find the best “versions” of certain colors, then play around with the monochromatic color scheme to find the perfect shades and tints.
Remember, if you build a color scheme with five colors, that doesn’t mean you have to use all five. Sometimes just choosing two colors from a color scheme looks much better than cramming all five colors together in one graphic.
Examples of Color Schemes
Now that you are familiar with color scheme types, let’s take a look at some in the wild.
The use of blues and purples really make this monochromatic blueberry-inspired template stand out. Each shade builds on the next and provides ample contrast despite remaining within the same color family.
As we mentioned earlier, nature is a great way to get inspiration for your color palette. Why? Because mother nature already has it figured out. Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism took advantage of these triadic shades to showcase the region’s natural beauty.
How to Choose a Color Scheme
- Leverage natural inspiration.
- Set a mood for your color scheme.
- Consider color context.
- Refer to your color wheel.
- Draft multiple designs.
1. Leverage natural inspiration.
Once your site operations are solid, it’s time to start selecting colors.
Not sure what looks good? Take a look outside. Nature is the best example of colors that complement each other — from the green stems and bright blooms of flowering plants to azure skies and white clouds, you can’t go wrong pulling context from natural colors and combinations.
2. Set a mood for your color scheme.
With a few color choices in mind, consider the mood you want your color scheme to set. If passion and energy are your priorities, lean more toward red or brighter yellows. If you’re looking to create a feeling of peace or tranquility, trend toward lighter blues and greens.
It’s also worth thinking negatively. This is because negative space — in either black or white — can help keep your design from feeling too cluttered with color.
3. Consider color context.
It’s also worth considering how colors are perceived in contrast.
In the image below, the middle of each of the circles is the same size, shape, and color. The only thing that changes is the background color.
Yet, the middle circles appear softer or brighter depending on the contrasting color behind it. You may even notice movement or depth changes just based on one color change.
This is because the way in which we use two colors together changes how we perceive it. So, when you’re choosing colors for your graphic designs, think about how much contrast you want throughout the design.
For instance, if you were creating a simple bar chart, would you want a dark background with dark bars? Probably not. You’d most likely want to create a contrast between your bars and the background itself since you want your viewers to focus on the bars, not the background.
4. Refer to your color wheel.
Next, consider your color wheel and the schemes mentioned above. Select a few different color combinations using schemes such as monochrome, complementary, and triad to see what stands out.
Here, the goal isn’t to find exactly the right colors on the first try and create the perfect design, but rather to get a sense of which scheme naturally resonates with your personal perception and the look of your site.
You may also find that schemes you select that look good in theory don’t work with your site design. This is part of the process — trial and error will help you find the color palette that both highlights your content and improves the user experience.
5. Draft multiple designs.
Draft and apply multiple color designs to your website and see which one(s) stand out. Then, take a step back, wait a few days and check again to see if your favorites have changed.
Here’s why: While many designers go in with a vision of what they want to see and what looks good, the finished product often differs on digital screens that physical color wheels — what seemed like a perfect complement or an ideal color pop may end up looking drab or dated.
Don’t be afraid to draft, review, draft again and throw out what doesn’t work — color, like website creation, is a constantly-evolving art form.
How to Use Color Palettes
While color schemes provide a framework for working with different colors, you’ll still need to use a color palette — the colors you will select to use for your project. If you’re stumped about what colors to use, consider using a palette generator to get your creativity flowing.
Here are some best practices to make the most out of your color palette:
1. Work in grayscale.
This may sound counter-intuitive but starting with black and white can help you see exactly how much contrast exists in your design. Before getting started with color, it’s important to lay out all the elements like text, CTAs, illustrations, photos, and any other design features. The way your design looks in grayscale will determine how well it looks in color. Without enough light and dark contrast, your design will be hard to view, leaving your audience with a less than satisfactory user experience. Low contrast designs also make them inaccessible for those with a vision impairment.
2. Use the 60-30-10 rule.
Often used in home design, the 60-30-10 rule is also useful for website or app design.<
- 60%: primary or main color
- 30%: secondary colors
- 10%: accent colors
While you’re certainly not limited to using just three colors, this framework will provide balance and ensure your colors work together seamlessly.
3. Experiment with your palette.
Once you’ve made your color selection, experiment to discover which work better together. Consider how copy or type looks on top of your designated main color (60% is typically used as the background color).
Try not to use your main colors for buttons since you’re already using it everywhere else. Consider one of your accent colors instead.
4. Get feedback or conduct A/B testing.
So you’ve finished your draft. Now it’s time to test it. Before sending your design to market, you’ll want to test how users interact with it. What may look good to you, may be difficult to read for others. Some things to consider when asking for feedback:
- Are the CTAs generating attention?
- Are the colors you chose distracting?
- Is there enough color contrast?
- Is the copy legible?
Getting another set of eyes on your design will help you spot errors or inconsistencies you may have missed in the creation process. Take their feedback in stride and make adjustments where needed.
Put simply? Practice makes perfect. The more you play with color and practice design, the better you get. No one creates their masterpiece the first time around.
There’s been a lot of theory and practical information for actually understanding which colors go best together and why. But when it comes down to the actual task of choosing colors while you’re designing, it’s always a great idea to have tools to help you actually do the work quickly and easily.
Luckily, there are a number of tools to help you find and choose colors for your designs.
One of my favorite color tools to use while I’m designing anything — whether it’s an infographic or just a pie chart — is Adobe Color (previously Adobe Kuler).
This free online tool allows you to quickly build color schemes based on the color structures that were explained earlier in this post. Once you’ve chosen the colors in the scheme you’d like, you can copy and paste the HEX or RGB codes into whatever program you’re using.
It also features hundreds of premade color schemes for you to explore and use in your own designs. If you’re an Adobe user, you can easily save your themes to your account.
Illustrator Color Guide
I spend a lot of time in Adobe Illustrator, and one of my most-used features is the color guide. The color guide allows you to choose one color, and it will automatically generate a five-color scheme for you. It will also give you a range of tints and shades for each color in the scheme.
If you switch your main color, the color guide will switch the corresponding colors in that scheme. So if you’ve chosen a complementary color scheme with the main color of blue, once you switch your main color to red, the complementary color will also switch from orange to green.
Like Adobe Color, the color guide has a number of preset modes to choose the kind of color scheme you want. This helps you pick the right color scheme style within the program you’re already using.
After you’ve created the color scheme that you want, you can save that scheme in the “Color Themes” module for you to use throughout your project or in the future.
Preset Color Guides
If you’re not an Adobe user, you’ve probably used Microsoft Office products at least once. All of the Office products have preset colors that you can use and play around with to create color schemes. PowerPoint also has a number of color scheme presets that you can use to draw inspiration for your designs.
Where the color schemes are located in PowerPoint will depend on which version you use, but once you find the color “themes” of your document, you can open up the preferences and locate the RGB and HEX codes for the colors used.
You can then copy and paste those codes to be used in whatever program you’re using to do your design work.
Finding the Right Color Scheme
There’s a lot of theory in this post, I know. But when it comes to choosing colors, understanding the theory behind color can do wonders for how you actually use color. This can make creating branded visuals easy, especially when using design templates where you can customize colors.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2021 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.