Online or off, the No. 1 thing every small business owner should be doing to market themselves is to focus on branding, says Tom Drake, marketing coordinator for Create Hype.

“Whether you run a website and get a link from a major site that sends a flood of traffic or you’re a hairstylist that someone comes to see, branding yourself as an expert is what makes people remember you…and is what will send the business your way,” he adds.

Create Hype was started to help female creative entrepreneurs more effectively establish and market their brands online. Here, Tom shares the most effective tools he’s found to grow Create Hype’s following and offers tips on how small business owners can grow their audience. Read on:

Hey, Tom! Can you tell us about Create Hype? When and why was the site created?

Create Hype is focused on helping thousands of creative entrepreneurs to grow their business through online branding, social media, advertising, public relations and, of course, positive word of mouth. Create Hype was started in 2010 by Justine Grey, who was an active Etsy seller and realized the importance of online marketing to help grow her business. Now the site has a great team that runs the site and provides articles based on their expertise as creative entrepreneurs.

Why do you think it’s important for entrepreneurs to have a community to turn to for support? What can they get from a place like Create Hype that they won’t find elsewhere?

Being an entrepreneur can be a lonely undertaking – even more so when your business is run online. Create Hype gives these entrepreneurs actionable information every week, both on the blog and the newsletter, where subscribers get additional tips and downloadables.

What have been your favorite tools for building up the audience for Create Hype? What marketing methods have you tried and ditched?

The best tool for building our audience has definitely been having a pop-up and other signup forms throughout the site. Thanks to using Hybrid Connect, which I reviewed over at Online Money, we’ve captured over 10,000 emails for the newsletter. Now of course, you can’t get subscribers without sending traffic to your site. By far, the best method to getting subscribers has been through guest posting for others. Once your post clicks with someone’s audience, it’s relatively easy to convert them to a subscriber when they come over to your site.

How important is having a niche and knowing your audience to the success of your site? What advice do you have on identifying that audience?

Having a niche is very important, and the more you narrow it down, the more loyal that target reader will be when they do find your site. This has been a big factor in the success of Create Hype. We’re not simply a site for entrepreneur, we specifically niche down to creative entrepreneurs, which are mostly female. This highly targeted audience is then easy to write for, and we can promote offers that the readers actually want.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing small business owners when it comes to marketing effectively – especially marketing effectively online?

Any business, even brick-and-mortar stores, can benefit from having a website with a blog. It’s that content that will help people find them, but the problem is that first they have to find the content. You can’t simply write a post, hit publish and expect magic. That’s when guest posting and social media come into play. This is the online version of networking…you get to know someone, help them with their goals, and it will come back to you when they send traffic your way.

With so many social media tools out there to use for building brand awareness, it can be overwhelming for small business owners to figure out what to focus on. Can you offer advice on building a social media marketing strategy?

Don’t start off trying to be everywhere at once. Register accounts at all the major social media sites, but focus your efforts on building one first. It would be great if you can do some research to see where your target audience is at, but at the very least, pick whichever site you’re more comfortable on and enjoy using. That way, it won’t feel like a chore and your interactions with others will come off as much more genuine.

What’s one social tool every small business owner should be using? Why?

I believe small business owners should be using Hootsuite to run all their social media accounts from one place. Hootsuite allows you to schedule future messages and will help you find content to share. It also helps you keep on top of what people are saying about your own brand.

What are some of the most creative or innovative ways you’ve seen female entrepreneurs marketing their business online recently?

The biggest innovation we’ve seen lately is that more and more creative entrepreneurs are expanding their reach (and profits) by moving outside of their comfort zone. A large portion of the Create Hype community run an Etsy shop, and we’ve been convincing them to also start their own website. This gives them more control over their store, plus lets them market their brand more effectively by having a store and blog on the same domain.

Follow Tom and the Create Hype team on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest and YouTube.