Dissertation Submitted by Natalia Thomas

This dissertation was submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of MSc Digital Marketing & Analytics At Dublin Business School.

ProfileTree was recently involved in a research project with Dublin Business School. The research aim was to assess if there is an influence between the SMEs in Northern Ireland who received the digital marketing training by ProfileTree and the potential impact the training has had on the SMEs’ ability to innovate. 

The following is the full dissertation submitted by Natalia Thomas, who achieved a first-class honours for this submission.


This last stretch of completing the final requirement for a Masters was an incredible journey. A  journey guided by my supportive and encouraging supervisor, Dr. Ieva. I would like to acknowledge  and give my sincerest thanks to her. Her advice and guidance paved the way through all the stages of  writing this project. 

The impact of digital marketing training on northern ireland smes ability to innovate

I would also like to thank ProfileTree, specifically Ciaran Connolly and Laura Owens from  ProfileTree who have helped in more ways than one. For their on-time support and efforts to recruit  and onboard the SMEs on my behalf, I am grateful.  

Additionally, I would also like to thank Joe Loughlin (The Gathering Drum), Nicola Dugan (Stair  Runners Direct), Lisa Peacocke (Be A Better You Ltd), John McNamara (McNamara Tree Survey),  Mark Bailie (MKB Medical), Franchine Young (BelleOrganics LTD) and Hayley Howe (Hayley  Howe Violinist & Singer) for taking the time out and be involved in this study. 


The research aims to assess the impact of digital marketing training on SMEs ability to innovate, specifically in Northern Ireland. This study followed a qualitative research design to explore and answer its research questions. For this, semi-structured interviews were used, where 6 SMEs based in Northern Ireland were interviewed.

Once the data was collected, the analysis was done using the thematic  analysis, specifically, reflexive thematic analysis. The 6-phase process, as recommended by Braun and  Clarke over multiple papers and years was implemented throughout the process of analysis.

The findings of this study indicate that digital marketing training does have an impact on the SMEs ability to innovate. It was observed that the impact of the training was manifold. This included improved marketing effectiveness, boosted entrepreneurial confidence to explore new aspects, experiment with new areas of digital marketing, leverage new content types, and invite new forms of engagement from consumers.

Additional factors have also been recognized to have an impact on the SMEs digital  marketing strategies. These factors include, previous individual experience, competitors’ inadequacy, SMEs industry and volume the of customers generated through word of mouth. 

1. Introduction  

1.1. Defining the key concepts  

This paper will begin by first defining the key concepts important for this study. Since  this study aims to assess the impact of digital marketing training on small to medium  enterprises ability to innovate, it will begin by defining the following concepts:  

A. SMEs  

In view of the fact that this research investigates small to medium enterprises specifically  in the Northern Ireland, the paper lists the definition of small to medium enterprises in the  United Kingdom, of which Northern Ireland is a part of. The United Kingdom (UK)  government’s definition of small to medium enterprises (SMEs) includes “micro (less than 10  employees and an annual turnover under €2 million), small (less than 50 employees and an  annual turnover under €10 million) and medium-sized (less than 250 employees and an  annual turnover under €50 million) businesses.” (GOV.UK, 2022).

As illustrated in Figure 1.  This is in line with the European Union’s (EU) definition of SMEs. Which, similar to the UK, focus on 2 main factors which determine if an enterprise in the EU is considered as SMEs  (European Commission, 2003). These include the staff headcount and the turnover or the  balance sheet total. 


The impact of digital marketing training on northern ireland smes ability to innovate
The impact of digital marketing training on Northern Ireland SMEs ability to innovate

Figure 1 

Source: (GOV.UK, 2022) 

The Impact of Digital Marketing Training on Northern Ireland SMEs Ability To Innovate 1

Figure 2 

Source: (European Commission, 2003) 

B. Training  

Training is a short-term educational process that uses systematic and organized  procedures so that non-managerial workers learn technical knowledge and skills for  specific purposes. (Dora et al., 2020) 

C. Digital marketing  

In the initial phase of the shift from traditional marketing to a more “digital” form of  marketing, Hoffman & Novak in 1996 proposed a “hyper-marketing concept”. In this  concept, “the firm not only attempts to uncover and satisfy customer needs at a profit, but  also engages in marketing activities that contribute positively to the development of the  hypermedia CME itself, by developing new paradigms for electronic commerce.” (Hoffman  and Novak, 1996).

From this initial shift in the concept of marketing to include a more digital  sense, the concept of digital marketing has come a long way in how it has been defined. The  definition of digital marketing grew to be defined as all marketing efforts that use an  electronic device or internet (Vaibhava Desai, 2019).

This further evolved into a more recent  concept of the term which defines it as a set of approaches, strategies, and tools that aid in  promoting services and products on online platforms. This could include emails, blogs, social  networks, websites, mobile, SEO, etc. (Almaazmi et al., 2020; Nuseir et al., 2021). It offers a set of strategies, tools, techniques, and operations coordinated through the Internet to increase  the sales of a product or service (Aljumah et al., 2021; Sweiss et al., 2021). 

1.2. Research Aim and Objectives 

With this research, the aim is to assess if there is an influence between the SMEs in  Northern Ireland who received the digital marketing training by ProfileTree and the potential  impact the training has had on the SMEs’ ability to innovate. 

The specific objectives of this research include:  

A. To assess the potential influence of the digital marketing training on the ability of the  SMEs in Northern Ireland to adopt innovative techniques  

B. To identify the possible additional factors that could influence the ability of the SMEs in Northern Ireland to embrace innovativeness 

C. To determine the business impact of the digital marketing training on the SMEs in  Northern Ireland 

1.3. Research Questions 

With the research aiming to assess the impact of digital marketing training on SMEs  ability to innovate specifically in Northern Ireland, the following are the research questions: 

A. How does digital marketing training influence SMEs in Northern Ireland to innovate  and adapt their business marketing strategies? 

B. Does industry of the SME in Northern Ireland, gender of team leads, average age of  the SME play a pivotal role? 

C. How will the training help SMEs in Northern Ireland identify new opportunities?  (scope of new audiences to target, platforms to use, markets to target, etc.) 

D. Does knowledge of how to use these tools encourage SMEs in Northern Ireland on  further experimenting with data science/analytics? 

1.4. Relevance 

The reason for focusing the research on the mentioned topic is as follows. The digital boom intensified more than ever in recent years and it significantly influenced the heavy reliance of social media and internet search engines. Not only has it influenced our  personal lives alone, but digital tools and social media has also become a key factor for  businesses to leverage in their daily use.

Particularly for small and medium-sized firms  (SMEs), social networking is seen as a key tool for assuring corporate success and survival. Through digital marketing, businesses can obtain a variety of benefits, ranging from improving customer interactions, boosting revenue, cutting costs, and allowing for flexibility (Trawnih, A et al., 2021). 

COVID played a key role in making us, as users and consumers, more reliant on  social media and the internet. Additionally, digital tools and platforms are considered a new  route of communication for businesses, including SMEs, and customers that enables direct  interaction.  

Furthermore, the Covid-19 lockdown measures implemented by governments significantly harmed SMEs, to the point where they began to doubt their ability to survive. (Papadopoulos et al., 2020). 38% of small firms in Northern Ireland believed there was a  direct negative impact on their business due to COVID-19 and 34% believe that there are  future risks. (Minh Luong, Hopley and Hewitt-Dundas, 2021)

This in turn led to SMEs in Northern Ireland changing their priorities to adapt, with 68% of SMEs deeming “introducing new technologies” as one of the most important priority. (Minh Luong, Hopley and Hewitt-Dundas, 2021) Moreover, 70% of SMEs in the region started using online marketing and social media more often (Minh Luong, Hopley and Hewitt-Dundas, 2021). 

Despite the trials they have gone through in the recent years, it is proven that SMES  have provided significant contribution to national and local economies in developed as well  as developing countries. (Gamage et al. 2019). Indicating that they are a group that could play  a crucial role in improving economies. Hence, with this study I aim to focus solely on these  smaller organisations. Their significant economic contribution and employment of locals  indicate their significance and possible priority for government bodies. (Trawnih, A et al.,  2021). 

In addition, the Digital Economy and Society Index 2022 report throws light on interesting findings. This report shows the change in integration of digital technology. The top highlight would be the change in the percentage of SMEs with at least a basic level of digital intensity pre and post COVID, indicating the importance that SMEs are giving post COVID to digital integration. E-commerce turnover and selling online cross-border seems to have a marginal increase over the years. Indicating that this could be something to be inspected further as to why there seems to be no change, i.e., in case of any challenges faced or lack of awareness on how to expand, etc.

The Impact of Digital Marketing Training on Northern Ireland SMEs Ability To Innovate 2

Figure 3 

Source: DESI 2022, European Commission 

1.5. Research gap 

This research is conducted in order to close the knowledge gap and understand this topic better. The knowledge gap is defined as knowledge that does not exist in the actual field to theories and literature from related domains (Miles, 2017). 

While there is some research conduct in regards to SMEs and digital marketing, they  focus on other aspects. For instance, research based on an application was conducted to  assess and understand how the exposure to digital marketing strategy concepts could increase  satisfaction of customers (Zanubiya, Meria and Juliansah, 2023). On the other hand, there  

have also been studies that examined the effects of digital marketing innovation on firm  performance. This study took into account the marketing capability’s mediating role in those  effects, and investigated the potential moderating role of firm size in those effects. (Jung and  Shegai, 2023) 

A study by Tabuena et al. in 2022 identified that despite a lack of funding to upgrade  technology and take advantage of internet expansion, digital marketing has developed into a  platform for internet advertising for small business owners. With these already existing  literature in this space, it can be understood that digital marketing is an important factor that  could affect a firm’s performance. Furthermore, it is also proven that smaller firms do not  have adequate support to leverage and shift into a digital landscape.  

Even on a broader note, a study that examined how digital technologies assist small and  medium-sized businesses (SMEs) in the creative industries with their customer knowledge  management strategies found that SMEs faced challenged in the creative industries in  adapting to the rapid technological developments, as well as the lack of assistance from IT  suppliers in the choice-making process for appropriate digital systems. (Castagna et al., 2020) 

A study conducted on MSMEs in the city of Bandung had an interesting find, relevant to  this research. The ability of MSMEs to use digital marketing was found to be more  influenced by training, motivation, and facilities taken collectively. Compared to training,  motivation, and facilities separately.

A unique finding from this study is that MSMEs may  successfully use digital marketing if they have the right facilities, motivation, and help from trained professionals (Dora et al., 2020). It would be interesting to compare the findings of  this research to the one from the city in Indonesia. Furthermore, similar yet contrasting to this study would be how this research aims to find other supporting factors that could be  influencing SMEs ability to innovate their digital marketing rather than just practice or use  the techniques.  

Given the rising importance of digital media use in SMEs and the limited research on the  influence of digital trainings for these SMEs, this research aims to cover the gap and provide  insight into how these trainings impact small businesses. 

1.6. Contribution of the research study 

This research aims to add incremental and practically useful value to academic literature  and the field. This is based on Gioia’s paper that clearly defines the dimensions of originality  and utility using the common ubiquitous 2×2 matrix (Corley, 2011). This study aims to  advance our understanding on the topic and hence falls under the incremental insight  category. Similarly, this research aims to be applied and contribute directly to the problems  faced by organisational practitioners (Corley, 2011), hence it contributes to the practical  utility in the field.  

With research showing the significance of SMEs for the economy, as they employ 44% of  the UK workforce as well as contribute more than £2 trillion in turnover (The Irish News,  2022). The study also found that Northern Ireland has the highest proportion of SMEs  amongst the UK region. With SMEs constituting 29.9% of all operating companies in  Northern Ireland, it indicates the importance of nurturing and supporting these SMEs. 

Similar to a study done (Picas et al., 2021), this research aims to contribute to the decision making process that could enable management, shareholders and government agencies to select measures that may increase the added value of firms and also aid in this digital  transformation. This research can also bear as a tool for governments to select incentives  related to increased profitability/innovation for SMEs.  

Additionally, a study based in Indonesia called for innovation-based economic growth  strategies that are recommended for government decisions in order to improve the  productivity of local economy enterprises. (Surya et al., 2021) Despite this recommendation’s  focus being on SMEs in Indonesia, the empowerment of SMEs in Northern Ireland could be  done using the same method. 

Furthermore, it is noted that articles published in 2020 focused on how the pandemic  will change the way we live and work (e.g., Sullivan, 2020). What is interesting is that SMEs  that take innovative solutions in their environment to confront such problems will largely be  the drivers of this change. (Eggers, 2020) 

Hence, with this research, the causes and aspects that sustain SMEs and help them be  more innovate could be identified. Thus, providing key decision makers an opportunity to  leverage these aspects in order to make SMEs more shielded from sudden changes and  unforeseen circumstances in the global market.

2. Literature Review  

2.1. Digital marketing 

“Marketing” to anyone who practiced in the pre digital meant utilizing non-digital  methods to promote a business entity’s products or services. This included offline strategies,  with the most common approaches falling into four categories: print, broadcast, direct mail,  and telephone. The primary objective of traditional marketing was to typically establish brand  recognition. Companies usually incorporated one or more traditional marketing types into  their advertising strategy, predominantly based on their allocated marketing budget (Singh  Bist et al., 2022). Although in the recent years, the term “digital” has gained significant  attention in the contemporary business landscape.  

Digital marketing in this day and age encompasses various strategies to engage  customers, such as email marketing, content marketing, search platforms, and social media.  In recent times, businesses have transitioned from utilizing social platforms solely for content  dissemination to actively listening, analysing, and leveraging social data. This approach  enables businesses to gain deeper insights and provide enhanced, personalized customer  experiences. 

Many of the research articles that were evaluated by the study conducted by Kedar  Dunakhe and Chetan Panse indicate that “Digital Marketing Efforts” influence the customer’s  purchasing intention. Additionally, it can be deduced that the line separating “marketing” and  “digital marketing” will soon disappear as “digital marketing” will be included into all forms  of marketing (Dunakhe, 2022).

2.2. Evolution of Digital Marketing  

Over the course of the last three decades, the field of digital marketing has undergone  significant changes in response to the ongoing digitization and advancements in technology.  This period has witnessed the emergence of numerous trends, including the rise of big data,  the growing influence of social media, the integration of artificial intelligence, mobile marketing, the utilization of video marketing, the adoption of influencer marketing, the  implementation of search engine optimization (SEO) strategies, the utilization of search  engine marketing (SEM) techniques, the application of web analytics, and many other notable  developments. 

With the field evolving and growing at such a fast rate as did the research and literature in  the field. It can be confidently asserted that the emergence of research on the subject of DM  mainly began in the year 2014. Since then, three prominent areas of investigation have been  established, namely a strategic framework, the development of mobile marketing and apps,  and the analysis of demographics through the utilization of web analytics(Singh Bist et al.,  2022). 

Moreover, Renu Gupta and Anjali Siwal’s Bibliometric examination of the Evolution of  digital marketing shows how, 10 years ago, digital marketing was still being viewed as a  potential addition for individuals in the marketing industry. Additionally, digital marketing  responsibilities were viewed by firms as a “value add” rather than a requirement.

Eventually,  this began to divide into two groups: younger consumers who preferred to shop online and  more experienced shoppers who preferred traditional marketing. A report by Mathur (2016)  indicated the significance and advantages of digital marketing, while Todar (2016) suggested  that an optimal mix for firms would be to combine both traditional and digital marketing  tactics. 

Apart from understanding the evolution of digital marketing, studies have also been  conducted to understand the increasing interest in the digital transformation-marketing topic.  A systematic and thematic literature review in 2023 found that literature on this topic  significantly increased in 2019 (45 contributions) and 2020 (50 contributions) . Especially  considering that there was only 1 academic contribution to this topic in 2014 and 3 in 2017.  This signified the growing importance of the topic and its developing nature through time. 

The themes of the literature that contributed to the peak in 2019 and 2020 mainly focused on  a few topics. These included looking at the impact of the digitalization phenomenon on  customer relationship management, coexistence with the human resources, improvement of  the business processes’ performance and sales activities (Cioppi et al., 2023).  

Nonetheless, studies in 2018 began to be released that discussed the value and advantages  of digital marketing for firms (Verma, 2018). It also acknowledged the accessibility and  reach of social media and digital marketing (Sanjay Bhayani & Nishant V. Vachhan, 2018). With 123 papers published and 2759 citations, the UK was rated second in this bibliometric  assessment of countries that published the most on digital marketing (Gupta, 2022). 

Reviews and studies also found that post the recent technological and digital revolution in  business, a widely practiced and prominent aspect is digital marketing. It also recognised that  the domain of strategic planning in the context of digital marketing holds considerable  importance for researchers and policymakers, constituting an important angle to understand  better (Faruk, Rahman and Hasan, 2021). 

2.3. Use of Digital Marketing in SMEs  

Consumer demands, needs, and desires have shaped the market’s outlook and forced new  business organizations to enhance service delivery at the convenience of the customers.

Therefore, businesses must continually update their marketing strategies and identify the right  markets in which to sell their goods and services. According to Warokka et al. (2020), digital  marketing is one of the most creative and novel ideas of the 20th century. With the ultimate  goal of expanding their market for advertising, promoting, and selling their products and  services offered by the business, it has become necessary for business organizations to have  an online presence through an online store or website (Oluwaseun, 2021). In today’s cutthroat  business environment, Digital marketing plays a crucial role in the survival, growth, and  success of small and new businesses. 

Throughout the years, SMEs have continually demonstrated strength in maintaining the  rate of business growth and employment creation. A systematic mapping study (Thaha et al.,  2021) recognised the key factor for this growth that ultimately determines whether SMEs can  go on to the next stage of development is their capacity to learn and gain information.

Hence, the findings further emphasize the use of digital marketing by SMEs has the potential to  change the nature and scope of these businesses on a worldwide scale. A study conducted on  SMEs in the Bekasi city of Indonesia also found that digital marketing and the performance  of the SMEs in the area have a positive correlation. If the former increases by one unit, it is  stated that the performance of the SMEs would subsequentially increase by 0.363 units  (Patria et al., 2023). Indicating the crucially important role that digital marketing plays in the  functioning of an SME, especially in a post-pandemic digital era.  

The systematic mapping study previously mentioned also dives into the major themes for  the adoption of digital marketing in SMEs include organisational readiness, low levels of  awareness, and the lack of capability of SMEs. To further support this finding, the book  ‘Digital literacy and skills toolkit implementation in Indonesia: experience and lessons  learned from small survey’ highlights the digital adoption lags in SMEs are mainly due to the lack of digital skills, financing and infrastructure gaps (Damuri et al., 2022). While these  findings are based on SMEs from Indonesia, most of these are true for SMEs based in other  parts of the world as well.  

Despite these challenges, the SMEs that have adopted the use of social media has resulted  in business profits for SMEs because of using social media (Thaha et al., 2021). The same  study highlights that the increased use of social media marketing by SMEs has contributed to  the growth of their businesses in India, a developing country (Chatterjee & Kar, 2020). 

Furthermore, another Bibliometric study concluded that an important factor for the success of  SMEs business lies in implementing digital marketing strategies (Khare et al., 2023). This is  supported by a report that found the effect of adopting and using digital marketing tools and  its impact on SMEs idea generation, which in turn boosted their performance and business  growth. Demonstrating a positive and direct relationship between the two (Bruce et al.,  2023).

Even in Ghana, a study suggested that SMEs integrating digital marketing tools could  achieve a competitive advantage while also lowering their marketing costs. To add on, the  report suggested that SMEs in Ghana could better compete in the market and improve  relationships with their consumers through the use of digital marketing (Bruce et al., 2023).  To feature another country, a study conducted in Cameroon concluded the same as the  previously mentioned insights.

The study found that even in this African country, digital  marketing has had a significantly positive impact on the growth of their SMEs. The study  also suggested that the difference in the use of social networking sites has an impact on the  development of SMEs, affecting areas such as sales and competition (Tsopatsa, 2020). 

With all evidence pointing towards the positive correlation of implementing digital  marketing strategies and the performance of the business, it is not surprising that all SMEs  want to get onboard this trend. Although there has been proof of the effect of a SME’s  intention to use digital marketing on the actual use of digital marketing, most SMEs start small. Most begin with using social media as it is the easiest step into digital marketing as it  is more affordable and accessible to SMEs.

To corroborate this, a pilot survey observed that  the smallest gap in technological adoption between large companies and SMEs was social  media marketing (Damuri et al., 2022). Furthermore, the Digital Economic and Society Index  launched by the European Commission found that while 83% of large companies utilise some  form of social media, 58% of SMEs have claimed to do the same. While the gap may not be  considered a narrow one, this could be s lesser difference when compared to other aspects. 

For example, when asked if they use any cloud service, 72% of large companies said yes  while only 40% of SMEs do the same. On the other hand, while a more significant share of  SMEs utilises some kind of social media, only 28% of them use at least 2 social media  platforms. This is considerably lesser than 61% of large companies who use at least 2 social  media platforms (European Commission, 2022).

It could be argued that SMEs are trying to  do the bare minimum due to their formerly mentioned limited time and resources. Hence,  instead of focusing all time and energy into social media, they attempt different ways and  methods that could work for them. For example, expanding from social media marketing, it is  also found that advertising through websites can enhance and have a positive impact on  SMEs. This is because the website can assist product searches and purchases for consumers  (Saleh, 2020).  

Overall, the use of social media has had varied impact on SMEs and their businesses.  This can be clearly noted in the Systematic Literature Review conducted to assess the Impact  of Social Media Usage on the Sales Process in SMEs. This review found that SMEs  recognised a wide diverse set of impact that can be attributed to the use of social media.

For  instance, SMEs in certain regions (United Kingdom, Denmark, Ireland, Malaysia, Italy) claim  that leveraging a website has resulted in improved relationship, expanding communication  and gathering feedback from customers. It has also helped with market and information accessibility, building a brand, supporting sales, reaching stakeholders, minimising costs and  improving customer satisfaction (Wardati and ER, 2019).

Furthermore, SMEs from certain  regions (United Kingdom, Ireland, Thailand, Switzerland) who leverage social media state  that they are able to attract new customers, monitor competitors, look for new business  partners, build a network of companies and improve brand satisfaction.  

Even as SMEs recognise and leverage the use of social media in their businesses, the state  of the company itself determines the success of using social media and not all SMEs are  interested in using social media. The same review stated an instance that elderly  entrepreneurs may find certain social media platforms a bit more challenging to use. This in  turn causes them to stick to traditional marketing methods as they are more hesitant to use  social media.

Moreover, the literature study also found that each SMEs has their own unique  goal of using social media. Which is not new or surprising knowledge. Although, the study’s  findings does support the fact that alignment between social media functionalities with social  media strategy directly improves the business and determines the success of social media  usage for their company. Supporting this is the findings from a systematic literature review  ‘digital marketing and its impact on SMEs’ (Jadhav, Gaikwad and Bapat, 2023).

The study  found an evident insight that the impact of using digital marketing is not similar for all SMEs  (Jadhav, Gaikwad and Bapat, 2023). This ties in well with the finding that solely leveraging  such tools will not always guarantee improved performance. Instead of focusing on a one size  fits all approach, SMEs are finding their own unique ways of adopting and tweaking for their  own sustenance.  

While a study based in Indonesia identified that the pandemic would badly impact SMEs  the most (Subagja, Ausat and Suherlan, 2022) and emphasised the need for a technological  shift, i.e., social media use, the World Bank Survey found that digitalised SMEs were more  resilient in the pandemic.

Furthermore, a period of crisis can give rise to market prospects that can be effectively tackled through innovative and proactive approaches. The capacity of  SMEs to make agile decisions and maintain close proximity to their customer base proves  advantageous in this context. This supports and validates the use and need of digital  marketing for smaller organisations in order for them to survive through difficult and  unpredictable situations.  

Although SMEs more or less “needed” to use digital marketing techniques to survive  through the pandemic, they also adapted and changed their techniques to suit the times. A  study looking at SMEs post pandemic recovery in Indonesia found that SMEs, during the  post-pandemic recovery stage, adopted a more creative and innovative approach to marketing  their products. Despite the focus being on food and beverage products, entrepreneurs took  initiative in creating customer value by finding new strategies to grow sales while also  accounting for all the potential risks (Zahara et al., 2023).

In fact, a paper looking into  ‘Challenges and opportunities for SMEs in times of crisis’ stated that the forthcoming post  COVID-19 transformation will primarily be instigated by SMEs, encompassing both for profit and non-profit entities, which actively generate innovative resolutions to address issues  within their surroundings. It further went on to call out that SMEs, constituting over 99% of  all businesses, possess a distinctive role in the broader context, as they pave the way for  progress and advancement (Eggers, 2020). 

Despite the fact that SMEs are getting more creative in their approach, the post pandemic  study showed that their use of digital technology are not optimised towards achieving better  marketing performance (Zahara et al., 2023). The study suggests that SMEs should better  leverage company resources combined with a customer intense approach to create enhanced  customer value.

This could in turn increase the ability of SMEs to leverage different digital  marketing technology through their digital marketing capabilities. Although focusing on a  customer intense approach may not be the only way to end up leveraging digital marketing technologies, the better utilisation of resources can be a more effective approach.

The study  also goes on to highlight an important aspect that, in the long run, embracing this  transformation, leveraging such technology and improving capabilities is an essential method  to cope with fluctuating market conditions, maintain their business and remain competitive.  In order to do so, the SMEs must manage resources efficiently while they are also expected to  widen their knowledge in digital technology.  

2.4. Importance of Trainings for SMEs 

The pilot survey revealed that 79% of organisations have attributed increased importance  to digital skills of which most of them say it is because of change in strategy. Though the  importance of digital skills is highly recognised, only 61% of the firms from the same survey  provide digital skills related training. Of this, less than 30% of the small companies and less  than 40% of medium companies provide trainings for digital skills.

This could tie back to  their financial situations and the available knowledge or skills to conduct or organise such  trainings. This being said, it is proven that Digital Literacy does have a positive influence on  the performance of SMEs. A study that analysed the effect of digital literacy on SMEs in  Bekasi, Indonesia found that both have a positive correlation. The study found that digital  literacy increases by one unit, then the performance of the SMEs would increase by 0.208  units (Patria et al., 2023).  

In instances where financial restraints are holding SMEs back, external support can prove  to be a much-needed benefit. One such instance is noted in Surabaya, Indonesia. A study that  was conducted to determine the effect of social media and innovation on SME business  performance found an interesting hypothesis proven. SMEs in Surabaya were able to leverage  local governmental incentives and recognised it as an important aspect of business sales.

This was done through the incentives that helped the SMEs adopt the use of social media which in  turn encouraged economic growth and recovery (Subagja, Ausat and Suherlan, 2022). This  displays the positive role that the local government plays in being the driving force in the  growth of SMEs and aiding them in adapting to change.  

Nonetheless, apart from governmental incentives SMEs must also take ownership and  initiate the process of understanding and learning more about changes. This includes digital  marketing. A report revealed that even SMEs with limited resources can overcome challenges  associated with implementing new technologies or the skills gap without making large  investments by, for example, taking part in training sessions or connecting with other  members for unofficial knowledge exchange (Soluk, Decker-Lange and Hack, 2023). 

SMEs have revealed their interest to constantly partake in training for digitalisation  implementation for their business (Subagja, Ausat and Suherlan, 2022). This recognition of  understanding the importance of training needed in order to equip organisation members with  relevant knowledge is a crucial part in the process. This also helps them understand the  advantages of new technology/skills and gives them the confidence to tackle new situations.  Without recognising the importance of the same, there is a risk for SMEs to believe that their  current model works best and risks the business of staying stagnant and not adapting to the  ever-changing digital environment.  

The study conducted in Indonesia to determine the effect of social media and innovation  on SME business performance suggested that this be conducted in different fields as well, in  order to bring a new understanding that could improve academic references. Furthermore, it  recommended the interview method in conjunction with other data collection strategies.  

While this study is not exactly the same, there is similarity in the topic as well as the target group considered for the study. This could validate or contradict some of the findings of the  study in another country. 

2.5. Use of Digital Marketing in SMEs in Europe  

In theory, when comparing Europe to Asia, the former’s greater access to internet should  translate into a higher rate of digitalisation of firms in EU than of firms in China for instance.  It is interesting to note that surprisingly that is not the case. SMEs in both EU as well as  China have been recognised to have somewhat identically low levels of digitalisation  (Ghiretti, 2021). This is counterintuitive to the understanding that EU is technological more  advanced that countries in Asia. While that may be true for larger companies, when  inspecting the performance of smaller sized companies, it does not prove correct.  

In the report ‘Technological competition: Can the EU compete with China?’ it was learnt  that SMEs in China contribute to 90% of jobs and 70% of the GDP. Similarly, in the EU,  SMEs account for more than 50% of the Union’s GDP and employ over 100 million people.  While only a small portion of Chinese SMEs have been recognised to leverage digital  services or aspects such as online sales, a similar finding has been identified even in the EU.  The report found that about 90% of the SMEs struggle with the digitalisation process. Both  the regions recognise the important role that SMEs play in the region’s economic  performance.

While China seems to have integrated SMEs into their dual-circulation  economy launched by President Xi Jinping, the EU has taken multiple other routes. One of  them being launching the Digital Innovation Hubs in order to grant them easy access to  experts in this field who can aid their shift to digitisation. Another effort towards SMEs  digitalisation in Europe was in 2020, when the European Commission took steps to accelerate  recovery and digitally transform Europe’s society and economy.

They did this by launching a  7.5-billion-euro Digital Europe Programme. Out of the 5 areas of priority in this programme, one of them is to advance digital skills and ensure a wide use of digital technologies across  the society and economy (Ghiretti, 2021). While these are good steps in the right direction,  there are still challenges related to SMEs knowledge or awareness of such programmes, their  available time and finances in implementing the required changes towards digitalisation.  

Similar to trends noticed in other parts of the world, business in Ireland too have  undergone drastic changes in terms of their promotional efforts. The key aspect being the  implementation of digital marketing tools due to the increasing needs and demands of  consumers which have forced the shift from traditional marketing techniques (Oluwaseun,  2021). While there had already been an overall shift away from Traditional marketing, the  pandemic played a big role in powering this change.

Many businesses had to shift almost  overnight to new ways and technologies. Although, it is positively interesting to note that in  the 2022 Digital Economy and Society Index Report, Ireland scored higher than the EU  average in terms of ‘Integration of digital technology’. This included an above EU average  score on ‘SMEs with at least a basic level of digital intensity’, ‘social media’, ‘SMEs selling  online’, ‘e-commerce turnover’, and ‘selling online cross border’. This high score is despite  the effects of the pandemic on smaller organisations. 

With startups being particularly more susceptible to the pandemic, Northern Ireland  experienced an excess of business deaths compared to births, which resulted in the loss of  1300 businesses by the end of 2020, according to Bonner and Pollard (2021). Because they  frequently engage in high-risk activities, encounter numerous obstacles when trying to access  traditional forms of financing, and are still forming relationships with their customers and  suppliers. Not just limited to startups, the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), in a BBC  article, warned that without government help to cope, a record 250,000 small businesses  could be lost during the pandemic.

A report published by Enterprise Research Centre in March 2021 found insights into how  the pandemic has affected SMEs. Despite the evident hit that SMEs in Northern Ireland had  faced, they also coped in their own ways. It was also an interesting find that SMEs in  Northern Ireland adapted slightly better, in terms of both turnover and employment, when  compared to the SMEs across the rest of Europe (The impact of Covid-19 on Northern  Ireland SMEs: Evidence and comparison with the rest of the UK ERC Research Report,  2021).

While the pandemic may have forced them to overcome the lag in adopting digital  technologies, the willingness and need of the hour was a strong push to stay afloat during  tough times. Another aspect also brought forth in the report is the lack of digital skills that  SMEs possess is the main concern they have when it comes to adopting or even using digital  technologies. Although presence of governmental support during these times were widely  helpful and praised, the SMEs also expressed concern on the continued guidance and support  post the pandemic.  

In this survey, about 35% of Northern Ireland Small and Medium Businesses expressed  concern about direct negative impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. This was not limited to  adopting new and digital technologies to cope but also spanned across overall slowdown in  business, additional costs due to COVID measures (PPE/protective kits), temporary closures,  etc. Almost one-fifth of the respondents cited external barriers to normal operation. This  includes access to finance, issues with supply chains and the requirements to invest in  commercial facilities to make them COVID safe.

Furthermore, not only did these businesses  worry about the pandemic and its related effects, but 53% of them also expressed concern  about the uncertainty about Brexit and its potential effects. This was higher than the  businesses in the rest of UK. Compared to the previously mentioned concerns and  uncertainties, the apprehension of finding the right skills were significantly lesser both in  Northern Ireland as well as the rest of UK.

This would perceptibly put the efforts of these SMEs mainly on surviving rather than investing time and effort into learning or finding new  skills to learn during such times. Despite these high apprehensions for the consequences of  these external factors, 68% of SMEs consider it more important to introduce new digital  technologies due to COVID-19. This indicates the importance and more importantly the  recognition of the role of digital technologies in ensuring the survival of SMEs. Out of these,  smaller firms have placed more value on this factor compared to the medium sized firms. 

This could be linked back to the fact that a significantly higher percentage of smaller firms  expressed the direct negative impact on their business and the potential future risks, as  compared to the medium sized firms. Hence, indicating that the potential threat to their  overall business performance combined with the governmental support and incentives in  upskilling could be the main driving factor of the decision to adopt as well as implement new  digital technologies. Not only is it speculation, but close to 40% of the SMEs believe that  better digital skills in the workforce would be a factor to support adoption of additional  digital technology.  

When inspecting the different digital technologies that SMEs in Northern Ireland find  “more important” to use, ‘online marketing and social media’, ‘website to sell goods or  services’, and ‘Internet of Things(Connected Services)’ were the leaders only coming behind  ‘video conferencing’. Although it can be argued that implementing such techniques was the  need of the hour, to understand that 70% of SMEs use more of online marketing and social  media is a noticeable shift in techniques.  

2.6. Theories Considered  

Since the focus of this research includes an element of training and its importance, one of  the theories that has been considered for this is the ‘Knowledge-based view’ (KBV) theory. 

The KBV theory of the firm is regarded as a theory as well as a collection of concepts that  highlight the significance of knowledge in the existence and the functioning of a firm  (Faulkner and Campbell, 2006). This perspective is based on several assumptions and  observations regarding the nature of knowledge. This study will specifically concentrate on  the following assumptions: 

a. The value of knowledge is of utmost significance in relation to its market worth  (Faulkner and Campbell, 2006) 

b. Various forms of knowledge possess differing levels of transferability. Explicit  knowledge can be expressed and easily conveyed between individuals and  organizations. On the other hand, tactic knowledge, which includes skills, know-how,  and contextual knowledge, is only evident through its application. The process of  transferring tacit knowledge from one individual to another is both time-consuming  and expensive (Faulkner and Campbell, 2006). 

Both of these specific assumptions are considered to have significant importance for this  paper. With the value of knowledge linked to its market worth denotes the importance of  acquiring knowledge and upskilling. Both of which are considered important for SMEs who  are looking to increase their market worth and value. Furthermore, the theory also shares its  assumption for the levels of transferability for knowledge.

Although the KBV shares the  assumption that tactical knowledge is slow and expensive, this paper argues that this doesn’t  necessarily have to be a hinderance to picking up and implementing tactical knowledge. With  a hands-on approach combined with the determination of SMEs to upskill in the digital  marketing domain, such knowledge can be picked up and transferred from experts to  entrepreneurs leading SMEs. 

Apart from the knowledge aspect, another perspective that this study discovered is the  importance of the use of resources by SMEs. While the Resource-Based View (RBV) was  considered for this study, it was ascertained that RBV is more relevant for larger companies  and hence this paper only looks in to CBV (Tehseen et al., 2019). Since the findings from the  paper published by Tehseen et al in 2019 indicated that the Composition-Based View (CBV)  holds greater significance for small enterprises compared to the RBV, the other theory this  study aims to highlight is CBV. 

This could be attributed to the fact that according to CBV, companies have the potential  to progress, compete, and expand even in the absence of core technology, resource  advantages, or market power (Tehseen et al., 2019). Furthermore, the CBV acknowledges  that small firms lack exclusive resources, and therefore should focus on the distinct  composition of the regular resources at their disposal.

The agility of small firms in quick transformations in the business environment grants them an edge over larger firms. The  highlight of the CBV is the view that for SMEs, composition-based strategies mainly involve  the art of improvisation. This is especially true for SMEs that had to survive during COVID  as well as the SMEs that had to evolve and adapt new strategies in order to thrive and survive  post the pandemic. This clearly links back to the points mentioned previously in the literature  review section.

Similarly, as previously mentioned and now supported by CBV, companies  can attain a competitive edge and expansion by recognizing and procuring a collection of  prevalent resources available in the market, and integrating them in a manner that is  innovative and adaptable to the market’s demands. A feature that has been recognised as  much needed in this era.

The paper goes on to mention that CBV suggests that adopting  existing products and technologies, rather than inventing new ones, can result in higher  returns in the market at an early stage. This would indicate that learning to adopt already existing technologies (Digital Marketing tools) rather than inventing new technology with  already scarce resources could result in higher returns. 

3. Methodology  

3.1. Research Design & Instrumentation  

This study was conducted using the qualitative research design. The reason for utilising  the qualitative research design for this study is because of the objective of this study that  aligns with this research design. The objective of a qualitative researcher is to  comprehensively gather insights into human behaviour and the underlying factors that  influence such behaviour (Oun and Bach, 2014).

In essence, the qualitative research  methodology is used to investigate and provide explanations regarding how, where, what,  when, and why an individual would exhibit a particular response or action towards a specific  subject matter. Hence, since the objective of this research is to understand the how the digital  marketing training impacted the SMEs, what impact it had and when did they choose to take  these steps towards being digitally equipped, the study chose to go ahead with the qualitative  research design method.

Additionally, the ‘Qualitative Research Methods: A Data Collector’s  field guide’ notes that qualitative research is a type of scientific research that shares  characteristics like collecting evidence in order to answer a question. Further, it produces  findings that were not previously determined and could also be applicable beyond the  immediate boundaries of the study (Mack et al., n.d.). Both of the characteristics which are  beneficial and needed for this study.

On the other hand, that same study highlights that while  qualitative data can sometimes be applied to individuals with similar characteristics as those  in the study population, the primary focus is to develop a comprehensive understanding of a  specific social context or phenomenon. This emphasis on depth and complexity takes  precedence over the ability to generalize the findings to other geographic areas or populations. While this could be a limitation, this study emphasizes the need and importance to understand SMEs specifically in Northern Ireland and hence the study could be generalised  to other SMEs in the same region rather than those in other geographical areas. 

Since qualitative research is considered “a field of inquiry in its own right” that  “privileges no single methodology over any other” (Taylor et al., 2001) and is a method that  is used to illustrate while also describing relationships and variations, it is considered the best  method for this study. As compared to a quantitative method that focuses more on confirming  hypotheses are more numerical and look to quantify variations (Mack et al., n.d.). 

In the data collection part of the study, the researcher directly interacts with the  participants in order to gather data. This is done with focused, semi-structured interviews.  The reason for choosing this is because even though there is considered to be sparse structure  in this interview format, it gives the interviewer the freedom to encourage and push the  interviewee to dig deeper into a topic mentioned. Since this format includes mainly open ended questions and are broad (Oun and Bach, 2014), it provides room to explore topics and  ideas that the researcher may not be aware off prior to the interview.

This format offers the  opportunity to engage in a detailed discussion while staying focused on the topic. This can be  done through follow-up questions or encouraging them to share more details by using probes  and prompts or keeping a short period of silence (Moser and Korstjens, 2018). Hence, since it  allows the researcher the freedom to guide the interview based on the quality of the  interviewee’s responses, this specific interview format was chosen. It is considered the best  format to have a predefined partial structure to obtain information while also giving room to  explore new topics and ideas that may arise during the interview process.  

In order to accomplish this, primary data from semi-structured interviews were  considered. This was chosen in order to obtain a deeper understanding of the experiences and  viewpoints of SMEs after participating in digital marketing training. In addition, interviews also offer a more comprehensive understanding compared to quantitative tools like surveys  and questionnaires.

Moreover, unlike structured interviews, semi-structured interviews  provide more flexibility, allowing the interviewer or the subject to deviate from the main  topic to explore an issue further. For this study, the researcher initiated a semi-structured  interview with a set of open-ended questions at hand. At the same time, other themes that  came up during the interview were explored as well.

At certain instances, the researcher was  prepared and had to add new questions based on the circumstances, to understand certain  points further. As it was understood that questions can be presented to different participants  in different ways, while considering the specific context of the study (Prakasa, 2023). 

3.2. Participants and Sampling  

The sampling techniques used in this study is the purposive sampling technique. This was  chosen due to the intentional selection of participants based on certain qualities they posses,  i.e., they are an SME based in Northern Ireland and have participated in a specific digital  marketing training that was conducted by ProfileTree. Since purposive sampling is a non random technique of selection which does not require a set of participants or any underlying  theories it was the chosen method for this research design (Etikan, Musa and Alkassim,  2016). 

Furthermore, this study observed the process of purposive sampling throughout the  process. Additionally, unlike random sampling, which aims to include a diverse range of  ages, backgrounds, and cultures, purposive sampling focuses on individuals with specific  characteristics who can provide valuable insights for the research at hand (Zafeer, Li and  Maqbool, 2023).

Hence, to effectively utilize available resources, SMEs that could share valuable information were identified and selected. Specifically, SMEs that have had an in-depth and rich experience through the training. In addition to their knowledge and  experience, other factors that were given importance to choosing the SMEs are their  willingness and availability to participate, as well as their ability to articulate, express, and  reflect upon their experiences and opinions. 

For this study, the inclusion criteria for the sample are that only SMEs present in  Northern Ireland were considered. Additionally, these SMEs should have undertaken the  digital marketing training programme conducted by ProfileTree specifically. The exclusion  criteria on the other hand, is any organisation that is not considered an SME will not be  considered for this study. To add on, even if they are an SME that resides in Northern Ireland,  if they have undergone any other digital marketing training, they will not be considered for  this study.  

The sample for this study includes interviewing 6 SMEs (n=6). In the beginning, a total of  10 interviews were planned to be carried out. However, due to the fact that most of the SMEs  were unavailable to participate in the study due to prior commitments, the sample had to be  limited to 6. Despite the smaller sample size, it is believed that the key themes on this topic  could be identified from this smaller representative sample. This is supported by Guest,  Namey and Chen’s findings in their ‘A simple method to assess and report thematic  saturation in qualitative research’ report.

The report using bootstrapping analyses found that,  conducting approximately 6-7 interviews is sufficient to cover the main themes in a  homogenous sample. In particular, it was found that conducting 6 interviews leads to  reaching 80% saturation of the themes (Guest, Namey and Chen, 2020). Moreover, multiple  studies aligned to suggest that the thorough collection of qualitative data from small  participant groups can effectively capture the comprehensive range of individuals’  experiences (Hennink and Kaiser, 2022).

Even in Young and Casey’s study ‘An Examination  of the Sufficiency of Small Qualitative Samples’ the findings obtained were consistent regardless of the method used for data collection and they support the conclusion that small  qualitative samples are sufficient for generating strong and reliable results. The study even  found that in some instances, as few as 5 transcripts included all the codes (100%).

These  findings further endorse the use of a smaller sample size as it suggests that themes and codes  can be identified effectively and efficiently in interviews with smaller sample sizes. The  study highlighted that similar conclusions were reached by Hennink et al. (2016), who  observed almost complete code saturation (“hearing it all”) after conducting 6-9 interviews,  with additional insights (“understanding it all”) gained as more transcripts were included (Young and Casey, 2018).

Since this study looks more at SMEs particularly in Northern  Ireland who have undergone a specific training, it could be argued that it is a homogenous  group in these aspects. I addition to this, the above-mentioned research has found that data  from a smaller sample size does cover at least 80%, if not 100%, of the themes associated  with the topic. Hence, for this study it can be defended that analysing data from just 6  interviews would be enough to give representative insights that could prove valuable to the  field.  

3.3. Data collection and Analysis Procedure  

Over a span of 2 months, 39 SMEs, who have undergone the digital marketing training  with ProfileTree, were contacted and given the opportunity to participate in the survey. An  email explaining the study and the voluntary nature of the same was shared to these SMEs.  Out of these 39 SMEs, 8 SMEs responded to the opportunity expressing their interest to  

participate in the interview. Once the SME expressed interest in participating, a mutual data  and time was decided between the researcher and the SME founder. Once a mutual time was  decided, the researcher shared a zoom meeting link for the scheduled time. Although 8 SMEs expressed interest, only 6 were able to be interviewed. This is due to changes to the  availability of interviewee or other challenges faced.  

Semi-structured interviews (n = 6) were conducted from July 2023 to August 2023. Due  to the targeted location being different from the researcher’s base location, the interviews  were conducted through Zoom. The interviews lasted an average of 20-30 mins, they were  recorded and later transcribed.  

The analysis for the data collected in this study was done using the Thematic analysis.  Thematic analysis “is a method for identifying, analysing and reporting patterns (themes)  within data. It minimally organizes and describes your data set in (rich) detail. However,  frequently if goes further than this, and interprets various aspects of the research topic”  (Boyatzis, 1998). This is a method of analysis frequently used in qualitative research studies. 

Nevertheless, it wasn’t chosen for this study due to its popularity. As this study focuses on  understanding the impact of digital marketing training on SMEs, the best way to capture the  essence and insight would be to choose a method of analysis that will bring out the patterned  responses from the data set. Furthermore, this method of analysing the data set is recognised  as a beneficial way to identify the recurring themes and prevalence of certain topics in the  dataset. 

When it comes to the inductive versus theoretical thematic analysis, this study was  conducted with the inductive thematic analysis, meaning that the analysis was mainly data  driven. Even though the data was not coded by trying to fit it into an already established  coding frame, the researcher was aware of topics and theories in this field and kept those in  mind while coding. In case, these were recognised already existing themes that occurred and  were noticed in the dataset, they were highlighted and mentioned as insight.

While Thematic Analysis has gained a lot of attention and used in multiple studies, this  paper recognises that it has also been used incorrectly multiple times (Byrne, 2021). The  response to which has been Braun and Clarke themselves introduced ‘reflexive thematic  analysis’ as a response in an attempt to correct those misconception.

Hence, this study  attempts to replicate the worked method and implement the 6-phase contemporary approach  to the reflexive thematic analysis as laid out by David Byrne in ‘A worked example of Braun  and Clarke’s approach to reflexive thematic analysis’. Hence, not only does this study focus  on using thematic analyses, it specifically leverages reflexive thematic analysis.  

Reflexive thematic analysis is a qualitative method used to analyse qualitative data. It is  referred to as “reflexive” because it recognizes the researcher’s role in shaping the final  analysis. The researcher acknowledges and considers upon how their values, experiences,  interests, and social position influence the analysis process (Ward and Delamont, 2020).

It is  important to note that this does not involve introducing biases, but rather understanding the  impact of these factors on the analytical work. Unlike approaches that prioritize objectivity,  reflexive thematic analysis relies on the subjective and active involvement of the researcher  with their data in relation to their research question. In this approach, themes are not  considered to spontaneously emerge from the raw data. Instead, they are systematically  constructed, tested, and refined through a series of phases.

These themes are not mere  groupings of data or summaries of categories or domains. They are meaningful entities that  are built from codes, which bring together diverse data while also capturing the recurring  meanings found across the dataset (Ward and Delamont, 2020). 

3.4. Ethics  

This study realises and understands the importance of ethics in research study, especially  when the research involves human subjects, it is emphasised to always prioritize the well-being of the participants above all else. The primary focus of this research ensured the  subjects welfare, while the research question itself assumed a secondary role, as noted in the  ‘data collector’s field guide’. 

As mentioned in the guide, this study achieved informed consent through informing the  interviewee of the following details in a formal and academic manner (Mack et al., n.d.): 

A. The Purpose of the Research: 

The participant was provided with a clear explanation of the research’s objectives and  intended outcomes.  

B. Expectations for Research Participation: 

The participant was informed about the specific responsibilities and tasks they are expected  to undertake as a research participant. Additionally, they were also informed about the  estimated time commitment required for their participation.  

C. Voluntary Nature of Participation: 

The participant was made aware that their involvement in the research is entirely voluntary.  They should understand that they have the freedom to withdraw from the study at any time  without facing any negative consequences.  

D. Confidentiality Measures: 

The participant was also informed about the steps taken to ensure the confidentiality of their  personal information and data collected during the research process. It was clearly explained  how their privacy will be protected. 

Furthermore, prior to research initiation, ethical approval was obtained from the ethics  committee affiliated with the researcher’s institution. All SMEs who were invited to participate in the study did so voluntarily, with their consent duly confirmed. Consent was  achieved through both written as well as oral means. Each participant was provided with an  information sheet to read and a consent form to sign.

Following the academic practice of  providing individuals with the information prior to their involvement in a study. The consent  form also included information and the interviewee the right to withdraw from the study at  any point without facing any negative consequences (Husband, 2020). As recognised in  literature, this process ensures that participants give their informed consent to participate.  Signatures were obtained from participants, and the completed consent forms are securely  stored in accordance with ethical guidelines and agreed-upon procedures for data storage (Husband, 2020). 

Additionally, prior to starting the interview, each SME was briefed on the purpose of  conducting this study. Both the information sheet and the brief at the start of the interview  highlighted the voluntary nature of participation.  

Another main aspect taken into consideration in this study is maintaining the privacy and  anonymity of the interviewee in relation to the information shared, as required (DiCicco Bloom and Crabtree, 2006). The interview was conducted in a setting to ensure privacy. The  interviewee was free to choose a setting they were comfortable in and where they could speak  freely.

Since all the interviews were conducted over zoom, where the researcher was in a  private, enclosed space and the interviewee was free to choose their own space. All  participants of the study were also assured that their data would be anonymous if they choose  it to be, although, all of them opted to have their names and organisation to be mentioned in  the acknowledgement section of the report. Furthermore, participants were well-informed  about the ownership of the collected data. 

4. Data Analysis  

Once the interviews were conducted and recorded, the interviews were then transcribed  using online tools. Once the transcriptions were ready for all the 6 interviews, some time was  spent on converting them into word files that only contained the required data rather than  factors that made it seem like subtitles.

This included removing the time stamps and the  autocorrect, which were either not needed or not always the correct interpretation of the data.  Once the data was more readable, it was imported into NVivo. NVivo was the tool that was  used for the analysis of this data. Throughout the entire process, the data was investigated at a  group level rather than an individual level in order to respect anonymity. Once the data files  were imported, the analysis began. 

Considering that the Reflexive Thematic Analysis (RTA) is a non-linear method to  analyse this study’s qualitative data, the analysis phase of this study moved through different  stages without only moving in one direction. Despite this, a structured approach was  implemented, although not rigid. The six-phase process, as recommended by Braun and  Clarke over multiple papers and years was implemented throughout the process of analysis  (Byrne, 2021). Some phases consumed more time and energy while the others were more  straightforward as this analysis was more inductive rather than deductive in nature.

The time consuming phases was either due to the initial familiarisation with the data that was more  time consuming or the steps that involved a lot more back and forth due to the new  understanding of the data that resulted in re-coding previously coded data. The phases and the  work done for each one is as follows:  

A. Familiarization With the Dataset  

This was a time-consuming phase, but essential to deeply understand the dataset. Getting  acquainted with the data was a process that the researcher started from the time of taking the interviews. The researcher made notes and also started recognising potential similarities that  interviewees mentioned or brought up. The process continued through the transcription phase where the researcher spent more time with the data, understanding the nuances of certain  topics, detecting similarities in certain responses, and also identifying the potential  themes/topics that could be used for the analysis.  

As this study follows the reflexive thematic analysis, the researcher attempted to practice  reflexivity throughout the entire process. From the scheduling of interviews, the researcher  made sure that the interviews were not planned immediately one after the other in order to  avoid experiencing empathy fatigue, which could impact the researcher’s ability to practice  reflexive thinking.

The researcher also recognises her own experience in the field of digital  marketing and the potential impact it could have to bias the analysis. However, instead of  letting it bias the interview process or the analysis, the researcher practiced asking the  questions as outlined in Marshall & Rossman’s book ‘Designing Qualitative Research’ which  include asking “What do I know? How do I know what I know? What shapes and has shaped  my perspective? With what voice do I share my perspective? What do I do with what I have  found?” (Marshall and Rossman, 2014).

These questions then helped shaped how the  researcher approached the interviews as well as the data. With the few years of the researcher  in the digital marketing field itself, the researcher was able to use the knowledge to  understand where and how probing questions could be added to the interview. This helped  the interviewees to share more insight into the topic. On the other hand, these questions and  practicing personal reflexivity helped the researcher to not get ahead and make assumptions  based on prior knowledge.

When analysing the data and contemplating a potential theme, it  was crucial to also practice functional reflexivity and ensure that no themes or codes were  made based on personal knowledge of the researcher but rather be guided by the data and the  insights gained by it. 

B. Coding the Data  

Once the research spent some time understanding the data, the coding phase began. This  involved a thoroughly going through the sentences and identifying key terms and parallels  between the dataset. With this, potential codes were discovered and highlighted. Once all the  interviews were coded, all the generated codes were analysed. Recurring codes or patterns  were identified.

Additionally, the original codes were reformulated into re-codes to facilitate  the identification of similarities and differences among the interviews. Further, codes and  their fellow sub-codes were identified and arranged in a manner that is easier to interpret and  work with.  

This process was time consuming and included a lot of back and forth as the sentences  were coded and then re-coded based on better understanding, linking it to other present  insights, and also the bigger picture. Although, after a few back-and-forth sessions, a clearer  picture started emerging from the data. It was easier to recognise and code sentences and find  clear similarities and also the distinct differences that could form insights.

The more common  codes that were found through the interviews was the mention of the local council  involvement that was the initial push for these SMEs to take part in the training. The same  can be seen in the examples from the interview extract. Theses sentences from most  interviewees mentioned that one of the reasons for choosing to participate in the training was  due to the fact that it was funded/sponsored and it came as a suggestion from their local city  council. 

Hence, these were coded under the ‘Funded Program-Support’ and the ‘Local Council  Support’ as these were two important aspects that the SMEs considered when having to join  the training. On the other hand, there are certain codes that were very specifically mentioned  only by one or two. An example would be the code ‘Niche Industry’ as depicted in the examples. This includes a mention of how being a part of a small market has given the  interviewer the unique advantage of having to do limited digital marketing in order to be well  placed in the industry. 

Codes Example Interview Extracts 
I know what I’ll do a little video and then I’ve got it. I’ll  choose a topic like for example I’ve done weight loss I’ve  Building Content Bank done pain I’ve done what is hypnotherapy you know  breaking everything down into like simple terms. 
I’ve generated a new website through Wix.com And it is  Built Website now proving that between the Facebook page and the  website then and that people are making inquiries
And it just became clear to me at that point that I got a  Business Mentor mentor in to look at the business because it was  haemorrhaging money quite badly. 
Confidence in DM I feel confident actually helping other people be able to do  little things even now
There’s where you can grow your business and it gave me  Confidence to Grow  the confidence and to talk toother agencies about the  Business business and about What I wanted and what I envisaged for  the business in terms of digital marketing. 
It’s also given me the confidence now to go for another  Confidence To Put Brand  ground which is huge and it’s UK wide and it’s aground of  Out There £50,000 and it’s for research and development into our  products and I would never have done that
I’m more confidence in exploring the different options on  Confidence to Switch from  Facebook in terms of as you know sometimes it comes back  text to video to you and says these photos would make a nice real you  know and then okay, I’ll try that. I’ll make a nice reel
I’ve made a couple of TikTok’s as well, and they might not  Confidence to try new  be the greatest, but it gave me the confidence to do them in  platform the first place, whereas before I would have thought of that,  I’ll just do something else.
I posted like maybe two or three things in my whole  lifetime before the training and now I post loads of stuff  Consistency in DM that has got loads of reactions and customers. It’s probably  once every couple of weeks I would say I’m posting
I’d say I’m kind of lucky in a way in most of my sort of  Competitors Inadequacy  rivals, business-wise, are …older …who don’t really have  much of an online presence.
So, it became apparent during COVID that Iwas going to  COVID push to take up DM need to up my game in terms of SEO and digital  marketing.

DM activity

It’s all just ad hoc there’s no particular plan to it, it’s just as activity driven by company events when events happen or big project happens or like sale or somebody’s putting a big roll out that were sold out that  would do something around that,

The learning…I don’t need to actually employ a copywriter  I can use artificial intelligence I can use my own learning  Exploring AI my own experiences I can take the copy that’s there I can  revise it and then at a later stage we can use rankchecker for  SEO
up until that point I was at the hold of people that were  External influence on  telling me they were experts so they (external hires) were  branding really directing and dictating the flow of the digital  marketing campaigns the digital marketing strategy
I’ll be completely honest with you. I got it for free as part  Funds-Support of Lisburn & Castlereagh City Council. So, I thought, why  not do it?
And it is now proving that between the Facebook page and  the website then and that people are making inquiries  Generating Leads through either platform either directly through messenger or  through my website so that both strands have been proven  or have been proving very beneficial
I would have been more inclined to do text-heavy sort of  post and stuff, whereas this (training) has given me more  Generating Video Content confidence to do more video content and stuff, so I’ve been  posting more stories on Facebook and Instagram. I’ve made  a couple of TikTok’s as well
what we did was I did a story and I did a post and they went  Insights-Analytics out one day after the other but I looked at the insights to see  who opened it, the times they were opened, etc
Lack of awareness for  I wasn’t aware that there was anything available in terms  available support of support
No one connecting with each other. There was a social  media team. There was someone looking after email  Lack of Overall Branding marketing. There was someone looking after Facebook  Google and Instagram ads. There was someone looking  after SEO on the website.
Honestly, I’d say that I wasted two to three years I didn’t  Lack of Skills and  have that knowledge and so I was just constantly led from  Knowledge one person to the next and spent a lot of money never mind  the time but a lot of money
Lack of time to dedicate to  It is purely about time and finding the time to sort of put  DM stuff out there on a regular basis.
So, off the back of that I felt so confident because I felt like  no one’s going to be able to come in anymore and tell me  Less Vulnerable something and take my money and I won’t see behind it and  understand it. And it not really does boost your confidence  because you feel far less vulnerable as a business owner
Leveraging New Tools And then we looked out in Clavio and the paid version of  Clavio so that we could reach more on our email list

Limited Funds 

We can’t afford to have somebody who is dedicated for this, its only three of us in the company we are busy but  there is only three of us. It would be too proportionately too  high to have somebody just doing that sort of work for us.

When the Lisburn & Castlereagh City Council offered me  Local Council Support some funding towards this profile training or they covered  the costs 
Need for Better Online  I was particularly keen to target and to generate more Just  Engagement-Presence more engagements and more online presence
Yeah, maybe more of a schedule to it. So, I think  Need for Consistency in DM sometimes maybe I’ve reached my limit with what I can
New customers I noticed at the weekend that two of the customers were  new and I’ve got my biggest sale.
I had an Instagram account again I didn’t know how to do  New Type of posts on social  an offer on it or a video or edit anything… Now, I’m able  media to do stories to be able to do a video even putting the  captions on the video
I was just sort of dragged along as the founder of the  organisation because I was relying on them and their  expertise but it had gone badly wrong because there was no  No sense of ownership one clearly in the driving seat. So, each team that I was  working with had their own ideas of how the strategy and  the campaign should be taken forward and they were all  working separately from each other and from me.
Most of our growth is organic so we’re picking up new  Organic WOM Customers customers all the time and that’s largely word of mouth  because again of our reputation
It’s the priority now because that’s where I’m intending to  Offline Possibilities for  grow. The business is online. As well as that I’m stepping  Business into retail For the first time in August I’m doing my first  trade show.
that’s the difference is now that …. I lead and I direct. I’m  able to say clearly this is what’s needed for the email  Ownership of branding marketing this is what’s needed for the website in terms of  SEO This is what’s needed for social media and this is what  I need you to do
also, an insight into an advertisement through Facebook.  Paid Social Media Content And how to go about pursuing that to promote an event or  buy a certain amount of ads for a certain number of days
just having a small child has kind of gotten in the way of  Personal-Family  that, so the past couple months have been absolutely  Circumstances terrible and my social media have done next to nothing. 
it’s building up gradually and the number of people who I  know are following me or liked my page gradually goes  Positive growth in Business up. I know I’m not going to be breaking the internet or  anything butat the same time for me that’s good. I’m seeing  a steady growth I put up.

Positive sense of Ownership 

I think the main focus for my benefit…I’m going to act  upon this knowledge put it into practice and make the  decisions that I need to in terms of what pictures I want  what message I want to say what information I want to put  out there. 

I’ve got my biggest sale ever in one sale which was 160 £ in  Resulted in high sales one transaction and that’s the biggest ever that I’ve had  especially from a new customer
I do an SEO check on my competitors every now and again.  Always make sure that I’ve got more keywords per page  SEO upskilling than they do and stuff like that, which I wouldn’t really  have thought of doing before
I probably am a bit more proactive about trying to get a  little bit deeper on the Google review side. Normally when  I send something out to someone, I’ll email them when I  know that they’ve received it and say Thanks for your order  Starting to invite User  let me know if you have any issues. I’d love some feedback  Generate Content and would you be willing to share some pictures or videos  with me? And then I’ll send them a link to Instagram  Facebook and so that’s what I had been doing on Instagram  and Facebook for them to maybe post pictures and tag me
So it’s okay to have two or three target markets…But you  need to understand that when you put that post up who it is  you’re directing it to and have you backed it up with  Targeted Content perhaps a story on Facebook and maybe an email and email  marketing and that’s what’s starting to work which is  fabulous
I check, I do an SEO check on my competitors every now  Trying out Competitor  and again. Always make sure that I’ve got more keywords  Analysis per page than they do and stuff
The difference now is that I recruited a new team. I cut  them right back to one because I was able then to see  Understand DM clearly which I couldn’t have done before who actually had  the real skills and who was just on board to get something  on their CV to be a volunteer.

C. Generating Initial Themes  

Once all the relevant data was coded, the process of generating the themes began. This  process also included reviewing all the codes to recognise which could be merged together if  they have the same insight or which could be brought together as a theme and sub-theme. It  even included identifying certain codes that represent an over-arching narrative in the data  that could represent a theme or even a sub-theme. For instance, taking Extract 2 as an  example, the code ‘Niche Industry’ combined with ‘Competitors Inadequacy’ revealed the  theme of ‘Unique Advantages’ that certain SMEs have in terms of their digital marketing. 

At the same time, taking Extract 1 as the example, data that shared the funded program and  involvement of local council was recognised as a potential ‘Reasons for taking up the  training’ theme. This could potentially include all the listed reasons that the interviewees  mentioned grouped together in one theme. This process was repeated multiple times  reviewing all the codes. Some codes were further re-coded, themes were created and  withdrawn to create new themes that better represented the narrative and the research  questions. 

D. Reviewing Potential Themes  

During this stage, it was discovered that certain themes were not effective in providing  meaningful interpretations of the data or even in addressing this study’s research questions. It  also become apparent that some of the codes and data items that contributed to these themes  were inconsistent and needed to be revised. The analysis at this stage included answering the  questions as outlined by Braun and Clarke when the researcher reviews potential themes (Byrne, 2021). These included understanding and reviewing if these were a theme (or just a  code), the quality of the theme, its boundaries, is there enough data to support this theme, and  is the theme too wide or narrow? This process helped in eliminating certain themes, merging  certain others and recognising that some codes/themes do not contribute to much value in  terms of answering the research question.  

E. Defining and Naming Themes  

At this stage the themes were ready to be defined and named. A total of 4 themes were  recognised, each containing sub-themes that add a depth to the analysis and give an  additional layer of insight.  

The themes identified through the analysis were the following:  

Theme 1:Digital Marketing Implementation Pre-Training 

The Impact of Digital Marketing Training on Northern Ireland SMEs Ability To Innovate 3

This theme can be clearly defined as the implementation of digital marketing by the  SMEs prior to undergoing the training. This includes 2 sub-themes, the challenges faced and  also the techniques/approaches that the SMEs leveraged. The challenges were more than the  techniques. The challenges included lack of time for digital marketing (DM), limited funds  available, lack of skills and also awareness of available support for DM. On the other hand,  the main techniques adopted by SMEs for their DM was either outsourced or driven by  company events. These can be seen as examples of codes from extracts 3,4,5 and 6. 

Honestly, I’d say that I wasted two to three years I didn’t have that knowledge and so I was  just constantly led from one person to the next and spent a lot of money never mind the time  but a lot of money.” 

Extract 1 

we can’t afford To have somebody who is dedicated for this, its only three of us in the  company we are busy but there is only three of us. It would be too proportionately too high  to have somebody just doing that sort of work for us.” 

Extract 2 

I had been researching other people to do things for me and it was going to cost quite a bit  of money and whenever you’re setting up your own business money is always the issue of how  much am I spending and how much am I earning.” 

Extract 3 

Theme 2:Influences on Participating in the Training 

The Impact of Digital Marketing Training on Northern Ireland SMEs Ability To Innovate 4

This focus of this theme is the reasons or the factors that influenced the SMEs to  participate in the training. This is further divided into internal and external reasons as well as  the funds and support available. The internal reasons overpowered the external reasons.  While majority did consider to participate in the training due to it being funded, that was not  the sole driver. The need for understanding the digital marketing space themselves combined  with the need for better consistency, taking ownership of their own brand, improved online  engagement, and branding were the key precursors in the decision. Examples of these are  showcased in extracts 7,8, and 9. 

up until that point I was at the hold of people that were telling me they were experts so they  (external hires) were really directing and dictating the flow of the digital marketing  campaigns the digital marketing strategy.” 

Extract 4 

I was particularly keen to target and to generate more Just more engagements and more  online presence.” 

Extract 5 

I was just sort of dragged along as the founder of the organisation because I was relying on  them and their expertise but it had gone badly wrong because there was no one clearly in the  driving seat. So, each team that I was working with had their own ideas of how the strategy  

and the campaign should be taken forward and they were all working separately from each  other and from me.” 

Extract 6 

Theme 3:Impact of Digital Marketing Training 

The most important theme of this study and the biggest one too, this theme focuses on  

the effects of the training on the SMEs. This theme has then been further divided into 5 sub themes. These include ‘experimenting with new aspects’, ‘gaining tactical skills’, ‘increased  marketing effectiveness’, ‘entrepreneurial abilities’, and ‘confidence’. Each of these themes  will be explained bellow. 

Experimenting with new aspects: This subtheme includes all the new features that  SMEs tried or adopted post the training. This ranged from and included trying out competitor analysis, paid social media content, new tools, building a content bank, looking into insights  to understand the posts performance and even exploring AI. Some of these are illustrated in  the examples below  

The learning…I don’t need to actually employ a copywriter I can use artificial intelligence I  can use my own learning my own experiences I can take the copy that’s there I can revise it  and then at a later stage we can use rankchecker for SEO” 

Extract 7 

also an insight into an advertisement through Facebook. And how to go about pursuing that  to promote an event or buy a certain amount of ads for a certain number of days.” 

Extract 8 

I do an SEO check on my competitors every now and again. Always make sure that I’ve got  more keywords per page than they do and stuff like that, which I wouldn’t really have  thought of doing before.” 

Extract 9 

Gaining Tactical Skills: This subtheme specifically concentrates on the skills gained by the  SMEs through the training. This includes SEO upskilling, creating video content, diversifying  and utilising new types of social media posts rather than just plain texts or images, inviting  user generated content, or even specifically publishing content targeted to certain audiences.  

I would have been more inclined to do text-heavy sort of post and stuff, whereas this  (training) has given me more confidence to do more video content and stuff, so I’ve been  posting more stories on Facebook and Instagram. I’ve made a couple of TikTok’s as well” 

Extract 10 

So it’s okay to have two or three target markets…But you need to understand that when you  put that post up who it is you’re directing it to and have you backed it up with perhaps a story  on Facebook and maybe an email and email marketing and that’s what’s starting to work  which is fabulous.” 

Extract 11 

I probably am a bit more proactive about trying to get a little bit deeper on the Google  review side. Normally when I send something out to someone, I’ll email them when I know  that they’ve received it and say Thanks for your order let me know if you have any issues. I’d  love some feedback and would you be willing to share some pictures or videos with me? And  then I’ll send them a link to Instagram Facebook and so that’s what I had been doing on  Instagram and Facebook for them to maybe post pictures and tag me.” 

Extract 12

Increased marketing effectiveness: This subtheme looks into the specific result of  improved marketing and the effect it has on the business. Hence, this includes the coded data  that showcased how it resulted in generating leads for the business, high sales, overall growth  in business, receiving new customers as well how the training has just helped in facilitating a  consistent use of digital marketing. Therefore, the examples for this subtheme include the  following snippets: 

I’ve got my biggest sale ever in one sale which was 160 £ in one transaction and that’s the  biggest ever that I’ve had especially from a new customer.” 

Extract 13 

I posted like maybe two or three things in my whole lifetime before the training and now I  post loads of stuff that has got loads of reactions and customers. It’s probably once every  couple of weeks I would say I’m posting.” 

Extract 14 

And it is now proving that between the Facebook page and the website then and that people  are making inquiries through either platform either directly through messenger or through  my website so that both strands have been proven or have been proving very beneficial.” 

Extract 15 

Entrepreneurial abilities: while the other sub themes were focused more on the skills  and knowledge, this was a bit more personal to the entrepreneur itself and reflected the  change in their abilities beyond the skills and knowledge they gained. For this reason, this  included codes like positive sense of ownership, less vulnerable, ownership of branding, and  being able to understand what digital marketing entails. This can be clearly depicted in the  following snippets:  

So off the back of that I felt so confident because I felt like no one’s going to be able to come  in anymore and tell me something and take my money and I won’t see behind it and  understand it. And it not really does boost your confidence because you feel far less  vulnerable as a business owner.”  

Extract 16 

I think the main focus for my benefit…I’m going to act upon this knowledge put it into  practice and make the decisions that I need to in terms of what pictures I want what message  I want to say what information I want to put out there.” 

Extract 17 

that’s the difference is now that …. I lead and I direct. I’m able to say clearly this is what’s  needed for the email marketing this is what’s needed for the website in terms of SEO This is  what’s needed for social media and this is what I need you to do.” 

Extract 18 

Confidence: Similar to the previous subtheme, this is closer to an emotional aspect  rather than the tactical side. This theme looks into the confidence that has been a result of  SMEs undergoing the training. This varies from confidence to grow the business, trying new  social media platforms, to put the brand out there, in digital marketing overall, or even the  confidence to switch from text to video content. Some examples of such codes from the data  are as follows:  

I feel confident actually helping other people be able to do little things even now” Extract 19 

I’ve made a couple of TikTok’s as well, and they might not be the greatest, but it gave me  the confidence to do them in the first place, whereas before I would have thought of that, I’ll  just do something else.” 

Extract 20 

It’s also given me the confidence now to go for another ground which is huge and it’s UK  wide and it’s aground of £50,000 and it’s for research and development into our products and  I would never have done that.” 

Extract 21 

Theme 4:Additional Factors

The Impact of Digital Marketing Training on Northern Ireland SMEs Ability To Innovate 5

This theme is dedicated to all the additional factors recognised throughout the study  that has played a role in influencing the use of digital marketing by the SMEs. This ranges  from previous personal experience of the entrepreneur, consumers generated through offline  (word of mouth) marketing, and certain unique advantages. These include the SME being  part of a niche industry, hence having limited competition in the field and require low  commitment to leveraging digital marketing or even the inadequacy of competitors to use  digital marketing tools, hence placing them at a lower advantage in the field. Some of these  are depicted in the examples below:  

I’d say I’m kind of lucky in a way in most of my sort of rivals, business-wise, are …older  …who don’t really have much of an online presence.” 

Extract 22 

Unfortunately, I can still do next to normal social media and still be the best performing  website for my industry… they don’t really know what Facebook is, so Instagram or anything  like that. So, it’s less my experience and more the inexperience of my competitors.” 

Extract 23 

Most of our growth is organic so we’re picking up new customers all the time and that’s  largely word of mouth because again of our reputation” 

Extract 24

5. Findings 

Once the data was coded and analysed, it was ready to be contextualised in terms of the  research question. In David Byrne’s ‘worked example of Braun and Clarke’s approach to  reflexive thematic analysis’ he mentions how Braun and Clarke, in 2013, recommended  integrating as well as contextualising data in the reports section as and when it is reported  (Byrne, 2021). Since this study utilised RTA for its analysis, it would continue to follow the  method advocated by Braun and Clarke to practice the appropriate reporting style. Hence,  this report would merge the results as well as discussion section.  

As stated initially, the aim of this research is to assess if there is an influence between the  SMEs in Northern Ireland who received the digital marketing training and the potential  impact the training has had on the SMEs’ ability to innovate. The objectives are to assess the  potential influence of the training, identify possible additional factors and determine the  possible business impact. With these objectives in mind, the findings of the study are as  follows.  

Understanding the difference between SMEs implementation of digital marketing  strategies pre training and post trainings has given an in-depth view into the value of  undergoing the digital marketing training. When understanding the experience of the use of  digital marketing by SMEs prior to the training, the study found that there were less  techniques or approaches but more challenges.

While their digital marketing was either  driven by company events or most efforts were outsourced, the presence or activity online  was quite limited. This finding is similar to that of a qualitative study which identified that  SMEs are compelled to handle their social media in a reactive and ad hoc manner due to  limitations in available resources (Guha, Harrigan and Soutar, 2017).

The reasons being that  they had more obstacles to overcome in order to be able to practice any techniques in digital  marketing. The most important being the lack of skills and knowledge in the area. While some did have basic DM experience or presence, all the SMEs had limited activity online.  When some did consider to leverage external help and hire skilled experts in the field, they  were unclear of what to look for or what factors to consider when positioning the brand  online.  

Apart from this, the SMEs were noticed to have multiple reasons to want to improve their  presence online. From improving their own knowledge, understanding the need for digital  marketing and therefore wanting to increase and have a consistent presence and engagement  online.

Though they did have the intention to better their digital marketing, the driving factor  to participate in the training was because it was funded. With the SMEs limited finances, it is  not surprising that this would be a driving cause. This is in line with Shee Mun Yong’s paper  ‘4th Industry Revolution Digital Marketing Adoption Challenges in SMEs and its Effect on  Customer Responsiveness’. This paper too recognises that financial budget is one of the  critical causes of distress for SMEs who have low or moderate adoption of digital marketing  (Yong, 2023).  

This in turn emphasizes the valuable role that local government bodies play in terms of  encouraging and supporting SMEs in their digital marketing adoption. As mentioned, and  found in this study, majority of the SMEs indicated that their main reason for choosing to  participate in the training was the fact that it was funded by the local council and also  suggested by them.

While funding is an important role in this, exposure to the available funds  and support is as an important role. A few SMEs mentioned that prior to the training, the lack  of available funds or support was a reason behind their inability to take steps to adopt or learn  more in the digital marketing space.

The importance of funded support, especially subsidised  by the local council, which is seen as a reliable source of information and support, has played  a crucial role in upskilling these SMEs. Not only is it recognised as an important factor in this study, but also in Dr. I. Omran’s ‘A Review on SME’s Marketing’ recognises and supports  the idea that in order for SMEs to adopt digital marketing, policymakers play a crucial role in  its facilitation by providing support as well as resources (Omran, 2023).

Therefore, this study  recommends the active involvement of local government bodies in enabling the adoption of  digital marketing tools for their local businesses. This could be done in different ways, a key  finding from this report is that funds were important to SMEs, hence local government bodies  could contribute to funding for support towards such trainings or collaborate with local  agencies to provide fully funded programs that could upskill SMEs digital marketing  abilities.  

With this funded support, the SMEs could participate in the training that has had a  significant impact on their digital marketing. Not only did it result in gaining technical skills,  learning new tools or increasing the effectiveness of their marketing, but it has also  contributed to a better emotional state of the entrepreneurs, when it comes to their business.  Looking specifically at the technical side, undergoing the training has indeed seen to have an  impact on SMEs trying out new content and consistently leveraging social media.

These  efforts to be more present online has in turn seen to result in acquiring new customers and  building brand awareness. This corroborates the findings in the report ‘Exploring social  media affordance in relationship marketing practices in SMEs’. Based on the analysis of the  data from this study, it was found that social media offers these companies innovative  methods for marketing and acquiring customers (Sedalo, Boateng and Kosiba, 2021). 

Similarly, in this research too, it was found that the SMEs adopted new innovative methods  to market their goods and services which resulted in reaching and acquiring new consumers.  This ranged from simple aspects like shifting to posting more video content, trying out new  type of posts on social media to even more challenging tasks like trying out competitor analysis, exploring offline growth for the brand, inviting user generated content, and  exploring insights/analytics and AI.  

Moreover, the impact of these new skills acquired in terms of new business gained has  been noted in some SMEs too. There has been mention of new customers attracted and new  leads generated as an effect of building their online presence through the digital marketing  training. This corroborates the findings of another study that found a positive correlation  between the implementation of digital marketing and the sustainable growth of SMEs in  developing nations (Bruce et al., 2023).

While Northern Ireland is not considered a  developing country, this finding still holds true. Post undergoing the training, SMEs either  identified new opportunities for growth or established new digital methods that facilitated  growth.  

Though acquiring skills is a crucial part of improving the digital presence of a brand, the  training also gave the participants something much more than skills. It bestowed the  entrepreneurs with confidence. This came up in different ways and ranged from overall  confidence in digital marketing and its abilities, to gaining the confidence to try new  platforms or tools or switching up the type of content they published.

Some even went a level  further to say that it provided them the confidence to expand their business into new avenues  and even improve the confidence in their brand to be able to now put their brand into new  challenges or opportunities. This in turn facilitated them to feel less vulnerable and gave them  a positive sense of ownership of their brand.

This strongly supports the findings of the study  that found evidence to confirm the importance of the SME entrepreneur’s digital self-efficacy  and the strong impact it had on the SMEs digital transformation journey (Malodia et al.,  2023). Hence, this further corroborates the importance of the entrepreneurs undergoing such trainings that would boost their confidence and in turn positively impact the journey of their  organisation.  

Moreover, the study found that there are additional factors that influence the SMEs digital  marketing experience. This includes the entrepreneurs previous experience with digital  marketing as compared to entrepreneurs who do not have any experience with digital  marketing. Their previous individual experience impacts the efforts put in towards their  business’s digital marketing.

Likewise, when SMEs receive good consumers from organic  traditional methods of marketing (word of mouth), they don’t necessarily see the need to  invest in any digital marketing tools or efforts. Similarly, certain SMEs in niche and small  industries with limited competition can find it advantageous with doing minimal efforts with  digital marketing and still being content.

As recognised by another study certain industry  characteristics like the degree of digitisation in the industry in which the SME operates, could  impact the effectiveness of the SMEs digital marketing strategies (Lee et al., 2019). At the  same time, the study also recognises the influence of competitor activities on the SMEs own  digital marketing strategies.

This is similar to the finding in Pöyry et al., 2018 that suggested  that the efficiency of an SME’s digital marketing activities can be influenced by the digital  marketing strategies implemented by its competitors (Pöyry et al., 2018). While the finding of  this study is similar, it varies a bit in a sense that here, a lack of competitors digital marketing  efforts proves as a benefit for SMEs that invest slight efforts. 

6. Conclusion 

To conclude, this paper aims to highlight the following points in regard to the research  questions.  

A. How does digital marketing training influence SMEs to innovate and adapt their  marketing strategies? 

The digital marketing training has been recognised to increase marketing effectiveness  which has been an effect of trying out new techniques, new types of content or even new  platforms. This translates to generating leads and attracting new customers as a result of  trying out new content types, having a consistent schedule to their presence online which  goes beyond upskilling and learning how to use the platforms. Apart from this, the training  played an important role in creating a sense of confidence with the participants while also  positively effecting their entrepreneurial abilities. 

B. Does industry of the SME, gender of team leads, average age of the SME play a  pivotal role? 

Yes, other factors do play a pivotal role in determining the SMEs digital marketing  strategies. While the study did not discover a link between the gender of team leads or  average age of the SMEs and their digital marketing, it did find a link between other  additional factors. Being a part of a niche industry with low competition, competitor’s lack of  knowledge on how to use digital marketing and even the entrepreneur’s previous individual  experience has been recognised as influential factors on the SMEs digital marketing  strategies.  

C. How will the training help SMEs identify new opportunities? (scope of new audiences  to target, platforms to use, markets to target, etc.)

Through the training, the SMEs have learnt new tools or new skills which have then been  adjusted to their own preference and goals. This has helped them discover as well as try out  new aspects for this business. This resulted in SMEs exploring paid social content, publishing  targeted content, using new platforms (TikTok), and even exploring potential offline business  expansion possibilities. More importantly, the key to the SMEs ability to identifying new  opportunities is the confidence they gained through the training which resulted in the ability  to try new aspects. 

D. Does knowledge of how to use these tools encourage SMEs on further experimenting  with data science/analytics? 

The digital marketing training did contribute to increased confidence in SMEs ability to  experiment with new tools. While this may not have gone as deep as data science, some of  the SMEs did look into leveraging the analytics available on the social media platforms itself. A step that was not considered or implemented prior to the training. Beyond analytics, some  even considered leveraging AI to help with content creation. 

Overall, this study’s findings indicate the crucial role that digital marketing training plays  for an SME, especially in the context of the SMEs ability to innovate their digital markerting  practices. Furthermore, it reiterates the important role of the local government bodies and  policymakers in this process. All of which denote the implications that SMEs must consider  to actively participate in such digital marketing trainings. At the same time, policymakers  must factor in such funding or support to enable this digital adoption at the grassroot level. 

7. Limitations  

The paper has certain limitations that should be acknowledged. Qualitative studies often  involve a small number of respondents, and in this particular study, the researcher  interviewed only six due to unforeseen circumstances. As a result, generalizing the findings  and framework may be challenging. Therefore, other studies could use a larger sample size to  corroborate the findings of this study. Additionally, different measures or methods, such as  case studies or mixed-method approaches, can be employed to further validate the findings. 

Future researchers utilizing alternative approaches could test and establish the validity and  reliability of the findings across a wider population. It is important to note that the findings of  this research may vary if future studies employ different sampling techniques.

8. Appendices  


Research project title: The Impact of Digital Marketing Training on SMEs Ability to Innovate 

Student Researcher: Natalia Thomas 10614672@mydbs.ie 

Research Supervisor: Ieva Masevic ieva.masevic@dbs.ie 

About the Project 

I am a masters student at Dublin Business School and I am carrying out my thesis project under  the direct supervision of Ieva Masevic to study the impact of digital marketing training on  SMEs ability to innovate. 

The aim of the project is to assess if there is an influence between the SMEs in Northern Ireland  who received the digital marketing training by ProfileTree and the potential impact the training  has had on the SMEs’ ability to become more innovative in their digital marketing approach. I would like to invite you to take part in an interview for the same. 

As a participant in the study you would be required to answer questions about your learnings  and experience as an organization that has undergone the digital marketing training. 

Data Protection  

The data you provide as part of this interview will be fully anonymous. I will not gather any  direct personally identifying information about you or anyone close to you. You will be asked  to provide optional demographic information of a broad nature about yourself. Your data will  be collated into a larger dataset and analysed at the group rather than the individual level. Your  data will only be used for academic purposes and will not be shared with anyone for  commercial purposes. 

What are the risks and benefits of taking part in this study?  

In addition to providing much appreciated assistance to the student researcher, the main benefit  of taking part in this study will be your contribution to academic research, which aims to  expand knowledge and generate new insights. There will be no risks posed to you as a  participant in this study, either physical or psychological, beyond that which is normally  expected of day-to-day activities.  

If you are interested in taking part… 

If you are interested in taking part please review the information provided in the consent form  and if you are happy to proceed with the study then please indicate your willingness to take  part by ticking the appropriate box / signing your name where appropriate.  You are under no obligation to take part in this study or to provide a reason if you decide not  to take part. You may choose not to take part without fear of penalty. If you agree to take part  you have the right to cease participation and withdraw your data at any time for any reason  without fear of penalty. The data will not be used by any member of the project team for  commercial purposes. 

Consent Form 

I________________________________ voluntarily agree to take part in this research study.  I understand that I am not obliged to take part in this study and that my participation in the  study is entirely voluntary. 


I understand that I am free to withdraw from the study at any time or refuse to answer any  question without the need to provide reason and without fear of negative consequences. I understand that my responses will be anonymous. I understand that in the case of completing  an anonymous questionnaire, it will not be possible to subsequently withdraw my data due to  the fact that there will be no personally identifying information attached to my responses.  I understand that I will not benefit directly from participating in this research.  I understand that I am free to contact any of the people involved in the research to seek further  clarification and information.  

I understand that signed consent forms will be retained for some time until the exam board  confirms the results of their dissertation.  

I confirm that I have had the purpose and nature of the study explained to me in writing and I  have had the opportunity to ask questions about the study with satisfactory answers provided.  I confirm that I have read and fully understood the information provided and statements above. 

Name & Signature of research participant Date ___________________________ _______________ 

Name & Signature of researcher Date Natalia Thomas 28/02/2023 

Signed Forms By Participants 

Participant 1 


The Impact of Digital Marketing Training on Northern Ireland SMEs Ability To Innovate 6Participant 2  

Participant 3 

The Impact of Digital Marketing Training on Northern Ireland SMEs Ability To Innovate 7


Participant 4 

The Impact of Digital Marketing Training on Northern Ireland SMEs Ability To Innovate 8
The Impact of Digital Marketing Training on Northern Ireland SMEs Ability To Innovate 9

Participant 6 

The Impact of Digital Marketing Training on Northern Ireland SMEs Ability To Innovate 10

Interview Questions  

1) Describe the organisation’s overall experience with digital marketing 2) How and when did the company opt into participating in the digital marketing  training? 

a. Who took this decision? Who suggested this step? (probing questions)  3) Has the training impacted your organisation in any way? Can you elaborate with  examples? 

4) What were the digital marketing techniques your organisation used prior to the  training and how has it changed post the training? OR Could you describe your  digital marketing efforts prior to and post the training? 

a. Any changes in tools used? (probing questions) 

b. Any new platforms learnt? (probing questions) 

c. What changed and what stayed the same? (probing questions) 

5) As an organisation, when thinking about the next stages after the training, what does it  look like?  

6) As a business, have your priorities in any sense changed after undergoing the digital  marketing training?  

7) How has the training impacted your digital marketing strategies? 

8) How does the team approach digital marketing post the training?


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