You own a small business. Do you need a website? An Internet presence can be a necessity or a resource-draining boondoggle, depending on your business and target audience. You shouldn’t build or maintain a website simply because “everyone else has one.” However, even if you own a one-person services company and get all the business you can handle through word of mouth, you can still create an online presence with minimal time and expense.
If and when you develop a business website, you’ll need to make some kind of investment in Internet-based marketing. Consumers increasingly and overwhelmingly use the Internet to research and buy goods and services. This means the competition is robust, and if your site doesn’t announce its presence, it will simply sit and gather (virtual) dust in some computer’s memory.
If you’ve convinced yourself that you need to enter the web marketing arena, the following report provides a fundamental primer on the most widely used tactics for both paid and free Internet advertising. Just remember that each of the topics introduced here is complex enough that entire books are written about them, so if something appeals to you, do some additional research before jumping in.
Before You Start
There are two main questions you must ask yourself before starting any marketing efforts, whether on- or offline: “Who is my audience?” and “What are my objectives?”
The audience for most business marketing activities is obviously past, present, and future customers. However, as in traditional advertising and marketing, it helps narrow down who you are trying to reach, segmenting your market by age, geography, gender, interests, occupation. Certain Internet marketing methods, such as pay-per-click ads, allow you to target your customers based on this type of segmentation.
We can assume that the overall objective of most marketing is to sell products and/or services, but you may have additional objectives for online marketing. Hopefully, these related objectives will drive increased sales, but they can be more subtle than simply asking customers to buy right now. For example, your online marketing plan might include goals such as these:
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- Support and increase the visibility of your company’s brand.
- Improve search engine rankings.
- Offer reference information related to your business sector.
- Increase the number of registered users or newsletter subscribers.
- Drive traffic to your company website.
After defining your audience and marketing goals, you can formulate an Internet marketing strategy and tactics. When getting into online marketing, you must maintain brand consistency. Build on the reputation that you have already established. Your online presence should mirror that of your “brick and mortar” presence. Use the same logo and tagline so that people will understand that you are the same company. Having an online presence is a way to build on what you have already accomplished.
In the remainder of this report, we’ll look at the most common ways you can use the Internet to deliver your message and start increasing your sales.
Table of Contents
Search Engine Marketing and Display Advertising
Decide: Who, What, Where, When, and Why?
YouTube, Facebook, Pinterest, Etc.
Forums & Discussion Groups
Article Placement / E-Zines
Other Internet Marketing Outlets
We won’t get into the vast topic of building and managing a website, but if you aim to use the techniques described below, it is nearly essential to have one. Most of your marketing efforts will have a “call to action” that involves your audience visiting your website to research products or services, find contact information, sign up for a newsletter, or place an online order. Whatever you ask people to do in your online promotions, make sure the website allows them to easily complete that task. One other vital component of any business website is an analytics program (Google offers a fairly robust application free of charge), so you can track how well your marketing efforts are working and calculate the return on your advertising investment (ROI).
How can you develop an online presence at little or no cost? Several companies offer free site-building tools and hosting services. If you go this route, select a proven track record company, so your hard work isn’t wasted when the company goes out of business or suspends the service. A couple of reliable options are Google Sites and Yola. If you have any money in your budget at all, you should probably just spend the less than $100 per year it takes to buy a personalized domain name (for example, “mybusiness.com”) and a Web hosting service. Another potential option, depending on your business and marketing goals, is to create a free blog (see below for more details). The most popular free blogging services as of this writing are WordPress and Blogger.
E-mail newsletters provide one of the most highly performing avenues for marketing. You can collect customer e-mail addresses by asking visitors that come to your website to subscribe, by requesting e-mail addresses from anyone who visits your physical location, or by purchasing an e-mail list. To generate a higher readership rate, make sure the audience is narrowly targeted and has some vested interest in your product. By sending out your newsletter on a regular schedule (weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc.), you can counteract Internet users’ transient and temporary nature by continually reminding them of your company’s existence. Affordable services like Constant Contact can be used to manage mailing lists, statistics, and opt-in/out functions.
Caveat: Sending commercial e-mail messages to people who have not agreed to receive your mailings can result in severe fines and penalties from the federal government per terms of the CAN-SPAM Act.
Newsletter content should appeal to your defined audiences, with industry- or product-related news and events, company-specific news and events, practical reference information, and interesting statistical and demographic information. The newsletter copy should publicize links to appropriate pages within your website.
You will need to maintain one or more separate lists to send targeted messages to particular audiences (see Other Announcements below). You might combine all your lists to send a monthly newsletter and send other bulletins to the past or potential customers as appropriate.
Other announcements are e-mailings that can consist of press releases, coupons, special notices, or anything you want to communicate specifically to members of one or more e-mail lists.
Search Engine Marketing, Pay-per-Click and Display Advertising
Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Search engine optimization means constructing a website that search engine spiders easily crawl. It encompasses various techniques designed to improve your site’s (or page’s) ranking on the search engine results page. The goal is for your site to be found by searchers who are looking for sites related to a certain keyword or phrase, for example, “little red wagon,” if you are in the business of selling toy wagons. SEO can be divided into on-page activities (e.g., the amount of content, metadata, links, programming methods, and structural issues) and off-page activities (most importantly, obtaining links from other websites to your site).
Pay-per-click advertising refers to text ads displayed on search engine results pages (versus “organic” results achieved by SEO) and other sites, usually in the margins. In the case of Google AdWords and Microsoft’s adCenter, you can open an account and specify the keyword(s) that, when searched for, will generate an ad that links to your website. You pay only when a searcher clicks an ad and is directed to your site. In the example below, the key phrase is “little red wagon,” and pay-per-click ads are located at the top (in yellow) and in the right-hand column (subtitled “Sponsored Links”). The first organic listing is “Little Red Wagon Foundation.”
A few of the benefits of PPC advertising are that you know exactly how many people view your ads, how many of those viewers click through to your website, and (if you are using a site analytics tool) what they do once they reach your site. You can also start and stop running ads at a moment’s notice, experiment with any number of ads you like, and fund your campaign with as little as $10 to start.
Display advertising, also called banner advertising, means purchasing ad space on another website and placing a text and/or graphic ad with a link to your site. This technique is generally more complex and expensive than pay-per-click but can be powerful if the right message is shown to a tightly focused audience. To achieve optimal click-through rate (CTR), advertise on websites where you assume your target audience is visiting rather than a general interest website. Most marketers don’t purchase ad space directly from another website but use a banner ad network to automatically place ads on appropriate websites. A couple of the biggest names in display ad serving are DoubleClick and BurstMedia.
Social Media and Networking
Social networking is the latest buzz in the modern marketing arsenal. If you have any doubt about its impact, especially on the under-40 population, read this list. Small businesses with limited resources should weigh their time spent and the potential benefits carefully, however. It can also be difficult to measure the return on your investment for some of these tactics.
The general principle of “marketing” on social networking outlets is that people with similar interests will virtually congregate around Web content that discusses that interest. They may be interested in product information in reviews or personal opinions, but hard sale approaches are mostly discouraged and unproductive. Your goal is to become a trusted advisor, which means revealing your identity and at least some part of your personality. If that premise makes you uncomfortable, you might still find social networking sites valuable for market research purposes. Find out what people are buying and why then use that information to help shape your other marketing activities.
The following section describes the more popular social media outlets and sites, but keep your eyes open for new virtual spaces where you might get more attention by getting in on the ground floor.
YouTube, Facebook, Etc.
YouTube allows you to post videos on your own “channel,” a distinct Web page that can be customized and allows for posting links back to your own website. A major positive aspect of this venue is that the number of views is posted, and viewers can submit comments, so you know whether your videos are popular and why.
Facebook is considered the model for modern social networking sites. Facebook allows you (individual, corporate, non-profit, etc.) to create a page, attract “likes” and reviews, communicate with followers by posting status updates, photos and videos, and so on.
Although the previously named sites are the most popular in terms of visitors, there are many business-oriented networking sites that may be more useful for making business connections. LinkedIn helps you develop a network of clients, service providers, and subject experts; find business opportunities and partners; post job openings; and more. More detailed advice on best practices for using LinkedIn can be found in many online articles and blogs.
Think of Twitter as a mini-blog (see below) that allows you to broadcast messages of 140 characters or less. The messages appear to your “followers” on their phones or computers, as well as on Twitter.com. The biggest challenges are to gain a useful number of followers and to think of something engaging to write to them. If you are a speaker, writer, or performer, Twitter can be used to let your fans know what you’re doing and when. If you have a retail store, you might let your followers know that you’re offering a discounted item or running a special sale. You should post a Twitter sign-up link on your website and within your signature line in outgoing e-mail messages. You can also gain followers by following people who work in or comment on your industry, as some Twitter users will follow those who follow them.
The word blog originally came from the term “Weblog.” There’s no real standard for what a blog is, but most commonly, authors use them to comment on (and link to) other online news items, websites, or other Internet content. For the most part, direct selling on a blog is frowned upon and is probably a recipe for driving away potential readers. What do you write about, then? Well, if you run an Internet marketing firm, you write about trends in Web marketing, what the search engines are up to, tips for do-it-yourselfers, or what you thought of the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Seriously, read some blogs, and you will find all sorts of personal opinions mixed in with professional advice and commentary. However, your blog’s goal should most likely be to establish yourself as an expert and trusted advisor in your chosen field.
You might also pursue getting your products, services, or website mentioned in related blogs by other industry experts. When a high-visibility blogger mentions a website on his or her blog, the site is exposed to a potential audience of new viewers. Often, blog postings are simply press releases picked up by sites that discuss topics related to a particular product or industry. More opportunities (and traffic) in this arena can be realized by developing relationships with individual bloggers.
- Post an article written by someone else; just be sure to provide a link to the original article and give credit to the person who wrote it. You can then give your commentary on the article’s topic or find a way to relate the information to local trends or challenges.
- Ask colleagues to be “guest bloggers” by writing articles for you to post, again giving them credit and adding their byline and a link to their website. Using links is a good way to drive additional traffic to their sites, so it’s a good trade-off for both parties.
- Nick Francesco of AskNick.com said, “A blog gets people’s attention, and Twitter keeps it.” Consider using these two outlets together.
Forums & Discussion Groups
A forum (also known as the discussion group, message board, or bulletin board) is a website component where users can ask questions, offer advice, or share experiences with others about a certain topic or topic. Nearly every hobby on earth has several popular forums wherein members offer their thoughts and feelings on all aspects of their favorite pastime. Contributing a comment (with a link to your website) in discussion groups related to your products or services can create a small surge or spike in traffic but usually has little long-lasting effect. To maximize effectiveness, target forums on high-traffic sites with 1,000+ users and reply to topics with larger numbers of views (relative to other posted topics).
You can easily build your own bulletin board/forum component on your site with free or low-cost software. User forums can greatly increase the “stickiness” of a site, given a critical mass of traffic required to generate new discussions and keep participants interested in returning. You can start by “seeding” topics on your own, but there won’t be any results until traffic is directed to the forums. The conundrum for small businesses may be the time required to moderate a forum once it becomes successful. One solution is to seek out a volunteer moderator who exhibits a keen interest in your field. A sample of a baseball trading card forum is shown in the screenshot below.
Article Placement / E-Zines
Another avenue for generating incoming links and traffic to your site is the free article market. Article submission (or e-zine) websites allow you to publish articles on a variety of topics. Examples include EzineArticles and ArticleCity.com.
Obtaining links from article submission sites isn’t likely to improve your site’s search engine rankings much. However, existing content from a print newsletter or other written material can be re-purposed with relatively small time investment. Be aware that creating articles from your website’s content verbatim may cause search engines to penalize your site, as the search engines take a dim view of text that is republished multiple times (“duplicate content” in search engine optimization terms). Submitting articles to sites with the most traffic will give your site the best chance to be discovered by new readers.
Caveat: Once an article is submitted, you have little or no control over who uses your content and for what purpose, depending on the site’s copyright policies on which the article is posted.
Other Internet Marketing Outlets
Wikipedia is, essentially, an online encyclopedia. The unique aspect of Wikipedia is that users generate the content, though volunteer editors must approve content. Traffic will grow if and when others link to the entry. If you add content, your time commitment will be relatively minor, and the benefits might include improved search engine ranking and a slight increase in traffic to your site. As with other forms of Internet communication, a Wikipedia entry that is essentially a commercial for a product, service, or company will not be viewed positively and is unlikely to be approved by editors.
Online directories allow Internet users to browse through categories of topics to find websites related to a certain subject. There are directories for businesses, blogs, websites in general, and more. Many directories are free, and some only list you if you pay. The mother of free directories is the Open Directory Project, and by all accounts, the best-paid directory for business is the Yahoo! Directory ($299 annually). Be aware that you might wait a long time for some of the free directories to list your site, as they may rely on volunteer screeners. Directories not only allow consumers to find you in their listings, but they also help get your site indexed in the major search engines. If you submit your site to a directory, make sure to read the submission guidelines and follow them exactly.
Eric Neyer has over 20 years of experience in the field of business communications, including technical writing, marketing, and training development. He has worked in industries from aerospace to enterprise-level software development to engineering.