I plead guilty to enjoying a cold beer or two, and I’ve watched with amazement as the decade-long bull market in the craft beer industry shows no signs of abating.
It's hard to believe that the first quarter of 2009 will soon becoming to a close. And small business owners have a lot to think about as they look ahead to the next. With a poor economy, budget cuts and downsizing on everyone’s mind, marketing one's business via the Internet is an important activity that's been getting lost in the shuffle neglected. <br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> Research shows that consumer behavior continues to shift rapidly to online resources when looking for local products or services. To take advantage of this surging trend, follow these nine simple tips to develop an effective online marketing strategy. These actionable hints will increase your chance of being found online, and increase your chance of turning Web site visitors into customers. <br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <b>1. Do Some Sleuthing</b><br clear="none" /> When doing your own shopping, use Internet search engines to find local businesses. See what comes up and use your own shopping behavior as an indicator of what a consumer is likely to do when looking for a business like yours. Put on the hat of a consumer who might be inclined to contact you or do business with you. What were the compelling Web sites that induced you to visit or call their business, and to make a purchase? Do you know the keywords your customers use to find you online?<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <b>2. Look Beyond Online Directory Listings</b><br clear="none" /> Having a listing in the search engine's local maps section or in the online Yellow Pages is a good start, but it's not enough. People use search engines. Since most traffic to online directories comes from search engines, you are also at least one additional step removed from your potential customers. Wouldn't it be better to be where your potential customers are? Also, online listings are categorized by business, and show your competitors too. You have very little control over the content and very little ability to distinguish yourself. Consider an investment in paid search engine marketing to get more control of your message and as close to potential customers as possible.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <b>3. Understand the Relationship between Online and Offline </b><br clear="none" /> Offline advertising—such as print, local cable TV, radio and direct mail—helps drive awareness and interest. But when in need, consumers use search engines to research and find solutions. You must be there. For every $1 spent online, Internet research influences $2.56 in offline purchases (ROI Research 2006), and that figure will grow to $4.68 by 2012, according to BIGresearch conducted in 2007. Use traditional media to build your brand and increase awareness. Use search to bring ready-to-buy customers to your door.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <b>4. Pay Attention to Your Competition</b><br clear="none" /> You probably know your local competition well. Or do you? The Internet has broken down many geographic competitive barriers, and there are probably many competitors outside of your area that you can learn from. What are they doing online? Pretend you're a consumer. Are they easier to find than you? Why? Does their Web site make it easier to learn about their products or services and help the reader make a decision? How? Make no mistake, regardless of the business, some of your competitors are no doubt thinking about their online marketing strategies to drive traffic to their Web sites and earn new business in the coming year. <br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <b>5. Make Your Web Site Compelling</b><br clear="none" /> First impressions are critical, especially on the Web. Ask 10 people to provide feedback on your Web site. What is their first impression of your credibility? Does the content instantly convey your business and the value you provide? Use your Web site to not only display your qualifications, but also as a way to capture the attention of the visitor. Put yourself in your customers' shoes. What need are they trying to solve? Think solutions, testimonials, advice, discounts, offers—capture their attention and help them through the purchase cycle. Make contacting you easy—display your phone number, hours of operation, e-mail address and other details prominently.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <b>6. Optimize Your Web Site for Search Engines</b><br clear="none" /> Optimizing your Web site so that it can be found more easily on search engines can be a formidable and ongoing task. But there are some simple things you can do to help: Fix all broken links. Add fresh content to your site and pepper it with keywords that are relevant to your business. Try to use the keywords in the headings of your pages (H1 and H2 title tags). Try to establish in-bound links to your site. Link to other relevant sites and ask them to link to you as a business relationship. (Think of a realtor who knows all the mortgage agents, interior decorators and remodeling specialists, and can refer clients for a good deal.) But make sure the external links open a new window—you want to keep visitors on your site. Name all the photos and images on your site with keywords; they're searchable too!<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <b>7. Understand Search Engine Marketing</b><br clear="none" /> Paid search engine marketing (SEM) is one of the best things business owners can do to gain an immediate Internet presence to promote their local businesses. Sponsored ads appear in the right-hand column and across the top of the "search engine results page" when a user searches for a product or service. When the consumer clicks on a sponsored ad he or she is directed to the advertiser's Web site. The advertiser determines the "keywords" that best describe the business, and determines a bid price (how much he is willing to pay to have his ads appear in the sponsored links). When someone clicks, the advertiser is charged. Based on the advertiser's desire for many or a few targeted visitors, he can dedicate and manage a monthly budget for his campaign.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <b>8. Marketing is an Investment…Demand ROI</b><br clear="none" /> Marketing should be an investment, not an expense. An investment means a return. Whether it's search marketing, a Yellow Pages ad or door hangers, demand to know how a return on your investment will be determined. Search engine advertising offers a quick, affordable and measurable way to get the tangible returns on investment (ROI) for your dollar. Add this in when factoring the allocation percentages of your marketing investment and put your money where you can measure the value. What should the math look like? With search engine marketing, it should be easy to calculate. For example, let's assume you ran a search engine marketing campaign over a four month period:<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> Clicks to Web site: 400<br clear="none" /> Conversion rate: 3% (depending on individual close rate)<br clear="none" /> Monthly spend: $250<br clear="none" /> Average new sale: $500<br clear="none" /> Gross revenue: $6,000 (12 customers x $500)<br clear="none" /> Net revenue: $5,000 ($6,000 - 4 months at $250/month)<br clear="none" /> ROI: 5:1<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <b>9. Let Experts Help </b><br clear="none" /> Do you know how to create the most effective search engine ads to attract the right customers for your business? As a small business owner, how much free time do you have? If you do have extra time, do you want to spend it learning the complexities of Internet marketing, managing multiple campaigns and constantly fine-tuning to keep up with what is displayed and when? When it comes to acquiring new customers and growing your business in a tightening economy, don't let the process become an obstacle! And don’t go it alone—let the experts help. After all, you hire an architect to design a building or home, so why not hire a search engine marketing expert to design your online marketing and customer acquisition strategy?<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <i>Carey Ransom is vice president of marketing and strategy at WebVisible. Established in 2001, WebVisible is a global leader in local interactive advertising. The company is known as the premier expert in leveraging the power of the Internet to help businesses around the world acquire new customers. For more information, please visit <a href="http://www.webvisible.com" target="_blank">www.webvisible.com</a> or call (949) 502-5757.</i>