Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Marketing small businesses online

If you're the owner of a small business and have decided you want to get online I have listed below some steps you should consider to help you get the best.

Do bear in mind that even though there is a lot of information and companies offering marketing for small businesses it still takes time and effort (and some money) to get the results you want.

Currently there are over 8 billion pages listed on Google, so if your company is not on there yet then do consider it can take time.

Many businesses make the mistake of having a very generic - less than 5 to 10 page website without considering the niche that they fill in their (offline) market. Yes the number of pages is dependent on budgets which for all businesses are an issue but for small companies can prove to be a major financial headache.

Remember it is a case of you do get what you pay for. I have seen this time and time again. ALWAYS ask any web related person to show you proven results or portfolio.

Identifying the niche is going to sufficiently help you get ahead and fill any available "void" online. Remember that the web has been out there for a long time and its like any internet marketing savvy competitor may already be ahead in the "game".

Patience and effort is the key. Simply throwing a cheap website together and submitting it to a search engine is not going to get you to the top of SERPS (Search Engine Results Pages) any time soon - for competitive keyword phrases anyway.

Before you start marketing I suggest you pick the top 5 websites in your field that you believe offer:

Professional looking websites (clean looking layout, decent branding, high quality images, fast load times)

High levels of Accessibility

Easy to use, structured navigation

The key is to look for the site you felt easiest to get around and find information on.

Take the best bits that inspire you and plan that into your website.

Moving onto the online marketing:

Search engine optimization helps if carried out correctly. Speak to a search engine specialist who has a proven and extensive portfolio. Prices do vary significantly in the SEM industry. My own take as a business owner would be to spend more on the research and optimisation than the website.

Think about employing a freelancer to build the initial look and feel of your site. Then use software like Contribute to edit and add your own pages. Make sure you plan a course of action as to which pages you wish to add and which ones you wish to edit. Its easier to put together if you planned your content previously.

Start with looking at keywords and plan to write natural sounding YET interesting copy around that. If you are not sure which keywords to use then check out your competitors and see which ones they seem to be utilising - hint, look at the source code via your browser - in Internet Explorer "> View > Source".

PPC - Pay Per Click can offer traffic to your website in a matter of minutes but can be expensive especially if you target generic keyword phrases and attempt to outbid everyone else. Bear in mind that Google's PPC program can alter your Google Ad's position if it generates a high level of clickthroughs based on the copy in the Ad.

Consider using seperate pages with a PPC program to bring people directly to products you want them to see rather than have them arrive at your home page and then have to try and find your product or service in your website.

Ensure you include if possible a search facility within your own website - they generally tend to be popular with users.

Affiliate marketing - not one I am a huge fan of (it;s where you use a link or graphic to advertise your website on someone else's website) as in a lot of cases if your brand is not highly recognisable or your product or service very generic it's unlikely you'll generate many visits to your site.

Make sure every visit counts. If a visitor arrives at your site and leaves within a few seconds its not going to leave them with a positive lasting memory. You have under 10 seconds when a visitor hits your site to get them to at least think highly of your site and your business. A poor impression is unlikely going to have them remembering you when they come to make a purchase decision.

Build links to your site. This is easier if you have a resourceful website as in time people will link to it naturally which always helps on search engines. If you have a 50 page website with ORIGINAL content and is updated fairly regularly against a 5 page website that doesn't seem to say very much and rarely gets edited which one is a potential buyer going to likely think more highly of? (Yes there are always exceptions to the rule but overall buyers get a higher feeling of trust from a site thats invested in time and effort by staying up to date).

Other ways to market your small business online:

Use a forum - note though that a lot of forums are not as tolerant as they used to be about promoting your business. You'll have to join a forum and work towards becoming an active forum member. By placing links to your website in your forum signature and posting regularly ON TOPIC can help encourage to look at your website.

Blogging - perhaps overhyped the past couple of years but shows no sign of abating. Using software called news readers people can stay up to date with any regular online communications you decide to make.

Online PR - press releases - thousands are released online daily so make sure yours stands out from the crowd. Well written press releases can generate significant interest from online news agencies who then can send you a lot of relevant traffic.

Social networking - sites such as Digg, Reddit and Stumbleupon are popular and can send you visitors directly to your site. I see Stumbleupon showing in my web traffic logs on a daily basis.

As you can see there are many ways of marketing a small business online, some cost, some free.. all require effort and planning.