Your small business needs an appealing and professional website but that is just the beginning. If no one visits your website and -- more importantly -- if it does not bring in new customers and allows you to sell more to your current customers, then your site is not effective. What do you need to improve your online marketing efforts?
The first step is to decide on a primary goal for your website. Is it to directly sell products or services through e-commerce? Or is the goal to capture leads so you can follow-up and make the sale by email and phone?
For e-commerce you need a website design with a shopping cart system, that encourages people to purchase products using the shopping cart. Both the design and written content should maintain this focus.
If your goal is to capture leads, the key is to have the content that provides initial information about your products and services that interests prospective customers. It should be easy for the prospective customer to fill out a contact form and hit the submit button or call your 800-number. The form should be submitted to a contact management system such as Salesforce or SugarCRM.
Getting it Done
Your business needs a professional website, which can cost between $2,000 -- $15,000 to design. This is not only more than most small businesses want to spend but also unnecessary to succeed on the Web.
For small business there is usually little need for an elaborate, expensive website. You can get an appealing and professional website design for as little as $250.
The key to a professional website design is to work with a good designer who takes the time to listen to you and translate your vision into an effective website. Your designer must be as skilled in listening as in design.
Once the site is completed there must be an easy way for you - or someone on your behalf -- to maintain the website. The designer should provide you with an easy-to-use content management system (CMS), enabling you to edit your website without having to contact your designer. This saves you money.
Once you have a professional website you have the foundation for marketing online. You can build on that foundation and use the Internet as an effective marketing tool.
Search Engine Marketing
Search engine marketing can be divided into two main categories: Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Pay Per Click (PPC).
Please do a Google search right now for something pretty popular (e.g., coffee). The results on the left side of the browser window that reach down to the bottom of the page are the organic search results. The top results are generally the more popular sites. The highest ranking sites are those sites that have the most links from other websites (especially other high ranking sites). In a sense, other people have voted for the high ranking sites by linking to them. Often, the high ranking sites are the most popular but there is also a lot of gaming of the system. You cannot, however, pay Google to increase your site's ranking.
On the right side of your search results and, sometimes, up at the top of the page are the "Sponsored Links." These links are paid advertising through a system called Google Adwords. Look for the "Sponsored Links" heading and compare how these links look with the non-sponsored organic links.
Search Engine Optimization
To increase your search rankings in Google (and other search engines), you can do a number of things. We will focus on Google because of its dominant position as a search engine.
The truth is that it is a crowded field out there for most keywords. Your best bet is to find some niche keywords and work on those. It would be very difficult to achieve a high ranking for the keyword "coffee" but if you have a more specific niche you have a better chance of succeeding.
For example - and this is just an example for illustration, not necessarily a good keyword combination - "Guatemalan shade grown coffee" would be an easier space in which to compete. You would have a chance of rising to the top or at least getting on the first page of results.
The primary way to increase your ranking is to have other high ranking sites establish links to your site and have those links associated with specific keywords - such as "Guatemalan shade grown coffee" as in our example. What follows is a few ideas on how to do that in an ethically and effective way. Don't be tempted by gimmicks because Google and other search engines are becoming more savvy, and can penalize sites that try to game the system too much.
First, submit your site to as many directories and other clearinghouse type sites in your industry as you can. That should probably be your first step in SEO. Again, use the keywords that you are most interested in associating with your site.
Submit your site to general directories that are organized by topic. Some sites charge money for fast consideration of your submission, and are probably worth it. For example, Yahoo Directory charges $300/year for expedited consideration of your submission. For other highly prized directories -- such as the Open Directory Project -- you just have to submit your site and hope it will be considered reasonably soon.
Next, talk to your vendors and people in related industries and see about arranging for link exchanges or perhaps even success stories that include a link. They link to you and, in exchange, you link to them.
Then start writing articles. The key to articles is to write about something you know and that has information that is genuinely interesting to your audience. Publish your article in publications that are related to your industry. If your article is published in web publications, you will not only get direct sales leads from your article but your article will also help your search engine position.
For example, our fictional coffee vendor could write an article on exactly why shade grown coffee is superior to non-shade grown coffee. Or, better yet, why "Guatemalan Shade Grown Coffee" is truly the best. The article would have to include facts to support this claim and not just fluff. Maybe the next article could be on how to make the perfect cup of coffee. I would be first in line to read that one.
The key thing to remember is that SEO is a long process. You rarely get instant results. It can take 8-12 months to see any significant progress. You have to keep at it.
Pay Per Click (PPC) Advertising
There are a number of PPC providers but we will focus on Google Adwords as they are currently the dominant PPC system.
First, you decide on the goal (called a conversion) of your Adwords campaign. Is it a direct sign-up? Is it capturing sales leads?
A conversion when the goal is achieved and Google Adwords keeps a running tally of your conversions and the cost per conversion. You can see the cost of obtaining a lead or the cost of getting a customer. You can determine if Adwords is working for you, and whether you should make adjustments or discontinue it completely. Generally, it takes a bit of experimentation to get it right but it can be a steady source of business for you. It is worth some effort as once it is set up well it runs and can bring in a steady stream of business.
You set a daily budget (say $35) and a maximum bid on specific keywords (say $2.75). You only pay when someone clicks on your ad click. So if you are bidding $2.75 you might only pay an average of say $2.60 per click. It depends on the keywords and how much you want to bid. Spend some time choosing good keywords. Google Adwords has tools to help you choose the most powerful keywords. You will also need to embed some special code in your website to enable Google to track conversions.
Google Adwords really works. Try it and see if it will work for you. It does not require a big investment to get started. In fact, some web hosting and design companies offer a coupon so you can get started with Adwords for free. Google Adwords is easier to use than you might think.
Permission-Based E-mail Marketing
Spammers have given Email marketing a bad name in much the same way that unethical salespeople have given sales a bad name. This is unfortunate as a knowledgeable salesperson can be an essential part of making good buying decisions. The same is true of good email marketing.
With permission-based email marketing - as opposed to spam - the receiver of the email has expressed interest. Think of spam as the wily salesman in the polyester suit -- and think of permission-based email as the knowledgeable salesperson we respect.
For example, I am on an email list at a bookstore that I frequent. I look forward to the e-newsletters as they often have interesting content and good discounts. I enjoy receiving this e-newsletter and the bookstore gets more business from me as a result. I rarely go anywhere else to buy books. They have retained me as a customer and I buy more often at least in part because of their e-newsletter.
Email marketing can help you increase customer retention and help you earn more revenue from each customer by cross-selling and up-selling to your current customer base. It can also help you expand your client base.
Email marketing is becoming crucial to online marketing and - when done ethically and well -- can be extremely effective. Sign up for a free trial with an email marketing service and see if it works for you. If not, try another service. Find a service that meets your needs.
You can grow your own email newsletter list with a sign up form on your website, and by asking for opt-in in your sign-up and lead capture forms.
What to look for in an Email Marketing Provider
At a minimum an email marketing service should make it easy for you to create eye-catching emails, manage multiple email lists, and place newsletter sign-up forms on your website. There should be powerful list management, robust reporting, and reliability. Your provider must also have excellent customer service.
Your email marketing service should include an easy way to track the results of your email campaigns. Who opened your email, how many times, and when? Did they click on the link you provided? Did they purchase anything or submit a lead? The service should enable you to track message reads in real time, and read detailed reports online or export them to a spreadsheet.
In addition, your email marketing service should give you the ability to manage multiple lists and divide lists into multiple segments.
Obtaining a website and marketing your products or services online does not have to be expensive. An economical way to accomplish these goals is to hire a company to design your website and provide you with bundled web hosting and permission-based email marketing services. It would be an added bonus if they can get you started using Google Adwords with a free coupon.