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Online Marketing for Entrepreneurs: Cracking the Code

Rich Cannon, Co-Founder and Former CEO, Impressa, Inc.

In the mid to late1990s, the Internet held huge promise for any small business entrepreneur with a computer and a sense of adventure. Dot.com-ers everywhere claimed that “accessibility” would change every aspect of business, from promotions and marketing to wide-scale e-commerce all for the better and all at a price that would be inexplicably cheap. Almost 10 years later, many small company owners would say the Internet boom was much more of a bust.

Today, some 30 percent of small business owners don’t have a Web presence at all, while the vast majority who do are watching their sites sit stale, waiting and wanting for business. Where did things go wrong?

A decade ago, I believed in the promise of the Internet for small businesses to such an extent that I co-founded Renaissance Interactive, Inc. its name was changed to Impressa, Inc. in 2000 to develop online business models across a variety of vertical industries. In that role, I also helped many entrepreneurs achieve their e-business goals despite limited time, money, and resources.

Today, I’m still a believer. Although the assets of my entrepreneurial company were sold in 2001, I’ve become head of strategy for Interland, Inc., an Atlanta-based provider of online sales and marketing that has helped hundreds of thousands of small business owners realize the power of the Internet to drive business growth. Having seen first-hand how the Web can make, and sometimes break, the dreams of otherwise equal entrepreneurs, I’ve come to believe that there are common principles followed by those whose dreams of online success have become reality. These include the following:

Build Your Site Around Your Customer

Thanks to the Internet, customers have become more demanding, selective, and impatient than ever before. Your prospects will make instantaneous decisions about your company, its products, and its services based on the first few seconds they spend on your Web site.

By thinking of your site as your online storefront, built around delivering the highest-quality customer experience from the moment your customer steps through the door you can dramatically improve site stickiness, online sales, customer loyalty, and referrals. To succeed, your site must be comprehensive, easily navigated, and rich in content. Think of it as a constant work in progress. To improve the user experience, ask for feedback by incorporating live-help technology, online feedback forms, and customer surveys.

Years ago, for example, I worked with a woman who sold purses online through a home-built site that lacked critical e-commerce components. After a simple redesign that included product descriptions, comprehensive navigation, and a secure, user-friendly ordering system, her revenue increased fivefold. What’s more, she began receiving rave reviews from customers impressed with the ease and convenience of the online shopping experience.

Just Because You Built It Doesn’t Mean They’ll Come

If you aren’t seeing a large volume of targeted traffic to your site, it’s time to up the ante. At this very moment, thousands—maybe millions—of people are online looking for the very product or service you are selling. So why does getting them from a search engine to your Web site seem so impossible?

One of my past clients sold used Macintosh equipment. He had a well-designed physical storefront, solid prices, and quality offerings. However, he wasn’t able to drive enough store traffic despite targeted advertising efforts in print publications and other offline venues. We decided to shift those ad dollars to an online pay-per-click campaign—in which the advertiser pays whenever someone clicks on its entry posted during the course of a site search-based on keywords relevant to his business. The immediate impact was staggering. Online revenue soared 10-fold to $1 million from $100,000 within only a few months.

From this campaign, we learned a lot about the keywords prospects used to search for Macintosh equipment. That enabled us to develop a search engine optimization plan to help the company get "first page" placements in non-paid search results (also known as “natural search.”) Today, this combination of natural search and pay-per-click advertising has transformed a small three-person operation into a multimillion-dollar business. In fact, the company now focuses almost exclusively on selling online, rather than by phone. By automating the sales process by means of the Web, my client no longer works 12-hour days. The end result: a better business and a better life. Don't we all want that?

Integrate Customer Loyalty Programs and Promotions

If you’re not collecting the names and emails of your customers as well as visitors to your site, you should be. Once you do, contemplate sending your best customers monthly or quarterly emails containing discounts, news, or friendly service reminders. Use discount promotional offers to stay in touch with past visitors to your site.

One villa rental company on the coast of South Carolina had a Web site that generated very few calls and online bookings. To resolve the situation, I helped the company set up a “last minute deals” distribution list. By subscribing, site visitors would receive weekly e-mails offering 11th-hour discounts on villa rentals. As a result, the company captured contact information for thousands of possible customers, reduced its unused inventory to almost zero, and increased revenue significantly.

No matter what business you are in, efforts like this can deliver a quantifiable return. Just remember that email marketing is a permission-based tool that should focus on quality rather than quantity. In addition, remember that although emails can be a valuable promotional tool, there are certain rules and regulations that may apply, such as the CAN-SPAM Act, which puts parameters around how businesses can advertise online. Be sure to research these rules and regulations before beginning an email marketing campaign. For more information on the CAN-SPAM Act, see A Small Business Guide to Understanding the CAN-SPAM Legislation published by Interland and available for free at www.sbsuccess.com.

Justify Your Monthly Spending Through Product Bundling

While pay-per-click Internet advertising is much more cost-effective than traditional media channels, low-dollar items can make it difficult to substantiate your online ad word spending. Bundling products together will not only increase your sales revenue, but also enable you to get more out of your per-click ad rates.

A manufacturing company selling $50 items was having trouble justifying the cost of online keyword ads. It also took a full-time person to manage its optimization efforts. By bundling products to create packages of $100 or more and advertising to wholesale customers looking to buy in bulk, the manufacturer dropped its sales rep agencies and focused on large-volume buyers, such as Wal-Mart and Target. Needless to say, the company had no trouble exceeding its yearly sales quota.

Measure Your Progress

Your site may be live, but how is it performing? What are your conversion rates on keyword ads? How many visitors do you get each month? What pages do they access the most? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you may not be spending your online dollars wisely. With today’s technology, your return can be easily measured. If you rely on your Web site as a sales tool, you can’t afford not to invest in site analytics. Make sure your Web solution includes an easy-to-use reporting tool that presents this information in a clear, concise format. After all, while metrics are a critical part of the Web equation, you don’t have the time to spend hours digging through reams of data.

The Moral of the Story

Online success demands more than simple presence. Your Internet investment should pay for itself with new customers and increased sales. Find a trusted partner who can help you navigate today’s (and tomorrow’s) technology and who understands the bottom-line realities of your business. Armed with these simple lessons, vow to make your business realize the true promise of the Internet.

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