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Ten Steps for Successful Entrepreneurial Online Marketing

Richard D. Harroch, Cofounder and Chairman of the Board, AllBusiness.com, Inc.

More and more small businesses are finding it essential to market their products and services online. Not only is such marketing relatively inexpensive, but also customers are increasingly turning to the Web to research companies, compare product features and prices, and purchase online. A company that does not take advantage of the Web and email to market their business can lose valuable customers.

With millions of companies clamoring for attention online, however, it’s all too easy for your emerging company to get drowned out by all the noise. There’s no surefire way to rise above the crowd, but there are plenty of cost-effective techniques to make your Web site more visible. Time and perseverance remain the real keys to a successful online marketing program, and there are some concrete steps you can take to increase your presence online.

As an entrepreneur, I’ve employed online marketing strategies for two companies— AllBusiness.com, Inc., an Internet company providing products, services, and information to small businesses, and LawCommerce, Inc., which provides online services to the legal profession. Simply put, online marketing works. What follows are tips for making it work for you.

Build a professional Web site. Your Web site is a reflection of your business, so make sure it looks the part. There are several approaches to building a Web site. First, there are plenty of sites that will give you templates for a site either for free or very cheaply. Second, there are professional site building consultants who will custom-build a site for you. These consultants tend to exact a premium for their services—costs start at $500 for a barebones site. Third, there are software packages that can help you design a site. A good source for researching software costs and features is CNET.com.

Don't distract customers with flashy graphics and colors. The key to a good site is to make sure that customers can easily find what they are looking for. This means a clear navigation bar and a good "search" box. Take a look at successful Web sites and competitors’ sites for inspiration.

Register with the search engines. Search engines and directories constantly crawl the Web looking for new content, but you can speed the process by submitting your own site. You can notify each search site individually or use one of several free services that submit your site to multiple search engines. At the very least, register with Google, Yahoo, and the Open Directory Project. For maximum exposure, you can hire a service that will charge anywhere from $30 to more than $100 to submit your site to hundreds of search engines covering every conceivable topic. A good place to start your search for search engine registration services is AllBusiness.com's Business Directory.

Utilize search engine optimization (SEO). At its most basic, SEO involves giving your Web pages accurate titles, using meta tags that describe your content, and placing key information at the top of each page. These techniques have spawned a cottage industry of companies—some more scrupulous than others—that claim to help your site show up higher in search engine results. Some of these services go too far, trying to trick search engines into ranking sites higher than their content would justify. It may sound tempting to "fix" search results in your favor, but search engines constantly tweak their ranking formulas to frustrate these manipulators. Both Google and Yahoo provide a wealth of information on their sites about optimizing your site.

Employ search engine marketing (SEM). One popular way to lure qualified prospector customers to your site is by buying ads that are targeted to specific words, or “keywords,” that a user might type into a search engine. It is important to purchase the most relevant keywords, but that’s not going to pay off without compelling ad copy to entice customers to your site. Make sure to send the user from the ad to a landing page on your site that sets forth the precise product or service related to the keyword ad. Sending a viewer to your home page is generally not as effective as sending them to a specific product page.

You pay for ads on a cost per click (CPC) basis. Constantly review your CPC and the conversion of that click into buyers. If it’s not cost-effective, try purchasing a different keyword. Also, try testing different ad copy and different landing pages to determine what works best for your site.

Buy and trade ad banners. The cost of online ads is often measured in impressions, or the number of times an ad is displayed to a viewer. If you have the budget, buy banner-advertising campaigns on other sites for prices ranging from one cent to 10 cents or more per ad impression. If you can’t afford a big-time online ad campaign, consider trading banners with other sites. You can do this directly, or you can use a banner exchange service that acts as a broker and arranges the trades for you. Microsoft’s Small Business Web site provides one of the more popular and reasonable exchanges. Constantly monitor and test the efficacy of the ads, measuring not only click-throughs from the ad to your site, but also the actual resulting sales and return on investment (ROI).

Join online groups and mailing lists. Online groups or message boards are great ways to spread the word about your business for free. Yahoo Groups and ezboard.com are two online sources for finding Web communities build around every imaginable topic. Just be sure to do so responsibly and avoid spamming, or you’ll make more enemies than customers. With thousands of groups to choose from, it’s important to find the ones that match the interests of your audience. Don’t violate a group’s customs. While some groups welcome commercial messages, others strongly discourage them.

Build up your email lists. One of the best and cheapest ways to market online is through email. To encourage customers to provide their email address, offer incentives such as discounts or an email newsletter. Include useful content in your messages and not just promotional fluff. Not only will customers read your messages, but they’ll also pass them along to friends and family, who may, in turn, become customers.

It’s important to test and track how your newsletters are doing to ensure you’re campaign is effective. In addition, be sure you are up-to-date on the laws affecting email marketing, such as the CAN-SPAM Act. Include an easy way for customers to contact you and unsubscribe from your email list. And post a privacy policy on your site describing how you will use any personal information.

Cultivate the media. Make sure that you alert the trade, business, and general media to new developments or innovations on your site—or to anything else you do that might be newsworthy. A good public relations campaign can help build momentum and jumpstart critical word-of-mouth popularity for your site.

Go offline. Successful campaigns integrate offline and online marketing. Be sure you have a good, easy-to-remember URL, and plaster it everywhere you can. It should appear on every bit of marketing collateral that your company produces, from business cards to brochures.

Provide great customer service. A satisfied customer will return to your site and will tell others about your business. So go out of your way to give great customer support and service. And for those who are not happy with their experience, try to turn them around with an offer of a discount, a free product, or some other benefit.

Online marketing is essential today for entrepreneurial businesses to get the word out about their products and services. It’s inexpensive and effective, and it will work for you. The tips I’ve provided will help you make the best use of it.

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