Doing more with less: How small businesses can compete online

I'm frequently asked by local small business operators what my company, Oneupweb, can do to help them with their online marketing efforts. My answer is an embarrassingly blunt, "very little." It's not that we don't provide those services, or that they don't work. On the contrary, we've been highly successful at marketing our clients online for more than a decade. The challenge is that a great deal of work goes into what we do, meaning our services typically fall outside the budgets of most local small businesses.

It's difficult. These are our friends and neighbors and we have to turn them away. With that in mind, I thought I would share a list of some first steps that could help small local businesses to grow online. There's a lot to learn, so we've tried to help you with the low hanging fruit.

1. Check your natural search positions

Where does your business show up on Google when you type in words that describe what you do or sell? If your market is local, include the name of your city or area. Does your web site appear on the first search engine results page? If not, you can try raising your positions by adding relevant content and links to your site. Also, consider buying your way onto the first pages through advertising. Look into Google Adwords text ads. Prices for localized keywords can be quite affordable.

2. See if your site is

performing as it should

It's called "web site usability" and it means your web site does what it's supposed to-sends people to the right places, helps them find and purchase online, easily gives them the information they need in a way they can understand and use. Have friends unaccustomed to your site log on and see what they think. If your site doesn't perform as it should, a good web site design firm specializing in small business can help you address many of these problems.

3. Emulate success

Check to see what "keywords" (important search terms) your competitors are using. Go to their sites. On the top of your web browser click on "View." Scroll down and click "Source" or "Page Source." This should show you the keywords contained within their meta tags on their web sites. If the company is a direct competitor and more successful at marketing online than you, consider adding similar keywords into the code and content of your site.

4. Review your current

keywords

Review your own keywords as listed within the title and meta tags of your homepage. Are they the best terms that a potential customer would use to search for your business? (Remember: the public may refer to your services in a way you do not.) Are there more terms you should be adding?

5. Set up a blog for your business

Don't be afraid of sharing information with your customers; do it with regularity. This builds link value and traffic for your website which should help your business and your search positions.

6. Submit your site to Google Maps

Found at Google.com, this will help potential customers find your business. It's a free service.

7. Set some realistic goals

Before you consider making extensive web site redesigns or launching an online natural or paid advertising campaign, step back and look at what you'd want your online marketing to accomplish and in what timeframes. Are these achievable? Ask your peers who market online successfully. And check our web site's library at OneUpWeb.com for free research and white papers that should help in making these determinations.

8. Market your strengths

Appeal to people who understand and appreciate what you do through your web site design, features and content. Your goal is to create a community of evangelists who will talk about your company and what it does. A bike shop might offer biking enthusiasts online information and forums about popular biking excursions, for example, building their reputation and customer loyalty. Remember: whenever you invite people to contact you, access information or buy products online, consider requiring them to complete a short, simple form identifying the individuals and how they can be reached. This will build your list for email marketing, catalogs and other promotional mailings.

9. Build your brand

If you've been around awhile, you've got a logo, a reputation and way of doing business for which you'd like to be remembered. It's your brand and by consistently building upon what you've established elsewhere, you can raise online awareness of your business and what it sells. Presenting different brand messages online and off creates confusion and your brand suffers.

10. Broaden your horizons

Your potential audience is anyone with an internet connection. Even though you're a local business, what of interest do you offer to a broader market? For those who cater to summer tourists, your products may have a nostalgic appeal that can be capitalized through naming, packaging and promotion of the local community. Investigate local online directories-free and paid-to see which offer the best exposure for your business to a broader audience. Check your free listings to see they're accurate, and encourage and test links from the Chamber of Commerce and other organizations where you are a member.

11. Integrate your marketing efforts

An online promotion might offer a discount coupon for a purchase at a physical store location, or promote free shipping with a store drop-off. The in-store pickup receipt might include an online web site where the customer can enter to win a contest. Review your most successful offline promotions. How could these be adapted online? Results of your current promotions might improve significantly if you included a well-coordinated online component. For example, if you direct mail discount coupons, offer them online as well. At minimum, cross-sell on and offline. Include your web site address on your offline ads; place a phone number, mailing address and directions in your online promotions.

12. Learn the language

Download our free SEO Survival Guide. It will help you with the terminology common to our industry.

Lisa Wehr is CEO and founder of Oneupweb, an integrated online marketing firm that was named a 2006 Michigan Top Company to Watch and is the only three-time winner of the prestigious ClickZ Best Search Engine Marketing Vendor Award. To contact Lisa, email info@oneupweb.com.

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