by Annie Tsai, author of “The Small Business Online Marketing Handbook: Converting Online Conversations to Offline Sales“
The technology takeover is here. As a small business owner, you know you can’t fight it anymore. Whether you’re excited, apprehensive, or both, you’ve decided that the best thing for your business is to get tapped into the opportunities available to you online. But where do you even start? From building your own website to setting up social media profiles, joining directories, advertising, and more, your digital checklist is more than a little overwhelming.
One of the main challenges small businesses face in terms of influencing — or even joining — the online social conversation is that there is simply so much information out there. It’s difficult to know where to start, where to focus, and where to invest the marketing dollars and time you have. And as you may suspect, the stakes are fairly high: If you don’t connect with consumers in the right ways and invest in the right social channels, your efforts could very well have no impact — or worse, a detrimental effect — on your business.
Don’t panic, though. The fact that you’re a small business owner, not an online marketing guru, isn’t a death knell for your digital future. In fact, it’s a huge advantage. Think about it: You’ve gotten as far as you have by focusing on what you know and honing your area of expertise. As you’ve bootstrapped your business, you’ve had to synthesize a lot of new information, and you’ve had to frequently learn by doing. By using those same skills, you can gradually wade into online waters (no need to jump headfirst into the deep end!) and successfully dot.com your business.
Here are eight specific tactics to help you establish and grow your company’s online presence:
1. Clean out the skeletons in your online closet.
If you’re a newcomer to the Internet scene, you may be surprised to find that it’s already familiar with you. Specifically, one of many online business directories has probably pulled your physical address and other information together into what’s called a “skeleton profile.” The problem is, many skeleton profiles contain inaccurate or incomplete information. The same website (such as Google, Bing, or Yelp) might even have two or more different profiles for the same business. That’s why your first task should be simply searching for your business on various online business directories (like Citysearch and Google). Make a list of the skeleton profiles you find and note any changes that need to be made. Most online directories will allow you to log in and claim your page. From there, you can report and correct any errors and merge duplicate pages. As you’re working, make sure that every online entity you manage displays your business information in exactly the same way to avoid accidentally creating more duplicates.
Taking ownership of your preexisting online identity reduces confusion for potential shoppers, encourages existing customers to write reviews for you on the correct page, and reduces the amount of administrative work you’ll need to do to monitor and manage your online reputation over time.
2. Set up an online storefront…
As you first develop your online presence, you may not have much free time or extra money to devote to this task. That’s okay — it’s perfectly fine, even advisable — to take a minimalistic approach when building and furnishing your online storefront (i.e., your website). Bells and whistles aren’t nearly as important as making sure your website is professional, accurate, and representative of your offline storefront experience in terms of general tone and branding. Specifically, your site needs to convey reliable, accurate, and up-to-date information. It should have a prominently displayed way to contact your business that allows browsers to easily get in touch with you if they want to. It should also have a trouble-free way for customers to read and write testimonials or reviews about the service or product you provide. Most importantly, your website needs to have the right keywords (and enough of them) located throughout the main and secondary site pages to ensure that you’ll rank in the first few pages when prospective customers are searching for what you offer. Think about the terms customers might use when searching for a business like yours. For instance, if you own a heating and cooling repair company, you’d want to sprinkle words and phrases like ‘central heating,’ ‘A/C repair,’ ‘HVAC,’ ‘broken heater,’ etc. into your website’s copy.
One of the most exciting — and most frightening — aspects of the Internet is that it opens up a constant conversation among businesses, existing customers, and potential customers. Consumers who have used your product or service can publicly post glowing reviews or scathing criticisms, neither of which you can completely control, and both of which can have a marked effect on your present and future success. That’s why it’s important to keep an eye on what’s being said about your business, both on and off your website. Positive and negative online feedback is valuable, because each gives you real-time feedback about what’s working and what’s not. Plus, while you often can’t erase negative feedback, you can post information informing consumers how you have addressed the problem. Often, you can even apologize to the original poster directly. An easy way to track what’s being said about your business is to set up Google alerts, which will send you emails when your business name, your name, or any other relevant search term is found on the web.
4. Put yourself on the map.
Most likely, you identified a few skeleton profiles when you searched for your business on popular online directories. Now it’s time to strategically augment them. Based on your location, identify the top three online directories consumers use when searching for the product or service you offer. For instance, social and crowd-sourced sites like Yelp and Foursquare tend to be more popular in major metro areas, while more traditional directories like Yellow Pages, Citysearch, and MerchantCircle are utilized in more rural areas. Make sure you prioritize search engine directories like Google, Yahoo, and Bing. Once you have identified the top three directories, set up a business profile on each of them. In addition to your basic information, add photos and a business description that tells a story to potential buyers. You can also comment on or address any existing reviews that need attention. Now, you’re in a great position to monitor and interact with your potential customers as time permits. Remember, the value you’ll get out of these online reputation outlets depends almost entirely on the quality of your engagement with customers.
5. Work on your social life.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know how popular social media has become. But did you know that, when used effectively, social media sites can increase your business’s visibility, give you an opportunity to present a more personal side to potential customers, drive awareness through social activity and check-ins, and turn casual buyers into true fans? If you have the time-and-energy bandwidth to do so, set up profiles for your business on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. A little research will usually show you which sites your target market spends the most time on. And don’t just stick to status updates. Bear in mind that the old saying ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ is as true online as it is in the ‘real world.’ It’s been shown that a Facebook status update with a photo and caption generates around four times higher engagement than text alone does, as long as the content is appropriate for the channel and your audience.
6. Do regular maintenance.
It’s a given that over time, your business will evolve. You’ll modify your logo, employees will come and go, information and photos will become outdated, you’ll introduce new products, etc. That’s why it’s important to set up a regular online maintenance schedule — I recommend doing it at least quarterly — to make these necessary updates to your website and various online profiles. However, there are some updates you should make immediately. If you’ve moved locations, changed your contact information, modified your hours, or made any other change that could make it difficult for customers to find you with existing online information, it should also be updated online. Don’t make yourself crazy doing online maintenance, but bear in mind that the more accurate your website and profiles are, the more useful they’ll be in attracting, informing, and helping customers.
7. Consider hiring pros to boost your reputation.
After you have established a basic online presence, the sky is the limit in terms of how involved, extensive, and creative your interactions with consumers can be. But if you’re like most small business owners, the basics are all you have the time and resources to cover yourself. If that’s the case, don’t worry — you’ve done what’s necessary to set up an online storefront in which customers can connect with you. But if you still want to up the ante, know that there are paid-for services to help you connect even more quickly and effectively with potential and existing customers. For instance, you can invest in ‘paid search,’ which enables you to purchase the rights for a higher display rate when consumers search for specific terms. You can also advertise with business directories like Google and Yelp and post deals directly on your business profile; for instance, offering a discount to first-time buyers.
8. Be smart with your budget.
In one very important way, establishing and growing your online presence is no different from establishing and growing your physical one: You need to be financially savvy. For instance, the last thing you want is to blow your overall budget in the course of creating a too-ambitious online marketing plan. Especially at first, figuring out how much you should allocate to online marketing can be tricky. I recommend starting by cataloging your current marketing allocations, categorizing by group (e.g., direct mail, events, print marketing, broadcast marketing, etc.). Then, figure out which category or categories are least effective. These are the marketing efforts you’ll want to scale back in order to test new online channels. As you move forward, you can continue to tweak your budgeting allocations. Building a plan for your online reputation before you dive in will save you countless hours down the line, so take the time to do things right up-front and to cultivate a solid understanding of the work ahead of you. Again, these are skills you already have as a small business owner, so don’t allow yourself to become so intimidated that you throw in the digital towel before you’ve begun. And don’t feel that you have to do everything yourself, either. You may find that one of your employees has the skills and interest to take on these kinds of projects, which is an ideal situation for the business since you can keep things in-house and support career development for someone on your team. In the end, don’t be afraid to ask for help, especially if you’re under time constraints. Whatever the outcome here, the first step is to understand what you need to do and be thoughtful about how you take on this very important piece of your business.
Annie Tsai is the author of ”The Small Business Online Marketing Handbook: Converting Online Conversations to Offline Sales“. She is chief marketing officer at Demandforce, an Internet marketing and communication company that advises small- to medium-sized businesses.