We have all witnessed the impact of the Internet on commerce: Blockbuster yields to NetFlix, Amazon pushes out Barnes & Noble and Borders and iTunes surpasses Walmart to become the top music retailer. The Pew Center for Research reports that 79 percent of U.S. adults use the Internet, two-thirds of U.S. households have high-speed access and 63 percent of all adults have made an online purchase.
The Web has affected everything from the largest corporations to the smallest of businesses. The U.S. Commerce Department reports that online sales (in dollars) increased by nearly 15 percent in 2010, and accounts for 4.2 percent of total retail spending.
Taking advantage of all the Internet has to offer is no easy task, and it’s ever-changing. Maine has more to gain than it has to lose in the age of virtual commerce. Geographic barriers melt away. Financial barriers are reduced. Small businesses have a chance to find elusive niches. But only if they are Internet savvy and take advantage of all the Web has to offer. Let’s take a look at some of the specifics.
Your website is not enough
The old adage “if you build it, they will come” does not apply to the Internet. Building a good website is only the first step, but what if no one finds it? You should promote your website at every opportunity. Turn this into a Web marketing strategy that is coordinated with your traditional advertising methods. Have your Web address printed on all materials. Most businesses do this. But you should also use a professional signature file for your emails that includes a link to your company website along with the company name and perhaps your logo. And your company’s electronic communications, such as press releases, should contain links as well. Search engines use, among other things, the quantity and quality of inbound links to determine rankings. Every time a blogger reprints your story with the corresponding link, it adds up to make a difference. You want your company’s site to pop up on the first page of search engine results when Web shoppers are looking for products and services your company provides. This is the modern-day equivalent of naming your company with the prefix AAA so you will be listed first in the yellow pages.
Approach it from your customer’s point of view
Too many websites are designed to appeal to the desires of company insiders instead of focusing on what the consumer wants, needs and expects. You need clarity. The purpose of the website needs to be upfront and clear. What are you selling? Why should the customer stay on your site instead of visiting the competition? You need appeal: The website should look fresh and contemporary, not cluttered and dated. In his book “Don’t Make Me Think,” author Steve Krug recommends minimizing visual noise, taking advantage of what Web visitors expect (such as where you place the menu buttons), breaking up pages into clearly defined areas, making obvious what is clickable and creating a visual hierarchy on each page. You need flexibility. Most web visitors are just browsing until something catches their attention. Give control to your visitors. Layering information — clicking for more detail — allows the user to make the choice to delve deeper or continue browsing.
Working the Web is a constant task
The website launch date is only the beginning. Think of your website as the home base. You still need to venture out across the Web to direct people to your site. Companies may use blogging to attract customers. You should provide relevant, useful information that people are likely to seek on the Web — do-it-yourself advice, product reviews, instructions, etc. Use click-through, behaviorally targeted advertising. Provide thoughtful answers for external discussion forums. Viral marketing only works if you have something that people are willing to share with their friends. A funny video works only if you can tie it into your product, otherwise it’s just a funny video. Social networks are a good platform for viral marketing.
Think in both directions
Use the Web to gather information in addition to disseminating it. Much can be learned from scoping out the competition, reading customer reviews of your products and theirs and reviewing market data, trend analysis, economic data and yes, even the weather, especially if you are in travel and leisure services. Make the most of analytics to determine who is visiting your site, when and for what and where they go. Set up Google News alerts on your products, so you know when your products are mentioned on the Web. Learn more about Web marketing by reading online articles, blogs and chat boards. You never know where you might find that next great idea.
Be ahead of the game
Prepare for tomorrow’s customer, not just today’s. Forty-two percent of mobile phones in the United States are smartphones. This number is growing rapidly. In addition to mobile e-commerce and comparative shopping, consumers use their smartphones to locate restaurants and shops. Fifty-two percent use location services weekly. Forrester Research remarks that marketers are beginning to realize the value, and a quarter of them are planning some location-based marketing efforts within the next year. This doesn’t mean that every company should develop their own app. But all companies should be aware of popular applications that list and rate businesses and should actively contribute content and information to these services, such as monitoring your Yelp profile. Companies also should actively use quick response, or QR, codes or High Capacity Color Barcodes in all print advertising. Don’t know what these are? You can always Google it.
Dr. Tom Hutchison is the director of the School of Business and Management, executive director of academic affairs and professor of marketing in the College of Business at Husson University.