Big brother or big business? Six tips for online success

Posted March 01, 2012, at 9:42 a.m.
Last modified March 01, 2012, at 12:48 p.m.

The Internet is worse than Santa, who knows when you are sleeping and when you’re awake. Your Internet footprint reveals when you are offline, online or frittering away your day on Facebook. Social media enables you to share the most intimate moments of your life with family, friends, colleagues, advertisers and complete strangers at the click of a button — and leave a paperless trail of your postings that sticks around a lot longer than a shredded document.

At the same time, social media and a strong online presence are critical for building your business. However much you despise Farmville, or don’t care to see the hundredth cat photo posted this month by your second cousin once removed, your customers are spending time on social media and your business needs to be there. According to an August 2011 Nielsen study, the average U.S. Internet user spent almost eight hours per month on Facebook, or about 15 minutes each day on average. These are your 15 minutes of fame when your business successfully uses social media to connect with your customers and stay present in their day-to-day lives.

How can your small business make a big impact online?

1) Recognize and prioritize the importance of your online presence. The phone book was once the basic tool to find people, and every local business had to have a listing. Now, in an era of smartphones and online communication, your business must be able to be found online. With 84 percent of the worldwide search engine market share and 65 percent of the U.S. market, Google is the dominant tool customers will use to find you online. Google Places enables you to create a free business listing, ensuring that when your customers search your business name, they find you. You don’t even need to have a website to list your business — your business listing puts you in the “phone book” of the online world with a name, phone number and map to your doorstep. You can list your business for free as well with Yahoo! Local and Bing Business Portal, the next most popular search engines after Google, as well as with Manta, YellowPages.com, CitySearch and other directory listings. Updating each listing can take time initially, but it will pay off when your business rises to the top of search engine results.

2) Make social media part of your marketing campaign. Whether you like it or hate it, Facebook is where the majority of your market is located. Among social marketing sites, Facebook has an overwhelming market share of more than 63 percent. YouTube follows at just under 20 percent, with Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Google+ and other platforms each capturing less than 2 percent of the market. Statistics from 2011 showed that almost half of the U.S. population was on Facebook. For many of your customers, Facebook messages, online chats and text messaging have replaced email and phone as the communications of choice. Unless you want to ignore your market, your business needs to go where your customers are. Analytic tools such as targeted online advertising, Facebook Insights and Google Analytics can help you test your market and see what messages bring the greatest results, reaching a new online market as well as boosting your traditional marketing efforts.

3) Analyze your competition. How strong is the online presence of your local competitors and industry leaders? Are you the first plumber within 100 miles to have a Facebook page? How do your competitors describe themselves and what industry groups, news reports and other online records come up when you search online for your competitors? A solid knowledge of your industry and your local business landscape will enable you to speak to your market and make your case to your customers.

4) Use the right language for your business. How do your customers describe your industry? Use a keyword analysis tool such as the free Google AdWords Keyword Tool to check your language and make sure it corresponds with the most commonly searched words and phrases. For instance, if you describe your business as “lawn maintenance,” you will reach less than a tenth of the people looking for “landscape” or “landscaping.” “Bed and breakfast” has about a sixth of the search power of “lodging” — and you can easily use both terms in describing your business, showcasing your niche while maximizing the number of times search engines point to your site.

5.) Monitor your online footprint by searching your business name and your name. Keep your online presence professional, well-worded and well-mannered, and remember that what happens online stays online. It is worth your time to make sure that anything that shows up when people search online for you or your business is correct, complete and representative of your business.

6.) Make time for online marketing. All of the tools listed above are free, but they come at the cost of your time and effort. Just as you make time to balance your cash register and reconcile your finances, you must make time to respond to customers, post on your Facebook page, add fresh content to your website and stay on top of your industry news and trends. As with all marketing, you need a strong message and compelling communications that keep your customers connected to your business.

Erica Quin-Easter is microenterprise coordinator for Women, Work, and Community in Aroostook County, where she offers business trainings and one-on-one assistance to entrepreneurs from Sherman to Fort Kent. For more information, visit www.womenworkandcommunity.org, call 764-0050 or email erica.quineaster@maine.edu.

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