2011 has been a pivotal year for local small business marketing. For the small business, this shift must be frustrating. The dizzying speed of online innovation, makes it next to impossible to stay on top of it all, and simultaneously run day-to-day operations of their businesses. And just as Google has been readying numerous programs to facilitate small business listings and advertising, industry experts are forecasting the inevitable end to printed Yellow Pages.
For this reason, I thought I’d do a quick run-down of online marketing strategy for small businesses. If you’re reading this and are a local small business (SMB), hopefully this gives a high-level road map for what you need to be thinking about and how to position yourself for 2012. Or if you work in technology, it can serve as a reminder where the rest of the World is in dealing with all of the latest technology, which might server when you next discuss usability impact and whether continuous deployment is a good idea.
There are really just four major topics a small business needs to be thinking about:
1. Have an Online Presence
It is estimated (depending which study you read) that 35-51% of SMBs still do not have a website. The cost of having a site has come down dramatically in recent years however and so there really is no excuse not to have one. Find a local web developer to create a simple custom designed site for as little as $500, or turn to a hosted solution such as Yola.com or Homestead (Intuit) for $10-20 per month. At the very least though I would recommend having a free Google Places listing, to ensure any online mentions can point back to your online entity somehow. The greater challenge I fear for small business however, is updating that hideous old website that someone’s nephew built 10 years ago. The competitive bar has come up significantly in the past few years and I can imagine some clumsy outdated site will do more damage that good. These businesses really need to shed the old site and move on to something more refined, or deprecate the site and only have a Google Places listing. Seriously.
2. Get Listed (Citations)
The next step is to make sure your business is represented in the major online properties where people discover local businesses. Google Places is the first obvious one, as mentioned above. Beyond that, you’ll also want to make sure you’re listed with Bing, Yelp, etc. This not only ensures your business is there when people go looking for it, these Name-Address-Phone (NAP) citations are referenced by Google to determine results rankings, so the more directories you’re listed in, the better. Here’s a list of the top 12 local citation directories that you should start with:
3. Promotions: (Outbound Mtkg)
The typical outbound promotional techniques are those that allow you to interrupt and get in front of people. To accomplish this, you can purchase online ads, get involved in social channels, email, and offer coupons and daily deals. This is the area where SMBs may benefit most from the assistance of an online marketing professional, but I’ll give a quick run down of each of these:
i. Paid Search – Google as recently launched AdWords express, which takes their popular pay-per-click marketing platform and simplifies it for small businesses. SMBs can also use traditional AdWords once they are comfortable, but there is a lot to learn there. Once up to speed with AdWords, you can place text ads on Google.com and Youtube.com videos. You can also place image or video ads that appear on their ad partners network, which reaches some 80% of the Internet, and even place ads on mobile phones. You can limit the ads based upon geographic location too, which makes it particularly useful for SMBs. Its not just Google however. Once you have these concepts down, you can apply what you’ve learned to the Microsoft/Yahoo networks and Facebook paid ads as well.
ii. Social – The simplest way to get started with social is to make sure you have a presence. Create a Facebook fan pay, open your Twitter account, and register your business on FourSquare and GoWalla. From there, use these channels to both stay in touch with people who opt to follow you on these channels by publishing compelling content and exclusive offers. You can also discover new customers by getting involved in Twitter conversations and reach out to people who are indirectly connected via your existing followers. Social can be powerful tool to keep customers engaged, stay top-of-mind which is great for branding, and stay aware of and respond to user complaints via social monitoring.
iii. Email – Email is old…but proven. And it works! Similar to how one might use social to stay in touch with people, email can be a great opportunity to announce event, new product offerings,or offer exclusive deals. They keys to success with email marketing are (a) make sure you have a leaden form built into your site to make it easy for fans to signup and provide their email address, (b) use a popular email service provider (ESP) such as ConstantContact or AWeber since delivery can be a real technical challenge at times, and (c) send consistently; don’t overdo it in a short period of time or go silent for months. Either one of those can cause a higher unsubscribe rate the next time to blast your message out.
iv. Deal Sites – By the end of 2011, its probably safe to say that most SMBs hate the daily deals sites. While some have had great success with them, the vast majority have participated, have been burned. I’ve even read stories about some new businesses going out of business because of it. But that doesn’t mean its all bad. The key with any market tactic, is knowing what you’re doing, and knowing when to employ this tool. Also, Groupon and LivingSocial are not the only games in town. Google themselves has an Offers program which may be less extreme and less threatening for a small business looking to experiment with deals. Or, look at more traditional coupon offerings which you likely submit to the major coupon sites.
v. Digital Magnets – Real estate agents and insurance agents use to print up recipes on postcards or refrigerator magnets and send them to longer-term prospects. The idea was that your name will be in front of the prospect when the need eventually arises again, with some goodwill attached to it. Now think about how you could accomplish this digitally. If you are the local wine connoisseur shop, you could have an iPhone app developed for a grand, that will give wine/food pairing tips. Or a local ski apparel shop could give the mountain summit forecast on a widget that you can embed on your own website/blog.
4. Content Marketing
This is for businesses that want to build an online presence beyond explicit local business searches. This is great for extending the high-stage sales funnel and building your brand. Let’s say that you’re a chiropractor and want to begin building your online reputation so that either you stand out when a prospect compares you to the other local listings they found, during their research phase, or to discover other prop sects through long tail search for terms such as “Advanced bio-structural correction”. You could begin a blog as part of your site and commit to writing a new entry 2-3 times per week. Also, try creating YouTube videos to talk about your techniques, the correct way to do things, and your proprietary techniques that others are not doing. You could also consider more traditional offline outreach such as contacting the health and fitness editors at your local newspapers, to introduce yourself as a resource whenever they need a subject matter expert to interview. All of these techniques collectively are known as inbound marketing and have worked well for national brands, for years now. I’d suspect they’re a nice compliment for the local business too, if applied correctly.
In conclusion, there are a lot of details for the small business to stay on top of, but really we’re just talking about 4 big ideas: (1) have (good) a web presence, (2) get listed in the main directories, (3) promote your business, and (4) do long-term brand building with content marketing techniques, to find new search prospects. Everything beyond those 4 ideas is just tactical implementation detail which you can dive into if you’d like or you can hire a professional to assist you. Like any good traditional marketing campaign though, it is important to remember that the cost and effort of online marketing are on-going and do not end the minute your website is online.