17 July 2008

Web marketing 101 for small businesses

By Rodney Lim

(Published in ‘Campus & Beyond’, a weekly column written by Swinburne academics in the Borneo Post newspaper)

The Internet has always been touted as a life-saver for small businesses. Its low-cost, high-tech capabilities was supposed to erase size disadvantages and open up unprecedented commercial prospects for the small guys. Recent studies, however, have shown that many small businesses do not utilize the Web as they do not know how to develop effective online initiatives. 

An online study done in the past year by Opus Research showed that while most small businesses are interested in Internet marketing, over half the companies surveyed admitted they did not market online.  Other similar studies revealed that popular Web 2.0 marketing platforms like online social networks and podcasts have not been well embraced by small enterprises.
Small businesses have a lot to gain by incorporating an online marketing component into their brick-and-mortar operations.  So, if you are a small local company looking to capitalize on the Web but are not sure how, here are some tips to get you started on a simple Web-presence.

First, you have to determine the relevance of the Internet for you and your target customers.   A marketing-oriented website can add value and reduce costs for many marketing-related functions – from simple tasks like placing company and product information, handling enquiries and feedback, to more elaborate ones like customer service, branding and generating revenues online.  It is crucial at the onset to clarify specific roles for your website and understand how it will complement your overall marketing programs. 

To make a website effective, it must be useful to users (obviously, it is quite pointless to go online if your customers are non-Net users).  Therefore, you will need to understand why and how people will use your website.  If you can align your site’s objectives with your customers’ expectations and behaviours online, you can generate strong online value propositions, or unique benefits that will attract users to your site.  For instance, if your customers are busy people, you could perhaps design your website to help them get things done online – like checking prices or making an enquiry – so as to save them a trip to the physical store. The idea is to develop a well-thought out online facility that will complement your brick operations.  Done right, this can give your business an edge that an offline-only store cannot match.

Next, you will need to build your website.  Putting up a Web-presence has become a lot easier these days, thanks to the availability of inexpensive Web-building applications that can enable even the most tech-illiterate individuals to design their own websites.  Apart from the conventional website formats, you may also want to look into alternative Web platforms that are suitable for many small businesses.  Here, blogs are a compelling option as they are easy to set up, easy to maintain, and are versatile.  A medical practitioner who is strapped for time during consultation sessions, for instance, can direct patients to a blog for in-depth and regularly updated information.  Blogs thrive on fresh content and are interactive in nature, so they are a great tool to create interest and to build bonds with readers.

As a small local business, you do not need a big and fancy website with all the bells and whistles (which can take forever to load).  Depending on what you want your website to accomplish, you may just want a simple web brochure or online catalogue that provides basic information and contact details, or a fully functional site that requires substantial back office support. 

The costs and returns differ substantially, so you will have to consider your commitment and expectations from your online marketing.  Whichever type of Web presence you choose, just make sure it is purposeful, user-friendly and reliable. Also ensure it contains essential information like your contact information – email, phone, fax, etc. 

A great website is useless if no one visits it, so you will have to promote it.  One way to build website traffic is to offer incentives via direct mail or personal invitation to get your existing customers to your site.  Bear in mind that promotions via other traditional media such as newspapers or billboards require people to remember your URL.  Online media, on the other hand, involves clickable URLs that will instantly bring traffic to specific pages on your site.  Therefore, it is imperative that you look into online promotion techniques, especially search engine optimization (SEO) that will make your site easy to find.  SEO involves enriching your website with important keywords and phrases to achieve a high ranking on the results pages of the major search engines like Google, Yahoo and MSN.  Similarly, you can consider exchanging links with blogs, as well as signing up with online affiliate networks like Google’s Adsense program that help place links from other sites to yours.

Your website can get a boost if you can hook up with the various Web communities that are relevant to your business.  For instance, if you deal in consumer electronics, you might want to check out the Lowyat community (www.lowyat.net).  Likewise, social networks like Facebook and Friendster are such prominent phenomena among the younger crowds that you cannot afford not to have a profile on these online networks.  All these cost next to nothing but can help you engage your target customer groups on an intimate level.

Finally, you will need to measure your site’s performance.  You will have to collect site activity information and measure these against a set of metrics to determine if the site accomplishes the goals for which it was designed.  A number of Web Analytics software is available – including Google Analytics which is free – that can track your site’s visitors – who they are, where they come from, what they do there, etc.  With these, you can make tweaks to your site to improve it.

A Web presence is fast becoming a requisite for businesses in this digital age.  If you do not yet have a website for your business, it is probably time you did something about it.

Rodney Lim is a lecturer with the School of Business and Enterprise at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He can be contacted at rlim@swinburne.edu.my