Effective online marketing
Low-cost ways to boost your company's visibility
Build Your Customer Base on a Budget
Being frivolous does not make a successful online business, as the ill-starred Boo.com soon discovered. Rather, careful targeting, tracking and testing will help you achieve a good return on your online marketing investment.
As a small business you are unlikely to have the resources that Boo.com had. That online business blew �94.5m of venture capitalists' money inside two years (including �450,000 on promotional giveaways, �420,000 in PR fees and �29.5m on ads). Conversely, small businesses rooted in the real world have to make a very little go an awful long way.
Fortunately, with a bit of cunning and savvy, small businesses can use a range of online marketing tools to bring plenty of custom knocking at their virtual doors.
These tools can be divided into two broad categories:
Here are some examples of successful small businesses (with very un-Boo-like budgets), which make great use of online marketing tools. So let's examine the secrets of their success...
Customer Acquisition: Winning Hearts and Minds
West Country Violins first set up a website three years ago. It now does about 95 per cent of its business online, selling violins to customers in Japan, Canada, Korea, Taiwan - and recently Honolulu.
Generate targeted listings
To get the site known among potential customers, West Country Violins secured a listing on VioLink, a highly targeted portal site "devoted to the world of violins".
"It's quite a well-known site, which appears very high up on search engine results pages," says site founder Brian Ward-Smith. So Brian got his website listed on the VioLink company directory for free, in return for putting a reciprocal link to VioLink on his own site.
"Our entry on VioLink's directory worked well for a while, as we used to be one of only ten UK violin dealers listed," he explains.
But as time went on, his listing was drowned out by the ever-expanding number of other firms adding entries in the directory. "It didn't help that my company name begins with a 'W', since the listings appear in alphabetical order," says Brian. "We appeared at the bottom of the screen."
In order to attract more custom, Brian decided to shell out for a banner advertisement on Violink, which would be more prominent than his directory listing.
"It's brought me a lot of business," says Brian who pays between �300 and �400 per 100,000 banner exposures (the number of times the banner appears on internet users' screens).
Track your website visitors to measure results
Brian uses internet user analysis software provided by his ISP to track where visitors to his website come from. This gives him a clear idea of which marketing tools are working for him, and which are not. It's essential to help him figure out whether his banner ad investment is worth it. Make sure you harness metrics to boost your business too.
"More customers come to us via VioLink than any other site on the web," he says. "The second most popular route is via Google, the search engine."
Focus on search engine visibility
This brings us to another powerful online marketing tool: search engines. The importance of ensuring that your site appears high-up on search engine results pages should not be underestimated. For millions of internet users, search engines are the first port of call for finding products and services on the web. So you need to make sure people can find your website.
For example, Botham's of Whitby, a Yorkshire-based food specialist, has been selling successfully online since 1994 and finds the vast majority of their visitors come from Google.
Like Brian Ward-Smith, Mike Jarman, the firm's managing director, uses his ISP's user tracking software to examine not only where visitors to his site have come from, but also what they have typed in to search engines to find his site.
"I can see, for example, that so far this month 14 people have typed 'history of bread' into Google, and then clicked through to our site," he says.
Test Sponsored Links
Having seen that so much of his traffic was coming from Google, Mike decided to take the marketing power of the search engine a step further. Now, if users type certain words into Google - such as "hampers" - a prominent sponsored link to Elizabeth Botham will appear at the top of the page.
"It only costs us a few pence per user, and certainly helps to bring us business," he explains. He adds that search sites are also fertile sources of new online business for the company.
Mike also follows tip number one - to get his site listed on targeted portal sites that share his niche audience. These include Yorkshire Pantry, Buy Eck and the Tea Council.
Pay-Per-Click Success Stories
Similarly, both Keith Milsom of AnythingLeft-Handed.co.uk and Harry Ganz of The Garden Pharmacy have found pay-per-click to be a good return for their marketing dollar spend.
Pay-per-click on Google and Overture generate 20% of all visitors to garden.co.uk, while Keith's analysis of his website conversion rates for AnythingLeft-Handed.co.uk reveal their pay-per-click advertising has a return of about 500%.
"I know for every dollar I spend on Overture I get $5 profit," says Keith. "It's critical to know your conversion rates on your pay-per-click advertising for it to work effectively."
Of course, as well as ensuring that you've got a steady flow of new customers arriving at your online outlet, it's also important to keep your existing customers hungry for more of your products and services. That's where the customer retention area of online marketing comes into play.