By Sherry Alpert If you're overwhelmed with worry about whether to put your marketing dollars into public relations, advertising, or Internet outreach, let me tell you something: There's no easy answer.
Because of cost effectiveness and the ability to target very specific markets, more small businesses are making an online strategy at least one part of their overall campaigns. With that comes a whole different set of challenges, but to get moving in the right direction, ask yourself a couple of easy questions: Are you selling a service or a product? And, more importantly, what is the benefit to people finding you online?
IT'S NOT ABOUT FLASH. Let's say you have an organic-food store with one location or a dry cleaning operation with multiple locations. What do you really want to accomplish with a Web site? Organic-food stores and dry cleaners may not be selling their services online, but perhaps someone new to your area is looking for what you offer and will do a town-specific Web search for "organic food stores" or "dry cleaners."
Having a Web site might gain you a new customer. Think of it as a virtual storefront. But do you need eye-popping graphics and Flash animations -- and the cost and complexity that come with them? Probably not. Instead, you might want to focus your attention on "search engine optimization" so that people can actually find where you do business.
Louise Rijk, vice-president for sales and marketing at Advanced Media Productions in Natick, Mass., explains: "Although high rankings in the natural or organic search engine listings are achieved by considering many factors, the most important are inbound linking, keyword-rich page titles, keyword-rich meta tag descriptions, and keyword-rich Web site copy".
Translation? You want to lace your Web site with as much relevant, informative description about your company and services, so that the search engines will pick it up.
THINK KEYWORDS. How does it work in practice? Let's say you sell videotapes on how to train hunting dogs. You Google "hunting dog training videos" to check out your competition, and find sponsored and featured links on both the top and the right-hand side of the page, where your company could be listed by paying for that ad space. But if you show up on the main body of the page, that's free.
Even such a specialized search turns up more than 1,600 listings. But Mack's Prairie Wings, for example, lands on the first search-page listing. Diane Buzzeo, president of Spicer, Minn.-based Marketing Concepts, worked with the company to incorporate search-engine optimization techniques.
Buzzeo points out that people can post a beautifully designed Web site with all the bells and whistles, but unless it draws results on search engines, what will it all that work matter if the masses will never see it? Search engines see only words on your Web site, and keywords are, well, key. Without the right ones in page titles, meta tags, and copy, your Web site will be so far down the list that few will ever find it.
POWER LEADS. Now let's say you're selling a service that is driven by reputation and referrals, such as mine: public relations consulting. It's unlikely that someone would make Google the sole resource in their search for a PR consultant or firm. However, anyone referred to me (or to any PR firm) would certainly want to know about my areas of expertise, accomplishments, and background.
Assuming that person didn't yet have my business card (which includes my Web site), he or she would type my name and "public relations" into Google, find my site, and check it out for credibility. If I didn't have a substantial one -- or one at all -- the prospective client would likely consider me an amateur or a neophyte with nothing worth posting.
Rijk adds that many service businesses, like her own, get significant leads and new clients from optimized Web sites. In fact, last year Advanced Media attributed 20% of its new business to Internet leads -- and the firm is targeting 50% this year.
WHAT WORKS BEST. And for companies that actually use their sites as sales vehicles, not just for marketing, the benefits of search optimization are multiplied. By crafting their sites to land prominently on search pages, Buzzeo saw her online-retail clients' 2004 holiday sales increase 25%-30% over 2003's figures. She contends that online purchases comprised up to 58% of her outfit's holiday sales. That compares to three years ago, when online sales were only 15% of total sales.
So for small businesses still reluctant to embrace the Internet -- and there are plenty -- no matter your industry, you would be well-advised to have a well-designed, well-written, but not overly jazzed-up, Web site. It will bolster your credibility, and just as important, your accessibility. Today, it's a virtual necessity.
Have a question about the best way to promote and publicize your business? PR pro Sherry Alpert is here to help. Click here to e-mail your queries, or write to Spread The Word, BW Online, 45th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020. Please include your name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. The principal of Sherry Alpert Corporate Communications & Graphic Design in Canton, Mass., Sherry Alpert, has been representing clients ranging from corporations, retailers, and nonprofits to books, trade shows, and entrepreneurs for 25 years.