By Bruce Townsend, online marketing specialist at ecommerce & EPOS supplier, Actinic.
Throughout the downturn, online businesses have returned relatively healthy figures; it has never been more profitable to do business on the internet.
And packaged ecommerce products have made the technical side easier than ever. So easy that my youngest daughter, aged 17, recently launched her own online shop.
Nevertheless, increased competition means that kick-starting your online sales is harder than it used to be.
Players like Amazon and eBay have expanded, and high street brands have entered the fray.
Achieving visibility is a challenge, but there are some simple marketing strategies to help give your business a good start online.
1. Don't rely on Google
Google is the top search engine, and everyone tries hard to get good rankings there. The top spots are more competitive than ever. Google gives slight priority to older sites, and high priority to sites with good inbound links. Link-building takes time, so new sites have very little chance of achieving immediate visibility.
There are many smaller search engines and directories within particular niches. Microsoft’s new search engine, Bing, has been adopted by Yahoo! and may be gaining ground on Google. But to begin with, other methods will usually be more important for site promotion.
2. Try pay-per-click advertising for long-tail phrases
One exception is ‘pay-per-click’ advertising, particularly Google’s Adwords program. This gives you instant exposure, and is far more effective than other online advertising.
The cost is from a few pence to a few pounds per visitor to your site, depending on the search phrase.
Prices are determined by auction – the more you pay, the higher you rank. Broad and high-ticket search terms like ‘plasma tv’ can be prohibitively expensive for startup companies.
But it’s well worth testing very specific (or ‘long-tail’) phrases for less widely advertised goods – things like ‘Kenwood TTM404 4-slice toaster’. These cost less, and are more likely to produce a sale.
3. Use offline methods for promoting your online business
Offline marketing methods can be just as effective as online ones for promoting a new web enterprise. Leaflets and mailers, small ads and display advertising, business cards and PR – all can be as effective at getting people to your website as getting them to the telephone.
Make sure that your image and your messaging are consistent across all materials and all channels, and use every suitable method that’s available to get your message out.
4. Promote your business to people you already know
Your first orders depend on winning confidence, so your best prospects are people who already know and trust you.
Be shameless in promoting your business to friends, colleagues, relatives and neighbours; encourage them to pass the word to their own contacts. Use leaflets and business cards as well as email and social networking.
5. Build up your links
Incoming links from good quality, relevant websites will help attract visitors and improve your search engine rankings. Exchanging links with other sites is quite acceptable as long as no money changes hands.
Informative and interesting content will attract links in its own right, and you can promote such content via blogs and discussion forums, so long as you are not overtly selling in the process.
6. Use social networking
Social networking sites and discussion forums should not be used for blatant self-promotion. But they can be used effectively for making contacts, spreading awareness and building your reputation. Some sites such as LinkedIn are specifically devoted to business networking.
It’s more effective to participate in debate that is already happening, and to provide knowledgeable answers to questions that people are asking, than to try to initiate conversation about something that is mainly of interest to you.
7. Get Twittering
Twitter is the ‘micro-blogging’ site made popular by celebrities like Stephen Fry. Again it should not be used for overt selling, but it can be used to network, build awareness, and disseminate links to useful, interesting or entertaining pages. Set up permanent Searches to pick up mentions of your company, so you can respond.
Twitter is very personal and it’s absolutely de rigour to post trivial personal information that helps people get to know you. Honesty is everything, though – if you get found out making things up, your reputation may never recover.
You can also post exclusive offers and run competitions limited to your followers, and if the offering is good enough, you could find word spreading and followers growing rapidly.
8. Kiss a few frogs
John Harvey Jones said that in business, you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince. Don’t be afraid to try new things, and don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t be precious about your own ideas; if they don’t work, drop them quickly and move on.
Gather ideas wherever you can, and don’t spoil a winning formula by hobbling it with your own pet notions. Try out some long shots without hanging your shirt on them.
Keep an eye on the basics and don’t neglect the essentials, but don’t be afraid to go in search of your pot of gold. You probably won’t find it at the end of the rainbow – but that doesn’t mean you won’t find it somewhere else.
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