It's becoming more evident every day that the internet holds a vast potential for local business's to thrive in ways they may have never thought possible. With the invention of things like Facebook, Twitter & Technorati, and their integration into our daily lives, it can become difficult to know where to start, or even when to find the time. That's why I have compiled this list of what I have come to find from experience are the seven most critical factors to online success in today's ever changing digital society. Every business owner can benefit tremendously from the simple implementation of these basic practices, at virtually any level or budget. If you have already done a few of these than great, you're on the right path. If these are all news to you then you would be well served by getting started on this list sooner than later. Your business will thank you as well as your bank account. These steps to success are ordered by importance so for quick results start at the top and work your way down. Enjoy!
1) A properly built and optimized site is the most important factor to achieving online success.
This is by far the most important metric in attracting the quality customers your business descriptions. Many business owners simply see their business's website as a digital business card but with the proper strategy it can be so much more than that. With quality, informative & interactive content your website can become your highest earner, your best salesman and your 24/7 marketing department that will work harder and cheaper than any of your other employees. Aside from having structured and targeted content however you also need to consider all of the behind the scenes factors that the search engines evaluate your site on. Things like Meta tags, Alternative attributes & a systemic layout are key to getting a website to the top of the search engine listing for your desired keywords (where all of the best traffic comes from). It's also vitally important that you have a complete tracking system in place. You need to know where your visitors are coming from, how long they stay on your site and what they find most appealing. With this information in hand you can make educated decisions as to where your internet marketing efforts will be of maximum efficiency. Without this information your clueless, in the dark and can not seem to find the light switch.
2) Your online presence can not be a cookie cutter design, it must have your business unique personality / flare.
I have seen this scenario hundreds of times in the past. Some flashy salesman hypes the importance of having a good online presence, something unique and catchy. They really sell the sizzle and promise the business the moon only to deliver a site barely distinguishable from the thousands of other sites they have built. They use the same process, the same layouts and the same tried and true lame sales tactics to get the paycheck they are after, never once stopping to think if what they are selling is really what the business needs or even wants. A proper online presence should capture the essence the business is built on, the personality, the flare, the excitation, the very soul of what sets this business apart from their competitors. Visual branding is important, do not let anyone tell you anything different. If a business incorporates a set of colors or maybe a unique logo or tagline then that needs to be prominent in their website. A business' website should be an extension of their store front and it should show.
3) Promotion, Promotion, Promotion.
Aside from having a properly optimized and uniquely identifiable website, you need to promote it online. For many companies that can be as simple as having the employees share a link to the website on their Facebook accounts and for others they may require a 30 person department to handle this task. The purpose of this article is not to help you know exactly what you need but instead to help you become aware that there is a bona fide need here. With there being literal thousands of ways to promote your business's website online though it can become quite confusing so just remember this: content is king & backlinks (links pointing towards your site from other websites) a close second. The content needs not only be keyword rich but it must also be engaging enough to satisfy your visitors.
It's not enough however to identify the need, you need to prioritize that need and put it on a regular schedule. If you have hired someone to take care of this for you make sure they keep you regularly updated on progress. If you choose to do this yourself make sure you monitor progress and update goals in a consistent and timely manner. With the proper promotion strategy in place you can see the fruits of your labor (or pocketbook) in as early as two weeks. Note: You will get out almost exactly what you put in your online promotional efforts with the only limitations being the ones you impose (or your business restrictions depending on the industry).
4) Get social with your business, be interactive & engage your visitors.
This is the area that I see greatest potential for improvement when consulting with local business owners. The few owners that I have come across that actually have accounts on some of the major social networking sites (every business needs to claim their listing on Facebook & Twitter at a minimum) simply choose to neglect them and under utilize the powerful power inherit in them . When you engage your visitors through social networking sites you need to give them an incentive to keep coming back. Regularly scheduled coupons and contest giveaways are some of the most effective ways to not only engage your visitors but also get them to share with their friends (then their friends share with their friends and so on). Since every business is different and requires a different approach I will not speak too much on this subject. Bottom line, you need to get in the game yesterday.
5) Grab your listing in the major online directories.
There are many online directories that already get a decent amount of traffic that's ripe for the picking. The majority of these directories (like 99%) are free to join so there is no reason not to take advantage of them. Most business owners I met with tell me they are in the Yellowpages but in this day and age that counts for next to nothing. The problem with the Yellowpages is that your contact information is clustered together with all of your competitors and the user has nothing to base a informed decision on except the name of business. In today's digital society you need to be claiming your listings on at minimum the top 25 directories for your industry (Hotfrog.com is a great one that is always overlooked).
Besides the national level directories you also need to find the local ones that cater to your geographic location. Check with your local business assistance center & chamber of commerce to find the ones in your area. Below those you also need to apply (for I say because less than 25% of applications get approved) for a DMOZ.com listing. Although this listing will bring little to no users to your site it's considered the holy grail of directories. Getting a listing in DMOZ is the equivalent of having everyone on the internet approve of your site. Since this is a service I often consult business owners on I will not say too much but I will give you a hint.
6) Regularly update your online presence and your customer base will regularly grow.
Whether that be simply adding your monthly special to your homepage of offering your customers a bi-weekly newsletter there needs to be changes made regularly. With the metrics the search engines use to determine the relevance (and extremely your rankings) of your website constantly changing the only game plans that work are the ones that offer fluidity. When you hire someone to build or redesign your website you need to check with them in advance how much it will cost to update your site when the time comes (believe me it will). At an absolute minimum your website should be updated once a quarter, once a month is optimal for many. Remember to treat your website as an extension of your store front and update it when you change something in your brick and mortar.
7) Make sure you know your customers to avoid the common pitfalls.
This could mean many things depending on your industry but since I'm trying to be as helpful as possible let me tell you about some of the most common mistakes I see business owners making. First of, if you want your website to have any type of audio make sure your get the users consent before your roll out the drums. Next, avoid Flash websites at all cost. The reasons are endless but the best reason to avoid a Flash based website is that nearly 35% of all internet users can not properly view your content (including nearly all the major search engines). Aside from those do not do anything to try to deceive the search engines because even if you trick them for a while it will always come back to bite you. Lastly, avoid all forms of pop-ups (in rare circumances an exit pop-up is a great idea but make sure you consult with a professional first).