10 Ways to Market an Online Business

Running an online business is often grueling, but these marketing tips can help make your business more efficient and successful. Siri Stafford/DigitalVision/Thinkstock

"If you build it, they will come." Oh, how business owners wish this quote were true. If only customers would just flock to them, unbidden, they'd get back years of precious time spent trying to drum up business. Marketing is a necessary but time-consuming evil, especially for proprietors of small businesses who often have to do all the work themselves. And the days are long gone when you could make do with a Yellow Pages listing and some ads in the paper. Especially if your business exists totally on the Internet, you have to be up to date on all the latest online marketing options — and there are a lot of them.

No matter what your situation, identifying your goals is the first step in any marketing plan. Do you want to attract new customers, keep existing ones or create local awareness of your business? Next, research your current customers to decide which online marketing avenues you should use. Where are they located? Figure out how they find you now. Where else do they go online?

Social media should be an integral part of your plan, so choose a platform or two that seem like the best fit. Your budget and time constraints will dictate how many marketing tactics you end up using, but you're also going to be most effective when you're comfortable. If you're not a natural salesperson but you love to write, start a blog. If you're a number cruncher, get to work analyzing and optimizing your ad campaigns.

Here's the best news — if you succeed with a few these fairly simple approaches, you'll eventually be able to hire an online marketer to do it all for you!

Online advertising is a lot more customizable than a Yellow Pages listing. Newscast/UIG via Getty Images

Advertising is probably the most traditional marketing option you'll find on this list, but the online advertising choices available today are a far cry from the traditional ones. Online ads are highly trackable, measurable and customizable, so you can endlessly tweak your ad campaigns to make them as effective as possible. You'll probably go through a bit of trial and error as you figure out which platform is best for your products, budget and target audience. Here are a few of the most popular options:

  • Paid search advertising places your ads on the results page of a search engine when someone types in certain keywords. Google AdWords is the standard bearer, but you can also look into the services provided by Bing and Yahoo.
  • When you pay for a campaign with an advertising network, your ads will be placed across a number of sites in your particular niche.
  • Social media ads appear — you guessed it — on social media sites. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have popular advertising programs.
  • You can also directly contact any sites on which you're interested in placing banner ads and work out a campaign for your brand.
Local Listings
Positive reviews on Yelp can help attract customers to your business. © Richard Levine/Demotix/Corbis

Online directories and local search sites are the modern equivalent of the Yellow Pages. More targeted than paid search advertising or banner ads, a listing on one of these sites will help customers in your area find you — even if they start off looking for someone else. Google Places, Bing Places, Yahoo Local Listings and Citysearch are solid places to start.

Customer review sites like Yelp, Foursquare and Angie's List are an extension of the local listing category — you're featured in a list or a searchable map along with other area businesses, and potential customers can decide if they'd like to support your business based on the reviews they read. For businesses with lots of reviews (especially glowing ones), review sites can be a boon. But if you're freshly listed and have only three reviews, one of which isn't so glowing, your star rating will suffer. The trick here is getting as many reviews as possible so the bad ones won't drag you down. If you have plenty of reviews and a still-low rating, well, that's a different problem altogether.

Consider taking time to create a captivating blog that your audience will appreciate. anyaberkut/iStock/Thinkstock

If you have a way with words and the discipline to post regularly, a blog can be an extremely effective marketing and sales tool. Direct sales isn't everyone's forte, and blogging is a great way to attract viewers without feeling like you're being pushy or too "sales-y." It's also one of the most valuable techniques for connecting with your customers and giving a personal voice to your brand.

But you do have to be dedicated: Phoning in a few boring posts a month isn't going to cut it. Many blogs peter out quickly because it's so difficult to keep up the pace and provide interesting, quality content on a regular basis. You need to write in an engaging, consistent voice (you won't get social media shares with humdrum posts), and it really helps to be prolific. According to marketing company Hubspot, bloggers who post six to eight times per month get twice the leads of those who post three to five times a month. Once you're in the swing of things, connect with other bloggers in your field, who can link back to you and perhaps invite you to guest post, both of which will improve your status with search engines.

All that said, if you don't truly enjoy writing about yourself or communicating your ideas in writing, you should probably try to find a different way to get those leads.

Email Lists
Compile an email list so you can send out newsletters to your subscribers. Gavin Dunt/iStock/Thinkstock

Your email list is another indirect but powerful marketing instrument. If you don't have an email list, stop what you're doing and create a sign-up on your site right now — there are umpteen templates and providers that can help with this task. When people subscribe, you'll build up an invaluable database of interested customers. But of course, the list itself isn't the magic bullet. It's what you do with the list that counts.

E-newsletters are the most obvious and effective use for your email list. Even if you're not up for blogging, you can surely churn out a periodic email newsletter to let your fans know what you've been up to, invite them to industry events and share links to interesting articles. You can also do email blasts with offers and freebies for your loyal customers.

But there's a fine line between staying fresh in your customers' minds and annoying them. A monthly newsletter with attention-grabbing tidbits and company happenings is much better than a sparse, uninteresting weekly newsletter. After a while, you should be able to figure out the best balance.

Group-buying Programs
A group-buying program like Groupon can be a useful marketing tool. Scott Olson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Participating in a group-buying program can be both a blessing and a curse. You're guaranteed to get lots of exposure and find a bunch of new customers from offering a deal through a service like Groupon, LivingSocial or Scoutmob. Even if they're paying only a fraction of the regular price, who wouldn't want an explosion of new customers? Well, a lot of people, as it turns out. Many business owners have found that they lose money on the reduced-price offers and then can't hang on to the deal-buyers, who are quick to move on to the next offer. It's your job to make sure this doesn't happen to you.

It's the follow-through that counts with collective-buying programs. You have to be ready for a glut of orders — and to take a hit on this wave of reduced-price buyers. Many of the participants will be there just for a one-time cheap deal, but you've got to find a way to retain the others. Encourage them to sign up for your email list, and give great service so they'll turn into loyal customers. If you play your cards right, it could be a win-win.

Affiliate Programs
Amazon has one of the most popular affiliate programs. Matt Cardy/Getty Images News/Getty Images

In an affiliate marketing program, the "affiliates" put up links on their own sites that drive traffic to merchants. They're useful for both content- and sales-driven sites, and you can join them as either a merchant or as an affiliate — it just depends on what you think will be most valuable and fitting for your business.

Affiliate programs generally pay out in one of three ways. Pay-per-sale programs pay the affiliate only if a visitor makes a purchase on the merchant site. Pay-per-click programs, which make the most sense for content-driven sites, pay the affiliate for each time someone visits the merchant's site by clicking on the affiliate's link. It doesn't matter what the visitor does once they're on the merchant site. In a pay-per-lead program, the affiliate gets paid only if the visitor fills out an email sign-up form on the merchant site.

You can probably imagine that it's a lot of work to run your own affiliate program as a merchant. That's where handy-dandy affiliate networks come in. The network acts as a middleman, taking care of traffic monitoring, link setup, recruitment and payment. They'll also take a cut of each transaction, but many businesses find it's a small price to pay for the convenience.

Good Old-Fashioned Footwork
Face-to-face interactions with people in your community can turn potential customers into loyal customers. Tim Pannell/Fuse/Thinkstock

Even if you own a totally online business, all of your marketing efforts don't have to be online. Get out there in your community, and interact with all of those potential customers! People often think of online companies as faceless entities that communicate only through email and Twitter, so you can set yourself apart from the crowd by mixing and mingling. If people can connect a face with your business, they might be more likely to buy from you than from competitors they've never met.

Of course, you'll also be gleaning information from everyone you contact while you're out there in the world. The key is to transform these connections into an online form. If you're selling your goods at a neighborhood festival, be sure that customers take advantage of the handy email sign-up sheet in your booth. Collect business cards at a networking event, and be sure to add those names to your email list and start following everyone on social media. Then you can try to make these new friends into loyal customers.

If your content allows, use videos to market your business. Newscast/UIG via Getty Images

This one is obviously more likely to work if you're selling products that lend themselves to being included in videos. We're guessing not too many people are going to be interested in software-development videos. (Although there's a niche for everything, we suppose.) But if you sell or make toys and can create extreme close-up videos of kids playing with the toys while narrating their every move? You've struck a YouTube gold mine. (We did say there's a niche for everything.)

So get out your video camera, and start making movies. Fire up a YouTube channel, promote it on your site and blog, get people to link to it, blow it up on social media — all your usual marketing ploys. Producing videos, besides being fun and entertaining, is a way of diversifying your content that will make your site more attractive to search engines. It also allows you to expand your brand to a platform that might have an entirely new audience. You never know, it could end up being your most lucrative effort yet!

To get the most traffic possible, your site should be optimized for search engines like Google's. DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/Getty Images

An astounding 94 percent of consumers research products online before making a purchase, so SEO (search engine optimization) is of paramount importance if you want to drive traffic to your site [source: Google]. You can outsource SEO, but you can also do it yourself with a few simple tweaks to your site.

The most crucial step you can take is to pack your site with keywords in the page titles, copy and URL on at least your 10 most popular pages. Find out what search terms Google associates with each page on your site, then add them wherever you can. Think like a customer — what are they searching for when they find you?

When you're putting keywords into copy, try not to force it. Having interesting content is the best way to get people to link back to your site, another important factor in SEO. So the keywords should read naturally, not like you've plugged them in randomly. Optimizing for "long-tail" keywords is also a good idea — these are very specific phrases that could lead people straight to your site instead of a competitor's.

We have only 200 words here, so this is just the bare minimum, but SEO is vast. It'll end up being a direct or indirect player in all of your marketing activities.

Social Media
You will reach a larger audience if you are active on social media. © Jens Büttner/dpa/Corbis

Gone are the days when owners of Internet companies could do their business in a bubble. OK, there probably was never a time when that could happen, but now it's definitely untrue. And it's all because of social media. If you're not active on at least one social media platform, you're ignoring thousands of potential customers. It's a critical chance to communicate with your competitors and customers. Social media activity is also a key factor in SEO — those crafty search engines like to see that you're building your brand through interaction with others in your field.

Your choice of platform will depend on your specific products and your comfort level with each platform. Think of Facebook as the starter program — it's a no-brainer to set up a page there. But Instagram might not be a good fit if you're selling software or something without strong visual appeal. Likewise, if you're not one for brevity or snappy comebacks, you might not want to be on Twitter. Whatever you do, though, the social media bandwagon is one you can't afford to miss.


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Author's Note: 10 Ways to Market an Online Business

I would hope that a blog would be my most powerful marketing tool if I'm ever marketing my (nonexistent) online business. Lord knows I've put in enough time writing that I could be a consistent blogger. Lord also knows that I would never put myself on camera, so "making videos" would certainly never have a spot on any to-do list.


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