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An Online Marketing Primer

By Kevin A. Jackson |

The Internet has arrived on the business landscape with blinding speed with many business owners still trying to grasp the basics of how they can and should approach the Internet as a marketing medium.

If you are in business there is probably something that you could and should be doing online, either to complement your existing marketing, or to open up whole new untapped markets. To take a big-picture approach consider these options.

Step 1: Develop or enhance your business website

A website is fundamental to your online marketing efforts. You can provide your website address on all of your off-line advertising materials and the website gives you a place to direct users when you use other forms of online advertising.

You can develop a website with your own domain name for as little as a few dollars a month or you may need to make a substantial investment in your online storefront. The best approach depends on your budget, your type of business, and how much time you have. Here are examples of the most common types of business websites:

  1. A simple "brochure" website. This will range from a single page to a handful of pages. The goal is to tell visitors who you are, what you do and why they should contact you to learn more about your business. There are free website builders for businesses on a budget, but keep in mind that the quality of design was the number one criteria used to rank websites on their trustworthiness. Cutting corners may have a direct impact in terms of lost sales.

    Tip: turn up the effectiveness of your brochure website by crafting your message to encourage people to take action and contact your company.

  2. Add a customer service focus. Thinking beyond that basic brochure, a developing trend is the idea that a website can be used to improve customer service. In addition to traditional sales information this website may also contain Knowledge Bases, Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) as well as direct links to customer service representatives who can answer questions in real-time chat. A website like this not only serves to make your existing customers happy, but will impress prospects as well.

  3. Tip: as your website becomes more sophisticated, your insurance rates may go up. For example, if you run an open bulletin board system you introduce the risk of having a user libel someone. Check with your insurance broker to see if this will impact your company.

  4. Beyond sales: the realm of content. Give that we live in an information age the Internet is ideally suited for subject experts to develop content-rich websites. One big advantage of a popular content-rich site is that they have a better reputation with the search engines, which results in top listings if your search optimization is done correctly. A content site can help drive business to your company website and can generate advertising revenues in its own right as well.

  5. E-commerce and database driven websites. If it is appropriate for your business, consider offering your products for sale online. It is possible to start selling online for a very low investment, but the development of an extensive e-commerce website is quite involved so budget accordingly if you are planning a sophisticated online catalogue. Databases do not have to be limited to just sales. For example, many of the larger retailers now use a database to run their 'store locator' programs, with some of the larger retailers even helping check for product availability in local chain stores.

    Tip: It can be extremely difficult for a small business to get a merchant account for conducting online transactions from a bank in Canada. Many merchants opt instead to start with a Paypal account, which is free for personal use and has reasonably low interest rates. Paypal also offers free tools that will help you create "buy now" buttons or even a simple shopping cart for your website.

Step 2: Marketing your business through online channels

Once you have a place to direct potential customers to you are ready to promote your company online. Here is a brief summary of the 8 most popular forms of online advertising and promotion.

  1. Directory Listings

    Directories are places that list a variety of websites. A directory will often have a theme or niche, for example CanadaOne has a free directory of over 11,000 companies that is only open to Canadian businesses. Most people think about the search engines when they think about listing their business online, but trade associations, trade show exhibitor listings, yellow pages and industrial portals are also a good place to look for links.

    Submitting your company website to directories takes times, as you need to locate the appropriate directories and fill out a form that usually asks you for your company name, contact details, website link, company description, and keywords. Some organizations will charge you a monthly or annual fee. While you should be cautious of small websites that may not get a lot of traffic, paying a small fee to be listed on a national association website can be highly beneficial. Some online directories will now allow a business build a free webpage or mini-site at no extra charge.

    Tip: To help you find directories where you can list your website free of charge CanadaOne put together our free Search Engine Submitter.

  2. Email
    Marketing through email is very important area, but tricky. Sending bulk unsolicited emails, commonly known as SPAM, can cause you to lose your Internet account and damage the reputation of your company. Also, with Canada's new privacy laws having someone's email address does not mean you have permission to send that person email. You should have a privacy policy in place the clearly sets out when you can use emails as well as methods you will use to protect the privacy of your customers and contacts.

    There are a number of software tools that now make it much easier for a small business to send broadcast emails for a small monthly fee. Rather than emails promotional ads to your contact database most companies choose to send out an email newsletter that contains interesting information and special offers along with any product or service information.

    Tip: remember to include a notice to readers asking them to forward a copy of the newsletter to anyone they think might be interested and always include an easy way for recipients to unsubscribe from your mailing list in each email.

  3. Search engine optimization.
    Before you spend money to place your advertisement on other websites, take the time to do everything you can to get your own website to the top of the search results. Search engine optimization requires patience, but the benefit is that there is not extra charge to get to the top of listing on a site like Google. There are measurable, "on the page" things you can do that will improve your search placement. However, be careful not to use unethical techniques such as placing invisible text on the page, as these tactics may actually hurt your search engine positioning.

  4. Advertising
    For businesses that want to promote their business and don't have the time or interest in becoming an active participant in online communities, online advertising is probably your best option. There are several ways to advertise online with different formats and costs. Regardless of where you advertise, once a user lands on your site it is your job to get them to make contact or if you sell online to convince them to buy from you.

    Before looking for places to advertise, consider your goals. Large companies can afford to spend money on a combination of branding and advertising, but smaller companies typically need to generate sales. There are two main places you can advertise: in emails and email newsletters or on other websites.

    If you are going to advertise in an email newsletter, ask how many subscribers the newsletter has and find out where your ad will be displayed. Look for newsletters that will reach targeted people interested in your products and services. Newsletter advertising rates are typically based on a set rate per thousand users and rates are higher than what you would pay for banner advertising on a website.

    If you are going to advertise on a website you have several options.

    • Banners, big boxes and other graphical ads. Most niche industry websites and online publications offer what was originally known as "banner" advertising, which lets you post an animated graphic on the website. You then either pay a set rate per thousand users (CPM model), a fixed price for each time someone clicks on the link to your site (CPC) or in some cases you just pay a set fee.

    • Pay per click. With pay per click advertising the business pays a set rate for each user that clicks on its ad, with ads usually being shown when users do a search within a specific topic or category. This is an alternative to the free search engine and gives businesses a way to get their site listed on the first page of results. Some search engines do not have any free listings. In Google the main listings are free, but businesses pay to appear in the Sponsored Links section in the right hand column of their page.

      For starters, consider testing the use of Google Ad Words to drive targeted visitors to your website. It is easy to set-up your account and adjust your campaign if you are not satisfied with how it is going. There are other "pay per click" advertising sites as well. One nice thing about using Google Ad Words is that you set a limit on the amount of money you are willing to spend each month.

    Recognition of the value of advertising online is gradually growing, and with that comes an increase in the cost, but it is still relatively very low cost compared to more traditional forms of advertising like print, radio or TV.

    Tip: Before agreeing to an advertising rate be sure to ask about traffic. Don't be misled by reports of hits, which are highly inflated web traffic numbers. Instead ask about the number of unique visitors and daily page views to the section of the website where your ad will appear.

  5. Viral marketing
    This is sometimes called the online version of guerrilla marketing. Online viral marketing involves unusual tactics like creating a game, online contest, or website tapping into the public pulse, encouraging enthusiasts to pass on the link to their friends and colleagues. Examples include's virtual bartender and Gmail.

  6. Email Forums (List serves)
    Some community and Association groups offer email forums that enable groups of people to engage in discussions around a common topic. When you subscribe to a list you receive all messages sent to the group and also have the ability to send new messages or respond to messages to the group. Some email lists are moderated, which means that emails are only sent on to the entire group after someone has checked and approved the message.

    Email lists can be a great promotional forum for niche marketers, as you can directly reach people who are passionately interested in your business area. However, you need to understand the group rules and general "netiquette" before posting to the list. Blatant promotion on an email list is considered spam and could get you barred from the list. Providing expert insight and information is generally the best way to promote your company on an email forum. Email lists can also give you a better insight into your customers.

  7. Blogs / Wikis
    A blog essentially an online diary or magazine column, so good quality content and regular updates are critical to its success. If you are not able to provide these, then blogging is probably not a good idea as part of your marketing mix. Also if there is already a blog being published in your market or category by an established industry expert or guru, you might be better to join forces and leverage off their success by advertising or sponsoring their blog. Wikis are a variation on the blog, except you are allowing readers to comment directly on the blog entries so that their comments become part of the content. This can be a double-edged sword. It enables more feedback and participation, but also requires more time to monitor and nurture. If you do publish a Wikis you will regularly screen out unwanted posts from spammers promoting a variety of websites.

  8. Bulletin Boards
    Similar to email lists, bulletin boards act as discussion forums for people interested in a particular topic, such as programming techniques, hobbies, or sports. Users can browse discussions by date and by topic, and within each discussion topic there will be one or several conversation "threads". For example, a bulletin board on the topic of computer programming may have one section dedicated to PHP scripting. Within the PHP topic there could be a variety of questions and conversations, which are the threads. Within a thread the responses to the original post are shown stacked below the original message.

    Bulletin boards are more sophisticated than Wikis. They often require membership to post and offer a great degree of control over who can and cannot post. They let the owner designate people as moderators, which gives them the ability to block individuals from posting, polls and much more.

    Generally bulletin boards work well when you are trying to build a sense of community and there is a potential of many active users adding to the discussions. These can be part of an interactive or a customer service type of website, where support questions can be posted by end-users of your product or service and you can have an expert reply to their questions. The questions and the answers will remain for later visitors to read and they may find answers to their own questions there.

  9. RSS
    RSS means Really Simple Syndication and basically means you publish articles and content online in a format that can be read by special software called an RSS reader. People who install the RSS readers can subscribe to your RSS content. When ever you add new content, people who have subscribed to your RSS feed will immediately be notified through their RSS reader and they can click through to view the latest article, news, or announcements. The questions around RSS publishing are similar to blogging – they can be useful when you have to have something to say. If you regularly issue press releases, are a market leader or are in the publishing business, there might be something to be gained from trying RSS.

Whatever your business, there is certain to be something that you can do to help with your marketing on the Internet, and if you are not doing it yet, you should start it as soon as possible, because you can bet your competitors are. Remember to try and keep your message consistent, make sure the design and the content of your online matches lives up to the quality of what you are doing offline, so that potential customers will be reassured of your legitimacy and professionalism.

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