So, you’ve had your light-bulb moment. You’ve got the big idea that’s going to make your fortune or save the world. Increasingly, it’s become important for start-up companies to have a great online marketing strategy as part of their business plan. It’s even more important if your business doesn’t have a public facing “bricks ‘n mortar” presence, like a store on the high street, where you could rely on passing trade to get sales and spread the word.
There are very few start-ups who can afford a sparkling 60 second TV ad at prime time to introduce and explain their company to the great general public. Even if you did that, with Sky+ and the like, that’s not even a guarantee that someone won’t just fast-forward past your work of art to get back to the programme they are watching.
Marketing plans have to work much harder and be a lot smarter and more targeted, whether you’re introducing a new company to an existing market and so have to cut through the other marketing noise, or creating a new market and therefore have to convince people that you’ve solved a problem they never knew they had.
Over the next few months, I’ll be writing several more in depth articles for entrepreneurs about some of the disciplines of online marketing that are most useful for helping your target audience/customers to find your business. So this is by no means a definitive list, but an introduction to the most cost-effective, measurable means of marketing your start-up or small business.
Online marketing is a huge area and growing all the time. The best aspect as far as I’m concerned is that it is so much more measurable than traditional marketing. It’s much more difficult to track how many people come to your site as a result of seeing a leaflet or print ad in the press or a magazine. So when money is tight, it’s wise to spend it in the most effective way possible…
SEO – Search engine optimisation
A few years back, it was estimated that up to 70% of ALL online journeys began on Google, with a user typing a query into the search engine. SEO is the art of ensuring that your website is the one that customers see when they search for relevant keywords. The three most used search engines are Google, Yahoo and Bing, with Google taking the lion’s share of search traffic (between 60-70%).
For businesses on a very small budget SEO is a relatively cheap way to get traffic (and thus business). There are hundreds of online resources that you can, erm, Google for (and if they come up on the front page, you know they’re good!) which will go into great depth about all the technical info of how to make your website “crawlable” by the Google ”spiders”. There’s also quite a lot of info on Google itself, which is quite useful. It’s good to review the information from Google often as they change their algorithms quite regularly, requiring you to tweak your SEO strategy for best results.
But there are a few basics:
- Don’t use too much Flash, especially at the beginning of your website’s code. Although Google is now a lot better at reading Flash and many agencies have developed applications to deliver Google-readable Flash to your site, it’s still best practise to use it only in small doses. (Using Flash also makes your site more inaccessible to iPhone users, a large and growing audience, who also usually have more disposable income – worth leaving out the Flash to make your site more usable.)
- Make your URL as relevant to your business as possible. Google gives you extra “points” for having your URL tell people what you’re selling (it’s seen as more relevant to searchers). If you’re selling teddy bears, try to buy a URL with the words “teddy” and “bear” in it. This is obviously going to be more difficult in more popular industries. But do your best – you may need to be a bit imaginative.
- Make your URLs as “human-readable” as possible. Use words, rather than numbers and symbols to structure your URLs. Using the teddy bear example, teddybears.com/dyt/102%&$9974/guedg will not perform as well as teddybears.com/catalogue/largeteddybears/BobtheBear
- If you can afford to, buy the [.com] and [.co.uk] versions of your URL, as well as any other countries’ domains where you may be trading. This makes it easier for customers in other countries to find your company and protects you from “domain squatters” who buy up a different version of your URL in order to steal your customers once you get more successful.
- Try not to duplicate content across several pages of your website. If you need to say the same thing, use different words on different pages.
- Make your page titles, other meta data and any content as relevant as possible. Think about what people are likely to search for and enter into their search query. On your home page, make the page title to TeddyBears.com – buy teddy bears online. If your website is not yet a household name, people are unlikely to be searching for it. So make sure you use terminology that is relevant.
- Don’t repeat key-words in a non-sensible manner, just so that you’ve got them on the page many times. Google may actually penalise you for this.
- Try to get external links to your site from reputable websites. I will deal with this in more detail in a later article, but links from websites from news and social media websites can increase your reputation on Google, increasing your position in the search results – especially if lots of people share the link to your site with their friends.
PPC – Pay per click advertising
PPC advertising is the “sponsored links” results on the search engines, where you bid for traffic via search keywords which may be searched by your target audience. The more generic the keywords you are bidding on, the more other companies will be bidding on them, the more expensive they will be to buy the resultant traffic.
You pay per click (as opposed to per sale), so you need to make sure you are really bidding on the most relevant keywords and not just throwing money away. There are some practices that start-ups can follow to make PPC less expensive, while attracting a more targeted audience:
- Bid on “long tail” keywords as these are more specific and therefore less likely to be bid on by other companies. Using the teddy bears example again, bidding on the search term “teddy bears” will put you up against people like Hamley’s, Toys R Us and other household names with much bigger budgets than a small unknown start-up. So instead, you can bid on a more specific term: “bespoke teddy bears with movable arms and legs”, tapping into your products’ more niche qualities.
- Make sure your campaign text is relevant and readable. This is the text that appears below the headline and is what users will base their decision to click on your link instead of anyone else’s. Make sure it is relevant to the keyword and to what you are selling. If someone has searched for “stuffed toy dogs” and your campaign text only mentions teddy bears, they probably won’t click on your link. So when bidding on the keywords “stuffed toy dogs”, make sure your campaign text mentions these words.
- Link to a relevant landing page or category page. If a potential customer has searched for “stuffed toy dogs” take them to a page with listings for these types of products or at least a landing page which describes your stuffed toy dog selection, with links to the relevant selling pages. There is no point just linking to your homepage; if someone has searched for a specific part of your catalogue, show them those products!
- Avoid bidding wars on big brands’ trademarks. It’s very tempting if you’re selling teddy bears to start bidding on the Trademarked name of a big teddy bear seller, in the hope of getting some of their spare traffic. Don’t do it. You may get some traffic out of it, but you will also annoy a much bigger (richer) competitor, who has the budget to crush your campaigns with some expensive bidding. It’s just not worth the potential fallout. Though feel free to check what product keywords they’re bidding on (especially the long tail keywords) and bid on those instead.
- Check your internal search logs. If your site has its own internal search functionality, see what people are searching for and what keywords they are using to search. If patterns emerge and you notice terms that are used frequently, it is worth testing these out within your PPC campaigns.
- Test. Analyse. Tweak. Repeat. PPC campaigns should be constantly monitored, evaluated and tweaked as necessary. You can’t just decide on a strategy, publish a campaign and think that’s it. Check your ROI, check the performance of individual keywords and search terms. Check the performance of landing pages you’ve directed searchers to and maintain their relevance to the search terms. Monitor competitors and their position in the results.
Everyone’s got a Facebook page, right? So everyone knows how to “do” social media, right? Wrong. From Nestlé to Habitat, and more recently LA Fitness, the Interwebs are crawling with examples of companies who should know better getting Social Media very, very wrong. Social media can be a cheap way to get engagement and traffic. But it’s not just a case of throwing up a Facebook page and Twitter feed; you also need to know how to interact with your customers and potential customers on social media.
- Get started. The easiest way to get started is to set up a Facebook “like” page and get all your friends to join. Start a Twitter feed and get all your friends to follow you and retweet your musings. Google+ is growing fast (although at the moment is it more popular with techies and media types) so it’s worthwhile setting up a company page there too- even if it’s just to make sure no-one else steals your brand name.
These are by no means the only social media channels, but they are where the most number of people are already interacting, so start here. You should have as much company information as possible on your Facebook and Google+ pages, as well as links to relevant pages on your own website to take advantage of any SEO benefits.
- Follow influential people in the relevant industry or who have an interest in your product. If they tweet something relevant to your topic, reply with something well constructed and entertaining – they are more likely to retweet a witty or informative reply than a request for a retweet (I also think requests for a retweet look a little desperate, better to get retweeted on the quality of your content!)
- Don’t just tweet or post to Facebook about your company. Make it interesting for people to follow, rather than just a sales pitch. Mix it up a little, but make sure it’s relevant: if you are selling teddy bears, a link to a Star Wars video is unlikely to be of interest to your followers/fans. But if it’s a video of the Darth Vader – Obi Wan Kenobi lightsabre fight with teddy bears dressed as the charaters, that might be more interesting.
- Experiment. Test the best times to post to social networks and the frequency that’s most effective. Some companies post once a day and find that this works, others post hourly and find that their customers respond to this. The best way to find out what will be best for your customers is to test. It may be that certain content does better at certain times, so keep experimenting.
- Make your posts relevant to the platform. It’s easier to ask questions on Facebook where you can keep track of replies, but you can also ask questions on Twitter and get people to use hashtags to identify the topic. This can have the happy result of creating a trending topic too, which would be a very good thing. Twitter has a strict character limit, so keep longer posts to Facebook and make Tweets short and to the point.
- Use URL shortening tools, like bit.ly or similar. On Twitter you only have 140 characters to get your point; don’t waste them with long URLs. The advantage of using a URL shortener like bit.ly is that it also tracks clicks so you can see how many people clicked on that link – useful if you don’t have a sophisticated analytics tool on your website.
- Get onto relevant blogs and forums if there are any. This can be a tricky balancing act and so to start with I would suggest getting familiar with participants, seeing what’s acceptable , whether they mind links to company websites. I would suggest a soft-sell approach. Nobody wants hard sell on a forum. If you can be subtle about it and “mention” your product in the course of chatting to someone, that can often be seen as helpful.
- Extend your social world. Once you’ve got your Facebook and Twitter strategies working well, you can start to experiment with other types of social media. If you have the time, budget and expertise to make informative, entertainment videos, you could launch a YouTube channel.
Affiliates are websites that are paid by you to drive traffic and sales to your site. These may be specialist websites, blogs and forums run by experts or fans of your industry or product, which attract a lot of traffic from like-minded people. They can also be voucher code sites or price comparison websites. You can either arrange to pay for clicks through to your site (not a great deal) or for confirmed sales (more advisable). There are various affiliate networks you can join, either through an agency or directly.
- The benefits of affiliate marketing is that you tap into the traffic of a popular website within the area of interest to your potential customers. To go back to teddy bears, perhaps you would have as an affiliate a blog that posts funny pictures of how people have dressed up their teddy bears.
- The downside is that you may end up paying affiliates for sales you would have got anyway. This is especially a problem with voucher code sites, where potential customers have come to your site through a search on Google (either SEO or PPC) and got all the way to the basket where they see you accept discount vouchers. They will then go and search for a discount voucher to redeem on your site. There is evidence that they would have purchased anyway, but now you will need to pay the affiliate (in this case the voucher code site) for the sale.
- Without maintaining strict guidelines for your affiliates, you could also find yourself bidding against them for your keywords when running a PPC campaign. While they can be useful for bidding on the more generic and costly keywords, leaving you to concentrate on the cheaper and better converting long tail keywords, you should never let an affiliate bid on your trademark or company name. You will end up paying over the odds for a keyword that you should get for next to nothing.