When you operate a small business, half the challenge is getting the word out that you exist. Then, you need to act constantly to maintain awareness of your brand among the public and, perhaps, the investment community. Even with a limited budget and resources, marketing is not a matter you can afford to overlook.
Every business plan should budget for paid marketing services — it’s an investment in future sales. Beyond that, there are simple ways to raise your company’s profile at little or no expense. Follow these tips to maximize your credibility, exposure, and brand value, and to make sure your company remains top-of-mind among your customers.
By Carolyn Horwitz
Posted 16 November 2011
Many companies create a Facebook page and/or a LinkedIn profile, and then never think about them again. If you’re not updating your profile, posting, or creating regular tweets, however, you may as well not even have a presence in social media.
You need to have regular postings that will engage your customer base. Offer a discount or small reward in exchange for page “likes” or retweets. Ask questions and post articles that encourage customers to comment or provide feedback. Regular activity on your Facebook and Twitter feeds increases your visibility on search engines and serves as a constant reminder to your clients that you are there for them. Similarly, up-to-date data and regular posts to your LinkedIn profile will boost your credibility and exposure among your professional peer group.
Enhance your likability by offering a detailed and emotionally compelling history on your website. How do your personality and background play into your business? What obstacles have you overcome?
The beauty industry is one that thrives on individuality and an emotional bond with clients. The website for Seattle’s Emerson Salon not only features photos and bios of all company hairstylists, but its entertaining blog encourages return visits, with reviews of celebrity hairstyles and fashions, updates on notable customers, “after” shots, and styling tips and videos. It’s a great example of a site that spurs customer engagement.
Various services, including Survey Monkey and Zoomerang, allow you to host basic online surveys and polls for free. These can be valuable tools for obtaining customer feedback on current or planned products, and gauging the effectiveness of your website and marketing campaigns.
Canopy Management, a Napa, Calif.-based seller and marketer of wines, puts out a Zoomerang survey nearly every month via its social media umbrella The Wine Sisterhood. The surveys — seeking customer opinions on issues such as the popularity of various varietals or what labels catch people’s eyes — can be seen on The Wine Sisterhood’s Facebook and Twitter feeds, blog, and newsletters. Canopy also posts results of the surveys for its community to see, prompting further engagement.
Mary Ann Vangrin, Canopy's director of communications and social media, says that when the company was considering producing a Moscato, it asked customers about their preferences for sweet styles. “Based on that information, we went ahead,” she says. “Women who are really passionate about wine have a lot of opinions and enjoy sharing them.”
Link your survey on your website and Facebook page, and send it to customers on your email list. You might consider offering a small incentive for customers to take the survey, increasing the likelihood and quality of their engagement.
If you have customers who are thrilled with your performance, ask them to submit reviews to exclusive word-of-mouth directories such as Angie’s List or ServiceMagic. As opposed to wider directories such as Yelp, these lists are carefully vetted to include only approved vendors, so your mention represents a solid endorsement that is sure to boost sales.
Chris Cunningham of Service Plus, a heating and air conditioning company in Avon, Ind., says being an approved vendor on Angie’s List has been “a huge thing for our business.” The company has reduced its overall advertising spending, shifting away from direct-mail and phone campaigns to focus on online activity. In fact, Cunningham says, since being added to Angie’s List and concentrating on search engine optimization (SEO), Service Plus has seen annual revenue gains of 20 percent to 30 percent. “We saw a huge increase in the last two years with the number of reviews by our customers,” he adds.
One caveat: Be prepared to follow up with customers who have complaints. An apology and attempt to rectify the situation goes a long way toward persuading the client to retract or change a negative review.
To increase your credibility and gain exposure, establish yourself as an authority. Answer questions posted to LinkedIn. Write a white paper on a relevant issue and add it to your website — then issue a press release to alert the media, especially trade publications. You can also host webinars and podcasts. If you are in a service industry, consider creating how-to videos to post on YouTube, cementing your expertise and further enhancing your SEO.
Legal Files, a Springfield, Ill.-based developer of software for legal services, offers several whitepapers on its site and through aggregators such as WhitePapersDB. Detailed video testimonials and case studies also help to validate the company as an industry leader.
Additionally, join industry associations and get to know their leadership. Inform them that you are available to speak at conferences; in addition to the exposure you will get via attendees, your company will be documented in trade journals, and conference literature and websites. Upload your slide shows and Power Point presentations to SlideShare for viewing by the general public.
Todd Carew, CEO of web design and hosting company NRG Networks, is part of Bristol, Conn.-based Barter Business Unlimited. He says he has created at least 100 websites for group members, exchanging his services for such needs as billboard advertising, office equipment, and cleaning. What’s more, he says, bartering “has brought in customers we wouldn’t ordinarily get,” from places “we don’t traditionally advertise in.” He stresses the importance of signing on with a reputable barter group that “looks over both sides of the transaction to make sure it’s fair and equitable.”
Joining a business-to-business bartering service, such as BizXchange or Merchants Barter Exchange, can be an inexpensive way to broaden your resources. You may be able to trade your goods or services for free advertising, or the assistance of a professional marketing agency. What’s more, membership in a bartering service helps get the word out about your business among like-minded entrepreneurs, and many services host valuable networking events for members. Check the website of the National Association of Trade Exchanges to find a barter group near you.
Consider how your company can contribute to your community and uncover new outlets for your brand by donating your time, products, or services to local charities.
Houston website design and branding agency Adhere Creative is taking this concept to the extreme with an initiative to donate marketing services to one non-profit organization per year. It’s a true win-win: With this plan, Adhere Creative will not only boost the image of the selected charities, but will increase its own profile and credibility through media coverage of the program, testimonials by the nonprofit groups, and exposure to the organizations’ clients, donors, and constituents.
There are numerous ways to enhance your SEO, among them employing a clean site design and incorporating strategic keywords.
When writing copy for your site, incorporate relevant keyword combinations; the frequency of such phrases plays a large role in determining your ranking. Try to imagine the words people might use to search for your business online. Aim for specificity — not just the general type of business, but its precise location, and any specialties.
Many services, such as Google AdWords, have free keyword tools that help you find search terms you can incorporate to enhance your ranking.
Google takes site speed into account when determining rankings. Don’t bloat your site with huge images or excessive Flash elements that slow the loading process. You should also utilize HTTP compression and caching to reduce load time.
If you have a mature business and have established yourself as a valid force in your industry, your company may qualify for a Wikipedia article. This will provide a huge boost to your reputation, brand, overall credibility, and especially, SEO. In fact, a Wikipedia entry is often the first result that appears in an Internet search. To qualify, your business needs to have engendered “significant coverage” in objective, high-profile published sources.
You cannot create or update your company’s Wikipedia page — submissions must be made by neutral third parties. However, you can be active in the article’s discussion section.
Be prepared that with the added exposure can come notoriety: Your article may be amended with errors or negative comments from customers, employees, or competitors. A company Wikipedia article requires diligent monitoring, and the content is essentially out of your control. An internal attempt to edit your company’s article may result in its removal.
Despite the potential for negativity, a Wikipedia article is sure to drive significant traffic to your website, and the legitimacy it provides could be a major contributor to your bottom line.
Putting out a press release may seem old-school, but it works on several levels — by maximizing your reach not only to the media, but to prospective customers and investors. Press releases can also help drive traffic to your website. This helps you to build your brand and gain credibility.
Free wire services such as I-Newswire will distribute press releases from nearly any company. Consider issuing a press release to announce almost any business development: a new product, investor, feature, or website; company events or milestones; personnel changes; charitable works; or when you gain significant customers or partnerships.