In today's business climate, money is tight and competition is fierce. The Internet and 24-hour news cycle flood our brains with information and advertising. But how much of it sticks?
The midmarket business owner needs to spend advertising money wisely to make the maximum impact-that's obvious. But what about Web 2.0 technologies such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn? How do you build an online community and keep it from falling into neglect? In an age where communication is everywhere, how do you best extract feedback from your clients? It's a big, bad, branded world out there, but here are some tips that won't break your budget and build a brand that puts you ahead of the pack.
1. It's Not (All) About Money
Enterprise companies across the globe spend money on advertising at a rate that suggests saturation is the key to visibility. But is it? To those of us who can't walk through Tokyo, London or New York without seeing Golden Arches and Nike Swooshes, the answer might seem "Well, duh." But for many, if not most, SMBs don't have the advertising budgets to erect Blade Runner-scale neon billboards. The SMB owner must look to innovative marketing opportunities in order to build the brand without breaking the budget.
"I'm in the process of launching a new business of my own," says BL Ochman, a Web and blog marketing and branding consultant who runs What's Next Blog. "It's about creating a community and letting people know who you are and asking for input. That's just not going to cost any money to do."
Build an audience by engaging people, Ochman suggests. The more you do that the less you need to spend on advertising. Unless that audience is in place, however, a marketing budget is indispensable. "Unless you have people already engaged, you better think about how you're going to drive traffic to the site, and unless you already have an audience you cannot do this without money," she says. "An overnight success still takes 11 years."
2. Web 2.0 Is Your Oyster
If you give customers and potential clients an interactive forum, your company's name (and logo) is at the top of their minds. Ochman suggests setting up a blog and offering fresh content in an interactive environment. Keep in mind, however, that there must be a reason for an online community to grow -- it's not something that can be forced. SMBs can easily make the mistake of thinking, "If you build it, they will come." Keep content and conversation original, and foster an ongoing dialogue by raising questions and proposing solutions in an informal setting. "You need to concentrate on your niche," she says. "There's a difference between buckshot and a targeted approach." Ochman says the top three most important online networking tools are Twitter, LinkedIn and the blog community. "You cannot succeed in any business if you're not in that [blog] community," she says. "They're much more influential than social media, frankly."
Michael Alter, president of Glenview, Ill.-based SurePayroll and architect of the recent survey, "Small Businesses Harnessing the Power of Social Networking for Business," says SMBs need to choose the social media that best fits their market. "Go out and hire yourself somebody who's between 22 and 35, ask them how they communicate and let them communicate your brand for you online," he says.
3. Harvest Feedback from Your Clients. Directly
The Internet has made expression of opinion easier than ever. This can be a good and bad development. Many company Web sites now come equipped with blogs where visitors can leave comments and other forms of feedback. However, there's a big difference between allowing a customer to punch in an opinion and taking some time to speak -- yes, speak -- to the client directly. While the Web essentially comes with an integrated feedback loop, a phone call or an office meeting is your personal extension of the brand. And no matter how you cultivate feedback, Ochman says it's absolutely critical, even if the feedback is negative. "Companies are afraid: What if they say something bad?" she says. "You should be so lucky that someone tells you what they don't like, because most of the time they walk out the door and they never come back."
Alter agrees using social networks to solicit feedback is crucial. "Social networking is not so much about advertising as it is about feedback," he says. "If you can start to do that now, the advantage you have as a small business owner is that most of your competitors are not." Alter says if your business provides good service, you will get comments on your site that will drive more traffic than anything the company would post. "If you use [social media] to reach out to your existing customers, you can start to create a web from that," he says.