Small Business Success: Blow Your Horn

You’ll probably never hear it put quite this way, but the fact is a fuzzy product idea with a clear market and a well thought out marketing plan is far more likely to succeed than an exquisitely defined product with a fuzzy market and no marketing plan.

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Engineers, academics,and enthusiastic entrepreneurs are prone to come up with great product or service ideas without giving a thought to whether there’s a market need, how they are going to promote it, whether people can or will buy, and whether the product will be competitive.

Back in the old days, when people actually left their houses to shop, merchants would spend big bucks developing beautiful shops. All too often though, come time for the grand opening and marketing roll-out, they’d be out of money and the shop would try to survive on the occasional passersby. If the shop was located in a particularly busy place (location, location, location), this sometimes even worked. But more often, the owner had to go out and beat the bushes or die a slow agonizing, expensive death.

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With more than 100 million websites online now, internet businesses can’t hope for the occasional passerby. So, more than ever, your real business is marketing. You can have the greatest web site in the world, but if no one knows it exists, you’ll be just another ‘404 error, site not found’ in no time.

With a small marketing budget you really can’t afford to make mistakes–which basically means you can’t afford to experiment. We tried a small ad in a major metropolitan magazine, to the tune of $6,000, and didn’t get one response. Not one! We might just as well have flushed the money down the toilet.

So here are some ideas for no-cost marketing:

1) Be sure the major search engines know you exist. Our flying business generated almost two thirds of it’s revenue from the web. Of the search engine generated traffic, Google accounted for 60% of it, Yahoo 20%, MSN 10%, and all the rest added up to another 10%. In other words, make sure Google and Yahoo know you exist and don’t waste time and money on others.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a whole new industry, demanding both art and science to be effective. Rummage around the web and read all you can and what others are doing, then do it too. One of our favorite blogs on the topic is here. His SEO book is quite good, but the blog offers lots of free advice as well.

2) Make sure your meta tags are well thought out and done properly. Some search engines use spiders that search your whole web site to create their own indexes, and some just use your meta tags. Google tends to focus on the extent to which other sites link to you.

3) Read up on how to write web page copy. What you say, and in particular how you keywords occur throughout your text, makes a big difference in your Google Page Rank. If you’re not familiar with Google Page Rank, read up on it here and here.

4) Don’t forget to add alt tags to all your images. These can also make a big difference in Page Rank.

5) Go to the owners of complementary web sites–even folks that would otherwise be competitors if they were inside your market area–and offer to exchange links. Focus on those sites with Google Page Ranks higher than your own. If you can, try to get a link from one or more organizations with a .edu and .org URL.

6) Write articles about what you know and submit them to free PR wires and article marketings services that will propagate them across the web with your URL in them, of course.

7) Being involved and networking is nothing new to marketing. They say that word of mouth is the best way to go. In the cyberspace that means comment in blogs, post on message boards, and every time you do, make sure you leave people a way to check out your website.

8) Do something newsworthy (e.g. low cost product or gift certificates for a charity) and when you do, send press releases to newspapers/magazines. Make sure your website is the focus of the ‘stunt’ and make sure your URL is prominently part of the releases you send out.

9) If you have a MySpace account, announce URL through a bulletin. This is a fairly passive, non-offensive way to let all your contacts know that you’re online.

10) Craigslist.org is a great place to post a free classified ad if you’re selling a product. Announce that you are selling art, and let potential customers know where they can see your art online, for example.

11) If you have a MySpace, FaceBook, LinkedIn, or any other type of social networking account, make sure to post your URL.

12) Email signatures, and instant messenger profiles are the modern day equivalent of a business card. Include your URL in your email signatures.

13) You need customers before you need business cards. That said, while business cards might seem old fashion to some people, a lot of people still use them. These card board rectangles hold information like your name, phone number, and address. You might as well include your URL on there when and if you print some.

14) Friends and family always want to know what you are up to, so send them an email. Let them know that you’ve opened an online business, and ask them to brag to their friends. It’s usually not the friends and family who make the purchases, but more so their friends and family.

15) Talk about your website on your blog. You do have a blog, right? Everything here applies to promoting your blog too.

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