Contact, September 2000

Eight Questions Every Small Business Owner
Should Ask Before Jumping On-Line

Barbara Bix and Jonathan Kranz

According to a recent report by Dun and Bradstreet (May 25, 2000), 41% of women-owned businesses indicated that they have Web pages, up from 22% in 1999. Yet the same article reports that over half of women-owned businesses (51%) believe that the Internet has no impact on their businesses. Does this mean that only some businesses profit from having Web pages, that the Web is an ineffective medium, that it's too soon to see the impact, or that "impact" depends on what the businesses do with their Web pages?

In short, is the Internet a door to opportunity or a snare that imprisons time? Before we follow the growing pack marching on-line, it behooves each of us small business owners to ask ourselves some fundamental questions. While the issues are complex enough to merit a hefty book (and indeed, some fine books have been written about on-line marketing), we would like to offer a quick "cheat sheet" that some of our clients have found useful.

1) What marketing objectives are we trying to accomplish?
Marketing dollars are scarce; before we leap into cyberspace—and drag a team of designers, writers and content providers along with us
we need to keep a sharp eye on our organizations' business objectives. Do we want to increase sales? To generate more leads for new business? Increase brand awareness? Encourage repeat business? It's too easy to caught up in the excitement of the Internet's "gee-whiz" technologies and lose sight of our initial marketing objectives. Since our objectives will drive our efforts, from concept through design and maintenance, we need to establish our focus before committing our resources.

2) What decisions do our clientele face and how can we provide them information that is usable and actionable?
One advantage of the Internet is its ability to engage. Suddenly, the audience is in control, with the power to select the information they want, when they want it. Available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with mechanisms for immediate feedback, interaction and direct sales, the Internet distinguishes itself by being active. Sure, we could just put brochures on the Web (many people and organizations have), but we have the exciting opportunity to identify what our target audiences need - and to create on-line tools that meet those needs.

Engaged couples may want to view a photographer's work before asking her to shoot their weddings. Financial planners' clients may want to use on-line tools to calculate the relative impact of alternative investment scenarios. Marketing consultants may want to schedule use of a room for focus groups. Groups of women with similar businesses may want to particulate in on-line forums with their peers to get legal, accounting, or marketing tips. The Internet can do much more than tell people about us -- it can be a means for people to work with us.

3) What kind of on-line marketing should we use?
There's more to the Internet than posting Web sites. In fact, email is the most popular aspect of the Internet. Many consultants have found that an email newsletter provides an effective way to demonstrate value and build relationships by keeping their audiences abreast of market trends, offering advice, and sharing case examples.

The Web itself presents alternatives. A beautician might want to establish visibility by participating in a local discussion group run by the city. Or a law firm might create and run its own forum to personalize its presence and generate community good will. Again, the methods will vary depending on the audience, objectives, and budget.

4) How will the on-line marketing be integrated into the rest of the marketing mix?
Most on-line marketing will be just one element in a continuum of efforts including collateral development, advertising, public relations, community relations and more. In a study that we conducted with Boston-area healthcare providers, we found that most organizations see the Internet as a supplement to, not as a replacement for, traditional media. Certainly we should obey the same rules that have applied in our traditional efforts: create a consistent look and feel for coherent image-building and branding; match marketing methods with objectives; spread our contact information everywhere.

But the real fun
and the key to achieving real impactis cross-fertilization, in which all the pieces interconnect to create a whole greater than the sum of the parts. We can use our collateral to promote the Web site; we can use the Web site to prompt telephone inquiries about our services; and our publicity engine can drum up enthusiasm for our programs, including references to our corresponding chat rooms and discussion threads on our Web site; and so on. The net result is a "wheel" of marketing activity that continually rolls forward.

5) How will we reach our intended audiences?
Without promotion, a Web site can be a lonely island among oceans of competing sites vying for attention. Funny thing: after accumulating years of expertise in conventional promotion methods, we often neglect to apply them to our new sites. Web site promotion is not limited to banner ads and link exchanges; advertising, publicity and direct mail are still powerful tools for getting the word out. And don't neglect the obvious: print the Web address on all stationery and collateral. Conversely, don't make the search for your phone number an "Easter egg hunt" on your Web site - post it generously.

Build your Web site with your promotion plan in mind. Achieving high search engine rankings, for example, takes some sophistication, including careful manipulation of titles and meta tags written within the site's HTML code. Don't be afraid to dive into the code; we know more than one business owner who boosted search engine site rankings from the netherworlds to a prominent position simply by changing the HTML titles on each of their Web pages.

6) What do we want our audience to do as a result of our marketing efforts?
Let's return to our objectives. If our purpose is to extend brand awareness, we shouldn't build an application to generate leads. If we want more appointments, we should create a form that allows customers to schedule appointments on-line. When we want business leads, we must make it easy for referral sources to find our contact information and samples of our work quickly. Again, the emphasis is not on the passive delivery of information, but on the construction of actions that serve our marketing purposes.

7) What resources will we need to accomplish our goals?
Constructing a Web site is only the beginning. In addition to software, server and design expenses, Web sites demand a considerable dedication of time and talent. The proper promotion, planning, and maintenance of a good site requires resources that are frequently overlooked. Look at the number of large well-known businesses that invested in Superbowl ads to promote their Web sites and attract an initial visit. To encourage repeat visits, Web sites need constant change just as sharks need constant movement. Fresh content drives traffic, and in complex businesses, that content is often required from the people who have the least amount of time to spare: the business-owner or one of the other principals. In addition, we have to be prepared to respond quickly, within 24 hours if possible, to all email messages and other contacts our sites generate. Even as we are developing our sites, we need to concurrently develop a plan for updating and maintaining our Internet presence.

8) How will we measure success?
It's tempting to become seduced by the number of "hits" as an indicator of success. But not only are hits a poor measure of our Web success (they record every file retrieved by the visitor, including graphics and icons), they are almost irrelevant to our overall marketing objectives. We need to know if our efforts reached their aims - be they awareness, leads, appointments, or "good will" - and if so, how often and at what expense. It's not enough to know that a site has generated "queries", As with any good marketing campaign, we need to track the number of queries received over time, and the number of queries converted into actual business. It's also helpful to assess whether the queries are incremental or replace queries that formerly came from other sources.

Any analysis of cost-per-lead not only provides a means for measuring an on-line tool's effectiveness against that of a traditional medium, it gives us insight into the relative impact of various pages and features within a Web site itself. It gives us an opportunity for improvement.

The Internet is an exciting and fertile ground that challenges us to think both strategically and practically about our marketing objectives. Answering our eight questions won't resolve your issues, but it will provide a good starting point for launching your efforts onto the ever-changing, ever-growing realms of cyberspace.

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