Small Business Primer – Part 5: Branding and Promoting

In the last article, we discussed getting help from other professionals. But now let’s consider what you can do for yourself in the realm of marketing…

Branding and promoting your online business need not be difficult or expensive. Of course, having a small budget will make a big difference, but in this article I’ll provide you with a checklist of the most essential considerations you need to address (as well as links to further reading on the topics covered).

First, let’s just make sure we all know what we’re dealing with.

Branding

Branding a product, service, concept or in our case, a Website, is defined as instilling into the user (customer or prospect) a particular association, through images, slogans, packaging or otherwise. This association then facilitates the easy recognition of a particular product or service each time the stimuli (images, slogans, etc.) are encountered.

In other words, branding is about placing your mark on your Website, and getting your visitors to recognize that mark whenever they see it (whether they’re on or off your site).

Promotion

I’m guessing this doesn’t need too much in way of definition: in short, it means getting visitors to your site.
In a technical sense, promotion is about letting people know about your business, product or service – an activity which in turn will see some percentage of this audience approach you when they need your offering.

In this case, promotion is about letting people know about our site, in the hope that when they have a need for whatever we offer online, they’ll stop by. Whether we promote offline or online makes no difference — its visitors we want, and we’ll get ‘em any way we can!

Branding Your Business

Branding is widely regarded as an art – but that doesn’t mean it’s beyond the reach of the typical business owner. A brand links a need to a solution, and after all, solutions are what you’re selling, right?

Whether you sell a product or service, your offering comprises, on some level, a solution to a particular need. The aim of branding is, eventually, for your brand to become synonymous with the solution to that need. So if you sell Aspirin, you’d be aiming for people to think ‘I have a terrible headache! I need to buy Aspirin!’ (as opposed to simply ‘I need to buy some headache tablets’).

But in the early days of your business, your goals mightn’t be quite so lofty. Before people begin to use your brand name as a substitute for the generic product description, they have to know the name, and understand what it means to them.
So how do you achieve this? Firstly, through use of tools like:

  • Logos
  • Slogans
  • Jingles
  • Mascots

As you develop your brand (and your business) you might look to leverage other tools, like sponsorships – indeed, even the type of promotions you use will reflect on your brand (you don’t often see insurance companies participating in viral marketing campaigns for this very reason). But that’s another story.

So let’s just have a quick re-cap. To develop a brand you must do a little leg work:

  1. identify your target market
  2. identify the need they have
  3. identify how your product meets that need
  4. create a brand identity (represented through graphical and other means) that makes it easy for you to communicate to your audience that your product is the solution to their needs.

I know what you’re thinking: ‘The Google logo sure doesn’t communicate that the Google service will solve my information research problems!’ True. The point here is that the brand name or logo on its own doesn’t need to communicate what it provides. All the elements in your branding campaign must work together to do this – which is why it’s important that your brand name and logo are as memorable as possible (a la Google).

For details of the kinds of tasks that might be included in a complete branding campaign, see this site, which provides a timeline of the tasks undertaken to brand and promote the opening of a Shediac Communications regional office. And this article recounts the tale of the first ever integrated branding campaign run by the Guardian Unlimited in the UK. Take a look!

Branding your Site

In terms of your actual Web pages, branding is reasonably simple. The key to a strong brand is consistency, so make sure your logo appears on every page, preferably in the top left corner. If you use your brand name or slogan often throughout the site, make sure you do it the same way every time, as this signals to users that it’s a title (this is why we recognize that SitePoint is a brand, while site point or Site-point are simply words).

Any literature you send in relation to your business should also follow form:

  • if you send emails, ensure you sign them with the company slogan,
  • if you send invoices, have the logo in the left corner.

There’s a wealth of information on branding. Check out:

Right, let’s move on to the exciting stuff you can do to promote your Website. After all, who cares what your site looks like or of what value the content is if no one comes to see it?

Online Promotion

Okay, first up is simple search engine optimization. At this stage it would pay you to go through your content page by page and scrutinize every word. You need to prepare your content in order for it to be effective. Here are a few pointers:

  • Select your top 5-6 keywords or phrases
  • Be specific: don’t be to general in your choices
  • Check through each of your pages and ensure that these terms appear in:
    1. The title
    2. The meta description
    3. The meta keywords
    4. The content (Most importantly)
  • Make sure you make good use of the header tags <h1>’s and <h2>’s will be regarded by some engines as a good indication of content and thus more relevant
  • Avoid graphical buttons at all costs, if you must use them, put in text alternatives at the bottom of your page

There, that wasn’t so tough, was it? I don’t suggest you take the above as the be all and end all of search engine optimization — it barely scratches the surface! But if you follow those rules it will definitely make difference to your ratings.

If you’ve got the bug, like me, here are few extra resources for you:

And these more general resources:

Search Engine Submissions

Okay, one golden rule: don’t buy or trust software for this all-important task. Most of the software out there is rubbish, and even the best products on the market just do what any well trained chimp could achieve. I’ve only touched upon payed listings here, as covering all the free services is a little out of the scope of this piece.

Here’s a general list of the most important places to which you should submit your site:

Google
This is the biggie for most sites, it powers Yahoo’s search, Netscape’s, recently agreed to provide results for AOL and gives countless numbers of smaller ISP’s and portals the benefit of its service all over the world… for a fee, of course!

Dmoz
Little known but worth its weight in gold, Dmoz is the ‘open source’ human-edited directory that literally powers thousands of sites all over the world. Just find the right category and submit your site. It takes a little while to get listed, but pays its way a thousand times over.

Fast
Otherwise known as AllTheWeb.com, Fast is a Norway-based search engine that, like Google, provides results for many other sites in many other countries, including Lycos.

Altavista
Well, the fat lady ‘aint sung for Altavista yet, and this old girl still pulls plenty of weight — make sure you pay a visit here too.

Inktomi
The Inktomi engine powers msn, …do you need more convincing? It’s just $40 to list, and worth it if your site doesn’t sell something too general. You need to submit through one of their partners — I use www.ineedhits.com There’s is an excellent discussion on the way Inktomi works here.

Yahoo!’s directory
Okay, get this: it costs $300 and they don’t even guarantee you’ll be listed! That said, I’ve not heard of a submitted site that wasn’t listed, and provided there aren’t hundreds of sites in the category you’ve chosen to list in, it could be well worth the money. My advice, though, is to skip this rather large expense unless you have a very healthy budget. Come back to it when you know how your other listings are working out.

Local Search Engines
If you have non-English content, check to see whether there are local versions of Yahoo!, Altavista, etc. in your country or region (and if you’re in Denmark, definitely pay Jubii a visit). Take a little time to research who’s the “big bad” in your neighborhood.

There you have it! If you want to learn a little more and go a little further, check out Searchengineworld.com — it’s pretty much the definitive resource on the subject.

Other Forms of Online Promotion

They say that online promotions are limited only by your imagination. Sure it sounds like a cliché, but it’s literally true! Try:

  • to gain incoming links from sites that have content that compliments your own,
  • boosting your search engine ranking on engines like Google and Fast to attract targeted traffic
  • reciprocal linking – it’s an established and proven way to gain better rankings and more customers
  • including your url in your email signature (and your profile in any online communities you frequent)

This list barely even scratches the surface of the vast array of online promotions methods – check out PromotionBase.com for more.

Offline Promotion

This is a broad field and again, there’s really no limit other than your imagination. You should make sure that your site’s URL is as prominent as it can be on anything that comes into contact with your potential customers:

  • Business cards
  • Correspondence of any kind
  • Telephone answering machines
  • Packaging
  • Merchandise
  • Traditional advertising media

For a detailed explanation of offline promotions in my Website promotion crash course.

Networking

Networking can also provide much targeted traffic. It includes creating partnerships, and promoting directly to prospective customers.

Partnerships can help you tap into a highly targeted audience quickly and with reasonably little expense. Research those businesses that provide complimentary products and services to your own, and compare notes. If your company sells second hand cars, for example, an ideal firm with which you might swap contacts and links could be a driving school.
As for networking direct to prospects, every chance meeting really is an opportunity! Every time you take an out of office meeting, have lunch, visit a trade show, or even visit the dentist, you may discover an unexpected opportunity. Have a supply of business cards handy, and dish them out liberally!

Guerilla Marketing

‘He who dares, wins’ is the battle cry of the guerrilla marketer, and as the volume of Websites and visitors increases, so the need for more extraordinary methods of marketing grows. There’s a plethora of things you can do including:

  • Leaving business cards in relevant library books in your local library
  • Buying expired domains in your niche area and redirecting traffic to your main site
  • All manner of viral marketing techniques

How you do it is largely down to your own imagination, just do everyone a favour: stay away from SPAM, it’s naughty, and no one will like you.

Online marketing rules of thumb

Ok. So there’s an apparently endless wealth of methods you can use to promote your new business. Great. So how are you supposed to know which ones to choose? Here are a few general guidelines that may help you select the tools that will generate the best ROI for your promotions dollar (or hour!), and notes on some of the inevitable pitfalls and money wasters you’ll encounter on your journey.

Think Bricks and Mortar

If you thought running an online business would be vastly different to a traditional one, you’d be wrong. Same game, same rules — but with a wider potential for reward for the small business owner.
The only real difference is the way in which you interact with your customers.

They’ll still come into the shop, (albeit an online shop), they’ll still need help and inspiration to buy, and they’ll still be influenced by both on and offline advertising and media endeavors.

So don’t simply limit your promotions to the virtual or the physical world. Optimize both to your advantage!

Choose your Media Carefully

Choosing the ways in which you market your products will be largely down to budget and what’s appropriate to your particular business.

But also be keenly aware of the media to which your target customers will be exposed the most. There’s no point buying print ads if you sell literacy classes to people who can’t read. Even if they could understand your message, it’s unlikely that they’d buy a newspaper in the first place.

And as we discussed before, make sure your media and the method of promotion you use suits the brand you’re aiming to project. For instance, if you offer independent financial advice, exchanging links with a well-known bank or financial services company is unlikely to reinforce your ‘independent’ status in the eyes of potential customers.

And finally, avoid the delusion that the only way to market online is through search engines. It’s not. Recent studies show that word of mouth and customer satisfaction are far more important to gaining both repeat and new customers.

Steer clear of gimmicks and fads
If you don’t know much about promoting business in the online environment, be aware that this space is plagued by a few common scams that aren’t found in the offline space.

Like most industries and genres of business, though, there are plenty of sharks on the Web. Research any “opportunity” that comes your way carefully, and be sure to get recommendations and referrals that tally up before you buy. Steer clear of:

  • The dodgy directory

    They’re everywhere: Someone calls you up ask you about your business like it’s some kind of interview, and then wants to charge you for inclusion in some lame local business directory. If you do consider it, check the distribution stats and audience profile before you jump.

  • Keyword cons
    "We can sell you exclusive rights to ‘yourkeyword’ across the whole Internet!" Yeah right. Get names, phone numbers, physical addresses, references and proof of success before you buy anything that sounds that good!

  • Email addresses
    "We have 250,000 email addresses in your area who all respond to email marketing" SPAM is evil. If you find yourself being tempted by this kind of thing, I suggest a cold shower and brisk jog round the park. Give yourself a reality check! No-one likes a spammer.

  • Go local
    Yes the Web is global, but there is a compelling argument for starting out locally. You know the area, you know the market a little better, and free advertising is always easier with a local angle.

    So start locally, and when that’s up and running, naturally you should set your sites a little further afield. Make sure you consider the following:

    1. Local business directories (the real ones!)
    2. Local newspapers. If possible, try to get them to do a small write up on your new business.
    3. Shop windows. Sure it’s small time, but word it right and a postcard in the newsagent’s could be worth far more than the time and money it costs you to produce.
    4. Local guides, portals and content hubs. If you’re site sells second hand cars then check everything in your area that relates to this market. Often there might be buying guides, mini portals, review sites and all manner of tools that could help.
  • Have fun
    Remember to have fun and be creative. There’s no ‘right way’ — only you can tell what is right for your business. But enjoy what you do, and take pride in your inventiveness. Any successful business requires 110%, so put in 120% and reap the rewards!

Conclusion

I hope this brief and somewhat broad look at marketing has whetted your appetite, and that you have fun inventing ways to increase your visibility. Remember to stay away from gimmicks and scams and trust your own common sense. It’s all down to you in the end — and who better to promote your business?

Next, we look at your long term success online….

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