Online Marketing Through Social MediaYelp and CitySearch are a special type of social media site that share attributes with local search. Consumers go to these sites to find businesses in their town or city, or wherever they're traveling. They can leave reviews of a business or product and connect with other consumers to share their experiences -- and frequently do. Marketing experts like Arnold counsel small businesses not to fear online reviews. The odd bad review may even be a good thing, because consumers are distrustful of sites with only glowing reviews.
Small Business Trend: Promotion Versus AdvertisingBorrell's Shaw noted a trend toward small businesses spending more on promotion rather than advertising -- 60 percent up from 50 percent a couple of years ago, he said. Sites such as Groupon provide a free way to promote your business by offering special deals to its members. Consumers register at the site, and it regularly emails them deals. Businesses don't pay Groupon to include their deals (although there are premium for-fee services.) The cost is the lost revenue and profit on each sale. "It becomes a cost-of-[customer]-acquisition thing," Arnold said. "The payback is you get a new customer." Plus the return you'll see on repeat business from at least some of those new customers.
Paid Online Advertising OptionsFree services are a great place to start, said Arnold, but can sometimes only go so far. There are three main ways to reach local customers online with paid advertising: search engine local keywords, and locally-targeted social media and display advertising. Through services such as Google AdWords, you can bid for search engine keywords that include a local descriptor -- massage Tallahassee, for example. When a consumer types in one of your terms, your ad appears beside the main search results. You only pay Google when someone clicks on the link to go to your site. Other search engines have similar "pay-per-click" paid search services. The trick, said Arnold, is to do your research and pick optimal keywords or phrases. "The number-one mistake first-time paid search users make is to not do that research," he said. "It's strategic. You have to put a lot of thought into it." Or get help.
Targeted AdvertisingSocial media sites can often identify where a member is located from the member's profile information. These sites won't connect you directly, but will sell you ads that appear only on pages of members in your area. "This is one of the great new ways to reach local customers," Arnold said. Ad networks, such as ValueClick Inc. and Mindset Media automatically insert display ads into Web pages on the fly and split revenues with page publishers. (Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are also in this game.) Now these networks offer local targeting. They will insert your ad in a page only if the IP address of the person requesting it indicates they're in your area. "This is huge because now you can place narrowly targeted ads," Arnold said. And they can appear on any page. Someone sitting in your California town reading the Detroit Free Press might see your ad.
Online Marketing to the Mobile MassesEverything we've discussed so far can also be directed to mobile users. Sending promotional offers to mobile users based on their current location is a hot trend, Shaw said. He cites one taco restaurant that had success acquiring new customers by giving away already prepared food from cancelled catering contracts to mobile phone users within a certain radius of its outlet. More traditional mechanisms, such as email campaigns, can of course be locally targeted too, especially if you're doing it yourself and your main object is to reach existing customers to encourage them to buy again.
When to Pay for Online Marketing ServicesDo you need to spend big bucks on local online advertising and marketing services? Arnold said small businesses that need to educate the market -- about themselves or their product -- probably need professional help and an integrated, managed campaign. And any company looking to win or protect market share will likely need paid advertising. The mechanisms and modes that work best vary from business to business. But the great thing about online marketing is that you can easily measure results using analytics tools from providers such as Google and Facebook. And Arnold said, you must measure results to ensure you getting the best bang for your buck. But first exploit the free services to pick the low-hanging fruit.
Gerry Blackwell is a freelance technology writer based in London, Canada. Read his blog, AfterByte
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