Ecommerce may be a great way for small businesses to take their wares to the world, but many small business owners just want a marketing strategy that attracts local customers into their bricks-and-mortar stores.
What they often fail to realize is that online marketing and advertising can help them reach those customers, too while driving both repeat business and new customer acquisition — even for strictly offline businesses.
Local Online Marketing Tools and Tips
Kijiji (now called eBay Classifieds), the free online classified ad service, was one of the first local online selling tools. But the emergence of Google Places and locally-targeted online advertising and social media sites such as Yelp and CitySearch, has made local online marketing hugely important for small businesses.
Borrell Associates, a company that tracks advertising spending in the U.S., reported recently that local online advertising would grow nearly 18 percent, from $13.7 billion in 2010 to $16.1 billion in 2011. That’s faster than online ad spending overall (14 percent).
According to Larry Shaw, Borrell’s vice president of research, the cost of some paid opportunities may be “out of reach” of the smallest small businesses. And only the most committed and in-need small businesses are likely to spring for an outsourced marketing campaign of the kind that Aveta Marketing (and scores of other firms) offer.
John Arnold, president of Aveta and principal in John Arnold Marketing, said that Aveta’s small business clients spend $3,000 and up a month for services and online ad buys. Anything less and they wouldn’t get an adequate return on their investment, Arnold said.
However, there’s hope for budget-restricted small businesses.
Free Online Marketing Services
The good news, both Shaw and Arnold said, is that there are lots of free or low-cost opportunities, and they’re generally the best place to start. The bad news: too many small businesses fail to take advantage.
“In general, [small businesses] aren’t using these services, although they’re definitely on a big upward swing,” Arnold said. “Tons and tons of people are jumping aboard, but for the majority of small businesses, it’s still really a foreign concept.”
Your competitors, in other words, could already be using local online marketing — and if you’re not, you risk losing business to them.
Begin with the free (or nearly free) options: local search, website modifications to make your site more locally-oriented (and discoverable), locally-targeted social media services such as Yelp and promotional services such as Groupon and LivingSocial. We outline these options below.
Free Online Marleting with Local Search
“I hate to mention only Google,” said Arnold. “But as usual it’s king in this new local search world. It’s got the local search thing down pretty well.”
Google also has a commanding 70 percent share of the search engine market, so it’s clearly the service you want to focus on most. That said, Bing, the Microsoft search engine, Yahoo, the perennial number-two-ranked search site, and others have similar services.
When people make locally-specific Google search requests, as they increasingly do — Japanese restaurants in Milwaukee, for example, or bicycle repairs in San Jose — Google finds businesses that fit the criteria and presents some of them at the top of the search results, showing their location on a map.
Your business might already show up in these lists because Google finds you on its own — from directories in which you appear or your website — but the information could be incomplete or incorrect. It may also be presented alongside competitors’ businesses instead of on its own, or it may be ranked lower than competitors’ firms.
Take Control of Your Local Search Listing
Start by going to Google Places where you can open a free account and add complete information about your business, including pictures. (Then do the same for Bing and Yahoo if you want to be thorough.)
Second, Arnold said, modify your existing website to boost its local content. “A lot of businesses don’t put their physical address on every Web page, for example. They should.”
The easier it is for Google (or any search engine) to deduce your physical location from the information on your site, the more likely it is to index your business for local search and rank it highly. “If you’re not including this information, you could be missing out,” Arnold said.
Beware of self-appointed local search gurus who will charge anywhere from $200 to $1,000 a month to get you a prominent local search listing. “When they say they’ll make you number one on Google, a red flag should go up,” Arnold said.