Why Small Businesses MUST Get Serious About an Online Presence

The technology takeover is here. As a small business owner, you know you can’t fight it anymore. Whether you’re excited, apprehensive, or both, you’ve decided that the best thing for your business is to get tapped into the opportunities available to you online. But where do you even start? From building your own website to setting up social media profiles, joining directories, advertising, and more, your digital checklist is more than a little overwhelming.

It’s difficult to know where to start, where to focus, and where to invest the marketing dollars and time you have. And as you may suspect, the stakes are fairly high: If you don’t connect with consumers in the right ways and invest in the right social channels, your efforts could very well have no impact—or worse, a detrimental effect—on your business. Here are a few specific tactics to help you establish and grow your company’s online presence:

Clean out the skeletons in your online closet. If you’re a newcomer to the Internet scene, you may be surprised to find that it’s already familiar with you. Specifically, one of many online business directories has probably pulled your physical address and other information together into what’s called a “skeleton profile.” The problem is, many skeleton profiles contain inaccurate or incomplete information. The same website (such as Google, Bing, or Yelp) might even have two or more different profiles for the same business.

Taking ownership of your preexisting online identity reduces confusion for potential shoppers, encourages existing customers to write reviews for you on the correct page, and reduces the amount of administrative work you’ll need to do to monitor and manage your online reputation over time.

Set up an online storefront… As you first develop your online presence, you may not have much free time or extra money to devote to this task. That’s okay—according to Tsai, it’s perfectly fine—even advisable—to take a minimalistic approach when building and furnishing your online storefront (i.e., your website). Bells and whistles aren’t nearly as important as making sure your website is professional, accurate, and representative of your offline storefront experience in terms of general tone and branding.

Most importantly, your website needs to have the right keywords (and enough of them) located throughout the main and secondary site pages to ensure that you’ll rank in the first few pages when prospective customers are searching for what you offer. Think about the terms customers might use when searching for a business like yours. For instance, if you own a heating and cooling repair company, you’d want to sprinkle words and phrases like ‘central heating,’ ‘A/C repair,’ ‘HVAC,’ ‘broken heater,’ etc. into your website’s copy.

…and monitor the neighborhood. One of the most exciting—and most frightening—aspects of the Internet is that it opens up a constant conversation among businesses, existing customers, and potential customers. Consumers who have used your product or service can publicly post glowing reviews or scathing criticisms, neither of which you can completely control, and both of which can have a marked effect on your present and future success.

Positive and negative online feedback is valuable, because each gives you real-time feedback about what’s working and what’s not. Plus, while you often can’t erase negative feedback, you can post information informing consumers how you have addressed the problem. Often, you can even apologize to the original poster directly. An easy way to track what’s being said about your business is to set up Google alerts, which will send you emails when your business name, your name, or any other relevant search term is found on the web.

Put yourself on the map. Most likely, you identified a few skeleton profiles when you searched for your business on popular online directories. Now it’s time to strategically augment them. Based on your location, identify the top three online directories consumers use when searching for the product or service you offer. For instance, social and crowd-sourced sites like Yelp and Foursquare tend to be more popular in major metro areas, while more traditional directories like Yellow Pages, Citysearch, and MerchantCircle are utilized in more rural areas. Make sure you prioritize search engine directories like Google, Yahoo, and Bing.

Work on your social life. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know how popular social media has become. But did you know that, when used effectively, social media sites can increase your business’s visibility, give you an opportunity to present a more personal side to potential customers, drive awareness through social activity and check-ins, and turn casual buyers into true fans?

A little research will usually show you which sites your target market spends the most time on. And don’t just stick to status updates. Bear in mind that the old saying ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ is as true online as it is in the ‘real world.’ It’s been shown that a Facebook status update with a photo and caption generates around four times higher engagement than text alone does, as long as the content is appropriate for the channel and your audience.

Do regular maintenance. It’s a given that over time, your business will evolve. You’ll modify your logo, employees will come and go, information and photos will become outdated, you’ll introduce new products, etc. That’s why it’s important to set up a regular online maintenance schedule—Tsai recommends doing it at least quarterly—to make these necessary updates to your website and various online profiles.

Consider hiring pros to boost your reputation. After you have established a basic online presence, the sky is the limit in terms of how involved, extensive, and creative your interactions with consumers can be. But if you’re like most small business owners, the basics are all you have the time and resources to cover yourself. Know that there are paid-for services to help you connect even more quickly and effectively with potential and existing customers.

Be smart with your budget. In one very important way, establishing and growing your online presence is no different from establishing and growing your physical one: You need to be financially savvy. For instance, the last thing you want is to blow your overall budget in the course of creating a too-ambitious online marketing plan.

Building a plan for your online reputation before you dive in will save you countless hours down the line, so take the time to do things right up-front and to cultivate a solid understanding of the work ahead of you.

Don’t feel that you have to do everything yourself. You may find that one of your employees has the skills and interest to take on these kinds of projects, which is an ideal situation for the business since you can keep things in-house and support career development for someone on your team.

In the end, don’t be afraid to ask for help, especially if you’re under time constraints. Whatever the outcome here, the first step is to understand what you need to do and be thoughtful about how you take on this very important piece of your business.