Local Online Marketing For Small Business

Thursday Dec 9th 2010 by Gerry Blackwell
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Marketing tips for small businesses that want to reach their local customers online.

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.

Online Marketing Through Social Media

Yelp 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.

Yelp, like Google Places, lets you control and update information about your business at the site, as well as communicate publicly and privately with customers, announce special offers and events and recommend other businesses.

Small Business Trend: Promotion Versus Advertising

Borrell'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 Options

Free 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 Advertising

Social 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 Masses

Everything 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 Services

Do 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

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!
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