Once upon a time, business owners set up shop, placed some ads, and maybe hosted a couple of events to drum up customers. But this is the age of the Internet, and that means now you need an online presence for most folks to even consider your business.
That wouldn’t be so bad if you could throw together a website and be done, but the list of online must-haves seems to grow every day. Instead of trying to do it all, make sure you have these four essential elements.
1. A Plan
“Building an online presence isn't something you can do ‘when things aren't busy,’" says business consultant Lara McCulloch (@laramcculloch). Here are some tips she has for figuring out which online elements make sense for your business to prioritize:
- Go where your customers go when they’re making decisions. McCulloch says the easiest customers to attract on the ones already searching online for the products or services you offer. Reach them through search engine optimization and pay-per-click advertising.
- Figure out your customer. "Before you build your online presence, you need to know who you're trying to reach, where they are in their decision making process, what information they need to help them make their decision, and what's going to be meaningful and relevant to them," says McCulloch. That way you can decide how to best reach them.
- Focus on the stuff that matters. According to McCulloch, lots of businesses get caught up in vanity metrics like shares and retweets, but at the end of the day, these numbers may have little impact on the bottom line. Instead, she recommends making the measurement fit the goal: “If your goal is to acquire new customers, you need to be tracking just that – how many new customers did we get as a result of this campaign?”
Pro tip: Jodie Shaw, the chief marketing officer of The Alternative Board (@TAB_Boards), says a content calendar is a key component for planning your online presence.
“Build your calendar around the events that are important to your audience, and ask yourself ‘How can I leverage this opportunity?’” Shaw suggests.
2. A Website
For most businesses, a website is a no-brainer. The tougher call is figuring out what information needs to be on it and what it should look like.
At the very least, content marketing and social media consultant Erika Heald (@SFerika) thinks your website should “have your hours of business and location information (including parking), and it should give your potential customers a feel for what makes your business unique.”
She says that might mean writing your founding story or adding photos of your employees.
Your next step is to add the elements that matter for your industry. For example, Heald says a restaurant owner might want to “include a sample menu, details about take-out and delivery options, and note if you are able to accommodate diners with specific food allergies.”
Heald’s suggestion got us thinking. Here are a few more ideas for industry-specific elements:
- Healthcare: Consider adding what insurance plans you accept and your education and certifications.
- Contractors: Customer reviews and images of successful products may appeal to your clientele.
- Consultants: Tell potential clients the industries you work in and provide case studies of your work.
- Retail: You may want to add e-commerce options and a calendar of promotional events.
Depending on your business, you may also want to highlight certain products or services, add a price list, or offer an online scheduling option.
Pro tip: Notice we didn’t say anything too specific about the look of your site? That's because the trends in design are always changing.
“What works now has no guarantee of working the next day,” says Paul Lemley (@PALemley), the chief digital strategist of Lemley Media. “Where digital marketers, those that view themselves as true ‘growth hackers,’ set themselves apart is through being agnostic when it comes to design, platforms, and strategies.”
That said, you can't go wrong when you keep your design professional and user-friendly. And consider outsourcing the design work to a professional.
3. Quality Content
Heald says, “If you consistently provide interesting and helpful content, you will be able to build up a positive reputation and relationship with customers while making a name for yourself as an expert in your industry.”
McCulloch points out that it’s not just your clients who are looking for amazing content.
“Search engines, like Google, like fresh, relevant, and useful content," she says. "They award content producers who produce stuff that gets a lot of views, keeps people on the page to read the content, and creates shares and comments.”
And if you’re a business owner who hates writing, Heald notes content creation can include “photography, video, or even audio content.”
Pro tip: For those who find content creation intimidating, Heald recommends the book Content Inc. by Joe Pulizzi.
“It has some great exercises to help you identify the right topic to focus on and provides a ton of examples of small business and entrepreneurial efforts that took off thanks to content,” Heald says.
4. Social Media Accounts
Shaw says that owners who skip social media channels may be missing out on potential business.
"People make snap judgments about how stable and safe a business is, and not having a Facebook page or a Twitter could affect sales," she warns.
However, that doesn’t mean you have to be on all platforms all the time. She recommends doing a little research into the demographics the platform appeals to before jumping on the bandwagon.
Pro tip: Before you start tweeting and sharing, review your General Liability Insurance. Most policies can protect you if someone claims your tweet is libelous. Learn more in Tweet or Twibel: A Small-Business Owner’s Guide to Advertising Injury.
About the Contributors
Erika Heald has spent her career using content to drive business results. As a San Francisco-based content marketing and social media consultant, she focuses on helping enterprise technology startups define their content marketing strategy and supporting processes to drive lead generation and customer loyalty.
Since receiving his master’s degree in communication, Paul Lemley has guided multiple organizations through digital transformations, from non-profits, global manufacturers, and e-commerce brands to national franchises. As founder and chief digital strategist of Lemley Media, he brings this background to small and medium-sized businesses looking to grow their digital presence but tie their strategies to return on investment.
A renowned, results-driven marketing expert with over 20 years as a brand consultant for multinationals like Cadbury-Adams, Unilever, and Shell, Lara McCulloch brings ‘Big Brand Thinking’ to small business. Her consulting firm is focused on building growth, reputation, and evangelism for companies around the world. She’s been touted as a pioneering force in the marketing revolution, founding one of the world’s first Twitter communities. McCulloch is also the host of the podcast Start Some Shift.
Jodie Shaw is the chief marketing officer for The Alternative Board (TAB), a global company that helps business owners and leaders create better businesses and lives through advisory boards and coaching. She has over 20 years experience in marketing within B2B environments, with close to 10 of those years spent in franchising, and has worked in various advertising and marketing roles throughout her career. Prior to joining TAB, Shaw was the global chief marketing officer and CEO of a global business coaching franchise, which operated in 50+ countries.