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When a group of seasoned banking experts got together last year to form a new community bank, they knew they would have their work cut out for them. To succeed in the intensely competitive banking world, they needed to gather not only significant industry expertise and marketing power, but create a full-fledged online presence reflecting the bank's image as professional, knowledgeable and credible.
In the months preceding its grand opening last year, the executive team at Penn Liberty Bank in Wayne, Pa., held a series of brainstorming sessions to help identify potential customers among Southeastern Pennsylvania residents and business owners. During those sessions, the bank team chose to focus first on building a fully functional Web site, opting to retain the bank's traditional logo and some standard items online while frequently refreshing the content.
The team decided that once the Web site was running smoothly, other online marketing efforts would follow, such as e-newsletters and better keyword placement in popular search engines.
But Penn Liberty's online marketing focus is not unique among small businesses. Many small companies realize that the days of relying on traditional marketing and advertising methods to build and sustain their businesses are long gone. Online marketing techniques, in the form of interactive Web sites, electronic newsletters, Web site advertising, participation in online discussion groups and Web logs, and keyword placement in search engines are now more common, says Holly Berkley, owner of Berkley Web Strategies, a San Diego Web design and online marketing company and the author of Limited-Budget Online Marketing for Small Business.
"Online marketing is the most cost-effective form of advertising. Unlike when people watch TV or listen to the radio, Internet users are actively looking for a solution to a problem," she says. "And it's trackable, making it a great way to test different marketing campaigns without spending a lot of money on print brochures or magazine advertising."
Executives at Penn Liberty Bank agree with these observations. "The Internet allows us to reach further in terms of geographic location, so people are more aware of our presence," says Amy Burke, vice president of community banking and marketing at Penn Liberty. "That had to be our top priority during our first year of business."
For many small businesses, however, name recognition is just the tip of the online iceberg. Increasingly, businesses are seeing substantial leads and sales resulting from their Web marketing efforts.
Lisa Zaslow, founder of Gotham Organizers in New York, says her online marketing efforts, in the form of a simple Web site, e-newsletter and search engine optimization, are paying off handsomely. Last year, nearly half of the company's business—helping people and businesses reduce clutter to be more productive—came through her online lures and that percentage has grown every year, she says.
The basis of any online strategy is an effective Web site—one that makes customers want to stay for a while instead of quickly switching to another site, says Shel Horowitz, president of FrugalMarketing.com of Northampton, Mass., and author of Grassroots Marketing: Getting Noticed in a Noisy World.
It doesn't take much money to build an effective site, just some research and thought about whom is likely to buy a company's product and how to craft a Web presence that appeals to that market segment, Horowitz says. Relevant research could include studying competitors' sites or tracking popular keywords and then using them effectively in your Web copy.
"Online, you can have as much presence as a Fortune 100 company," Horowitz says. "It's shocking how some very large companies' Web sites can be so confusing. Sometimes you can't even figure out who the audience is."
Although companies can hire high-priced consultants to develop sophisticated sites, it's not really necessary, at least at first, experts say. Instead, small-business owners can build bare-bones Web sites themselves using relatively inexpensive commercial software. Hands-on courses also are widely available.
Gotham Organizer's site is a prime example of the do-it-yourself approach. The site "isn't fancy, but it gets the job done," Zaslow says. She spent about two days building the site. It takes Zaslow less than 10 minutes to make a minor update, such as revising her newsletter and adding new media mentions.
"I consider my Web site as critical to the success of my business as my telephone number," she says.
As a business grows, however, small business owners might opt for a more sophisticated Web site approach, perhaps adding the ability to handle transactions and gather data—development features that can cost several thousand dollars.
Using search engine optimization to draw traffic to a site has become an increasingly important way for companies to make sure existing and would-be customers find their sites. There are two basic ways to accomplish this—through a search engine optimization tool or by bringing in traffic through a service, which charges businesses a fee for each visitor it attracts to a site.
Zaslow uses the basic search engine keywords provided by her domain registry vendor. Recently, a major liquor company needing help with storage located Gotham Organizers through a Web search, she says, adding that the company has received press inquiries through that avenue, too.
Community relations of all types—from participating in industry discussion groups that reach large numbers of key prospects to starting blogs and including relevant links or resources—also can create buzz for a company.
"Say you find two discussion groups, each with 1,000 members, and you spend 20 minutes a day skimming the posts and 30 minutes a week writing two posts. If that brings you $50,000 a year, then it's well worth it," Horowitz says.
E-newsletters and other forms of e-mail marketing are other tools that can help drive business.
"Every month we e-mail our customers what's going on in our stores, our specials and even jokes about pets," says Dave Ratner, president of Dave's Soda and Pet City, an Agawam, Mass., a company that sells pet supplies. "In fact, if we don't e-mail them about our specials quickly enough, they complain." Ratner also includes online coupons to encourage sales.
E-newsletters also can lead to bigger marketing opportunities, Zaslow points out. "Through my newsletter, somebody asked me to donate my services to a silent auction for charity. That got my name in front of several hundred people. And the person who won my services ended up hiring me for several sessions in addition to the original terms of the offer," she says.
Finally, there's straight online advertising. Small businesses should consider cost-per-click advertising, which can be a great way to test a product, says Ramon Ray, author of Technology Solutions for Growing Businesses. Cost-per-click is targeted advertising that works in conjunction with a theme or content on a Web page.
Although all of these online marketing techniques will help a business succeed in today's Internet-driven world, not all are appropriate or cost-effective for every situation, Ratner notes.
"I won't do anything unless I can measure the success. For example, we'll track how many coupons we get back," he says. "That way, we know where to spend our money and time."