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Local Business Marketing in the Internet Age

 
(11, August 2003 - Reprint from "The Digital Rag Too")

Some businesses can actually deliver their goods over the 'Net but how do you download a furnace, a toilet or a car bumper?

Over the past 10 years the Internet has grown from a curiosity to a part of our every day lives. We've been exposed to the Web's Universal Resource Locater (URL) and E-mail enough now that they are no longer a curiosity.

We may use the Internet in our personal lives to pay bills, transfer money between accounts, keep in touch with friends, or even purchase items from the likes of E-bay or Amazon, but as small, location based business owners, what has the Internet done for us? What can it do? What can't it do? How should we use it and should we use it instead of traditional marketing techniques?

Other businesses can sell to customers via the 'Net but my customers have to come in my door for me to be able to sell them anything.

How do I find customers within my trading area? How do they find me using the Internet?

The problem is that the Internet is so much bigger than our local trading area. A potential customer puts their problem description into any of the search engines ("I need a plumber in Vancouver") and you get thousands of "hits" with most of them being anything but a listing for a plumber.

In some cases you may get no hits, or maybe the prospective customer will find the local chamber of commerce web site and have to look through all the various ads and listings there. They might find your trade organization's web site with listings for all the plumbers in the country, or the world, even worse.

So how do we use the Internet for locally based businesses then?

The trick is to use it for what it is best for, not for being found, but for giving prospects who have found you through other means more information and more timely information than the other means can cost effectively provide. The note here is cost effectively provide.

Until a widely accepted and easy to use method for consumers to find a locally based business exists, you have to rely on other means to catch customers' eyes. Don't expect the Internet to increase the number of customers walking in your door all on its own; it won't, and you can spend a tremendous amount of money proving this to yourself.

The Internet can be very cost effective if used right. It can also be extremely costly if used wrong. Of course the same can be said of more traditional advertising and marketing methods.

Having decided that you are going to use the Internet, the first thing to understand is that you don't have to spend a lot of money

There is little benefit to having fancy web pages if most of the viewers are only interested in where your physical store is. In fact, having fancy pages can make viewers go away, especially if the pages load slowly and require extra plug-ins, or the navigation is not obvious and fast.

A simple set of pages, either under your own or a generic domain name (but with your company name somewhere in the URL so the search engines find it) is really what you need. See the article on Internet domains and business for pointers on your domain name. Their focus should be on getting people to your physical store and there are several methods you might use to do this.

First, make sure your physical address and how to get there is prominent - probably on the main page. This is different from sites that sell product on line. They tend not to put the physical address on top, and in some cases don't let you know where they are at all.

The next thing you do will depend upon how often you will update your pages. If you don't expect to update them very often then you should try to put up some pictures of your operation in general. A selection of your main staff (long term permanent) in your store's setting and some of your general product line would likely be best. Keep the pictures on any given page to what would print out on a single sheet of paper if someone were to print the site. This guideline pretty much ensures that your pages will load fairly quickly and not annoy people on slow links. Aim for encouraging a friendly perspective.

If you update the site regularly or frequently (no, they're not the same) then you should consider putting up information on products or services that you will feature from time to time. You can put up information based on seasonal considerations or any other reasonable criteria, or you can simply put up information on various products you sell as and when you can.

If you are going to use the web in the same manner as you would other advertising media, then you will be tempted to put up things like "flyer" advertising where you show an item and put a price. This is fine if you absolutely ensure that you will keep the information up to date.  I can't emphasize this enough. If you put up dated information, you must ensure that it is removed and replaced with something else. Either make the commitment and spend the effort to do this, or don't put up date sensitive information at all.

If you are not going to update the site very often, then you should consider putting up fairly generic information about what you sell and why you sell it. This can be information from your suppliers, information about your business practices, policies and such, but it should be both informative and at least somewhat personalized. The point you must get over to the viewer is that you take the time and effort to put a face and personal effort to the solutions to their problems.

In today's mass-marketplace, the only things that really set you apart from any other business in your category is you, your staff and your way of doing things and dealing with people. If you can't project some of this onto your web site then you may be better off without one.

Now that you have some information about your location and your products, you need to get people to visit your site.

The first thing to understand is that your site is not likely to get any visitors from the normal search engines or from referrals from other web sites - at least for quite a while (measured in years). You will have to drive people to your site with your other media advertising. To do this, you need to include your web address on all of your other marketing media. The reason is that the generic search engine doesn't distinguish location - it returns pages from all over the world. Only the top ranked sites in the world will show up in the first few pages - ranked by how many other sites link to them and how fresh their pages are, not by how close their business is to the person doing the search.

The specialty search engines - those dedicated to either businesses in your geographic area or in your specialty, or the online telephone listings are really the only ones that will come close to finding you when your customer or prospect goes looking. The problem with most of them is getting your customer to find the search engines and use them.

About the only search engine that might find you reliably today is the business listings from your telephone company - the "Yellow Pages" listings. Of course you'll pay a tremendous amount for the privilege of being listed there with any priority - as much as several thousand dollars per year for what will turn out to be a 3-5 line listing and a pointer to your web site. In addition, the phone companies don't make it all that easy to use their services - they're still trying to justify the even more exorbitant rates they charge for the printed pages.

So you need to drive customers and prospects to your site yourself

You can do this in a number of ways, but all of them rely on your other advertising and marketing media. Include your web address (your URL) in everything you can; business cards, point of sale, cash register tapes, stamped on sales literature, warrantee cards, price stickers (if it will fit) promotional coupons, flyers (lots of places, not just the front page), print advertising, radio and TV, and of course your Yellow Pages listing if you have one.

You also need to give people a reason to go to your web site, and a reason to let you know they have been there. Your physical advertising might include not only information about products you sell or that are on sale, but also such things as coupons so you can gauge their effectiveness (and entice customers too) so why not do the same thing with the web?

You can either make something on one of your pages look like a coupon and get your customers to print it and bring it with them, or use a "virtual" coupon by telling the viewer of the page to simply mention that they have been to the site in order to get a discount or special offer.

Watch out for fraud with printed coupons.

It is possible for someone to manipulate the contents of a web page (change the discount from 5% to 10% for example) before they print it. Include on your page somewhere the stipulation that any such manipulation will void the offer and then make sure you have sample print-outs of any such coupons in the store for your staff to compare.

Use your web site to extend the amount of data your other advertising pieces can refer to

If you normally put the text of offer limitations or details in your ad, your local jurisdiction may allow you to refer instead to details on a web page. Check with your government consumer affairs department for regulations in this area.

You might also put pictures of items on your web site and refer to them in an ad with specific URLs pointing directly to the relevant pages. Keep the address as simple as you can in such cases. Either reserve a page for all such references or put them all in a separate sub-directory and give them unique names for each offer/flyer.

Examples:

  • http://mycompany.com/ads/2003-08-08-1.htm for pictures from page 1 of a flyer that came out on August 8th of 2003.
  • http://mycompany.com/current-flyer.htm for details of your current flyer no matter what date it comes out on.

Of course you can also refer to general pages on your site in any of your other media.

Using the Internet to Retain Local Customers For Location Based Business

You should already know that retaining your customer base is far more cost effective than attracting new customers. The problem is that the only part of the Internet that cat "reach out and touch" someone is E-mail and today's attitude towards it is a wary one. A balance must be struck between keeping in front of the customer and annoying them.

In retaining (or attracting) customers there is not a direct parallel between the use of physical mail or flyers delivered to the customer's door and e-mail delivered into their computer mail box, despite the obvious similarities.

The above is in red because it is something you must understand and take into consideration before you use E-mail for anything to do with business.

The rule today for the use of E-mail for soliciting customers is really quite straight forward - DON'T!

This means don't send out unsolicited e-mail to anyone for any reason having directly to do with trying to get them as customers of your business. This above rule has been crystallizing over the past several years as the negative attitude towards spam (unsolicited commercial e-mail) has developed in response to its abuse by drug and pornography vendors. You don't want to get caught up in this controversy and the negative response you'll get from the vast majority of recipients.

The difference between "junk" snail-mail and flyers vs. spam can be traced to the differences in both the regulations and the economics

There is a large difference in the cost/benefit ratio
Physical mail and flyers cost the sender, and therefore have a financial incentive to be at least moderately effective in garnering customers

E-mail spam costs the sender almost nothing and therefore there is little incentive to be selective in its distribution - so we all get a lot of it even though only a very small number actually respond to it (there are always stupid, gullible people)
 
There is a large difference (today) in the regulations and enforcement of them
Physical mail and flyers are seen by many people prior to their delivery to your door or mail box. The printer, the mailman, the delivery person, the newspaper publisher (if a flyer insert) all have policies regarding what they will allow - and typically pornography and obvious fraud and scams are not usually allowed. There is no way for large-scale senders of junk mail to be anonymous.
In addition, many countries have special laws regarding fraud and pornography via the mail specifically.

In general, only the sender and the recipient of E-mail actually get to see the contents. This lack of vetting by outside agencies and individuals means there are effectively no bars to content. There are many ways for the sender to obfuscate the true origin of an e-mail to thwart repercussions. Spam may easily be sent from one country and delivered in another such that there are jurisdictional disputes and questions.

This means that while junk physical mail is considered somewhat of an annoyance, it does not come close to the derision that spam e-mail attracts.

So how do I use the Internet to keep my customers then?

The only way to use the Internet via E-mail to keep in touch with your customers is with what is called an opt-in e-mail strategy. You must get your customer's permission to send them information and then not abuse that permission to the point where they want to opt-out.

There are a number of Internet E-mail list services that will host a list of your customers' e-mail addresses for you and provide you with the tools and techniques to ensure that you don't abuse the customer's trust in you. They generally offer you a web URL for your particular mail list that allows the customer to sign themselves up for the list. In addition, each mail-out you send will contain the information on how the recipient can remove themselves from the list if they wish. You'll pay some price for this type of list-service, usually based on the size of the list and the number of mail-outs you send.

Getting your customers to agree to be put on your list is an exercise in marketing. You have to give them some reason to allow you to send them things. This is probably a new experience for you if you don't use the Internet much yourself.

How do I get my customers to agree to let me send them e-mail?

In essence, you have to give them something of enough value to them that they will take the time to receive and read your postings. Just sending them notice of the latest sale prices on something is not generally enough; you have to go something better - sometimes not a lot better, but most times at least a little better.

You must balance your e-mail postings with several things:

  • Your ability to put meaningful and valuable content into them
  • Your customers' typical usage patterns for your products and services
  • Your customers' use of the Internet in general

Do not engage in sending out a regular (daily, weekly, monthly) posting if you are not going to spend the time making it worth your customers' time to read it!

Do not send out monthly postings to a customer base that only needs your services annually - match your postings to your expectation of their needs and wants.

Do not send out information via e-mail exclusively and expect all your customers to read and/or respond to it.

On the other hand:

Do send out timely tips and information - seasonal notices (furnace burner adjustment time, reminder to turn off outside taps in Winter, etc.)

Do send out useful information about the areas your business specializes in, even if not product specific - tips and techniques, interesting stories, answers to questions you've had in your store, etc.

Do personalize your information and invite comment. You might suggest times when your store is not busy and you would be willing to discuss a subject or answer questions.

Once you have given your customers a reason to receive your mailings, you can use the fact that they are reading it to do some judicious advertising, either by including specific product and/or service offerings or by directing them to your web site for more information. Over time and with practice you will discover how much selling you can do in your particular area compared to how much interesting information you must provide.

One final note. Unless you are going to ensure that you will answer it in a timely and reasonable fashion, you probably should not solicit return e-mail with things like questions. You should get your customers to come into your premises for such discussions if possible.

With simple, basic information in your web site, pointed to by your other advertising and marketing media, and possibly a well managed e-mail campaign, you should find the use of the Internet in attracting and retaining customers to be very cost effective for your location based business.


Richard Pitt

Richard Pitt is a Canadian Internet pioneer, having been the CEO of Wimsey.COM, the first commercial ISP in Canada. Today he is one of Bannerline's associates and deals in all aspects of business and the Internet.
The "Digital Rag Too" is the latest iteration of the Digital Rag, Canada's first Webzine, published by Wimsey.

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