Type the phrase “Internet marketing tips” into a search engine, and you’ll find scores of easy-money pitches laden with more hype than no-money-down real estate infomercials:
“Monopolize your market and automate 90 percent of your sales process — creating a ‘hands-free’ income that you can maintain in less than an hour per day.”
While Internet marketing has grown into a thriving industry, it remains a feeding ground for swarms of “consultants” eager to fleece small business owners ignorant of its aims and methods.
“There are a lot of SEO [search engine optimization] experts selling nothing more than smoke and mirrors,” says Mark Levit, managing partner of the New York ad agency Partners & Levit and a marketing professor at New York University.
“Anyone can hang out a shingle and claim they’re an Internet marketing expert,” says David Meerman Scott, author of Cashing In with Content, which argues a site’s content is what drives its ultimate success. “Some search engine marketing firms make it out to be a black art that’s proprietary, and which no layperson will ever understand, making small business owners feel they can’t do it themselves.”
A Constantly Evolving Field
Scott dates the birth of Internet marketing to August 1995 and Web-browsing pioneer Netscape’s public stock offering. While only a decade has since passed, he says online marketing is already entering its third stage of development.
The first stage, running until 1999, involved just getting a site up with little consideration for the medium or the message. “It was primarily technology driven, the time when ‘Webmasters’ ran sites,” he says. “You’d have to say, ‘Please, Mr. Webmaster, will you put up this content for me?'”
From 2000 to recently, another group took control — site designers, advertising agencies, and “their three-fingered cousins in the search engine marketing space,” Scott says. The emphasis: making a site visually attractive and manipulating its content to draw traffic.
Now comes the growing recognition that the content of a site, both its usability and information, is what drives key elements of business success — buying decisions and return traffic.
“The most successful sites excel in a number of areas: writing, navigation, friendliness, functionality, and relevance,” says Anirudh Dhebar, a marketing professor at Babson College, which runs one of the country’s leading entrepreneurship programs.
Know Your Audience
“The first step in any successful Internet marketing effort is to understand what audiences you’re trying to reach and what you’re trying to accomplish,” Dhebar says. “That’s a strategic decision, not a technical-implementation one.”
Depending on your product or service, the chief aim may be to build your brand or strengthen customer loyalty, says Larry Weaver, director of Internet marketing services at Raleigh, N.C.-based Cii Associates, Inc. “You can measure your return on investment by tracking the conversion rate that’s important to you, whether it’s a phone call, a sale, a click-through, or a newsletter sign-up.”
Adds Scott, “If you know the words and phrases your buyers are using, you can drive people to your site. But companies jump into tools and techniques without understanding what their goals are.”
The Web is a particularly useful and inexpensive medium for value-added customer service. For instance, Levit’s ad agency site has a password-protected section where clients can log in to see layout and copy as soon as it’s done and give immediate feedback.
“It’s five times more expensive to acquire a new customer than to retain an existing one,” Levit says. “It doesn’t take much to delight your customers with value-added services.”
Anticipate the Customer’s Every Need