The internet has expanded dramatically in the last decade and is becoming a part of every aspect of daily life. Businesses are recognising that their customers spend a considerable amount of time online and are coming up with innovative ways to market and promote their services on the web. Where should you start?
Learning about the internet is the first step
Before you dive into online marketing, the first step you should take is to learn about the internet world. If you are unfamiliar with online behaviour, lingo and tools, you could do considerable harm to your brand image. Masha du Toit, an experienced internet teacher, says that web skills are highly sought after in our interconnected world, and that no forward-thinking businessperson can afford to ignore the internet. Create a solid foundation of web know-how so that you can build appropriate, responsive and lucrative online marketing campaigns. You can achieve this through the Tattler’s Tourism Support Sevices facility (see pages 14 – 15 in the March 2014 magazine) or by taking an online course on the subject.
Once you feel comfortable online, you can start to plan your online marketing strategy by keeping the following basic principles in mind.
Create a holistic strategy. To be truly successful online, you need to create a varied and interconnected strategy across various platforms. For example, there’s no sense creating a beautiful website if you neglect to optimise it for search engine and don’t spread the word on social media and in emails. Each marketing channel must feed into and build on the others.
Only use what you need. Some people who venture into online marketing try to do it all – they open profiles on every social network, build websites, send emails, launch SMS campaigns – but never take the moment to consider what is best for their brand and target audience. Only use the tools that are appropriate to your image and that you know your customers are also using.
Start slow. Online marketing takes years to perfect and optimise, so don’t be afraid to start with one or two tools and expand from there. Doing too much at once will create added stress and raise your expenses, and will usually mean that you cannot devote yourself to any one aspect fully.
Don’t focus on the hard sell. Very little of internet marketing involves proper advertising and hard selling; it’s usually more about subtle approaches, community building and public relations. Pushiness and blatant self-promotion are generally not appreciated online. When you get these aspects right online, the sales will follow naturally.
There are many aspects or approaches that you can take when marketing your business online. The most popular ones are creating a social space for your customers, creating an online “office” and getting the word out about your brand.
Building a community
Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are perhaps the best-known online marketing tools and are ideal for social branding. Social branding is the process of marketing your brand in an online social space. It’s all about creating brand equity, increasing awareness and fostering loyal communities.
Social media are less about making direct sales and more about building a community of fans and followers. Social networks are used for chatting, sharing information and photos, writing recommendations and passing on links to friends. They are a place for having a conversation with your customers, responding to questions, addressing complaints, offering special deals and sharing media and offers.
In basic terms, social branding involves creating profiles on social media websites and filling them with brand-related content that is geared towards reinforcing the business’ desired brand image. It’s not enough to create a Facebook, Twitter or WordPress account, however; you need to engage daily, meaningfully and appropriately with your social networks.
Conversations, good and bad, will happen around your brand regardless of what you do. Therefore, it’s vital that you participate in them and steer them in the right direction. Participating involves both acting – creating and adding content, links and information – and reacting – listening and responding to customers.
Having an active and engaging social media strategy is a large element of building a reputable brand image. If customers see your activity frequently, they will begin to trust your business over the long term. Your business will appear supportive, legitimate and enduring. While it won’t happen instantly, this goodwill will build and will become incredibly valuable.
Creating your online office
Before the advent of the internet, companies needed an office or some sort of physical presence to interact with customers. This included the need for high rental fees and reception staff, and severely limited the scope of the business. Online, the picture is very different. Many companies now have a virtual presence, and some exist as a website alone – their “office” is a digital address on the web.
Customers are comfortable interacting with a business through the digital portal and often find it more convenient, efficient and rewarding. They can examine the product offerings, do research, read testimonials and contact the company in one place, without having to travel physically.
A website is the cornerstone of any marketing strategy – all of the adverts, social media, email messages and so on must direct to one central space to be truly effective. It is possible to replicate the intimacy, personality and interaction with the physical office through a website, and it allows the business to market itself globally. The market reach potential is endless – but make sure that your infrastructure can handle doing business internationally.
Having an attractive, professional and informative website is essential. It is the definitive source of information about your business, and a place where you can include the most up-to-date information available.
The internet seems to be an endless database of information, so getting the word out about your business requires careful thought and targeting. Conveying your message over the clutter can be difficult, so it is very important to be original and visible. The more precisely you can target your information to people who are interested in your business, the more successful you will be in generating sales. A few ways of doing this are creating content, optimising your website and sending email marketing campaigns.
Content and search engine optimisation (SEO) go hand in hand. Creating content involves writing website copy, articles, blog posts, brochures and any other written or multimedia information about your business. SEO is the process of optimising this content so that the right people can easily find it by using a search engine like Google. SEO is a highly specialised skill and usually requires an expert touch, but you can learn to do some basic SEO yourself.
Setting up a regular email newsletter is an excellent example of how to keep your current customers up to date on information about your business and to inform them of special offers, discounts and deals. Email is an excellent way to reach people because you can target your recipients very specifically; you can gather data from your own customers and find other likely people to approach online. If you include good content and offers that your customers enjoy, it will be easy for them to pass the email on to their friends and grow your customer base for you.
Measuring your effectiveness
Perhaps the biggest benefit to marketing yourself online is being able to monitor and track your efforts accurately. The web offers a wide variety of analytics tools that can help you understand your customer by tracking and reporting on their online behaviour on your website. Analytics tools can show you, for example, how many people are visiting your site, which pages are the most popular, and how they spend their time on your page. Measuring your key performance indicators gives you valuable insight into your online marketing return on investment. For example, seeing how many people opened your marketing email and clicked on the link to your website will immediately tell you if your approach was successful. The immediacy of online marketing means you can test and adapt your strategy to better reach your audience.
Remember the risks
While online marketing is easy, accessible and very powerful, it also comes with its own set of risks. The biggest one is that an online presence leaves you exposed and transparent – everybody on the internet can potentially see your content, comments and strategies, so any misstep will be magnified considerably. While a small typo on your website will be excused, the aggressive comment you leave on an unhappy customer’s Facebook page will not. The adage “think before you speak” should always be on the forefront of your mind.
The other big risk is legal trouble, especially in light of South Africa’s new Consumer Protection Act. It is never acceptable to spam or harasses anyone online, so be very careful with any direct marketing that you do.
Customers should always have the option of opting out of email communication, for example. Breaking the law when marketing is not only ethically unsound, it also makes your business look bad – nobody will want to do business with you.
The University of Cape Town also provides short online courses on this subject www.getsmarter.co.za