Ways to Market online

You can't expect to compete as a small business today without taking advantage of online marketing tools

(FSB) - When Mark Bitterman, who calls himself a "selmelier, " was trying to pump up sales at his gourmet salt shop, he knew standard marketing techniques such as radio ads and direct mail wouldn't be enough.

Seeking to capture the imagination of educated, adventurous gourmand prospective customers, he instead set out to draw more people to his Web site and his Portland, Ore., shop by writing an informative, entertaining and provocative blog, "Salt News."

Bitterman knows that people, including reporters, visit both the site and the blog, and many eventually come through the doors to see the 60 or so varieties of salt.

"You can't tell if it gets you new traffic or if it just shapes the expectations of those who come to the shop, " he adds.

There are probably as many varieties of marketing a business and increasing sales as there are versions of high-end salt. But you can't expect to compete as a small business today without choosing from a growing arsenal of online marketing tools. Here are four smart ways to get your business noticed on the Internet.

1. Create a simple, effective Web site.

Does your Web site describe your product or service in a succinct, compelling and visual fashion? Does it answer potential customers' needs in, say, less than 10 seconds?

"Once they click to your Web site, you have between 5 and 8 seconds to convince them you can help, " says Larry Bailin, CEO of SingleThrow Internet Marketing in Wall, N.J., and author of the soon-to-be-published Mommy, Where Do Customers Come From? (Larstan Publishing).

Your home page should include the bare essentials, Bailin says. "People are looking for exactly what they typed in, with calls to action, " he says. "It's critical that you address their issues on your home page. Get to the point and get rid of anything that doesn't need to be there."

Your Web site should be easy to navigate and right on target, and a "Contact Us" button should be prominent.

Also, make sure your site appears high on search engines' results pages. By including keywords and terms in the code, your site will appear higher up on Google and others. These days, any good web designer will be able to handle such search engine marketing as part of the design and programming package. Still, it's up to you to know the best way to describe your product and service to potential customers and then turn them into qualified sales leads.

"Don't think too much about the bells and whistles, " warns Bailin. "Think about the connection that you're going to make and the way you're going to help people. Make it clear to them and you'll win every time."

2. Become a blogger.

Entrepreneurs who blog can reach a new audience by writing in a conversational way and showing the human and personal side of their business, according to William Beutler, senior online analyst for New Media Strategies, a Web 2.0 marketing firm in Arlington, Va.

"Make your industry interesting to people by writing in a conversational manner, " he says. "Give people a glimpse into a world they don't know."

Beutler believes new businesses can benefit greatly from blogging. "There's still an untapped audience in a lot of industries that are just starting to grow, " he says. "You have the potential to establish yourself as an expert in the field just by being the first person to write something interesting about your field."

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