Does the thought of cold-calling make you break out into a cold sweat? If you are like many businesses who either hate or are afraid to market themselves, the Internet provides a marvelous opportunity to do just this and increase sales. Since you’re not dealing with people face to face, you certainly don’t have to deal with the fear of rejection.
In the odd culture of the Internet, you don’t have to be a pushy salesperson to be a success. In fact, the hard sell doesn’t work on-line. Most on-line users don’t like pushy salespeople. People generally buy only after they read about a company and feel comfortable.
The Internet can be a terrific place to add another sales channel and pick up extra customers. A large market of 20 to 40 million affluent and highly educated people browse the Internet regularly. They are reading information posted in virtual storefronts of more than 30,000 small businesses across America that are selling goods and services.
Your home away from home
Your main vehicle for creating relationships with new prospects is called a home page, which can be considered your storefront, billboard, brochure, and business card. It resides on a part of the Internet called the World Wide Web. The home page contains basic marketing information, such as your mission statement, list of clients, hours, contact information (telephone, fax, e-mail, and physical address), bios of yourself, your partners, and/or associates, a map to your office, and maybe even your rates.
Don’t be misled by the term “home page.” Your marketing area can occupy as many pages as you like and even include sound and pictures. The data can be displayed any way you like. Just as with a brochure, you can decide which information to use and where to place it, which colors to use and the size of pictures. You can print an unlimited amount of information on your home page for very little money compared to other forms of advertising, such as direct mail and newspaper advertisements.
Readers of your home page can find information slowly by reading information from top to bottom, or quickly through “hypertext,” which allows them to click their mouse on a highlighted term that immediately links them to the associated text or graphics and displays the underlying information. For example, if a prospect clicks on the term “Rates,” he or she would immediately see the rate for various services. You alone determine which information is linked and which is not. You can have as many links as you like.
By the way, don’t be put off by the technical or creative aspects of creating and designing a home page. There are several low-cost methods for doing this, and they’re described more in the next section.
Here are 10 strategies to improve your marketing with the Internet.
- Create your own on-line presence. With a home page, your virtual brochure, you can create and maintain a home page for about $30 a month if you open an account with any number of local Internet Access Providers. The three major on-line service providers, Prodigy, America Online, and CompuServe, charge under $20 a month. You simply select a template design and answer a series of questions. The service you’ve chosen then arranges the answers onto an attractive template. You’re now on-line with the Internet! Your prospects and customers can now read your home page 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world. That means that if they are worrying at 2 a.m. about who they are going to hire to do their taxes for them, they can find you!
- Register your home page on yellow page directories. It can be incredibly difficult to find a particular item on the Internet. You must market your home page in order to draw prospects. Fortunately, the Internet does have a few powerful and useful tools called search engines or Yellow Pages to help you promote your site. The first step is to go to one of the pages where these tools are located and register your site for free. Just fill out a simple form. First it will ask for the name of the home page, which might be “Smith and Jones, Building Contractors”.You’ll also be prompted for the address (referred to as a Uniform Resource Locator, URL, or domain name). It should be something like http://www.smithandjones.com. You really don’t need the Rosetta Stone to understand this address: “http” stands for hypertext transfer protocol. This command tells the computer to point to a specific page. The colon, two forward slashes, and WWW are part of the proper syntax of the World Wide Web and must be typed exactly as seen. The “smithandjones” section is the name of the company. The “.com” indicates that this is a commercial page, as opposed to an educational institution (edu) or organization (org). Your Internet provider can register your company name.The form will also ask you for keywords that describe your home page. You might want to list taxes, financial planning, and bookkeeping as keywords. Then you might be asked for two sentences that explain what people will find there. Maybe a good example would be, “Smith and Jones, CPA, helps small businesses pay their taxes correctly and promptly. The home page features articles on how to manage your finances.”
Once you have this information entered, Internet users will have an easier time locating your home page. Consumers go to the search engine sites and type in a keyword, such as “accounting” or “taxes” and the computer finds all the home pages that have been registered with those keywords. The most popular Yellow Page directories are Yahoo (http://www.yahoo.com) and Webcrawler (http://www.webcrawler.com). If your competitors are there and you aren’t, guess who will get the business!
- Let them know where you are. Put your home page address and e-mail address on all your business materials, such as business cards, letterheads, advertisements, and brochures. People who are too busy or shy to call might check you out first on-line, then send you an e-mail message to begin the relationship. In addition, you can present much more information on-line for a lower price than you can with printed material. So drawing people to your home page can actually save you marketing funds!
- Toot your own horn. Write a press release announcing your venture into cyberspace. Many communities consider it news when a local company opens a business on the Internet. Send the release to your local newspaper, business journals, and radio and television stations. You might get a small mention in the business section, or they might even send a reporter to interview you as a leading-edge professional!
- Add value to your home page. Write information articles that make prospects smarter consumers. People may come to your home page once to see who you are, but if you want them to come back, you need to give them a reason. Consider posting an article every month on a topic of interest to your audience, such as “How to Start Cutting Taxes in 1996,” “How to Avoid Rip-offs in Insurance Planning,” or “How to Select a Financial Advisor.” If people know they will find a new article every month, they will come to your home page and read it. As advertisers know, repetition increases sales. You might consider writing a “10 Commandments Article” in which you describe a problem and offer 10 ways to solve it. This article is an example of that kind of story.
- Link your home page. Try linking your home page to related, non-competitive home pages. The beauty of the Web is that you can create hyperlinks to other home pages. That means, when a person clicks on the link containing the address of the other home page, they’ll be able to see that page. You might wonder why you would want someone to leave your site after you’ve worked so hard to get them there! The answer is, they will leave your site after they’ve finished reading about your company. The real benefit is that you will attract a new audience to your home page from the linked page. Imagine linking to your city’s home page, or a home page of financial planning software. New audiences would learn about you and what you can offer. To create a link, you must find a complementary home page (go to Yahoo! and do a keyword search), send a note to the webmaster (the person in charge of running the home page) asking for permission to link, and add the link to your home page (or ask your service provider to do this for you).
- Offer something for free. FREE is the magic word on the Internet. People will come from all over if they can find something of value for free. Seattle Film Works offered two free rolls of film to lure people to its site. This made sense for the company since it made money on developing the film. You can offer free information, T-shirts, caps, and other trinkets to people who are qualified prospects.
- Hold a contest. People on the Internet love to win prizes. Successful contests could include themes such as: design a logo for the company’s home page, answer questions about the company (which can only be found by reading the home page), or ask prospects to submit jokes about a certain topic (like taxes) and print the funniest. That last idea can even be turned into a publicity opportunity. One home page lists all kinds of jokes about economists, and it drew attention from reporters at several national papers!
- Join a group. Become an active participant in a news group or mailing list, which are e-mail message bulletin boards on the Internet. People with a specific interest post messages in the more than 10,000 bulletin boards. Your job is to find a group that would contain your target audience, say, small office/home office entrepreneurs. You go to that group and read the messages to get a good feel for who is there and what they’re talking about. You shouldn’t post a message with blatant advertising, such as “Hi, I’m Bill Green and I do tax returns. As the tax deadline nears, call me and I’ll do your taxes.” This kind of message is frowned upon by Internet users and can actually backfire by creating ill will. Instead of blatant advertising, consider being a good neighbor by answering people’s questions about taxes or financial planning. That’s considered good “netiquette”. You’ll also be able to get a bit of free advertising by doing this good deed. At the bottom of your message, you can write your name, address, phone number, and home page address, along with a brief mission statement, such as “We specialize in tax returns for small businesses.” By following this strategy, you’ll be seen as an asset to the groups’ members, not as a hindrance. This message is called a signature and can include six lines of soft-sell information. Many e- mail systems let you store this information so that it’s attached automatically to each message you compose.
- Be willing to experiment. The price of being on the Internet is inexpensive, so you can afford to test, test, and test again to find out what works best. Be patient as well, since it will take time for a sizable number of people to come on-line who are clearly qualified prospects, especially in smaller areas or highly competitive cities.
Please remember that even under the best of circumstances, the Internet is not the only marketing vehicle you should use. It should be part of your integrated marketing campaign and could help generate additional revenue with a minimal investment of time and money. By using these strategies, you’ll be able to reach a large and lucrative audience and build your business.