From the May 2007 issue of Startups

Are you an internet marketing novice? Chances are, with everything you're learning about starting your business, mastering the intricacies of online marketing has taken a back seat. But the internet plays an integral role in your marketing mix. Consider this your handy primer to getting started online.

Smart marketers use offline media, from commercials to billboards, to create intrigue and drive prospects to their websites, but the internet has become the place where customers find deeper information that moves them forward in the purchase process.

As you create your website, keep these tips in mind.

Your entire marketing campaign (both online and offline) will send visitors to your site. So it's essential to start with a domain name that immediately communicates what your business is about. Prospective visitors to DecorateToday.com or PerfectPuppy.com, for example, can guess what they'll find there.

While superstores prosper on the web by offering something for everyone, small-business websites excel by specializing. To differentiate your site from thousands of competitors and establish a competitive advantage, focus on a unique product or service, whether it's hard-to-find collectibles or free next-day delivery.

Keep your site easy to navigate and quick to load. Site visitors are viewing more pages per session and spending less time per page, so your design must be clean and user-friendly. Most major web hosts offer easy-to-use design wizards that let you create your own site using existing templates.

Visitors are looking for in-depth content and expect everything from maps to your company background and privacy policy. If you offer many products, include an on-site search engine so customers can find what they're looking for. And follow the three-click rule: Make no page more than three clicks from the main page.

Build your own in-house database of prospects and customers by putting a sign-up box on your main page linked to a longer registration form. Provide an incentive to register for ongoing e-mails, such as an e-newsletter or special discounts.

Give visitors a reason to return by continually adding new articles, products and sales incentives or by maintaining an interesting blog. If you have an e-commerce site, provide multiple ways to pay, real-time customer service, speedy checkout for repeat customers and an incentive to complete purchases, such as free shipping or a gift with purchase.

Customer acquisition and retention are key, and search engines and online directories will help you get new customers. As a startup business owner with a fairly new site, a paid search campaign guarantees your site will turn up at the top of results. Start by investing in a limited pay-per-click campaign on the top search engines, and carefully track your results.

Once you've built an in-house e-mail database, you can send e-mail to close prospects and win more sales from current customers. With low costs and speedy turnaround time, e-mail marketing to in-house lists is a superior customer-retention tool. And if you keep your content relevant and your customers engaged, you can e-mail often--even on a startup budget.

Contact marketing expert Kim T. Gordon, author of Maximum Marketing, Minimum Dollars: The Top 50 Ways to Grow Your Small Business, at www.smallbusinessnow.com. Her new e-book, Big Marketing Ideas for Small Budgets, is available at www.smallbizbooks.com.