From the December 2008 issue of Entrepreneur

Don't let belt-tightening cripple your marketing ability. Despite spiraling gas prices and the rising cost of business air travel--not to mention the time-wasting lines and layovers--there is a new, low-cost way to connect with customers and prospects. You can go virtual in 2009 with a marketing tool that doesn't require plane travel or even a trip across town by replacing face-to-face presentations with webinars that let you reach prospects and customers without ever leaving your office.

There's no special conferencing equipment needed. Participants watch your webinar on their own computers, hear you live via telephone and ask questions online or by phone. And webinars are versatile marketing tools. For example, rather than fly to another city to make a presentation to a corporate prospect, you can design and present a webinar to his entire team. Looking for a smart way to promote your business and win new customers? Create and market a webinar that positions you as an expert and demonstrates your firm's abilities.

Webinars are also superior tools for communicating with an existing customer or client base and are a valuable tactic for fighting customer attrition and earning repeat sales. You could invite your customers to attend a webinar series that shows them how to use a new product or ways to make the most of new features or services. You'd become a valued vendor and have an ideal platform for upselling additional products or services.

To cut your business costs and use this new form of marketing to its best advantage, follow these tips:

  • Put technology to work. Creating your own webinars requires just two components. You'll need a slideshow software program, such as Microsoft PowerPoint, to create the visuals for your webinar. Mastery of this type of software is a must for most any marketer, so chances are you've already got it in-house and have some knowledge of the program. And you'll need the services of an affordable online meeting provider that includes telephone conferencing for webinars. GoToMeeting.com can be an excellent choice for do-it-yourselfers on a budget.
  • Choose the right visuals. Unlike a face-to-face presentation, a webinar must succeed without the excitement of watching a skilled presenter. A good rule of thumb is to use more slides than you would for an in-person presentation to make your webinar visually interesting. Change the slides more frequently and use engaging images, particularly photographs of people. Consider the text as the outline of your webinar and avoid putting too much of it on each slide. For the greatest impact, show top-level information on the slides and use your verbal presentation to tell the deeper story.
  • Tell a great tale. A terrific webinar will engage, inform and, in most cases, motivate participants. Your verbal presentation must convey energy and enthusiasm. Consider your goal for the outcome of your webinar and organize the content accordingly. It's helpful to start with an outline that includes an overview, is followed by details and closes with a summary. Flesh out the points in your outline by writing a rough script to accompany your slides. Then rehearse your speech until you're comfortable with your verbal presentation.

You can use stories, anecdotes and even humor to make your presentation warm and compelling. And don't overlook the value of audience participation. If you have a small group, you can take questions live by telephone. Participants in larger groups can e-mail questions that you'll see on your message screen. You can answer questions following your presentation or at intervals throughout for a truly interactive webinar experience.

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