In my years online, I've seen the painstaking learning process of starting--and marketing--an online business many times over. When I started my business, social media marketing was foreign to me. It's an extension of search engine optimization and represents a powerful medium: you. I hope that in sharing my story of discovering SEO, how it works and how to utilize social media websites to market a business, you can shorten your own learning curve.
Over the years, my fledgling enterprise has steadily grown--sometimes in spite of me rather than because of me. I am not a slick, savvy e-marketer, but I've learned by eavesdropping, experimenting, reading books, participating in blogs and forums, and through lots of trial and error. As I've struggled past the first few mile markers on this apparently endless path, I've frequently wished someone could have guided me. My head and heart ached for simple, step-by-step, everyday language guidance. Finally, I decided to leave a few trail markers of my own by helping others through this column.
First, a few quick definitions:
- Search Engine Optimization (SEO)--An ingenious set of strategies and techniques for driving your website to the top of search engine ranking lists. When anyone queries your search terms, the search engines will try to show your optimized website on the first page, preferably at the top.
- Social Media Marketing (SMM)--Social interaction online, and use of MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and other social networks to embed personal and business messages of different varieties. Create new relationships with friends and customers, building their loyalty to you and vice versa.
- Viral Marketing--Rapidly becoming the global term for capitalizing on the messaging built into the most popular social networks, it's done discreetly and sometimes without knowing whether it's a hit with your audience--creating network messaging that very quickly spreads by the internet's equivalent of a whispering campaign.
Why care about social media like Facebook? According to Social Media Statistics, 39 million unique visitors logged in to Facebook last September, and the upstart social network continued to narrow the gap on MySpace. In early January, more than 10 billion photos appeared on Facebook; and photo traffic peaked at more than 300,000 images served per second. Late last year, using somewhat dated figures, experts estimated 20 percent of Canada's population was on Facebook.
You see why a little "SMM" might be a very good idea. But, first, I'll retrace my steps:
- Learn how to build a basic website with freeware. Cranking up my bravery and starting my business, I went to GoDaddy.com and got myself a domain name for a couple of bucks. "Yeah," I thought, "I'm somebody now." Using WordPress, one of the most popular open source (free) web frameworks, I built myself a website. WordPress gave me all the tools and widgets I wanted, and it let me customize and optimize for users and search engines pretty easily. My photo, my name and my products appeared just as I wanted.
Although it's probably just a tiny footprint on a very large virtual beach, it's my footprint, and I like it.
In the first week or so, my website drew a few customers and I made a few sales. In fact, I made just enough sales to assure me I was not totally insane for starting an online enterprise during a sluggish economy. And I made just enough sales to let me know I needed to make a lot more.
- Set up the road signs on the information highway--nixing the spam. I remember looking out the car window during road trips, seeing billboard after billboard, counting down the miles to the next stop. SEO can be thought of as the process of setting up those same signs along the information superhighway.
I asked myself, "If I were a customer in search of my product, how would I find me?"
I started searching Google and Yahoo! (Google now owns 72 percent of the U.S. search marketplace), and there I was. Seeing my business there on Google was a strange and wonderful experience. It made me feel like a real businessperson. But my business and I appeared nowhere near the top of the list, and people rarely click beyond the second page of the Google listings. Even my dog knows that if you're not at the top of the Google list, you're just not there. So, how to work my way up to the top of the charts?
SEO is the first answer. Eavesdropping on a coffee house conversation, I hear, "SEO." Search engine optimization--strategies, tactics and techniques for driving your business to the top of the search engines' lists.
The first SEO tactic is so simple it's almost frightening. Use a keyword-rich domain where possible, place your keywords in the top portion of your page and include them in the title of the page. Then, use variations of the keyword phrase naturally through the copy. When I went from nowhere to the second page of Google's results for main keywords, and first page for longer tail keywords (three to five-plus words) for businesses like mine, I thought I'd made critical steps in the right direction. I wanted to look into link building and pay-per-click advertising, but that learning came later.
- Drive more traffic to your site. I installed site meter web analytics on my new website. Then, I set the site meter to e-mail me each week, sending me detailed reports about my visitors, their locations and what they'd viewed.
I felt comforted and reassured that people were visiting, but how would I communicate with them? I'd set up a website, but only a couple of people had visited, and only a few had downloaded my "special" report. I knew I'd won their loyalty by their e-mail feedback. But what about all those people who gave me the internet equivalent of "Just looking, thanks"?
I used the same basic principle I'd applied with SEO: I added a link to my e-mail and provided contact information on every page of my website. Then, visitors simply had to click one spot with their questions and I could respond to answer their questions and begin to qualify those answers. It worked. I had a few nice conversations, and I boosted my sales.
- Blog about your passion, and do it consistently. When I started my business, I also started a paper journal about it so I could remember all the thoughts and worries that ran through my head as I wrote my daily "ideas, frustrations and what worked" notes. Once again, strategically eavesdropping on the coffee house hot shots, I overheard them talking about how they were driving sales with their blogs. Of course, I thought. I'm not self-conscious--I'll put my journal on a blog using my little SEO tricks, some search-friendly WordPress plug-ins, and start posting every day.
I discovered Blogger.com, a site owned by Google. Setting up my blog there, I found how frighteningly easy it was to establish a second web presence--three clicks and I was there. Following the advice of Problogger, I knew I needed to update frequently and stay consistent. I began updating the blog first thing each morning and developed a great little network of loyal readers who became regular visitors. The conversation expanded broadly from there. The counters on my site meter increased, and I saw more visitors per day and a longer stay for each visit.
- Get connected through social media sites. Everyone in my family has a Facebook, MySpace or Twitter page. From what I've seen, I'd bet even dogs are setting up "walls" on Facebook and are using them to meet French Poodles. As always, I numbered among the last to catch the wave. In fact, Facebook is more than a big wave; it's an internet tsunami--in a good way.
I worried that Facebook and MySpace were teenage hang outs--the internet equivalents of the coffeehouses on weekends. But when I saw that CNN had teamed up with Facebook, I reconsidered. Facebook gives me another tool for updating the world about my business, and it gives me a powerful tool for updating friends and family about developments in my world. I shamelessly built my Facebook profile and pages with seduction in mind. If I were going there to meet people, I would try to seduce them. In the same way, if I put my business there, I would want my products and services to seduce new customers. Facebook makes it easy to post pictures and add little blurbs about cool new stuff, and share with others.
Most important, Facebook gave me a tool for connecting to old friends, and friends of friends, and friends of their friends who used to be friends. You get the idea. A couple of my Facebook pals had downloaded its mobile application to their PDAs, and they got text messages each time I put up a post on my page. So, I added Facebook posts to my daily to-do list. Right after I blog, I post something on Twitter and Facebook. They both alert my multiple networks that there's something exciting happening in my world.
- Stay in Touch. Be helpful, and give simple but useful answers. I picked up another valuable tip from CNN: Several of the newscasters invite viewers to post their opinions via Twitter. They run the comments in a crawl at the bottom of the screen, and when I read viewers' comments, I see the feedback appears almost instantly--as if the people were right there in the studio contributing to a conversation.
Twitter asks you simply, "What are you doing?" I keep things fresh at the website and Twitter when I can.
Twitter also helps me begin word-of-mouth promotions--the internet equivalent of whispering, "Hey, have you heard . . . ?"
- Update or redesign your original website to include tantalizing new features. The word-of-mouth concept posed a tiny little conundrum: Whispering campaigns require salacious little secrets. If there's no sensational, useful content that's helpful or interesting, there's really no point in whispering. Nobody wants to know that you just had lunch. Therefore, I found myself scratching my head and wondering how to create something interesting and useful. For me, video was the answer, and a simple one, too. Try animoto.com, and you'll see what I mean about video creation being easy. You can upload it directly to YouTube, adding more content to your channel; JingProject.com and ScreenToaster.com are a little more work, but very powerful. They're tools to create new videos of your desktop tutorials, presentations and personal videos.
I'm not a great videographer, but I'm working on it. I created a cute little three minute video of people using my favorite products. It turned out to be pretty good, and when I posted it, it really did bring my site to life. Now, when people click on my page, they see other people who look a lot like them, and they watch them using my products.
I put out the word on my networks: "Cool new video--check it out." Traffic soared. Clearly, YouTube will become my next marketing destination.
- Commit to providing excellent customer service. When I started my business, I promised myself I'd maintain my emphasis on service. No matter which new tool I've added and adapted, I always used it to enhance my service. Most of my tools empower me to pay attention to my customers, and when I pay attention to them, I make sure I follow the time-honored principles of good customer service: I listen more than I talk, and I question more than I answer. I respond very quickly to requests, I discipline myself more than ever to follow up after sales, always say "Thank you" and usually offer some incentive for a buyer to return.
Obviously, the internet gives us a lot more tools for inviting and engaging traffic, but all our technological sophistication must not carry us too far away from the basics: People still want good products at fair prices, delivered by trustworthy and charming characters who know their stuff and how it works.
Jon Rognerud is Entrepreneur.com's SEO columnist and the author of Ultimate Guide to Search Engine Optimization, available from Entrepreneur Press. He has more than 20 years experience creating and managing web marketing projects, including positions at Yahoo!/Overture.