Toot Your Own Horn
Marketing your online business isn't as simple as hanging your name above the door or placing an ad in the Sunday paper. But if you play the game right, you can get closer to the Internet equivalent of a neon sign on a busy street. Below, we take a look at some of the basics in getting you started: search engines, banners, link exchanges, mailing lists and auctions. Try them all to find out which ones work best for your start-up.
Getting The Word Out
Search Engines: Most surfers go through Web portals and search engines at some point to find what they're looking for. If you don't have listings in Yahoo!, Lycos and AltaVista, you're missing out. You could go to each search page, ferret out the link for adding your site and spend your whole day submitting away, but software programs and Web sites abound to help you register your site with more engines faster.
Before you get too excited, however, make sure you have all your HTML in a row. An incomplete site submitted to a search engine could be counterproductive. Be sure to include concise, accurate titles and meta tags with descriptive keywords on every page. Type "meta tags" in a search engine to find sites that will help generate the appropriate HTML. Long lists of unrelated keywords buried in your page will just get your site kicked off search engines. You can visit SubmitCorner for tools and tips on preparing your page.
Banners: Banner ads are the billboards of the Web. And just like billboards, where they're placed will make all the difference. A billboard along an out-of-the-way dirt road won't generate as many customers as a billboard by the interstate. A banner ad on an out-of-the-way Web site won't generate as many views and clicks as one on Yahoo!.
The cost of doing business with a popular site can be high, though. Lycos, for example, offers advertising packages on its search engine that start at $2,500. That may be a bit steep for your start-up budget.
A better bet is to place banners on closely related sites. If you're not sure where to start, check into a broker like WebConnect. Brokers will place, rotate, track and often even host your banners for a fee. You can keep tabs on the latest prices for banner ads at the Site Price Index.
Participating in banner exchanges is a low- to no-cost way to advertise. For example, the Free Banner Exchange MegaList is a good place to hook up with an exchange service that meets your needs. Check out the banner ad glossary so you know what you're talking about before you launch your campaign.
Link Exchanges: A close relative of the banner ad is the link exchange. While link pages aren't always the most popular destinations on sites, keeping them well-organized with relevant sites doesn't hurt. The real boon comes from exchanging links with the sites you link to. The old-fashioned way is to ferret out sites that complement yours, place links to them on your page and then contact them with requests for reciprocal links. After all that, you should check back periodically to see whether those links are still in place and to make sure they haven't been swept under the rug.
A site has even popped up to make your marketing life easier. LinkLeads.com is a gargantuan catalog of sites that are all interested in exchanging links. Membership here, which is free, allows you to search for sites that specifically target what you're looking for. How you handle each exchange is up to you.
Mailing Lists: If somebody goes to the trouble of signing up for your mailing list, then they really want to get e-mail from you. You couldn't ask for a better marketing opportunity. Running your own opt-in mailing list is a great way to retain customers. Couching your sales spiel in the form of a newsletter or HTML-based message is an even better way to get-and keep-attention in a crowded inbox.
As your list grows, you could spend all your time administrating it yourself, or you could go to PostMaster General. Dubbed an "e-mail mailing list management and delivery serv-ice," PostMaster General does all the work of adding and removing e-mail addresses from your list, scheduling mailings and uploading files. Prices start at $19.95 per month for up to 300 recipients. A trial 30-recipient list is free to test drive.
If you don't have the time or the patience to build a target e-mail group, try NetCreations' PostMasterDirect.com. Its e-mail list management and brokerage service offers a database of 15 million opt-in e-mail addresses based on specific interest categories and an online ordering system for creating, testing and delivering e-mail campaigns. PostMasterDirect.com's lists are up for rent for as little as 15 cents per name to as much as 30 cents per name with a $1,000 required minimum order.
Auctions: Where on-line can you advertise to nearly 16 million customers? The answer: eBay. With about 16 million registered users and roughly 2 million unique visitors per day, the biggest online auction site can be one of the best places to get your company noticed. If you're selling Web hosting services, for example, auctions probably won't work for you, but if you're in retail, you won't want to miss this stellar opportunity. While eBay is the undisputed auction king, it doesn't hurt to diversify through Amazon.com and Yahoo! auctions.
But remember, making a fortune through auctioning isn't your goal-drawing customers to your Web site is. A clean, concise description of the product and a well-placed link to your site are essential. If you aren't quite HTML-savvy enough to build your own professional-looking auction ads, try a software program that does it for you, like ePoster2000 from AuctionPoster.com. It's currently available at www.auctionposter.com as a free trial download with a $29.95-per-year posting license fee.
And, last but not least, don't forget the real world. If yours is a click-and-mortar business, or if you provide services locally or regionally, you should still make it a priority to advertise in print. Alternative weeklies and local newspapers are a good place to start. Many papers also offer ad space on their own Web sites. Including a coupon or "mention for a discount" in your ad can help you gauge how much business it generates.
Click-throughs: The number of people who reach your site through a banner.
CPM: Cost per thousand, a common pricing structure that is calculated using a set price per thousand page views for the page the banner appears on.
Hits: Number of files downloaded from the server; each page and each graphic on the page counts as a hit. It's not a very accurate measure of actual traffic to your site.
Page impressions: Also called page views, it's the number of people who see your banner.
Active WebTraffic automates the process of submitting your Web site to search engines and portals. The software can help register your site with more than 9,000 engines and directories and can be used an unlimited number of times. A Professional Edition is available for $99.90.
In The Post
Aureate Group Mail is aimed at mailing list do-it-yourselfers. Features include personalization, a spellchecker, e-mail address verification and management for an unlimited number of recipients. A free edition is available for download.
Generic text on a one-color background won't get you anything but a boring banner. 3D IMPACT! Pro from CrystalGraphics Inc. uses a wizard-style interface to help you create interesting 3D and animated Web graphics. A free demo version is available for download.
Check It Out
Want to get in on the e-commerce craze? Pick up a copy of How to Dotcom: A Step-by-Step Guide to e-Commerce by Robert McGarvey, Entrepreneur's Web columnist. Packed with facts and information, How to Dotcom is the only book you'll need to get your business off the ground. Get your copy at Smallbizbooks.com or at local and online bookstores.