Turn Web Traffic Into Foot Traffic

A solid web presence is essential--even for the smallest brick-and-mortar businesses.

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"Call, click or visit" has been a common call to action in small-business advertising for most of the past decade. The underlying assumption, of course, is that a small business has a telephone number, a place of business open to the public and a website. While a phone is probably a given, a brick-and-mortar store may or may not exist. And odds are that a small business does not have a website.

For years I've quoted an old survey that said 60 percent of small businesses don't have a website. But lately I began wondering if that number was still accurate. I was shocked to see that it has held steady through the first decade of this century. An April 2009 survey by The Discover Small Business Watch found that only 38 percent of small businesses with five or fewer employees even have a website. A full 62 percent remain "non adopters." And that number has decreased only three percent since 2007, when 65 percent of small businesses were not on the web.

It continues to baffle me why any small business wouldn't use the internet as an essential sales, marketing and customer relations tool. Establishing and maintaining a web presence is incredibly cheap and easy these days. And web advertising is much more powerful than most traditional print or broadcast advertising in that it enables the business owner to engage customers in a two-way conversation and gain valuable feedback on their products and services.

If you are among the 62 percent of small business owners who have yet to embrace the web as a marketing tool, following are some basic tips on how to use online advertising to drive customers into your brick-and-mortar location. By following these guidelines, you can convert more clickers into visitors and more visitors into cash customers.

Find a web design and a web designer
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it can also be an efficient way to find a web design that matches the personality of your business. Spend a few hours looking at websites in your line of business. Make notes on those that catch your eye. Look down in the small print to see who designed each site. Assuming the brick-and-mortar competitor is not just across the street, follow up with the design firm to see what it might cost to build a website with a similar look and feel for your business.

If you are using your own designer or simply doing it yourself, makes notes on what you like about certain websites. Incorporate those ideas into your own site.

Tell customers where you are
Before customers can enter your store, they need to know where you are. Your website needs to list prominently the physical address and phone number of your location. But go beyond that--make it easy for people to find you by adding a button from a mapping service to give customers turn-by-turn directions to your store or office. If you're located in an urban area, include instructions on how to get there by public transportation. As appropriate, let visitors know where the nearest parking is available.

You also want to tell customers your hours of operation. Placing that information right on your website might save your customers a phone call or prevent them from showing up bright and early at 9 a.m., on a day when you don't open until 10.

The bottom line here is convenience--yours and the customer's. Tell them where you are, how to get there and exactly when you are open for business.

Conversely, all of your print communications with your customers, everything from newspaper ads to sales receipts, should include your web address. In other words, tell them where you are on the web.

Establish your unique voice in the crowd
No matter where or how you advertise, differentiating yourself from the competition is essential to your success. If you own a bakery, do you simply sell bread, or do you offer "oven-warm loaves of artisan breads handcrafted and baked fresh daily on premises using only the all-finest natural ingredients"? If you are a florist, do you sell "flowers" or "the finest, earth-friendliest floral designs available anywhere"? The point is not just to blow your horn but to hit the high notes in communications with potential customers.

The internet is all about specialization and customization. Perhaps you already have a unique voice. For example, you might be a family-owned business that's been serving the community for three generations. In that case, you should play up your heritage and longstanding reputation for quality products and services.

If you are a relative newcomer, you can use the internet to test new messages. Unlike print or outdoor advertising, changing the style and tone of your message online is inexpensive and easy to do. Rework your messages constantly to determine what draws the most customers into your store.

Communicate frequently
Use the web to communicate frequently with your customers. Give them incentives to visit both your website and your brick-and-mortar location by offering limited-time discounts and special offers. One national bookseller with a large online presence offers print-your-own coupons that are redeemable only at their retail outlets. The theory is that selling a book in person may cost more than selling it online, but incremental sales made to customers perusing the aisles of books more than make up for the difference.

Get started
Scout your neighborhood for classes or seminars on the basics of web design. Trade associations, community colleges, small-business development centers and even software vendors may have free or inexpensive courses or packages to get you started. Ask family, friends, neighbors and customers if they know someone who might help you get you started.

The key is to get started. Once you've established a web presence, you can experiment and expand to build a cost-effective marketing tool that will keep customers coming to your door.

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