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Five Ways To Boost Online Business

By Jennifer Bosavage

Small online businesses are constantly on the lookout for ways to make the most of their time and money. You can have the best product in town, but if potential customers don't know about it, they'll never become real clients. These five ideas will help you get your business out of the shadows and into the spotlight.

Polish your Web site: Don't worry about being slick and fancy (ever wonder just how many Flash intros are skipped over daily?), instead concentrate on straightforward design and ease of use. It's important to understand that what might look great in your brochure or catalog will likely look awful online, says Timothy Votapka, director of business development at Winet Communications. He advises that if you use the same designer for both projects, be sure he or she understands the differences between the media and can show you samples of each. Keeping it simple and easy to navigate should be foremost in your design.

Obviously, different people see different things. What is simple to one is boring to another. But remember, fancy graphics take time -- sometimes a lot of time, depending on a user's connection -- to download. Therefore, the overriding concern a small business should have is on substance and ease of use. "You don't need animation for B2B," says D.J. Perlman, president of Superior Software Logic. "Sites should be clean and simple; make them elaborate at your own peril." In addition, he recommends not reinventing Web site convention. Familiarity among various sites' designs is good; use your creativity elsewhere. For example, nobody wants to search for where the shopping cart lives. It should be where it is on a majority of sites: The upper-right hand corner.

Furthermore, remember the customer's experience doesn't end once the credit card number has been entered. Follow up is extremely important, says Craig Cochran, author of Becoming a Customer Focused Organization. One common error companies make is not sending some kind of confirmation that the order was received, Cochran says, adding that even among those that do send an email confirmation, it is often not done in an appropriate manner. Tag lines on emails that say, "Do not respond to this message" are off putting. "If you send something out, confirm it's sent, and give contact info of who the person to contact with questions," says Cochran. In addition, provide your customers with tracking numbers. This will lessen the number of phone calls you receive and will also set the customers' mind at ease. Lastly, sending a personalized note either inside the package or as an email after the product is received can go a long way in making sure that customer returns to your site.

Search engine optimization (SEO): One of the best ways to get attention for your online business is to rank high on the list of search engine results. Of course, that's easier said than done. "Used to be, way back, you'd submit terms once and you were done with it," says Winet Communications' Votapka. "But then we started noticing clients' site traffic would go down. The search engines began changing their algorithms more often. So you need to submit your keywords more often, say quarterly." It's also important to be very specific in your search terms, particularly if you have a niche business. For example, if your business is selling saltwater fishing repair items, then your search terms should be different from an online provider of general hardware. Tailored search terms will bring you far more qualified leads, Votapka notes. In addition, having reciprocal links on your site -- to sites including industry affiliations, accreditations and even news articles about your business or industry - can significantly raise your search engine ranking. Also, know there is a distinction between a search engine, such as Google, and a directory, like Yahoo!, and each uses a different ranking method.

Perhaps best of all, it needn't cost an arm and a leg to get agency help for all this. Although businesses can legitimately spend thousands of dollars on SEO, Votapka has helped clients get started for less than $1,000 annually, a fee that includes resubmission of search strings every three months. Do-it-yourself options also exist, where the only -- but ofter substantial -- cost is in man hours.

Market yourself: One great way to do this is by putting a blog on your site. This is one way to truly differentiate yourself from the competition. Blogs offer a vehicle for you to give your business some "personality." As author Cochran notes, "Everybody likes to do business with a friend," so make your blog as personable as you can without seeming hokey. However, be thoughtful about what topics you cover; some hot-button issues, such as discussing an Internet tax or Internet neutrality are probably topics for this type of forum and reflect that you are a knowledgeable businessperson. Ranting about your closest competitor, however, shows just the opposite.

Start a podcast: "Podcasts are a great way to get in front of people," notes Rick Wooten, director of eBusiness at SonicWall. There are two approaches a company can take when using this technology. The first is to offer downloadable podcasts as training vehicles for staff members and/or customers. The second is the topic discussion model. This is where a company puts its resident expert on the podcast to talk about its latest technology or product. Often, another expert is brought in to balance and advance the conversation. Podcasts don't always have to directly relate to the company. The goal of podcasting is to get your company to be top of mind among potential clients, says Wooten. For example, a small advertising agency might do a podcast series on great ad campaigns of the past two decades. Such a review would likely attract more attention than one on "Our Thoughts on Account Management," and would be effective at building the agency's own brand.

Producing a podcast can be surprisingly affordable, says Tim Bourquin, founder and CEO of TNC New Media. The hardware - a PC microphone - is easily obtainable at any Radio Shack-type store, and free, competent software (Audacity, for example) can be downloaded from the Internet. Total cost is less than $75, says Bourquin. Of course, for high-production values, expect to pay a production company several hundred dollars per podcast. Once you make the commitment to podcasting, you should produce one on a regular schedule. Don't over-reach, either, warns Bourquin, one per month is plenty to start. Too many people don't recognize there can be a couple of hours spent after the fact in editing.

Create an email newsletter: You don't have to go out and hire an advertising agency to promote your business through a newsletter; there are several software products available to help you get started. Some publishing software helps you actually build the publication and manage your email lists (such as mynewsletterbuilder.com), others are geared specifically for streamlining publication (like EmailLabs' ASP software solution or Raizlabs' ASP Email Manager). Again, this is a terrific way to get mindshare among potential clients. Seeing such a newsletter on a regular schedule helps customers think of your company first when they are in the market for your product or service. Newsletters are also effective at communicating the "personality" of your business.

If you employ those five ideas and update them regularly, your business will not only be better known, but will become top of mind for many customers. And the best part is that you will have increased your visibility while creating a loyal customer base.

Jennifer Bosavage is a freelance writer based in Huntington, NY. You may reach her at jbosavage@yahoo.com.

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Jennifer Bosavage is a freelance technology writer.

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