Small business marketers should keep up with the 2012 branding trends

The books have yet to close on 2011, but it seems as if analysts are already finished with that year and moving on to the next. It’s a good idea to begin looking forward rather than staring back at the past, especially when planning requires so much detail thanks to limited budgets and constrained resources. Small business marketers should especially be concerned with what the next 12 months will bring so they can adequately prepare campaigns and promotions.

While not every prognostication made by any given analyst will come to pass, many are worth being aware of simply because they can provide inspiration to idea-starved advertisers. The Market research firm Affect released a number of predictions for the coming year that indicate what the tenor of 2012 may be as well as offering fodder for promotions and areas of focus for the coming months.

Email is out and Twitter is in
Electronic mail, one of the first forms of online interaction with which most people had any kind of facility, is slowly being minimized as an important marketing tool. That isn’t to say that companies won’t be able to do some marketing in this medium, but it is quickly becoming overshadowed by other methods of outreach and engagement. This has left it more as a vehicle for messages with preexisting clients as well as official organizational communication.

By contrast, people interested in finding out more about a company may be more likely to use Twitter to do so going forward. Tweets are more concise as well as public. When a person emails a company, no one knows about it. This makes a business less accountable for complaints or mistakes. Conversely, someone who tweets”@” someone will likely be counting on the fact that others will see it and be curious to know how an organization intends to respond.

Google+ business
Google+ has been a long time in the making and is finally beginning to take off. The road is steep for this Facebook competitor, but it is an interesting tool for companies to use, if for no other reason than it is different than Facebook. After all, if every company has a Facebook page, it’s difficult to set oneself apart from that competition. Organizations can be bigger fish in a smaller pond on Google+. Additionally, Facebook changes often to suit the needs of the balance it offers between commercial and personal roles for users.

Strategy over trends
A lot of the manner in which companies choose their social media or online marketing efforts has to do with what is popular at the moment. For example, when businesses are designing their own apps or blogging about a particular topic, it’s natural for other companies to want to ride that wave of popularity. Doing so helps with search engine optimization, reader appeal and maximizing returns while minimizing effort.

However, the era of latching on to the ideas of others may soon be at a practical end. Users are increasingly demanding original content and thought leadership. Consequently, companies are expected to spend a lot more time planning their own online marketing escapades rather than watching what other organizations will do.

Metrics and analyses
Computerworld recently released the results of a Nucleus Research study of investment returns. It turns out that of all the investments in intelligence and research that a company can make, analytics and consumer data are far and away the best. In fact, companies that put money into predictive analysis saw an average of $10.66 returned on every dollar invested.

That is a compelling reason why analytics will be even bigger next year. The simple answer to the question of why is that analyses programs and models have gotten a lot better in the past few years. After accumulating data since the internet leaped to the fore front of marketing and media about a decade ago, many predictive programs have improved to the point that their affordable versions are actually about as good as the expensive programs that only large corporations can buy.

It’s also important to consider that these metrics are not just useful for understanding how customers behave. In fact, they may be even more beneficial for determining which campaigns and efforts on the parts of companies are the most effective. For example, customer relationship management, ostensibly designed to offer data about particular clients, has evolved to show users which techniques and methods have yielded the most lead conversions and value.

Small business marketing requires that companies don’t run afoul of Google

Traditional advertising can present significant challenges to smaller organizations that want to increase their brand awareness. Without a sizable marketing budget, it falls to small business owners to find alternative methods to reach and engage with consumers. That’s why inbound marketing has become so popular in recent years, and how search engine optimization has become the standard method of spreading the word about a product or company.

However, it is easy for companies to fall into common traps that SEO strategies present. Google engineers work to ensure that their search engine is bringing users the best content possible, but crafty programmers and writers are constantly trying to undermine this process. Ultimately, Google has decreed that publishing unique and timely content is the best way to reach the front page of search results, but that doesn’t stop people from attempting to get around the company’s algorithms.

Here are some of the tricks that a small business owner might convince herself will allow a website to rise to the top without following the rules. Unfortunately, Google itself has made it known that its methods are specifically designed to counteract them.

Hidden text
In the wild days of the internet, when it was a frontier on which inexperienced users and programming elites wandered side by side, it was not uncommon to come across an amateurish, superfluous web page . However, such pages might still receive a lot of page views if for no other reason than they were crammed full of keywords and phrases that were related to popular search terms.

Such sites were created by design and took advantage of Google’s primitive method for collating search terms and results. Since the internet’s infancy, search engines have made concerted efforts to weed out such pages, so there’s no use in trying to get away with it. More importantly, users have become experienced and can recognize a poorly-made page when they see one.

However, many companies think that they can get around this by being devious. Putting white text on a white background, setting text’s font size to zero and hiding words and phrases behind images might seem like good ideas, but Google understands how such tricks work and actively penalizes such practices.

Cloaking
With a halfway competent programmer on hand, it isn’t difficult to create two different faces for a website. One will be shown to search engines and is responsible for their results calculations, while the other is what people who log on are treated to. The former exists largely in the HTML code that comprises a website’s guts, while the latter might be in the form of an animation or set of images that Google is actually able to understand.

By packing a site’s metadata with juicy keywords and hot search terms, page designers might think that they’re pulling a fast one on Google. They should think twice, because search engines are on to their games and will punish them accordingly. Companies should always be what they appear to be in order to appeal to both customers and search trawlers.

Affiliate programs
Some organizations, acknowledging that their abilities to generate content are limited, throw up their hands and join affiliate programs. This sort of arrangement involves receiving copy from an outside source that is likely supplying the very same text to other sites at the same time. Google acknowledges that this can be a good way to increase the value of a site, but it is crucial to avoid relying entirely on affiliate content.

Make sure that such contributions are both limited and completely germane to the additional content on a company’s home page. It should only be used as supplementary data, and never the bulk of what a website offers.

Small business marketing and search engine optimization

Raising awareness of a brand or product line is difficult when people are hard to reach. The decline of newspapers and television has led to a world in which people can pick and choose the media to which they’re exposed. This makes it extremely difficult for advertisers and marketers to effectively share information about goods and services with customers. Consequently, this situation has given rise to the phenomenon of inbound marketing.

Inbound marketing essentially attempts to bring customers to businesses. This contrasts with the traditional model that put business’ information in front of consumers. Inbound marketing has many different facets, but the most significant and successful might be search engine optimization (SEO). By properly configuring a website to appeal to Google’s keyword algorithms, an organization can ensure that users searching for particular terms will be directed toward its own online presence.

While becoming the first page on a list of results is very valuable and important, the first goal of any company should be to just get on the front page in any position. According to a study by Optify earlier this year, the top ranked page for particular keywords had a click-through rate (CTR) of 36.4 percent. However, further down the line were number two at 12.5 percent number five at 6.1 percent. This illustrates how important it can be for companies to make their websites well aligned with Google’s equations. Here are some of the more unconventional ways to do that.

URLs
The actual code that directs a browser to a particular website might not seem so important, but it can actually have a significant impact in a number of ways. First, it never hurts to fit keywords into some other part of the code that creates a website because it too will be examined by Google and put toward search ranking considerations.

Second, people pay more attention to web addresses than one might think. There’s a big difference between the gibberish that many pages use to identify themselves and an organized series of headings and subheadings. Memorable words and descriptive titles in a URL will help users to remember a site if they ever want to return and to recognize addresses that have been bookmarked for later use.

Hierarchy
A navigable website is a frequently visited one. If getting from one page to another is difficult, users will have very little patience for an online presence and will seek other resources.. Make sure that different sections are ranked into tiers or nesting categories that correspond to URLs. For example, if a person is reading a news story and wants to return to the full list of articles that it came from, they can easily chop off the end of a URL to return to that master list. This is especially helpful if a news story was the landing page at which a visitor arrived from a search engine or other website.

Page titles
One reason that being on the first page of Google’s search results is so important is because it gives searchers a preview of the top-ranked websites. Most search results are accompanied by an excerpt of the portion of text that a keyword came from as well as the title of the page it was found on and the URL of the page itself. This is the first introduction most consumers will have with a website, so it is important to keep it clean, organized and informative if they’re going to take the plunge and click away.

Page titles that don’t accurately reflect the content of a page are not only misleading – they also fail to add keywords Google can use to identify a website.

Meta tags and pictures
The nuts and bolts of any website is HTML, or the code in which the internet is written. Most small business marketers likely rely on programmers or code writers to attend to these matters, but if they don’t, they should be sure to be aware that HTML provides yet another opportunity for the inclusion of some keywords and additional information.

For example, most pages that show up in Google search results might have some of their meta tags (which designate certain parts of a site) visible to users. Additionally, if a problem loading a website occurs, the meta data might appear. This is especially true for pictures. In addition to captions, they should all include alt text, which describes them further, appears when the mouse hovers over them and is visible to Google when trawling for websites after a user has requested a search.

Ultimately, the name of the SEO game is richness. This applies to what Google will see and what might appear before customers, so be as descriptive and detailed as possible when constructing a website.

Tips for a cohesive online small business marketing strategy

There is quite a lot for small business owners and marketers to keep in mind when they begin a campaign of advertising on the internet. Social media, search engine optimization, promotional products, inbound marketing, brand awareness, blogging, link farming and a number of other terms might be perfectly intelligible to the novice marketer. However, knowing how to put it all together can be extremely confusing.

Fortunately, there is a clear progression from having no online presence to swiftly collecting contact information and connecting with consumers. It is important not to skip any steps or to make the mistake of trying to do one thing before something that should have come first. Follow this loose guide to gain an appreciation for the thread that must be followed from the real world to the online realm.

1. Form an image
While this process might involve transitioning to the internet, the first step should be anything but. Companies need to determine what the role that they’ll play in the online world will be. For instance, functioning as a resource for consumers or clients in a particular industry is one sort of identity that can be adopted. Another is a no-nonsense, one-stop presence that won’t waste consumers time. When there is a clear idea of the perception that an organization will have, consider basic elements such as color scheme, mascot (if any), logos and overall style.

2. Create a website
Before links can be collected and Google trolled for inbound hits, a site must be created. For a very basic presence, a site can be constructed in very little time. However, the best thing to do is to purchase a relevant domain name, which both lends a business credibility and helps with search engine results. Web sites don’t require a full-time staff member dedicated to updating since they can be contracted out. However, if resources abound, consider bringing aboard someone who will always be nearby to troubleshoot problems for a flat rate.

3. Uncover a keyword strategy
By using Google-oriented tools such as Google AdWords, companies can begin to determine which search terms will yield the most visitors and hopefully the most customers. A liberal sprinkling of these phrases in titles, web page headings and regularly updated content is the simplest way to start scooping searchers from the rolling waves of the open internet.

4. Implement a content strategy
Without frequent refreshment, content becomes mired in stagnation and will consequently cause Google to ignore a website. Decide who, how and when content will be updated and what form these updates will take. News stories, industry tips and personalized dispatches from the personnel at a company are all excellent fodder for a blog or news feed.

5. Connect to a real-world location
Businesses that operate entirely on the internet won’t need to worry about this step, but those organizations are few and far between. According to the Chicago Tribune, only 7 percent of all retail revenue generated in 2010 was from entities that existed solely online. Therefore, it is important to register with Google Places and to make sure that online services such as Yelp! and FourSquare have a fix on the street address of a brick and mortar operation. After all – once awareness begins to build on the internet, it is time to unleash that wave onto the real world via real customers.

6. Social media adoption
If the internet is one realm and the real world is an entirely different dimension, social media is the crux at which these two realities intersect. People have their online personas and their actual selves, but nowhere do the lines blur more than on Facebook, Twitter and other social networking platforms. To begin inviting consumers to a real-world location, offer social media connections to the people who have come across a website thanks to Google and other online efforts.

Social media marketing requires outside-the-box thinking

There are a great many ways that various social media platforms can make small business marketing easier. Companies can stay in touch with customers to keep them informed about ongoing promotions or discounts. Contact information is made available so that promotional products and other offers are able to be sent. Consumers can even offer advice or feedback that organizations are able to integrate into their business practices.

These methods are all useful, but many companies are aware of them and will use them accordingly. Small businesses that want to remain competitive in their industry or market ought to be aware that setting themselves apart from competitors is a requirement. Here are some suggestions for ways that local companies can make their websites and social media profiles even more useful and unique.

Company websites are at their best when they become useful tools rather than basic platforms for businesses to market themselves. Consumers see advertising every day and will have little interest in a website if it doesn’t bear a semblance of usefulness. A living calendar with important dates on it should be a feature of any commercial site. Promotions, discounts and special events can be posted that will be of interest to regular customers, especially if there are regular updates to the schedule.

Users can often be given the opportunity to log in and maintain a personal profile on a company website. This is necessary for businesses that sell things over the internet, but even for those that don’t, it can be an interesting way to engage customers. This will also give organizations useful contact information that they can later use for promotional product giveaways, discounts and secret events.

Forums and message boards are increasingly becoming an important type of discourse on the internet. People who are frequently online find that it is an excellent way to have conversations, give advice, offer recommendations, argue points and share information. Spirited debate and lively banter are very attractive to internet users, who will be interested in any site that features them. Allowing conversations about a company, its industry or a local geographic area will make a web presence more valuable in the eyes of customers and could attract extra business.

Links to valuable websites in an area are a great way to improve search engine optimization efforts, but they can also help to improve the image and desirability of a company’s website. Resources related to a geographic area, industry or company itself are always helpful to consumers, who will appreciate the help that an organization has offered them in their quest for more information about products and services.

Small businesses should create SEO campaigns with an eye toward competition

Online marketing and search engine optimization can act as extentions to traditional advertising.  In many ways, this makes the job of raising brand awareness easier for small businesses. It has been shown that a growing majority of consumers utilize search engine-based web research to make an informed purchase. The entire process of directing consumers toward an online presence is much more cost-effective than marketing with newspapers or radio commercials was.

However, it is important to note that despite being cheaper, online marketing efforts are more labor-intensive. That is, those efforts may be simple, but they require dedication and awareness. Small business advertisers need to understand not only how to navigate the algorithms that search engines use, but they have to know what the organizations that compete for the same search terms are up to.

Search engine optimization doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and for every spot that a company moves upwards on Google’s search results page, another must either move up as well or drop a spot or two. The currency of the modern advertising age is visual space on a search engine’s page, so sometimes it’s necessary to check in on the competition.

One way to accomplish this is by researching the page rank of competitors. First, a marketer must discover which websites are highly-ranked for the same search terms or phrases that that business wants to exert influence over. Regular searches should be performed to understand the breakdown for desired words and phrases. Companies should always be aware of the environment in which they operate.

The next step is to see how popular competitors’ web sites are. Google Analytics, AdSense and other page-ranking services can be used to compare one site to another to get a sense of the ground that needs to be covered with SEO tactics. From there, it is simply a matter of viewing the websites of those competitors and understanding what it is that they do better than another company. Keywords, link sharing and blogging are first steps to take in pursuit of this objective.

It is also important to note that while it is crucial to be on the first page of search engine results in order to proclaim an SEO campaign successful, the number one spot does not have nearly the same influence that it once did. Consumers are more willing than ever before to hunt around, so it is often helpful to simply offer better products and services than competitors. Discounts, regularly-scheduled money-saving events and promotional product giveaways are all valid tactics to pursue when SEO efforts have only helped an organization to break even with another company.

Uncommon marketing events that grab consumer attention

Many of the most common small business marketing tactics that are discussed on the internet and by professional consultants can be described as slow-burn ideas. These efforts, whether they include search engine optimization, online blogging or social networking, are all designed to be effective over a long period of time. Very few companies ever found their core customer base the same week that they launched any kind of marketing effort.

However, every once in a while, it can be useful to hold an event that grabs people’s attention and attempts to ratchet brand awareness up by a few notches. These happenings will stick out in customers’ minds, and if they aren’t overused, can be a great way to introduce a business to a whole new batch of consumers that might not have noticed them before.

Contests always capture people’s imaginations. There is the hope that they might win a big prize, and that possibility attracts sizable crowds. There is also the added element of competition. Contests can have multiple events, from writing a new slogan to having the best costume in a certain style. Winners can be proudly displayed on the wall of an office or retail location, which is also a big temptation for outgoing people.

Charity events are a good way to prove to customers that a company actually cares about a community or the less fortunate. Small business marketers shouldn’t get involved in non-profit events unless they truly want to help out and have legitimate concern for the folks that are being aided by a charity drive or donations that might be collected. However, this kind of act goes a long way toward establishing a business in a community and functions to give customers another excuse to choose one company over another.

Straight-up giveaways grab plenty of attention. The prospect of something for nothing is an alluring one, and customers are not likely to forget it. A giveaway can be as simple as offering free products or services on a company’s anniversary or as complicated as awarding promotional products to the consumers who have done the most business over a certain period of time.

The best way to take advantage of the power that these events lend to brand awareness is to funnel the consumers that they attract into the slow-burn marketing efforts that are always going on at small businesses. Managers and supervisors should carefully display social media user names, web addresses and information about how to register for emails throughout these happenings.

Small business blogs need to vary content in more ways than one

One of the most effective ways to increase the success of search engine optimization (SEO) techniques is to keep a company blog. In addition to providing interesting and useful content for customers to browse, a blog fulfills Google’s demand for unique information. However, besides simply adding timely info, a blog needs to vary from post to post.

One way to accomplish this is to make the topics different from entry to entry. Many blogging platforms allow posts to be “tagged” with various categories that can be monitored by search engines. Tags should be chosen from keywords and phrases associated with terms that yield a high number of search result hits.

Of course, a deceptively simple way to vary posts is to change their lengths from one entry to another. Google algorithms will quickly realize that posts with different word counts are unique and will assign weight to those factors. From customers’ points of view, blog posts with differing lengths will be a welcome sight that proves a website is regularly maintained and updated.

Balance every online marketing move with an offline move

Small business marketers are quick to jump at any opportunity to reach customers and raise awareness online. The internet offers greater connectivity and a lower cost to find and communicate with consumers. Many businesses are successful operating entirely on the net, but many companies make most of their transactions in the real world. As a result, it’s important to remember that online marketing is only as valuable as the number of physical customers it can generate.

Consider the following offline marketing actions that should complement equal but opposite online actions.

Online: offer special deals to friends and followers
Offline: make others aware of those deals

Social networking platforms allow companies to develop an intimate relationship with customers that have shown a special interest in their products or services. Websites like Facebook and Twitter give businesses the opportunity to make mention of coupons and discounts that reward people for being loyal customers. However, the only benefit to offering these special deals is that they entice new consumers to follow a social media profile. Once consumers realize the benefits of frequenting a certain company or business, they’ll be more likely to do so in the future. This also has the effect of increasing the invaluable “word of mouth” surrounding an organization.

Online: collect contact information
Offline: make good contact

Websites can easily be designed to collect contact information that can later be used to offer deals or entice customers. However, all the effort of gaining people’s trust shouldn’t be wasted on a campaign of leaflets or coupons. When a person gives an actual address, she will want something with useful information or valuable deals. A newsletter or word of an exclusive and worthwhile discount are good ways to make sure that these customers feel good about their decision to give out personal information.

Online: search engine optimization
Offline: promotional products or brand awareness

Search engine optimization techniques are an excellent way to direct people toward a company website. However, they are far more successful when there is something in real life pushing them toward an entity on the internet. Promotional products such as personalized mugs, promotional pens or USB logo drives will introduce a product, service or company to a consumer, who will ideally use his computer to go off in search of those things.

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