Let’s say that your great-great-grandmother had a secret recipe for the most delicious donuts in the universe. This recipe makes all other donuts taste like dirty pennies by comparison. Finally, let’s say that your great-great-grandmother bequeathed the recipe to you, and you alone, because you were her favorite. Now you want to share it with the world, and bring in a little money at the same time. So you start a small business.
You’re amazing in the kitchen—as amazing as your great-great-grandmother. And you’re amazing with people, too—as amazing as your great-great-uncle Karl, who was twice elected mayor of his picturesque European village. In other words, you have two of the three modes of running a small business down pat—you can fry the donuts, and you can run the donut shop.
But what about the third mode? What about bringing in new customers, enough so that your small business is profitable? In today’s quick-moving, hyper-competitive market, producing a first-rate product within the cozy confines of an attractive and friendly shop might allow you to eke out a living; but if you want to really grow your small business, and share your great-great-grandmother’s legacy with as many people as possible, you’ll have to be seen by as many people as possible, in as positive a light as possible. And for that you’ll need the internet.
Arguably, the bringing-in-new-customers mode of running a small business can be the most exciting mode of the three. But using the web as part of the means of bringing in new customers can get complicated. Start building and maintaining a viable presence on the web by mastering a few relatively simple tools.
To participate on the web, you’ll need a website. It doesn’t have to be lavish or fancy to do its job—visit The Drudge Report for an example of a fantastically successful website without a single bell or whistle—but it will need to cover the basics. Some of these basics include:
Accuracy. An out-of-date website is derelict property. It’s also a turnoff. If you’re running a brick-and-mortar business, your contact information, location and operating hours should always be current. Try to imagine what your customers want to see when they visit your site and live up to those expectations (better yet, surpass them).
Photos. Personalize your website by providing pictures of who you are, where you are, and what you have to offer. For the donut shop owner, you’ll want to spend some time getting nice shots of your donuts to add to your site. If you own a remodeling business, try adding “before and after” photos like this simple, yet effective, example below.
Reviews are welcome. Polls have shown that a majority of online consumers trust online reviews like they would a recommendation from a friend. Take advantage of external review sites such as Yelp and Google Places, and learn how to optimize your presence. Dedicate a page on your website for customer reviews and testimonials. Try asking your satisfied customers for reviews of your products and services for your testimonials page, and if they are active on Yelp let them know about your Yelp presence. Be proactive. Chances are that if you’ve gone out of your way to please them, they’ll do the same for you.
Face time. Create a Facebook page or group. As you accumulate fans, you’ll expose their friends and family to your enterprise.
To blog, or not to blog
The magic word for a successful small business is local. Small businesses that become a fixture of the neighborhood rarely go away.
A blog is effective in this context precisely because is so direct, home-like and personal. If you’re shy, it’s a superb way for you to reveal who you are to a lot of people, yet still maintain your privacy. If you’re vocal and outgoing, a blog will reflect that energy. Either way, a blog will allow you to tell your story in your own words, and to add new chapters to that story on a daily basis. A blog can open the door to engaging with other established bloggers—passionate, committed people with a regular readership and a never-ending hunger for new stuff to blog about. If you are not an online business, be sure to use your geographic location somewhere on your blog.
In addition to creating a community, your blog serves the purpose of bringing in additional traffic. Every time you add a new blog post, you are indexing a new page for your website, and search engines will notice this and know your site is active. The more active your site is, the more likely it is that your site will start showing up in relevant searches, which can drive new traffic to your site.
If customers search you, what will they see?
You rely on search engines like Google and Bing every day, multiple times a day, as a matter of course. Your customers do the same. Make sure the information you want associated with your business is showing up when a potential customer Google’s your business by formally submitting your business to Google and Bing. It’s free and easy.
Once you’ve signed up, the next step is to familiarize yourself with the methods designed to earn your small business a high place on the index. The higher the spot, the more likely it is that typing “donuts [your city]” into a search engine will result in your website being among the first that pop up. Strategies such as keyword optimization may seem daunting to begin with—you already have a lot on your plate. Thankfully, the internet is full of helpful resources—like Moz’s “Beginner’s Guide to SEO”—to get you up and running.