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Anchor your online strategy with a solid website

Question: The big social media boom is confusing in relation to marketing. Some small business owners are telling me that I no longer need a website for my business and I should just concentrate on social media. Does SCORE think that I should discontinue my website and just maintain a blog and a Facebook page?

Answer: Blogs, photo-sharing, and other types of social media may be getting all the buzz these days, but websites remain the foundation of a successful online marketing strategy.

Though social media has redefined the rules of customer engagement and relationship-building, these channels are limited in size, content, and time. In order to truly "tell your story" - what your small business does and how it can help your customers - a well-designed, comprehensive website is a must.

"Think of your website as your home base," advises Michael Pranikoff, global director of emerging media for www.PRNewswire.com. "All of the channels that are outside of your main page should be set up to drive people to your business. Make sure that you are linking all of those various posts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and more back to where you want to drive people."

Creating a professional-looking website has never been easier, thanks to do-it-yourself online design tools. But, flash and lots of photos and visuals aren't everything and may even be too much. As with every other facet of online marketing, good content, written and visual, that speaks to your target market is critical to both attracting customers and enticing them to learn more.

Organize and have your website built from the customer's perspective:

• Basic information: who you are, what you do, where you're located, a way to contact you, hours of operation, etc.

• How you can help them: details on products, services, special expertise, etc.

• Why a customer should do business with you: the kind of problems you solve, examples of successful projects/satisfied clients, etc.

• And don't forget to provide contact information and a time for an expected response. Many a sale has been lost because the client has to wait for a reply.

Complementing narrative with photos and video is helpful, but don't go overboard. Often, less is better, and what you do include should look as professional as possible. (In other words, use a digital camera or camcorder instead of a cell phone, and edit out any extraneous material.) And "freshen up" your content regularly by replacing outdated material with more timely, relevant information.

Many entrepreneurs have added educational components to their websites, providing relevant information about issues customers are dealing with or their industry. This informative portion of your website can actually link to a blog that your web master can set up for you. As a result, your website serves a dual purpose, links you into the social media arena and becomes an information resource that can help customers on an ongoing basis.

Also make sure your website's content is optimized for mobile devices, especially if you own a restaurant or other business that customers may visit on impulse, or when they're looking for something specific.

"Mobile devices are hugely complimentary to a small business owner's online presence because the consumer is likely to be nearby and ready to visit," explains Heather Dougherty, director of research for Experian Hitwise, and a leading authority in online commerce and marketing. "There are great opportunities to capture the customer with mobile search, geo-tagging, and location-based services like Facebook Places and Foursquare when they are in the area.

Northern Arizona SCORE has a referral guide in production now that will be available to all SCORE clients, present and past. Ask you counselor to put you on the list for receiving this resource; there are web designers listed.

Coming March 23 is "A Basic Introduction to Do-it-Yourself Social Media for Business." Cost is $25 per person. This workshop is limited to 24 participants. To learn more, contact Northern Arizona SCORE at 778-7438, score@northlink.com or www.scorenaz.org.

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