Many traditional businesses believe they don't need to get online - but they're already there.About the Author: Malcolm Sheppard is a writer and researcher for GILL Media, a strategic internet marketing firm with offices in Ontario, California, Texas and Florida.
Small business owners often believe they don't need a website. This is an especially common sentiment when the company has a local, face to face focus. They don't use e-commerce, so why should they bother with web pages, blogs and the rest?
The answer is simple: If they don't get online, someone will put them on - and they won't have a say in the results. Chances are that if your business has a Yellow Page listing, its name is on the Web. Here's how it got there:
Local Resources: Chatter from locally-focused networks like Kijiji, Craigslist and Facebook may mention an "offline" business in passing. The site might just grab content from local phone directories. These are generally difficult to browse from Google and in some cases (like Facebook); much of the content isn't searchable at all. Blind searches either won't find you, or bury you in an obscure sub-page.
Keyword Harvesting: Black hat techniques often rip long tail keywords from local directories. Surfers are likely to find these during targeted searches, when they know your business exists but don't know anything about its web presence. This creates a high level of expectation - one that's ruined the moment they hit a useless link farm.
Communities: Facebook, blogs, rating sites like restaurantica.com and online forums let just about anybody sound off about your business - and who knows what they'll say? The Social Web is a great way to bring people together, but it's also land of trolls: people who will insult your company, or worse, promote it in an off-putting, abrasive fashion.
The Broadcast Fallacy
Most people on the Web - the ones with money to spend, anyway - were raised on traditional media. They're vulnerable to a phenomenon called the Broadcast Fallacy.
The Broadcast Fallacy is a simple concept: People confuse a message's reach with its authority. On the Web, an individual has a global broadcast reach - what used to be the province of traditional, centralized media like television. Nasty forum posts or one-star ratings from a handful of cranks earn disproportionate authority. Agreement spreads virally, as people affirm their membership in an online community by siding with early opinions. If a business doesn't grab hold of its image on the Internet, someone else will.
There's only one cure for the Broadcast Fallacy: Set up your own "broadcast." Top-notch internet marketing seizes control of a client's image on multiple fronts to combat Social Web trolling, local obscurity and the black hat SEO "ghetto." Functional web design and smart keywords are still necessary, but a comprehensive plan also includes:
Social Web Vectors: Everybody knows how important a blog is, but it's just your Web 2.0 "home base." Experiment with tweets, Facebook groups and forums. Web 2.0 is still evolving, so explore new services, but don't chain yourself to them. Analyze the results and focus your time on proven lead sources. That's why they're "vectors" - the hot spots can change.
Human Conversations: Avoid online "silences" by updating your social network presence consistently. Augment a business' formal presentation with biographical information, pictures of employees and a more casual, day to day communication style. It's easy to criticize a faceless company. If people know a business by its people, that stimulates a sense of empathy.
Prosumer Relationships: Prosumers have an above average interest in the company's products and services. They want to feel involved in business decisions. Don't believe that prosumerism is limited to technical fields; foodies and classic car aficionados are prosumers too. Every business needs to find its prosumer community, their hub sites and leaders. Target them with special offers, exclusive events and interviews. This puts them on the "inside track:" they value, so they're more likely to give favorable feedback. Prosumers usually provide the first and most respected comments about your business, so their opinions have a potent viral effect.
Turning Words into Action
Provided they have a solid website and SEO strategy, any business can take command of its Social Web presence - in theory. Don't assume you have the time, confidence or writing ability to update a blog every month, post on an industry forum or administer a Facebook group.
Internet marketing companies that focus on technical solutions don't provide quality "soft services" like blogging, marketing copy and web PR. If you're looking into partnering with a web marketing company, make sure they can provide these services. Even if you do have the time for social networks and prosumer relations, a good company should be able to improve your performance with research and stylistic advice.