About This Case


11 Feb 2009, 11:59PM PT

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6 Feb 2009, 12:12PM PT


  • Advertising / Marketing / Sales
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Building A Web Presence For Your Small Business


Closed: 11 Feb 2009, 11:59PM PT

Earn up to $100 for Insights on this case.

Continuing our string of useful conversations, Register.com is sponsoring a series of discussions at the Insight Community concerning the development of a web presence by small business owners. Selected insights generated here will be featured on Register.com's Learning Center to benefit beginners in the small business community who are looking to build robust online websites.

For this first case, we're looking for recommendations on how business owners and entrepreneurs can get started with their efforts to expand their business online. Given the maturity of online advertising and the internet as a communication channel for customer service, how can small businesses take advantage of email, websites and web services to acquire new customers or increase customer loyalty? What metrics should a small business monitor to judge its online efforts? What kind of expertise does a business need to create a long-term online plan?

These are not the only questions to answer, but merely a sampling of some interesting topics. When submitting your contribution, avoid simply answering the questions listed here and develop your own unique insights for an approximately 200-500 word article that a small business audience would find interesting and enlightening.

Selected insights from this case will be re-published on Register.com's small business resource website, and the goal is to create a collection of educational articles aimed at a non-technical audience.

18 Insights


Step One: The first thing you need to do is get started, what are you building, why are you building it, what niche does it fill in. Once you have the mechanics of the business down, and you know what you are doing, you are enthused and passionate about what you are doing, and you want to go to work every day, this is the best start you can have.

Corollary to step one: There are tons of people who will tell you not to do this, they are doom sayers, if you really have a niche, if you really have the brilliant idea, go to it, there are many people worldwide who will support you. If you are strapped for programmers, consider doing this as an open source project (eventually you can do a premium service for money as well). Nathan Kaiser over at NPost has a great post right here you want to read on this subject.

Step Two: Start a blog – I know everyone has a blog, how do I differentiate myself from the noise, I have to update it daily, I don’t know how to do this, ect. Sure there are tons of reasons not to do this, most are some form of “I don’t want to spend the effort” or a fear response. You are a startup, we want to know more about you, we need something to link to, you get Google page rank the more you get linked. You should be well over the fear idea holding you back, go do it. This might take about 15 minutes to set up word press, find a premade cool skin in your companies colors, slap your logo on it and give us a weekly update on what you are doing. Alpha version, cool, beta version, cool, call for open beta testing, excellent, go live RTM Gold Disk, even better. This gives us and your readers a way to follow how your company is doing, you will also provide inadvertently provide startup lessons for everyone along the way. Even if your startup fails, you might end up like Andy Sack, widely respected and followed because of his blog.

Step Three: Twitter – oh yes you do want to do this (even if you think it is silly, microblogging eh), tie your blog into twitter, easy to do with Word Press, and just about every other blogging platform out there. Tweet stuff, tell us how it is going, got a tough programming issues, tweet it, got a meeting with VC’s, tweet it, anything? Tweet it, 140 characters is not enough time to talk about everything, but why the heck not let us know how it is going.

Step Four: Start a Facebook page for your company, also do this on Linked In, make friends, tie rule five into your Facebook account. Friend as many people as you can, or at least those that look like legitimate people who honestly wish you well. Tie your Facebook page into your FriendFeed page (next step)

Step Five: Start a FriendFeed Account, tie your blog, twitter, and other media (if you make a great video of your product and put it on YouTube, if you podcast, anything that is your own companies channel) so that there is a one stop shop for everything you are doing. Link heavily to your FriendFeed account; use a widget to tie your FriendFeed account back to your blog.

Step Six: Start a social median account and send all your FriendFeed traffic to that account, this way there is just one feed, and social median is a great way to get noticed. There are other systems just like Social Median out there, and you should explore them all, make as many accounts across the social network, this all ends up being Google page rank support later on. You do need to keep up with this though, the more social obligations you take on, the more people expect you to keep up with them.

Step Seven: Find industry thought leaders, whatever your startup is about; there is a thought leader in the process. Technology, Robert Scoble, Louis Gray on the internet side, if you are local to Seattle John Cook and Todd Bishop at Techflash, Me (I’ll blog about any local company), NPost, and a ton of other outlets, including the Seattle PI and Brier Dudley over at the Seattle Times. If you are not in Seattle, find the local equivalents to these kinds of people. Don’t just send them a PR sheet, court them, talk to them, offer them coffee, come down for a visit. Make a personal connection, and then let them write about you. This means there are at least seven people in the Seattle who will talk about you and link to you right off the bat.Your town might have more.

Step Eight: Keep the conversation going, all of us are busy people, we will forget about you in the fog of shiny shiny, let us know how things are going from time to time. Send us a personal note, let us know directly that something big is coming, another guided tour, another cup of coffee, a demo, awesome.

Step Nine: Go to conventions, if you can make it, save money and go to startup conventions like Techcruch and others. Get a booth, smooze, see what others are doing, allow yourself to be interviewed by everyone, this will require more coffee, and in some cases a beer or two. Have plenty of business cards, have a huge sense of humor, but go do this.

Step Ten: Go to every single local meeting for startups and make friends. MIT Venture Lab, meetings at colleges, small halls, Your local Tech Startup list, and get involved in the conversation. If something grabs your interest, blog about it, tweet about it, keep the connection going. Then revert back to rule two and keep this whole process flowing. It is not so much that your idea is brilliant it is that you need to communicate how brilliant your idea is.

James Durbin
Sat Feb 7 7:44am

This is a pretty comprehensive list for business owners looking to expand their business quickly. While it may seem overwhelming, social media can be your most effective marketing vehicle.

Too many entrepreneurs focus on their idea, and don't get the need to publicize it. Publicizing costs money, while social media costs time. Your list gives a lot of good answers on how to save time.

It's not for everyone - microbusinesses, retail shops, and those focused on a local niche might not need to cover every step, but anyone launching a national business would do well to look at each step, and ask themselves if they understand the value.
Dan Morrill
Sun Feb 8 10:00am
Thanks James,

Realistically then you could look at this as 10 mini articles, with steps, guide, how to, ect for each of these steps and then go do them if they make sense for you to do. I just hope we get more stuff like this this year.

Blogging software has come a long way in the last few years, and an easy strategy for putting up a robust, optimized for search site is the use of Wordpress, Moveable Type or Typepad blogs for your content management system.

Designed correctly, a blog website can give you everything you need to showcase your company online, while making it easy to add content, change images, and control the look, feel, and message of your site.


The Winning Pitch is a Public Relations firm in San Jose that focuses on women's products and companies.  The owner needed to be able to upload high-res photos for journalists, but also wanted something that she could point potential clients to as an example of her presence online.   The site is now entirely managed by the owner, without additional support fees.  The site is entirely hosted by Typepad, which means upgrades are automatic, downtime is negligible, and the site can be altered quickly. 

Another example, and a bit more robust, is Shakadoo.com.  This community of sites on issues relating to the home is entirely powered by Typepad blogs.  The front page is hosted as a static page, but 9 different sites function under the Shakadoo umbrella, again without the need or developer support or ongoing retainers.  A similar site quote was listed at $100,000 - the site was developed for a third of that cost, and runs on just $150 a year.


Blog software has a series of easy to use applications called widgets that let you customize functionality for zero cost.  An example is RSS for publication and free job postings, PayPal for transactions, Sitemeter for analytics, newsletters signup and banner ads that can drive traffic back to your site.  Designed correctly, no one will know the difference, and your site will grow in content as you add to it using the blog software as a CMS (Content Management System). 

You can even add a shopping cart for cheap.  We use Shopify.com to power our product sales, and for $25 a month, you can build a store that accepts credit cards and tracks shipments.  It looks professional (again, you need a designer), and it's far cheaper than building a store on your own.

Other Uses:

If you already have a site, sometimes it makes sense to add a subdomain or path where you us use a blog to power news about the company.  news.yoursite.com is an easy way to drive SEO rich content about your company, while yoursite.com/news can be utilized if you try Wordpress or Blogger.com.  In each case, you own the domain name, but use the blog to power it.  The process is called domain mapping, and it's important for an online image, as having a company site hosted on a free service makes you look cheap.


Blogs aren't curealls, but learning to use a blog software will also help you with online marketing.  There are thousands of small business blogs and websites, and using one to power your site will introduce you to that community.  Most important, you'll control your site, and not be at the mercy of a developer who sends a monthly invoice for services you don't understand.


First, don't do what I did. I tried to emulate the format of a large, well-established company, where the name alone would attract potential customers! Being a small, unknown company, that fell flat on its face!

Know what you want to do. Are you trying to attract clients, or customers? I am an IP attorney, so my interest is (and should have been) forming a close relationship with clients. Attracting customers, such as for a product, would be different - though in many respects similar.

I will describe what works for attracting clients; it would take some modification to work for customers, though, in many cases, surprizingly little modification.

You need to give some reason (in the CLIENT'S self-interest, not yours!) to have them open a conversation with you. For me, the winning approach is to offer to explain (and as a completely no-obligation community service-type thing) the difference between small entity patenting and large entity patenting, and some of the nuts and bolts of the process (which apply generally to both types).

At this point I avoid evangelizing. Personally, I agree with Michael Masnick that the way most IP (and patenting, which in the US is almost entirely large entity patenting - after all, that is where an attorney can make the most money!) is done in the US is very, very bad, and I personally refuse to do it for ethical reasons. However, at this point I avoid any such negativity - it is completely out of place. I simply explain that large entity patenting is based on making litigation expensive (that screens out most litigants) and small entity patenting is based on making litigation inexpensive (key to a small entity, such as a small inventor). I also explain that litigation is made inexpensive by clearly describing the invention in simple terms, and that will aid in discouraging litigation altogether (why sue if you know you will lose?).

This can be done in most businesses, not just IP.

1. Distinguish your business clearly and simply, without negativism. Sure, that's easy for me to say - I may be the only small entity attorney around; after all, how many attorneys want to starve? But it CAN be done in most viable small businesses!

2. Offer something of value, but completely free - no strings attached. I even go so far as to not even ask if they want my representation; if I do a good enough job of explaining the (pardon me, but extremely valuable) services I offer, they will ask me!

3. And patience, patience, patience. After all, when you establish the right kind of relationship, your customer/client will be well aware of the value you offer, and from then on you are a team; adversarial aspects of the relationship disappear!

Social media sites are offering small businesses new ways to attract customers via the web. What's particularly great about leveraging social networks to promote your business is that in many cases you will be reaching an audience who are passionate about the things they like and willing to spend in order to support the companies they trust.

A great way to get started would be to start a presence on Twitter, the microblogging service. Twitter allows users to post short (less than 140 character) messages that members read by "following" other users. It is extremely popular among the "tech elite" and if you have a product that might appeal to that demographic (or even a broader audience as Twitter's growth into the mainstream is happening rapidly) you can reach out and create a community around your products.

Companies have created Twitter accounts that allow them to start up a direct dialog with their customers as well as new channels for advertising and promotion. Twitter can be a great way to run promotions; Dell has been running exclusive promotions on Twitter and companies like Zappos have made a name for themselves by being responsive and starting a line of communication with their customers. In fact, a new service has just launched called twtQpon that lets you easily create coupons that can be distributed via your company Twitter account.

Once you have set up an account for yourself on Twitter you should also track what people are saying about you there! You can use Twitter Search to see what people are saying about your brand in real time, it's a great customer feedback tool! You can also subscribe to the results using an RSS reader such as Google Reader to keep always up to date on the latest things people are saying.

Once you have set up a Twitter account, you should promote it on your site (feature it on the "Contact Us" page, for instance). Also make sure to post about it on your company's blog (If you don't have a blog, start one!). It gives loyal customers the ability to keep up to date with what's new at your business.

We have had a company website for several years, and for the most part it was a static yellow pages kind of listing. We had a nice picture of one of our employees, our contact information and a few brief descriptions of our company and services.


We also had an employee login section where I had created an extensive set of applications for our employees to enter timesheets, make request...


Several months ago we hired a marketing manager and one of our first steps was to make our website a more key tool in our marketing efforts. I will try to summarize some of the things we learned.


Before making any changes we spent a lot of time discussing how the site would be used, we set very specific graduated goals, many of which we are still in the process of completing. We also looked at the metrics we would use to measure our progress towards these goals.


We struggled quite a bit at first trying to find the right balance between the cool appearance that our marketing manager developed and the ability to actually create that look and feel in a webpage.


Basic rules:

1)      Keep it as simple as possible. Don’t clutter individual pages with lots of information. You can easily create more pages, make sure that your structure makes sense and that it is easy to navigate. Don’t let the pages get in the way of the message.

2)      Stay away from technologies that not all of your customers may have, unless there is a very compelling reason for it. Where possible stick to plain html, making your customer install, flash, quicktime or any other number of tools before they can access your content is like making someone go on a scavenger hunt or having to complete a quiz before they walk in your front door.

a.       That being said if you have a compelling reason, make getting the extra software they may need as easy as possible.

3)      Involve your customers in the process, ask them what they want and need, and do everything you can to give it to them. What you think should be there and what they want is not necessarily the same or obvious.

4)      Place your address, and a phone number that is answered by a person on the front page. This will be your first and sometimes only contact with many visitors. Make it easy to contact you.

5)      Use a professional to create pictures and graphics for your site. It needs to be every bit as slick as your billboards, trucks or any other marketing materials you distribute.

6)      Use some kind of CMS (Content Management System), which allows the appropriate people to edit the content on the site without having to get your technical folks involved. There are many available, many as open source.

7)      Make sure that your hosting location is fast, stable, secure, and where possible shielded from any sensitive content your organization may be storing, as a very public window to the world it will also be one of the first places an attacker will look for a way into your systems. (In other words make sure this is not the same computer your accounting data is stored on)

8)      Have a professional proofread all of your content for proper grammar.

9)      Keep it fresh, Post news and info as often as possible but don’t put info up just for the sake of having new content. Make sure that it is going to help you engage with your customers.

10)  Be wary of anyone that guaranties/offers to drive traffic to your site. If your site really provides useful information and tools to your customers it should not be hard to get them to use it. Give them a reason to come.

11) If your customers have website ask them if you can cross link to them. Work together as much as possible.


As the System Administrator for our company I had created the original website, I had a significant investment in the look and content of the site. Our new marketing manager and everyone in the process of re-design were careful to make sure that I understood that they were not making this change because of any failing in the present site just a desire to improve it. As a result I felt much more comfortable with the whole process.


Final points, be patient it takes time to do this right. Be flexible if you discover that something is not working the way you thought it would change it.

There have been significant developments over the past several years that have created new opportunities for small businesses to reach out to their local audience using the Internet.  These tactics are powerful tools to engage your target audience with the added benefit of being mostly free!  Below are 10 things small businesses should be doing to reach their local consumers online:

1.  Facebook Company Profile.  Create a Facebook company profile off of your current Facebook personal account page by clicking on "page manager" then create a new "page".  This creates a hub on Facebook for your current consumers to "become fans" and advocates for your business.

2.  Google Maps.  Go to Google and search for "Google Local Business Center".   This free service let's you add your business' information into the Google Map results.

3.  YouTube.  Create a YouTube page for your business and start creating videos (see #4 below).  Videos are a powerful tool to communicate your businesses unique product/ service and help you stand apart from your competition.

4. Video, Video, Video.  Have someone with some decent film skills film you and your business.  Depending on your business this can take couple different forms.  For example, if you are a dentist film a tour of your office with you explaining how you're different from the competition (I suggest "painfree" and "on time appointments" may be good starting points.)  Post the videos on your Facebook page, your Google Maps, and in your You Tube account.

5. Yelp.  Create a Yelp profile for your business.  Yelp is a review site for local businesses.  Then ask some of your favorite clients to post a review.  Offer them an insentive to post a review to make sure they know how much you appriciative their help.

6. Create and Join Groups. 
Most of the Social Networking sites provide the ability for you to create a "group".  Check out groups on Facebook, LinkedIn, Meetup and others.  Actively  participating in these groups is a great way to engage your local audience.  Think about how to create a Group that actracts new customers.  For example, if you own a sporting goods store in Eastern PA start a "Hiking in PA" group.

7. Have a decent Web Site.  This one is not free but it's not that expensive either.  Spend a couple bucks to get a professional domain name and find someone with some design skills to put together a decent web site for you.  If you don't know anyone check out the local college (they may work for beer).  Link all of the above to your web site.

8.  Email.  Your domain name and web site provider will also have an email service.  This service will allow you to send emails using your domain name (you@yourbusiness.com) and collect email addresses off of your web site.  Collecting client emails and potential client emails provides you with the ability to send emails out to that list.  Depending on your business this can be used in a couple different ways.  Some things to think about -- Send appointment reminders, sales info, special offers for loyal clients, and a monthly newsletter.

9. Blog.
  Blogging takes two forms - you can create your own blog and/or you can become active posting comments on other blogs.  Once you have your web site starting a Blog is easy.  Most web site providers have a easy set up process.  Use your blog to position yourself as an expert in your field.  If you're a dentist blog about the latest advances in whitening.  If you run a Gym blog about your exersize regiment.  Then find other local bloggers and activily post on their blogs.  The more you become a voice in this online community the more your voice gets amplified to your potential customers.

10.  Pull it all together. 
Connect your online communication tools together and to your offline marketing.  All of the above should link together. And all of your business cards, print ads, fliers, and other offline material should list all of your online contact points.  Make fun ways for your customers to engage you online.  For example, your restaurant could offer 10% off customers that provide their email address (send the coupon to their email), Any customer that becomes a "fan" of your Facebook page gets a free bag of swag, Customers that create a video testimonial get a free meal.

Doing the above will greatly amplify your marketing message into your local market and create new opportunities for your customers and potential customers to engage in your brand.

Good luck and get digital -- It's easy!

Claudiomar Cunha
Sun Jul 12 3:09pm
Hi Rob,
Great material!
I hope we'll see some more of it soon.

Years ago, a website was only used by big corporations, as a brochure online. These days, everything is different. Today, it is important for any business to have a clear web presence. Depending on what type of business you're running, there are different sites you need to setup, and maintain.

For a small business, it is imperative that the world is able to see what you are doing, what product development is going on in your company and what other activities you are developing. Depending on what you sell (products, services, online, offline), your audience might be global. 

The best way to do this is by using a professional blog. You can use the powerful blogging capabilities to show your customers what you are doing, developing and who you are, while you can use the static pages to showcase your products and present static information about your small business. 

Wordpress is perfectly suited to do the job. It's small footprint, powerful plugin structure and huge acceptance throughout the world has resulted in a huge user base, and millions of great themes to choose from, ranging from totally free themes and extras to payed themes, and some companies even offer design services to make your site stand out from the rest.

In short, the best way for a small business to present itself on the internet is by building a proefssional blog. Easy to extend, simple maintenance and powerful traffic generating features will attract a good portion of potential customers.

Servaas Schrama

Small Business Coaching 

As a small business owner there are a lot of questions when it comes to defining a strategy for being on the web.  Getting a handle on whether you should be on the web and how much is the first step.

Should my business be on the web? 
Absolutely!  For many, the web is the place they start to find a business or do research on a product or business.  It's imperative that you have a presence on the web.  Twenty years ago, it was necessary to be in the Yellow Pages, now it's being on the internet.  

How much will it cost?
Cost depends largely on what features you want on your site and how much you will do yourself.  For a small monthly fee you can have a domain name (www.MyBusiness.com), and someone to host your site. Building the site can be done using some of the many templates available from hosting companies or hiring a professional.  If you're using a professional to build and maintain your site, be aware that changes can cost you extra.  

What kind of presence should I have on the internet?
I often hear "Can I do X?"  My answer frequently is "Yes, depending on how much time and money you want to spend." When first getting onto the web, people have a tendency to want their site to do everything.  The internet has a host of options, but the advanced features are no good if you don't have a basic site and presence on the web.  At minimum, your website should explain your business, mission statement and a way to reach you.

  • Keep it simple: Your site design should be clean and sharp.  Avoid flashy or clever design which detracts from communicating your business' message.  Flashy design also has the tendency to age poorly, making your site look outdated.
  • Contact information:  Have your business' telephone number and address prominently displayed.  This may be the main thing your customer is looking for. Include an e-mail or other electronic communication only if you check it at least once a day, ideally multiple times a day. This e-mail address should be through your site (Jane@mybusiness.com), rather than a web based e-mail like Yahoo or Google.
  • Map It:  Use one of the many mapping sites on the web to show customers how to find you. 

I have a site, how do I take it to the next step?

  • Web based advertising: Pay Per Click (PPC) advertising allows you to pay only for those ads which a customer clicks on.  It can drive more traffic to your site and allows you to control the cost on a monthly basis.  This can be especially valuable if you are selling over your site. 
  • Analytics: Monitor your site traffic using free or commercial software.  It can tell you how many people are coming to your site, where they came from, and how long they stayed.  It can also tell you whether they're new customers or returning, and what they clicked on.  It can be a valuable tool to improving your web presence, and evaluating the effectiveness of your advertising and website. 
  • E-commerce: Selling your products or services via your website can open up a whole new market.  It adds cost to the running of your site, but provides a way to easily expand your customer base. Someone in Oregon wouldn't likely think to call a business in Florida looking for a product, but that same person doesn't think twice about buying from a website.  E-commerce transcends geography, and open up new markets for your small business.
  • Blogging: Blogging provides a way for you to give value to your customers (and potential customers) and keep your business in the front of their mind.  It can also get your business noticed by other bloggers or media improving your exposure and providing you with free advertising.  A blog can focus on projects or products which are in the works or being released, events your business is sponsoring, or provide information relative to the services you provide such as a tutorial on changing a faucet for a plumbing supply site. Update it at least once a week, and keep it relevant and interesting. 
  • Social Media / Twitter:  Social media sites like Facebook and My Space and platforms like Twitter can provide another arena to give your business more exposure for no cost but time. These can also be ways to give to your customers, and build a community of customers around your business. If your business is going to engage these models, its important to participate regularly and maintain your presence in the community. 

Being on the web is an imperative for today's small business.  The internet allows you to reach customers which before would have been out of reach.  The question becomes how much time and investment in a web strategy does your business want to have.  The good news is that you can start small and expand your web presence as your needs and business grow.

The internet is the greatest communication network ever devised.  You can give information, as often as you like, in as much detail as you like.  You can show your products, with photographs, videos or on-line demonstrations.  You can raise awareness of your business.  You can receive invaluable feedback.  You can move the entire sales process on-line.  You can hold 2-way, 3-way and any-number-of-way conversations, create communities and integrate into social networks.  For small businesses to make best use of the web, the question is not about what they can do.  It is a question of what they should do.

Goals First, Technology Second

As a small business, think of the web as an opportunity to communicate however you would like, whatever you would like.  There is almost certainly a way to do anything you can imagine wanting to doing.  The biggest limitation is not what you can do - it is the interest of customers.  Decide what, when and how you would like to communicate with customers first, then look at the ways, then evaluate benefits versus costs and factor in the audience's interest.  In other words, avoid small business web mistake #1: do not invest time and money in online activities just because they are technically possible.  Less can be more; do not dilute an effective online communication strategy with superfluous activity.

You Cannot Manage What You Cannot Measure

To discover what suits your customers, start by doing some old-fashioned market research.  Ask them how they use the internet already.  As you develop an online presence, make feedback integral to your presence.  Like any investment, you should be reviewing the return on investment on a regular basis, and modifying your approach as you go along.  Determine your key measures and targets.  Beware small business web mistake #2: do not create an online presence without being able measure benefits.  Set targets that reflect goals.  If you want to boost revenues, use techniques like web vouchers to establish a clear link to sales figures.  Thinking about measures of success will help you make the right decisions at the outset.

Start As You Mean To Go Along

Have you ever visited a website that has not been updated for a long time?  The latest product news is from the year before last, the links are broken, and the prices changed long ago.  An unprofessional or ill-maintained web presence suggests a disorganized business.  Think of your internet investment like buying a family pet: the responsibility for taking care of it last longer than the novelty.  Select only those forms of web communication that you will have the time and interest to maintain.  Many fall into the trap of small business web mistake #3: do not damage your credibility by being overambitious.  If you are not sure about your own level of commitment, then build up gently.  Managing forums, writing blogs, answering emails and updating product news on websites will all take time.  Be clear on how much time you will sustainably spend on online activities.  Also be clear on how that time is distributed, and how it fits with your lifestyle.  Will updates be short and often, or long but rare?  What happens to your web activities when you go on holiday?  Tailor your approach based on whether you are a Blackberry junkie, Facebook fan, or an internet novice.

Me Too, or Something New?

Think how your web goals fit with your wider competitive strategy.  Are you trying to give your business a USP, or are you keeping pace with your rivals?  Doing something different means greater risks and rewards.  Copying your competitors is safe - but if they wasted their money, so might you.  Examine what other businesses are doing and see what you like and whether you think it will suit your customers.  Also assess the potential to do something new and gain a competitive advantage.  Keep in mind small business web mistake #4: do not decide an online strategy without understanding your rivals.

You Are The Business

I started out using the web strictly to promote my own small business.  Over time, I gained more and more personal satisfaction from learning how to use the internet.  Now I am a skilled amateur at website design, blogging, and podcasting.  There are many ways to use the web to engage customers and business partners.  New modes of web communication are being invented all the time.  My web presence has enabled me to attain a global reach that would have been impossible any other way.  This morning I had an email from a stranger in China.  I just Skyped a colleague in Israel.  Tomorrow, the CTO of a US$100m business will be on my podcast.  However, being honest, it would be difficult to justify my online investment in solely financial terms.  I also get a kick out of it.  I have helped many friends to establish web presences for their own small businesses.  In my experience, they fail as often as they succeed.  Small businesses tend to be run by people with a vibrant, multi-skilled, 'can do' attitude.  They also tend to be very busy!  The one constant is that success on the internet comes from a good match to the enthusiasm, interests, time and commercial needs of the person running the business.  If you hate sitting at a keyboard, then blogging is not for you!  I recommend that any small business person spends some time researching what they can do using the web.  But after doing the research, the important decision is what the business should do, and that all depends on the business and the person running it.

Wayne Andersen
Tue Feb 10 4:04am
I like your comments, you reiterated several of the points I tried to make in a much more concise fashion. Well done.

Mistake Number One

There is a common misconception that putting up a website is a free ticket to an increase in business opportunities. Unless you can purchase a sizeable percentage of the available domain names (let's say a million addresses), simply putting up a website does not automatically draw customers.  Before spending any money on these products and services, develop the metrics necessary to decide by how much your efforts are increasing your business.  Just like you wouldn't build a business without a business plan, don't start building an online business without a comprehensive plan. 

Low Overhead

The main advantage of online business is its low overhead.  A small online business can make a lot of profit if their website is incredibly low-cost and low maintenance.  For an investment of a few dollars per year, any business can have a respectable online presence capable of increasing their profit margins.  Unfortunately, the prospect of easy money draws many businesses online and can deceive them into creating a store and pumping lots of money into advertising to get traffic to that store. 

Can You Beat Amazon's Ad Budget?

Without a business plan, simply driving traffic to one's online store can be a losing battle.  Consider just one question that the typical online business plan must answer: how does this store compete with the online giants of the industry?  In a physical store, location can be an asset, but online everyone's "location" is equivalent.  Thus, a giant store with much better prices on everything will crush most of its online competiton simply because the competition did not research any niche that they might exploit for profit. 

Would People at the Local Coffee Shop Be Interested in Visiting Your Site?

Cleverly targeted ads can be an answer to creating a niche market, and finding out how to target ads can be discovered via researching where the giants are not advertising.  Conversely, non-traditional advertising of one's online presence may be a way to drive locally-based leads to an online store.  Yet another option is that through publication of free materials, the online arm of a company can become its own advertisement of their physical store's products, thus increasing revenue.  All of these options should be considered and researched through the business plan. 

Go Free For The Win

For some businesses, an online presence can simply be a free single page listing their physical store and other contact information.  Knowing that this is a viable option for increasing profit means many thousands of dollars are saved vs. trying to squeeze a profit from a large but failing online operation.  The best advice to businesses looking to get online as soon as possible is to post a free page and exploit freely available services.  If the business plan is strong, even the free services should yield the expected rewards and thus warrant "phase two" online investments.  If the free services are not working with the business plan, redraft it and redo the research before considering laying out money for the latest snake oil scam to get rich quick with your online presence.

There are plenty of 'how to...' and '12 steps to success...' style articles out there but in my view, few can match the sage advice of Seth Godin, the marketers' marketer. He proposes that you do something remarkable by which he means something about which people will remark or talk. Check this from TED 2003. It might be the best 17 minutes investment of your life.

Most recently, Seth has been talking about getting your own 'tribe' or people who will follow and amplify what you have to say. It's marketing speak of course but the basic principle makes a lot of sense. If what you are offering as a business is something that is truly remarkable then get your best customers to do the work for you by telling the world how great you are. It works.

In this context, I'm a huge fan of multi-author blogs where you can invite others to have their say. This is really an extension of the old forum concept except that it is 'out in the open,' accessible to anyone. 

Take your time. There are no quick fixes. There are no instant riches. Not everything that's available will work for you so be prepared to experiment, fail and move on.

Most businesses make the mistake of assuming that if they do all the outward facing 'stuff' like weblogs, email marketing and so on that things will be just fine. Remember that your own people probably know more about your customers than you do. They know which channels work best and with which frequency. Get your own people on board, get them to understand what you are trying to achieve and let them be the ideas engine that drives initiatives forward.

Metrics is a tough one. For many, AdWords is a good starting place because people use Google all the time and you can see the results in real time. However, you might do better by building up a committed and loyal following through a weblog, supplemented by judicious rich media email newsletters. The second route will take longer but may provide better opportunities for repeat buying. It will also be harder to measure because we're all still in the early stages of figuring out what works and what doesn't!

No topic of this kind can avoid Twitter. It's the firehose of firehoses and rapidly gaining in popularity. However, you need to figure out whether it is likely to be something you can leverage for your target audience right now. Tech companies have made great use of this resource but it isn't for everyone. At least not now. And if you're not careful, Twitter can become a time sink. 

Above all be practical. Bringing a static web presence to life is relatively easy but keeping it alive is another matter. Once the new found enthusiasm dies off then what? Perhaps the inclusion of an industry related widget is the way to go where you aggregate RSS feeds into a visually attractive 'unit' that sits on your website and autorefreshes.


Small business, especially ones that cater to local customers, have been slower to adapt to doing ebusiness.  These prorprieters gripe that entirely local businesses don't stand to gain much from going online, other than providing a small web presence for customers and prospective customers.  Small businesses have the ability to absolutely "own their geographies" (see Resource #1 below) by creating and managing their own personalized newswires.  For little to no cost, small businesses can leverage the marketing power of traditional wire services with the sensitivity of social media to make a huge splash in their locality.

Marketing via News Wires is So Outmoded

Just a few years ago, if a firm wanted to make a product announcement, they would hire a PR specialist to write up a press release and then spend another $250-$700 to submit their press release.  Next up? 

They prayed.

They prayed that the distribution list was local enough yet broad enough to get a clear message out.

They prayed that a local news outlet would find their PR interesting enough to pick up the story, but most of the time, little to nothing happened.

Social Media as News Wire Replacement

Along came social media sites like Facebook and Twitter and the whole industry is turned on its head.

  • Local yet global: With social media, you can build your network from the ground up.  Get trading partners, local journalists, competitors and prospective customers into the fold. 
  • Immediate gratification: Articles/posts are published immediately.  No more waiting for set distribution times.
  • Contextuality: Because social networks are built from the ground up, network members are typically plugged in to your messaging and open to it.
  • Call to action: Because social networks are digital, all company messaging can include a call to action -- something a lifeless press release can't hold a candle to.

How to set up your own personalized news wire

  1. Web presence: You'll need a website.  It doesn't need to be a blog but it should be easy to post new content on and within your control to quickly publish.  Wordpress is a good content management system -- it's not just for blogs any more.
  2. Set up Facebook accounts and Twitter accounts and start connecting to friends: Both these platforms are free and are not just used by the technorati.  Thought leaders and journalists in your zipcode are scouting these sites for story ideas as well. For Twitter, I recommend using a product called TweetDeck that resides on your desktop.  It provides management tools to fully leverage Twitter's power.
  3. Join local Facebook groups to network: Facebook does a tremendous job of creating smaller and smaller groups that share particular affiliations.  Join the ones that make sense to your business in your community.  More than just providing more channels for networking, this is a great way to ensure that your content reaches the right people.
  4. Join any other social networking site for your industry or locality: While Twitter and Facebook are the 800 pound gorillas in the space, smaller networking sites have sprouted up.  Go ahead an create a profile on those sites as well.
  5. Tie all the nodes of your online presence into one: After all the set up on different social media platforms, it would be tough to manage posting to all these different sites separately.  You're going to want to use Ping.fm, a service that allows you to tie all your social networking personas into one interface.  This interface, the lynchpin in the personalized news wire strategy, will enable you to post once and publish the same message out to all your various social networks.

Use content as a hook

By creating your own personalized newswire, you'll have the opportunity to distribute content out to engaged readers with success times faster than most traditional news wires.  Even if your goal isn't to affect direct sales (after all, you're a local business), the content you push through your wire will have positive effects.

  • Expert label: By branding yourself as an expert (see Resource #3), you'll be the go-to person in your industry online and off.
  • Open up new revenue streams: Industry experts get called upon to speak at industry events and frequently make a couple of thousand dollars per appearance.  There are other revenue streams that may sprout up ancillary to your business and as a product of your web presence.
  • Meet future partners: There is a lot of value in connecting with industry partners.  Maybe it's a joint partnership.  Maybe a future customer.  You just gotta be out in front of these people online.


Social media is not a panacea for local business.  Old school rules about location, inventory, and service still prevail.  By building your own news wire on top of social media platforms, you'll be able to get your message out to the right people.  Some of this may result in new business and some won't.  Your online activities may vary well open up new revenue streams as well.  You'll be able to communicate with your business network faster and cheaper and better than those same companies set up to do just that.  That's powerful.



  1. Seth Godin's Advice for Real Estate Agents
  2. Props to Dominic Jones for describing his process setting up his own newswire
  3. Check out GaryV and how he's turned his local wine business into a cash machine
  4. Read this article on how to save a local business via social networking (see the comments)
  5. See this article on how Twitter can help you build your business

When you first get started online, it can be easy to become distracted by the technologies. Sure, you could blog, and set up a Twitter feed, and build a Facebook page -- but should you? The answer comes in response to a few simple questions.

Question: What do your customers want?

Your website should be focused 100% on customer needs. If a hot, trendy technology allows you to satisfy that need, then great: go for it. But always be certain *why* you're doing what you're doing (and bear in mind that simpler is often better).

Some customer needs include:

  • Contact information. Your phone number is mandatory. An email address can also be nice, but only if you're planning on reading and replying to your messages at least once a day. There's no quicker way to turn off a prospective customer than to ignore his or her email.
  • Location. Your address is the bare minimum. A map is better, and you can easily set that up through Google Maps or one of its competitors. Driving directions are a nice bonus if you want to go the extra mile.
  • Information about the products or services you are offering. If you're a retailer, list brand names. If you make widgets, describe the range of widgets and what they're good for. Odds are a customer has come to your site to try to decide whether to visit your place of business; give him what he needs to make a good decision.

Question: How are your customers going to find you?

if you have a website or blog and no one can find it, it's not doing you any good. Fortunately there are some simple ways to put your site in front of interested potential customers.

  • Get your own domain. You need your own domain name, and it should be a pretty simple translation from your business name. For example, if your business is called "Tom's Hardware," a good URL would be "toms-hardware.com'; a not-so-good URL would be "nutzandboltz.com". You want customers who once saw your shop or heard about your business, and who are trying to guess your site's URL, to have a snowball's chance of getting it right.
  • Give some thought to search engine optimization. You can hire consulting firms that will tell you all about this, but they might charge more than the average small business can afford (and some SEO consultancies are unethical and potentially damaging to their list of clients). For starters, you can just focus on the basics:
    • Build a site with page URLs that include keywords associated with your business. For instance, if you're a malpractice attorney, build out pages with URLs such as "bobjonesattorneyatlaw.com/malpractice.com" and "bobjonesattorneyatlaw.com/personal-injury.com."
    • Work the same keywords into your page titles, headers, and subheads. If you use graphical headers, use the "alt text" field" to describe what the graphic says.
    • Create subsidiary pages with useful content that will attract links from other sites.
    • Avoid fancy technology for site navigation; it can confuse search engines.

Question: Are you counting on repeat business?

This, of course, depends on your business. If you're selling yachts, maybe you're happy to make one sale per customer. If you're a tax consultant, your business depends on satisfied clients coming back the following April. In the latter case, you need to remind your customers of your business' existence every now and then. You could do so through something as simple as an email mailing list. If you have a story to tell, though -- if you're, say, a single-source chocolate vendor working to improve the lives of Bolivian peasants through commerce -- a blog might be just the ticket. Zero in on what you want your customers to know about you, and often the best technology for the task will suggest itself.

Good luck!

Something I forgot to say in my previous insight, but which I believe is absolutely key: A web presence is a tool to introduce your business. It should not be treated as anything more (except for "quick profit" deals; such as scams).

Build your business model, and if possible, your business - then reflect what you have built in your online presence.

  Growth is an incredible challenge for a Small Business - It is a critical demand for your company's future success, but the investment is required when you have the least amount of overhead to expend.  Fortunately, the widespread use of the internet has become a powerful effort multiplier for growing companies, but it also means developing and keeping specialized technical talent which may not be part of your company's core competencies.  However, like any sound marketing strategy, the focus is to reach as many potential customers as possible, and leverage this contact to culminate in a sale, as efficiently as possible.  But to achieve this, the business owner must take an introspective look at their company.

  A Small business' online marketing presence is a balancing act, requiring more than just technical talent, but careful soul-searching and strategizing by the business owner. While web presence and web 2.0-enabling tools have become very accessible, there is a temptation to try and do it all.  Do you need blogs, wikis, Facebook pages, etc?
Eventually, you may find utility in all of those tools, but initially what will these tools do for you?  Where do you want to place your focus and funds?

  The key is to focus on starting a relationship with your potential customer - This is what the web allows us to do most efficiently.  This is done by giving before receiving.  Providing content and seemingly tertiary information to build a connection and trust.  A simple flyer or printed ad usually contains three things - Product/Company Name, price, and location.  This doesn't provide much to engage the consumer of your advertising.  However, the living content provided on a web page can bring your company to life - making that very human connection that is crucial to gaining and keeping customers. 

  For example, Bob's Brads, a facetious nail and fastener manufacturing business, could quickly and easily levearge web 2.0 tolls to build a very human connection with their business: 

  • Bob's opening page may speak about the latest hurricane that has hit the eastern seaboard, and all the hardware they are supplying to help rebuild homes and communities. 
  • Bob may keep a blog, that he logs a post to every other week, where he talks about his newest ideas, or the optimal ways to use his products.  He sometimes upcoming additions to his product line, and special pricing offers.
  • Bob, the owner, may have a personal profile page, where he details his passion for fishing, his 4 wonderful grand-children, and the hard work over 20 years that has helped him manufacture his first-class products.   

  Already, it sounds like Bob's Brads is a company run by a real person - Some one not unlike many people we may already know and trust.  His content makes it clear that he  interested in the quality of his product, and in engaging his customers.  It is this information that gains and keeps customers, and is exactly what you can globally deliver with a strong web presence.  This scenario can be applied to nearly any business or production model.

  Your business may vary - For instance, you may sell a specific service.  In this case, your subject matter experts could be provided with a blog to showcase their expertise.  The content your experts generate will create a  growing credibility for your company.  Providing insight or learning to a customer, before a sale is even considered, is an incredible relationship-building tool.

  Whatever your business does, you can use the web effectively if you:

  • Focus on what your company does best
  • Humanize your company
  • Build a relationship
  • Provide before your receive

  Remember, the web is about connecting people.  There are many excellent tools to enable you to do this professionally and efficiently.  Once you determine how your company is going to tell it's story, and how you'll build a connection with your customer, all that is left are the technical implementation details.


We all know it well by now: There was no "magic" of the web, that made your business grow just becuse you had a web presence. This is especially true for small businesses, whether they intend to stay small or not.

Very few businesses, small or large, actually manage to make money out of the web itself. Most make money from selling things, be they associated with the web (think editing tools) or not (think Chinese condiments). So as a small business, the first thing you have to ask yourself about anything you do is: Does it help my sales? The second thing is: Do I care, or do I feel enough passion about it to do it anyway?

Then, a lot of course depends on which business you are in. If the customers mainly are walk-ins, for a shop for instance, a web presence may only matter if you want people to find your address - and that may be the only thing you should consider.

If you have the time and resources, consider selling through the web as well. If the store has products which are unique in some way - at least within the country where you are selling - then it may be a good option to consider. In that case, the requirements are very different, and something that should be the focus of a separate study. For instance, do you need to change the way you get payments? How do you handle fulfillment - should you just do it through the store? Or use a fulfillment house? What about expansion plans - can yu start in the store, and then go on with a fulfillment house? How about updates - how frequently do they need to be done, who does them, do they need to be designed? How much money do you need to put into design to sell enough to cover the costs and make a profit? This is no harder than any other marketing campaign. 

However, if you do not have a physical store, it becomes very different. If the business is not selling physical objects, but a service, there will be a community around the service which has to be served. For instance, if you are a lawyer, there will be a group of current and potential customers who may want to discuss with each other, and who may want some material which is frequently updated to come back. What this should be will be different for every business - for instance, a webcast with legal advice from a lawyer, knitting recipes from a knitting cafe, and so on. The only thing is that it has to be connected to the business you are in. Again, this requires some additional analysis, and the more unique and interesting it is, the easier it will be to attract new customers.

Design is another matter to consider. How much design is needed - and when does design put your customers off? If you are using a design which contains lots of pictures and elements on the pages, this may take a long time to load in a country where connections are slow. What works where people have 1 Gbit/s connections will not work in a country where the average Internet connection is 20 kbps. And do you expect people to connect using mobile phones, or only PC:s? From Internet cafés or from home? All this needs to be considered in the design - not just how it looks.

Should the web presence include a community for the users, for instance a discussion forum? Will that help retain customers, and get new customers coming - which is the purpose of any web community? And who manages that? Who reads and reacts to the customer comments that may be coming in? This is likely to be a full-time job (at least if you have more than a couple of hundred customers coming in), and it will require you to have some knowledge about libel law and other related matters as well, so that you are not breaking it.

But the easiest way to figure it out is to ask the customers. How do they think you are useful? The answers may be surprising - if it is done professionally. Use a web survey engine if you want to be cheap and have their email addresses, but be prepared that there may be a sampling error which skewers the result. It is very hard to get people to give honest answers to any survey, and even harder if the request comes out of the blue. Here, as well, a lot depends on your existing relationship with the customers. That is what you want to maintain and expand, after all.

Many small businesses are facing the greatest challenges in a generation thanks to diminishing sales, lower cash flow, lower access to credit, and general economic anxiety around the globe.   However there is no reason any small business needs to waffle on developing a safe and secure online marketing environment.   In fact to emphasize how simple this is I'm laying out a three hour plan below.  

Although a highly robust and complex website and online marketing effort will require more time and money than this approach, this will be a good start for businesses that are intimidated by the costs and complexity of a major online marketing effort. 

It is very clear from my own efforts coaching travel businesses that many of them completely misunderstand how expensive and counterproductive a "beautiful and elaborate and cool" website may turn out to be.   Traffic and relevancy rule the roost in terms of online marketing effectiveness and sales, so here is a good start in the right direction that any businessperson can tackle in less than a single afternoon or evening of three (yes, count them!) 3 hours.

Hour ONE:  The Blog - your first company web site.

Start blogging at Google's free service "Blogger.com".   You can open an account in less than 5 minutes and the simple blogging tool is intuitive and friendly.  Don't worry about "messing up" at this point, just dive in and start writing a few articles about your product or service in a helpful way.  Cutting and pasting from marketing materials is acceptable at this early stage.  As you write start thinking about a good domain name for your business that is as simple as possible but reflects your unique qualities - you can buy that later from this environment and make your blog/website appear at that name later.   Write both helpfully and also specifically about what your company offers in terms of value for the service or product.  Use the types of words people would use when searching for your niche.   Go here for Google's Blogger service.

Congratulations - you now have a company website and a company blog.

Hour TWO:  The Pay Per Click Marketing Campaign

Staying signed on to the new (free) Google account you set up in the first hour, sign up for an "Adwords" account with $25 on your credit card.  Do not start bidding on terms yet - your job for this hour is to browse around Google's brilliant online marketing system to see how it works and get a feel for the terms people search for and what you can expect to pay for those.  If you are lucky and in a small niche business, you may be able to aquire website visitors for pennies and customers for a few dollars.  It's hard to build a viable business without advertising and Adwords in many cases represent the highest ROI you'll find anywhere, so learn this system well.

Hour THREE: Social Media Campaign 

Sure you could spend $10,000  or more for a social media marketing consultant or hire a social media manager for $50,000 per year, but why not utilize the world's best expert on your business - you.   Social media is exploding as a powerful and potentially inexpensive online tool to promote your business, make sales, and find other innovators who share your passion for excellence.   Maintaining a quality blog is generally considered a key component of a good social media strategy but you already have a blog from step one above, so move on to the following two social media tools:

Twitter   The future business impact of Twitter is not to be underestimated as it quickly has become the standard for communicating via short notes and links sent to many people.   Where else can you send notes to CNN or President Obama and reasonably expect that somebody is actually reading them?   Setting up a Twitter account will take under five minutes, and by using Twitter's search to find people in your company niche and then following those people and their followers you will soon have your own Twitter presence.   Go here to start

Facebook.  Take 15 minutes to set up a Facebook account under your own real name.  For most small businesses your person to person social media approaches will yield better results than staying anonymous and only using your business name.  I should add that in my view Facebook is overrated as a business tool so feel free to spend more time at Twitter where you can quickly and easily spread the word about why you and your business offer such great value.  Note as with all online social media that your approach should seek to be helpful even as you promote your own business.  Overbearing approaches are generally considered too annoying and thus less valuable than sincere, informed, genuine advice and recommendations.  Go here to sign up.

Congratulations, you've just invested  $35 (Adwords $25 + Domain name $10) plus three hours of your time and you have a good start on a  robust web presence for your business.  





There's only one metric to measure: profit. Yes, it's possible to use the web to streamline support and maintain customer loyalty, but these will always seem intangible next to a real increase in sales. And there's new ways to sell on the internet, so learn the basics of reaching today's online customers.

Here's a basic checklist...

Outreach. Spread the word when there's real company news, new products, or special sales. A single link from a popular page can bring 40,000 visitors to your site in a single day. But links will also raise your position in Google's search results, bringing more traffic to your site from people who may be looking for your product. Find the online communities that are interested in your products -- there may even be relevant groups on Facebook and MySpace. Remember, it's not about finding a niche -- but reaching your niche

eBay and Amazon. Listing items on eBay instantly expands your reach to eBay's huge market of potential buyers -- over 200 million in 2006. (And now eBay is even available on iPhones!) Remember that eBay's "Buy It Now" option is very attractive to customers who don't want the uncertainty of an auction process -- and your listing can include pointers back to your web site.

And Amazon will not only include your product in their listings -- they even offer fulfillment services.

Optimization. There's other simple ways to increase your daily traffic from search engines -- and visitors are more likely to buy when they're searching on words related to your site. Learn some basic Search Engine Optimization tips -- for example, product keywords should be in the titles of your web pages, and make sure your most important pages are linked to by the other pages on your site -- and make sure your site is listed in all the major web directories.

Targeted Marketing. It's possible to pinpoint your advertising only to potential customers who match a specific criteria. Users at StumbleUpon indicate their interests when they sign up, and Google AdWords can match your ad to what people are searching for. Facebook also offers targeted advertising to their 150 million users -- so the audiences are definitely there. And best of all, referrals can be tracked -- so the effectiveness of each campaign can be tracked and then optimized accordingly. And it's even possible to reach targeted audiences on Amazon.

Online Partnerships. With a little research, even the smallest seller can find new online merchants who'll gladly list your product. (For instance, Woot.com specializes in quirky technology products, and has an annual revenue of $100 million.) Mogiz.com offers some very cheap listing services, and Esty.com will even let you sell handmade crafts.

What's the most important lesson about online marketing?

It works.