Growing Your Business On-line: A Fresh Perspective

Rather than thinking about the web as technology, let's consider the web as a purely connective device - perhaps the most powerful connective tool that mankind has created to date.

The web can literally - physically - connect companies, people, ideas, and processes instantly. It can bring people and companies that might be miles apart together to appear as if they are united, and in one place. Here lies tremendous opportunity for you to connect with your customers and prospects, and also to use the web as a mechanism for implementing the business partnerships (or alliances) that you've made or plan to make. Creating "E-Alliances"

Similar to traditional alliances (that have not used the web in the past), on-line alliances (or "E-Alliances") may be formed for a number of specific purposes:

1) to generate awareness and develop targeted leads (internet traffic);

2) to expand your reach faster than you could alone;

3) to take advantage of the clout or customer base of another company (or another website); and

4) to distribute your products and services through another company (or website) to increase your sales and/or reduce your costs.

In any case, but especially on the internet, one of the main aims of a strategic alliance is to add value to your company, by having the unique partnerships you create become a significant barrier to entering your market. As we all know, it truly is the business relationships that we create and cultivate that are hardest for competitors to reproduce. Alliances that are well thought-out and implemented effectively, by their very nature, can often profoundly differentiate your products and services, and thus your company.

Leveraging the Web's Connective Power

When a business looks at maximizing its internet presence, there are a number of applications that can provide immediate value:

1. Search Engine Optimization - For most companies, search engines account for approximately 85% of the people that visit their sites, especially those with business sites. Therefore, we must begin to think of search engines as important business partners. Registering your keywords is an important first step; however regular, ongoing submissions to top search engines is absolutely essential. It does no good to launch a great site and not be committed to securing and maintaining your web site ranking.

Search engines send out "robots" periodically to update your website information in their database. These robots look for changes since you registered, or since they last searched your site. Make sure your site has keywords embedded in the code for every page. In addition, actively changing your site's content (with great attention to using strategic, relevant, focused keywords on every page) helps to ensure that your site remains fresh and accessible.

Search engines truly are the best way to make sure your site is seen by the highest number of unique visitors in your field. Being included on the first page of the most popular search engines within the top 2 to 3 (keyword) areas that you select should be your initial, 3 to 6 month objective. It takes skill and persistence, and a lot of looking at your company from your prospects' and customers' vantage points.

I can't stress enough that you must know what you want to accomplish online before creating your website. As such, the keywords your want to "own" should be identified and built into your site's architecture, web copy, and overall internet marketing/sales strategy from the beginning - not just added in when you are ready to submit your already-completed site to the search engines. Your site needs to be search engine-friendly, not just "techie" or "beautiful."

Also be aware that when you are aiming to reach a very narrow target market via the internet, other niche directories and sites often become just as important as search engines in meeting your marketing/sales objectives.

2. On-line Links and Partners - It's one thing for the general user to be able to reach you via a search engine. But, it's much better if your desired prospects choose to visit your site outright. Be assured, there are incredible opportunities on-line to create targeted traffic - direct to your site. These include:

- Link and Affiliate Programs - Strategically connect your site to non-competing sites that have a similar target audience. This can take the form of a "link program" (where you arrange for and/or swap links) or an "affiliate program" (where one party pays the other for click-throughs and/or sales from their page.)

- On-line Content Providers - Also think of internet content providers, internet media websites, and internet business directories as your partners. Here, for example, you can arrange to be featured as the "showcase product" on a popular site, or to be listed in a "5 Most Innovative Products" feature on-line. The websites of publications and trade associations in your industry are a good place to start. (Public Relations professionals also have many opportunities to secure more coverage if they target on-line features, in addition to traditional features.)

- Preferred-Provider Relationships - Actual co-marketing on-line is the next logical step. For example, many organizations invest in sending a professional, but affordable direct mail piece out that that directs prospects to a customized offer on their site. Along the same lines, your company might negotiate to become the "preferred-provider" to a company's clientele - recommended by the other company and connected via your websites.

- On-line Distribution - Finally, through business-to-business e-commerce applications on the web, many companies are tying their marketing, sales, order entry, accounting, stock and fulfillment systems together to sell more of each company's product, at a lower cost.

3. Pro-Active E-Marketing - Everything we've been discussing thus far is an action you take to have others visit your site. You can also take the initiative to use the web to creatively reach out to others. Offering some type of benefit on-line or adding a simple questionnaire to your site is the first step in gathering the data you need to converse with prospects. They will tell you what they need. Ask them. Have them choose to receive information from you. Only send them what is valuable - by email, or whatever way they prefer.

4. Your Customers - Of course, your customers are your ultimate partners. There are many ways to serve them better on-line. These include: offering a frequently-asked questions (FAQ) section on your site and easily-accessible e-mail contacts; allowing customers to make account changes on-line; soliciting their feedback on-line; providing your newsletter and information about your new products and services to them on-line; and when appropriate, up-selling (or cross-selling) them on-line.

Don't forget about the opportunity to feature your customers on your site via testimonials, pictures, and case studies that "tell the story" of how your customers benefit from your products and services. It's good for them, and good for you.

The Two Toughest On-line Challenges

I've just described many ways for you to take "your next step on the web." But regardless, in closing, remember what I consider to be the two most important keys to internet success:

One?As we've mentioned, the web is a connective device. It does not stand alone. To gain the most benefit from the web, you must focus on integrating your internet activities with your other business processes, especially in the sales and marketing area.

Two?Just as with any business endeavor, it is the unique and creative ways that a business uses the tools available that determines its success. I challenge you to stretch your imagination. Try some new things. Refuse to view the internet primarily as a scientific, technology-driven tool, but instead strive to use the web in highly creative ways that set your company apart. Innovation and timing count for everything on the web.

Susan K. Thompson is owner of the consulting firm, Emerald Coast Entrepreneur, specializing in business start up and expansion. With a rich background in academic, corporate, and entrepreneurial achievement, she cuts through the theories and finds solutions that work.

Permission is hereby given to reproduce this article online without any further arrangement. The only proviso is that it be published in it's entirety, which includes this footer.

2005 Emerald Coast Entrepreneur - Susan K. Thompson

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