Growing your business from scratch online can seem a bit like being lost at sea. Drifting alone in a huge expanse, no sight of land, and no idea which direction to go in to reach it.
Fortunately, there are some tried and tested methods that you can start doing today that will save you from drowning! Depending on your budget, you could hire one person for each of these roles, merge some of them together, find a one-man band to cover all the bases, or try to do it all yourself!
1. Paid Search
Pay per click advertising (PPC) is advertising where you literally pay per click, usually on search engine results pages, but sometimes also on other websites through display advertising (in the form of image and banner ads).
PPC advertising can get instant traffic to your site, at a cost. For advertising on search engine results pages (SERPs), advertisers decide which keywords they want to bid on to attract traffic - with the winner taking top spot in the results. Depending on the nature of your industry and how competitively you want to bid to win traffic from your competitors, costs per click can range from pennies, to hundreds of pounds. Generally, the costs per click to be competitive will be in line with the potential profits to be made in that market. However, it is not always the highest bidder who wins the auction to take the higher places on the SERPs.
Targeted, trackable and traceable
PPC is definitely a valuable option to explore that can be extremely lucrative for your business. You can turn it on and off as you wish, and you can set limits on what you spend, so you're always in control. It's also very trackable and tweakable, so you are always able to fine-tune your campaigns to get your ads in front of the most relevant users. You can schedule your ads by the minute, exclude specific geographical areas, exclude specific searches that match your keywords but are not necessarily relevant, and much more.
As well as being very targeted in terms of the traffic you want to exclude, you can and should be very targeted with the traffic you aim to attract. It's vital that you structure your campaigns in such a way so that the user's search query appears in the ad copy that they see, and takes them to a relevant page (not the homepage!) such as the product they searched for.
PPC is more of a science than an art so if you're looking to hire someone make sure they're the analytical type who is not afraid of numbers and data. They should enjoy running experiments and collecting data in order to analyse the results.
People work extremely hard to get to the top of Google organically, and you should too, but with PPC you can go in right above them in no time at all! That has to be worth considering. If you know that you could easily make sales on your brilliant website, if you could only get some traffic to it, PPC might just be the passing cruise liner that is going to save you! You might just have to buy a ticket...
2. Search Engine Optimisation
Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) - is a method of optimising your website to improve its performance in the organic search engine results. The benefits of this are clear - visibility on the first page of Google can bring thousands of visitors to your website, leading to vastly increased sales and leads.
Strong organic rankings are often preferred by search engine marketers over attracting visitors through paid search, because it is "free" traffic. There may still be costs involved, such as time and wage costs for someone to put in the hard work (or to hire an agency) - but there are no direct costs linked to the traffic you gain from organic results.
SEO can be split into On-page (keyword usage in various page elements, and ensuring your website is easy for search engines to index) and Off-page (your profile of backlinks - sites that link to you).
You should aim to acquire quality links to your site. These should not just be any site that will take your links. If you submit your sites to directories, make sure that these are of a high quality.
Fall behind the trends at your peril
SEO is another minefield however, due to the constantly shifting nature of it. Techniques that worked to get your site to rank strongly in the past may now be outdated, and can even have severely negative impacts on your site's rankings. These can be very difficult to recover from. Google takes a very dim view of what they see as underhand tactics that search engine optimisers use to manipulate and climb the rankings. If you don't follow Google's guidelines and official stance, you can end up getting slapped with a manual penalty that will push you way down the rankings.
If you're not hit with a manual penalty, you can still find yourself slipping a long way down the rankings if you engage in what Google sees as manipulative "black hat" tactics, such as artificially pointing lots of links to your site from spammy domains, and optimising backlinks to include exact match anchor text.
In recent years, Google has updated their search ranking algorithms to devastating effect on sites that were using tactics they saw as manipulative. Rankings and traffic for many sites plummeted overnight, with huge impact on revenues. The most famous of these algorithm updates were Penguin and Panda. If you had a sudden and very noticeable drop in traffic from Google organic search , chances are you were hit by one of the Google Penguin or Panda algorithm updates.
Balanced on a knife-edge
SEO, if it is done right, can be extremely lucrative. If it is done wrong, it can be a killer blow to your business. It's vital that you have an expert in charge to not only ensure your business survives in this dangerous environment, but also to improve your chances of making it to the top of the pile. Make sure you're hiring someone who reads widely and regularly, and if they're an agency make sure they're extremely transparent about their methods.
To combat the "black hat" tactics, Google is now placing more emphasis than ever on links from high authority websites, and websites related to your own site's subject. It is not easy to obtain these links just by asking, or submitting your URL somewhere, so the focus has very much shifted towards creating high quality content that will naturally accrue links from other websites. By creating content that is useful, interesting, topical, or otherwise share-worthy, your site will organically accumulate links from websites - helping your performance in search engine results.
If PPC is the cruise liner that is going to pick you up at a price, then SEO is more like the raft that you spend months cutting and shaping branches to build before bravely setting off into the open. It's likely to be a long struggle to reach land, with many dangers along the way, but if you make it it will feel even sweeter.
When hiring someone who is going to do SEO, ensure they are capable with the technical side of websites. They should be able to comfortably explain what XML sitemaps are and why they're important, what a rel="canonical" tag is, what to do with a robots.txt file, and the difference between a followed and "no-follow" link. They should also be competent writers, and regularly read and research the subject in order to keep up with changes and trends.
3. Content Marketing
As mentioned above, to attract links and shares from authority websites, you're going to have to create high quality content. If you don't have the skills to do this yourself, it is advisable to hire a capable writer who has expert knowledge of your industry.
If the content that you produce is not top-notch, it is unlikely that anyone will link to it, send it to friends, or share it on social media.
For example, if you're an online travel agency, you can produce content that helps out travelers, such as a checklist for things to take on a skiing holiday, or guides to popular cities and tourist destinations. Doing so creates far more content on your website that you can insert your keywords into, all of which will be indexed by Google and help you in their rankings. You're also likely to appear much more useful to your potential customers than your competitor, who's blog only contains company news that no-one reads.
Lose the ego-centric approach
Generally, people don't care about companies online, they care about themselves and how they can serve their own purpose. People are looking either to find out something, or to do something, not to be told what to do. Successful content marketing stems from being helpful and demonstrating expertise, without broadcasting salesy messages that people hate. If you show that you're an expert in your industry through the content you produce, people will feel happier about buying from you or using your services.
What's for sure is that if you're not producing valuable content, and your competitors all are, you're not going to look as good as them, you're going to rank highly for less keywords, and there will be nothing interesting to go viral on social media!
4. Social Media Marketing
Social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, Linkedin, Pinterest, Instagram and Google+ are huge.
Facebook: 1 billion
Youtube: 1 billion (4 billion video views per day)
Twitter: 560 million
Google+: 400 million
Linkdin: 240 million
Instagram: 150 million
Pinterest: 70 million
With user numbers like that, who can deny that it's a massive opportunity for brands to get extra exposure and tap into new markets? Done correctly, Social Media can transform a business overnight and bring in new customers that would never have found you. With literally billions of active users, Social Media can be as, or more, powerful than TV advertising.
The key is to be original, and to speak to people's wants and needs. Make no mistake about it, the vast majority of people do not use Social Media to follow and connect with brands, with a few exceptions (sports teams), or if they are making complaints.
People use social media mainly to keep up with their friends, for fun and entertainment, as a kind of news and blog aggregator, and to share their lives with friends and followers.
Businesses on social media need to follow a strict code if they are to achieve success from the various channels. They must bear in mind why people are there in the first place. Brands broadcasting messages about themselves and attempting to push products at every opportunity are destined to fail. Businesses that succeed on social media do something different, catch a topical wave, or create something shareworthy.
Don't talk about yourself, get people to talk about you
It's all about going viral if you want people to follow and share your updates. The beauty of social media is that it is not a one way conversation. When it comes to brands it shouldn't be a one way conversation. Try to engage your followers and interact with them as much as possible. Remember, people don't really like being marketed and sold to, so keep your social media activity as light hearted and fun as possible. If you can do something that gets people interacting with you, then even better.
Social media is where all of your customers are spending time online. It's a great platform to leverage where you can get out what you put in. If you're looking for someone to run and grow your business social media accounts, they should be bright, enthusiastic and outgoing - ability to think outside the box and apply that to social media is essential.
5. Email Marketing
There seems to be a growing perception that email marketing is no longer a legitimate tactic to drive revenue, that people don't like having their inboxes crammed full of spam and it only serves to annoy people. This is not true.
What is true is that you can't expect to get very far with email marketing unless you take a targeted approach. You can't expect to broadcast a generic message, at a random time and expect that to resonate very well with your audience.
Too often the words "blast" and "blanket" are used when talking about email marketing. This is totally the wrong way to go about it. You need to send your marketing emails out to people who know who you are, and have opted in to your commercial emails. If you purchased or downloaded a list of random email addresses from someone off the internet, then stop right there! Throw it away. You've already wasted your money anyway.
Once you have a list of relevant, subscribers, who have given you permission to send them emails, you'll want to dissect this list into smaller sub-lists. This allows you to send each person on the main list emails that are relevant to their interests and past actions on your site or past purchases. You know when you log in to Amazon, and it suggests products to you "because you viewed X..." - this is what you want to achieve with your email marketing. If you're a store that sells everything from gardening tools, to kitchenware - you don't want to be emailing someone about discounts on shovels and spades because they bought a mixing bowl off you once.
Mailchimp has a great summary of rookie email marketing mistakes.
In an ideal world, you can even automate your email marketing. With Hubspot allows you to create smart lists that change and update dynamically, based on parameters you set. You can build workflows that integrate with these lists so that your prospects or customers receive a specific email at a specific time, based on their behaviour on your site.
6. Conversion Rate Optimisation
Finally, you need to understand that your website can always be improved. A conversion expert will always be changing and testing things, to see what works best. How long have you had the current version of your website? What about the previous version, how long did you have that? Ideally it should be tweaked every few weeks, and these changes should never be based on personal preference, or design by committee.
Every single decision you make regarding the layout or look of your website, should be based off of data. Or if it is not, it should be made with the intention of collecting the data and analysing the results - in order to make a decision based off of the data!
Continuous optimisation and analysing statistics means that you can improve your website's conversion rate with every iteration of it!
Consider this scenario:
- Company decides their website needs a refresh.
- Consortium of marketing staff draw up a design.
- Design is critiqued by directors and other top level executives at management meeting.
- Marketing executives draw up a revised version, incorporating all feedback and trying to please all departments.
- After a bit more back and forth, a version is finally approved and built.
- New site goes live, everyone forgets about it - after all, why would you visit your own company's website during your busy work day?
What the above fails to do, is realise that one person, or a few people, can have wildly different opinions on what looks good and what is easy to use. In the above example, there is no tracking of results, no collection of data. No split testing, and no optimising based on the results. The new version might look a bit prettier, and feature a nice quote and picture of the CEO, but when it comes down to the customers, it converts much less of them. And no-one would know until the end of the year when revenue is down. "Maybe it's because we changed the website?"
Sometimes, when testing two different designs, the one that wins can be surprising, which just goes to prove that you should always test any assumption.
When hiring a conversion rate optimiser, you should be looking for a similar profile to your PPC manager. Someone who loves to analyse data, run experiments and test things is a must. A belief that something can always be improved goes a long way. Ideally, the candidate should have advanced web programming skills in order to be able to make changes themselves - but if not, they can work with your web design person or agency.
As a small business, you probably won't have the budget to hire one person for each of these roles. Many businesses combine these roles to satisfy multiple needs. Your PPC manager's understanding and interest in search will lend itself well to SEO too, whilst their ability to analyse data and test will make them a fit for conversion rate optimisation too.
Your content marketer should naturally possess skills that make them an ideal candidate for driving growth of your social media accounts, whilst their writing skills should come in handy when writing copy for marketing emails.
If you need someone to hand build email templates (not a necessity, as there are many free and cheap templates that can be used) - then your web designer can help out. A competent SEO professional should also possess enough technical nous to understand and learn HTML and CSS coding, which comes in handy when doing email marketing, web design and conversion rate optimisation.
If you have all of these based covered in some way, then you'll be well equipped to drive your business forward in the online world.