Sunday, August 24, 2008

Tearing Down the Barriers to Online

Marketing, Money and More (Issue 8) 8/24/08


Websites
There is a lot of "old school" mentality in terms of online. I have met very few small to medium-size business owners that are very active in generating leads online. Many business owners know they need a website, but they don't know what type of website, how much they should spend on their website, what type of coding will be used and is most beneficial, etc. There are a million questions when it comes to web and it is hard to write a check for something that you don't fully understand.

The first place to look is at your competition. What does there website do? How does it look? Is it easy to find on Google, Yahoo! and MSN with relevant searches? If your competition is doing well in capturing leads online, that may just mean that no one is challenging them. They may be doing their online marketing very poorly, but everone in their space is doing it worse.

This lack of competive force in many categories in terms of online marketing and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is a great opportunity for many businesses.

Search Engines & SEO
Google is changing the way we find information. Google is built on one basic premise... getting us to build better, more relevant websites. Google's job is to match up information-seekers to information, not to control the flow of customers to marketing websites. With this in mind, the medium is defined. "Value" is what it is all about. Build an information-rich, website that provides loads of perceived value for your customers and Google will reward you greatly, organically.

Read a few articles on Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and search engines. There are more than you can ever possibly read, but they will open the online world up to you. Of those that search online, about 65% use Google, 22% use Yahoo! and 13% use MSN. Knowing this, you can see why so much emphasis is put on Google when we talk about Search Engine Marketing (SEM), Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Pay-Per-Click (PPC). We play up to the 800 pound Gorilla, not the 100 pound Orangutan.

The Myth
SEO is a function of building a website correctly from the beginning. If a website is carefully planned and well executed, it can be the life blood of a business. Anyone that says, "I can guarantee you a top spot on Google." or, "We have great relationships with Google and Yahoo! which will help with your SEO." is full of it! These tactics are used on those that don't understand web and are misinformed on how search engines work.

If you ever see these claims, beware! These companies will sometimes mask Pay-Per-Click campaigns as Search Engine Optimization. The two are completely different. Orgnanic (being indexed highly by Google in relevant searches without paid placement) is much more valuable than paid placement which is based on a bid system. Only between .04% of people searching click thru paid search on Google Adwords. This may improve from the 0% you had before you started, but it is not true SEO and don't be fooled.

These are companies that likely employ dishonest practices such as link farming and masking keywords behind images. Here are some good questions to ask these companies:
  • How do you "guarantee" top placement and in what searches are we talking about (only so many searches are relevant to your business and there are services that can show search traffic for every key phrase typed into Google)?
  • What type of practices do you employee for SEO? Do you employ pay-per-click campaigns or do you concentrate on organic placement?
  • What are you quality control measures to ensure ethical practices to avoid "blacklisting" by Google and other search engines?
  • Can I get a list of references and see a few case studies?

These questions should communicate that you know your stuff, at least enough not to be taken in by the first shark you talk to. Look at all the things we asked for above. Write out your objectives for your website and ask the prospective company to address each of them. Give people a fair shake at convincing you, but at the end of the day, it is your decision.

Without going into a full dissertation on web design, there are standards that have been developed. Addressing meta tags, title tags, keyword density and more will give any website a good shot at being indexed highly with google. The big win is working with other sites that are relevant to the key terms you are optimizing for and getting them to link to your site without giving them anything in return (money or a reciprocal link). Google sees your site as relevant to a topic when other relevant sites link to yours. Working with seasoned web designers and marketing strategists will give you an edge over a competitor. If this edge means that hundreds more people searching for your product or service find you before your competition, then it will be worth it.

Standards & Practices
Just like reading from left to write is a standard for writing literature, having topside navigation is a standard for web. Adhereing to standards creates less confusion, frustration and clearly maps out the user experience leading them to what you ultimately want them to do. What is it you want them to do? Book a room, buy a toy, call, email, give you their information. Many sites have every option imagineable so that there is no clear direction when getting to the site. This is not done on purpose, but done out of fear. Decision-makers get so entrenched in not wanting to lose any client, that they dilute their ability to capture anyone in a decisive manner. The more vague and homogeneous the site, the less effective it will be in converting customers.

Do the homework, adhere to standards and create a clear path for a group of people you have the best shot at capturing and success will follow. Try to be everything to everyone that may happen upon your site and be burried with the rest.

CMS vs. Outsourcing
I've had some confusion with clients saying that they want to be able to make edits to their website once it is designed. This is called "Content Management." A site can be built with a Content Managment System (CMS) which gives the customer the ability to make edits to text and pictures in pre-determined areas of the site that need to be changed often. The problem lies in aesthetics. The CMS creates a challenge in terms of design. The CMS will lock the site into a framework that cannot be changed. The amount of text and size of images needs to be standardized and we lose the ability to be creative in these areas of the site.

The alternative is to have the web designer make all changes. This can be expensive if there are changes consistently. An emphasis on quality would dictate that changes are outsourced and an emphasis on budget would dictate the latter. It is really a compromise between the two. Content manage those areas that make sense and re-employ a web designer to make bigger changes.

Viral
I have heard more directors and vice presidents of marketeing say, "We need to do some viral marketing." The fun part is that they say this as if it is something that happens when you spend money on it. Viral is just as it sounds. Viral marketing is based on the premise that you will "pass around" something of your own free will without being paid and that a majority of a segment will do the same. The thing about viral is that it must be one of the following:
  • Funny
  • Weird
  • Gross
  • Shocking
  • Helpful
  • Sexy
  • Inspiring
  • Novelty

If your idea for a viral online campaign is anything short of the descriptors mentioned, scrap it. If your company is so tight that it could never let communications that may be taboo or slighly edgy slip through, then viral is probably not a viable tactic. Viral speaks on behalf of the person sending it. It speaks to their personality, kind of like a greeting card. If I send something to a friend, you can bet it is borderline offensive, sexual or at least give them a chuckle. Why would I pass around an ad for $.50 off of detergent. I wouldn't and neither would you. Packaged differently, a homeless man bathing naked in a park fountain with a funny tie in at the end saying, "He could have used $.50 off detergent!" might be viral enough to pass around if it is presented correctly. Viral is about pop culture not contrived and choreographed ad messages.

Going viral is a marketers dream. You may have noticed some of these off-the-wall commercials for candy lately. These attempts at being "weird" are attempts at going viral. The Starburst commercial on my YouTube page has gotten over 6 million views...for free. Starburst didn't have to pay for the extra 6MM impressions. Good for them.

Email
For any company that has cut a check for $10,000 or more pretty regularly in direct mail campaigns is very interested in moving their customers over to email. This effects the bottom line immediately. Just like with search engines, Email Service Providers play a big role in gatekeeping.

AOL is the big player here. Treat them like gold. A long time ago, email marketing was like the wild wild west. AOL had a lot of users. As more marketers began to take hold of email marketing, AOL noticed users drop off because they were being inundated with email from marketers. AOL fought back and began gatekeeping, penalizing spammers for abuse. Whitelisting was born. Whitelisting means that you promise Email Service Provider's (ESP) like AOL that you will adhere to their rules and standards when marketing to AOL users, even with their permission.

AOL is the toughest, but when email marketing is done right, this can be your most responsive group. Whitelisting is important. If you are sending your bulk emails through a third party, you will want to know their whitelisting status with the major ESP's like AOL, Gmail, MSN Hotmail and Yahoo!. Each has their own standards and as you build an email marketing history, you will build report with each.

"Opt-In" is the word of the day. If you send emails, all of your recipients must be opted in. This means that they explicitly gave you permission to send them offers. The CAN-Spam Act clearly outlines the legalities asssociated with email marketing, but the premise is that if someone does not give you their permission to market to them through email then you cannot send them commercial email.

Messaging and offers also play a big role in email marketing. The message must get attention and have a clear call to action. The balance between deliverability and aesthetics will always be an issue. Everything that makes an email visually appealing usually inhibits its ability to successfully make it to the target's email box. mobileStorm is a veteran in the email marketing space. More than just a provider, mobileStorm employs a Vice President of Deliverability whose job it is to maintain a relationship with each ESP. This relationship results in something called "whitelisting" which gives a stamp of approval for email marketers to email subscribers of some of the most popular ESP's. With so many changing considerations, it is smart to work with a responsible email platform.

An email database is worthless if the people in it don't want to receive your messages. I've seen clients start with 60,000 plus records and after an opt-in campaign was conducted, the list was reduced to 2,500 opted-in participants. The client in this case adamantly emailed all 60,000 records without their permission as we marketed to only the 2,500 opted-in recipients on their behalf. Needless to say, our efforts out-performed the client's SPAM effort. This is the difference between a "Database" and a "Working Database." Is your database "Working?"

India or Bust
I received a call from India the other day asking about my website. The gentleman proceeded to tell me that his company could guarantee top ranking in search engines and was prepared to take on our website at a nominal fee. All the red flags were raised and I hit them with the hard questions. At the end I said I was not interested, but I could see how the pitch would be enticing to a business owner.

Many things these days can be done for cheap. I have heard, "Why would I pay $5,000 or $10,000 to get a website designed when I could pay $300 like I've seen advertised online." Odds are pretty good at a $300 price tag you are getting a basic site that is a "template" and will have little to no customization based on your business objectives and the needs of your customers which may not allow you to reach your full sales conversion potential. It is also safe to assume that these companies will not address SEO concerns on the front end. What you may end up with is a pretty basic website that does about 5% of what it could potentially do for your business. If you are serious about using online to improve your business, I would suggest talking to a professional. Email me if you need one.

Getting Offline
This is just the beginning. I could have done a separate blog on each section written here, but I just wanted to touch on the hot buttons and push for participation. Email is intriguing and online marketing changes daily. It is a full time job to keep up and not something a business owner and operator usually does well. If you need advice, email me or for info on email marketing visit mobileStorm's website.

Thanks for taking the time to read my blog! Comments?