According to Forbes, 3.8 million Google searches are conducted each minute. If you create a strong online presence for your small business, you can unlock the ability to connect with customers without geographical constraints, increase your sales and further contribute to the socioeconomic health of your community. HubSpot defines an online presence by “how easy it is to find a brand or company online.” This presence is “important for building your brand's reputation, increasing brand awareness and providing visibility to your products or services when users are searching for related keywords.”
But building an online presence is not easy for many small-business owners. It’s a technical skill that must be developed and refined continually.
The first step in building an online presence is to define your brand’s principles. A brand must realize where to show up, how frequently, what to say and, most importantly, understand the “why.” Without an ethos in place, brands run the risk of derailing their messaging, confusing customers and losing opportunities. Similarly, a brand that interacts with customers only to make the sale — without a sense of connection — can come off as disingenuous and cold.
To effectively build trust over time, some marketing specialists advocate for the 80/20 rule: 80 percent of online content should inform, educate and connect with your audience, and the other 20 percent should focus on selling your business. But Tanya Hall, CEO of Greenleaf Book Group, like some other experts, asserts that “the standard 80/20 rule isn't wrong and works for some brands, but the key word is some.” Hall writes that every social media page will have a different target audience, different demographics and a different overall strategy. For this reason, she explains, upholding a standard ratio as a guideline for every business can be constricting. Small-business owners should remain authentic to their brand principles, target audience and products/services in order to gauge the most effective methods of online communication.
Strategies for building your business's online presence
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to building your brand’s online presence. Entrepreneurs must continually test and analyze tactics before heavily investing in a direction. Product-based businesses may employ different platforms and principles than service-based ones.
But there are a number of options available. Consider these six approaches to identify which ones may be appropriate for your brand.
1. Mailing list
Growing an email list is one of the most effective direct-to-consumer marketing strategies. Unlike some forms of social media and advertising, a mailing list holds contact information and enables you to build relationships with the same audience over time.
A mailing list also can yield a higher return on investment more quickly. Campaign Monitor reports that “for every $1 spent, email marketing can generate $44 in ROI. The ability to segment the target subscriber list, personalize messaging and trigger communications makes email newsletters the most effective digital marketing tool around.”
Search engine optimization directs traffic to your website when people seek information on sites such as Google, Yahoo and Bing. SEO can improve the quality and quantity of website traffic from prospective customers.
It’s important to insert keywords relevant to your product or service throughout the landing pages for your business to improve your SEO. URLs and images should also include high-traffic keywords. Consider Google Keyword Planner to determine high-traffic keywords for your audience segment.
3. Social media
HubSpot estimates that there are 3.2 billion users active on social media platforms. Due to this volume of people, it can be easy for your small business to get lost in the constant chatter, especially in the absence of defined brand principles and content guidelines.
Social media, however, can be a great free marketing tool for brands to connect with prospects and customers. While compared with mailing lists, social media may not immediately translate into a sale, it’s an effective tactic that can eventually drive traffic to your website while raising overall awareness of your business.
4. Website optimization
A bright, modern site with legible typefaces can signal to consumers that you have a credible brand. But a visually well-designed site is only one factor of success in building an online presence. Website speed, mobile responsiveness and link-building are among the other factors that contribute to a highly optimized site. Consider website builders like Shopify that include analytics and provide free customized optimization tips based on your site’s performance.
5. Paid advertisements
Digital advertising can be an effective marketing strategy toward building your online presence. Social media ads, in particular, can yield a high ROI with a limited budget.
Ads should be approached as a continual investment, with the goal being to build awareness of your product or service over time. Consider allocating a marketing line item in your annual budget to ensure continuity of your online presence. You may find that paid ads lead to higher website traffic, higher prospect engagement or sales conversions.
6. Thought-leadership content
Producing original content about your business can help you build trust among consumers over time. It’s not enough to focus solely on selling your product or service; customers need to understand its uses and value.
Depending on the brand, thought-leadership content can be video tutorials, blog posts or public speaking. If you’re not sure where to begin, consider the different scenarios in which your product or service solves a problem, then create content to tell your story while presenting solutions.
Best practices for maintaining an online presence
When running a business, building your online presence can often fall last on the priority list. Supply chains, manufacturing and compliance can often dominate the workday for a small-business owner, especially those in early-stage ventures.
Given the time and resource constraints of entrepreneurship, building an online presence should be streamlined to ensure continuity. Here are some options to consider.
- Scheduling posts: Social media management tools, such as Hootsuite and Later, allow users to schedule posts on a variety of platforms. Try to build your content calendar at the beginning or end of each month. This approach allows you to build systems to maintain an online presence while protecting your time to focus on critical business operations.
- Engaging with prospects online: Streamlining your content calendar frees up time for you to react to comments, shares and product reviews on social media and other online platforms. Respond to questions, comments and concerns to signal to prospects that your brand stands for credibility and accountability. In addition to social media, you might include a function on your website that allows customers to leave reviews and display clear contact information for future inquiries.
- Embedding a social media feed on your site: Daily website updates can be time-consuming, even for the veteran marketing professional. Building an online presence is about working smarter, not necessarily harder. Embedding a social media feed on your site can ensure a steady flow of new content relevant to your brand. Flockler cites increased time on site, larger social media following, stronger engagement and more sales as the four key benefits of a website-embedded social media feed.
- Reviewing analytics: Assess the performance of your website on a monthly or quarterly basis. You may be able to determine which products, videos and blog posts are the top performers. Consider whether your time on site has increased or decreased since the last quarter. Downloads and abandoned-cart metrics are also good indicators of performance. For example, a high-performing content piece could be refreshed to maintain momentum. If a product is continually added to a cart but abandoned, consider sending checkout reminders and creating urgency with a countdown timer. Use analytics to make smarter decisions and to adjust your strategy.
The goal in building an online presence is to build trust and brand credibility, which takes patience, consistency and perseverance. There is no standard approach that will work for every small-business owner. But with the guidance of analytics and customer feedback, entrepreneurs can adjust their strategy and narrow their focus in a way that builds awareness of their business.
Ashley Powdar is employer content lead for AARP's Financial Resilience team. She works with participants in the organization's Employer Pledge Program to promote the value of a multigenerational workforce. She also assists and reports on issues that affect small-business owners.