by Josh Catone
This post originally appeared on the American Express OPEN Forum, where Mashable regularly contributes articles about leveraging social media and technology in small business.
The web, as we know, is a great place to market your business — but only if people can find you. Success in online marketing is contingent upon people being able to locate your web presence. One of the best ways to connect with current and potential customers via the web is to leave your footprint around the Internet and create a trail that leads back to your business.
Leaving your business footprint across the web has a number of benefits, including driving traffic back to your site, building brand awareness, establishing trust and boosting your search engine rankings. There are an almost infinite number of places around the web where you can leave your footprint, but here are four rules for getting the most out of your efforts and attracting notice.
1. Be Everywhere
Social media is a big place. That can be both a boon and a burden for small businesses. On the one hand, it means there is a virtually unlimited number of ways to leave your business footprint around the Internet, but on the other hand, it also can make doing so a very time consuming and overwhelming process. Still, it’s a good idea to be everywhere on the web that your customers are. Your customers will be having a conversation online — even about your business — whether or not you participate. If you’re concerned with creating a healthy, positive brand image, it’s better to participate in those conversations than to stay on the sidelines.
At the very least, it is important for almost every business trying to build their brand online to have a presence on the major social networks. Crissy Gershey, director of sales and marketing for Parties That Cook, maintains active accounts for the business on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Delicious, Foursquare and LinkedIn. Because Gershey’s budget is limited, it makes sense to focus on the social media sites where her clients are.
Further, stagnation is a bad thing. If you can’t actively maintain your presence, it might not be a good idea to register an account at all. Social media profiles tend to rank highly in search, so you want to make sure yours is active and properly filled out.
“Be sure to complete profiles on sites most relevant to your business. In my experience on many sites, including OpenForum.com, people do not complete their profiles. Simply completing your profile makes you stand out above the majority or listings,” advises Jeff Huckaby, the CEO of rackAID.
Jim Olenbush, a broker at Cantera Real Estate in Austin, Texas, agrees. “These pages and accounts will also rank highly for your company name, so make sure they present well,” he says. Olenbush also advises maintaining an active presence on local and business review and support sites like Yelp, Merchant Circle and GetSatisfaction. “Research your competitors by searching for their company names. The websites that have references to them or pages about them might also be good places to list your business. This includes review sites, business profile pages, and mentions of companies on industry blogs.”
2. Participate in the Conversation
It’s often said that social media is a conversation. It’s a cliche, but a truism, and getting involved in that conversation presents amazing opportunities for businesses to spread their footprint. From commenting on industry blogs to posting on discussion forums to conversing with your fans on your own social media profiles or your blog, there are plenty of ways to join the conversation and leave a trail back to your site. But there is one golden rule that all businesses should follow: always add something of value.
“It is important for businesses to provide quality input and selfless content,” says Season Lopiccolo, a partner at Noble Studios. “Nobody likes spam. Web users are likely to repel when they are feeling oversold or the content has no value to them. So always make sure your content is clear, concise and to-the-point.”
Mike Schwarz, founder of RibbedTee, learned that lesson the hard way. “When I first started contributing to forum threads, I was more focused on pitching our brand, and less on addressing the topic of discussion,” he recalls. “A few times, I got schooled pretty bad and came to the realization there was a better way to participate. In many cases, I would visit a forum and refer other competitor’s products if it was a solution to the person’s inquiry.”
His lesson? “Help others thoughtfully, and they will in turn consider your products at some time in the future.”
Of course, quality doesn’t mean you can’t be opinionated. Says Lopiccolo, “Allow people to be a little confrontational, even if it means they don’t agree with you. As long as you show that you are listening, clear in your messaging and open for change, the people on the other end reading will continue to stay interested.”
3. Share Your Expertise
“Whatever size business you own, you have the ability to influence countless followers by simply sharing your expertise with others. Everyone has expertise, if you simply decide to share it. And you’ll find that the more you share, the more you learn. Don’t try to hide your ideas, concepts, or creativity — talk it up,” advises Alan Guinn, managing director at The Guinn Consulting Group.
You’re probably an expert in something — after all, you won’t be very successful in your business if you aren’t an expert in it — and sharing that knowledge can establish yourself as a leader in your industry and help to build positive associations with your brand. There are many ways to share your expertise online, including blogging, posting on social media sites and traditional media outreach, but one of the best methods is guest posting on already established blogs.
“Great content is king and everyone wants it,” says Jennifer Nichols, CEO and co-founder of FlackList. “Reach out to blogs with advice editorials to see if they’d be interested in sharing with them their readers in exchange for pushing out the link to your email list or posting on your own company blog.”
“If you have a new idea, or a new way of doing things, write it up and put it online. If you have a new technique for approaching business, don’t be afraid to write it up and post it,” says Guinn.
4. Partner Up
Small businesses generally don’t have the same resources as their well capitalized, enterprise-level competitors, and that can sometimes put them at a competitive disadvantage. One way to mitigate that competitive imbalance is to join forces with other small businesses and create a coalition that has more influence en masse. This strategy can also work when spreading your business footprint around the web.
“One of our key initiatives [for] driving traffic is strategically partnering with other service companies that complement our painting business,” says Ricky Chu, the co-founder of Rayco. Chu has formed partnerships with other local home improvement businesses that target the same clientele. “Since we have implemented cross-promoting our services on our print and web collateral we have increased traffic more than 50%. This is very important because this 50% is coming from targeted customers who are getting work done on their homes.”
According to Matt Griffin, president and CEO of Baker’s Edge, the companies you partner with needn’t always be in your industry. “We like to team up with non-market related companies on projects. Being involved with new faces guarantees new exposure,” he says. “For instance, we have an office Trail Running Team. We like to sponsor local races and participate. It shows us [to be] a more dynamic company, and gets our image out there to places that other kitchenware companies have never thought to tread — have you ever seen a bakeware company sponsor anything aside from a bake off?”