Cutting Through the Clutter: Helping Local Businesses Choose an Online Advertising Solution

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Local search technology has opened the door wide for local businesses to use the Internet to attract new customers. Thanks to "geo-targeting" capabilities, advertisers can aim their ads specifically to consumers within designated geographic areas, making online advertising perhaps the most cost-effective marketing channel for virtually any type of local business.


But with the latest breakthrough has come the inevitable confusion for those in the marketplace who simply are trying to sort out what it all means for their businesses. Small business owners today are bombarded by people trying to sell them ads online.


A variety of legitimate alternatives exist, including agencies offering full-service online advertising campaigns and vendors selling do-it-yourself software. But how does a local business owner, who may not even have a Web site yet, sort through the myriad options and make an informed decision about where to advertise and whether to get help?


The first question most business owners have to answer is, "Is it even worth it?" According to comScore Networks, 111 million people execute 46 billion Internet searches yearly -- three times the number of annual Yellow Page referrals. And Kelsey-Bizrate estimates that 25 percent of all Internet searches are local in nature, meaning local consumers are looking for local merchants. Potential customers are online, and most local businesses realize they need to be there, too.


Getting started: Sorting through the options doesn't have to be complicated. The only way to know what to look for in an Internet marketing solution is to first take a realistic look at the most common challenges small businesses face in creating an online advertising campaign. Decide which ones apply to your business, and choose a solution -- whether it be a particular advertising method or a third party to help you -- based on how effectively it addresses those challenges.


One of the first issues confronting local businesses is a logistical one and can be easily overcome: As many as 70 percent of small businesses still don't have Web sites. If you're going to run an online campaign, you'll need to be able to point consumers to an online presence -- a full site, or at least a page or two -- to provide basic information about your products and services and tell them how to reach you.


A bigger challenge for local businesses, though by no means insurmountable, is to figure out how to generate a meaningful amount of traffic for a specific geographic area. The advancements in local search technology give local businesses a powerful new tool -- the ability to use the big players like Google, Yahoo/Overture, AOL and MSN to target ads to consumers in specific geographic areas. But there's still a strategy involved in selecting keywords and deciding which publishers provide the most effective targeting.


And that shines a bright light on the blunt reality of today's "self-serve" search engine business -- search engine marketing is hard. You have to establish relationships with several online publishers, manage multiple keyword buys and monitor constantly changing bids for those keywords. This takes time, which most small business owners don't have.


Search engine optimization also requires that you keep track of what times of day your potential customers are most likely to be online (you'll want to bid higher during that time), and maintain a complex matrix of what works and what doesn't in terms of specific keywords, bid amounts, etc. The complexity is daunting and, for most small businesses, a deterrent to Internet marketing.


Once your campaign is running, accountability and tracking become the big challenges. How do you know your online campaign is working? And why it isn't, if it isn't? You need to be able to accurately track both online and offline activity -- clicks to your site, e-mails, phone calls and on-site visits.


If you're going it alone, it can be difficult to identify which leads specifically came from your online campaign. If your ad clicks directly to your existing Web site, you need a way to separate out that traffic. If your ad directs potential customers to call you, you need a means of tracking those calls. If return on investment is to mean anything, you must be able to trace all actions flowing from your ad back to your campaign.


Choose your weapon. With these challenges in mind, you'll be better prepared to decide which method or vendor will best help you overcome them. You can hire someone to do it for you -- a dedicated agency or some expert who specializes in search engine optimization.


Even then, if you're not waving around a hefty budget, many (if not most) search engine marketing companies won't take on your account; they just don't see it as worth their time. They prefer to focus on nationwide advertisers with substantial sums to spend. Or, if you choose to do it yourself, you can turn to specific software tools and platforms that help you develop keyword lists and manage the process.


Here are a few things to consider:


· Make your "clicks" count. Most search engines and other online advertising vehicles offer the popular "pay-per-click" model, where advertisers pay only when users click on the ads to visit specific sites. But not all clicks are created equal. Several companies offer fixed packages, like "100 clicks for $100."


This may sound like a deal, but those packages don't necessarily deliver the best clicks, just the cheapest clicks. You want clicks from people actually looking for your product or service. Sometimes one click for $100 is far more valuable, if it's a targeted click that's more likely to result in a sale. Find an option that provides true targeting to maximize your ROI with quality clicks.


· If you don't have a Web site, don't fret. Some vendors will build a site for you or create a specific landing page to be used for your campaign. A recent Pew Internet Project survey revealed that if a business provides products and/or services information online -- even if it does not sell products online -- 50 percent of Americans would be more likely to go to the store to transact business. Given that, a simple page that points consumers to your offline business may be enough.


· Tracking, tracking, tracking. Accurate, thorough tracking of any action resulting from your campaign is critical. Analyzing click data is meaningful only to a degree; you need to account for offline actions, too -- telephone calls and walk-in visits to your brick-and-mortar store or office. Question potential vendors about their methods and ask to see actual reports for some of their clients. Not only will this show you how meaningful their reporting methods are, but you can catch a glimpse of some actual results.


Online advertising, targeted locally, doesn't have to be overwhelming, even for business owners with no technology background or online experience. The key is to be aware of this special set of challenges and identify the solution that addresses them most effectively. Then, get ready for your phone to ring.


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