What Small Businesses Need to Know About Branding Online

Despite recent dot-qualms, U.S. companies continue to spend millions of dollars on Internet advertising, with analysts predicting further increases over the next few years. By those standards, I think it’s safe to say that Internet marketing is not going away. Nor is Internet traffic, with America Online reporting steady growth in services and Nielsen//NetRatings consistently reporting healthy increases in Internet use.

The question is not whether small businesses should advance their branding into the cyberstream of the most important marketing channel since television. It is how.

One of the first goals of your Internet marketing plan is to drive the widest targeted audience possible to your Web site. To that end, exercising all communications channels in the spectrum is crucial. Multichannel marketing efforts may include the rollout of print, on-air and online campaigns. Barter, trade and link your way through the Web by exchanging banner ads with associates and vertical industries. Run print ads featuring your site. Create a postcard mailing.

Recent reports indicate that some of the Web’s biggest successes spend 75 percent of their advertising budgets on non-Internet media. However, the appeal of using the Web as one of your tools is that it gives you more marketing power for your money. An opt-in broadcast e-mail can herald the features of your site for 2 to 5 cents per e-mail compared with the cost of printing and mailing a traditional metered postcard.

What is online branding? Branding means hopping into your choice of communication vehicle and following the AIDA roadmap: get your customers’ attention; capture their interest; build their desire and get them to take a desired action.

Before trying to drive these principles into action, create a foundation of brand building blocks. Determine how the brand should be perceived by the audience. Branding often is defined as a business’ promise to its customers. What’s yours?

Determine the value of your product or service — both the monetary worth and the benefits of its performance. You’ll use these distinctions repeatedly to build positioning points. Consider your brand position as it stands in the minds of your customers. Your product is nothing until your customers say it’s something. Your positioning should answer a customer need or want and be expressed from the customer’s point of view.

Branding is designed to impress the consumer with a positive, reliable and memorable image of a product or service. And what better place to host your brand-building performance than the global Internet stage, where a fast-growing audience of millions convenes.

Why brand online? This is where the global audience shops (compares prices and benefits), socializes (in newsgroups and chat rooms) and studies (searches for products, manufacturers and information).

But I did not write “buys.”

The Net is the domain of the information seeker and the comparison shopper. The Net gives management at all levels the power to make faster and better-informed purchasing decisions, putting product/service branding on the Net high on the brand-building task list. Also, many Internet users continue to change their opinions of at least one or more product brands as a result of the Net — further proof that the Internet influences brand-impressionable users and helps formulate brand opinions.

Online branding lets marketers leverage the graphic appeal of product packaging. Sound and video can be included as well as a high quantity and quality of information. Logo awareness is built into the process, as are coupon, rebate and co-branding opportunities. The online effort also directly influences offline marketing tactics, with each tactic supporting the others to drive sales.

Great site. Great company. Brand awareness and loyalty are strongly associated with a company’s Web site. It may be increasingly accurate to say that your customers perceive you to be only as good as your Web site. That’s why it is important to have the most dynamic, streamlined and professional online presence possible. Often the strength of your company and its products are being judged by its navigational ease, download speed and overall design.

This kind of customer thinking has moved many companies to redesign their Web sites every six months to a year.

If you’re still questioning the validity of establishing your image online, consider companies like Amazon, eBay, GeoCities and Yahoo. They were once the “newbies” on the Net. It is their business strategies that are the standard for Internet marketing, and their common thread is successful online branding.

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