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October 14, 2013

Four experts weigh in with new rules for online marketing

The Internet evolves so quickly that what worked a year ago might already be outmoded — and that could describe online marketing for the past decade. Just when some companies were finally building their first websites, social media began seizing eyeballs and making those behind-the-curve sites seem antiquated or irrelevant. Latecomers to Facebook found themselves late to the Twitter party, too. By the time some websites started to integrate social media, mobile devices were forcing more substantial changes to site design, architecture and content.

Mainebiz decided to approach four experts in different areas of online marketing for their top advice about what works best right now. Because of overlap between disciplines, a few of their “rules” cover similar ground. But our experts come from different perspectives; we think all of their (paraphrased) responses are worthwhile.

1. Content marketing

Expert: Shannon Kinney, Dream Local Digital, Rockland

Content marketing — anything designed primarily to inform the consumer as a means of engagement — predates the Internet by more than a century. But because the Internet, and especially inbound marketing, require fresh content in previously unimaginable quantities, it has never been more difficult to create enough of it and make it all productive.

Speak to your audience

Consumers are overwhelmed by marketing messages. For yours to be noticed, you have to speak directly to your audience and address its needs. That means targeting on a level rarely possible in traditional media. Drill into your sales data to identify your most profitable product or service, then find out who's buying. A spa client of ours originally defined their target audience as women from 18 to 60 years old. We found that the customers for their most profitable product were professional women between the ages of 35 and 52 who were concerned with “age management.” That level of specificity enables you to choose the best channel for your message and to craft it to grab the audience's attention.

It’s not all about you

People will quickly disengage if your content is all about is your company and its products. Monitor the channels your audience uses to learn about their concerns, then address them. Encourage comments. Ask questions. For the Maine Lobster Festival, we ask, “What is your favorite way to have lobster at home?” It generates lots of feedback, which means we've engaged the audience. Get off your own page. Monitor and use other companies' Facebook pages. Participate in LinkedIn groups and discussion forums for people who use what you sell. Offer advice, a new perspective, or even your services. Consumers are delighted when a company reaches out like that.

Create the right message for the right channel

On your own website, you can set your own style. When posting to social channels, understand the demographics and abide by the lexicons and expectations of the users. How you engage a professional group on LinkedIn will differ from how you approach consumers on Pinterest. This can get complicated, so develop a content plan, outlining what content you will post to each channel, when and why. Every post should have a clear business objective.

Answer people’s questions

The fastest way to surprise and delight readers, drive search engine optimization and bring leads to your inbound funnel is to identify questions that readers have and answer them. This includes complex questions. Instead of hiding behind a statement like, “We custom-quote every project to fully meet the client's unique requirements,” do the hard work. Lay out all the complexities of the subject and address them, in a series of blog posts if need be. Google wants you to answer questions that consumers ask. And users who find it useful will share it. About 20% of searches on Google have never been searched before, so don't just react. Proactively answer questions to make yours the first answer that pops up when someone asks it.

Optimize your content

Create content for readers and craft it for search engines. The human brain can comprehend visuals thousands of times faster than text, so use photos and videos as much as possible. Optimize your posts for keywords and phrases, not only to be a top result for relevant searches, but also to avoid being a top result when you're not relevant. If you're a restaurant, for example, you don't want to show up for every restaurant search in Maine — just the ones concerning your town or region.

2. Inbound marketing

Expert: Ross Lasley, The Internet Educator, Manchester

Inbound, or permission marketing, implies that the customer is coming to you, looking for information. Advertising, by contrast, is a form of outbound marketing: it reaches out and forces itself upon the customer. An essential aspect of inbound is the audience's permission, as when you opt-in to an email list, follow a company on Twitter, or request a report through a web link.

Be helpful

People do not want to be told what to buy: they want to educate themselves in order to make informed decisions. If you are sincere in helping to educate them, they'll be inclined to buy from you. Using a traditional approach to information marketing, a kitchen supply company might have produced a guide to buying kitchen knives. To be truly helpful, that company might offer guides to knife sharpening and knife skills, or revise the buying guide to address — with absolute objectivity — types of knives they don't even carry.

Respect numbers, don’t obsess over them

Some marketers become obsessed with analytics. “How many Facebook likes?” “What is the Google rank?” “How many page views?” Which ones are important? Key performance indicators don't exist in a vacuum: they must relate to specific business objectives. If Facebook is central to your marketing strategy, you must have a mechanism to convert likes into sales. If that mechanism is absent, then likes might be irrelevant. Ditto for the size of your email list, page views, bounce rate and all the rest. If a metric doesn't tell you what to do, it's not useful.

Don’t let perfect ruin good enough

Marketing on the Internet happens too quickly to worry about getting it all right. While you were conducting in-depth keyword analysis to figure out if you should use “Ceylon” or “Sri Lanka,” your competitor said “whatever” and began selling tea. That's not how we learned to write in school, but times have changed. Take it to 95% perfect and get rid of it. You'll be orders of magnitude more productive.

Commitment is required

It is extremely difficult to stay current — both professionally and in terms of providing a steady stream of content — across multiple channels, most of which are in a constant state of change. Blogs, email newsletters, webinars, videos, calls to action, social media updates, corresponding changes to the website: it's a ton of work. Inbound is like a gym membership: to get anything out of it takes long-term commitment and serious effort.

Garden organically, let creativity grow

My last rule is: Break the rules. Everything you do need not fit precisely into a detailed marketing plan. Sometimes, spontaneity is a good thing. A restrained professional firm might get a great boost from a silly, off-topic video if it helps its audience view the company or its principals as more personable.

3. Blogging

Expert: Rich Brooks, Flyte New Media, Portland

Since most blog posts are delivered by email, and because many e-newsletters find their way onto the source's website, it can be difficult sometimes to distinguish between them — and in many cases there is no difference. But whatever they're called, blogs provide an excellent format to deliver in-depth discussion of complex issues to readers' in-boxes on a repeating basis.

You don’t have to blog every day, or every week

Old wisdom called for blogging as often as possible: every post was viewed as an opportunity for a customer to find you. We now know that you can't compete with the Internet on volume, but you can compete on quality, clarity and perspective. One great blog post a month, properly promoted, will do more for your marketing efforts than 30 poor ones. It'll be shared and talked about, generating clicks or actual human contacts. My rule of thumb is to put about 20% of the effort into content creation and 80% into promoting it. Sticking to a firm schedule for posts is another rule that's going by the wayside. While you might find it useful to maintain the discipline of blogging, your audience doesn't pay attention to your schedule and doesn't care when your post hits their inbox.

You’re not blogging for your business

You should be blogging for your audience. The way to attract ideal customers is by answering their questions and helping solve their problems. If you're not sure what those questions or problems are, ask your best customers, your sales force and your customer service reps. The minute you start blogging about yourself is the minute you start losing readers.

Write to be found

Search is not dead. You still need to create content that will be picked up by search engines. Do a keyword analysis for almost every post: craft a few phrases around the topic, then use the Google keyword tool to find out what terms people are searching on. Use those keywords where search engines will find them: in the title, the header, the first sentence or two and a few more times throughout the post. Avoid overusing keywords for the sole purpose of search engine visibility: it's counterproductive. And remember that the end user isn't a search engine, so the material has to be readable.

Blog with purpose

The purpose of a blog is to generate leads, but it's not a simple, one-step process. Use an editorial calendar to plan topics several weeks or months out, then create posts according to the plan, including appropriate, escalating calls to action. You might start by encouraging readers to sign up for updates to the blog. Later, you might engage them further by soliciting questions or input on a topic. Later still, you might offer a free consultation, webinar, or e-book report “if you call today.”

Get people to subscribe

When people have problems or need answers, they Google. If they find the answer they need on your blog post, they might use that information but never visit your site again. Content should be the start of a relationship. You put it out for free in order to get a response. Ask people to sign up for email updates everywhere: in the header, on the About page, at the top and bottom of the post, in a sidebar. Put a signup form in a popup: everyone hates them, but they work, and they will help you build your list faster. If you're not pissing a few people off, you're not trying hard enough.

4. Websites

Expert: Al Arthur, independent webmaster, Belfast

The first Internet medium for many of us, websites retain central importance in most online marketing efforts. The technology and how it's used continue to evolve; companies can't afford to let well enough alone.

Use responsive design

Responsive design refers to websites that adjust automatically to all types of devices: computers, tablets and smartphones. Non-responsive websites can be difficult to read and impossible to navigate on a smartphone, and custom apps make sense only in rare cases: they're expensive to develop, and consumers need a compelling reason to download them. Even if you don't use a mobile device, your customers do. Especially in Maine, where much business is targeted at tourists who are away from their desktops, it's essential to give users a good experience on mobile devices.

Navigation must be obvious, easy to use

Your home page should have only three or four main navigation buttons. They can all have drop-down menus that give direct access to more pages, but help the reader find his way by giving him just a few choices to begin with. For example, “About Us” can be the gateway to Contact, Warranty, Service, Our History, Dealers and Investor Relations. Make the user actually click on top-level menu items to reveal drop-downs. Don't use mouse-overs that reveal drop-downs by simply hovering the cursor over the selection: these are not supported by touchscreens and they drive mobile device users crazy.

Make it simple, clean and functional

The need for simple, even spare, design is only partly due to mobile devices and their small screens. The busier the page design, the harder it is to identify the desired content, even on full-size monitors. Animation and audio clips are prime offenders: they're distracting and make pages slow to load. Use good typography: fancy fonts, lots of styles, drop-shadows, color gradients and odd line spacing all look amateurish and make a page hard to read.

Be personal

Consumers want to think they know you personally. (It's why McDonalds has Ronald and Progressive has Flo.) Include an “about us” page with bios and photos of your staff. Include testimonials from real people. Include contact information at the bottom of every page.

Hire professionals

Whether you hire an in-house webmaster or contract it out, it's money well spent. Web design requires a suite of skills with long (or perpetual) learning curves: html, CSS, server administration, search engine optimization, databases, graphic design and more. As a business owner or department manager, you have better things to do with your time.

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