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Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Power of Marketing

Are you making the most of the web to build your business? With the right combination of classic marketing principles and clever techniques, even the smallest companies can reach a big audience

Type 'treatment abroad' into Google and the top four non-sponsored results take you to a site run by Berkhamsted-based Intuition Communication. 'Private health' produces the top two results for Intuition. And for 'breast implant' and 'cosmetic surgery', its private healthcare website appears in a prime spot at the top of the second listings page. Intuition is only a small company and it doesn't pay a penny in banner ads or pay-per-click advertising, but there it is topping the most popular method of finding services on the web. That's the power of internet marketing.

'We have a search engine optimisation expert and every month of his life is spent optimising our content for the search engines,' says Intuition managing director Keith Pollard. 'We have around 2,000 search terms which we target and our average position on Google is 6.2. The reason that's important to us is not only for our own sake, but also our clients, who advertise with us because of our positioning.'

For many entrepreneurs, internet marketing will be less about driving traffic to the site and more about establishing their business's credentials in a particular area - a marketing brochure to the outside world. But lessons from internet businesses still provide useful pointers. Using the internet as part of the marketing mix is an extremely cost-effective way of getting your message out there. It's also a good way of targeting a particular audience, since visits, clicks and links are so transparent on the web. The internet marketer has a number of tools to help - including the site itself, blogs, forums, links, and of course search engine optimisation. But it's important to bear in mind that some of these are more effective than others.

To a certain extent, the four Ps of marketing hold true in the web domain - product, place, price and promotion are still the most important considerations. It's relatively easy, for example, to drive some level of traffic to your website, but if visitors don't find what you've promised them when they arrive, they'll soon go elsewhere. Equally, you could spend a lot of time and effort promoting your website through articles on other sites, blogs, and links, but if there's not a compelling reason to visit right now, then you won't pull people in.

Creating the right site

So what ranks as a good website from a marketing perspective? It's the combination of strong content, good design and clear, easy navigation that scores highly, according to the Web Marketing Association. It recently released its 2007 web awards report, which features a decade of data on what its judges decided were the best websites across a wide range of industries since it started in 1997. The sites are scored by independent judges against seven criteria: design, innovation, content, technology, interactivity, copywriting and ease of use. Although the competition is largely US-based, UK sites did well, rated the best in Europe.

Industry-wise, the airlines came out best, scoring above average every year and achieving the highest average score in 2006. The judges noted that airline sites were moving from being purely transactional sites where you could book flights to providing in-depth travel information on destinations. The top pick was the American Airlines site.

In the technology space, biotech was slightly better than average, using design and copywriting well, including flash presentations to convey complex ideas. Cara Therapeutics, a New York-based drug development company came out on top in 2006. Computer hardware meanwhile, was also a high performer, with voted the best site for the three years before this year, when the accolade was handed to Broadcom. It's easy to see why HP's site scores so highly, with a clear demarcation as to where its different audiences should navigate and strong offers encouraging visitors to take further action.

Misunderstanding the audience and poorly targeting offers are the most frequent mistakes firms make in internet marketing. But another advantage of the web as a marketing medium is it's relatively easy to test, monitor and continually improve sites based on audience feedback. Studying visitor stats can show which elements of the site are most popular, and where visitors are experiencing difficulties finding what they're looking for.

Driving traffic

Once your site is as strong as it can be, you need to think about driving traffic back to it - but it's important to consider first what sort of traffic you want. Pay-per-click advertising - where you're only charged when a user clicks back to your site - is offered by various online agencies and can be a good way of targeting a user with a particular interest. Fees can be high though, particularly for popular keywords or titles and you may have to bid for a particular spot. Equally, banner ads can help drive targeted traffic to your site - and since each page on your site can serve a different banner, you can ensure your message is targeted to a particular niche. However, static banner ads can seem outdated now, and you're not guaranteed a specific number of clicks.

The sort of viral marketing that led to much of the early excitement about the web is perhaps more relevant, particularly in terms of mentions and links from other sites on the internet, which also help guarantee good ranking in the search engines. No one knows the exact algorithms Google uses to determine the relevance of sites, but links from other sites are part of the equation, along with regularly updated content and longevity.

'The fact that we've been around 10 years makes us an established presence, an authority in the eyes of Google,' says Intuition's Pollard. 'The fact that our content is changing daily, has 6,000 pages and over 1,000 other websites linking to us says to Google this is a fresh, interesting and important site. All these factors are in our favour and we make the most of that by tweaking content, and title tags.' Pollard recommends ensuring URLs are search engine friendly - those delivered out of a database with odd characters like question marks will not necessarily be spotted by the search engines.

And the results are impressive - at least for Pollard's business. 'Across all our sites, we probably had around 450,000 visits last month and all of that activity comes from natural visibility on search engines. We don't advertise, buy pay-per-click or promote ourselves through other sites.'

Finally, it may be that your ultimate goal isn't to drive traffic back to your site. An equally valid strategy for some companies would be to contribute blogs and articles elsewhere which simply establish your expertise in a particular area. It's curious to note that the worst performing sites in the web awards report were those you might expect to score higher, but which have no real reason to be out there in the full public glare: credit unions (where members just input transactions), brokerages (which simply facilitate trading for existing clients) and, the backbone of the internet (but mostly behind the scenes), ISPs.

By David Longworth, Webster Buchanan Research

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