(11, August 2003 - Reprint from "The
Digital Rag Too")
Some businesses can actually deliver their goods
over the 'Net but how do you download a furnace, a toilet or a car
Over the past 10 years the Internet has grown from
a curiosity to a part of our every day lives. We've been exposed to the
Web's Universal Resource Locater (URL) and E-mail
enough now that they are no longer a curiosity.
We may use the Internet in our personal lives to
pay bills, transfer money between accounts, keep in touch with friends,
or even purchase items from the likes of E-bay or Amazon, but as small,
location based business owners, what has the Internet done for us? What
can it do? What can't it do? How should we use it and should we use it
instead of traditional marketing techniques?
|Other businesses can
sell to customers via the 'Net but my customers have to come in
my door for me to be able to sell them anything.
How do I find customers within my trading area? How
do they find me using the Internet?
The problem is that the Internet is so much bigger
than our local trading area. A potential customer puts their problem
description into any of the search engines ("I need a plumber in
Vancouver") and you get thousands of "hits" with most of them being
anything but a listing for a plumber.
In some cases you may get no hits, or maybe the
prospective customer will find the local chamber of commerce web site and
have to look through all the various ads and listings there.
They might find your trade organization's web
site with listings for all the plumbers in the country, or the world,
So how do we use the Internet for locally based
|The trick is to use it
for what it is best for, not for being found, but for giving prospects
who have found you through other means more information and more
timely information than the other means can cost effectively provide.
The note here is cost effectively provide.
Until a widely accepted and easy to use method for
consumers to find a locally based business exists, you have to rely on
other means to catch customers' eyes. Don't expect the Internet to
increase the number of customers walking in your door all on its own; it
won't, and you can spend a tremendous amount of money proving this to
The Internet can be very cost effective if used
right. It can also be extremely costly if used wrong. Of course the same
can be said of more traditional advertising and marketing methods.
Having decided that you are
going to use the Internet, the first thing to
understand is that you don't have to spend a lot of money
There is little benefit to having fancy web pages
if most of the viewers are only interested in
where your physical store is. In fact, having fancy pages can make
viewers go away, especially if the pages load slowly
and require extra plug-ins, or the navigation is not obvious and
A simple set of pages, either under your own or a
generic domain name (but with your company name somewhere in the URL so
the search engines find it) is really what you need.
See the article on Internet domains and
business for pointers on your domain name. Their focus should
be on getting people to your physical store and there are several methods
you might use to do this.
First, make sure your physical address and how to
get there is prominent - probably on the main page. This is different
from sites that sell product on line. They tend not to put the physical
address on top, and in some cases don't let you know where they are at
The next thing you do will
depend upon how often you will update your pages. If you don't expect to
update them very often then you should try to put up some pictures of
your operation in general. A selection of your main staff (long term
permanent) in your store's setting and some of your general product line
would likely be best. Keep the pictures on any given page to what would
print out on a single sheet of paper if someone were to print the site.
This guideline pretty much ensures that your pages will load fairly
quickly and not annoy people on slow links. Aim for encouraging a
If you update the site
regularly or frequently (no, they're not the same) then you
should consider putting up information on products or services that you
will feature from time to time. You can put up information based on
seasonal considerations or any other reasonable criteria, or you can
simply put up information on various products you sell as and when you
If you are going to use the web
in the same manner as you would other advertising media, then you will be
tempted to put up things like "flyer" advertising where you show an item
and put a price. This is fine if you absolutely ensure that you will
keep the information up to date. I can't emphasize this enough.
If you put up dated information, you must ensure that it is removed and
replaced with something else. Either make the commitment and spend the
effort to do this, or don't put up date sensitive information at all.
If you are not going to
update the site very often, then you should consider putting up
fairly generic information about what you sell and why you sell it. This
can be information from your suppliers, information about your business
practices, policies and such, but it should be both informative and at
least somewhat personalized. The point you must get over to the viewer is
that you take the time and effort to put a face and personal effort to
the solutions to their problems.
In today's mass-marketplace,
the only things that really set you apart from any other business in your
category is you, your staff and your way of doing things and dealing with
people. If you can't project some of this onto your web site then you may
be better off without one.
Now that you have some
information about your location and your products, you need to get people
to visit your site.
The first thing to understand is
that your site is not likely to get any visitors from the normal search
engines or from referrals from other web sites - at least for quite a
while (measured in years). You will have to drive people to your site
with your other media advertising. To do this, you need to include your
web address on all of your other marketing media. The reason is that the
generic search engine doesn't distinguish location - it returns pages
from all over the world. Only the top ranked sites in the world will show
up in the first few pages - ranked by how many other sites link to them
and how fresh their pages are, not by how close their business is to the
person doing the search.
The specialty search engines -
those dedicated to either businesses in your geographic area or in your
specialty, or the online telephone listings are really the only ones that
will come close to finding you when your customer or prospect goes
looking. The problem with most of them is getting your customer to find
the search engines and use them.
About the only search engine
that might find you reliably today is the business listings from your
telephone company - the "Yellow Pages" listings. Of course you'll pay a
tremendous amount for the privilege of being listed there with any
priority - as much as several thousand dollars per year for what will
turn out to be a 3-5 line listing and a pointer to your web site. In
addition, the phone companies don't make it all that easy to use their
services - they're still trying to justify the even more exorbitant rates
they charge for the printed pages.
So you need to drive customers
and prospects to your site yourself
You can do this in a number of
ways, but all of them rely on your other advertising and marketing media.
Include your web address (your URL) in everything you can; business
cards, point of sale, cash register tapes, stamped on sales literature,
warrantee cards, price stickers (if it will fit) promotional coupons,
flyers (lots of places, not just the front page), print advertising,
radio and TV, and of course your Yellow Pages listing if you have one.
You also need to give people a
reason to go to your web site, and a reason to let you know they have
been there. Your physical advertising might include not only information
about products you sell or that are on sale, but also such things as
coupons so you can gauge their effectiveness (and entice customers too)
so why not do the same thing with the web?
You can either make something on
one of your pages look like a coupon and get your customers to print it
and bring it with them, or use a "virtual" coupon by telling the viewer
of the page to simply mention that they have been to the site in order to
get a discount or special offer.
Watch out for fraud with printed coupons.
It is possible for
someone to manipulate the contents of a web page (change the discount
from 5% to 10% for example) before they print it. Include on your page
somewhere the stipulation that any such manipulation will void the
offer and then make sure you have sample print-outs of any such
coupons in the store for your staff to compare.
Use your web site to extend the amount of data
your other advertising pieces can refer to
If you normally put the text of offer limitations
or details in your ad, your local jurisdiction may allow you to refer
instead to details on a web page. Check with your government consumer
affairs department for regulations in this area.
You might also put pictures of items on your web
site and refer to them in an ad with specific URLs pointing directly to
the relevant pages. Keep the address as simple as you can in such cases.
Either reserve a page for all such references or put them all in a
separate sub-directory and give them unique names for each offer/flyer.
Of course you can also refer to general pages on
your site in any of your other media.
Using the Internet to Retain Local Customers For
Location Based Business
You should already know that retaining your
customer base is far more cost effective than attracting new customers.
The problem is that the only part of the Internet that cat "reach out and
touch" someone is E-mail and today's attitude towards it is a wary one.
A balance must be struck between keeping in front of the customer and
In retaining (or
attracting) customers there is not a direct parallel between the use of
physical mail or flyers delivered to the customer's door and e-mail
delivered into their computer mail box, despite the obvious similarities.
The above is in red because it is something you
must understand and take into consideration before you use E-mail for
anything to do with business.
The rule today for the use of E-mail for soliciting
customers is really quite straight forward - DON'T!
This means don't send out unsolicited e-mail to
anyone for any reason having directly to do with trying to get them as
customers of your business. This above rule has been crystallizing over
the past several years as the negative attitude towards
spam (unsolicited commercial e-mail) has
developed in response to its abuse by drug and pornography vendors. You
don't want to get caught up in this controversy and the negative response
you'll get from the vast majority of recipients.
The difference between "junk" snail-mail and
flyers vs. spam can be traced to the differences in both the regulations
and the economics
- There is a large difference in the cost/benefit
- Physical mail and flyers cost the sender, and
therefore have a financial incentive to be at least moderately effective
in garnering customers
E-mail spam costs the sender almost nothing and therefore there is
little incentive to be selective in its distribution - so we all get a
lot of it even though only a very small number actually respond to it
(there are always stupid, gullible people)
- There is a large difference (today) in the
regulations and enforcement of them
- Physical mail and flyers are seen by many people
prior to their delivery to your door or mail box. The printer, the
mailman, the delivery person, the newspaper publisher (if a flyer
insert) all have policies regarding what they will allow - and typically
pornography and obvious fraud and scams are not usually allowed. There
is no way for large-scale senders of junk mail to be anonymous.
In addition, many countries have special laws regarding fraud and
pornography via the mail specifically.
In general, only the sender and the recipient of E-mail actually get to
see the contents. This lack of vetting by outside agencies and
individuals means there are effectively no bars to content. There are
many ways for the sender to obfuscate the true origin of an e-mail to
thwart repercussions. Spam may easily be sent from one country and
delivered in another such that there are jurisdictional disputes and
This means that while junk physical mail is
considered somewhat of an annoyance, it does not come close to the
derision that spam e-mail attracts.
So how do I use the Internet
to keep my customers then?
The only way to use the Internet via E-mail to keep
in touch with your customers is with what is called an opt-in e-mail
strategy. You must get your customer's permission to send them
information and then not abuse that permission to the point where they
want to opt-out.
There are a number of Internet E-mail list services
that will host a list of your customers' e-mail addresses for you and
provide you with the tools and techniques to ensure that you don't abuse
the customer's trust in you. They generally offer you a web URL for your
particular mail list that allows the customer to sign themselves up for
the list. In addition, each mail-out you send will contain the
information on how the recipient can remove themselves from the list if
they wish. You'll pay some price for this type of list-service, usually
based on the size of the list and the number of mail-outs you send.
Getting your customers to agree to be put on your
list is an exercise in marketing. You have to give them some reason to
allow you to send them things. This is probably a new experience for you
if you don't use the Internet much yourself.
How do I get my customers to agree to let me send
In essence, you have to give them something of
enough value to them that they will take the time to receive and read
your postings. Just sending them notice of the latest sale prices on
something is not generally enough; you have to go something better -
sometimes not a lot better, but most times at least a little better.
You must balance your e-mail postings with several
Do not engage in sending out a regular
(daily, weekly, monthly) posting if you are not going to spend the time
making it worth your customers' time to read it!
Do not send out monthly postings to a
customer base that only needs your services annually - match your
postings to your expectation of their needs and wants.
Do not send out information via e-mail
exclusively and expect all your customers to read and/or respond to it.
On the other hand:
Do send out timely tips and information -
seasonal notices (furnace burner adjustment time, reminder to turn off
outside taps in Winter, etc.)
Do send out useful information about the
areas your business specializes in, even if not product specific - tips
and techniques, interesting stories, answers to questions you've had in
your store, etc.
Do personalize your information and invite
comment. You might suggest times when your store is not busy and you
would be willing to discuss a subject or answer questions.
Once you have given your customers a reason to
receive your mailings, you can use the fact that they are reading it to
do some judicious advertising, either by including specific product
and/or service offerings or by directing them to your web site for more
information. Over time and with practice you will discover how much
selling you can do in your particular area compared to how much
interesting information you must provide.
One final note. Unless you are going to ensure that
you will answer it in a timely and reasonable fashion, you probably
should not solicit return e-mail with things like questions. You should
get your customers to come into your premises for such discussions if
With simple, basic information in your web site,
pointed to by your other advertising and marketing media, and possibly a
well managed e-mail campaign, you should find the use of the Internet in
attracting and retaining customers to be very cost effective for your
location based business.
Richard Pitt is a Canadian Internet pioneer, having been
the CEO of Wimsey.COM, the first commercial ISP in Canada. Today he is
one of Bannerline's associates and deals in all aspects of business and
The "Digital Rag Too" is the latest iteration of the Digital Rag,
Canada's first Webzine, published by Wimsey.
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