How to stand out in online marketing

Here’s a piece on online marketing from Allison Bruce of the Ventura County Star in California.

The siren’s song of online marketing isn’t just for those seeking to promote their businesses, it also lures starry-eyed entrepreneurs convinced they can create the next Facebook or Yelp.

After all, Facebook has an estimated 750 million regular users, according to TechCrunch. The social networking site is estimated to reach $2.19 billion this year in U.S. display ad revenue alone, according to estimates by eMarketer.

What results, however, is a lot of sites clamoring for attention, which can be a challenge for businesses and for companies launching new sites.

Bob Khanpour started because he wanted to create an online business directory and deal site for small- and medium-sized businesses.

For small business owners, it’s important to have a way to market their products or services that is affordable, he said. Khanpour has tried to set Hubzi apart by offering to ease the workload of small business owners who can, for a fee, upgrade from a free listing to one where Hubzi promotes and publicizes a business, honing the profile so it is more easily found online.

Khanpour said a lot of business owners don’t do a good job presenting their business or services. That’s where he sees the niche.

“There are millions and millions of companies that have pages, networks,” he said. “You have to market your profile.”

Of course, the noise is part of the challenge for business owners choosing which sites to use.

“There is a lot of clutter for the small business figuring out how to use these various specialized sites,” said Paul Witman, assistant business professor specializing in information technology management at California Lutheran University.

Businesses have to weigh the time commitment that comes from maintaining certain sites, Witman said. After all, if they create a profile on a site and then ignore it, it can actually do more harm than good for their business, showing they either don’t understand how social networking works or aren’t responsive to customers, he said.

Small businesses are starting to use social media increasingly, with 73 percent reporting they use social media to market their business in Constant Contact’s Spring 2011 Attitudes and Outlook Survey. Of those not using social media marketing, 62 percent said they expect to start during the coming year; 81 percent of those using it plan to increase their use this year.

Those kinds of statistics and the fervor over deals site Groupon was what drove Ben Hale and his partner to create GnarlyBuys. The pair had tried out Groupon, and while they liked the prospect of receiving discounts on purchases, they thought they could create a site that would better serve a younger, hipper crowd with new experiences and fun deals, Hale said.

A lot of “me-too” sites crop up in an attempt to capitalize on the drive of businesses to the web because of the relatively low startup costs, Witman said.
Witman said a successful site has to have a critical mass of users, which means sites are usually free, as well as providers or content or sellers. That means spending a lot of effort building relationships with the small business community, he said.

Khanpour acknowledges the challenge to as everyone launches sites trying to become the next Groupon or LinkedIn. There are a lot of sites that offer business listings, including the big guys such as Craigslist or eBay.

“But typically the focus of those sites (is) not on small businesses or products or services,” he said. “They target everybody in the world … It’s usually very hard for consumers to find what they need.”

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