Moving your business from an idea to a full-on way of making a living can be a constant learning process. While you’re geared up to take in all those dozens of calls you’re expecting, you may find that the saying, “build it, and he will come” isn’t quite a strategy that works in modern business life. Especially not in a market saturated with offers from a cyber-connected world.
Of course, the Internet is the way to go as far as marketing is concerned these days. And while you may not have the capacity or budget for all the things you could do to market your business online, you can start with a little.
In this article, we’ll give you the four most foundational web marketing strategies to apply in your first year of business. Focus on these tips to start, then build up your digital presence from there.
1) Choose a unique name for your brand, then secure it as your online identity
Your name will probably be one of your biggest, brainstorming head-scratchers at the start of your business. If you’re going to do any online marketing, eventually, your business name will need to translate to a domain name and social media usernames.
Protecting your name is going to be just as important as deciding on the right one to use. So, before you decide on a business name, check to see if anyone else is using it already, or something like it, for their business name, domain or social media handle.
When you go to register your business as a legal entity, you may get some refusals from the governing body that allows certain business names to be used in your area. Here are the Canadian rules for naming a business, to give one example. And here is a formula from the B.C. Provincial Government for naming a business.
There is some protection in these rules. They force specific names to ensure a business is distinct enough to allow for competition. On the flip side, they prevent competitors from encroaching on a brand someone else has built up.
Legalities aside, the more important thing is that you benefit from your company name in the long run. When it comes to web marketing, the need to be unique goes beyond your local business registration requirements.
The Internet runs on a world-wide scale, and for that reason, recognizable, easy-to-remember names can be harder to come by these days when you're starting to build an online presence. This is because someone else may be using your name already, whether or not they are operating in your governmental jurisdiction.
For those who require a refresher, your domain name or the 'address' that your website will 'live' on when users
Not all companies use their operating name in their domain name or social media URLs. This can be for various reasons. However, usually, it’s because the full company name is too long to be practical for typing out, or the name is already taken. For example, compare these two made-up domains:
The latter is much easier to remember, not to mention quicker to type into a browser bar.
But, something like “soap.ca” is very likely already registered (just checked - it forwards to amazon.com, so yes, it’s taken!).
So even if you can’t get the exact wording you want, getting a domain name and social media URLs close to your business name can help. And, keeping them as consistent as possible will make it easier for customers to find you on different platforms, simply because the online identity will be easier to remember.
How do you find and secure an online name that isn’t already taken?
Do a domain name search
Before you pick a business name, check to see if there is a domain available for it. Preferably, find out if it is available in various domain extensions (gTLDs). For example, you’ll want a .ca domain if you’re in Canada, especially if you're targeting Canadian customers, in addition to the .com if it's still available. Besides the classic domains we are all familiar with, there are many, many more to choose from - from country codes to organization types and industry-specific extensions.
Even if you don’t end up hosting your website with all of these domains, you’ll want to secure the primary ones to ensure no one else lays claim to them later. You don’t want to spend time and money on a legal battle about trademarks and name ownership. This will be especially disheartening when you find out someone is using your name, which you could have easily (and cheaply) prevented.
If you already own a trademark, you’ll also want to set up further protections from ‘domain squatters.’ This is always a threat, since new domain extensions are constantly released. Read more about these protections here.
If you’re ‘on the fence’ about a few business name options, remember: it’s usually inexpensive to register multiple ideas as domain names. You can keep them for a year, until you decide if you want to use them or not. This can be a ‘safety net’ in case you lose the opportunity to register those domain names before someone else snatches them up.
If you buy a used domain name, make sure it doesn’t have bad history
Sometimes, you can buy a domain name from a person who owns it, rather than from a registrar, like Webnames.ca. These are usually referred to as “aftermarket domains.”
The web has been around a long time now, so domain names, like businesses, can come and go. Not all available domains were dormant and waiting to be sold before you searched for them. Even if you’re not buying a domain from another existing owner, remember that an unregistered (i.e., available) domain may have been used by companies in the past. For one reason or another, the former owners simply stopped renewing for them, enabling them to be registered anew - by anyone - through a domain registrar.
If the former owner of a domain used ‘black hat’ search engine optimization (SEO) tactics on it, or was affiliated with some shady business practices in the past, you won’t want to take on their bad name. This can mean your domain - which is part of your brand identity - can be listed around the web incorrectly, or worse, associated with spam, negative comments and inappropriate content.
Domains that have a bad rep with search engines will be harder to ‘clean up’ for SEO efforts. In those cases, you’ll have to decide how much you love your domain name to make it worth all the trouble, time and money to renew its perception - both to search engines and to customers. This is moreso the case if you’re planning on paying a hefty price for an aftermarket domain. Always do your research before paying more than a registrar’s fee for any domain name - no matter how catchy-sounding or memorable it seems.
Set up available social media usernames
The other place to see if your name is being used already is on social media websites. Try tools like namechk.com to find a consistent username across all the social media platforms you want to be on - either now or in the future.
To secure your usernames, go ahead and set up accounts on these social media platforms. Even if you’re not ready to use them yet, you’ll want to acquire ownership of those usernames, @handles and custom URLs before anyone else does. You’ll be a step ahead when you’re ready to implement social media marketing strategies.
But...we’ll also say this: don’t be a squatter. You don’t like it when people take up all the good usernames you could have used, so don’t be that person either. If it’s not related to you, or your business name, don’t keep it as a social media account. It’s a waste of time, and doesn’t help the wider purpose of what these platforms are about.
2) Focus on your content; it’s everything when it comes to digital marketing
It may sound like a tall claim to make, but everything you do online is going to come down to your content. The way you present your company, the way you attract visitors to your website and even the types of photos you post on social media will all have an impact on your brand’s identity. And in some ways, its visibility.
You may have expected that after registering a domain name, the next piece of advice would be to design a website. You could go that route, if you just can’t resist the ‘fun’ part. However, you may find it easier, cheaper and more profitable in the long run if you work on your content first. Here is why:
Good content will make your web design better
When you really take the time to succinctly, and explicitly, express what your company sells, plus why your customers should care, you start to form your brand identity. Brand identity is what designers attempt to communicate when they formulate your logo, website, social media banners, business cards, and letterheads. Except they do this with visuals, not words.
Before you hire a designer, you should be able to answer questions like, “what makes my product or service unique?” or, “who is my ideal customer?” and “why should my customers pick me over the competition?”
Even when you can answer the questions above, you’re still not ready for a website design. First, you need to write out what you want your web pages to say to your site visitors. What information do you need to present to keep them ‘hooked’? How will you organize your content so they can find what they came for?
A website design is not based on graphics and imagery; it’s based on content.
You can have the fanciest design on the planet, and spend all your savings on it; it won’t do diddly for you if it’s got little or no words on it.
Good content is what converts website visitors into customers
How do you go from “diddly” (noted above), to a booming, money-making website? It starts with content (of course).
Content is how people come to learn about your products and services, and why they should spend their hard-earned money on them.
Content can come in many forms: written text, photos, videos, etc. At some point, you’ll benefit from using all of them. But starting with text is a great way to go since it can be the most search-engine friendly.
Don’t fall for the myth that short content is better. You might feel that no one wants to read your text. That is not true. The more vague you are, the less people will understand what you’re trying to sell them. Your website might be the only ‘salesperson’ working to sell your product or service - especially when you’re not around to do it yourself. Why attract people to your flashy new website, and then have nothing to say except, “welcome to my company. Here is some soap to look at”? Of course, not every human who visits your website will want to read every last word you’ve written. But that does not mean you shouldn’t write it. Most people will want to read something. And, everyone can have a slightly different set of questions. So, answer them all to the best of your ability. If that sounds overwhelming, start by covering the basics, then build from there.
Remember, your job is not just to provide information plentifully, but to make that information easy-to-find on your website (that’s where good design comes in).
Don’t lose a potential customer because they couldn’t find the answer to their question; if they can’t get it from you, they’ll go somewhere else to find it. Keep them on your site!
What kind of content do I produce for my digital marketing?
Below are some of the basic pieces of writing you should have ready-to-go for your website, before you even start thinking about what it will look like:
- Homepage text, to introduce website visitors to your company. It should also ask them to do something (i.e. a “Call To Action,” abbreviated as a “CTA” in the online marketing industry). This can be revised as you work with your designer.
- An “About” page, including information about you and your core team.
- A cornerstone-style “Products” or “Services” page, briefly introducing your offerings.
- A comprehensive, not-duplicated, description of each product or service you offer. This is for publishing on individual pages (and then being linked to from your cornerstone page).
- An FAQ page.
- A social media write up that will introduce you to other users on multiple, external platforms (make sure this is differently worded than what is on your website)
After you’ve graduated from the above, you can start working on your regular blog articles. Blogging, and its benefits can be a ‘beast’ of a subject to get into. For now, all you need to know is that you’ll probably need to do it eventually, and when you do, focus on giving good, unbiased advice that is genuinely helpful to your audience. And, if you are stuck for topics to write about, think wider than your core business or industry. Choose topics your customers want to learn about before and after they buy your product.
Good content helps search engines rank your site
The other case for writing good, useful and plentiful content is for the sake of being search-engine friendly. Search engines need to understand your website somehow, and text is one of the main ways they do this.
While we could go by the idiom, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” we have to remember that search engines are not humans; they’re robots. It’s hard (not impossible) for a computer to understand the meaning in a photo, beyond its pixels and binary technical details (we’re not going to delve into image search, facial recognition or artificial intelligence today…).
But, these days, search engines understand text rather easily. They can also understand context in text. So you don’t even have to write with the same keyword over and over again to get found for search queries. Just focus on writing useful, descriptive, plentiful content. Inevitably, you’ll use keywords, if you’re describing your products and services well.
Content is what gets shared on social media
Content is what people share online, and how ‘word of mouth marketing’ happens nowadays. It’s unlikely people will share your sales pages to their Facebook friends. But they’ll probably share your other content - blog articles, photos, videos - if they find them useful and interesting.
3) Set up a website and buy a good hosting plan
After you’ve written your content, you’re ready to set up your company website. If you have the budget, it may be wise to hire a professional to do this. You’ll get the most quality for your dollar, you’ll save time and your site will more likely be set up ‘the right way’ from the start. But, that’s not an option for every new business owner. And that’s ok.
Using a DIY website builder
You could use a do-it-yourself (DIY) website builder service like WordPress.com, or one of the countless others that have come to market in recent years. Sometimes, hosting providers (like us!) offer website builders as part of their packaged plans. You can opt to use them or not - but they’re available if you want them. However, keep in mind, you may eventually outgrow these startup-style services.
DIY website builders can be great for initial setups. If you sign up for them, be fully aware that - as with any DIY method you’re not professionally trained in - the website will be a temporary, inexpensive way to get your digital marketing up but unlikely to serve you for the long haul.
That said, it's possible to use these platforms for permanent, robust, strategized solutions. In these cases, however, they tend to be built by a professional who is an expert in the platform, and can help with the technical intricacies as well as implement the various features you'll need as your business matures.
Hiring professional web design and development services
You might decide that making your own website is not for you. If you’re ready to pay for professional website design and development services, you’ll want to shop around for providers and solutions. There are many, many ways to make a website, and a ‘sea’ of providers who sell these services.
A huge portion of the web is powered by an open-source, free content management system called WordPress. It is like WordPress.com mentioned above, but it is made to be downloaded and self-hosted. That means you buy your hosting plan separately from your website. This way, you can control both parts for more flexibility and advanced uses. While it’s free to download, the part that is not free is the time for a web designer and developer to customize a WordPress website for you, plus the hosting costs.
When you shop for a web developer or designer to build your website, you'll want to insist that they use a content management system - whether or not it is WordPress. This will allow you to make updates to your website without knowing how to code - similarly to the DIY website services noted above.
Buying a hosting plan to publish your website
When it comes time to publish your website for the world to view, you will need a web hosting plan. Many experienced webmasters will tell you that a good quality host goes a long way; you really get what you pay for in this arena. So-called ‘cheap’ hosts can seem attractive because of their low price points. But they usually always come with several issues, which you can read about here.
Whether you’re using a hosted, DIY platform to create a website, or you’re planning on self-hosting your custom website, you will likely need to augment it with some important additions. They are:
The need for an SSL certificate goes even if you do not use e-commerce, or knowingly collect data on your website. These days, an SSL certificate is needed for good SEO and for validating your business identity online. Either way, get an SSL certificate that is appropriate for your website’s use-case.
Backup software and storage
A backup plan is essential for a website. It is like insurance for your website. Websites can get hacked, or a simple mistake on your part can cause them to go ‘wonky’ and stop functioning properly. If you’re using plugins on a content management system like WordPress, you may also run into problems while updating your site software (which is necessary for security and maintenance).
When things go wrong, you don’t want to be left panicking, trying to put your site back online, which could take days, if not longer. A simple backup and restore system will make this process a breeze for you.
If your hosting provider doesn’t offer a backup service, and a place to store those backups, you’ll need to find one through another provider. WordPress users, for example, can use popular services like VaultPress.com or BackupBuddy.
Sufficient disk space and bandwidth
Your website will need data allocation on a physical server. It will also need the resources to handle all the visitors who view your site’s pages. Together, we call these essentials “disk space” and “bandwidth.”
If you’re not sure how much bandwidth and disk space you need, a hosting provider should be able to help guide you through this. If you’re expecting a lot of visitors, or plan on publishing large files (like high-megapixel photos or videos), you can expect your hosting costs to go up substantially.
A quality server location
The location of the server where your website ‘lives’ online can impact you more than you think. The reasons why are explained extensively in this article. In short, the right server location can mean faster load times for your site visitors, and better privacy for your business.
Many hosting plans come with email hosting included in their packages. However, some businesses opt for hosting their email separately from their website. It will be up to you to do a cost comparison and decide on which email hosting solution will payoff best for your organization in terms of features, security and flexibility.
A reputable host will have most of the above available to you, in one form or another (or they’ll guide you to recommended third-party services). They’ll also have other features you may need. In the end, you should pick a plan that meets your business requirements; there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution when it comes to hosting. But, like we mentioned above, don’t skimp on hosting fees - you might end up realizing your losses when you least need an extra problem on your hands.
4) List your business online to help customers find you
Finally, a last bit of ‘beginner’ advice: don’t forget to list your business online. You could do this step before you build a website. But, having a website will make your online business listings much more valuable. Instead of just providing your phone number and address, you can direct potential customers to your own domain. Once there, you can really sell them on your product or service with all that content we talked about earlier!
Business listings can be called “citations” by those who practice local SEO. These are essentially inclusions of your business on web directories, with a consistent name, address and phone number. So yes, this comes full circle to tip #1 above: the importance of picking your company name. You will need to decide once and for all if you are going to be “My Candles Ltd.,” “My Candle Business” or “My Candles” (examples, obviously).
Also along the lines of consistency, keep in mind you’ll be better off creating citations when you’ve established your permanent business address and phone number. If you’re currently transitioning, or have something temporary set up, remember you’ll need to correct your information on all these directories later on.
Where do you list your business online? Start with the free, ‘big ones’ like:
- Google My Business (to help you show up on the map search results)
- Bing Places
- Apple Maps
- Yelp.ca (or .com, or other local division)
- LinkedIn Company Pages
- Facebook Business Pages
And others, listed here: https://whitespark.ca/top-local-citation-sources-by-country/
But remember, don’t go overboard. Not all directories are valuable to be in, especially if they can be considered spammy, low-quality websites (whether free or not). Usually, if there is a verification process involved, that is a good sign the directory is worth being listed in.
This is also the time to pull out that social media write up we mentioned above. You can use that to briefly describe your business in the appropriate spots available on these directory websites. Some platforms will give you more space than others to write about things like your company history, mission, products, services, people and so on. They’ll also give you opportunities to post photographs and design graphics, like your logo. So again, this is why you’ll want your content ready-to-go at the outset.
Many of these web directories come with a feature that can scare some business owners away from using them: the ability for customers to leave reviews. While bad reviews are certainly to be feared, and terrible for a business’ reputation, there are ways you can handle them. That is, if you get them at all (usually everyone does, so don’t fret it too much).
But the best ‘remedy’ is prevention: be sure you are always encouraging reviews from your real, happy customers (using ethics guidelines published by each directory).
You won’t be able to stop bad reviews of your business, even if you don’t list yourself online. Any random person can list you on many of these sites, and then leave a bad review regardless. So, it’s better to be there, having the ability to directly respond to negative comments (with eloquence and class, of course!).
Get your web marketing basics covered, and the rest will follow
To conclude, we can see that web marketing is something you do for the ‘long game.’ It will be intense, and it can take a lot of time when doing it yourself. Even when you hire help in this arena, as a business owner, you always need to be available for collaboration and direction.
However, the hardest part might be getting set up. Climb this ‘mountain,’ and you’ll be on your way to better and better web marketing strategies that will really ‘up your game.’ When you’ve advanced to that point, you’ll start to realize the real payoff of your initial efforts. But, your digital presence has to start somewhere. So, you might as well do what you can to get it off to a good start in your first year of business.