Last Updated: Aug 22, 2018
What internet strategies and tools work for small businesses? How can your business use the Web to succeed, instead of being threatened by it? Read tips from 7 small business owners who use the Internet successfully to build sales, manage and grow their businesses.
There’s no denying the impact the Internet has had on small business. Over the last decade or so, the Internet has touched just about every aspect of starting and managing businesses. It’s changed how and where customers shop, which in turn has changed what small businesses need to do to get found by customers and to make sales.
It’s also been responsible for the creation of many small businesses that wouldn’t exist without the Internet, and it’s changed how some small businesses conduct the day-to-day operations of their businesses, too.
Although many businesses that have benefited greatly from this digital transformation, some small companies and micro-sized businesses feel threatened by the Internet, and don’t yet understand how to use it to benefit their business.
To help, we’ve asked a number of small business owners to talk about the Internet strategies and tools they are using successfully in their own businesses. Here are their comments. Consider how you might adapt some of the same strategies or tools in your business.
That’s what Jaffer Ali has done repeatedly in his business, PulseTV. Ali, along with his sister and a cousin, cofounded PulseTV as a TV infomercial business in 1996. The company sold popular DVDs such as Riverdance, Lord of the Dance, Honeymooners Lost Episodes and Stomp Out Loud. But then Amazon and other nascent DotCom companies emerged and spent huge sums of money advertising on TV and in other media, driving advertising costs sky high.
“Media rates tripled in 18 months,” Ali recalls. Not willing to let rising advertising prices kill his business, Ali faced the challenge head on. He and his cofounders launched PulseTV.com in 1998. “We moved all of our marketing and sales online and have not looked back since,” he explains.
Initially, PulseTV.com sold the same kind of DVDs Ali had been selling through infomercials. But, that soon became a challenge, too. “As video became a digital commodity, the company started selling hard goods,” he explains. Today it sells a variety impulse items at significant discounts. The products range from close outs to “As Seen On TV” products. Each item is described in detail on the site, and orders are shipped from PulseTV’s own warehouse in Tinley Park, IL to ensure dependable delivery.
Setting up a website doesn’t, by itself, bring in customers, and online advertising has always been somewhat costly for companies selling low-priced goods. To solve that problem, Ali created marketing partnerships with online portals to drive traffic to PulseTV.com. He also promoted the PulseTV site to subscribers of newsletters at GopherCentral.com, an ezine site he has owned for many years.
In 2007, the company added a feature that took the business to another level. PulseTV started sending a daily deal to its email list subscribers. They also created marketing partnerships with other infomercial marketers and private labeled a daily deal to their buyers, as well. The daily deals have resulted in the company growing their mailing list from 35,000 in 2007 to 5.2 million subscribers today. The 5.2 million emails that the company sends out a day are broken down into separate mailings for each of their partners. “Each partner’s list receives a daily deal,” Ali explains, “but not necessarily the same deal as everyone else on the same day.”
The second big leap that PulseTV made was to set up an inhouse video studio in 2011 to create videos for their deal of the day. People on their daily email lists are sent to the specific landing page of the product, and that page has an embedded video. The company also uploads their videos to YouTube. The “show & tell” videos resulted in a 50% increase in conversions.
Setting up the studio wasn’t a huge expense, either. The studio itself cost only $2000. The people who appear in the videos are PulseTV employees.
“All of our ‘talent’ are our in-house product buyers,” Ali says. “We do not use a script. It is similar to a QVC vignette. They prepare talking points and just ‘wing it.’ They are natural, authentic and really know the products. We have three different people that learned to shoot videos and edit them.“
Andrew Becks is COO and co-founder of 301 Digital Media, a Nashville, TN-based digital marketing agency. His company, and the entire digital marketing industry, wouldn’t exist without the Internet. The agency, which was founded in 2014, has 11 full-time employees.
Becks finds that one of the most beneficial aspects of the Internet is the ability to target advertising, and one of the best tools to accomplish that targeting for his clients is Facebook. “Facebook’s advertising platform is a powerful marketing platform for nearly any type of business, he says.”
One problem Facebook allowed the company to solve was that one client’s marketing efforts were often reaching both existing and prospective customers. “That meant they were delivering the same message to two distinct different audiences, which didn’t always make sense,” he explains.
“With Facebook’s marketing and ad measurement tools, coupled with first-party CRM data, we were able to leverage data about existing customers to build audiences of existing customers, so we could deliver distinct marketing messages to known customers for ongoing engagement and awareness, and separate messaging to new and prospective customers using different messaging.”
The new customer marketing efforts 301 Digital Media implemented to allow the client to reach new customers was built on a strategy of suppressing known existing customers and leveraging lookalike models of existing customers. The efforts, Becks says, resulted in a ~21% reduction in cost per new user/customer acquired.
For businesses with multiple clients, one of the key secrets to success is being highly organized. Clients, projects, employees’ assignments and deadlines all have to be managed so that everything gets done on time and nothing falls through the cracks.
“Organization (or lack of it) can make or break any business,” says Veronica Romney, cofounder and president of LoSoMo, a digital agency specializing in location-based marketing services, servicing clients all across the country. The daughter of Cuban immigrants, Romney had watched her parents work hard every day to “make their American dream come true” in their own business. Their efforts inspired her to launch her business with her husband, Scott, in 2014.
To stay organized, Romney uses Asana to keep client projects and teams on track, and says that it was “instrumental in LoSoMo’s growth.”
She sets up projects on Asana, and within each project can set up a task dashboard, subtasks, and more. “With a couple clicks, I can link the necessary employees to a task or project, put a deadline on it, and add it to my google calendar,” she explains. “I can also converse with my employees about the tasks or projects, or add links in the tasks.”
The projects are linked to a client database on Asana. “Having a database of clients and a task list together with all employees has streamlined our marketing process and allowed us to get necessary content out faster than ever. Employees know what their tasks of the day are as soon as they log in, with all the necessary links and pictures in the task itself. It takes to do lists to the next level for businesses,” Romney says.
Getting paid on time is important to all businesses, but it can be a particular concern to businesses whose customers are located in another country than their own.
Trevor Textor is the owner of Textor Corp, a Canadian company that provides project management, consulting and other services to business. Two of his clients are located in the United States. “International payments have been a sore point,” he says. “Checks (we say ‘Cheques’) from the USA take 30 days to clear in Canada, and the bank takes a 2-3% commission on converting to Canadian dollars (CAD).”
Textor looked at various alternatives to getting paid by his US customers. He looked at Paypal, but found that the costs might be higher than his bank. He ultimately chose two services to work with: Veem and Transferwise, reducing the fees he was paying to convert the money into Canadian dollars to under 1%. With transfers done through the internet, money clears in 2 to 3 days, and Textor is “saving thousands of dollars a year” in fees.
Ravi Sharma, Co-Founder & CEO at Webomaze Technologies, a web development and technology company based in India, used Fiverr as his “first source of income to start my entrepreneurial journey.” He worked alone for several years, but by 2014 had generated enough income to be able to start an agency and take his business to another level.
Sharma found that although he had to pay a fee to Fiverr, “if I compare it with advertisements costs for client acquisition, it is low. A bid on Adwords costs somewhere around $15-$35 per click,” he explains. “Also, at Fiverr a fee is deducted from the payment received from the buyer. I don’t have to pay upfront like in ads.”
Today, the company uses multiple sales channels to bring in business including email marketing, cold calling, and various freelance platforms. “We also get a huge amount of business from referrals,” Sharma says.
Search engine optimization (SEO) is a mystery to many small business owners. They assume it’s too difficult or technical to learn, so they ignore it, or assume that whoever sets up their website will “take care” of SEO and do it properly for them. In either case, their site may not get found in organic (ie, free) search results.
In reality, though, SEO isn’t all that difficult to learn. You don’t need to be a programmer or have a technical background to learn how to use it on your site.
Jess Perna is a custom illustrator who creates hand drawn digital art, charcoals, fine art oils, watercolors, markers and pencil drawings. Based in Nevada, he has been drawing and painting since he was five years old and received his first commission for a magazine cover at age 11.
He says that understanding SEO has been helping his website, JessPerna.com, get found in Google for many years. It’s also helped him save thousands of dollars in advertising expense.
“There are no tricks with SEO,” Perna says. “The way to learn it is to read a variety of materials and also just ask Google. They have videos and pages of information.”
[Editor’s note: Google offers a beginner’s guide to SEO here.]
“The main idea behind it is honesty,” Perna explains. “Make sure your titles and descriptions state what is on the page. Then make sure every word in the title and description shows up on the page to which they refer. Write alternative text for every image and keep it to seven words or less. Alternative text is how vision-impaired users know what is in an image.”
If you’re ready to move beyond basic SEO, there are any number of tools and services that can help.
Joe Goldstein is Director of SEO and operations at Contractor Calls, a web design, SEO, and digital marketing agency specializing in contractor and home service industries. Goldstein uses one of the most popular SEO tools, AHrefs to gain insights for the company’s website and for their client work.
“The Ahrefs backlink checker has consistently surprised us with new features and uses,” he says, “and it just keeps getting better. Today, we use Ahrefs for:
The strategies used by the businesses in this article are just a tiny sample of the ways small businesses are using the Internet successfully in their businesses. For more ideas, be sure to check out the articles in the Internet and the Marketing sections of BusinessKnowHow.com.
About the author:
Janet Attard is the founder of the award-winning Business Know-How small business web site and information resource. Janet is also the author of The Home Office And Small Business Answer Book and of Business Know-How: An Operational Guide For Home-Based and Micro-Sized Businesses with Limited Budgets. Follow Janet on Twitter and on LinkedIn