While some in the search marketing industry debate the linkability of even the most unsexy Web sites—and by “unsexy”, they often mean “small business”—there’s an important element missing from the discussion: return on investment.
The Investment: No one debates that an investment is required; viral marketing through social media demands a big chunk of your time, your money, or both. But we’ve already established, in What’s So Different About Being Small?, that time and money are two things many small businesses have in short supply.
The Return: No one debates that there are legitimate returns from social media marketing. These returns often come in the form of a short burst of traffic and/or an increase in links. That can improve your search engine visibility, but small businesses, in particular, still have to ask: Is the return greater than the investment of time and money?
For what it’s worth, I agree that nearly every business, big or small, unsexy or not, can come up with something that’s unique and linkworthy—something that will play well on Digg, YouTube, or whichever social media site offers the best audience fit. I also think it’s imperative that small businesses use social media marketing in order to decrease their reliance on traffic from one or two search engines; you have to diversify to survive.
With that in mind, here are seven ways small businesses can jump on the social marketing bandwagon with a moderate investment of time and/or money.
1a. Start a blog. Blogging is old news to many (Web 1.5, perhaps?), and it’s certainly not as sexy as chasing a link from the front page of Digg. But it’s still a great way to open up a dialogue with your customers, and that connection is the reason social marketing exists. WordPress is free, open source software—so the price is right. The time investment is completely up to you, but this truism applies: The more you put into it, the more you’ll get out. Still, it’s okay—and I’d even say it’s recommended—to start slowly and increase your time investment as you get comfortable with using a blog.
1b. Comment on other blogs. You can’t blog into a vacuum. Blogging is about creating and joining conversations, and that includes reading what others in your industry are saying and joining the discussion on other blogs. It’s free, and again, the time investment is up to you. You’ll be able to supply your name and URL when leaving a comment, and there’s no debate that intelligent comments on other blogs helps build traffic to yours.
2. Get active at Yahoo Answers. If you’re a service-based small business, you already know that your expertise is your No. 1 marketing tool. Yahoo Answers is a great way to share your knowledge with people who are looking for it—a direct connection with potential customers. I spend about 1-2 hours a week answering SEO and marketing questions there, and that small investment of time never fails to bring more traffic to my blog. Never. (It helps that I have a blog to refer people wanting more information, so don’t skip #1 above.)
3. Make and share videos. Good video cameras are cheap these days, and a short video needs little editing/production. Even if you do decide to add some sizzle to a video, the required software won’t break the bank. How-to videos are an obvious choice. “Tour” videos—tours of your business, restaurant, the homes you build or sell, etc. are also a good idea. In addition to using them on your own Web site or blog, YouTube is an obvious sharing destination. Local search is also embracing video: CitySearch recently announced that local video ads will be added to its listings, and YellowPages.com is also pursuing video opportunities.
4. Take and share photos. I’m a longtime believer in using Flickr as a marketing tool. The time and cost investment is minimal. And thanks to Flickr’s incredibly active photo groups, you can share photos of your products with people who are interested. A pet store owner could share photos with the 2,000+ members of the pet parade group, which is one of dozens of animal-related groups. A company that makes iPod accessories could post nice product photos in the Apple group, with its ~2400 members. And a construction company that makes custom homes could post photos in the appropriate city group, like San Francisco or Chicago. For more on this, I invite you to read How to Market on Flickr on my blog.
5. Try StumbleUpon. Of all the discovery-type of social sites (Digg, Reddit, Netscape, etc.), I believe StumbleUpon requires the lowest time investment. Joining groups related to your industry and adding friends from those groups can be done quickly. Once you do that, as you add pages to StumbleUpon—including your own great content—other users will “stumble upon” what you’ve added. As those visitors give it the “thumbs up”, your content is then shown to even more users. Unlike Digg or del.icio.us, you don’t need to spend several months building up a great user profile. StumbleUpon was the No. 1 referrer to my blog in 2006, and that’s without spending a lot of time working it. I should note that the main benefit of StumbleUpon will be traffic, more so than links, sales, etc. So rather than hope it becomes a direct source of revenue or higher rankings, you should hope that it increases awareness, blog readership, feed subscribers, and the like.
6. Join groups & mailing lists. Social marketing is about finding your customers where they are. There’s a good chance at least some of your customers are using Yahoo Groups or Google Groups to share interests. Much like the Flickr examples above, there are probably groups/lists that are highly related to the products or services you offer. And much like the Yahoo Answers suggestion, being able to help others in this community setting can be a great marketing tool.
Every social marketing opportunity will have its own rules to follow, and you should make sure you know those rules. But here’s one general rule for using these sites as marketing tools: Don’t spam the system. Flickr doesn’t want your entire product inventory posted, and they have rules against doing so. But a few high-quality photo submissions that add to the community are fine. Whatever social marketing you do, be an active contributor. Add to the signal, not the noise.
When you do that, you’re on the road to social marketing success.
Matt McGee is the SEO Manager for Marchex, Inc., a search and media company offering search marketing services through its TrafficLeader subsidiary. The Small Is Beautiful column appears on Thursdays at Search Engine Land.