Online marketing? Be certain it fits your needs

Companies that still haven’t incorporated online as part of a total effort to market the business definitely need to get moving. But understand where you need to go and what online tools will get you there.

More from Dan McLean

To read more of Dan’s articles for The Globe and Mail, click here.

The value and necessity of promoting through the Worldwide Web is borne out. A Canadian benchmark survey conducted last year by software researchers Global Market Insite Inc. tells about as much as you need to know and should convince everyone of the importance of online messaging in consumer purchase decisions. Consider that:

  • 79 per cent of consumers surveyed say they use the Internet to learn more about new products or services that they may have heard about elsewhere,
  • 69 per cent say they use the Internet to research and/or purchase retail products online, and,
  • 98 per cent of consumers use a search engine to help research and/or purchase a product or service.

The research further asserts that, when using a search engine to find a company online, 52 per cent of search users say they are more likely to purchase a product from that company with an online presence, and that 39 per cent of them think “more favourably” about that company.

Do you need further convincing of online marketing benefit? Then consider that, after using a search engine to help make a purchase decision, a total of 79 per cent of users then bought the products, including a full 56 per cent who purchased them online.

Online promotion of products and services is highly effective, when it’s done right. The golden rule of online marketing is to proceed with purpose and look before you leap too aggressively.

According to Mark Michaud, a senior vice-president for Ariad Custom Communications in Toronto, businesses all too often make the mistake of not considering business need, the company’s value proposition to customers and how online marketing fits.

“Companies need to discover the right tactics for their business and customers,” he says. A company often hears the exciting buzz about online discussion “blogs” with customers or e-mail marketing campaigns and how these have generated additional sales, then rushes off to begin its own similar efforts.

“Don’t start there,” Mr. Michaud warns. “Start with your business and consider what is the best way to reach customers. That’s the mistake people make. They look at the (online marketing) tactic first and not their business.”

Such advice may sound elementary, but Mr. Michaud insists too many companies today deploy online marketing projects before considering whether there’s a good business reason to do so.

He says history is repeating itself. At one time many companies believed a Website was a “must have,” but hadn’t answered the question of why. Others were reactive to businesses that had Websites – feeling they, too, needed to be online.

“Many people spent a lot of money on Websites, but nobody was visiting them,” Mr. Michaud says.

“I fear we’re seeing the same thing with ‘blogs’ and ‘podcasting.’ You hear people talking about how they need to get into that, but I would question whether they’ve done the marketing due diligence to discover whether those tactics are right for their business.”

Online marketing has obvious benefits for certain types of business. If, for example, yours is a smaller company with a product that can be easily shipped and customers are comfortable buying without actually touching it, then strong online promotion and an e-commerce engine on your site will definitely drive more commerce, Mr. Michaud says.

Maybe your business is focused on a relatively small niche or target market – say, a collectables business. Online marketing might be extremely effective in reaching out to customers beyond the often small local market you’re currently dealing in.

There may only be a few hundred customers for your specialized product in your immediate storefront area, but there may be 2,000 in your province or 20,000 in North America, Mr. Michaud says.

“You’d need to do a lot of (traditional) local market advertising to grow your market,” he says. “Taking your business online makes it a lot easier for a market to find you. It gives you access to markets.”

There may, in fact, be an online community of customers for your products. Collectors, for example, often indulge in their passion with one another and may have set up a Web location as a meeting place. A retailer may consider reaching out to those sites.

Word spreads quickly on the Internet and a business may soon find customers around the world actively seeking them out.

Still, the task of developing and implementing an effective online marketing strategy – especially for a small business – can be daunting. There are many different options available, says Nicole Filiatrault, the general manager of operations for our company, IT World Canada Inc. Ms. Filiatrault’s history as a marketer includes positions with leading computer manufacturing companies and a lengthy stint as manager of

“The days of really cheap online marketing channels are pretty much gone, with a couple of sterling exceptions,” she says. “E-mail marketing is still cost effective.”

Search marketing is another really helpful tactic that can be undertaken for relatively few dollars, Ms. Filiatrault says, adding that the key to any effective online marketing is a site that is carefully thought out, implemented, and monitored continuously.

Know what you do well and what you’re selling, then identify to whom the benefits of your products and services are most appealing, is the advice of Anthony Boright, president of VAULT Solutions Inc., a communications consulting company in Toronto. It’s then a matter of figuring out who within your base of audience customers is apt to use the Internet – and how, he says. Older and younger people, for example, have different tendencies and habits online. Online won’t capture everybody.

So make online part of an overall marketing effort – not the complete strategy. Companies still need to consider other vehicles such as trade shows, TV and radio commercials or even simply distributing and handing out printed flyers, Mr. Boright says.

And while online is a powerful and arguably a necessary way to augment and enrich your company’s marketing efforts, it can’t repair what may be broken. “Online marketing can’t fix a bad business,” Mr. Michaud says. “If your business is bad, you need to fix it. If you don’t feel that your sales are strong enough, you might think: if we had an e-commerce engine on our site, it would get things moving.

“That’s a good answer if you have customers all over North America and can’t reach them in a cost effective way. But if you have a lousy product, priced badly and don’t know your customers, having an ecommerce engine won’t fix your business.”

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