There actually was a brief time in the early days of the Web when all you had to do was be there, you could buy a URL like “store.com”, and you would be found. This made marketing decisions very easy, and resulted in both a great brand and tons of business. Those days are long gone. Unlike Kevin Costner in “Field of Dreams” we’ve all learned that the old adage “if you build it, they will come” just doesn’t work anymore for ecommerce. In the bricks and mortar world, we can often leverage location, in addition to both offline and online efforts to drive people into our stores. On the web, location, in the traditional sense doesn’t matter. Location in the search engines and media does, but there are too many search engines and media outlets to know which one counts. So how do we drive customers and business to the site?
I like to view marketing and advertising efforts in a continuum between brand building investments and click generation initiatives. It is interesting how they reinforce each other, but don’t be fooled into thinking that they are the same. A known brand makes it easier to drive clicks, by providing credibility (or Whuffie!), thus making your lead gen ads much more likely to be clicked on, and conversely, clicks drive brand recognition. Click generation is the priority for the short term, and should always be your core goal. Over time though, investment in your brand makes it easier and cheaper to drive clicks. The good news is that, if you’re just starting out, you can “borrow” a brand, by advertising a known product that you sell on your site, or a celebrity brand endorsement (Tiger Woods—NOT). This may not get you the sale, since these popular brands will most likely be also promoted by your competitors, but will at least get you the credibility to encourage someone to click on your ads. From there it’s up to you to convert the visitor to a buyer.
You can spend a fortune experimenting for results. So the challenge becomes, how do you find the time and expertise to effectively run and manage an online campaign to be in the right place at the right time? What’s the mix between banners, contextual ads, Facebook, social media, paid placement on Google, Yahoo and other search engines, and how do you drive towards that elusive goal of organic optimization. (And even more so, does your marketing organization understand all these terms?) The good news is that, unlike the offline world, we can measure our efforts, pay for performance, and, if we use our analytics well, maximize our return on our advertising and marketing efforts on the fly.
If you have the expertise, and the time to experiment, you can do this yourself, discovering your own keywords, managing a Google Adsense program, and tracking and optimizing around word choice, time, date, and competitive pressure. You can also manage your own social network campaign, as long as you have the time to Tweet, Digg, and Blog. Unfortunately, this effort requires constant attention for cost-effective results. You also need to keep a pulse on the latest trends for your particular audience: Gen X’ers and older still search on Google, while many Gen Y’s find what they need through Facebook and Youtube. Unless you can dedicate yourself or a knowledgeable staff to constant optimization, you probably are best off with external help to start.
Help comes in many forms. You could hire a traditional ad agency. Most of these firms can manage a web effort. But be careful! Traditional agencies are modeled around brand building, not lead generation. They also tend to bill based on time, not results. Hopefully, you will eventually get to the point of needed their brand building expertise, but I don’t believe that’s the place to start. The best way to drive traffic is with a firm that focuses strictly on lead generation and SEO optimization. A firm such as Overdrive Interactive, who provides this service for a fee, is a viable option. Ideally, you should consider a firm that that has already learned the competitive landscape in your niche, and provides lead generation service on a full pay-for-performance basis. This may be a double-edge sword, as anyone who is already successful in your market runs the risk of competing with themselves to drive advertising costs up. But if you can “steal” this service from your competitor, it minimizes your risk, and gives you a partner who is fully committed to the same goals as you: If they can’t drive business they don’t get paid. With aligned goals, and focused energy, your risk is minimized, and you are certain of successful growth.