by Sandra Wiley

As you enter 2004, one of the many tasks on your to-do list is to plan your firm’s marketing efforts for the year ahead. Almost every firm in the country now has a Web site and one of the tasks that should be in your firm’s marketing plan is to drive traffic to your site.

It may not be an easy task, but there are some cheap, and even free, marketing tricks that can give your firm immediate and positive impact. In order to truly reap the rewards of the site you have already invested in, you will need to make your target market (prospects and clients) aware of your site and make it easy for them to find.

If you are a small or midsized firm, you may be wondering how you can compete with the marketing budgets of larger firms. The good thing about the Web is that it allows small and midsized firms the ability to market like the big firms. What you lack in cash, you can make up for in creative thinking.

Do your research. Most firms already have a site that is functional, and if you developed it with no specific marketing promotion in mind, it is most likely built like a “broch­ure,” rather than as a tool used with a specific marketing strategy in mind.

You need to know two clear things when it comes to good marketing campaigns: where your firm stands now and where, ideally, you would like it to be. In order to know that, you need to research the market you operate in — most important, the competition from online and offline rivals — and the general business environment. Then, carry out an analysis listing your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

Even if you believe that you know where your firm is and where you want it to be, you should still know what the market says. Conduct a survey of the market place using an on-line source or a standard pen-and-paper form. And survey during tax season — it’s the best time because you will have all of your clients in front of you.

On to the Web

Armed with the information you have now collected, you are ready to move to the next step in your Web site marketing strategy.

Name your site. While most firms already have a site, and your name is established, having an easy-to-remember domain name will make marketing your site much easier. Try to adopt one that is short and instantly identifies your firm. The worst thing you can do is to adopt a domain name that is illogical, hard to spell or too long. If you don’t have a site yet, and are struggling to think of an easy-to-remember name, take a trip to Nameboy (www.nameboy.com), where you can type in some keywords to describe your site and it will return a list of attractive domains.

Once you’ve registered a domain, don’t keep it hidden. Place it prominently on your business cards and office stationery, as well as including it in your e-mail signature.

Getting to the top of search engines. A large portion of your site traffic will likely come though search engines, which compile their results in many different ways.

Yahoo!, for one, is a directory, and real people review and categorize each site that is submitted. There is a backlog of sites waiting to be listed — in fact, at one point it was rumored it would take four years to clear. But for those on a tight budget, spend $19.99 per site and Yahoo! Express will review your site within seven business days.

Google works by using crawl­er technology, and you don’t need to pay to get listed. Many Web designers use Meta tags to get to the top of Google and other search engines and can spend a lot of time tweaking them to try for a better ranking.

But search engines have become a lot more sophisticated these days and don’t just read Meta tags. Instead they use a mix of “off the page” factors, such as the number of other sites that link to your site and click-through rates.

Products such as Web Position Gold (www.webpositiongold.com) cost $149 and allow you to monitor your ranking in a number of different search engines. It also claims that it can get you to the top of search engine lists. Other products, such as Submit It! from Microsoft (www.bcentral.com), let you register your site with a large number of search engines at once.

Content is the key. Now that you have traffic, make sure that you are constantly updating and upgrading your site. Be creative. Ensure that you have your services in an easy-to-find location. You might want a news page with community or industry news and links.

You might also want an area where clients can send you messages or requests for items that they need from you. Try conducting a monthly client survey where they can answer a question and automatically be entered into a drawing for a free offer, such as a dinner or gift certificate. Perhaps you can also create an area that stores your monthly newsletter (you do have an electronic newsletter, don’t you?) for easy viewing.

The list could go on and on, but the bottom line is, do whatever it takes to show clients new and fresh information and create a reason for them to return to your site often.

A great way to ensure that the content is topnotch is to develop a committee to review the site monthly and make upgrades when necessary. A team of people will assist in making sure that all of the important content is included in the site.

Stop the press. When your site goes live, or if you have a new and improved site, tell the press about it. Most journalists would rather receive press releases via e-mail than be bothered on the phone. You can hire a PR agency to write your press releases and distribute them for you. The Web site of Clearly Business (www.clearlybusiness.com) has a useful guide on how to pick a good agency.

Conclusion.

It is clear that strategic Web marketing is not an effort that you have to spend a fortune on. It is also clear that one of the best strategies is to get users to return to the site.

And the message is simple. With a little strategic and creative thinking, your relationship with your clients and prospects will grow stronger than ever with the assistance of the most powerful strategic marketing tool you probably already have in your firm — your Web site.

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