If your business isn’t online, you’re not really in business. In 2016, unless you can be found easily on the internet by your customers, it will be almost impossible to be successful. It’s the board’s responsibility to ensure the business has a digital strategy and is executing it appropriately. Even if directors don’t have substantial knowledge in online marketing, it pays to have a rudimentary understanding of the main considerations all businesses must have around digital marketing.

After all, marketing software firm HubSpot’s research shows 44 per cent of online shoppers begin by using a search engine when they are researching purchases. As such, for most businesses, online marketing is simply too big to ignore.

Although offline methods of business marketing, such as word of mouth, are still alive and well, a large number of visitors will start their search by asking friends for recommendations through social media or by using search engines. It’s advantageous for businesses to be visible to these customers.

Steven Lewis, a content marketer for digital marketing firm Taliest, says a good online presence starts with a professional-looking website. “It has to be contemporary in design because a dated website makes your business look tired. It has to say the right things in the right language for your customers, and what this means will vary from business to business,” he says.

Lewis uses businesses that ostensibly operate in a similar sector, electronics, as an example. “You don’t expect JB Hi-Fi’s website to look the same or talk the same as Bang & Olufsen’s. If they did, they’d lose business.”

A huge part of any business’s successful online strategy is the approach it takes to be found easily by search engines such as Google. This is called search engine marketing (SEM) or search engine optimisation (SEO). It involves finding appropriate keywords that people use to find your site and building them into the site’s content and structure.

“The top-ranking sites in any industry sector will siphon off about 40 per cent of the clicks. If you’re not ranking [high up in search results], you’re not getting traffic from Google. For small businesses, success in search engine rankings is about trying to achieve a good ranking for a niche area,” says Lewis.

“You’re not going to be able to achieve a great rank for the most popular keywords in your sector, purely because bigger competitors will be spending more than you can. But if you create good content consistently around less competitive search terms, you’ll see more traffic,” he explains.

Interestingly, Lewis says for many small businesses direct traffic to their site is just as important as search engine traffic. Direct traffic involves people searching for the name of your firm to find it, rather than using key words associated with your business.

“This means that even if you can’t realistically expect much traffic from Google given a limited budget, you still need that sharp website,” he stresses.

Chris Dinham is a director of Perth-based web design and SEO agency Summit Web. He agrees the digital marketing strategy should revolve around the business’s website, which should be created with the future in mind.

“Online customers are savvy and they have no time for a website that is poorly built.

"Too often I see small businesses creating their own website, which is often difficult to navigate and does not convert customers into sales,” he says.

According to Dinham, an investment in a website whose purpose is to sell to customers is what small businesses should aim for. “If a small business is creating a website ‘just because’ then it’s just making a very expensive online business card. No-one will see it unless it’s shoved under their nose.”

Strategy is vital

Therefore, it’s important to have a strategy behind the site. Aside from finding the right keywords for your site, the next step is to create engaging content that draws customers in and answers their questions. For instance, the business might choose to create a blog – Dinham suggests about 700 words is the right length for posts – full of information that is genuinely unique and informative.

Then it’s important to “optimise it” – which means making it as easy as possible for search engines to find your site. This involves going back to the list of keywords customers are using to find your business (Google has a free keyword finder tool) and selecting one word related to your niche to insert into the post in the first paragraph, the last paragraph and the subheading. Dinham’s rule of thumb is to use the keyword a maximum of 10 times per 1000 words.

Erin Smolenski, a digital marketing expert with Brisbane’s Matter Solutions, agrees that the best and most appropriate method to develop a great online presence is to create content that is both engaging and compelling.

“After generating content, it’s then important to publish it on relevant platforms, whether that be social media or a company blog. It’s also vital to understand the dynamic of each platform to make the most of it for your business.” Smolenski says Google respects quality and content and will prioritise it in search lists. She advises against writing content that’s too heavy with the business’s main keywords. “Content of this nature will be tedious and boring and readers will switch off.”

Byron Trzeciak, a director of Pixelrush, an online marketing agency in Melbourne, also agrees that top content is a must for small businesses that want to maintain a great online presence. “By using media such as video, businesses can create content and then repurpose it for different platforms. For example you might transcribe the video into text for content on your blog or take quotes from the video for inspirational posts on Instagram,” he advises.

Aside from content creation and SEO/SEM, he says businesses on a limited budget can also focus on investing in Google Adwords, if the site has been built to convert sales leads into customers. They can work with a consultant or do it themselves if they have the right expertise. “If you have the budget but you are restricted by time, you might want to focus on developing a more significant online marketing strategy that has a six- to 12-month timeframe.”

According to Trzeciak, small businesses starting out must ensure they have SEO built into their website from day one. “The majority of business websites we review have ignored SEO and so the company can’t be easily found by search engines. Local SEO optimisation can be an incredibly cost-effective form of online marketing for small business but for some reason it’s the one that is most often ignored.”

In contrast to Lewis, he says rather than focusing too much on how the site looks, concentrate on what will convert visitors into business. “So include testimonials and other material to improve trust so that visitors are encouraged to send an inquiry through the site.”

Like the other experts interviewed for this story, Trzeciak says building a successful online presence is all about providing valuable content that builds a relationship. “If you create a site that is relevant to as wide a number of searches as possible you will maximise traffic to it.” ■