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Secrets of Online Success for Local Business

Dear Dan: Okay, I admit we've taken our eye off the Internet ball a bit, and maybe we're falling behind in the race to win more business online, and with social media. Is it really that important? How are others doing it? — Social Slacker

Dear Slacker: Internet users conduct billions of online searches monthly. And since one in every five searches is spurred by a local need of some kind, the implications for local businesses are huge. It comes down to this: If you aren't leveraging online business-building strategies to their fullest, you're putting yourself in a competitive ditch.

The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) recently stepped up its efforts to inform business owners about all the ways they can build business online – from Internet yellow pages (IYP) and mobile marketing to social media and online video. The SBA is acting because it knows that local business owners who are plugged into the web create more jobs. "As the web evolves and consumers adapt accordingly, we know that more customers are finding Main Street businesses online," says SBA Administrator Karen Mills. Here are four short success stories and four things you can do on your own:

Christopher Bartlett, owner of Skaters Landing in West Hartford, CT, uses online videos to teach customers how to properly shop for and use ice skating products. "It helps us reach out to new markets," says Bartlett. "I don't look at our online efforts as a place to try a hard sell. We just want to talk with people and answer the questions they might have."

Jessica Soler, owner of Salon Red in Decatur, GA, uses a website and local online listings to help her customers find salon locations and book appointments. "We were nominated by one of the local papers to be a 'Best Of' salon in Atlanta, and tons of people went online to vote for all of our locations. We were flooded with business, and it all came from online."

Sumul Shah, owner of Lumus Construction in Woburn, MA, uses his website and online maps to research projects nationwide and show prospects examples of past work. "Customers can see and visualize the types of projects and the complexity of the work we do. For example, in the future, our website will not only talk about how much renewable energy we're building, but we'll actually quantify it with live data from all the wind turbines and solar panels that we've installed."

Masha Hleap-Hershkovitz, owner of Fuego Mundo, a restaurant in Sandy Springs, GA, uses social media to seek customer feedback. She even used social media to name her business. "We bounced back and forth with a potential name for months, and we were bottle-necked," she says. So she put it up for a vote on social media and it came back 70 percent in favor of Fuego Mundo.

Here are four easy steps you can take:

Create or expand your online presence. If your business doesn't have a website, there are ready-made site templates and free hosting services that make establishing an online presence easy.

Try social media. You might be able to build a fan base of loyal customers by establishing your presence at services such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Post information to keep your customers in-the-know about new products or specials. Think of these free services as great "word of mouth" platforms where customers can tell others about your business.

Analyze your web visitors. Once people start coming to your website, IYP listing or Facebook page, analyze where they are coming from. Easy to use web analytics tools can tell you a lot about your customers by tracking what search terms brought them to your website or what they look at while they are there. Use this intelligence when creating your own ads. 

Track the trends. For example, more and more customers are searching for local information via mobile devices, so be sure your online presence is always accurate and up-to-date. Offer driving directions and consider digital coupons.
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