For most people, the Internet is a part of daily life. The World Bank reports that more than 75% of US citizens use the Internet—a number that grows exponentially each year—and around 70% of South Carolinians do, according to our discussions with the US Census Bureau. Users go online for reasons as varied as dating, entertainment, research, and shopping. In fact, major news outlets like USA Today have reported that many brick-and-mortar stores, like Best Buy, are feeling the pressure from Internet competition: consumers visit their stores for expert advice, read user reviews for products online, compare local competitors’ prices, and then buy from their best option—increasingly often, an online retailer. In 2006, an automobile sales manager told us, “Soon, we will just deliver cars. You will create and order them online and pick them up at our dealership.”
Clearly, we are in the midst of an online marketing revolution—a major shift in consumer attitudes about how and where to shop. Businesses must utilize online forces like websites and social media to keep up with this trend and earn higher profits.
Website Basics: Most consumers now conduct research online before contacting businesses or buying products. The best websites are colorful, engaging, easy-to-use, and functional. Ideally, they should be coded in the latest computer languages, HTLM5 and CSS3, which computers “read” to assemble the information and images on the website. Businesses must rent server space from a web hosting company, which becomes home to the website’s files. Every website has an IP address that reflects its “location” relative to the rest of the Internet and a domain name (like www.mikedubose.com), that consumers type in to visit the site.
To be effective, websites must not only look nice and work flawlessly, but they must also be found easily on the web. A graphic designer can craft a beautiful website, but it will be missed by search engines if it isn’t programmed correctly. With 70% of consumers using Google, if websites don’t appear in the top 20 results of a Google search, they will likely go unnoticed. Many users won’t venture past the first 10 listings. Fortunately, highly-skilled coding professionals can apply marketing and programming secrets to make websites appear prominently in Internet searches. (For an example, Google “Columbia, SC Web Design Companies” and note the results.) Type in the products or services your business produces and the city in which you are located. How did your business do? The more visibility you desire for your website, the more it will cost to build, but this is an area where a little investment can yield impressive returns!
Your website also needs to be hosted on a secure, protected server. “Bargain” servers often put thousands of clients on a single server, potentially hosting less-reputable organizations that are infected with viruses alongside legitimate businesses. Thus, it is important to have your website designed and hosted by a quality web firm.
Website Data and Demographics: Savvy businesses can use their websites to track customers’ buying habits, transforming the information into a sophisticated, powerful marketing tool. When Mike recently purchased a grill from Amazon.com, the retailer cleverly featured several World War II movies at the checkout page. It “knew” which titles he had previously bought and recommended other films based on those interests (some of which he ended up buying!). As he read about the grill he was about to purchase, the website suggested grilling utensils and other items that previous customers had bought with the grill. Since he had ordered a pepper grinder recently (and therefore didn’t need another), it didn’t list more pepper grinders—slick! Amazon later sent him e-mail alerts about sales related to his interests.
Some websites are crafted so effectively that they change their content based on their visitors. For example, as The Wall Street Journal reports, the prices of items shown on some websites are calibrated based on the store’s location. A rural-area Lowe’s store with little competition could have higher prices than a location in a more competitive market.
You should note that characteristics of your target demographic (like age, education, and Internet skills) and the quality of the web design company both affect how successful marketing via website will be. While DuBose Web Group obtains 75% of its business from people who locate us on the Internet, our Columbia Conference Center only receives about 10% of its revenues from the Internet (the rest comes from word-of-mouth). Therefore, diversification is necessary to catch the highest number of potential clients.
Facebook: Instead of telling the same story 50 times, why not post it on a social network for all of your friends to see? That’s one of the ideas behind Facebook, which allows people and businesses to connect with others online. Facebook can search using your e-mail address book or keywords to help you find friends or customers and add them to your network. You can also control which individuals see the information you have posted.
As of October 2012, Facebook boasted one billion members. According to marketing research website www.internetworldstats.com, about two million of them are in South Carolina—roughly 44% of the state’s population. About 50% of Facebook members log into their accounts daily, and users spend about 405 minutes per month chatting with friends. Besides keeping in touch with customers through business Facebook pages, organizations can also buy ads targeted toward a specific demographic (Facebook gathers detailed information on its users).
Twitter: Using Twitter, people can quickly and easily “tweet” their thoughts in 140-character messages. Nearly 200 million users log into their Twitter accounts monthly, and there were more than 400 million tweets each day in 2012 (according to www.mediabistro.com). Even the Pope uses Twitter! Unlike Facebook, which collects more in-depth user demographic information, Twitter limits user bios to 160 characters. You can choose whose tweets you “follow,” as well as who can view your tweets.
Facebook recently purchased Instagram, a Twitter-esque site for photographs with 100 million members. In fact, The Wall Street Journal reported that Instagram now has 17% more active users than Twitter. Free cell phone apps for Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook are all available.
The bottom line: The number of Internet users is rising each day. For businesses to keep up, they need a well-designed, user-friendly website that functions smoothly, coupled with corporate Facebook and Twitter presences. Don’t let the Internet marketing boom leave your business (and its profits) behind! Read our next column for a step-by-step roadmap explaining how to design, market, and grow your business using the Internet.
Blake DuBose graduated from Newberry College School of Business and is president of DuBose Web Group. View our published articles at www.duboseweb.com.
Mike DuBose has been in business since 1981, authored The Art of Building a Great Business, and is a field instructor with USC’s graduate school. He is the servant owner of three debt-free corporations, including Columbia Conference Center, Research Associates, and The Evaluation Group. Visit his nonprofit website www.mikedubose.com.
Katie Beck serves as Director of Communications for the DuBose family of companies. She graduated from the USC School of Journalism and Honors College.