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« Go Back | Posted in: - on June 6, 2013

There’s no doubt about it – the web is a crowded place. With thousands of new websites springing up every day, your site runs the very real risk of being lost in the shuffle amongst all these competitors.

So how can you make your website stand out against others in your industry? Start by asking yourself the following questions…

Does my website have a unique visual brand?

Your site’s “visual brand” refers to all the different graphical elements used on your website, including your primary colors (both your background color and any other tones used in your site’s design elements), your logo, your images and the type face you’ve chosen.

As an example, think about the Coca Cola website. Whether or not you like the company’s products, you can’t deny that the distinctive red color and white script font used on its website give it an immediately recognizable visual brand.

Obviously, Coca Cola’s familiar branding come from decades of experimentation and market research. But even if your company’s brand isn’t quite as established, you can begin to create a similarly memorable look by choosing the right colors for your website (in accordance with the principles of color psychology) and carrying your chosen visual elements through to every part of your marketing strategy.

Does my website design convey my company’s personality?

If you run an established, traditional law firm, your company’s website shouldn’t be bursting with bright pinks and purples. At the same time, if you’re a young startup, staid burgundies and forest greens won’t tell potential customers that you’re a hip, “with it” organization.

As you’re designing your new website, keep your company’s personality in mind and allow this vision to flow through to every design element you choose. Then, check back periodically after your site has been launched to determine whether or not your design aesthetic still suits your company’s brand. Branding initiatives and priorities change, which is why regular updates that bring your website’s design into alignment with your company’s personality are so important.

Is my website too similar to my competitors?

When it comes to attracting and retaining a website audience, visual distinctiveness is huge. The last thing you want is for your viewers to have an image of your site in their minds, but then find that they are unable to distinguish between your site and your competitors.

This can become especially challenging when industry design standard are relatively set. Imagine that you run the conservative law firm mentioned earlier and that you’ve chosen a design that relies heavily on the burgundy color featured on many other sites within your industry. If a potential customer is trying to remember your website, how will he be able to differentiate your site from any competitor pages that utilize the same color scheme?

The key – again – becomes good branding. While your colors and design elements play a major role in this process, they aren’t the only things at work when it comes to making your website stand out from the crowd. By featuring unique content, engaging multimedia files, logos and other branded features, you can retain a sense of individuality while still taking advantage of established design principles.

Does my website rely too heavily on templates or stock imagery?

Don’t get me wrong – we here at Homestead are huge fans of website design templates. They’re a quick and easy way to put together a professional-looking site without all the hassle of learning HTML or Javascript.

But that said, they should really be used as more of a jumping-off point. How can you expect your website to stand out in a crowd if you’re using the same exact template that hundreds of others have used before you?

The secret to using templates – or stock imagery, for that matter – is to make these items your own. Spice up your Homestead SiteBuilder template by adding an image-based logo or by tweaking its color scheme to suit your needs. Modify any stock imagery you download or purchase by cropping the images, modifying their color palettes or adding descriptive text.

If, at first, you only have the time to add your business’s information to a stock template, that’s fine. Start there, but commit yourself to setting aside time in the future to modify your website’s theme to create something that’s more uniquely yours.

Has my site been built for me or for my audience members?

Finally, when it comes to differentiating your site from its competitors, remember that visual appeal is only part of what makes a site successful. If you want to make your site memorable, make it easy for your target audience to use!

Once you’ve added your information to your website’s template, step away from your computer for a few hours and come back once you’ve had a chance to clear your mind. Now, look at your website from the perspective of one of your audience members. Is your site visually appealing? Is it easy to use? Is the content that you’d want to see as a site visitor easily accessible?

There are hundreds of thousands of poorly-designed websites online today and it’s likely true that all of these sites could be performing better if they paid more attention to their user experiences. Website visitors don’t like to go back to sites that frustrate them, giving your pages the opportunity to stand out by providing an enjoyable, informative on-site experience.

If you take any one thing from this article make it this: it’s not enough to simply have a live website. By taking the time to ensure that your site is visually appealing, distinct from your competition and easy for your visitors to use, you’ll dramatically increase your odds of standing out from the crowds and reaping the business benefits that come along with a well-designed company website.

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« Go Back | Posted in: - on June 4, 2013

What do IBM, Amazon and McAfee have in common?  They're all brands that have improved profitability and minimized support costs by investing in their website UX.

UX stands for "user experience" and it's a vital term to know if you want your own site to be successful.  For more on this concept and how it can be applied to your business website, take a look at the following "UX 101: What is User Experience?" infographic:

Embed this infographic on your site using the following code:

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« Go Back | Posted in: - on May 30, 2013

The web has come a long way from the GIF-intensive, visually assaulting “GeoCities” style designs of the late 1990s. As coding languages evolve and high speed access reaches further around the world, website designs have become infinitely more complex and aesthetically pleasing.

So if it’s been a while since you last delved into the world of website design, it might be time to freshen up your tactics. The following web design trends should get you up-to-speed:

Trend #1 – Simplified website designs

One of the most striking features of the new website designs seen rolling out throughout 2013 has been their emphasis on simplicity. Today’s website designs are sleek and streamlined – capturing visitors’ attention quickly and redirecting it to the most important elements on the overall site.

When it comes to website design, think of it as if you were Coco Chanel, who famously advised women to remove one accessory before leaving the house. As you build your website, look around for unnecessary and extraneous features. Then, remove them before launching your site in order to keep visitors focused on your website’s top priorities.

Trend #2 – Mobile-ready and responsive website templates

Given that mobile website usage is expected to surpass desktop access as early as 2014, it’s only natural to see the growth of mobile-ready and responsive website templates. Both of these technologies – which serve to make traditional websites more easily read on digital devices – represent a growing website design trend over the past few years.

No matter what industry you’re in or what type of business you run, it’s vitally important that you jump on this trend and create your own mobile-accessible website version. If your site’s template design isn’t inherently responsive, try using website plugins (like WPTouch for the WordPress platform) or third-party mobile site creation tools (like the Mobify program) to build a mobile site version yourself.

Trend #3 – QR code usage

QR codes – those square barcodes that can direct viewers to images, web pages and more – have struggled to gain traction over the past few years. But that’s all starting to change as more and more consumers purchase smartphones and other digital devices that are capable of downloading the reader programs needed to scan these codes.

There are a number of different ways you can use QR codes to promote your website or products. For example, you could:

  • Use QR codes to release special coupon codes to your customers
  • Create QR codes that provide viewers with more detailed information about your products
  • Release unique content to your customers that is only available via QR code

Really, the sky’s the limit. Give QR codes a try and see what kind of an impact they’ll have on your business.

Trend #4 – User-generated content integration

As the web becomes more social, it’s only natural to expect that website design principles would change as a result. In particular, one major trend that is affecting web design in 2013 is the growing integration of user-generated content on business sites.

User-generated content can take a number of different forms, including:

  • The opportunity to leave reviews on product-specific landing pages
  • Commenting systems that are tied to users’ personal social media profiles
  • The submission and publication of guest posts, blog articles or news items from website visitors

What’s important to remember is that user-generated content isn’t just some nice feature that you can integrate. Today’s website visitors expect to be able to engage with the sites they frequent. Don’t frustrate them by creating a bland, static website that offers no opportunity for input.

Trend #5 – Emphasis on content

Another major trend impacting the world of website design is the increased emphasis that many businesses are placing on their content. This is occurring for two reasons… First, the more content you add to your website, the more opportunities you’ll have to connect with your visitors. If your website is static – like a billboard – potential customers eventually learn that stopping by your site won’t result in seeing anything they haven’t read before. On other hand, when a site is updated frequently, they’ll stop back over and over again to engage with your new content – leading to more buying opportunities.

And second, Google has recently made it clear through several major algorithm updates that it wants to reward sites that produce great content. As a result, if you commit yourself to updating your site frequently and placing an emphasis on your site’s content, you could stand to receive increased website traffic by achieving higher placements in the search engine results.

So how can you emphasize content on your website? Consider any of the following ideas:

  • Add a blog or news page to your website and commit to updating it at least once a week
  • Frequently swap out the content on your home page to give visitors something new to read
  • Create a resources section that features plenty of helpful “how to” information for your customers

Trend #6 – The use of big buttons

It’s a subtle change, but if you visit a large number of websites on any given day, you may have noticed that many of them are starting to shift towards using larger buttons on their sales pages and internal navigation features.

There’s one big reason behind this web design trend – the ever-growing increase of mobile website access.

When displayed in miniature on digital devices, smaller buttons frustrate users and can lead to missed clicks. By making these buttons larger, websites that don’t offer a mobile version and those that allow visitors to access the desktop version of the site from their digital devices become more usable – resulting in happier customers and higher sales.

Trend #7 – Increased video file presence

Finally, be aware that video is huge when it comes to website design these days. Just a few of the different places you might encounter video clips include:

  • On website home pages, providing visitors with an introduction to the site’s purpose
  • On product pages, giving potential customers the chance to see each product in action
  • On sales pages, providing a compelling, attention-grabbing sales appeal to would-be buyers

Video files are becoming popular for one reason – they’re much, much more engaging to visitors than plain text or static image files. If you aren’t yet taking advantage of this trend, it’s time to get started!

Given the number of free tools available, making videos is much easier than most people realize. Free screencast tools like Jing and automated video production systems like Animoto make it possible for even beginning webmasters to create high quality videos in minutes. These clips can then be uploaded to Youtube and embedded into your site’s pages – dramatically increasing your website’s ability to engage readers in under an hour’s time.

While it might sound overwhelming to try to build all of these different trends into your new website (or to integrate them all into a site you’ve already built), start small. Making a single one of the changes described above can make a big difference in your site’s ability to get noticed in your marketplace.

Have you seen any other website design trends occurring recently? If so, post your observations in the comments section so that everyone can benefit:

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« Go Back | Posted in: - on May 28, 2013

If you’re thinking about building your first website, congratulations! Though the process might seem overwhelming, new internet technology has made it possible for even the greenest of beginners to create attractive digital properties.

As you get to work on your site, the following questions should help to get you through the stumbling blocks you may encounter:

Website Building Basics

Question #1 – Do I need to know HTML?
Nope! Tools like Homestead’s SiteBuilder or the WordPress blogging platform make it possible to build websites off of defined templates – rather than from scratch using HTML.

Question #2 – Will building a website take a long time?
Again, no. If you want to build a fully customized, top-of-the-line site, you’re in for a long project. But most small business owners can use the tools listed above to create new websites within a few hours.

Question #3 – What is a web host?
A web host is the company that provides the server space on which your website lives. Think of it like renting an office space or a storefront in a shopping mall. Your web host provides the space and resources needed for your website to operate.

Question #4 – What is a URL?
URL stands for “Uniform Resource Locator” and refers to the website address you type into your internet browser in order to locate a given site. In our case, “www.homestead.com” is this website’s URL.

Question #5 – How do I choose a domain name?
The ideal domain name is short, clear and easy to remember. Avoid abbreviations, numbers and less popular domain extensions (as in, “.tv” or “.biz”) if possible. Check out our article here for more guidance.

Question #6 – What does “FTP” stand for?
FTP stands for “File Transfer Protocol” and refers to the process used to move digital files between servers. If you build your site from scratch, you’ll need to use an FTP tool like Filezilla to upload your files from your computer to your web host (using SiteBuilder eliminates the need for this extra step).

Site Design Strategies

Question #7 – How do I choose the colors for my website?
When choosing colors, pick those that will be pleasing to your visitors’ eyes and that represent your business or industry’s image. If, for example, you run a tax preparation office, stick with navy, burgundy or forest green – not teal or lime green!

Question #8 – What pages should my website have?
At a minimum, your website needs a home page, an “About” page, a page that describes your products and/or services, and a page that lists your contact information. Our “Site Content 101” article can give you more guidance on unique page needs beyond these basics.

Question #9 – How often should I update my website?
Frequently! Updating your website at least once a month helps you to build rapport with your readers and helps give your site a boost from an SEO perspective.

Question #10 – Is my text readable?
Before you release your new site to the world, be sure that you have a high amount of contrast between your text color and your background color to ensure readability. Black text on a white background is the best option, so be cautious when using other color combinations.

Question #11 – Does my website need a logo?
Not necessarily. If you choose a website template that uses text – rather than graphics – to display the company’s name, you may not need a logo file. If you do need a logo, check out our guide on how to have one created.

Question #12 – Where can I find pictures for my website?
The pictures you use for your website should come from free or paid stock photo websites or from sites that release image files under the Creative Commons license. Avoid simply grabbing images from other websites or Google’s Image Search feature unless you’re sure that usage rights allow you to use the image.

Question #13 – How can I edit my images?
It’s best to edit your images to the size they need to be before uploading them to your website. Pic Monkey is one great free service for doing so.

Question #14 – Should I include Flash animations on my site?
Flash intros are totally out! If you must use Flash on your website, use it sparingly and be sure that your website will display alternate content for viewers who aren’t able to view (or who have turned off) Flash.

Question #15 – Should I have music playing on my website?
Auto-played background music frustrates users and should be avoided on all websites.

Maximizing Visitor Engagement

Question #16 – How will visitors find my website?
Visitors may find your website through search engine results, business directories, review websites, social media links and more. For a primer on different types of web traffic, check out our “Web Traffic 101” tutorial.

Question #17 – How can I measure the number of visitors my site receives?
There are many different analytics programs available today, but we recommend the fully-featured and free-to-use Google Analytics.

Question #18 – How can I make my site load faster?
Slow loading sites frustrate viewers, so make site speed a priority. In particular, avoid adding extra pictures, video clips or other multimedia files, as these can slow down your website.

Question #19 – How do I create a sitemap?
If your site is small, you can manually create a sitemap using the instructions found here. If your site is larger, look for plugins and other scripts that will create this important website page automatically.

Question #20 – Do I need a privacy policy?
If your site collects any kind of personal information or sends cookies to visitors’ browsers, it’s a good idea to have a website privacy policy. Many different templates exist online to make the creation of this page as simple as possible.

Question #21 – How can I sell products on my website?
Depending on the scope of your available products, you might be able to get away with manually creating Paypal buttons for each item you plan to sell. But no matter what the size of your store is, it’s a good idea to look into ecommerce solutions (like Homestead’s Basic and Advanced store features) that take the hassle out of selling products online.

Question #22 – How can I sell more products on my website?
If you aren’t making many sales, you can increase your conversion rate by improving your sales copy, tweaking your product photography, creating more appealing products or taking a number of other actions. Don’t be afraid to experiment with your new website!

Question #23 – Do I need to collect tax on internet purchases?
That depends. In most US states, you’ll need to collect sales tax on any purchases made by buyers in the state where your business is registered. Given the complexity of tax laws, though, it’s a good idea to consult with an attorney if you have questions.

Question #24 – Do I need to create social media profiles?
Yes! Social media can be a great way to reach out and connect with your customers, so take the time to map out a social media strategy that works for your business.

Question #25 – How to I get people to review my business?
Reviews on sites like Google Reviews and Yelp can help convince new customers to do business with your brand. To encourage people to leave these reviews, add links to your business listing on these sites to your new website and specifically request that visitors take the time to leave feedback on your brand.

Do you have any other questions? We’re planning a follow-up post on this subject with another 25 questions for the future, so please leave your questions in the comments section below:

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« Go Back | Posted in: - on May 23, 2013

Engaging with your company’s customers on social media is a “must do” for small businesses. Not only do popular social sites give you unprecedented access to your target buyers, there’s some evidence to suggest that the amount of engagement you’re able to drive on these sites contributes to the overall SEO performance of your site.

But, of course, it’s one thing to say that social media marketing is important – it’s another thing entirely to put it into practice!

If you’re finding yourself struggling to determine how and when to engage on social networks, you might find it helpful to conduct a competitive analysis. Essentially, this type of evaluation involves monitoring the activities of your competitors on social sites in order to:

  • Come up with a plan for your own social media marketing efforts
  • Identify opportunities that your competitors aren’t utilizing (giving your own brand areas in which to claim a competitive advantage)
  • Gauge your market’s current adoption and engagement level on different social sites

Here’s how to get started with this powerful type of analysis:

Step #1 – Define your competitors

Unsurprisingly, if you want to conduct a competitive analysis, you’ve got to know who your competitors are in the first place!

In some cases, this will be easy. If you run a local business with a single “brick and mortar” location, the only other businesses who will be competing for the same customers are similar companies in your geographic area.

But if your business runs online and serves a global audience, defining a list of your competitors may be more challenging. Suppose you run a website that sells jewelry. Not only are you competing against other online jewelry sellers – you’re also fighting for business against big box retailers like Target or JCPenney and artisan portal sites like Etsy.

No matter how wide-reaching your competitors may be, do your best to keep things simple. Choose the top 10 brands, businesses or websites that stand to draw away your own target customers and use them to create a spreadsheet that will track the information gathered in Step #2.

Step #2 – Determine metrics to track

Now that you have your list of competitors, try to find any active social profiles that they maintain. In particular, search for their profiles on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+ and Pinterest, but also take note of any active presences on lesser-known or niche social sites that you see referenced.

Dig deeper into these profiles to get a feel for how each competitor is engaging with its audience. A few of the specific types of information you might want to track include:

  • Profile metrics
    • Number of followers
    • Average number of posts per week
    • Number of “Likes,” shares or retweets each post receives
  • Content metrics
    • Type of content shared
    • Social network services used (for example, “Does the brand utilize Google+ hangouts?”)
    • Number of comments left on profile updates
  • “Personality” metrics
    • Tone of profile updates
    • Types of issues addressed on profile
    • Responsiveness to follower interactions

The specific types of metrics you’ll want to track should be determined by the goals you have for your social media marketing efforts. As an example, if you’re using your social profiles to build awareness for your brand, you’ll want to pay particular attention to the number of followers your competitors have – as your results are likely to mimic theirs.

Step #3 – Analyze your results

After you’ve gone through each of your competitors’ social profiles and tracked the information that’s most important to your business, it’s time to draw some conclusions based on the data you’ve collected.

Ask yourself the following questions in order to wrap up your competitive analysis:

  • On which social networking websites are my competitors most active?
  • How frequently are my competitors posting to their social profiles?
  • How many social followers do my competitors have on average?
  • Which types of content and/or status updates generate the most interest on my competitors’ profiles?
  • What opportunities exist to differentiate my brand from my competitors’?

Use the results of this critical analysis to develop a social media marketing plan that increases your odds of reaching and connecting with your target customers, while also setting your company apart from others in your market.

For example, if you find that your competitors tend to be more active on some social media sites than others, you could reach two possible conclusions from this information. Either your competitors have tested other social networks and found them to be ill-suited to their marketing efforts or you’ve uncovered a potential opportunity to reach your target customers in the absence of competitive noise.

If you see that your competitors tend to only update their profiles once a day on average, you could decide to try this rate for yourself or to post more frequently in order to edge out the other brands in your space.

As you can see, there’s quite a bit of guesswork that goes into analyzing the results of your competitive data and setting your own social media marketing objectives. Unfortunately, this occurs because there’s no “one size fits all” plan that will give you the ideal marketing plan for your unique business and target customers.

However, the data you generate through this type of competitive analysis can still provide you with a useful set of benchmarks and jumping off points. By being informed as to how your competitors are engaging online, you can make decisions for your own business that are based on real world information – not on arbitrary recommendations.

Use the information you generate via competitor discovery to plan your own social media marketing strategy, but don’t forget to periodically assess the results of your promotional efforts and those of your competitors. The best social media results come from ongoing assessment and campaign tweaks, so be diligent in collecting this type of data and using it to shape the future of your social outreach activities.

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« Go Back | Posted in: - on May 23, 2013

When it comes to SEO, there are two sides to the coin – the on-page activities you undertake to make your site as appealing as possible to the search engines and the creation of off-page backlinks that demonstrate to the engines that your content is well-regarded by others.

So since we covered a few easy-to-use on-page SEO techniques in our last article, it’s time to dive in to link building…

The following are seven of the easiest ways to get started with this important SEO practice. Truly, there are hundreds of different ways to build links back to your website, but these ideas should give you a good jumping off point, whether you’re an internet newbie or an experienced techie!

Technique #1 – Develop “link bait” content

“Link bait” content refers to articles, videos, infographics and other web pieces that are specifically designed to attract attention. Imagine that you have an interest in healthy living and come across an article titled, “101 Ways to Live Healthier” on your favorite site. Chances are you’d be both intrigued and likely to share the content with your friends and family members, right?

Link bait content is all about encouraging viral sharing – and the link building that comes along with it – so try creating content pieces based around any of the following formats:

  • List posts (as in the example above)
  • “Myth busting” content
  • Interviews with experts in your industry
  • Link collection articles
  • Funny videos

While you won’t see every link bait piece you create turn into a viral success, deploying this type of content is a great way to both boost brand recognition and generate valuable natural backlinks.

Technique #2 – Offer a free downloadable product

Nothing catches peoples’ attention like the word “free.” So if your website can give away a free product – say, for example, a downloadable car maintenance calendar on an auto body shop’s site – chances are you’ll see a dramatic influx of new links as readers share your URL with others.

Your downloadable product doesn’t need to be big or expensive to produce, but it does need to provide some sort of helpful value to your readers. For best results, require readers to sign up for your email newsletter in order to receive your free product, as this will allow you to reach out to potential customers again in the future.

Technique #3 – Add your website to your public profiles

Next up, take a few moments to leverage any existing memberships you already have for their backlink building potential. As an example, if you’re a member of a forum in your industry, see if you’re able to include a link to your website on either your profile page or your message signature. If you’re a member of a professional organization or business networking group, check to find out whether you can add a website link to your member profile.

Now, keep in mind that you should only add your website to the profiles of sites or organizations that you’re an active member of. Joining new forums or groups with the sole intention of generating backlinks isn’t good SEO!

Technique #4 – Build social sharing links into your website

Social networking websites represent great link building opportunities, as these sites’ users are already accustomed to sharing great content with one another virally.

Unfortunately, though, most of your website visitors won’t go out of their way to share your website or the great link bait content you’ve created on their social profiles. Instead, you’ve got to prompt them to action!

The easiest way to encourage link building on social media sites is to add social sharing links or buttons to your website (either through the use of a plugin or by hard-coding them into your site’s design). This little tweak won’t take you long to complete and can make a huge difference in the number of links you’re able to create.

Technique #5 – Run a giveaway or contest

People love free things, so if you offer a giveaway or contest on your site, you can be sure that your readers will share your pages with others. Not only can this lead to a boost in traffic, it can result in new backlinks as well.

As an example, consider creating a drawing for a special prize or item that your readers can enter by posting your site’s URL to Twitter or Facebook. Doing so can lead to an influx of new links, though you’ll want to be sure you don’t run afoul of any local gambling or raffle laws in your area.

Technique #6 – Post guest articles on other blogs

If you’re having trouble gaining traction with the link building techniques described above because your site is still young and your audience is small, give guest posting a try!

As a guest author, you develop content for other sites in your industry and offer it free of charge to the site’s owners in exchange for a link or two back to your website. It’s a quick and easy way to both build your site’s exposure and capture a highly-relevant link from a reputable site in your industry.

To get started, use Google to search for sites in your industry that publish articles from guest authors (a search for “[your industry] guest author” should turn up a few candidates). Look for well-regarded sites and then follow the owners’ instructions for submitting your own guest articles.

Technique #7 – Put out a press release

Finally, one “tried and true” way to build backlinks quickly is to publish a press release and distribute it using syndication services like PRWeb. Doing so can lead to backlinks, new website visitors and higher sales from your new customer base.

Of course, it should go without saying that you need to have something worthwhile to publish in your release. Don’t create a press release to do so – save this valuable backlink building technique for instances where you have something truly noteworthy to share.

Again, this list is by no means comprehensive when it comes to link building ideas. Start with these techniques, but don’t be afraid to research other options as your comfort level with this powerful off-site SEO process improves.

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« Go Back | Posted in: - on May 21, 2013

According to the “Infinite Dial 2013: Navigating Digital Platforms” report recently released by the Arbitron research agency, approximately 86% percent of all respondents ages 18-24 have a profile on at least one social network – in addition to 80% of respondents in the 25-34 year old demographic, 73% of participants ages 35-44 and 58% of all 45-54 year old consumers surveyed.

As a business owner, this is huge!

By actively marketing your business on social media websites, you have an unprecedented level of access to your target market. Instead of paying for expensive TV ad space or waiting for the long lead times of magazine advertising to pay off, you can reach out directly to your target customers using the process of social media marketing.

Of course, there’s a bit of a learning curve to proper social media marketing – just as there is with any other promotional strategy. But by understanding and implementing the following three pieces of advice, you’ll position your business well for long-term social campaign success.

Key #1 – Get to know your audience

The first rule of social media strategy is that… there are no rules!

Although you can head over to Google and discover plenty of different “social media marketing game plans” that give you a pre-set script to follow, the reality is that no audience is the same. As a result, it’s up to you to get to know your audience and to determine how to best connect with them on popular social media websites.

As an example, suppose you read an article that states that all businesses need to be advertising their services on Twitter. That’s all well and good – but what if your audience members use Facebook far more frequently than Twitter? In this example, focusing your social media engagement efforts on Twitter would prevent you from connecting with the bulk of your audience.

Given that all audiences are different, it’s up to you to do the investigative work needed to understand your readers’ online behaviors. Pick up your spy glass and try to gather all of the following types of information:

  • Where does my audience spend most of its time? Be sure to check smaller social media websites and niche forum communities in addition to the big social networks (including Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Pinterest).
  • What types of content are my readers sharing? As a business owner, one of your goals when engaging in social media marketing will be to get readers to share your updates with their friends and family members. As such, you need to know what types of content they’re sharing. Tally up the number of articles, videos, infographics and other content pieces you see being shared, as well as the general topics of these shared pieces.
  • When are my audience members most active? Even if your brand has only a few social profile followers, try to determine whether you can see any patterns in terms of when they’re most active. Because information moves so quickly in the social space, timing your updates to your readers’ active periods is vitally important.
  • If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the thought of putting together a social media marketing plan for your small business, don’t worry. Start by paying attention to how your profile followers and other members of your target audience behave online – you’ll eventually get the hang of this unique form of communication.

Key #2 – Engage regularly with your social communities

When it comes to social media, simply creating profile pages and visiting them once or twice a month isn’t enough to generate any kind of meaningful results from this marketing strategy. Instead, you need to make it a point to engage with your followers every day in order to forge connections between your followers and your brand.

A few of the different types of activity you’ll want to engage in include:

  • Posting new content to your social profiles (as in, sharing any blog posts you’ve written, videos you’ve created, pictures you’ve taken, etc.)
  • Commenting on updates made by your followers
  • Sharing profile updates from your followers or from thought leaders in your industry
  • Following new people or businesses in order to expand your network
  • Answering questions that have been posted to your social profiles

Again, because there’s no “one size fits all” social media marketing plan that will work for all businesses, there’s no way to say for sure how much time your company should spend on all of the different activities listed above.

Really, the best thing you can do to improve your company’s social media strategy is to experiment. Start by committing 20-30 minutes per day to your social media accounts and give different types of updates a try. Monitor the response you receive as you go and eventually shift your focus to the types of activities you identify as delivering the best results for your brand.

Key #3 – Measure the impact of your social efforts

This tip is a bit more advanced, but it’s an important one to keep at the back of your mind – whether you’re just getting started with social media or whether you’re further along with your marketing efforts.

Ideally, the point of social media marketing is to generate measurable results for your business. These results might be something as simple as increasing the number of people who “Like” your brand on Facebook or it might be the more complex task of determining whether any sales have resulted from your social media promotions.

No matter what type of impact you’re trying to track, there is a way to measure your results. If you’re trying to increase your number of “Likes” or social media shares, you can track this manually or use a social media marketing tool like TwentyFeet or Sprout Social that tracks your brand’s stats automatically. If you’re measuring sales, you’ll need a more complex setup that tracks when sales are completed and from which visitors they’ve originated (for example, by combining Google Analytics Goals with Google’s Advanced Traffic Segments).

While it isn’t necessary to implement a measurement system right away, keep the idea of quantifying your efforts in mind as you begin the process of social media marketing. By having a general idea of what you’d like your social media efforts to achieve, you’ll position yourself better to determine whether your investment in this strategy is paying off in a positive ROI or whether you need to adjust your tactics to bring about better results.

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« Go Back | Posted in: - on May 21, 2013

Last week, we talked about what search engine optimization is and why you – as a small business owner – should care. But that said, knowing what SEO is pretty different from knowing how to implement this science on your own website!

Now, what you need to keep in mind is that SEO can be complex. Companies like Google and Microsoft employ some of the smartest scientists and mathematicians to make their algorithms as effective as possible. If you dig too deeply into the recommendations made by SEO strategists, you’re bound to feel overwhelmed.

So instead of stressing yourself out, start with any of the following seven SEO techniques. All of them can be easily implemented whenever you have a spare hour, making proper website optimization an attainable goal for even the “non-techiest” of small business owners.

Technique #1 – Optimize your title tags

Every page on your website should have its own unique title tag. However, not all title tags are created equally!

From an SEO perspective, a good title tag should:

  • Be no more than 70 characters (including spaces)
  • Include both product- or service-related keywords and your company’s brand name
  • Be both intriguing and informative enough to prompt search engine users to click through to your page (as title tags are typically used in the snipped displayed in the natural search results)

To see what this all looks like in real life, let’s look at a hypothetical example of how this and the following SEO techniques could be put into practice…

Suppose you run an auto body shop in San Francisco, CA. You’ve recently launched a new website which includes a page on your current specials. After conducting your keyword research, you’ve decided to target the phrase “auto body coupon,” along with location modifiers that put your website in front of consumers in your city.

In this case, a good title tag could be:

  • “Auto Body Coupons and Discounts | Frank's Auto - San Francisco, CA”

In addition, as you’re crafting your title tags, avoid “keyword stuffing” these important fields. Title tags that are no more than a string of all your website’s target keywords (in this example, something like “Auto Body Coupons, Auto Body Discounts, Auto Body Savings”) frustrate visitors and can lead to over-optimization penalties by the search engines.

Technique #2 – Create compelling meta descriptions

Along with your title tags, the section of every page on your website should contain a customized meta description. These brief page summaries should be no more than 150-160 characters long and should include at least one mention of your page’s target keyword phrase.

Following our previous example, your meta description could read something like this:

  • “Need quality auto body repair work done at a discount price? Check out the latest auto body coupon codes from Frank's Auto of San Francisco, CA.”

While meta descriptions don’t hold nearly the SEO weight that they used to, their presence in the snippets found on search engine results pages plays an important role in your site’s overall click-through rate (CTR). By writing your meta descriptions in a way that captures search users’ attention, you’ll increase the number of visitors who choose to click on your listing compared to your competitors’.

Technique #3 – Utilize keyword-rich headings

Both the title tag and meta description should be included in the section of every page on your website – but what about the rest of your page’s content?

When it comes to your pages’ body text, one of the best things you can do to improve your overall SEO value is to include <h2> and heading tags containing your target keyword phrases in your content. Not only do the search engines place added weight on the words found in these particular tags, the visual relief they provide to your website’s readers will help them to move more efficiently through your site’s content.

Technique #4 – Add ALT tags to your images

If you choose to add images to your web pages, make sure to add ALT tags to them as well.

ALT tags originally came about to provide visually impaired website visitors using text-to-speech devises with additional information about the content on their screens. And though this initial purpose is still valid, the content found in these fields is also important when it comes to SEO.

Again, you shouldn’t “stuff” your ALT tag full of target keywords and keyword variations. Instead, use your ALT tags to clearly and accurately describe your website’s images, working in keyword phrases as they occur naturally.

Technique #5 – Create a sitemap

In the world of SEO, the search engines’ indexing programs – commonly referred to as “spiders” – play the important role of analyzing new websites (or new content added to existing websites) and adding their content to the lists of pages that can be displayed in response to user queries.

As a result, facilitating the easy movement of these spider programs throughout your own site is an important part of optimizing your content for natural search traffic.

One of the best things you can do to help the spiders index your website is to create a sitemap – a page listing links to all the other pages on your site. There are plenty of different automated tools that can generate these important pages for you, though you can always create a sitemap by hand if your site is small.

Technique #6 – Build internal links between pages

Another way to help the search engine spiders to catalogue all of your site’s pages is to create internal links that connect your different pieces of content.

As an example, instead of simply linking to your “Contact” or “About Us” page from your navigation bar, consider adding text links to these pages from within the body content found on your home page. Doing so is a great way to help your visitors find the information they’re looking for, in addition to providing a major SEO boost to your site’s content.

Technique #7 – Update your site regularly

One final SEO technique you’ll want to implement is to update your site periodically. Because the search engines’ top priority is serving up the results that will best meet their users’ needs, they prefer to share websites that contain the latest, most up-to-date information. In addition, the more content you post to your site, the more keywords your website will include – increasing your odds of generating search engine traffic.

The easiest way to make regular updating a part of your SEO strategy is to create a company blog or news section. Either one of these tools will help you to connect with your readers, while also appeasing the search engines’ desire for fresh content.

Unfortunately, implementing these seven basic SEO techniques on your website alone isn’t enough to guarantee that your site will reach the coveted top spot in the search engine results pages for your chosen keyword phrases overnight. Realistically, SEO is a process that takes time to deliver results – though many new webmasters find this frustrating.

Instead of getting overwhelmed by the number of different SEO techniques out there, start with these seven basics. Over time and with continued commitment to pleasing both your readers and the search engines, you will start to see results!

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« Go Back | Posted in: - on May 9, 2013

For many small business owners, the thought of having a business logo designed is actually more stressful than the thought of building an entire website!

After all, don’t companies like Pepsi and Coca Cola spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to have a single logo designed?

If your company doesn’t have the marketing budget to rival these industry giants, don’t worry. There are plenty of different ways to have a logo created that will suit your business’s needs without breaking the bank.

Here’s how to go from zero to logo with as little stress as possible:

Step #1 – Determine whether you actually need a logo

Now, I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this article, it’s because you don’t already have a logo created for your business. If you do – say, for example, you have a logo used in the signage of your offline store – your existing logo can easily be translated to your new website.

But if you don’t yet have a logo, I want you to take a second to evaluate your business’s marketing needs before moving forward with this process…

Yes, having a definitive, recognizable brand is important to today’s consumers. And yes, being visually distinctive is an important part of differentiating your business from your competitors.

That said, not all websites need to have logos!

In fact, it’s far more common to see business websites these days that showcase a text representation of a company’s name than to see sites using old-school logos. If you take a look at any of the 27 featured template designs in the Homestead SiteBuilder gallery, you’ll find that all of them include options to display your company’s name through the use of text. Certainly, any of these templates can be modified to include a graphic logo. However, if the thought of having a logo created is so stressful that it’s preventing you from moving forward on your small business website, it’s far better to stick with text for now.

Step #2 – Identify your company’s style

So, let’s say that – despite this – you’ve decided you want to have a logo created for your new business website. Your next step should be to go out and find a designer, right? Hold your horses for a minute!

Before you even begin to solicit design proposals, it’s a good idea to take the time to clarify your company’s style. Logo designers come in all shapes and sizes, and finding the one whose design aesthetic represents your business’s style will make your project go much smoother!

To prepare for your designer search, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How would I describe my company’s personality? Are we hip, modern, traditional or reserved?
  • What colors best represent my brand and my company’s line of work?
  • What font styles resonate with my business’s style?
  • Are there any images or icons that graphically represent my business well?
  • Do I want an illustrated logo, a professional graphic or a text-based logo?

At this point in the process, you’ll also find it helpful to start collecting examples of logos that you like. Passing on a list of your design preferences will make it much easier for the designer you ultimately choose to deliver work that meets or exceeds your expectations.

Step #3 – Find a designer

Once you have at least a basic understanding of the type of logo you’d like to have created, it’s time to start soliciting design proposals.

There are several different places you can find logo designers, including:

  • Traditional graphic design and advertising agencies
  • Internet-based logo creation services
  • Online freelance portal websites like Guru.com or Elance.com
  • Budget sourcing websites like Fiverr.com

Keep in mind that each of these different options has its own advantages and disadvantages.

For example, if you decide to work with a traditional agency, you’ll wind up paying more to work in exchange for the ability to leverage the company’s past design experiences. On the other hand, working with designers found via Fiverr.com will get you a logo for $5 – though you might not like its quality or originality.

To determine which design source will be the best fit for your needs, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How much logo guidance do I need? If you have a very clear vision for what you want, paying for an expensive ad agency may not be necessary.
  • How many concepts and revisions will I receive? If you’re less clear on your logo ideas, be sure you work with a designer or service that offers multiple concepts and rounds of revisions so that you can hone in on the right design for your needs.
  • How much am I willing to pay? If you have the budget to go all out and hire an agency, that’s great! However, you shouldn’t feel like you have to spend a fortune to have a decent logo created. Logo creation services and freelance designers found via portal website can produce good work for as little as $50-100.
  • What types of files will I receive? If you plan to use your logo in future print work, be sure you’ll receive high resolution files along with internet-optimized versions. If you envision needing to make changes to your logo in the future, look for designers that will include working files with active layers as a part of your purchase.

Finally, keep in mind that having a logo created isn’t as simple as handing the project off to a designer and sitting back to wait for results. You’ll need to be actively involved in the design process, providing both initial insight into what you want your logo to look like and ongoing feedback on proposed designs and revisions. 

While the process of boiling your business’s essence down to a single graphic can be frustrating at times, you’ll ultimately find that the effort is well worth it when it comes to the visual impact of your company’s marketing materials.

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« Go Back | Posted in: - on May 7, 2013

The Internet is a very important and powerful source of revenue growth that some small business owners ares still wary of how to embrace it.

Below is an infographic that shows us how important the internet is to small businesses and how you can stay competitive, acquire customers and make more sales. So let’s take a look at the “Current Status of Online Business” and see why having an online presence is vital to your business. 

Embed this infographic on your site using the following code:

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