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Five Ways to Grow Your Business Online

Keyboard While you may spend the majority of your time outside doing quality paint jobs, many of your potential customers are inside, at the computer, looking up information that may lead them to hire you for the next job. So how do you make sure they find you and see you in the best possible light?

You don't have to be a computer genius — nor do you have to spend a lot of money. But it does help to know some of the top tactics to give your online image maximum impact.

Before you get started, take a minute to Google yourself. The best way to gain insight into how potential customers will first encounter you online is to do a simple search on yourself and see what comes up. The importance of how you appear in online search results cannot be overstated. If a search turns up something negative or unseemly about you or your business, address that first. And, going forward, frame your thinking about how you do business around how it will translate into online search results.

Once you know how you stack up, you're ready for these five basic ways to grow your business online:

1. Optimize Your Profile on Review Sites: For better or for worse, an entire industry has grown up around reviewing businesses like yours. Sites like Angie's List, Yelp, Google Places, CitySearch, Yahoo! Local, Bing Places for Business, Foursquare and YellowPages all list information about businesses — with or without their express permission. Because these sites rely on crowd-sourcing, you don't have absolute control over how you are listed or what's posted about you. That's why it's important to be aggressive about controlling what you can control, starting with an accurate listing of your business details such as address and phone number. Most of these sites allow you to "claim" a listing, giving you, as the claimer, a greater authority over the factual details.

Also, look at the reviews. Customers are free to write an honest review of your services on many of these sites, which can be great for your business or damaging if they post an issue or a gripe. This may sound unfair but it's what gives these sites credibility and, if you play your cards right, it can be used to your advantage. Make sure you respond to any negative feedback by registering for an account on the site and responding in a direct message to the person who posted the negative statement. Offer them courteous customer service and refrain from any defensiveness that may further escalate the situation. Counter negative reviews by asking your champion customers to write positive reviews of your business on these sites.

2. Build a Website: It's as essential as a business card in providing information about who you are. Your Web page is where customers can read about you and your services and, unlike on the listing sites, you have control over your image and key messages. Keep it simple; a few pages are enough but consider including the following:

  • About Us — A description of your business, who runs it, its history and a mission statement. Highlight the key selling point that sets you apart from your competitors.
  • Products/Services — List what your company offers and provide details of what you can do for a customer.
  • Our Work — A photo gallery of the jobs you've done will provide visual evidence of the quality of your work. Also, ask your customers for a quote that can be used as a testimonial.
  • Contact — The most important information of all! Include all of the ways a customer can reach you: phone, email, fax, text message, etc.

Other considerations:

  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO) — Start by including keywords on your website that will be picked up by search engines such as Google, Yahoo! and Bing. For example, think about what words a customer might use to search for you if they didn't know your name, such as "painter in Thousand Oaks," and include those words on your homepage. If you're working with a professional Web developer, make sure he or she includes these words in the metadata that rests unseen behind every website.
  • Think mobile — Work with your Web designer to create a site that looks great across all kinds of devices — laptops, smart phones, tablets — not just a computer monitor. Ask friends to lend you their handheld devices, anything different from your own, to see how your site displays.
  • Promote your website on everything — your business cards, your brochures, flyers, signs. Make sure people can find you easily.

3. Email Marketing: When designing your website, be sure to have an email opt-in area prominently displayed. Invite customers to sign up for your email list to receive newsletters, coupons or anything else you would like to send them. Don't try to send bulk email from your personal account. Instead, sign up with an email service provider and let them do the sending. (They can also manage your lists.) Services like Campaign Monitor, Constant Contact and MailChimp can send emails ranging from few to many, with pricing based on the number you send. Don't abuse your list. Sending too many emails is considered spamming and will cause your customers to unsubscribe from your mailings. Limit your schedule to less than once a week. If you're not comfortable writing your own emails, hire a freelance copywriter. Also, work with a designer to develop a template layout for your emails to make sure they look professional and visually appealing. Most email services offer an array of ready-made templates, as well.

Social Media 4. Be Social: Social networking sites offer a terrific platform for a business, and you can't beat the price. (Free!) The main benefit of using social media is that whatever you post can be easily shared, giving your marketing messages potentially infinite reach. On the other hand, sharing is far from guaranteed. The more interesting, informative or inherently valuable your post, the more likely it is to be forwarded. Here are a few social media outlets to consider:

  • Pinterest — Create a visually inspiring presence on this service by posting pictures to virtual pinboards. Whether it's work you've done, you've seen or simply a color in nature that inspired your thinking about paint colors, you'll want to think creatively to make whatever you post to Pinterest support your marketing message. Be sure to include your Web address in the description box so that, wherever your pin is shared, it will link back to your business.
  • Instagram — Use this service to take pictures with your phone, alter them with interesting filters and other features built into the app, and post them. Instagram is a showcase for your work. Add a comment, a location and even a hashtag (such as #interiordesign) for greater visibility.
  • Facebook — Start a page for your business. Post the latest company news, elaborate on your services, show off your work and give a sneak peek into the life inside your operation and its employees.
  • Twitter — Start a "feed" for your business. Tweets are limited to 140 characters — just enough to share a quick bite of company news, a link back to an article on your website or something else you found relevant to your business on the Web. You may post the same content you put on Facebook, but you might want to mix it up a little to give your followers a reason to be a part of both pages.
  • YouTube — Whether you hire a professional videographer to shoot your promotional video or shoot it yourself on a smart phone, YouTube is the ideal starting point for giving it visibility online. Video is a great way to expand on projects you've successfully completed, share your knowledge and expertise, and provide a compelling introduction to your staff. But the best way to hold a viewer's attention is to keep your video brief and concise — preferably under two minutes.
  • LinkedIn — This service is great for business-to-business networking, so be sure your business has an updated page on the site. You can post updates in the same way you do on Facebook and also join Group pages of others in the industry.

Once you start a social networking page, keep it dynamic by posting regularly — perhaps a few times each week. Be sure to check for any comments about your posts and reply back by clicking the "like" button or saying "thank you." In general, think of social media as a networking party — post information you would talk about at a social gatherings that people who came to the party would be interested in and don't forget to ask what they think or what they would do. Be careful about talking too much about just your business, as nobody likes a boaster. And don't forget to have some fun and humanize your company — an occasional good joke goes a long way!

5. Advertise Online: The best way to attract new customers is to advertise. You'll reach the biggest online audience by placing ads on sites where people are searching for a service like yours such as Google, Yahoo! and Bing. They all function pretty much the same way — you select keywords someone might use to find your business, such as "house painter," write a short one-line ad with a link to your website, then set a budget for how much you are able to spend each time someone clicks on your ad.

Similar advertising is also offered on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to generate more followers on those pages, as well.

With these online steps, your business will be easy to find online. And new customers will feel confident in hiring you after getting to know you and seeing the great work you do!