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Testing Your Online Business Plan

Carrie Hill
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I receive a ton of e-mails from startups and kitchen table Webmasters. I love these e-mails because they give me great ideas about how to explain and approach writing about marketing small businesses online.

I also get e-mails from a lot of folks who are disillusioned with SEM. It hasn't worked, they tried everything, and now they're broke. When I look at what they tried to accomplish, 99 percent of the time the problem boils down to a poorly thought-out and researched business plan.

Many of the site reviews I sit in on at conferences struggle with the same issue. A ton of money has been spent on development and band-aid SEO -- but there's no clear plan for making money.

Monetizing a Web site is so much more than slapping some ads on a page and waiting for the checks to roll in. Whether you sell products or services, realizing a positive ROI doesn't just take hard work -- it takes a solid plan!

A business plan doesn't need to be long and drawn out. I've seen business plans that included high-color artist renderings and flashy Web sites; I've seen them scribbled on the back of napkins. Where I see the process fall down is in the testing of what you want to attempt.

New Web sites can be expensive and time consuming. And you're going to lose money if your business is set up to fail.

Your business plan should include the following questions and answers:

  1. How will you monetize the site?

  2. How much do you have to invest in the initial build-out and online marketing efforts?

  3. How long can you sustain before you need to turn a profit?

Testing your business plan is as important as writing it. Just because you got it down on paper doesn't mean you're going to be a gazillionaire. You need to be sure you'll make enough money to support your efforts -- and a little profit never hurt anyone, either.

You might not turn a profit in the first six months -- heck, maybe not even the first year. Any new business has some serious expenditures to get moving. The answer to the third question may stop your plan right now. You better not start if you need to turn a profit in months one through six -- unless you're a really lucky person.

Here are some ideas for testing the viability of your online business plan before you spend a bunch of money on marketing and development.

  1. Do the keyword research. If your most relevant keyword phrases have zero or very few searches, start rethinking right now.

  2. If the keyword research works out, move forward and buy a good domain -- but don't spend too much. If it doesn't work out you'll be left holding a worthless domain you paid hundreds or even thousands of dollars for.

  3. Build a small but functional site. Don't build a grandiose expensive Web site before you know if you can pay for that site. Building one on a blogging platform will allow you to test the viability of what you're trying to do. Write relevant content and optimize your pages well for the keywords you found in Step 1. Work on using good site structure and follow the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) method of organization.

  4. Install analytics on your new Web site -- make sure you can track conversions so you know how many dollars you're making. This can be done for free with Google Analytics and will give you the information you need to move into more complex marketing if these first steps take off.

  5. You're probably not going to rank your brand new domain for organic searches right away, so just worry about PPC right now. Work on some campaigns to drive paid ad traffic to your new Web site and watch your analytics and spends to see if your work pays off. You will inevitably need to make some tweaks to your site based on what visitors are looking for -- but this is going to make or break the future of your site. If you aren't getting PPC traffic, then you're using the wrong keywords, or your budget is too low. Remember: you can always ramp up later if you become successful -- but jumping in with both feet and dumping a ton of money into this step will just make you more frustrated.

  6. Participate at blogs and forums related to your offerings -- don't push your new Web site in people's faces, but let them know it's there and you're open to feedback. Twitter is a great place to build a community and receive constructive criticism about what you're doing online.

  7. If you're still in the game -- and making some money at this point -- you're doing pretty well. Consider scaling your efforts slowly so you're not spending faster than your site can recover the expenditures.

There are definitely other ways to get started with an online business that is dependent upon search to succeed. This list is definitely not an all-inclusive process. There are tax and legal implications you need to address along with many other minutiae that comes with owning a business.

Starting with a solid business plan makes being successful a bit easier -- and not quite as scary.


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