One of the most daunting tasks a small business owner can undertake is deciding how to spend their time -- along with their money. Knowing how and where to start when evaluating a marketing opportunity can involve a variety of factors. Each potential commitment should be appraised to gauge a variety of factors that will help you make an informed decision.
Features, cost, potential return, time investment, competition and length of commitment are all factors you should keep in mind when deciding where and how to spend your marketing dollars online. Small businesses are just that -- small. That means your funds are probably a bit limited -- especially if your business is a start-up. It's important to guard your assets and look for opportunities to get the biggest "bang for your buck."
The easiest and most complete way to do that is to make a list of goals you'd like to achieve for your marketing. You'll want to keep this list handy so you can refer back to it often. Basically, you'll start by setting your own limits for "acceptable" returns and "outstanding" returns on your investment. You'll evaluate each opportunity against the factors mentioned above. Each component is a part of the overall picture, so having a realistic idea of the return is a great way to set yourself up for success and alleviate any disappointment that unrealistic expectations might cause.
I'll run through the factors and some questions you can ask yourself when evaluating the next opportunity that shows up in your inbox. The following tips focus mainly on evaluating a link opportunity, but can be applied to nearly any Web service or tool:
- Cost — The number one question you need to ask when analyzing any marketing investment is cost. You need to know the answer to the question, "If this doesn't work, will it affect my ability to do business?" If the answer is "yes," the cost is too high, and that opportunity should be considered too risky. After that, move on to analyze what you will receive for your money. Remember that quality is king – if the opportunity includes a great looking listing on a high traffic site, a higher cost is justified versus a simple text link buried on a page full of text links.
- Time — Constant monitoring and updating can eat into time you should be spending converting leads into sales. What is your time worth? How much time can you invest in the opportunity to receive the best results? View other listings or setups and determine how long you think this will take you. Factor what your time is worth into the cost of the listing. Can you pay them a bit more to set it up for you? Is that worth it for you?
- Potential Return — This area can be a bit gray. An opportunity marketer wants your business so they're going to shine up the good and shadow the bad. Look for referrals and testimonials. If this is a significant investment, they should be more than willing to provide some references you can consult. Search the company's name and see if they have an established (good or bad) reputation. Look at the online forums or business and service review sites such as Epinions or BizRate to see if others have received an acceptable return on their investment.
- Competition — Do your competitors use this directory? If they're not currently listed, you may be able to monopolize the traffic for your product or service, even for a little while. Consult the SERPs for your competition's brand and see if the directory or other product is ranking for their name. You should be able to achieve the same results with the same level of service. Assistance with your reputation management can be a valuable side benefit these opportunities can offer through owning the SERPs when your brand name is searched.
- Features — Before you start evaluating the cost/benefit ratio, look at the other listings on the site and see what others are getting out of their investment. In what way do they bring visitors into their site? How will that benefit you? Do they no-follow their links? If not, are the links showing as backlinks in the various SEM tools? Links aren't the only reason to go after these opportunities, but they do help. The link question should always be in the back of your mind. Interactive maps are a great new way to pique interest, along with social networking features.
- Length of Commitment — If, after 3 months, you're not happy with the service, can you back out? Will you be given a refund if you're not satisfied?
Let's talk for a minute about the "guarantee" people. There will always be the companies out there that "guarantee" results. In my experience, using the word "guarantee" attached to anything remotely associated with search is a bad idea. If they do offer a guarantee, find out what recourse you have if they don't live up to their promises. One rule of thumb to remember with each idea that presents itself is the old adage, "If it looks too good to be true, it probably is."
Investing in search marketing can be a gamble, if you don't do your homework. By evaluating each opportunity you're presented with and being aware of the ups and downs, you'll be prepared if that gamble doesn't pay off. You'll also be more likely to invest your time and money in things that work. Stay tuned for more ideas on how to invest in small business online marketing to make the most of your time and money.