Cost-effective ways for local businesses to promote themselves online

This article is posted by Mark Armitage, Director of Marketing Communications for Socialshopping.com. The landscape for local social marketing opportunities is expanding rapidly, and he provides an overview.

For local business owners, whilst daily deals sites like Groupon and LivingSocial can drive large volumes of new customers, the profitability of running an offer through them can be questionable. By the time they’ve offered the original discount to attract customers to their store and given the deals site its cut (typically 40-50% of the coupon’s face value), businesses can find that their profit margin is low or that they’re even looking at a loss leader.

So what are the alternatives? Here are some other solutions which savvy business owners can use to drive customers online without breaking the bank:

Facebook – For consumer-facing companies, generally speaking it makes sense to use Facebook to promote their business (there may be exceptions if the service they provide is of a personal nature like, say, funeral services or financial advice).

It doesn’t cost anything to create a simple fan page and post a message at least every few days, but it’s a great way to interact with existing customers and to spread the word about the business to others. Business owners should be sure to include a link to their Facebook page on their website and any printed marketing collateral which they use.

If the business has a physical location, they should also create an entry for it on Facebook Places. Specifically designed for mobile devices, it gives the option to merge a Facebook Place with a fan page or to offer promotions using the Places service independently.

Twitter – Like Facebook, Twitter’s key benefits are that it’s free and an excellent tool to interact with existing and prospective customers. The company is also beginning to offer trend analysis for certain geographies, and as it ramps up, local targeting will become a more prevalent part of Twitter’s marketing proposition.

YouTubeYouTube and other video sharing sites can be a great way for businesses to convey their company’s personality and stand out from the crowd. It won’t work for every type of business, but again it’s free to create a basic YouTube channel and to upload clips.

You don’t need to try anything too clever or have an advertising degree to make this work. For businesses which involve manufacturing goods or preparing food, they can shoot a video to show customers how the process works, whereas office-based companies can try giving them a tour of their building or a weekly or monthly news bulletin from the staff or CEO. As with Facebook and Twitter, businesses which have a YouTube channel should be sure to tell customers about it both in person and in any other online or offline marketing sources which they use.

Google Maps – Google Maps is a really simple tool for businesses to create a placement on and, unlike the previous examples I’ve mentioned, doesn’t require a lot of maintenance once they’ve set it up. By adding photos and tags to their listing, businesses can ensure that whenever people search for their product or service in their town or local area, their location shows up. Doing so can reap surprising dividends, particularly if what they offer is fairly niche – say, a family guesthouse, or a shoe repair store. Companies can also add items such as coupons for customers to print out and bring to their premises.

Google’s analytics information for Places listings is also easy-to-understand but helpful to business owners, showing them what people are searching for when they find them, where they come from, their interests and so on.

Business directories and review sites – Local business listing sites such as Yell in the UK and Manta in the US are essentially the online equivalent to the thick directories which land on your doorstep in many cities. The key difference, though, is that as well as allowing them to provide and maintain an entry for their business, many sites allow users to post their own reviews of them, which employees should monitor and respond to where necessary.

For businesses such as restaurants or accommodation services, there are many specialist directory services. Sites like Zagat for restaurants or Agoda for travel can be great traffic drivers.

Social shopping sites – Not all sites dedicated to retail have price at the centre of their proposition. As local businesses tighten their belts and realize the limitations of daily deals and voucher code sites, a new generation of sites is beginning to emerge which combine the interactivity of Facebook and Twitter with features specifically geared towards shoppers like personalized offer feeds.

This is what my company is trying to achieve with Socialshopping.com. This is definitely a trend that local business owners in particular should watch out for, as the best of these sites offer a chance to market their business as they wish without the hefty commission charges.

Mark Armitage is Director of Marketing Communications for Socialshopping.com, a new online shopping network and community which brings together thousands of shopping fans looking for the best tips and bargains both online and where they live.

Contact Mark at mark@socialshopping.com.

About Pat Kitano

Patrick Kitano works with brands in developing hyperlocal engagement solutions and is administrator of the Breaking News Network, a national hyperlocal network devoted to community service. He is the author of The Local Network on Street Fight, and is reachable via Twitter @pkitano and email pkitano@gmail.com.