As a small business owner, I know firsthand the pressure to attract new customers in a challenging economic climate, especially on a limited (code for nonexistent) budget.
Fortunately, there are some powerful things you can do today -- without spending a penny -- to tap into the power of the Internet and make it easy for prospective customers to find your small business. That's right: free. All you need is computer access to get started.
1. Create a Facebook Fan Page
Chris Meyer of CM Photographics in Woodbury, Minn., says 60 percent of his photography business now comes from the free fan page he created on Facebook. He uploads photos from the weddings he shoots, and all the guests pictured are encouraged to become fans of his page. Once they're fans, they're automatically updated daily on his work and any special offers. For example, he may post a notice about a free engagement session if you consider booking him for a wedding -- and the majority wind up booking him for their big day.
A clothing store could post photos of new arrivals. A nail salon could ask its customers to become fans -- and then post surveys on the most popular polish colors of the week. There are lots of ways to get creative and engage your customers, and then their friends become your fans and customers too.
Facebook offers a free tutorial on how to get started once you log in. (It's not very difficult. If I could do it, anyone can. Click here to see my company's fan page on Facebook to see what I mean.)
2. Tweet Special Offers or Advice Daily Via Twitter
Sprinkles Cupcakes is just one business that encourages customers in its stores and on its Web site to follow the company on Twitter. Every few days, the company sends out messages such as "Celebrate National Chocolate Cake Day! The first 50 people to whisper "rich" at each Sprinkles receive a free dark chocolate cupcake." That gets people into the shop -- and most times they buy another cupcake and a drink.
Ask your current customers to follow your business on Twitter -- and build from there. A store owner can announce sales or tweet special Twitter-only discounts. A daycare service might post tips on caring for kids -- plus holiday specials. Restaurants post recipes, ask questions about food preferences, and of course share discounts. It's all about engaging your potential customers.
(When you set up your Twitter page, send me the link at Twitter.com/ToryJohnson and I'll try to help you spread the word about your business. Make sure you've done a good job making it appealing.)
Attracting New Customers With Help from the Internet
3. Encourage Customer Reviews on Yelp
Some 90 percent of consumers say they trust recommendations from people they know, and 70 percent say they trust consumer opinions posted online, according to a 2009 Nielsen Global Online Consumer Survey.
The Root is a hair salon in Phoenix that's listed on Yelp.com, which is a local business directory -- think the electronic version of the yellow pages with reviews, photos and more -- and some of its customers had posted reviews of its services on the site. With just about a dozen reviews posted, the owner says she sees as many as two dozen new customers every week who say they found the salon on Yelp.
By comparison, she spent $300 to run a one-month print ad, which resulted in just one customer. Yelp which is free, has brought her hundreds of clients.
The site says more than 25 million consumers visited Yelp last month looking for everything from mechanics to day spas. Visit Yelp's tutorial to get their tools working for you.
Another site to consider is CitySearch.
4. List Your Business on Google and Yahoo
When we want to find anything, we turn to Google or Yahoo to search -- and you can't get any bigger in terms of Web sites than these.
Google has a Local Business Directory where you can register your business absolutely free. The search giant even allows restaurants, for example, to post their menus or photos of entrees, and enables customers to submit reviews. And here's what's most interesting: You don't even need a site to have a strong Web presence. It's open to all types of small businesses -- with hundreds of thousands posted. (Yahoo offers a similar service.)
There's no reason not list your business on both sites -- whether you own a mom and pop hardware store or a bar, you want to leverage the extraordinary reach of these search engines. Check out Google's tutorial to help you get started.
Attracting New Customers With Help from the Internet
5. Be Your Own Publicist
Finally, the Web site Help A Reporter is a free daily email service that delivers media queries three times a day right to your inbox from among some 70,000 bloggers, authors, TV reporters, and radio producers. Often the requests are for small business owners -- recent listings seek small business owners to discuss creative financing in this economy; other queries are for gardening experts, jewelry makers; the needs are very diverse. This is a way for you to do your own publicity without the expense of a publicist to get your business mentioned in the media.
Before you distribute a press release, check its strength at PressRelease.Grader. You'll get an instant report on what works well and opportunities for improvement, which may help you flag mistakes before you show it to the world.