Many small and mid-sized business (“SMB”) executives are unable to confidently point to their websites as an effective lead generation tool. While most large organizations have effectively integrated their offline marketing and sales operations into the Web medium and can show demonstrable returns, SMBs have lagged. Here’s how to change that.

Understand the Issues

Ecommerce continues to gain momentum, with billions of dollars being spent annually by consumers and businesses over the Internet. But that’s only part of the story. Ecommerce doesn’t just mean selling a hard product online – it also includes activity such as selling the value proposition of your professional service offerings online. For every dollar that’s actually spent online, 2X as many purchases are directly influenced by research conducted on the Web.

So ecommerce also involves a heavy dose of product/vendor research and word-of-mouth discussions in addition to actual online purchases. For anyone under 40, the Internet is the first place they go to learn about both the companies they want to do business with and the products and services they want to buy.

Cover the Basics

Walk before you run. Driving traffic to your organization’s website – the crux of online marketing – is pointless if your site is outdated or inadequate.

Build a strong website that accurately portrays your organization in the marketplace and allows visitors to accomplish their online goals when they arrive.

Consider the three I’s of the Internet during your evaluation: impressions, information, and interactivity. Is your company’s image professionally represented on the website? Can visitors get all of their questions about your organization answered? Is the level of interactivity (e.g., ecommerce, customer service, product selection tools) on par with your competitors? Would you do business with your organization if you were an unbiased visitor to the website?

Remember Marketing 101

Marketing rule #1 for all companies: your product and service is your best marketing tool. That is, a quality product or service will generate word-of-mouth buzz, which will support business development efforts.

To that end, make sure to communicate your organization’s market leadership on the company website. Give them compelling reason to do business with your organization and address their likely objections. Include any or all of the following:

– Product and service awards

– Articles, press mentions

– Press releases

– Customer list and testimonials

– Management biographies and staff information

– Financial performance (if appropriate)

Promotional Tools

Once you have a formidable website in place, promote it. A great website that no one knows about it useless. To accomplish this goal – driving traffic to the website – you have many tools at your disposal.

Offline Integration

At the most basic level, you can drive website traffic by incorporating the website address on all organizational collateral: business cards, letterhead, email correspondence, etc. This subtly educates customers and prospects about where to go for information about your company.

Also make any offline collateral available on the company website whenever appropriate. Allow visitors to download PDFs of product specification sheets, search catalogue information, check for availability, etc.

Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

Search engine marketing comes in two forms: organic and paid placement. Organic search engine optimization (SEO) refers to the act of altering your site so that it may rank well for particular terms in the search engines (Google, Yahoo!, AltaVista, MSN, etc.). Paid placement allows companies to pay for prominence when specific keywords and phrases are searched for. Both efforts can pay big dividends, since about 80% of website traffic is generated through the search engines.

Affiliate Marketing

Affiliate marketing is online commission-bases sales technique where one company agrees to promote another on its website in exchange for a commission if a sale is realized from that “referral.” Once popular primarily among start-ups and small companies with small budgets, affiliate marketing is quickly becoming a best practice for companies of all sizes, though most prominent with companies that sells products online.

Online Media Buys

Just as organizations can secure advertising on television, radio, and print, the same principle holds true online through pop-ups, banner ads, and the like. This technique can be used as both a customer acquisition and brand-building effort, and can be acquired by most website properties with significant traffic: portals and online publications.

Retention Marketing

Permission-based email marketing – not to be confused with spam – is a highly effective tool for staying front and center among prospects and customers on a regular basis. It can promote brand building, educate customers on product usage, and encourage new sales (with both existing customers and prospective ones). Email newsletters also allow interested parties (prospective customers, investors, partners, the press) to establish a relationship with your organization in a low-risk manner.

Making it All Work Together

Successful online marketing programs focus on two primary issues: 1) building and maintaining a strong website that converts visitors into buyers; and 2) testing and refining the different lead generation techniques available (SEM, affiliate marketing, etc.) to determine the right mix and optimizing that combination over time. As with most business initiatives, determining the ideal program for your organization is more art form than science.

But the stakes are high so the effort is worthwhile. The Internet is a reliable lead generation tool for companies of all shapes and sizes. With the right mindset and level of commitment, product and service companies alike can reap the benefits of this emerging sales channel.