Thursday, March 24, 2011

Changing small business with online technology

For almost a decade now South Africa has been lagging behind first world countries like the US and UK when it comes to internet connections speeds, download capacities and the ability to transfer large amounts of data via a website or email to clients and business partners. After much talk of infrastructure investment and undersea cables, the post Soccer World cup South Africa is much better of and much better connected to the world. Google even launching their ‘Street View’ technology in June, making South Africa the first African country to have this technology. The time now has come for businesses large and small to start transforming the way we use the Internet and technology to start and grow our businesses

Other countries in Africa have also started to take advantage of their new online infrastructure with web-cams being sent up in Namibia at the country's world famous Etosha National Park. With such technology being harnessed, businesses are now able to market themselves on a much smaller budget. For hotels and other areas of the hospitality sector, not to mention any other business, they can now place themselves to be seen online allowing potential customers to view, representatives including Phumlani Mohoil, CIO of the FIFA World Cup 2010 Organising Committee, Hennie van Wyk, Group Head of Technology for ABSA Bank, George Munyua, General Manager for Equity Bank Limited and Morgen Mufowo of Econet Wireless are already announcing their plans to increase revenue while taking advantage of a pre set infrastructure.

Despite objections being raised about the technology around invasion of privacy, there are mechanisms for users to remove their information from these websites. In addition, for countries that depends on tourism for most of their foreign currency earnings, but do not have significant marketing budgets. Being able to view a hotel or national park online provides an equal opportunities marketing platform for small and large businesses alike.

The benefits of Africa being connected to the rest of the world will be one of the topics discussed at the CIO Africa Summit (hosted by GDS International). Today CIOs need better business insights. Now they have been provided with the Business Intelligence tools and processes to deliver reliable, current, and secure data and accessible information they wish to discuss real tangible strategies that will help develop more effective performance.

With the installation of a new undersea fiber optic cable and an infrastructure securely in place, now is the time for Africa to truly embrace business online in order to bring down costs while boosting employee efficiency and innovation.

So are we still thinking with old limitations as a precursor when creating our business plans or looking toward new markets, or have we started to embrace the possibilities and opportunities presented to us by this new, bandwidth rich information and technology infrastructure?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Planning before you start a business online

Many of you reading this blog may be ready to start a  business online or have aspirations to do so. You may have a business plan looking for business finance or an investor that will help you start up or you may simply be aiming to do it all yourself. The internet of course dramatically reduces the start-up costs of many businesses and may just make it that more attainable of a dream. Today we know that with a good idea of a service or product you can literally start trading within a few months, providing you have the product ready or are able to provide the service that you are selling.

Before you start it may be a great idea to think things through a bot more carefully to ensure the time and resources spend on creating the business does not go to waste.

Establishing and maintaining an e-commerce business is not an easy task and requires thorough planning and preparation. For instance, not all products and services can be sold over the internet (i.e. automobile sales) and may require an in-person evaluation for that product’s sale. In addition, business owners should take into consideration the different domestic and international shipping costs, especially if they are seeking more than just local recognition. Once an entrepreneur is able to identify that an e-commerce establishment is suitable for their small business and have decided on the appropriate e-commerce structure, they should then plan to design and publicize their company’s products and services via a company website.

Every business owner who is considering an e-commerce strategy for their company should know the basic principals of electronic buying and selling. They should also be aware of how e-commerce functions before establishing an online business. Paid professionals can be hired to design and create their company’s website as well as provide them with different marketing tools and ideas to successfully target customers and generate profit. A professional website can yield the necessary traffic flow to the new business while improving the recognition and credibility of the company with its current and potential customers.

The internet is a resourceful tool for most entrepreneurs and their new businesses. It can serve as the electronic means by which business owners can communicate with staff and management via company e-mail in addition to providing a quick approach to ordering materials and supplies from their distributors. Through the internet, business owners can also sell goods at a competitive price, offer promotional services, and provide valuable product-specific information. A new business can also use the internet to create a user-friendly company website for visitors in which personalized “virtual” suggestions, at the time of purchase, can be made. Companies can also offer their customers with accessible means to buy and return products. Through direct internet auctions, storefront sales, and online shopping centers, a successful ecommerce business strategy can make online purchasing an enjoyable and profitable experience to both the customers and business owners.

As with every traditional business endeavor, online businesses need to aggressively market the products and services on their website. This often entails offering free gifts or services upon the purchase of products, providing numerous bargains, as well as finding other novel, resourceful ways in generating traffic to their company web page. One way business owners can accomplish this is not only by ensuring their website and services offered surpasses their competitor’s, but by making sure their online business has a competent team of customer service support. In fact, customer service is a more vital tool for an e-commerce business rather than the traditional business establishment. Through friendly and skilled customer service support, companies can make the consumer shopping experience hassle-free, address customer inquiries, and establish a strong rapport with current and potential customers.

E-commerce has certainly changed the traditional methods of advertising and selling a company’s products and services. With the introduction of the internet and the creation of company websites, small businesses can generate plentiful sales through e-commerce establishments and in the process, gain credibility and recognition among their customer base. There are many limitations of e-commerce and much research and planning needs to be done in order to successfully accomplish any online trade. A professional looking website needs to be created in addition to the recruitment of a solid, experienced customer service team. Once these components are in place, an entrepreneur can make his/her e-commerce business a successful and lucrative one.

So if you are happy that the above is all in order for your business and you are still satisfied that you can give it a real go then why not start with the next step of your venture today.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Page rank Still needs to be priority for small business

With all the talk of Facebook advertising, Twitter, Pay per click and other  online adverting options for small business it may be easy to forget about the importance of Search engine optimization. Featuring high on Google for relevant search term is still the most desirably form of any online marketing campaign. So no surprise then that within any business plan or marketing plan this element will normally feature in a significant manner.

Why does PageRank matter?
PageRank is quite important to some sites, not because it brings in more links, but because the links you’re getting are valuable inbound links. If your PR is good it could mean you have a lot of inbound links, sometimes from major reputable sites. If your PR is bad, it may mean you are not receiving relevant links from other sites. Having a strong PR matters because it means you are bringing more leads to your site, as well as creating conversions.

The Benefits of PageRank
In terms of SEO, a high PR is like getting a huge check in the mail. It means your search engine campaign is working. The further you go up the ladder, the more traffic you get. Because of this, preparing an SEO campaign to build PR is important.

The Downsides of PageRank
Some businesses could care less whether they have a PR of 2 or 8 because it’s no guarantee of success. Some believe Google controls too much in terms of online marketing. Google can shut down your efforts to improve your PR if for some reason it thinks you are trying to control the system and boost your PR. For example, some bloggers get paid to publish company reviews, not impartial, and then publish links. This builds inbound links for the buyer, and gives money to the blogger, but Google is able to figure this out and lower both site’s PR.

Why not the middle ground?
Many question whether Google PR is still relevant today, and if it actually helps. For companies who focus on search engine traffic, it may be a boon, but only if you go up the ladder. Other businesses get high PR without even trying, and therefore focus on results they can control. The middle ground would be to acknowledge PR as part of an SEO campaign, but because you have millions of other businesses to compete with, to consider it rather as only one piece to the puzzle.

You may wonder why you are getting all this traffic and still making pennies instead of dollars. This is because Google PageRank is about dollars and cents, not traffic. The problem may not be your SEM and PageRank, but rather your product. If on the other hand you have strong sales, but your PageRank is quite low, PR may not be an influencing factor at all. If this is the case we suggest looking at other options to promote your site and increase traffic and sales.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Getting a business online

Its unthinkable that some small business are not yet considering a online presence, but if you are reading this you may well be an entrepreneur who have not yet made the leap online. What does it take, what are the first steps and how much will it cost may all be questions you may be asking at the moment. If you have secured business investment then it may be wise to use some of this money to take advantage of the opportunities online. Chances are that potential clients ma be looking fro your services online.

No matter how small you are, establishing an online presence is a must for any business these days. Now more than ever, potential customers are turning to the Internet to find your business, learn more about what you offer and even buy your products.

If you haven't done much in the way of getting your business online, don't worry - it's easier than you think. In the past, developing a website may have taken months and cost thousands of dollars. Today, there are plenty of services available to small business owners to allow you to get online within two weeks for a reasonable price tag.

A good place to start is to establish your website if you haven't already. Providers such as offer affordable business web hosting, along with options to have your website designed for you or tools that allow you to design it yourself. Once you're online, potential new customers will have a much easier time finding their way to your doorstep.

Once your website is developed, the next logical step is to get started with e-mail marketing. Packages, such as those offered through Easy Contact by Deluxe, allow you to easily create and manage e-mail campaigns. Engaging your customers through e-mail marketing can be one of the most cost-effective ways to reach them.

As you establish your online presence, making your business identifiable is even more important. All the material you put on the Web should have a consistent look and message. A great place to start in establishing your online brand is by taking another look at your business logo. If your logo could use an update, or you are having trouble adapting it to look good online, logo design companies such as Logo Mojo can provide you with Internet-friendly design packages.

Getting your business online is half the battle, but once you're there, you'll realize that developing an online presence is easier than you thought. After you're up and running, you can explore even more ways to market yourself and offer more to customers online.

Google has in many ways transformed the way business owners can get real return on investment for their advertising spend, making it more affordable than ever to attract new clients to your business.

Rookie Mistakes in Website design

Designing a website is becoming increasingly straight forward especially at an amateur level. This hoping to get their online business plan to life quickly and without to much outside investment may very well opt for building the website themselves. With Programs like Joomla, Drupal Dreamweaver and other Open Source programs now readily available and accessible by entrepreneurs, those with little start-up capital often opt for the, maybe I'll develop my own website to start with and save some money, option. This, neadless to say is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. If you are however going to go ahead with this plan, make sure you look out for the following.

1. Bad Search

Overly literal search engines reduce usability in that they're unable to handle typos, plurals, hyphens, and other variants of the query terms. Such search engines are particularly difficult for elderly users, but they hurt everybody.
A related problem is when search engines prioritize results purely on the basis of how many query terms they contain, rather than on each document's importance. Much better if your search engine calls out "best bets" at the top of the list -- especially for important queries, such as the names of your products.

Search is the user's lifeline when navigation fails. Even though advanced search can sometimes help, simple search usually works best, and search should be presented as a simple box, since that's what users are looking for.

2. PDF Files for Online Reading

Users hate coming across a PDF file while browsing, because it breaks their flow. Even simple things like printing or saving documents are difficult because standard browser commands don't work. Layouts are often optimized for a sheet of paper, which rarely matches the size of the user's browser window. Bye-bye smooth scrolling. Hello tiny fonts.
Worst of all, PDF is an undifferentiated blob of content that's hard to navigate.

PDF is great for printing and for distributing manuals and other big documents that need to be printed. Reserve it for this purpose and convert any information that needs to be browsed or read on the screen into real web pages.

> Detailed discussion of why PDF is bad for online reading

3. Not Changing the Color of Visited Links

A good grasp of past navigation helps you understand your current location, since it's the culmination of your journey. Knowing your past and present locations in turn makes it easier to decide where to go next. Links are a key factor in this navigation process. Users can exclude links that proved fruitless in their earlier visits. Conversely, they might revisit links they found helpful in the past.
Most important, knowing which pages they've already visited frees users from unintentionally revisiting the same pages over and over again.

These benefits only accrue under one important assumption: that users can tell the difference between visited and unvisited links because the site shows them in different colors. When visited links don't change color, users exhibit more navigational disorientation in usability testing and unintentionally revisit the same pages repeatedly.

> Usability implications of changing link colors
> Guidelines for showing links

4. Non-Scannable Text

A wall of text is deadly for an interactive experience. Intimidating. Boring. Painful to read.
Write for online, not print. To draw users into the text and support scannability, use well-documented tricks:

bulleted lists
highlighted keywords
short paragraphs
the inverted pyramid
a simple writing style, and
de-fluffed language devoid of marketese.
> Eyetracking of reading patterns

5. Fixed Font Size

CSS style sheets unfortunately give websites the power to disable a Web browser's "change font size" button and specify a fixed font size. About 95% of the time, this fixed size is tiny, reducing readability significantly for most people over the age of 40.
Respect the user's preferences and let them resize text as needed. Also, specify font sizes in relative terms -- not as an absolute number of pixels.

6. Page Titles With Low Search Engine Visibility

Search is the most important way users discover websites. Search is also one of the most important ways users find their way around individual websites. The humble page title is your main tool to attract new visitors from search listings and to help your existing users to locate the specific pages that they need.
The page title is contained within the HTML <title> tag and is almost always used as the clickable headline for listings on search engine result pages (SERP). Search engines typically show the first 66 characters or so of the title, so it's truly microcontent.

Page titles are also used as the default entry in the Favorites when users bookmark a site. For your homepage, begin the with the company name, followed by a brief description of the site. Don't start with words like "The" or "Welcome to" unless you want to be alphabetized under "T" or "W."

For other pages than the homepage, start the title with a few of the most salient information-carrying words that describe the specifics of what users will find on that page. Since the page title is used as the window title in the browser, it's also used as the label for that window in the taskbar under Windows, meaning that advanced users will move between multiple windows under the guidance of the first one or two words of each page title. If all your page titles start with the same words, you have severely reduced usability for your multi-windowing users.

Taglines on homepages are a related subject: they also need to be short and quickly communicate the purpose of the site.

7. Anything That Looks Like an Advertisement

Unfortunately, users also ignore legitimate design elements that look like prevalent forms of advertising. After all, when you ignore something, you don't study it in detail to find out what it is.

Therefore, it is best to avoid any designs that look like advertisements. The exact implications of this guideline will vary with new forms of ads; currently follow these rules:

banner blindness means that users never fixate their eyes on anything that looks like a banner ad due to shape or position on the page
animation avoidance makes users ignore areas with blinking or flashing text or other aggressive animations
pop-up purges mean that users close pop-up windoids before they have even fully rendered; sometimes with great viciousness (a sort of getting-back-at-GeoCities triumph).
8. Violating Design Conventions

Consistency is one of the most powerful usability principles: when things always behave the same, users don't have to worry about what will happen. Instead, they know what will happen based on earlier experience. Every time you release an apple over Sir Isaac Newton, it will drop on his head. That's good.
The more users' expectations prove right, the more they will feel in control of the system and the more they will like it. And the more the system breaks users' expectations, the more they will feel insecure. Oops, maybe if I let go of this apple, it will turn into a tomato and jump a mile into the sky.

Jakob's Law of the Web User Experience states that "users spend most of their time on other websites."

This means that they form their expectations for your site based on what's commonly done on most other sites. If you deviate, your site will be harder to use and users will leave.

9. Opening New Browser Windows

Opening up new browser windows is like a vacuum cleaner sales person who starts a visit by emptying an ash tray on the customer's carpet. Don't pollute my screen with any more windows, thanks (particularly since current operating systems have miserable window management).
Designers open new browser windows on the theory that it keeps users on their site. But even disregarding the user-hostile message implied in taking over the user's machine, the strategy is self-defeating since it disables the Back button which is the normal way users return to previous sites. Users often don't notice that a new window has opened, especially if they are using a small monitor where the windows are maximized to fill up the screen. So a user who tries to return to the origin will be confused by a grayed out Back button.

Links that don't behave as expected undermine users' understanding of their own system. A link should be a simple hypertext reference that replaces the current page with new content. Users hate unwarranted pop-up windows. When they want the destination to appear in a new page, they can use their browser's "open in new window" command -- assuming, of course, that the link is not a piece of code that interferes with the browser’s standard behavior.

10. Not Answering Users' Questions

Users are highly goal-driven on the Web. They visit sites because there's something they want to accomplish -- maybe even buy your product. The ultimate failure of a website is to fail to provide the information users are looking for.
Sometimes the answer is simply not there and you lose the sale because users have to assume that your product or service doesn't meet their needs if you don't tell them the specifics. Other times the specifics are buried under a thick layer of marketese and bland slogans. Since users don't have time to read everything, such hidden info might almost as well not be there.

The worst example of not answering users' questions is to avoid listing the price of products and services. No B2C ecommerce site would make this mistake, but it's rife in B2B, where most "enterprise solutions" are presented so that you can't tell whether they are suited for 100 people or 100,000 people. Price is the most specific piece of info customers use to understand the nature of an offering, and not providing it makes people feel lost and reduces their understanding of a product line. We have miles of videotape of users asking "Where's the price?" while tearing their hair out.

Even B2C sites often make the associated mistake of forgetting prices in product lists, such as category pages or search results. Knowing the price is key in both situations; it lets users differentiate among products and click through to the most relevant ones.

Testing viability of your online business

Even before you come up with business plan for a online business, its important that you find out if there is a market for your business. Marketing research is such a crucial aspect of any new business, ensuring that there is really a need for your idea. With more than a billion websites now out there for one reason or another, ensuring that there will b a place for you and that your time and energy will not be waisted, this needs to be done very early in the start-up process.

Testing your idea can easily be done through Pay Per Click advertising. You can create an ad campaign in less than 10 minutes. An entire blog could be dedicated to what you can do to optimize your PPC ads so I won’t get into that here (but here are a few good resources). The main things you need to do are make sure you target the right keywords, have a decent ad, and put up a landing page that will help you track interest.

You don’t need to put up an entire site, you just need a teaser on the page and then measure how many people respond to the teaser. When I say “respond”, I simply mean you need a way to judge how interested people actually are in what you are offering. Actually getting traffic is good, but if what you are offering is not what they want, then you can’t accurately judge the need for your business.

For example, we were thinking of selling and ebook on online reputation management. Before we spent the time to actually write the book, create a site, and everything else involved, we ran some PPC ads and got traffic for people looking for related keywords. On the landing page, we had a few tests going at different price points. We listed what would be included in the book and then listed a price. For some people we said “Click here to buy this ebook for $79″, other tests showed lower prices. When people clicked on the link, it took them to a page saying the book was not yet available and they could fill out a form if they wanted to be notified when it was released. We did not collect any information from people unless they said they wanted to be contacted when the book was released because we did not think it would be right, but more importantly, we were not interested in collecting info on them. We simply wanted to how many people would click the link so we could determine if an ebook on reputation management had much potential. In the end, we found out that it did not have as much potential as we thought so we never did anything with it.

Another time we considered pursuing a new type of lead (for our lead generation company). We created a PPC campaign, put info on the landing page and did something similar. In this instance we found out there was enough interest in this type of lead and we would likely be able to convert the visitors at a high enough rate where it would be worthwhile to pursue.
The idea of testing your business model via PPC ads is mostly related to online businesses, but most businesses now need to have some online aspect to them so it is likely applicable to you.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

How can twitter help your new business?

Twitter is a phenomena in anyones language and although the business has not really settled on their own business model yet, its a real opportunity for online entrepreneurs. Apart from being absolutely free you also have almost instant access to a wide range of individual and business clients to who you can send regular updates on your business, products and services. But how does it work and will it be worth the time spend on constantly updating your status, following other and becoming more social in your advertising and media approach?

At first glance, Twitter may seem to be nothing more than a social circle. But with a little time, action and a strategic plan, Twitter can be used to effectively create new business for just about everyone. True, Facebook is bigger, but Twitter is evolving to be THE social marketing site for businesses. There are new buyers for nearly every conceivable niche. That’s why Twitter has become so effective for business: you can sell vegetables from the market, consulting services from the high office and books to book-aholics, you just need to find the right strategy.

So what is the right strategy?
Some may employ Twitter marketing and find no success whatsoever. What’s the point if you can’t crack the few thousand followers needed? If your goal with Twitter is more than just fun, you’re going to need a real marketing strategy. As far as the right strategy, it’s going to be different for every business.

Think of what you want Twitter to do for you. What marketing goals you can achieve using the social platform. Define these goals solely for social marketing and focus all your social marketing on achieving these goals. From that, develop your media schedule to keep a constant stream of Tweets.

Networking is going to be key. The more Tweeters you meet, the more connections you’ll make, the better chance you’ll have of connecting with potential consumers and big players in your field. Think beyond the 140 character Tweet and use every technology, person, connection and marketing venue at your disposal.

Technologies to save you time
Earlier, when I said it took a little time, I may have lied… a little. Putting up a constant stream of tweets, developing content to tweet about and building a worthwhile following can be rather time consuming. However, there are a few technologies for Twitter that can help you save some time.

Social Oomph (formerly TweetLater) allows you to run your Twitter marketing operation all day at times when you’re busy. You can schedule a certain number of pre-written Tweets and focus on connecting with more leads.
TwitterFox is also a useful piece of technology, where you can access Twitter without having to click over to the site every time.
Another important technology is the Twitter application for Facebook, where any messages you post on Facebook can also be posted on Twitter.

Ready… Set… Tweet!
You can effectively use Twitter to gain new business without employing any of these strategies. But the truth of the matter is, this is really just the beginning. There are millions of different tactics and strategies businesses have developed to get the most out of this social networking site. But if you’re questioning why do all this at all when you create no leads, remember to think long term. Much of what Twitter can do for your business is in the realm of branding and networking. Often times, it will take a while before you’ll see the benefit.