The Internet is here to stay, no doubt about it. Still, many small businesses haven’t moved online. Some may not feel the need yet. Others may be scared because the territory is unfamiliar. Whatever the case may be, below are some simple steps you can take to move your brick-and-mortar business online—something you must do if you want to be able to compete in the long run. Your customers are online. Your competitors are online or moving there soon. Don’t get left behind.
1. Get found.
Many businesses invest money in building a website in order to have an online presence and then stop there. In the offline world if you put up a business in a well-trafficked area of town, you’ll get visitors. They see the building and stop by. On the Internet, it’s a different story. Once your site is built, you still need to put significant effort into getting found.
Get listed on Google Places . Get listed in local directories. Get listed in industry directories. Learn the basics of search engine optimization or hire someone to do that work for you.
2. Get leads, not just traffic.
Another area where many people goof up online is in lead generation. After you build your website and start driving traffic, your job is to turn that traffic into leads. Ideally most pages of your website should have a lead capture mechanism. You need to offer something of value to your visitors in exchange for their email address or other contact information. If you don’t, you’ll lose a lot of your traffic. You need to develop a list-building mentality. Build a list of leads with every activity you engage in. Then, follow up with that list. Email marketing systems can help you do this in systematic ways.
3. Use email marketing to tell people about your business.
Recently, proponents of new marketing techniques have bashed email marketing, claiming that the medium is dying. This is far from the truth. Research firm ForeSee Results published a study early this year that was conducted during the 2010 holiday shopping season. They asked people who made purchases online about what influenced their visit to ecommerce sites.
As you can see in the study, the overwhelming majority (64 percent) stated that they prefer to hear about sales and promotions through emails. When engaging in email marketing, make sure you follow best practices and provide value to your leads instead of bugging them with sales messages all the time. Use email to build real relationships with your leads, not bother them.
4. Know that text messaging is not just for teenagers.
Many brick-and-mortar businesses are successfully using SMS marketing (text message marketing) to capture leads and follow up. You can have your store visitors opt into text message promotions by texting a keyword to an SMS short code. You can follow up with these people in the same way you do with email. You can even use text messaging to capture email addresses.
The world is going mobile—don’t miss out on these emerging opportunities.
5. Use QR codes in fun and creative ways.
You have offline customers. Eventually, you want to be able to communicate with them online as well. QR codes  are barcodes that can be scanned with a cell phone to send people to a particular website. QR codes on direct mail pieces, your store window, your checkout desk and other strategic areas can give you an opportunity to move offline traffic online.
Keep in mind that QR codes are used by cell phone users. So drive them to mobile-friendly pages where you offer something in order to capture their contact information.
6. Use online partners–they can be huge assets.
You may have been slow to get your business online, but that doesn’t mean you have to suffer forever. Most likely you know other local business owners who made the transition earlier. They may already be getting significant amounts of traffic. Hunt down the people who are doing well online and set up a way for them to drive traffic to you and you to them.
Complementary businesses can set up referral or affiliate programs to drive traffic to each other at appropriate points in the sales cycle. Using partners can jumpstart your online business significantly.
7. Give your customers an online account portal.
We’re all getting used to managing our accounts online. We can do this with our banks, our cell phone accounts, our utilities, etc. But do you offer a way for your customers to manage their accounts with you online? For those of you who provide recurring services (pool cleaning, landscaping, legal retainer, etc.), providing a portal where customers can manage their accounts online makes working with you more convenient for them.
That’s really what the Internet is all about – convenience. The more of it you give, the more your customers will love you.
8. Get social, maybe.
Social media is a booming arena for online marketing. If used correctly, it can provide a great stream of online traffic for your business. It also is a great way to listen and engage with customers. But I say “maybe” here because I see many small businesses wasting way too much time trying to figure out how to make social media work. The truth is, it’s not for everybody.
If your target audience is social, then you do need to figure it out. If you want to get into social media, I suggest you read my Small Business Trends post on The Social Media Money Formula . It will show you how to actually tie social media efforts to increased sales, instead of wasting time getting “friends” and “followers.”
One last point to consider is that there is a lot of hype on the Internet. Like most things, Internet hype is usually based on some amount of truth. The key is to decipher the hype about the latest trends. Adopt only the trends that make sense for your business, and make sure the tactics you use make a difference to the bottom line. If not, you’re wasting your time.
Of course there are many other things to consider when getting started online, but these steps will help you get started in a meaningful way.