In the age of Web 2.0, where it seems like everyone has a blog or engages in online social interaction of some description, it’s hard to imagine that there are quite a few businesses that still do not have a website. In fact, according to a Barlow Research survey in 2008, around 38% of small businesses had no website, and weren’t planning on having one in the next year.

As a web developer, it’s tempting to say that it’s foolish for any small business to not have a website. But a website is not always appropriate for all businesses. For example, a small town plumber that has served the same corporate clients for 30 years probably has nothing to gain by throwing up a website. On the other hand, he might be able to gain other clients and expand his business through other online means, like social media or email newsletters. There are five major ways to use the Internet to get customers, and none of them require an investment more than the average small business owner could afford.

Research Your Competition

You don’t need to have a web presence to gain some benefit from the Internet – and researching your competition’s websites and social media profiles can give you great ideas for your own business. For example, you might like one of your competitors’ coupons that they advertise on Facebook, and decide to offer a similar discount on your own services to prevent them from stealing your clients.

You can also use social media profiles to put together a list of your competitors’ current clients – then contact those clients with special offers to entice them away from your competition. Social media is a double edged sword in this respect – although you can interact with your clients on the Internet, you also risk potentially exposing your client list to savvy competitors in a position to undercut your services.

Create Social Media Profiles

Still, there are vast benefits to establishing a strong social media presence. If you own a small business, you absolutely must set up a Facebook profile. In March of 2010, Facebook finally passed Google as being the number one most visited site on the Internet, with users in the United States spending more than 41 million minutes on the site during that month. If you were asked if you would like to put up a free advertisement where people spent that much time outside of the Internet, you’d be a fool to turn the offer down. Why should the Internet be any different?

But it’s not as easy as starting a Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn account and waiting for the new clients to find you. When you engage in social media, you must interact with the community in order to be successful – not just sit back and hope that your existing clients will spread the word. Be sure to invite your friends, family, current clients, next door neighbor, everyone to interact with your social media profiles, preferably by “Liking” your page or joining your group. Only then can you get the exposure necessary to gain more clients.

Improve Your Own Services

You can also use the Internet to improve your own services, especially by seeking out cheaper suppliers for the products you use every day. For example, if you use business cards often in your business, it might be worthwhile to search for business card ratings to see if you’re getting the best price. Even if buying your business cards online only saves you a few dollars every month, cutting small expenses can really add up over the long run.

Additionally, the Internet can give you opportunities to seek out possible partnerships to increase your existing revenue stream. For example, if you own a barber shop but don’t sell any hair care products in the store, you could make an agreement with an online retailer to refer your customers to their website to buy the hair care products they need after their haircut. Most online retailers have affiliate codes that your clients can enter on their website to verify that they came from your business. Although you might not gain new clients, offline affiliate marketing can still be a good strategy to earn additional revenue from your existing customers.

Create an Email List

If you sell any type of product or service, you can gather an email subscription list (either by purchasing the list from a third party website or gathering contacts naturally) to promote your products. You have to be very careful about purchasing a list from a website, as spam can be a serious problem with these websites.

To naturally build a list of new clients using the Internet, you can use advertising to offer special deals for people that sign up for your newsletter. This requires a small investment in advertising, and usually at least a one page website to use as a landing page for the ad. However, a few advertisement banners and a small website shouldn’t cost you more than $500.00. Once people sign up for your newsletter to qualify for your special offer (which can be an eBook or coupon) you can continue to promote your products every month to people on your list.

Start a Blog

Of course, one of your most powerful tools to gain new clientele can be a simple blog targeting some keyword phrases that could bring you new business. Tools like WordPress make blogging very simple, even for people with little experience working online. But don’t make the mistake of using your blog to only promote your services. Focus on providing high quality, valuable information to potential customers about your niche, not simply posting positive reviews of your products and services. So, instead of exclusively talking about yourself and your boat cleaning business in your blog, you could create articles like:

  • Top 5 Best Places to Sail in the United States
  • 10 Mistakes You’ll Probably Make When Cleaning Your Boat
  • How to Apply New Paint to an Aluminum Boat
  • Five Myths About Boat Safety Guidelines

So, you can create content that potential clients will truly be interested in, while making sure that they have the opportunity to try your services. Sure, they could use your article on cleaning a boat to do it themselves, but you might convince them that they’re better off letting you do it – especially if the article is well written enough to make them think of you as an expert.

Not every business can benefit from investing in a website. However, there are virtually no businesses in the world that can afford to ignore the Internet altogether. Whether you use it to research your competition or find opportunities to attract new customers, you need to start thinking about your digital presence and how it impacts your sales figures.

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