Having an online presence is essential for a business these days, but setting one up and maintaining it can seem both time-consuming and expensive. Here's five simple strategies you can use to enhance your online business presence for little or no cost, whether you're a part-time start-up or a rapidly growing organisation.
5. Take advantage of what's already on offer
Before spending extra to develop a site, make sure you're taking advantage of all the facilities that your existing provider offers. If you're hosting your site through an ISP, you'll very likely have access to facilities that let you set up multiple email addresses for your business. If you use a separate hosting provider, the resources to install a blogging system such as WordPress may already be available. Spend a little time checking the standard inclusions for services such as basic hosting which you are already paying for can reap big dividends.
4. Set up canned responses in Google
While there are many ways in which you'll end up interacting with customers who locate your business online (and we've discussed some of those below), email is not likely to disappear as an option in the near future. As your business grows, you're likely to find yourself sending the same replies to customers. If you use Gmail for email access, you can speed up that process by creating 'canned replies' which you can automatically use as the basis for individual replies. No more fiddly copy-and-pasting when you're dealing with the 17th query about your overseas shipping policy!
To use canned responses, you need to switch on the option in Labs. Click on the Labs icon (the flask next to Settings in the top right corner), scroll down to Canned Responses, select enable, then scroll to the bottom of the list and click Save.
To create a new canned reply, type what you want in a message, click on the Canned responses drop-down under the subject, and then save it under a suitable name. To use canned reply text in an email, select it from the same drop-down.
3. Use Twitter and Facebook to interact with customers
Setting up a Facebook page and a Twitter presence for your business is free, easy and a logical move, given the increasing dominance of these two social networking options. Creating a Twitter account doesn't involve any more than choosing a suitable user name and signing up; building a Facebook page is not much more complicated.
The key with both resources is to use them actively and appropriately, and treat them as a source of two-way interaction with actual and potential customers, not simply one-way channels through which you broadcast occasional specials. You don't need to bombard either medium with updates, but set yourself a regular schedule and stick with it. Facebook and Twitter are both highly personal, so avoid a dry business style and bring a human face to your postings; discussing new hires or product plans can be a good way to get conversation going.
2. Register your business on Google Places
If your business has a physical storefront presence, then registering for Google Places will ensure you show up in Google Maps search results. While there are lots of advertising packages on offer, the basic registration is entirely free.Just visit the Google Places site and enter the relevant details. You can add physical and site addresses, opening hours, payment methods accepted and even photos and video of your store if you wish (make sure these are kept up to date so potential visitors aren't misled or disappointed).
1. Learn the basics of coding and page design
While there are lots of automated resources out there to make site building simpler, having a basic working knowledge of exactly how sites are put together makes it easier to customise your webn presence to do exactly what you want, as well as simplifying trouble-shooting. We'll have much more to say on this topic in next week's Lifehacker 101 column, but you can pick up a wealth of knowledge by checking out our recent series on how to build a web site.
Lifehacker 101 is a weekly feature covering fundamental techniques that Lifehacker constantly refers to, explaining them step-by-step. Hey, we were all newbies once, right?