It's no longer enough to have a sleek website, social-media presence, and consistent brand aesthetic online. The new rules of branding your business on the Web have a lot less to do with presentation, and a lot more to do with interaction. In order to bring you up to speed, Inc.com has compiled nine of the most innovative and ingenious tips from articles, guides, and interviews in Inc. and Inc.com over the past year. These are the new rules of branding online.
1. Don't just start the conversation.
Be an integral and evolving part of it. "Social media has one very important perspective to share with brand management—the conversation. Like branding, social media is all about the conversation and building effective relationships. They are perfectly suited to one another," says Ed Roach, founder of The Brand Experts, a brand management consultancy in West Leamington, Ontario, the author of The Reluctant Salesperson, a free e-book available at www.thebrandingexperts.ca. The rules for brand messaging through new media versus traditional channels haven't changed, but "the game sure got better and more interesting," says Roach. It's not enough to have a Facebook page or a Twitter account, you must participate in the conversation by making regular posts and replying to direct messages from your customers. Ron Smith, president and founder of S&A's Cherokee, a public relations and marketing firm in Cary, North Carolina, agrees, adding that you'll want to stay on top of what people are saying about you and your brand online. "Monitoring social media is a must for all companies. Social media has shortened the time frame for company responses to complaints or accusations. These days, companies need to acknowledge any issues and control the messaging in a matter of minutes instead of hours or days," says Smith. Read more.
2. Either keep your personal brand out of it…
So you have 10,000 Twitter followers. Does it matter to your customers? Tim Ferriss, the entrepreneur behind the sports nutritional supplements company BrainQUICKEN and author of The 4-Hour Workweek, told Inc.com contributor John Warrillow: "Unless you're in one of a handful of businesses like public speaking, I think managing and growing a personal brand can be a huge distraction for company founders. I see all of these entrepreneurs trying to collect Twitter followers, and it reminds me of a matador waving a red flag in front of a bull. In this case, the founders are the bull. The bullfighter moves the flag away, and the bull comes up with nothing but air. Steve Jobs has a personal brand, but it is Apple's product design that makes it such a valuable company. He isn't jumping on Foursquare to develop his 'personal brand.'" Read more.
3. …or dive in and make all the headlines you can.
Appearing in the media as a source of expertise can go a long way toward building your brand, Inc.'s April Joyner reports. To gain press, identify media outlets that are most applicable to your particular areas of expertise and send them targeted pitches. If you want to be a talking head on radio or television, it also helps to give producers a preview of your personality by referring them to video clips on your site. As with print, the Web has also democratized the world of radio. Through venues such as BlogTalkRadio, anyone can host her or his own broadcasts—or find a show on which to appear. After you have honed an area of expertise, you will find that there are plenty of opportunities to take your message on the road. Becoming active in professional organizations and attending conferences offer valuable opportunities for networking. As you become more familiar within a certain field, more and more people will call on you to share your expertise. Making an appearance as a vendor at an event can also offer long-term personal branding benefits. Read more.
4. Don't favor edge over consistency.
Chris Russo had a healthy business. The only thing holding it back, he thought, was its name. Three years after its launch in 2006, Fantasy Sports Ventures's revenue was increasing 40 percent to 50 percent a year, a pace that surprised even Russo. But by the fall of 2009, he was uneasy. Despite the heady growth, Russo felt the company's brand positioning was pigeonholing the business and would soon limit further expansion. "Fantasy Sports Ventures was not a long-term, sustainable, public-facing brand," Ed O'Hara, of the branding firm SME, says. "It felt more like a holding company and was too heavily weighted on the fantasy side." O'Hara and Russo tossed around lots of edgy names, like Fanarchy, Fantology, and Gutcheck, but weren't sure. Rebranding was on the table, but the company didn't want to alienate its huge readership and large fan base. The solution? When the company acquired another brand, The Big Lead, and was integrating it into the existing portfolio of sites, Russo realized he struck gold. The name was consistent with the sites' goals, as well as its existing image. Read more.
5. Be persistent in finding and targeting your niche.
Even if you're entering a flooded marketplace—and online is certainly a very crowded forum—you always have a chance to make your brand and company stand out. People used to think water was all the same; now stores carry half-a-dozen brands or more. "Marketers struggle with differentiation because they give up too soon," says Derrick Daye, managing partner of The Blake Project. "They think that this can't be differentiated, it can't be unique." Experts say the constantly shifting marketplace creates the need to be creative with your approach. The toothpaste market is one that professionals cite as a constantly changing product selection that requires vigilance on the part of brand managers. Additives like baking soda, breath freshener, or whitening strips are now taken for granted. Read more.
6. Excel at telling your customers "About Us."
You may not be paying much attention to your About Us page, but visitors to your site are, writes Chana Garcia. And considering that your About Us page is where the world first clicks to learn about your company and the services you offer, it deserves a little more consideration and a lot more respect. Sure, you need to include all the basics. But a few simple tactics can make your About Us page a more exciting read and your company come across as more accessible, says Lorrie Thomas, aka The Marketing Therapist, a marketing strategist, educator, writer, web marketing expert and speaker. Avoid writing a soliloquy (too much text can be a turnoff) and focus on connecting with your site visitors. Thomas asked her employees to write their own bios for her company's About Us page. Her only mandate was that in addition to providing a snapshot of their professional history, they include personal information, such as hobbies or their favorite activities. Some even set up links to their blogs and personal websites. This might also be a good place to include e-mail addresses for your staff. Readily available contact information shows customers that you want to hear from them and that you have nothing to hide. Read more.
7. Fully integrate social media into your site.
You'll not only look savvy, but increase your connectivity, and gain traffic to you site from elsewhere. You don't necessarily need to put out the next viral marketing video or hire an expensive marketing agency (although both would probably help) to achieve a high rate of traffic. All you need is a bit of elbow grease, a few tricks up your sleeve, and a commitment to making your site a quality destination for visitors. Add Facebook Like buttons, have a dynamic blog section, utilize SEO, and build your site heavy with links, for starters. More tips can be found in our guide to "How to Drive More Traffic to Your Website." Read more.
8. Monitor your brand's reputation, and be ready to respond.
Facebook, Twitter, and Yelp have become essential components of many companies' online marketing strategies, but there are countless other sites on which customers rant and rave about their experiences. A question or complaint left unanswered on any of them has the potential to tarnish a company's brand and scare away prospective customers. That's why companies like Beachbody are using new tools to monitor what's been said about them online. The most basic services, like Google Alerts, allow users to select keywords to track and to receive e-mail updates whenever they appear on the Web. Others, like Social Mention and HootSuite, specifically scour profiles on social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace for relevant comments. Nate Bagley, a social media expert at Mindshare Technologies, a Salt Lake City company that makes software that helps companies keep track of customer feedback, uses Google Alerts and Social Mention to keep track of references to his company, as well as news on its clients, competitors, and the industry at large. "It's a good way to gather business intelligence," he says. Some of these services, including Radian6 and Viralheat, detect whether a post is positive, negative, or neutral, so businesses can easily determine which mentions require the most attention. Those features have allowed companies to maintain greater control of their brands. Read more.
9. Showcase your best work.
In this new environment, a sturdy brand is all about trust and relationships. With that goal in mind, there's no better way to build both than by posting testimonials or listing big-name clients you've partnered with. That will lend your business a good amount of credibility. You might consider incorporating your clients' logos somewhere on your page as an added visual element. Mentioning awards and recognitions your company received, as well as community service work, green initiatives, and interesting facts, will also make your business more appealing. Additionally, timelines, company history, and major milestones are attention-grabbing. Read more.