With nine out of ten prospective buyers shopping online for acquisition opportunities, about the only reason not to list your business with online sites is if you have a specific buyer in mind and you don't want to deal with other interested parties. For everyone else, here's what to know about how online ads work and what makes them work well:

1. Include key financials

Include annual revenue and annual cash flow or seller's discretionary earnings. Without this, it's difficult for a potential buyer to know if your business fits his/her lifestyle/income needs and investment capability. Also, if your business listing doesn't provide this information but other similar business listings to provide it, buyer will be much more likely to respond to competitive ads.

2. Include geographic location

While listing sites allow you to keep location (county) information confidential, don't. Most buyers search locations at least to the county level, which your listing should reveal. If a buyer is searching for a florist in Dade County Florida and your businesses location is confidential, they WILL NOT see your listing in their search results.  If you desire to keep your sale confidential, you can still do so by providing broad, but not specific (street, neighborhood) geographic information.

3. Include a strong headline

In any type of ad, most people read only the headline. And they read more only if the headline grabs their attention and inspires their interest. Write a headline that presents what's great about your business. Is it the location? The great business space? The distinct and highly desirable products or services? The strong brand name and reputation? Ask: What would make you want to buy your business? Write a headline that conveys your answer. Keep in mind that when buyers first see listing results during an internet search, they are often comparing the prices and headlines for several businesses that meet their search criteria. You want YOURS to stand out.

4. Present the right contact information

Buyers want to see a phone number, but to protect your business identity, don't present your business phone number or a personal number. Direct calls to your broker's number, if you're using one, or to an unlisted number that can't be traced to you personally or to your business. Also, offer an email address that reaches an account you establish specifically for sale purposes. This separate email account will protect your established accounts from spam, maintain confidentiality, and make monitoring ad responses quick and easy. Then commit to checking for responses frequently and responding promptly, (within a day or two maximum). The quickest way to kill buyer interest is with lack of response.

5. List your business in two categories

Most online listing sites allow you to select a "best matching business type" and a "next best-matching business type." For maximum exposure, choose a category for each option. For instance, "Gas Stations/Service Stations" and "Auto Service/Repair."

6. Be descriptive and specific

This isn't the time to be stingy with details. You can't turn your ad into a novel, but in short statements you need to describe your business, its history and its strengths, in enough detail to cause buyers to think you have nothing to hide and much to like. This is your chance to differentiate your business from the others that the buyer might consider. Don't spare words and risk losing them at the starting gate.

7. Include pictures

Without revealing your business identity, present photos that convey the quality of your business interior, equipment, or other aspects that will heighten buyer interest and confidence. At a minimum, if you can't include a photo that doesn't give away the identity of your business, include a generic photo to catch the buyer's eye. For example, if you're selling an Italian Restaurant, a nice photo of a classy looking dish of spaghetti and meatballs should be enough to draw the searcher's eye to your listing.

8. Retain confidentiality

Without revealing your business identity, provide as much information about your business and its location to prompt buyer interest. Disclose your state and county without telling your city (if it's small and you're one of few businesses that match your description) or address. Instead, provide general information, "near major highway," "one of the town's busiest streets," "one of the leading players in the industry."

9. Upgrade your listing if doing so will improve responses

Especially if your business is of high-value and of interest to only a narrow buyer segment, consider investing in what's called a "showcase ad," which places your listing above others, sends it via email to potential buyers who match your buyer criteria, and provides you with a prospect list for personal follow-up. If you're uncertain about the benefit, start with the basic ad and then consider upgrading if you aren't happy with the response.

10. Proofread

There's nothing like a typo-riddled ad to send buyer interest (and price offers) southbound. It's your sole responsibility to double check the text you provide to listing sites. Use spell check, proofread it yourself, and then give it to a trusted, confidential advisor for a final review before releasing it for online posting.

For good examples to follow:

  • Go to a broker's site and scan the ads written by business sale pros.
  • Study the sample ads featured in the graphic on this page.

Finally, take special note of the graphic showing the search options presented to buyers. The entries represent the fields buyers can search, and therefore the interests your listing needs to address.

Example of a great business for sale online ad:

Example business for sale ad

In next week’s installment of “Selling Your Small Business” we’ll lay out the selling process timeline.   

 Editor’s Note: This article is the fourteenth piece in a series taken from BizBuySell.com’s Guide to Selling Your Small Business. The guide is a comprehensive manual to help small business owners maximize their success when the day to sell arrives. Each Wednesday, Inc.com will publish a new section of the guide outlining BizBuySell.com’s best practices, from the initial planning stages of a sale all the way through negotiations and post-sale transition.