When Petra Cooper set out to create a website for Fifth Town Artisan Cheese Company, she wanted to do more than just promote her company's unique cheeses.
"I wanted to start a conversation and engage with people about broader food-based issues," says Ms. Cooper, who opened her business near Picton, Ontario, two years ago. "I decided to use my website as a platform to change the way that people think about cheese."
By offering value-added online content and employing a variety of web applications, she's succeeding in her goal. Today, she generates 50 to 60 per cent of her retail traffic through her website and social media applications.
Ms. Cooper is an example of the way entrepreneurs can successfully market their businesses by building their credibility as trusted resources for customers.
Ms. Cooper emails a weekly newsletter to wholesalers and a quarterly one to retail consumers who have visited the store and signed up for the newsletter. She also maintains a presence on a number of social media sites, including Facebook and LinkedIn, and has tried her hand at blogging. As well, people can download videos from her website.
Jeff Berry, senior vice president at the Enterprise Council on Small Business, has studied entrepreneurs' use of the internet and says Ms. Cooper is making the right moves.
"Offering advice and other valuable information to customers is an important way for entrepreneurs to attract and keep business at a time when consumers are savvier than ever about tuning out pure marketing and advertising messages," says Mr. Berry, whose organization researches small-business marketing trends.
Mr. Berry points out e-newsletters are effective when they are "tailored to the specific needs of customers." He adds, though, that "a big mistake many entrepreneurs make is to produce an e-newsletter, post the articles on their website and leave them there too long."
They often do so because newsletters can be time consuming to produce. Ms. Cooper overcomes this problem by "leveraging other people's content." She uses information that is in the public domain, such as articles about cheese-making and agrifood issues.
She recommends keeping an archive of material that can be used to quickly produce an e-newsletter issue or to update content on a website.
"You don't need to create expensive, slick videos," Mr. Berry says. "Videos shot on site with a Handycam can be posted on YouTube, for example. They are an easy way to give a face to your business, gain credibility and provide your customers with information on demand."
Customer testimonials shot on video, for example, are a powerful means of building credibility for your business and generating sales.
"Early on, I started a blog," says Ms. Cooper, "but it wasn't getting much attention. I learned that people are much more receptive to information about your business if it comes from a third party."
She decided to provide downloadable content - such as videos, photos and articles - in a "cool downloads" section of her site that is targeted at bloggers.
"This helps them to make their blogs more interesting with minimal effort and brings our company to the attention of their readers."
To find out who is blogging about Fifth Town and what they are saying, Ms. Cooper periodically checks www.socialmention.com, a search engine for blogs.
Podcasts - audio files that you record for people to download - are another means of drawing attention to your business and building your credibility.
Producing a podcast can be relatively easy and inexpensive. All you need to get started is a computer combined with free audio recording and editing software, which you can find on the internet.
In addition to promoting your podcast on your website, you can reach a larger potential audience by submitting it to podcast directories.
Hosting a webinar - a seminar over the web - can be an effective means of showcasing your expertise and building awareness of your business. The fact that attendees don't have to leave their desks makes it less costly and inconvenient than attending a conference, both for them and for you.
Webinars range from straightforward visual presentations with diagrams to more elaborate sessions that include everything from 3D graphics and streaming videos to personal interaction through question and answer sessions and polling.
No matter what format or technology you use, one of the keys to a successful webinar is professional delivery of your content. Practicing beforehand and making sure you have command of your material and technology go a long way toward building credibility.
"A web presence is not enough today," Mr. Berry notes. "Entrepreneurs need to supplement their website with participation on social media sites."
Ms. Cooper adds, "Too many entrepreneurs make the mistake of thinking that sites like Facebook and Twitter are for kids."
"When you join social media sites, you become part of a bigger community. You connect with like-minded people and build a strong rapport with them," she says.
For example, Ms. Cooper communicates with a community of some 200 people on Facebook. "I provide 'insider' information, such as advance news about when a new cheese is coming out."
Both Mr. Berry and Ms. Cooper encourage entrepreneurs to seek feedback from visitors to their website as a way to both improve the user experience and build credibility with the public.
Ms. Cooper stresses that the only way to truly understand value-added online marketing is by becoming a user yourself. Join Facebook, read blogs and e-newsletters, and watch online video content and podcasts, then assess how best to use applications like these for your own products and information.
"As an entrepreneur, you have to take advantage of value-added web applications," says Ms. Cooper. "That's the way marketing is being done today."
Content in this section is provided in partnership with the Business Development Bank of Canada. BDC provides entrepreneurs with financing, venture capital and consulting services. To find out more go to BDC.ca.