Blogging and social media updates can help small businesses find new customers, according to Jason Kocina of Checkerboard Strategic Web Development.
Jason Kocina of Checkerboard Strategic Web Development stopped in at a job site in Savage where one of his company’s clients, Rob Hutcheson of Tree & Stump Co., was dealing with downed branches. Hutcheson said that his website and social media activities have allowed him to expand his business over the past three years.
Online marketing can help small-business owners compete with big chains. Some owners even handle the blogging, tweeting and social media posting that goes with it themselves, through their smartphones.
Those who aren't making an effort online can be missing out, considering a recent Google report that 97 percent of Americans use Internet searches to find local products and services.
Taking on the additional responsibilities might sound daunting, but it can be relatively simple, according to Jason Kocina, owner of Checkerboard Strategic Web Development in Burnsville, which specializes in building websites for local businesses.
"My advice would be to focus on taking care of your customers and then find a way to let your good work be known by other customers that are similar to them," through the company's website, blogs and social channels, Kocina said. "Social media and all this stuff comes down to very simple terms: Talk about what you do and who you do it for."
A new website also might sound expensive. But Kocina said proliferation of free online tools such as WordPress, the popular free website and blogging software that Checkerboard uses, makes building and updating sites more affordable. A basic website, marketing action plan and training program are available in just a few weeks from Checkerboard, typically for $5,000 to $10,000.
The key to making a new website work, Kocina said, is regularly posting fresh, relevant content -- photos and descriptions of projects, blogs answering questions or describing solutions, and customer testimonials. Each new piece of content gets re-posted to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media. That activity helps the website get indexed by search engines, resulting in more business when consumers look locally for products and services.
Business owners and marketing directors can get training from Checkerboard on how and what to post. The company also offers classes on online marketing and social media, among other subjects. While the intent is to make an owner self-sufficient in posting new content and overseeing a website, Checkerboard offers support, design, development, writing and other services to help keep a site updated.
Checkerboard, founded in 1996, began offering its MarketSmart package to smaller companies three years ago. The company previously did large, custom online marketing projects for big companies, which typically cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Checkerboard has built more than 100 WordPress websites and has picked up six new clients in the past month. The company is part of Kocina Branding & Marketing Cos., which also operates Media Relations Inc., a public relations firm, and Mid-America Events & Expos, which plans and produces consumer sales events. Together, the three companies have 40 to 60 employees.
Business owners appear to enjoy having control over their website and online marketing and the growth in new business that some say it has brought.
Dan Drenckhahn, president of Country Creek Builders in Lakeville, said his residential remodeling business is up 30 percent since his MarketSmart site from Checkerboard launched in February.
"In the first two to three months I had sold over $150,000 worth of remodeling off of submissions off my website," Drenckhahn said. "I saw a drastic increase in website traffic, phone calls and submissions. I was a little shellshocked."
Rob Hutcheson, owner of Tree & Stump Co. in Savage, had Checkerboard launch his new website three years ago. Then he quit spending $20,000 a year on Yellow Pages ads.
As Hutcheson completes a job, he blogs and uploads pictures from his smartphone. That helps neighbors and consumers searching online for local tree trimming or stump removal quickly find his website. The effort has helped him expand his business into Eden Prairie and Lakeville, cities where he doesn't think he'd otherwise be working.
"I don't think we'd have half as many calls as we do without the website," Hutcheson said. "With the technology getting better and faster, it makes it easier for us to do and the more you do it, the better off you are."
The expert says: Mike Porter, adjunct marketing instructor and director of the master of business communication program at the University of St. Thomas' Opus College of Business, said most small companies need to take part in social media and online marketing.
"Being there is important," Porter said. "Just because you don't get results the first month, the first quarter or the first year that are significant doesn't mean you should stop. You need to have a presence so when a customer does have a comment or question they've got somewhere to go.''
Porter said he likes Checkerboard's approach to training small companies to take charge of their online marketing and social media.
"I'm always a fan of organizations that aren't just there to bill you for every hour, but that say these are things you can learn and we'll charge you to teach them to you," he said.