Online Marketing for Dummies—and for People with Better Things to Do

I know plenty of people who have all of the ingredients for business success today, save one. They have a keen talent. They can turn out cool products or services. They know how to line up financial backing and keep account books. They’re “people people,” meaning they actually like to interact with others all day (something I can do only for so long before I need to recharge in solitude). Often, they’ve even run successful businesses in the past. But they don’t know the first thing about online marketing.

How could a little missing Web knowledge be the downfall of an otherwise talented small business person? Well, if the business owner wants someone like me as a customer, he or she had better have a website, and it had better be more than brochureware. It had better show up in the major search engines, or I won’t find the business at all. The proprietor had better give me a way to interact with the company directly through e-mail or an information request form. And it would sure be nice if the site told me more about the real people and passions behind the business.

All of this has been common wisdom for years, at least since the publication of Web marketing masterpieces like The Cluetrain Manifesto and Seth Godin‘s Permission Marketing and Purple Cow. But a shocking number of businesses still have static, lifeless, hard-to-find websites that look like they were built by seventh-graders on summer vacation and that do nothing to collect the vital information that can be used to turn one-time visitors into real customers. Hubspot, a Web startup in Cambridge, MA, is all about saving these businesses from their own ignorance.

It’s nobody’s fault that the rise of the Web has changed the way people find products and services in urban America and left so many entrepreneurs stuck in the era of direct-mail marketing or the Yellow Pages. But for a reasonable $250 per month, Hubspot will bring them back to the present, or most of the way, anyway. The company’s Web-based software, which is designed for non-technical users, automates many of the headaches involved in “search engine optimization,” or SEO, the soul-draining game of trying to beat out other businesses in searches related to your business’s products and bring customers your way.

Hubspot’s Keyword Grader helps users determine what keywords to use to achieve higher search-engine rankings.For example, Hubspot’s system will help subscribers set up a hosted website that’s configured to draw in traffic by including the keywords most likely to get the site a high ranking at Google, Yahoo, and other search sites. The software can also help users decide which keywords are worth bidding on at Google Adwords and other contextual ad services, and allow them to set up special “landing pages” for visitors who find the site via those keywords. (An accountant’s website, for instance, might have special landing pages about tax time for users who click on AdWords ads targeted to the keyword “taxes.”)

With Hubspot it’s also easy to set up forms that visitors can fill out to receive newsletters or other information—permission marketing at its finest. Subscribers can also build and administer a blog that adds a timely, human voice to their business’s site.

Hubspot marketing vice president Mike Volpe calls this whole combination of tactics “inbound marketing,” and if it’s done right, he says, it can convert 20 to 70 percent of visitors into customers, compared to the 1 percent conversion rates typically expected from direct-mail campaigns and other more classical marketing techniques.

Hubspot’s services aren’t for everyone. If you have a bit more experience with website design, content management systems, or online ad buying, you can probably do a lot of the things that Hubspot automates on your own. The question is how much time you’d need to set aside, and how much you enjoy the minutiae of Web publishing. “Sometimes people look at a Hubspot website and say, ‘I could kinda build that myself,’ and yeah, you could,” says Volpe. “But how long would it take you?” And more importantly, couldn’t you be doing something else that would more than pay for the $250-per-month investment?

Hubspot launched its site in late 2006 but has been aggressively pursuing customers only for the last couple of months, Volpe says. (The company eats its own dogfood, to use the Web lingo, making heavy use of its own SEO, permission-marketing, and blogging tools.) The company recently overcame the all-important hump of winning its first round of venture funding, though Volpe won’t say how much or from whom.

“There’s a huge segment of the small-business market that is simply not consuming SEO services,” says Volpe. That’s understandable, since hiring a professional SEO consultant can cost tens of thousands of dollars. But using Hubspot, Volpe says, small business owners “can get 80 percent of what they’d get from an SEO professional, just using the tips and tricks we can give them.” Considering that Hubspot’s services can be had for not much more than the cost of a postage meter or a stack of business cards, that would seem to be a wise investment.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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