Internet Lessons for Small Businesses

For the past six months, I have been searching for an apartment in New York City. As anybody familiar with the process will tell you, it’s a harrowing experience. But besides learning the true meaning of terms such as “pre-War bathroom” (that means it’s in terrible condition), I have also been getting a good lesson in how important it is for small businesses to have an adequate Internet strategy.

Because I use the Internet every day to gather information and stay in contact with people (as millions do), I rely on the Net to drive my apartment search process. I look at new listings, research neighborhoods, and stay in touch with the agents who are working for me, all using the Net.

What I am learning, however, is that a digital divide exists between small businesses that use the Internet to find and build relationships with customers and those that don’t. And although I doubt I am representative of all or most of their customers and prospects, I can attest that the real estate companies that don’t use the Net well are quickly crossed off my list.

From my search, I have gleaned the following lessons all small businesses should heed:

  • Make sure customers can find you. When I started my search, I used search engines, directories, and neighborhood community sites to create a list of real estate agents I wanted to work with. I eventually ended up working with three or four. The ones who didn’t have a Web site, or couldn’t be easily found, never made it on my list.

    For many businesses, being easily found on the Net is tantamount to not being listed in the yellow pages. Customers looking for businesses like yours just won’t find you.

    The best way to make sure you will be found is to pretend you are a customer looking for the product you sell. Try to make sure you are everywhere the search process takes you. If you want information on showing up on search sites, check out Danny Sullivan’s site or read ClickZ’s Search Engine Marketing column.

  • Give customers the information they expect. One of the best real estate sites I have found is corcoran.com. There, you can do a precise property search, look at pictures, check locations on a map, look at floor plans, and find just about all the information you need. Corcoran keeps me engaged, and I am often in touch with my Corcoran agent about new listings I find.

    Other real estate sites show me pictures but don’t tell me exactly where the apartments are located. That makes it difficult to know whether I would be interested, so I often don’t follow up with the agency. The lesson: Poor information means lost customers.

  • Put your best foot forward. Would you do business with this company? The misspellings on the site make me feel that this isn’t a professional firm. It might not even be on the up and up.

    Big companies aren’t the only ones that need to manage their brands. A shoddy Web site tells customers that the company is probably not worth doing business with.

  • Use the Net to build relationships. In real estate, the key is location, location, location. In business, it’s all about customer relationships. And to build them, the Net is an important tool.

    When I work with agents, I email them a detailed description of what I am looking for, my price range, and so on. I tell them what I think about the houses they show me. I expect to hear from them periodically, or at least when new listings come on to the market. The best agents keep in touch with me through email with timely information. I tend to stop working with those who don’t return my emails.

The digital divide between businesses that use the Net effectively and those that don’t will only grow. Many businesses that ignore the Net will fail.

The lessons I have learned in the process have been valuable. Now I just need to find a place to live.

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