Online Lessons Learned… and Not Learned

Last week’s column addressed how small businesses can maximize their exposure on the Web. It’s only fitting that this week, the focus turns to big business.

You’re probably thinking the corporate big boys don’t need much help in the online marketing department. With an army of media experts at their disposal and the cash to commission focus groups to guide Web initiatives, they ought to have this medium figured out. Though many major business forces have done some impressive things with online marketing, some tools and tactics have been thoroughly botched or are underutilized.

Let’s take a comparative look at what big business has, and hasn’t, mastered online.

Richer Media

Although it needn’t be costly to develop or complicated to implement, rich media advertising largely remains a big business buy. Fortunately, many who employ it have managed to circumvent consumer annoyance by taking these formats to great heights.

Consider Absolut Vodka, with its Flash-and-PointRoll-enhanced Absolut Vanilla campaign last year; MSN’s rich media butterfly alighting on our screens; or the countless movie studios that have stunned us with their online trailers. The creativity some big businesses have shown while utilizing rich media has given way to better Internet ads. The demand they spurred has propelled the development of better technology. Their campaigns are the barometer of rich media success for corporate competitors and small businesses alike. Here, big business is doing something right.

Online Sampling

Another online marketing aspect big businesses have mastered is Web-based product sampling. With direct access to North American consumers, including those who show a palpable affinity for buying, it didn’t take long for consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies to identify the Internet as an ideal vehicle for the distribution of free product samples, special offers, and product coupons.

Nor did it take long for them to recognize this medium as a way to gather information on their prime audiences. Smaller businesses may not have the system in place to make the distribution of millions of free product samples feasible (or cost effective), but they can certainly look to CPGs for tips on how to achieve comparable success through coupon use. The big boys have demonstrated there’s real value in giving your goods away: priceless consumer data. Anyone with a product to hawk can attain it.

Contests and Sweepstakes

Contests and sweepstakes are proven winners for gathering consumer data, not to mention a favorite initiative of sizeable consumer businesses. By using these online, big businesses have learned how to harness the power of viral marketing and perfected online entry forms — without once compromising their brands or corporate images.

OK, so not all online contests and sweepstakes have been flawless, or even resulted in success. Online forms contained glitches that mislabeled profiling data or prevented users from submitting entries altogether. Companies have mistakenly thought promotional microsites needn’t correspond with the rest of their marketing materials. In numerous instances, businesses let the technology get the better of them.

But online contests have come a long way in recent years, largely thanks to corporate giants and CPGs. Who else has the muscle to negotiate contact with millions of target users? What other industry boasts brands that can make even the most cautious consumer volunteer personal data, save perhaps the names of their kids? When it comes to these two marketing tools, big businesses have demonstrated virtually everyone can employ them. Just make darn sure to do your homework before you do.

Web Sites as Marketing Tools

If only one essential online marketing tool exists, it has to be the Web site. Everyone who’s anyone has one. In corporate circles, they’re likely to have cost a bundle.

Developing a dazzling online presence is great, of course, but you’d be surprised how many massive enterprises disregard some of the most basic rules of corporate site design, neglect to update material and contact info, or feature tools and forms that fail to perform. Such faults not only reflect poorly on the business behind the site but also do wonders for its competition.

Smaller businesses are fortunate because they’re less likely to have a network of local or international subsites to monitor and manage. But the big guys have no excuse. Today, a Web site can’t be treated as an afterthought. A company’s online presence is vitally important to its corporate image. Large companies just can’t afford to make mistakes online.

Of course, small businesses, ever on the lookout for free education, are thankful they do.

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