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QUESTION: I’ve been spinning my wheels trying to market my small counseling practice. I’ve done some AdWords and Facebook campaigns with little return on investment. The world of search engine optimization has gotten far more complex than I can fathom or have time for. Do you have a recommendation for marketing my business online?

ANSWER: We would suggest that you not jump to the conclusion that Facebook or search engine optimization will improve the chance that your website will come up when someone searches on selected key words

In fact, before spending any more time or money on marketing, we would suggest that you take a step back and answer the first three questions that every business must answer.

This may be marketing 101, but we’ve seen far too many people waste money on internet-based marketing schemes that weren’t right for them.

The internet is sexy. It also can be a colossal waste of money if it’s not the right channel for your business.

Answering these three questions will ensure that you get a positive return on your marketing investment:

1. Why should a prospective customer buy your product or service rather than a competitor’s?

In your case, why should a prospective client hire you to counsel him or her rather than using another counselor or hire no counselor at all?

This may seem like a simple question. Trust us. It’s not.

But if you can’t explain clearly and concisely why someone should hire you, don’t expect perspective clients to be able to answer the question either.

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While this can be a difficult question to answer, the good news is that there are only two possible answers: because your offering costs less or because it is different from the offerings of your competitors.

In your particular situation, we doubt that perusing a low cost approach is the best way to go. Sure, your rates need to be reasonable, but a marketing message that says, “hire me to help you with the most important problems in your life because I’m cheap,” doesn’t sound to us like a winning strategy.

We believe that you will need to position your offering in a way that makes it clear why you are uniquely qualified to help people.

This probably means focusing your practice. Perhaps you’ll focus on marriage counseling or working with emotionally troubled adolescence.

Once you have chosen a focus, you’ll need to be able to articulate the ways in which your offering is different and better. Why are you more qualified than other counselors in the narrow area you have chosen?

2. Is there a segment of the market that values the things that make your offering different and is it large enough to support your business?

Once you’ve identified what makes your offering different, you’ll need to determine if there is a market for the things that differentiate your offering.

We use the silly example that you could market a skunk flavored Popsicle. It would be different. There is nothing like it in the supermarkets.

However, we don’t think that there would be a large enough market for the new Popsicle to justify producing such a thing.

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Confirm that a segment of the market values the thing that differentiates your offering. Then, check to be sure that the segment is large enough to support your business.

3. How will you reach your target market segment with your message?

The final step is to determine the most cost effective way to tell your target market segment about the thing that makes your offering unique — the thing that this segment values.

Perhaps social media, SEO or an email campaign is the best way to reach your market, but perhaps not. You’ll only know if you answer the first two questions every business must answer.

Doug and Polly White have a large ownership stake in Gather, a company that designs, builds and operates collaborative workspaces. Polly’s focus is on human resources, people management and human systems. Doug’s areas of expertise are business strategy, operations and finance.

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