Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Cam Lay, Director of Marketing for Yodle, a leading provider of local online advertising.

Before you can establish an online advertising plan for your local business, you need a few key marketing basics in place.  After you have that, you’ll know that you know what you need to know (follow that?), and your plan will be grounded firmly in reality and primed for success.  Although most of these basics hold true for traditional media advertising, the beauty of online advertising is that you can test it quickly and affordably —and make adjustments to your mix or your message in almost real time.  Here are the six building-block tasks that any serious marketer has to tackle:

1. Define your target market.

Look at who you’re currently doing most of your business with and then figure out why they do business with you and what it is about them and their needs that are unique.   Defining your market is critical, because it allows you to start thinking about what kind of marketing communications would be effective for your business.  After all, if you don’t know who you’re trying to reach, there’s no way to figure out how to reach them.

2. Write a paragraph that defines your target market.

This helps you keep your customers’ unique characteristics in the front of your mind. Write what you think they want out of life and how your offering fits into their plans.

3. Identify your value proposition.

Determine what your business does best — and why customers should choose your business over any of your competitors. If you honestly don’t know what it is about your business in particular that appeals to your customers, call a few and ask. You’re likely to get good, actionable answers. Your customers might even come away from your call feeling flattered that you sought their valuable opinions.

A good value proposition might include characteristics like having the best customer service or the fastest turnaround time or even having the most competitive prices.

4. Create your key messages.

This should flow directly from your value proposition.  However, whereas your “value proposition” can be thought of as characteristics that make your business unique and attractive, your “key messages” are the way in which you express and communicate those characteristics.  Once you create your key messages, look for opportunities to incorporate those messages into all of your advertising – online and otherwise.

5. Analyze your competition.

Now that you have the basics down, it’s time to think more specifically about online.  And one of the first things to think about online is to make sure you know who (and what) you’re competing against.  How and where do your competitors advertise? What are their strengths and weaknesses? How can your business be competitive with theirs?  A great way to do this is by searching for one of the services you offer.  Do your competitors appear in the paid listings? If so, do their ads contain an offer? Are they listed with the local IYP or do they maintain a Facebook page? In the same vein, search one of the major engines for your competitor’s name. The results show you where they have an advertising presence.  Pay particular attention to any places you hadn’t yet thought of but that also make good sense for you.

6. Research your market online.

Research can consume valuable time, but it’s time well spent because the better you understand your customers’ online behaviors, the more effective an online advertiser you are.  Start by searching the major and the local search engines with keywords that best represent your business. That simple act produces a lot of search results, but that’s the goal. Now, follow up those results and see where they take you.  Chances are the keywords will bring up a big, messy mix of IYP listings, local sites, blogs, social networks, local search results, and more. As you chase down each, make your own assessment of their potential to drive business. Does the content reflect what your business is about? Do the keywords take you to places where businesses like yours are discussed and where you might participate in the discussion? Would your customers search the way you just did, or would they not dig as deep? Are some of your best customers on Facebook or LinkedIn?

After you do these six steps, you’re definitely closing in on what your online marketing mix should be. You’re also about to figure out (if you haven’t already) precisely how to position your local business to attract qualified local customers.  And when you’ve done that, you can start establishing some informed, realistic, attainable, and maintainable marketing goals for your company, which is half the battle.

As Director of Marketing, Cam Lay manages all lead generation channels for customer acquisition at Yodle, a leading provider of local online advertising. Over the course of his career, Cam holds the distinction of having marketed to consumers and small businesses alike using just about every marketing channel imaginable be it online or offline. Prior to joining Yodle three years ago, Cam held various Product Management roles at MBI Inc., a leading direct marketing/ consumer products company. You can find his marketing musings here at the Yodle Blog.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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  • http://efanpage.com Sebastian

    Great post. These tips are extremely useful for company branding. This order seems to be a great process for companies to prep for their online marketing. I wonder if engaging the competitors should be further up the list?

  • http://www.microsourcing.com/disciplines/seo.asp MicroSourcing

    The key message is very important, and any campaign shouldn't have too many so as not to confuse the audience.

  • InspiroHost

    Nice tips. Online marketing is such a very competitive industry wherein thorough planning and efficient strategy should be pursued for there exist one shot. And it is either you fail or succeed.

    Yeah, there’s always a second time around but then it would require another set of resources (time, money and effort).

  • http://www.G2Apex.com Alexander Welz

    Great information. I am looking to provide advertising on my website as a means of generating revenue. This article is very helpful to know what companies are looking for in an advertising campaign.

  • http://www.online-business-virtual-assistant.com/ Virtual office assistant

    Great list. We have not not yet decided on the add part and this post is really helpful to decide on it.