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Ten Steps for Maximizing Local Markets

When Jenny deBeer Charno wanted to restart her massage therapy business after taking time off to have a family, she thought she knew how to get the word out. After all, about 10 years ago, business was brisk, thanks to ads in her local penny savers and in the Yellow Pages. But, boy, have times changed.

"It used to be out here on Long Island, local businesses advertising services around town would turn to penny savers," recalls Charno, owner of Glen Cove Massage. "We're talking clean your house, paint your house. It used to be my whole business was from the penny savers. So that was the first thing I tried. I was shocked when I got nothing. At one point, I questioned if they were printing."

The only outlet that was bringing in customers: the Internet. After hearing from several new customers that they found her online, Charno quickly created a Web site and devoted a few days to getting her business listed on search engines.

Whether you're a small business restricted by locale like Charno's, or simply want to maximize your local market, experts say you need to follow these 10 essential steps:

Know Yourself

Before you reach out to local clients, or any other customers for that matter, know what sets your company apart from the competition and who your audience is. This will determine how much to spend on online and offline strategies.

The message then has to be the same throughout, whether it's in the Yellow Pages or on your Web site, says Tom Kennedy, principal and president of The Kennedy Group, a business consulting firm specializing in local, regional and global communications.

Connect With Local Business Organizations

Most local Chambers of Commerce offices have networking events that will quickly hook you into the area's business scene. Also consider the Rotary club. Get active in the community, and you'll score your first customers.

Befriend the Local Post Office

You don't have to know the name of your mail carrier, but don't overlook the power of mail, says Brenda Bence, founder and president of Brand Development Associates International Ltd.. She recommends investing in a post card mailing campaign targeting your zip code.

"With the dramatic increase in emails arriving in potential customers' inboxes these days, 'real mail' actually stands out of the pack. But make the card interesting, informative and relevant."

Be an Expert

Reach out to your town's newspaper and offer your services as an expert. Residents who pour over those papers to get the local scuttlebutt are a captive audience. Be a speaker at an industry conference. Volunteer at a local business event.

Shop Local

While ads in the local Glen Cove newspaper didn't help Charno, experts say advertising in local media can still be effective. Most local news Web sites can even target down to the zip code, called geo-targeting, says Katie Risch, media relations manager at Centro, a company that help agencies with local media buys.

Play the Field

As the saying goes, don't keep all your eggs in one basket. So if you can afford it, invest in offline and online strategies at the same time, recommends Kennedy. And it doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg. Charno built a basic Web site using free software downloaded from Yahoo! and did as much of the SEO, or search engine optimization, as she could. Her only cost: $30 a month in hosting fees to Yahoo!.

Track Everything

Whether you buy an ad in the Yellow Pages or a banner ad on a local newspaper Web site, make sure you can track how many customers come from which outlet.

All media buys should be trackable, says Paul Ryan, CEO of Done Right!, a national online home improvement services directory.

"If you are doing some form of traditional media (print, direct mail, TV, etc.) and you are not using tracking phone numbers to see how effective the medium is, you are wasting your money."

But while online media can give you daily updates on leads and types of leads, traditional media can't work as fast. Ryan, former CTO of Overture Services, recommends giving offline media at least four weeks before pulling the plug.

So How Do You Track?

Depending on which service you use, you need to know the industry lingo. According to Ryan, you need to ask an online marketing partner what the cost-per-click average is. What then is the conversion rate -- of those who come to the site, how many become customers? What's the cost per conversion? And what's the cost per lead? Done Right! prefers to charge per lead.

For an offline partner, Ryan recommends you ask what the target household demographic is. What is the response rate? What is the percentage of total households reached and how often?

"You have to decide if awareness is what you are after (reach) or targeting some desired population several times (frequency)," he explains.

Pay Attention to the Math

Most importantly, you need to ask or figure out what the return on investment, or ROI, is. If you spend $1,000 on ads and you get $1,000 in sales, then you've probably lost money. After all, delivering the sales costs you money, you have to figure in this cost in determining your return. So, if it cost you $200 to deliver the sale (cost of materials, labor, etc.), then your ROI is -20%, meaning you lost $200 on the $1,000 advertising investment.

"People should expect highly positive ROIs," he says. "As long as the ROI is greater than your cost of producing the good or service, then you're growing."

Think Outside the Box

While it doesn't bring in revenue, bartering has been another way Charno has publicized her business. She was approached by someone at a Chamber of Commerce meeting to join the National Commerce Exchange. This may be an avenue for you to consider.

If you have a story idea, please email Lan.thestreet@hotmail.com.

Lan Nguyen is a freelance writer based in New York City. She has written for the New York Daily News, The Wall Street Journal, Worth magazine and Star magazine.

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