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E-Commerce Isn't Scary When You Know Your ABCs

A quick guide to Web marketing basics.

Editor's note: Since 1964, business-management counselors at nonprofit organization Score have given free advice to small-business clients spanning every industry. They currently serve nearly 400,000 entrepreneurs nationwide each year -- check in every week for their prudent advice.

Dabbling in small-time theater for the past two months, I quickly learned that enthusiasm and a bit of talent won't get you noticed unless you've got a URL.

I grudgingly ventured into the world of "e-commerce," an intimidating and nebulous term that left me wondering how I could compete with the tech wizards out there working for Time Warner (TWX) or Disney (DIS) - Get Walt Disney Company Report. More importantly, I wondered if my bank account would survive the hit.

Jennifer Shaheen, Score's go-to woman regarding all things technology, has demystified the World Wide Web for many entrepreneurs. After reading her ABC's of e-commerce, you won't have an excuse to be without a page to call home.

A Is for 'Audience and Allowance'

Every day, Monika Werner, business director and co-owner of

Joschi Body Bodega in New York, taps into a Web marketing budget she created when she first wrote her business plan.

"So often the Web piece gets left out" of a marketing plan, says Shaheen. She and Werner recommend early budgeting for a Web campaign that should include expenses like pay-per-click for search engines and email marketing.

Next, find out who to spend your Web marketing dollars on. Rather than using a costly marketing research firm, use free social networking opportunities on the Web to learn whom to target and how to reach them. "So many people are starting to understand there are other things on

the Web than just search engines," says Shaheen.

To get to know your customers, use

Yahoo! Answers, which allows you to ask your potential cyber-space audience where they shop and how they search. For business to business advice, go to a social networking site like

LinkedIn and talk to people in your industry who, Shaheen says, "will love giving their opinions for free."

Each business's audience is unique and must be reached in different ways. For the 18- to 25-year-old set, consider a

Myspace or

Facebook page. For an older audience, try

CitySearch or


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B Is for 'Building Web Presence'

Werner initially hired a marketing company to increase her Web and press presence. She was disappointed with the results. "We got a bigger and better article in

New York Magazine

through a customer who had taken a class and loved it," she says. She now uses a two-pronged plan of attack in grabbing and keeping online attention. She uses Yahoo's pay-per-click service to generate hits and CitySearch to generate local interest.

Don't immediately jump on MSN or Yahoo!, says Shaheen. Start with the more localized and locally focused CitySearch. They offer a flat pay-per-click rate for all listings while


and Yahoo! place listings based on how much you pay.

After a $5 setup fee, Werner pays Google 75 cents per page hit, which comes to about $33 dollars a day; $231 per week. On CitySearch, Werner pays $1 per click, not to exceed a $150 monthly budget. She also pays $10 per month for her profile, which is accessible even when her click limit is up.

"It's better to pay the flat rate which is more expensive but targeted," says Shaheen. Even with Google, target your search with specific terms like "NY, florist" instead of "florist."

C Is for 'Crafty Web Page'

To hire or not to hire a Web designer. That is the question every business owner faces. For those of you without friends in Web design, says Shaheen, don't take the DIY ethic quite as far when it comes to your Web page.

Though you might have an eye for design or a bachelor's degree in fine arts, the Web can be an entirely different monster, she says. "You have to understand how the eye works on screen vs. paper," says Shaheen. "It's also a combination of browsers and the technology you're using."

If you want to design the site yourself, Shaheen recommends at least hiring a consultant familiar with the Web. They're cheaper than a design firm but can still give needed guidance. Depending upon the consultant's experience, prices can range from $100 to $200 per hour.

Also, learn to sacrifice certain elements to cuts costs and time, says Shaheen. Resist the temptation to do your whole Web site using a technology called Flash, which is an animation application that might not work effectively with every type of Web browser. If you publish in the latest version of Flash, for instance, users with an older-version Web browser might be confused into thinking the Web site doesn't work.

Shaheen also recommends keeping a good balance of text and imagery on the Web site, as search engines prefer text. "It's about being user-friendly," says Werner. "The visuals are the most important thing. You have to catch the person within three seconds."

The design of your home page should have calls to action, like "Buy Now," to get viewers excited. For guidance, look at other Web sites and what makes them successful, recommends Shaheen. Look at the slideshow (above) for Shaheen's analysis of effective Web pages.

Blogs are fantastic for consultants and advisers to give ideas and talk about their expertise in a user-friendly environment, says Shaheen. But like a Web site, you have to commit to updating them consistently. Services like Google keep track of how often you make changes to your Web page or blog and will index you less if they notice inactivity, she says.

"So often I see entrepreneurs that think just putting up a Web site will make them money," says Shaheen. "It's not that easy. Like any business,

e-commerce takes time and planning."

I've just gotten my MySpace page up and am looking at different Web page layouts. In two months, I've gone from cyber luddite to Web networking wizard and am getting three times the attention.

With so many resources, there's no excuse for no URL.