Ask the Experts: How Do I Find New Customers Online?

By Alex Coppola
Ask the Experts is an ongoing series, where we feature business owners facing problems they don't know how to solve. Want advice on your own dilemma? Email us: ownersonly(at)bnet(dot)com.
The Owner: Cynthia Typaldos

The Business: Typaldos runs Kachingle, a website that works sort of like a donation fund for newspapers, magazines, and blogs: If a reader enjoys, say, her local daily newspaper online, she can pay a fixed amount into a Kachingle account (as little as $5) and, on a monthly basis, the company will distribute that sum to the website. It's a way for website owners to draw money from their sites without relying solely on ads or putting content behind pay-walls -- which can kill traffic. Kachingle employs six full-time employees and another six part-time employees, and it retains a percentage of all donations.

The Problem: Kachingle's original idea involved signing up a host of large and small websites. Typaldos figured that users who wanted to support their favorite online material would follow. The strategy didn't work. "Most of the companies we approached were reluctant to experiment," says Typaldos. "People in the digital department were excited by the idea, but those higher up were not. Ultimately the initiative would die." So Kachingle changed its approach.

The company decided to go after users directly. "We built a new extension to the product that allows users to select or 'kachingle' any site they choose, regardless of whether the site owner has registered with us, first," explains Typaldos.

Now that their strategy involves targeting a different side of the market, however, Typaldos needs ways to reach consumers. "For a small company," she says, "it's proving to be a difficult challenge." The company has had some success with existing users but Typaldos doesn't know how to best market the service to a wider audience. "How can we break through every product and service that's already out there to say: 'Here's something new that you could never do before?'"

What the experts said:
Focus on existing customers. Trying to educate people through advertising is often a losing battle -- it's almost impossible without an immense budget and even then, it's usually not very cost effective. It's much better to focus on your existing customers and get them to tell the story of your business. Take advantage of referral tools like Facebook and Twitter, which most of your customers are likely already using. You can even try newsletters with success stories that current users can forward to friends and colleagues.

Make sure your site's home page is serving you. As with any new product or service, it's critical to have a website that clearly outlines the product's purpose. You run the risk of overwhelming customers if your home page is too busy with information. Aim for a simple, easily consumable presentation -- use tabs and links to direct customers to more information in other areas of the site. The idea is to welcome customers and guide them -- don't unload everything you have on them the second they step in the door. It's also a good idea to divide the home page up between visitors and, in this case, website owners. One button can direct visitors to more introductory information while the other takes current users to areas relating to functionality and service.

-- Jay Steinfeld, CEO of Blinds.com
Identify target market segments. There is a danger in trying to be "all things to all people" and not being as specific as possible in identifying target market segments.

Start with a broad list of potential segments -- those groups of individuals who, for whatever reason, are most likely to be interested in what you have to offer. What are their demographic characteristics (e.g. age, sex, income, geography)? What are their psychographic characteristics? Their interests might provide clues in terms of how to best reach them through communication. If the target here is individuals most likely to make contributions, then what data might you have about the traits/characteristics of people who make donations online? Are there websites they might frequent? Publications they might read? Groups they might belong to?

Develop key messages. No more than three to five messages total, based on what you know about the target audience(s) you're attempting to reach. Consider both the possible objections they might have and the compelling benefit points you might make to overcome those objections or appeal to their interests.

Measure the results. Online communication is great in that it allows you to measure response quite readily. And because it is "real-time," it's relatively simple to change strategies, try new things and make adjustments along the way.

-- Linda Pophal, CEO of Strategic Communications.