Well, that depends. How much do you have to spend?

I realize that's not the most helpful answer, but it's the honest-to-goodness most appropriate response to a useless question.

Yet how can I blame you for asking? You're not in the business of Internet marketing. I am. And I must admit, we 'net marketers get a little full of ourselves at times, assuming that all business owners live for long hours staring into cyberspace with nothing to keep them company but the sounds of their computers humming and their retinas searing. We want to believe you love the world wide web as much as we do. It makes us feel less insular (okay, nerdy).

In reality, business owners just want their websites to DO something other than prettify their computer screens. So, they shop the web for a marketing expert, an "affordable" marketing expert who will dish out rankings like chowder at a soup kitchen.

Paradigm check: in marketing, cash flow matters more than budget. That's because marketing--in any line of business--is an investment, not a line item in the annual budget. Investments are supposed to generate returns. Costs do not. Rent is a cost. Ink cartridges for your printer are a cost. Marketing is what you do to drive revenue and profits. It's an investment in the future of your business. It keeps the pipeline full and people wanting more. Marketing doesn't "cost" money; it "makes" money. To quote Perry Marshall in The Definitive Guide to Google AdWords (2005, p147), "If you know that you're getting back $1.50 for every $1.00 you spend in marketing, then why on earth would you ever put a budget limit on it?"


Once you have grasped this idea, then you can start looking for your marketing comrade in arms. Just be prepared to answer a lot of questions. No one should be talking money until there has been a meaningful exchange about the nature of your enterprise. To put it plainly, asking "how much it will cost" before the consultant knows who the heck you are or what you think you are doing is as meaningful as asking the waiter at your favorite restaurant "How much will it cost to eat here?" You can put food in your belly for ten bucks or a hundred. Based on the choice you make, the results will be quite different.

And that's not to say you can't get some decent caloric value for ten bucks. It's just that you may decide it wasn't worth the effort. And the chic restaurant you just ate at might not exactly welcome you back either.

You don't have to patronize the hottest joint in town to get value for your marketing dollar either. But how much you spend to "get more traffic" depends on where you are coming from and where you want to go. Search visibility, content development, and usability are all equally critical to the success of your online marketing strategy. If you're starting from ground zero (and let's face it, most websites are), paying a professional a modest sum to refine even one aspect of your online mix is going to help your cause. Just don't expect it to revolutionize your business. It won't. Most in-demand marketers won't take on such small projects anyway. They're too interested in earning a living and yes, helping you get results before you retire.

So, let's say you sell widgets for ten dollars a piece. How many sales would you have to make to pay for the investment you and your marketer have agreed upon? If the numbers sound reasonable, that's a good sign. If the numbers make you feel like throwing up, keep looking. If the next three quotes you receive also make you feel like throwing up, you might want to reconsider the whole entrepreneur thing.

A good marketer will evaluate your online venture holistically and then allocate finite resources to those tactics that will have the most impact toward an agreed upon end. Just know that the "end" does not suddenly arrive one day like a freight train roaring through your home office. And the "end" cannot always be accurately quantified either. Good marketing is more like a constant upward evolution with a few inevitable pitfalls along the way. There are no guarantees, just choices. The strategic ones are what you want to pay for.

Not the definitive answer you wanted to hear, I know. Get used to it, my friend. That's business on the web. Actually, that's just business, period.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

December 18, 2006

Karri Flatla is a business graduate of the University of Lethbridge and principal of snap! virtual associates inc., a virtual consulting firm providing business communications and Internet marketing services to the progressive entrepreneur. Karri also produces Outsmart, the email newsletter for small business with big purpose. Visit http://www.snap-va.com for more information. Click to follow Karri on Twitter.

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