Build a better website and they will come? Not a chance. The value of your website will depend on traffic, and traffic depends on marketing. A website without a marketing plan is as useful as a toll free telephone number that nobody knows about. If you have an online store, or simply use your site as an information tool to communicate with existing and prospective customers or clients, you want to optimize the power of your website wherever you can.

There are four basic guidelines that may offer insight for your Web marketing strategy.

  1. Know your customers: Research your customer base. Your present customers are probably your most important market. Know as much as you can about who your present customers are, how they found you, and what they like about your business or organization. Your present customers can lead you to future customers too.
  2. Perform a target segment analysis: Who is your ideal customer? Use customer surveys, random interviews, feedback sheets, and common sense to identify this group. Gather as much information as you can about your existing customers, their common characteristics, and build upon what has proven to be successful.
  3. Conduct market analysis: Market analysis is the foundation of developing your Web marketing strategy. Every Web plan should include a clear explanation of the market segmentation, target market focus, and a market forecast. It should include detailed information about each of the target market segments.
  4. Perform your competitive analysis: Who competes with you for your customers’ time and money? Are they selling directly competitive products and services, substitutes, or possible substitutes? What are their strengths and weaknesses? How are they positioned in the market? Answering these questions may provide focus and direction for your e-business marketing.

There is an amazing wealth of market data on the Internet, much of it free. The challenge is to sort through this information and determine what is useful.

For example, your access to competitive information will vary, depending a lot on where you are and who your competition is. Competitors who are publicly traded may have a significant amount of information available, as regular financial reporting is a requirement of every serious stock market in the world. Competitive information may be limited when your competitors are privately held. If possible, you may want to take on the task of playing the role of a potential customer and gain information from that perspective.

Web links for fundamental demographic data
There seems to be no way to keep up with and catalog the ever-growing abundance of marketing information on the Web. Your first quest in market research is for your fundamental demographic information. That means the basic numbers and the “how many,” and the growth rate is important.

Fundamental demographics for the United States
If you are operating in the U.S., for example, visit the U.S. Census Bureau first. The census bureau has a lot of very important basic data on population, households, and businesses in this country. It now contains information from the 2000 census and the wealth of information is impressive. Much of this is available for free over the Web. The U.S. Census site can be overwhelming at first, because there is so much information there. Here are some specific search examples that can help you find your way.

  • State and county demographic profile search. Click on your state on the map, and then on your county within the state. You’ll end up with a selection of specific data reports for your specific county.
  • Statistical reports search. This link takes you to a menu of available reports that include reports on different manufacturing industries, county-specific economic surveys, and others. You can even get 1996 business patterns for a specific ZIP code.

U.S. Census data will be extensive, comprehensive, and can prove to be an excellent starting point for solid, credible market research information.

Fundamental demographics for other countries
Demographic and economic statistics are becoming more available throughout the world. If you are working on market data for your own country, don’t assume you can’t get statistics where you are. Check with your local business development agencies, business schools, and industry trade associations to find the information you need. The following are some website links which might also be helpful:

Although you should always check locally first, there are some U.S.-oriented sites that offer data for other countries and other markets.

Information from magazines and publications
Industry-specific magazines offer a wealth of information on your business and your market. Business magazines are an important source of business information, in addition to major general-interest business publications (Business Week, Wall Street Journal, Inc. Entrepreneur, Black Enterprise, etc.) there are hundreds of specialty publications that address the needs of specific industries.

Specialization is an important trend in the publishing business. Magazines are an important medium for industry-specific advertising, which is important to readers as well as advertisers. The editorial staffs of these magazines have to fill the space between the ads. They do that by publishing as much industry-specific information as they can find, including statistics, forecasts, and industry profiles. Paging through one of these magazines or visiting a website can sometimes produce a great deal of business and marketing forecasting, and economic information.

If you don’t already know what magazines focus on your business area, then the best place to start looking is on the Internet:

  • Yahoo! listing of magazines.
  • Ulrich’s Periodicals Directory, a member of the R. R. Bowker family of websites, is one of the largest listings of magazines, available hard copy (ask your library reference section, because it’s expensive) and online.
  • Audit Bureau of Circulation is another source you can look for in library reference. If you have any association with an advertising agency, ask them to loan it to you for a few hours.

For traditional printed directories, several good reference sources list magazines, journals, and other publications. They also offer indexes to published articles which you can use to search for the exact references you need. These will be kept in the reference section of most libraries.

  • Readers Guide to Periodical Literature indexes popular magazines. Published by H.W. Wilson of New York.
  • Business Periodicals Index, also published by H.W. Wilson of New York. Indexes business magazines and journals only.

Information from trade and industry associations
Some industries are blessed with active industry or trade associations that can supply you with market and industry information at a relatively low cost, often even free. Most industries have an active trade association that serves as a vital source of industry-specific information. Such associations regularly publish directories for their members, and the better ones publish statistical information that track industry sales, profits, ratios, economic trends, and other valuable data. If you don’t know which trade associations apply to your industry, find out.

Places to visit on the Internet include:

  • Yahoo! listing of trade associations. This is an amazing list of hundreds of trade and industry associations starting with Air Movement & Control Association and ending with World Wide Pet Supply Association.
  • Encyclopedia of Associations series. These cost several hundred dollars each and are normally available at reference libraries. The same organization also offers the more updated Associations Unlimited online database of more than 400,000 organizations
  • The Internet Public Library has a large list of associations on the Web.
  • The Action Without Borders initiative lists thousands of not-for-profit organizations.

Most of these associations have industry statistics, market statistics, guides, annual references, and other industry-specific information. Many provide business ratios by region or by comparable business size. As you find possible associations, contact them or visit their websites to see what information they have available. Most have directories of industry participants.

When in doubt, call or email the industry association offices and communicate with the managers. Associations are often led by elected officers or a board of directors, but managed on a day-to-day basis by professional employees.

The bottom line
The ultimate goal is information. The most important aspect to this process is to access information that is valuable to your organization for better web-based marketing. When done correctly, it will offer you insight, help you write a solid marketing plan, and enhance the efficiency of your marketing efforts. Those results will show in your bottom line.

Tim BerryTim Berry

Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software and Follow him on Twitter @Timberry.