AS MORE AND MORE PLANNERS go out on their own, competition for new customers has become keener than ever. Savvy independent meeting planners know that the Web is key to developing new markets and a larger client base. How, then, can they use the Internet to market themselves successfully and build sales?

Spin Your Web

The most important step is to create your own Web site. “Your Web site should be central to your company's marketing effort,” says Corbin Ball, president of Corbin Ball Associates in Bellingham, Wash., and a CMI columnist. “When built and managed properly, it will offer you the world as your market, as well as lots of clients.”

How do you build it right? According to Ball, there are three crucial design elements: “Simply stated, you must know how to be found, how to be read, and how to be bookmarked.”

The key to being found is to make your Web site search-engine friendly. Search sites such as Yahoo (www.yahoo.com) and Google (www.google.com) are the card catalogs of the Web. Through them, prospects will find your site. “Your site must rank in the top 10 in your industry on these engines' search results list — or you're out of the game,” Ball says.

Linking with other meeting industry sites also makes good strategic sense. “Work out reciprocal link agreements with colleagues and allies,” advises Ball. “The more you can convince others to post an incoming link to your site, the better.”

Another tactic: Develop an online community that will drive people back to your site on a regular basis. For example, BMW's site has an Owner's Circle section that provides technical support. MPI welcomes members back by first name in an attempt to build its Communities of Interest.

Start an E-Newsletter

In addition to a Web site, Linda Kazares, president of Face-to-Face Connect and Face-to-Face Marketing in Sonoma, Calif., suggests using an e-newsletter. “It supports your company's overall communications and branding,” she says. “That can help you build business relationships.”

Tamara Halbritter agrees. A writer at Minneapolis-based custom publisher InternetVIZ and co-author of the e-book Marketing-Profs: A Marketer's Guide to e-Newsletter Publishing, Halbritter points out that e-newsletters offer a way to demonstrate your expertise and provide immediate value to prospects. They deliver valuable content that solves your readers' day-to-day problems, helps them stay on top of industry trends, and saves them time by distilling practical information, such as real-world best practices and industry advances, from many sources.

Newsletters also build trust. “You become your customers' trusted information source. Once this trust is earned, your prospect is more likely to respond to a well-crafted call to action in the newsletter, such as an invitation to a Webinar that addresses the prospect's particular business problem.”

Through tracking and reporting, e-newsletters can help planners learn what types of information interest their readers. “You know whether or not you're successful because every link in your e-newsletter can be tracked,” says Kazares. “You know who is reading what and how often it is read. Imagine having an electronic focus group available whenever you want it. With this type of immediate feedback, you can send, test, and adjust within hours.”

Write for Sites

Writing articles for other Web sites is another viable outreach technique. “You can write relevant articles that speak to the hearts and minds of your target customers and get them published in as many places as possible online,” suggests Kazares. “Go to sites that feature the content you're writing about and ask them if they want an article. When we do that, we link out to the article, so we drive traffic to their Web site.”

Numerous online marketing services, such as www.marketingprof.com, will take submissions of relevant articles and republish them on their site. “I'd also take my articles, not to industry associations, but to other organizations,” Kazares says. “Too many meeting managers only market themselves to other meeting managers. They end up preaching to the choir.”

Hold an Online Event

Leading Webinars is another way to build or enhance sales. “Pick a problem each quarter based on your core competency, and conduct quarterly Webinars for prospects and existing clients,” says Kazares. “Then give a 30-minute presentation with slides, plus a 10-minute Q&A — and don't charge for the service.

“You can also hold online roundtable discussions for highly qualified prospects — but make sure existing customers also participate in the roundtables to add credibility,” she says.

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