Navigating the free online advertising ecosystem

But the world’s largest social networking site isn’t the only one hitting the “like” button for small businesses. Entrepreneurs have been finding a friendly welcome mat on the Internet lately as sites try to court local ads to run along search results, while also cementing relationships that could be the key to their financial future.
The professional networking site LinkedIn occasionally makes offers to selected small business owners of £50-to-£100 vouchers for free advertising.
Even the king of search is in on the free ad game: Google runs special promotions for new AdWords customers which include coupons for online advertising campaigns, 
The free publicity offers might be coming at an ideal time for small businesses owners as now that the recession has crested, and recover begun, businesses are looking to recover and grow again.
Any of these provide an opportunity to find new customers, and there is tremendous value to be found in advertising in this way as the beauty of some of these search engines and online tools is it sort of levels the playing field.
What’s in it for a Small Business?
Facebook’s program will give businesses £50 worth of ads they can run to a targeted list of users, which could result in hundreds of thousands of impressions, says Grady Burnett, Facebook’s vice president of global sales and operations.
“There’s an opportunity with those ads to acquire and grow new customers,” he says. “It’s an opportunity for them to share the message to the friends of theirs. Small businesses have always grown through the strength of relationships.”
But the free advertising money is just the first part of the campaign to make permanent friends with the small business community. For the second part, Facebook takes the show on the road, going from city to city holding tutorials, seminars and workshops to help businesses understand and make the most of their Facebook advertising.
“That will be a really core and critical part of the process,” Burnett says.
The final part will be a contest that awards even more free advertising to successful small businesses that demonstrate best practices through the advertising: driving the most check-ins, creating a community around the business and otherwise growing through use of social media.
Facebook has said that it will soon be making applications for the advertising credits available directly on their sites, but it is yet to determine what will qualify as a “small” business, but Burnett says companies will have to have a “brick-and-mortar” location to participate.
What’s in it for Them?
So if the big websites are banking on small businesses as the future of advertising, why would they give away space—a lot of space—for free?
The sites are betting that targeted, local ads will be more attractive to small businesses that are hesitant to spend money on a print ad or outdoor activity, where impact is much more difficult to gauge. They’re also betting that with some metrics—evidence targeted ads work—small businesses will be hooked, and will come back and pay for more.
“We are interested in showing our value to the small business and local advertising community,” Burnett says. “We want to get them to try it, we want them to get to realize how unique and valuable it is before we ask them for any money.”
Facebook’s 800 million users already make it the world’s largest social media site. With the recently announced changes to its timeline and sharing functions, it is clear Facebook is aiming to become a hub for daily interactions of every kind. Ensuring a steady revenue base for the future means tying local businesses into the overall ecosystem. Facebook is expected to announce revenue figures of around $4 billion this year, according to a study by Webtrends.
“This initiative is really tied toward driving as much success and growth that we can,” Burnett says. A business, hopefully, “sees an increased loyalty, a deeper ability to engage with the customers. There is tremendous value in that. We would hope advertisers would see tremendous growth and continue with us.”
Some small and new business owners during the recession may have been hesitant to try Web advertising because they are worried about committing limited resources to new ventures.
There are a lot of competing demands for time, attention and money when you’re a small business, but where there are clear metrics to see the ROI in this form of marketing and when offers like this come along, it’s a great opportunity to try before you buy.
If you add that to the other free resources available—from Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, blogs, Tumblr and more—and small businesses now have a wealth of free options that might just, taken together, have a higher value than traditional advertising.
There really is a lot of tools out there for small businesses to use right now. Anyone looking to grow, complete and add more jobs should be taking advantage of as many of them as possible.
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