There is a vicious cycle that several small businesses fall into. They need advertising to gain customers (and money), but they need money to pay for that advertising. Luckily, online tools are now available. Allowing small businesses to step away from traditional forms of marketing and advertising. In fact, companies that build an online presence often see more reward than those who pay big bucks to target larger, less specific audiences. What can you do to build your professional presence online without breaking the bank? The majority of advice that follows is 100% free.

Have a solid website before you build an online presence

Your website is the number one source of information for your customers. As you are interacting with people online, they will likely visit your website to learn more about you. You need to invest time and energy into it in order to build an online presence. You want to be certain that visitors receive the information they’re looking for. A great looking site is fantastic but still ineffective if it doesn’t contain any worthwhile information. At the same time, don’t overload your site with unimportant content to fill extra space. Make sure that every bit of info serves a purpose and has earned its spot on your site.

Add something to the internet world

Let’s be honest, the internet is full of small businesses, artists, and musicians. And, they all have the same goal: drive traffic to their site to develop business opportunities. How do you stand out in a crowd of self gratifying promoters? Offer something of value to the world. Chances are that since you run your own business, you are talented in at least one area. Why not put in a little effort and give some of that away? Sure, there’s no reward for your time up front. But, what you’re doing is building your image as a successful, reliable professional. One of the most popular ways to do this is by writing a blog in connection with your business. Offer relevant advice and provide resources for your field. Be sure not to fall into the trap of the #humblebrag every time you post. If you’re having trouble coming up with topics to write on, don’t be afraid to ask people what they want to learn about.

Be a part of the online community

Take advantage of the fact that you run a small business. Small business means meetings over coffee, looking each other in the eye, and shaking hands. Large business means automated phone services and boring elevator music while on hold for 15 minutes. Play the part! Continue to be personal online just as you are when meeting clients face to face or talking on the phone. If you’re not familiar with the Pareto Principle, it is an advertising theory that 80% of sales come from 20% of your customers. While the figures might not be exact, this should be a good example as to why you want to properly care for your relationships. Especially as you build your online presence.

Interact with customers and prospects online. Post comments on their blogs, post on their Facebook company page, send them some tweets, and leave reviews and recommendations. David Meerman Scott refers to this as “social currency.” Not only are you helping out your own customers, you are also building your reputation (yet again) as a reliable source of information. Most blogs allow you to enter your url when leaving comments. If something you say is particularly insightful, people (potential customers ) may click through to your site to find out more about you. Even better, you can target your ideal customers by deciding which blogs to leave comments on. Be careful though, don’t post reviews exclaiming that a business is wonderful if it really isn’t. And always remember people will associate your name and your credibility with your comments!

Don’t interrupt, invite

We’ve all been part of a perfectly good conversation online, whether it be on Facebook, LinkedIn, a forum, or another type of online community, only to find it buried by worthless posts from someone “promoting” their business. You hate spam in your inbox, right? People hate spam on public sites too. And while you think it might not be spamming, if it doesn’t add something to the discussion, all you’ve done is attach your company’s name to an annoyance. You really must add value in order to cut through the clutter.

See what’s working to build an online presence, then do more of it

I’m a big fan of Google Analytics (also free). If you know how to read the data, it will provide you with invaluable information. Referral source is a big one when you are trying to build an online presence. Through Analytics, you can track where people are finding your site and how long they are staying active on it. This tool is helpful to figure out what kinds of interaction actually yield the most return for you. Once you’ve figured out what works, do more of it.

It won’t happen overnight

Building a solid presence online requires patience and commitment. The best way to cut through the clutter is to offer reliable information that someone will want to read. The most important thing is not to get discouraged if there are no immediate returns. Just like most other things worth doing, building an online presence for your small business takes time.

I would love to hear suggestions or stories about some of the things your small business might be doing to build their online presence. Please share your stories below in the comments.

Anna DiTommaso
Founder of Creative80, Anna DiTommaso built the company from the ground up and believes that the key to her success has been cultivating real, meaningful relationships with clients. Anna has appeared in articles on Lifehack, Mashable, Ragan, CEO blog nation, and Business News Daily.