Existing without an online presence is no longer an option for small businesses in today's digitally crazed world. And while simply having a website is critical, it doesn't do a business any good unless people are actually visiting it.
There are a variety of ways for small business owners to lure customers to their website – from getting listed in online directories to initiating a QR code promotion.
Here are seven options for driving traffic to small business websites and keeping them there.
The popularity of the reality show "Extreme Couponing" is shining the light on the cash to be saved with coupons.
Surveys show Americans save more than $3 billion each year by shopping with coupons, with nearly three-quarters of consumers using coupons more than they did six months ago.
Small businesses can take advantage of this trend by creating their own digital coupons and putting them somewhere where they'll get noticed.
There are a host of online coupon sites that will promote small business deals for an annual fee.
An example is CouponPages.com, which offers shoppers deals from thousands of local merchants in more than 470 cities nationwide.
Joe Crescenzi, founder of CouponPages.Com predicts 2012 will be the biggest year yet for online coupons.
"We saw 10 times our normal audience last year, and I'm expecting the numbers for 2012 to make last year look like a drop in the bucket," Crescenzi said. "Not only is the market growing because of people looking to make ends meet, but we now are seeing growth among those who are financially well off."
Other sites small business owners can use to promote their online coupons include YouPrintCoupons.com, CouponsDealsandMore.com and RetailMeNot.com.
Whether it’s a quick interview with the founder or an image-rich product description, small businesses can use online videos to create buzz and drive traffic to their website.
Not every video will go viral, and that doesn't matter. Either way, videos are a more engaging way to get information to consumers, and they boost search engine optimization rankings.
Research shows having properly optimized online videos makes a website 50 times more likely to be listed on the first page of Google search results.
While posting videos on YouTube remains the most popular route, small businesses also can take advantage of other video sites like Viddler, Vimeo, Dailymotion and Ustream.
There also are a number of services available for small businesses that need help jumping into the video arena.
One such company is Marcus Myles Media, which recently launched its Yoularoid videos, allowing business owners to make an immediate emotional connection with each of their website visitors.
Yoularoid creates two-minute videos that unveil the business owners' personality, leaving potential new customers with the sense of knowing the person before even meeting them.
Marcus Myles Media President Mark Forrester said the power of online video can be remarkable for businesses.
"The ability to make an emotional, human connection with current and prospective customers via the web is huge," Forrester said. "Potential customers come away with the feeling that they know and like you before they meet you."
Local Online Directories
Twenty years ago, small businesses wouldn't be caught dead without an ad in the phone book.
The same can be said for today's local online directories like Yahoo! Local, Google Maps, SuperPages, DexKnows and Yelp. According to Black Box Social Media, more than 92 percent of businesses and consumers use online local search directories when researching products or services – making them the place to be for small businesses in 2012.
Directories offer small business websites a way to boost credibility and build link popularity; the small business' site can be linked to another site that already has a high page rank.
Yahoo! Small Business General Manager Thomas Byun said being listed on online directories is critical for businesses looking to establish their online presence now.
"They are very important and very low-cost," Byun said.
Other popular local online directories include CitySquares, Kudzu, Merchant Circle and YellowBot.
Once a small business gets a shopper in its door, there are plenty of opportunities to get them to stop in again online.
An online contest is one good option. Small businesses can give away gift certificates and free merchandise, and promote the contest in-store with displays; clerks also can pass out details on the contest, with the business' web address included, each time they ring up a customer.
Alternately, online surveys that offer incentives like special giveaways and coupons upon completion also can incite in-store shoppers to visit a small business' website and simultaneously prompt a return shopping visit to the store later.
Mandy Boyle, SEO manager for Solid Cactus, an e-commerce and internet marketing company, also suggests small businesses should encourage current customers who had a good experience to post a review online. That drives customers to the website and, at the same time, generates good online comments that others can see later
"Provide incentives for doing so, like offering a special deal or price for those who write a review," Boyle said.
Quick response (QR) codes – the square bar codes that are popping up everywhere – are quickly becoming an easy and popular way for businesses to drive traffic to their website.
Shoppers with smartphones are able to scan the codes, which then instantly directs them to a retailer's website.
Including a QR code on the back of a business card is an easy way for small business owners to get into the QR game.
Using QR codes to offer incentives – perhaps a promised coupon code to those who scan it – also increases a company's chances of having of the shopper following through.
To get the most out of QR codes, many experts suggest using them to direct consumers to a special landing page rather than a business' usual homepage. This allows businesses to easily rotate the content, encouraging shoppers to keep checking back in.
Philip Wocken, director of emerging media for the d.trio marketing group in Minneapolis, says QR codes hold numerous marketing options for small businesses, and believes small businesses that jump on the trend early will hold a distinct advantage
"Small businesses can also utilize QR codes to deliver content to their customers and prospects in unique ways," Wocken said. "Since small businesses are still trying to figure out the best ways to use QR codes to accomplish their objectives, the businesses that do it first and do it best will set themselves apart from the competition."
Getting started with QR codes can be extremely cheap, with numerous companies like QR.net, Create QR Codeand Microsoft offering free QR conversion services.
With nearly 1 billion users worldwide logging on regularly to sites like Facebook and Twitter, small businesses are using the power of social media to attract shoppers to their website.
Building a Facebook Fan Page is a quick and easy way to get started, and lets businesses market their products and services to the social networks millions of users for free.
In addition to posting photos, videos and blog entries, small businesses can include links to their website for customers looking to learn more or start shopping.
To encourage those click-throughs, an option for small business is to use their Facebook presence to promote contests and giveaways that require consumers to actually visit the business' homepage in order to enter.
Twitter is also increasingly becoming popular among businesses looking to market themselves online. With the help of URL-shortening tools, small business can easily include a link to their website in many of their tweets.
Twitter also allows easy communication with customers, which in turn can help drive website traffic.
According to communication strategist Ben Grossman digital strategist at Jack Morton Worldwide, successful businesses on Twitter have set themselves apart from the pack by letting their customers know they're listening and rewarding them for speaking.
Amid the frenzy of new-fangled options for driving website traffic, small businesses shouldn't overlook the basic email.
Email marketing is an easy way to keep customers in the know new deals, promotions and company news.
Since all emails can include prominent links to the business' main website, each one gives small businesses the opportunity to entice shoppers to visit their online home.
To build the email database, businesses can put an email signup sheet on the front counter, or collect emails during in-store or online transactions.
Tom Fauls, Associate Professor of Advertising at Boston University’s College of Communication, said permission-based emails provide big opportunities for a high return on investment.
"You can continue to build a database of customer emails over time," Fauls said. "It does not have to cost a lot of money and can make all the difference for a small business."
Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who spent 10 years working as a newspaper reporter before working in public relations. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cbrooks76.