Intuit.com Review for small Businesses

I’ve got the skinny for those small business owners that have seen the commercials for Intuit.com   The concept is great: a place that simplifies the process of making websites while keeping it cheap and affordable.

I spent hours searching through the templates and to tell you the truth I was not all that impressed.  It looked as if some of them were made in haste and others were just really ugly and impractical.  I have to say that they do cater to a variety of different businesses such as restaurants, lawn care, medicine, etc.  My suggestion to you is to use Intuit and pay them to design you a custom website.  They don’t charge much and you wont have to spend your time trying to figure out how to customize the templates.  When speaking to a rep over there they even informed me that they did have SEO options and that although they are not allowed to guarantee anything, it would after three months give you top results in search engine rankings.

Getting Better Search Engine Rankings Via PR

Need more links to your travel business website?  Or Maybe you need to improve your search engine rank…Press Release websites are a must.  I’ve heard the importance of PR from Marketing companies and wil attempt to do this myself for iheartbackpackers.com.   Anyways, while researching the most effective way to do this I came across two excellent links:

http://nakedpr.com/2007/07/16/effective-free-press-release-distribution-in-5-easy-steps/

http://nakedpr.com/2007/07/29/big-list-of-free-press-release-distribution-sites/

The former is a how to guide and the latter is a list of free PR Submission sites.

Create a Social Network for your Travel Company

 In my last post I wrote about how utilizing social networks like meetup.com, twitter.com, and facebook.com is a necessity not only for sales and brand awareness but also for valuable links that can boost your website rankings.  I discussed in an earlier post how meetup.com was a valuable tool because I can target an audience who specifically is interested in my travel products by creating a local community of backpackers.  Now what I’d like to do is combine these two tools by creating my own social networking site!

There are two important parts of getting visitors on my website:  Having them stay there for a period of time and repeat visits.  By offering tools on my website like a social networking site, I can guarantee these two important aspects of brand exposure and awareness.  There are many different sites out there that will allow you to create your own social network.  Here are a few:

http://www.ning.com  (free)

http://www.socialgo.com  (free)

http://www.socialengine.net  (free, updgrades cost money but are relatively cheap.  Fully customizable but difficult to use if you’re not computer savy)

If you would like to visit the http://www.iheartbackpackers.com  Social network that I created using ning.com please visit  Wanderlust!  – http://iheartbackpackers.ning.com

Social Network Media for Marketing

It’s incredible how fast and popular the social network media has grown.  I remember back in the day (pre-myspace) when I used to use http://www.friendster.com and http://www.livejournal.com to keep connected with friends.  Today there are thousands of websites out there that allow you to connect and share ideas, experiences, photos, videos etc.  More than just a way to stay in contact with peers, social networking sites have grown to be a huge channel for marketing, branding, and sales.  If I’m going to be in business, using this to my advantage is a must!

In an earlier entry, I wrote about the benefits of using http://www.meetup.com – a website that enables people with interests to gather, or meet up through group organizers, with others who have similar interests.  Today it is imperative to have a presence, or a page, on leading sites like http://www.facebook.com, http://www.twitter.com,  and http://www.myspace.com.   Just to give you an idea,  here are some stats on these sites:

Facebook –

  • More than 300 million active users
  • 50% of our active users log on to Facebook in any given day
  • The fastest growing demographic is those 35 years old and older

Myspace-

  • Reach over 70 million
  • 1100+ targeting options

Twitter-

  • Third largest Social Networking site
  • 6 million unique monthly visitors
  • 55 million monthly visits

So where else can I go to advertise?  Now a days there are SNMS for just about everything.  Wikipedia has an expansive list (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_social_networking_websites) that I can search through.  For my Backpacking  business, the wikipedia lists http://www.couchsurfing.com, http://www.exploroo.com, http://www.passportstamp.com and many more under travel that I should be participating in.

So now that I have the basics down, where else should I be participating?  My new favorite site (and hobby) is http://www.stumbleupon.com.  Wow I could just spend hours (and have) here.  Stumble upon is a site that allows users to designate their interests and then shows them random websites that pertain to those interests.  I myself have found several valuable tools for my trade  just by stumbling around.  You may also submit sites that you wish other users to stumble upon (IE YOUR SITE!).  This can lead to hundreds of thousands of page view to your site!  WOW!  Talk about instant exposure…but it’s not that easy.  Although no one really knows how the stumbleupon matrix works, it has been suggested that in order for my submitted site to be viewed by others, I need to actively participate by writing reviews of sites I gave a thumbs up to and by adding friends to my stumble upon network.

And of course there’s Youtube.com.  Here’s another avenue to showcase my product and my creativity!  Make commercials for my website, product, service…make helpful videos sponsored by my company with my website.  Free advertising!  And here are some statistics why I need to be on youtube.com:

  • Number of videos watched daily — over 200,000,000
  • Number of accounts on YouTube — over 300,000,000

And there’s one more avenue I need to pursue.  Create a blog (like this one) and participate in other people’s blogs.  A year ago, while starting another business, I interviewed a marketing firm.  Part of their plan to raise our website rankings and exposure was through “Blog Infiltration”.  This means that they would post answers frequently on blogs (for a period of three months as they put it) that pertained to my business and leave my website address as a signature.  Remember, the more websites out there that have your link on it, the higher your rankings in search engines.  Pretty smart if you ask me.  Not only are you participating in your community and gaining industry experience and insight but you’re also promoting your website rankings and product to targeted viewers at the same time.  Remember, some of these blogs may have huge followings.

With the induction of SNMS websites into our Pop Culture it is important to use these as tools for exposing my company to the public.  Sure, I can spend thousands of dollars producing a commercial and even more money buying a slot on tv but with Tivos and DVRs my commercials will be ignored and skipped and the little  money that I have for my startup will go down the drain.  I’m going to take advantage of targeting millions of people who want to listen, watch, or read about my for free.

Easy and Cheap solutions for home based Travel Agency Startups

As a startup tour operator, I have searched the internet high and low as to how I can buy airline tickets at the bare minimum cost.  My idea was to become a travel agency.  This way I can buy my supplies at cost while making money on the side selling other travel products.  For those of you who don’t know, becoming a travel agent can be a lengthy, expensive, and extremely difficult task.  The requirements for gaining an IATA and ARC number are enough to turn most people away from the prospects of being a travel agent.  These requirements include lengthy applications, taking a class to become a certified Arc rep, 3+ years experience in the industry, proof of errors and omissions insurance, a 200 lb safe, an inspection of your commercial property, a surety bond, and the list goes on.

If you do the research however, there is a way to get around this.  A Host Travel Agency is one that will partner with you for a small fee or a piece of the commission.  What you get in return is the use of their booking engine, their ticketing service, and an Iata and/or Arc number.

The host engine I really like is http://www.nexion.com.   For a monthly fee you get full commissions and 24 hour support, although they’re booking engine is a little…well…rough.  Nexion.com makes sense.  They offer different plans (80% commission for $199 one time fee) but at least they offer a plan for 100% commission for $200 a month.  Basically you are paying them a fee to rent their arc and Iata number.  Not a bad deal if you’re going to take this seriously.

http://www.mtravel.com is another popular solution but I feel that they’re cut of my commission and they’re fees are extreme.  They want you to pay  $200-400 in annual subscription fees and take about 50% of your commission.  Although they’re booking engine is more sophisticated it’s still a poor business model compared to Nexions 80% for a one time $199 fee.

Go ahead and start googling “host travel agency” and see what comes up and begin comparing solutions.  Until you have the necessary experience and resources this will be your best bet at becoming a travel agent!  Also, don’t forget to ask about if you are in a state that requires a seller’s of travel license and how to apply for exemption!  You wont be able to do business without it.

Meetup.com – A great travel industry marketing tool.

So I have my tours designed, my website is up, and I’ve begun to distribute my tours online.  My company is starting to come along but it wont be successful unless I can start selling and be profitable.  Unfortunately, just distributing my tours wont be enough.  This is where the two dreaded words business come in (at least I’m scared to death of them) : Direct Marketing.

A few years ago I had a job in a multi-level direct marketing company.  It was a door to door gig selling hurricane impact windows, kitchen refacing, and texture coating exterior paint.  The experience of having 100 doors slammed in my face every day, the occasional naked weirdo opening the door, and even dogs unleashed on me for three months pretty much put me off from the whole go out and get a sale routine for a long time.  However, now that I have my own business, I have a renewed interest in direct sales.  The product I’m selling now, tour packages for 18 – 30 yr. olds, would be more of a college sales gig though.  The question here is, “How do I begin to maximize my time and sales potential with direct marketing?”

Before I start going out to college campuses I’m going to sign up for http://www.meetup.com.  It is a great solution that, in the past, has yielded me incredible results!  Meetup.com is a website that facilitates people who are interested in a topic (kayaking, tarot cards, vintage cars…) to meet up with a group of people in an area who are also interested in this topic.  For $20 dollars a month (or less if you buy three or six months at a time) you can create your own group and target people who have a genuine interest in what you do!

Last night I signed up for my account (3 months = 45$).  I named my meet up group after my business- I Heart Backpackers and tagged it with keywords for what my group was about i.e. backpacking, backpackers, travel, adventure.  Now, what I want to achieve is not only a meetup group to directly pitch my product but to form a community of backpacking travelers to build a customer base and product recognition.  I have designated my community to be for backpackers wanting to share stories, find a buddy to travel with, discuss future travel plans, and play some fun travel games.  Once I have a community going I can offer group trip hosted my the meetup group.

Some features I really enjoy about meetup.com:  The ability to market to people who want to join a group about a certain topic.  Meetup has email lists and forums and will contact members interested in your group for you every time you post a new event.  You can post your event easily on craigslist and it allows integration with Facebook.  Meetup has free printable marketing materials geared specifically for your meetup group.  Has a database of free locations that can be used for your meetup

With my keywords set and two events posted, Meetup will be e-mailing approx. 2,600 people in my area who have specified that they want to attend backpacking related groups.  I need to remember though that the key to making my meetup groups a success is to consistently host meetings and to create a community for my members.

http://www.meetup.com/IHeartBackpackers/   is the address to my meetup group.  If you are curious to how this works please see for yourself.  As I’ve said, in the past this has been an incredible channel for marketing and sales.  I wouldn’t skip this tool if I were you!  Tune in next week as I post an update on the progress of my meetup group.

So I have my tours designed. Now what?

 If you took my advice in an earlier article I wrote, you’d have a jump-start on your tour distribution via the Rezgo Connect feature.  By now you should have explored available suppliers and offered them a commission suitable to what your price points can handle and what the vendor is asking for.  Don’t get discouraged if no one has replied yet however.  The Rezgo Connect feature on Rezgo.com is in infant stages and will take time for more suppliers sign up.  So now what? 

Well, I know that in order to sell my tours I need to get them distributed to a wide audience.  So far, I have directly contacted the lovely staff at http://www.hostelworld.com to sell my tours through.  Being a backpacking tour company, this is a perfect site to sell my tours on.  Oh and not to mention that they have an affiliate network of 30 + sites (they say thirty but I’ve found my tours on way more than that!) that will post and sell my tours too!  Hostel world takes a nice 15% chunk for commission but that’s pretty much standard for my product.  I can expect to pay anywhere between 10-18% commission depending on the marketing channel and how competitive I want to be.  I suggest to do some research and try to find websites and companies that are suitable to distribute your product.

Another place I am distributing through is http://www.adventurelink.com.  Partnered with Vaxvacation Access, this website will make me accessible to 70,000 leisure travel associates on not only the adventurelink site but the Vax website as well.  Oh and not to mention that rumor has it adventurelink is in talks with a GDS…Don’t know what that is?  I’ll talk about that later. 

So okay great!  I now have a pretty good head start on my distribution!  But this wont be enough to pay the bills or fully book my tours.  Other measures must be taken: Direct Marketing, Viral Marketing, Social Networking, Other Distribution Channels, SEO for higher website rankings….basicaly the works!  Tune in for more articles to see my business grow.