Recession Survival Tips For Online Businesses

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Kate Davies, project manager at Harmony Internet, clever web people, specialising in organic SEO. More about Kate Davies ↬

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In a recession, companies go one of two ways: either they become the cautious cat, adopting a wait-and-see attitude, spending carefully on their marketing and less overall, cutting back, or they become the ferocious lion, bold, taking advantage of their competitors’ caution to seize opportunities in the tough market.

In a recession, companies go one of two ways: either they become the cautious cat, adopting a wait-and-see attitude, spending carefully on their marketing and less overall, cutting back, or they become the ferocious lion, bold, taking advantage of their competitors’ caution to seize opportunities in the tough market.

Whatever your approach, remember that Web marketing is a great investment during a recession. Online marketing, though a short-term endeavor, is quick to set up, measurable and, as a result, easily optimizable. It can be infinitely better than a lock-in marketing strategy or partnership, especially in a poor economic climate.

Further Reading on SmashingMag:

Here are three Recession “R”s, to help your business take advantage of online marketing in this challenging time. Rework, Revisit, Reach Out: let’s take a closer look at survival tips and strategies for online marketing.

Survival Tips for Online Marketing, image by Simon Newton
Illustration by Simon Newton


Apart from the occasional spring clean, no one really enjoys housekeeping because it feels like hard work. However, a spring clean or review of your website could reveal some hidden strengths and allow you to address some simple yet fundamental drawbacks.


Look through your content and really read it. Read every word and punctuation mark. Read it aloud if that will make you read every word. As you do that, see whether the content engages you and is still informative, accurate and relevant. New laws, products or models may have come out since your core content was published. You may find hidden corners to edit or update. Most importantly, remove inaccurate legal or medical information. Don’t forget your privacy policy and the terms and conditions, too.

Duplicating content is often hotly debated, particularly because Google strongly advises against it. If you discover that you have duplicate content, check which is the busiest or has the best URL (for purposes of search engine optimization, of course). Remove the other page, replacing it with a 301 redirect to the main page. If your website lives on more than one domain, ensure that the other domains all point to one main one, so that Google doesn’t regard it as two duplicate websites. Read up on official Google advice.

You may find that it’s time to archive some content. You’ll be able to see from page views if a piece from your archive is popular. It might be worth updating the story, linking prominently from this older article to the new one.

If the majority of your content is text, consider diversifying your media. You may regard text as king because of search engine indexing, but don’t obsess over what search engines see on your website; they are secondary to your users. For instance, you could upload videos to video-sharing websites. Although links on such pages are often set to nofollow, preventing them from improving your ranking, video platforms do give you an opportunity to push content to another networks and reach audiences beyond your website.

Podcasting is another medium that might appeal to users, especially if you can interview experts or respected names in your industry. You could even make your podcasts available through iTunes. Podcasting can be incredibly simple to do, particularly with services such as Audioboo. Audioboo’s mobile and Web podcasting platform allows you to create a podcast literally anywhere.

Useful PDF downloads — such as the first chapter of a book you’re selling or a helpful guide — are enticing as freebies. Why not consider a tip sheet, such as this Photoshop Keyboard Shortcuts Cheat Sheet PDF. By adding your company branding or a small ad to the download, you ensure that each time someone refers to the sheet, they are exposed to your brand.

A useful way to diversify content is to translate it. Identify your target languages by studying your website’s visitor statistics and sales data. Consider which countries you commonly do business with and the ones you seek to do business with. Also, consider the cost of maintaining the multi-lingual content simultaneously with your primary language content. While you’re at it, consider translating meta content, too, for a unified approach to optimizing translated content.

Keeping on top of broken links, whether due to typos or deletion of content, is time-consuming. However, several link-checking software programs are available, such as Xenu or Link Checker Firefox Extension which can use multi-threading to check your website. Xenu produces a handy report for you to deal with broken links.

While dealing with broken links, check that your 404 (“Page cannot be found”) and 500 (“Server error”) pages are helpful and informative and not just the default pages. If you are able to set up error notification emails or reports, they can help you identify issues quickly, before someone sends you an irate email or a broken shopping cart loses several days’ worth of customers. Be aware that your website could generate a lot of errors — and therefore a lot of automated emails — so use email filtering. If you plan to use an automatic link checker, suspend the error reporting emails until you’re done.

404 error example

This may seem obvious, but you need to pay attention to link quality and avoid “Click here” links like the plague. Favor more relevant and informative links for both your visitors and search engines; for instance, “Washmax 200” or “Full Washmax range.” If you can link key phrases, all the better. Avoid using images for links, but if you need to do it, use informative alt and title tags. If you use images to preserve fonts in navigation, look into @font-face font embedding solutions or font-replacement solutions such as Cufón.

Meta Data

With your content all updated, now’s a good time to reindex with Google and other major search engines. Review your meta and header set-up. Ideally, you should have individual descriptions and title tags for as many pages as possible, tags that accurately reflect the content. On a large website or in a CMS, this can be tricky, so consider preparing a standard set as a fallback, with the option to override it on individual pages.

Put key phrases and phrases related to your target market in titles and descriptions. Sign up for Google Webmaster Tools, and link it to your website with the validation tag or file. The tools will help you submit site maps and view crawl errors, keyword density and popular search queries for which your website was a result. Pairing it with Google Analytics is even handier; it shows you the following outcomes: keywords people used to reach your website, as well as “impressions” (i.e. results for which your website appeared but that did not necessarily lead to visits). To keep track of Yahoo, there is Site Explorer, and for Bing, Webmaster Central.

Common Queries

Look at phone and email queries from current and potential customers to identify common questions and issues. Why are people asking these questions? Is it because they cannot find the information on your website? Is it there but not easy to find or not clear enough? Could you improve how information is displayed on the website to reduce the number of queries, thus saving you money and time? Maybe you need to revise the wording in your navigation menu?

In a similar vein, look at recurring searches on your website. Is there a trend? Are people searching for a particular product, billing info, contact info? How can you reduce these searches and bring the most popular products within easy reach of your consumers? Google estimates that, on average, 40% of visitors navigate websites by performing on-site searches.

For instance, UK retailer Next focused on its search functionality and identified terms that had high average exit rates. One term was “boys socks,” which returned results that were not particularly helpful, leading a lot of people to leave, assuming there were few or no socks available. By improving search relevancy, Next decreased the reduction rate by 19%. If this were duplicated across all the other on-site searches, it would result in a 4.14% increase in online revenue. (Read more about the case study.)


A website easily shows its age, and its presentation influences customer behavior. People will judge a book by its cover. Make clear what you want visitors to do: whether to buy a product, sign up for a service, etc. Make it logical. Learn to appreciate enormous call-to-action button.

Call to Action Button Example

If you’ve had the same style for a while, consider employing some of these tips and tricks, for reassessing your presentation; they require only your time, no expensive tools. Small tweaks, such as changing the typography to improve readability and breaking up blocks of text, can make dramatic improvements.


Slow websites discourage visitors, and they have a variety of causes and solutions. The YSlow toolbar, developed by Yahoo to integrate with Firebug on Firefox, is handy for analyzing websites and suggesting improvements. The handiest feature is often the image compressor, found in YSlow’s Tools tab. The tool compresses all images on a page, displays a list of its changes and gives you the option to replace these with the larger versions on your server. Alternatively, you might prefer PNGGauntlet, which is an offline tool that we found outdid on occasions. Of course, you might find that using sprites for interfaces and navigation cuts down loading time quite a lot, too.

Speed is now officially a factor in Google’s search algorithm and will affect your ranking in results. Google stated in April:

While site speed is a new signal, it doesn’t carry as much weight as the relevance of a page. Currently, fewer than 1% of search queries are affected by the site speed signal in our implementation and the signal for site speed only applies for visitors searching in English on at this point.

Even though speed weighs lightly with Google, it still weighs heavily with usability and customer service, and it will prepare you for when Google increases its weight.


Don’t reinvent the wheel. Look back at marketing that has worked well for you in the past and recycle it. How often have you seen a television ad reappear a year or two later with an updated voice-over? It’s still effective. Why totally re-do it?

Keep Customers Happy

In a recession, keeping current customers happy is critical and is far easier than gaining the trust of new ones. Word of mouth is gold, so give customers something to talk people, whether it be your fantastic service, your speedy turnaround and rapid response or your use of them as a super case study on your website.

Share your success with clients, and encourage them to share their successes with you, especially ones related to your service or product. Ask permission to use quotes for testimonials. Give customers an incentive to recommend you, whether in the form of a discount on their next order, a special online coupon or something else. Track the coupons to measure their effectiveness, and tweak them to improve results.

Use Relationship Marketing Strategies

Relationship marketing focuses on customer retention and satisfaction, rather than sales transactions. Adopting relationship marketing means that you recognize the long-term value of customer relationships. It is comparable to defensive-and-offensive marketing, according to Claes Fornell and Birger Wernerfelt.

Offensive marketing is about obtaining new customers, increasing customer purchasing frequency and liberating dissatisfied customers from the competition. Defensive marketing, on the other hand, is about reducing and managing dissatisfaction, reducing customer turnover and increasing customer loyalty. This tactic was used by the UK ISP Plusnet in January 2010, when it encouraged its own customers to lure Tiscali customers who were unhappy about the brand’s demise and the impending increase in broadband prices by parent company TalkTalk.

Businesses commonly adopt two strategies when trying to increase customer loyalty. The first, increasing customer satisfaction, can be done just by listening more actively to your customers. The second is meant to erect switching barriers.

Switching barriers are hoops your customers have to jump through to leave your services. Exit fees, search costs, learning costs, installation and start-up costs are all switching barriers, as is breach of contract (i.e. terminating a contract early). Although barriers will retain customers who couldn’t be bothered, it is a rather aggressive approach.

Customer loyalty is important, as Frederick Reichheld notes (PDF):

Good long-standing customers are worth so much that in some industries, reducing customer defections by as little as five points from, say, 15% to 10% per year can double profits.

Reichheld agrees with earlier research by Buchanan and Gilles (1990) that long-term committed customers are of high value. Long-term customers are less inclined to switch, and they deliver stable sales volume, even in a recession. They are less price sensitive and might naturally promote you by word of mouth. Loyal long-term customers are more likely to invest in supplemental products and are overall less expensive to serve. They are already familiar with your processes and are therefore consistent in their communications and demands relative to new clients.

Gain Trust of Skeptical Customers

Customers are becoming wiser about where they spend their money, especially in a recession. Skeptical customers will almost certainly increase in numbers, unless you are an essential service. Selling to this class of customer requires that you look carefully at the impression you give to them.

Gain trust of skeptical customers

Ensure your company sends the right signals to clients. Note the impression you want to give — whether it is professional, secure, intelligent — and then look critically at the signals you send out. Consider your company name, your logo, the way you greet people over the phone, even the music people hear while on hold. Examine your catalogues, order forms, bulk mail, signage, email (both day-to-day and broadcasts), company car or fleet, uniforms, sales presentations. Even down to the way your office looks and smells.

You might decide that your company signals entirely match the impression you’re aiming for. Perhaps you designed your own logo and website and produced your own advertising material. But even if you’re a designer and run a promotional company by trade, being objective about your own creative work is incredibly difficult. Consult others to tell you critically and honestly how they perceive your company. A professional image is key to survival.

If you’re not keen to make these kinds of changes, consider smaller yet significant changes. Avoid hyped-up marketing copy that your defensive customers might perceive as scammy. Be clear in your communication; include relevant and favorable statistics about your business and products. Proudly display your clientele on your website (with their permission, of course), and ask your best clients for testimonials. Improve your testimonials further by including photos and recognizable sources. If your company or product is accredited in some way, display the accreditation on your website and in your marketing material. Reassure skeptical customers: give them genuine reasons to trust you.

Be positive about your company and what it provides. Consider why you have skeptical customers. Eliminate the risk. If you can offer a 100% money-back guarantee without too many restrictions, that might be what you need to sway the fence-sitters. Otherwise, offer a free sample, demo or consultation. Showing how something benefits the customer is far better than telling them. A video demonstration might be a useful addition to your website if you cannot reach clients in person easily.

Re-Engage Former Customers is the online home of Britain’s leading food retail group, Tesco. Tesco is also a recognized supermarket in many other countries across Europe, Asia and the US. Tesco has a sophisticated system for monitoring customers who are registered on the online store but have purchased for a while. Its “commitment-based segmentation,” or “loyalty ladder,” monitors the types of actions a customer performs, which in turn trigger different types of communication from Tesco, such as follow-up emails or personalized alerts.

Tesco categorizes customers based on the date of their last purchase and the frequency and value of their purchases, slotting them into one of six categories:

  1. Logged in,
  2. Cautionary,
  3. Developing,
  4. Established,
  5. Dedicated,
  6. Logged out.

The system then uses automated messaging to encourage purchases, employing anything from surveys to gift vouchers to monthly e-newsletters. The system helps Tesco entice former customers and identify how to retain more customers.

Email Marketing

Sixty-seven percent of those surveyed by cScape and Econsultancy during their 4th Annual Online Customer Engagement survey in April 2010 said that email newsletters resulted in a tangible improvement to their organization’s online customer engagement.

Email marketing can be used to follow up on actions such as purchases or registrations in shops or on websites. Tesco, as noted, heavily uses a variety of automated email marketing to keep in touch with customers. Emails are often triggered by customer actions. For example, Ticketmaster follows up the day after an event, inviting customers to post a review of the event on its website, thus enriching its event listings and prompting a return visit to its website — and possible repeat purchases.

Marketing by email does come with the legal responsibilities to keep your data clean and to respect the wishes of those who want to unsubscribe. Complaints against email marketers can lead to companies getting blacklisted, and then you’ll end up in the junk folder, making the time you spent on email marketing worthless.

Coordinate Offline and Online Efforts

If your business is not solely online, be sure to coordinate your marketing efforts. Use vanity URLs to track offline-to-online movement. For example, an advertisement by Dell on television might invite viewers to visit for offers relating to the ad they just saw. Online ads might show another URL, one not only that Dell tracks, but that takes visitors straight to the advertised product, rather than the home page. Of course, some visitors will go to the home page first anyway, so be sure they can find your offer from there, too.

If you issue vouchers on paper, why not tag them with online-only voucher codes to encourage them to move their purchasing online or to try out your Web services? Marketing and tracking is far easier online than in stores, which typically have a variety of non-integrated systems.

Save money on paper mail by offering email. Banks and utilities, such as BT, are increasingly encouraging their customers to go paper-free, in consideration of the environment, sometimes by offering small incentives. Your customers gain the advantage of being able to access all of their paperwork online at any time, without fear of losing it.

Keep Your Friends Close and Your Competitors Closer

This may seem like the last thing you would want to do, but teaming up with competitors and other businesses could really help your business pull through the recession. The phrase “a rising tide floats all boats” applies here, so see if you can team up with other businesses to stimulate the marketplace in your area and industry. Don’t rip a stressed market to pieces; be bold, and propose fair play with competitors. The town’s big enough for the two of you — or at least it has to be when the pickings are slim.

You probably study your closest competitors regularly. Using that knowledge, identify a competitor with a similar target market to yours but different products or services. Approach the company for a joint venture: you would share the same market but not directly compete on products. By joining forces to run an event or campaign, you really reach out to your audience.

Look at what you have and what you need. Do your competitors have what you need. Is there some way to combine efforts to benefit both? For instance, a company selling t-shirts might join forces with a competitor that has an extensive database of emails. The t-shirts would be promoted to that market, and the database owners would receive a finder’s fee for subsequent sales. Both companies benefit from the collaboration.

Team up with similar providers to run fairs or other events to draw customers in. The combined advertising power of two companies is far more likely to attract many more customers than the power of just one. While you may sell similar products, you will reach a broader customer base and can split the cost of the event.

Attend events in your industry, and make a special effort to network, especially with event speakers. Collect cards, and distribute yours to everyone you meet; and follow-up afterwards, either by email or on a social network. Build on that first impression, and ensure that your time at the event doesn’t go to waste.

If you are a freelancer, combine forces with other freelancers who have different skills. You might be able to outsource that illustration you’ve been struggling with, or find someone to code your new client’s e-commerce website while you worry about the design. By offering more services, you become more attractive to customers.

Sometimes you receive requests from companies or individuals that you just can’t fill, whether because you’re too busy or don’t have the requisite skills or just sense a potential personality clash. Refer them to one of your competitors — after agreeing with the competitor on how to handle this sort of request. Keep a tab on who you refer, and follow up with the competitor. The customer will take this as a thoughtful recommendation and will respect you more for being so helpful. Arrange this in advance for times when clients call all at once.

Of course, the company you keep says much about you. Keep your friends close and your competitors closer. By associating with the industry’s brightest and best, you raise yourself, and you might learn a thing or two in the process.

Reach Out

One in every eleven minutes spent online globally in December 2008 was spent on either social networks or blogs, and that rate has very likely increased since. That’s a big portion of your customers’ time. Forty-four percent of those polled by cScape and Econsultancy in the aforementioned survey said that joining a social network made a tangible improvement to their organization’s online customer engagement. That 44% might include your biggest competitor?

Look Before You Leap

Research your social networks

If you already have a personal profile on a social network, do a little research on who is talking about your company, and see whether your competitors are established there. Using your personal account for business purposes is probably not appropriate. Posts about your family and friends probably wouldn’t serve your professional image, and your friends and family won’t want to see details about your company in their feed. The exception to this is the professional network LinkedIn, which was built especially for business networking. You could also create a customized Facebook business page, so take a fresh look at establishing a presence there.

Extend Communication Channels

Email and telephone reliable methods of communicating with clients, but many companies find the need to embrace alternative media, such as Twitter, often in response to customers venting or praising them there. By monitoring the discussion, customer service managers can pick out frustrated clients before they publicly embarrass the company. For example, BT has @btcare on Twitter; during the Paddington Exchange outage, which knocked out Internet service in parts of England at the end of March, BT offered assistance to those who tweeted about it. Being a mobile social network, which many people turn to during an outage, Twitter was particularly handy. Twitter offers specific advice to businesses that want to join the discussion.


Social networking is all about sharing, whether it’s news, photos or links. If a visitor finds your website useful or amusing, they will share it with friends. See how easy it is to share your website on Facebook and Twitter. More than 25 billion pieces of content (links, news stories, blog posts, etc.) are shared every month by Facebook users alone.

Consider whether those social network icons that clutter the bottom of blog posts are something you would like to implement for your own content. Some argue that if you do include social networking buttons, you should not dictate which social networks visitors can share on; but with the hundreds of networks and bookmarking websites in existence, being selective is practical. And you can use third-party tools such as AddThis and ShareThis. They also track sharing activity on your website.

Sometimes it pays to keep things perfectly simple, especially considering what happened when ReadWriteWeb appeared above Facebook on Google for the search term “facebook,” leading to endless comments from confused visitors who blindly clicked the top result, confusing one website for the other.

Stay Regular

Regular updates will keep visitors returning to your website and also allow you to syndicate your content. Twitter has many tools to help you automatically post news in RSS (”Twitterfeed”). Some of these tools allow you to automate posts beside your responses to customers. Regular news might even catch the attention of Google News, raising your website’s profile in Google’s search results.

Of course, regular doesn’t mean boring. Keep your updates lively — and provocative, when appropriate. Consider how your favorite news source maintains your attention. Consider a recurring feature, such as a weekly or monthly interview with an employee or industry expert.

Run a competition: Twitter followers respond well to retweet competitions, whereby a company offers a prize to someone who retweets one of their updates. This could lead to potentially exponential link-sharing across the network, which, though short-lived, could have great long-term effects. @GirlguidingUk ran a daily hunt called “Tweet and seek,” in which participants had to find information on the Girlguiding UK website to win. This not only gave followers a fun and competitive way to interact with the organization, but also encouraged them to visit new sections of the website.

Targeted Ads

You may be familiar with Google AdWords and AdSense, which allows you to tailer your ads to search results and page content, but social network ad platforms like Facebook allow for far more targeted ads. Through Facebook alone, you can reach more than 400 million active users, of which 50% log in every day. Each of these users lists their location and other information such as interests, gender and age. These can all be used to finely target advertising to them, and without having to spend a particularly big budget. Companies with a presence on Facebook are given ads with additional functionality.

Advice for the Wider Community

Not everyone will turn to a social network to talk about your company or to seek help. Well-established forums and websites allow members to get support from each other on all manner of topics. Sometimes a good search can bring up some surprises. We found members of an angling forum discussing a client of ours that offers food powder; they were considering approaching the client to use one of their food powders for carp fishing bait. Quite an unusual type of customer for the company! Locate popular and well-respected forums in your industry, and use them to reach out to potential customers and reviewers of your services.

Alternatively, there is the more general Yahoo Answers, which awards points to people who respond well to questions from users, giving them an opportunity to become a respected category guru. Yahoo Answers often appear high in Google search results, and the only price for responding however much you like is your time.

Publish Content Elsewhere

If your company publishes regular press releases or news, ensure that they include the most relevant links to your website. Publishing content elsewhere is an excellent way to build “backlinks” to your website.

Make your releases informative and useful. Only publish when you have something worthwhile to say or for others to talk about. Company staff running marathons, events that you are holding, new appointments or awards you have won, these are all suitable pieces of news to release, though you may have to be selective with your audience.

Alternatively, write informative articles about your industry for external publications, or consider guest blogging. Offer yourself for interviewing.

Take Time to Talk About Others

Don’t exclusively discuss yourself or your company on social networks or in media releases. Leave space to comment on releases from other companies, including your competitors. Don’t view this as a chance to push your company name; rather, actively contribute to the discussion. Blog and write about other companies, particularly suppliers and colleagues that you respect. Congratulate them on their successes, give credit where due and quote them. Most of all, thank them for their hard work and assistance.

Tempt in your customers

More Ways to Share

Retail shops may find that partnering with a discount code website is useful, and not only because clever customers Google for discount codes before purchasing. An increasing number of consumers are signing up for regular notifications from these websites, too. Customers who might not have known about or considered you will be far more inclined to visit, knowing they have an exclusive offer code to save money.

Hotels are not the only types of businesses that would benefit from review websites. A search for any company might bring up content both good or bad. At least on websites such as TripAdvisor, hoteliers can control their listing by enhancing it, responding to negative comments, being responsible and gaining the respect of reviewers.


Any changes you make could affect visitor behavior and website statistics, so be confident about interpreting the results. Making changes does no good unless you can measure the results. Be sure not to obsess and micro-analyze, because sometimes improvements take a little while to show. Seeing a page rocket up the rankings is great, but establishing backlinks and improving a website’s overall ranking can take months.

If you use Google Analytics, try Conversion University for helpful free lessons on getting the best out of your stats.

The most important things to identify are:

  1. Where are visitors coming from? (Not just country of origin.)
  2. Where is the bounce rate high? (Is a link responsible?)
  3. Why is the bounce rate high? What were people expecting to find?
  4. How to set up conversions or funnels for actions such as filling in a contact form and checking out.

This article has covered a range of strategies for strengthening and sustaining your online presence during the economic downturn. How your business survives the recession is up to you alone and your approach. Decide whether you’re the cautious cat or the ferocious lion, taking advantage to seize opportunities in a tough market.

Smashing Editorial (al)