THE BLOG
09/17/2014 03:27 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2014

8 Ways to Develop a Successful Online Brand for Your Small Business

Creating a strong brand can make a world of difference between success and failure for a small business. Today's most successful businesses are memorable brands because they have a trusted reputation that keeps customers buying products again and again. As a small business owner, creating a clear-cut brand will increase the effectiveness of your company's advertising and marketing efforts.

An impressive brand will help strengthen your relationship with customers and keep your products or services in the forefront of their mind, successfully capturing their loyalty and boosting your sales. Here are eight steps to develop a successful online brand for your company:

1. Understand branding: Branding is the definition of your company's core values and your promise to your customers, and it's an expression of the characteristics of your business. It positions your company as the one target customers think about first when they need your product or service. Ideally, they will be loyal to your company and will feel good about recommending you to other people. To help build a strong brand, you need to create a mission statement to share your vision and values. You can begin by brainstorming words and phrases that convey the purpose of your business and how this impacts your customers.

2. Find out how customers see your brand: To begin, you need to find out if the way you see your brand is in line with the way customers see your business. Looking at your brand through the eyes of a customer will give you better insights into what really matters to them, and which brand elements to emphasize. Listen carefully to informal feedback you may receive on social media channels, looking for that one word which customers may use to describe your business; make a list of the words that customers use most often.

3. Emphasize benefits rather than features: Remember that the features of your business are only characteristics. Benefits explain how a product or service will help your customers. Customers only care about how the features will benefit them. Focus on benefits to make a lasting impression on customers. Make sure that you list all of the features of your products or services and translate them into customer benefits. One way to do this is by asking yourself, "How does this help the customer?" You may also consider featuring customer case studies or testimonials on your website - where the customers describe the benefits of your products or services.

4. Build relationships, not just transactions: The purpose of relationship marketing is to promote and strengthen your brand image. Again, the goal is to make your company the first one a customer thinks of when they need your products or services. You should consider using social media to build relationships by engaging in conversations with your customers. Loyalty programs are also a good way to build relationships because such programs reward customers for giving you their business. Additionally, you can use email newsletters that include interesting and valuable information to remind customers of your brand.

5. Be authentic: Customers today value authenticity and transparency in their daily transactions. You can position yourself and your team, front and center, as part of your business' brand. Customers, especially in the Millennial generation, feel strongly about buying from and supporting small businesses with relatable people behind them. Share pictures and videos of yourself, your team and your offices on social media. Give your pages a personal touch by sharing tidbits about your hobbies, family and interests. However, it is important to make sure you are using social media platforms that are relevant to your brand and your customers. Find out which platforms your customers use most often and focus your energy there.

6. Standardize your brand: Synchronize your online presence with your offline presence; your brand should be portrayed consistently every time customers have the chance to interact with you. This includes your website, online and print ads, social media accounts, business cards, employee uniforms, product packaging, and store or office signage. Make sure to review and update all the elements of your brand, such as content, website, logo, graphics, images and colors, on (at least) an annual basis. To help give your brand a personality, decide what tone you'll take on social media. Figure out if your customers will respond better to touching, cute or serious posts.

7. Train your employees on how to protect your brand: Make sure everyone on your team understands what your brand represents - inside and out. Develop systems and procedures for how employees interact with customers to protect and promote your brand. Regular training will ensure that all employees understand how to convey your brand most effectively. You might also consider creating protocol for interacting with customers on social media. Monitor online interactions with customers, and reward employees who effectively represent your brand.

8. Continue to evolve your brand: Create a marketing calendar that details the steps you will take each month, week and day to market and advertise your brand. An effective calendar may include online advertising, search engine optimization (SEO), social media, email marketing, updating your website and traditional advertising. Study the results of your online advertising, social media outreach and SEO for effectiveness, and if necessary adjust your approach. Enlist third-party companies, whenever possible, to simplify and streamline your marketing and advertising. Specialists can help you create the illusion of a big brand.

Successful branding requires patience, though it does pay off! But don't expect to see immediate results. You need to regularly engage with your customers in ways that promote the brand in order to best yield long-lasting results.