Virtually Perfect: How To Structure a Virtual SEM Business for Success

[Editor's Note: While many of the resources here are specific to the search engine world, this article also contains quite a bit of excellent advice for anyone running a virtual business, in any industry.
—Shel Horowitz, Editor, Down to Business]

The business of search marketing continues to expand—offering what seems like endless opportunities for SEM professionals to grow their business. But the idea of growth often conjures up images of working in a traditional office setting, which for many of us has little to no appeal.

Fortunately, technology enables many in our industry to operate virtually -- conducting regular business from their living room or on the road. There's no need to trade off this work-style to capitalize on the market opportunity and take your business to the next level. You simply need to lay the foundation for virtual success.

People Make the Difference

Let's face it: Even in the age of technology, people are a critical part of business success. And when you are operating virtually, it's even more important to find the right team. You need to consider a number of issues surrounding the set-up of your workforce. For example:

1. Recruiting the Right Talent

Where do you find people? Not just bodies, but talent that fits the bill? One of the greatest untapped resources: stay-at-home parents! We hire moms and dads that have solid experience as account managers in ad agencies or PR firms—they're sharp marketers and already know how to handle clients. A virtual agency offers many lifestyle benefits that appeal to people who have left the corporate or agency rat race. You get the benefit of their experience and talent without having to pay full-time salaries and benefits.

2. Identifying Roles

What roles do you really need to fill? I've found that hiring specialists with assigned responsibilities works the best in a virtual setting. It leaves less room for interpretation differences and maximizes productivity. At Prominent Placement, we have trained account managers (for SEO and PPC), linking specialists, reporting specialists, freelance copywriters, a bookkeeper, and a technical advisor. We outsource other roles, such as research, because it's more cost-effective.

3. Working with Clients

You have three options here. You can:

1) always be the front person (which often defeats the purpose of having others on your team); or

2) be a control freak and insist on reviewing every last email (which ultimately creates a bottleneck in the process); or

3) train qualified account managers to work directly with the clients. Some of you are probably getting hives right now thinking about the delegation. Trust me, the only way you can get to the bigger-picture aspects of your business is to spread the wealth. You have to train and then trust!

4. Jumpstarting the Learning Process

We all know how quickly this industry is evolving. It's critical to get your workforce up to speed and in the habit of staying "ahead of the curve." There are comprehensive online courses through companies such as iMedia Learning and Search Engine College, books (two of my favorites: Planet Ocean's online book "The Unfair Advantage Book to Winning the Search Engine Wars" and Shari Thurow's book "Search Engine Visibility" http://www.highrankings.com/searchenginevisibility), and of course, the ever invaluable on-the-job training.

5. Getting the Info Out of Your Head

It's incredible just how much data we store in our heads—especially if you have been operating as a sole practitioner! If there is a single, most important step to take, it's getting this data out of your head and onto paper. Document everything that you do. (Yes, it's time-consuming, but worth it in the long run!) Then organize the information into a Process Manual for your workforce. This will make your training almost seamless! And ensure that "your way" of doing business is replicated.

Systems

Be sure to leverage technology to its full potential. With all of the options in the market today, you can easily and cost-effectively create a traditional business front for customers.

1. Email - Be sure that you set up company email addresses for all of the individuals who will have customer interactions. Always present a unified front to the client.

2. Phone - There are a number of options on the phone front. You can have an answering service, a main local phone number with extensions that are forwarded to each person's home phone, or Voice over IP. If you prefer, your workers can simply give out their individual phone numbers. In this case, you may want to give them tips for ensuring a business front is always presented. There are also great conference-calling services such as Budgetconferencing.com.

3. Data - Most of us are accustomed to emailing documents back and forth. When you add people to your workforce, it is critical that you consider a different method for storing and sharing data so everyone can access what they need 24-7. For example, a Virtual Private Network will allow staff at other locations to access your files directly. Or, if you don't want to be responsible for ensuring that your network is always available, secure, backed up, and so forth, use an outsourced extranet instead. We've had great results with MarketingCentral— it's easy to use and affordable.

With any company, a business plan is a necessity. You need to know where you are taking your business—the path, the timeline, the milestones, etc. If you haven't yet done this, talk to the Small Business Development Center http://www.sba.gov/sbdc. The organization offers tremendous insight and direction for creating your path—at no cost to you! Remember: If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there.

Stacy Williams is Managing Partner of Prominent Placement, a full service search marketing firm. In business since early 2001, Prominent Placement (http://www.sba.gov/sbdc) provides search engine optimization, pay-per-click campaigns, optimized press releases, link-building, and search engine reputation management services to a wide range of clients.


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