It’s a striking statistic: Canadians average almost 42 hours a month online, more than the people of any other country. As a business owner, you might argue that most of this time is wasted, along with your online-marketing efforts. Yet, even if you didn’t see a single dollar from the $16.5 billion that Canadians spent online last year, the web may still be affecting your bottom line.

Yes, we’re spending many of our online hours on Facebook. As of July, there were 15 million users nationwide, 60% of whom logged in every day. But it’s not all status updates and vacation photos. According to a 2011 study, 35% of Canadian consumers use social networks to research products or services, and more than a quarter are more loyal to, and trusting of, firms with a social-media presence. In the U.S., after a consumer becomes a fan or follower of a brand on Facebook, 60% are more likely to recommend it to a friend and 51% are more likely to make a purchase of that brand.

The numbers become even more compelling when looking at Internet behaviour more broadly: an overwhelming 86% of Canadians research products online before buying. This includes using search engines, reading opinions on social-networking sites, and visiting retailer or manufacturer sites.

How can you ensure you’re a part of your customers’ online experience and make the most of that time? In the war for share of mind and wallet, your business needs an effective strategy to win online.

Find your sweet spot: The first step toward a successful online strategy is to establish objectives for your own site. Is it an extension of an existing business or the crux of your business model? Is its main purpose to boost awareness? Qualify leads? Generate sales? Improve customer loyalty? Each objective leads to a different website strategy. That, in turn, will impact elements such as the breadth and depth of information you put online, the use of incentives such as notifications of sales or contests, and whether your site allows for consumer interaction or encourages offline contact.

Online businesses also can vary greatly, affecting a website’s purpose and, therefore, its design. If you’re selling a product online, you want to get visitors to that product in as few clicks as possible. But if you’re a publisher, maximizing page views drives revenue, so you’ll want to lead your readers through a deeper trail.

Fish where the fish are: Once you’ve established your objectives, you’ll need a solid plan to drive people to your site. With millions of sites competing for clicks, “If you build it, they will come” is not a viable strategy.

I’ve always believed the No. 1 place to promote an online business is online, so for both my ventures, I invested most of my limited marketing dollars in online advertising. At my first business, Sweetspot.ca, we surveyed our existing base and did further research on our target market to understand where and how to reach them. As a publisher, we found contests very effective for increasing awareness and opening the door to loyalty; the prize reeled the users in, and our content kept them on the site.

For a clicks-and-mortar business looking to make sales, you may want to focus on search-engine marketing such as Google AdWords to reach consumers further along in the purchase cycle. If your goal is to strengthen brand loyalty, your strategy might not include online advertising at all; instead, use tactics that encourage consumer interaction, such as a Facebook page.

Not all my online advertising efforts were successful, but I always took advantage of the medium’s flexibility to minimize wasted spending. Start with a small budget, study the metrics and, if the program works, expand on it.

Get social: The dramatic growth in usage of social-media sites makes leveraging them an increasingly effective way to gain brand awareness. Just how social are we? Consider Forrester’s Social Technographics Profiles, a handy tool to classify Internet users by their online habits. In Canada, 64% of all Internet users—and remember, we’re one of the world’s most wired nations—are Spectators: they read blogs, listen to podcasts, watch user videos, read online forums and read customer ratings and reviews. This jumps to 85% among people ages 18 to 24, and to 75% for those 25 to 34. Joiners, defined as Internet users who maintain a profile on a social-networking site and visit others, include 57% of all Canadians online, with similar jumps among Gen X and Gen Y. According to 2011 comScore data, this translates into 6.4 hours logged on social-networking sites per person per month.

When I launched Sweetspot, Facebook and Twitter didn’t even exist, so I relied on good, old-fashioned viral marketing, using “refer a friend” email promotions with great success. These days, social networks provide a free, easy-to-use and extremely effective way to passionately spread your message far and wide. Jordan Banks, managing director of Facebook Canada in Toronto, explains the increased engagement social-network integration can lead to this way: “People are their real selves online, and they authentically connect with the people and things they care about. Real identity allows for more social and more personalized experiences, where you share and discover from your real friends.” With tactics such as a Facebook page, videos, blogs or even Facebook ads, businesses can tap into this intimacy.

Banks also notes: “Nielsen research shows that people are 68% more likely to remember seeing an ad with social context than without, and twice as likely to remember the ad’s message. That’s the power of friends recommending to friends.”

The more that people see your brand, the more likely they are to remember it. And the more chances customers have to engage with you, the more chances you’ll have to turn them into brand advocates. At my new company, Dealuxe.ca, we’ve implemented a “Who Wore it Best” program, taking pictures of two staff members in the same item and allowing customers to comment on our Facebook page. This has boosted traffic there and on our site. It also has created a meaningful interaction with our customers, reinforcing the idea that we value their opinions and share their love of fashion.

Build a two-way street: Customer feedback offers valuable information for determining what works in your business. People now expect to be able to reach companies through whichever communications platform they have at hand, whether email, the web, Facebook or text messaging. It’s critical to listen, listen and listen some more.

This is one of the most amazing benefits of the web—the ability to carry on a dialogue. As with any great relationship, it’s all about communication, so take advantage of this chance to engage, learn and grow. This can be through social media, online chat or even simple email exchanges.

Organic is good: The biggest lesson I’ve learned as an entrepreneur is to build on the proven. Instead of trying to grow too fast or be too many things to too many people, I’ve built my businesses in an organic way. That has meant starting small and building upon each success. One of the biggest benefits of the online world is that nobody can see behind the proverbial curtain. That means you don’t need to overextend your resources—whether it’s how much inventory you carry, how many employees you have or what your office looks like.

So take advantage of that and start small. Test different strategies, see what works and build from there. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day—and neither was Google.

Joanna Track is the co-founder and CEO of Dealuxe.ca. Launched in May 2011, Dealuxe is redefining online retail in Canada by providing women’s fashion, exclusive deals and superior customer service. Prior to this venture, Track founded Sweetspot.ca, an online lifestyle magazine that Rogers Publishing Ltd. acquired in 2010.

Loading comments, please wait.