There is no doubt that SEO is an important part of the online marketing machine. Lest we forget, SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization and only a fool would imagine that they could do business online without being indexed by the Gods of Search (Google, Bing, Yahoo!) However, there is more to marketing your business than making it search engine friendly; and blowing your entire marketing budget on SEO could prove a costly mistake.
Traditionally, marketing your business (any business) has involved understanding who your customers are and how they think and feel. This is no different in the Internet age, but it is easier. Think of product marketing as participating in a conversation and the sale as a logical conclusion to your chat. The most obvious method of reading the market today, and engaging those potential customers, is social media. Forget 'conversation' as a marketing metaphor, with social media you can quite literally talk to the market. You need to think about Social Media Optimization, or SMO. So devote part of your budget to creating, and maintaining, a meaningful social media presence.
What do we mean by meaningful? Well anything other than token would be the glib answer, albeit pretty accurate. Don't just create an account because your competitors are on Facebook or Twitter, but create an account because you care about developing a relationship with the market. Create an account because you care about what that market thinks, and how it feels, about your product. Create an account that you will engage with for the long haul and not get bored of after the first couple of postings. If your budget will stretch you could hire someone specifically to handle your social media interactions, but quite honestly this often smells of a separation between advertising the business and the actual business itself. Far better for the business to participate, and that's the keyword, and for customers (both current and future) to feel a connection with the company.
Of course, that's not to say you shouldn't do your research first. Market research is something else the Internet makes easy if you are prepared to put in the time. You can listen to the social media buzz around your product space, and your product itself if you are already well established, and analyse existing search engine data through keyword searches in order to solve the 'who are the customers?' question. Once you know who they are, and what they care about, creating the right social media presence becomes a lot easier. This kind of research enables you to get the marketing tone right; in other words, you need to speak the language of your audience. Not literally, but in the sense of being on the same wavelength and in the same place. You need to be able to provide stimulating content, simple as.
Once you are talking the talk with this social audience, it doesn't really matter if you convert them from bums on virtual seats to paying customers. What matters is that you have engaged an audience, the right audience, who will go on and act as unpaid marketing evangelists. They will spread the word about you to their social circle of contacts, who will do the same, and so on. This is why I cannot stress enough how important understanding the market and joining the conversation is. Get it wrong and those same powerful forces will work against you. Every conversion, every customer, every conversation is important and you must work to keep them happy. A happy customer in the world of social media is a customer who will share.
There's only one lesson to be learned here, but it's a vital one: don't build your business purely for web-indexing search robots - build it for people. Yes, you need to ensure it's optimized for those web-crawlers but never forget who your customers actually are. Hint: they are not the search engines...