Extending Your Brand Experience in an Online World
 By Thad Kahlow, CEO, BusinessOnLine

Regardless of what industry you’re in or what you’re selling, today your customers are more connected and savvy than ever before—with a simple click they have infinite amounts of information at their fingertips. And yet, even with the endless new opportunities we have to connect with customers thanks to the Web, many marketers still approach extending their brand experience the way they did 20 years ago.

So, why is it that traditional brand marketers are often so slow to embrace online marketing in its entirety, and put the resources and focus behind it that is necessary to truly extend the brand experience? The obvious answer is fear and uncertainty—for many, it’s the great unknown, and it’s not easy to jump in with both feet.

Well, before there was an identified discipline, businesses tried to differentiate their offerings and connect with their customers—today, it’s part of what we call brand marketing. What you communicate, how you communicate, and where you communicate all reflect on your brand, create the experience your customers have with your brand, and ultimately play a large part in your company’s success.

From an offline perspective, marketers have gotten more and more sophisticated in extending their brand experience and integrating it into all touch points—from advertising, to PR, to sales, brand marketers work hard to produce a consistent message. But, as online marketing has grown and matured over the last decade, and the number of ways you can communicate with your target has increased exponentially, many marketers have buried their heads in the sand, because it’s just too overwhelming. Instead, we should see this as the unprecedented marketing opportunity that it is, and embrace it.

Whether you’re selling snake oil off the back of a truck, advertising via television in the 1950’s, or communicating in social networks today, it’s really the same exercise—there are just a lot more touch points than there used to be.

So, let’s start in an area with which we’re most comfortable: Your website, which in many ways, is really just like your storefront. At this point, most marketers understand the need and have taken the time to ensure their website visually represents their brand appropriately, but what about the user experience?

Usability plays a big role in the brand experience that your customer has at your “storefront.” You need to approach it similarly to how you’d organize a store so your customers know where and how to find the things they seek. Your brand is judged in the first few seconds, so cues you give at the “door” are critical. This concept goes beyond visual appeal. You need to greet your potential customers and assure them that they’re at the right place. Then you need to organize your content in “customer-friendly” categories, guide the experience through proper, intuitive sequencing, and ultimately get them to act—whether that means buying your product or downloading a whitepaper, it’s much the same process. It’s really not different than the way it was done 20 years ago—it’s just a different medium.

If you start to branch out, the obvious question is how do you communicate your brand outside your “store” to drive traffic? Tried and true measures like traditional advertising still have a role in the mix, but the most relevant and cost effective way to achieve this is through search marketing. We all know that search is a great way to drive traffic to your site, but it also has influence on your brand experience.

The most effective approach is to integrate a PPC campaign and an SEO strategy. In Marketing Sherpa’s 2009 Search Marketing Benchmark Guide, they concluded that the most powerful brand effect occurred when a combination of natural and paid search links appear on the SERP. Whether it’s reality or not, the higher you rank for a given topic, the higher the perceived relevance of your brand will be. Conversely, not showing up does your brand almost as much damage as a high ranking benefits to your brand—customers instinctively determine that you’re not relevant. Therefore, developing a strategy that places your brand front and center is a critical component—not just in driving traffic to your site, but also in ensuring there’s not a gap in the way your customers experience your brand.

This brings us to social media; arguably the online touch point that ranks highest for “fear of the unknown.” But really, the theory behind social media has been around a long, long time. Even before marketing was a defined discipline, word of mouth has always been a company’s most powerful tool. And, marketers have been honing their skills in leveraging this effect for decades. If you look back even 10 years ago, books like The Tipping Point talk about finding your “mavens,” and utilizing them as a credible mouthpiece for your brand—but, this discussion all took place in a brick and mortar world, so it was nearly impossible to control, and it often happened slowly.

Today, these so-called mavens can connect with thousands of people instantly via social networks. Of course, so can your detractors. These discussions are taking place every day, whether you’re a part of it or not. The public is defining your brand for you more than ever before; ultimately, we need to acknowledge this, for better or for worse. But, we need to participate to ensure our point of view is part of the conversation. The easiest point of entry is to start by simply listening. There are numerous tools available to help you in this endeavor, and the results can be tremendously powerful—it’s really an enormous, always-on focus group. Once your company is comfortable in this level of involvement, you can begin to communicate via simple tactics like blogs and forums. Once you begin communicating, there’s really no end to the number of ways you can extend your brand experience, and there’s no cap on the impact this medium can have on your brand and your bottom line. This should be a marketer’s dream—you just need to get in the game.

How you manage your brand is arguably more important than ever before. Taken in its entirety, the landscape can be overwhelming. But, if you look at it piece by piece, like marketers have done for many, many years, what you’ll quickly see is there’s never been a better time to be a marketer—and, there’s never been a better time to extend your brand experience. We have endless tools that can have endless impact—we just need to jump in.

Thad Kahlow is CEO at BusinessOnLine, a pioneer in the interactive marketing space with a 14-year track record of successfully leveraging the interconnectedness of the Internet to help companies grow their digital presence. Reach Thad at or follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter @tkahlow.

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