The other day my friend Amber vented a little on Facebook, and posted the following update which very politely expressed her displeasure with a local business that she had contacted, and which failed to get back to her:

amber status cupcakes

Her update sparked quite a discussion, and while I don’t know the particular business in question, Amber could have been talking about any number of small, local businesses. In fact, no matter where you are, you could probably name quite a few from your area as well. And Amber brings up a few important issues in her update, ranging from the business’s digital presence, their email marketing, and their overall customer service.

Despite the constant changes, marketing in the online space has grown up and matured quite a bit over the past few years. There are so many different online platforms available to us, and new ones going on line every day. Hundreds of social networks, all sorts of marketing programs and philosophies, and it can get awfully confusing. As a small business, you have to spend your money and your time wisely, while maximizing your results. So of all the options out there, which are the most important?

Here’s a quick list of what I believe are the 5 most important online tools most of you should be using for your small business. Keep in mind, your specific situation might dictate something different. One of the most important things for any small business or nonprofit to determine is which social networks to use, and that decision needs to be based on what makes sense for YOU, and where your target audience is spending time.

1. A website

Let me rephrase that: a GOOD website. This may seem silly, but there are still a lot of small businesses out there that have no real online presence at all. Get a website. Period.

There was a time when having a website was a bit of a luxury as it could be rather expensive to build. Not so much anymore. A functional, visually pleasing website can be built for next to nothing. Remember: things have changed. The Internet is often the first place people go to find information about you. Not the Yellow Pages, not your ads; your website. If you don’t have one, you’ll get overlooked. Also, think of your website as the online equivalent of your brick and mortar presence. Take pride in it. Do you spend money on the upkeep of your building and facilities? Then you should be willing to spend the money necessary to get what you need. A website is no longer just an online brochure. It can be a living, breathing hub of activity.

2. A blog

If a website is the hub of your online presence, a blog located on your site is the heart. A blog allows you to tell stories about your business. It allows you to provide important information. It shows your customers (and potential customers) that you know what you are talking about. And it provides much of the search engine optimization (SEO) that is needed to get better placement in search engine results.

In their book, Naked Conversations, Robert Scoble and Shel Israel noted:

“Neither a press release nor a full-page ad in The New York Times will boost your search engine ratings as much as a regularly updated blog. The shortest, cheapest, fastest and easiest route to a prominent Google ranking is to blog often.”

SEO is important for any small business web site, but a blog can take care of a lot of that, and will most likely put you well ahead of your competitors who likely aren’t blogging.

3. Facebook

Of all the social networks out there, this is the one that I consider a no-brainer at this point. Over a billion people are on Facebook, and more than likely that includes a good chunk of your existing and potential audience. A properly built Facebook business page that is updated regularly with good, engaging content can be extremely effective. Plus, with the roll out of Facebook’s new Graph Search beginning, being on Facebook is even more important as a form of customer service and word of mouth marketing. I rarely tell any client that they need to be on one particular platform, but Facebook is the one exception, by virtue of its ubiquity in our culture these days. Your customers expect you to be there. If you aren’t there, and don’t have a website, you’re really missing out. There may be other social networks that will work for you as well, but Facebook is usually a good place to start.

4. Email/Contact Form

Apparently there is some sort of super power in being mysterious. Because I see a lot of businesses whose websites and social profiles fail to have proper contact information. Isn’t the purpose of having an online presence, and getting found online, and marketing in general, to get people to contact you? Don’t hide that information. At the very least you should provide a contact form and an email address, if not a phone number. And if you have a physical location where your customers can visit you, make sure they can find you. And as Amber said in her update, when someone contacts you about anything: your hours, your service, your products, make sure you contact them in a timely fashion. And that response should be timely regardless of how they contact you.

5. Location tools

If you are a brick and mortar facility, the most important location tool for you is Google+ Local, which used to be known as Google Places. You might even be there without knowing it, so you’ll need to claim and optimize your account there. Properly optimized, this gives users a chance to learn about you right there inside of their Google searches. Create your account, or find it and claim it, and then make it complete. Additionally, you might want to consider Foursquare, which along with Facebook and Google, gives your visitors a chance to tell others about you via check ins. Other search engines like Bing and Yahoo also have their own versions of location tools for small businesses.

Secondary Tools

There are plenty of other tools out there that work well with the ones mentioned above. these include everything from LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube to Pinterest and Instagram. Only you can decide, based on quantitative and qualitative research on what will work best for you, and where your customers are spending time.

But remember, once you commit to a platform, you need to follow through. Creating an account or presence and then not using it is not acceptable, and sends the wrong message to your audience.

Which of these tools are you using, and are there others that you believe are essential to your online presence?