There’s a word that describes businesses that don’t understand the importance of Internet advertising: Failed.

A Forrester Research survey conducted in 2007 found that 90 percent of all buying decisions start on the Internet. Read that sentence a couple of times and let it really soak in. Further, if that’s what it was in 2007, it’s going to be even higher today.

And if you think that’s an impressive number, a 2009 study from the Pew Internet & American Life project said that 75 percent of U.S. adults were making purchases online.

The bottom line: Fail to plan a solid Internet advertising strategy, plan to fail.

Diversity and concentration

However, unlike the days when a local business could take out an ad in the evening paper, or a national brand could buy some TV airtime, the elements within a savvy Internet advertising program are much more diverse and varied.

If you’re a fairly typical denizen of the web world, at the end of the day sometime look through your browser history and see all the places you have visited. Many of those websites have an element of Internet advertising associated with them.

This illustrates an interesting paradox: Although initial buying decisions are concentrated on the Internet, the Internet itself is such a diverse place that sellers need to have a well-conceived plan of action.

Effective targeting

Central to any advertising program—conducted either online or through heritage channels—is understanding your potential customers. Specifically, for an Internet advertising strategy, recognizing the online habits of your customers is key.

  • Are they social media users?
  • Are they content consumers?
  • Are they savvy searchers?

Let’s examine these questions one at a time and highlight their most important aspects.

Social media

There always seems to be one aspect of the online realm that is subject to an especially high degree of evolution at any given point in time and right now social media is rapidly changing, especially in terms of advertising.

With Facebook and Twitter going public, they are under intense pressures to increase revenue growth rates and (eventually) show a profit. They are developing new advertising schemes as you are reading these words. Of course, having a social media presence and managing it properly will continue to be vital for almost every business.

Website content

Great website content serves your business in a number of ways. It increases your authority and in the process raises your stature in the “eyes” of the search engines. In other words, it helps you get the high listings in search results that you need to drive visitors to your site.

Terrific content is also “shared” across the social media world. This is the virtual world equivalent of traditional “word-of-mouth” advertising, and nothing is more valuable to a business.

Savvy searchers

Some web users know nothing more about conducting a search than entering a word or two into Goggle. Others know how to mine Yelp, Bing Local, Yahoo!, Angie’s List, Google reviews and a myriad of other sites and services to find exactly what they need.

This gets back to something we said earlier: you need to understand how your customers use the Internet. If you’re appealing to the same folks the AARP is going after, it’s going to lead your Internet advertising decisions in one direction. If you’re targeting millennials, it’s a totally different story.

Finally, while all of this might make your initial assessment more complicated than in the days when your only option was an ad in the evening paper, it also dramatically improves your ability to reach the right audience for your Internet advertising.

Success is there for those who target accurately with a smart advertising program.