Recently, the owner of a successful local brick-and-mortar mattress store contacted me, disillusioned by Internet marketing. He expected that sales would soar once he put up his website, but it was a total flop. I asked him what was unique about his business and was told "wide selection, high quality and good prices." Then I asked him how many of his Internet competitors would probably say the same thing about their stores. He sheepishly replied, "All of them, I guess."

That sums up the problem that faces small businesses trying to reach new customers. The good news for these cash-strapped entrepreneurs is that Internet marketing is a cheap way to expand their markets. The bad news is that it’s cheap for everyone else, too. Yes, the Internet gives you access to vast new markets you’d never dreamt of a few years ago, but it also brings you face-to-face with untold new competitors.

There’s a secret about Internet marketing. Certain small businesses are ecstatic about their success online, but others can’t seem to get any traction. Why do some businesses succeed on the Web, while others can’t get a word in edgewise, given all the other companies with the same idea? I believe that one factor often separates the winners from the losers – a specialty.

What’s Your Specialty?

When a small business starts a website, its plan is often to build on its local success to go nationwide (or international or intergalactic). But popular search keywords are awash in competition. How do you sell digital cameras if everyone else sells them, too? How do you attract searchers for that broad a term? If you need to land on the first page of search results to get sales, how do you do that as a small business?

You specialize. Successful small businesses are marketing highly targeted offerings online – extremely specialized products and services. That way, they take advantage of Chris Anderson’s Long Tail effect to get on that first page of search results for something (even if it’s a somewhat obscure keyword) and they have a good chance of satisfying these customers because they are doing what they do best.

Some of you may resist this advice. Perhaps you’ve been a successful affiliate marketer for years with no real specialty – you just knew how to do search marketing better than the others. You might be in trouble. As search marketing skills proliferate, your old edge will begin to erode. As others learn what you know about search, you need to find a new edge.

That’s why you must specialize – focus on a niche. You can’t just say, "We are an affiliate of Big Important Manufacturer." So what? The customer can buy direct or from a different affiliate.

Ask yourself a few hard questions about your business: What’s unique about your business? Or your products? Or the way you sell them? What is it that makes you better than everyone else for a certain specific target segment?

When you answer those questions, you’ll know how to market yourself on the Web. You’ll know what that segment is looking for and you’ll know how to attract those customers with the right message. A small business really can’t be good at everything. Identify what you are uniquely better at — even if it is just a small segment of customers that cares.

Communicate Your Specialty

Once you’ve seized upon your specialty, it’s time to take the next step. You’ve got to let customers know what you do. You’ve got to get your message to that highly targeted market segment.

You do that with stories- stories that communicate what is so special about your company, how you understand things no one else does, and how you can solve the exact problem your target market has.

A furniture store recently asked me for advice on their organic search marketing. A quick look at their site revealed how few words were on their pages. It was full of pictures of furniture. That’s sensible, because no one would buy a piece of furniture without seeing it. But selling on the Web is different from selling in a store, because there’s no salesperson. There’s no one to tell the story.

It turns out that this furniture store prided itself on its staff designers who assist customers to pick out the perfect furniture. But the only hint of that service on their website was a single page that listed a phone number to call for design advice.

Instead, they should tell stories of the customer problems they’ve solved. If possible, they should hire a freelance writer part time – maybe a reporter from the local paper – to write a dozen customer stories. They could visit their customers and take pictures of them with their nice new furniture in their happy homes – real people with real stories.

Tell as many stories as you can think of – each will be unique. Invariably, they’ll use different words and capture different searchers with different problems. Not only will these problem-oriented customer stories attract searchers, but they will capture the interest of people who might link to your site, also. (In addition, those links will boost your organic search rankings.)

If you really think through what your customers are struggling with, you can meet them at their point of need. Most people are intimidated in the area of home decoration, for example. Selling to those ignored people might win that furniture store an untapped market. And the Web is exactly the place where intimidated people hang out because no one can see how clueless they are, so they avoid embarrassment. If that furniture Website promotes its phone number for expert advice, it might attract a whole new clientele – perhaps their specialized target market. You need to look for a specialty market ignored by your industry.

And what about that mattress store that was so disappointed in their Web sales? After I peppered the owner with questions ("Do you solve sleep problems? Home fashion problems? What exactly do you do better than everyone else?"), he decided that his most unique offerings were silk and hypoallergenic beds perfect for those with allergies to dust and dust mites. And he then set out to share his expertise by telling stories about helping allergy sufferers.

If your business offers the same products people can get anywhere for the same low price, elsewhere, then the Web can be a very competitive place. A successful small business, however, specializes to succeed on the Web. So what’s your specialty?