About a dozen years ago people looked at the Internet they same way gold prospectors looked at California in 1849. The general thought was that if you wanted to strike it rich, just put yourself where the action was and everything would work itself out.

We since have learned that having a web presence is a lot like having a phone number — you need one, but if you want people to call, you have to market yourself wisely. Keith Kochberg, founder and CEO of iMarketing, an online marketing firm that moved from 20 Nassau Street to 100 Canal Pointe Boulevard in March, has built a growing business around knowing how to navigate the online terrain. His firm guides clients — many of them blue chip, such as Dow Jones, AARP, and even Yahoo! — through the complexities of affiliate programs, multi-channel marketing, and social media.

And despite what you might think, social media is not for everyone, Kochberg says. Some types of companies, such as financial advisors, would be wise to stay away from random tweets and Facebook postings that could be in violation of industry guidelines. And all companies would be wise to whom in their employ is saying what. Something that might seem innocent, something intended as light or entertaining, could be disastrous. Or at least embarrassing. The American Red Cross recently had to contend with one of its employees who mistakenly tweeted on a company account about drinking copious amounts of beer. Not fatal, but typical of the kind of small mistake that can get widespread attention nobody wants.

An effective online campaign, Kochberg says, should follow the same rules as any marketing campaign. In other words, it needs to be holistic in its approach. Like having a website and a phone number, most companies can benefit greatly from having a social media presence, but companies need to be aware of search engine optimization and building affiliate programs that link customers to businesses in multiple ways and multiple places.

Kochberg, a native of East Windsor, founded iMarketing in 2000, just as the tech bubble burst. The company started out as just Kochberg, from his Twin Rivers home. A 1995 graduate of Towson State University in Maryland, where he earned his bachelor’s in health services management, Kochberg was grooming himself for a career in hospitals. He had wanted to go to business school but couldn’t get into it, so he studied health services management and took all the business courses he would have had as a business major. Later he moved to Los Angeles with his brother, who had landed a job with HBO and Time Warner. Kochberg hated it.

By 1998 he was back in New Jersey and he bought a house in Twin Rivers, near his parents. His father, retired, ran a consumer electronics business in New York and his mother works for Comcast. Kochberg went to work for a mail order catalog company in Cranbury, where he did customer service.

This was about the time that companies of all sorts truly started accepting the need for a web presence. But most, like Kochberg’s boss, neither understood the potential nor knew how to build a site. “He told me, ‘I got a website — can you figure out how to get customers with it?’” Kochberg says. “I wanted a job, so I took it.”

Online sales took off when Kochberg had the seemingly radical idea to print the company’s website address on the catalog it mailed out. “At the time it was a novel idea,” he says. “We went from zero to seven or eight hundred thousand in online revenue.”

Despite the sales, Kochberg says the owner wasn’t interested in developing his web presence more. He soon shut the business down and retired. “Hindsight being 20/20, I think the business could have lived on,” Kochberg says. But the company was not his to worry about and he had no harsh feelings. He just figured he would go into business for himself.

What started as a one-man operation in his house grew throughout the past decade to employ 40 in three locations — Princeton, New York, and Chicago. Being partial to New Jersey, Kochberg says he wanted to stay in Mercer County, so when his staff at 20 Nassau Street grew from eight to fifteen, he moved to Canal Pointe Boulevard.

The company’s specialty is helping companies find new online clients. Its own clients “run the gamut,” Kochberg says, but they are typically companies with national reach. “We’re not looking for the local tailor, dry cleaner, and pizza place,” he says. The company seeks clients with wide appeal that can generate high numbers of leads. To be on iMarketing’s radar a company should have at least $10 million to $20 million in revenue. “Our sweet spot is the $100 million to $200 million range,” he says.

Kochberg sees online marketing’s near future shaping up in new — and yet still fundamental — ways. For example, there has been much talk of “net neutrality,” the effort to keep specific business interests from taking control of the Internet itself. Many people are upset by Google’s attempts to restructure how search results come up, fearing that large companies with big budgets will squeeze out smaller entrepreneurs trying to make their way in the world of online commerce. Google, in fact, recently adjusted its algorithms to alter search results to keep companies from exploiting page rankings.

But Kochberg says that Google had to do it. Not because it is trying to edge anyone out, but because people have learned to take advantage. The order in which websites come up in a search is based in part on the relationship between a search word and how frequently a website uses it. And while that sounds like reward for merit, consider that many companies — the most notorious being Demand Studios, an online “content farm” that posts mind-boggling amounts of how-to articles with calculated and nearly identical titles for sites like eHow.com — have found a way to exploit Google’s algorithms. In other words, some companies have become very good at using Google for its own ends, consequently squeezing out other companies trying to improve their rankings.

Kochberg says that in general, if Google’s new algorithms (which determine page rankings by more factors than just hits and repetition) have caused your company to sink significantly, “it’s a symptom that you were cheating the system.”

It isn’t something that anyone could have seen coming 12 years ago, and Kochberg does not pretend that he knows what the Internet will be like in another 12 years. What he does know is that sound marketing strategies — those that follow the basic principles of building solid customer bases and holding onto existing customers — will have a lot more staying power than anyone trying to capitalize on a trend. — Scott Morgan

#b#iMarketing Ltd.#/b#, 100 Canal Pointe Boulevard, Suite 216, Princeton 08540; 609-921-0400; fax, 609-921-0491. Keith Kochberg, CEO. www.imarketingltd.com

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