By Joanna L. Krotz
If you've been putting off building a company Web site, I can sympathize.
There are so many options today. There are daunting design and technical issues. It's like that sit-down with a car dealer — you make the deal but it feels like you can't come out a winner.
Ah, but you can. No business can afford to keep ignoring the Web, as you surely know. Stop dilly-dallying. It's easier than you think.
The advice that follows will help you create an effective plan — and it could also help you if you have a Web site but aren't getting the results you want from it. How you respond here can make the difference between a Web site with the blahs and one with real buzz.
First, register your domain name. Select a name that best represents your company and is not already appropriated by another business.
It's smart to also register variations or misspellings of your primary domain. For little additional cost, you can, for example, register ToolandDye.com as well as ToolandDie.com (.net or .biz, too), so customers who don't have the name quite right can still find you. If your business is associated with a high-profile personality, say, an industry authority or a popular speaker, register variations of that name as well, for instance PatriciaSmith.com and PatSmith.com. That traffic can be directed to the home page or to an internal page about the person, whichever you prefer.
Next, you need a Web hosting service, such as Microsoft's Web Hosting solutions for small businesses. These solutions provide a range of choices for features, disk space and bandwidth, and they will grow with your business.
When you're ready, you'll want to optimize the site so search engines quickly find you. This ongoing process can be automated with affordable software, such as Microsoft's Submit It!.
Spend time reviewing the Web sites of your competitors, big and small. Jot down what you like and missteps you discover. Bookmark other sites that appeal to you and talk to your Web designer about elements and graphics that you want. (Along the way, check out this article to learn about working with clip art.)
The next steps depend on your business model. You want a Web site that suits your enterprise as well as the growth stage of your business.
Think through these four questions.
1. What kind of information do your customers need?"Every site decision you make should be thought about in terms of what your customers need," says Janet Jackson, co-owner of R2J2 Studios, a Web design company for small businesses. To meet visitor needs, she suggests choosing one of these three rough-cut styles:
Informational. This site is an online marketing brochure or branding tool that invites visitors to learn about the company and its offerings. It a good choice when you expect customers to call or visit after researching online.
Transactional. This, of course, is an e-commerce site. That can run from selling one product (a software program) to selling a service (online data storage) to a niche catalog that supports a brick-and-mortar shop to a fully functioning online store. Transactional sites are geared for a visitor ready to purchase. (For more about creating an online store, see this page.)
Relationship builders. This site works to develop relationships with customers over time. It encourages involvement and two-way communications, providing valuable data or expertise while requesting and capturing visitor information in return. Such sites offer educational or time-sensitive information and motivate repeat visits. That means you must invest in updating the content. These sites are designed for businesses that benefit or grow by interacting with their customers.
2. How will the Web site boost your offline business goals?
Saying your site should be "sales-oriented" isn't enough. You need to directly connect the site mission with your offline goals and marketing (including offline messaging and materials).
For example, a jeweler that doesn't sell diamonds online can motivate an online searcher to visit the store, says Ben Schwartz of Marcel Media, a Chicago marketing agency. On the other hand, a shoe store that does sell online should offer incentives that convert browser interest into online sales. "Therefore, the jeweler's online goal should be to promote the actual store while the shoe site should direct individuals to pages where they can transact," says Schwartz.
Businesses that combine goals can harness Web tools to provide tailor-made solutions. For instance, Marcel Media client Aeroshade, a Waukesha, Wis., manufacturer of porch shades and folding doors, was founded in 1912. The business was built by direct mail, distributors, and word-of-mouth. When, at last, it was time for a Web site, Aeroshade worried about costs and moving into impersonal territory. Its customers might be willing to review and price products online, but inevitably the customers prefer to talk to sales staff before placing orders.
The cost-effective result (www.aeroshade.com) was a straightforward site with clear navigation. On every page, visitors can click on "Order Today," which takes them to a brief online form. They check the products that interest them and can request a call or e-mail from a company representative.
"The Web site has more than paid for itself and opened up a new direct channel of business," Schwartz says.
3. What are your budget and plans for future site development?
The fast pace of small companies often results in throwing up a Web site just to get a "placeholder." But slapdash sites can turn costly, eating up staff time, spitting out glitches, and squandering opportunities.
This is not to say you shouldn't think big. On the contrary. Just implement in phases.
Many times, site shortcomings are created because the company doesn't have enough money to take the site through every appropriate layer of information, says Lisa Holmes, co-founder of Yulan Studio, a Kansas City-area Web developer.
The solution is to do the best with less. "Start with a good top layer and add enough supporting info to make it clear that the company has the capabilities to do the job, whatever that may be, even though you may not support everything to the optimal extent," Holmes says. Then add to the site as time and budget permit.
Holmes points to client site PR firm Doc Communications (www.dofcpr.com) as an example. "Its site has a really good top layer, and is supported to the extent that it's clear the company has got great credentials. But the content can be expanded greatly over time — as it needs to be."
If you don't invest in a quality top layer, you'll find that visitors likely won't return to check out the deeper pages. (For more tips on getting visitors to return to your site, see this article.)
4. How will your site serve constituencies and stakeholders?
If you have investors, there should be a channel that keeps them up to date and provides financial news.
If you court the media, make sure there's an obvious button to click for an electronic media kit, plus news releases, bios of your management team and other info about your company.
Don't forget employees. You can set up a private, password-protected part of the site to post company-only news. (For info on setting up a private Web site with restricted access to just employees or employees and selected outsiders, see this page.)
With a smart, relevant Web site you can significantly cut marketing costs, expand your customer base, create brand or line extensions and, ultimately, grow the business.
Take the time to build it right.
Joanna L. Krotz writes about small-business marketing and management issues. She is the co-author of the "Microsoft Small Business Kit" and runs Muse2Muse Productions, a New York City-based custom publisher.