It’s time to get our hands dirty in the virtual gardens of cyberspace. This issue, we look at how far the Internet has come in 10 years and how you can benefit from some of the basic features of the web that are now at your disposal - and well within reach of just about any small business’ marketing budget. We will discuss some fundamentals of owning and running a website and show how some simple measures can ensure that money spent online can convert into increased revenue in the real world.
It’s funny how our society has always been so dependent on technology, yet we are always so slow to latch on to any new breakthroughs. Remember when mobile phones first came out? “They’re for Yuppies” we would all joke, not for a minute realizing how much more useful they would be to plumbers than to merchant bankers. And there we all were 10 years ago, mobile phones strapped to our belts, thinking; “the Internet – that’s just for nerds”. It sure was a little less user-friendly than it is now, but even back then a few good domain name registrations and simple ideas (like Hotmail, or Yahoo) would have turned us all into billionaires.
The nerds’ playground soon became the investors dream, and eventual nightmare when the “dot com” bubble burst (more a result of ridiculous investment strategies than any fault of the Internet). Meanwhile, the juggernaut of technological improvement kept steaming ahead. Now look at the web. You can’t step outside of your front door without seeing a web address emblazoned across every delivery van, billboard and t-shirt. You book your holidays online, do your banking, plan your wedding, order pizzas – the Internet is finally a household word – and it’s still evolving. It’s going wireless, it’s merging with TV and telephones; it’s even on the fridge door!
Maybe it is a good idea to stay a few steps behind technology. After all we are never quite sure where it’s headed next, and the last thing we want to do is waste all our money on gizmos that are going to be useless in 6 months time. One thing we can be sure about the web now is that it is a great communication tool and a great marketing tool – especially for small business.
An email address and a website are two useful and cost effective additions to any business’s marketing toolkit. Every small business can benefit from displaying their wares online and taking inquiries by email – from restaurants to gymnasiums, accounting firms to rock and roll bands, and yes, you guessed it – landscapers! In fact landscaping is an ideal profession to benefit from a web presence (as many of you may already know).
Cyberscapes in Cyberspace
What better way to show off your stunning works of art than a photo gallery on your website? Video footage even – of your team in action. Your own “Backyard Blitz” movie could be screened, showing the perfect coming together of your plans. A horrendous patch of flat, dead lawn transformed into a magical suburban oasis. You can even have virtual tours of gardens, before/after slideshows and animations. The word-of-mouth benefit of featuring your clients’ properties in your gallery is a definite winner, as they tell all their friends and associates about your site.
Above and beyond the visuals, a website allows your company to communicate your standards of excellence, your design philosophy and your commitment to customer service by having the text and layout of the site reflecting the way you do business.
If you sell products or ongoing services to your clients, a simple online store and list of services can entice them to do more business with you. Don’t forget testimonials on your site either – always a great boost to your credibility. Then there are your awards, industry affiliations and preferred products – all reassuring your potential customers that you are knowledgeable, experienced and trustworthy.
This kind of expanded brochure-style website is ideal for potential clients to discover what you are all about and to help them make a decision to hire your services, even before they have spoken to you. This is a common scenario these days. If the website has worked its magic, a couple of emails later and the job is on. Even if a client has short-listed you from a selection of competitors’ websites, it is a lot easier to make the sale when you talk to them if you have great content on your site to back up your spiel.
Got a Website?
If you company doesn’t have a website – get one. If you have one, and you are reading this article thinking (rather skeptically) “our site has done nothing for us” – maybe it’s time to look at your site and reevaluate it, along with your overall approach to how the Internet fits into your business.
Sadly, many a website out there has been created without much thought to how it will function as a marketing tool. Not only that, but since there are no official standards of website design, a site costing many thousands of dollars can actually harm your business because of badly planned content or annoying technical issues. I’m sure everyone reading this has heard at least one horror story of someone being ripped off with a bad website. The best sites are simple, easy to use, concise and visually appealing - and built to an appropriate budget.
In future issues we will go into much more detail about many aspects of running a website, but for now, here are some fundamentals to get you thinking about improving your current site, or planning your brand new home page.
Domain Name (your website address)
You should have a name that is either your business name or a shortened form of it. It can be .com.au, .biz, .com or whatever, so long as it is easy to spell and give out to people. It can also contain a keyword or two (good for search engines), but shouldn’t be too long or hard to type. You can register domain names directly, but it is wise to consult your web professional.
To run a Website it must be ‘hosted’ by a company that allows it to stay online 24 hours a day. Larger companies can host their own sites, but it is usually best left to specialists, especially with security issues and many other technical concerns. Economy of scale dictates that larger, well-established web hosting companies should be able to offer good services and technical support for a very reasonable price. Once again your website developer/designer would usually have a choice of hosts, depending on your needs.
There are so many people out there who build web sites, it is advisable to shop around, especially since standards and pricing vary so widely in this unregulated industry. Paying top dollar does not guarantee the best result. You should look for a firm who understands your business requirements and has a proven portfolio of successful and satisfied clients. You should try to obtain ball-park quotes, but if you have no idea what your site will be like, a quote will be impossible. You should find out what kind of process the developer will use to help you plan your site and arrive at their quote.
Planning Your Site
Spend some time looking at your competition, as well as any sites that you find appealing. You will get some ideas on what you like and dislike, and the kind of content you will need to organize. Remember that some sites may have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Your web developer can guide you with what is possible for the amount of money you have to spend. It’s getting cheaper every day to do the tricky stuff, but some things are still out of reach to the little guys.
Your main task will be collating all the information. You might need to assign various tasks to people within your organization to gather what you need. You can then employ a writer to tie it al together into a uniform style and you should definitely have the site professionally designed and mapped out. It should be a design based on your existing company image.
If you have an inconsistent image, this is a great opportunity to marry the look of your website with your off line material (business cards, logo, letterheads etc). It is also a good time to get some great photos done of your work, request testimonials from past clients and think about what your business is really about, so that you can focus on promoting its unique aspects.
It is very important to ask yourself what you want to achieve with your site. Maybe you have more work than you can handle already, so your website will be a mere token presence. Maybe you plan to market yourself aggressively and target specific groups – your site must reflect and support these goals.
Marketing Your Site
Unless people know about your site, it will just sit there doing nothing. You must make sure your site is optimized to be found in search engines (there are a few tricks to this) and is listed in any industry directories (eg www.lcansw.com.au ) and other places where you think your potential customers might go looking for you. This may involve a bit of research and legwork on your part, emailing other sites and chasing up links, but it will be worth it. You might set aside a certain amount of time each week or month to ensure your site is as available as possible.
Off line, you have to get your site “out there” – put the web address on your vehicles, in your adverts, on business cards, invoices, letterheads, work shirts, caps – anywhere. Whenever you get telephone inquiries, you can always direct the person to your site and even guide them through it while you have them on the phone.
•Check your email regularly! Some of your biggest contracts could come through a simple email inquiry. If you don’t respond ASAP, you will lose the customer.
•Visit your own site and test it regularly. Technical problems do happen and the sooner you are aware of them the sooner you can have them fixed. Maybe your inquiry form stops working, maybe there are broken links or images.
•While you are there you should also review the content and see if it might need a little updating now and then. There is software now that allows easy updating yourself, or for more complex sites some kind of content management system could be required. You might be happy maintaining an ongoing relationship with your web developer who can update your site and keep you informed of any new trends in technology and web marketing.
•Check your search engine listings. If you slip down the lists, you will not be found, so you will need to rethink your site’s use of keywords and other search engine tricks.
•Make sure you have antivirus software running on your email program. There is nothing worse for customer relations than giving all your clients a major viral infection!
•Have a plan in place for expanding and improving your site as your business grows. There are many extras you can add to your site when budget and time allows it - but remember it is only worthwhile if you can see a measurable ROI. Databases, file downloads, video, mailing lists, resources, links, affiliate programs, sponsors, humour, news, charity involvement, staff profiles (employee of the month), loyalty schemes – the list is endless and growing every day. Just as mobile phones have evolved into PDA’s, cameras and entertainment devices, so your business presence on the web will constantly change.
One thing is for sure we are never going to go backwards in this age of technology. It’s only been ten years or so and just look how far we’ve come. Sometimes it all seems too much - then you realize just how much benefit we get from it all - and how boring life was without it!
If you stay informed of your options, and make the most of what is available to you, you can enhance your business in cyberspace, and then get back to what you do best right here in the real world.
Website content must-haves:
Contact Info/Inquiry FormSome Optional Extras:
Freebies (downloadable files)