Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Web Marketing Today. Practical Ecommerce acquired Web Marketing Today in 2012. In 2016, we merged the two sites, leaving Practical Ecommerce as the successor.
To succeed, a small business website must be a carefully targeted, wisely designed, pay-its-own-way tool that adds to the bottom line. To achieve this you need to ask: What is the purpose of our Web site?
Be precise about what you want to achieve, and you have a good chance for success. Let’s examine concepts behind various types of Web sites as you look for the model that fits your organization the best.
“Advertise: to announce publicly, especially by a printed notice or a broadcast.” Certainly Web sites fall into this category. But this concept is deceptively simple.
Web sites differ sharply from traditional advertising. Unlike a display ad, billboard, or broadcast spot, a Web site is hidden. You need a Web address or link from a search engine or Web page to get to it. While people can and do stumble across a Web site while “surfing” (if your Web designer/marketer has done the job right), Web site advertising is fundamentally different and must be understood on its own terms.
Let’s move beyond the concept of advertisement to focus your purpose more sharply with an examination of:
- Prospect generation
- Direct sales
- Business-to-business sales
- Customer support
On-line forms make websites a wonderful source of leads and prospects. Once you get people coming to your Web site, make sure you get their name, address, phone number, etc., so you take advantage of this steady source of qualified prospects.
I know the phrase “on-line brochure” is used with contempt by elitists, but don’t count it out! You can offer lots of vital information — enough information to generate queries and leads — by putting together a 6-page Web site from a 2-sided, 3-panel brochure. You can even include a response form and spend less than a printed brochure. No printing, no postage, yet your brochure can be in the hands of hundreds of potential customers you’ll never reach any other way.
If prospect generation is your goal, and you don’t plan to consummate the sale on-line, then you design your Web site much differently.
Are direct sales on-line your objective? Be clear about it, and think it through carefully.
I believe that online shopping is the wave of the future, and with the agreement last week between major credit card companies about security standards, we’ll witness a huge move in this direction.
But don’t kid yourself. An on-line store needs the right furnishings and equipment for a good retail business.
A fax or 800-number option? Yes, you’ll get some inquiries or sales. But seriously consider an option to promote immediate transactions. That way, people don’t have to disconnect from the Internet — and your site — to make the order (since their modem probably ties up their home telephone line). People also enjoy the immediate satisfaction of a task completed when they can order directly over the ‘Net.
If you’re marketing more than just a few different items, plan on “shopping cart” software, which allows your customer to put items in an imaginary “shopping cart” and see totals, tax, and shipping when they’re ready to “check out.” True, this adds perhaps $1,400 or more to the cost of the Web site. But do physical storeowners really expect to conduct business without carts, counters, and cash registers? Neither can you.
Your company’s purpose, however, may be business-to-business sales. You probably don’t need an on-line sales mechanism so much as a complete, up-to-date catalog. You can include thousands of products, prices, descriptions, and photos, at a cost far below that of printing and distributing printed copies. Your catalog can prompt ordering via phone or fax, or even on-line ordering if your product is right. With a desktop database program and the right Web software, you can keep your on-line catalog from going out of date without much expense. Again, the precise purpose of your business will dictate the sort of Web site you design.
Is customer support your real purpose? If so, a website is a great place to provide all sorts of in-depth product information. Let’s say your customer has a technical question, a troubleshooting problem, or a special application. You can provide a huge volume of information at a low cost. Microsoft’s Knowledge Base, for example, allows you to enter search words to locate detailed information on dozens of software programs, hardware platforms, and program versions.
What if you offered spec sheets and repair manuals for each of your products on the Web? Wouldn’t that be a great selling point to put you ahead of your competitors? You probably already have the information in computer form, which is the bulk of the work involved.
But be sure about your objective — customer support — and keep your focus on it.
These days, sales by education is proving effective. You get orders for upgrades and new products as you supply customers with more information. You can provide up-to-date industry and product information on your Web site in the form of an on-line newsletter, which gives people a reason to come back month-by-month. This may be the Web version of a print newsletter you already send to your clients. You may find, however, that the Web audience that reads the newsletter grows much larger than your physical mailing list. And you pay no postage for those readers!
When you archive the back issues on your Web site, you create an enduring source of information and increase its total value, which brings people back to your Web site again and again to look at your readily available information.
Remember your purpose, sales through education, and design your Web site accordingly.
Whatever your business, plan your Web site to fit a particular business strategy, and you’ll be much more successful than with a helter-skelter approach. Just why do you want to build a Web site? Answer this, and you’re halfway there.