As the capability of the World Wide Web grows, so does the confusion for many small businesses that are anxious to have a web presence, but are uncertain how to proceed.
The entire process is somewhat of a mystery, only a few years ago many people never heard of the web. The terminology is unfriendly (HTML, CGI, Java, and meta tags are some of the easier jargon). But most of all, the choices are dizzying. Database driven? Audio streaming? Image mapping?
Where to start?
The first step in all cases lies in understanding “Why the Web”? In too many cases, companies and organizations develop a web site for the wrong reasons: their competitor has one or a web design firm has offered to give them a special deal or they just don’t want to be left behind. The right reasons to take the web plunge are as different as individual businesses themselves. In many cases, the initial idea is simply to provide an electronic version of the company’s brochure. Bad idea!
However, the menu of possible web applications for small businesses is ever expanding and includes; advertising your business, communicating with suppliers and employees, publicizing specials, updating mail lists, managing collaborations, providing public access to searchable databases, cost effective distribution of newsletters and other publications, marketing fee-based services, creating organizational photo galleries to establish a more personal relationship between the company and their customers, enhancing media relationships, archiving Frequently Asked Questions that would otherwise consume employee resources, and creating the control center for an integrated Internet strategy. As technology advances zoom forward, new possibilities are constantly emerging.
This less than comprehensive list offers the best reason why web development requires careful thought and deliberation in order to tap the power of the “Net” to maximum effect. The opportunities are so vast that they usually stretch the imagination and require rethinking not only of the initial conception of a web site (often the electronic brochure) but in some cases a revisit of the organization’s whole strategic plan as well.
A good web plan will pose challenging questions about an organization, its administrative operations, the way it delivers products and services to its customers, and even how it defines its markets.
There can be no cookie cutter approach to web planning and I cannot begin to touch on all the relevant issues here. However, the following 10 guidelines are designed to help a small business create a web site that they truly “own” and that delivers real value to its intended audience without straining its internal capacity.
Know what YOU want BEFORE designing the site
Ask around. Look at lots of sites: competitors, customers, suppliers, companies in related businesses. Make lists of content, features, and design elements you like and don’t like. Look at things like the location of the navigation bar, color schemes, and the use of animations. Involve the whole staff and colleagues. Bookmark a list of favorites as models. Make a commitment to control the web design process. Don’t delegate decision-making to outside consultants.
Define your audience. Think Expansively
Who is included in your world: customers, prospects, suppliers, employees, trade organizations, the media, sister organizations, partners, advocacy groups? Do they have computers? Are they online? Do they actively use the web? Might they — if your website offered sufficient incentives for them to do so? Who are you not reaching now?
Develop a Wish List of Web Features
Review the above list of applications and continue to look at other web sites to find features that you would consider incorporating into your web site. Don’t worry about cost — yet. Treat this as a brainstorm session and make it an agenda item for a staff meeting or retreat.
Identify synergies with existing or proposed content, Internet tools and communication strategies
Inventory the content you already have available in digital format or plan to develop in the future. This includes a description of your business, products and services you offer, frequently asked questions, success stories, customer testimonials, how-to’s. Does it cluster into categories? Note any obvious holes in your organization’s story. This is also a good time to consider your need for other Internet tools since you may want to integrate them into your web plan. For example, you may want to allow people to subscribe to your mailing list through your web site. In addition, make sure that you coordinate your online and print media design strategies.
Evaluate the administrative implications of each feature. Look for opportunities as well as added workload
Whatever you do, don’t wait until your site is launched to start thinking about how you will manage it. Websites require significant tending: adding new content, updating and revising old content, evaluating usage, responding to information requests and feedback, managing the demands of a higher profile — both good and bad. Think about the right balance between static information (easier to maintain but doesn’t generate repeat traffic) vs. dynamic information (serves as a “carrot” but adds an administrative burden).
Building in-house Capacity vs. Hiring a Web Designer
Building in-house capacity to do your own web design is a definite option for some organizations depending on staff know-how and interest. But be prepared for turnover — especially among your more technically savvy employees. Make sure that your web design and management is not dependent on a single individual. Most organizations will choose to out-source their web development. If you have the funds to hire a web designer, look for experience working with small businesses. Ask for recommendations from colleagues whose web pages impress you. Ask lots of questions. Specific issues to address in advance include design capability; web hosting arrangements; license or monthly maintenance fees; ownership of the site, design, and content; usage analysis; and ease of migration in the event the site needs to move to a different host.
Get a handle on the technology challenges and cost factors
Now is the time to turn a critical eye to your Wish List. Identify special features such as audio or video streaming, web-based conferencing, “splash” pages, electronic slideshows, online searchable databases, Geographic Information Services (GIS) mapping, heavy graphics or animations. Here you will need expert advice on the implications for cost, user capacity to handle advanced applications, loading times, and management requirements. An innovation in web creation now provides for the entire site to be designed as a database. This approach simplifies site administration enormously (it’s all done through “fill in the blank” templates) but the trade-off is higher development costs and less flexibility in design. Always plan for future growth. Even if you are not prepared to add advanced features at the outset, they can be phased in over time.
Design your web site from the perspective of your Audience; not your Organization
The single biggest error companies make is to try to mirror their organizational chart on their web site. Boring! “Capturing eyeballs” on the web requires a drastic reorientation to the point of view of a typical overburdened web user (think of yourself, for example). What information will they be looking for? What resources will attract their eye and motivate them to click through different sections of your site? Make sure the “gems” are easily accessible from your home page and not buried three clicks deep. Label the various sections (especially your main navigation bar) clearly and accurately. Using shorthand such as “About Us” or “Feedback” is better than cutesy names that may confuse. Make your site as interactive as possible. Give folks something to do: sign-up for a mailing list, download a white-paper, print a coupon, respond to a poll, take a quiz or best of all, buy something! And this exercise is not only useful for your web site; it can provide you with a whole new perspective on marketing your organization as well.
Understand the unique way that people navigate the web
As you prepare text for your web site remember that people “read” the web in a way that is completely different from the way they read print media. In fact, according to Jacob Nielson, the guru of web usability, most people don’t read web pages at all; they scan them. According to a recent study, 79% of web users scan any new page for individual words and sentences; only 16% read it word-for-word. The implications? Neilson suggests using highlighted keywords, sub-headings, bulleted lists, one idea per paragraph and half the word count (yes, half!) of conventional writing. As for graphics, be creative but be careful of using too many “bells and whistles”. They can take a long time to load on older computers. When in doubt, keep it simple.
Search Marketing campaigns
If you plan to implement Search Engine Marketing (SEM) to promote your web site, especially Pay-Per-Click (PPC) with the ability to deliver a visitor to a specific page on your site, depending on the keyword phrase they use, then having multiple landing pages will be an important aspect of your overall plan.
In my business for example, if a searcher uses the phrase “internet advertising” chances are that they are just beginning to appreciate the possibilities of having an on-line presence. On the other hand, if they were to search using the word “ppc”, that indicates that they are not only familiar with SEM, but they also know a specific implementation of SEM, that being PPC. Knowing who will visit your site and how they got there is a key element of success.
Keep focused on your vision
The last guideline mirrors the first but bears repeating. Throughout the process, make sure that your company is in the driver’s seat. If you work with consultants, ask lots of questions. If things don’t make sense, get second opinions. Don’t be sold on flashy features you don’t need. Above all, see this as a strategic initiative, not just an add-on activity that can be easily delegated to one person — either inside or outside the organization. A thoughtful web planning process is a unique opportunity to gain a fresh perspective on your business. Once you “own” the vision, the site will truly be your own.