Business-to-business transactions on the Internet are outpacing business-to-consumer transactions by 3 to 1, according to AdRelevance, a Web market research organization.
|STANLEY ZAROWIN is a senior editor on the JofA. Mr. Zarowin is an employee of the American Institute of CPAs and his views, as expressed in this article, do not necessarily reflect the views of the AICPA. Official positions are determined through certain specific committee procedures, due process and deliberation.|
f your business plan doesn’t include an Internet presence, go back and start again. An organization without a Web site in its marketing plan frankly doesn’t have a realistic marketing plan. With few exceptions—whether the business you’re in is professional services, manufacturing, retailing, c onsulting or selling—the Internet is becoming the preeminent medium for selling, buying, communications and research. The bottom line is clear: If you’re not on the Web, you’re out of it.
This article is a must for those who have dawdled over the decision to create a Web site because they didn’t know where to start and how to proceed. The information is not for the technical minded; it’s for those who will plan the site, manage the webmasters and oversee the other Internet experts who actually construct and maintain the site.
WHERE TO START
Begin by asking a fundamental question: What do we want the Web site to accomplish?
Don’t proceed until you’re satisfied that you’ve fully addressed the question. Once you launch a site and become more sophisticated in Web lore, you’ll likely discover new goals and opportunities (and new challenges), but don’t let fear of not doing everything now or everything right become a barrier to getting started immediately—even if you begin on a limited scale.
The usual business objectives for Web sites include
Selling of products and services.
Purchasing of supplies and services.
Customer service or support.
Enhancing brand image.
Finding business leads.
After you determine the goals of the site, ask the second key question: Whom are we trying to reach?
It’s vital that you stay focused on those several audiences. The most common error Web site planners make is they design sites to meet their own needs, ignoring or failing to give priority to the target audiences. For example, Web planners may give more attention to making the site look elegant rather than easy to navigate. Or the marketing department may place emphasis on initial sales, giving short shrift to follow-up customer service or dealing with suppliers.
It’s critical to structure a site so it can be found easily and so visitors who land there can accomplish what they want to do. For example, give the site a memorable address (URL), and avoid words that are hard to spell.
If the initial design stumps you, don’t give up. There’s plenty of help available—for a price. If you don’t know of a Web design consultant, do a search on the Internet. But be sure to check a consultant’s references; since this is a relatively new field, there are many who put out shingles even though they have very little experience. (For more on how to launch a Web site, see “www.yourcompany.com,” JofA, May99, page 65.)
After completing the draft design, follow these advisories:
Test prototypes of your site design. Invite large samples of your target audiences—and not just your friends and colleagues. Be sure to listen carefully to their reactions. Resist becoming defensive if they criticize elements of the design. Remember that your immediate goal is honest criticism—not praise.
Beware of ending up with two conflicting images, one for your Web site and another for the rest of your organization. The look and feel of your site should coordinate with the design of your corporate logo, printed brochures, letterhead and business cards. If customers or prospects are directed to your Web site by one of your promotion or marketing pieces, you want them to recognize your image instantly.
Make the site easy to read and navigate through. Avoid using hard-to-read type and distracting background colors. Make sure the type size is not so small that it causes eyestrain. Don’t jam too much on a single Web page. Plan on plenty of variety—mixing graphics and text—to avoid boring “rivers” of gray type on a page.
Don’t include so much information—especially graphics—on a page that it loads slowly. Not everyone has a superfast Web connection for speedy downloads. Limit the data on each page—text and graphics—to less than 50 kilobytes. If a page loads too slowly (more than a few seconds), visitors are likely to tire of waiting and move along.
Maintain a relatively consistent look from one page to another so visitors will have an easy time navigating.
LOOK AND FEEL
Your personal taste should not be the final arbiter of the design. There are standards and commonalities of effective design, and one way to judge them is to seek out other sites in your industry and see what layouts and sequencing work effectively. Focus especially on sites that draw large audiences and appear to have similar objectives; use Internet search engines to locate them. Learn from their success; although it’s laudable to be inventive, there’s nothing wrong with respectful imitation—especially when starting out.
|Keep the navigation tools on the left side of every page; it makes it easier for visitors to locate them.|
Navigation is often the key to a successful site, so work especially hard to make it easy for a visitor to get around and to find things. Visitors who get stuck tend to give up and move on. Successful sites seem to keep their home page navigation selections on the left side of every page because users have gotten used to that format (see the sample above).
WHERE’S THE BEEF
Good design is fine, but design without meaningful content is just sizzle without the steak; that may work for the first visit, but few people are going to return to a site that doesn’t deliver something of value. Besides ensuring that the site has substance, aim to keep the information fresh. If returning visitors find old material, they probably won’t come back.
Selecting the right webmaster is critical to the success of the site. Webmasters often are chosen for their Internet technical skills—not their ability to package content. That’s a serious mistake. If the webmaster is technically proficient but not marketing- and management-oriented, the site will appeal more to geeks than to potential customers.
An effective webmaster is essentially an editor—someone who understands both the subject matter and the needs of the audience and then can package content to satisfy that audience. He or she should be able to take content from the industry specialists in your organization and translate it in appealing ways for the Web.
If you can, opt for a full-time webmaster. A truly useful site needs regular updating, which requires full-time attention. A webmaster for a small organization typically earns between $40,000 and $75,000 a year. If your Web site requirements are not too demanding, you may be able to get by for a while with a part-timer.
In all likelihood, you will need many content providers (writers, researchers, specialists, designers). Be sure you have a webmaster who can work with them and assemble their material in a coherent way. No matter how expert content providers may be, if they are left to making their own selections for the site and then to edit their own material, your site is likely to become a Tower of Babel.
Once a prototype of the site is ready, don’t be quick to go live. After all, the quality of the site reflects on the quality of your organization. Test the site sufficiently so visitors don’t encounter error messages. You also want to be sure it handles the volume of “hits” you expect—and then some. In volume testing, first estimate how many people are likely to access the site at any one time, double that number for safety and arrange to blitz the site with that many simultaneous calls to ensure it performs acceptably under pressure.
Be sure to test the site using both Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape. Although the two browsers are similar, they display Web pages differently. Test the site with different screen resolutions, too.
Budget. A small Web site, including hardware and software, can be developed in-house for as little as $10,000 to $25,000. But once you start adding extras—interactive applications, for instance—costs can soar. If this is your first venture into Web site creation, decide how many extras you really need (credit card orders, feedback via e-mail, inventory availability) and how much you can afford and then stick with that budget. It’s easy to get lured into inflating the budget beyond your actual needs.
Promotion. Once you launch the Web site, you have to attract your audiences. Search engines and links in other sites, in that order, are clearly the most effective way to bring visitors to your site. But don’t expect search engines to find your site on their own. Contact each of the leading search engines and register with them. For an easy way to learn about search engines, enter search engine as your key word in any of the search services.
Another tool that’s very helpful is WebPosition Gold. It not only has a feature that assists with automatically registering with search engines but it also can determine how well a site shows up on the major engines; it doesn’t do much good if your site is near the bottom of a search engine list. For more information, see www.promotionsoftware.com . In addition, WebPosition Gold can gather information about your competitors’ Web sites, providing important marketing intelligence.
Another good way to attract visitors is to embed links to your site in other Web pages. Start by identifying sites you would like to be linked to and then ask each of their webmasters for a link to your site. In exchange, offer to add links from your site to theirs.
Link to as many appropriate sites as you can—especially those with content that’s likely to interest your customers. Remember, offering such complementary sites is a service your potential customers will appreciate. Consider it legitimately useful content. Be sure to include links to local lawyers, bankers, certified financial planners, CPAs and the IRS.
Print your URL on everything you distribute to the public—business cards, letterhead, envelopes, brochures, advertisements and promotional materials (hats, mugs, shirts, pens). Such promotions are effective.
Now that you’ve invested all this time and money and the site is up and running, how do you know whether your Web site is successful? As many have discovered, it’s not an easy question to answer—and even harder to quantify. But here are some tactics successful Web sites use:
Track the number of “hits” per month and the average number of “page requests” per visit. If brand image and awareness are your key goals, those results provide important information. Many software products monitor that information, including Microsoft’s Internet Information Server.
Track the number of leads the Web site generates. You can do this by adding a feedback location so visitors can post inquiries in your site. And be sure to acknowledge every inquiry. Failure to respond to such questions creates a poor image for your organization.
Clearly, a Web site is a valuable marketing tool if it is carefully thought out and implemented. If poorly planned and implemented, it can become a sinkhole of both time and money; worse, it can tarnish your organization’s image. So start slowly and carefully. But by all means, start now.
|Web Site Resources
These books provide good advice on Web site design: