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Should You Be On-line? Developing a Web Site that Works for You

By: Dianna Huff

Dianna Huff, owner of DH Communications, specializes in marketing writing for high-tech and industrial companies. Her web site is located at www.marketingwriting.com.

Everything these days, is available on-line. From books and music to cars and computers, e-commerce is a billion dollar industry. With more than 30 million people using the web to find information and buy products, the way companies do business is changing dramatically.

What does this change mean for you, the business owner or communications manager? If you are like many people, you may be debating the pros and cons of going “virtual.” Business people are inundated with information about marketing on the Web, making it hard to know what to do or where to start.  For example, you may wonder how you find a reliable Web site developer or what type of material to use.  And, no matter if you are small or large, one person or many, you want to know the bottom line: how much is it going to cost?


Who are your customers and how do they find you?

The most important thing to remember is that your Web site is one component of your marketing plan. Having a web site does not replace excellent customer service, professionally designed and written promotional literature, advertising, 800 numbers, or anything else you use to attract and retain customers. A Web site enhances what you already have in place, as often times your customer will go from print to Web to face-to-face or telephone sale.  A Web site makes it easy for new customers to find you and current customers to keep in touch with you—especially if they are scattered throughout the US or the world.

The first step, then, in developing your web site is to look at your marketing plan and think about who you are and how you do business.  Are you a small company that relies on referrals and telephone directory advertising?  Are you a large firm looking to branch out into new markets?  Do people have to order your product from catalogs or can they buy right off the shelf? Are you a service business that caters to a select clientele? Is your product custom-made—making it difficult to order on-line?  Do you sell to businesses or to consumers? If you are like General Electric, you may do business with both. GE’s home page addresses this issue by offering two distinct links: “At Home with GE” for its retail consumers and “In Business with GE” for it business customers.

Also think about what types of information your customers want. If you are a manufacturer, your customers may want product information or specifications.  If you are a law firm, it may be staff bios. Perhaps your customers just want directions to your business and your operating hours. Having relevant information available on-line can save you considerable time and effort—especially if your customer service people answer these types of questions on a daily basis. At GE’s site, visitors can quickly find local retail outlets for home appliances or download replacement warranties and manuals—saving the company money in terms of customer service and literature costs, but more important, saving the customer time and aggravation as well.

If you don’t already know, take the time to determine how your customers make their buying decisions; your Web site’s navigation should support this process. For example, at Amazon.com, buyers can search for a book, video, or CD, read reviews, and make purchases all with a click of the mouse. Repeat buyers and their personal information are loaded into a secure database, where their password allows them to quickly proceed to the “checkout” page. One click submits the order, and confirmation is sent via e-mail to the customer seconds after the sale is completed.


Developing your Web site

Three or four years ago, it would have been ok for you to design your site yourself—after all,  once you had the “tag” key in front of you, simple coding was pretty easy. Now though, the Web and HTML is sophisticated enough that it behooves you to have your site done by an experienced professional.

And, more to the point, the image of your company is at stake. A homemade site looks like a homemade site—especially when compared to others’. If you have internet access, do a search of your competitors. What do their sites look like? What works and what doesn’t?  Well-designed sites do not have “under construction” signs, the pages are clean with information or links easy to read and find, and the design is consistent with the type of business. Meaning, if you develop equipment for the military, your site should not have colorful do-dads dancing around.

Who can help you develop your site and how do you find them? Communications firms, graphic designers, and internet service providers are all good choices. Interview potential firms or individuals by first viewing their work on-line, then calling their customers for references. Don’t be afraid to ask questions! The firm or individual you choose should not talk you into something you don’t need, will stand behind their work, and will take into consideration you, your budget, and your business.

A good designer will consult with you to determine what type of content your site should provide your customers.  Unlike the print medium, Web content employs more than words and pictures. You can include a form for customers to fill out (thus increasing your database), e-mail links to your sales representatives, video or sound clips, on-line ordering, and downloadable data sheets or product specifications.

And finally, don’t forget to have a writer—preferably a professional—proofread and edit your site’s content. You don’t want to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars developing your site only to find it full of misspellings, grammatical errors, or poorly-written copy. If you do use a professional writer, ask if he or she understands and uses the various technologies now available. A good writer knows the difference between print and on-line content and will proceed accordingly.


The Bottom Line

Of course, the question in everyone’s mind is, “How much is this going to cost?”

Designing a web site can start at a couple of hundred dollars and go up into the thousands, depending on the project’s specifications. The cost to pay someone to host your site each month on their server, if you don’t own one, must also be factored in. Internet hosting costs have come down considerably in the last year or so—prices range anywhere from $14.00 to $35.00 per month. Again, when searching for a company, ask questions! Reputable internet companies have a live body on the premises 24 hours a day in case the server goes down, and they answer their telephone! Don’t use a company that says you must contact them through e-mail only—something you’ll regret when your computer crashes at a crucial crunch time.

Registering your domain name costs $70.00 to obtain and $35.00 a year thereafter. As to site maintenance, some web developers charge in quarter hour increments, others use maintenance contracts. If you have few changes to your site, you’re better off with someone who will charge you accordingly.

While the Web is changing every day, the way that we approach new business endeavors is not. Take the time to read magazines and books on doing business on the Internet. Talk to people who have Web sites and find out how it is working for them. Spend time developing your site with your customers in mind and you will reap the benefits.

© Copyright 1999, Dianna Huff

Other Articles by Dianna Huff

The author assumes full responsibility for the contents of this article and retains all of its property rights. MarcommWise publishes it here with the permission of the author. MarcomWise assumes no responsibility for the article's contents.

 

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