I recently had the opportunity to present to the University of Georgia's Small Business Development Center on this very topic, "how and where to begin making your mark on the web as a small business owner". The presentation slideshow is available, and I've included key talking points below.
Protect Your Brand
Regardless of the size of your business, defining who you are as a brand sets the stage for everything you do including your web presence. So who are you?
Begin this thought process be defining your core values. Core values are the guiding principles that determine how you conduct yourself, your actions and behaviors. Your core values become the launching point from which you will develop your brand and culture.
Next up, define your mission statement and key messages. A mission statement should serve as a constant reminder of why you are in business in the first place. It may be just a few sentences but it becomes as important as your business plan. If you need some assistance developing your mission statement, checkout this inciteful article and video from Entrepreneur.com http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/65230. Key messages are an easy way to get everyone within your business "speaking the same language", so develop some "perfect descriptions" within a sentence or two that sets you apart from the competition.
A graphical representation of your brand and message is critical to your business as well. A quality logo is one of the most defining elements of your brand! From coloration to font and everything in between, a logo establishes your identity and serves as a visual cue. When your logo allows us to identify the company its associated with without even seeing the company name--jackpot! So, where are you to turn for a quality logo? We recommend LogoTournament.com, which simplifies the logo creation process and makes what can be a very costly process very affordable. Simply fill out a creative brief, set the "prize" amount for your tournament and watch the designs flow in! You pick the winning designer to receive the prize at the end of your tournament and in turn you get an awesome logo!
Once your business's brand and messaging are clear, its time to begin making your mark on the web! Acquire a solid domain from a reputable registrar. GoDaddy is our domain registrar of choice. What do I mean by "solid"? Your domain should be short, sweet and to the point. Avoid long domain names with non-alphanumeric characters that are difficult to remember or are easily misspelled.
Get social, as in social media! Social media is now the #1 activity on the web and 73% of online adults use social media--it is now a marketing necessity. The question for any business isn't whether you will participate in social media, but how well will you manage your brand on social media. Even before you begin working on a website, you should establish a social media presence.
If your business is a B2C (business-to-customer) then Facebook is a must. Facebook is still by far the most used social media platform, and a business Facebook page is easy to start, but don't stop there. Your business' Facebook page needs your attention. Post regularly, including promotional and non-promotional content, taking care to reply to comments and messages from your customers. For the B2B (business-to-business), LinkedIn is your friend. Setup individual profiles and a company page and get to networking. In addition to posting regularly on your LinkedIn profile and company page, join groups and begin networking with others within your industry and also within your potential customer base. Don't forget to join groups dedicated to your business or personal associations and clubs. Sometimes, these can be your best source of future business and partnering.
The most important social media platform for your search engine ranking is Google+. For this reason, its important for all businesses to have a Google My Business page. When a post is made to Google+, its indexed by Google within seconds and displayed in relevant search results. If you are a brick and mortar business you'll want to choose the Google My Business Local option. This action literally places you on the map--the Google map, that is. Your business location will have a marker on Google maps and map listings are often automatically placed at the top of Google search results.
If your business is in its infancy, consider forwarding your registered domain to your Google My Business page to establish an easy-to-access landing page for your business complete with all the necessary content such as location, hours and services. Use these social media platforms and free tools to work your content, particularly in the early stages, and generate excitement and following for your brand. Remember that every post should not be a sales pitch. Just be geniune and follow your core values.
Considering Your First Website
Once you have established your brand and begun to develop a customer-base or following through social media, now is the time to consider your first website. You may be puzzled by this approach but consider this short case study ...
A personal trainer (PT) recently came to us as a new client. This PT had a brick and mortar studio. As a B2C business, the PT had been very active on social media, particularly Facebook. A social media schedule was in place for making regular posts, including demonstration videos, encouraging posts of customer success stories and motivational industry related content. Very few posts were direct promotions. In fact, most were celebrations of her client's successes. The quality of the content being posted was generating brand presence, excitement, and most of all, business! This PT had been putting social media to work and doing a great job of it. The business's growth and social media following propelled the need for a website. To prepare for the next steps, the PT reviewed existing websites of leaders in the industry to get ideas from their web presence. After all, if you want to be successful then do what successful people do!
When business growth propels the need for a website there are two high-level options to first consider: do it yourself (DIY) or outsourcing. When considering DIY, you as the business owner need to honestly evaluate your own capabilities, understanding your strengths and admitting to your limitations. Do you consider yourself to have these characteristics needed for a successful website?
- Creative bone
- Thorough understanding of marketing
- Ability to embrace new technology without having a "good enough" attitude
- Understanding of search engine optimization (SEO)
- Solid content writing skills
- Skills to supply legitimate images and manipulate them for insertion to the site
- Ability to view the website from the end user's point of view
If DIY is the road you travel, there are some free to low cost website building options for your consideration. The Joomla Foundation recently launched Joomla.com, a free tool for creating a Joomla website hosted by SiteGround. Joomla is wildly popular content management system. Several templates are available to choose from through the free service and additional features range from easy text editing to Google maps integration.
In a similar fashion, WordPress.com also offers a free website building tool for launching a WordPress blog or business site. WordPress.com boasts of mobile-ready (responsive) designs and an easy-to-use platform.
Both Joomla and WordPress are great DIY choices because of their ability to grow with your business. New website functionality can be easily added on with either platform as your business demands. If at any point the website's needs become more complex than you are comfortable managing on your own, the website can be backed up and moved to a website team of choice.
Other low cost options for DIY websites include SaaS platforms like WIX, Weebly and Squarespace. While these options have small learning curves their ability to grow in functionality over time is limited. Also, the website cannot be backed up and moved elsewhere so you're kind of stuck with these solutions.
Once you have chosen a platform for your DIY website, writing quality content is paramount. A lack of concise, impacting text with a clear call to action is the downfall of most web sites. Also, when it comes to design and layout pay attention to your use of typography. Font consistency can make or break your design. And, to avoid legal troubles, take image copyrights seriously. Just because an image is in a Google search result does not mean that its your's for the taking. The best options for obtaining images are to use your own photography or using a stock photography service such as iStock.
If Outsourcing your website project is the road you choose you're work doesn't stop there. Do the research! What do you want the site to do? How do you want it to present? Prioritize your needs. Also, prepare your budget. Consider your website a full time salesperson and operations manager, available to assist your customers 24/7.
When outsourcing, get written project estimates that include a stated scope of work. And don't forget references. Choose a professional team and be picky about it! The importance of getting a written contract with a clear definition of website ownership cannot be overstated! Plan for growth as well. In addition to knowing they can do the job, make sure that you have a good rapport with the team, too. As your business grows the functionality of your website will need to follow suit, so having a high-level plan to manage that growth with a team you trust is key.
Considering The Type of Website
Considering the type of website you need requires considering your business and its needs. The landscaper benefits from providing general business information, contact details and before and after pictures of recent jobs but doesn't necessarily require online sales. This type of site is considered a "brochure site". Meanwhlie, the caterer also needs to provide general business information, contact details and images of recent events, but in addition to these features the caterer greatly benefits from the use of an online catalog of available catering items, and a form to receive catering requests. This approach adds interactive tools.
Perhaps your business model includes memberships, in which case community tools are vital to keeping your membership engaged. Member profiles, forums, community groups and subscription renewals will make your website a central hub for your customers.
Your website can also become an additional revenue stream by adding eCommerce. Its often said that "easy ecommerce" is an oxymoron. While eCommerce can be complex, use the K.I.S.S. (keep it simple, sweetheart) principle. Start small and refine the process overtime. Minimize the bells and whistles and focus on the core functionality. Evaluate your options when it comes to determining ordering process, payment solutions, shipment method, fulfilments and returns. This article can help you in definining requirements for an eCommerce platform. Also, PCI compliance, the "HIPAA" of credit card handling, must not be overlooked for any business offering online sales. Do your research and know the requirements!
Making Your Website Sing
Whether your choice is DIY or outsourcing your website project, the content on your site is king when it comes to search engine optimization (SEO). Content is the voice of your website and in order to make your website sing, use keywords in harmony. Keywords are single words or short phrases that exemplify your core values and mission. Ask yourself "which words or phrases, when searched, do I want to be found within the results?"
Google Trends can help in this thought process. Google Trends provides rock-solid data behind the way the world searches. Compare search phrases, see whats being searched, and what isn't. In which countries are specific search phrases more prevalent? You can find it in Google Trends. Once you've defined your keywords use them liberally throughout your content, particularly in HTML title tags (H1, H2, H3, etc).
Evaluate Your Performance
A successful website is never a "finished" product, and it should be consistently and constantly evolving. Regular evaluation of the performance of your website as a whole, as well as the performance of individual content pages is the guide for that evolution. So, how do you know the performance of your website...an on-page visitor counter? NO...just say no to that counter. Instead, checkout Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools. Both are free products that can track and analyze your website. Google Analytics primarily tracks page visits and visitor behavior. Evaluating this data can direct content organization changes as you see which content is popular vs not so popular.
To get started with Google Analytics you will need to setup an account and add a small snippet of code to each page of your website you want tracked, or, if using a CMS, to the index.php page. Google Webmaster Tools tracks the indexing of your site by Google's search engine and provides insight into how visitors are finding you through those searches. To make the most of Google Webmaster Tools, submit a sitemap of your website content. This fast-tracks the indexing of your website and guides Google in crawling your content most effectively. If errors occur during the crawling process, you will be notified within your Google Webmaster Tools dashboard. You can also check your keyword performance with Google Webmaster Tools, which offers a visual list of high-performance keywords.
Additional Online Tools To Make Life Easy for Small Businesses
IFTTT.com "puts the internet to work for you". From social media automation to automated calendar entries ifttt.com is an amazing productivity tool. GoToMeeting is another online tool of choice! Conduct online meetings and webinars with clients remotely and boost your productivity. Email marketing is made easy with MailChimp, a robust email marketing and campaign management solution. And, speaking of monkeys, SurveyMonkey.com provides free online surveys to get the pulse of your customer base.
Tying It Up
At all stages of your business' web presence development, you must be willing and able to make it a priority, or hire someone who can. A successful online presence that drives business growth doesn't happen overnight--it takes planning and purpose.
While it may seem cost effective to do it yourself, taking your own focus away from your core business may not be the best approach in the long run. Be honest with yourself and stay focused on the things you can do to make your business a success.
If you are in need of a web design and development partner that can focus on building your web presence while you focus on building your business, contact us today! We will be happy to discuss your business needs and develop a plan to help you make your mark on the web!