Part 2: Taking Advantage of the Online World(Chapters 5 and 6) Website Development, Attracting and Keeping Customers, Using Social Networks to Your Advantage, Putting it All Together

Rahul Razdan

10/26/2014 10:31 AM
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This article is part of an book on bringing a small business online.   You can get free PDF version on top of this page or a kindle/paperback HERE

Part 2: TAKING ADVANTAGE OF THE ONLINE WORLD



Businesses need to go where the customers are going, and consumers worldwide are going online. As consumers look to the Internet for information, you should join the forward-thinking people that are using the power of this global network to grow their businesses. The Internet can benefit your business in eight main ways.

·         The Internet gains you entrance to a global marketplace.

The Internet has created a global marketplace. Having an Internet storefront provides a means for today’s consumers to find and engage with you on their terms. Your physical storefront may attract the attention of anyone walking or driving down the street. However your online storefront can attract the attention of literally everyone who owns a personal computer, tablet or mobile phone.

·         The Internet improves your productivity.

You sleep. Your employees sleep. Your customers sleep. But your website never sleeps. You should be rushing to take advantage of this tireless worker who will perform reliably, quickly, and correctly the tasks you assign to it.

·         The Internet provides you with a round-the-clock storefront.

Consumers expect information when they want it and where they want it. They may look for it when they are on their laptops in the office, or on their tablets while lounging in bed, or on their smartphones during their commutes. They want to be able to conduct business at their convenience, and they expect you to have an online storefront that is always open to them.

Whether your website is providing information about your products and services to prospective customers, taking and fulfilling orders, or getting customer feedback to improve your product on service, it will always be open for business. And your clients could be just around the corner or on the other side of the world.

·         The Internet automates and expands the power of “word-of-mouth” references.

People used to ask their friends and neighbors for advice about a good restaurant, or a reliable plumber, or the best place to go for a massage. These word-of-mouth recommendations carry a great deal of weight, but they are unreliable for you as a business owner. In order to benefit from word-of-mouth recommendations, you must first have someone physically encounter a satisfied customer of yours, and then you must have your business come up in their conversation. This does happen, but it is a slow and unpredictable process.

The Internet automates “word-of-mouth” recommendations and accelerates their impact. One good online review of your business could be read by thousands of potential customers.

·         The Internet helps you analyze your business.

Big corporations have departments whose function is to generate reports to understand customer behavior. They track foot traffic outside their stores. They count how many people make it inside, how many of them make a purchase, and what items are getting the most interest. Although small businesses have a sense of some of these numbers, they usually lack the resources to quantify them or measure the results of a marketing campaign.  When you establish a presence for your business online, the software you use can track all this information for you automatically. This enables you to gather large volumes of data, analyze it, and get a more objective understanding of your business. Armed with this knowledge, you can take action.

·         The Internet lets you compete on equal footing with companies of larger size and resources.

The Internet is a great equalizer. Earlier in the book we compared it to a hostess throwing a fantastic party and we encouraged you to open the door and join in. We forgot to mention that this hostess is greeting all her guests with open arms and welcoming them with the same enthusiasm. Big companies and small companies can look the same online, where there aren’t any fancy storefronts or trendy downtown street addresses to impress consumers. Your products and your services drive your success, allowing you to compete effectively with companies of vastly larger scale and resources. Bigger isn’t better online. Better is better.

·         The Internet protects your data.

Have you ever had your computer “crash” or had your laptop stolen, and have you lost valuable company information as a result? In the past, data needed to be manually backed up, and sometimes people didn’t back up their data as often as they needed to. Today, with cloud-based applications and data storage, you do not worry about this. Someone else can take responsibility for backing up your data and keeping it secure.

·         The Internet helps you find skills you do not have in-house.

With marketplaces such Elance or Alibaba, the Internet can help connect you to a global network of specialists in areas ranging from design services to manufacturing services.


Chapter 5:  Website Development

 

We have covered the ways the Internet is changing how we live and work. Now it is time to take action. You are ready to start building a website for your business. In this chapter, we will lay out the options available to help you create your website, as well as the questions you should ask yourself about what your website should do. We will explain how to improve your website’s visibility to search engines, and consequently how to improve its rank in search results.

Total Cost of Ownership

Before you invest in any new project, it is important to assess the total cost of ownership. Initial or start-up costs are not the only expenses to keep in mind. Depending on the scope and complexity of your project, you will need to plan for the costs of implementation, maintenance, and future enhancements. If you are building a house, you might choose higher quality materials that cost more up front in order to save on long-term maintenance costs.  If you are getting a new car, you might buy a more expensive one that has a track record of requiring low maintenance, or you might lease a cheaper model if you plan to keep it for a few years. Similarly, when you set out to build a website, you need to keep in mind more than your initial costs.

When you create a website for your business, you are implicitly committed to the ongoing costs of maintaining that website. You will need to stay abreast of new technologies—either new devices like smartphones and tablets, or new capabilities such as handling online payments—and their impact on how consumers access and use the Internet. The choices you make when building your website will impact the future costs—in terms of both time and financial resources—of maintaining your website.

There are opportunity costs associated as well with the choices you make. You may want to have the capability to update the content of your website frequently to highlight new services, feature new promotions, showcase new references, or demonstrate momentum to prospective clients. You don’t want to risk seeing a business opportunity go to a competitor because you couldn’t get your website updated in time.

Your website has to be effective. Have you ever opened a website that did not display properly? Perhaps the graphic overlaid the text or the scroll bar did not work. Some of these problems may have been created because the website was not compatible with the web browser you were using. Your website should be designed to work with multiple versions of the popular browsers.  In addition, as more and more people use mobile devices for browsing the Internet (almost 60 percent of web searches are done on mobile devices), your website should be “mobile friendly.”

You also should consider being an active member of the online business community, in which complementary businesses link to each other’s websites and provide references and recommendations to each other’s business. Aligning your marketing efforts with those of your business partners can be very effective in increasing the visibility of your business. Linking between businesses, especially with positive references from other businesses, is one of the most effective ways to market your business. In order to do this, your website’s infrastructure needs to be compatible with that used in the websites of your business partners. How you—and your business partners—create your websites will impact how quickly you will be able to update your content and how effortlessly you will be able to collaborate with each other online.

Web Designers, Toolkits, and Platforms

Keeping in mind all these costs, how do you go about building a website? There are currently three main approaches to creating a website for your company. You can hire a web developer, you can use an online toolkit offered by companies like GoDaddy or Web.com, or you can use an online platform offered by companies like Ocoos.

Each option has its pros and cons. Before making a choice, you should list all the capabilities you need for your online storefront and then balance these against your total budget for the website. At the very least, the website you create has to communicate with your target customers about your products and services, and it needs to provide your contact information. Do you also want the website to help you run the business? You can set up the website to take care of some scheduling and bookkeeping, and you can also use it to help you with distribution. Do you want to use the website as a tool for analysis? If so, you can set it up to collect information about your clients and their buying preferences.

Web Designers and Mass Customization

A popular method of website development involves mass customization. You may think that your website should not be like any others. Uniqueness can be a differentiator, but it can also lead to increased cost without a noticeable benefit for your business. When appropriate, using free content management software such as Wordpress and Drupal can help you create and manage a custom-built website. You can either use pre-defined templates to help you create webpages, or you can build webpages from scratch to meet the specific requirements of your business. The end result will be a website designed to meet your needs.

If this sounds challenging to you, you can hire web designers to build your website. A web designer will be able to help you make sure your website has the capabilities you desire. You provide the requirements, and they provide the expertise.  But be aware that hiring web designers can be expensive.

You should also think about how you will maintain the website once it is built. Will you continue to be dependent on your web designer for all future changes and updates to your website? And if so, how quickly can you expect your designer to take action? In today’s business environment, you want to retain control of your content and be able to update your website with new information about your products and services or about new promotions whenever you need to do so—waiting for external help could produce an unwanted delay.

Toolkits

Another method for mass customization comes from using the “web builder” toolkits offered by companies like GoDaddy, Web.com, Vistaprint, Wix, and Weebly. These tools make it easier for you to develop your own website, and they often come with lower upfront costs. However, they are not very different from the previous approach. In essence, they deliver the capability for “mass customization” of websites without the need for hiring a web designer. 

These web builder toolkits are well suited for building websites that don’t change very much or those that are useful for a short period of time. Many people create websites for major life events like weddings and funerals, and the templates from these toolkits work well for those purposes. If you don’t need your website to do much more than tell people how to find your physical business, the toolkit approach could be good for you.

The tools in these kits are inexpensive in the short term and work effectively for personal websites or websites with limited functionality, but they are less effective for small businesses desiring more capabilities. The web builder toolkits have limited ability to provide a scalable solution for a small business wanting to create an online storefront. They may have limitations in enabling easy ecommerce solutions, or have limited ability to help you with online scheduling. Adding these capabilities will require significant investment, and your total cost of ownership could increase appreciably. 

Platforms

When deciding how to build your website, you might want to consider using a fully featured online platform. For a small business, using a functional platform can provide an effective and scalable way to create and manage your web presence. These platforms don’t just make operating online easier; they make operating everywhere easier.

In addition to providing you an online storefront, they also help you manage some of the functions of running your business. They provide you an affordable and easily maintainable web presence that can evolve well with new technologies. Neither the custom-design model nor the toolkit approach will give you this ability. Examples of successful platforms include Facebook, Ocoos, LinkedIn, Amazon and Ebay.

An additional benefit to using a platform is that it can provide technology insurance at a relatively low cost. For example, when a new mobile device type is introduced or a new social networking tool becomes commonly used, the platform will typically handle the details and not require you to spend scarce time and resources understanding and deploying the new technology. 

Jen runs a dance studio in Cleveland, Ohio, where she teaches classes seven days a week. She wanted to create a basic website that allowed for online scheduling, ecommerce, and e-signatures for liability agreements. “When I started talking to web developers, I couldn’t believe how expensive everything was. And they warned me that there might be issues handling people calling from their mobile phones. I checked out GoDaddy, but it seemed like it wasn’t going to be able to do everything I wanted. I finally wound up creating a page on Facebook and also using Ocoos for ecommerce and scheduling. So far it is working out really well.”

Content and Capabilities

Once you have decided which method of website development works best with your needs and budget, you can begin to determine your web content. You can start by thinking of your website as a virtual brochure. Your website can contain anything you would include in a handout that you would give to prospective customers.

You need to make sure that hours of operation and contact information for your business are easy to find on your website. You should include details that explain the services or products your business offers and what makes them better than those offered by other businesses. You can include a value statement, something that lets visitors to your website know what you believe in, what you feel is the mission of your company, and what make your business unique when compared to competitors.

Part of this process of informing customers about your business includes reassuring them that you are trustworthy. Testimonials from previous clients can influence prospective clients to give you a try. Similarly, endorsements from partner businesses and links from websites of related businesses will also help promote your business.

You should consider various options for securely handling online payments. You can build a custom interface or use one of the well-accepted options like PayPal or Google Wallet for this purpose.

So far we have talked about what you need to include in the website for your target customers. The website can also be helpful to you in operating your business. For example, you can use it to create a database of client contacts and their information. Along with keeping a record of clients’ addresses and buying history, you can start to analyze their buying behavior. Based on your analysis, you could create marketing campaigns targeting specific categories of customers.

Another capability to consider adding is scheduling. Rather than hiring someone dedicated to answering customers’ scheduling calls, you can use an automated system where customers can make appointments on their own. This provides customers with more flexibility and it also lowers your costs. But be sure your online scheduling is easy to use for your customers. You want to it to make your business more, not less, accessible.

There are many decisions to make as you plan your company’s website. The task can seem daunting. But remember, regardless of which option you select for website development, form should always follow function. The ultimate success of the online storefront lies not in its appearance, but in its functionality. Building an artistic website with a high degree of graphical content may not be sufficient. It is similar to having a lovely book hidden in the library where no one can find it. A successful website should look appealing, but first and foremost it must be well designed for customers to navigate and use easily.

Search Engine Optimization and Search Engine Marketing

As you build the website for your business, you need to keep in mind your primary objective: bringing people to it, so they are aware of what you offer and why they should do business with you.

Earlier we described the fundamentals of Internet search: a user enters keywords, and the search engine finds a list of websites that relate to those keywords. As a business owner, you want your company to appear on the first page of those search results, either through Search Engine Optimization (SEO) or Search Engine Marketing (SEM). We have explained that SEO is the process of increasing the rank of a website or a web page in a search engine's natural, organic search results. SEM (which may use SEO) is a form of Internet marketing that involves promoting websites by increasing their visibility in search engine results through paid search and advertising.

What should you do to optimize your website for search engines? You need to make it easy to access and catalog your website. Your web pages should be suitably titled, so that search engines index them accurately. All the meta-data—or information attached to your web pages but not visible to the customer—should reflect the key aspects of the content of the web pages, making it easy for the search engine to navigate your website. 

The key to SEO is not fancy technology, but rather a good understanding of your customer. The critical question you should ask is: “What is my customer going to put into the search prompt when they are looking for a service like mine?” Based on that, you should include appropriate keywords and relevant content in your website as well as in the meta-data associated with it.

As the person most familiar with your business, you are in an excellent position to put together a list of keywords that potential customers might enter into a search. Some search engines also will let you access their databases of past searches to help you predict keywords that may be used. For example, Google has a Keyword Planner tool that will both give you information on the frequency of various searches and also let you know how a keyword may perform in search. You can use this list to generate a set of keywords that you should feature prominently in the content of your website.

With SEO, small modifications to your website can have a noticeable impact on your site's visibility and performance in search results. As we discussed earlier, links back to your website help improve both its popularity and its search engine results rank. So think about ways to increase how many links you have coming into your website. You can use social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+ to encourage people to link to your website. Additionally, you can talk to businesses that offer services or products complementary to yours, and offer to co-market with them. Both businesses will benefit from including links to each others’ websites.

Improving your organic search ranking through SEO is only the first step in your Internet marketing strategy. To further improve your visibility in search engine results, you can buy keywords and ad placements in search results. This is called Search Engine Marketing or SEM. In 2012, US companies spent nearly $20 billion on SEM, and the majority of this money was spent on advertising with Google, Yahoo and Bing.

Remember those keywords you included in your web content? For good SEM, you bid on those keywords. The search engines provide you tools to do this, and you can also hire expert consultants to help you. You can think of Search Engine Marketing as a superset of Search Engine Optimization: it improves your ranking in both paid and organic search results.
Chapter 6: Attracting and Keeping Customers

 

In this chapter, we will explain how you can stay on top of your online storefront and make your website a popular and easy-to-find destination for potential customers. This means more than just maintaining your website and keeping it current. You also need to pay attention to how your business is represented in various directories and review sites. You should consider offering promotions and putting in place customer loyalty programs that will help transform clients into long-term satisfied customers willing to give you their repeat business.

Know Your Business, and Test Your Knowledge

A clear understanding and communication of your business’s unique value forms the basis of a comprehensive marketing and sales strategy. This is not a trivial task.  The first step is naturally hard, because you need to look at your business objectively and really understand why customers buy from you as opposed to your competition. You have to analyze your competition—both what you can see today and what may be around the corner threatening to change the competitive landscape tomorrow. Many tools exist online that will enhance your ability to understand your company’s strengths and target potential customers.

Before you turn to using these tools, outline a clear statement of what you consider to be your company’s unique value proposition. Write it down, and then review it with your employees and select customers to get their feedback. Many times the value perceived by the customer is different than you expect—attributes that you value may not be important to the customer, and some elements that you consider trivial could have huge value to the customer. The feedback you receive may make you to shift the focus of your marketing message.

Think about your proof points, or the ways in which you can demonstrate your business’s worth. These could be testimonials, customer success stories or industry trends, and you can use them to support your business. If your customers have consistent complaints or concerns, figure out how to handle their objections.

Once you have a good idea about both the unique value your business provides as well as the customer’s perspective on it, develop a communication plan outlining how you are going to get this information out to current and future customers. References and testimonials, if seen as fair and balanced, are very powerful. They help potential customers relate to the experiences of other customers similar to them.

Now you are ready to leverage the power of the Internet to your advantage. Maybe your website doesn’t place enough emphasis on what your customers value most about your business. If so, be proactive and change it. If you are using a fully featured platform for web development, you should be able to do this yourself. If not, you might need to call your web designer. Regardless of how you do it, you should take the time to have your website reflect what you learn from your customers. A key benefit of an online presence is that you are able to quickly adjust your message to reflect new information. How often have you printed pamphlets promoting your company, only to realize you need to make changes soon after they are printed? An online storefront gives you the flexibility to adjust your message to reflect new data as you receive it.

Customer feedback can be a valuable tool for your business. It keeps your customers engaged and feeling empowered, and it can flag issues to you before they become real problems. On your website, you can set up short surveys to poll your customers and other visitors to your site. People are more likely to respond to something that will take them only a minute or two. The questions you ask could range from the quality of your website, to how your visitors made their decisions to buy or not buy, to open ended questions on what else you could do to improve their experience.

An online storefront creates a more personal and immediate channel for the customer to interact with your business and provide feedback. Your marketing plan should always be adapting to what you learn about your customers and their preferences.

Promotions and Customer Loyalty Programs

Who doesn’t love a bargain? Sales, coupons, and discounts have long been used to entice consumers into making a purchase. The Internet has its own versions of buyers’ incentives. Companies like Groupon, Living Social, or Amazon Local will let you send promotions to large lists of potential customers. These daily deals are managed through platforms that have their own infrastructure to support direct purchases or coupon redemptions.

You can use these deal-of-the-day platforms to increase your company’s exposure to customers, but keep in mind that your online promotion may not result in significant profit. Not only will you be offering a discount to the price of your product or service, but a significant portion of the payment from the customer will be retained by the platform enabling these online promotions.

As a small business owner, you need to consider carefully how these promotions will help you in the long run. If your business thrives on repeat customers—if you own a hair salon or restaurant, for example—a Groupon or Living Social deal can help you attract new customers. When those customers have a good experience with your business, they are likely to come back as full paying clients. If you offer a one-time service with low margins, such as construction or appliance repair, you might choose not to offer a bargain basement price to someone you may not see again for a long period of time.

Bob and Charlotte run a paintball business. “Once we get people to visit us and see how much fun paintball is for everyone, we can get them to come back with their friends.  The challenge is to get someone to visit for the first time, and for that we have been using Groupon as a teaser. A family package gets everyone in the facility, and the adventure does the rest.”

Managing Your Web Presence

Your website is just the starting point. As a small business owner, you should also be aware of how your business appears on other websites, whether they are online directories, review sites or links from businesses that partner with you. You have to stay current with the reviews on your product or service, and you need to be sure to address negative reviews as quickly as possible.

Make sure you are well represented in directories that your target customers browse. You should do a search of your own company to see where and how you are currently listed. Visit each listing and see if there are any ways you can enhance it. Most Internet directories typically have very basic profiles for the businesses they list. They often allow businesses to “claim” their profiles and add to the information already included there. There may occasionally be a small fee associated with this, but it gives you the opportunity to build a more compelling profile—and one that includes a link to your own website, which in turn improves your website’s rank in search results.

Some customers will find you through directories. Others will find you through review sites like Yelp and social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter. Consider giving your customers incentives to review your business in whichever forum they prefer. And be sure to be timely when responding to reviews. Handling negative customer feedback graciously or thanking customers for their positive feedback can significantly improve the perception of your business. You may have observed many hotel managers responding directly to feedback on their properties on Trip Advisor. Many restaurant owners have now started doing the same on Yelp.
Managing Customer Relationships

 

Customer Relationship Management, or CRM, is focused on managing all interactions with current and prospective customers with the goal of increasing customer satisfaction and revenue.  Using a CRM system, you can understand the preferences of your current customers and market new products to them. Selling to an existing customer is easier than trying to sell to a new one. 

A CRM system provides you with a unified view of all the interactions of your business with your customers. It can organize, automate and synchronize marketing, sales, service and support functions. CRM systems are useful for business of all sizes—the scope and capability will vary based on the requirements of your specific business. For a small business, a CRM system may simply consist of a contact manager that integrates emails, documents, job details, invoices, and scheduling for individual accounts. It tracks customer history and experience, so you can provide your most promising or most loyal customers with the highest level of service.

Most CRM systems are now available on the cloud. Instead of purchasing CRM software, you purchase access to a cloud-based CRM solution such as Salesforce.com. You don’t have to worry about owning either the hardware or the software for running a CRM system, and you can access it from your computer or your mobile devices anywhere and anytime. Many CRM systems now integrate social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter and provide tools to run customer surveys. These additional capabilities will give you better visibility into such things as marketing campaign effectiveness, buying patterns, product preferences, customer satisfaction, and the potential for add-on sales. 

At the most basic level, a CRM system helps you understand the buying behavior of your customers, identifying who provides you with the most business, who gives you the highest profitability, and who complains the least or the most. This will lead you to take steps to increase customer satisfaction for your most valuable clients, helping you not only retain their business but also hopefully grow it. You may also decide that business from some high-maintenance clients costs too much time and energy, and you are better served focusing your limited resources on more satisfied and profitable customers.

Data Mining

You can analyze the data collected from a CRM system to improve your understanding of your customers and their preferences. This will increase the loyalty of your customers to your business and reduce the cost of acquiring new customers.

This technique is called Data Mining, and it seeks to analyze customer information with the dual intent of attracting new customers and generating more business from existing ones. Let’s say you repair air conditioning systems for homes. A CRM system would help you track the customers you have serviced, how frequently you have done so, what repairs you have made in their homes, and whether they have referred you to other customers. With this information, you could set up your system to prompt you to call existing customers on a regular basis to do an annual inspection or perform a maintenance service.  

Bob is a CPA.  He has helped customers with their accounting and tax preparation needs for several years. Bob says, “I started using a CRM system a couple years ago. Instead of waiting for customers to call me, I use the CRM database to determine when to set up future appointments. The customers usually thank me for remembering to call them.” Now Bob is expanding his business. “I’m starting to offer financial planning services. Using the customer profiles in my CRM system, I have put together a list of customers who may be interested in having me work with them.”
 

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