Author’s Note: This article presents and discusses a number of reasons why the Internet is important for all small and home-based businesses. I will also discuss some tips for designing an effective Web site, as well as ideas for attracting visitors to the site and keeping them coming back.
Internet statistics are staggering. Forty percent of all small businesses now use the Internet. Currently there are about 167 million users with an estimated 1 billion expected by the year 2005. Finally, Internet commerce in 1998 was $5 billion and will grow to $40 billion by 2002!
There’s little doubt that the Internet is the single most important business tool since the telephone and fax machine. If you don’t think this is the case, check out these powerful reasons why you should be utilizing the Internet for your business and why having your own Web site is so important.
1. Low cost. Utilizing the Internet for your business is incredibly inexpensive. Unlimited connect accounts are generally available for less than $20 a month and include Internet access and e-mail. You can begin immediately by just using electronic mail (e-mail) as a way to communicate with existing customers and new ones.
2. E-mail for long distance. Wouldn’t it be nice to communicate anywhere in the world with customers and employees and pay no long distance telephone charges? With the Internet, you can. And while you’re at it, you can “attach” additional documents to your e-mail. For example, you can send an updated proposal to your representative across the country-quickly and at no cost.
3. Customer support. You can provide personalized support for your customers with answers to common questions, assistance on specific products or services, and offer a variety of ways in which you can be contacted. And you can do all this without answering a phone or hiring additional staff.
4. Be open for business 24 hours a day. Here’s a big plus for your business. With e-mail, people can contact you anytime it’s convenient for them. And you can respond at a time that’s good for you. Of course, we suggest “timely response” just as if someone called you. When you have a Web site, potential customers can find out about your products and services 24 hours a day. Isn’t this much better than getting a call at 5:00 am from a customer in a time zone that’s three hours ahead of yours?
5. Global reach. The Internet is being used regularly by millions worldwide with more “connecting” every day. Many of the new users come from other countries around the world. They want to buy the “latest and greatest” products. And they have money! With the Internet, they can become your customers. How much do you think it would cost to advertise in the Times of London, the Tokyo Daily, and Moscow Today? Compare that to the cost of a Web site.
6. Reach customers that speak a foreign language. Why restrict your market to the “English-speaking” world? Translate your Web site into a number of languages and offer a choice to users when they come to your home page to further increase your exposure.
7. Try new ideas. Since the Internet is a “brand-new” medium, no one (including us) really knows all of the ways you can make money from it. We do know that there are lots of great ideas being used already. When you incorporate the Internet into your business, you can try new ideas usually for little invested on your part. If it doesn’t work, OK, you learned something. Modify your idea; improve it. At the very least, you’ll know more than your competitors. Who could imagine that authors would put their books on the Internet? Well, that’s what people are doing with the hope that customers will like what they read enough that they’ll buy the paper version.
8. Update or change your products and services easily and at low cost. If you have produced “paper” catalogs, brochures, sales collateral materials, etc., you know how difficult and expensive it is to change them. You want to add a new item. Oh no! The phone company changed your area code. No, no! Paper can be an expensive pain. With your Internet site, changing anything is a simple and inexpensive process.
9. Announce specials. Speaking of changes, let’s say you just received a new product and you want to advertise a “special.” Reaching your customers via the phone, sending a letter, or a fax would be time-consuming and expensive. With the Internet, you can instantly send out an e-mail to five hundred of your best customers with the click of your mouse. What’s more, you can put a “Special” notice on your Web site advertising the new product.
10. Accept orders online. With the Internet, you can accept orders either via e-mail or through your Web site. Using e-mail, customers can send you orders in a way that’s similar to mailing you a letter, fax, or calling you on the phone. Or using the proper software, you can transform your Web site into your “electronic storefront.” Customers can check your stock, see that the item is available, put the item into a “shopping basket” with other items, and check out by providing you with their name, shipping address, credit card information, etc. The order can be sent to you for manual processing or you can use third-parties to process the order for you including handling the credit card processing, packaging the shipment, and mailing it. How much easier can it be?
A note on security: Security on the Internet is a concern just as it is if you have a “physical” storefront. However, as of today, theft of credit card numbers over the Internet is about nil. The major Internet browsers have sophisticated encryption built in to send credit card information secretly.
11. Provide product information. If you have an online store, you can provide immediate product information to your customers. You can capture the “impulse buyer,” the person who wants to buy right now. If you can’t ship immediately, let your customer know when you can. If you are using only e-mail, send a confirmation note letting your customer know when their shipment should arrive.
12. Sell to the US government. The government is the largest purchaser of goods and services. To simplify their purchasing and to save taxpayers money, the government is buying more and more of its purchases electronically over the Internet. For most of their purchases, the size of the supplier doesn’t matter. When you are on the Internet, your small company can compete with anyone.
13. Speed. Nothing beats the Internet for “speed to the market.” With one e-mail, you can reach just five or as many as five thousand customers, almost instantly. Send out an e-mail tonight, and by tomorrow morning, all of your customers will have your message.
14. Illusion of size. The Internet “levels the playing field.” Customers don’t need to know that your business is small one-person business. In most media like magazines, newspaper, and TV, big companies can spend millions on advertising. On the Internet, your Web site (www.smallcompany.com) is as important as www.bigcompany.com. The big guys have one Web site and so do you!
Setting Up an Effective Web Site
Now that you know why you should have a Web site, here’s some ideas on how to go about setting one up.
1. Decide if you’re going to develop your own Web site or work with a developer. If the latter, search the Web for possible candidates. If you’re doing it yourself, visit a bookstore or search the Web and pick up one of the many excellent references on Web publishing and html. If you don’t have the time, hire someone and ensure that they have the required expertise. A child can write html code. Designing an effective Web site takes an expert.
2. Apply for a domain name. You can do it yourself over the Internet via the Internic, or have your Internet Service Provider (ISP) do it for you. Think up three names… it’s likely that you will not get your first choice. Take your time. This domain name becomes your identifier!3. Carefully outline and organize the material you want to place on the Web. Don’t do it “on the fly.”
4. Decide on the “look” of your pages. Browse the Web for ideas.5. To be effective, your Web site must provide valuable information as well as present the product or service that you are selling. Forrester Research notes that high-quality content accounts for 75% of repeat visitors! In our case, we provide useful small-business-related information (tax advice, start-up tips, and money-saving ideas, etc). We then gently steer the visitor to the books and consulting services we are selling. It works!
Web Site Design Tips
While designing your Web site, keep the following items in mind:
1. Ease of use. Your Web site must be easy to use. The design of the site must make it simple for the user to navigate. A confused visitor will simply leave.
2. Loading time. Users will not wait. You have about 30-seconds to catch and keep a visitor. Your home page should load quickly. Ensure this by keeping graphic files small (optimize all graphics with Gif Wizard), your backgrounds simple, and by using height and width tags with every graphic. The height/width tags will force the text to load first while giving the user something to read. It’s also a good idea to use ALT tags with the graphic tag so that the graphic is identified to the user while it loads.
3. Browser friendliness. There are many different browsers in use. Be sure your home page is friendly to all of them. Do this by keeping your page simple. If you are using frames, tables, image maps, and other enhancements, ensure you have an alternate page available for browsers that cannot display the enhancements. For example, we use frames so we provide a “non-frame” gateway for those users with older non-frame friendly browsers.
4. Organized message. The user should be immediately presented with a description of what’s in your site. Also, make it clear how to navigate through your site. For example, make certain there is an obvious way to return to the home page from anywhere within your Web site.
5. Meta tags. These html tags are used to define the name and content of your site. Proper use of Meta tags will ensure that some important (large) search engines can find and properly index your site. Also ensure each Web page is property “titled” within the header tags. Learn more about Meta statements at http://www.metatag.webpromote.com.
6. Update frequently. Encourage visitors to return to your site by constantly updating its content. This cannot be stressed enough-a static site will not grow.
7. Ask for feedback. Make it easy for a visitor to e-mail comments to you.
Marketing Ideas for
We have found the following strategies and techniques to be very effective in building and sustaining traffic to our Web site. It goes without saying that Web site sales are directly proportional to traffic! Forrester Research notes that the most used sources for finding Web sites are-in order-search engines, e-mail messages, links from other sites; and personal referrals (word of mouth).
1. Get listed with the major search engines. Don’t do it yourself-it’s very time consuming and there are plenty of inexpensive ways to get it done. I like the folks at 1-step.
2. Utilize traditional and Internet-based (e-mail) news releases.
3. Engage in strategic mutual link development. This is quite important-25% of our traffic comes to us via these links! This takes time but it’s worth the effort.
4. Participate in newsgroups and listservs. Don’t advertise-provide useful information. Let your “signature” do the advertising. Don’t become a pest.
5. Include your URL on everything: your telephone answering machine, literature, business cards and stationary, traditional advertisements, etc. We had some T-shirts printed with our homepage on the front and URL on the back-they’re great conversation starters.
6. Develop a newsletter (preferably e-mail based). We did and in about a year have generated a mailing list of over six thousand subscribers. This brings traffic… and sales. Have a new product? Let your list know about it-at no cost.
7. Write articles for journals and periodicals that relate to the industries you serve. Include a byline with your URL, of course.
8. Make sure you are using a “signature” with your e-mail (a few lines of text that are included with every message you send) and include your URL. This signature can be an advertisement for your product, service, or Web site.
Keeping Visitors Coming Back
Once a visitor finds your Web site, you want them to return again and again. Here’s how:
1. Content, content, content. Your site must say something, teach something, and provide useful information. This is the most important element of any successful Web site. Furthermore, this information must be dynamic-kept up-to-date and always updated.
2. As noted earlier, Web site navigation is very important. It must be easy to find anything within your site quickly, and it should be hard to “get lost.” It is amazing how many Web sites ignore this important element of Web site design.
3. You can build a successful Web site if you pay attention to what works for others. The ideas presented here continue to pay off for us, and I bet that they will work for you. All you have to lose without a Web site are sales! Think about it!
Robert Sullivan is the author of “The Small Business Start-Up Guide” and “United States Government-New Customer!” His company, Information International, provides small business consulting services as well as Web site development and hosting. Visit his Web site at http://www.isquare.com.