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How to make the most of your business website

As the internet continues to adapt, reaching more people in more ways than ever before, your website will play a bigger role in your overall success. As a small business owner, how can you be sure you’re making the most of your website? From website design, to promotion and everything in between, here is a fool-proof guide on how to keep the customers coming back again and again.

It’s a first point of call: the most easily accessed medium through which your business and potential customers can connect. But, beyond a great first impression, what should your website be? And, in 2009, what can you do to take it to the next level?

There’s no time like the present to assess the effectiveness of your current website and there’s one hard and fast rule to keep in mind. If you’ve lost interest, then so have your customers! You see forgotten sites everyday. They’re rarely if ever updated. If they have a blog, its first and last post was January 2006. Don’t allow your website be one of these. They create the impression that the whole business is stagnant, and far from promoting a company or brand, they may actually do it damage.

But besides not being dormant what makes a good website? If you’re in business, the simple answer still applies: it’s whatever your customer wants. The recent, big shift on the web has been a move away from the idea of a website as a piece of static content to one which sees it as a hub for a community, a place where users contribute their own content and communicate in the ways which suit them. It’s a trend led by social media sites such as Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter, and it’s a trend your business should be following, not because it’s ‘hip’ but because there are real benefits to be found.

Not only will a vibrant, active website change how you communicate and interact with your customers, but it will also act as a valuable feedback mechanism. Your customers will be transformed from passive consumers into active producers and critics, helping to drive your product development. This is one of the biggest business benefits that can flow from a good social website: that your customers, if you listen to their feedback, will begin to steer your products in the directions that align them with their own desires. If you launch product A with feature X when your customer base really wanted feature Y, for example, it won’t take you long to know.

If successful, these type of ‘hubs’ can revolutionise almost all aspects of your business. Your products and services can become the nexus for an engaged and loyal customer base; one which has incorporated your brand and your site into its internet habits. Your customers can become your own de-facto team of viral marketers. Of course, this doesn’t mean they’ll love everything you do, if the internet is anything, it’s a place where people are scathingly honest. It does mean, however, that if your customers believe your products can be made better, you’ll soon know, and it will be up to you to act. And when they love your latest product, you can expect a certain amount of buzz.

Designing your website

Sounds good? So where to start? From blogs to forums, to widgets and mobile phones, there are a daunting number of directions in which to head. Should you begin with an events calendar, a voting poll or a flash game? Your imagination is the limit. As a small business, however, you’ll probably soon hit on questions of budget. Luckily, one of the key points is to realise that a large investment, which brings huge changes to your site in one swoop, isn’t actually the way to go.

Instead, a process that involves incremental changes, features and functions driven by user demand, is the most effective course. Developing in phases allows you to listen to and assess customer feedback before you act on the next step. It makes your website much more agile. This is terrifically important because making the best move at the best time is crucial in such a fast changing space.

Before embarking on your developments, however, you need to make sure the foundations that you’re building on are solid. You need to have a good ‘usability design’. This is essentially the ‘wire frame’ on top of which your website takes shape, and (in addition to providing room to scale as your site grows) it must be informed by your customers’ needs. One of the most common mistakes small businesses commit is basing their website on what they – or their design agency – believe it should look like, plunging in without giving proper thought. In the long term, this can actually result in negative ROI; that is, a website with a ‘look and feel’ that serves the needs of the web designer, or which satisfies the desires of business owner, and not the customer, necessitating further investment down the track.

Just as in any other aspect of your business, knowing who your customer is the key ingredient for website success. And to create a site that will serve your customer and grow your business, you need to become a destination that serves their needs. At GeekIT, we call it customer DNA. Questions you might ask include: What demographic does my customer belong to? What kind of personality type are they? What are their internet habits (do they use social networking sites like Facebook or stick to email, for example)? What websites do they regularly visit and what kind of activities are they comfortable with online?

Often, it’s your customer service team who know your customers most closely so make sure to have their input. (Indeed, putting all your website’s stakeholders, from customer service to your marketing team, design agency, web developer and SEO partner, around a table to workshop the website’s architecture is a valuable must).

The aim is to define the customer; to pinpoint what will bring them to your site and to make sure it fits well with the usability design. This will help to avoid the all too common flashy graphic design dominating the experience; something that, while it might look good, rarely brings the visitor back. It’s also important to consider how your website and your physical business will interact. From the customer’s point of view, they need to form a coherent whole. For inspiration, a good exercise is to look at the businesses that are doing it well. Apple is a favourite of mine. The neat, uncluttered experience of walking into an Apple store is reproduced online so that there’s a compelling unified experience across the board, including the customer service and technical teams. It’s effective, and its keeps the idea of Apple in the customer’s mind.

Promoting your website
“If you build it, they will come.” Unfortunately, this maxim isn’t one that applies to websites. Bringing traffic requires time, effort and patience. I’m a big believer in search engine optimisation (SEO). Good keywords and page headings are essential to be sure that Google and Yahoo know who and what you are.

Partnering with other brands and linking between your sites is a great way to increase your page-rank at the same as time driving interested traffic to your site. Targeted banner advertising on the sites that your audience generally visits, whether that’s ninemsn, news.com.au or something much more specific, can help, but in today’s saturated landscape (with its cynical, media-savvy consumers) it can be difficult to stand out.

What’s more effective is often trying to reach your customers in non-traditional ways. Becoming an expert blogger or opinion leader in your industry can help establish a profile, as can harnessing some of the features of Web 2.0 (creating a Facebook fan page, for example, will gain you attention via the notifications broadcast through the site when somebody joins). Investing in mediums such as radio or print can also be a way to bring new traffic. Again, a good knowledge of your customer and their habits will guide you here. Offline, promoting your web address through your packaging, signage, press releases, business cards, vehicles (indeed almost anywhere it will fit!) puts it at the centre of your identity and brand.

New and interesting web-based features, especially industry firsts, can also generate buzz for your brand. At the moment, mobile applications such as those for the iPhone are proving hugely popular. Not only are they a great way to reach your customers, but they’re also a means of gaining attention at the same time as setting your business apart.

For most businesses, there are no longer ways around it. A good website; one which attracts and retains customers, is a must. If you want to take things to the next level, keeping customers engaged through blogs, forums, easy-to-use features and links back and forth to other social media, will help to create a community around which your business or brand can thrive.

Remember, the overall aim is to make your website an easy, intuitive and friendly experience, at all times driven by the customer. The popularity of a business’ website is usually a good thermometer for popularity of the business itself, so make a plan in 2009: get back to the web and put your business out there.

-Mary Henderson is CEO of Geek IT Group (www.geekitgroup.com.au) and a member of the Dynamic Business Expert Panel.

Top five tips

1. Move away from ‘static’ and towards ‘social’

2. Give your customers the site they want

3. Develop in phases, not all at once

4. Invest the time to keep your content updated

5. Promote your site and put it at the centre of your brand

Keep them coming back
You wouldn’t read the same day’s newspaper over and over again, and the only way to keep customers returning to your site is to make sure that its content and features are constantly updated. If you can, set up a team whose job it is to continually update and analyse the site, converting customer feedback into ideas for digital features and tools. Get this same team to Google your business, its competitors and relevant products. Make it an ongoing project to finds out what’s happening on forums and in the blogosphere, then incorporate that feedback into your own products and services.

Another advantage of switching from ‘static’ to ‘social’ is the ability to more easily research your customer base. With easily deployed surveys, and a ready and often willing audience, it’s not difficult to gain the type of insights that can lead to real innovation, so be sure to seize these opportunities as they present.

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