Ask the experts

Monday, September 19, 2011

Is it really important for my business' marketing plan to include a website?

Dana Hukel: Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said nothing's permanent except change. When it comes to the growth and success of your business, the role of the World Wide Web will only continue to evolve.

The Internet isn't going anywhere. But the way people use it -- to conduct their business and their personal lives -- continues to change and expand, based on new devices like smartphones and the iPad, and new needs in the marketplace.

It doesn't matter what you're producing or selling; if your business doesn't have a website, then it does not exist to new customers. Without a website, you will not be viewed as a legitimate business choice, regardless of how effective your product or service may be.

If cost is holding you back, look at services that provide free website templates, such as Wordpress and Wix. Topping the list of benefits to contracting with a design firm for a custom website is search engine optimization. Without SEO, your business website may be the absolute best available, but customers won't be able to find it online through search engines like Google. In addition, contracting with a design firm will provide the tools to make your website customizable and changeable, which as we say at BOLD -- if used properly as a part of a business strategy, no website is ever finished. You must continue to update it, link it to your social media efforts and provide interesting elements that keep customers engaged to learn more about your business.

Another key reason to make your web presence known is that it expands your marketplace -- and thus your customer base -- beyond your walled location. In 2008, Missouri's e-commerce sales were estimated at $2.4 billion, about 1 percent of the gross state product, according to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center's latest data. Most of that, some $931 million, came from wholesale trade; another $738 million was retail and $343 million was nonstore retailers. E-commerce also accounted for $177,209 jobs in Missouri in 2008, according to MERIC.

Even if you're not selling directly from your website, marketing is an inherent benefit of any site and will result in more in-store sales. It's not just important to include a website in your business' marketing plan, it's vital.

John Cherry: Is it important to have a website? Absolutely! If you don't have a website and your competitors do, you risk being seriously outflanked. Just think about it: If you need a telephone number for a florist, a pet sitter or a plumber, are you going to look in the telephone directory? I know from personal and anecdotal experience that more and more people go directly to the Internet to get contact information for companies in their area. If I need the telephone number of a movie theater in Cape Girardeau, I can Google "theaters 63701" and your business will instantly pop up on my screen. Smartphone users can speak these words into their device and they'll have your telephone number, your website, your product and prices right in front of them in seconds -- if you have a website. If you don't, your competitor will get their business.

So absolutely you need a website. A website will let you fine-tune all the elements of marketing faster than any other alternative. Need to adjust your prices or product offerings? You can do that right now at your website. You can respond to what your competitors are doing instantly. You can instantly get valuable feedback from your customers and respond to their concerns. Also, you can operate a website that's strictly informational (where your customer can find your products, your price point) or you can have a website that performs all the selling functions (delivering the offer, taking the order). You can show pictures, even videos of your product or service, to make it visible and viable right now. You can write a blog at your website and become a trusted authority on landscaping, real estate, classical music, home improvement or Jack Russell terriers.

So how much will it cost? That depends. You can spend a lot to have a professionally designed site, or you can get an intern from the university to build your site. You may decide to subscribe to online directories. You can hire consultants to improve your search optimization (how far up the results list your company's name appears in a search) or you can attend seminars sponsored by various groups in our area. Possibly the most important advantage of an online presence is that it gives you the ability to directly observe your marketing outcomes using widely available (and often free) measures of site tracking, click-throughs and conversions. Once your website is up and running, put your web address on everything you produce: your package, your sales receipts, your business card, your Yellow Pages entry. Ask noncompeting businesses to put a hyperlink to your website in exchange for a link to their websites on your website. You'll both be better off.

So before you go to bed tonight, take a look at your competitors' websites. You'll discover right away that they're pretty easy to find if you have the search skills that your customers (especially the younger ones) all have. Figure out the value delivered, to the customer and to your competitor, and decide then and there how you're going to match it. But make no mistake: This is the real competition for customers these days. And in the morning, make a plan to build the best website among your competitors. After all, can you really afford to pass on the opportunity to make your story, your great products and services instantly available to everyone in the world?

Drew Janes: The only instance that you do not need a website or web presence for your business is if you do not want to grow your customer base, not grow outside your area of influence and have no interest in promoting your services or products to a larger audience.

A great website can single-handedly change your income by attracting a larger audience outside of your regular influence as well as allow you to have a 24/7 presence to market your products or services.

If you are starting a business or have been in business more than 50 years and have not put a website in your marketing plan, take a peek at what a website can do for you regardless of your budget. The great thing about having a website is you can start small and even free.

If your budget is too small for a web design firm to build a custom website, start with a blog or another free platform for you to talk about your business on the web. This needs to be separate from social media like Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. Try using or if you're on a thin budget but still need a platform to showcase your business. If you have set aside finances for a custom website, hire a professional or design firm with a solid portfolio and background. Your website is measurable, expandable and more marketable than many other mediums at your fingertips. To pass on this opportunity may cost you more than you think.

Gera LeGrand: The answer is, every businesses marketing plan should include a web presence. Whether that web presence is a full-fledged website depends on the size of the marketing budget.

Now, let me break that down a little. In today's marketing world, many potential customers start their research on purchases with an Internet search -- not all, but many. So it is important to make sure your business can be found online in some way.

A full-fledged website takes planning, time and money. If you can't commit to invest all three, don't go there! As a business owner or manager you will have to be involved, and you will have to allot a portion of your budget to the design and maintenance of the website. Cutting corners and letting your inexperienced brother-in-law or friend's daughter design the site can do your business more harm than good. The design must reflect your businesses image, your brand. When customers go to the site they should not be surprised. Amateur web designers often overdesign backgrounds, add motion for the sake of motion or have elaborate slow-loading website introductions. All of these contribute to a high bounce ratio, meaning once on a site, the consumer does not stay, but clicks off right away.

A good website provides the information a consumer needs in a logical way. In a battle between flashy and simple, a clean, clear design that is easy to navigate will win you more customers every time. Your site must also be optimized so search engines can find it, and be it must be affordable to make changes to. An out-of-date website can also do your business more harm than good.

However, if professional web design takes all of your marketing budget, or even a large portion of it, don't go there, either! Many businesses can get by with accurate Google Places pages (for free) and low-cost directory listings such as that simply supply the information that a prospective customer would want to know. In the case of some directories, you can easily update this information by yourself. One caveat is that you never know when Google or Facebook may change their strategies or rules on a free product, so investing in a simple directory is very beneficial for continuity and control.

Again, whether a business invests in a full-fledged website depends on the size of the marketing budget. Please remember I said many potential customers start their research on purchases with an Internet search -- not all, but many. Many will not. Many, especially those over the age of 40 or with a higher disposable income, will not search, but will find you by more conventional means. They will also be likely to be brand loyal, and it's difficult to build a brand with a website only.

You cannot be competitive when you invest a disproportionate amount of your marketing budget in website design. They (the customers) won't come just because you build it. You still have to drive traffic to your site, and unless you have an Internet-only business and only conduct e-commerce, you still have to drive consumers to your business or make the telephone ring for service calls or appointments. Therefore, you will still need to effectively budget to advertise to the masses in mass media, such as newspaper, radio or television.

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