According to a recent study from International Data Corp., 10 percent of PC-using small businesses currently have Web sites. In 2001, 20 percent of U.S. small businesses-an additional four million companies-will be making their presence known through the Web.
DETERMINE YOUR BUSINESS OBJECTIVES
Business Web sites run the gamut from the no frills variety to very sophisticated transactional sites. Your Web site's purpose will depend on your business, your customer base and your marketing and sales strategy. Here are some of the options:
• Information. A no-frills home page might just provide basic information. For example, a description of what you sell, your business hours, telephone and fax numbers, address and directions.
• Promotion. Many small businesses use the Internet to promote their goods and services-turning their sites into on-line sales brochures. For example, you can give customers good reasons for doing business with you rather than your competitors, or explain how they will save money by buying from you now, at a discount, rather than waiting.
• Interactive Communication. Many small businesses are moving to interactive Web sites that encourage customers to stay in touch-often by building in technology for providing on-line customer service.
Going beyond just product promotion, these sites offer e-mail and other interactive features. For example, if your business is custom window coverings retail, those customers with access to the Internet could go to your site, enter an invoice number and then learn if their orders are in and ready for delivery. Or you might notify them by e-mail when a treatment is due to arrive.
• E-commerce. Finally, some Web sites allow customers to transact business directly on-line. With today's sophisticated e-commerce applications, you can post your catalog on-line, let customers browse through your product offerings, select what they want, put selected items into their on-line shopping carts, and then check out at the cashier, making payment by credit card.
Before designing your Web site, think through what it is you want to accomplish. For example, if you own a flower shop or operate a beauty salon serving a local market, a no-frills informational or promotional site may make the most sense. If you serve a metropolitan market with a small chain of pharmacies, clothing stores, auto supply outlets or eating establishments, combining promotion and interactive communication to strengthen customer relations makes sense-provided enough of your customers have access to the Internet to compare products and prices.
The opportunities are limited mainly by your imagination. Even if you primarily serve a small local market, you can improve your competitive edge by using your Web site to enhance service to your customers in ways your competitors haven't yet tried. For instance, a hardware store can design its site to let customers check an inventory search engine to see if a needed tool or appliance is available, request home delivery, and even let the store know where to leave the purchased good if no one is at home. A beauty salon can display the available appointment times for its hair stylists.
If your goal is to grow your business beyond a local market, then adding a full suite of e-commerce applications can put your business on the map-delivering a nationwide, even global, clientele to your Internet doorstep. Whichever tactics you adopt, here's how to maximize the effectiveness of your Web site:
• Promote your site. To achieve maximum visibility for your site, be sure your Web developer or administrator registers your domain name with all of the appropriate search engines. Also, be sure to include your Web address (called the URL for universal resource locator) on business cards, letterhead and sales brochures. You also should mention your URL-www.mybusiness.com-on flyers, news- paper ads, radio and TV spots.
Many Internet storefronts find themselves orphaned in cyberspace because their proprietors neglected to network with other appropriate sites. Seek out possible links with trade and professional home pages. For example, a group of Santa Fe artists joined individual home pages together into a collective Santa Fe Artists' Web site. Working together as an on-line guild, they can build traffic to their individual sites, selling more of their art than would be possible individually.
• Give visitors a reason to return. Web merchants have come to realize that site visitors are more likely to stick around if useful information or other interesting content is provided besides product facts or sales material.
The kind of content you add will depend on your business and your customer base. For example, if you sell discount auto parts, include repair guidelines and tips on your pages. If you know your visitors are serious car buffs, you might include links to on-line automotive magazines. If your Web site markets craft supplies to artists, your visitors might have an interest in knowing when and where craft fairs will be held, the latest craft fads, perhaps even business tips on how to improve the appeal of their show booths through better merchandising.
• Communicate with prospects and customers. One especially effective way to keep visitors returning to your site is to stay in touch via e-mail. This requires that you invite visitors to provide contact information about themselves including their e-mail addresses. The most effective way to obtain contact information is to give visitors something in return-say the promise of a weekly or monthly newsletter with information about new products or services and tips for using them more effectively.
One last point: Be sure to monitor your site's performance against the business purpose you've established. Encourage visitors to e-mail their comments. Ask them what they like and whether they find your site easy to navigate. There also are Web tracking software applications that make it easy for you to evaluate traffic to your site-who's arriving, who's staying and for how long, which features and pages attract the most interest and the like. With the right monitoring, you can continuously fine-tune your site, and improve its marketing effectiveness.
Joel Hughes is senior vice president of corporate channel marketing for New England Business Service, Inc.. (NEBS), www.nebs.com, Groton, MA, and oversees the company's Internet operations.