If you grew up in the 1950s or '60s like I did, you may have viewed the whole computer takeover of our lives with skepticism and reservation. I resisted using a PC for a long time, then I learned Word Perfect and I haven't even blinked, let alone looked back. When the Internet showed up, I was eager and excited. I dove right in, immediately sure this grand new application was the truth we were all searching for. The great equalizer. The advent of the Information Age. The stuff of science fiction novels come to life.
I'm happy to say I was right. Fast-forward 10 years and here we are -- at a crossroads. You are either part of the Internet generation, or you are being left behind. If you have a Web site, you are part of us. If you don't, you're being left behind.
A Web site isn't a guarantee of success. It isn't a toy and it isn't a hobby, although some people still think of it as one. It's serious business. These are the top 10 things a Web site is:
1. A Web site is made up of computer code.
That's right. All of those pretty pictures and pages of information is really just a bunch of computer code. It's written by a programmer. They call themselves Web designers, but their talent is in their ability to program your wishes. They know the code, and know how to write it so it presents that pretty picture you want on your homepage. HTML, XML, whatever; it's all computer code.
2. A Web site is meant to convey information.
I don't care if you developed your site to talk about your moss collection, or if you just want to start a club for left-handed bowlers, everything you put on your Web site is put there to tell others something. Reports overwhelmingly show that the majority of people using the Internet do so to get information -- not to look at the pretty pictures. The information part of your Web site sets you apart from your competition because it tells visitors something they didn't know before they saw you.
3. A Web site is dynamic, but it can't sell anything.
All the graphics and flash and loud colors can't really sell your product or service. You need a good salesperson. Your Web site exists to inform visitors that you are in business and that you are technologically current. It provides an easy way for them to order, but it needs backup: software that handles secure orders and real customer service. Like your print advertising, it presents your products and services. It's up to you to sell them.
4. A Web site is cost-effective advertising.
A Web site attracts more attention and more visibility just by virtue of its presence on the World Wide Web than almost anything else. Print ads reach hundreds of thousands, but who really reads them? Radio and television have the potential to reach millions but only work on a repetitive basis, and show it in their cost. The Web is more than 400 million strong, and growing by leaps and bounds every day. That's 400 million possibilities. Sometimes for less than $1,000. Great return on investment.
5. A Web site is targeted marketing.
People go online looking for something; looking for you if you've marketed yourself properly. Online shoppers know what they want, they don't browse online the way they would in a Kmart. A Web site brings targeted customers to your homepage using well thought out keywords and phrases. If I'm searching online for a new, educational toy for my niece, do you think I type "toys" in my search field? Not unless I want to wade through literally millions of options. I type in: "learning toys", or "educational toys." If you can help me, learning and education better be two of your main keywords. Beyond keywords and phrases, there are banner ads and e-mail campaigns. All targeted to the market you are selling to.
6. A Web site is business 24x7.
Make no mistake -- the Internet is changing the way we do business. Customers that need your product or service don't want to run to the mall anymore. After eight or 10 hours at their day job, they want convenience. According to eMarketer, the number of people 14 and over who have purchased something online will grow from 64.1 million in 2000 to more than 100 million by 2003. You know they're not all shopping from 8 to 5, don't you? People today research online before buying offline, too. Your Web site can bring you customers all day, every day.
7. A Web site is interactive.
When you developed your Web site, you sat down with a good Web designer and discussed your company mission and goals. Then you gave him or her your current brochure to follow, but did you think to approach your site from the customer's point of view? In the old days (as my children fondly refer to my youth), the customer came into your store and interacted with you or your salespeople, helping you decide what worked and what didn't. Grokdotcom.com recently quoted successful marketer Roy Williams (www.wizardofads.com) saying: "When you're inside the bottle, it's hard to read the label." You are inside the bottle. Your customers are reading the label. Ask them for help making your Web site work. Offer incentives in return for information (think newsletters and surveys -- people love to tell you what you're doing right or wrong).
8. A Web site is a dynamic representation of you.
That's right. I said, you; not your business, not your store. When a visitor ends up at your Web site (after actively searching for your products or services, I hope) what she or he is looking at is a reflection of you, the owner of the company, the businessperson, the person in charge. If you have broken links preventing visitors from getting around your site, it reflects poor maintenance. If you're unkempt, with poor design and development, it reflects sloppiness. If your type is too small or graphics too big it reflects insensitivity. Pay attention. Comb your hair (keep your Web site fresh); wear a suit once in awhile (dress your Web site up with colors that compliment each other); and smile (make sure you welcome your visitors and offer them incentives to return).
9. A Web site is original, but it's not unique anymore.
According to the Online Computer Library Center (www.oclc.org) there are 8.1 million public Web sites, up from 7.4 million last year. Don't try to compete in this new world of business by trying to corner the market. Be professional and original, but don't sweat it if you want to sell widgets and 50 other sites are selling them, too. Think partnership; the success of the new millennium is in partnering. Links to other sites that compliment your site are great ways to get noticed by both search engines and customers.
10. A Web site is only what you make of it.
That means updates, fresh content, personalization, ease of use and marketing. Slapping up a few pages of HTML and some graphics might get you a Web site, but it won't get you attention. Telling friends and family you have a presence online at www.meandmine.com means nothing. Your friends and family are not going to buy enough of your products to support you. Do the right thing. Build it professionally, maintain it and market it just as aggressively as if it were a brand new store in the heart of downtown America.
Now, who needs a Web site? You need one. Whether you're 60 and have been in business for two generations without computers, or whether you're a first time business owner and you don't anticipate generating sales from online contacts, you still need a Web site. Why? Because it's here and it's now. If you are not willing to accommodate those of us who want to find you online, you are not willing to make your business a success.
Just for grins, jump online after you read this and do a Google search for "funeral directors." Last time I checked, the count was 130,000. Do a quick Yahoo! search on "dentists." You will be rewarded with 1,918 sites -- many of which are directories. If funeral directors and dentists are online, you should be online, too.
Twiggs and Associates Inc.
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