Awhile ago, this column featured a series of three articles about the web and small business. In this issue, we would like to approach the issue from a slightly different angle; What are the key questions a small business needs to ask before building or creating a web-site?
If the subject hasn’t come up already, you can bet it will, as sure as Amazon.com sells books on the internet. Someone in your organization (you, perhaps) will say, “We need a website.” If you are the person in charge, or even if you’re not, your first response to that proposal should be, “Why?”
Remember that all websites are not created equal. The Internet is littered with websites that are dead ends, doing little or nothing for the businesses who launched them with high hopes; consuming resources, producing no revenue—or worse, putting forth a negative image for their sponsors. So before you jump into building a website, ask yourself some hard questions.
· What is the site supposed to do? Will you sell products or services, advertise, identify prospects, service existing customers, promote, inform or what?
· What aspects of your business lend themselves to e-commerce? Will your customers, prospects, suppliers or other potential visitors actually find the website a convenient way to do business with you instead of the ways they do it now? If you plan to sell on the site, how will you price your goods or services, and will this interfere with existing sales channels? How do you plan to collect payment? What kinds of customer service will you need?
· Have you thought about how you will service the site? The key to a successful website is fresh, interesting, useful content. Are you able and willing to keep your content up-to-date? It’s a big task. Also, who in the organization will be responsible for maintaining the site? Can you spare that individual from current duties, and who will fill in during vacations, sick leave, or (heaven forbid) when someone quits?
· How much will the site cost to design and maintain? (graphics, writing content, promotion, editing, hosting, functionality, reliability, security) Are you prepared to spend what is needed to do the job right? Your cost analysis must be realistic and thorough.
· How will you know whether your site is successful? That is, what will you measure—sales, service calls, inquiries—and what are your expectations? Do you expect the site to pay for itself, or do you plan to continue to throw money into it because it seems like a good idea?
· What are your alternatives? Be sure to consider what kinds of alternatives to a website you might use. Many businesses sell effectively on auction sites. Others use a regular e-mail newsletter to stay in touch with customers, prospects and suppliers. You could post a business card ad on your local chamber of commerce site, or place one or more pages on a mall site (check out www.centormall.com for some examples). Consider classified ads on a site such as Yahoo, usfreeads.com, or americanet.com. Any of these can be far less costly than building a website.
Develop some thoughtful answers to these questions, prepare a realistic web budget, and decide on the best approach to reach your goals. You can even experiment with some of the less expensive choices. (The most expensive choice isn’t always the most effective.) THEN decide whether a website makes sense for your business, or if there is a better way for you to use the web profitably.
Whatever your conclusion, asking these important questions should help you decide your most effective relationship within the Internet.
Richard Graber is a part-time member of the COCC Business Department. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.