Who Needs a Website?
The other day, I got a call from a client with a nearly decade-old static HTML website asking why he pays for monthly hosting. I believe his words were, "I pay you every month, and I'm not getting anything out of it." In trying to sympathize with his situation, I of course got to thinking about what it means to be a website owner. Who needs a website? The general opinion these days is that everyone does, at least every business. And of course designing for the web is my livelihood, so you would think I'd naturally agree - right? Wrong.
So who does need a website? I would argue the answer to this question is quite simple - anyone with an online audience. If you're wondering if that's you, try these questions on for size:
- Does your audience want to buy your goods or services online?
- Do they at the very least want to find your location or the locations of your events?
- Are they seeking to connect with you and/or with one another in ways that can increase the value of your brand?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you stand to gain from an online presence. All that follows is determing the level of that presence and the 'measurables' - concrete ways to track the success of it. So let's do just that.
The advantage of the web over all other mediums of communication is that it is fluid - dynamic and constantly changing. While other mediums capture a single moment in time, websites can and should be constantly changing and evolving. To not take advantage of this quality would be the equivalent of making a TV commercial out of a 8x10 glossy or a magazine ad out of a radio blurb - a misuse of the medium. However, to take advantage of this quality often means taking the time to tend to your website regularly. The first thing to determine as a future website owner is what do you want the website to accomplish?
This can be as simple as creating an online brochure for people to find information about you and/or directions to your place of business. This style of website requires the least amount of work from the owner and cost for development, and accordingly stands to gain about the same in terms of value (and is incidentally what the person I described above has). However, there are successful brochure sites and even they strive for good search results. Without getting into deeper SEO, how does one accomplish this naturally? The keys for your particular site are strong content with the desired search keywords and regularly updated content. Think of the keywords as your search engine fuel, and the regular updates as the gas pedal. I would argue even brochure sites should take advantage of some dynamic content, be it simple news updates or blog entries. With that said, how do you capture the success of such a site? Well, there are a few ways. First, any website company should set you up with an analytics account to view your traffic statistics. Don't worry, this isn't an involved process - you just log in and view them. This can provide instantly valuable (and often fascinating) statistics on who is viewing your site, where they are viewing it from, and much, much more. However, that alone does not determine the value of a site. After all, visitors don't build your brand - it's all about conversions. In other words, how many viewers purchase your product or engage with your brand in a valuable way? Online, this is where the rubber meets the road. So, find a way that fits your business strategy to gather this information. It may be as simple as asking your brick-and-mortar customers how they learned about you (or found your office) and keeping track of that data. Gather information from your conversions in any way possible, and then use that data to determine what is working on your website. Constantly reapply that knowledge via updates and tweaks. Most web companies will develop your website in a CMS, which will allow you to update content in a wysiwyg (user-friendly, non computer-geeky) format. Even if your pages are "static," that doesn't mean you can't change the information on those pages frequently to enhance your online strategy.
For many companies, it is a no-brainer to sell goods or services online. After all, this is literally how you make money while you sleep. Although e-commerce sites are more involved from a website development standpoint, they are often the easiest to track conversion rates on from the website owner's standpoint. After all, a conversion on an e-commerce site is almost always a purchase. You will naturally have access to all of this information via reports. But again, use analytics to glean your conversion rate (visitors vs. buyers?). E-commerce sites (and really any site) should also take advantage of a newsletter component, which is most typically used for sales but is just as useful in gathering data directly from the consumer. Almost all e-commerce companies out there worth their salt conduct regular surveys with incentives. There are also other ways that you and your website company can measure the success of your e-commerce site, the most obvious being user testing. User testing chooses consumers, many of which will most likely have no commitment to your brand and who can therefore provide invaluable, unbiased information about the experience of your website and the purchasing process. I cannot stress the benefits of this enough. There are real examples out there of companies literally increasing sales by 100, 200, 300, 400% simply by tweaking some content, changing the layout of an item or simplifying a checkout process. This brings me to another related point - match your knowledge with the knowledge of your website company to determine measurables. The best measurables of e-commerce sites leverage the business strategy of the website owner with the technology of the web company.
Social Media Site
If you haven't heard of social media sites by now, consider yourself lucky because you're obviously surviving quite well on your own private desert island. Although social media has long been a 'buzz word', this kind of interactive strategy should be approached with a degree of respect. It is true that the most successful sites on the web tap into social media principles, but it is also true that successful social media sites require the most attention from the website owner. A site that encourages users to interact with one another requires a deep commitment and involvement from the website owner. After all, if you're galvanizing your users around your brand, your brand should be integrated on every level. This means engaging with your audience from top-level vision to bottom level maintenance to creating a profile and interacting with them as a fellow user. Maybe most importantly, discuss with your website company early on how a social media site fits within your business model. You may not be Facebook or Twitter, and you may not need to be. Similar to an e-commerce site, the best social media sites leverage the business strategy of the website owner with the latest technology. And because of this level of involvement, measuring the success of a social media site can be daunting. But again, you have your analytics and your user information and you can compare those easily with total viewers for conversion rates. If it's free to create a profile on your site, then your conversion may be something besides the creation of a user profile or their level of activity. If you're running a social platform side-by-side with e-commerce, you can measure profile creation versus purchases. Also, you can (and probably should) run user testing to make sure the user experience is smooth everywhere throughout. However, I would argue that to track the success of a social site goes back to that deeper understanding of where that technology meets your business model. It may be just as simple as making sure the users on the site stay engaged regularly.
Let's face it, a website is a commitment - one that requires at the very least the yearly payment for a domain name and probably hosting. That cost is typically minimal, but unless you are a designer yourself, you will quickly need more than that. And no matter how minimal, you still want it to be valuable. However, gone are the days of not recognizing the worth of a web presence from a business standpoint. In reality, when it comes to a website (to quote parents all over the world), you get out of it what you put into it. If I were to be brutally honest, my answer to the question "Who needs a website" is this: someone who is committed to it's success. The online extension of your business could play a small role or possibly be your main source of income. The possibilities for businesses on the web these days are not virtually, but quite literally, endless. So what do you want from your website? Put simply, decide what you want it to accomplish, find ways to measure it's success and make updates accordingly. Rinse and repeat.