Everybody's online these days. Well, almost everybody. If you're a small business and you want to compete (and who doesn't?), you need to get your business online. Before you go and hire the first web designer you find and push to get a website up and running, it pays to take a step back and contemplate its purpose.
Not convinced it's worth the effort? Failing to designate a goal for the website is very much like throwing up a brick and mortar store before identifying your primary customer and selecting a proper location. It's the cart before the horse conundrum.
You wouldn't build or lease a store before doing market research to understand the best location to attract the most customers, would you? You wouldn't fill up that store with products before learning what kinds of items target customers would buy, right? So don't get ahead of the game when designing a website.
A website without a purpose is just a shiny object that costs a bunch of money to put together, but won't bring any real value in the long-term. Before we walk through the steps to getting your business online, let's uncover the value of identifying the website's purpose.
What's It For?
There's a reason that some websites are successful and some aren't. It's purpose. You see, there are a variety of goals a website can meet, including driving sales, educating customers, attracting traffic and capturing email addresses. Before you design your website, you need to know what you want visitors to do when the land on your site.
If your business is selling pet supplies and you have a thriving local brick-and-mortar store, perhaps your goal is simply to generate awareness online to eventually gain more of the market share. In this case, your website's purpose might initially be to simply spread the word about your website. Perhaps your site will feature educational materials about caring for pets, feeding tips, etc. and prompt users to share that information across social media channels.
On the other hand, a wedding cake business might need its website to take orders and display product options (using a gallery of photos). Whatever the goal for the website, make sure that you and your team clearly define its purpose so that you can build the site to fulfill it.
Next, consider your audience. If you already have a brick and mortar store, don't assume that your online audience will automatically be the same as your store customers. Marketing for online and offline customers can vary dramatically, as the advertising channels differ (billboard vs. pay-per-click, for example), as well as the needs.
Map out the demographics of your online customers as much as you can prior to building the website, and take into consideration the differences between the needs of existing and potential customers, their pain points, their preferences, how they shop online, etc.
How to Get Your Business Online
Now that you've identified the website's purpose and your customer's preferences, you can move onto building the website. The good news is, you don't have to know a single line of code to build a website. Instead of having to create one from scratch – or pay through the nose to hire an expert – you can put the power of website building platforms to work.
Here are the steps you'll need to follow:
Choose a domain name
This is the phrase that appears in the URL search box at the top of a web browser. Ideally, it should be the same as your business name – or at least similar to it. As with the name you registered for your business, you can't choose a web domain name that's already taken. And that's where the challenge lies. Use a site like Domainr to find domain names that are still available for use.
Select a web host
Basically, this is the company that will connect your site to the Internet. The web host you select should be able to accommodate the amount of traffic you expect for the website and ensure that it can "host" the number of web pages your business will need. For example, with 5MB of space, you should be able to build approximately 150 web pages. (If you decide to include a blog as part of your website, remember that as you add new posts, each post will count as one page.) Other factors to consider include the speed with which the site will load, whether the site requires you to also host ads (many free web hosting platforms do), and if you'll be able to expand the site in the future.
Design the site
Website building platforms are one way to go if you lack the technical expertise to do it yourself or don't want to pay an arm and a leg for the service. Services like Wix and SquareSpace let you choose templates with drag-and-drop features to build a website that meets your needs. WordPress is a very popular platform that's particularly useful for businesses that want to use a blog to build their business. It lets you create static (or permanent) website pages like "About Us," Home," and "Services," but you can also customize its look and feel and you can add a blog, email signup boxes, social media connections and lots more. WordPress is free, has tons of website layouts from which to choose, is easy for beginners to use, can handle small and large sites alike and is mobile-friendly. The latter is important for any business getting a website up and running, as the look of the website must be easy to read and navigate for mobile users, too.
Build the pages
At this point, you're ready to build the actual pages that will appear on your website. Don't go overboard here; less is more. In general, choose five to seven primary pages that reflect your brand and will appear at the top of the website as navigation tabs. The "home" page should feature an overview of the business and what the website is about. Remember the original goal for the website? If it's to capture email addresses, feature a signup box in the sidebar or header. If it's to generate sales, make sure users can easily navigate to product, or consider featuring products on the homepage, like most popular, featured products, etc. The "About" page should showcase your brand and describe how your business can uniquely solve customer problems. Other pages to consider, depending on the type of business, include "Services" or "What We Do," "Products" or "Gallery," "Blog," and "Contact Us" pages.
Write the text
Now, you're ready to create the actual content that will appear on the web pages. You may hire a copywriter to help you with this step, or if you're good with words, do it yourself. Keep in mind that the website pages should speak to the customers, focusing primarily on the benefits of your services/products. Avoid the temptation that many businesses fall into, which is writing about themselves. Your customers have problems and needs, and they're looking for a business that can solve those problems and fill those needs. Instead of saying that you've been serving local vets with counseling services for 30 years, state that vets are able to find jobs and carry on successful lives with your expert counseling services. See the difference?
Whenever you can, use images on the web pages. We're living in a visual world, and while your website should definitely use text to convey ideas, images are a must. Use pictures to enhance the story that words tell and to attract users to the pages, as research shows that the human brain processes images much faster than words.
Congratulations on your decision to build a website. Not only is it likely that your competition has a website in place, but people are looking for you online. That's where they search, and that's where you need to be for consumers to find you. It's not difficult to get your business online, but it will take some time if you go the DIY route. Set aside a weekend and start building an online emporium for your brand that will sustain the business for years to come. It'll serve to drive better customer service, will keep you "open" 24/7, and it acts as a walking business card for every potential customer that visits it.