Do you really need a business website? If so, how?!

Notepad Where do you even start? Before you even begin planning, you need to work out if you really need one.

Content supplied by Barclays

Do you really need a business website?

To help you make that decision, let's take a look at what websites are great for. Reaching more customers in more places? Check! Letting you be there for your customers in one way or another, and open for business all day, every day, which means customers old and new can find out about your products and services at a time that suits them? Yes, that too. When you put it like that, it seems like the natural step for all businesses.

Thinking about how a website can really help your business will help you answer the crucial question: What would your website be for? Is it to give your business an online presence? To connect with new customers? To showcase your latest services? To create an online retail shop? Or all this and more?

For many businesses, a Facebook page will do everything you need to promote a service or product, and create a buzz among customers. Facebook pages are straightforward to update and are extremely user-friendly for both you and the customer, as they are designed in a format that most customers will already be familiar with (assuming they are already Facebook users). They create a real sense of community among your customer-base and the interactive features encourage dialogue, as customers are encouraged to post their thoughts, 'likes' and opinions. If you have specific business needs, such as e-commerce, or you have a particular look and feel in mind, you may find yourself restricted if you use Facebook.

A blog site, such as Wordpress.com or Blogger.com, allows you to build a more in-depth story around your products or services, with each blog post forming a mini-feature that customers can engage with and respond too. This more personal approach allows you to create a tone of voice and showcase your knowledge and expertise to a greater extent. This in turn can help maximize dwell time and encourage returning visits, as customers engage with the posts on a deeper level and return to your blog to catch up on the next installment. Again, you may be limited as to how much you can customise these templates to show off your business, both in terms of design and functionality.

Think about your own internet habits and judgements, and try to marry them up with how you want your business to be perceived. With a website of your own, you can be as creative as you like. Think of it as a blank canvas that you can tailor to meet your needs and make as interactive and content rich as your budget and time dictates. The more complex a site you'd like to build, the more likely you are to need expert help, especially if you plan to make the website transactional.

We spoke to Mark Bell, Experience Planning Director at digital agency Dare, and he told us: "A website is an extension of your business that is relevant to your customers, wherever they are and whatever they want, which is invaluable. The problem is, lots of people think, 'I must have a website', before they have worked out what the function of their website is, which leads to a website that reflects the business more than the customer. Whenever we build a website for a business, big or small, we ask the same question: What is the role of the website for your customer?"

The answer to this completely depends on your business. If you sell teapots, then chances are people who come to your site are going to be looking for a teapot that suits their needs – so there's your answer. If you are an accountant, they might be coming to you for advice, so reassurance of your expertise and a nice big phone number might be exactly what they need to see. Mark adds: "Make sure the moment they land they understand why it's relevant to them, which gives them a reason to engage, and a reason to come back."
 

The building basics

Once you've worked this out, it's time to build. Nowadays, building a website does not have to mean writing lots of code. A really simple option is a blogging site, such as Blogger. These are simple to use, free and you can customise them to a certain extent. If you just want to keep customers updated on your business, then this might be enough. Once you have set it up, they are usually similar to something like Facebook when it comes to updating. This option is very basic and does not always result in the most professional experience.

However, if you are starting to build up your business online, Mark suggests: "You can still use an off-the-shelf solution from a provider, such as WordPress CMS, which you can expand to be more functional for your business needs. The great thing about these sites is that for the most part they're free and bespoke. You simply choose the software and shape it to your needs."

If this is starting to sound complex, don't panic. As Mark says: "If you really want to, you can do this yourself, which some people do by getting a book out of the library. Find the most recent manual to suit your needs and chosen software and be prepared to spend at least a few weeks working on it."

He is quick to add: "However, if you want a really professional finish, my recommendation would be to employ a web designer to do this for you, which you can do relatively cheaply. When your customers come to your website, you won't be there to guide them, so the experience needs to be as smooth as possible. An experienced web designer will intuitively take care of elements of the design that you may not consider if you're new to design, including user experience (UX) and technical development. Organisations such as UKWDA and 99designs can help you find someone to do this for you."


How to host

Of course every website needs an address, or a domain name. Choose an address that is easy to type and spell, and that reads well when all the words are joined. Websites such as godaddy.com let you check whether your desired web address has already been bought. If the domain name you'd like is still available, you can buy the address for a certain amount of time, so it's more of a rental agreement than a direct sale. It may be worth buying more than one option if you can, such as .com, .co.uk and even .net or .org.


Once your website is built it will need to sit somewhere. Mark suggests: "You can host a customised WordPress site on any site that is trusted to host web companies, such as Amazon. This is usually free for small businesses, so take a look around for the best option for your business." WordPress also select their preferred web hosts for you to choose from. Some, such as Laughing Squid, promise "a friendly, reliable and secure service" – music to the ears of a new business.


Content – the fresher the better

Then it's a case of keeping your website up to date. Mark explains: "When you're building your website, you need to create a content plan, as your site will need to be refreshed – both in terms of products and the surrounding content. Fresh content will keep customers coming back and help boost your search engine rankings so try to build a plan for at least a few months and from there, you can manage the content yourself. If someone else is building your website, work with them to establish what you need to be able to manage – adding pictures, making new pages and so on."

If you do decide to build your site yourself, there are key principles that will help you make sure your site is ready for your customers – and some new ones! Take a look at web design and UX expert Chris Spurr's top tips and examples to help you navigate these, sometimes tricky, waters.

Either route might seem like a lot of money or effort in one go, but don't be put off.
Remember, the internet is a fantastically level playing field. With a smart-working website, small sole traders can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the big blue chips, opening up the competition. There's no doubt that having an online presence will also boost your brand identity, too, and give customers that multi-channel experience of your business that they're now coming to expect.

Look out for lots of support on how to expand your web presence into social media, how to get the visuals spot on, and how to sell your business online during the rest of the Online Business Fortnight.

 

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Last updated: 27-Jan-2014 at 4:41 PM