Johnson street .. HDR
Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why your small business needs a website?

Because everyone else has one? Nope. Makes you look credible? Not necessarily. It’s expected nowadays? Says who?

Been getting a huge variation in quotes from people to build a website for you? Don’t know why? Don’t know who to trust?

Whether you have a website already or are wondering whether to set one up, here are some questions to think about:

What’s the goal of a website?

The best definition I’ve heard is that a website is a marketing device.  And, Seth Godin, “America’s Greatest Marketer” has (in this 5 minute video) defined marketing as:

The art of telling a story to a consumer that they want to hear, that lets them persuade themselves to buy something. Inherent to the story:

  1. You have to have something they want. You can’t force it on them.
  2. You have to be authentic. You have to tell them the truth.
  3. Your story has to be so remarkable that people want to tell your story to others.

What specific outcomes do you want from your website?

To get the ball rolling, here are 4 general outcomes of a visit to your site:

  1. The visitor goes away.
  2. She gives you permission to follow-up by email, phone or some other (social?) channel.
  3. She buys something.
  4. She tells a friend.

But you need to figure out exactly what you want to get from each visit. Is your site set up to promote all of those outcomes?

Who are you trying to reach?

Customers? Prospects? Both? Or perhaps the visitors you want are users rather than customers and you generate revenue offline, or through advertising. The key thing is to understand who your visitors are so that you can tailor their experience in the best possible way for them.

What other websites do your target visitors like using today?

If you can find out the sort of things your target visitors like elsewhere on the Web then you could learn some ways to help you improve your site – for them.

Are you prepared to earn permission to follow-up?

It’s best practise (no, essential) nowadays to always seek permission from your visitors before you contact them. For example, if you would like to build an email subscription list then make sure your site is setup to explicitly ask the visitor to give their permission for you to email them. And while you’re at it, explain the sort of thing you intend to email them about.

It’s more work to do this but once setup it’s easy to track and most importantly it means you now know who your (willing) prospects are. Treat them well and they will turn into loyal customers.

Are you hoping that people will learn something?

This really does depend on the type of business you have and what products and services you have to offer. But many businesses could benefit from teaching their visitors. It shows that you know your stuff and builds trust and confidence in you and your business. People buy from businesses they respect and trust. This is especially valuable for professional services businesses including freelancers.

If learning from you is important for your visitors then keeping a blog on your site can be incredibly useful. It has the added benefit of making your site more findable: but more on that later.

It’s easier to implement a blog from the start than to tack it on later, so think about this before starting a new site.

Do you need people to spread the word?

It’s difficult to imagine why you’d not want people to tell other people about your business – in a good way of course. The opportunities for making this happen are now mind-blowing – compared to even a few years ago.

The key point here is to publish remarkable content and, make it easy for people to share. So, make sure for example that you include lots of clearly labelled buttons for people to share your content over social media such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as forwarding over email.

The potential for getting your message spread to many people all over the world is virtually unlimited. Not only that but you can track who is talking about you and your message. And in turn for you to respond. Note: They’re talking about you whether you’re listening or not.

Do you want to build a community on your website?

Depending on your business model you may want to build a community around your site. Almost any site can build a form of community by simply allowing visitors to comment on your content: on blog articles for example. Other visitors can then respond to those comments – as should you.

You might want to build a richer sort of community with forums and private messaging for example. All this is very doable once you decide what’s important to you. But there’s a trade-off between how much time you want to invest and the pay-off. It comes back to what are you trying to achieve?

Hosting a community takes time but it can do wonders for turning visitors into loyal customers. What’s that worth?

How do people find your website?

Given the millions of websites out there it’s essential to make your site stand-out: to your target visitors. This is a big subject but for me the first point is that you need to be 100% clear about who your target visitors are: out of the 2 billion+ Web users. There’s no point in trying to attract anyone and everyone.

If you don’t do anything proactive on this then you’ll be relying on word of mouth. You’re still better off than not having a site at all – so long as you make it easy for people to spread the word. But that’s a bit like buying a car and only ever driving in 1st gear.

The next thing is to make your site as likely as possible to pop up in search engines like Google or Bing. (By the way: do you know what the second most used search engine is? It’s YouTube with 3 billion searches per day.)

To do this we need to enlist the black arts of SEO or Search Engine Optimisation. It’s easy to get caught up with all the mystique. Don’t. Don’t get bamboozled by SEO consultants or Web agencies who tell you you need to spend a fortune. For 95% of small businesses getting the SEO basics right coupled with fresh and rich content will be enough. How to get the basics right depends on what sort of site you have and we’ll cover this in other articles. What I will tell you now though is that it’s free for you to do this – with a bit of time, or a small number of days work for an SEO expert on a freelance basis.

Other free ways to get people to find your site include getting active on social media channels and drive people to your site from there. Or to comment on other sites like blogs and news sites. There are many ways to do this and we’ll be covering lots of them here on Muse Stories. Stay tuned.

Of course, you can always buy traffic to your site: online and offline advertising for example. You need to look at this as part of your overall marketing strategy and decide whether it’s worth what can be a significant cost. The most savvy start-ups and small businesses I talk with tend not to go this route initially but target their time on free online marketing methods like social media.

Do you want to publish ongoing news and updates?

What do you do when you click onto a site that clearly hasn’t been updated for months? Click away? Yep, me too.

But, it’s a waste of time updating your site for the sake of trying to look dynamic. What value can you provide to your visitors by updating your site on a regular basis? Offers? Discounts? New products or services? Regular blog posts? News about your market that could be useful or interesting to your visitors?

This will all make your visitors more likely to stick around, come back, buy, and tell others about your site. But think carefully about who’s going to do the updating. How often? Will you do it yourself, or do you need to hire people?

How important is a great user experience for your visitors?

Do you want to enchant your visitors with a remarkable experience? So good that they tell their friends. How do you know what’s good enough? Hint: You may need help from professional Web designers. You may also need to repeatedly test out the design. But please remember that design is not the same thing as development.

How accessible does your website need to be?

I’m thinking about things like access for people with disabilities, types of browser, and devices like dumb phones, smartphones and tablets. How much does any of this matter for your customers?

Getting your website to work across the increasing combinations of browser and device is becoming harder and harder to do, to test, and to keep up-to-date. But, for a lot of small business websites there are quick and virtually free ways to do this well enough. So again, don’t be duped!

Do you want people to call you?

How important is it to you that your customers and other users are able to call by phone? Can you reduce the number of likely calls? Do you have the person-power to handle them in a way that delights your customers?

Zappos, the online shoe store is legendary for its customer service. For example, it puts a free phone number on every page, its call-centre staff have no script and are empowered to deal with the customer in any way that makes them happy! Zappos was bought by Amazon in 2009 but its amazingly successful brand identity and customer service style has wisely been allowed to flourish.

You may not have the budget of a Zappos but decide what’s important for your visitors, and for you. There are cost-effective ways to do a Zappos in a small scale.

Does your website need to do anything unique, or in a new way?

I’m talking here about features. Functionality. Things that your website DOES that no other does, or at least not in the same way.

Hint: You may need help from professional developers. And note that development is not the same thing as design.

How important is security, reliability and scalability?

Security is likely to be paramount especially if you close sales on the site. How reliable does the site need to be? What happens if you end up attracting many more users than you expected? A seasonal promotion goes bananas. Can your site handle unexpected (and periodic) spikes in workload? All these things affect how much testing you might want to do, and decisions about where and who is going to host the site.

Is it cost-effective to have your own website?

On the one hand, the unit cost of getting your own site up and running has never been lower – especially if it’s to do something that lots of other people are doing, like blogging or vanilla e-commerce. On the other hand, things have never been so complicated and so fast moving.

One way to work this out is to compare your forecast revenue per visit (or per thousand visits say) and compare it to the cost of getting each visitor. The equation gets rosier if you factor in the viral-effect of getting free visitors as a result of word of mouth and the network effect.

Not easy to do this I know but it can be estimated.

Is your website one of several online ‘outposts’ for your business?

Do you have online ‘outposts’ on Facebook? On Twitter? On Google Plus? On FourSquare?

Maybe you promote deals or carry product reviews on Facebook and drive traffic from there to your website where you close the deal. Maybe you use Twitter to attract prospects, interact with them and direct them to your site. Businesses are now beginning to sell products and services from directly within Facebook and I’m sure it won’t be long before you can do the same within Google Plus.

Do you entice your Facebook and Twitter ‘friends’ to visit your website? If not why not? If so, what for?

Is your online Home Base on someone else’s website?

It’s now possible to have an online presence and do business online completely outside of your own website. Maybe you trade on eBay, or Facebook or Shopify.

Although social network and other sites can be very effective ways to find and interact with your customers, ultimately whenever you use them you are ‘renting‘ space there. Facebook is notorious for changing the rules of the game.

What happens if your ‘landlord’ goes out of business or is bought out by less friendly owners?  Ultimately, you are not in control. Your own website however is 100% under your control. You are the ‘freeholder‘.

So … does your business need a website of its own?

Only a few years ago I would have said the question was unthinkable, but today I think it makes sense to ask. The answer … is that it depends on what your business vision and goals are.

If you just want a relatively short-term, small scale ‘muse business‘ (hands-off, money making vehicle) then no, you don’t need a website of your own. Just setup an F-Commerce store on Facebook, or setup shop on Shopify, or a simple blog on Blogger. Or you might use Twitter and Facebook to promote a (physical) pop-up shop.

But, if you need a website that is to do something truly unique or in a unique way, or you want a longer-term business, or you want to build a holding-type brand for several ‘muse’ projects then having a single website to act as your home base is vital.

What do you do next?

The opportunities of being online for entrepreneurs and small businesses are HUGE – even for many offline businesses. But, because there is such a vast and ever changing choice, it’s really easy for busy small business owners to become either paralysed, or ripped-off. It doesn’t have to be that way…

It’s part of Muse Stories’ vision to help light a path to all this opportunity.

Be sure to sign-up for the free weekly newsletter for tips not found on the website, and to be among the first to hear about exciting new and upcoming content on this and related themes.

What do you think?